Interview: Jamie Smart talks Bear, Desperate Dan, Doctor Who
|INTERVIEWS - PRINT|
From Desperate Dan to Doctor Who, we meet the writer and comics artist whose work appeals equally to kids and adults...
Sometimes in life, very small things can have a massive impact. Wandering through a comic shop at the age of 17, I had no idea that my life was going to be forever altered by a comic about a long-suffering sentient toy bear and its psychopathic cat tormentor. In my teenage mind, the stories of violence, bloodshed and very British swearing were exactly what I was looking for in life. I would never have guessed that buying that comic would eventually lead me to make radical and sweeping changes to almost every part of my life.
The comic was not a recruiting pamphlet for a friendly local cult, nor was it some wretched, cynical self-help book flogged by a perma-tanned, grinning huckster. The comic was Bear, by Jamie Smart.
Shadowlocked have now had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie, discussing life, comics and dealing with difficulty with a boot to the ‘nads...
I’ll start with a simple question, one that I will never tire of asking artists: How did you get started? Did you undergo any formal training or did you one day just hold a pen in the air, roar your defiance at the gods and begin drawing?
Not really; it's in you from the moment you grip a crayon, like in any child. Something impulsive about creating art/mess – like it's letting something out. I think a lot of artists became so because they were encouraged, and enjoyed the attention it was getting them so kept doing it, and got better, and got more attention, and so on. Slowly you evolve and improve and before you know it, making art is such a part of you that you wouldn't know where to divide yourself and what you create. Not to sound too wanky about it, but I think that's how it goes. I've always been suspicious of the idea of 'natural talent', I think to a large extent ability is learned, absorbed and practiced.
Do you have any particular influences? Any themes that run through your work?
When I get asked about my influences I always list three particular stages in my life. There was when I was a kid and read the British comics of the day: Buster, Dandy, Whizzer And Chips and Oink (Oink was just mental, I fell in love with it). Then I discovered grown-up comedy on TV: things like The Young Ones and Blackadder, and that really pushed my ideas of what I found funny. Lastly when I went to college, I discovered a lot of the artists of the Deadline era, like Jamie Hewlett and Evan Dorkin. Those were the turning points in what I do. I think they're influences – I can look at them and say “Yes, they made me up my game because I admired them so much.”
I think you absorb everything – it'd be impossible not to – and your own work evolves in its own curious way according to that. That's what makes everyone's art so unique – so many variables pushing it along.
What was the first thing you had published? Did you take it in your stride or did it come as a shock?
When I left college I drew a cartoon strip for a cookery magazine (which actually, I'm still real proud of to this day, I think I did some good work there). Walking into WHSmith and seeing a magazine with my work in was a real buzz. Of course it's exciting, but then you want more, and better. When I drew Space Raoul for the Sunday Times the first time, that was an even bigger buzz, you feel like what you have in your head is now solid, tangible, and can affect other people. And if you stopped too long to think about it that could probably drive you crazy.
Did you find it difficult to make a living when starting out?
I've always been self-employed, and I know I'm very fortunate to be able to say that. I've been drawing cartoons as a full-time job for about 12 years, and am amazed I've kept my head above water this long. Even better, I've been allowed to draw the characters I come up with, which is such a privilege.
Obviously, it's not always that easy. Certainly for the first few years I was only getting small commissions here and there. And there are times when you get down to your last 50p and you wonder where the hell the next work is going to come from. But you expect that as a freelancer, it's what you trade for the freedom. The longest I've been without work is nine months, and that was pretty daunting (and only a few years ago), but I wouldn't swap this job for anything.
Nine months is a frightening amount of time. How on Earth did you maintain the drive to keep going? Was there ever a point where you felt like you'd had enough?
That came about because I was stuck in the tail-end of a contract which prevented me working for anyone else, but wasn't offering me any work either. So I was pretty boned. Then, right in the middle of it, I got a whacking great tax bill far beyond my means, and that was I think the lowest it's got in my career.
I was down about it for an hour or so, and then I got excited, as I tend to whenever these low points hit. I knew that the only way out of any of it was work, was to come up with new ideas to take to editors and commissioners and try to earn some money, to claw my way back. And since I wasn't allowed to actually work for nearly a year, I'd just have to work on my own silly, whimsical, self-indulgent projects. And that was what I found exciting (my brain conveniently forgets my financial situation at times like this).
So I worked real hard, and loved it. I drew a 120-page graphic novel based on one of my TV shows that failed (which I've since redrawn, and is getting closer to seeing the light of day), I worked on my comic series Ubu Bubu, I started the webcomic Whubble, I built up a number of different projects and ideas all ready for when I was free. I never lost hope once, the momentum kept me going.
