February 19, 2007 |
Since breaking into comics in 1992 with Samurai Jam, Andi Watson has established himself as a creator adept at telling moving slice-of-life and relationship stories, whether they involve Japanese fox spirits (Skeleton Key), struggling, unemployed couples (Breakfast After Noon), or average people in a world lousy with superheroes (Love Fights).
In July, DC Comics’ new Minx imprint of graphic novels for teen girls will release Clubbing, Watson’s collaboration with artist Josh Howard (Dead@17). According to the publisher, it’s about a spoiled London girl who “conquers the stuffy English countryside when she solves a murder mystery on the 19th hole of her grandparent’s golf course.” Watson, who won’t reveal much about the graphic novel yet, teases it as “Nancy Drew meets Agatha Christie meets Tintin with a dash of Lovecraft.” While he couldn’t discuss Clubbing, Watson did take time to talk about his work process, the evolution of his art style, his approach to design, his influences, and fairy tales.
The people I see at cons are about 70-percent male, white, 20-30 somethings. Probably the typical demographic for comic readers. I see maybe 30-percent women. But, y’know, that’s cons, they probably skew to a particular kind of reader. I sign a few books for men but dedicated to women, so I suspect they’re often given to comic widows. I used to get a few mails saying my books were the only ones female partners read or were used to introduce girlfriends/wives to the medium.
That’s a long-winded way of saying I have no idea.
Clubbing, your upcoming graphic novel for DC’s new Minx line, obviously is geared toward a shoujo/teen-girl audience. How is writing for that demographic different from what you’ve done before?
It’s not. I’d toyed with that idea for about a year before I pitched it to DC and even then the idea of Minx, a line specifically for girls, wasn’t going around then. I wasn’t setting out to write specifically for girls, which is good because it might have screwed up my thinking somehow, second-guessing myself into changing things. It’s a book for girls and boys, men and women. The marketing will focus on teen girls, which is great to get some promo muscle behind one of my books, but it didn’t affect how I wrote and will write.
Your books are notable for, among other things, their memorable female characters. What attracts you to writing women?
At the beginning it was the usual stuff about being embarrassed how women were/are (often) portrayed in comics, male fantasies, etc., etc. Part of it is I enjoy drawing women. Part of it is it’s fun to write different to oneself. I don’t know if I’m particularly attracted to writing women; I just like to write characters, write individuals rather than some self-help-manual versions of gender.
With Clubbing, as with Paris, Buffy and a few other projects, you’re writing while someone else is illustrating. How does that collaborative process compare to working solo? Is working with an artist as fulfilling for you as doing everything yourself?
It depends on the artist. With something like Buffy, those artists are very capable but it’s not the kind of thing I get excited about. So much of that stuff lacks any kind of personality, and while it’s normal in mainstream comics to have a separate penciller and inker, I find it odd. Also, anything that’s licensed is generally robbed of any joy to work on, there’s just too much extracurricular nuttiness to deal with. With something like Paris, it was really exciting to collaborate with Simon [Gane] on the story and then see the pages come in with the beautiful art. I was a fan of Simon’s for years before we worked together; I remember seeing him prop up the bar at one of the Caption small press cons way back when I started. Ideally, with a collaboration you work with someone who does their job better than you can but also transforms it into something different, but in a good way. Maybe a scene is set differently, the characters act better, that kind of thing.
I think Simon was hoping to get away from the detail-oriented stuff he’d done before but I kept throwing the full-pagers at him because he does them so well, the research and attention to detail, the way he’ll dress a set, dress the characters and then have them interact, gush, gush, gush. So it’s fulfilling, but in a different way. It’s like Christmas every time I get pages in from someone like Simon. I can’t wait to open up all the files and see what amazing work he’s done.
It’s also kind of depressing as an artist because you know you’re not as good.
To throw in a bit of hype, SLG is releasing the Paris collection in July and I’ve written some new pages, so there’ll be a half-dozen or so new pages and Simon’s doing lots more extras like new images for chapter breaks and the like. S’gonna look great.
When you’re writing and drawing a book, how do you approach it? Does it usually begin with a definite plot or script, or is it something looser? Can you walk us through the typical process?
Often a story will start from almost nothing, like the Haunted strip I just did for nerve.com came from an idea that floated into my head over Christmas. There’re the ghosts of Christmas past and I idly wondered about relationships past and I had the kernel of the strip right there.
With Skeleton Key it came from the sketchbooks. It had a visual start with the costume and I built the rest of the story up around that.
With Breakfast After Noon the inspiration came from watching the news and listening to the radio, how manufacturing industry was/is dying on its arse in the UK. I put that together with wanting to do a story about unemployment that I’d wanted to do for a long time.
With Dumped that was a brief set by the Venice Biennalle, environmental issues dealt with playfully, and I built up the story around recycling and finding an emotional equivalent. I thought I’d overloaded that one with water imagery but I don’t think anyone ever noticed.
