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December 18, 2007


CR Holiday Interview #3: Simon Gane

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*****

I've been aware of Simon Gane since the 1990s, where his lively-looking mini-comics were one of the great pleasures of going to work in the industry and becoming cognizant of a wider array of what was out there. That said, I was totally caught by surprise when his new book with Andi Watson, Paris, crossed my desk. I had missed the series from which it's collected, and wasn't aware the Gane had made close to a full return to comics though projects like this one and a gig on Vertigo's The Vinyl Underground. I think I would have enjoyed Paris no matter what Gane had brought to the book, but I was surprised by how much more versatile, visually pleasing and attentive to narrative detail his art had become. His art ended up a perfect match for what's essentially an old-fashioned romance of the kind they keep telling us need to be made more often. If you're one of the people who's been saying that, I hope you'll consider picking it up. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Simon, I know very little about you and almost nothing about your formative years. How did you make that last step, going from someone maybe interested in comics to someone who actually made them?

SIMON GANE: I always made them, from childhood on. In my middle teens I wrote various stories entirely derivative of Herge's earliest black and white work. I really took to it from a young age because its crudeness in comparison to his polished color albums made drawing comics of my own seem just that little bit more within my grasp. Anyway, they featured a cabin boy who was essentially Totor in appearance, the precursor to Tintin. I drew them at home and at school, alongside other friends who were drawing comics. We did so in the library, instead of attending lessons. Anyway, my dad had copies of each "adventure" printed at his work, complete with covers. On the back of the second one I was already clearly carried away, because I wrote "Have you got them all? 2 to collect!"

Given their print-runs of two, the step was rather making comics that people actually read and this happened through self-publishing them in a punk fanzine friends and I made back in '92. Then Pete [Pavement] at Slab-O-Concrete offered to publish my comics and through corresponding with other zine-makers I hooked up with Ian Lynam who wrote some for me to illustrate, too. Throughout the '90s I was actually quite "prolific" (hey, those aren't my words, they're the Journal's!), but drew relatively little of merit, sadly. I'm directing that at my own work, not any of my many collaborations. I then had a period of a few years where the day jobs took over and I was getting some freelance illustration work, too, so I had little spare time for comics. I missed them, though. Whilst other parts of my life were more fulfilled without being tied to a comic project, I actually felt a void without one. I got back into them when I was asked to draw a strip for the punk band Subhumans and when Tom [Pomplun] from Graphic Classics contacted me at the same time about doing an adaptation for him. A couple of months later I hooked up with Andi at the local Bristol comic convention and that's when we decided to work on Paris together.

SPURGEON: I hope you don't mind me asking, but how much of your professional life is devoted to comics? Do you have other professional obligations? I'm just trying to get a sense of what you do.

GANE: I do take on some graphic design and illustration work but thankfully 90 percent of my professional life is currently devoted to comics, although that's only since penciling a Vertigo title. Previous to that I was a freelance illustrator, designer and laborer and it was during that time I drew Paris. It was always the last thing I should have been doing because I had bills to pay, of course, but I loved drawing it too much. I guess comics are a compulsion rather than a career.

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SPURGEON: The first thing that drew me in when I first saw your work is this marvelous texture to it, this almost patterned sense of how things looked. What were some of your influences and how do you feel that early look developed?

GANE: Ah, it might just be that fine art, which I studied, has been a slight influence after all. Back then my preferred artists were always the sort of mid-20th century ones like Dubuffet, the ones concerned with texture, the one's whose work was always more about marks on a surface than creating the illusion of depth. And in comics my favorite artists likewise gleefully show us their hand or brush or nib. Current artists like [Christophe] Blain and [Joann] Sfar are good examples of this. I love that the very same dash can represent an eye, stitching on a garment, a dent in a wall, or a hyphen in a speech balloon for that matter. A huge cartooning influence is definitely Tardi, who would always include the decorative aspects of things: a tweed overcoat, a cobbled street or a tiled floor.

I think it's more about arranging things on a page for clarity's sake and the patterns come with the repeated elements. For example the leaves I got rather carried away with in Paris were drawn individually because if I drew all the leaves on a tree you wouldn't see any of them. They'd also be too dense to show the architecture I wanted to draw behind them, so this process of arranging things became more about order than the haphazard or perhaps even about abstraction over realism. But as importantly, they were just therapeutic to draw! An editor once critiqued a drawing I'd done of a child's bedroom floor cluttered with toys and so on by saying the objects should be overlapping for realism and not so arranged. But I didn't like that idea, I wanted to draw all of each individual object, not hide parts of them. I don't know, I just find lots of smaller things assembled to make up a whole aesthetically satisfying somehow, like a mosaic, or a cut 'n' paste fanzine page, whatever it may be.