That's what you do in the face of adversity: you kick it in the balls.
What is your favourite piece of work to date? Do you have a proudest achievement?
That's so hard to answer. My comic book Bear was possibly the biggest deal for me on a personal level – it was a dream come true to work for Slave Labor, and to see how Bear found a sizeable audience very quickly was overwhelming. I also got to know a lot of people, and made some really good friends, so that matters a lot. And of course the work itself was very unrestrained and from the heart, so Bear speaks most about me perhaps.
But as I say, I've been lucky to draw what I choose, and so I've spent that time building up a handful of characters all of whom I’m proud of in different ways.
Are there any particular writers or artists that you’d like to work with, or are you happier being a one-man band? Do you have a dream project that you one day hope to have a crack at?
There are loads of amazing artists out there, some of whom I'd consider heroes, but how I'd work with them I don't know. I do think I'm very insular, I'd find it hard to draw what someone else has written, that just doesn't feel natural for me. The idea, the writing and the drawing are all one and the same, so collaborating on any part of that is tricky.
You write for The Dandy, including the Desperate Dan strips – was there any backlash against your distinctive style? How does it feel to work on something which is such a strong British institution?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The audience has really embraced The Dandy's re-launch as a good thing for comics as a whole, and it has won a lot of new fans. I think my work has always fitted into The Dandy; it's silly and boggly-eyed but I'm careful to make sure the writing is paramount too, and The Dandy has been my home for many years now. Being given Desperate Dan to draw was a real honour, and not one I took lightly, being trusted to have my turn with an institution and really change him quite a bit from previous incarnations was something I relished and the response was good. Sure recently there were moanings on the internet about how 'it ain't what it used to be', but that’s normal. I'm sure when I'm old, I'll be complaining about the current styles too.
When taking over drawing Desperate Dan, did you spend much time researching his appearance throughout the comic’s run, or was it more of a case of taking his more distinctive features and passing them through your filter?
It took me a little while to get him looking how I wanted. The natural inclination was to try and keep him looking the same as he'd been in every previous incarnation, but that wasn't why they'd asked me to take on the job. When I realised that I started having a lot more fun with him, pulling and stretching him to the proportions my mind prefers to think in - all the while keeping the same emphasis on the features which make him recognisable. He's come out, I think, looking like the Dan everyone knows but a little fresher, more fun and playful.
Your work covers a variety of audiences – from the youth-oriented Dandy to the darker stuff like Bear. How do you find keeping the audiences separate? Do you worry that through some Google-fu you’ll have younger readers stumbling across page upon page of angry creatures covered in blood and shouting “Knockers”?
It was never really a problem for me. Because I never separated the work in my head, I don't write any differently for kids than I do for adults, all I do is consider what may or may not be suitable. But the actual content, the style and tone works just the same for any reader, however old.
However when my first children's book came out, it did start to be a concern. I've been doing a great load of children's material for books and comics recently, and wanted to start doing more alternative work alongside it, but it became clear that the two really had to be distinguished. Carefully though, because I don't want to alienate the older audience from reading the younger stuff as I think it's all as valid. So I've taken steps to point younger audiences away from my main website, and after that it’s their (or their parent's) discretion. This is the internet after all - what I do is hardly the worst of it.
It’s interesting that you say that writing for children is so similar to writing for adults. Do you find that certain audiences will be more forgiving? I’d imagine that children are very quick to spot when they’re being patronised; do you see many children’s writers making this mistake?
It's a real issue to me when writers or artists patronise children, and so many do. Look, if you've worked hard enough with whatever talent you have to be able to entertain people with the thoughts in your head, and you find yourself being able to do so in a public place (ie in print), then you're in a very fortunate position. You're the storyteller, the creator, just like every generation had before you. So now you have people listening, don't piss it away by drawing the same laboured jokes you remember as a kid or, even worse, trying to please your audience. If you set out to please people, what you produce will be watered down and eye-burningly dull.
Artists and writers create form the heart, that's the definition of what they do, what they produce is tiny little pieces of themselves. Exaggerated, contorted and strung into fascinating shapes, but always from themselves. If someone hires you to create for them and their audience, then do it. That's what they want you for. Don't just churn out insulting rubbish to hit the demographic.
It does make me pretty mad, yeah. I don't parade around with a trumpet saying what I do is important, but I just find so much work out there so crushingly depressing it makes me want to weep.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers/artists? Would you have done anything differently yourself, were you given the opportunity to do it again?
