Thursday, 29 May 2008

A special No Bar Codes promo : guest-blogger David Baillie has a quick chat with small press superstars Ben Powis

Hi Ben, hope you're well! We haven't met, but I've read and admired your work, and can't wait to say hello. How would you introduce yourself and your work to someone at NoBarCodes next Saturday in Camden Lock Market who has never heard of you before?

Hi, I am very well thanks and really looking forward to next weekend! For an intro how about...
'Hello my name is Ben and I like to draw pictures' - that sums me up pretty well, even if it does sound like I'm about to host a cheesy gameshow!

You've had your comic Turtle Guitar on the LondonUnderGround Saturday comics table - how has that been for you?

It's been a fantastic, I have received some lovely messages from people who picked the comic up at the LUC tables, but its also been a great learning opportunity. Turtle Guitar is my first comic and being able to get it out to an audience who know what they like and aren't afraid to say so has been invaluable. It's also really exciting to hear about the great things the London Underground Comics guys are doing, I'm proud that my work has some small part in that.

What are you looking forward to most next Saturday?

Meeting everyone who comes along, including all the creators of the comics I have been staring at for so many months! The Internet is great for news and keeping up to date with the latest small press releases, but I am really looking forward to meeting people face to face.

Anything you're dreading?

Being asked to draw something, then getting exposed for the fraud I am! No really...I do draw...honest!

And finally - any message for the people out there, reading this, wishing that they too were a young, cool and sexy comics creator?

Don't do it, don't throw your life away!! Just kidding! If you have something you want to say, a story to tell, just do it.
Looking back, I wouldn't have imagined a year ago that I'd be doing what I am now. I really love it, its the best job in the world.
Oh one final thing, to anyone who is wondering when my next comic 'Where Grows The Bitter Herb' will be out...its finished and (depending on the printers) it might just be premiering at NoBarCodes next Saturday at Camden Lock Market - the only way to be sure is to come along!

Thank you very much, Ben Powis!

No, Thank you! :)


No Bar Codes is a one day indie comics event taking place at Camden Lock Market this Saturday. Click here for more info.

Ben Powis can be found at and No Bar Codes next week. His Turtle Guitar comes highly recommended as does his Lost in the Woods illustration blog!

David Baillie is over at and the awesome new hardback edition of his fantasy adventure Tongue of the Dead debuts at No Bar Codes. Click here for an exclusive discount voucher redeemable on the day

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

A special No Bar Codes promo : guest-blogger David Baillie has a quick chat with indie superstar Paul B Rainey

Hi Paul, hope you're well! I've been an admirer of yours since someone first said to me 'Have you heard of Paul Rainey? You should read his comics, I bet you'll like 'em!' How would you introduce yourself and your work to someone at NoBarCodes next Saturday in Camden Lock Market who has never heard of you before?

I usually have a little summary of each of my comics worked out which I recite at potential customers. Then I stand back and look at them longingly hoping desperately that they'll buy something. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't but whatever the outcome I always feel I could sell my stuff a little better. I always feel that if I was a contestant on The Apprentice Alan Sugar would fire me the first week.

You've been a mainstay of the UK Indie scene for many glorious years (even though you're still in your first spurt of youth) - how have things changed since you first dipped your toe in?

Thanks to desktop printers and more affordable printing, production quality is significantly better and more affordable these days, and more shops seem receptive to carrying stuff (although not enough). Also, there are a lot more bald men, which I like, but too many young men with long hair, which I find disconcerting.

What are you looking forward to most next Saturday?

I haven't had the opportunity to visit the Camden stall before so I have absolutely no expectations from a sales point of view. I am looking forward to seeing friends there, making new ones perhaps and having a couple of drinks after. Any new readers would be great.

Anything you're dreading?

There not being any chairs there... I'm at an age now where I need to sit down every now and then. Losing my glasses... I worry about that a lot. Splitting my trousers when I bend over... Which is why I always carry a spare pair.

What's next for Paul Rainey, man of comics?

Part 8 of my long comic strip, or "graphic novel", There's No Time Like The Present, which I am currently writing and hope to have finished by the end of the year. Of course, like every good comic creator, I have a few ideas for other strips as well which I'm keen to have a go at.

And finally - any message for the people out there, reading this, wishing that they too were a young, cool and sexy comics creator?

Yes! Don't be intimidated by anyone out there! Draw the comics you want to draw, print them up, staple them together and get them out there!! Alternatively, whack 'em online. Whatever, the important bit is, get your stuff out there!! Now!!

Thank you very much, Paul Rainey!

I love you, Dave.

No Bar Codes is a one day indie comics event taking place at Camden Lock Market this Saturday. Click here for more info.

Paul can be found at, The Book of Lists, 2000AD Prog Slog and No Bar Codes next week. Go on - click on one the above links and the surrender the rest of your day to Mr Rainey!

David Baillie is over at and the awesome new hardback edition of his fantasy adventure Tongue of the Dead debuts at No Bar Codes. Click here for an exclusive discount voucher redeemable on the day.

And thank you very much to Matt for allowing to hijack his blog for this!

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

A chat with...Kenny Penman

This year sees the first releases from new indie publishers Blank Slate. I caught up with Blank Slate's Kenny Penman to ask him about the company and its plans for the future.

Who are Blank Slate?

Blank Slate is basically myself and my original business partner James Hamilton. We've owned Sci Fi Bookshop in Edinburgh since around 1986 (it started in 1975) and later tied up with Mike Lake and Nick Landau to open Forbidden Planet stores in a joint project. Those are now the Forbidden Planet International stores around the country as well as in Dublin.

Alongside us we have Isobel Rips who is doing much of the editing and translated the Mawil book and my friend Duncan Bullimore who is a graphic designer by trade and is handling the look of the books. That's all of us.

What made you decide that there was a need for Blank Slate?

In truth, I'm not sure there is. I think the small press has shown it is capable of getting a lot of good material to consumers on its own - look at the likes of Dave Sim, Sam Hiti, Eleanor Davis in the US - Bob Byrne, David Hitchcock, Simone Lia and many more in the UK. They are all producing excellent comics and producing their own books through self-publishing. I think if you want to do it and can find the financial wherewithal to print it, you can produce great work without a publisher.

I guess Blank Slate is here for those who don't want to go down that route and for some foreign comics unlikely to be translated otherwise. Ultimately though it is really because both James and myself have been comics fans since we were about five, have spent a lot of our adult life around comics, are still big comics readers and fancied having a go at publishing stuff we liked which we hoped others would as well.

What is Blank Slate's objective?

You know, I don't think we really have one as such - except to try and get our books to the widest possible market. We hope to put out as many comics as the company can afford from the revenues each release brings in (the start-up capital has come from our own individual pockets), to print some interesting material, to try and nurture some home grown UK talent into finding a readership.

Of course we'll hope for a 'big' hit amongst it but as we all have other jobs we aren't looking for the publishing initially to pay wages. Any profits will be going back in to print the next project. Hopefully we will be able to establish a big enough titles list to allow us to be seen by book stores and comics stores alike as someone whose books you should be carrying.

I think the slight advantage we have is that we have a lot of connections in the business having both worked in it for over 20 years now and we'd hope to be able to pull some of those strings to get the books a chance they might not get coming from a start-up business where the owners were new to the comics world.

Please tell us about Blank Slate's first two releases.

Slate 1 is a collection of the first three issues of Oliver East's comic Trains are...Mint. Oliver has self-published the first three issues. Both Jim and I were taken by it right away and wanted to collect it. It's being done as a nice-looking hardcover and we think it has a chance of finding an audience outside the comics market.

(Above: art by Oli East)

It should appeal to the local Manchester and surrounding areas market, being it is essentially a travel diary about Oliver's walks in those areas. But I think it has a much greater appeal being both an assured and unusual piece of comic art and a piece of social commentary also. Oliver has become a bit in-demand since we agreed to do the collection, having just provided all the artwork for the latest Elbow album The Seldom Seen Kid. It won't appeal to everyone, but leave your preconceptions of what a comic should be and read it and I'm sure you'll love it. It's 100 pages with a new cover, endpapers and chapter sheets.

