I’ve had to make one or two journeys due to family illness this year and, when not driving, I’ve found it to be quite absorbing to draw the fast-changing landscape of motorways. It takes my mind off things. The drawings are very wobbly, of course, due to the movement of both the vehicle and subject matter – but I like that quality. I became excited by the shapes of those 1950s concrete motorway bridges – and I started to fixate on the CCTV cameras. I also found the black digital display boards to be somewhat foreboding and ‘looming’ when they didn’t contain any information. They’re just the right size to be spooky in some way. Maybe it was just the mood I was in! See if you can guess what I was listening to…
I wrote this at Cleveland College of Art & Design in Middlesbrough (1987-8) when I was studying for my Foundation Certificate. I made this book dummy as part of my response to a textiles module. The brief was to buy a whole fish from a fishmonger’s, which would serve as inspiration for the duration of the project. We had to draw and ‘get to know’ the fish – we kept them in the college fridge in between classes. The studio was ripe by the end of the module.
Starsky was executed in pencil crayons and inkpen (very 1980s – everyone wanted to be Raymond Briggs back then). I was a strict vegetarian at the time, and, although I eat fish now, I’ve never really fancied trout.
As a published picture book author, I would say to my young student-self:
- Not bad for a first try at making a story book, but:
- Avoid rhyming text for a first book; it makes translation of co-editions tricky, but if you must:
- Try using a thesaurus to avoid lazy rhyming stanzas.
- Learn some grammar and how to spell ‘fly’ and ‘embedded’.
- Fish don’t ‘shout’ – they scream silently (in the same way an uprooted flower does). They don’t laugh either. Mainly, they glug.
- Think about page turns – who was lurking on the bank? Make the reader want to turn the page to find out. Same goes for the very last line – it would be more dramatic if it had a page to itself at the end.
- Don’t simply illustrate the words, drop some words and let the pictures do the talking, too.
- Try for a more imaginative title – publishers aren’t keen on ‘Sammy the Squirrel’-type titles. How about Massacre in the River Tees* instead?
I got an good mark for that module, and the tutor tried to persuade me to apply for Textile Design at degree level, instead of Graphic Design. I don’t think textiles would have been my thing. Too stinky.
*joking, of course
There are times when you create something that is so crushingly cringeful that you cannot bear to look at it for years afterwards. You even destroy work in an Orwellian-style rewriting-of-history attempt to erase all traces of crapitude. I’m almost over it with these teenage paintings of mine that my mum secretly kept. It’s interesting (to me at least) to look back on work I did as a teenager who wanted to ‘be an artist one day’. Just about enough time has lapsed for me to be able to look at them with fondness and to know that all cringes pass in time.
The birthday card above was based on The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. We listened to the radio adaptation in art class and had to draw as we listened to the story. I drew the characters Fritha and Philip, with the snow goose in the background. I don’t recall who the card was for but I didn’t send it.
I did the ‘peace girls’ image after visiting Eastern-bloc Czechoslovakia on a youth-orchestra exchange in 1984. Mine was an emotional rather than political response – I think I was too young to really appreciate the politics back then. I only wish I still had the painting I did of a woman being sacrificed over the letter S (the top of the S was a hand holding a dagger dripping with blood). Teenage hormones…
I worry that the work I’m producing at the moment – in my hormonal peri-menopausal state – will one day beckon the dreaded cringe all over again. But this time the work isn’t safely squirrelled away in a bottom drawer for later. However, cringe is under-rated; perhaps the discomfort is a sign of authenticity, of work wrought from such a genuinely human and vulnerable place that it elicits angst at the very thought of sharing it. I think Billy Bragg said that he knew when a lyric was probably good because it made him feel uncomfortable to express it.
Once it’s out there it’s out there. So, my advice to myself and others is this: You don’t know what it will feel like until you dip your toe in the water – put it out there expecting a few hours of vulnerability backlash*, then forget about it. But if you do find yourself curling up in existential agony for weeks afterwards, it’s probably not worth the stress. A leathery hide is advantageous when sharing deeply personal work because you might not receive the required response, which could potentially smart more than the original wound. It’s a gamble. But equally it’s a gamble not to share it, because you never know where it might lead and what good it might do others. Like any new thing, it can get easier the more you practise. This not only applies to deeply personal work – but also to any creative work: some people have terrible trouble letting their work out into the big bad world where everyone is a critic and where silence speaks louder than words.
