Matt Badham chats with four time Eisner, Harvey and Angoulême Official Selection nominated writer, artist and illustrator Andi Watson, about his latest project, Sunburn, created with artist Simon Gane, making comics, the art of collaboration, his various projects – and his thoughts on the British comics convention scene…
Sunburn, published by Image Comics and out later this month, is his new collaboration with Simon Gane, telling the story of a teenager, Rachel who is unexpectedly invited to Greece one summer by family friends, the Warners. There, she meets Benjamin, a handsome friend of the Warners and has some transformative and rocky times in what Andi describes as a coming-of-age story.
What’s it been like working with Simon again, who you previously collaborated with on Paris, particularly as you more often illustrate your own scripts rather than hand them to another artist?
Working with Simon again is very exciting for me. When we first discussed doing a new book together, I asked him what kind of stories he was interested in and what sort of things he’d like to draw. Knowing my co-creator is excited to draw certain things inspires and challenges me.
He’s been to Greece many times and wanted to capture it on the page. I’ve never been to Greece, so I began to think of ways I could approach the story and did research. We both enjoy the work of [French novelist, screenwriter and playwright] Françoise Sagan, so my thoughts turned to a coming-of-age story. I think Simon was initially into the idea of a female character in her old age, but I couldn’t find my way to make that work. In this way we are co-creators and so search for common ground in the story we want to tell and that’s how it develops between us.
You’re tailoring the story to his interests as well as yours?
It’s no use my having a story about motor racing if the person I’m collaborating with is going to hate drawing cars. Simon can draw anything. He does amazing architecture, he can do landscape, animals and, as it happens, he draws marvellous cars. His people are wonderful. The acting and body language are superb. So I know I’m in safe hands by asking for subtle changes in body language and facial expressions. Simon knows storytelling. He brings many more details to the script and it got a little spooky when he put in a reference to Ripening Seed by Colette, a book I read as part of my preparation, but that we never discussed.
Oh, and Simon coloured the book, which wasn’t our intention when we first began work on it. But what do you know? He’s amazing with colour too. It’s a dream!
Sounds like you complement each other.
We bring our individual strengths to a book, and we seem to be on a similar wavelength. I could never do what he does, and I want to be able to give him lots of opportunities to stretch all his comic-making muscles. So, my script will ask for all the elements I listed above, but most importantly, it’s about the characters. And I love to write dialogue, so there is lots of fun in it for me too.
I write a full script, and, because I’m also an artist, I try to describe what I see in my head. This can be quite specific, but once the writing is done, I leave it up to Simon. He can change the length of a scene or frame it the way he thinks best. Expand or compress. I aim to put a solid foundation in place and give Simon the space to construct the house in the way he thinks best.
As I say, I know what it’s like to write and draw, so I’m not trying to work against Simon’s strengths. I want to be generous rather than prescriptive. Comics are hard, the benefits can be fleeting. I want us both to enjoy the process and feel we’re giving our best to a story worth telling.
As a writer, I will write a scene of two characters sat in the same location talking for twelve pages. That’s the writer part of my brain making out a cheque the artist part has to cash. Because I know that it will be boring to draw, I would hesitate to write it for a collaborator. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t write it for Simon if it was absolutely necessary to the story, and I know he would knock it out of the park, but I don’t want anyone to read one of my scripts and have them roll their eyes or sigh. I imagine Simon has read parts of my script and pulled his hair out, but I try to be kinder to collaborators than to myself. Hopefully there’s lots of fun stuff in there. I wouldn’t want it to be a chore.
In what ways is this a continuation of Paris (also with Simon on art), although not a direct sequel, and in which ways is it a departure? Are they thematically if not directly linked?
The connecting tissue between Paris and Sunburn is that they are coming-of-age stories with female characters in foreign countries. Paris has more of a fairy tale feel. It’s about an imagined Paris, reflected through films and photographs. Simon did such a wonderful and intricate job of recreating areas that no longer exist from disparate references. It’s so seamless the reader doesn’t notice the effort that went into it.
Paris is about Juliet, an American art student who travels to the City of Light to study painting. She paints portraits of the wealthy to pay her way. That’s how she meets Deborah, a woman whose future is mapped out for her. They both want to escape expectations and outdated attitudes and make their way in the world together. It was first published in 2005 and has been reprinted in a beautiful hardback by Image comics this year. Available now from anywhere good books are sold.
Sunburn has been developing for a while. It started life as a limited series, but as time went on it became obvious it would be best suited to being an original graphic novel. I think I first handed the script to Simon in 2016 and, tellingly, on the day of the results of the Brexit referendum. Sunburn is about the attitude of the British, or the English abroad. It mirrors Paris in some ways, in that it’s not quite the ‘real’ Greece, but the picture postcard Greece. How we like to escape ourselves in foreign countries and treat them as a playground with sun, sea and, perhaps, sex, without quite acknowledging them as real, complex places.
