Some Notes on on the English Text

of London Labyrinth...



LONDON LABYRINTH can be found in several European languages but has not been published in English. Dick Briel who holds the copyright throughout released the images to me for viewing on the WWW and I had to decide on two main issues - the most convenient way of loading 62 pages to become a Bande Dessinee, and the loading of a translated text into the panels.


1. There are two options for following the story -

1.1 in sequence page by page

1.2. a display of numbered thumb nails.



2. Translating the texts.


The characters are drawn in depth and react accordingly. It is possible, as in some Bande Dessinee, for the voices, the register, the grammar, to be even, monotonous and largely dedicated to conveying the facts and basics of plot development.


I had always doubted the speech bubble as the most effective mode of communication. I had a strong aversion to the peppering of the bubble with a buck shot of punctuations and exclamation marks.


Looking hard at the images for the first time it was clear that the job was made much easier than I had imagined because of the sheer quality of the drawing - the turn of the body, a gesture of the hand - a suppressed emotion. Two examples might be


p.13 - Bill Ratcliff's response after a tongue lashing from his daughter . . .the bottom left hand panel is almost a stage farewell in the full Thespian way - to audience, arms outstretched. The middle panel gives us a closeup on the face, and the right hand panel an exit after the soliloquy.


p.10, the twist of the Ferry-man's body and his mock Gondolier swagger permit a more slanted concealed contempt for a Toff.





When I have worked in collaboration before I err on the side of delicacy, and trained initially as a art historian, my first draft was respectful to the English text Dick sent me. Another factor that added to the integrity of the delivered text was Dick's extraordinary understanding and deployment of written English.


Then it dawned on me that this was tending to Chinese whispers - that Dick had brilliantly crafted the visual narratives (incidentally the very stuff I now teach) but as a person for whom English was a second language, had not been exposed as I had been on a daily basis to the developing patois of the young (my schoolmates - later, my kids) and to the vigorous colouring of the English language by American films, comics and the stray GI Joe.


Although in a class of his own as the Grand Omniscient, in Julius Palmboom I sensed the ability to put down of the shaking enthusiasms, the rich narratives and hopeless boasts of the lower orders with the understated phrase (p.15 panel 6, "I kind of thought as much...." which is not as harsh as "I thought as much" which would have been resented). His colleague who accompanied him to the Den of Thieves p.11 also is a young thruster who might today be an Estate Agent. He makes his contempt plain. Palmboom would not have said this himself, knowing it would antagonise, and also that a direct attack would be, in terms of the British Class System - uncool.


Perhaps also in Little Dorrit (whose likeness to my daughter Edie struck me immediately) I could use those expressions of calm exasperation at the excesses of the Parent (p.11 panel 5 - "Slow it down Pa - there's a dear").


What the Hell, I thought, Dick said he trusted me, so I tempered my usual respect for the integrity of the text with a search for the characteristic turn of phrase that located the action in London, in its culture and complex interaction of human relations.


In Bill Ratcliff came the character in whom all the fascinating ways of speaking converged - the Criminal - the East End resident - the Thespian - nineteenth and twentieth century - East End/West End (to play to Dick's charged enthusiasm).





I tried to express the language in as much as it would have been spoken at this period. This is possible with intensive use of Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th edition edited by Paul Beale, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1984 (1937). I realised that I was missing lots of fun, and worse, sapping the energy of the Kids in particular. I don't think he would have said "Sweet Jeeeesus !" (p3) but it really felt right. Again the use of the word "Diddle shit" ( often parading on American Soaps as "Diddlesquat" ) cannot claim period authenticity, but it helps show how Ricky has picked up a great and animated phrase, speaks it out loud but without having grown used to using it, and generates genuine adult merriment.


An analogy might be a close study of the previous British Prime Minister John Major who was not comfortable with spoken language , but used other people's political cliches with one word inadvertently changed in the process. Sweet - innocent - and mocked by the sharp tongued Political Set.



I noticed that the French edition was positively demure in the even spidery letterforms that floated aimlessly in the speech bubble. The Dutch edition had more spark to it. Encouraged by this, my first efforts to render speech in the speech bubbles of London Labyrinth were almost Kurt Schwitters- like in their presumptuous rhetoric and Modernist showiness. In choosing a typeface I tried the usual - Helvetica and Geneva - with my favourite screen font Palatino looking as flexible as an Undertaker's announcement. Luckily there is a font commonly handed out with the System Folder - Comic Sans MS, (promoting the making of Party Invitations with your first computer). I was delighted when it appeared to work - legible and informal at 10pt - retaining legibility and not too rhetorical at 18pt. There was even a Bold option for emphasis, although the lack of an italic variant was a distinct handicap.


I managed to sneak in a camp Typeface when Ratcliff called himself, in true Dickensian mode, the "Veritable Marvel" (p.11), the Marvel being in a Cooper Black font. For the italic lettering of "GHOST TRAIN" I was forced to a Helvetica Italic face to get the packed rush of the train into the letters. But otherwise there was a good feeling of controlled variation in the Comic Sans MS face. I avoided coloured lettering as being obtrusive although in the future a dark brown or metallic blue might suit another narrative.


