This month's Featured Illustrator comes in a pair: Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers, also known as Metaphrog. The Franco-Scottish duo are winners of The Sunday Herald Scottish Culture Awards 2016 Best Visual Artist. Their graphic novels have received international acclaim and multiple award nominations, including three for the Eisner Awards. 

We are Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers, a Franco-Scottish graphic novel duo living and working together in Glasgow. I (John), a punk from Greenock, on the west coast of Scotland, grew up reading books and studying engineering. Working with a PhD in micromachining, I always dreamed of being a writer. Sandra was born in France, studied arts and letters in Amiens, and one day packed her bag and moved to Scotland to find herself and to become an artist. When we met in 1994 Sandra was drawing, painting and taking photographs and we had a lot of the same interests: music, literature, film and art. We fell in love, and immediately started making comics. Because we both grew up reading and loving comics, it seemed natural to combine our passions and make comics together.

We started by self-publishing under the name Metaphrog and released a full-colour book: Louis – Red Letter Day in the year 2000. The book quickly sold out of its 2000 print run, receiving critical acclaim and was even nominated for two prestigious Eisner Awards. We also realised we had fallen in love with the Louis character.

Over the years, five more Louis books followed. Louis – The Clown’s Last Words was the first graphic novel ever to receive arts council funding in 2002, and Louis – Dreams Never Die was a special project (music/comic/animation) in collaboration with legendary record label FatCat and bestselling band Múm, from Iceland, and dub pioneers Hey, from Berlin. This project attracted the attention of Libération in France as well as Creative Review in the UK. In 2011, Louis – Night Salad was Highly Commended for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards and also received an Eisner Award nomination.

The Louis graphic novels were widely featured in publications as diverse as New Internationalist, i-D, Publishers WeeklyThe Guardian, The School Librarian, and Art Review to name a few, at a time when graphic novels weren’t even really a thing yet.

Pages from our self-published Louis graphic novels Louis - Red Letter Day and Louis – Night Salad
(acrylic inks and ink on watercolour paper)

After the Louis series, we worked on several commissioned comics and illustrations. In 2009 The Association for Scottish Literary Studies commissioned us to adapt Edwin Morgan’s poem The First Men on Mercury into comic form. Over 35,000 copies were distributed to every school pupil in Glasgow. After that we were asked to produce comics for the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland, and illustrations for Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and The Dick Institute among others. Sandra also illustrated a series of chapter books, produced educational illustrations for Hodder, and comic art for Chemistry World.

Page and process from our adaptation of The First Men on Mercury for The Association for Scottish Literary Studies
(pencils and ink on paper, digital colouring)

While we were thinking what our next books would be, we made a couple of short stories in 2013, which we sent around to some industry contacts as a mini-comic. One of the people we sent the comic to, Terry Nantier, of NBM publishing in New York, got back to us immediately, asking us to make books for them. This resulted in three graphic novel adaptations published by Papercutz: The Red Shoes and Other Tales, The Little Mermaid (which received a starred review in School Library Journal in the US, and was the winner of the UK’s Excelsior Awards Junior 2018), and Bluebeard, all with support from Creative Scotland. We were also surprised to win the Scottish Culture Awards Best Visual Artist 2016. 

Pages from our adaptation of The Red Shoes and The Little Mermaid (digital art)

Pages from our adaptation of Bluebeard (digital art)

We have now begun to revamp our style and are returning to a bold and simple art, more directly suited for middle grade readers, and we’ve created a new website with a new portfolio. The pandemic has been such an overwhelming thing for everyone, but in a way, the forced isolation has helped us to pause and think and has given us the opportunity to take the time to develop creatively. We have just received professional development funding from Creative Scotland and we’re working on new ideas and pitches for graphic novels.

An example of Sandra’s new revamped artwork (pencil on paper, digital ink and colouring

Aside from creating comics and illustrations, we love to do author visits, and, to date, have delivered over 700 sessions in schools, libraries and festivals. It started in 2009 when the National Library of Scotland asked us to do sessions for them, and since then we have been getting loads of requests, through word of mouth, and thanks to the Scottish Book Trust. We love to spread the word about comics and share our creative process; children are loving comics more and more! 

We currently have a solo exhibition at Callendar House, one of Scotland’s historic landmarks, which is a bit of a retrospective. The Graphic Novel World of Metaphrog runs from the 29th of January until the 17th of April and features over 80 pieces of original art, prints and artefacts from our 27-year career. It has been amazing working with Exhibitions Officer Gillian Smith at Falkirk Community Trust to put together this exhibition – it is a very different kind of work from creating books.

The Graphic Novel World of Metaphrog – An exhibition by award-winning duo Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers

We are influenced very much by music and also by nature – the world around us. We both love reading, film and art. Favourites include Chabrol, Hitchcock and Bergman, Patricia Highsmith and Daphne Du Maurier, and we love going to museums and galleries. In comics, we love Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, and we both read Tintin as children. Recent comics and books we loved are Roller Girl and When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson, The Witches adaption of Roald Dahl by Penelope Bagieu, anything by Brian Selznick and Shaun Tan.

If you are wondering about the way we work, in general 'John' writes and 'Sandra' draws, but we walk and talk and develop stories together, discussing ideas and plots, and writing synopses together. John writes a script, from which Sandra creates layouts (or thumbnails/dummy), and those two stages are done pretty much concomitantly, one chapter at a time. We then edit script and layouts together, making as many versions of layout as necessary, until we are both happy with the way it reads. Then Sandra gets on with final artwork: pencilling, inking and colouring. She prefers to pencil on paper, but often ends up doing it digitally because it’s so much faster. Inking is done in Clip Studio Paint, and then colouring in Photoshop.

Metaphrog's creative process

If we were asked to give advice to any aspiring creators we would say: to make graphic novels, you’ll need three things: dedication, stamina, and an unconditional love of comics. Graphic novels are hugely demanding and time-consuming to create, but it is such an exciting medium!

*All images: Metaphrog


See more of Metaphrog's work
 here and their new portfolio hereFollow them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook
See previous Featured Illustrators on our Showcase Gallery.


Tita Berredo is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & PicturesFind her work at www.titaberredo.com Follow her on Instagram and Twitter


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