I spent three weeks in France, starting with Angouleme and then touring around the country. It was an amazing trip; life affirming and fascinating. The last time I visited France was in 2006, for a literary festival called Les Belles Étrangères, when I toured with 11 other New Zealand writers. This time I had two new books (three, if you count the new edition of Hicksville!), and that made it pretty special. It was hectic, exhausting, and exhilarating, and I came home inspired to draw a bunch of new comics.
What was Angouleme like? Is it important for a cartoonist like you to be in Angouleme? What was a typical day for you there? Did you have time to ask other authors to deface their books for you ;-)?
Angouleme is crazy. Over four days, I had about an hour and a half to explore – in between dédicaces, rencontres and interviews. So I didn’t manage to get any dédicaces myself. The one I especially wanted was Chantal Montellier, whose Futuropolis book Les Rêves du Fou was a big inspiration for me when I was a teenager in the 1980s. I missed most of the exhibitions, too, although I managed to sneak away and quickly visit the Moomin and Charlie Hebdo shows. But I can’t complain – Casterman was making good use of me being there, and I had such a great time meeting people: readers, cartoonists, journalists, scholars and even musicians (thanks to the Concert de Dessins).
It was also strange being at Angouleme a few weeks after the Charlie Hebdo murders. The increased security, the tributes and the sadness. There was a feeling of solidarity and shared commitment to resisting fear and intimidation that affected me deeply.
In your work, you often put into relief the importance of « Tintin » in your childhood. Do you think it still influences your work? How?
I think reading Tintin as a child taught me that comics could tell long, complex, multi-layered stories, and also could create an alternative world so rich and fully-realised that it felt completely real. So of course I felt compelled to make my own worlds and stories. I still go back to Tintin regularly, and learn new things from Hergé every time. There’s an integrity to his work that pushes me to be honest and to avoid compromising. Those are important lessons for any artist, I think.
Talking about « Tintin », you must be proud of being published by Casterman, Hergé’s publisher…Did you take this into account when you had to decide who would publish your graphic novels?
Yeah, it’s pretty nice. When I was writing Batgirl for DC Comics, a lot of people would say “that must be like a childhood dream coming true!” But to be honest, I was never a fan of superhero comics, and so for me writing for DC was just another job. Sharing publishers with Hergé? Now that’s a dream come true!
I’ve just read a comic strip called « Cases blanches », by Runberg and Martin (published by Grand Angle). It tells the story of a cartoonist who can’t draw the second volume of his very successful series of heroic fantasy because he can’t find pleasure in doing that anymore. It made me think of you! It’s your story they are telling in fact 😉 Have you read this book?
I haven’t read it, but now I really want to! It sounds really intriguing…
You clearly refer to the hard period and the artistic doubts you went through after publishing « Hicksville » at L’Association in 2001 in « Magic Pen ». Can you tell us what happened exactly? Did you even think of giving up comics at some point?
Well, it’s complicated. I describe some of it at the beginning of Magic Pen. I think it was a combination of ‘second album syndrome’ (after the surprising critical success of Hicksville), the pressure of trying to earn a living from personal comics (because that critical success didn’t translate into financial success!), and then working for DC Comics (writing superhero comics about which I felt ambivalent). But whatever the causes, I lost all confidence in my own abilities and became stuck and depressed. It was like losing my voice. In reality, I kept working, and produced a lot of short comics and stories, and even struggled with a few unfinished graphic novels. In the end, I started writing a comic about what I was going through, and that became the Magic Pen. Drawing the first few chapters, I could feel the weight of that depression slowly lifting, as the pleasure of making something meaningful and personal and heartfelt took hold. And the joy of drawing! I’ve never enjoyed drawing so much before – it was like regaining the ability to fly. This book renewed me.
What is paradoxical is the fact you « hated » (is the word too strong or would you use the same one?) your job for American comics and yet it helped you earn your living until you found inspiration again…
Hated is probably too strong a word (although I may have used it now and then!). I struggled with the DC work; it didn’t come naturally to me, unlike all of my other work. But of course, it was good regular money – something I’d never had from comics. We had young children, and the DC work was very welcome! But I paid a price, too, because I think spending so much of my time and energy writing those stories made it a lot harder for me to do my own work. I was writing stories that didn’t come from me – or at least from the part of me that something like Hicksville or the comics in At Work come from. After a while, it felt like I’d forgotten how to find my way back to that place; like my imagination was stuck in exile in Gotham City (a fairly dark place to be a refugee). So the DC work was a double-edged sword. I learned a lot from it, and it saved us from a financial hole. I also got to work with some great people, and I’m proud of some of the comics we made. But for a few years it almost silenced me.
