Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Because I wanted to talk to...James Nash (Part One)

It's all gone a bit mainstream round here. To balance that, here's a chat that I had with James Nash. James is one of my favourite cartoonists.

Please tell us a little about yourself.

Sure, my name is James Nash, I’m 25 and I currently live in the West Midlands area since graduating from the University of Brighton about three years ago. Basically I do a bit of work as a freelance illustrator as well as personal work that has mainly come to fruition in the form of making small press comics that I’ve been showing and distributing via various means during this time…

How did you first get into self-publishing?

I became interested in comics at university, in particular the science of comics (narrative structures, simplistic imagery as a subjective visual language, Scott McCloud's stuff etc.), whilst also being influenced by loads of amazing leftfield American comics artists such as Gary Panter, Ron Rege Jr, Gabrielle Bell, Martin Cedendra, Mat Brinkman etc…

I started making a daily diary drawing during my last year just to explore the idea that the subjective language of comics could communicate something as objective and personal as a person’s diary. About a year later I began putting the drawings together as a collection and along with some friends similarly interested in comics began exploring the idea of self-publishing our work and distributing it via the small press community.

Isn't a person's diary a subjective rather than an objective document and that's what makes it personal, that it reflects their subjective view of the world?

I mean objective on behalf of the reader. Maybe I'm misusing the term, but I mean in the way that you could read someone else's diary or look at their holiday photos or whatever and those things might bare no frame of reference to you, you look at them objectively.

Whereas I think there’s a goal in the visual language of comics to make something readable, that refers to the reader as well as the writer. My favourite thing is having someone tell me that something feels exactly like it had happened to him or her, or that they thought it was only them that thought about something a certain way.

So, just to clarify, it's about the reader being able to locate themselves within the diarist’s perspective, to fully empathise with the diarist? Is that correct or am I missing something?

(Also, please expand on this statement a little: 'Whereas I think theres a goal in the visual language of comics to make something readable, that refers to the reader as well as the writer.')

Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean. It brings about a different way of thinking about what to write and how to make certain subjects or events readable and relatable to someone else. It was only really a while after starting the project that I became aware of how big the spectrum of people making comic diaries or auto-biographical work that was similarly about nothing in particular is (I suppose as a reaction to the perception of comics as a medium synonymous with fantasy). But it was good to examine a lot of stuff and find out what I liked and what I didn't and why that was.

For example, I really like Vannessa Davis' really loose and beautiful artwork and the way the narrative is pretty focused on one point, and Gabrielle Bell's minimalist drawing complementing the larger focus on words, plus I really related to the subjects in their comics. I feel a bit more negative towards stuff by Jeff Brown and Jeff Lewis. The latter I don't think even needs to have any drawings because of all the text. I don't feel like it uses being a comic to its full strengths.

Even with such a seemingly unfocused and ephemeral drawn record of a day like this I think there are still a lot of choices to be made if you want to collect something communicative and meaningful as the end product. I'm not saying my attempts are effective examples of this, but I think its good to have a vague idea of why you're making something otherwise, well, why are you doing it?

Anyway, as I mentioned above, I started doing it as an explorative project, it was also a reason to actually just make an unselfconscious set of drawing and writing. I think because there’s a point in an education of visual communication where it becomes impossible to make or do anything without questioning yourself impotent, so it was a good way to set a tight self-initiated brief where the object was to just do something, anything, because that’s what’s real at that time and that’s what is going on.

The rule is simple: I do it on the day or not at all, so that the drawing itself would maybe reflect what the drawing was about. Over the period of four and a bit years that I’ve been doing it certain qualities have become more and more uniform, to the point where one would recognise it as a deliberate style or cartoon type quality: i.e. its structure has developed into something a lot more ‘readable’ I suppose. The subject is simple, its usually something small; just something someone has said or some thoughts on something or someone.

I try not to make too many self-reflexive drawings such as writing about what a ball-ache it is to have to draw it, although many have been committed to paper… My other favourite thing about it is experimenting with the three panel narrative structure. If something worthwhile of writing occurs, how do I fit it in communicatively? The same of the opposite: how do I stretch nothing over three drawings? The possibilities still seem really infinite and I hope to carry it on as long as possible.

