Clearing the line – Matt Badham talks to Garen Ewing
A very special treat for you today as Matthew Badham sits down for a good, long chat with Garen Ewing, looking back to what drew him into creating comics, his early work in fanzines, self-publishing and then moving into being a professional write/artist with work in the very well received DFC comic and, of course The wonderful ligne claire adventure of The Rainbow Orchid, which has been a huge favourite with a number of the FPI crew for some time and which will see publication to a much wider market later this year when Egmont release the first volume, while a new adventure strip will be in the offing in The DFC; all in all a pretty exciting time to catch up with Garen and his work – over to Matthew and Garen:
Garen Ewing has been drawing for fun ever since he could hold a pencil. Since 2003(-ish) he’s made his living full-time as a cartoonist and illustrator. In this interview Ewing talks about, among other things, his action-adventure strip The Rainbow Orchid, life as a freelancer and his new strip for children’s comic The DFC.
(action and adventure abound in the Rainbow Orchid, (c) Garen Ewing)
Matt Badham: Please tell us about your life and career as a cartoonist so far* (with its various ups and downs). *Bit of a tall order, I know.
Garen Ewing: Crikey, a big question! I’ll see if I can keep my answer as short as possible. My introduction to both drawing and comics came mainly through spending quite a bit of time in hospital as a child. My mum would supply me with comics to read and blank paper and pencils to draw with, and I think the escapism these tools offered was quite an important aspect of my early life. Making up stories and telling them as comics has seemed like the only natural thing to do since then. I was very average at school and left on my sixteenth birthday, going to live in the States with my dad for a year. I returned to the UK and got onto a college art course, which I dropped out of after a few months. Since then I’ve had a variety of jobs, intermingled with patches of self-employment as an illustrator. I’ve been on my latest stint as an illustrator and comic creator, full-time, since about 2003, I think.
(the pencil sketch and finished version of Evelyn taking a shot in the Rainbow Orchid, by and (c) Garen Ewing)
MB: What lessons have you learnt along the way? What would you do differently?
GE: I don’t really regret the route I’ve ended up taking so far, but I sometimes wish I’d been more focussed on my art and writing in my formative years. I got sidetracked several times into other areas. I got into a band, did amateur dramatics, martial arts. Anything I got into I’d immerse myself 110% and everything else would be abandoned. I think I’d be a lot further on in my ‘career’ if I’d have been more focussed. Having said that, all those things provided experiences that helped form me, so I can’t say I’d like to go back and erase any of them from my life.
MB: Did that year in America influence your art?
GE: The big thing I discovered in America, and this was late 1985, was getting an Apple Mac, which opened up the world of desktop publishing for me. I was producing a little fanzine then, and my dad’s wife at the time was a professional typesetter. She had this huge machine at work (a phototypesetter, I think), in downtown Los Angeles. It produced proper type whereas I’d been bashing away on a ribbon typewriter until then. She very kindly typeset a few articles for my fanzine, bringing the master text home on bromide paper to be pasted up. Just a couple of weeks later I was producing text just as good on a home printer.
MB: How come you dropped out of college (I did too, all the good people do)?
GE: I’d attempted to get onto a couple of local courses and not been successful. My mum actually wrote to one of them and asked why I’d been rejected, to which they answered that while I had the skill to “copy neatly” other artists’ work, I “did not have the creativity that could lead to worthwhile employment in the world of creative art”. In fact, the portfolio I took to my interviews was all original work; the only difference was that it consisted of my fanzine illustrations and comic strips – in black ink and looking quite commercial – whereas other applicants took work from their sixth form art classes, paintings and pencilled art and so on. I guess I didn’t show a lot of variety, but I knew they were wrong in their judgement of me.
I was eventually offered a place on a general art course that became unexpectedly available, but I didn’t enjoy it. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, so spending much of my time doing photography, pottery, fashion and art history didn’t engage me. I’ve never been very ‘arty’ and didn’t fit in at all. I wasn’t a fashionable dresser like the other art students, I didn’t like the music they liked, but also I was surprised at the poor level of drawing skill some of them had. In retrospect, I now realise there’s a lot more to art than just drawing technically well, but at the time, I felt like a fish out of water, so skipped loads of lessons, got called in with an ultimatum, and decided to leave rather than stick it out. I was young, and probably foolish! Why did you drop out of college? I’m always interested in hearing that other people did too.