Slate 2 is a translation of German cartoonist Mawil's second book, We Can Still Be Friends. He has six books in print in Germany and seems to win their independent comics creator award practically every year. Isobel who did the translation is one of Forbidden Planet's buyers and a huge comics fan. Her normal taste is Spider-Man and superheroes mostly, but she LOVES Mawil. She translated it for us and I thought it was fantastic also, and I was delighted to find a book that appealed to Superhero and non-superhero comics fan alike.

(Above: art by Mawil)

He's a fantastic cartoonist, one of those guys who just looks like he could always draw without having to learn. His comics are funny and charming. We sent a few proof copies out for review and got some great responses from people like Joe Matt and Jeffrey Brown - Isobel met Scott Mcloud at the Frankfurt book fair and he's a big fan - so we know the book has appeal if we can get it to people. Mawil did have a previous book, Beach Safari, published by Top Shelf, many years back, but we think this is a better book with much wider appeal.

If you ever fancied someone who didn't fancy you back then you'll love this. It's a 64 page softcover and if successful we'd hope to do more Mawil in future.

What is the Blank Slate ethos when it comes to new work? Are you open for submissions?

I think we hope that we truly are a 'blank slate' - we'll consider anything, with the possible exception of Superheroes or really out-there avant garde work the likes of which people like Le Dernier Cri might publish (not because we don't like those ourselves - in many cases we do - we just think there are a lot of publishers who can do those sorts of books better justice than we'd be able to).

We are always open to submissions and we have had quite a few already, one of which, from UK artist Richard Cowdry, already has us talking to him about a possible future collection. I can't promise we are the great hope for ignored comics creators but we are certainly interested in new work. I'll reply to every submission though some of those might take me a little while - I owe a couple of people replies right now.

How many titles do you plan to release a year?

I'd like to say, with some certainty, about 12, but it has taken us a fair while to finally get the first two to the printers. Whilst we had printed magazines before printing books was a whole new learning experience; doing a translation was an interesting but quite demanding task and just liasing with the artists to try and get the books as close to their vision as possible all took time. So it might be less, but lets say we hope for 12, probably two books every two months or so. If we fall short it will be due to inexperience or the fact no-one likes or buys the books. If we find we can do more we gradually will.

Do you think that the comics industry in this country is in a better or worse state than it was 10 years ago, and why?

I think in terms of it's finances - comic industry UK PLC if you like - probably a little better. Manga has obviously reached into the wider bookstore market and increased the potential for a widened comics readership. Comics are taken more seriously by 'real' book publishers than before (although I personally have some reservations about some of the stuff they are choosing to print) comics-based movies have supported sales of Superhero comics through the traditional comics shop network.

Tesco seems to have more comics on its racks than ever. Some of them, like Shaun the Sheep and Cartoon Network, providing good new outlets for UK-based cartoonists, which must be a good thing. Most comics fans learnt to read comics as kids, so it's nice to see a new audience being built [through all-ages comics]. I do think where things have suffered is in the adventure/adult market. 2000 AD is still a hot bed for new creators and is still producing some exceptional material but it's power has certainly waned. I see it as showing only 20K in sales these days when at its height it was five or six times that.

There are no major magazine publishers willing to take a risk with older age comics. Certainly no-one looking to produce the next Crisis or Deadline. I don't think this is unique to the UK though. The comics mag has pretty much died out in countries like France and Spain as well. I'm quite excited about things like Self Made Hero and their Manga Shakespeare as a great attempt at building new readership and the new David Fickling comic has some talented creators like Kate Brown working for it and looks like it might be very good.

On the other hand the small press scene seems to me more healthy than it has ever been since the days of Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury's Escape. I think there will be many new stars emerge from what is a revitalised do-it-yourself ethos. All in all I'm personally seeing more stuff I want to read year on year (as a guidepost I'd probably rate Love & Rockets as my favourite all-time comic) in both the UK and US markets, in comics generally.

Kenny, thanks for your time.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

A chat with...PJ Holden and Al Ewing (part one)

(Above: Dead Signal art by PJ Holden)

Earlier this month I interviewed artist PJ Holden and writer Al Ewing via Google Chat. We were supposed to be talking about Dead Signal, their new series for science fiction comic 2000 AD. Instead, we rambled on like lunatics.


Al Ewing is an up and coming young writer who works mainly for 2000 AD, although he has also written two novels. In this interview he also talks about Tempest, his 'ninja judge' strip that has been running for the last five months in the Judge Dredd Megazine.

PJ Holden is a comic artist who has worked for 2000 AD, Image Comics and Fantagraphics.

MB: Tell me about Dead Signal.

AE: The original idea for Dead Signal was basically as you see in the first episode, televised bounty hunters driven by debt in a world that has a lot of insane and black-humour twists on our own.

MB: What happened?

AE: Matt Smith, editor of 2000 AD, took a look at it and decided it was a bit unoriginal, or it needed something. The original plot was very... it was kind of a buddy movie. He suggested the cliffhanger for the first episode, the debt I was threatening the lead with being called in. At this point I decided that this didn't really go far enough, so without spoilering it I decided to blow up the whole thing.

MB: Do you mean that you rewrote it?

AE: By the end of the first series it'll be at a very different place, and hopefully if the readers like it we'll be launching something more ongoing from that. By episode five you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. I blew it to pieces. Tell him, PJ!

PJ: I can say nothing. Except. I had to laugh when I saw that someone pegged it as a typical 2000 AD bounty hunter series. I thought 'hmm... not nearly by half it isn't...'

MB: OK, chaps. Rewind a bit. Give us a Dead Signal pimp. Why should we read it, in art and script terms? You've gone all postmodern aintcha!?!

AE: It's basically the furthest Matt's allowed me to go so far.

MB: In terms of content/style/both?

AE: He's really let me do whatever I wanted, both in terms of story and art. By which I mean that I've been given PJ, who can do anything and cheerfully agreed to. Best artist I've worked with and I'm not just saying that because he's here.

MB: Are we talking a mix of art styles then, PJ?

PJ: The art. Well, I'm trying my little heart out. I thought long and hard about how I was going to get this series to look unique and how I'd be able to play with the art in the different levels of... well, I can't say too much.

But, you know the flashback panel in the first episode where the series goes from noir to cartoony and back to noir again (drawn in a very weak approximation of the style of Little Nemo in Slumberland)? Expect another change in art to reflect the difference in the story. It was easily the toughest thing I've drawn, and, I think, for a typical 2000 AD reader the episode with that change in will be the most difficult episode.

MB: The first episode is a good set-up. I wanted to read more

AE: I'm a bit paranoid about reader reaction. They like it now, but...

PJ: Al, I don't think there's any point in worrying about it. I've never really managed to peg how readers react (I thought they'd love Warzone*, they didn't).

MB: At first glance Dead Signal looks like a satire on celebrity culture and reality TV, but you're saying that it's going to go off in mad directions.

AE: It is both of those things. There's a lot of satire, but there are other levels that it's going to go to.

MB: And these are formal levels, in terms of how it's presented and the mechanics of a comic strip? In terms of the grammar of comics?

AE: Kind of... it's a bit hard to talk about this without setting up a massive spoiler. But yes, we do play with the formal aspects in a couple of places.

MB: How challenging was that for you as an artist, PJ, or was it fun?

PJ: It's been tough. It's my first completely new thing for 2000 AD, so every part of that world is out of my head, and you make decisions, sometimes, that don't play out as well as you like, but it's allowed me to push myself. There're some interesting things in episode five that on paper were really simple, but, when you go to draw them, are insanely difficult. I think that episode is nearly my favourite because it's so radically different.

AE: What's your actual favourite?

PJ: Looking back over the art, irritatingly episode one, I think, looks the best. Page one, especially. We're looking at a kind of gritty ‘70s New York with a character that's loosely inspired by Brendan McCarthy’s sense of design. The level of grit is about where I'd like every episode to be.

AE: I love the chase in episode two. I thought that came out really well in the black & white art.

PJ: Actually, anything with the city in it I like. I just like this made-up ‘70s New York we’ve got in the strip (not really what it's like, but kind of filtered through the brain of me, age 11).

MB: Given that we risk spoiling Dead Signal, let's talk a bit more generally about 2000 AD and your art and writing? Where do you see yourselves in terms of your comic careers? What has Dead Signal allowed you to do in terms of taking yourselves to the next level? And what's your next career move (horrible term)?