I’m not claiming to have a more enlightened attitude. I went to Italy as a tourist in September and I wanted to visit all the pallazos and the piazzas. I didn’t consciously visit deprived areas to see the reality of the country. I was on vacation and wanted to have a good time. I was lucky enough to do a signing in Brescia and was looked after by people from my Italian publisher. It was in a gigantic mall, like something out of J.G. Ballard, a place I would never have visited normally. Everyone was worried about the upcoming elections, the rise of Meloni and the far right. I stepped out of my hotel and was confronted by fascist architecture. Brescia is considered the cradle of fascism in Italy. I didn’t meet anyone who was pro-Meloni or had neo-fascist sympathies. I had a partial glimpse of Italy, not a whole look, let alone an understanding. So, there’s a bit of bite in the subtext of Sunburn. A repudiation of cakeism, if you like.
I don’t know if my diversion into Italian politics will be usable, but it gives some context to Sunburn…
What else are you working on at the moment?
My other projects are a two-book middle-grade graphic novel series called Punycorn. It’s a funny fantasy story of a less-than-heroic unicorn, who has to save the land of Carbuncle from the evil Sir Ogre. Book 1 is due out Autumn 2023, Book 2 Autumn 2024. It’s published by Clarion Kids.
I’m also currently writing a new story for Simon. It features another female protagonist in France, but is definitely a change of pace in every other respect.
I have been creating short stories for my Patreon for the past few years. I am used to working in the longer form so wanted to challenge myself to make comics in a short format. I also wanted to return to my roots and make my own comics, get them printed and work on the design. That’s part of what attracted me to the medium in the first place, seeing a project through from idea to cover design. So I now have a mini comics collection, fourteen in total, A6 size, that can be bought separately or in a box from my store.
I’ve also been putting one page slice of life stories up on my Patreon every Thursday for the past couple of years and I now have enough to put together a collection early next year. That will be A5 format.
I also wrote and drew a story for the Tori Amos collection that I think is supposed to come out in November. I chose the song Mother.
I have a newsletter where I cover all my doings.
I think that’s all I’ve been up to.
You recently attended the Lakes International Comics Art Fest (LICAF). How was that?
I had a wonderful time and packed a lot into the weekend. I arrived on Friday and had time to take the ferry to Ambleside. It was a real highlight sailing through that part of the country. Over the pandemic, I was left wondering if I would be bothered if I never attended a comic convention again. I’ve done a lot over the years and didn’t think I would miss them. The Lakes Festival changed my mind. I came back enthused and inspired by the medium. Getting together with other cartoonists and artists is good for recharging the creative batteries. Doing it in a beautiful part of England is an extra bonus.
I love the idea of a comics festival at home that captures the magic of something like Angoulême. The approach of treating it like a cultural event; that it’s an opportunity to meet fellow authors from around the world really appeals to me. It puts the cartoonists front and centre. They aren’t overshadowed by publishing brands or it being an overblown trade show like many cons have become.
Conventions can be fun experiences, but they can also be a grind when you are stuck on one side of the table and meeting readers is reduced to selling and signing. Don’t get me wrong, I like selling books, but being freed from the table is liberating. Readers and authors are free to roam and discover.
This year was the 10th anniversary of the festival. It means the festival has had time to grow and mature without getting huge and unwieldy. Angoulême is a monster. You can’t possibly see and do everything it has to offer, whereas LICAF is at the happy stage of having grown in stature while keeping the friendly atmosphere it’s known for.
What are your thoughts on the convention scene in this country generally?
Hard for me to speak with any authority as this was the first event I’ve done in the UK for years. From my perspective there seem to be a variety of different conventions around. From small-ish local ones, zine specific events, curated shows, set-up-your-table-in-an-aircraft-hanger pop culture shows and then the Lakes Festival that is in the cultural festival mode. All have their pros and cons, but I prefer the approach of having comics be part of wider culture, not just pop culture. I think that’s what the Lakes succeeds in doing.
Andi, thanks very much for your time and the very best of luck with all your projects
• Sunburn is in comic shops from 23rd November 2022 and in bookshops from 29th November | Diamond ID: MAY220024 | ISBN: 978-1-5343-2233-2 | Age Rating: T+
• Paris, available from your local book and comic shops – ISBN 978-1534321205 – was republished as a hardcover edition by Image Comics earlier this year. As well as the original four-part series and a new introductory strip that featured in the initial 2007 book collection, it also includes plenty of new artwork | Buy it from OK Comics (includes exclusive signed print) | Buy it from Page 45
In Paris, Juliet, a penniless American art student, travels to the city of light to study painting. To pay her way, she paints portraits of wealthy debutantes. One of her subjects is Deborah, a young English woman suffocated by the narrow expectations of her aristocratic family. Juliet is equally confined by the rigid academic structure of her art education and finds an unlikely kindred spirit in Deborah. Juliet and Deborah’s love for art brings them together, even as their friends and family try to drive them apart.
A fairy tale romance where the old and new worlds collide, drawn by Simon Gane, the artist behind Eisner-nominated Ghost Tree and They’re Not Like Us, and written by Andi Watson, author of The Book Tour, Kerry and the Knight of the Forest, and the forthcoming Punycorn
Matt Badham is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine, 2000AD and Big Issue in the North.