SPURGEON: I don't have any grasp of comics beyond yours of the type you were doing ten years ago when I first became aware of you. Were there a lot of cartoonists making comics like yours? Was there a community of artists? Or were you kind of operating independent of any friends or influences?

GANE: I was operating independently for the most part, maybe because I didn't really see myself as a cartoonist. My stuff was better known in the punk scene, I think. I did have a number of collaborations with UK small-pressers though and followed comics in general closely. I was very inspired by mini-comics: Tom Hart's, David Lasky's and Adrian Tomine's for example. I'd talk with my non-comic making friends about my stuff but had no specific community beyond meeting up with people at conventions and so on. Which in Britain seems to be more about beer than comics!

SPURGEON: How do you know Andi Watson? Do you remember at what point you decided you wanted to work with him -- was it a particular comic he had done, for instance?

GANE: Andi's more about a nice cup of tea on the other hand! I knew him through his work first. I bought his first Samurai Jam mini-comic and later saw his Slave Labor titles in comic shops. I was like "Wow, Andi's doing mainstream comics now!" He was also published by Slab-O-Concrete on occasion, so we were kind of associated through that too -- or so I like to think! I can't remember if at the Bristol comic convention he offered to write me a story or if I begged -- I think the former, remarkably -- but either way it was a wonderful favor on his part and I'm indebted to him for it. I think Breakfast After Noon was the book that made me most want to work with him. It appealed because his fantasy elements had been stripped away and his story remained engaging. More so for someone uninterested in sci-fi, etc. There's just a gentleness and hopefulness in his work that I find comforting; I wanted my stuff to have that too, if possible.

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SPURGEON: You've said that Paris took the shape it did largely because of what you wanted to draw. Can you break that down specifically? As an artist, what appealed to you about what factors you suggested?

GANE: Yes, Andi asked me what I'd enjoy drawing and also what books, movies, painters and so on I liked. This was partly because he knows comics are difficult to draw if the subject matter doesn't interest you and also served to start the ball rolling for him. I must add that the non-cliched aspects of the book are more likely his ideas than my own! The suggestions I made such as it being about artists in postwar Paris and the vague "feel good" Audrey Hepburn-type movie setting was important because it was a place I wanted to go. Drawing it made me happy. I wasn't able to work on it all the time of course, but that was maybe beneficial in a roundabout way because whenever I did return it was like being transported back to a favorite holiday.

That makes me sound like a complete loser, but it's the truth! I didn't want to have to draw unpleasant subject matter everyday, and I love Paris and am interested in the lives of its artists over the years so it made sense to suggest them. I also wanted it to have a non-conformist message, but a slight one tied to everyday life, not the one-note sloganeering I was only capable of.

SPURGEON: How much preparatory work did you do in terms of scene-setting and character design before you launched into the pages itself? How did you and Andi work together during that stage of the project? How much visual evidence did you collect?

GANE: I did three drawings on Andi's request because he was heading to San Diego and would be seeing SLG's Dan [Vado] and Jennifer [de Guzman] whom he'd be asking to publish it. I drew the two leads and a third picture of them exchanging a glance beneath the Winged Victory sculpture in the Louvre. As it turns out that image sums up the book in many ways, such is Andi's skill. Anyway, he would send me the scripts for each issue and I'd show him the pages as I drew them. Being a kindly soul, he didn't suggest many amendments at all, but when he did he was spot-on. In the last panel of chapter two I'd drawn full figures, but he knew a big close-up would be better.

I wouldn't work this way again but I did no preparatory work, no thumbnails, I didn't know what thumbnails were when I started drawing Paris, between you and me. I tackled each page in running order as I came to them. I didn't really know how the splash pages would turn out until they were finished because I'd pencil and ink the different elements as I went along. I'd write lists of things that needed to be included or props and character types I wanted to draw in the backgrounds and it was a case of juggling them and simply fitting in as much as I could.