PJ: Well, we're both off to the New York Comic Con and I'm taking about six months off cus of my new baby, so career on short-term pause.

(Above: advert for I, Zombie)

AE: Well, personally it's given me more confidence about what I can pull off, which I'm translating into a Dredd ten-pager at the moment. Next career move is going to be to write another novel, for myself this time - plus I need to talk to Dom Reardon about doing something for Image. We talked at the New Year about that but nothing happened. I need to get some old files off an old computer, and what with writing I, Zombie [a novel] I've not had a chance to dig out all the cables and the old monitor etc.

MB: What's I, Zombie about?

AE: I, Zombie is a bonkers story of a zombie detective learning the mystery behind his origins. It involves shooting, werewolf chases, the end of the world and giant man-eating worms, and one of the characters is very clearly Philip Glenister.

MB: This trip to New York is a bit of a networking opportunity...

PJ: Maybe something will come from the New York trip, maybe it won’t.

AE: It'll be nice just to see the Americans, and their ways. They tip their bar people. It's madness. You eat peanuts right off the bar and drink out of bottles instead of proper pints. Or so I hear.

PJ: Al's emailed me about where he can push the envelope of Dead signal next. So, if it goes down well (and if the website is any indicator it seems to be) there'll be more Dead Signal.

Go to part two, three, four or five of this interview.

*Warzone is a Judge Dredd strip by John Wagner and PJ Holden that received a mixed response.
Here's a review of the first episode (scroll down slightly).

A chat with...PJ Holden and Al Ewing (part two)

(Above: the cover to Fearless issue 1 by PJ Holden)

This is the second part of an online chat that I had with artist PJ Holden and writer Al Ewing earlier this month. Part one is here.

MB: How frustrating is the lack of domestic markets for new writers and artists? It feels like you've both spent a long time getting this far (for that reason).

PJ: It's more frustrating that, in the past few years, I've only been able to ramp my productivity up to a fairly steady 10/15 pages per month. There're plenty of (non-paying) markets that are non-domestic.

Al: I think to be fair it's more because I started off being rubbish, and I'm still fairly crap at pitching to people who aren't Matt Smith at 2000 AD. To be honest, I'm finding myself doing a lot of non-comics stuff; radio panel shows, that sort of thing. If I could make that pay, that would be nice.

PJ: Work is out there. It's just finding the time to do it. Image comics, especially, I'd spend a great part of my career just drawing creator-owned comics via Image if I could find the time.

Al: There's no shortage of work, it's just unlocking those doors.

MB: But you need to get paid, surely. Aren't you at the stage where you should be paid?

PJ: Well, I approach work in two ways: unpaid? I need to own it. Work for hire? Thank you, I'll take that cheque. But, I think, for the long term (and I mean, 20/60 years) I want to have built a sizable portfolio of creator-owned work, otherwise I'm just gonna be toiling in the trenches in perpetuity making someone else’s comic.

Al: I think Phonogram is probably the big success story with regards to UK folk at Image...

MB: PJ, are you hoping that one of these creator-owned comics might be the next Star Wars/Harry Potter?

PJ: Nope, but I can't help noticing that the happiest creators, the ones enjoying what they do are the ones that have created something totally new that they own - Frank Miller, Mike Mignola, Warren Ellis and others. And too many comic artists spent the rest of their lives chained to the drawing table drawing Batman/Superman/whateverman.

MB: Would you prefer to be rich or revered?

PJ: Revered, but it's easy to be revered, just meet lots and lots of people, keep the ones that like you and dispatch the others. As long as I can pay my bills, I'm happy (but then I'm in the enviable position of having a well paid, part time job).

MB: Have you guys left the small press behind?

PJ: I think I've done the small press as much as I can. I don't think I'm reaching anyone new there, at least not in the UK.

MB: PJ, any more of your Image comic, Fearless on the horizon?

PJ: If there is more Fearless it won't be for at least a year (or two). Back to Dead Signal. I have to say - episode one is, I think, he first thing I've been really proud off in some time.

MB: What, in terms of your own work, hasn't been working for you?

PJ: Most of Fearless. The whole thing took too long, and the storytelling suffered because of it. Also, some really crap drawing.

MB: Al, you said earlier you were crap? PJ, you've just said that about Fearless? Why so down on your abilities, or is it to make sure you don't get complacent?

AE: I don't think I am any more. But I am very slow at the moment, which is bad. I need to increase my speed now. I can't rest on my laurels, since I've barely got one leaf of a laurel. And also because I'm being accused in the letters pages of being the boastingest boaster in Boastington Hall.

MB: Ah, our interview for the Meg’...

AE: Well, I was boasting, to be fair. It was the drink. And, frankly, there's nothing wrong with being proud of your work.

PJ: I think I've a fairly realistic opinion of my work, it's hard to be sure, but I do think I know when my art is just not as good as it could be. (And I have drawn other stuff that does look really good. I just haven't finished it yet). Also I did quite like the little Future Shock I did with Alec Worley.

AE: I'd be just as damned if I said something like 'yeah, this is a bit rubbish' because then nobody would bother to read it. You've got to develop a persona and sell it. I think what you've got to do in terms of self-publicity is just be confident about what you do and not flinch or back down from it. Which can make you look very hoity-toity to some people, especially if they don't like what you're doing.

Go to part three, four or five of this interview.

A chat with...PJ Holden and Al Ewing (part three)

(Above: Dead Signal cover for 2000 AD by Nick Percival)

This is the third part of an online chat that I had with artist PJ Holden and writer Al Ewing earlier this month. Here are parts one and two.

MB: Are you both proud of how far you've come?

AE: Guardedly, yes. What really helps is my brother being proud of me. That was a good moment when I heard that. Mum and Dad are very proud as well, but Tom's the person who got me into 2000 AD and he really understands the significance of me managing to actually achieve what I've wanted to do all my life, whereas my parents are just glad I've made good with my foolish hobby.

PJ :I'm amused at how about 80% of the reviews of my work say 'this is his best work yet' or 'seems to have really improved since the last time'. Which means I'm either fucking great now, or I was really, really shit to begin with! I'm proud of my reputation within 2000 AD of the go-to guy for deadline crunches. And, despite that, the work isn't shite.

AE: PJ's more than just the go-to guy for deadlines - he's the go-to guy when you need something done exactly the way you wanted it. I firmly believe he's our generation's Dave Gibbons.

PJ: Cheers, though I seem to be drawing comparisons to Brett Ewins a lot. Brett Ewins on Rogue was one of my favourite things. The episode with Venus Bluegenes where she's looking down (I have no idea which issue) is just a gorgeous drawing.

Al: Brett on Rogue was absolutely gorgeous...

MB: Is comics a foolish hobby?

AE: I've been advised that what I should really do is become a factory inspector. My Dad came at me with that once. Apparently it's a job with a future.

MB: PJ, Is it tiring being the go-to guy? Presumably, there's no room for error if your guy who pulls everyone's fat out of the fire.

PJ: Not tiring at all, I worry that maybe being a speed freak my art would suffer, but since I'm actually fast (and if I have a six week deadline or a one week deadline the work doesn't look any different) and not just crunching for deadlines I don't think that's the case (in other words: if it's rubbish - it's no reflection on the time it took).

All I really want to do - and the point of my drawing - is to make me at 11 happy. That's it. I figure if I can make me happy at 11 then I'll be doing something similar for others. It's just a shame that the average age of a reader is 30. Not much my artwork can do to help you out of a mid-life crisis. Also, when you have deadline crunches you can do more work and if you do more work, you get paid more and there’s more chance of comics becoming a proper job.

MB: What do you guys think you need to do next to develop as creators?

Al: I need to be doing what I do now in half the time.

PJ: I dunno, I keep hoping something I do will suddenly propel me into the stratosphere (or at least let me leave my day job) but I'm not sure that overnight success really happens to many people. But I've just gotta keep drawing and making sure the next drawing is better than the last.

AE: I'm just slow. I spend hours working out how to do things, and then more hours getting the dialogue into the perfect shape, although it's nowhere near perfect enough for my liking. I'm fine with that very methodical, perfectionist way of working, but I need to organise it more and just improve my working practices and make myself more efficient. Cut down on wanking, for example. Twice a week is enough for any man.

MB: Which is your wanking hand and which is your writing hand? Maybe you can wank and write. Or wank straight onto the page.

