Manchester-based comic artist Oliver East has just launched his latest project, The Homesick Truant’s Cumbrian Yarn (ordering information for the first book below), a “walking comic” centred on the artist’s travels in the county dominated by the Lake District, commissioned by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in partnership with Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre, one of the Festival’s core venues.
Oliver first started making comics as part of art school projects – many of which he gave away to friends. Finally deciding he was interested in drawing he started the Trains are… Mint series. He self-published three issues of the much-praised project before teaming up with British publisher Blank Slate to produce a collected edition and its two “sequels” – Proper Go Well High and, most recently, Berlin and That, which form a ‘walking’ trilogy.
His earlier self-published books like the House of Fire trilogy from 2005 are now pretty hard to find but not as rare as his hand made book of Trains are… Mint 4 , which is slated to be his next release on the Blank Slate label.
downthetubes: Firstly, congratulations on The Homesick Truant’s Cumbrian Yarn, your commission from the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Can you tell us more about it?
Oliver East: Thanks very much. Julie Tait, the Festival’s Director, approached me at Thought Bubble, despite my best brooding face, and said we she should do something together then like that, puff, she was gone. A few weeks later, she asked me to pitch a couple of ideas so I hatched a ridiculously epic one, which she’d never go for, and a much more palatable diet version. So she went with the mental one and now I have to do the longest walk I’ve ever done…
downthetubes: And this project involves you walking Cumbria and drawing what you see?
Oliver: Basically, yes. Walking from Arnside to Carlisle, following the train line as closely as possible. I don’t draw anything on the day. I just take written notes. Then I draw it all up at home. So it’s more how I’ll remember Cumbria rather than how Cumbria actually is.
downthetubes: Anything peculiar happened en route so far? Have you been reading to cows again, like you did back in 2008?
Oliver: I’ve done four legs to date. Each day is about six hours walking plus a six to eight hour round trip by train from Manchester. I’ve done Arnside to Grange-over-Sands, Grange to Ulverston, Ulverston to Askam via Barrow and Askam to Millom. I reckon on six more legs to Carlisle.
Julie commissioned me in December and I wanted to get cracking on the walking as soon as possible to get as much done in the winter months as I could. This would hopefully provide more interesting copy than a nice summer stroll in the Lakes. So these floods and winds have been beating the crap out of me every day. I’ve done as much wading as I have hiking. Was it Turner who strapped himself to the front of ships to better understand water? That. All day last Sunday, walking along the coast. It was terrifying in places. Will be fun to draw.
downthetubes: How do local people react when you tell them what you’re doing (if they ask?)?
Oliver: Mainly, “Why?” Or “Oh. Right”, then they glaze over. There’s a lovely woman who works the ticket office at Millom and the women who work the Barrow station shop are all very friendly. They at least smile and nod enough to at least give the impression they’re interested. To be fair to them, I am usually wet and muddy up to the crotch when they see me so I could understand any reticence.
I’ve hitchhiked twice on one of the legs. I got really lost in a private estate and was facing an extra two-three hours walk up an A road so I stuck my thumb up and hoped for the best. A man who was working on a grouse shoot gave me a lift out of the estate and then a nice chap called Matt saved me burning out up the A roads. The shooting guy was a bit non-plussed by my pilgrimage but Matt seemed interested. Probably not a coincidence it’s his name I remember.
Oliver: I guess so. I didn’t really notice much of a reaction until Kenny Penman got in touch and wanted to collect it. That blew me away but it was also what I was aiming for so it was kind of part of the plan. Then it was nominated for an Ignatz and that felt special as that meant people in the States were reading this little comic about provincial Northern towns.
I might have undone some of the goodwill gained from that first book by then writing it again for the next four books, but let’s hope not.
downthetubes: You’ve spoken elsewhere about dealing with your own dyslexia – you’ve said a lot of art students suffer the condition. Why do you think that is?
Oliver: The main reason I do these convoluted walks is to teach myself. I find reading difficult which is frustrating because I still have a desire to learn things, to better myself. But that’s tricky when you can only read for five minutes at a time and none of it goes in anyway. So I concoct these walks with arbitrarily imposed restrictions on them so I may gain life experience and hopefully learn something and grow intellectually. Try and simulate book smarts. I think I pull it off. Until you try and engage me in conversation, then it’s blatantly obvious it’s not working but I’m plugging away. I know more about levees than I did before last week.
