Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Autobiography at the Heart of Everything: an Interview with Luke Pearson

Taken from Hildafolk, published by the acclaimed NoBrow Press as part of their 17x23 series

As you’d expect from one of the leading lights of Britain's new wave of young creators, the quality of Luke Pearson's work seems to develop just as rapidly as the scene itself. In a critical climate where work is often polarised into the two extremes of art and entertainment, Pearson’s latest comic, the spell-binding contemporary fairytale Hildafolk, feels just as at home in publisher NoBrow Press' visually intelligent catalogue as it does between good old fashioned yarns like Bone and The Adventures of Tintin in my bookcase.

We thought given the comic's spellbinding setting, it would be easy for us to stay on topic in the following interview. Oh, how wrong we were. The combination of our foam-mouthed enthusiasm for his work and his considered, insightful answers gave way to a conversation that refused to be contained. Moving back and forth between subjects such as his development as a creator, his perspective on comics as an auteur medium, his relationship with children's books, and the status of the British comic scene and beyond, it was a real pleasure, and one we've been looking forward to sharing with you. 

Why comics?

It's probably a similar story to most people. I was above average at drawing as a kid, I liked comics and so obviously I started drawing my own. It was a way of entertaining people and at school it was kind of a way of showing off and attention-seeking, which was an important vent for a shy kid like me. I liked being funny and gross and seeing the reactions people had and I still get that same buzz now, though I'm probably not as gross or as funny any more.

I always wanted to be either a comic artist, an illustrator or an animator just because these were jobs where you got to draw fun things. I'm not sure I knew what the boundaries between those were or if I was even aware that there were any, it was all just drawing to me. Which in some ways is how I still feel about it, in that I don't just look at and think about comics when I'm making comics, I feed my knowledge of what makes good illustration and animation into what I'm doing. But in a way I arrived specifically at comics by necessity.

As a kid I thought of comics as something I could do until I figured out how to make a cartoon. But it dawns on you that it takes a ton of people to make a cartoon and only one person gets to decide what really happens in it. Since I was never going to be confident or assertive enough to be that person and I was more interested in telling my own stories than in the act of animating itself, I realised that wasn't going to satisfy my ego.

Obviously in the last few years I've become more wrapped up in and fascinated by the vast, storytelling potential of the medium and all that stuff. I'm not doing them begrudgingly because I can't make a cartoon. But ultimately comics suit me because it's the medium in which I can have the most control over the most things with the littlest input from anyone else.

It feels legitimate to say that one of the major differences between mainstream comics and indie/ small press is there's a much greater emphasis on single-author works. Do you think there's a case for stating that comics might be the ultimate medium for auteurs?

I totally believe that to be the case. My dissertation for university was on autobiography in comics and that was basically the point I was trying to make, though focusing specifically on that genre. When telling the tale of your own life it seems natural to me that you'd want to tailor the reading experience to allow the reader to see the world through your eyes and in a non-literal way through your state of mind. It's this ability to control that experience due to the wobbly boundaries of the format and of what the medium even is that makes it so perfect I think. Sure a novel is mostly the singular vision of the writer, but any control over the display of their words is denied them. As soon as you start to tinker, to change the size or the colour of words for effect, what's happening? It's taking tentative steps towards becoming a comic. The fact that anything you can visually make happen is (in theory) available to you for self expression and storytelling purposes should make it pretty appealing to the auteur. Although the word doesn't actually mean as much when anyone can draw their singular creative vision on a bit of lined paper and call themselves an auteur.

Taken from Pearson's New Game, as seen in Nobrow's sinfully handsome anthology A Graphic Cosmogony

Hildafolk certainly feels like it's from the same creative voice as your other work, and I think that anybody familiar with you could easily pick out a "Luke Pearson" comic or illustration on sight. Do you consider there to be central elements or themes that inform your work?

I like to think that if I just do whatever seems interesting to me at the time then those elements and themes will eventually begin to reveal themselves. Hopefully that's what's happening because I definitely don't feel like I've set any up intentionally. I'm actually usually worried that you wouldn't be able to pick out a "Luke Pearson" comic because I feel like I haven't settled stylistically yet and that each new project I do is probably a bad or weird choice given what came before it. But I think the variation between the things I do is way more extreme in my head because people usually tell me that they can spot my work fairly easily. I do sometimes struggle to see exactly what that voice is made up of though and it's always troubling me slightly. But there are definitely some things that seem to naturally crop up again and again which I guess go towards defining it. Also my comics definitely don't stray too far away from my own life experience which I guess gives them a similar feel.

