Yes, the Book Festival has been over for a week, but revisiting those hectic days, I’ve one last interview for you. Garen Ewing is best known as the creator of the Julius Chancer series The Rainbow Orchid, originally published in three books by Egmont and collected last year into a single volume. However, I’d been wondering how I’d known his name well before reading the books. It had been niggling at me for years until recently I noticed in an interview that he said in the mid-1980s he’d written a fanzine concentrating on role-playing games. As someone who was involved in that scene, I went through a stack of fanzines I’ve kept and there it was: Demon Issue number 6, edited, written and illustrated by… Garen Ewing. I bring a copy along and surprise him with it.
“Oh, my god! I haven’t seen this for a long time.”
The content probably isn’t of much interest to most people, unless you played T&T at the time, but although they were probably done when he was about 16 – and zine photocopying was never kind to artistic subtlety – a couple of the illustrations have hints of the sort of clear-line work that is now his style. I wondered if there were any parallels between small press comics and fanzines. How much did the process inform his later comic making?
“It was brilliant because in self-publishing you learn to do everything from coming up with the material, dealing with shops and the marketing of it and advertising but also the actual ‘putting-together’. You learn about printing, photocopying at first, but later I got a bit more ambitious and did a print run much later on. I changed the name from Demon Issue, which was terrible, to Pandemonium and that did a bit better.”
One of the stepping-stones between that and what you’re doing now was a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Was that also self-published?
“That was in the early 90s. I think I just got inspired by Shakespeare at the time, particularly The Tempest, because I’d had a block on Shakespeare at school, never got into it. I saw an animated version and thought, ‘Wow, it’s a really good story, I’d like to do my own interpretation of it,’ so I did a comic of it, and it took ages. It’s very detailed and I decided after that I wanted to do my own characters and keep it a bit simpler. I got rid of all my fiddly lines.”
You can see a page from it here. It has a lot of background detail and the characters are fully realised. How did he make the move from that to the “dots for eyes” of the style he has now?
It’s amazing the expression you can get from the dots. If you get them slightly off, they’re looking the wrong way, it’s quite an art that I’m still trying to get right.
Yours isn’t strictly the ligne claire style of Tintin. What would you say are the main differences between yours and, say Hergé?
“I’ve still got a bit more detail. Where pure ‘clear-line’ is almost like a colouring book, a pure line, I do a bit of feathering, a bit of detail. I think if you put my work next to Hergé‘s – which I don’t like to do – his is a lot more cartoony in his characters … more big noses. I do some of those cartoon characters, but I like to default to a fairly serious-looking normal proportions. There’s a lot more detail in the faces. For example, where if Hergé draws a beard it’ll just be the outline, I do put in hair.”
As other people have mentioned varying degrees of success in translation, what languages has Rainbow Orchid been published in?
“The Dutch one was first, I think 2010, then Spanish at the end of last year, French in March this year, and there might be a German one in October, though I haven’t signed the contract yet.”
How are the Julius Chancer books selling at the moment, it looks as though you have a pretty healthy market?
“It’s selling slowly but consistently, which I’m really happy with as it hasn’t dropped off since 2009 when it was first published, so all three volumes have sold out and been reprinted.”
And the foreign editions. I would expect they’d do particularly well in France?
“I’ve had no figures, so I’ve no idea. I think there is a difficulty because it’s ‘here comes and Englishman doing a Franco-Belgian style’ and there’s probably some resistance to that.”
I mention how hard the Etherington Brothers say it is to break into the French market if you’re not writing in French.
“The Spanish and French translations came through my website but probably wouldn’t have happened without the Dutch one. My agent has been a great help with that. There’s also a real market for connoisseurs – older men who remember Tintin from their childhood and are very much into it. I went to a Dutch comic fair and I was signing and doing sketches for eight hours. There’s a real difference. Here I’m marketed at children though I have a wide range of readership, which is nice. On the continent, it’s just a book, there isn’t that distinction.”
“Right from the start I thought, ‘I want to do a story that’s OK for kids to read, but not that I’m doing a kid’s book.’ I didn’t want to get into that mindset.”
When I was young, I loved Asterix, but Tintin less so, because I didn’t really get what was going on. I think it’s important that kids should try to read stuff that’s too hard for them. Are comics particularly good for that?
“That’s how you learn: you come across a word you don’t understand and you either ignore it or you can work out what it means, and you can get the context from the picture.”
On that note, I move on to his recent four-part story for The Phoenix, The Secret of The Samurai. I have to admit that I got a bit lost with the story, and wonder if that might be because the serialisation makes it a bit harder to skip back to reacquaint yourself with what’s going on that it would be with a single book?
“I think I tried to do a story that probably should have been twice as long, so there was a lot of stuff in there. If you’ve got the comics you can go back, but there’s the gap. Maybe that’s a problem with the storytelling, it should serve the episodic nature, but I’m not very good at that to be honest. I did something for The DFC, Charlie Jefferson and the Tomb of Nazaleod, which I got halfway through before The DFC folded. I wasn’t too pleased with it so I didn’t really mind. I don’t think I’m practised enough to write episodically. I try to cram too much in. I love the storyline but I think it needs to be spread out into one book.”
Is that going to be a future project?
“Some elements may appear in a future Julius Chancer. We’ll see. The next book is plotted. It’ll be a single book at about 60-80 pages. I don’t want to do three volumes again, as that suffered from the episodic thing, even more so as they came out years apart.”
At his event he showed how he works up the comics for script to colouring, a flavour of which can be seen on a blogpost he wrote for Forbidden Planet a couple of years ago. He’s been to the EIBF before, doing workshops and presentations on the history of comics, and this year was also doing Comic Consequences and an Amnesty International reading. Talking about the naming of certain events we get into the debate about whether and when to use “graphic novels” and “comics”.
“I don’t care. The thing is that people now what ‘graphic novels’ means now outside of comics, so it’s useful. I used to mind and I don’t usually refer to my own work as a graphic novel, I usually call it a comic, but that’s got all kinds of problems because there’s multiple meanings, especially in this country it gives an instant image of juvenile stuff. Graphic novels is fine, I don’t mind it.”
Where do you see the future of children’s comics going. Will anyone else be able to bring out something like The Phoenix?
“I don’t know, when Rainbow Orchid came out it was at the beginning of this really lovely resurgence. Egmont publish Tintin and Rainbow Orchid, but as far as comics go, that’s it – apart from Toxic, which is a different department. It’s a real struggle to get comics into the hands of people who aren’t already interested. It’s a dwindling, ageing group. I’ve got a big publisher and I’m such a small part of it t hat it’s difficult to have an influence. I did push them to get my book into comic shops which wasn’t something they were very aware of, but there are shops like Page 45 and Gosh! who are very good at getting stuff in. Also Travelling Man and Plan B, but that’s the problem, I can name them all.”
We get to reminiscing about the RPG fanzine scene and how it’s surprising that such a huge scene is completely off the radar of alternative media historians. This prompts Garen to remember his very first time in print.
“I sent a picture to Alex Bardy, the editor of Cerebretron (a science-fiction zine) and he published it. and that was the thing that made me think ‘Wow, I can get drawings published,’ so that was great practice.”
Thank you, Garen.
And that’s it for the Book Festival this year. I still have my interview with Robert Llewellyn coming up. For now, though, I’d like to thank all the authors who took time out to talk to us, and Frances, Charlotte and Tom for making things run smoothly.