Bruce Mutard comic book artist and author talks to Dark Matter. This interview took place in a noisy coffee shop so is only available in text format.
Bruce Mutard creates comics as both author and illustrator. In the following interview Bruce talks to Nalini Haynes about creating comic books, the comic book industry, studying at Monash University and teaching at Melbourne University.
Hi Bruce, thanks for talking to Dark Matter. You’re teaching a creative writing course at Melbourne Uni.
Yes it’s called their Master of Creative Writing.
I thought you were studying not teaching.
No. At Monash I’m a student, at Melbourne Uni I was invited to be a sessional tutor. They’ve got a Master of Creative Writing program. Dr Elizabeth McFarlan, who is the co-ordinator of that particular course, was offering a subject teaching comics as part of the literature program to introduce students to the idea of writing comics.
Yes, it’s coming a long way. The medium has gained some wide acceptance when academic institutions and grants bodies and the general literature scene accepts that it exists as opposed to being the bastard child in the ghetto out the back, chained in a dark room in the garret somewhere. In this instance she co-ordinates the course, but she’s asked a number of local practitioners to give tutorials. Not one person doing all the tutorials. I got asked to do two of them, one of which was ‘writing for images’ and the other was ‘writing history for comics’ because I’ve done a lot of historical fiction in my work and also historical fact in comics. Writing for images was aimed at teaching students who are budding writers how to write for pictures, how to write for an artist who’s going to tell the story with sequential images. Most of my work I’ve written and illustrated myself but in recent years I’ve done a lot more illustration for other writers and that’s taught me a lot about how writers find it difficult to accommodate images for what is going to be turned into images as opposed to what will be left in words. In writing and prose form there are a great amount of descriptive passages. In comics you draw that, and what is left behind is mostly dialogue and perhaps an internal monologue or narrative with captions giving readers enough clues to know where they are. A lot of writers, particularly those who aren’t experienced with writing for comics, overwrite; they write too many words. Essentially what I was doing in the writing for images class was giving tips on how to accommodate the images.
These students were mostly young women, which to me, is really nice. This gives me great hope for the medium. A wide variety of practitioners means a wide variety of types of comics which means a wide variety of readers. This helps to prove that the medium is something for everyone and not just for adolescent males of all ages.
The other tutorial I gave was writing history, because so much of my own work has been of a historical bent. The Sacrifice was set in 1939 to 1942 in a very obvious, recognisable Melbourne. The work I’ve been doing for Macmillan Education, called ‘Stories from Australia’s History’ is a series of books with comics, based on historical facts and aimed at late primary years. Some of the titles I have done were Captain Arthur Philip and the First Fleet, Weary Dunlop and the Thai Burma Railway, The Anzacs in Gallipoli, Vida Goldstein and the Suffragettes, Mary MacKillop. I felt I could impart some information on what to think of when writing history. Unlike writing history in prose form you have to research all the imagery as well. In documentary films these days they do a lot of recreations where they interview actors as historical figures. You’re touching the same area when you’re creating historical comics. I think the program has been very successful, so hopefully I’ll get invited back.
I’ve been doing this for 20 years and as a professional for 10 years. That makes it sound more financially rewarding than it has been, but I have received recognition from others and my peers that I know a little about the medium by sheer experience. There are four graphic novels out now and a lot of short stories and other things. I guess I have some runs on the board as they say.
When you say you’ve been professional for 10 years does that mean you haven’t needed a day job for 10 years?
I probably did need one but I didn’t do it.
You managed to scrape by.
I managed to scrape by, precisely. And I’m still scraping by to some degree but in a lot better fashion than I have been. It’s been on the up. The demands on my time have been a great deal more than it once was. I could do with 2 of me now. Unfortunately as a professional I can’t delegate because what they’re wanting is my particular drawing and writing skills, and I can’t delegate those to someone else. I could get others to colour the actual work but not the line drawing, as that is an artist’s signature. I have had my work coloured by others and quite well too, so I may well start to do more of that. I might sub-contract some work, but the second volume of The Sacrifice – The Fight – is a personal work, so I don’t think I can get anyone else to help.
It’s your baby.
It’s my big baby. I just put in an application to the Australia Council to get a grant to hopefully do it next year. That would free up my time so I could say no to all these other commercial demands and just focus on this book. You have to put your application in and hope for the best. If you’re not in it, you can’t win it.
What is it that you’re studying at Monash and why are you studying at this point in time?
I’m doing a Master of Design.. When you do a post-graduate degree in the department of Fine Art and Design at Monash, it’s thesis by project, not an 80,000 word annotated piece of writing like a traditional thesis. These theses are examined by exhibition, so a painter, performance or photomedia artist will produce an exhibition and display it in a gallery; a designer will produce a project that examines a problem in graphic or industrial design and presents a proposal that might work better. Research in the creative arts is about investigating some aspect of your artistic practice. The University gives you an incubator to test out ideas you generally can’t do in professional practice. One plus is you get feedback from a community of other artists from other mediums, so it’s quite stimulating in that regard. My own project is to test the idea of comics as a medium and not just a genre of literature. We all think of comics being a thing of paper bound in a serial form like a comic, or in book form like you find in a bookstore or read in libraries. I don’t think that is really true, although it’s certainly a common perception. What we’re really talking about is the use of sequential images to tell a story be it fact or fiction. That has a lot of very interesting and challenging formal properties.
