Towards the end of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival I managed to grab some time with Neill Cameron and Adam Murphy. Adam had been on the first of two panels for IDP:2043 the previous night and both of them had just finished taking the second of two comics workshops. They were both fired up about drawing, so we started with a more general discussion of art before talking about their new books.
Hello Neill and Adam. So you’ve just come out of your comics workshop, how did that go?
Neill Cameron: “It was great I thought, today, we had the timing down.”
Were you a bit rushed yesterday?
NC: “It’s only an hour and if I’m doing comics workshops myself, I tend to suggest, if a school asks, I’ll do an hour and a half. That gives you time to have a good balance of doing lots of drawing in front of them, making up stories on the spot but also giving them plenty of time to work on their own comics. An hour is quote a rush to get through it all and cover all the bases.”
What would be different from if you were doing it on your own.
Adam Murphy: “It was pretty similar to what I’d normally do, but Neill, because of Pirates of Pangaea, which is pirates and dinosaurs, so he has this schtick about “the science of awesome”.
Missiles, dinosaurs, robots…
AM: “The premise is that you take two awesome things and put them together and they become more awesome, and the kids get that right away. As soon as they pick up on that, they start shouting out. This time we had ninja hamsters and mad scientist monkeys. I don’t always focus so much on the combining things, so I’ll squeeze in the general comics education stuff, but very subtle. Think about how to cartoon, how to communicate what this concept is visually, what are the key things you need to draw to know what you’re looking at. If it’s a ninja, what is the bare-bones essence of ‘ninja’, what’s the bare-bones essence of ‘hamster’ and then draw that.
The Scott McCloud thing of reducing down to the essentials.
NC: “One thing I’ve been doing recently came from when I was working at the Story Museum and I was drawing toilet door signs. This turned into when I was doing a workshop and people would say, ‘I’m terrible at drawing,’ I could say, ‘You can draw a stick figure, or draw a sign on a toilet door, your basic human shape and then add the one or two key features.’ It’s a ninja so you give him a little sword and a little mask. If it’s a pirate you give him a big hat and a hook. From a toilet door sign, you can turn that into anything, then it takes the fear out of it.”
It’s interesting that people think they can’t draw. For years I thought, ‘I can’t draw,’ and then last year Sarah McIntyre posted her ‘chubby mermaid challenge‘. I gave it a try and thought ‘Oh, that isn’t bad!’
AM: “The thing is that you can draw, but you see the difference between your drawing and other people’s, so you see the difference between what you have and what you want.”
The big difference in professional drawing is that you just DO IT.
AM: “It’s just that you’ve done it that much. That was the transition for me from ‘I’m never going to do this’. It was ‘stop worrying about whether it’s as good as you want it to be’ because you twist yourself in knots trying to make your drawing better than it’s going to be because of your skill level. Then you don’t get better because you’re doing all these tricks to try and cover up what you don’t know rather than accept what you don’t know and do a lot. I’ve noticed that the age that we work with, generally the 8-12 …”
NC: “… sometimes 7-12 or older, but that’s the core audience …”
AM: “… that’s the age at which kids are just starting to be self-critical. So the younger ones in that group get it right away and they just draw and they don’t care, but some of the older ones are getting to that stage. Either you’ll get the ones that somehow kept it going because they’re good at drawing and they’re getting enough affirmation to do it, or you may get some of the ones who are starting to worry about that stuff, particularly if you go into school you’re not getting the comics-obsessed kids and you’re just getting a section of the populace. So I really care about trying to get that message across. I think everybody should draw and it’s such a human right to make art, and there’s so much vocal criticism in society. Even when people are good we pick holes in them rather than saying, ‘What did it take to do that?'”
NC: “It is heartbreaking sometimes when you see how early it gets internalised. Young kids, seven or eight, who will be tentatively putting a line on the paper and then going, ‘Aagh we need rubbers.’ Kids wearing holes in the paper rubbing out their own work, screwing it up and throwing it in the bin. Just accept it’s not going to be perfect, have a go, continue.”
Is that a side effect of secondary education, that when you start getting art lessons they stop teaching you how to do art.
AM: “I think it is, but I think it’s bigger than that. It’s not just art. I think in everything, in art, in sport in organisation of society, some people win, some people lose. You only justify doing stuff by being exceptionally good at it, whatever it is and anything else you just open yourself up to be laughed at. It’s more that sort of thing, across the board. So even kids who haven’t experienced that in art have experienced it in enough things to know that’s how it’s going to go.”