AE: That's a set-up I'm not going to dignify with a punchline.

MB: PJ, would you like to carry on doing completely original strips or do you see the benefit of doing Dredd et al?

PJ: I think doing both is best. Warren Ellis has talked before about how he went off to do creator-owned work only, got called in to do some Marvel work and found that the Marvel work was creating a completely new audience for his creator-owned work. The George Clooney idea (I think it's him) of one worthy film to one blockbuster. Besides, who in their right mind would turn down the chance to draw Dredd!?!

MB: Ok, pimp some creators worth watching. Up-and-coming and established. Who should people read/observe artwise if they want to learn their comic craft?

PJ: I have no idea, I rarely get to comic shops, so ... you know, I know no-one.

(Above: Iron Fist 'brings the awesome' courtesy of Brubaker, Fraction and Aja)

AE: I'm loving Matt Fraction right now. I think his Iron Fist is a perfect comic.

MB: What makes it perfect?

AE: It's taking a character and using him or her to the fullest, boiling it down to the basics and then... I mean, you've seen the martial arts sequences.

MB: No.

AE: You have to read it. It was a huge influence on Tempest, in that I decided 'I will make this series as awesome as humanly possible’. In fact, I was going to call the first series 'Bring The Awesome' but Matt Smith wouldn't let me.

PJ: Heh.

MB: Is that an Iron Fist quote?

AE: No, but The Awesome should be brought and Iron Fist does bring it.

PJ: I think that's a quintessentially Al Ewing thing. He ramps everything up to 11.

MB: Will Tempest return?

AE: Yes. Matt is open to more, although not this year. If I can get permission, the next arc will be Tempest vs. The All-New Deathfist.

MB: What would you guys like to do if you broke the States?

PJ: Not sure, I don't have any dream project and I can't think, for the life of me, what my artwork would suit. I figure an obscure ‘70s DC title, resurrected. That's what most 2000 AD droids end up doing, right?


MB: Turn him round or The Reverse Aquaman?

PJ: He he.

AE: Like the Reverse Flash - Reverse Aquaman can control everything that's not in the sea. I want to work on the kids’ titles - Marvel Adventures, the Animated books.

MB: Reverse Aquaman controls everything?

AE: Yes, even Superman. And Aquaman has to fight him with his finny friends.

MB: Why do you want to do the kids’ books?

AE: Because they're unsullied by continuity. They have their own, simpler continuity, which makes them a giant playground for fun ideas. Look at what Jeff Parker's been doing! If I worked on the Hulk, I'd need to get involved with Skrulls and Red Hulk and so on... but if I could work on Adventures Hulk, it'd just be a 24-page one-off full of Hulky fun.

Go to part four or five of this interview.

A chat with...PJ Holden and Al Ewing (part four)

(Above: Tempest cover art for the Judge Dredd Megazine by Jon Davis Hunt)

This is the fourth part of an online chat that I had with artist PJ Holden and writer Al Ewing earlier this month. Here are parts one, two and three.

MB: You're a bit of a Lee/Kirby/Ditko man aintcha, Al?

AE: Yeah, I do love my Kirby and Ditko. Lee, less so, but he was a vital component. And Lee did do that jazzy True Believer talk that I've got a lot of mileage from pastiching over the years.

PJ: Me and Al on 'Mr A'.

Al: I'd have to read so much Ayn Rand to do that justice.

MB: What can we learn from those '60s Marvel bods?

AE: Three words: Done In One.

MB: Done in one issue? Continuity - lots of fun or the Devil incarnate?

PJ: Continuity - fun when you can keep it fuzzy, otherwise just a giant pain in the ass.

AE: The sheer amount of genius they regularly packed into those very early issues - I'm thinking Fantastic Four around the Galactus period, the Ditko Spidey and Dr. Strange... and it was before they just started recycling their old concepts - which I'm guilty of in the Dreddworld - so it was all new and all mad. And all pretty much done in one issue! Three episodes was an epic. Galactus took fifteen in the Ultimate universe.

(Above: interview with Jack Kirby that I stumbled across while looking for a Galactus image)

PJ: There is /was a sense that anything could happen - new characters exploring new worlds and meeting new giant universe-eating aliens. Now, it feels like the readers already know everything that has/will have happened.

MB: I wondered about that, Al. You reference Dredd continuity a bit in Tempest. Necessary or the fan boy in you?

AE: The thing about Dredd that makes it work is continuity. Barring those early episodes with fat policemen running around it's a really structured world, and it's the only comic universe that operates in real time. Whereas Spidey isn't 100 years old or whatever he would be by now. With Dredd, John Wagner basically created a perfect storytelling machine, and delving back into the past is one of the many, many ways of bringing water up from that well, and it's the one I'm most comfortable with. On the other hand, I'm conscious that that's the exact thing I don't like when a lot of American writers do it with their childhood heroes, so I'm trying to do other things.

MB: How is a Dredd strip the perfect storytelling machine?

AE: Dredd as a whole - the whole world. You can tell any stories with it. It's a beautiful machine made out of a million parts, all of which you can pick up and play with or examine in detail. Although to actually drive the Dreddworld you need to be fully qualified and I'm not that. In fact, a story in itself is a kind of machine - a machine for taking people places. And the variables of the machine are how many people you want to take with you and how far you want to take them.

MB: Tell me about Dead Signal in terms of those variables.

AE: Obviously I'm trying to take as many people as possible as far as possible, but we're taking the machine through some strange territory and we're probably going to lose some people, who will remain drifting forever in idea-space. But with Dead Signal I think getting to that faraway place is the important thing. People can always catch up if they need to.

MB: But that's a sacrifice you're prepared to make for an interesting comic strip?

AE: Yeah, whereas with Dredd I want to drive a big bus to a fun, seaside destination.

MB: Dredd should be familiar?

AE: It should be a fun day out for all the family and not a harrowing trek into the unknown. I think it should be surprising in what it does but familiar in what it is. It's a big, wonderful world, but it has rules. I can't have Dredd be a Skrull.

MB: OK. Some silly questions. Hulk vs. Tharg, chaps. Who wins?

PJ: Easy. Tharg.

AE: Tharg, obviously. He'd just turn his thrill viewer on maximum and make the Hulk fight a miniature Blackhawk.

MB: What's the worst thing about comics?

PJ: The Internet.

MB: PJ, are you referring to message boards?

PJ: Alright, not the Internet, message boards

MB: I agree.

Al: Worst thing is that there aren't enough good comics and too many rubbish ones.

MB: Best thing about comics.

AE: They're still around.

PJ: Blimey, where to start?

AE: You can do anything with comics. Literally anything.

PJ: They can do ANYTHING. They can be ANYTHING. You can create one with thousands of pounds worth of equipment or with a pencil and some paper.

MB: Is that what Dead Signal is about? Pushing the boundaries in terms of comics and 2000 AD?

AE: No, Dead Signal is about people shooting each other. Zarjaz!
Go to part five of this interview.

A chat with...PJ Holden and Al Ewing (part five)

(Above: art by PJ Holden from Dead Signal. NB: The finished strip is in colour)

This is the fifth and final part of an online chat that I had with artist PJ Holden and writer Al Ewing earlier this month.
Go to part one, two, three or four.

MB: Tell us about forthcoming projects, chaps?

PJ: I have to finish a 12-page script called IMAGO that's been on my drawing table for over a year (the shame) and do a six page sample for a series, which hasn't landed a publisher yet. And I'll be doing that when I take six months off starting from the end of Dead Signal. The baby’s due on the 11th of June, but this is our second and it's been the most difficult pregnancy, wife has been off (doctor’s orders) and unable to look after our son, so a lot of looking after both of them has fallen to me and I haven't been able to get back on top of the Dead Signal deadlines since episode 2. So I figure, meet my commitments, take some time off, regroup and start back again.

MB: Al, what are you up to?

AE: 'Odessaland', a murder-mystery set in the Ukraine, but not the one we know. That'll probably take me two years to write, followed by schlepping it around publishers. And more comics, of course.

MB: Tell us about the comics.

AE: For 2000AD... as much Dredd as I can sell, plus a putative five-episoder called 'Disaster 2010'. But that one's not even at the plot stage so by the time it comes out it'll probably be called something completely different. And it'll be about space foetuses or something.