I’ll be visiting Italy and looking at the narrative fresco cycles in the Italian churches that tell the life cycle of Christ, Mary, saints and so forth. In my view they are comics but on walls painted on plaster. By analysing their formal properties, my goal is to produce my own fresco cycle, but utilising all the comic signifiers. So they’ll have dialogue balloons, movement lines, all those signifiers you normally find in comics. But you’ll see this on a wall in an exhibition as opposed to a paper form. This should back my idea that the medium is independent of its physical form or the medium in which it is made.
But that’s not exactly what I started with. My first project was what happens to a story when you write a script and you tell that same story in images. The process of transformation of words into images changes the story because the way you tell the story is different. I’ve found over the years that when I’ve written a detailed script and then I start to prepare the layouts to tell the story visually I have to rewrite everything. It requires a different thinking process. When I’m writing in linear prose form it seems to operate from a different part of the brain and you tell the story in a different way. If I’m going to tell the story with pictures, the images shift the characters around;, you’re putting background in and things you don’t think about when you’re writing in words. When you’re writing in words you describe a character once. But when you’re creating a comic you’re describing the character in panel after panel after panel; it’s what they call redundancy. You’re manipulating the readers point of view of that character in panel after panel – from close up, to medium shot, long shot, worms eye view and so on all these techniques borrowed from cinema. The way you tell the story visually is different because all these details are appearing where you don’t write them in prose form. I was interested in exploring that in my project, and it’s still relevant to the project that I’m doing. When I started out at Monash I thought there might be some universality to this transformation, some uniform concept that undergirded it. But I found through research that each practitioner who writes and draws approaches it in a different way. Some write detailed scripts and then do breakdowns and then do the drawings as I do, but others might jump more into the pictures to tell their story visually from the start and write later. With all the different methods there are no universals other than there are differences between telling stories with words and telling the same story with pictures. Anything can be told with pictures and words as well as just words alone, but they will do it differently. So that’s it essentially.
When do you expect to finish?
End of 2013.
So a couple more years.
Hopefully I’ll get time to do it. There’ll be an exhibition at some point, when I materialise this fresco cycle. The fresco cycle will include the life of Christ or Mary [not now; research in situ has redirected it]. I’ve been noodling a graphic novel on Jesus for years anyway, called Son of Man. He’s just one of those fascinating persons in history. I’m not a Christian or a believer, but I find him a fascinating individual. Like many, I want to own him by writing my own version of his story or an aspect of it. My aim was to fill in the missing years between the nativity and the time he starts his mission. I wanted to fill that gap with what made him a missionary. I wouldn’t be the first, but I’ve nurtured this idea for years. It’s not taking the shape of a graphic novel in quite the way I originally imagined, but you don’t stand still, you evolve in your practice; embrace new ideas and concepts. Sometimes I think serendipity works to shape a project in ways you never expected. As a creative practitioner, I think it’s best to allow that; you’ll learn an awful lot if you do. I embrace the idea of interrogating your practice. Don’t ever rest on your laurels or skills. Always continue to improve. Always try new things and push yourself so you don’t get bored. It’s more rewarding. You can receive praise or reward for the work you’re doing, but know the bar has been set at a certain level and, like a pole vaulter, you just have to keep pushing the bar up a little bit more. It keeps the motivation alive.
Is that why you decided to do the Master of Design? To keep raising the bar?
Yes. It was a chance to do something outside of my normal practice. Plus making art or being a writer is a fairly isolating exercise. It was a chance to connect with others. You need to get out, like today with this interview, and at Supanova. There is also some talk of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club wanting some of the comic book crowd to introduce comics to their members to create some synergy. I hope that comes off, we need more of that kind of thing.
At Supanova, you set up a table and try and sell a few books and meet your readers. I find that a very fulfilling experience. Every time I go to these things some people come up and say, ‘I’ve seen your books; our school library’s got that, and I really like it.’ Or a teacher came up at the recent Supanova and said, ‘Oh, you’re Bruce Mutard, let me shake your hand. I’ve got your books in the school library and I make all my year 12 English students read it.’ You find out where your work has managed to make its way out in the world. That kind of feedback makes it all worthwhile. The financial side of it is nothing special, but so long as I get by, I don’t really care. If other people appreciate the work and what I do, then that motivates me to keep going. Even with the commercial clients, they keep coming back, and they tell me they appreciate what I do. I get good feedback and that’s all I need. In a way, it’s a reworking of the phrase doing it for love instead of for money. In this case you’re not just doing it because you love doing it, but because other people love what you do. That is even better. Most people don’t create art in isolation just for themselves; most people want an audience. Most writers desire to publish their short stories and novels to find a big audience. We all have that dream. I certainly have it. It’s certainly nice when you do get a public profile, to get some work out there and that feedback starts to come through. I’m sure you’ve noticed it yourself, by producing your zine, you’ve received a lot of feedback from people you’ve never heard of or known before, who appreciate what you do. That’s fulfilment in itself. It’s really nice to get those emails and letters coming in. You make new connections. I find I don’t need anything else.
