Mark Bradley is a comics writer and artist who lives in Yorkshire with his family. He grew up reading stories about ghosts and monsters and promptly decided that he preferred them to humans. Having worked for the probation service for many years, he saw first-hand how important emotional literacy is and hopes his debut series will help young readers explore feelings in a fun setting. Bumble and Snug developed out of characters he kept drawing in the margins of other projects until he launched them on his Instagram account (@markbradleyillustration) and found himself with a book deal – something he never even dared to dream was possible.

In this episode, Mark Bradley talks to Nikki Gamble about his new comic book Bumble and Snug, which readers can enjoy from around age 5 upwards.

Interview transcript

Nikki Gamble: (00:15)
In the reading corner today, what a treat. We have Mark Bradley, who’s going to be talking to us about his new comic Bumble and Snug. It’s a comic that can be read even by very young children. I’m not going to say it’s aimed at five-year-olds plus because actually I enjoyed reading it and I’m not five years old but I think the key thing is that very young readers could read and enjoy this comic book. So first of all, welcome, Mark.

Mark Bradley: (00:43)

Nikki Gamble: (00:44)
Before we get into your new book, I’m sure our readers would like to know a little bit about you. What you were doing up to this point and how did you come to put together this children’s comic?

Mark Bradley: (00:56)
I’m a self-taught artist. I’ve been an administrator for all of my adult life. But I’ve always done art as a hobby in the background and comics in particular, and done those as webcomics. The two characters in Bumble and Snug, I drew them for the first time around 20 years or so ago, and I’ve just absentmindedly drawn them over the years everywhere until, eventually they started taking over everything I was drawing. And then I started making little monsters that were in a similar vein to them and that basically became everything that I drew. Eventually, I got to the point where I used to do these comic projects intending to produce them as web comics and never actually putting them up. And then my wife said, you need to start putting one of these up online, or I’m going to strangle you. Mark!

Mark Bradley: (01:42)
So they found their own webcomic in one called Book Box. It was in a scratchy, really basic style. They took off, and I ended up crossing paths with the senior fiction designer at Hachette, a guy called Samuel Parrot. And then, we developed a pitch from there for the children’s books. I’d never written anything long before. I’d done flash fiction and individual webcomics. So it all stumbled along and happened by accident, which is weird and lovely. and strange.

Nikki Gamble: (02:17)
As you were talking, it struck me that when we think about comics, so much of what makes them work is strong character. I want to talk about your characters. Possibly one of the reasons that they’ve been put into this package for younger children is that they’re very approachable. I’m not going to say they’re Mr Men, but they’ve got that simplicity of line and flat colour, and the names are very comforting. Tell us a bit about Bumble and Snug in your words.

Mark Bradley: (02:50)
So if you look at Bumble’s design, she looks like an exclamation mark with the tall hat. Her personality was instantly there. Originally ‘she’ was a ‘he’ because she had a voice like Brian Blessed in my head, but that changed over the years, and she’s just bombastic. One of the joys of writing Bumble is I can put her in any situation story-wise, and she will generate a story from it just by force of her own personality alone. Whereas Snug is quieter and more reserved. Snug is like a question mark with a round top and B body.

Mark Bradley: (03:26)
I’m a massive fan of silent comedies and their personalities; it was natural after Bumble that Snug came along with the bow tie that he’d be the Laurel to Bumble’s Hardy. Snug forms the heart of the stories in so much as he’s the one that questions everything and tries to pull everything back down to earth and keep Bumble grounded. So they’re a lovely pair to write.

Mark Bradley: (03:53)
You mention Mr Men – Roger Hargreaves. The biggest influence at the time was Ed Emberley’s work. I just became obsessed with Ed Emberley and his ‘How to Draw’ books. The 8, 10, 12 16 shapes – I have them to hand my bookshelf right. All the designs of the local monsters in the world come straight from Emberley’s world of combining basic shapes and then a few extra lines.

Nikki Gamble: (04:18)
I wanted to ask you about gender. You said that Bumble used to be a ‘he’, I wondered whether you were being deliberately gender neutral in this comic. Bumble is the female character; she’s Blue. Snug is the male character; he’s pink.

