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.