MB: Any plans to try and break America?

AE: Yes - I reckon the best way forward is Image, and I'm freed up enough to start working on that now that I, Zombie's finally done.

MB: Anything else you guys want to say?

PJ: My column for 2000 AD Review will continue - 12 episodes in total, I've written the next couple. I thought I'd find it difficult but I've been tempted to make them a weekly feature. But 12 is a good number, gives me a year of it and then I'll bung them all into a LULU self-published book.

MB: Will that be a sort of how-to book?

PJ: Yeah, take those 12 columns, 500 words a piece, add some more, and then a little how-to, a kind of 'Drawing comics as a professional: what to do in year two' (almost all advice I've ever seen is about getting your foot in the door, this is about keeping it there)

(Above: more art from Dead Signal by PJ Holden)

MB: PJ, should we expect weirder and weirder art from you a la Dead Signal?

PJ: Well, I don't do weird - I can try, but it's just not in me. I'm not Brendan McCarthy, Bill Sienkiewicz or Dave McKean. You get cartoony realism from me. But, with that said, I'm hoping to keep up with where Al is taking us all and the weirdest episode is probably the most straightforward in terms of the way the art is drawn. (In fact, in many respects that's what makes the art in that episode weird)

MB: I'm so confused about Dead Signal.

AE: You say that now...

PJ: Well, Al, Matt Smith and I, I think we're all tentatively prepared for the reaction to be appalling. It's been good, but knowing how it's going to play out means that the only way people will get a sense of how they feel about it will be when the first episode is done and dusted. And, based on the some preliminary ideas Al has sent, if they liked that and feel comfy in that world, well... they shouldn't put their slippers on just yet.

MB: I’m intrigued. I liked the wordplay in episode one a lot. If wordplay is the right term? Debtcopter, abortron. Is wordmash a better word?

AE: 'Abortron' is a pun. If Debtcopter's a pun it's a happy coincidence. Wordplay's as good a word as any, but I'm not as into it as other writers. Si Spurrier loves words. You can tell. I know Alan Moore enjoys a good old-fashioned punfest occasionally.

MB: Al, I know that you’re into the idea of revamping old characters. Any in particular that you’d like to bring back from the Brit’ comics graveyard?

AE: Revamping things... one day I will bring back Harry Angel.

MB: Harry Angel is...?

AE: Harry Angel - a man who crashed an experimental computer plane and had the computer embed in his shoulder. The computer now drives his body, which means he can essentially fly. If you drop him from any height he can 'glide' to earth. Basically he's remembered as this dreadful character, and he's someone I'd like to rehabilitate.

MB: Where would you both like to be in terms of your respective careers in 5 years time?

AE : I'd like to have won an Eagle Award. Too late this year, but maybe next year...

PJ: A 2000AD old hand, who's working for Marvel / DC while forging completely new works for Image while drawing damn well. (Oh yeah, I want some awards too, maybe that'll be the year I win a newcomer award!)

MB: Do the Eagle Awards mean anything?

PJ: Only if I'd been nominated :o).

AE: They do to me. It'd be like winning an Oscar. I can honestly say, because I have no children, that winning an Eagle Award would be the proudest moment of my life.

PJ: Well, to this day, being told I could get some work for 2000AD (even after one child) still ranks up there.

MB: Thanks, fellas, for a fun interview.

PJ: Right, Al, now he's going, let's talk about all the mad things about to happen in Dead Signal. I loved that bit where he turns into a giant radioactive ham sandwich

AE: Hush! I hear breathing at the keyhole.

PJ Holden and Al Ewing's new comic strip Dead Signal is being serialised in science fiction comic 2000 AD now.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Make Mine Manga!

I approached the How Manga Took Over The World exhibition at Manchester’s Urbis museum with some trepidation. I’m not a massive manga and anime fan and certainly don’t know my shonen from my shojo. However, perhaps because I’m not a fan, I found that I got a lot out of this exhibition, which, despite being relatively small, is densely packed with information.

Urbis itself is a massive glass ski-slope of a building that sits just across from Victoria Station. It houses all sorts of exhibitions, from retrospectives on music and street culture to showcases of local graduate work. On the day I attended the museum, the foyer had been given over to a youth information festival with stallholders handing out flyers about subjects as diverse as housing and sexuality. There were also some children doing various arts activities, which, I’m informed, is a regular weekly event. It was nice to see Urbis doing its bit to encourage young people to come into the museum. I hope that as they get older, they’ll visit again.

Anyway, one ride later in Urbis’s rather unique lift*, constructed, I kid you not, by Italian rollercoaster engineers, and I was thrust into world of manga and anime. Fortunately for me, Urbis had come up with some nifty ways of combating my ignorance of both.

The first was a rather stylish comic strip introduction to manga drawn by Dave Siddall, which not only gave a brief history of Japanese comics and animation, but also presented both in terms of their cultural context and their growing impact on other countries’ media. Thanks, Dave, for holding my hand as I took my first faltering steps as a potential mangaphile…

Dave’s comic strip was accompanied by a definition of manga, which, if I were nitpicking, I would say should be the first thing in the exhibition, and some text that gave a potted history of the form. There was also information about Japanese artist Hokusai, who apparently coined the term manga, alongside examples of his work.

The second nifty thing that Urbis had done was to split the exhibition into separate sections that each dealt with different types of manga/anime. Each section was prefaced by a little introduction from Umeko, a manga character specifically created for the show by artist Sonia Leong. Depending on what subject she was introducing, Umeko, or ‘Plum Blossom Child’, was presented as, amongst other things, a vamp, a little girl or an action heroine. The various types of manga and anime covered by the exhibition were adult manga, manga for commercial and educational purposes, action and horror manga, and cute manga. There was also a section in the exhibition about Japanese fashions and trends, a manga lounge where you could read comics and draw, and a mini-cinema playing anime.

And so the first thing that I did was to venture into the adult section (stop sniggering at the back…). To be honest, this was more out of a desire to get this section out of the way. Items inside included a bondage Hello Kitty, a brief guide to love hotels (Google it, actually, maybe not…) and some rather disturbing anime. Suitably sickened, I stumbled back out past the attendants, it’s 18s only, and, journalistic duty done, started to relax and enjoy the rest of the exhibition.

And I really did…

Enjoy it, I mean.

To my mind, a good exhibition is all about context. You don’t just want to know what something is; you want to know its context. So not only did I get information about Naruto and Studio Ghibli, I also got an insight into and information about Tokyo street fashions and cosplay.

And if the above is gibberish to you, then you’ll probably enjoy the exhibition too. However, if you’re a big manga and anime fan, a word of warning, it may well be that everything in the show is old news to you, a snapshot of a sub-culture that you’re already immersed in.

For this old fart though (in his 30s and losing his hair), it was a real eye-opener and a tantalising glimpse of a vibrant medium (or media, perhaps – manga and anime do tend to get shoehorned together) that I've previously failed to appreciate fully.

My highlights were pretty much everything except the adult manga. My lowlights…well, it has to be bondage Hello Kitty (shudder).

But there was so much to take in that I feel the show warrants a second visit and, despite her whips and chains, even Kitty won’t stop me from returning.

*If you want to know why the lift’s unique, then I’m afraid you’ll just have to visit Urbis.

How Manga Took Over The World runs until 27 September 2008. And here are some photos of the show.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

A Chat With...Jim Medway (Part One)

Jim Medway is a self-published cartoonist whose comics might best be described as anthropomorphic, all-ages fun. He has recently been invited to pitch ideas to the new anthology comic, The DFC. He's also a much-in-demand educator who teaches cartooning to children and adults in both formal and informal educational settings. In this interview, he talks about his influences, balancing teaching with making comics and why less is sometimes more when it comes to cartooning.

MB: You’re a working artist aren’t you? How long have you been a working artist?

JM: I’ve from a fine art background, so I’ve been exhibiting drawings and paintings since I left college in 1996. 10 years of doing that and in 2006 I found that I was getting a bit frustrated with it. I’d reached a point where exhibiting wasn’t very satisfying and although I was selling the odd artwork, it wasn’t money that I could ever rely on. It wasn’t a regular income. I was aware that I was going to have to find some way of earning a living. I‘d been framing, I’d been hanging exhibitions and doing all sorts of part-time jobs, labouring and things.