Dyslexics often find themselves on art courses because they weren’t being taught the right way at school: the best way for their needs. So they gravitated towards the arts and away from subjects in which they needed a lot of, say, essay writing. I decided on art at university, not because I wanted to study art, I just knew I wanted to be at university to learn anything. I actually wanted to study archaeology but, well, there’s a few essays on the way to becoming Indiana Jones. I’m guessing, like me, a lot of art students decided on art as a default then grew to love it as their studies progressed.
Dyslexia’s also a gift. We think differently to you Normies. We call you Normies. Dyslexic’s brains are wired differently and lend themselves to creative industries. It’s also why I stammer and it would be nice to read a book now and then. So swings and roundabouts really.
downthetubes: Do you think the educational establishment has begun to encourage comic storytelling as an art form, or is it still a struggle for many who want to draw comics?
Oliver: I’ve been out of education for a few years, so I’m not really sure. I taught at university for a couple of years but I was pretty terrible at it. Dan Berry’s your go to guy for questions on comics and education. Or Jim Medway. Sorry – I’m not much help on that front.
downthetubes: Part of your start in comics was selling mini comics. Would you recommend that path to aspiring comic creators today? Is it a bit like comedians testing their material in clubs before they go for bigger venues?
Oliver: Not really. I mean, if you want your stuff published by one of the big companies or one of the Alt. giants, then minis are a perfect way to get yourself noticed. But they don’t have to be a means to an end. You can do just that and make good comics and still make a name for yourself, if that’s what you want. I say “just that”, but there’s no “just” about it. The fun part is making the comic, the hard part is making it not shit, and the boring and most important part is selling it. Actually no, selling at shows is loads of fun. Self-promotion can get a little tiring.
If by path you mean end up working with one of the bigger publishers then yeah, totally. But that shouldn’t muddy any of your decision making when making your first comics. Just make them good first off. Then, if you can show you’re having fun doing it at the same time, brilliant.
Also, don’t be a dick. Very important: be nice. If the comics are good enough and you promote them online then the publishers will come and find you. They’ll be looking in all the regular places people post or talk about comics online. Just concentrate on the making them good part and the rest will follow.
And, if they’re not good enough, sod it. Making comics in itself is enough fun and you’ll find some people who like it even if they haven’t got a big bag of money and an ‘in’ at Pixar. No one has. Apart from me.
downthetubes: Do you have any advice for would be “walking comics” creators?
Oliver: Look at what other walking artists have done first. Bill Drummond and Hamish Fulton. Walking writers: Ian Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Do your research. See what they and others have done to use as a starting point for you own walk. Read Essays On The Blurring Of Art And Life by Allan Kaprow.
Treat the walk as the ‘thing’ first and foremost and the comic as more of a record of that thing. Don’t think how it will look in comic form while you’re walking. Just get the walk done. Don’t take any photographs as you’ll just end up drawing from them and they will never look as good as how you remember them. Take notes, quick sketches or memos. Whatever works best for you. If you’ve found a walk that turns you on there will be someone else out there who’ll want to read about it.
Don’t expect to make any money. Prepare for a life of bar jobs.
downthetubes: What one piece of advice do you give aspiring comic creators who ask for it?
Oliver: Practice. All the time. Don’t go out. Be boring. Depends how old you are really. If you’re still young, drink a lot while the hangovers don’t count, do drugs while you haven’t got toddlers in the morning, sleep around but remember your manners. Get all that out your system as early as possible. Then hunker down and practice, practice, practice. All the people who make the comics you like? That’s all they do: comics.
downthetubes: Oliver, thank you very much for your time. The very best of luck with the new project.
• The Home Sick Truant’s Cumbrian Yarn, a commission by The Lakes International Comics Art Festival and The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal is on sale now for £3 postage and packing. Every purchaser gets a one of a kind sketch when they buy.
• Order the comic here on Oliver’s East’s official web site: www.olivereast.com/index.php/project/homesick-truants-cumbrian-yarn
• Oliver East Official Site: www.olivereast.com
• Oliver East on Twitter: https://twitter.com/olivereast
• Oliver East’s Tumblr: http://olivereast.tumblr.com
• This page on the Tate web site confirms J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) was tied to the mast of a steam-ship for four hours during a nocturnal snow storm. “This was not some melodramatic suicide attempt,” says Hall. “It was a heroic method of observing extreme meteorological effects at close quarters, and confirmation of Turner’s credentials as the supreme artistic observer of nature.”
All art © Oliver East and reproduced with permission