Mark Bradley: (04:34)
When I started doing the webcomic, both of them were male, and that was an intentional choice on my part. Snug, I felt all along had to be male because I wanted a quiet, more emotional male character. That Bumble was male originally in the webcomic was a gutless decision on my part. Bumble can be a bit absent-minded. If you look back at 1980 sitcoms, I didn’t want to have those character types. And when we were speaking with the publisher, there was a conversation about whether to change the genders or make them gender-neutral. The gender-neutral appealed to me, but I wanted Snug to be male. To say, look, boys, there’s nothing wrong with openly showing your emotions. So it was a very conscious decision to switch. Bumble can change her shape, he body size. Bumble, to my mind, can be anything that she wants to be.

Nikki Gamble: (05:45)
She’s a hot air balloon at one point, and it was really interesting because I was reading this comic. And I got to the point where they’re taking off in the sky. Snug is in the basket at the bottom of the balloon, and I thought, where’s Bumble? Oh, Bumble is the balloon, I realised!

Nikki Gamble: (06:03)
Tell us a bit about this first story. It’s Bumble and Snug with some angry pirates.

Mark Bradley: (06:08)
Bumble and Snug decided to go for a lovely quiet picnic. Bumble inflates herself to be the size of a hot air balloon and carries them along to find the nice secluded spot. Unfortunately, as is Bumble’s way, she gets a little bit distracted along the way by everything that she sees and gets them out to the seaside, where Snug panics a little and tries to get her to land and ends up blowing them out to sea, crash landing on an island, where they find buried treasure. They manage to find an escape route and get back to land. But then it turns out that, the buried treasure belongs to some pirates who are very angry.

Mark Bradley: (06:57)
When we were developing the books, we were talking about each book centring on a single emotion. Because I worked as an administrator at the probation service for 10 years, one of the things that kept coming up is emotional literacy. And obviously, that’s a big word in children’s publishing nowadays, as far as I understand it. It’s something you keep coming back to and back to and back to and back to when you are working in a criminal justice service, anger in particular. So that was the emotion that ended up going towards first. I’m sure most listeners are more than aware of the issues surrounding how men deal with the emotion of anger. And I have a friend who’s a child psychologist, so speaking to her about approaches to it. One of the things you’ll come across in the book is whenever they’re talking about emotion, they will certainly be in the middle of escaping from a situation. So it’s never presented as’ here’s the lesson’. Hopefully, that comes across. Each book’s got an essential core emotion. I’m writing the story around Bumble and Snug with that emotion in mind and with a fantasy creature that’s going to feature to represent that emotion.

Nikki Gamble: (08:18)
It’s very well done because I have to say it’s the story that was driving me forward all the time rather than thinking about what would I stop and talk about in the classroom. I know that I would do that, but first and foremost, I just wanted to enjoy this comic strip.

Nikki Gamble: (08:35)
I want to talk a little bit about visual language in relation to the emotions that you’re talking about. You have got one very angry pirate, and there’s a page where that anger just bursts out of the page. I wondered if you could talk us through some of the visual language that communicates that emotion.

Mark Bradley: (08:53)
It’s been a really interesting learning curve. Obviously, I want it to be accessible to children who are new to comics and trying to keep the visual language very accessible. For instance, one page you’re particularly talking about is a double-page spread with with no background and Bumble and Snug are in the background, looking very short. The pirate is occupying probably two-thirds of the page. And then another fifth of the page is some symbols that may communicate words that wouldn’t be appropriate for young ears and in very spiky speech bubbles and lightning shapes around the pirate.

Nikki Gamble: (09:40)
The mouth is so big She’s basically all mouth in that.

Mark Bradley: (09:45)
My natural inclination is more is more. I’m not a less is more person.

Nikki Gamble: (09:57)
It will be interesting when you get the chance to go out and meet young readers to see what that page communicates to them.

Mark Bradley: (10:03)
It’s more graphic design as well. It uses design elements that you find elsewhere in the book, like backgrounds and things like that

Nikki Gamble: (10:12)
And colour is such an important part of that too. Vivid purple, and the mouth is essentially a black hole.

Mark Bradley: (10:21)
Yeah, yeah.

Nikki Gamble: (10:22)
But a lot of what happens in the rest of the comic encourages wish fulfillment in children. You know, these magical places. There’s a map of where unicorns are, and then there’s the seaside. You can see that that would trigger their imaginations to create their own places to add to your map.

