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Funky insect graphic novel to debut in London

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Paul ‘Mozchops’ Phippen with his graphic novel, Salsa Invertebraxa. Photograph: Miranda Glasser/Phnom Penh Post

Acheeky louse and a mosquito ganging up to do battle with a pair of caterpillars is one of the many insect-related themes of long-time Siem Reap resident Paul ‘Mozchops’ Phippen’s graphic novel, Salsa Invertebraxa.

Phippen wrote and illustrated his debut novel, and will be taking it to the London Film and Comic Con in July.   

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The two main characters, a louse and a mosquito, plus a very annoyed cicada and some 'bubbleflies' (an imaginary insect species) flying overhead. Illustration: Paul Mozchops Phippen

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The protagonists become antagonists, as the louse and mosquito ambush some caterpillars. Illustration: Paul Mozchops Phippen

Phippen, a former London-based concept artist and video game designer, conceived the idea in 1996, but as his career took off he found he had little time to pursue it. It wasn’t until moving to Siem Reap six years ago that he was able to develop the concept.

“I had this idea that insects made a really good subject and they hadn’t been done properly before,” he says. “A few years later A Bugs Life and Antz came out.  My original idea was more like A Bug’s Life – taking bugs and giving them proper human mannerisms – but the more I researched the idea I just thought that would  be doing the whole thing a disservice because bugs are much more interesting. The variety, the design, they’re a fascinating species.

“Insects are quite serious characters – they’re just about surviving. If you’re in their way they’re just going to bite you. That was the trick, to push aside that grotesqueness of insects so they would be more appealing.”

Phippen decided to create a series of vignettes set in a fantasy insect kingdom, dealing with the ‘dog eat dog’ – or dragonfly eat spider –world of invertebrates.

“It’s about these two characters,” he says, “A louse – but it’s a mish mash of about seven different types of real louse – and a mosquito, and they buddy up. For some reason, they decide it’s a good idea to steal eggs from these super-predators – the bigger predators, the arachnids and centipedes. It just seemed right – it’s the kind of thing that insects do.”

The story of the winged voyagers is written in rhyming verse and accompanied by fantastical and incredibly detailed artwork. Phippen says he took inspiration from his garden, particularly from when he lived in Australia;

“With some of the original sketches I had a lot of detail from dragging loads of sticks and leaves into the kitchen and sketching. But it got really laborious doing that, it was more like nature studies,” he says.

“I thought it’d be a year or two  maximum and the book would be finished,  but what I found was the more I was painting it, the more I was improving as a painter.  I’d get up to page ten and realise page one wasn’t up to scratch. It ended up taking six years to paint.”

Phippen used digital art software to ‘paint’ the illustrations which,  while comic strip-style vivid,  are also at times astonishingly realistic.

“Everything’s sketched in pencil on paper initially and then I scan it into the computer,” he says. “I use a package called Corel Painter and I can simulate millions of ways of painting. I can use a palette knife with oils and airbrush, mix, you can blend colours as if they’re real and smear them together. It’s mind-blowing technology.”

Salsa Invertebraxa has proved a hit with children as well as adults. Leaving aside the verse Phippen says readers can focus purely on the pictures and follow the story, a bit like a story-board.

“Anyone who thinks this is a cool idea or likes either the writing or the art, they’re the audience,” he says. “There is mischief in it. My friends say they read it to their kids and they love it.”

And as for the title, Phippen originally wanted to call it Dance of the Invertebrates but felt that sounded too much like a “BBC documentary, something David Attenborough would narrate.

“I thought ‘invertebrates’ was quite interesting. I thought I’ve been really twisting the designs and behaviour of these insects so I’ll change invertebrates to ‘invertebraxa’ and ‘salsa’ suggests the dance as well. I thought they went together quite nicely.”

The book is being taken to this year’s London Film and Comic Con, a trade fair focusing on cult film and television, gaming and comics. The two-day convention regularly attracts stars from film and TV, with this year’s attendees including actors from Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

“I hope to be there, but if I’m not I’ve got friends who’ll go,” says Phippen. “We’ve got copies in London so they’ll be at the stand. I do prints as well, and t-shirts.”

Reapers looking for Salsa Invertebraxa won’t see Phippen’s name on it however as he writes under his pen name, Mozchops, a relic from his video game days, and actually the name of his cat.

The book is available for $30 on Amazon and through Phippen’s website, www.pecksniffpress.com. In the future, Phippen hopes to develop the novel even further in digital format;

“E-readers are getting big now, with  Kindles and iPads,” he says. “I want to go one step further. Some of these books are animated – as you’re reading them you can touch the screen, you can open windows, there are sounds and effects happening and little animations. They’re really advanced. If I get a big enough following for this then it’ll justify doing that.”

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