Yes. In response to comments made by Meg Mundell in the last issue about living in a space shuttle, a little one-liner email came back saying ‘I must get my bid in for the Endeavour ;)’ It was great.
Like the old tram cars and train carriages some people have converted into houses. But a space shuttle? Well… Somehow I think they’ll wind up as museum pieces. There’ll be one in the Smithsonian and NASA will probably have its own giant exhibition and museum and they’ll want to build a giant dome over it, build some naval museum with ships and so forth, get on board and walk around. Good idea. That’s the kind of quirky idea that comes along that you don’t expect. That’s what’s nice. I did my old Street Smell comics, a serial publication I put out in the mid 90s. That was much more zine-like. It was printed because back in those days the internet was still a pretty primitive thing.
It certainly was, soiled and all. I had these printed out and used to sell them via various grungy record stores and comic book distributors in the city and mail order. I put it into Fact Sheet Five in the States. This mag was a big zine that came out quarterly in the US, which was basically a giant catalogue of all the zines in English. It reviewed them all. There were thousands. It was by no means grungy and underground, but it was a network where you could find out what everyone else was doing. I had a PO Box at the time and got dozens of letters from all kinds of places. I even got a letter from some bloke on death row in San Quentin through this. He wrote, telling me how he was thinking of doing a comic himself, kind of X rated and wanted me to do the art. I went ‘eeeerrrr… thanks but no thanks’.
You get that kind of feedback. It is a lot easier to be connected these days because of the internet. There’s something nice about the old snail mail and getting the hand written letters. Maybe it’s just being old school and being over 40.
Well I suppose I’m over 40 too, but I still like getting a hand written letter. As long as I can read it. I can’t read my grandmother’s handwriting.
I don’t get snail mail anymore unfortunately. Because my books are published through a mainstream publisher, I don’t get that personal contact. My address is not available, no email address or anything is in there. If Allen & Unwin do get mail for me, I don’t get it. I think people try to connect with authors in other ways as opposed to writing to the publisher. That’s where conventions come in, people queue to get their books signed. Here’s your chance to meet someone you love. You can ask at least one question, even if it’s just the usual one of ‘where do you get your ideas from’. Hopefully most writers or stars take that in good humour, even if you trot out a standard answer.
I like Jennifer Fallon’s answer.
Everywhere! Because then everything’s tax deductible!
I must use that one myself. I hope it’s not a patented response. I could use the tax deduction as well.
Unfortunately when you’re working with pencil and ink there are not many tax deductions.
I use a computer to scan in drawings, clean them up to make them presentable, then colour them on the computer. As you can see from the ink splotches on my fingers, I have been doing inking today. It’s still a tactile medium; the Wacom tablet hasn’t taken over yet. Instead of whiting out on the original page, I now do it on the computer. The process I usually work through is after I’ve written the script, done the breakdown of the layouts and worked out fairly accurately what I’m going to put on a given page, I do it in a light HB pencil. Then I go over that with a 2B pencil, a softer, darker pencil to fix the lines I want. Then I ink all that, which finesses the art further. I use a Hunt 101 nib in a pen dipped in ink to do organic lines for animals, human beings and nature. I use a tech pen, which has a very even, sterile, mechanical line for man-made objects like cars, building, brickwork and so on. After I do that I rub the pencil out. I start to like the page at that point, because usually, my pages are so messy by the time I get through the layers of pencil and ink, with all the splotches and mistakes. Inevitably you smear ink across the page because your finger rubs through it before it’s dried out properly. So, I rub all the pencil out and I can see what I’ve produced. I used to use white gouache to clean up all the ink. Then I scan all the pages in to do either colouring or half-toning. I find myself correcting even more on the computer. Part of the reason is you can blow up a panel on the screen quite large so the mistakes magnify as well. There’s a never ending process of fixing.
So you use the Wacom tablet for erasing mistakes?
Yes. I’ll also decide that arm doesn’t look quite right, so I’ll fix it on my tablet. I can erase and ink a new line in. You can’t tell the difference. So I’ve dropped the white out stage, but I’m not at the stage where I can draw directly onto the Wacom tablet right from the word go (although I have done it). Whether that will happen down the track, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can get away from the page, the tactility of it. I’m now allowing myself to use the computer for lettering where I used to hand letter on the page. I’m a relentlessly fussy writer, so I was always keep finessing my writing; I’d see a line and think: that could be phrased a bit better, so, I’d tweak it. Now, if you’ve got hand lettering on the original page and you decide a whole speech bubble is superfluous because it’s over-written, then there’s a big blank spot in the art underneath it. So, you have to fill that gap in. With the computer I can do that. The Sacrifice and The Silence were largely done before Allen & Unwin became my publisher. Thus, I had to tweak a lot of dialogue which was already hand written on the page, which meant a hell of a lot of repairing images by filling in the gaps or what have you. So these days I’m more inclined to computer letter, so I can tweak to my heart’s content, merely editing words.
What software programs are you using?
You’re even lettering in Photoshop?
Yes. I know some people use Illustrator but that’s a program I’ve hardly opened. I will try it or aspects of colouring or lettering. It’s a matter of finding time to learn. Photoshop I’m comfortable with. Because I’m always under time pressure, I tend to stick with what I know even if it’s not the most efficacious way of doing it.