MB: Now I think about it, I was kicked out for being a waster, which I was (and, in a way, still am). Do you think that there’s a part of the ‘art world’ that looks down on commercial art and fails to appreciate the sheer skill of many commercial artists?
GE: It’s a two-way street, I guess. Both parties are guilty of it, I’m sure. Commercial illustration is, after all, done for the money, but it has to be priced competitively, and actually it’s ‘proper Art’ that makes the big money in the end. The level of skill involved in commercial art often has to be very high, whereas it’s less a quantifiable skill and more an aesthetic value that drives arty- art. I’m making sweeping statements here; many artists straddle both worlds.
At [small press comics con] Caption this year a show of hands was asked for from one of the panel audiences: how many people made comics just for the love of it, how many people made comics hoping one day to do it as a living, and how many people made comics for a living (which is where I put my hand up, along with two or three others). The largest segment was the middle group, and the sentiment expressed was that it was a shame less and less people seemed to be making comics purely for the love of it. Well, of course, I do make comics for the love of it. It just so happens that I love doing it so much, I’ve turned it into my job, and I unfortunately need money to live as well. I haven’t chosen comics because I think it’s an easy way to earn money; you’d be mad to think that. In fact, I make a loss on my comics work, because I spend too much time on it (I write them as well, and I don’t think any of my clients would pay for the research I do, for instance). My hourly rate would be a very unrealistic price to charge when it’s all added up.
MB: Please tell us a bit about your early fanzines.
GE: At secondary school I got into role-playing games with a small group of friends and soon discovered the gaming fanzine scene, which was vibrant. Within a few months I was putting together my first fanzine, which came out in March 1985, when I was fifteen. It was through these that I started doing illustrations for other fanzines and got my art round the place quite a bit. Comic strips were always a part of these fanzines, and I eventually turned my attention solely to the comics aspect, my first love.
MB: I get the impression you’ve never been that bothered about being in fashion. Has this attitude influenced your art? Didn’t you get advice at one point that you should go all Image/Rob Liefeld to sell your work?
GE: I don’t have the patience for doing something that I have no real interest in. It’s fine with a short commercial illustration job, where the work will take up no more than a couple of days, but comic strips are so labour-intensive that I lose interest very quickly unless I’m completely into it. This is why I’m not very good at collaborating with others on strips, I’m afraid. Starting The Rainbow Orchid was a result of this attitude. I thought, if I’m going to spend so much time creating a comic, I have to forget what anyone else might be interested in and do something that I can be sure one person will love: that person being me, and anyone else who liked it too would be a welcome bonus.
I have never really had the drive to try and ‘get into comics’, and the Liefeld comment came about from probably my one and only attempt to test the water in that direction. I think it was at UKCAC 95, I queued up with my portfolio, getting some interest from a DC editor (for the Big Books) and an invitation to follow up from David Bishop [then-editor] on 2000 AD, and, as Marvel hadn’t shown up, Alan Davis was giving critiques in their place. As I remember it, he gave me some good advice but thought my work looked old-fashioned and I should look to current artists, like the Image chaps, to see what direction I could take my style in, in order to get work. Perhaps there’s some irony in the fact that I have gravitated towards a recognised existing style after all, the Franco-Belgian clear line, but it wasn’t a commercial decision, and in fact was a style somewhat out of fashion in the late 90s, in France, at least.
MB: Please tell us how you found your current style and how you first became aware of this style.
(a firm favourite from childhood, Garen’s depiction of Asterix’s best mate, Obelix, created for his A-Z of comics characters)
GE: Every year, possibly from around the age of six, my mum would buy me either an Asterix or a Tintin book. Asterix was first, in fact Asterix and the Roman Agent was the first of the first. To this day these are probably my favourite comics, and my love of them led me to seek out more European albums, beginning with the Smurfs. When I was older I came across Yves Chaland and Serge Clerc in the pages of Heavy Metal, and got my first taste of Blake and Mortimer after a trip to the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée in Brussels. I got into Yoko Tsuno from the couple of Comcat albums that came out in the late 1980s, and also discovered the English Bob and Bobette translations around the same time.