NC: “Like ‘I’m not naturally gifted at football, so I can’t have a kickabout.'”
AM: “That was my experience at sport. ‘I’m not going to do it and I’ll pretend that I never wanted to do it and I couldn’t care less.’ To be fair it’s not just some evil society thing, it’s just the nature of being human and growing up. We could support that more, we could do more to try to help kids. It’s unavoidable that you go through that, that’s what adolescence is, but can you give them enough that they keep a bit of it alive for when they get out the other side? That’s what I always hope, because we never know what sort of impact what we do has. The dream is that, for some kids there, a little thing you said goes in.”
NC: “But this is what comics are really good at, why we do so many workshops, why we’re always pushing at this, and what we’re trying to do is say this is an artform you can have a go at a very young age. You can make a comic. You cannot necessarily record an album, but you can make and publish your own comic at age ten.”
AM: “We know kids that are doing it.”
NC: “The Zoom, Red Crow, there are loads. I’ve been thinking too what The Phoenix can do. The success conditions by which The Phoenix is being judged are to bring back the golden age of British comics. If we one day end up with Buntys and Tammys and Jintys and Whizzer and Chips then The Phoenix will be judged to have succeeded. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen and it’s not the conditions by which it should be judged.”
I don’t think a lot of those old comics were ever funny, whereas Jamie Smart’s work and Mega Robo Bros in The Phoenix are actually funny.
NC: “I think what is happening already is that it is creating hundreds of new comics. They are very small print-run, made by the readers but I think that’s in a way more important . That’s how culture works, how media works at this point. You’re not going to have this giant top-down publishing systems any more, you’re going to have people making their own. We see that across British indie comics, that’s what the comics scene in this country s now. I think that’s true at the younger end as well, and we’re seeing that start to happen. That’s what we should be celebrating and focusing on rather than worrying that we’re not publishing The Eagle.”
So moving on to your books, How to Draw Awesome Comics has just been published. It’s a compilation of all the bits from The Phoenix and some extras.
NC: “It’s not just a compilation exactly because the strips we did in The Phoenix were designed and intended to be a page in a weekly comic and they were very dense and intensive ,trying to get across a lesson about storytelling or writing or drawing, a specific subject, and try to cram in a little exercise and get some jokes in. So for the book we realised that if we crammed 40 or 50 of those together it would just be unreadably dense and wouldn’t be a satisfying book. We wanted it to be a book you could read through and it would have a coherent structure to it, like a course. We had to go back to square one with all the strips and rejig them. There was a lot of digging things out of hard drives and stripping and gutting and rearranging. It was a horrible amount of work, but it was worth doing because I really wanted this book to exist and to be the best book we could possibly make. I do think it’s a book that needed to exist. I want to get on with my own stories, but I did think that someone needed to be doing this.”
It’s not something like How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way.
NC: “Exactly, it’s entry-level and trying to do the opposite, being non-presecriptive in any way. It’s not ‘How to Draw Comics the Neill Cameron Way’. It’s how do draw comics YOUR way. How to find your way. That’s what it’s intended as.”
AM: “It’s always a balance. I find with the workshops that I want to do exactly that: ‘Don’t do it my way, find your own way.’
NC: “But people do need help …”
… you need a template …
AM: “Doing workshops you find what’s the best template you can provide. One that’s giving them as much freedom as you can but that’s giving the structure needed. How do you slip in that sort of knowledge and awareness of what they’re going to need, but it’s almost under the surface, like ‘how to do moustaches’ and stuff.”
NC: “You have to remember that we are dealing with readers who as young as six, maybe. I think before I did so many workshops, I was overestimating, really trying not to be prescriptive, but I learned that kids at that age are fine with being told how to draw a penguin. They don’t know how to draw a penguin or whatever it may be. I really had to be talked into it by the editors of The Phoenix to do some more step-by-step ‘how to draw’ ones. It didn’t seem very interesting to me or challenging, but I gave it a try with ‘how to draw penguins’ and they got deluged with penguins in the mail.”
Well, yes, at my school it was always ‘let’s do some art’ you do the art and it goes up on the wall, but no-one ever said ‘this is how you draw’ or ‘this is how to paint’. People who could already do it got the focus and everyone else ended up drawing Mateus Rosé bottles badly.