Just draw. Nothing will ever be as important for you as an artist than just drawing. And do it to amuse yourself, don't try and pander to any current trends or demographic. I don't make comics for other people, I make them for myself, and if other people like them then that’s a real bonus.
It's about being passionate. If I didn't draw these things I'd go mad, they're in my head and it's so exciting to think up ideas and draw them out that I couldn't imagine any other way of functioning. Then when I've drawn it out, there's a new idea, and on and on. That's the drive, the motivation, that helps you ignore any criticism, rejection letters, whatever. You keep going because you have to, because you love it.
Are you working on anything exciting at the moment? Anything astonishing on the horizon?
Corporate Skull is my new webcomic, it's sweary and violent and just what I need as a release from doing family-friendly material all the time (don't get me wrong, I love it, but I need my own space too). The sequel to my first children's book, Find Chaffy, comes out this summer. I'm also working for a new Dr Who magazine beginning in May which is taking most of my time at the moment, though I don't know if that's still secret or not. And there are a handful of other things bubbling under which are so close to happening, I have every finger crossed.
Secrets! How exciting. If there’s one thing that we like at Shadowlocked, it’s Dr. Who-based secrecy. Can you feed us any more morsels of info on the magazine? Age range, content, style?
Ah, can't say anything I'm afraid. It's been a top secret project for a year or two now, and my involvement has become nearly full-time this year. It's probably quite easy to work out what the magazine might look like and contain, and there's not long to wait now anyway I think it starts going on sale in a month or so.
What I've drawn inside is some of my very best work, I'm so proud of it. Which is good, it's taken a lot of hard graft to do.
Have you always been a Dr. Who fan, or is this an opportunity to learn its lore for the first time?
If you grew up in Britain, Dr Who's always been part of your culture, whether you watched it or not. It just IS. Everyone knows what a Dalek is, or what the blue phonebox represents. Me, I was a total sissy when I was a kid, and I was pretty scared of it. The Cybermen in particularly scared me. I think a lot of my fear though came from the cheapness of the costumes (this is back in the 70s and 80s) - when you could see there was a human inside there, but with their eyes blacked out and their limbs covered in rotting scales or tin-foil metal, I found that all quite traumatic.
So I tried to watch it. But kept being scared off...oh the music too! The title music was scary. Anyway I started watching it again properly during David Tennant's Doctor, it really became something special then. And when Matt Smith took over, the show changed. It's become something absolutely, indescribably unique. I've been watching the series again since starting this work, and some of the stories are just beautiful. Exquisitely crafted and quite emotional. And you start to realise, this whole world Dr Who has built up over the decades, with hundreds of characters all with their own histories, their own timelines - it's absolutely fascinating.
Obviously you could think I would say that given I'm drawing for their magazine. But it's doing the research for the magazine work which has made me really start to understand the magic of it. It's breathtaking.
Something like Dr Who is bound to get an awful lot of new people reading your work – what’s it like when you meet your fans? Do you find that as an indie artist you develop a particularly loyal following?
You don't expect it at all, it's very surprising but obviously really, truly, humbling. Drawing Bear for SLG Publishing really threw me into that. Being printed by SLG brings you a certain favourable notoriety, let’s be honest, and suddenly hearing from all these people who connected with my work was really rewarding. Especially when you're spending your life in the dark, drawing comics, not seeing other humans and wondering if there's any point to what you're doing. An audience can be the salvation you need, to tell you it's working.
So yeah, and the bonus is 90% of people are really cool, normal, friendly people, who are surprised that an artist they like has responded to them (which I find weird, why wouldn't I respond?). I've seen quite a number of tattoos of my work too, which is always the biggest compliment. They crop up in quite a variety of places.
As a rule I don't like to do signings too much, mainly because I find them quite stressful and can get quite nervous. It's an unnatural situation sitting there, drawing quickly and badly for someone who's staring at the top of your head while asking them where they've come from, it's weird y'know! Remember people: artists are probably more nervous than you are.
Finally, is there anywhere else that you’d like to take your work? Could you see yourself joining the ranks of comic writers and artists who have worked to produce videogames and the like?
Oh videogames would be so much fun wouldn't they? I play a lot and find them really inspiring, we're just getting to a level now where beauty and incredible detail are taken for granted and so it's far more about the characters than their worlds. But as with any of these things, like getting published, getting a TV show, getting a movie, whatever, it's all in the hands of other people. I can show my work around as much as I want, but it's not until that particular idea gets seen by that particular person at that particular time (and then the long trail of development manages, against the odds, not to collapse under its own weight) that anything might take off. You can't dictate your career in this game. You just have to keep doing it because you love it, and see what opportunities come out of that.
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