Breaking Surface: An Interview with Jay Gunn, creator of “Surface Tension”

Surface Tension by Jay Gunn - Promotion

Jay Gunn is the writer/ artist nom de plume of Jason Wilson writer of the new Titan Comics creator-owned series Surface Tension (#2 is on sale now in all good comic shops and digitally through Comixology. Jay started his career working at the National Coal Board where he was tasked with drawing safety comics to teach children the hazards of playing on industrial sites. The comics were rather gory! 

Surface Tension creator  Jay Gunn
Surface Tension creator Jay Gunn

Jay joined the burgeoning home grown video game development scene in the late 1980s where he spent over 25 years making everything from arcade conversions to original Bafta award winning games for Sony. Jay is probably best known for his work on the MediEvil series of games.

Jay has spoken about his experience as a games developer at film and art festivals, as well as school lectures at the Barbican centre, London.

Surface Tension is Jay’s first foray into the world of comic books and we’re delighted he was able to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about the project.

downthetubes: How did you come up with Surface Tension?

Jay Gunn: Throughout my life I’ve spent a lot of time by the coast. When I was a child my parents owned a caravan by the sea and we would stay there for much of the summer. During that time I would read lots of science fiction and horror novels that I had bought with my pocket money; John Wyndham, H.G. Wells and the schlocky pulp of Guy N Smith. I would browse the sea-side book stalls for second hand copies of the beautifully illustrated Hammer’s Halls of Horror comic magazine. A lot of the stuff I read wasn’t intended for children but the lurid covers always captured my imagination and anything that gets a child to read is a good thing, right? Even if one’s reading would include stories about giant crabs eviscerating victims at dreary British coastal resorts!

Because of this I’ve always made a connection between the sea and sci-fi and horror. Some people have asked me if I was influenced by Lovecraft as he wrote several stories about aquatic horrors and I would have to say that I was not. Thematically, Surface Tension is much more sci-fi fantasy with a tinge of horror than it is the all out cosmic dread of Lovecraft. The tone of my story has more in common with British writers like, Nigel Kneale and the Japanese film maker Hayao Miyazaki.

Night of the Crabs, Day of the Triffids and House of Hammer - Covers

downthetubes: You’re better known, perhaps, for your work in the games industry. Did you approach Surface Tension in the same way you would a games project, or did you find a different discipline was required?

Jay: I would say that there is certainly some cross over in terms of skills that I picked up in the video games industry. In particular the visual language of world building is something very pertinent to both video games and comic books. As a game director I would have enough of a budget to hire comic artists and writers to work with me on projects and so I was always keen on the cross over between comics and games. As they worked with me I was also learning about their craft.

However, I do find that writing and drawing a comic book is a much more personal affair when compared to working on a big budget video game. A comic is a very solitary affair and does require a very different mindset and working stamina. It was quite a contrast going from working with a team of 80-plus people to mostly working alone. Working in a big team is a great experience and you learn a great deal but as team sizes swell and the budgets get bigger, it becomes harder for any one person to make a creative impact. Making a game is very much a team effort and there are many commercial considerations to be taken into account when dealing with soaring development costs and marketing budgets.

I’ve known artists that have flourished in a team environment but flounder when given a blank canvass. Conversely, I’ve known artists that have struggled to express themselves in a team dynamic but have gone on to create amazing works of art when operating outside of a studio environment. There are different priorities and compromises to be made in both environments.

In recent years I have come to prefer smaller indie games development, I have seen some wonderfully creative indie games. Smaller team sizes and lower costs allow for more creativity and risk taking.

At the end of the day, the more money that is spent on creating entertainment, the less it will be about freedom of expression. Comics are low budget and that has allowed the medium to continue to be expressive, creative and risk taking in ways that big budget games can still only dream about.

All this being said, I still love to relax and play console games!

Surface Tension Chemical Plant

downthetubes: What were your inspirations for the story? There are echoes of the work of John Wyndham’s SF novels in the tale, for example, but were there other influences? Quatermass, perhaps?

Jay: You are bang on the money with your observations, sir. I think a lot of my inspiration for the story stem from one singular moment in my life.

When I was very young, I lived in a very small village by a wide river that ran out to sea. Some miles away downriver was a large chemical plant and my father worked in the steel mill that neighboured the plant. Thankfully, he wasn’t at work the day that the chemical plant – Flixborough – exploded!

At the time it was Britain’s biggest post war explosion. Lots of chemicals spewed into the air and into the river and I often wondered if the dead fish that would wash up in our back yard were a result of having been poisoned by the leak. I vividly remember the day when my parents drove through the devastated area. The twisted mangled structure of the chemical plant, the empty houses of the nearby village, the pieces of people’s lives scattered about the roadside left an indelible mark on my young mind.

