I was fortunate enough to spend some time chatting with Beth Barnett recently about “Dreamers of the Day,” her graphic memoir documenting her research trip to the U.K. for a firsthand look at T.E. Lawrence’s life and personal effects at Oxford. We dug into her interest in T.E. Lawrence, why certain historical figures resonate for her and some of her artistic process. We also chatted about inquiry, media and a bit of everything in between.
Beth, thanks so much for your time. How’s your week going?
It’s going all right! My crazy travel is done for the time being, so it’s nice to be at home for the foreseeable future.
You just got back from SPX [Small Press Expo] – how was the show?
It was really fun. It was my second year tabling at it and it was my first year doing a panel, which was really the highlight of it.
“Dreamers of the Day” walks us through your journey to Oxford to study T.E. Lawrence’s photos, letters, personal effects and other material. It’s a heady and heartwarming piece. How’d the idea for the trip come about?
I saw on Twitter that the Magdalen College Archives were putting on this exhibition, and I determined that I needed to go because I didn’t know what to expect or what sort of materials I’d be able to see up close. I knew that it would be beneficial to my work to see what these things actually look like from photos and books and whatnot. Seeing artifacts I knew I wouldn’t need to use right away, but having the opportunity to look at them and take photos for future use was huge. And then realizing that some of Lawrence’s archival material was at the Bodleian [Library] mean that I had to go over to the U.K. and really take advantage of the fact that I was going to get an almost unprecedented look into materials that I definitely couldn’t get here in the U.S.
He did so much in his life that having a central location to visit and take it all in must be really special.
Oh, yeah. At some point I want to go see his last house, which is in Dorset, that’s pretty much set up the same way it was when he died. It doesn’t have most of his actual books but it has similar ones, like some of the poetry collections he had in his possession when he died, and that sort of thing. I’ve seen photographs and it looks very cool – this stripped down bungalow to pretty much set up for making tea, sleeping if you need to, and books.
That sounds very cool.
Yeah. In the letters he wrote about it, he’d say stuff like, “I got a bookshelf installed. There’s no place for anyone to sleep, but we have a bookshelf!”
Digging into some of the artistic choices in “Dreamers of the Day,” I’m curious how you chose these free-form, flowing layouts in lieu of a more traditional panel structure. It’s a perfect style to convey uncertainty and emotional depth when tackling the externally regimented world of scholarship. How’d you choose this direction?
I really wanted to capture a feeling of movement and not being confined by time. There’s a lot of back and forth between me in 2019 and looking back at the early 20th century, and where the two sort of overlap. Doing panels made it feel really constricting, and if there’s one thing about Lawrence it’s that he wasn’t constricted to one thing. Toward the end of his life I think he wanted to be, but doing panels didn’t fit with the subject matter at all.
I was also reading a lot of Lucy Knisely’s early travelogues and looking to see how she did them, and there really aren’t that many panels used in “An Age of License.” I think I picked it up unintentionally. I think that travel doesn’t have any boundaries. So, not including them in the comic itself felt natural and normal.
I’m a sucker for epistolary narratives and travel diaries throughout the ages, so having that flowing structure, with letters and images blending together, feels like a conversation rather than an account or a record. It’s very organic.
I like that it’s more like conversation. I didn’t want the book to feel like I was lecturing people about Lawrence. I wanted “Dreamers of the Day” to be a piece about something I’m interested in and telling you about, not an essay. I also needed to make sure I could put in context where it mattered, and not break up the narrative flow.
What made you go black and white for this particular work?
I’m cheap [laughs]. I knew I was going to be self-publishing this, and when it grew from my initial intention of 28-40 pages to over 100, I looked at the pricing for doing this book even partially in color and it was going to be so astronomically expensive that having it just be black and white was a huge cost savings. It also saved me a lot of time.
If I was doing it in color I’d still be working on it.
You explored the need for Bowie as creative support for you in “Hallo, Spaceboy,” and some of that theme resonates and expands in “Dreamers of the Day” with Lawrence. Can you talk a bit about how he inspires you?