Painter is another program I’ve heard is very good for illustration and colouring, with a lot of very intuitive tools, but I’ve only just acquired that. I need time to use the tool, which will probably come during the actual production of a project. This happened with Photoshop, I learnt more or less on the go and I got better as I went along. On some projects I had to go back because I’d learn something new which meant something already completed could have been done better. But you have to draw the line at some point and move on, as you can’t constantly finesse an old work. Better to show improvement over time as opposed to trying to get something old up to scratch. Having said that, my last graphic novel ‘A Mind Of Love’, was an opportunity to completely rework an old graphic story of mine for a new printing. Originally called ‘Love To Know You’, this first graphic novel of was serialised in Street Smell comics in the mid 90s. It was never finished due to motive, opportunity and money running out. Black House Comics in Sydney offered to put out the collected work. I thought that was good because only 3 parts of a 5 part story were printed previously. The quality of the art and writing is apprenticeship level compared to what I do now, but I thought I could go back and make it more mature. If I’m going to put my name to a book, I want to be proud of it, which I couldn’t do in its original form. So I went back and fixed it up. I couldn’t transform it to the same standard I do now, but I could fix the worst mistakes, the bad drawing, the awkward dialogue and over-writing. Writing less in the medium only comes with experience.
Images can do more storytelling, so when you get skilled you can rely more on them, but as a newbie, I at least, relied more on words. So, I scanned all the pages in and started knocking out a lot of the old writing because I realised the old images did a lot of the work of communication. I found myself knocking out dialogue balloons completely or cutting them down by 2/3rds. Naturally, I had to fill in a fair bit of drawing. Many of the original drawings – especially figures -were awkward, so I fixed them, too. I spent 2 months reworking it, but now I’m happy to have my name on it.
How did you get into comics in the first place?
I wasn’t a big comic reader as a kid. I used to read Asterix and Tintin, Uncle Scrooge and the Disney comics. I was never a fan of superheroes. In my teenage years I didn’t really pay much attention to comics at all. What brought me into the medium was picking up a Heavy Metal, an adult comic magazine found widely in newsagents of the time [mid – 80s]. Back then, I was interested in illustrated fantasy art. I was a big fan of Boris Vallejo and his wife Julie, Frazetta and so on. Heavy Metal seemed to carry a lot of similar painted imagery but in comic stories by European artists like Enki Bilal, Guido Crepax, Milo Manara, Eleuteri Serpieri, Moebius, Hermann and so on. I thought this stuff was wonderful.
After that, I discovered Minotaur books in Melbourne CBD back when they were still on Swanston Street. I went in there to chase up some more things like Heavy Metal and discovered a lot of other comics, so, I slowly navigated my way into what was called then alternative or underground comics. I also discovered the Dark Knight Returns, the Frank Miller adaptation of Batman and Watchmen. I soon got very excited by comics, not merely for their fine illustrarion, but for their stories.
At the time, I was doing graphic design at Swinburne. There were a group of us there who were all into comics, and we made ‘Jam’ comics; I’d write a panel, draw an image and pass it on to the next guy. He’d add to the story. It’d just get passed around and it was quite fun to do. But, I was having some personal issues at the time and got kicked out at the end of second year. I was adrift. I started doing drawing some comics amongst other things such as building up an illustration portfolio to become an illustrator. I was heavily influenced by a Robert Crumb comic called Hup # 1. He was telling stories in a way that spoke to me more deeply in my time of somewhat minor crisis where I was wondering what to do with my life. I started producing B&W comics of a similar nature to Crumb, amateurish copies of a sort, with a similar aesthetic. I started to get exposed to more comics and other artists, Peter Bagge and Daniel Clowers, certain mainstream hero practitioners like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. It just snowballed after that. I always liked telling stories and drawing, and with comics you do both, so it seemed to me the medium and I were made for each other. The rest is history so to speak.
You said you’ve been in the industry for 20 years, and for 10 years you’ve been professional. How did you get from there to here?
Dogged persistence. Unwillingness to let go of this particular bone like a pit bull terrier I suppose. It was something I particularly like to do. Others were making a living at it and I was determined to be one of them. I took the hard road; it was going to be on my own terms, doing the work I wanted to do. I didn’t become an illustrator for superhero comics for instance, which I could have done and developed a drawing style suitable for telling those types of stories of heroes in spandex, monsters and stuff. I don’t particularly like to read them, so I didn’t want to make a living doing something that I didn’t like to read. I wanted to tell stories I wanted to tell.
The transition really came when my skill level matured to the point where it stood up against any other practitioner out there; that is to say, it was comparable. In no way would I say it was better, but it matched professional standards. The first real professional work I did was a short graphic novel called The Bunker. I sent it on spec to Jim Valentino, who was then [about 2002], chief publisher at Image Comics in the US, one of the four major companies in comic publishing over there. It was very unlike anything Image normally do which is monsters, superheroes, vigilantes, all of that sort of thing. But I knew Jim Valentino started out as a more underground, black & white artist in his early days, and he’d probably be simpatico with what I did, and it turned out he was. He offered to publish my book. That was my first real professional recognition that said I matched it with the other professionals.. The book came out in the middle of 2003.