It was just exhausting and very unrewarding, so I put together an Arts Council application based on this idea of professional development, teaching myself how to make comics but also how to teach comics to fund my own creative stuff. After six months of writing and tweaking this application and bouncing it back and forwards, I got this grant that was enough to keep me going for a year. It meant that I could do things like get a new laptop and do various experimental projects with groups.

I partnered up with Manchester Art Gallery and they gave me access to their space. I went to the Centre for Cartoon Studies in Vermont to do their summer workshops.

MB: As someone who studied and worked as an artist, how conversant were you with the culture of applying for Arts Council money?

JM: I know how the applications work and the things that they’re looking for. I was quite keen therefore to emphasise the educational angle.

MB: Is Arts Council funding something that self-published cartoonists should and could be tapping into?

JM: I’m not sure. It’s hard to say. I think they like applications from people who have already established themselves to a certain point. It’s not just someone who’s going, ‘Oh, I think that I’d like to have a go at this.’ You’ve got to prove that you’ve got as far as you can without their support, but now, in order to develop your practise, you’re making this application. You’ve also got to show the benefits for the Arts Council, for audiences; things like that. You’ve got to list them. It’s quite a complicated process.

It took me about six months to get it right. They don’t usually give large grants to individual artists. They give them to organisations. Maybe applying as a collective is an idea.

MB: And things to focus on are?

JM: How your project’s good for the region, good for your own professional development, for the other people who will be involved…you can explain how it’s going to be professionally relevant. Make sure it’s not a half-hearted project.

MB: Think it all out properly.

JM: Yeah. Also, pay yourself right. That’s another big thing that they’re really quite keen on, that artists are getting paid properly for the work that they do. Whether that’s £175 a day or more, you know.

MB: So, if you are asking for money, don’t try and improve your chances by skimping on your own pay so that the amount you’re asking for is lower.

JM: Sure, sure. They’ll instantly reject it. There are different kinds of grants available. I think that there’s money for first publication. They give money to artists for overseas travel, if they have meetings or particular events that they have to go to. I’m not aware of them funding any other comic artists, but then I am from this fine art background so they knew my work from that. They knew my practice. They could see where it was going. They could see that children were responding well to my commissions and the workshops that I had run, so…

MB: Was that because of the anthropomorphic angle?

JM: Yeah, maybe. Also the fact that I try to keep the characters as realistic as I can. They’re all based on observation or extrapolation. They’re not superheroes.

MB: So, you applied for the money and then went to the Centre for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. What did that do for you?

JM: That tooled me up with loads of different exercises, skills and techniques that I could put into practise myself as an artist and as a teacher. But I’m not sure how much you’d like me to talk about making comics and how much about teaching.

MB: I’d like you to talk about both. How much does teaching comics facilitate making comics or not, as the case may be? Maybe talk about the projects that you’ve got ongoing…

JM: The main teaching that I’m doing at the moment is through Manchester Art Gallery. They’ve got a scheme called Artists in Schools, which involves seven or eight different artists. There’s dancers, there’s drama people, there’s people doing all sorts of different painting and whatever. Instead of schools coming into the gallery and exhibitions and doing activities, what happens is that the gallery lends artists to the schools for a day, two days, four days for set projects.

I’ve got a four-day project that I do with two classes, Years Five and Six, that’s 10 and 11 year olds. I work with one class in the morning and one class in the afternoon, four days spread out over a period of four weeks. On the third day we go to the gallery and we look at different ways that artists have depicted characters. What can you tell about someone from the clues in a picture, the props, clothes and body language, things like that?

MB: What are you trying to achieve?

JM: I think that a lot of kids do comic-style doodling anyway. Perhaps they sometimes get told off for doing it. I think they do respond quite well to the project, because it’s something that they can all have a go at. I try and emphasise all the time that it’s about simplicity and clarity. I’ll show them diagrams and I’ll show them in-flight safety cards. You know, why isn’t this a comic? It’s giving us information with pictures.

I show them Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, which is very diagrammatic and simple. You can’t help but read it. You stare at it and before you know it, you’ve got to the end of the page. You don’t even notice that you’re reading it because it’s so beautifully put together. Stuff like Persepolis. I show them excerpts of that. They respond well to that because the artwork is so simple. They think, ‘Oh, I could have a go at that.’ And, in a way, that works a lot better than if there’s kids that are into comics, like Spiderman or something. They’ll just sit and they’ll draw all these muscle structures and these action figures, but it’s very frustrating for them because it never looks how it should. It’s better to start from scratch.

You know, let’s try and do something that’s a bit more like, say, Charlie Brown than Spiderman. It’s a lot easier for the to get their head around designing that kind of character.

MB: Your experience then is that if kids are into comics they tend to be into superheroes and manga, which can distract them from the basics of storytelling.

JM: There’re usually one or two kids that read Japanese comics. There’s usually a couple that recognise Asterix. One or two might recognise Tintin. But the others, they’ll know The Beano, they’ll know…they all read The Simpsons Comic and Spongebob Squarepants of course. On the whole, it’s all film tie-ins, which is a bit depressing.

(Go to Part Two)

A Chat With...Jim Medway (Part Two)

(Part One is here)

MB: You make half-jokey comments about teaching comics getting in the way of making comics. What’s the reality of that?

JM: Well, working gets in the way of making comics. I could be doing anything. I could be pulling pints in a bar and that could be getting in the way of making comics. Teaching is tiring. You’ve got to be enthusiastic and you’re on your feet all day. But it’s great fun as well and you get great ideas.

This last school that I’ve been working in I actually used them as a bit of a focus group for this DFC contribution thing. I showed them the character sheet and asked them to look at what the characters were wearing and the props that I’d given them, and asked them what kind of adventures they might get up to. What they’d do after school and what might happen if one of the characters had a birthday party and they all attended. I asked the class to write down their ideas and jokes and things…

MB: Are they going to get a credit?

JM: Well, they might do. They came up with some terrible titles as well.

MB: So, back to making comics. What skills, as a fine artist, did you already have for this and what skills have you had to acquire?

JM: I was quite confident with characters and with composition as well.

MB: Maybe you should describe your paintings?

JM: Pretty much like my comics.

MB: They’re like snapshots aren’t they?

JM: I’ve described them before as a cross between magic realism and social realism and kitchen sink. They’d be black and white drawings, urban and gritty…

MB: They portray people as cats. Where did that come from?

JM: It’s something that I’ve always done, since I first started drawing when I was four or five. It comes from Richard Scarry, but also Janet and Allen Ahlberg. There’s so many kids’ books where it’s animals doing human things. That just really appealed to me.

MB: It’s like a through-line.

JM: There’s something that Richard Scarry said. He was talking about how his books get translated into other languages and kids everywhere respond really well to these animal characters. He said that a drawing of a little bunny rabbit girl will be related to more easily by a black girl than if it was a drawing of a white girl. He said that because it’s an animal you can kind of project yourself into it more easily than if it was someone specific and human.

MB: This is maybe this thing that Scott McCloud says about the simpler the representations of human features the easier that representation is to empathise with.

JM: Sure. There’s a Chris Ware quote as well where he’s talking about Charlie Brown and Tintin and Jimmy Corrigan all just having dots for eyes. When you start to make them more detailed and more human, then you lose something.

NB: Jim later sent through the exact quotes:

The Scarry quote: "If you have a picture of a little girl with long blonde hair, a darkhaired girl won't relate to it as well as to a picture of, say, a young girl bunny rabbit."

The Chris Ware quote: "If you draw, say, dots for eyes, in Jimmy Corrigan's case, or in Charlie Brown's, or Tintin's, or Skeezix's, it instantly creates this sense of empathy. Where if you draw a 'real' eye, there's not as much of a sense of empathy...if there are too many different eyes, it muddles the story somehow... maybe I'm nuts. Someone who see's the knots in plywood looking at them."

MB: So, you’ve got a combination of the two in your drawings: anthropomorphised animals with simple features.

JM: There’re so many people who have done this in the past. It’s not a new idea at all. One of the advantages of drawing these anthropomorphic characters is that because they’re not really humans, you don’t have to get the human figure right. They’re not really cats, so you don’t have to get the cat figure right. It gives you a bit more flexibility. It doesn’t have to look entirely correct.