So I start with a vague idea, write reams of notes, stare at the ceiling for hours, procrastinate terribly, then start to break down the rough shape of the story, “the beats” in movie jargon, break down the sections into scenes and then write the scenes longhand. I follow that with thumbnail breakdowns and then start on the actual pages. There’s plenty of rewriting and re-dialoging at every stage. I make sure I’ve made a final decision by the end of penciling a page. I’m not a tear-up-pages type, but I’ll swap panels around on a page to get a better flow and change dialogue up to the last minute. I aim to do a minimum of two complete pages/drawing day, pencils through to letters and tones.
I’m still figuring out how to fit that into shorter weekdays and no weekends.
Your art has evolved significantly from Samurai Jam in 1993 to your more recent comics, like Love Fights and Little Star. What drove the move to this cleaner, sparse — I’ve seen it described as “expressionistic” — style?
It was a learning experience as much as anything: How much could I take out and still tell the story? I kind of pushed it as far as I could for the stories I tell with Little Star. I mean, I’d like to strip it down further but for something like LS the details of the inside of Simon’s house are important to the storytelling. Interior décor is an aspect of character.
With the right story I could take it further, but at the same time I had a really hard time drawing LS. I’d gotten bored with the brush, not that I’d mastered it or anything, but it became a chore trying for the perfect brush line all the time. The technique became “a thing” and robbed a lot of the enjoyment from telling the story. So I’ve spent quite a long time with the sketchbooks looking for a way of drawing that’s less about pursuing perfect brush lines and has a bit more life and vitality and immediacy to it. I’ve spent the last few years at the kitchen table drawing alongside my daughter and watching how she gets stuck into picture-making, how much she enjoys it. I want to get some of that joy back.
Looking back over Kitsune Tales, it’s obvious that you’re not just influenced by manga, but by Japanese art. Those opening pages are beautiful. I realize you’re probably asked this in every interview, but could you talk about some of your other influences? Have they changed significantly over the years?
I like a lot of different things, some of them change, some of them have stayed pretty consistent and some stuff I really like but I don’t know if it’s an influence.
Degas, Matisse, Ingres, Holbein, Reynolds, Vermeer, Beardsley, early Northern European painters — Lucas Cranach and the like — Goya, Hogarth, varying Ukiyo-e printmakers, generally the early stuff but I also love Hiroshige — his landscapes are so austere, brilliantly composed, and serene. I have a big book of Hiroshige that I crack open when I need my head clearing and admire the work of a master. Hokusai’s drawings I prefer to his prints. Dutch flower painting, Pre-Raphs, Cubists … all kinds of work, really.
I like a lot of early-mid 20th century design and illustration. I admire a lot of the Adobe Illustrator-made illustration and design that’s around now but I feel that an artist’s personality is in their line and a lot of stuff is vectored and blended into anonymity. J. Otto’s personality shines through but not everyone’s as talented. I like movies, novels, music … tonnes of different things. I love Austen, Thackeray for his authorial voice and understanding of human folly, Nancy Mitford, Raymond Chandler, Hammett, Eric Rohmer’s talky morality, Coen brothers’ sense of humour, Miyazaki, Mitsuru Adachi’s pacing; Haydn, Bach, singer-songwriters like Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright, Kate Rusby, Kate Bush … I could go on.
Influences ebb and flow over the years. I love people like Chaland, McMahon, Mignola to name a few, Jamie Hernandez as well, but I don’t want to draw like them. Everything goes into the mix, just chatting and listening to people and their experiences. I’ll hear something, grab it and store it away for future reference. Ninety-nine percent I forget because my memory is terrible, but if it’s something that really interests me it’ll rise up from the subconscious sooner or later.
I’m a big fan of your design sensibilities. Love Fights and Little Star sport some of my favorite covers of the past few years. Is there a certain philosophy that guides your design work? How do you approach covers?
I try and boil down the content of the interiors into a single striking image on the cover. It can be figurative or abstract, but I want to communicate something about the story and catch the eye as well. In theory, a good cover will stand out on the stands. I’m pretty certain it doesn’t work that way but good design is an end worth pursuing in itself. It’s another aspect of visual storytelling, really.
I tend to work through pages of thumbnails, working through different ideas. If an image works as thumbnail it’ll probably work on the scale of a comic cover. I go back to the old Penguin paperbacks, and book covers in general for inspiration, the Bloomsbury set, Omega workshop and Hogarth press. That handmade/hand-drawn element. I try and use a limited palette and fairly simple elements, partly as a challenge and partly because I prefer the look. I’m not a fan of the endless-layers-of-collaged-photographic-elements school. I only want to put on paper what’s necessary. I studied illustration and graphic design at degree level, so I have to thank my tutors for encouraging the illustrators to do their own design. They always warned, “Better to do it yourself than have someone else mess it up for you,” which is an attitude I’ve kept throughout my work, and why I find the production-line method of mainstream comics so alienating. It’s not just the stories and the content but the way they’re made.