I discovered him when I was about 21 or 22. I picked up a biography by Michael Korda called Hero [The Life & Legend of Lawrence of Arabia] and loved it. I hadn’t realized it but at the time I was searching for someone who was a little bit off the beaten path and someone I could look up to that way. Especially because I was moving to Scotland at the end of that summer to go to graduate school, and finding someone who didn’t stick to the path that was laid out for him was key. Also, realizing I was very close in age to him when he was going off to Syria and then, when I was doing the research, realizing that he was born 100 years before me. Tracking where he was in his life in parallel to my own was interesting. I also liked that he was interested in mythology and book design and these things that you don’t really expect to find with a historical figure who is known for wartime action.
That kind of interior life we don’t get to see, especially because most people’s exposure to Lawrence is Lawrence of Arabia. It was mine, and reading “Dreamers of the Day” was a special experience.
So, I’m a weird person because I came to reading the biography before I saw the film, and then I read Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It was a very weird experience going into the film knowing a huge amount about his life, and then watching it filtered through screenwriting. Having recently watched it for the first time in something like 8 years, I can see why they made some of the narrative choices, but it’s still a weird thing revisit while being completely in the middle of reading and researching this person.
It must be a little surreal.
It is. I feel bad for everyone who was at the movie screening with me, because afterward they got an unintentional midnight history lesson. Especially the second half of the movie, it’s entirely inaccurate!
I joke that once I get at least the first Lawrence book published, the launch party will be everyone watching Lawrence of Arabia while I drink gin & tonics, and then I’ll give a slightly intoxicated history lesson afterward. Probably in a movie theater, because it’s definitely a film that needs to be seen on the big screen.
I think Lawrence would really appreciate that.
Not the drinking so much, because he was largely tee-total, but the wisdom part? I would hope so.
There’s a lot of value in digging into the artist themself, and for me, when work strikes me I want to find out everything I can about the creator to try and uncover where the magic comes from. Can you share what inspires you to create art around your relationship to people like Lawrence and David Bowie?
Focusing my art around these figures in some ways helps me figure out who I am and what I find important. Seeing these people who’ve gone and lived their lives and been kind of strange or off the beaten path allows me to examine what I like about them, and find the qualities within myself I like and that I want to strengthen. Focusing my art on that has helped me figure out what I want and who I want to be in my life.
You delve into this a bit in “Dreamers of the Day,” but what was the most interesting thing you learned about Lawrence that you didn’t know before your trip or didn’t make it into the book?
I told part of the story in the book, but his will was the most fascinating thing to look at. It mostly didn’t change for years, but the first draft had both of his surviving brothers listed as executors. In the early 1920s he crossed his older brother out, and he just isn’t there anymore. I don’t know why. I assume it was because his brother became a missionary, but I really want to find out.
It’s interesting to read his letters to his family because after his father died, his mother and his brother went off to China to be missionaries. Reading the letters, you forget that the Republic of China formation was happening at that time [1920s], and seeing the letters from Lawrence recommending that they leave – and not seeing a response from his mother but assuming she replied in the negative – was interesting.
That was the coolest thing, and hopefully the next time I go back, I’ll be able to spend more time reading over the will and all the police reports. I hadn’t realized that there’d been inquiries and reports, which makes sense because he was a public figure, but I want to look more into that and more into the doctor who oversaw him at the end. He was also the King’s physician, and so after Lawrence passed the doctor started looking into head injuries caused by motorcycle and bicycle crashes, because helmets weren’t a thing at that time.
It’s something we take for granted now, but that’s fascinating. That one moment in that one person’s life.
Yeah, and he kind of had a lot of those moments. I think that’s probably the most publicly beneficial thing that we got out of his life [laughs].
What’s next for your work on T.E. Lawrence?
My next trip back is planned for next September. There’s a 4-day symposium on Lawrence that’s being held at Oxford, and I’ll expand my trip by a week and a half to do more archival research at the Bodleian and Magdalen Libraries. I’ll hopefully be able to get into the National Archives in London, too. I haven’t been there yet, but I hope to have enough time on this next trip. That’s the next stage for research.
At the moment, I’m working on my pitch packet and doing more background research, and writing the first draft of what will hopefully be three Lawrence biographies.
Do you have an overall structure in mind?