MB: I suppose you’re going for a sense of movement and gesture more than anatomical accuracy?

JM: I guess so. Going back to Vermont (the Centre for Cartoon Studies). I learnt three courses there.

I did Making Comics, which was five days, and I was the oldest person there. Everyone else was 16 (Jim is 33). I was the odd one out, but it was fantastic. The tutors included James Kolchalka, Steve Bissette, James Sturm and Aaron Renier, who did Spiral Bound. I learnt new skills about how to make comics, but I also saw how they taught that age group.

There was also a course called History of Comics, which was taught by Steve Bissette. This was a course that he’d normally spend eight weeks teaching the regular students, but it was all crammed into three days. It was pretty intensive, but it was amazing.

The other one was called Comics for Educators, and there were lots of schoolteachers and school librarians, and it was a partly about choosing the right material for your school libraries, stuff that’s appropriate for kids. It was quite a well-rounded course, so I came away from there dreaming in panels.

MB: Do you think that you could be making the transition you’re making from artist to cartoonist without having had that experience?

JM: I don’t think so. I’m sure I would have eventually got there, but part of it is that you’re paying so you value it. And also you’re committing your time to focus on that one thing. It’s like you don’t really value something unless you’ve paid for it. I want to teach myself Illustrator and I’ve got the book, but I’m not ever gonna get through it. But if I’ve got a day devoted to an Illustrator course, well then I’m going to make the most out of that.

(Go to Part Three)

A Chat With...Jim Medway (Part Three)

(Part One of this interview is here. Part Two is here)

MB: You also, on top of the cartooning and teaching, ventured into editing with the anthology Garden Funnies. Tell us about that.

JM: Some of the contributors are friends. A few are friends of friends. I’m pleased with the finished product. I think that the next one will be better.

MB: What are you going to improve?

JM: I’m going to make it twice as big in terms of its physical size. It’ll be A5 or A6. I’m doing this UK Web ‘n’ Mini-comix Thing, but because my comics are so small I’m going to struggle to fill a table. And also it’s just nice to have something a little bigger. I think that Teen Witch works fine at mini-comic size. It’s a nice thing for a child to handle. I’m very aware that I want my stuff to be all ages. All the best kids stuff is stuff that parents will feel happy buying and enjoy reading as well. The best kids’ films are those that have jokes in there for the adults as well.

MB: You’ve done Teen Witch and you’ve done Garden Funnies. It feels very ‘walk before you try to run’. Don’t make the mistake of diving straight into a longer form piece of work.

JM: It’s trying things out.

MB: And Paul Gravett and Nick Abadzis mentioned your name to the people at the DFC and you’ve been asked to pitch to that, which is nice.

JM: It’ll be great for the teaching, because I’ll be able to have something for the kids that shows that I’m a comic artist. They ask me what I’ve been in. Did I draw Shaun the Sheep or Dennis the Menace? But, of course, I haven’t. I’ve done Teen Witch, but I made it myself.

MB: I don’t think that it makes the lessons any less valuable if they’re delivered by a self-publisher. I am more impressed by self-publishers, when they’re good, because of the broad skills-set needed to self-publish.

JM: When I’m working with older groups, I tend to have more time and we do look at self-publishing. I show them my collection of mini comics and ‘zines and stuff, and they can see the diversity of material and the spontaneity behind it. You know, you can make something in the morning and it can be out there by evening.

MB: Self-distribute by hand in the cafes and bars…

JM: Sure. I show them the templates for how to cut, fold and staple their own comics.

MB: Are you yourself still evolving as a cartoonist?

JM: I’m testing stuff out. I’m seeing what interests me.

MB: Do you have a final goal in mind?

JM: I do feel that there’s a real absence of any kids’ stuff on the comics market. There used to be all these articles about comics growing up and comics being for adults. And that’s true, but it’s actually gone further than that. There’s actually nothing for kids any more. You go into a comic shop and you can’t even get Tintin or Asterix. That’s one of the things that the teaching does, to show kids all these fantastic books. Books like Fred by Posy Simmonds

MB: What do you think the future holds for comics?

JM: I agree with Paul Gravett that we’re entering a new golden age of comics, where there’s academic attention, there’s more vintage stuff available in reprints, there’s European stuff being translated…it’s quite an exciting time for comics and people are realising the kind of issues that can be dealt with and the different ways comics can tell stories.

MB: Recommend some cartoonists that people should keep an eye out for.

JM: Oliver East’s Trains are Mint stuff is fantastic. I’ve known Oli for years and seen where his work’s come from and how he’s arrived at his current stuff, so it’s nice to see how it’s all developed. He did the same course as me, Interactive Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University, but he was a couple of years below me. Neither of us were doing comics at that point. It was much more experimental. We did sculpture and printing and all sorts. Anything except drawing really. It was like an extension of a foundation course. You had the chance to experiment and collaborate in groups. In that way it was good. There wasn’t a huge amount of teaching. We were left to it a lot.

But back to cartoonists. I really like Stuart Kolakovic. He’s got a really good sensibility. He’s a great designer. There’s also a guy called Rob Bailey, who’s decorated the walls in Common, just round the corner from here. His work is very graphic, very simple and very bold. Wonderful stuff.

MB: Is there much of a ‘scene’ here in Manchester?

JM: I have started meeting cartoonists around Manchester. Adam Cadwell is a really nice chap. I met John Allison a couple of weeks ago and he was great. I’m slowly meeting these people, but just because they’re all into comics doesn’t mean that they’ve got anything in common. But it’s definitely nice to talk to people who are in that same kind of realm.

MB: To me it’s like there’s a scene that isn’t a scene. The thing that all these local cartoonists most have in common is an appreciation of the mechanics of comics.

JM: Yes…but then I don’t necessarily want to meet someone else who’s drawing cat comics for kids.

It would be like talking to myself.

Jim, thanks for your time.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

A Chat With...Sean Azzopardi

Sean Azzopardi is a self-published cartoonist living and working in London. His comics have received positive attention from the likes of Redeye magazine and the Midnight Fiction website. In this interview Sean talks about his DIY ethic, what's good and bad about the small press, and just what's going on comics-wise down at Camden Market.

How did you first get into this small press malarkey?

Around 2001 I had been writing and drawing some material and trying to work out how to make a comic. With some help from Jessica Abel's website, I had it figured eventually. Then, taking advantage of my offices photocopier, I printed my first comic Grey Sky. This was then distributed via a plastic bag at the Bristol Comics Con in 2002.

Which artists/cartoonist do you find particularly inspirational?

Loads. It varies from day to day. At the moment I am reading manga, and Osamu Tezuka is my current favourite.

Twelve Hour Shift seems to have a lot of autobiographical content, but you've decided to make it a fiction with Steve Jones, the main character, almost like another you. Why is that?

Simply that I wanted to put some distance between me and the material, to prevent it spiralling into a self-pitying, whinge fest. When I started Twelve Hour Shift, I was feeling pretty miserable about a lot of things. Developing a story around this would maybe become very boring quickly for the person reading it. If I had a character I could speak through, I thought that it might curb this excess. Quickly the character developed it's own personality and voice, and ran the show. I'm not sure I like Steve Jones, really.

Tell us about your comic Ed.

Ed is an attempt at balance, or trying something different, a light story. Up to the first issue of Ed I had been wallowing in the grim and gritty introspective gutter. I found it difficult to present this to people as it was all a bit miserable. So, I thought about it, about what the life of a cheery character would be like. I looked at my home life and the normal events that surround it, and made this Ed's world. I projected a sort of idealised reality onto him, in the hope that one day this will shape my life. He's a stay at home illustrator, enjoying the day feeling fulfilled.

Will there be a similar collection of Ed mini comics when that series is finished (Sean collected Twelve Hour Shift into a trade paperback recently)?

Yes. I have finished issue 4, and two more issues are scripted and storyboarded. When they are completed, hopefully this year, then I will collect them into a book. I would like to have it ready for the end of this year.

Have you approached any pro' publishers? Any luck there?

No. I don't feel my self-published work is of a standard that a monthly comic demands. I did have a brief experience where I was drawing a book for NBM, but it fell down because I felt I wasn't up to the task. Which was the right decision.

What other projects are you involved with at the mo'?

Two. One with Daniel Merlin Goodbrey And one with Douglas Noble. Two fine writers, who will announce what's happening when it's time, I guess.