For Sam Zabel, one of your graphic novels’ characters, the « solution » was to read old comics again and to feel the pleasure of reading these comics again. Was it the same for you? Which books gave you the will to create again?
That’s a good question. To be honest, I nearly gave up reading comics for a long time. There were a few things I dipped into, but my feelings about comics were so mixed up it was often painful to be reading them. I did pick up a book of Yves Chaland comics and it was like falling in love again. He’d been a big inspiration when I was in my teens, and rediscovering his work helped me to embrace my own ligne claire roots, which had an affect on how I drew Magic Pen. I also found myself attracted to the work of cartoonists who were clearly following a very personal path, regardless of whether anyone else would understand what they were doing. I read everything I could by Chester Brown and John Porcellino and the New Zealand cartoonists Timothy Kidd and Barry Linton. They reminded me to draw as though no-one was watching.
It seems Nicolas Grivel, your French agent, played an important role too…
Nicolas has been great. I never had an agent before, and now I don’t know how I managed without one! I stayed in Nicolas’ apartment in Paris, and it’s like a wonderful, tiny shrine to great comics from all over the world. He showed me beautiful comics from China, Russia, Poland, Italy, Australia, South Korea…. He’s become a good friend.
Do you still write stories for American comics or did you stop doing that?
I haven’t written for the mainstream corporate American comics industry since 2004. But I’m very involved with what used to be called the ‘alternative’ comics scene there, and Magic Pen is published by Fantagraphics in the US, one of my favourite publishers in the world. There are many amazing things happening in American comics at the moment, but very few of them are happening at DC or Marvel.
You struggled a lot during that hard period with the way you draw. In an interview, you said you were, for a period of time, upset with the flaws and the limitations of your drawing. It’s hard to believe when we read « Magic Pen »…
Thanks. Of course, when I look at it, I see plenty of flaws and limitations! My drawing is kind of awkward and inept, and I spent years struggling against that. But when I finally stopped struggling and accepted that’s just how my drawing was and would always be, I started to enjoy it a lot more, and I think it improved, too. I learned to work with the way I draw, rather than fighting it all the time. It’s a lot more fun that way.
One of the interests of « At Work » is that it shows how your drawing style evolved (how it experimented, sometimes groped about…). How did it get to what it is now?
Every story was a chance to try something new out, and for a long time I felt like I didn’t have one drawing style. I still try out all kinds of things in my sketchbook, and am about to draw a short comic using pencil and watercolours, which will probably look very different to Magic Pen. Drawing is a form of play, and playing’s no fun if you do it the same every time.
For « Magic Pen », for example, you’ve decided to use colors…
When I first started drawing Magic Pen, it was in black & white. The first two chapters were published that way in Atlas, a comic book series I did with Drawn & Quarterly. But later I started serializing the story online, and I realized I could use colour without having to worry about printing costs. As soon as I began colouring it, I fell in love with it. I still love strong black & white comics, too, but using colour was like having a brand new toy.
How did it feel when « Hicksville » was published again, 14 years after its first edition? In its new introduction, you write you had the temptation to correct some flaws or approximations…
Even now, when I look at Hicksville, I have to resist the urge to redraw the whole book. The oldest drawings in that book date from 1992 and parts of it are pretty messy. But Hicksville is a very personal, heartfelt book, and redrawing it would feel dishonest.
I’d been talking with various publishers about doing a collection of my short comics for years, but one day my New Zealand publisher Fergus Barrowman proposed we do something that could come out while everyone was waiting for me to finish Magic Pen. So we did At Work. It was quite powerful going through all that old work, because every comic was associated with a particular time and place and the people around me while I was drawing it. Many of them are dedicated to my wife Terry, or to other friends and family. I met and fell in love with Terry while drawing the first story in the book, and the last story shows our teenage kids. I think it’s probably my favourite of all the books I’ve done, because it’s full of people I love.
Your graphic novels are very autobiographical and yet you use a fictional alter ego (Sam Zabel). Why did you make that choice? Is it easier like this? Does it allow you to have more freedom?
I almost never do straight autobiography. For me, writing about Sam is a way of exploring life, rather than just describing it. With Sam, I can experiment; he does things I would never do, and his reactions aren’t always mine. I can put him into situations I’ve never experienced, and see what might happen. It’s more free, and also more interesting. I learn more that way.
