Jessica Martin is a familiar name, if not necessarily a familiar face, from her time as an impressionist on the TV series Spitting Image. Her CV includes stage acting and singing, radio, and other television series including her role as the lycanthropic Mags in the 1988 Doctor Who story ‘The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’ (which also, coincidentally, included comics historian David Ashford in its cast).
Recently she has turned her talents to comics with It Girl, her self-published biographical comic about silent movie star Clara Bow, as well as an artist’s slot on the Soaring Penguin Press WWI anthology To End All Wars, and she is currently working on her debut graphic novel, Elsie Harris Picture Palace, which was nominated in the Myriad Editions 2014 First Graphic Novel Competition.
Jessica spoke to Jeremy Briggs about her comics work for downthetubes.
downthetubes: Where did your love of comics come from and what started you creating your own?
Jessica Martin: As a child I loved all things pictorial. My most treasured book was a film compendium called A Pictorial History of the Talkies by Daniel Blum which I was given for my eighth Christmas. I drew every film star in sight and was as obsessed watching them as drawing them which led to my first career as an actress. I also loved Ladybird books, Rupert the Bear annuals and my favourite girl comics were Diana and Mandy. A great aunt of mine had kept her daughter’s annuals from the fifties and so I also developed a taste for old Schoolfriend and Girl annuals.
Fast forward many, many years later I came across the Bryan Talbot book Alice in Sunderland in a bookshop and was so drawn in by the cover I picked it up, perused and bought it. It opened my mind to all the wild possibilities graphic art had to offer and truth be told, at that time I saw it more as a springboard to creative thinking for my cabaret projects.
A couple of years on from that (we’re talking four years ago) I found my inner drawing child again. I was reading a wonderful book called The Creative License by Danny Gregory which suggested ways of keeping a visual journal and teaching yourself drawing intuitively. So I got into the habit of sketching every day. I absolutely fell in love with pen and pad again and from time to time found myself rudely interrupted from my rapture by an acting job! I was doing a tour of Spamalot and shared some of my artwork with fellow actor Phill Jupitus. He said very casually “Why don’t you do a graphic novel?” Light bulb moment. Of course… comics! Art and narrative, the perfect combination for my skill sets.
DTT: Where did the idea of It Girl come from and how did you get started?
Jessica: The idea for It Girl was inspired by a television documentary I watched last summer about silent film star Clara Bow. I knew what she looked like but didn’t know much about her life beyond a few salacious myths perpetuated by the Hollywood Babylon book. The documentary was revelatory and I was moved to read David Stenn’s brilliant biography on her Runnin’ Wild. Knowing that I was going to be attending Thought Bubble in November 2013, I thought it would be a good idea to have something to showcase my work. A mini-comic of Clara Bow was born.
Previous to this I had created some strips for my website…a humorous diary called Wishful Inking. I had also embarked on about sixty odd pages for my ‘epic’ graphic novel Elsie Harris Picture Palace. With naive confidence I had been showing my portfolio pages to anyone of note who would look at them at various comic conventions. One of these very kind people was Steve White at Titan Books who has now become a good friend and always full of good advice. Another influential friend is star comic artist Mark Buckingham who asked me to write a story for a one page strip he was drawing for Thought Bubble. The result, Passing Thoughts, was published in the anthology and is my first published work.
DTT: With It Girl you seem to become a writer/artist/designer/publisher/distributor in one fell swoop. Did you have to jump in at the deep end or have you been able to call on the experience of others for the various aspects of the comic’s production?
Jessica: If someone had told me at the outset I’d have to be writer, artist, publisher and distributor, I don’t know if I would have got past the first hurdle in comics! Ignorance is bliss. The key for me in everything I’ve done in life is that if I’m really passionate about something, I will let nothing stand in my way. I do have a fantastic long standing family friend who is my ‘business’ partner. He has been very helpful in motivating, organising me and being there at these first conventions I’ve been exhibiting at. It makes such a difference to have someone to give you feedback and share the physical load of getting to and from venues with your stock as well as cheer you on when the custom is slack.
I chose Comic Printing UK to do my printing because I’d done some due diligence on the small press front and liked the production of WuWei and Twisted Dark. Rich Hardiman at Comic Printing UK was extremely helpful and reasonable, enabling me to do a high quality print run on It Girl. I have had some lovely feedback on the design of It Girl and its layouts. That comes from a mixture of instinct and influences from looking at poster art and endless pictures of Art Deco images.