Visual reference was essential. I already had lots of books of Parisian photographs and so on, but collected many more as I went along. They weren't just a practical help, they were inspiration itself and characters from the photographs of such famous artists like Doisneau appear in the comic from time to time. The intention was to build this sense of familiarity, firstly for me. Nods to cartooning influences are in there, too: the fish monger from Asterix, a girl reading Tintin magazine, a doorman reading Spirou, Popeye as a gallery exhibit and so on. Whilst I did look at '50s fashion, furniture, vehicles and so on, I wasn't really slavish to historical accuracy. Gritty realism wouldn't have worked anyway. I did visit the city a few times whilst drawing the story, but that was for the wine and bandes dessinee!

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SPURGEON: The street scenes and various, similar tableaux seem to me greatly and maybe even obviously reminiscent of Herge. Can you talk about Herge as an influence, and how you approached doing those street scenes. How do you think they worked in flow of the story?

GANE: I don't know if they help the flow but hopefully they serve as fitting scene settings and contrast with the insular nature of the romance. I think part of any similarity you note might be linked to the era, given that Tintin' s most intricate titles were also set in the '50s and therefore clothing, cars and so on are alike. But I did consciously draw certain background figures in the style of the time, it was a fun way of trying to represent the setting.

Herge goes beyond influence, really. I wouldn't be drawing comics now were it not for a life-long love of his work. It's the way in which everything in the world is rebuilt in his consistently crisp style in the books. It's just convincing and evocative, everything fits. I think it makes for a more believable reading experience than very realistic styles do. The main thing I tried to do with those street scenes was to give everyone a personality, including the pigeons, to reflect the bustle of a city, but I wouldn't even hope to have his attention to detail.

SPURGEON: What does an Andi Watson script look like? How much information does he provide, how much does he leave up to you? Do you go back and forth while working from his script in a way that changed the final result or was there a certain measure of fealty to the original script?

GANE: It changed only in that we added the introduction and a couple of pages in chapter four before the individual issue was released, but on my part I just tried to be as loyal to the script as possible. When I wasn't it was due to error or inexperience.

His scripts are strong and precise. Because he's an artist too he thinks very visually and knows how to balance words and pictures. All the "acting" is described, the facial expressions and so on. For instance there's only three speech balloons in the last 14 panels, but of course all 14 were excellently instructed. The backgrounds were more open for me to interpret but described or suggested when essential to the plot. Each issue had a couple of spare pages allowing me room to draw some of the bigger pictures and he a quiter life! At the start he said, "I want this book to be a showcase for your art." I'll probably have to dispose of a body for him at some point in return.

SPURGEON: You once said that the best thing about Andi's writing was how he understood the subtleties of comics creation. Can you point to a subtle moment or instance in Paris that would be an example of something that Andi engages that other writers might not?

GANE: Rather than it being something noticeable from panel to panel, it's more that he'll actually tell the sort of story others might not. The fact he keeps doing so in an industry his stories are often the opposite of is remarkable. But attempting to be more specific, stories in which a character takes the time to sniff an envelope before opening it, as Juliet does in Paris. That's not something twee shown for the sake of it, it tells you more about who the letter's from and Juliet's reaction to it that than any subsequent pictures or words really need to.

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SPURGEON: In terms of your art, the most impressive about Paris to me was your work with figures and faces, maybe especially the latter in terms of a kind of elegance and expressiveness that appeared different than a lot of your past work. Further, I would think this important to a story that deals with the kind of relationship it does. It's funny to ask you this consider it's sort of its own sub-plot within Paris, but how much attention did you pay to capture facial expression and incremental shifts in mood?

GANE: I'm very happy you should say that, Tom, because it was something I had to pay attention to because so much of the story was told through the faces, the expressions tell the main plot. It was a learning curve because as you rightly say it was a departure from my previous work which was often slapstick and therefore without such the need for subtlety. It's hard to get them right without "over-acting." Most of my white-out, to use the American term, went on the faces! I made life tough for myself because I don't think the faces I chose were that ideal for achieving a wide variety of expressions, I guess because I'd been doing a lot of one-off illustrations before hand. But I did so to the best of my ability at the time.

SPURGEON: In a lot of way, Paris is not just retro in terms of the milieu and setting, but it also has classic, broad comedic characters that should be familiar to people that read books of this type or watch movies set in this period. Was it ever a concern of yours how to keep some very familiar characters and scenes interesting and fresh visually?