AM: “There’s very little drawing instruction at any level. We’re now in a situation where there are several generations of that, there are very few people who could teach it even if they wanted to. It’s a second level of that when you’re thinking about young kids because it’s not so much ‘How do you learn the structure of the head?’ it’s ‘How do you learn how to use a circle then add some stuff to it?'”
NC: “Exactly, it seems so incredibly simple, it’s such foundational stuff but you have to remember that.”
AM: “Well you’re the only guy teaching them that. Good job!”
This brings us on to what Adam said last night about teaching himself to draw. Could you draw at all before that?
AM: “I could, I was a kid that got a reasonable amount of affirmation for drawing. ‘Oh, yeah, you’re good at that you should do more’. So drawing was what I liked to do as a kid and I did a few things, like when I was at university I could do a cartoony poster. But that wasn’t good, not nearly enough and it was that kind of worrying about, ‘Is this good, am I good enough, or how can I use the basic skills I have now and make them look flash.’ I was worrying about how you get a slick line. I remember, you know the variable width of a brush line, I didn’t know you used a brush, so I was drawing several times over, making it thicker in different bits and I was crippled by trying to get everything precise and neat. When I talk about learning to draw, a lot of it was trying to break down that. But also, I see this a lot now the difference between someone that understands the structure and somebody that just understands the surface: you can see that things fit, even in a very flat style things need to fit correctly in three dimensions.”
You need to know where a given part of a head has disappeared to when it turns …
AM: “Exactly, and understanding of physical reality that allows you to cartoon in that way. That was the training I was doing. I was self-taught in that I didn’t have a teacher. I also got an enormous amount of stuff off the internet and I don’t think I would have learned what I know now without that. I got a lot from conceptart.org. They had the most dedicated user community. There was a real hardcore community who just cared about how you get better at drawing, how can you learn this and master drawing and painting techniques. I learned a lot from that, the main thing I learned was how to learn how to draw: this whole thing of drawing all the time and practising and challenging myself was by looking at the guys who were improving and you could see the kind of dedication they had. The people who were just trying to do stuff that people would think was cool were just staying where they were.
“Then there was a guy called Andrew Loomis, who was a commercial illustrator in the 1940s who wrote a whole bunch of the most comprehensive in-depth how-to-draw books.”
NC: “They’re extraordinary. His books are all available and as PDFs online. I’d recommend them if anyone said how do I learn to draw.”
AM: “If you’re serious about it, it’s hard, hard stuff. It’s very easy to flip through and read, but you do have to sit down and do the exercises and take the time, but it’s invaluable stuff.”
Neill, how did you get into comics and illustration?
NC: “I’ve just always been drawing comics. As a kid I lived next door to a newsagents and we’d be first in on Saturday to read the comics, then we’d read them and draw them. Copying to start with, but I think that’s why for me there was never this big distinction. I’ve come to realise that not everyone had this childhood, virtually growing up in newsagents and getting to read all the comics I wanted. It seemed such a natural thing to me. That’s the great thing about comics for children is that you can read them and have a go at making them. There’s no barrier to entry, they’re very easy to imitate and imitation is where you start, where you learn. I dug out a bunch of old comics that were at my mum’s house. You’ll see my Garfield period, my Footrot Flats period, my Snoopy period then when I got into the Beano, Oink!, Transformers. It’s hugely embarrassing now seeing my hamfisted attempts to work in these various styles, but with enough repetition it becomes your thing.”
Moving on to Corpse Talk. Is that a straight compilation or is there new material?
AM: “There is a bunch of new stuff, yes. The strips themselves are all the strips that were in the magazine in chronological publishing order, but again because it’s so dense as soon as we put it together we realised it was too much, you can’t read it. So what we ended up with was interesting bits like the bookends, the contents and the index, a dig-down timeline. I didn’t want to have dates in the comic, because I don’t care about them and don’t remember the dates of when things happened.”
But you can still put them in order, to see how they fit together.
AM: “There’s something different about that, and there’s something also about having other interesting events that happened at the time, so kids start to cross-reference ‘these guys were around about the same time’, so there’s a flow of history, the book allows for that where the comic doesn’t.”
So, say, they’ll be able to see that Shaka Zulu was alive at around the same time as Queen Victoria which, given the totally different contexts, kids might not realise they had any overlap.