In the late 1990s, when I was looking for something new to do, and had made that decision to do something totally for my own enjoyment, I looked at what I really loved in comics and decided to do something along the lines of the Franco- Belgian album model. I actually didn’t change my style too much. It was the dot-eyes and the page layout (four tiers, regular box panels) that were the conscious nods to Hergé and his ilk. I’m not sure I’d claim to be pure ligne-claire. There’s still a fair bit of detail in there, but after my quite over-rendered version of [Shakespeare’s] The Tempest, I was already moving to a cleaner style of artwork.
MB: Could you please tell us some more about the early comics fanzines you worked on and put together (they had some now-famous contributors, I seem to remember)?
GE: My games fanzines had always included a strip of some kind, and I was writing a fair bit about comics in them too. Eventually I decided to produce a pure comics anthology and leave role-playing games behind. I’d long lost interest in them, and it was the actual publication production that I enjoyed most. All this coincided with having to pay my mum some rent, so I got on to the totally Thatcherite Enterprise Allowance Scheme. This would be 1987 or 88. I had to come up with a business plan, in this case for my comic anthology, and attend an interview. If the board thought the idea had merit I was accepted onto the scheme and would get 40 pounds a week for a year to help fund my enterprise. Thus Cosmorama was born, a black and white A4 anthology somewhat ambitiously modelled on Dez Skinn’s Warrior. I’d been going to the Westminster Comic Mart quite regularly by then, and advertised for artists and writers in all kinds of comics publications, including Speakeasy and Escape, and got a great response. The first issue [of Cosmorama] came with a free flexi-disc, and some of the contributors to the three issues I produced included Warren Ellis, Paul H. Birch, David Wyatt and David Leach, among others. It was great, but I wasn’t really cut out for it on the business side, though I loved putting the magazine together.
(the cover to Cosmorama #3, art by David Wyatt)
MB: Have you ever had times when you thought about chucking in comics?
GE: I have done in those exceptional moments of creative despair, but never seriously, I don’t think. Telling stories with comics has been hardwired into my brain since my earliest days. I definitely had a few wobbly years after my mum died, and couldn’t seem to commit to anything, but it’s only in retrospect I noticed that.
GE: As you know, Colin is into the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, he did a wonderful two-part comic set there, and I enjoy researching and writing about the Anglo-Afghan War of the same period, 1878-1880 (I was the invited ‘expert’ on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Making History’ a few years ago for a listener’s question about it), so though they’re a continent apart, it’s something we always talk about when we get together. Colin invited me along to the National Army Museum a few weeks ago to a talk on the Zulu War by Ian Knight, and then he came back to East Grinstead where I was able to show him my Afghan War collection without boring the socks off him (or he hid it well!). I haven’t done an Afghan war comic yet, but a scene from the campaign does appear briefly in The Rainbow Orchid (see below), and I’ve also included a bit of it in my strip for The DFC, Charlie Jefferson and the Tomb of Nazaleod.
If I couldn’t draw, being a researcher and writing articles would be high on the list of alternatives. It’s a real joy to do research and then assimilate it into the story, creating fiction from actual fact. I did a ton of research for Nazaleod, but only about 20% makes it into the story. You have to know when it provides a colourful backdrop and when it starts overflowing to the detriment of the plot. Research can be very rewarding. I settled on the Breguet 280T as the aircraft that takes Julius Chancer and his chums from France to India in The Rainbow Orchid; a plane, I soon discovered, of which only twenty- one were made, so getting hold of reference became something of a Snark-hunt. Having said that, the Internet has made things easier, but you can still feel clever with a bit of lateral Googling. I’ve just asked a friend, who makes and flies his own model aircraft, if he’d build me a model Breguet, and am very excited as he’s agreed; though it won’t fly, it’s purely for reference.
