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CR Sunday Interview: Oliver East
posted April 1, 2012
 

imageOliver East is one of the more compelling cartoonists to emerge from Great Britain's re-energized small-press scene, moving from self-published books in his Trains Are... Mint series to what looks like a fruitful, long-term relationship with the increasingly vital Blank Slate Books.

East works mostly in painted comics -- watered-down acrylics, he points out below -- and all of his work that I've seen is documentarian in nature, rooted in the act of depicting what the cartoonist sees moving from one point to another. In that way, his work connects to some of the best 'zine-style comics of the 1990s, although the lyrical elements to many of East's pages set him apart from just about everyone.

The following was done via e-mail; I tweaked a tiny bit for flow. I was surprised we had not interviewed before now. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: I thought for sure we'd talked before, but we haven't -- at least not to the best of my memory as assisted by a quick phrase search through my publishing software.

OLIVER EAST: We haven't spoken before, no, but it may be the over-friendly tone of my e-mails to you over the years that could have given you the impression we have.

SPURGEON: [laughs] My first question is still the same, though. I want to hear about the landscape comics you're doing. Why is this current project specifically important to you to the point you'd send me one of those friendly e-mails?

EAST: The one-page landscape comics I'm doing are part of a wider group of work under the title Swear Down. I'm walking in as straight a line as possible, out of my front door in Old Trafford, Manchester, and following the line of longitude through England, Brittany in France, the length of Spain and then West Africa. The walking of this line will inform this body of work. It's impractical to think I can fit all that into a series of books -- impractical to think I can walk it to start with -- so it will be a mixture of comic books, drawings, paintings, comic pamphlets and other forms like film and sculpture. It's a life's work to keep me busy.

The first book from this walk is Swear Down, which I'm halfway through and should be out this year. At the moment, I'm thinking that the rest of the English leg will be shown through drawings, film and sculpture. That's where those landscape comics come in.

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SPURGEON: Why "landscape comics"?

EAST: I say "landscape comics" as that's kind of what I'm calling all my comics at the moment: they're about landscape. I had no money last year to buy books to help research Swear Down so I did a drive on Twitter where I offered to draw you a tree if you bought me a book off of my Amazon wish list. One was a book on landscape theory which made me realize, "This is what I do. I'm studying the landscape." I'll read another book this year which will change my thinking again but for now, yeah, landscape comics sounds about right. Also I have art friends who won't go near my comics. I didn't want them thinking I'd taken time off comics to do some landscape drawings. It was to make sure they're read as comics by everyone not just you guys.

SPURGEON: Can you locate me in terms of where you with your comics making generally? How much time do you get to make comics? Are you primarily a comics maker?

EAST: Yeah, it's pretty much all comics and has been for a while. I'm working on a short film/animation at the moment, but apart from commercial work, which is few and far between, I just want to make comics until I can't hold a pen anymore. Then I'll try my feet. I love it: it's all I want to do all of the time.

I married nearly seven years ago when I was working in bars. We always planned to have children, but didn't see the point in all my salary going on childcare so I could just stand behind a bar. So the plan was to quit work, put art on hold for two to three years and just look after the kid while my wife works. To soften this considerable blow, my wife let me quit work three years early and supported me while I just made comics 24/7. I was a very lucky boy. Proper Go Well High and Berlin And That were created in this time.

When our son Hunter was born, and after my wife went back to school, I'd work in his naps, but it's hard to get a run at a page in half-hour stints. Now he's two and in daycare two days a week. I still try and get away with as much work at the weekend as I can during "family time." I could work harder, but it would affect my marriage and I like my wife where she is thank you very much. I have a good work life balance now. I can't work nights though, rubbish at it. 7 AM starts for me, please.

