The writer tells us why the semi-autobiographical approach is the best one to take.
Owen Johnson is one of the most prolific creators working on the UK indie scene. He’s always pushing the envelope on what’s expected of comics. Recently, he’s focus on two projects; Reel Love and Beast Wagon. The first is a semi-autobiographical look at his love of film, the second is a zoological black comedy. I talked to him about comics, cinema, creativity and what’s next.
What led you to comics?
I’ve always been receptive to visual storytelling. Most of the children’s books I grew up reading were illustrated. Where The Wild Things
Are by Sendak, Not Now Bernard by David McKee, We’re Going On
A Bear Hunt by Rosen and Oxenbury. As a child I assumed Quentin Blake as responsible as Roald Dahl for Fantastic Mr. Fox and The BFG. The whole vault of Disney animation and around that time my grandma got Cartoon Network. Saturday morning cartoons were really coming into their own with classics like the
Batman Animated Series and Thundercats, along with the less superhero-oriented fare like Hey
Arnold and Dexter’s Lab. I played a lot of video games and watched Ray Harryhausen movies. Around this time The Beano was the first comic I read, it just became a part of the fabric of your life.
And what led you to start creating your own comics?
I had some anger/behaviour problems as a lad until I changed schools and met a kid who drew comics of his own. It was a revelation. Gave me a real channel for my energy. We made a pirate comic visually styled after The
Bash Street Kids. Things got serious when I reached grammar school in Cumbria. I started visiting cons up in Scotland, which has such a wonderful, supportive comics community. I was working on
Rookie and Myth Mobs – black and white mini-comics about violent superheroes and Greek gods as depression-era gangsters. All horribly derivative and the art traced from Jim Lee and whoever was big in capes comics at the time. I sold those mini-comics in the school canteen at lunch. Convincing people to buy a new issue instead of a bacon sandwich. Not a great deal has changed if I’m perfectly honest.
Tell us about Reel Love.
Reel Love is my debut graphic novel. It’s about a young boy who forms a relationship with his local cinema and follows his dreams of becoming a famous film director. Told in three acts, each takes place over a British summer and chronicles the triumphs and heartbreaks of being young, and being obsessed with the movies. It’s semi-autobiographical but with fantasy flourishes. Reel Love is also lettered by my long-time collaborator Colin Bell, and is now funding with Unbound.
What were the challenges in depicting cinema on the page?
Ironically, there is far less required to make a comic (pen and paper) than the hundreds required to make a professional looking film. Film is built on the concept and governed by time, whereas comics are built on the function of physical space. You can never replicate film on the comic page, you’re missing sound and movement. But I’m not trying to make a comic about how cinema physically works, but psychologically and imaginatively works. What I can do, through my characters, is express how I felt, my experience of this ritual communal experience. I think that’s all you can ever do.
In Reel Love you follow your love of film evolving as the story goes on. Is that continued?
Of course! The narrative voice of
‘cinema’ that runs through the story is a big part of that. The first chapter is about falling in love with the medium. The teenage years chart the disillusionment and rejection. The final chapter is about coming home again. It was intentional to have the film fantasies become less marked as the character gets older. The movies become absorbed, integrated into the way he views the world.
Tell us about your artistic process.
A constant state of anxiety! Everything goes in a project unique notebook: sketches, dialogue, ideas. This looks like the diary of a sociopath. I’ll then write a script as I would for an artist, only panel descriptions are less specific to give me room to move on art. I’ll also over-write that initial riot draft. People I trust will read the script while I’m working layouts and between their opinions and my own I’ll shave off a chunk. Then I hit the pencils. For me pencils and inks are the most fun but also the place things are liable to change the most. I work entirely traditionally with Bristol board, black ink and an army of ragged brushes (I don’t even print blue-line). There is no rhyme or reason at all. Whatever works. I like to improvise in the inking stage to find interesting textures.
Tell us a little about Beast Wagon.
Beast Wagon is a speculative fiction comedy/horror five-issue miniseries about revolutionary zoo animals. I like to describe it as apocalyptic kitchen sink drama.
How does your approach change working with a team?
They’re very different. There’s an intimacy and honesty to working solo. It really is your guts on the dance-floor stuff. But I adore collaborating with others and creating something greater than you could accomplish on your own. It’s more a tango; an alchemy of styles and influences.
What attracted you to that genre?
It all came out of the characters and what they were going through, as well as our experiences visiting the zoo on a research trip. Anyone who has read my stuff knows I try and make comics you can read if you’ve never read comics. They’re tethered to the history of the medium, the disposable trash artform, while trying to chew that up and spit it out as something contemporary.
Raygun Roads was about 70s headcomics through the lens of austerity Britain. Beast Wagon was the R-rated Ken Russell HBO TV show your parents stopped you watching.
You’ve used crowdfunding, what’s your experience with it?
They are both very different. Kickstarter is all about the sprint, and targeting at a core comics audience, all around the world. Unbound is more of a marathon, and looking outside the regular comics readership into the book trade. The production values of the subscriber copies are going to be nuts. Really beautiful objects. If we’re successful in funding, Unbound distributes the book in bookstores, which is pretty exciting and something Kickstarter doesn’t offer. Both have stretched my skills in very different areas. I love that! I remain convinced crowdfunding, when done right and creators deliver on a workable model, is the future of publishing.
Is there a single piece of advice for stepping to crowdfunding?
Build an audience first. Honour the community you’re a part of (you’re nothing without them). Think in inventive ways about incentives and consider ways retailers can support you. Do as much work beforehand as possible, and prepare yourself to work your arse off on an emotional rollercoaster.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got my hands full ensuring Reel
Love gets funded. I’m talking to cinemas about doing bespoke posters, Q&As, screenings and such. Collaborating with universities and arts organisations about creating graphic novels, crowdfunding, and turning your passion into a profession (I’ve been on both sides of the table – marketing, as well as creating books – which is pretty unique). Trying to widen the reach of the medium I love so much.
Reel Love is funding now at unbound.com/books/reel-love. You can follow him @Owen_Johnson.
Below: Along with Reel Love, Johnson is busy with BeastWagon
Above: Johnson stands by crowdfunding as the best way to publish his comics