(Garen’s depiction of the Breguet plane)
MB: Have you ever considered going the non-fiction route with your comics or doing drama-docu-type stuff (I ask because of your interest in history. It seems like it might be something that would appeal to you)?
GE: Every idea I have I think of as a comic strip first, and a comic strip history of the Second Anglo-Afghan War has definitely been on my mind, though, in reality, I think it would be too big a project for me. An incident from it, like Colin’s Zulu Water Cart episode might surface at some point. More manageable has been the idea of doing some little family history stories, for instance a series of four-page tales of some of the unusual deaths among my Ewing forebears. So yes, I think about doing that kind of strip quite a bit.
MB: The unusual deaths of the Ewing forebears!!! Please tell me more.
GE: I’d like to build up little stories based around the bare facts I know concerning some unusual deaths among my nineteenth century Ewings. My great-great-great-great grandfather was found dead at the foot of a cliff after a particularly foggy night. His son left home one day and placed his head on a railway track just as the express train came along. His granddaughter picked up the lodger’s shotgun one evening and it went off into her chest, killing her, and just a few weeks later the lodger himself was killed by the same gun. There’s a murder that happened in another branch of the family in the 1920s, but I think that’s still too recent to delve into… I was certainly given that impression when I tried to find out a little more about it.
MB: Could you please tell us a little about how the Brit’ small press scene has changed while you’ve been involved with it?
GE: I’ve never really been in the thick of things as far as the British small press scene goes, but it is certainly quite different from when I joined things in the late 1980s, when most publications were A5, black and white and photocopied. I bought titles from Ed Pinsent’s Fast Fiction stall, and from reviews in [fanzines like] Andy Brewer’s Battleground, and later Pete Ashton’s Vicious. There doesn’t really seem to be a place for big central comics fanzine now we’ve got the Internet.
Getting on to the web was the main thing that really slowed down my own self-publishing endeavours. Suddenly I could get my work out to readers in full colour and at no real cost. Not long after came affordable desktop publishing and then digital printing. Where it used to be people sneakily using their work photocopier then stapling books together to go and sell at a mart, now everyone’s pumping out full colour hardback books, doing daily strips, writing blogs, making movies, animating their characters… what a difference. The big thing I really liked was noticeable when I put out my first black and white edition of Rainbow Orchid in 2003. Before, I’d have to get up to London and trudge around the comic shops to distribute my comics, then do it again to collect the pennies I’d made on them. Now, a website and PayPal gives you a worldwide audience, and all from your own office. You still need to get out there, and I made my biggest sales at the London Comics Festival, but the digital world has been a complete revolution. Making contacts, and keeping them, is much easier too thanks to email, but also from blogs and Facebook. I’ve got two enormous files of letters from the ‘old days’ that I probably haven’t added to in almost a decade thanks to email.
But the Internet can feel extremely overwhelming at times. In the 1980s and early 90s, I knew who was who and who did what, and fanzines such as Battleground, Vicious and Caption would pretty much cover the entire scene. Now there seem to be a billion cartoonists out there, and so many of them are hugely talented. When I was a kid I knew I had an aptitude for drawing, which was encouraged by my mum and the occasional teacher. You felt as though you had a special talent. The Internet kind of takes that away from you… everyone’s talented! There’s a whole population of brilliant creators out there. You’re no longer special! It’s probably good for the ego to note and accept that. There is another downside to computers… if it can be called a downside, maybe it’s not really… sometimes you’ll see some amazing looking art, but, when you look closer, you discover it’s really being held up by fantastic Photoshop skill and the underlying drawing, stripped of it’s digital embellishment, is actually quite shaky. There are also a lot more comics that are basically photographs that have been digitally drawn over; totally valid, but I can’t but help feel a little cheated, or maybe even threatened, by them. All in all, I’d rather have the Internet than not, as it’s hugely enriched things.
MB: How important is it to have a posse of fellow freelancers to talk you and chill with to keep you sane? You know, for general networking and support duties?