What's going down at Camden? How are you involved?

The Camden Comics Stall is great fun. I turn up every two weeks and help sell comics. There is a bit more to it than that, though. There are a lot of ideas floating around, and various individuals choose which of these ideas they think they would like to handle. For instance, we needed a website, so I set that up, but it needed a banner, so Oliver (Lambden) and Phil (Spence) designed that. David (Baillie) decided to design some promo stuff. Then there is Oli who seems to have a very good grasp of promoting stuff.

It is really inspiring, something I have always wanted to be involved in. A group activity that everyone can contribute to, and benefit from, while remaining an individual creative.

What are the good and bad things about the UK's small press scene?

The good things?

The good aspect of the small press is that there is a ready-made platform to launch your work from. The people are very friendly and will help you with any difficulties you have, will publish your work (in anthologies) and review it. The social side of things is excellent. It's a very vibrant, happening environment.

The bad things?

Cheerleading everything in small press. The idea being that all small pressers will benefit from this, which I'm not sure that they will.

I don't see anything bad, but there are a few things that maybe I feel uncomfortable about. I sometimes think that there can be a bit too much self congratulatory back slapping in small press. This can extend to slightly ridiculous claims for the merits and achievements of some publications. This also extends to an industry-in-a-bubble attitude.

Now, I'm sure I will get a good kicking for this, and these are my own views, so there we go. I have been to a lot of UK cons, read a lot of stuff on-line, spoken to a lot of people and the one thing I hear again and again is that we are the industry when it comes to comics in this country. This is quickly followed by a verbal beating up on the big two American comics companies.

This worries me on some level. The output of self-published material has increased over the six years I have been involved in the small press, and due to digital equipment, the full colour comic is no longer expensive or difficult to produce. Distribution is also more sophisticated. These are all good positive developments.

But there is still a healthy percentage of shite produced. And anyway, I believe outside of self publishing, there is a comics industry in the UK. Shouldn't this be embraced in some positive way?

My attitude has maybe come about because of making Twelve Hour Shift. Putting together a book, getting involved in other stuff around publishing, has changed my viewpoint. I am a lot more appreciative of the effort that goes into producing a book. Even a mediocre one. My attitude when I was grappling the office photocopier, for my first issue, and my attitude now, is DIY. But I want it to be fucking brilliant DIY! I don't want the shelves falling down in my house and someone telling me I have done a good job.

What next for Sean A?

Probably hiding from angry self-publishers at Bristol. Just remember, I have curly hair, and go under the pen name Oli.

Go on, recommend some good small press comics for my readers.

Ninja Bunny by Phil Spence, Tales of the Flat, written by Laurence Powell and drawn by Oliver Lambden, who is getting better and better. Anything by David Baillie, who is an excellent writer, but is also a much-improved artist/Illustrator. Oli Smith writes and draws some good stuff, but his upcoming projects, Brick (with Oliver Lambden), Fish, and some unnamed sc-fi epic all show a departure from the autobiograpical stuff, very interesting indeed.

Also Roger Mason, The Goodman brothers (Dave and Arthur), Karen Rubins is producing some good manga work (check out the Best New Manga 2) , and Andy Winter is one to watch too.

Sean Azzopardi, thanks for your time.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Because I wanted to talk to...Ellen Lindner (Part One)

Ellen Lindner is an artist, cartoonist and art historian. In this interview she talks to Overspill about her influences, her current projects and her love of the lo-fi, DIY ethic in small press comics.

Edit to add (09/02/2008): A few years ago I interviewed Jeremy Dennis (who appears with Ellen Lindner in the anthology Whores of Mensa) for ace comics magazine Redeye. I thought that it was worth mentioning that the original transcript for Jeremy's interview can be found here. It's very long and rambles all over the place. Enjoy.

Now, back to Ellen's interview:

Please tell us a little about your art education and about your work outside of comics. I understand that you work as an illustrator and also exhibit in galleries.

Until a few years ago my art education consisted mostly of figure drawing. I studied art history for my undergraduate degree…my university in the States, Smith College, was fantastic, but the studio art department was very traditional, and trying to work comics into my coursework was always a struggle. This was a fairly ironic state of affairs, considering that I chose my school because the town where it was located, Northampton, Massachusetts, had such an amazing comics scene. At the time it housed the Words and Pictures Museum of Sequential Art, where a lot of cool local artists worked as support staff. I became a volunteer there as soon as possible after arriving.

While at Smith I studied in Paris for one year, where I discovered the European comics scene . I also did my first complete mini-comic, an adaptation of Christine de Pizan's proto-feminist The City of Ladies into comics form. When I left university and moved to New York City, I started taking classes at the School of the Visual Arts, where the staff include American indie cartoonists like Nick Bertozzi, Matt Madden, Jason Little and Jessica Abel. At some point I took the somewhat radical advice of an elder comics statesman and quit my job, moving to a suburb of Philadelphia so I could do comics full-time. I started hanging out at the annual Angouleme festival, where I met my husband.

We decided I'd move to England, where I applied to Camberwell College … I studied for one intense year under Janet Woolley, the head of MA illustration there, and met cool folk like awesome illustrator Sarah McIntyre. I often feel uncomfortable putting my comics pages up on a wall – to me, they're works in progress, always – but I love creating new work for gallery shows, especially stuff like painting or model making which isn't part of my day-to-day routine. Most of my gallery work has been at an amazing place in Queens, New York, called Flux Factory….the people who run Flux come up with really mad concepts for shows and then devote every waking hour until the opening to insuring that they are amazing. The last one, NYNYNY, involved artists from all over the world re-imagining the five boroughs of New York City in a million different media (including fabric and ice cream, though thankfully not in the same piece!).

I made a cartoon billboard, telling the story of my great-aunt coming to New York in the thirties in a series of advertisements. I can't wait to see the catalogue…. I do work as an illustrator, but strangely most of my paid 'illustration' work has been doing comics projects of various kinds. I have done a lot of educational comics for children, which is great because I get to use my art history background quite a bit; I definitely know my way around a library. I just this week finished a 120 page book on the American civil rights movement, drawn from a script by a university professor in the US. It was a really great project – I love drawing the fifties, and it's an important story to keep telling to new generations. That'll be out from Aladdin Paperbacks in the States in July, as part of a series called Turning Points.

How did you get into comics, both as a reader and a creator?

Growing up in the New York City suburbs, the boys in my class at school were big fans of mainstream comics, stuff like Viper, Punisher, Wolverine….they used to hang out in the back of the class and obsessively re-draw the characters. Basically, they were the first people I ever encountered who wanted to be artists – they probably looked silly to adults, but I admired their artistic fervour!

Anyhow, I started to buy comics, and fell totally in love with the X-Men and Wolverine. (Even these days I'll occasionally meet another person who loved Marc Silvestri's artwork and nerd out. But it's unfortunately quite rare!) From there I followed the fairly predictable path of becoming a teenager, deciding Marvel was crap, getting into Sandman and Tank Girl…still two of my all-time favorites. Now I've evened out…I like the best of everything, mainstream stuff like Y The Last Man and indie stuff like Gabrielle Bell's comics, or Dan Zettwoch, who, in my opinion, has one of the most rewarding artist's blogs on the internet!

Please tell us about your work in progress, Undertow.

Undertow is the graphic novel I'm currently serializing on Web Comics Nation. It's the story of a young girl growing up in the 1950's in Brooklyn. The heroine, Rhonda, has problems – her mother is an alcoholic, and so Rhonda thinks that's how you solve problems, by drinking them away. She's dealing with the death of a friend, and a crush she has on a seemingly unattainable guy, and she does some really foolish things. In the end, though, she figures things out – I promise! It's inspired by the films of Fellini and Godard, people who thought that you could have a good time even when things were crashing down around you. That image of Anna Karina dancing in the bar in Her Life to Live, or Guilietta Masina at the end of The Nights of Cabiria, smiling despite everything that's happened, being swindled in such a cruel way…that's so powerful. People who know me well know that I've been working on Undertow forever, redrawing, changing the ending….it's become this organic thing. I always meant it to be a learning project, so I've taken a lot of time to get feedback and make changes accordingly. But with online serialization, the end is swiftly approaching…stay tuned!

(Go to part two of this interview)