(Go to Part Two)

Because I wanted to talk to...James Nash (Part Two)

Have your diary comics, which, I assume, are read by people who know you, ever gotten you into trouble? Has anyone ever objected to the way that they have been portrayed in the comics?

Yes, but not as much as you might think. Though that’s the trouble with the instant nature in which it’s done.

I also think that if certain people don’t wish to be demonised, maybe they should try and not be such demons…

Looking back, is there anything that you regret putting in your diary comics? Have you ever revealed yourself a little too much?

I don’t think I really regret anything in particular, I think that because of its nature, certain qualities are exaggerated; also, maybe it can get a bit teen angsty. It’s funny when I meet one of the handful of people that have read it and they openly comment on their surprise that I’m quite a jovial person…

I remember that I got a really lovely email from Simone Lia ages ago about the comic telling me to stop drinking so much…But then again its not like I’m doing that all the time. I just choose to draw about that rather than anything in the other 15 hours that day I spent not drinking, if you know what I mean?

My memory of reading your comics is that they dealt quite a lot with your dad's illness. Was this ever difficult or, conversely, was it helpful to get your feelings/thoughts on the subject down on paper?

I suppose that I do use it like a vent for that kind of thing on occasion. I was asked to put all the strips about that stuff together and compile it for a story in Bad Idea and I heard from a few people that the main interest was probably not on the event itself (obviously thousands of people suffer all kinds of life-altering illness every day), but probably the cold and unsympathetic way that I treated it in those drawings. Again, I think it’s all editorial on my part. When drawing those things individually it was just how I felt and what was going on at the time.

I understand that you've moved away from self-publishing and you're now working in galleries/exhibition spaces. Please tell me about that.

Well, not really. Last year I was less focused on putting them together as comics, mostly because of getting disillusioned. Comic shops that I had previously had stuff in weren’t really interested in taking any more stuff, and second time round doing some comics fairs had a bit of a back-scratching air about them. But I found new avenues for people to see the work in a couple of exhibitions I was part of, and that it could be of interest as an ‘art’ project, which, I guess, is what it was originally meant to be.

I’ve always felt that the quantity of the work was important and so I put a few months worth of drawings on large pieces of paper and was really surprised to see people standing for a really long time reading them all through one by one...

It’s good to explore more than one avenue, but I’m definitely still into making comics. Paul Gravett asked Matilda and I to do the Comica Book Fair a couple of months ago and that was great.

Please tell us about your work as an illustrator.

I’ve been fortunate enough to do drawings for some magazines and people that I really like. It’s quite few and far between at the moment but it’s nice to do when it does come along. The work I do is informed by my comics stuff and vice-versa, stylistically at least.

I’m really interested in text stuff, concrete poetry and that kind of thing…I’ll always enjoy making that kind of work as there’s probably nothing better than thinking up a conceptually pleasing image especially in a time of increasingly inescapable visual vomit!

Where can people find your work? Can they still order diary comics from you?

Yes, definitely. I’m currently getting a website put together that should be up soon, and will be producing some new comics early this year, which, hopefully, will be in a few shops round the country. Currently the only place is a great new store at the Custard Factory in Birmingham called Platform, I’ve also done a couple of T-shirts and prints that will be available there.

What's next for James Nash?

As I mentioned before I’m putting together the last two years of my diary into two comics. I’m going to throw it around and see who’s interested. Hopefully I should have a website done soon. I want to do some more paid illustration work, get out of debt, get a job that doesn’t inspire suicidal thoughts, possibly a move somewhere and work on some new comics projects. I’m currently thinking about maybe an adaptation of something, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comic literary adaptation that didn’t suck, and who am I to change that?

James Nash, thanks for your time.

Because I wanted to talk to...Matt Smith

The other day I posted a short Q&A with writer Rob Williams that I had conducted for an article about writing comics. Here's an even shorter one with 2000 AD Editor Matt Smith. Matt gives us the inside track on what he thinks makes a perfect Future Shock (the five-page shorts that are usually the entry point for writers new to 2000 AD) and various other top tips about writing comics. If you're pitching to Matt, then it's worth taking a look at what he has to say:

What, in your opinion, makes the perfect Future Shock?

