Brittle Hill: The Couple Behind The Comic Book

Photo by Viktor Pivovarov/Times & Transcript
Photo by Viktor Pivovarov/Times & Transcript

Comic book lovers rejoice. You are no longer required to exclusively look to comic book giants such as DC and Marvel for your fix. In fact, you just might have to look in your own backyard.

Brittle Hill is the brainchild of Moncton couple Alan and Helen Spinney. Set in a time where candy zombies are the hunted rather than the hunters, a mix of mystery and drama await all those who stop by the sleepy little town of Brittle Hill.

And the adventure continues.

This month, the couple is launching the third issue of the comic.

While both Alan and Helen boast backgrounds in illustration and painting, it was actually music that first brought the couple together.

“Alan and I met as members of the Greater Moncton Chorale,” Helen said in the couple’s home studio in Moncton. “I always had an interest in art and had always wanted to paint, but didn’t actually delve into that world too seriously until 2005, when we built our house. Before long, Alan had begun painting alongside of me.”

Alan had long held an appreciation for artwork. As a child, he was an avid comic book collector before moving into the realm of graphic design as an adult. Still, the relative simplicity and fondness for comics had never truly diminished.

“I started off as a kid just loving comic books,” said Alan. “I started reading them in junior high school and gravitated towards certain heroes whose comics I would faithfully buy each month. Rather than trading them off to my friends, I would hang onto them and would continually revisit and reread them.

As life went along however, Alan’s love for comics was pushed aside. For a period of time, he worked at film production before moving into advertising and creating storyboards for commercials.

“I had found a way to make a living doing commercial drawings, but my passion for comic books never truly went away. When I came back to it as an adult, I was interested in the story that comics presented and how to tell that story through a series of drawings on a page.”

The idea of creating and launching his own comic book was a long-standing desire on Alan’s part. Initially, he saw Brittle Hill as being a simple pamphlet that could be given away on Comic Book Day, held the first Saturday of May each year.

But it was during a road trip to Cape Breton to celebrate the 90th birthday of Helen’s father last November, that the couple realized their idea warranted more than a simple pamphlet.

“I told Alan that he shouldn’t wait if creating a comic book was something that he wanted to do,” Helen said. “It was during the seven-hour drive to Cape Breton that everything came together. By the end of the trip, we had devised the entire story and instinctively knew that we had more than a pamphlet’s worth of material to work with. It was then we decided to move forward with creating a fully realized comic book.”

So the work began. Helen and Alan would hunker down in their basement studio, with its natural light shining through the windows and their collection of oil paintings dotting the numerous racks around the welcoming, creative space.

The couple gave themselves a deadline for the first edition of Brittle Hill to be completed – this past May’s East Coast Comic Expo, held in Moncton. So the couple hunkered down, while both working day jobs, and worked to attain their goal in six months.

“We started with the story and brainstormed about where the story should go,” Helen said. “After a lot of back and forth, we turned those ideas into a dialogue to create a sort of script for the story. Alan completed rough drawings, or thumbnails, to see how the story would look visually when accompanied by the dialogue. From there, Alan created more detailed drawings on tracing paper, after which he completed the inking and colouring.”

Ensuring their story flowed well was always on top of mind for both Alan and Helen. After seeing the illustrations that were due to accompany the text, they would sometimes have to go back to make revisions to ensure that the pictures melded well with the text they were presenting.

“It was definitely a challenge to make sure that everything aligned the way it should,” Helen says. “You have to step back and put your feelings into it when reading the text, making sure that readers are going to see what they expect to be seeing. You have to really concentrate and look at it because, ultimately, it has to feel just right when reading it over.”

Brittle Hill follows three teenage outcasts initially accused of knocking over tombstones in the local cemetery. As the story progresses however, the teens discover they are inadvertently discovering and uncovering the secrets of the otherwise sleepy town of Brittle Hill.

The name Brittle Hill was the perfect correlation of a number of factors. The couple was looking for a play on words, and they wanted to sum the comic book up in a title that was a little mysterious, since the storyline takes place in a town where there’s no lack of eerie occurrences.

“As readers find out in issues two and three, these zombie beings that inhabit the town are made of candy and can break and shatter rather easily. Brittle Hill was a playful kind of name that perfectly lent itself to what we were creating,” said Alan.

Alan and Helen successfully launched the debut issue of Brittle Hill at the East Coast Comic Expo this past May, revelling in the opportunity to meet fellow comic book enthusiasts from around the region.

“The comic book expo in Moncton was great because we got to meet so many people. I think both Helen and I got a kick out of setting up our table at the convention and being there to sign comics for anyone who asked. It really helps foster that connection with the buyer because it removes that wall of anonymity that goes along with picking up a random comic in a store,” Alan said.

“Having the opportunity to introduce ourselves as being from Moncton and having made this comic is just fantastic. People have been fascinated to hear about the process.”

Since launching the second issue of Brittle Hill at the Dartmouth Comic Arts Festival in Nova Scotia in August, the Spinneys have been hard at work bringing their next issue to life in time for Hal-Con, a Halifax-based sci-fi, fantasy and gaming convention held in Halifax in early November.

Alan and Helen have also been busy co-ordinating a number of in-store appearances at comic book stores throughout the Maritimes in order to spread the word of the world of Brittle Hill. In addition to a pair of Halifax-based appearances in association with Hal-Con, the Spinneys have a 
trio of upcoming appearances in Moncton.

On Saturday, Nov. 15, Alan and Helen will bring Brittle Hill to The Comic Hunter (465 Main St., Moncton) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and will follow that up with an appearance at Chapters Dieppe from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Two weeks later, the Spinneys will take part in the Moncton Public Library’s Author Fair from 1 to 4 p.m.

Both Alan and Helen admit the support they have received from communities right across the Maritimes has been both humbling and exciting.

“We are seeing success through traditional comic book stores like the Comic Hunter in Moncton and Strange Adventures in Fredericton, as well as other stores in Saint John and Sackville. The Moncton Public Library and Chapters Moncton both have the comic on their shelves. The support we have received so far has been outstanding.

“Perhaps most surprisingly, we are seeing it appeal to different generations of comic book fans. We have seen it picked up by kids, preteens and teens in addition to grandparents buying it for their grandkids,” said Alan.

At present, the Spinneys say they have plans to create a fourth issue of Brittle Hill, after which they will evaluate where they believe they can bring the story. It is not a wavering belief in their comic or artistic ability that is forcing them to contemplate Brittle Hill’s future as much as they want to be sure they continue to tell the story to the very best of their ability while also keeping readers interested.

“We chose to create a comic book because it is a visual story. It is a fun story to tell and works well in a colour, comic book format. But both Helen and I feel it could also be brought over to a format like a novel storybook with illustrations accompanying it. We feel Brittle Hill has an immense amount of potential,” Alan said.