Let’s talk about « Magic Pen » : it opens with 2 quotes, one by Yeats, a poet, and one by Nina Hartley, a porn star! What did you intend to do with that surprising opening?
One of the questions running through Magic Pen is the relationship between fantasy and responsibility. Does it matter what we fantasies we indulge and explore? Is there a moral dimension to our daydreams and stories we share? By opening with Yeats and Hartley, I was able to set up a conversation – a debate, even – because the two quotes contradict each other, and yet both seem true to me. As the story unfolds, the implications of both are drawn out and explored, and I allow the discussion to continue without taking sides. Or at least, that was my intention. Because I really didn’t have an answer to those questions, and I wanted to see where the conversation took me. Sometimes the characters (or even narrator) are saying one thing – taking a stand – while the drawings quietly suggest an alternative view. People change their minds, or they stay with unresolved doubts for a while, allowing the reader (and me!) to let the implications marinate and stew. A few people think I’m pushing a point of view with the book, but that wasn’t the case. I was having a conversation – with myself, with my characters and with the act of drawing and of telling a story. My hope, I guess, is that readers will continue that conversation themselves.
One of « Magic Pen »’s characters has an important role : it’s Alice Brown. She is Sam’s guide, in a way. It’s thanks to her he finds his way towards creation and reading pleasure again. What did you want to say with that character?
Alice is one of my favourite characters. She grew in the telling, and took on aspects I wasn’t expecting. So I wasn’t trying to say anything in particular (I’m not really interested in using comics to send a message) – instead, I was exploring, and Alice was a great companion to have on the journey. Like Sam, I’m in my forties, and when I started drawing comics, it was a very different world. But Alice is just starting out, at a time when comics are much more diverse and the internet has changed everything. Alice helped me explore things like fan-fic and webcomics and how today’s fans play with popular characters and settings and engage with fictional realities in a very active, creative way. Alice draws Harry Potter/Doctor Who porn, talks about gender politics and stereotypes and hurls herself into a fun and adventure with abandon. She’s forced to learn a few things herself along the way, too. Alice is the future of comics – or at least, she’s one of comics’ many futures.
You often insert comics extracts by Sam Zabel or other fictional characters within your own stories, like mises en abîme. Is it a way for you to complexify the narration, to make it more varied? It also allows you to pay homage to cartoonists you like, like Eric Resetar in « Magic Pen ».
My son makes fun of me for always being “meta” in my comics and stories. The truth is, I can’t help it. In a way, we all experience life like this: the stories we read, the films we watch, the media we look at – our lives are interwoven with them in such complex ways it seems impossible to untangle it all. So the whole mise an abîme thing seems very natural to me. Especially when I’m drawing a story about our relationship to stories.
Your love for comics is rampant in your stories (so much so that they are the topics of your graphic novels). According to me, it’s what makes your work so original and personal. Will your future books focus on comics again or will the topics be different?
Some will, and some won’t. I have a bunch of stories I want to draw, and some of them are about comics, some are about fantasy and gaming, and others are about politics and history and travel and maps and sex and love. But the next one is about something different.
Reading « At Work » we learn Kupe is one of your other names. Which leads us to an important character who’s got the same name in « Hicksville »…There has a to be a part of you in him…
Kupe is one of my middle names, and when I was in my teens, I began using it as my nom de plume. The original Kupe, however, is a legendary figure in New Zealand history: the first navigator to discover the islands of Aotearoa (New Zealand). So it always seemed like a very significant name to carry, and it might be one reason I’m so obsessed with exploration and maps.
When I saw you in Nancy, you told me you had a couple of projects in mind. You told me about « Atlas » and also about a collaboration with Jimmy Beaulieu, the Canadian cartoonist. Can you tell us more about them? When can we expect to read them?
Actually, I’m reluctant to say too much about future projects, because I’m always working on more stories than I can finish, and not all of them see print. But I promise you won’t have to wait so long for the next book. The dam has burst, and I’m writing and drawing like crazy!
Your passion for role playing may be a little less known…I think you also have a project dealing with this….
Yes, one of the things I’m working on is focused on role playing games: the people who create and play them. I’ve been playing RPGs for about 35 years, and I think of them as the other great artform in my life. There’s actually a story in At Work about role playing games – called ‘The Physics Engine.’ That was my first serious story about that world, but it won’t be the last.
You seem to read a lot of franco-belgian cartoonists. Which ones are your favorite cartoonists and in what way do they influence your work?