I guess the disaster was responsible for my fascination for contemporary science fiction. I would go on to see films like Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass 2, which was set in a chemical plant with shapeless alien beings occupying its domes that doubtlessly fired my imagination as to the possible cause of the explosion at the chemical plant!

In turn, this lead me to discover the works of John Wyndham; Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Awakes. I have very fond memories of watching the Quatermass Conclusion and finding it to be especially scary as it was set in a time and place that I could relate to.

I actually do think that the Quatermass Conclusion is a very under rated series. The critics of the time were complaining that it was behind the times with its representation of new age youth. Looking at the series now, I think that its representation of social decay and a disengaged youth,could be argued as now being ahead of its time and that it is very indicative of where we are heading in this age of austerity and disenfranchised youth movements. I actually found Conclusion to be a great source of inspiration for aspects of Surface Tension.

The Flixborough Disaster made a lasting impression on one young comic creator...
The Flixborough Disaster made a lasting impression on one young comic creator…

downthetubes: Has the project had a long gestation and how did you come to partner with Titan Comics to publish it?

Jay: I did produce an early version of Surface Tension in the form of a demo comic back in 2006. It was about 30 pages long, but was quite different to the story that I have now. It still had the island setting and the event that had changed the world but it was much more action orientated and was more of a romp than a science fiction story of any real depth. I took the comic to San Diego Comic Con and it was met with a very positive response. I was ready to quit my job and pursue a new career in comics but I was talked into staying at Sony for a few more years and so my love of comics remained a hobby.

It was at the London “Kapow” comic event that I approached Steve White of Titan. I showed him my early demo comic and he liked what he saw and we clicked in terms of the things that we both liked. I discussed a couple of ideas that I had and the one that stuck was Surface Tension. Steve also has a big love of the sea and he’s the world’s biggest fan of Jaws!

I had intended to finish work on the comics sooner than I did and this was partly due to being diagnosed with stage 2 cancer when I was three months into writing and drawing the comic. I needed surgery on my neck to remove a rapidly growing tumour.

Understandably, this was a devastating blow for all concerned. I was just embarking on my dream job of writing and drawing a comic book and I decided that I didn’t want the cancer to become a negative influence and so I used it as a source of inspiration and turned it into a positive creative energy. It helped me to develop the notion that the characters in the story are undergoing both a physical and mental transformation which pretty much mirrored my own state at the time. The characters in the story need to save the sickened planet but they are questioning their place in the world, is the fight worth it and how can they win in the face of overwhelming odds?

Environmental disaster became a metaphor for cancer. This was the question I was asking myself when I was drawing the comic – should I continue the crazy dream or just give it up. Physical transformation coupled with the notion of transcending beyond the limits of the physical became a theme for me to hang the story around.

In June 2015, I was officially signed off as being in remission, so yes, it’s been an incredible journey and the comic took rather longer to complete than I had originally planned but for me it was worth it and I wouldn’t change a thing! I’m very fortunate to have lived and made a comic book series during and about that time.

Surface Tension - Transformation

downthetubes: How much pre-production work did you put into the project – character design, locations, artefacts and “world building”?

Jay: Steve asked me to write a treatment of the entire script for each issue. I broke down each page into a detailed synopsis. Originally I had planned the series to be 12 issues. Steve liked the treatment but asked me to make some budget cuts by amending the story from 12 issues to five! That was my first big challenge, how to compress quite a big concept into a limited amount of pages! I cut back the scale of the story and made it a smaller more personal drama. There were some concepts that I was sorry to see go but I think it made the final story more focused.

Jay on Sark, researching for Surface Tension.
Jay on Sark, researching for Surface Tension.

As I was rewriting the script I travelled around the British Channel Islands to study island life and to gather reference. The ornate Edwardian art deco bath house you first see in Issue One is actually based on a real swim hall that I discovered on Jersey. Sark in particular became a great reference point for the fictional island of Breith.

The organic texture of the setting is very important to me and I wanted to capture the functional moments of island life before the action kicks into gear.

I’m a big fan of the quieter moments of Japanese cinema, those moments where we are simply observing characters going about their lives. With Surface Tension it was important to see characters framed by nature, the story is all about our relationship with the environment so I had to make the backgrounds seem as integral and as appealing as possible. You will notice that as the series progresses we see less and less of the natural environment, as if the survivors are being separated from the world of nature.

During my research I discovered that the Channel Islands have a Neolithic pagan past. On Sark, I had the pleasure of meeting a Cambridge archaeologist who was living on the island and excavating ancient sites and he was kind enough to show me his work and answer my quesions. On the islands I visited ancient Menhirs (standing stones) and dolmans (burial sites). I wove some of these neolithic elements into the fabric of the story. I also borrowed a few elements from Irish mythology such as the selkie – human seal hybrid creatures.