Not including Hildafolk, a fair few of my shorter comics have featured protagonists who are vague stand-ins for me and rather than having a fleshed out character of their own are just kind of vehicles to say whatever I've got to say. I haven't written anything yet that's required me to look at things from a vastly different viewpoint to my own. There's an autobio comic at the heart of everything I do.

In Dull Ache and Some People, it's a lot more apparent that you have a great urge to experiment with style. Is it fair to say that Dull Ache sees you purposely trying out different things, as well as taking a more direct influence from other artists in order to develop? There's one strip that reminds me of John Porcellino's work...

Half of Dull Ache is old material that spans probably about two years of different phases I've gone through. There might be some even older stuff. A lot of that stuff is my sketchbook work and I tend to let my influences flow pretty freely in those. For the bits I drew especially for it, I was trying to keep that sketchbook spontaneity and not stress about consistency. The bit that looks a bit like a Porcellino comic was an experiment in putting a comic down without planning and in a state of mind in which usually I'd never even pick up a pencil. My entire process from start to finish can be quite laborious and I get anxious just thinking about starting something sometimes so that was an attempt at seeing how I could combat that. There are a lot of styles and approaches to comics that I enjoy and want to explore, the hope being that eventually I can bring them all together and turn them into something that's uniquely mine, so I guess I used Dull Ache to muck around with those ideas and not worry about the bringing them together part. If I do more in that series I think it'll continue in a similar vein.

One of many potential Pearson avatars, this time seen in the comic 'Bed' from Luke's Dull Ache collection

A lot of your work has autobiographical elements, even if they're not necessarily framed as such.  For instance, even your supernatural-themed story from Solipsistic Pop 2 seems to feature an avatar of yourself. Does Hildafolk represent a more permanent step in the other direction?

It's definitely not a permanent step but a sort of intentional one. I'm really drawn to autobiography and I'm constantly thinking of straight up autobio stories I could easily draw but I try to stop myself because I don't feel like the world needs to read about the troubles and woes of a 20 something guy who doesn't do much but draw things. I prefer to twist anything I've got to say into something else. I want to make comics that are just plain fun and maybe have a broader appeal too though which is where Hildafolk comes in. I wanted it to be for all ages and for it to feel warm and positive without being cloying or lame.

What can you tell us about the origins of Hildafolk?

I'd been drawing the character that would become Hilda for about a year previously. I haven't really had any other recurring characters so I knew I'd have to use her for something [Luke directs readers to two prototype versions of the character here and here]. I didn't know who she was then but I knew the world I wanted her to exist in. The original pitch to myself was that it would be like Lyra's world in the His Dark Materials books crossed with Moominvalley, steeped in Scandinavian folklore and full of weird, cartoony monsters. That was just one of many vague ideas bubbling around a for a while until Nobrow contacted me about possibly doing a book in their 17x23 series. They were into the earlier image I'd done so that was that. The book doesn't touch on anywhere near as much stuff as I'd eventually like to but the aim was always to create a world and a character that could become the basis of some kind of series.

It's obvious from reading Hildafolk that you have an engagement with world-building, and an important part of any world are its monsters. What inspired you to create the non-human cast, both in terms of their narrative purpose and design?

They come from a few different places. The wood man comes from a really short story I read in a book of folk tales about a guy called "The Wood Man" who turns up at your house and brings you wood, but then he lies down in front of the fire but he won't leave and he's got really long legs and takes up loads of room or something. When I first read it I thought he was actually made of wood but I think he's just a regular tall dude. But having the wooden thing in mind I thought it'd be nice to combine him with the wooden character I drew for Nobrow 3 and he became that guy. I guess I've always liked trolls. I'd go and see a lot of standing stones and things as a kid and I always liked to think of them turning into giant people and shuffling around at night. The image of huge lumbering beasts going about their business unseen has always stuck with me. I guess I wanted to populate the place with creatures that are strange and eerie and maybe a bit sorrowful but not necessarily monstrous. Or just cute and weird. There isn't that much too it really.

