Richard Sheaf reflects on the launch event for the all-new Comica Festival in London, which opened with an event with comic creators Posy Simmonds and Lizzy Stewart…
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Thursday 2nd March saw the “re-launch”, or “re-invigoration”of the Comica Festival, 20 years after its inception by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning. A new setting, the Century Club on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, played host to a conversation between two really interesting illustrators – Posy Simmonds and Lizzy Stewart. Posy’s work is well known to me (thanks to all those years of being a member of the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating, wokerati) but Lizzy’s much less so, and I was therefore really interested to hear what they had to say.
Posy has a long and distinguished career as an illustrator and graphic novelist (Gemma Bovery, Tamara Drewe, Cassanda Darke) whereas Lizzy, who only graduated in 2009 has had a shorter but impressive career, probably best known to comic fans for her graphic novel, Alison, one of the graphic novel hits of 2022. Despite the disparity, Comica had brought them together (and they were together – this was a conversation between just the two of them, it wasn’t an interview) to help celebrate Comica’s mission of celebrating the richness and diversity of comics.
They began by considering their comic reading habits. Posy read The Beano, Dandy, Eagle, Girl, Swift, Robin, and lots of US comics. In fact, Posy related, she grew up with a US airbase near to her village, so she had much better access to American comics than most children. She recalled lots of 1950s Superman comics and Casper the Friendly Ghost and then, sadly, they were all thrown out by her mum and then, worse, comics were forbidden and then, as Posy said, “there was a long gap” before she read comics again. In contrast, the choice at the newsagents was much reduced by the time Lizzy began reading comics.
Experiences at art school were then compared – Lizzy with a great art teacher, while Posy had a much more limited experience, initially at least, with very boring drawings of ploughing or someone sewing. Things picked up at A-Level, with a much more inspiring teacher who took Posy’s class to London to see a Picasso exhibition, and life classes which featured the advice “…pretend you’re a fly, going over the flesh and into the groin”.
Lizzy’s life drawing teacher was obsessed with making sure all their students started the drawing from the subject’s ear and then capturing the rest of the body. Lizzy’s advice is that this is not a good approach – and she has just about weaned herself off this habit.
Their respective starts in illustration were also touched on. Posy confessed that she didn’t get work for a long time after her graduation and was cleaning houses, walking two horrible little dogs and babysitting to help makes ends meet. Her first break came when she was required to rustle up five “column breaks” – a drawing about the size of a matchbox – for an article all about loft insulation! Posy claimed they were terrible, but they were published nonetheless.
This led on to a discussion about their respective, similar, practices when it comes to planning their graphic novels. Both of them recognised that being hunched over a desk all day is an unhealthy lifestyle and that walking, despite the lack of countryside in Bermondsey for Lizzy, provides vital time for planning. Here, Lizzy revealed her fascination with big coats, particularly those you’d see in a 1980s movie that a woman might be wearing on a winter’s day in Manhattan. There’s a lot of walking around London in Alison and Lizzy’s big coat functioned as armour, as protection – from more than just the cold.
Their shared love of character design and creation was a subject that they both enjoyed talking about – a sketchpad acting as a “casting couch” for the characters that any story requires – and their shared delight in finding that moment when you can say “…I know you! You’ve got the part!”.
Posy then gave some insights into her working methods with Gemma Bovery. The idea sprang from The Guardian gently saying “what are you going to do next?” She pitched the idea of doing something literary and that was it, they signed her up for 100 daily episodes “and it’ll be in a slightly weird space so it’ll have fit in”. At the end of the strip’s run in newspaper, it immediately went off to be published in collected form and there was no time for artistic tweaks or corrections. That was a lesson learned for her next project, Tamara Drewe, which only appeared twice a week and there was time for corrections / adjustments before it was collected in a single volume.
Lizzy’s working methods are less driven by newspaper deadlines, but she compared and contrasted her work on Alison, all done by hand, with that on Walking Distance, where she used digital colouring.
A final topic of discussion was early influences. Lizzy cited Raymond Briggs, and not just because they both make picture books. Instead it was because, as a student, she read Ethel & Ernest and, while she’d read some graphic novels, she’d never read one that showed her that she could make a graphic novel about “this quiet, domestic thing”. And that was it, from then on her work changed, and she’s pursued that subject ever since.
Posy picked out Ronald Searle, Saul Steinberg, Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray, George Cruikshank, Punch, including illustrators like Pont, and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat as influences.
The evening ended with Posy being awarded the Sergio Aragonés award by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. The award had been scheduled to be presented to Posy at the Festival in 2022 but Posy was, unfortunately, unable to attend that. Comica 2023 thus provided a clearly thrilled Posy with the opportunity to be presented with the award that recognised that, despite illustrators spending most of their working lives in small rooms hunched over a desk, their work can touch people and make them laugh.
A great start then to Comica 2023 – more please!
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The Century Club, with its stunning roof terrace situated in the heart of the West End, is London’s premier members club for the arts and culture. It regularly runs arts events for members. Find out more at www.centuryclub.co.uk | Full events guide
Posy Simmonds is the author of many books for adults and children, including Gemma Bovery, Lulu and the Flying Babies and Fred, the film of which was nominated for an Oscar.
She has won international awards for her work, including the 2009 Grand prix de la critique bande dessinée for Tamara Drewe, and, most recently, the Sergio AragonésInternational Award for Excellence in Comic Art.
Both Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe have been made into successful feature films. Her third graphic novel, Cassanda Darke, was published in 2018. She lives in London.
Lizzy Stewart is an illustrator and author from Plymouth who lives and works in London. She has written and illustrated three picture books for children alongside Walking Distance, an illustrated essay, and her powerful graphic novel, Alison, released last year; and It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be, a graphic short-story collection.
Alison has been described as an exquisitely crafted coming of age story charting the progress of a woman embroiled in the glamour of the 1970s London art scene.
Her debut picture-book There’s a Tiger in the Garden won the Waterstones Children’s book prize for picture books in 2017 as well as a World Illustration Award. She teaches illustration at Goldsmiths college.
• Bleeding Cool: Posy Simmonds Receives Sergio Aragonés International Award (Video)
Categories: British Comics, Comics, Creating Comics, downthetubes Comics News