So, I’ve shared these pictures that used to make me feel so very embarrassed for myself. I’m practising.
ps; I must get round to reading The Wounded Storyteller, by Arthur Frank. It’s meant to be good.
* I first saw this phrase used by Jody Day of Gateway Women – apt words to describe that after-click panic when sharing something personal on social networking sites.
I’m not partial to defining my activity by gender. Although technically I’m a ‘female’ illustrator, proofreader, comics creator and writer; I don’t feel I should need the adjective to help describe my involvement in those jobs. However, when the gender scales have historically been weighted on one side in any given arena (comics in this case), perhaps, for a while, you can heap it on with spades on the other to help redress the balance.
I first went to a comics convention in Bristol in the mid-00s because Jeffery Brown was speaking – I’d read all of his books. I’d also read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and thought wow, a woman the same age as me writing autobiographical comics – maybe that means I can too! So I tripped along to the comics con all fluffy-tailed and excited…
But I felt so out of place. I felt old for a start (I was 36ish) – and starkly female. The overarching feeling was that I didn’t belong there. It’s hard to pinpoint why – the proliferation of young men, the daleks and stormtroopers – I’m not sure. Nothing wrong with young men, daleks and stormtroopers, (I was a Doctor Who and Star Wars fan as a child), but it wasn’t what I was searching for at the time. It was probably something tribal – about recognising oneself in others to foster a sense of belonging. Despite my own lack of costume, I felt like an interloper from another planet.
Although I enjoyed Jeffrey Brown’s talk (I even asked him a question) I still left feeling somewhat disheartened thinking that even if I did get round to writing my graphic novel, who would want to read a comic with themes of fertility and miscarriage? That dalek wouldn’t be interested, would he? I was yet to discover Graphic Medicine where there are plenty of comics dealing with stuff going wrong with bodies. And I was also largely unaware of the female creators from the 60s/70s who were certainly not shy of drawing the personal and intimate details of their lives. As it happens, the first two people to buy my first comic, Spooky Womb, were men (though still no daleks).
Laydeez do Comics
So, imagine my joy when I stumbled over Laydeez do Comics! I think I googled ‘female graphic novelists’ sometime in 2009, found LDC and thought I really must go to that thing one day. It was a graphic novels forum run by women (Nicola Streeten and Sarah Lightman) but open to all. They had guest speakers, including men, talking about their comics work – with a ‘focus on the autobiographical, domestic and everyday’.
I finally went along to Laydeez in late 2010 when Posy Simmonds was speaking. It was rammed, I didn’t know a soul and I was horrified to discover that there was an introductory ice-breaker question (‘the question’) to answer in front of all the other attendees. Blind terror aside, I managed to splutter out something comprehensible enough for Nicola Streeten (co-founder of LDC and author of Billy, Me and You), to ask if I fancied coming along to speak about my work the following year. No, I thought, you have to be kidding. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t pursue it but Nicola did, thankfully. I once heard Grayson Perry say in an interview that his motto is ‘take the path of most resistance’ and this chimed with me at the time. I’d decided I wasn’t having children after some troublesome years, and that I must get out there, meet new people and do new stuff. This opportunity was all three.
I spoke at LDC for the first time in May 2011 along with Mary Talbot (Dotter of her Father’s Eyes) and Jo Tyler. Laydeez often places emerging practitioners alongside the more experienced. I showed the beginnings of my graphic memoir and some children’s illustration work to a supportive audience. It was like a big fuzzy comics cuddle, and I felt a glow of promise and excitement – a renewed interest in carrying on with my memoir. Both Mary and Bryan Talbot were encouraging about my work, too! It was also at that meeting that I found out about Myriad Editions’ First Fictions First Graphic Novel Competition, which I subsequently spent the summer working on, entered and reached the shortlist. So I have a lot to thank Laydeez do Comics for. A Brick Lane curry to fill the gap left by a nervous stomach rounded off the evening perfectly. And, I’ve met some ace people at meetings since.
Laydeez do Comics Bristol (and San Francisco, Leeds, Chicago…)
I wished there was something like LDC in Bristol and sat around waiting for someone else to provide this for me to attend. They didn’t, so I thought I’d better get something together myself. Nicola and Sarah were keen and we held the first Bristol event at Cafe Kino in August 2012. It was packed out – and I was happy to be spreading the Laydeez joy to Bristol. There is a healthy comics community in Bristol (Bearpit Zines, BLAM included) so I felt that there would be some interest. Speakers at the first event were Katie Green, Smoo Comics (Simon Moreton), Nicola Streeten, Sarah Lightman, Sicker Than Thou (Andrew Godfrey, Emma Mould) and yours truly. See some photos from that event and Nick Soucek’s blog:
Laydeez do Comics Bristol 2
LDC London now meet at Foyles Bookshop, so I wondered whether our branch of Foyles here in Bristol would be keen to extend that relationship – I knew they had an event space. They were very keen, enthusiastic and helpful! The next Bristol meeting is on Monday April 8th upstairs at Foyles Bookshop, Cabot Circus, Bristol, 6-7.45pm.
