Sunday, 19 December 2010

Interview 18

Mike Nicholson is an illustrator, educator, comic artist, zine producer and publisher of Ensixteen Editions. Here he talks about his publications, teaching and small press fairs.
Please tell us something about Ensixteen Editions Imprint and your work as a comic artist.

I came to the point of creating my own books/comics/zines after parallel careers as illustrator (clients like Penguin Books, Time Out, Guardian Weekend) and storyboard artist (lots of work within British Comedy – primarily TV and some film – 'The League of Gentlemen', 'The Armando Iannucci Shows' etc.) This was around 1999, and I first exhibited the work at the London Artists' Book Fair at the Barbican in 2000. At this point I used the name 'Stokey Comics''Ensixteen Editions' came later with the 'bio auto graphic' series (both draw from my location in Stoke Newington, London N16).

One factor, above all else, tipped me over into wanting or needing to make these things: my earliest storyboarding experiences within advertising. Though ridiculously lucrative in comparison to editorial illustration, the work became very demoralizing in its inanity over a few years. (Find anything the magnificent Bill Hicks ever said about advertising on Youtube and you’ll get a snapshot of how I grew to feel about it all.) I needed more than anything to vent some steam (I’d also always aspired to write), and the first A4 size comics I made (benefiting from the excellent quality of simple laser-copying) were almost incomprehensibly dense and self-referential. This vast brain-fart, lasting about six issues, starred a mouthpiece alter-ego in the shape of 'Ron', an antic little character that had stumbled from my subconscious back at school.

Ironically, the years spent storyboarding reshaped the way I worked, taking me from my colour pencil illustration style to a stripped-down black ink line on white. I liked the hard choices its’ minimalism forced me to make on the page, and –being from the pre-Mac generation of Art School graduates, trained in what you might call a 'traditional' process of (often observational) drawing – it was like coming home.

I still only use the computer as a means of disseminating the work, not in any way as a means to create the images themselves. I plan/plot pretty thoroughly – what will come where as the pages progress – in thumbnails, then move to original artwork in pencil. Inks follow, and the only real margin for spontaneity in the final making is in the writing – I'll have a broad idea of what the text will say on a given page, what it will contribute to the overall theme of the narrative, but the actual wording is only phrased as I write it down. What I come up with in the moment can suddenly introduce surprises that are exactly what's needed.

Illustration is often an interpretation of a text that's not your own, storyboarding a way to visualize the imagination of the director. The former is an entirely honourable tradition/craft that I am proud to be a part of, the latter at least in theory an interesting practical and intellectual challenge. . . But neither allowed my own voice to speak. Making my first issues in my late 30s, I think I was ready to say what I needed to say. The medium seemed a good fit, I just needed to work at the message...

How did your comic zine 'Bio Auto Graphic' (2004 - ) come about and what is it about an autobiographical narrative that you find so appealing?

I switched to a more forthright way of addressing the reader – replacing a character with myself – after a friend, Charlie Higson (writer, comic, telly guy), threw down a gauntlet: Why didn’t I tell my own stories in my own voice, through something more autobiographical? The idea crawled under my skin and stayed there. While it was obviously daunting to step into the shadow of luminaries such as Crumb, Pekar and Eddie Campbell. . . I have since grown to relish it.

The series – which the author Phil Rickman has called ‘the new social journalism’ (a definition I liked) – shifts in tone as I see fit, and, while I try new stylistic details as I go (perhaps collage or photography), the bedrock remains the drawing. Each edition – or short arc within the bigger series – is usually driven by a specific theme, always hosted by my avatar, addressing the reader directly. Themes can be as simplistic as a season of the year, or as specific as discussion of the relationship between the US and UK in our shared time of war. Certain motifs have recurred; identity, the individual and their community, the oppression of political or religious systems, the toxic values of ‘celebrity’ culture. . .

I finally feel qualified to suggest the pattern I think I see beneath the world and how we live in it. I’m setting out my stall at a time when I feel anxious that humans are forgetting their humanity and as a society our moral compass is spinning.In a sense, the series is my belief system as a part-work.

And it's also occasionally funny.

You have been involved in many small press fairs over the years. Do you think the UK comic/zine community has changed any and, if so, in what ways?

As mentioned above, my experiences only date back to the turn of the millennium. Prior to that my appreciation of what scene there was – any sense of a 'community' making and consuming small press/strip/zine work – is minimal. I suspect you’d find my comic reading tastes rather mainstream (the big US imprints, characters and genres), and I'm not by nature one to be drawn to overtly proselytizing or agit prop material. I'm delighted that people use the medium to channel their own passionately-held beliefs – as a means to 'shout' about what drives their hearts. I just don't necessarily choose to read the results. I didn't feel that zines I happened upon with 'challenging', anarchic ideals at their root had much relevance for me. It all looked a bit shrill.

Or is that just the arrogance of the male, white, heterosexual for you, perhaps? Actually, more likely the voice of the only child who always avoided groups, clubs, movements, inward-facing communities, and distrusted agendas which seem rather too strident.

I find myself more emotionally drawn to material that speaks rather than shouts, if that makes sense. This doesn't mean I'm not interested in people (read my stuff and you’d see that’s not the case at all) – I just realized quite some time ago I don't necessarily
feel like they do. The role of the observer is one that's very important to these books, yet the clarity that comes with getting older - knowing what's really important to you – has finally made me want to comment on what I see. This is propaganda from a community of one. And, if some random book fair punter with whom I fall into conversation buys into it by taking an issue – well, that's a bonus.

Interestingly, when I began to put this heartfelt stuff down, in a format that people apparently called 'zine' (I’m happy to call them that, though I’m actually not sure what they are), there was definitely a snobbery from certain fellow exhibitors at the book fairs. The low production values (I'm less interested in fine materials than I am that the work is just accessible) I think offended those strongly involved in the traditions of fine binding and other crafts of making.

Of course, since then there's been an explosion of book arts activity and events and it's become much more common to see comics and zines for sale – it's a much broader church. Ultimately, I think I'd still probably choose to exhibit at these more eclectic events rather than 'zine-specific' ones. I like the diversity and wouldn't want to be drowned out in a sea of superficially similar work.

Along with my illustration and storyboarding, making my books – the zines – has involved me in notions of narrative, the way that a thing of sequential parts (pages read and turned) can come to contain a greater, cumulative idea when appreciated as a whole. I often refer to notions of storytelling within my work with BA Graphics students; broadly (in getting them to consider their creative process as a narrative), but also much more specifically (when we address their growing interest in book arts and zine-making through workshops).

Are comics any more popular nowadays with students? There's a passive enjoyment of computer gaming culture and Manga, but interestingly there’s a ground-swell of narrative activity, too. While, until recently, I can't say the students I meet expressed much awareness of gender or any other politics (though our Eton-clone Coalition Government has unwittingly triggered a real sea change in that), there’s definitely a real surge of interest in the means to transmit a message. Where they once visited as observers, they now take tables themselves at book fairs and zine events and sell their simply-made work at affordable prices. Good for them.

Please Recommend a comic of a zine which we should all be reading and tell us why

As you may have guessed from the above, I speak from a point of relative ignorance when looking at what you might term the 'world of zines' (my reading material and storytelling inspirations come just as much from novels, comedy, serial television and the news media). However, I collect – and am always captivated by – the book work of John Bently, an English book artist whose 'Liver and Lights Scriptorium' imprint is based in Brixton. This freewheeling series embraces very personal expression in text and image, as well as music and film content. It has a very human heart to it, the work, and – despite John's impeccable punk history – rarely shouts. It talks straight, looks you in the eye, occasionally whispers and can even sigh. See for more.