In the interim I’d been working on another book called The Silence, with quite a different shape and form. Eventually it came out with Allen & Unwin. Image Comics were going to publish it as well, but it fell through due to the vagaries of the comic market. This operates as a direct market. Books and comics among other things are solicited to retailers about three months in advance of release in a catalogue called Previews. These generally go to specialty retailers like Minotaur, Alternate Worlds and so forth. There are about 4,500 to 5,000 of them around the world. They would then order on spec . That meant that their ordering practices were inevitably conservative, especially since they had to pay in advance too. They couldn’t tell how many books they were going to sell and they were buying on a non-returnable basis. Retailers always ordered what they thought would sell, and anything new or untried such as I – an unknown author – they’re much less keen to try because they don’t want to order 10 copies of a book and not have them sell. It’s far better to have a new Neil Gaiman and know that you’re going to sell 200 of them because he’s a bankable name. You run into the old paradox that you have to get started somewhere.
Anyway, Image ran it through 2 orders. The first one didn’t sell particularly well in advance orders and the second one the market was deflating even more. The return was worse so it wasn’t worth printing. So that was the end of that. Via an unconventional path, that book did get me over the eligibility hurdle to try for a grant from the Australia Council to produce a new graphic novel.
Were you the first person to go that path from the comic scene?
For a comic I have a feeling I might have been. I may well have been the first successful applicant. This was in 2005. I won the grant. Surprised the hell out of me. The following year I began working on The Sacrifice, which is my first major graphic novel. I always had in mind an Australian setting:. early years of World War 2, recognisable Melbourne. I wanted an Australian publisher to take it on, a graphic novel no less. I spent a lot of time researching the material and I produced the first 60 pages of the book as a sample to send off to publishers.
By the end of 2006 I had run out of money, so I thought I’d submit it to publishers cold and hopefully someone might like it. The first one I tried was Allen & Unwin. Two weeks later I got a call from Erica Wagner who said she loved it and wanted to publish it. An unsolicited submission that actually worked. They tell you these things don’t work these days, but again it was pure serendipity; she was a big fan of graphic novels and unbeknownst to me she had been wanting to develop a line of Australian graphic novels for publishing. She already had Nicki Greenberg’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby under contract and was looking for more. It must have been a bigger surprise for her to have a graphic novel from an Australian author lob on her desk. ‘Where did this come from?’ She had to sell the book to her head office – which she did. I sent her The Silence as well and they decided to publish both, but do The Sacrifice first even though The Silence was ready to go. That was a marketing decision. I had to spend another year and a half to finish The Sacrifice, which was published in April 2008. The Silence followed in September 2009. This profile got me other work. So my career developed from there.
The more visible you become the more opportunities arise. In this industry you can’t be an overnight success. You suddenly become known, you appear to be an over night success.
You become an overnight success after many years of hard work.
Exactly. It took me 10 years full time work to become an overnight success. I kept building it brick by brick over time. There’s been no sudden swing in the form of becoming a millionaire. There’s been a slow process of building a profile, always being professional in my work whether I’m doing my own work or a commercial project. The level of commitment I give to those projects in terms of time and skill level is exactly the same. I don’t cut corners for anyone. If you’re not particularly interested in this commercial project, it’s not a subject that interests you, you still have to give it your best. The professional service is what they come back for; they know that you deliver quality on time and on budget; you get known as being extremely reliable. I found that to be a truism, so I tell any student, anyone who asks me, that this is a critical factor of professional practice. You always have to push yourself hard regardless of the ends. I will never put a work out that I feel is substandard in my view. I’m always holding myself to the most exacting standards, always pushing that bar a little higher. I don’t think I’ll ever exhaust that attitude. It can be hard work at times. You do have to be your own editor as well. I just withhold a work until I get it right, although with certain commercial projects there are deadlines that have to be met. Sometimes I know I could have done a little better but I just didn’t have the time. But you move on. Next time. Always keep positive.
So you’re like a professional athlete, always competing for your personal best.
Exactly. I think that’s the best thing you can do. It must sound uninspiring, it sounds like too much hard work. You have to honestly match yourself to the best out there. You won’t be as good as the best when you start out as it takes time. Figure out what makes your favourite novel work so well for you and others, then over time, you’ll add your own creative identity. It takes a long, long time.
As a consumer, I love to read or watch a well produced product of any kind. If I feel that I can make any of that kind of stuff, and impart what I’ve learnt to others, then I think the world will be a better place. We don’t need more content out there, we just need more quality. It’s a good thing that there’s not a lot of quality out there because we just couldn’t afford it. We do need to cherry pick. That’s a perverse way of looking at it.
Other artists or comic makers come to me for a critique. I don’t shy from being critical in a constructive way. You can’t learn otherwise. You have to be able to take constructive criticism. You don’t say ‘This is crap. It’s bad.’ You say, ‘This could be done better. This scene doesn’t really work; well, the dialogue is awkward; I can see what you’re trying to say, but you haven’t said it – or you’ve said it 3 times, it’s repetitive…’ It is the art of editing.
When I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction, I feel irresistibly drawn to wanting to edit them. So often they’re repetitive, labouring the same points. I’m reading a book at the moment. I think the story has quite a good premise but the style of prose really needs some work.