She's not lying, you know.

What are your favourite 'all-ages' works? They don't necessarily have to be comics-based.

I'd say Tove Jansson's Moomin books and comics which is fitting because the influence they've had on Hildafolk is pretty evident. Anyone can appreciate them. They work for kids because they're populated with strange and sweet characters, funny stuff happens and the world is always warm and inviting. But they're full of these hilariously spot-on observations and scathing criticisms of adult life. They work for multiple audiences because they're intelligent and have a lot of things to say, not because they have cheap, dirty gags that go over a kid's head. They're good-natured and questioning and you feel like a child who grew up reading them would grow up to be an extremely decent human being. I'd say Asterix is a great all-ages comic. I loved it as a kid but I never got the whiff of lameness that I sometimes got from comics like The Beano when I compared them to the dirty, grown-up 2000 ADs I liked to read.

Speaking of The Beano and 2000AD-- In terms of discernible comics culture, Britain has long and limply stood in the shadow of its Franco-Belgian and North American cousins. Do you feel that things are beginning to change?

It does feel like something is changing, maybe. It could just be something vague and optimistic that people say but I see it said quite a lot. I'm not in the best position to appreciate the change if it is happening as I've only relatively recently immersed myself in comics culture, but the main thing seems to be more smaller publishers being more willing to publish un-established artists and more interesting comics.

I know that only a few years ago I wouldn't have had the opportunity that Nobrow have given me in putting a full colour book out already and getting it into shops. I've definitely been lucky in starting out at a time that's incredibly convenient for a new artist, so the best we can hope is that more and more cartoonists get to take advantage of this and that some of them are really good. I could be wrong but it also seems like more comic shops are more willing to put indie and alternative comics in a more prominent position of the store. If more and more people were to see that stuff as 'the real stuff', the main attraction (never gonna happen), then audiences would be more likely to pick up on the creators and books that are uniquely British and some kind of culture can be formed. But if you go into a comic shop and all you see is the intimidating wall of glossy mainstream booklets, independent voices get lost. The culture gets kind of flattened and generalised.

For many following the trajectory of Pearson's work, his piece in the childhood-themed third volume of British comic anthology Solipsistic Pop may seem like the logical stepping stone between the reflective ghost-themed memoir he submitted to Solipsistic Pop 2 and the fantastical, story-book world of Hildafolk.

Do you think that in the Internet age, and the convergence of artists and media within social networks, etcetera, it's as important to help generate domestic comic scenes?

It's not as important. The Internet lets you work in isolation with the promise that if you're actually good then your work will get seen and spread and good things could happen. You build your fanbase internationally, but ultimately you'll always be claimed as the produce of wherever you've come from. Domestic scenes will always exist, just due to geographical restrictions and the desire for cartoonists to congregate. And the flavour and direction of these scenes will likely be defined by their strongest and most popular artists. I think when the UK has some more 'big names' then the scene and the culture will be more easily defined, but who even really cares about that. People should just worry about making the best work possible and getting it out there in the best way possible, wherever they're from.

Who in the UK do you see as having the greatest potential to reach that kind of 'big name' status? 

Tom Gauld is already a big name but I feel like he will keep on rising into superstardom. I also want to go on record as predicting that Nick Edwards is gonna be huge.

What's next for you?

My next book Everything We Miss will be released by Nobrow in June and there's a continuation of Hildafolk planned for the end of the year. There'll also be other smaller projects appearing as the year goes on.

Hold on a second there, if you think I'm going to let you just casually tease your next book you have another thing coming, mister. Give up the goods! 

It's a kind of exploration of things that are missed or that go unseen, both the everyday and the surreal, weaved around a story of a crumbling relationship. It kind of veers off in a very different direction to Hildafolk, it's not for kids. That's about as much as I can say right now. There'll be more info and sneak peaks coming hopefully very soon.

A troll-sized thanks goes out to Luke for making our week with this interview. He's currently in the process of  finishing up his new blog, but in the meantime, we very much recommended checking out his old Blogspot blog, his inspiration Tumblr, and following the talented scoundrel on Twitter. Whilst you're off checking all those out, we'll be rifling through the bins outside of his house for any clues we can find about Everything we Miss. Better invest in a shredder, Pearson!


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