At the moment I've just finished Frank Santoro's correspondence course and I'm doing a series of those landscape comics before restarting Swear Down, which I'd put on hold for the course. Swear Down is about the landscape from Old Trafford, my home, to Cheshire, about 20 miles south. There's another narrative alongside this, about the premature birth of my son and near death of my wife in childbirth. She's coming along for the second part of the book. She's pretty damn funny and it's not all hard going but it is the most autobio stuff yet. I'll have that finished by August and hopefully published by November. I'll have a break in August then I want to expand on a rejected short story I did for Nelson, the Blank Slate anthology. I'll take what I learned from the course and apply it to that. Fill any remaining gaps with more one-page landscape comics, and that's pretty much my year.

imageSPURGEON: What has your experience been like dealing with Blank Slate? I've talked to very few of their artists. Are you happy with the way your books turned out, how they were sold? I noticed you were looking to self-publish your latest story -- do you have an ongoing relationship with BSB or has that concluded?

EAST: Nah, they're my boys, always will be. I'm with them to the bitter end and it will be bitter, they'll have to drag me out. I'm so very lucky that Kenny [Penman] is a fan of mine because I've had zero interest from anyone else from day one til today. Kenny has said on more than one occasion that he'll put out whatever chicken scratches I can muster and that's an amazing belief to have behind me as I work. He's like an old fashioned patron. At the same time I've never taken him for granted. Berlin and That is the only book I've done where I thought, "This'll probably be published," but for the most part I'm never happy until I get those words "Yes, we'll do it" from him. He's got a thick skin which helps as well, as I'm prone to react rather than respond, and when I'm insecure about a project the emails fly thick and fast.

Kenny's become a friend, and while I've always dreamt of working with one of the US/Canadian publishers, he'll get first refusal every time. He's also keen to find new stuff and I've pointed him in the direction of a few artists, one of which he has published; another is a future project. My stuff doesn't sell that well -- it's a tad niche if I'm being polite -- so for him to still be behind whatever book I'm doing, I love him for it.

I was looking to self publish a book in separate issues I've since put on hiatus: a biography of a child abuse survivor who went on to spend 20 years in a cult. Funnier than it sounds. Anyway, like anyone else, I want people to see my stuff, and I'd seen the massive audience Darryl Cunningham was getting for serializing his Psychiatric Tales online. So I started Trains Are... Mint back up again at a web site with #6. It got a good response, but I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I wasn't very happy at the time and I didn't like the reasons why I was sharing work on-line; it wasn't making me happy. So I stopped doing it. Plus I have a god-awful history with designing websites. Check it out now: look, it's well shit.

SPURGEON: So is Trains Are… Mint done? Done for now? Is there something to that central idea, the organizing principle of depicting what you're seeing in that fashion, that you think works best within specific parameters, or do you even begin to see that certain project that way?

EAST: Trains Are... Mint (TAM) as a title, or umbrella for titles, is done; but as a concept, it's everything I do. I self-published the first five TAMs. Numbers 1-3 involved me walking from Manchester to Blackpool sticking as close to the train lines as possible without trespassing. Number 4 was a unique edition of one. Before I started my drawing career I'd written an art book called Allemenstratten -- Norwegian for "every man's right" -- in which I try to camp exactly 150 metres away from people's houses. Once I started drawing, as an exercise, I went back and illustrated a copy of the book, creating TAM #4. Blank Slate'll reprint it some time in 2013. TAM #5 is the first 30 or so pages of what became Proper Go Well High: again [a] train line, from Manchester to Liverpool. The last TAM book was Berlin And That, from Berlin's Alexanderplatz station to Frankfurt (Oder) on the Polish border.

It was Kenny's idea that that should probably be the last TAM book. And he was right. Law of diminishing returns and that. But walking and telling people about my walking is what I've done for years and I'm far from finished yet. I'll still be doing it in some form after people stop listening. I just want to do one thing really well. Swear Down is just Trains Are... Mint with fewer trains and a different title. I will always be walking then telling you about it somehow. I think Kenny might want this next book because it's the first mainly autobio work I've done. After that, because it's been hard to write, I'll swing back the other way and it will be about the concept again and that may stretch Kenny's faith. I don't know. i'd like to collect these landscape drawings into a book maybe next year, but I'm not sure art books are his thing at the moment. He loves me though; I can do no wrong in his eyes. Kind of.