There are so many! I grew up obsessed with Tintin (and also Astérix and Lucky Luke, but for me Tintin was like the Bible), and learned at an early age that France and Belgium was the home of countless wonderful comics – few of which were ever translated into English. And living in New Zealand, it was almost impossible to find anything beyond Tintin and Astérix. In the late 1970s, my Dad (who has always been interested in comics) brought home a copy of Pilote (he’d been given it by a student). By sheer luck, it was the issue that contained Jean Giraud’s ‘La Déviation.’ And around then, Heavy Metal magazine brought the work of Moebius, Druillet, Montellier and many others to the Anglophone world. I managed to find a comic shop in Australia who imported BD, and I soon became obsessed with (À Suivre) magazine, which introduced me to Tardi, Comès, Servais, Pratt, etc. I took French as a subject all through my school years, just so I could read BD. And later, when I lived in England for a few years, I discovered ‘la nouvelle vague’ – Baudoin, Blutch, Blain, and the L’Association cartoonists.
I guess for me, franco-belgian comics always seemed like a paradise – full of long, complex, creatively ambitious comics for adults. People took comics seriously. It was such a contrast with the state of comics in New Zealand (and even in America and the UK). Of course, I know now that the reality is more complicated and it’s not really a comics utopia; the industry has its problems. But every time I visit France or Belgium – and especially Angoulême – that feeling comes rushing back. BD are truly a wonder of the modern world.
In the interview I mentioned earlier, you said there would not be a better time to be making comics than now. I agree with you because there seems to be a real creative freedom right now. And yet some authors, some of them quite famous, find it difficult to make a living thanks to their art…
Yes, it’s a tough time for many authors right now. But coming from New Zealand, I’m used to that. Many of my favourite cartoonists have never made a living from their art, but they carry on drawing beautiful comics year after year. I’m sure if they earned proper money from it, they could draw a lot more. But we find a way. I hope things improve, but still we will find a way.
Is it difficult to be a cartoonist in New-Zealand? I mean, we’ve got the feeling it would probably be easier for you if you lived in France…
Oh man. Yeah, it would be easier. There is NO comics industry in New Zealand. Nothing. Well, actually, that’s slowly changing. In the last few years, a couple of publishers have tentatively published a graphic novel here or there. And just recently, three specialist comics publishers have started up: Pikitia Press, Earth’s End Publishing and Square Planet Comics. The number of books coming out is very small, and few people are making real money, but it’s changing very fast. And the other huge change is, of course, the internet – which makes it so much easier for New Zealand cartoonists to find a global audience and international publishing opportunities.
When I was growing up, it seemed the only way for a New Zealand cartoonist to build a career was to leave. Colin Wilson did just that; he helped found a New Zealand comics magazine in 1977 (called Strips), and then moved to Europe, where he ended up drawing La Jeunesse de Blueberry and many other BD and comics. My old friend Roger Langridge moved to England and has had great success in British and American comics. And my own comics were published in the US and Europe for years before any New Zealand publishers were brave enough to do a local edition.
But today we have cartoonists like Li Chen and Greg Czaykowski, whose webcomics have strong international followings, and thanks to crowdfunding through Kickstarter and Patreon, they’re turning that into a viable professional career. It’s a whole new world, and it’s very exciting.
To be honest, we don’t hear much about the comics scene in New Zealand. Who are the cartoonists from New-Zealand we should read?
Hopefully you’ll be hearing more about the New Zealand scene soon. More local cartoonists are finding European publishers, like Ant Sang, whose graphic novel Dharma Punks will be coming out in France from Presque Lune (and in America from Conundrum). Other New Zealand cartoonists who have been published in Europe include Mat Tait, Ben Stenbeck, Karl Wills, Tim Gibson, Timothy Kidd, Tim Bollinger and Tim Danko (I don’t know why so many New Zealand cartoonists are called Tim, but there it is). I think there’ll be more, too; there’s so much good work being made. Sarah Laing is drawing a graphic novel about Katherine Mansfield (who grew up in New Zealand and died in France), which looks great.
If you want to see more of New Zealand’s comics scene, we put together a sampler a few years ago, which can be downloaded free here: http://hicksvillepress.com/nzcomics/
And because that’s only the tip of the iceberg, I made a page with more links here: http://hicksvillepress.com/nzcomicslinks/
My friend Adrian Kinnaird has also written a beautiful coffee table book on New Zealand comics, which you can get here: https://www.mightyape.co.nz/product/From-Earths-End-The-Best-of-New-Zealand-Comics/21467230
And there are two great blogs about New Zealand comics, one by Adrian:
And one by Pikitia Press’ Matt Emery: http://www.pikitiapress.com/