Surface Tension - Island

downthetubes: Without giving anything away, is there scope for further tales in the same world once the initial run is published?

Jay: Oh, yes! I had to cut a number of interesting ideas from the original script so there’s a lot of mileage for further stories. For instance, in this comic we don’t see what has happened to the rest of the world. Are there other survivors and what challenges are they overcoming? What other creatures exist in this strange new world of the corals?

I do have a sequel story planned out, one that expands the concept beyond the island setting and I’d love to do it but in the end it comes down to financing. I think that it would make a wonderful story but creator owned work doesn’t pay a page rate and it’s a long time to go without an income. Maybe I would write and have another artist illustrate it, that would save me some time.
However, I do have a number of smaller comic stories that I want to publish before I return to Surface Tension.

Surface Tension - Promotional Art

downthetubes: Who would you say were your main influences as a comics artist?

Jay: Unlike a lot of comic creators I didn’t grow up with American superhero comics. I love comics, but I lack that spandex and capes nostalgia that many others go crazy over. I’ve barely even seen any of the superhero films that get made!

I grew up reading home grown comics – Commando, 2000AD, Halls of Horror... Then as a teenager I discovered a stash of porno magazines and amongst them was a strange sci-fi erotic comic magazine called Heavy Metal – in it was a Moebius comic strip, possibly “Arzak”. Instead of keeping the porn I stole the comic – what does that say about me?! Ha ha.

As an adult it was the works of people like Hayao Miyazaki and his beautiful eco fantasy films and French bande dessinee. I cannot read French but I buy lots of BD books just so that I can look through them, I love that they can tell different types of stories than what we traditionally think of as comics. For a long time one of my favourite comics was Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat. I think you can see some of the art influences of that book on Surface Tension.

So, my inspirations are primarily European and Japan, just like my food and fashion!

downthetubes: Do you work digitally or traditionally to create your pages?

Jay: A mixture of the two, I’m still undecided which is better or faster. Sometimes I’ll feel like drawing out a page or a panel traditionally with pencil and ink on card and then some days I’ll draw digitally. I do still like raw pencil work and so I worry that digital can take away that organic texture. Sometimes I wish I was looser in my line work, I’d like to get more impressionistic as I develop. I do all my colours digitally but I do miss using coloured pencils, I’d like to get back to them someday, perhaps for a short story that I’d like to draw.

In the end traditional or digital, it’s all drawn by hand and both are about ideas and storytelling.

Surface Tension - Creative Process

Drawing Stages:

1 – After doodling an incredibly rough thumbnail of a page, I’ll decide if I need any reference photos for poses or clothing. In the case of this panel I took a photograph of myself rolling across the floor.

It is important never to trace or copy a photo as it will just look weird! Instead, use it as a basis for your sketch and embellish it. I’ll draw a very low resolution digital sketch of the composition and form.

2 – I then print out a larger version of the digital sketch and draw a detailed pencil of the final panel or page. Sometimes I will ink over the pencil, depending on how I feel.

3 – I will then scan the detailed pencil and clean up the image and make any digital improvements.

4. I will turn the image into different layers – foreground, middle ground and background. This way I can add depth and colour each layer independently. I gave the falling fish and melting bodies a blurred effect to give the impression of movement.

downthetubes: How do you plan your day as a creator? (Do you plan your day?)

Jay: I try to keep consistent times, start at 9.00am and finish at 8.00pm. I also usually work at least half a day on the weekend. There’s a tendency to keep working into the night but you can easily burn yourself out and working too many late hours is the law of diminishing returns.

downthetubes: What’s the best thing about being a comics creator?

Jay: Having the chance to tell personal stories that only you as an artist can tell! To learn and to grow as a storyteller. I feel that I’m only just starting to learn and that I have a long road ahead of me.

downthetubes: And the worst?

Jay: It can get quite lonely and I’ve had to put my social life on hold, I can’t drink or party any longer as I hate not being able to work the next day. Creator owned comics do not pay a page rate and so I’ve had to find alternative income and live a very frugal lifestyle.

downthetubes: What most distracts you from getting your work done?

Jay: Social media! I kind of love and hate social media, it’s a great way of getting your work seen but it is also a huge time sink as it is just so much noise and opinion.

Once I leave the house I don’t take any sort of mobile device with me. I prefer to get out into the countryside, sit and think and maybe write or draw. I do my best thinking away from a computer.

downthetubes: Do you think it’s easier or harder for comic creators to get published today?

Jay: It’s easier now to get your work seen, the internet is a wonderful of getting your work out into the world but it is also hard to stand out from the crowd of other voices that are also baying for attention.