GE: I’m discovering that it is very important. There’s a serious danger that if you don’t get out and see anyone at all you may end up just making autobiographical comics all the time (that’s a joke!). None of my close friends are into comics, but I used to include them when I sent out my occasional promotional emails, or give them a self-published comic or two. But I never got any feedback, which can be a little disheartening after a while. I don’t blame them one bit! They’re just not into comics, it’s not their world, which is fine (and they’re fabulous friends, I should add). I’ve also come across one or two comic creators who don’t like to mix their personal lives with their ‘comics lives’, and prefer to keep their distance from ‘the geeks’.
But yes, meeting up with others who make comics is essential. You can moan about how long it takes to draw a page, how underpaid you are, or how you have to try and explain your occupation at parties, and get an understanding ear. When you’re working on your own all the time, you have to keep generating comics output. Meeting up with fellow creators, whether it’s at a comics festival or just for a quick tea, and getting some comics input, is a real battery charger. Living outside of London, in a fairly small town, I don’t get to do it a lot, but I am attempting to meet up more. Knowing someone like [fellow DFC contributor] Sarah McIntyre, for instance, is fabulous because not only is she talented and creative, so therefore inspiring, but she’s a hub of contacts and can always introduce you to someone new. You also need those positive people. I was sat round a table at on old UKCAC once with a group of artists who had nothing good to say about anything. There was real bitterness, about the industry, about other creators, about readers who didn’t appreciate them and I came away feeling totally dejected. Sometimes it is difficult to stay positive, especially if you catch a negative comment about your work, or just can’t seem to draw anything right, but getting into a sort of creators’ mutual support group is a terrific remedy.
MB: We’ve digressed and skipped a bit in terms of your biography. Please tell us about the work you did between first self-publishing and your adaptation of The Tempest, and how you decided on and embarked upon the latter.
GE: My first self-publishing was the already-mentioned games fanzine, which was called Demon Issue. After seven issues I changed the name to Pandemonium and moved more into general articles on science fiction and fantasy, though still with a gaming bias. The last issue of that I produced was a team-up issue with an American fanzine called The Chronicles of Chaos, before I passed it on to a new editor who took it up to issue 24 or so. I did three issues of a fanzine called Raven, which was specifically for the cult role-playing game, Tunnels and Trolls, and then I did Cosmorama, which was the comics anthology I mentioned earlier.
(a page from Realm Of The Sorcerss by Garen)
I did a fantasy-science-fiction comic strip called ‘Realm of the Sorceress’ for a few years, which was heavily influenced by a mixture of Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure and Ralph Bakshi animation, and also a humour comic called Captain Powerchord, which appeared in a local entertainments guide. I also had a couple of collections of odds-and-sods-strips, one I put out myself called Delirium, and one put out by David Hobden called Alchemist, and then a fair number of one-off strips here and there.
(Caliban, from Garen’s adaptation of The Tempest)
I can’t recall the precise origins of how I came to adapt Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a comic (in 1994), but I’m pretty sure I was inspired after seeing a Russian puppet animation of the play, and realised that Shakespeare told a darn good tale behind all that ‘language’. I started studying the story and all resistance to the bard that I’d built up at school fell away. I loved it, language and all. It was the first comic where I really spent weeks and weeks on the research, and built up a back-story from the facts and clues that Shakespeare gave within his text. For the first time too I really thought about ‘camera angles’ and how to tell the story. My art was rather overworked, but I learned an enormous amount from doing it and enjoyed it too.
MB: Didn’t you do a Tunnels and Trolls cover for the game?
GE: Ken St Andre had long been planning a sixth edition, and when the game was given a new lease of life thanks to the Internet, Flying Buffalo, the publishers, agreed to print it. Ken asked me to do the cover, which I was delighted to do, but then the idea just seemed to fade away over the months. Fan-boy me took over, I didn’t formalise the agreement and I didn’t chase up the fee that had been mentioned, despite the hours spent on the artwork, something I would definitely do these days. I believe a seventh edition has since come out, so the game does still live on, which is great to see. I think without the Internet it would have faded away completely.
(Garen’s cover art for the Tunnels and Trolls rulebook)
MB: What was overworked about your Tempest art and what did you learn from the project?
