-- Gavin Lees
Can you tell us a little bit about your background — where you grew up and how you came to be an artist?
I grew up in cold and old Edinburgh in Scotland, which is a fantastic place to feed the imagination of any budding wee artists. The city has been built and built up so that entire ancient streets are preserved underground. It is a city full of ghosts and memories for me. I've always drawn and told stories as a child (often acted out with little toys arranged around my room). I read picture books when I was young but I only discovered comics when I grew up enough to appreciate how amazing they were! This was surprisingly late — I was 23 and had just finished a degree in Psychology and Sociology when I read my first proper comic, Ghost World, and fell madly in love with the medium.
Why did you decide on comics as your outlet?
I was blindly in love with comics from the moment I laid eyes on them. The medium is still so young and there are so many possibilities in discovering unexplored areas. You can create whole worlds with nothing but pens and paper, you have complete control over every element and, because stories can be created in solitude, it is a medium that really can tap into the darkest corners of the creators’ minds.
Ghost World seriously the first comic you read? Had you not grown up with The Beano and The Broons?
It was the first comic I ever bought. I used to steal The Beano from a boy buddy of mine. I loved the Bash Street Kids, but those knobbly knees kind of freaked me out. And I have a vague memory of once visiting 'Broon's World' — a weird Scottish theme park that tries to turn the comic into Disney Land. Very strange!
That was at the Glasgow Garden Festival in '88, and I was there, too!
It seems like a very rare and fortunate transition you made from academia into comics. How did you evolve as an artist? Had you always drawn, or studied art in high school?
Yes — I studied art in high school and I continued to draw all the way through Uni — often doodling all over my notes and drawing smiley little neurons to help me make sense of mind-numbing subjects like Psychopharmacology. But I only started doing narrative stories after reading Ghost World. I think being kept back from art school made me all the more raring to go... and perhaps preserved some of my innocent love of making things without worrying about the judgement of others!
It is set in 141 Rottin Road — a beautiful Victorian house converted into six, one-bed apartments. On the outside the house is lovely but inside it (like each of us) is slowly decaying. Electricity is failing, pipes are bursting and these incidents force the lonely residents out of their little apartments and into contact with one another. The residents pay homage to the great tradition of weird and wonderful comic characters like the super villains of DC or Marvel. There’s Barbara, the made-up make-up artist; Matt, a photographic retoucher who can’t touch; Janet, the tormented dietician; Old Mrs Durbach — a grandmother who literally blends into the background; the hedonistic Marion, matriarch of the Midnight Feast Front and twenty-something Brian, a 'diseasophile' who is only attracted to women who are sick or dying.
It sounds like my old flat in Glasgow! Was there any particular locale that you had in mind when you conceptualised it? I'm probably not the first to note the Rottenrow connection in the street name, but being from Edinburgh, I'm guessing you weren't a Rottenrow baby.
Yes! The parallel wasn't intentional. It was an imagined road but I guess the Victorian architecture is quite Edinburgh-y, right?
You studied psychology and your mum was a psychotherapist, does that have any influence on how you approach writing?
Absolutely. The characters in my book are all very extreme symbols of Westerner's anxieties with our bodies. Throughout the book we visit the characters during formative moments in their past and childhoods and discover how they came to be the people they are today. This is certainly a psychoanalytical idea, but it was so embedded in my upbringing that I've come to accept it as fact! Since I studied Sociology at university, the book was heavily influenced by some of the corporal theories I read when I was there. If academia if your cup of tea then I have a video that explains some of those ideas here.
It's interesting that you take such an active role in the analysis of your own work. How far is that front-loaded when you're working on a comic? Do you call upon theories and ideas that have interested you, or do you do further research when you've found a theme you want to express?
Hm... I guess being over-analytical is very much part of my character. I am always reading, watching films and soaking up anything that interests me. But I try to forget it all once I have a theme in place and just enjoy telling the story.
The characters in The House That Groaned are almost-impossibly bizarre, each with their own unique and often ironic quirk. In that respect the story reminded me of Sartre's short stories and plays, where we see the characters not so much as living people, but agents of fate. Are existentialism and fatalism ideas that interest you?
The 'fate' question is interesting and I wonder if it stems from the house. Some of the readers have seen the house as a kind of evil character or a 'haunted house'. I never intended this to be the case. It was simply supposed to be a normal body- ticking and clicking along and inevitably screwing up as it slowly decays. It's interesting that some people interpret this as 'evil' rather than 'normal'. The characters are swept up with this physical inevitability, so that, I guess, is fatalism. But my influences are less philosophical and more sociological, psychoanalytical... and occasionally spiritual. Though I should probably not draw boundaries between disciplines that ultimately overlap — art is always simply an attempt to make sense of human life in all its complexities.
How much of you is there in the novel's characters? I know you were quite a sickly child when you were growing up, which you've said fed into Brian's diseasophilia. Is the tension between Marion and Janet part of your own neuroses?
Interesting question. Yes — I was very ill as a child and used Brian to explore a subject that terrifies me. I have had a catalogue of strange illnesses that I dumped on to many of Brian's girlfriends. By flipping it round so that he embraced these illnesses, was an attempt at reconciling myself with the reality of diseased and dying bodies and my own mortality. As for Marion and Janet — I imagined them as two characters that often jostle for control and freedom within (in particular) woman's bodies — particularly when eating and dieting is concerned. I am very aware of the huge social pressure on most women in this respect.