My plan is to do three graphic biographies that will probably be published out of order. The first one is about his time in Arabia during WWI that will likely run from mid-1914 through the end of 1919, so I can include the Paris Peace Conference. The next book will probably run from 1920 through the end of his life, and the third book will be his life prior to WWI.
He did a lot in 45 years, so my hope is that people stick with me through all three of them! His early life was fascinating, too. I figure I’ll get people in with what they think they know, and then they’ll stay with me. I think he has a life that works very well for comics.
You’re really good at giving us a steady look at Lawrence and the spaces he inhabited and the discomfort of British colonialism in “Dreamers” – can you speak to that a bit?
Yes. As the saying goes, everyone is problematic. Looking at Lawrence, he’s a very problematic person and not without his faults, but he’s also someone we can learn a lot from.
One of the things I dislike about the film is the whole ending. Everything’s going to hell, and watching it pains me because no, none of this happened, and you’re making the British look too good.
It’s that Golden Age of narrative.
Yeah, and the Brits can do no wrong [laughs]. But we can’t brush away our own colonialist tendencies. That’s something interesting to do and look at as a creator. How can we reconcile the horrible things that our countries have done? I’m Western-born, born in New England, my parents are white. With an interest in other cultures, how can you do this work delicately and make sure you’re not saying inaccurate things? As a creator, what can I do to make sure I don’t end up writing gobbledegook because I think Arabic letters are pretty, but I don’t bother to learn the language?
I’m currently learning Arabic, which isn’t easy, but I enjoy that I have something that I know I’m not good at, that I’m working to get better at. I hope I’ll have a much better command of the language by the time the first book is done, but I also want to work with a sensitivity reader and a fact-checker. I have all this information in my head, but I know I’ll mix something up as a team of one.
You have a page in “Dreamers of the Day” detailing some of the pop culture items surrounding his life. What was the most interesting pieces you found?
There are English graphic novels from the 1960s that focus on his time in the Middle East. I actually found a board game from the early 1990s, and the point of it is just to blow up trains. It was the most random thing, I just wasn’t expecting it.
That’s so odd!
It was so weird, but it made me delightfully happy that there’s this game that I will probably never play, but that it exists is just cool.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that inquiry becomes more difficult the older we get, and the further outside of academia we travel. How do you stoke your intellectual fire?
I think this is how I’ve always been. Even when I was in school, I decided when I was going into college that I wasn’t going to study history because none of the courses that were offered were interesting to me, because they were fairly basic. I’ve always loved more in-depth military histories, particularly British military history. Finding a topic that speaks to me makes it so much easier to dive in and do good work.
I’ve been out of school for seven years, almost exactly, and having been in higher education I know how to do the research and am able to pull from what I’ve learned to focus. It is difficult to stay on schedule sometimes, and it’s difficult to read academic texts on your own without discussion groups. I read Orientalism [by Edward Said] this summer, and I went to the coffee shop every Saturday & Sunday with my book and my pencils and my coffee and just sat down and read it. Fortunately, I’ve read some of the works Said discusses and even where I haven’t, I’m familiar with the political background, especially in the early 20th century, because that’s just what I’m interested in.
It must be helpful to have that context.
So helpful! The book also helped give another perspective to the work that I’m doing by grounding it historically and then bringing it up to someone in the present day looking back. I have a problem with collecting books [laughs], and I have a shelf full of material and not enough time to read it all. At the moment, when I’m not working on a big drawing project, I can sit down and actually get the reading done. I work part-time now, so that’s made reading and taking notes a lot easier. I can put away my phone and put away the internet.
I’ve also found that for international or long-haul travel, where you have to pay for your digital entertainment, packing a book is helpful.
The self-imposed discipline of creating a schedule when we don’t always have traditional employment or school to shape it for us can be tough.
It can be. The first few weeks that I wasn’t working full-time were really difficult. When I was working on “Dreamers,” I sat down and wrote out a schedule that ended up working well because I had a break for travel and then came back and started pencilling the whole thing. I knew I had a deadline of finishing by mid-August – and, pure coincidence, I sent the proof to print on Lawrence’s birthday.
Oh wow, that’s serendipitous!
I knew that I needed to hit mid-August to receive the books in time for SPX, so I had the August 16th deadline and worked backward in terms of how much I needed to draw by this point, how many pages I needed to ink by this point. Having the looming deadline really helped get this book done.
