What Happens When ‘Downton’s Head Valet, John Bates, Loosens His Vest?

What’s the logical next step for a hit British period drama after it gets picked up by a major US cultural outlet and rebroadcast to a whole new appreciative audience? Well, besides having printable paper dolls modelled after your characters, of course. Having your story embellished in graphic form is a pretty good indicator of the massive popularity of your show. Even better? A graphic novel parody!

ITV’s hit show Downton Abbey is slated to start shooting season four this month, and season three just finished airing in the US on PBS, following the program’s fall 2012 run in the UK. What’s a fan to do in the meantime? Soak up any available special holiday episodes and read Jessica Fellowes’ accounts of The World of Downton Abbey (2011) or The Chronicles of Downton Abbey (2012), of course. Lucky coincidence that Jessica is the niece of Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes.

Part fan fiction, part spy story, and part supernatural tale, Agent Gates and the Secret Adventures of Devonton Abbey (A Parody), is all entertainment. Hot on the heels of one of the most popular current TV dramas on the planet, this graphic novel is a fun little side trip into some of the characters and plot points that define the aristocratic soap opera.

Downton’s head valet to Lord Grantham, John Bates, appears in graphic form as Agent Jack Gates, subservient to the family of the house as ever, but concealing under his servant’s uniform the persona of a consummate spy. Bates’, er, Gates’ hobbled leg is replaced with a lethal titanium appendage, just waiting to crush anyone threatening the Crown in the throat if the opportunity presents. Brendan Coyle, the actor playing John Bates in the TV series, received an Emmy nomination in 2012 for his role as a supporting actor in a drama series. He’d surely have won it if his cover had been blown and his secret intelligent work been revealed. Alongside the butler and head housekeeper as additional agents, Gates is at work undercover to help keep the crown safe and the country from world war.

Meanwhile the Granville family is determined to carry on keeping up appearances and entertaining their diplomatic guests at Devonton Abbey. Most of them have no idea that their servants are gifted secret agents, though a select few of the upstairs occupants are in the know. My favourite reimagining of a character is the Dowager Countess Lady Viola (Maggie Smith’s fabulous Violet Crowley). An agent in league with the servants, her normally steely gaze is enhanced by a superpower that apparently turns the object of its focus into stone. Watch out when she’s displeased, as your cup of tea could turn solid, or you might see an interrogated subject find his fingers transform into rock, then his wrist and forearm…

Episodes in the book alternate between social satire and action sequences, with each character’s foibles enhanced in graphic form. Well-meaning Matthew, named Martin in Agent Gates, attempts to put his legal training to use for every unfortunate wretch who happens to twist his ankle in the lane, fighting for workers’ compensation. Feisty Lady Sybil is here as Lady Cynthia, focused on women’s and workers’ rights without realizing how hypocritical she comes off.

True to its time, Agent Gates is accompanied by the fanfare of a Facebook page, Twitter account, Tumblog, and website. The site includes the fake endorsements of the book’s characters that grace the back cover of the book itself, with such accolades as the Dowager Countess’ assertion that the contents are “Preposterous” and Lord Granville’s assessment that it’s all “Slanderous…Utter rot.”

With the back cover’s comments fresh in mind I got in touch with Kyle Hilton, the illustrator, and Camaren Subhiyah, the writer, to ask a few questions about their take on Devonton Abbey and its wellspring, Downton Abbey. Hilton puts pen to paper for clients like The New York Times and Time magazine, while Subhiyah is an assistant editor at Random House. Read on for a bit of behind the scenes fun on how this graphic novel parody came to be.

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Be honest. Are you massive fans of Downton Abbey or did you just see a great opportunity to make fun of the popularity of the show?

Camaren Subhiyah: I’m a big fan of the show — I started watching Season One and was instantly hooked. I’ve always been into PBS period dramas (Pride and Prejudice, of course) and British humor (Peep Show, Steve Coogan, Fawlty Towers) so I saw the perfect intersection here. Over the past few seasons, the plot has gotten more heavy-handed and melodramatic, so it felt like the perfect moment to parody the show.

Kyle Hilton: Haha, I’m actually a big fan of the show. Like a lot of people, period dramas like this aren’t what I naturally gravitate towards, but there is something about Downton in particular that is really engaging to outsiders of that genre. So, luckily, I happened to be already really into it by the time I heard about this project.

How did you get paired up to work together on this project?

KH: I think she had been working on this script last year around the time I made some Downton-themed paper dolls for Vulture.com, so we got in touch over that. And then we instantly clicked on what she had in mind for the book. Bates and The Dowager as spies was enough for me to sign on, but Camaren just captured the show so perfectly in every aspect. So we put together some sample art and pitched it together, and it went from there.

CS: I saw Kyle’s Downton Abbey dolls on Vulture, and was so impressed by his work. I called him, pitched the idea, and he was really into it. What’s amazing is that he is not only a really talented artist, but such a nice and humble person. It’s been a real pleasure working with him.

The parody is gentle at first, but goes pretty over the top with Sweetsy the dog’s pregnancy and the entailment of Devonton to her in the case of male puppies. Were there any other over the top parody plot details you resisted putting in?

CS: There are so many absurdly fun plot lines in Downton Abbey, it was hard to initially pick just one. However, the whole show really rests on the inheritance and future of Downton Abbey, so it seemed like the right choice.

Were any of the characters particularly hard to draw?

KH: Definitely a challenge. Figuring out the style was the hardest part, I think. We spent a lot of time deciding on a style that was somewhere between recognizable likenesses and exaggerated caricatures. The Dowager, unsurprisingly, was one of the harder ones to draw. The looks she gives are so iconic, hah, so there was a lot of pressure to really get them right.

Are there any other TV series or movies that you’d like to draw for a graphic novel like this one?

KH: Wow, I don’t even know. In a dream world, I’d love to do a comic book spinoff of Breaking Bad or something. Not a parody, but a straightforward continuation of just one of the characters or something. The world on that show is so visually interesting and dynamic, that would be a lot of fun.

Are you working on any other pop culture parodies? Or what else are you working on?

CS: I’m an editor by day at Random House, and really love what I do, so I’ve been keeping busy to that end. I’m also always writing, and have a few fun ideas churning around. Just trying to figure out the next project!

KH: I’m working on a few things right now that I’m really excited about, namely some more TV-themed paper dolls and a comic that I’m trying my hand at writing/drawing. But mostly, I’m just trying to keep up with the roller coaster that is this season of Downton.

Is there a plan for a sequel (or series) for Agent Gates?

CS: Always a possibility!