An original idea, with exciting visuals, a strong plot that will hook the reader, and a twist that feels natural and has some ironic bearing on what has gone before, rather than just throwing something in that won’t mean anything to the reader.

What are the most common mistakes novice writers make when submitting comic scripts to you?

Not formatting a script properly. Thinking that an idea makes a story, and stretching what should be one scene into five pages. Too much dialogue, or characters that are insubstantial. Thinking that nobody’s done an alien invasion or a virtual reality prison story before.

How detailed do you think a comic script should be (is your personal preference John Wagner or Alan Moore in terms of level of detail)?

It entirely depends on the what’s happening in each individual panel, but generally panel descriptions shouldn’t really be much more than about five or six lines. I think artists like to be given a certain amount of free rein. My general preference is for the terse, Wagner-style script – you can usually tell enough of what needs to be contained in a panel simply by the dialogue.

What role do you think the small press can have in developing a writer?

The difference between a written script and seeing it realised as a comic strip can be quite big. What might look like an exciting story in script form could become clumsy and disjointed once its rendered visually. So the more practice you get writing scripts and seeing the finished product can be invaluable in showing you what works and what doesn’t, and where things can be improved. The practical experience of working on small-press titles is something that should be considered by anyone who wants to write comics.

Matt Smith, thanks for your time.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Because I wanted to talk to...Rob Williams.

Some time ago I did a very short Q&A for a writing magazine with Star Wars, Wolverine, 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine writer Rob Williams about writing comics. Here's the result:

What, in your opinion, makes the perfect 2000 AD story?

The usual suspects - action, drama, suspense and a gripping cliffhanger or a major plot revelation that should, preferably, be a surprise come the finale. Pretty much all stories could do with these things, of course. For 2000AD you probably want to throw in a spot of satire and an acerbic sense of humour too, and some killer futuristic or fantasy visuals, of course. This is a visual medium after all. One thing 2000AD doesn't really do is ponderous. You've got five pages - so keep the pace up. There's a lot to compress in there, although a beginning - middle - end is paramount.

What were the most common mistakes you made as a novice writer?

Over-writing mainly. Economy in your dialogue is amazingly difficult, but the best writers can say a lot with very little. When I started I think someone told me that Alan Moore had said that 28 words a panel was the maximum and I tried to stick to that. These days I aim for a lot less. Similarly with the number of panels on the page. I still struggle to keep that under six sometimes. Less is more, as the cliche goes. It's true. Comics is a visual medium. Always remember that. if you look at the page and you've filled it with text then you should be writing prose instead.

How detailed do you think a comic script should be (is your personal preference John Wagner or Alan Moore in terms of level of detail)?

Somewhere in between, I think. No one can beat the infamous two-word Wagner Dredd panel description for pure economy: 'Dredd. Grim'. I tend to ask a lot of the artist in terms of sometimes describing the ways the characters should act with their facial expressions etc, especially when trying to write comedy. It really is dependent on the amount of information you want to get across. You have to strike a balance between giving the artist all the info he needs to convey the visual the way you want as the writer, while also allowing that artist the freedom to come up with the image himself. He is drawing the thing, after all. It's a collaborative art form.

What role do you think the small press can have in developing a writer?

The only way to improve as a writer is to write... a lot. Small press publications provide avenues for writers to develop comic scripts, collaborate with an artist and see how your perfectly imagined visuals work when actually drawn on the page (it doesn't always come off as well as you'd like), all of which is vital. And even though you may have read comics all your life and think that you have a pretty good idea of how comic scripting works, it's not until you get into the nuts and bolts of trying to pace a story on the page that you realise how difficult it sometimes is. The small press allows you to work on your craft before you approach the major companies, and that's invaluable.

Rob Williams, thanks for your time.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Because I wanted to talk to...Stuart Kolakovic (Part One)

Stuart Kolakovic is a cartoonist and illustrator whose refreshing and beautiful comics currently focus mainly on heritage and family history. Despite a busy schedule, he was kind enough to take time out to be interviewed for this blog.

Stuart, please tell us a little about yourself.