Yes, the words. Some authors really struggle with them. I find that so often. I wonder if the editing side of publishing has been diminished. The book trade is under pressure at the moment with a huge amount of competition out there and seriously declining retail sales as discretionary spending gets diverted to necessities. This started even before the global financial crisis. Editing departments have been cut back a fair bit. The Age recently reported that they’re downsizing their editing or sub-editing department in order to subcontract it out, cutting costs. I do know from the editing departments I’ve been at, that editors have to do more and more.
The numbers of books being published hasn’t seriously declined but the number of people working on them has. That means they can’t devote the time to editing in the way they really need to. I think this must be endemic to the industry. This is why so many books are coming out that are undercooked. They need more time to be worked on before they’re ready to be published. If I can help a few local practitioners, I don’t mind performing that role. I’ve read a couple of graphic novels by local creators recently and again, they’re on the right track but I went into some detail about what they need to do to improve it. But I always offer the caveat that it’s my opinion. But the basis is finding myself as a reader being stopped in my tracks, trying to work out what’s next because the layout is confusing. Sometimes, it’s trying to work out what’s contained within a panel. There’s too much unintended punctuation, so I’m not getting immersed in the story, getting jolted out of it by trying to work out what’s coming next or where to go.
Are you talking about when the sequence of panels doesn’t naturally flow on the page?
Yes. Or the content within the panel is insufficiently drawn so I can’t recognise what’s going on. Sometimes it can be a drawing where two characters look too similar and I get confused as to who is who. Or an artist hasn’t drawn much in the way of backgrounds, making it hard to put the figure into context in the place, because you don’t have all the information there to do it with. Things like that. To my mind that is not a problem and I hope the artists involved don’t take it wrong, I’m only trying to give them advice to help them improve it.
They’ve come to you for advice.
A little; usually I volunteer it. I’m hoping it will do some good in the long run. Ultimately you can only improve it by doing more drafts. So often I read a book and feel that two more drafts and it would have got it right. It’s like a lot of films. They’re clocking in at 140 minutes long and 35 minutes could have been cut out – particularly science fiction or action spectaculars. It’s really hard to justify longer than 100 minutes in a film like that. Every now and then some justify longer, but usually it’s just padding as it’s just extended action sequences strung along with a bit of story attaching them together. 35 minutes shorter and it would have been a lot tighter and punchier. Perhaps in those areas and those films I think they’ve gone to the story board first and put the script in afterwards. Or maybe they threw the script out when they put the storyboards up, saying ‘let’s do all these great sequences’. They forget that when you assemble it together as a film it might visually look great but as a story the character was hung out to dry so it doesn’t engage you as a viewer. Every now and then a film can pull it off, like Avatar. Visually spectacular, it was amazing, but the story, well….
Have you watched Monsters?
No this is just Monsters. It’s an alien invasion story with a difference. NASA was bringing alien DNA to Earth. The shuttle crashed so the DNA was let loose in the atmosphere. So these aliens spontaneously grew. I’m waiting for someone to say it’s been done before, but to me this is a unique science fiction movie. It’s addressing what you’re talking about. It was 94 minutes long. It was not a special effects extravaganza. There were special effects in it. It was all about the story, there was character development in it. I kept expecting certain things to happen but they didn’t happen.
That reminds me of an experience I had with a book recently, it never followed where you thought it was going to go, it always went in different directions. it was William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Another book I read recently by John Brunner, called Stand on Zanzibar, written in the late 60s, set in about 2010; it was weird how much of what he foresaw actually materialised. He was just extrapolating on science, technology and social trends though there were some things he couldn’t have predicted, like the information technology world we came up with. This was his magnum opus. He almost had too much in it. How much prescience his vision had was is uncanny. Most people who try to forecast the future get it way off the mark but this bloke got fairly close. He was even geopolitically accurate. The relationship of the West to Africa, for instance, where some of it was set, was strangely accurate. As was the case in the social relationships between people. One of the themes of the book was genetic engineering. Brunner was postulating that by 2010, due to concerns of overpopulation in certain countries around the world, not everyone would be permitted to reproduce. It was very much a eugenics program.
So he’s extrapolating from the Nazi’s Aryan program.
Yes, but due to Malthusian arguments of population pressures. What he saw as the packaging and manipulation of the human genome is still a real possibility.
Every now and then it pops up in the news about choosing the sex of your baby or the colour of its skin.
This was a fairly dystopian future of that. It’s a big monster of a book, but it repaid the investment of reading it. I think about it all the time.
Some of my favourite books are rather thick.
I think science fiction and fantasy offer opportunities to examine contemporary issues in a metaphorical sense. Rather than get bogged down in setting it in the present day where events can render the content outdated fairly quickly, or getting it horribly wrong, you can examine the broader currents with a analogous construction. You can get a good philosophical examination of a topic in the your story because the deeper issues are what you’re really looking at. You don’t get distracted by contemporary events. This is what motivated me to set The Sacrifice in World War II. I had some issues I felt passionate about in the lead up to the war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003. It was awkward to deal with but I didn’t want to deal with it directly. I was reading a lot of history at the time. I realised that by setting it in the past the same issues were current with the same argument and the same complexities. Regarding the war in Iraq in 2002 or 2003, I wouldn’t know what the situation would be 7 or 8 years down the track. By setting it in the past, you know what happened. The core issue that I’m trying to examine was morality in war, the idea of service, duty and so forth. It was only by doing this book that I realised how complex these issues are. It gave me the opportunity to explore it in depth. I think science fiction and fantasy can be the same and it’s exciting to read those things when you do.