GE: I put so much detail into The Tempest. Actually, looking at it again, the drawing is fairly bold, but I used a lot of little lines and stippling to get various grey-tones, to shade clothing, grass and even the sky. The characters are too busy with lines and feathering. It’s all right for what it is, but since doing it I definitely prefer leaving stuff out rather than putting it in. The main thing I got from doing The Tempest, besides getting a lot of lines out of my system, was the value that research can bring to a project, but also how to ‘point the camera’. I’ve got a lot of rotating round characters as they walk and changing point of view and all that. I also learned that some people really don’t like anyone messing with ‘their Shakespeare’!
MB: What did you work on between The Tempest and The Rainbow Orchid or was it straight from one to the other?
GE: The first thing I did after The Tempest was a short story by Rol Hirst for his Jock Annual and then I put out a small collection of strips under the title Delirium. The biggest thing I did was an issue of The Devil’s Workshop for an American publisher, Blue Comet Press. It really wasn’t my cup of tea, lots of violence and sex, though the issue I worked on was heavily re-scripted by Paul H. Birch who managed to give it some depth and character, despite the main thrust of the content. Joe Ahern, who sadly died a few years ago, also did work on the Blue Comet titles. I’ve just remembered, we both did work on another series called Zorann Star Warrior too. I did a small jam comic with Mooncat and Paul Barlow, a two-part story for Stephen Prestwood’s Dark Zone, collected the Captain Powerchord Strips together and added a couple more to put them out as a collection. I also started doing some work as an assistant to Tony O’ Donnell, including a few pages here and there in DC Thomson’s Football Picture Monthly. Besides being in a few plays and a band or two, that was just about it between The Tempest and the start of Rainbow Orchid, a gap of a couple and a half years, I think.
MB: Is this, then, when you’re starting to get your first semi-pro/pro work? You mentioned before that there’s been more than one period when you went freelance.
GE: Yes, I think it was. As well as the Tony O’Donnell work, there were a few other little jobs that started to flit my way. Nothing rent- busting! I wobbled after a year or so, and decided I wanted some stability, so I found myself a job at a software company as a designer, though I still did the odd bit of freelancing in the evening.
MB: Was the Blue Comet stuff pro/semi-pro?
GE: Maybe you could call it semi-pro in that the comic company were a proper concern, though I was on a contract for royalties rather than a page-rate, if I remember correctly. After all that work, I think the only thing that ended up actually being printed was a promo pin-up I did, on the back page of one of their other titles. I’m kind of glad it didn’t get published.
MB: Please tell us a bit about the evolution of The Rainbow Orchid.
GE: I found an old notebook the other day that has some of the ideas I was jotting down after I’d finished my adaptation of The Tempest, and one of them was about a vampire researcher operating in Victorian India. I think it was through this I read about the Victorian obsession for orchid collecting, and the idea mutated into an orchid quest instead. Besides a European bande dessinée influence as far as the graphics were concerned, the other big thing I liked, and wanted to inject a taste of, were the tales of lost worlds and lost civilisations. The kind of stuff authors such as Haggard, Conan Doyle and Verne wrote. I have quite a collection of that kind of material, the sort of story that begins with a solid grounding in the real world, so any fantastical elements introduced later give the reader a heightened sense of wonder, and seem to have an air of legitimacy due to the factual backdrop already established. The third main element was setting it in the 1920s rather than the Victorian period. The biggest influence on this was my love of silent films. One of the main characters, Lily, is a silent film actress in the story, but also the design of that period is just gorgeous, the cars, the aircraft, art deco… all that.
(delighting in confusing Mr Pickle in the Rainbow Orchid)
MB: Tell us a bit about Orchid’s publication history. Didn’t it first appear in Bulldog Adventure Monthly edited by Jason Cobley before making its way onto the ‘net?