As I don’t have any history of having a comic published in the past I have nothing to compare my experiences with. However, I think that if you really want to be published and you are prepared to put the time and effort in then you have a great chance of being published, especially in the creator owned market. I also know of great work that has been done by friends in the self published world, that’s a great way of learning your craft and getting feedback.

Surface Tension Cult

downthetubes: What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in the comics industry?

Jay: Honest – critical – feedback! Try making a demo comic first and then get some proper critique from an editor or an industry professional and take heed of their advice even if it is difficult to hear.

Friends and family will not give you the critique that you need to hear as they will not want to hurt your feelings. All of your successes and failures will be writ large across each page, there’s no hiding your shortcomings. When I draw a page I feel completely naked, both technically and artistically and I always feel like I could do better on the next page.

downthetubes: And would that also aply to a people looking to work in the games industry?

Jay: Constructive feedback is always important, no matter if you are working in comics or games. Some take it better than others. I feel that for many games is the shinier preoccupation for a lot of young artists as games are higher profile and the certainly pay better than comics!

A lot of young artists wanting to work in games now come through University, this is very different to my day when hardly anyone came through University as it wasn’t really an option for many. Game artists and programmers were all self taught – it was a new frontier, the Wild West driven by individual passion and sheer creativity!

Today, there are many University courses and so many online digital tutorials for aspiring game artists to learn from and this is fantastic. However, the down side to all of this and it is a common complaint that I hear from art directors is that we are seeing a rise in identikit forms of digital art. Everyone is using the same tutorial methods to create the same style of digital art and the downside of this is that so no one stands out from the crowd!

It is becoming increasingly rare to see an individual style, let alone actual drawing skills beyond the use of photo kit-bash and digital paint tools.

Here’s a amusing story for you – Ten years ago, The Guardian newspaper wanted to publish an article on making a career in the games industry. They approached Sony, where I was the working at the time, for an interview with the team of a game. The editor made a prerequisite that the team being interviewed had to have a University degree. Now the amusing thing is that not one of the team leads had gone to University as they were all self taught! Neither the creative director, the lead programmer, the concept artist or the producer had a formal qualification! I think the newspaper ended up interviewing the PR manager who was the only one with a degree.

I thought that it was a terrible example of snobbery and negated the brilliant work of all those that had achieved so much by circumventing the restrictions of their social backgrounds. Creativity and drive should never come down to a formal qualification on a piece of paper and it is wrong to make anyone feel that this is a barrier to making a successful career in the creative fields. I feel sad that many are unable to go to University due to the costs involved and I hope that they would not feel that a door has closed on them. It should be the opposite situation – the chance to embrace your freedom to create work outside of the mainstream!

Young artists should also remember that many other artists are using the same reference materials and tutorials. It is more important than ever to find your own identity so that you stand out from the competition. Much like the comic industry continues to be today, the games industry was built on individuals with passion and ideas! Now more than ever there are tools that allow you to express yourself and to get your work seen. Have fun, get your hands dirty and go off course and make something of your own! Discover your own voice!

 The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi
The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi

downthetubes: What’s your favourite comic right now and where can people get it?

Confession time! I haven’t read many new comics recently, I’ve stockpiled many but I’ve not had the time to read them.

For my recommendation, I’d like to go back to one of my favourites that I often return to – The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi and published by Ponent Mon.

This is a lovely example of how comics do not always have to be about action or thrills. The comic book is a collection of beautiful moments depicting a Japanese salary man taking different routes on-foot around the suburbs where he lives and works. As an adult he discovers the lost pleasure of climbing a tree or paddling bare foot across a river and playing with a street dog.

The book shows us how even the suburbs can be a beautiful world full of new discoveries if only we took the time out to find them. A world that many of us take for granted by rushing to work or getting lost in a screen. We forget to live and never truly see the world around us.

The book also has very little text so it is almost purely visual – a visual meditation!

downthetubes: Jay, thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us.

Surface Tension #2 is on sale now through all good comic shops and the series is also available through Comixology. Surface Tension #3 is on sale on 29th July 2015

• Find Jay Gunn on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @gunncomics

Surface Tension - Fish

Web Links

UPDATE: Surface Tension was released as a collection in 2016 | Buy it hewre from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

Read our review of Surface Tension #1

More about Surface Tension #1 on the Titan Comics web site

More about Surface Tension #2 on the Titan Comics web site

Background Links

Wikipedia: The Flixborough Disaster | Flixborough Official Court of Enquiry Report (PDF)

The Official Web Site of author Guy N. Smith

• The papers and manuscripts of John Wyndham are held at the University of Liverpool, as part of their science fiction collections, curated by the Science Fiction Foundation‘s Andy Sawyer

Surface Tension is TM & © 2015 Jay Gunn. All rights reserved

Categories: British Comics, Comic Creator Interviews, Comic Creator Spotlight, Comics, Creating Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News, Featured News, Features

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