SPURGEON: Were there any disadvantages to having such a unique concept hit for you ahead of maybe you more generally hitting with readers? Did you ever feel limited by people's desire to see more of that very specific kind of work?

EAST: No, I don't think so. Quite the opposite, really. I think the concept helped some readers got over my early rough drawing. They could see past the practical naivete and see someone trying to do something different. Some people really got the book and ran with it. I'm never going to have mass appeal but there's a tiny group who are really into what I do, they get it. And that's enough isn't it? I thought it would be more popular than it is, to be honest. Just because it's my passion, you know? "I love doing this so you'll love reading about it." Hasn't really worked out like that. If there's a desire to see more of that specific work then no one's told me. [Spurgeon laughs] I think each book sold worse than the last. If that's what people want, then game on, because that's what I'm doing. I just don't think it is. A few people have followed my walks with copies of the book, though. That's pretty cool.

I like being the go-to "British kinda weird walking comics" guy. It's a cool guy to be. Doesn't pay, though.

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SPURGEON: How welcoming are comics readers to your kind of work, do you think? I mean, I don't think I would have heard of you without hearing the noise in the distance of other people clamoring over your work, but at the same time comics is a pretty conservative place in terms of formal audacity and comics that can't be boiled down into a high concept. Do you have any sense of your readership?

EAST: Ha! Kenny said in an interview recently, "You won't have to go very far to find someone who thinks Ollie can't draw." Bang on. When I started comics, from my first b&w minis, I'd never drawn before. Not since little school. I was 26 -- I'm 33 now -- when I first picked up a pen in anger. But I was impatient to get a move on so, rather than squirrel myself away for two years learning my craft, I decided from page two of TAM #1 that every first attempt at a page would go in the book. That way whatever audience I got could watch me learn how to draw as the book, and books, went on. TAM is color because I thought if I made it full-color people might not realize I can't draw, or something.

TAM works because the concept is interesting and I'm a good writer. I'm honest and I can be funny. So that carried some pretty ropey drawing until I got better. If you love your linework, then you're not going to find much in my stuff, really.

To be fair, though, comic folk have been a lot more welcoming than fine art folk. I borrowed £500 off a best friend of mine, who's an artist, to publish TAM #1. He loved it but he visibly greyed when I called it a comic to someone else.

I have fans I guess. I get a couple of pieces of fan mail every month. They're laminated and filed away for when it all goes tits up and I need a little lovin'. I did two album sleeves for a famous -- over here, anyway -- band called Elbow and I've got a load of fans through that but that was very particular work, work of a place and a mood. And that's not what I do most of the time. I don't know, with social media you can kind of mind fuck yourself into thinking you've got loads of fans. But when I put a show on in Manchester with John P, Santoro, Blaise Larmee, Warren Craghead and so on, and like 10 people turn up... I don't know how accepted into comics I am, really.

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SPURGEON: How much of what we see in your comics can you trace back to your art school education? Because answers from artists tend to be all over the place regarding the effect of art school, from the notion that it's everything to the idea that comics develop on their own completely sealed off from the education itself.

EAST: Well, I didn't draw until I'd been out of art school for three years, so visually maybe nothing. But conceptually? Everything, I guess. At the end I was making work about making work, and how it can go wrong. So after college, over the course of a year, I read Dr. Dolittle to a herd of cows once or twice a week, filmed it and wrote little skits about my efforts. This was when I found out I could write. I'd figured out a style of writing I liked, in short bursts -- I stammer so maybe there's something in that -- and wrote a handbook of walks around Manchester, from art institutions to places in town from where you could see a local peak. This had some rudimentary line drawings in it. The cow thing was shown in a gallery but I didn't want to have to wait for a gallery opportunity to do my next work so the natural progression from video and text seemed to be drawing and text. So I made my first minis, The House Of Fire To Black Hill.

