Mitchell Library, Glasgow
The crowd was excited to see the ‘behemoth’ of comics, as he was introduced by the young fan from the Scottish Book Trust, Alan Grant, famed for his work on Judge Dredd and Batman. You could tell immediately he was going to be amusing, a laconic elder Scotsman with his wild hair, louche outfit and laid-back posture. Good-hearted banter back and forth between the panelists kept the atmosphere light, a bit like a bunch of mates enjoying a beer on someone’s sofa, as Alan told personal stories of starting his career being forced to write for teenage girls’ magazines with names like Honey and Loving, his stories like ‘I had a Hell’s Angels boyfriend’, proving the most popular. Frank Whiteley is his sometime artist collaborator and famed for his work on New X-man and All-Star Superman. They were joined by ‘Metaphrog’, pioneering graphic novelists, John Chalmers and Sandra Marrs (The Red Shoes and Other Tales).
A discussion ensued about the popularity of comics in Scottish culture, and Sandra confirmed John’s observation that they are pretty ubiquitous in France and enjoy a slightly higher status in the world of art. John explained that even though comics are still slightly looked down upon in the UK, they were fantastic for pushing against conformity and asking some big questions by hiding fresh ideas deep in the subtext. ‘The Broons’ remain best sellers in Scotland, all these years later. They put the snobbery down to Scottish guilt over doing ‘what you enjoy’. A hush descended on the audience when Alan showed his damaged left hand that was beaten severely with a belt over the course of his first two years at his primary school, when he arrived at 4 the only pupil able to read and write (thanks to his granny and the Beano), but unfortunately with his sinister ‘left’ hand. He began to write with his right hand, even though the sentences all came out backwards, but was never able to draw in the same way again.
They talked about the contrast between indie presses and large press houses, and the consensus was that you have more creative freedom with independent presses, and self publishing (by Metaphrog) allowed ultimate freedom. They all seemed to enjoy the different challenges and opportunities that came with different collaborations, the essence of which could change completely depending on the subject matter. Metaphrog worked in tandem, and Alan and Frank tended to work with complete scripts, and Frank was often inspired by taking photographs. John explained that his former career as an engineer gave him good discipline to work on his stories. All of them had been pretty much self-taught, but Frank suggested that his training in anatomy and perspective had been invaluable.
They gave lots of advice to budding graphic artists, on how to begin, how to refine their technique and how to get a foot in the door. They suggested the best way was to read as many comics as possible, especially to understand the subtleties of the best layout, edit other people’s work, join writers’ and artists’ groups, watch online tutorials. They were very encouraging to audience members who asked for specific advice. Sandra suggested that they send out unsolicited work, and John said that editors were keen to see finished work, even if it wasn’t yet perfected, as that proved that you were capable of working to deadlines. They’d never had any failures or disasters, and obviously all love what they do, whether in solitude or in collaboration. However, the most important phrase of friendly advice from our experts was ‘just do it!’
Reviewer: Lisa Williams