Now that I’m doing the pitching for the first of the biographies, I’m giving myself a deadline of December 31st for my pitch packet. I’m sure there’ll be things I’ll work on in January, but I really want to pitch the book to agents and publishers. I hope that there are people out there who want to read this book!
A lot of people will want to read this book! You’ve hit a good balance of unique content and accessibility in this piece.
It’s one of the things I love about comics, that we can make dense and difficult to understand material accessible. I got a really nice compliment from my aunt, who doesn’t enjoy reading and who finds history books dense and boring. She told me that she understood what she was reading, and that was awesome.
This is why I make comics. I want people to understand these things. They are complex, but they don’t need to be hidden in ivory towers. You don’t need a degree in international relations to understand why the Sykes-Picot agreement is bad – my signature thing I rant about!
Do you consume a lot of general media while you’re working on a major project, or do you focus in on relevant material?
I consume all sorts of material when I work on a project because I never know where I’m going to find bits of media that will inspire. I studied graphic design as an undergrad and I was just looking back at some work I’d done. There was one cover I did for a human-machine interfacing company’s catalogue that was influenced by a comic book. It was a nice, clean design that I really liked.
I consume a pretty wide variety of media in what I watch and read and listen to. I watched all of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood while doing “Dreamers,” and that was a nice, unrelated media break. We watch a lot of panel shows and I read a lot of comics, obviously.
I try to take breaks and read things that aren’t related to what I’m working on, but it can be difficult at times because I have tunnel vision.
What’re you reading, watching and listening to right now?
I started reading E. M. Forster this summer. I’d never read anything by him before and I picked up his first book, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and A Room With a View and Maurice. I read Where Angels Fear to Tread and it has the absolute weirdest ending to a book that I’ve ever read. It has this very weird, very disconcerting and uncomfortable ending that feels like what you’d find in a British T.V. show.
I read Maurice next, and I utterly fell in love with that book. It gave me so many emotions, from happiness to sadness to crushing my heart and evoking tears. It was ultimately happy at the end, but I’ve never read a book that made me feel that way about a piece of fiction. It was nice to read a book and remember why I love reading and writing and creating stories.
When we find those pieces that really touch us and light that fire, that’s so valuable.
Yeah, and now I’m yelling about this book that’s 105 years old. But it fits with my yelling about people who’ve been dead for 80 years [laughs].
What advice would you give young or first-time creators?
Start small. There’s nothing wrong with saying that you’re going to make a four-panel comic and then making said comic and finding it’s hard because four-panel comics are hard. I started doing small diary comics, and from there I learned how to build a larger story. There’s nothing wrong with starting small with your first project. I’ve wanted to do the Lawrence book for as long as I’ve been making comics, but I knew I had to build to do a book this length.
There’s no need to jump in and immediately do your magnum opus.
It’s common to feel like you’ve got one shot and you have to do everything all at once, when it’s not true. There aren’t a lot of boundaries in comics.
And you don’t have to come up with a boundary for yourself. We get a lot of pressure to find out what our brand is early on. I work in marketing, and I am concerned with figuring out branding and such, but knowing we can build a brand that has space for change and growth is key. I describe my comics as being about heroes, health and history.
I came up with it last year when I was trying to describe what I make, and I realized that everything I do can be filed into those three words. Those three words are very broad topics, and they can overlap and they can also be tangential. I could do something completely out of the blue, like a kids’ book, that could still fit into my mission statement.
Anything else you want to share? Appearances, upcoming projects, collabs, etc?
The next show where I’m tabling is the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo [October 19-20, Cambridge, MA], and it’s my home show. I’ll be on a panel talking about biography comics on Saturday at noon. I’ll also be at Emerald City Comic Con in March next year wandering around. If you want to see me and say hi, or if you want to hear a mildly intoxicated explanation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, I’ve done that before and I will do it again!
That might become part of your brand.
Oh, it already is. I don’t have anything else planned for 2020 yet, but I should have an online store set up by the beginning of November. You can find my work and more about what I’m doing at Bethbarnett.co, and follow me on Twitter @TheBethBarnett