I'm Stuart Kolakovic, I’m 22 years old and I make a living drawing pictures for nice people. In between drawing pictures to buy the meagre amount of beans, bread, potatoes, noodles and pasta I need to sustain myself, I try to find enough time to continue creating little comic books for (in my opinion) nicer people. I usually do all this whilst listening to bizarre/horrible music that no one likes. I also, on now very rare occasions, scare old grannies on my skateboard.

Where can people see your work? I understand that you have a current exhibition in Manchester. What are the details and how did that come about?

A lot of people that are familiar with my work have no idea that I skateboard.

Manchester has got a really amazing tight and friendly skate scene and I got asked by Vic MacMahon of skate shop Projekts MCR if I'd be interested in putting a show up in their gallery space. They've exhibited some respected artists, but it's still funny when you get confused arty types stumbling into the skate shop asking if they know where the gallery is. The show, titled Never Been, opened on 8th December and runs until 3rd February, so if you're knocking around Manchester, go see it!!!

It includes a blown-up version of The Box, the strip that came second place in The Observer Graphic short story competition, two vending machines that dispense two different comic books and the title piece Never Been, one long drawing that wraps its way around the gallery wall (I haven't actually measured it, but I think it clocks in at around 9-10 metres long). It tells the story of a year in the life of a fictional late 19th Century Eastern European village. It's not a comic as such, but it still contains loads of loose narratives so the viewer can make up their own story or find little stories as they make their way around the piece. It was basically an attempt at me trying to have some fun, loosen up and be really self-indulgent.

I'll eventually try to figure out a way of uploading the whole thing onto my website and I have just started working on a way of making it smaller and affordable so that you can buy it from my online shop.

How did you first come to start making comics?

When I was a wee little nipper I read all the usual comics like 2000 AD and stuff from DC. Then, by complete fluke, one of my schoolmate's dads opened up a comic shop in the next town over in Stafford. We'd spend whole days in there from opening till closing pretending to help when in fact we'd just mess around, read all the comics and try and get as many freebies as we could.

I got real bored with the super hero stuff, but I remember being really impressed by some of the more alternative stuff, like the comics by Robert Crumb, The Tale of One Bad Rat, Maus and America (a love story that appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine) . But it was during this time that I'd started to notice the more, er, ‘unwholesome’ aspects of comics. I remember that they employed this one guy who was obsessed with Catwoman and he'd creepily tell us that it wasn't just because of the stories, "...if you get what I mean." At the time I didn't get what he meant, although it was still unnerving to see a fully-grown man perving at cartoon boobs.

It was about this time (at around age 11 or 12) that I started to skateboard, and I remember I had the decision of whether I should continue hanging out at this comic shop or go out, travel and meet new people on my skateboard.

Fast-forward five or six years later and I was stuck in Birmingham waiting for a train. I decided to kill some time in Nostalgia & Comics around the corner from New Street, the first time I'd been in a comic shop in a long time. I found a complete copy of Dave McKean's Cages and was just blown away by it (which you can probably tell when you look at some of my earlier work). That book really got me into reading comics again, and then, at around this time, Jimmy Corrigan was available in one volume and I started finding more obscure stuff and it just got me so excited.

I've always loved drawing and making things (I even used to sell DIY screen-printed t-shirts and hoodies to shops), but always felt unsatisfied by the end result. I'd spend all this time drawing something and at the end of it, it would just be a drawing. Comics really opened up the possibilities of narrative to me. It sounds like a cliché, but you really can do anything with words and pictures. It's like having a whole film crew at your disposal.

But a hell of lot lonelier.

(Go to Part Two)

Because I wanted to talk to...Stuart Kolakovic (Part Two)

Why did you first start making comics?

Whilst studying at Kingston Uni, I got so bored with the illustration briefs. It just made me want to stop drawing altogether. Some of the projects were so dull. Looking back I can understand why they sometimes gave us such harsh, boring briefs, because that's exactly the sort of stuff you'd have to do as an actual illustrator.

Anyway, at the end of each year we'd get a term to set ourselves a brief. I'd always be so excited being able to do whatever I wanted, which was always in the form of a comic.
The first year I found this old derelict burnt-out pub in Surbiton, except it was still full of furniture and really important documents and suitcases of photos. I guess because I grew up breaking into old warehouses to skate in, I didn't worry about getting busted by the cops (I even went to the trouble of making a fake ‘24 hour security’ stencil, which I sprayed all over the building to keep unwanted taggers and tramps out while I was working in there!).

