Thursday, 20 March 2008

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)

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