I didn't know these were comics at the time. But a friend of mine used to review comics, saw these, showed me Jeffrey Brown and it clicked: "I'm making comics." I wouldn't be making the kind of comics I am if I'd have done an illustration degree and studied drawing. Because I made the drawing fit around the concept, I forced it to. I'm not as gung ho about it now but back then I assumed people would love to see these. I'd pass them over the bar to friends alongside their pint. On the first day of my first year at art school, they said, "Do what you like; just don't get arrested," and just left us to it. Now that worked for about half the students. The other half needed more structure around them and floundered a bit, but it was perfect for me. That same year, at college, I was diagnosed with double triple bad dyslexia. I was 21. The absence of structure and the new learning methods my special needs tutor taught me set me on the road to Trains Are... Mint, I guess. I'm a very poor reader, and couldn't get the grades to study archaeology and become Indiana Jones. Apart from that, I'm lucky to be dyslexic.

SPURGEON: I like the way your colors look, the palette you use. Are you picky about color? Is there a basic approach to comics color to which you adhere?

EAST: Thanks, that's kind of you to say so. I have a six-well palette and if I can do a whole page using just those six wells, then it'll probably be a decent page. That's not six colors, mind. It'll be, say, a strong green, then a bit shoved over to the next well to make a weaker green. I put a bit of black in everything because nothing's that bright. In Trains Are... Mint, the first three, that's me trying to draw. Like trying to make things look like what they look like. And it's set in Northwest England, where, a friend of mine once said, the big grey skies are like the lid of a Tupperware box over the world.

I've got a good hang of the materials now; I can make them do nice things. I'm not picky about my tools. The brushes I use today are the same ones I used on TAM #1 about six years ago. The points haven't been points for a long time, but I know how they'll roll. They're absolutely knackered. But colors I'm picky about, yes. There's a few exceptions where I'll forget myself, see someone else's cool work, and a bit of brightness will creep in, but mainly I like it to look like everything's overcast. Even when the days walk I'm drawing was sunny, it'll still be a bit grey. It's all acrylic inks very watered down. I used to bristle when people said I use watercolors, but I've chilled out a bit now. If they're good enough for Turner, then, you know...

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SPURGEON: While I'm asking you incredibly basic questions about color, let me do the same for the way you draw generally, in a way that maybe allows and avenue access for people that haven't been able to get into your work. You're drawing from reality in many circumstances, but you're not drawing in what comics people have come to understand is a valuable, "realistic" rendering of what you're seeing. What's important to you that an image convey? How impressionistic do you want your visuals to be?

EAST: I've not changed my actual working method much from book to book, but the one set in concrete constant is that I don't work from sketchbooks or photographs. I like the idea of sketchbooks -- other peoples' look great -- but I don't feel a need for one. I've started them and never filled a page. On my walks I take written notes along the way; of things I see, things I think, events and such like and it's these I work from one page at a time.

Trains Are... Mint was me trying to draw things as they looked and being quick about it. In TAM, you're looking at someone who's only just started drawing. Hardly a surprise, I know! I'm looking at a copy now, actually. In all my books you're watching someone learn to draw page by page. I didn't know how I wanted to do figures, either realistic or cartoons. I hadn't seen many comics at that point and my ignorance leads to some pretty interesting layouts. So yeah, from day one I'm drawing from memory and written notes. So things aren't meant to look like what they're meant to be, they're how I remember them -- which was a great "get out of jail" card for a while when I couldn't draw.

I still do this now: drawing from memory, I mean. I did TAM #4 in between Trains Are... Mint and Proper Go Well High as an exercise in learning to draw. With PGWH, I tried to focus my drawing down to a set of symbols, so I'd draw trees this way all the time and girls hair that way. Creating short cuts, and a style, to get round or hide my lack of talent. I hated this before I got to the end of PGHW but I needed to finish the book the same way.