Mark Bradley: (10:45)
I would love to see that

Nikki Gamble: (10:48)
And also your monsters. We’ve got Bumble and Snug, but you very enticingly show us lots of strange creatures.

Mark Bradley: (10:55)
That’s how I relax, drawing little monsters just doodling away. That’s my happy place. I wanted to include a little guide to start children off on their own. I’ve already had some lovely little drawings sent through social media, not something I was prepared for – even though I stuck a ‘how to draw’ section at the back. ,

Nikki Gamble: (11:17)
Let’s talk a little bit about the comic influences on you, Not a comic exactly, but as I’m sitting here talking to you, my eyes are drawn to a poster that’s hanging on the wall behind you, which is the Finn Family Moomintroll from the stories by Tove Jansson. There is some similarity between Moomin and that very simple line and that round belly. You instantly know how to respond to that character, don’t you? Tell us about how you came to the Moomins and why they’re so important that you’ve got a poster in your room.

Mark Bradley: (11:53)
Tove Jansson’s one of the five biggest influences on me. I have a huge cupboard full of editions of her books. I first came to the Moomins with the stop-motion animated series from Poland. When we imported it over here, it was narrated by Richard Murdoch. And it’s like anything as a child when there’s something you click with, but you don’t know why you click with it. For me, nowadays, the thing that I absolutely love most about them is this little universe full of little creatures that oftentimes are fairly thinly veiled metaphors or designs for a central emotion. The way she does that, I’m going to use a word that I should never use in regard to anything anyone’s done, but she seems to do it effortlessly. Like it comes off so naturally And I can draw a straight line between what I love doing and what happens in the Moomins.

Nikki Gamble: (13:06)
Now while we’re talking about comic heroes, I’ve been following you on social media in preparation for today. I was taken with a Tweet that you put out about Garfield. There was a kind of questioning about whether Garfield had ever had any influence on comic book creators, and it struck me that you didn’t probably feel that positively about Garfield, but then you listed some other characters and I was thinking, oh yeah, I can see that they probably had a strong influence on you. So maybe take us through your comic heroes and then maybe tell us why you have a question mark over Garfield.

Mark Bradley: (13:49)
I’ll start with Garfield. I’m ambivalent about Garfield. The reason I asked the question is I was born in 1980; you couldn’t move for Garfield. It was on the back of people’s windows, on tv; it was in books. And I was trying to think of where I see those influences now. And outside of a particular sense of humour in 2000-era webcomics, I couldn’t think where I saw that. Which is weird because Jim Davis is the second most successful English language comic creator ever after Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. And I personally can’t see where the influence has gone for something so huge. So I’m interested in going away and looking into it more. I haven’t read Garfield since I was eight or nine years old.

Mark Bradley: (14:41)
But in terms of the other influences, Calvin and Hobbes. It’s a cliche to say it’s influential to you as a comic artist, but there’s a reason that the cliche is true. One of the strongest memories about comics in my whole life is of being on holiday in Wales with my grandma and my mum and being sat on the floor reading a Calvin and Hobbes strip from the Lazy Sunday Book, for the first time and not being able to breathe. I was laughing so hard. And it’s something about the sheer amount of effort that Bill Watterson puts into his line work. He’s done so much work on something so incredibly goofy that just appeals. I find it hard to articulate why I love that strip so much because I’ve just got so much wrapped up in it. It’s so incredibly drawn, and the way that it gets these incredibly deep thoughts into this incredibly accessible strip. Bill Watterson is absolutely monumental in terms of influences

Mark Bradley: (15:25)

And Ben Clanton’s books Narwhal and Jelly. When I was approached by Hachette, I was trying to research children’s comics and obviously came across Dogman by Dav PilkeyI Angel had just come out, so I picked that up and that was really influential in terms of panel structure on the page. And how to approach panel structures for a younger audience people like James Kochalkawho did a series called Johnny Boo, Andi Watson, his influence won’t show in my comic, but he’s one of my all-time favourite comic creators with Kerry and the Knight of the Forest, and his Glister comics and Gum Girl.

I could list like about a thousand different names. Dana Simpson’s work is fantastic. She does Pheobe and Her Unicorn, which is very much a modern-day spiritual success.

