S J Harris聽is聽a London-based cartoonist and purveyor of all things fine and strange. His first graphic novel Eustace (published by Jonathan Cape) was drawn entirely in pencil and concerned a young boy and his tale聽of salvation by corruption. It聽has been described as 鈥榓 clapped-out car pointed straight at a brick wall.鈥櫬燑/em>
Hallo there, Steven. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Halloa. By day I work in local government and by night I take on my multi-armed form and become death, destroyer of worlds. It鈥檚 fun but murder trying to find a jacket that fits. Also I鈥檓 a cartoonist: my cartoon novel, Eustace, was published in 2013 and I鈥檓 writing the sequel, Eustace in the Smoke. You can also find me gadding about on the London comics social scene.
We’ve been big fans of yours ever since we first laid eyes on Eustace. Where did the idea for Eustace come from?
Partly from an idea about telling a child鈥檚 story through polaroids of his awkward life and partly from characters developed in a series of letters. Those characters were older; really the genesis for Eustace in the Smoke but I realised I could extend them backwards into the other idea and that鈥檚 what became Eustace. It had an online incarnation first and then I flirted with other forms, such as sitcom, while I put off the daunting thought that it needed to be a cartoon novel.
We were also obviously impressed that Eustace聽is drawn entirely in graphite. What particularly appeals to you about working in graphite?
It looks ever so much like pencil. Working in ink is also good but oh! the pangs I suffer when I ink over a pencil line. Therefore it鈥檚 rather lovely to leave them in their wild state.
Speaking of wild states, could you tell us about your creative process, from the initial idea to the finished piece?
Normally I have the idea while I鈥檓 somewhere inconvenient; then I go out for the evening and entirely forget what it was. Never forget that I鈥檝e had an idea, that鈥檚 the bugger of it, although the ones that escape always seem better than the ones I find jotted down incomprehensibly in my phone. Maybe they look better from behind. Writing comes next, a horrible business because it involves thinking, a process which most people would go to lengths to avoid and quite right too. I鈥檝e found that short bursts are best as longer sessions can lead to torpor and stupor. Although I work purely in text to begin with, I write with an eye to the visual, intrigued as to what I鈥檒l end up drawing 鈥 and it doesn鈥檛 even always turn out a disappointment. I never feel entirely in control of the creative process but I think that鈥檚 for the best. Both writing and drawing seem to be going well when they veer off in unexpected directions. From feeble beginning to schizophrenic development, the whole thing might be summed up by words from The Bonzo Dog Band鈥檚 song Mr Apollo: 鈥業 was a four stone apology. Today 鈥 I am two separate gorillas.鈥橖/p>
How do you conceptualize/construct a piece? Do you think of it as a story, snapshot, or abstraction?
It鈥檚 all story. A snapshot is a story and an abstraction is a story (an emotional one, perhaps). I鈥檓 interested in character, both in writing and artwork: looking at someone and thinking, 鈥榯here鈥檚 a rum looking cove, what鈥檚 his story?鈥 The piece I did for Tiny Pencil鈥檚 Death & Resurrection issue treated the telling in quite an obtuse way but there was a definite narrative behind it: a girl is given a Box Brownie camera and she and her younger brother take a series of self portraits in different guises from the past or future. He pretends to be dead in a variety of ways until he actually dies and she has to pose for a death portrait with him. She grows up and becomes a photographer, continuing the theme by taking suicide selfies. Her last two portraits are of death approaching via whisky and old age and then her own genuinely dead body. Her adult life ran through a series of insets in the larger pictures from her childhood and, although both series were chronological, they were out of kilter with each other. I like jumbled chronology as it represents how we think: continually casting ourselves into the past and future in our minds. No idea if anyone interpreted that but it鈥檚 not meant to be a puzzle. Hopefully it conveys a feeling and the viewer brings their own story to it. Sometimes the story one extrapolates from a fragment is better than the full work. And sometimes it鈥檚 just annoyingly baffling.聽
Speaking of fragments, what size do you tend to work at? Do you have a preferred scale?
I like to work to the size of the finished art or smaller. There鈥檚 something about enlarged artwork that I love and pencil shows up particularly well: all that detail of grain one never knew was there. Forget what I said about story, abstraction鈥檚 where it鈥檚 at!
Well we loved the dark narrative abstractions of聽your Tiny Pencil piece!聽We knew you would be a perfect fit for Death & Resurrection. Do you have another favourite aspect of your subject-matter?聽
I tend to set my work in the Twentieth Century, ghastly though it was. We鈥檙e 15 years into this new one and I still can鈥檛 believe the last one is never coming back, though fuck knows where we鈥檇 put it if it did. I don鈥檛 know why I relate to it so much; I鈥檓 certain I鈥檇 have fared badly had I been born 50 or 70 years earlier but I find it thrilling when I encounter a place where the past seems still to be alive. Pubs are particularly good for this, of course 鈥?/p>
Do you also have other mediums聽you enjoy using?
Ink and watercolour. I often combine the last with forehead grease for an interesting effect and in the most recent work I鈥檝e done there鈥檚 some blood. Begins to sound like a washing powder advert doesn鈥檛 it?
Well we’ve always felt washing powder adverts were an under-recognised agent in the cartoon industry. But, what else has most influenced and inspired your vision?
Other people鈥檚 art, chiefly, of all mediums. I find photography, particularly street photography, an excellent jumping off point for ideas. The work of Saul Leiter has recently influenced my compositional style a great deal too. Forget what I said about story and abstraction, snapshots are the thing!
What are you early memories of drawing like?
Fond. I鈥檓 sure there must have been times when I was frustrated at not being able to achieve what I wanted, but I don鈥檛 think children measure themselves so critically and can therefore enjoy it more.