Experimenting with Ratcliff rolling his "RRRRR's", the roll might be achieved by knocking the duplicate R's back with les contrast and more brilliance in PhotoShop. Perhaps there is just too much going on in Ricky's first blurting speech to Palmboom on page 5, but, when confronted, he settles to a more effective and controlled delivery in the next panel.


In PhotoShop and Illustrator, there is remarkable facility to make letters perform all sorts of high dives, descents, parabolas, and wobbly bulgings. In the past I have always considered this to be a substitute for characterisation in the narrative, and often a disguise for lack of substance. No way with London Labyrinth. On rare occasions the letterforms leave the disciplines of the grid, e.g. to add to the headlong rush arrested in the kid's appearance on the platform in p.3 "Hey Wassat ?", and on p.13 when Bill strikes a Thespian pose in delivering his line on the ingratitude of youth (perhaps from viewing as many Lears as we have had Hot Dinners) the work "YOUTH" refers obliquely to the angle of his posture.


Most exciting for me was to align letters in speech bubbles. The PhotoShop adjustment of Leading was not sensitive enough and so, from an early stage, each line was separately typed and left in layers to promote alignment each with the other, and to bounce the individual lines into a relationship with the space available. It let me fine tune in a crucial area -around the neck of the directional slash from the Bubble to the speaker's mouth. Dick' own speech bubbles have a range of openings and expressive possibilities. The words can issue forth or settle around the valve. Hazards and felicities are listed beneath under the individual pages.


I found that with the individual elements of the text in layers, most of the time was spent aligning and leaving space in the speech bubbles where the full timing of the human voice could be explored - unlike, say, the French edition. The "ingratitude of YOUTH" panel was an obvious possibility to capture the "pregnant pause" of the Old Ham's delivery - that slight pause for dramatic effect.


Incidentally I have used Upper Case introductions to the Big Idea, because it has been such a feature of the English Language since Doctor Samuel Johnson. It seemed to fit so well both Ratcliff's declamatory style, and the the clipped economic utterances of Palmboom. As a professor, he had to be Professor Palmboom. And it helped the design within each panel - regular Moorings for Meaning, so to speak.


The greatest challenge was the crowd scene, a remarkable tableau of texts (p.3) where a wide range of speaking voices appeared in the standard left to right formula - a general hubbub - a child bursting through - grumbling adults - an increasingly forceful voice of authority - and an intimidated child. Dick's pleasure at this translation made me confident to press on ( and then, no doubt... getting over-confident).





I felt I could be of most use devising translations which, while sensitive to Dick's original narrative intentions, also caught the linguistic spirit of the characters - the sparky, differentiated chat of the boys, the menace of Thug Speak with its inbuilt absurdity, the exact no-nonsense of Palmboom.


Whether it was sustained I leave it up to you to judge, but I felt that in the paraphernalia of the English language was a fine set of tools, inflections, nuances, vocabulary, accents and shortcuts that could live with Dick's drawing and narrative.


Taking the obvious example, Bill Ratcliff, I felt there was a rich opportunity to explore the strengths and frailties of the Man, the Man who had made the Discovery. I love that Comic Dimension of Grandeur, and, in his case, the Grandeur of the Comic. With his colourful past, his mixing of milieu, he can carry such a weight of possible reference - nostalgia, the actor's delivery, the extra's patience, the tendency to mystification, bluster and the possibility of sudden cataclysmic violence. The obvious role models came easily - Albert Finney in The Dresser, his own role model Tyrone Guthrie, the sort of Shakespearian Actor-Manager who had known better days. The voice had the lubricity of Charles Laughton, the Inspired Ham, but the eyerolling possibilities of the veteran English actor Robert Newton, everybody's favourite as Long John Silver in Disney's Treasure Island, whose mannered delivery with one eye narrowed inspired the English comedic genius Tony Hancock- "We sail on the NOOOOON tide....!!!" - or on his nautical equivalent on The Simpsons.


The liberty of language is conveyed most effectively in Nicholas Nickleby where the eponymous falls in among Thesps, what Dickens calls "Affairs Theatrical". Here was a magnificent paradigm of the theatrical and the bathetic - the Infant Phenomenon, the intrusion of Drama speak into everyday life. Why should Bill Ratcliff always call himself by the name devised by his Parents - why not the "Veritable Marvel" - perhaps a name he adopted for the Chairman with gavel when moonlighting on the British Music Halls. Not for nothing did James Gillray, the mordant British graphic satirist, join a troupe of travelling players in his youth. here was an excuse, an obligation to press harder on the words Ratcliff was to deploy - as a clarion call, or the cloud from a cuttlefish. Here was a man who knew how to take care of himself but did so with a cry from Hamlet or Lear. My pleasure was that the incentive had already been drawn into the face and body before I arrived.



Further notes can be found in a page-by-page analysis.


Chris Mullen


Novemeber 4th 1999