I started this really long stupid story that was definitely inspired by McKean's experimental work. It was my dire attempt at being really raw, off the wall and conceptual, and ended up being four books long, which I somehow completed in three months. At the time I was really excited by the physical idea of comics, that they don't just have to be pages in a book, but physical things that can be taken out or played with to construct a narrative. Like, I had one chapter that wasn't bound, but in a box, and if you placed the pages in a particular order it made up a giant image, much like a jigsaw.

By the next time I got the chance to set my own brief, I had come full circle and found nothing more exciting than the restrictions of pages in a book.
In my second year none of my tutors were particularly keen on the idea of comics and I was becoming increasingly disappointed at the amount of students who just couldn't even figure out how to read them. Luckily, I was saved by Dr. Leo de Freitas, the UK's only Illustration historian and, coincidentally, a close friend of McKeans, and he really encouraged me to continue making comics.

My first real mini comic, A Prince Such As I, which is extremely cringeworthy, didn't fare much better with my tutors at uni. Even though I was selling them in shops, galleries and posting them to Holland, Japan, Quimby's, I remember my tutor not even opening it when it came to the end of the project where we had to show the rest of the course what we'd worked on. I also remember getting a lot of stick from some people in the small press scene for being too gimmicky (the comic was about a loner obsessed with Elvis and came inside a mock record sleeve) and for the comic being a blatant rip off of McKean's style, which it kind of was.

Anyway, a copy found it's way to Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape and he asked me to go show him some more of my work, which was really encouraging, but at the same time was a sudden reality check. It made me realise that no matter how much I love comics, they're never going to pay my bills: the amount of time and effort they take to make is ridiculous, and I suddenly started to take straightforward editorial illustration more seriously, which is a good job because that's how I'm making my living. But if I could give any advice to students at university, it is to rip off the facilities whilst you're there as much as you can. Me and a friend, Andrew Walter, rinsed a free photocopier and the screen printing studios to the max just so we could put out a few mini comics that we could never fit into uni projects.

Because I wanted to talk to...Stuart Kolakovic (Part Three)

Heritage and family history seems to be a very important part of your comics work. Please tell us why and a little about that aspect of your work.

I've always wanted to do a story about my Serbian Grandad, who fought as a Chetnik for a Royalist Yugoslavia in World War Two. He died when I was around 12, and it wasn't until I was a little older that I realised how bizarre a character he was. For example, I would just take it for granted that his house was literally piled to the ceilings with rubbish. It was only when I started thinking about the way he lived that I started to learn a little about his situation in World War Two. It's very frustrating because he never told anyone what he did, and the Eastern European community in the area of Cannock in the Midlands where he lived has all but died out, so there's no real way of me finding much out. It's almost like a dead end. All I've got is folders of documents and boxes of photos and just vague ideas of how he lived.

This process of remembering and researching all ended up in Milorad, my first real attempt at a graphic novel. As I've read more and more about the history of Yugoslavia, about the different Slav nations and traditions, I've become more and more obsessed with the Eastern European aesthetic. This has started to become the backbone of everything I do. To me it all seems to overlap, my interest in Eastern Europe, narrative and illustration, and I've become increasingly attracted to old Slav fairy and folk tales, which again has proven to be a strong influence in my work. Milorad went on to receive a D&AD New Blood Award, which I think is pretty funny because the majority of students that win this award usually use really boring corporate graphic design for stuff and I have no interest in that kind of stuff. Graphic design actually really pisses me off because I find it so obtrusive and I can't believe people actually fall for clever advertising. Or maybe it's because I can only relate to things in a narrative form: images without narrative just seems really bland and pointless to me; but, of course, I'm over-generalising.

What are your impressions of the UK small press/self-published/mini comics scene? What's good? What's bad? What needs changing?

To tell you the truth, this is going to sound quite bad, but I don't really get that much involved with the small press scene. I mean, I really enjoy making mini comics and flogging them for a little bit of pocket money, but I don't want to have to print them myself forever. I've given up going to comic conventions and the like because there's always a weirdo trying to tell you how much they love a super hero I've never heard of or about comics you can read on your mobile.