GE: In April 1997 I had done the first three pages of The Rainbow Orchid, and sent it out to a few trusted comics colleagues, which included Jason Cobley, creator of Bulldog. At the time he was thinking of cancelling BAM! (Bulldog Adventure Magazine) and, along with Pete Bangs and Paul Harrison-Davies, starting up a new adventure comic called Verve, to be printed on newsprint with Bulldog as the lead strip, and he asked if I’d consider Orchid has a regular contribution. I guess that idea fizzled out eventually, but in January 2001 a new- improved BAM! was on the horizon, and Jason was looking for back-up strips to Bulldog, and I wanted to continue with Orchid and find a home for it. I helped contribute to costs for the title, and the first episode of Rainbow Orchid debuted in BAM! 22, in April 2002. Jason published five episodes, and at the end of 2003 I collected these into an A4 black and white collection as part one of the story. I think I sold just over a hundred of these at the London Winterfest that year, and the rest sold over the next few months through my online shop and at Bristol 2004. That self-published comic was just testing for reader reaction really, my aim has always been the completed book, and so not wanting to reprint it (the last copy sold on eBay for 79) I decided to put the strip on the web, and continue it there instead. I’ve always thought of that as a sort of online preview rather than a proper webcomic though.
MB: And what happened next. When did pro’ publishers start to express an interest in Orchid?
GE: Once the strip went online, I was regularly getting the odd request from unknown entrepreneurs somewhere in Asia or self-publishers in the States and various webcomic collectives from who-knows-where, but the first serious request came from Gollancz/Orion in January 2006. So I sent Orchid off to them and while it was with their readers and editors I asked for some advice from an old university friend of my wife’s, who was then a literary agent with A. P. Watt. I had no thoughts whatsoever of getting an agent, but the next thing I knew I was up in London at their offices and being asked if they could represent The Rainbow Orchid. With A. P. Watt the plan was for me to finish Orchid before approaching publishers, but after just over a year, Anji, my book agent, decided to leave for pastures new, and offered some of her list to Blake Friedmann, and after meeting them I decided to move there. Somewhere in the changeover I was approached by Titan and David Fickling Books also expressed an interest as well as a couple of others. I think it was about a year ago that my new agent, Oliver Munson, sent Orchid to ten publishers, and after a bit of what I guess is called bidding, or maybe haggling, I decided to go with Egmont, which I’m very pleased about.
MB: Exciting! When and in what form is Orchid coming out from Egmont? You mention David Fickling Books. Is that how you got involved with (relatively) new children s comic The DFC?
GE: Egmont will be bringing Orchid out in three parts, each about forty pages long, and in the same format as the softback Tintin books, which they also publish. Part one will be out in August 2009, as long as everything remains on schedule.
David Fickling Books got in touch with me after seeing The Rainbow Orchid online in September 2006, and asked if I’d be interested in doing something for a new weekly children’s comic they were planning. They liked Orchid, but at the time were only interested in brand new material for The DFC. At first I tried out for a strip by another writer, and got the job, but as it developed they felt another style might be more appropriate, which was certainly the right decision. Unfortunately I accidentally discovered I was off the strip a couple of weeks before being told officially, which did knock my confidence a little. I looked at another story they offered but turned it down as too big a project for me, and was then asked if I’d like to write and draw my own strip, which I was more than delighted to do. The result is Charlie Jefferson and the Tomb of Nazaleod, which will be appearing in The DFC within the next few months.
(a dramatic scene from Charlie Jefferson Nazaleod, coming later this year in the DFC, (c) Garen Ewing)
MB: Can you give us a bit of background on Charlie Jefferson and the Tomb of Nazaleod and what it’s about, and maybe pimp the DFC while you’re at it?
GE: Nazaleod is about a boy and his half-sister who are kidnapped by a creepy old man called The Professor who is after a stone pendant the boy’s ex-burglar father stole a few years before. The boy ends up having to find a second and third pendant in order to save his family, following clues left by the followers of an ancient brotherhood of four forgotten British kings… or something like that! The spark of the story came from the idea of a gang of villains needing a child to fit through a tiny gap in order to enter an ancient tomb, but another aspect came from the fact that my mum was born in the same house as Elias Ashmole in Lichfield, and I’ve always wanted to include something about this fascinating character into a story. It’s turned out he’s not in it as strongly as originally intended, but the Ashmolean Museum features, which, entirely coincidentally, is just a few doors down from the David Fickling offices in Oxford.