A few shortcuts stuck around for Berlin And That, but I'd hit my stride by then and found a bit more of my drawing voice. Some people might tell you different but there's good stuff in that book. Might be noteworthy to mention that I didn't really pause for a breath between books for like three years, just bam bam bam, page page page; one long very public drawing practice.

I pretty much stuck with my self-imposed "every first attempt" rule. With Berlin, there's 158 pages, I think, and I redid two of them. I like letting go of a page quickly. I won't dwell on it. With general non-book destined drawings, I like to throw them up online as quickly as possible so then I can't go back and change it. People have seen it; then it's done. Move on.

imageSPURGEON: You mentioned the correspondence school course you did with Frank Santoro. What made you want to do that? Can you share one or two focused memories of that course, something you learned or an experience you had to which you'll return in future years when thinking about the course? How are you a different cartoonist now -- if you're a different cartoonist at all?

EAST: Man, that was hard. [Spurgeon laughs] Frank said at the start that he was going to "get you doing drills" and end of week crits would "be brutal." I lied through my teeth and said, "I've got a thick skin, bring it on!"

I did that course in part to try and figure out what everyone else sees when they see the classic cartoonists. There was a wee running joke online that every review of mine used the word "unique": "Another unique book from Oliver East". If you had asked me before I started would I want to be thought of as unique, I would have bit your hand off. But I always feel left out when reading people enthusing about the greats of comics, because I just don't see it. One confident line doesn't turn me on. I've tried, though. Kenny lent me a bin bag full of Ditko, Kirby et al and it was nice enough but it didn't move me. But Brian Chippendale writes those passionate blog posts about mainstream comics but he also makes the art he makes, so there's got to be something to it. Taking this course was, in part, to find out what everyone else is going on about.

Also it was a chance to work with someone who's very talented, obsessed with our craft's history and, well... it's Frank Santoro! It was a no-brainer really. Work with Santoro for eight weeks! Where do I sign? I just wanted to make a comic like everyone else for a change. I'd also had his work in a show I organized and he'd sent over a lot of his layout riffs, the ones with pink and blue circles and squares? I didn't really understand his blog posts about them and wanted to get my head around that.

It was very labour intensive for the first four to five weeks of the eight. Frank told us what music to listen to while we were working! Every time we Skyped there'd be some jazz on in the background. He insisted we must listen to stuff without lyrics. Classical or jazz; he told us which artists to listen to. There's only so much jazz I can take, so after a while I exclusively listened to an Icelandic band called Sigur Ros, who sing in a foreign language, which is kind of the same.

When I do my thing I do it one page at a time. There's no plan apart from my notes and I work through them as they come. So I don't know how it'll pan out. With this we had to work out a story first on index cards, then expand that out into our chosen layout. He had tons of layouts ready to choose. I don't really want to give too much away because I know he's doing the course again. One thing he did make me realize is that just because I know what something is, doesn't mean my audience will. I was doing a work of fiction, a silent story with a slight fantasy element, so you'd need to know what things are. I'll have that in the back of my mind now forever.

I'll work like that again, maybe once a year. I'd just read The Man Who Grew His Beard before the course, and fancy doing a few loosely-linked fiction works. I'll work the Santoro way in these every time. It produces some really satisfying original art. I'm looking at it now: each page is made up of three plates taped together. It's substantial, you know? Weighty. And it took forever to make. There are a few tweaks to make, as I've shown it to three comics people and it went down like a bag of shite. I've just remembered how he had me working like; apparently the method of making comics, in layers like I did, was similar to Harvey Kurtzman.

To be honest, I may have abused the "correspondence" part of the course! But I had the ears and eyes of Frank Santoro for eight weeks and I wasn't going to let that go to waste. Plus I'd paid for the privilege so I milked his email and Skype for all it was worth. I taught him about Manchester colloquialisms and he turned me onto roller derby.

