Through a Lens Darkly: Author Luke Cartwright on Gothic Graphic Novel ‘Obscura’

Set in the forbidding world of Victorian Van Diemen’s land, Luke Cartwright‘s graphic novel Obscura is a bleak but exhilarating debut. Together with artist Lukasz Wnuczek, Cartwright delves into uncharted territories of occultism, criminal enterprise and the liminal spaces between life and death.

We caught up with Luke to discuss the book ahead of its launch.

Tom: What can you reveal about the plot of Obscura?

Luke: Obscura tells the story of William Morier, a boy mortician who grows up to become a fraudulent spirit photographer. He digs up rich men’s bodies to make fake ‘ghost photos’ and sells them to the dead men’s grieving widows.

Despite these misdeeds, William is a kind soul. He’s just used to the dark, and he’s desperate to protect his only source of light.

Tom: Obscura is set in the 1880s in Van Dieman’s land. What drew you this setting in particular?

Luke: Van Diemen’s Land is the former name for Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia. It is a place of rugged beauty, and it has a violent past. The entire population of indigenous people in Tasmania was wiped out upon the arrival of the British, in a conflict known as The Black War. It’s a terrible part of Australia’s history, one that still affects the country’s psyche.

Van Diemen’s Land was also a penal colony, used to contain 75,000 British convicts.

The Van Diemen’s Land in Obscura is my own, fictionalised version, but my imagination was fired by Tasmania’s beauty and history.

Tom: Are there any particular influences you can point to that have had an impact on the story?

Luke: I’ve always been fascinated by the Victorian era and the way it is depicted in the wonderful black-and-white photography of the time. The Victorians were constantly confronted with death and were comfortable with it in a way that seems creepy to us. In Obscura, we exploit the chasm between their acceptance of death and our current squeamishness.

Additionally, and this is revealing, I became something of a fatalist when I reached adulthood. I really felt like I was dying. I only learned the term ‘fatalism’ about five years ago, and I believe it was while reading about the singer Arthur Lee, from the 1960s American psychedelic rock band Love. It was nice to hear someone else felt the same way.

I’m definitely over it now. I feel full of life and I can’t wait for what’s next. I think writing Obscura helped cure me. I needed to examine death to realise the beauty of life and how being hurt, heartbroken and disappointed is part of it.

Tom: Can you describe the kind of research that went in to writing the story? 

Luke: I was lucky enough to have the assistance of my friend, Dr. Aaron Nyerges, an academic who lectures in popular culture at the University of Sydney. Aaron found some incredible source material involving spiritualists and charlatans in the Victorian era. Those primary sources guided the book’s aesthetic.

My own research involved lurking in the dark places of the internet, like my beloved /r/creepy on Reddit.

I’ve also always loved classic gothic literature, like Wuthering Heights. I’m inspired by the lyrics of singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, too. She has one line I adore:

“I lost you awhile ago / But still I don’t know why / I can’t say your name / Without a crow flying by.”

There are a few hidden references to Welch’s songs in the book.

Tom: You’ve been working on this project since 2012. Has it been a case of realising your original vision or has the shape of the story changed significantly over that time?

Luke: I wrote draft after draft of the script, spending perhaps six months on each and hitting up friends and professionals for notes.

If I read the early drafts now, I might vomit. But that’s the process – start with something you love and work on it until your first version sickens you.

We had many missteps while trying to find the style and tone of the book. When we began, we were creating pages in colour. It wasn’t long before we realised that those beautiful black-and-white photos of the Victorians are crucial in the way we regard them. We think of them in monochrome and never smiling. They’re not the same in colour.

Peter Jackson recently colourised and restored WW1 footage to humanise those soldiers in his film They Shall Not Grow Old. In Obscura, we’re doing the opposite to the Victorians.

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Tom: Is there anything that you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started?

Luke: I’m thankful for my naivety. If I knew what the project would involve, I might have been overwhelmed.

Tom: How did you first become aware of Lukasz Wnuczek’s artwork and what do you think makes him such a good fit for the story that you’re telling?

Luke: I knew Lukasz was my artist when I saw his sketches of old people. He really captures their souls. I can see what they’ve been though, what they’ve loved and what’s hurt them.

I distinctly remember a passage from one of the primary sources Aaron discovered, which described a group of spiritualists in the 19th century. They were described as having “sickly sentimental eyes and cavernous, lantern-jawed physiognomies” that seemed to “fill the room with a cold and clammy atmosphere.”

I knew Lukasz could draw those people – and he did.

Tom: I understand that Obscura began life as a screenplay. Are there still plans for a cinematic adaptation in the works?

Luke: I have been working on an animated trailer, which is coming very soon.

And I’ve had some interest in adapting the book into a live-action TV series. The world of Obscura is vast and ever-expanding. I have lived there for seven years and I’m not ready to leave.


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