I don’t know how well Nazaleod will fit into The DFC, and is something I sometimes get a little anxious about. It’s quite wordy, has a fairly involved plot, and is definitely one for the older readers. From the little I’ve picked up I get the feeling the more cartoony strips generally seem to be the most popular in The DFC. It’s just my style that I have a more documentary approach to adventure stories rather than, say, Saturday morning kids’ TV-style stuff, and I do sometimes wonder if there’s an audience out there for that. But that’s one of the great things about The DFC: the sheer variety contained within its pages. Just look at Jim Medway’s Crab Lane Crew and Adam Brockhurst and Ben Haggarty’s Mezolith, each quite different from each other, but both wonderful. I think The DFC is such a great new thing that is going to go from strength to strength, I can’t wait to see how it grows and changes throughout 2009. There has been a bit of negativity and cynicism from some corners of the UK comics world, especially concerning the fact that it is currently subscription only. If the subscription model did not exist, The DFC would not exist, and we’d all be poorer for it. The buzz among DFC creators and the editorial team is fantastic, and there’s still so much more to come.
(panels from Charlie Jefferson Nazaleod, (c) Garen Ewing)
MB: What’s post-Orchid for Garen Ewing? More adventures in that world, more DFC stuff, other stuff or all three?
GE: I don’t know yet. 2009 will be pretty much filled with finishing off The Rainbow Orchid, the last few pages of part two, and then all of part three. After that, if Orchid does okay, then I’d definitely like to do another Julius Chancer adventure, but future stories would probably be only one book long. Before I submitted Nazaleod to the DFC I offered them another strip, which I’m really fond of, but some of its ideas clashed with another story they already had – they liked it so it may be one for the future. I’ll wait and see how well Nazaleod goes over. Ideally, I’d like to concentrate on Julius Chancer and build up that world, it’s much closer to my heart than anything else.
(the Rainbow Orchid’s Julius Chancer evading the dastardly villains)
MB: Garen, thanks for your time. I think we’re done. Anything else you want to flag up or mention?
GE: I don’t think I have anything to add. I’ve gone on for far too long on each answer as it is! Thank you for your questions, it was fun looking back and noting how and when various things originated.
MB: I almost forgot. I always ask people to big up any up-and-coming cartoonists that they think are particularly worthy of notice. So, comics-wise, who is really doing good stuff at the mo’ and perhaps isn’t getting the attention they deserve?
GE: There are so many comic artists I like and feel inspired by, and this past year has been an especially good one for creativity in comics. One of my favourites recently has been Darryl Cunningham’s Super Sam strip. I love his art style and storytelling, so simple but highly effective. I’m glad to see he’s recently coloured up his old Uncle Bob stories. Like Lee Kennedy, another long-time favourite, he deserves some publishing success. Sarah McIntyre, who does ‘Vern and Lettuce’ in The DFC is fantastic, and I think I actually take in raw energy from her almost-daily blog sketches.
I greatly admire Colin Mathieson and Dave West, the Accent UK guys, for their enthusiasm and commitment, and they’re producing some lovely titles at the moment. Colin can turn out a great short story, and Dave’s Strange Times comics are superb. David O’ Connell’s Tozo is one of the very few webcomics I read regularly, and am glad to have in paper-form too; he’s producing a very intriguing story there. A new Whores of Mensa is out, brilliant stuff, featuring three wonderful creators, Jeremy Dennis, Ellen Lindner and Mardou, none of these are exactly up-and-coming, but all deserve top places in comics, I think.
I’m really looking forward to the Spleenal book from Blank Slate and Grandville from Bryan Talbot looks gorgeous. I think I could just keep on listing names here. I’m always looking at new artists online and marvelling at their work, and follow a fair few blogs of fellow creators, whether I know them personally or not, to keep up with what they’re doing.
MB: Garen Ewing, thanks for your time. You re a gent!
FPI would very much like to thank Matthew for his efforts in setting up and conducting this interview and Garen for taking the time to take part and for being kind enough to let us use a selection of his artwork. We’re seriously looking forward to seeing The Rainbow Orchid reaching out to a whole new audience later this year and we think you’re all going to love it too.