Chris Gooch’s impressive debut graphic novel Bottled is perhaps the nearest thing to a well-made indie feature film that just happens to appear on the printed page rather than the big screen. The pages turn as effortlessly as a reel of celluloid glides through a cinema projector.
Tightly plotted, sharply characterised and briskly paced, Bottled is a suburban thriller of inner northern Melbourne angst that could be described as a kind of Monkey Grip for millennials, without the heroin.
Essentially the story of two twenty-something female frenemies oppressed in different ways by their jaded lives, Bottled, like any classic film noir, features ambitious, manipulative women and weak, duplicitous men. The world inhabited by attractive yet damaged characters is one where social media can be weaponised. In addition to the crime thriller aspect, Bottled contains strong elements of domestic drama and social satire.
In the best hard-boiled tradition, Gooch says he was determined not to sentimentalise any of the characters. “I wanted Bottled to be an anti-coming of age story. At best, by the end the characters have a better understanding of who they are but are not better people.”
Like any lean, mature production, the art of Bottled conceals itself – the magnitude of the accomplishment belies the long and difficult labour that went into the creation of the book. As Chris Gooch tells it, getting it right first time involved a painstaking process of learning by doing. He explains the protracted process in a way that will resonate with any writer embarked on their initial major project.
“I started writing Bottled at the end of second year art school. I’d been making comics for about two years by then, but had only made work I wasn’t really, really embarrassed by in the last 12 months. Initially my main goal was to just write something that was of a graphic novel length – I had no preconceived meaning or message. I started with autobiographical content because it was a familiar and easy starting point and extrapolated, changed characters’ names, genders, etc., until it was kind of finished. Like a lot of first drafts it was something I had to force myself to finish properly before scraping huge parts or diving back into revisions half way through.”
Bottled, like any classic film noir, features ambitious, manipulative women and weak, duplicitous men.
During this process, Gooch says he faced, and eventually stared down the prospect of utter disaster. “The original script was almost a complete failure, the only element I kept was the throwing up scene from the bathroom and a basic plot idea – the trope of an old friend returning home. Characters and themes slowly came into focus through new iterations. It took about a year to finish it and then I didn’t have the time to draw it until a year later.”
“My aim for the book was to have it be the best thing I’d drawn to date. I wanted it to be cinematic as well – sequences that mirror tracking shots. While drawing, I would aim to either make a scene darker and darker or whiter and whiter in terms of light as it went on, and then cut to the visual opposite for the next scene.”For Gooch, the words come before the visuals. “I start with a script, something resembling a screen play. I finish this completely before I start drawing, but every step from here on is done chapter by chapter. The next step is carving up the script – designating whether a line of dialogue or action is dedicated to half a panel, full panel, sequence, splash page, etc. I then do very, very rough thumbnails for the whole chapter on crappy copier paper and staple the whole thing together. It’s then effectively a checklist that I slowly work through page by page – one page on a slow day, three on a good one if they’re simple. Towards the end, I had the habit of ripping each page off when it was done, which was nice and cathartic. The last official step is colour – hours of mind-numbing photoshop – and the last step is revising everything – redrawing panels that didn’t work, or cutting sequences that didn’t have a place in the story anymore.”
Apart from its inherent visual and literary qualities, Bottled is a fine illustration (so to speak) of the vibrant comic scene in Melbourne. That renaissance in narrative graphic art is celebrated in the 2014 feature documentary Graphic Novels! Melbourne! by Daniel Haywood and Bernard Caleo, which highlights the work of leading practitioners such as Shaun Tan, Bruce Mutard, Nicki Greenberg, Mandy Ord and Pat Grant. The film confirms that Australian comic artists enjoy an appreciable level of interest and acceptance overseas. Like music and cinema and certain other forms, comics translate universally.
In keeping with the international reach attained by other Melbourne-based graphic novels, Bottled was published in the US by Top Shelf Productions with the book attracting a starred review in the leading American trade journal Publishers Weekly. Gooch credits Top Shelf with “a lot of the larger revisions to put the finishing touches on the book.”
Back home in Melbourne Gooch is a member of the Squishface, an open studio in Brunswick for comic artists both emerging and established that provides education and advice as well as working space.
Gooch characterises Squishface as “a small community space that a lot of different cartoonists share – with people coming in for different days, we have something like 11 members, though it’s never crowded. The best thing about working from Squishface is working among other artists and getting feedback as you go. In terms of the members, it is a mix of people who have been making comics for a long time and people who are new.”