Did you ever watch Babylon 5?
Erratically because of its erratic scheduling.
One of the things I like about Babylon 5 is that I watched it in the 90s, and in the 90s I could see so much of WWII, the Nazi’s taking over Europe, the Nightwatch, people grabbing for power. All of this political stuff. All this human content and real characters. I watched it 10 years later in the context of the Iraq war and all of a sudden it was so fresh, so contemporary because even though it had been made over 10 years earlier, it was the same issues.
It is a universal issue so the themes stay the same. They repeat all the time. They’re a somewhat depressing feature that the same mistakes appear to be made all the time. Deep Space Nine did that too in a way, that setting. It was always my favourite of the Star Treks actually because it had more grunt. The fixed setting, the constant characters and their storylines, the Bajorans, the Cardassians, the Dominion coming from the other quadrant. It was politically complex and was much better written. I only thought they dropped the ball a bit in the last season. I thought they were going to end with a cracker but they started with all that stuff in that bar, Vic’s bar. What were they doing wasting time with all this stuff when they had so many complex issues? The Romulans were coming in on the Dominion’s side and they dropped that almost immediately. They had all this really good stuff, I was so disappointed. Speculative fiction has the liberty to analyse and disentangle things with freedom because you can create analogues that stand in for things. You can also avoid some of the thornier issues or passions that come with a lot of issues. Just say you wanted to examine the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as an idea; you start mentioning these issues in real terms or you want to create anti-Semitic characters, you could lay yourself open to accusations of being anti-Semitic yourself. You will also most likely be overtaken by events. So if you do it with an analogue, you can create a scenario with complexity; it is not all that hard to do. You literally change the characters and the names, so with the complexity that’s built into it, you have a really good basis to examine those issues in a deep way.
So instead of a Jew, you have Bajoran, and instead of an anti-Semitic person you have a Cardassian.
Yes, that’s it. That is what human nature is. I think what a lot of these shows are trying to do and what I as an artist am trying to do is examine what it is to be human. What it is to think, feel, to have prejudices, to hate, to laugh, all these things that make human life what it is. To be a rational thinking being, to try to understand the world scientifically but also metaphysically. We use art to try to understand.
Art is the communication of my ideas, how I feel, what I think, based on what I have consumed. I put that out into the world. It has an impact on other people who then digest and regurgitate in a new form. It comes back as a work that influences me. I am of the view that the reader is an active participant in the creative work. They are not passive consumers; rather, they activate or enliven work by bringing to the work themselves and all their own personality, memory, thoughts, feelings, attitudes. Their reactions to the work are heavily influenced by this. Some won’t like it, some might, some might get a lot out of it. You can’t predict it. It’s a collaborative process and really, all I’m doing is providing a context, a field, a world for them to enter and become a part of in an almost virtual sense. To me that is fascinating.
I don’t have to do or say everything because I think I can rely on my readers to bring quite a bit of their own knowledge and experience to the work. I think I can trust them to have the intelligence to pick certain things up. They may not pick everything up but I want to give them the opportunity to do that. I think it behoves an author or any creator to not treat the audience like mugs because they’re not. Your work and their personality will create a synergy of its own kind. Give them that room; don’t treat them like an idiot by spelling things out. Be subtle. In my own practice I make a real effort to be that, to give readers enough without going too far and not become obscure, opaque, leaving them behind. You want them to enjoy it. There is a connection between the reader and the author. It is not author dominated. That is why you have so many different opinions of work. Use it as a strength rather than a potential weakness.
In critical theory it’s been explored but in a negative way, as the death of the author so to speak. Where the author as a creator of the work has been diminished because the reader brings so much to the work the author is not really an author at all. I think this has relevance but not in the way they think. The work does not exist without the author coming up with the idea and spending 3 or 4 years putting it together. How can you deny that? You can’t, but the reader brings a lot to it. It is a collaborative experience with a reader.
Today I was watching an episode of Art & Soul, a program on Aboriginal art run on SBS. There was this artwork on a hills hoist with lots of fruit bats. The fruit bats were made of fibre glass and were dotted and on the ground there were fruit bat droppings that were dotted as well. The artist’s interpretation of his own work was that this was incredibly whimsical, in contrast with a lot of his other work that is really angry. To him this was pure whimsy. If you look at it like that it’s gorgeous. The curator who was the narrator for the program said the way she saw it was that he’s got the hills hoist that is in the standard Australian backyard and you’ve got this aboriginal art in the back yard and its pervasive throughout our culture. I think both points of view bring more to the art. Would you say that is similar to what you’re saying?
Yes I would say all interpretations are valid. Even if someone says of a movie it’s just crap and didn’t like it, and doesn’t articulate much further than that, it’s still a valid opinion. Some may say they don’t like the work because they found the lead character personally repellent, and true, they’ve effectively been in the same room with them for the book or the program. It’s a valid response. Yet, in a that work, art, book, film, TV show, has succeeded because it’s had an impact. The viewer didn’t switch it over.