AM: “So I tried to get in with that drawing what else was going on around the world at that time. So we had “The Chinese invented toilet paper”, which one kid told me was his favourite fact. The other main addition was extra facts. There’s big full-page illustrations with a fact about the person which wasn’t in the original.”
NC: “They’re very beautiful and give it breathing space, they make it flow as a book.”
AM: “There’s just enough in there. It still feels crazy and packed. There’s just enough little pauses.”
NC: “Your early strips particularly …”
AM: “Those were insane. They only gave me a page so I had to condense a life into one page.”
NC: “Thirty-six-panel pages? If you had an entire book crammed full of that degree of unusually dense comics …We wanted it to feel packed with awesome stuff but not making it like hard work to read.”
One of your other recent projects was Tamsin and the Deep, how did that work?
NC: “I write that strip and the extraordinarily talented Kate Brown draws it. It’s been hugely fun. It’s the first long-form thing I’ve ever written for an artist who is not me.”
The other classic being the ballet story (Emilie’s Turn).
NC: “We both enjoyed doing that. Kate was pestering me to write more ballet stories, but we had reached the limit of what I knew about ballet in that four-page strip and said everything I had to say.”
How do you write? I presume you do storyboards for your own work, but do you write a script for Kate?
NC: “I do write a full script for Tamsin, which I don’t do for my own comics. I have occasionally, if I’m starting a new story it can help get your ideas in order. For Mega Robo Bros, I tend to just thumbnail as I go and sketch in dialogue. But for this it’s a full script and it’s a really interesting process, how to communicate and get the key details across, but if you have an artists like Kate Brown you want to also give her room to be Kate Brown. I don’t want to be micromanaging.”
Her panels are much more expansive than yours, often half a page.
NC: “It’s a tricky balancing act trying not to think, ‘How would I draw this or lay this out?’ because you don’t want to be imposing. I forced Kate to do more moment-to-moment transitions, where you have small changes between a few panels. Making her use more of those than I would or than she would maybe do herself. I’m trying not to push my storytelling on to her but you do want a bit because that’s the point of a collaboration. Trying to balance those things is the interesting part. You’d have to ask Kate how she feels. The one we’ve just finished, which will be in The Phoenix soon, was brutal, there was so much to get in it was unavoidable.”
Are you becoming Alan Moore? (Moore is famous for his insanely detailed scripts)
NC: “It was getting there. I was saying that to myself. I have written apologies in the script saying: ‘Panel 6, I’m really sorry, Kate, I swear this is going to be as Alan Moore-y as I’m ever going to get, but could you draw the following?’ But it is a collaboration, a back-and-forth. There was one point where what I was trying to get across and sum up, the amount of information we had to communicate, it’s really hard telling a story in very small chunks in The Phoenix when you’re trying to do a big, complex novelistic story. It can be really hard. I was trying to get across so much in this one and I couldn’t think of any better way of communicating it. I think what I was asking her to draw was literally impossible but she came back with a better idea, a much clearer, stronger, simpler visual metaphor that summed it all up. That’s the really nice thing, that if you have a really good artist it will make you look like a better writer.”
Which Pat Mills was saying last night.
We then break to pop round the back of the yurt so that we have some photos taken. I thought some of them were charming, but apparently Neill’s wife thought otherwise.
Afterwards, I talk to Adam about his Daily Comics, which were often brutally honest and painful yet also very funny. They’re also very much not for children, so be warned
You also did diary comics for four years, every single day, was that an exercise in drawing or to document your life?
AM: “It was part of the drawing practice that I’d been doing. I was thinking, ‘I’m getting to the point where I’m getting more confident with the drawing, how can I translate that approach to comics?’ I had that vaguely in my mind then I rediscovered James Kochalka, American Elf. I basically just did what he was doing. That format obviously works. There’s something about that kind of honesty, but there’s something that goes beyond just, ‘Here’s a thing that happened in my day’.”
There would often be a gag or a poignant moment or you’d open up into one bigger drawing.
AM: The goal of that for me was the same thing as trying to get over the anxiety of perfect drawing and perfect storytelling, which was resulting in no storytelling. Just pick a thing, don’t worry about it too much, just do it. The goal was to get less and less concerned about all that stuff and more and more OK with just, ‘Tell a bit of a story, learn how to break events down into panels’. And as a writer you’ve got to expose yourself, you’ve got to be open about stuff and get more OK with that.