That is very well observed and certainly true! I love structure. My mind is overloaded with manic ideas, songs, chattering voices and repeated thoughts and requires a lot of discipline! I like to start thinking about ideas by creating boundaries to play within. The House That Groaned has a lot of structure- the division of the building into six one bedroom apartments, the panels and frames that box the characters in, or from which they break free etc. There is one point near the end of the book when the 'structure' of the frames falls away completely and the story continues without panels.
Do you feel you need that rigorous structure in your writing? I know for some writers — especially young writers — this can be a crutch in helping find their voice, while for others it's a deliberate stylistic choice (Chris Ware is probably the best example of this). Would you ever feel comfortable doing a work that's more freeform and loose?
Ha ha. I am, on one hand, very structured, but equally I can be very uninhibited (as some of the more explicit scenes in the book will testify to). Perhaps I have a little creative Janet and Marion inside my head jostling for structure and theory vs freedom and impulsiveness!
Some of your comics actually transcends the print medium, and you've worked with sculpture, models and, erm, cakes. What are you trying to achieve through these experiments?
Yes — on the subject of structure and boundaries I also like to play with the definition of comics as 'sequential art'. In my mind comics can be any kind of narrative (plays, prose, poetry) and any kind of art (paint, sculpture, mosaic). As long as you're choosing specific moments in time shown in sequence to create a narrative or convey information. I guess it takes us back to some of the historical comics- like the Bayeux Tapestry or Trajan's Collum. I create comics in sculpture form, jewellery boxes and Doll's Houses. I collaborate with digital wizard Jonathan Plackett to make comics for the iPad and iPhone and with my aunt, super-crafter Denny Fransman to make stained glass and quilt comics. As for the cake; I don't think my (rather gruesome) 'surgery cake' was a 'comic' as it's not a sequenced narrative... but imagine making a comic cake you could eat in sequence! I'll get on it!
Are you looking to any influences outside of cartooning when you're working on these three-dimensional pieces?
I usually start with the space whether it is a dolls house or an iPad and use the specific features of the medium to create an appropriate story to fit inside. For example you peer through the windows of the dolls’ house to 'read' the scenes sculptured inside so I created a story about voyeurism and femininity. I am influenced by loads of comic creators, artists, film makers and writers who sit on the boundaries of art and storytelling. I love US indie comic artist Eleanor Davis, Paula Rego, Kit Williams and Maurice Sendak. Since making these comic experiments I have come across some other comic artists who are exploring 3D- Argentinian comic artists Carlos Nine for example or Chris Ware with his cut-out-and-build houses in Jimmy Corrigan.
Obviously there are aesthetic advantages of digital comics — being able to incorporate animation, sound and interactivity — but do you see there being any thematic or artistic benefits of the medium?
Would 'interactivity' count as an 'aesthetic' or 'thematic' benefit? Interactivity is certainly the biggest driving force behind my interest in digital. Finding new ways to immerse and involve the reader in an imaginary world that lets them play along, too.
Your early comics work was published by The Times and The Guardian newspapers, which is a very impressive feat for a young cartoonist. What led you to work on those projects?
Lots of persistence! I was very much part of the UK's underground comic scene for years but wanted to make comics for a living. I got myself the 'Writers and Artist's Yearbook' and started sending comic strips and stories to all and sundry and was lucky enough to be picked up by The Guardian which led to my graphic story in The Times. There is so many talented folk in the comic world and success with editors and publishers boils down to an entrepreneurial spirit in getting your comics out there and an understanding of the market.
I am hugely invested in the UK comics scene (in fact I just did a comic article about it here for Time Out). Although it's teeny tiny in comparison to the US, France and Japan there is an amazing amount of energy and talent. It's funny because the term 'literary' is a great compliment for the mainstream publishing and newspaper world, but a bit of a dirty word on the mainstream comic scene. My book's gotten some great reviews in The Guardian, The Observer and is due to be reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement this month, which is great if it's attracting new fans to the medium and growing the readership in the UK. That said, I'll always be a comic girl at heart and I'd like to keep true to all that makes comics such a brilliant medium — its accessibility, playfulness and lack of pretentiousness.
It's strange how the word "mainstream" is incredibly conflicted within comics. We often refer to the "mainstream" as Marvel and DC superheroes, while the real mainstream in publishing is more concerned with the likes of Charles Burns and Dan Clowes. Are you still keen to keep that distinction between your comics and prose literature?
Yes — I agree that "mainstream" is a conflicted term. I'm not too bothered how people categorise my work- as long as it engages them. However I am aware of the added responsibility for British creators to do their bit to grow our tiny market and bring comics to more people like the US, Europe or Japan have done so successfully.
With the critical acclaim that The House That Groaned has been garnering, has that opened up new opportunities for future projects?
Having spent a year and a half working on one book, I am keen to do some shorter stories over the next year before tackling my next book. I will be creating a 12-page story on a comic residency in April in Belgium — a country that really respects their comics and produces buckets of amazing artists as a result! Then I'm off to exhibit some of my comics at the Moscow Comic Festival in May. I'm also working on some more digital comics with Jonathan Plackett and have some interesting newspaper comic projects in the pipeline.