GANE: I think the familiarity of some of the secondary characters is beneficial. That they're immediate means less back story is required because we already know how they operate and in the case of the authority figures such as the chaperone and stuffy art tutor we're better able to understand the respective predicaments of the leads. It is only a short tale, so we need to (hopefully) relate to them as quickly as possible. In the ball scene where Deborah is in a room packed with upper-class English bores, their stereotypical faces and mannerisms serve to isolate her vaguely more naturalistic look and therefore from them too. And again, this familiarity of certain characters such as the fiery beatnik served as inspiration for me because it was in part actually about re-creating them if possible.

SPURGEON: Was there any feedback, negative or positive, when the original series came out because the leads were both female?

GANE: I hope people consider it simply a human story applicable to both sexes and all sexual orientations. I concede it might put some intolerant people off perhaps, but that's a problem they have, fuck 'em. It wouldn't have got past the Previews-ordering stage with them anyway.

SPURGEON: Did that change anything for you in terms how you approached the art, how you approached certain scenes visually?

GANE: Their features might be slightly softer in places, but overall I didn't approach the art any differently, I think I'd have wanted to draw it that way if they were men. It might have more attention to the pretty elements of their wardrobes, certain interiors or of Paris in general, but that's only because this stuff is beautiful anyway.

SPURGEON: Is there anything you'd have readers take away from Paris other than its entertaining, sumptuous aspects? Are there values in the work that you share, or do you even think in those terms?

GANE: If a reader was to consider it entertaining and sumptuous it'd mean the world to me, Tom, but there are values in the work I share, yes. It wouldn't be the labor of love I consider it if not. I shouldn't have drawn it, really. It cost me on both a personal and financial level because, as with all comics, it was so time-consuming. But I had to! In that respect the themes of the story are indeed ones I share. It's the dilemma of all artists, the need to follow their passion and the inevitable difficulties and compromises they must face in order to do so. It's not just the dilemma of artists though, it's more universal, gentle and slight though the book is. For instance I'm glad it's about a so-called non-conventional relationship because they are under-represented in comics and I don't feel they should be.

SPURGEON: What's next, Simon?

GANE: Well, I'm currently penciling for Vertigo which takes up much of my time. I' m very fortunate to be doing so and to be associated with unbelievably talented artists like Cameron Stewart and Ryan Kelly is a privilege I never imagined I'd have. It's been a steep learning experience and I've benefited from the safety net not just of their abilities but from the increased editorial control too, because it's advanced my awareness of the story-telling aspects of comics. But naturally a part of me still enjoys the freedom my collaboration with Andi gave me as well. Therefore, I'm forever harassing him to nail down our next project but the trouble is, I need him more than he needs me! Grr. In the meantime I have a 22-page Conan Doyle adaptation called "John Barrington Cowles" coming soon from Graphic Classics, I think coinciding with free comic book day. I also recently wrote about 20 pages of notes for another story I want to draw. I'm trying to work out what made Paris so pleasurable to work on so that I might repeat the experience.

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SPURGEON: Can you talk about the way you did the credits as an opening sequence in a film? How much did film in general influence the work, and were there specific movies you were referencing?

GANE: Yes, I think it only seems filmic because the credits are divided across panels rather than all in the same one, but that's not to say it wasn't intentional. I did it like that for a number of reasons, one was that I wanted the book to have a consistent design-style, not that there is much by way of design. The credits had to be that size and dropped on top of the pictures to match the cover and chapter headers etc. I wouldn't be without the introduction now, it's essential and my favorite part because it's the most recent, but it was an after-thought and spread over more pages than Andi scripted, so I wanted people to read it quickly for fear of them feeling the story took too long to get going. The credits split from panel to panel therefore create a rhythm in time with Juliet's walk. Maybe the credits appearing like the start of a film lead one to think there might be music playing, too, for this is a light-hearted intro. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it doesn't convey this, but it did allow me to continue drawing it after I should have finished and it does set up the tone of the story and the locale. You realize that this is romantic Paris, the city as idealized by admiring foreigners in films such as Funny Face. Beyond this the influence of film is quite superficial, really. There are nods to Roman Holiday and The Red Balloon and I used certain films of the era for visual reference on occasion. I prefer comics; they're more intimate.

*****

* all art from Paris, and supplied by Mr. Gane

*****

* Paris, Andi Watson and Simon Gane, SLG, soft cover, 136 pages, 9781593620813 (ISBN13), 2007, $10.95
* The Vinyl Underground, Si Spencer and Cameron Stewart and Simon Gane, Vertigo, monthly comic book, 32 pages, ongoing $2.99

*****

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