“The reason why it stopped was that I was finding that the opposite was happening. As they got better I wanted them to be better, so I was still worrying about it, just at a new level. And I wasn’t getting more OK with exposing stuff. It was getting too much for me to deal with day-to-day and it was too much to keep dodging the big elephant in the room, that I can’t have kids. I had covered it, I was OK to talk about it, but there was an element of ‘what’s the point of anything’.
“There was also the religious daily nature of it. Because of the previous job, which was so spiritually draining, it was one little chink: ‘At least I did one good thing with my day today.’ I needed that in a way that I don’t need any more, because my whole life is these wonderful, rewarding comics that I do now. I didn’t need it so badly. I also needed it to be every day, there was something about that no matter what’s going on, even if you’re so tired just do something, anything. It had to be every day or it just wouldn’t happen. I had one bad weekend where Lisa was away and I missed one, then I missed the next one, and I could have done three days in a row …”
NC: “… Once you break that …”
AM: “… the drive had gone out of it. I still think ‘Oh, that would have made a good comic,’ and I always thought I’d do it forever, and I still feel I dropped the ball, but I’m getting to the point now that the energy I’ve freed up will go into a new thing.”
Was that Fever Dreams?
AM: “That was before. Most of that stuff was from before I started working on The Phoenix, I’d been doing the daily comic for a year or two and felt I was getting the hang of some aspects, and wanted to extend it to fiction and making stuff up. So on top of all that other stuff I started getting up an hour early and I would do an hour in the morning of undirected sitting with a blank page and see what comes out.”
Was it dreams from the night before?
AM: “It was a big mix. Some of it was genuinely dreams, some was sitting with a blank page and meditating to see what’s going on. There was a disco one that had red and green colours. Each panel was just a splosh of ink. I drew red and green splotches and thought: ‘What could that be?’ There were various different approaches of how to get to a story. There was all sorts of crap, but those in the book are the good ones. I did the Arvon Foundation course with Dan Berry and Karrie Fransman because I wanted that extra ‘what am I doing?’ kind of guidance. A lot of people on that course were flipping through sketchbooks going ‘this is good’. It had been languishing in sketchbooks, so because of that I out it all together. Most of the work in there was a couple of years old when the book came out.”
We’ve also got to address the Oxford Story Museum, how did you get involved in that.
NC: “Adam’s coming down for a Halloween Corpse Talk workshop. It was when we had the first Phoenix Comics Festival there. My wife volunteers at the Story Museum already. It’s an amazing place, and I’d had this idea that I wanted to make a giant comic on the walls, to try drawing comics that you could walk through. I still want to do a really big one one day, and one with different corridors that you could walk through and branching stories, there’s huge potential to do exciting things. Because the museum was in this sort of half-finished dilapidated state I thought they might be up for letting me draw on walls. I just went in and asked them, and they were really up for the idea but we ran out of time. Instead what we did at the festival was using moveable walls and did a giant jam comic.
“They were renovating it and all this building work was going on they had to cover all the windows because it was going to be a building site. They decided they would like to have a comic along the front of the building. It was really fun. After that they decided to keep me around the place. They gave me the residency and I’ve been hanging out there drawing on walls and toilet doors ever since.”
Do you have a favourite room, apart from the Narnia one?
NC: “Everyone loves Narnia. It’s slightly self-aggrandising, but there’s a big room that’s got Rupert Bear and Just William and it’s got the story spinner that was a last-minute thing we did before it opened. I was there at midnight painting things on to it. It felt a bit rushed and I wished I’d had longer to think about it. It’s a giant spinning wheel and you spin it three times and you get a character and a setting and a theme and you have to go and make up a story. I love giving kids little shortcuts to get started, and it seemed like a fun three-dimensional way to do that. I wasn’t sure if it would work but the other day I got to see it in action and sit with a group of 20 kids as they spun it. It was amazing, brilliant to see. They were so into it: ‘Ooooh, you’re going to get the princess’; ‘No, I want the ninja!’ Then they went off and wrote the amazing stories and drew these comics. Seeing that it worked and did what I hoped it would do, that’s probably my favourite part of it.”
Thanks, chaps. Enjoy your journey back to The Shire.