Have I sold the course enough there? I want to recommend it. I didn't need everything from it. It turns out, over the six years I've been doing this, I'm pretty intuitive about page symmetry. All those layout riffs with circles and squares? I already had that in my locker. It was good to slow down over a page, take time, redo. Was good to have my very first comics tutor as well. I'm self-taught, Kenny leaves me to it, and people online who like your stuff aren't the best critics. I've developed a nice friendship with Derik Badman, the critic, and he's always offered to look at my stuff, but here, on this course, I had twice weekly crits and Skype and e-mails. It was like being back at school in a good way.

One downside is this super-cool artist, who you'd like to see you as a super-cool artist, instead sees you getting stressed and, the worst thing, gets to see all your mistakes and shit work. Plus I told him to fuck off once. Friend for life now; I'm taking the family over to that space ship he lives in for next Christmas.

SPURGEON: I'm kind of generally fascinated by British comics right now, particularly their version of the art comics and small press scene. Can you name a couple of peers to whom you think we should pay more attention, and what you like about their work? For that matter, where would prefer people start with you? Is there something in your comics that you see as coming from that tradition as well as adding to it?

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EAST: Why Malcy Duff isn't huge over your way is beyond me. If he were American, he would be. He's been making some beautifully twisted art comics for years now. He's awfully prolific. I had him in one of the comic shows I put on last year and he did a "reading" of one of his comics called The Simpsons. But it was like no comics reading you've seen before. On a table he had contact mics over which he'd placed two pairs of old stained brown corduroy pants, the fabric of which he "played" with a guitar pick while he re-enacted his birth. There was also a flipchart of the comic itself, so there was that to ground it. I couldn't find a video camera that day, which I'm gutted about. I don't know, you guys might already have him over there, but he'd fit in right at home at Picturebox and it's weird to me that he's not. Make him famous, America, please.

Also Rob Jackson. He's the hardest working man in comics. It would be pretty rich of me to call anyone else's drawings raw, but he's an acquired taste. His drawings aren't great but he's got a wicked imagination. He just never stops. They're not all hits but I'm convinced someday, someone in a position of authority is going to say, "Hey, this guy's amazing" and he'll take off as a cult concern. Then everyone will pretend they were down all along.

Can I have three? Dan Berry is a solid cartoonist. I've told him before, but he's our Mawil. He's super talented, got mainstream alt-comics appeal and he's a really nice bloke. He'll do well, attention or no attention.

Being part of the scene over here, although I'm not that active a member on the social side, is pretty mint right now. If you're just starting out, making your first mini and attending shows, you've got Blank Slate, Solipsistic Pop, NoBrow, Self Made Hero and others I've forgotten and will probably pay for... basically if you don't want to stay making minis you've something local to aim for. When I did TAM #1 there was no one. I fired it over to everyone in America and Canada and no one was interested. There wasn't anyone in Britain that would have been interested in anything remotely like what I was making. Maybe NoBrow might have been around but they were just about illustration then.

I'd always like people to start with the last thing I did because it's usually the best. Kenny's favorite is Proper Go Well High, so maybe that. I prefer Berlin And That. But I'm pretty excited about these landscape drawings I'm doing. Swear Down will be more accessible than Berlin I think.

I'd like to think I've added something to the British comics landscape (sorry), yeah. If it all goes to pot now, I've been lucky enough to have three decent books published. They'll always be there and that's more than most.

SPURGEON: Why wont you kickstart your new project? I've never heard any declare against kickstarting something.

EAST: I don't want to be answerable to hundreds of backers. I wouldn't get hundreds of backers. And I don't want to give away hundreds of pages of original art. I like my art and I hate having to sell it. Kind of a negative to end on, no?

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* Oliver East
* Oliver East On Twitter
* Oliver East's Blog
* Trains Are... Mint
* Proper Go Well High
* Berlin And That
* Swear Down

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* photo provided by the cartoonist
* landscape comic
* from Berlin And That
* early Oliver East work
* Oliver East Reading Dr. Doolittle To Some Cows
* a commission
* Frank Santoro
* Malcy Duff Giving The Performance Mentioned Above
* another piece from Swear Down (below)

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