You’ve spoken in other interviews about the use of silent panels, or entire scenes, in your books. Breakfast After Noon and Love Fights both open wordlessly. Can you talk a little more about the appeal of silence to you? Is that part of your manga influence? Why don’t we see it employed more in Western comics?
For me silent sequences slow the reader down and make them study the images, read them for information. It’s a useful bit of counterpoint if there’s been lots of dialogue beforehand. Sometimes you get your point over with captions, balloons, but occasionally silence is the best way to communicate the scene.
There is the manga storytelling there, setting the scene with a couple of pages of images, but I also remember a sequence in Love and Rockets where Doyle is leaving town and he passes by all the windows of his friends and ex-girlfriend which is beautifully done.
Your fondness for folk and fairy tales came through in Skeleton Key, with Kitsune. What drew you to Japanese folklore and the fox spirits, in particular? Are there other aspects of folklore you’d like to explore?
Around the SK period I was really into manga and Japanese culture in general, so I was interested in their folktales. They were new to me, had a different set of interesting images to work with, yet a familiarity. The fox is sly trickster character in English folklore, too.
I think fairy tales are the wellspring of Western literature, so if you’re interested in writing and narrative then you’ll have some interest in fairy tales. Pride and Prejudice is a variation on Beauty and the Beast, Jane Eyre on Cinderella. I love the way they’re utterly mundane and domestic and magical, rational and irrational all at once. “Once upon a time a Queen sat sewing at the window, she pricked her finger and three drops of blood fell to the floor” is how Snow White starts, and then there’s the transformations and poison apples and whatnot that follow. I love their universality, versions of Cinderella are all over the globe, and their specificity, from Perrault’s reworkings for the French court, to the Germanic Grimms. I’ve certainly taken that on board with my own work. BAN is set specifically in the Midlands in England but when I sign across the Continent it still gets the same response in Germany and France. Readers thank me for writing a story about unemployment.
I like the idea that the storyteller sat in front of the hearth, spinning variations on these stories for small groups of people and family members; they’re very intimate and tied to the domestic. I sort of feel a little bit like that myself. I work from home, kind of a cottage industry, spinning my yarns from literally the kitchen table sometimes. I like the way that kings and queens are as susceptible to human weakness as any woodcutter or maid. There’s that understanding of human nature that’s common across class and background. I like the way they’re still bang up-to-date: Cruelty, selfishness, child abuse, predators and con-men will always be with us. I like the way they acknowledge the way the world is yet offer some solace that the guilty will be punished.
I’d like to explore the way they marry the down-to-earth with the magical. I’ve done genre and “kitchen sink” dramas separately. I’d like to be able to combine them better.
What do you read now? Are there any creators whose work you follow?
I’m not a big comic reader at the minute, although I’ve tried to get hold of as much Osamu Tezuka stuff as possible. Quite a few of his books have been translated into French so I’ve gotten my hands on Hato, Princess Saphira and Don Dracula. His cartooning is amazing, and I really admire the way he could tackle so many different genres and stories.
In the introduction of the 2003 Samurai Jam collection you wrote: “Comics is a tough medium to master. It takes time to fully get to grips with the writing, the art, the lettering and combine them into a cohesive whole. Most importantly, it takes time to learn to bend the technical aspects of the medium around your ideas, adapting them to the kind of stories you want to tell. You will fall flat on your face in public. You will fail and embarrass yourself.”
Do you look back at any of your work and see that you failed or embarrassed yourself? Have you reached a point where you feel you’re close to mastering the medium?
I’m nowhere close to mastering the medium. It’s one of those things where the more you learn the more there is to learn. Hokusai said, “If heaven gives me ten more years, or an extension of even five years, I shall surely become a true artist.” When he was 90 or thereabouts. Matisse started the paper cuts when he was bedridden. Rembrandt worked on his self-portraits well into old age. Goya created The Disasters of War in his 60s, Eric Rohmer’s in his 80s and still working. Hopefully I’ll live long enough and still have a fraction of the appetite for work that those artists have.
There’s probably lots to be embarrassed about, which is good. It means I’m still improving.
And I still haven’t learnt to letter yet.
A prolonged sigh of relief that the damn thing’s finally out.
I’m working on a graphic novel for which I have a couple of European publishers lined up. I’m talking to some guys in the US about getting it into the DM.
I have another 50 pages of Princess at Midnight to do for the next Mammoth Book of Best New Manga.
I’ve written a second OGN for Minx. Fingers crossed that Clubbing will do well and they’ll want more.
The Paris collection is out in July, as is a new digest version of Slow News Day from SLG, complete with a new cover.