Click here for details – with guests Hannah Berry, Joff Winterhart and LOAf magazine‘s Rosie Faragher. It’s free but you must book a ticket here. Hope to see you there for some effervescent comics discussion, and cake c/o Sarah Lightman!
I finally unearthed this very special issue of Jackie Magazine at my parents’ house in the last few days! The sketch (of Jon Moss, drummer from Culture Club) was my first ever properly printed, published and paid-for art, which appeared in the letters page on March 24th 1984. I was thirteen years old. I sent it in to a slot called ‘Sam’s sketch’, which, I think, appeared weekly and had to be a sketch of someone famous. If your sketch was published you could choose between receiving a silver bracelet or £2 cash. Easy choice for me – you could get two Top-40 singles for two quid in Woolworths at the time – with tuppence left over! I was too shy to let them print my surname.
I’ve been hunting for this for ages – I even trawled this site but couldn’t remember the exact date, it being almost 30 years ago. I thought it was lost – but it finally showed up in an under-bed storage space. My mum hadn’t been able to lift the bed up herself for a few years so she’d forgotten what was in there. I’m almost as excited to be reunited with it as I was when I first saw it appear in the magazine.
Last week, The Miscarriage Association began a campaign – It’s time to talk about miscarriage. Of course, not everyone wants to talk about it and that’s fine – either they find it too difficult or prefer to keep that part of their lives private. However, the taboos surrounding miscarriage mean that many women who do want to be open about it feel that they can’t. Perhaps they are afraid of upsetting others or making people feel uncomfortable. This further compounds their isolation and grief.
I’ve been making comics on the subject for a couple of years now, based on my own experiences of repeated unexplained early miscarriage. I also wrote a post about the language and euphemisms used to refer to miscarriage. As well as a natural urge to express myself through creativity, my hope has been to express something that others can’t, and to help break taboos. Comics can do this because pictures replace the need for words which are hard to say – or it seems that the symbiosis of words and pictures can speak louder than words alone and the impact is more immediate. And perhaps this could help in breaking the silence surrounding miscarriage. Here is most of the work I’ve done on the subject so far:
Or does it have a positive affect? I’m not sure. The response to sharing this work has been varied: From supportive other creatives doing similar to befuddled relatives telling me I just need to ‘get counselling’. The funniest response was at Comica Comiket last autumn when a guy did a double-take at my comic Spooky Womb: he pointed at it, looked at me, pulled a ‘scary’ face, then ran away! I guess he wasn’t ready to come face to face with anthropomorphic female reproductive parts at a comics fair. Poor chap!
It has been very connecting in that women I barely know have spoken to me about their own experiences of miscarriage and not having children. Not that I’m offering myself as a comics creator-counsellor by any means – not equipped! But I appreciated these connections.
However, I often worry about offending people who’d probably rather not know or upsetting others who’ve had similar experiences. Of course this reflects some of the reasons women in general don’t/ can’t talk about it. In fact, I’ve read articles about comics mentioning that comics should be all about cheering people up and the lighter side of life. But a couple of years ago I was excited to find that there’s a whole website about the intersection of comics and medicine/ illness (Graphic Medicine) where it’s accepted that comics can play an important role in empathy, understanding and education. Hello! I thought.
I’ve started writing warning messages on posts recently. But perhaps that’s me pandering to the taboo – just another way to steer it off the radar. Though I feel it’s mainly out of respect. I’ve discussed these issues with Mita Mahato and Katie Green recently (comics creators also sharing emotive work). On conclusion, I’m inclined to think that people have a choice as to whether or not they look, and this recent campaign by The Miscarriage Association has given me cause to believe that perhaps it’s OK. After all – not all my social networking updates are about this subject – there’s a peppering of other interests too – music, wildlife, politics, goats shouting like humans etc.
Here’s an interesting post by artist Lily Mae Martin, about sharing intimate, honest and often difficult details of her life as a mother. I met Lily when she spoke about her work at Laydeez do Comics.