I love going into small comic shops and looking at the small press scene section, I think Gosh! in London has a great collection. I love seeing what other people are doing, but I always find it uncomfortable and daunting speaking to other people who read or make comics. I think it's because the act of reading and making comics is such a solitary and personal one that I'm not used to the idea of other comic readers full stop. In fact, sometimes it's difficult to even imagine other people reading your comics when you're making them. Or maybe it's because I'm wary of over enthusiastic people.

Making comics isn't fun at all, it's horribly, lonely and depressing, and so I get creeped out when I see people actually having a good time when talking about comics. I actually very rarely go into comic shops, and if I do it's to see if they can order in something specific for me. I think it's important to try and support independent comic shops, even if I see something in some twatty, shit shop like Magma for example, I'll always go to a comic shop instead to try and buy it. I'm actually more excited about the amount of comics that are finally being translated that I can get my hands on, people like Igort, Gipi or David B.

One thing that I do think the British small press scene needs is some sort of regular anthology, but trying to convince an existing publisher that there is money in such a venture would be next to impossible. I really don't know much about the publishing industry, but comics need to start getting press in mainstream publications and newspapers. Plan B mag regularly reviewing comics and stuff like The Observer competition are great ways of increasing comic readership, but it's still not enough.

Because I wanted to talk to...Stuart Kolakovic (Part Four)

You only graduated relatively recently, but already you seem to have had success and gained quite a bit of exposure. How's that been for you? Too much, too soon or just fine?

I graduated six months ago, and I've managed to get by working as an illustrator.


It's horribly depressing because no matter how hard you work, illustration pays peanuts. Comics even less. It's difficult keeping your enthusiasm and stamina up, especially if you're doing a real bland/poorly paid job. I have to constantly remind myself that I'm making a living drawing pictures, which is what I've always wanted to do.

Which other comic artists, self-published and otherwise, are, in your opinion, worth checking out?

There's so many! And what's exciting about comics at the moment is that there's always new stuff popping up all the time. I love the simplicity of Ron Rege Jr, and reading his stuff has really turned me on to loads of other Northern American cartoonists. I recently came across Eleanor Davis' work, which I love. I think it's because she too obviously takes a lot of inspiration from folk stories. Actually, I read an interview with her a few months back, and she was talking about the comic course she was studying at college. That freaked me out a bit to think that people are being trained specifically to be comic artists. There're thousands of Illustration students being churned out every year, and now I've got to compete with hundreds of specifically educated comic artists too?

I also take a lot of inspiration from illustrators, writers and artists outside of comics. I've learnt a lot from Jonny Hannah's work and I've really started to get interested in naive and folk art from all over the world. I was really blown away when I went to the Folk Art Museum in New York City. Maybe it's because I feel empathy for these people that are just making art for the sake of doing it for themselves. Audrey Niffenegger's work is amazing. It's only because of the mainstream exposure of artists and writers such as Niffenegger that comics will ever have a real chance of being commercially and publicly recognised for what they are.

Other comic artists whose stuff I read again and again include Dash Shaw, Joann Sfar, Seth and Samuel Hiti. I bought a copy of White Rapids by Pascal Blanchet the other day, which was depressingly beautiful.

Please tell us about your latest projects, both in comics and the illustration.

Well, I need to start on a new book proposal, which I intend to do as soon as I get this pile of illustration work out of the way. Luckily I'm doing a job for Barclays at the moment, which should pay pretty good compared to what I usually work for. That means that I'll be able to work solid on the proposal for a good few weeks. The story follows on from some of the stuff I touched on in Milorad and is going to be about two brothers growing up in Serbia during World War Two. The mentality of Serbs fascinates me. They lived through four wars in the first half of the 20th Century alone, it's crazy. And if the worst comes to the worst and no one is interested in publishing it than I'll have to self-publish it, which will be a daunting task.

What are your plans for the future, both in terms of your comics and illustration work?

Keep on going and hope I don't go blind. When I get the time I'm going to start pestering other comic anthologies and maybe even some ‘Yewf’/culture magazines who are under the misconception that comics are cool. And they're really not.

But mainly I just want to start work on this book and see where it takes me.

Hopefully not the gutter.

Stuart Kolakovic, thanks for your time.