Fun with Robots! Paul Collicutt Guides Us Through Robot City
English artist Paul Collicutt’s Robot City series combines his love for painting with his adventurous spirit for writing children’s stories. The ongoing series focuses on a town where robots and humans live and work together with ease. Here’s what Collicutt had to say about the various books in the series and how much fun the books are to work on.
-- John Hogan
Take a tour through Paul Collicutt's studio and see more exclusive Robot City art here!
When and how did you come up with the idea for Robot City?
I first had the idea for Robot City in about 1998/1999. I'm not sure of the exact date, but I have some sketches with a 1999 date on them and I'm sure they weren't the first. I was in the middle of working on a series of picture books for FSG in the States and they were all about transport…big trains and trucks (This Train was the first in the series). I enjoyed drawing this type of machinery and started doodling away. The next thing I knew I had drawn out and was painting an image of this great big Robot Lighthouse dragging boats back into a harbor. This robot became Curtis the Colossal Coast Guard. I liked the fact that this figure was enormous and also that it was made out of lighthouse shapes and elements you might find on a ship. I felt it had a retro feel to it, which I also liked, and I thought there must be some story behind it, and so I started to figure out what sort of a world it would live in. It seemed natural to me that it would live in Robot City and that city should be a big American city. I imagined New York with robots and people living together. I knew right away that one of the things that interested me was the contrast in scale between people, small robots and giant robots. That element was there in that first drawing of Curtis.
The idea for Robot City went through various stages. First of all I tried it out as a picture book idea without much success, but I liked the idea too much to stop. I redid the book idea a few times in various different formats and eventually ended up at Templar Publishing. Their art director, Mike Jolley, contacted me the day he got it and said how much he liked it. I thought it was all going to happen in the next week or so, but they then did nothing at all with it for a good year or so! When we finally got together to talk about it, I could see they'd "got" Robot City. Mandy Wood, the managing director, really struck me as having understood everything I was trying to do. They inspired me to carry on and do the best job I could.
The teamwork between the robots and humans is inspiring. Do you think kids will see these books as lessons in tolerance and acceptance?
I hope so. I definitely didn't want the setup to be robots and people against each other. One of my sources of inspiration was Frank Hampson's comic strip Dan Dare. Created in the 1950s, it had a very optimistic view of the future and was beautifully illustrated. I wanted an optimistic world…a can-do place where people and robots just got on with it. In one of the books still to come out, we show how robots got the vote and how they now can vote in elections. We've mapped out a timeline that traces robots’ acceptance into society in Robot City.
What kind of audience do you write these books for?
I write these books for an audience that wants to have fun…an audience that is prepared to take onboard the concept of working robots and go with it, and that can be from any age group. From the signing events I have done, I have found that my audience is very varied and crosses both gender and age groups. Most of all I see myself as representing the voice of robots out there! They've got to have something to read, after all!
Do you work hard to come up with the appropriate level of language for young readers?
Yes, and I get a lot of help on this front from my editor, Emily Hawkins. We are very mindful of the fact that a lot of our readers are young, but so far young readers seem happy with the level of language in the books. I don't think you should oversimplify something just because you have a young audience. I remember that I learned a lot about mythology and science from comics when I was young. Reading The Mighty Thor from Marvel Comics made me go out and buy books on Norse mythology, for example.
When did you first start drawing?
There always seems to have been a time when I was drawing. I can't remember ever not doing it. My parents used to let me draw on the backs of old rolls of wallpaper and I loved making big pictures with lots going on. I graduated from Brighton Art College in 1984 and have been working as a freelance illustrator ever since. I did a degree in graphics illustration. One of the tutors there was Raymond Briggs, who wrote and illustrated The Snowman. I got into writing right at the end of the 1990s, when I produced This Train. Margaret Ferguson and Robbie Mayes at FSG helped me a lot with my picture books and gave me a lot of confidence to create my own ideas, and I owe them a great deal of thanks.
How would you describe the latest book, Murder on the Robot City Express?
A cross between Murder on the Orient Express and the movie Speed with robots thrown in!
You focus on different robots in each installment. Which ones have been your favorites so far?
I really like Rod the detective in Rust Attack. He is basically an innocent abroad with a straightforward view on life and he is trusting and honest. I liked him so much I've written half of a novel so far using him as the first-person narrator. I just liked his view on things and how he often missed the subtext of what was going on. As I've gone through the graphic novels, I've tended to get attached to whichever character I'm working on at that time. They all have a different perspective on Robot City as well. Curtis is a giant 100m tall robot looking down on the city he is sworn to protect. His perspective is different from Rod the detective, who is very much more on a human scale, and he has a street-level view of the city. Greenwood's Indestructible Man, who is named after a friend of mine who really is indestructible, is a very old robot from generations ago and has a historical perspective on the city. Robot train The Robot City Express will only ever see the city from his rail tracks, but he is also able to roam further than many other robots as he travels all over the country.
What makes these books fun for you to work on?
When you can get up in the morning and go to work and spend the day drawing giant robots striding across Robot City…what's not to like?!
Seriously I'm just enjoying working on these so much at the moment. It's partly down to the subject matter being so much fun and also the team behind the books at Templar, my publishers, are great. I've worked with enough art directors and editors to know when I've struck it lucky. The two main people working with me on the books are designer Andy Mansfield and editor Emily Hawkins. The look of Robot City owes a great deal to Andy's work…which will become more apparent on the next set of books. Emily keeps me in line by pulling me up when I go completely off track! I really feel these books are the result of great teamwork.
What other projects are you currently working on?
The Robot City books take up a lot of my time, but I also still work for clients as a freelance illustrator and that can cover anything from packaging design to magazine work to advertising jobs…not many robots in this type of work, though! I also have a personal project I've been working on, which is a fully painted graphic novel set in 1954. It is a detective story based around the race to break four minutes for the mile. It's called The Murder Mile and is aimed at a slightly older audience than Robot City. I've had good reactions to the pages I've done so far and it's something I want to get finished.
Do you see the Robot City series continuing on indefinitely?
Well, I think we've got lots of stories to tell. As part of this whole project, we created an entire history of how and when robots developed. As we were putting this together, more and more stories kept cropping up. At the moment, I've been using all this material as part of presentations to schools. It's really useful when someone asks what a certain robot is made out of or when they were created to have all this extra detail at your fingertips. I think it's going to be a long time before we've finished telling all of our stories about Robot City…and I'm perfectly happy with that.
What new Robot City books can we look forward to?
Next out is a bigger sized book called The Robot City Guide to Robots, which gives the reader lots of information about different robots. There are cutaway illustrations and lots of novelty elements, including three 5-page mini graphic novels. Also lined up to go are a Robot City Poster Book and The Robot City Travel Guide. The poster book is an oversized book with posters advertising events and attractions in Robot City. On the back of each poster is more information about what the poster relates to. The Travel Guide is a great idea. It's exactly what it says on the cover…a guidebook to help you get around Robot City with maps and all sorts of information. We've got more graphic novel stories lined up as well, but the bigger books are going to come out first and this will give readers a deeper understanding of the world that Robot City exists in. The artwork in these big books is both in the style of the graphic novels and also fully painted pieces. When I looked at some of the mocked-up layouts, I was really surprised just how well they all worked together. I thought there might be a jarring contrast, but actually the different styles sit very happily next to each other. Both the bigger books and the graphic novels exist in the same world, and we have been very careful to keep checking our "facts" in this world we have created. It makes me laugh when I think of how complicated we've made it for ourselves because one of my original aims when I started sketching out these Robots was never to have to use a reference! Now I'm continually cross-referencing my designs.