Nikki Gamble: (16:30)
I want to talk a little bit about comic theory. And whether that has influenced you as well. I’m thinking about the people who’ve written about how to create comics, whether it’s Scott McLeod or Paul Gravett. Is that something that you’re interested in as well?

Mark Bradley: (16:48)
I think I read McLeod for the first time when I was about 19. And that just blew my mind at the time. I absolutely adore what Will Eisner was doing at the time, and lately, people like, Neil Cohn. I am obsessed with the stuff that he’s doing,

Nikki Gamble: (17:08)
He’s looking at the grammar, isn’t it?

Mark Bradley: (17:10)
He’s basically looking at comics in the same way you construct a sentence in prose and saying there’s stuff going on here that we haven’t properly studied. He’s doing a wide-ranging international study where they’re looking at comic panel structures from around the world and how there’s generally a different average amount of panels per page, different types of pages, different angles, different densities of images and panels. Fascinating, stuff that seems to be indicating the idea that image is a universal language isn’t as universal as we think. It isn’t. It’s a learned grammar. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone listening who hasn’t encountered his words. There’s a few videos on YouTube where he is talking to people.

Mark Bradley: (17:59)
And there’s Worth a Thousand Words by Meryl Jaffe and Talia Hurwich, which looks at using comic theory in classrooms. I started looking into it more and more. It’s possible to read comics and be unaware of how spectacular the boom in children’s graphic novels has been over the last decade. And it’s why I talk about it so passionately. We need to understand that this is coming up, and it’s going to fundamentally change comics in the US and UK for generations.

Nikki Gamble: (18:39)
Interesting, Traditional weekly comics disappeared. Didn’t they? So it’s quite interesting to see these coming back in a different format.

Mark Bradley: (18:51)
I talk a lot about the rise of children’s graphic novels online. Unfortunately, because I’m talking on Twitter, it doesn’t allow for the nuance or deep dive into it that I’d like to. There’s been this explosion in the US which is starting to happen over here, especially when you look at Alice Osemans recent success and Jamie Smart ‘s repackaging of Bunny versus Monkey. And Jess Bradley (no relation) The Day in the Life of a Poo a Gnu and You. The explosion of graphic novels happened in the last 10 years, but it was predicated by the surge in Manga publishing nine years prior to Smile by Raina Telgemeir coming out.

Nikki Gamble: (19:30)
You mentioned Manga, and there seems to be a little influence of that in your work. The stats are a bit Pokemon. And even the idea of bug poli has a Pokemon feel.

I love a little Manga: the cutaways where they do the Chibi-style characters as an emotional reaction where the emotions are so big that they warp the reality of the page and use lines to replace backgrounds. That’s something in the second book I’ve done the rough artwork for, and I’m about to start the final artwork imminently. And I’m going to need to go back and do some reading up on particular Mangas where I want to pull some of that influence through.

Nikki Gamble: (20:21)
You’ve introduced us to your wonderful Bumble And Snug. You’ve given us a great insight into the comic book world and how trends are changing. And it seems that accessibility, in particular, of comics for children is growing, which is a great thing. I can’t wait to see what they make of your books in schools and classrooms, the kinds of questions that children send you, and the sorts of drawings that will be dropping through your email box and on your social media feeds. And I’d just like to thank you for taking the time today to come and talk to me In The Reading Corner. It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you

Mark Bradley: (21:04)
It’s an absolute pleasure to be on.

About Bumble and Snug

Best friends Bumble and Snug are Bugbops – little monsters filled with BIG feelings! In this full-colour graphic novel, join them on a funny, imaginative adventure with some VERY angry pirates, learning about the world outside and inside along the way.

Bumble and Snug are going on a big adventure to … have a picnic! But when they accidentally get lost, they’re both cross – is their adventure ruined?

Working together to find their way home, Bumble and Snug come across a pirate treasure horde. But taking treasure that isn’t yours is a good way to get into trouble; sure enough, some VERY angry pirates aren’t far behind.

Bumble and Snug are certain they can replace the treasure and fix things to make everybody happy. But there’s another monstrous obstacle in store – and this one has TENTACLES.

Bumble and Snug and the Angry Pirates is a story about being cross and how to listen, friendship and sandcastles, and one GIANT octopus!