Can you tell us about a favourite piece of yours, or a favourite creative experience?
The piece I鈥檓 working on for “Meanwhile…” (a forthcoming anthology) is amongst the best I鈥檝e done but I鈥檝e havered for eons over how to colour it (and I do want to colour it) for fear of fucking it up. However, I have found a formula and I鈥檓 going to use it. I won鈥檛 go into detail but it鈥檚 the story of a love affair in six pages. It was initially created out of some entirely disparate single frame gags but is now its own complete little Frankenstein鈥檚 monster. It felt good stitching it together but when the muscles started to twitch and writhe beneath my hand and the thing leapt up from the slab and did a sad little soft shoe shuffle, I knew it was out of my control. That鈥檚 not meant to sound mystical: it鈥檚 all just part of the general, random chaos.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Oh lots. In a drawer. Some of 鈥榚m have even got stuff in 鈥榚m.
Would you mind shedding light on your nom de plume spimcoot?
It鈥檚 a nonsense word that was edited out of a frivolous gift book I once wrote. It sprang to mind when I need something unique for an email address and has stuck with me ever since. In certain quarters it鈥檚 my soubriquet in person. I might have chosen more carefully if I鈥檇 known that was going to happen.
How was聽your聽time in France?聽 We heard you spent time at an artists鈥 colony, and regularly produced satirical cartoons?
Artists鈥 colony, eh? I suppose Angoul锚me is a bit like a craggy rock inhabited only by puffins. I fled there in the midst of a mid-life crisis which I was getting out of the way early, and lived in poverty in a hovel at the bottom of the hill with an alcoholic woman I鈥檇 met online. I was only there three months but it was a time packed with incident. When I left she tried to strangle me but I escaped by leaping out of the window: if you鈥檙e going to live with the emotionally unstable, make sure it鈥檚 on the ground floor. Somehow I became part of an atelier whilst there, to much bemusement on both sides, but they were very charming to me. The handful of cartoons I produced for the local paper weren鈥檛 of the best, but I enjoyed working on them with my French writing partner 鈥 and the afternoons we pissed away in the caf茅 where he was a regular, playing darts and drinking. He introduced me to the ap茅ritif Suze which, as he put it, 鈥榠s like all life鈥檚 best experiences: it starts off sweet, then turns bitter.鈥 Angoul锚me is so ridiculously picturesque that one has to drink to blur the edges. My time there wasn鈥檛 always pleasant but I don鈥檛 regret a moment.
What is the difference, if any, between a cartoonist and an illustrator?
The smell (one smells charming, the other delightful).
What’s wrong with Martin Freeman?
Casting. I think he can act but he is often cast as 鈥 and falls back on 鈥 this so called everyman schtick which is tedious in the extreme and makes me want to cry out 鈥榥ot in my name!鈥 He should never have been cast as Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker鈥檚 Guide to the Galaxy film: should have been David Mitchell (with Robert Webb as Ford Prefect, of course. Sam Rockwell can stay in: he made a very sexy Zaphod). I managed to overcome my dislike of the Freeman to watch the TV series of Fargo recently. He was cast very cleverly in that, playing with type rather than against it and I enjoyed his performance. All the performances were good, actually; shame the writing was such a load of old rubbish.
Right or left-handed?
Favourite pencil: Wood? Mechanical? Other?
Mechanical with an emery board to hone the edge to an atom鈥檚 width.
Coffee, nicotine, or booze?
Coffee in the morning, booze in the … well, sometimes in the morning: smoked salmon and scambled eggs are nothing without a spot of something fizzy. Booze generally. I often make too much of it and get on my own tits but I do enjoy alcohol.
Last film you saw in the cinema?
Whiplash. It wasn鈥檛 very good but that鈥檚 a mean version of Caravan they play in the final scene.
What books are on your bedside table?
The Devils of Loudon 鈥 Aldous Huxley
Intruder in the Dust 鈥 William Faulkner
Fleeting Faces 鈥 Wallis Eates
Nairn鈥檚 London 鈥 Ian Nairn
A to Z of London, 1966
Coot Club 鈥 Arthur Ransome
The Comix Reader 6
The Compleat Flea 鈥 Brendan Lehane
Favourite city in the world?
London. Admittedly it鈥檚 the city I know best but I love all of its various parts.
Favourite city to draw/sketch/illustrate/create in?
Have pencil, will travel, open to suggestions (and plane tickets).
Lastly, what can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I鈥檓 accepting small commissions that come my way 鈥 anthologies and the like 鈥 to keep my hand in but Eustace in the Smoke is the big project for the future. The end of the writing is in sight and then it鈥檒l just be the hundreds of little drawings. I鈥檓 afraid this one won鈥檛 be pencil but inky line work. It鈥檚 a return to an earlier style of mine but I鈥檝e also been looking at a lot of 50s jazz album art, particularly that of David Stone Martin. The book is set 19 years after the first book, in 1955, albeit with a lot of flashback. Eustace is living in digs in London and working as a lowly filing clerk. He bunks off work to spend the day drinking and we accompany him round his various haunts. The inevitability of loneliness is a big theme in this 鈥 though not necessarily a depressing one, I think, but there are plenty of gags too.
Thank you Mr. Harris! We look forward to your next projects! 聽
S J聽Harris’s graphic novel Eustace聽is available聽at bookshops and online.
This interview was brought to you by聽Heather McCalden聽and The Tiny Pencil 鈥 fine purveyors of the pencil arts.聽Follow us on twitter聽@TheTinyPencil,聽Facebook,聽Tumblr, and聽Instagram聽for the latest news on all of our new anthology artzines.聽