To charge or not to charge was also another issue. So often in the acting game you are asked to provide your services for free. There is this ridiculous attitude that anything that nourishes the soul should be given away! I decided to charge for my comic. I’d worked really hard on it and lots of people in the comic industry, like acting, do not get the remuneration they deserve. I’m very glad I did as it is selling very well and has paid for itself already. Who knew?
DTT: How did you get involved in To End All Wars and how much different was it for you working to someone else’s script?
Jessica: John Anderson at Soaring Penguin was one of the first friendly publishers I got talking to in the early stages of my ‘quest’. He asked me to step in to complete the art work on a story for To End All Wars as someone had dropped out. My first deadline! Having seen It Girl and some of my Elsie work he thought I would be suited to doing period detail for the World War One anthology. I was assigned a story called Only Remember about a soldier in the Bantams regiment (distinguished by the fact they were all a maximum height of five foot two).
The script read beautifully and then by coincidence I found out it was written by Chris Colley who is also an actor. He and I did songs and snatches from World War 1 for a cabaret some years ago! The fact the script was already written lessened the workload for me. I could just concentrate on the art although doing a war story was challenging for me. I loved researching and working on it and now, I’ve just been asked to contribute an entire story and the art for another World War One anthology called To Arms published this August. May be a bit of a running theme here!
DTT: You are currently working on your graphic novel Elsie Harris Picture Palace. Can you tell us a little about it?
Jessica: Elsie Harris Picture Palace is my labour of love. I came up for the idea almost as soon as I came up with the crazy notion that I might create a graphic novel. It is a rags to riches period romance about a young Lyons Corner House ‘Nippy’ who breaks into the film industry. It’s an homage to the golden age of films, classic film genre and feisty girl heroines who used to be the staple of comics like Girl.
Corinne Pearlman from Myriad Editions saw some of my work at the Thought Bubble festival and suggested I enter the Myriad Editions First Graphic Novel Prize 2014. I completely overhauled all my first thirty pages, entered the contest and was very proud to reach the shortlist. Along with the other five shortlistees, I was invited to attend the awards ceremony at the British Library last month. It was a very exciting night and although I didn’t win, the very talented Jade Sarson was the outright winner, it was a big milestone in my creative journey so far.
DTT: Your love of the inter-war period and its film stars shows in your work to date. Is this a theme that you can see yourself returning to or can you see yourself spreading your wings in the future?
Jessica: My passion for the aesthetics and stories of the inter-war period shows no signs of abating fast. Alongside my comic work I have been creating portraits of favourite film stars in different styles which are going on sale at the British Film Institute in London soon.
My next mini comic is about Vivien Leigh and I have just begun a collaborative project with four other creators which will be a classic film related comic to be launched at Thought Bubble 2014. That particular project came about after I was invited to speak at the Process Group at Gosh Comics. Steve Walsh, the organiser, had come to my Laydeez Do Comics talk in April and thought I had something unique to offer. “Before It Girl there weren’t any small press comics about the Golden Age of Hollywood” he said.
Also spawned from the Process Group at Gosh is the World War One anthology To Arms edited by Matthew Duncan and produced & co-ordinated by Karim Flint which is being funded via IndieGoGo. I know quite a few names on board have been involved with other indie creations, including Mike Medaglia, Steve Walsh, Francesca Dare and Tim Hassan. It will have more of an alternative flavour to it than To End All Wars so I feel I’m involved in two quite different projects although they are thematically linked.
I have got so many stories to tell in comic form. I will definitely expand my range to characters outside of show business. The next biography I have in mind is set in the Wild West!
DTT: Jessica, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
• There are more details of all Jessica Martin’s work on her official website: www.officialjessicamartin.com
• It Girl is available from various British comics shops including Gosh, Orbital and Travelling Man as well as from Jessica’s on-line shop which also includes postcards and prints of her work: www.officialjessicamartin.com/shop/index.php
• Jessica’s debut graphic novel Elsie Harris Picture Palace has its own blog at: www.elsieharrispicturepalace.com/blog
• To End All Wars will be published in hardcover by Soaring Penguin Press on 17th July 2014. There are more details about the anthology on its website: www.toendallwarscomic.wordpress.com/