A negative reaction can be a good one sometimes. I always analyse why I think something is awful. It could be instructive to me. Were there serious problems with the story? Were they trying to pack too much in? Did they leave story threads dangling without tying them up and was it irritating? That’s a common complaint. When you get a more sophisticated analysis, it’s great, you get a different perspective because they’ve brought to it their own background and experience. It expands your own vision. It’s something I’ve done more in recent times. I seed my work out to get feedback in advance of the final work. I think most authors probably do this. I don’t think an author can be so assured of their capabilities that they can be certain the work is going to be whole or good. You can get too close and lose sight of the wider perspective. One of the common mistakes made is you assume too much. You know the context and the characters in the story so well that sometimes you leave too much out, because you’re inhabiting this thing so you don’t realise that someone coming in from the cold is being left out.
You know what you’re saying.
Yes, and others don’t. So you need that feedback in order to be reminded, who is this? Why is this there? You need that feedback before anything goes out so it can be picked up. That’s no great failing, it’s simply being human. It’s nice to be immersed, but bring others along with you. You need them on board, you don’t want to alienate them. Or they won’t be coming back for more, will they? And you want them back. So try as hard as possible to ensure they’re there. You can never please everyone, that’s a given. But try to ensure the ones you can’t please are in the minority. So get your work proof read by others. You can see in the acknowledgements that the work has been proof read by others.
Always work on a consensus of course. One person telling you this is not right is perhaps not quite enough, unless you can see it’s obvious. But several people coming back and saying the same thing, you know you’ve got something wrong. I did that with a work recently, just a short little one page strip coming out for the Melbourne Writers Festival based on a trip I did to Sydney and Perth called Cookies. It was essentially a series of meaningful occurrences that I saw. The comments I got back were like ‘I know where you were but I don’t think the average reader will know where you were, so you might like to signpost it better, this is Sydney, this is Perth, this is Melbourne, because you made the transitions without much indication.’ Yeah, ok, so I did that. I’m more than happy to get that kind of feedback. I was so immersed in my own experience, reflecting on my own memories, I didn’t realise I’d left the reader out. It’ll happen on a longer work too. If you’re going to get other people to do this kind of thing for you, be prepared to do the same for them.
The SF community has the Hugos for Worldcon and Chronos for Victoria. Is there anything similar for the comic community?
Overseas they do, the Eisner Awards. I think that’s given out in San Diego ComiCon, which is like a WorldCon for comics held every year in San Diego at the end of July. There is nothing like that here. There have been attempts to get something like that up called the Ledger Awards for Australian comics, but it lacks resources and a continual basis of funding or some kind of reward. So nothing here, but overseas, yes.
One of the things I’m interested in is people following their dream even if they don’t get paid for it or if they lose their job. What were you doing when comics weren’t your day job? How did you fit comics into your life when you had day jobs?
I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t had to do much in the way of day jobs. I was on the dole for a while, the unofficial government support for the arts, back in the 90s, when you could do that. I did have some day jobs. I had the dream of making a living being an author and creating novels and I’ve achieved that. So I’m doing precisely what I longed to do. For a long time it seemed an impossible dream, but through dogged persistence I got there. With a day job it is hard to do your own work, to get motivated to do it, because you spend too much energy on the day job. It’s just discipline. I would spend 1 ½ hours before going to work every day writing or drawing panels. I’d do it before work because I know I’d be too tired after. Acknowledge your own limitations. Know that life is going to get in the way. Never be disheartened, always continue. They may sound like old, corny clichés.
They’re clichés for a reason.
Yes, because they’re true. So many other authors and artists have said the same thing. It’s a constant refrain, so you have to accept it’s probably true. If you’re in a position where this dream and whatever outcome it might result in is something that you enjoy so much, you’ll find time to do it. You might be wiser to ensure that your short term goals are less ambitious so you don’t have to try chasing something that seems forever too far away, but be satisfied with short term goals. For me it was one book at a time, one story at a time. I always have lots of ideas buzzing around in my head; I’ll never live long enough to do it all. Focus on the one you’re doing now, continue with it and get it finished. There’s nothing more satisfying than a work that is finished. It might help if it’s not that ambitious. I mean you can certainly write a novel. Doing a graphic novel is harder because the labour involved in the drawing is pretty intense. It took me 3 years full time to write and draw. If you were to do that whilst holding down a full time job it would probably take 10 years. More than that, are you capable of pulling off something like that? I was only capable of pulling off that after 15 years of building up the skill. Dreams are good. They are worth holding on to. I think it’s far better to see them as not just dreams, they are a reality. They can be. All you need to do is work towards them. They will not materialise or dematerialise like a dream. You simply aim at it and do it.
So you prefer to call them goals, not just dreams.
Essentially, yes. All of them are possible. Something that can be achieved like a goal can be achieved. Do it in small increments. Set micro goals over time. A little bit every day. Building pieces every day. It does materialise. 10 years ago I thought where I am now was impossible. Suddenly I’m here. I’ve achieved what I really set out to do. I’m living a life I thought I’d never have. It just hits you. Of course then you just get on with it. I’m not going to stop now. I hope it happens for others. I hope it inspires. I think we might have to call it a day.
Thank you very much.
You’re welcome, it’s been a pleasure.