Every year, in the countdown to the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in October, this year running as the virtual LICAF LIVE, we bring you a series of interviews with both guests and participants in the Comics Clock Tower (This year, also virtual).
Our first “Festival Focus” of 2020 is with Matt Smith, a Canadian/British cartoonist, filmmaker and educator. His first graphic novel, You’re Stuck With Me Now, a romantic comedy, with plenty of cat content, was released earlier this year after a successful crowdfunder that saw it smash target in under 12 hours.
Matt currently lives in Glasgow, but has lived all over the world, in countries such as Malaysia, Japan and Kuwait. His “Gruesome Comics” horror stories have been published in Monsterella and Alterna Comics’ If Horror anthology, and he’s also created comics that have been published in titles such as Sliced Quarterly, the University of Victoria’s Martlet, The Camosun College Nexus; and by publishers that include Cuckoo’s Nest Press, Hangman Comics, Frisson Comics and more.
But he’s best known for his humorous autobiographical Smith vs Smith comics. His comics typically focus on travel, the ups and downs of modern relationships, and the joys and frustrations of cat ownership.
When possible, he also runs comic workshops which he’s conducted in schools, comic conventions and art galleries in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
What are you working on, comics-wise, right now, and when will it be published?
Matt Smith: I’m currently working on a new graphic novel titled Earth Shattering, about my experiences during the 2011 earthquake in Japan. At the time of the earthquake I was teaching at an international school in Tokyo, hiding under a classroom desk with my terrified students.
The story parallels the uncertainty of living in Japan post-quake with the prolonged dissolution of my then-current relationship.
I am taking my time and enjoying the drawing process, but I hope to finish it sometime in 2021!
Which comic project you’ve worked on are you most proud of and where can people see it or buy it?
Matt: I recently self-published my first full-length graphic novel, You’re Stuck With Me Now (available to purchase at SmithvsSmith.com/store). It’s the true story of how I met my Scottish wife while we were both teaching in Kuwait.
The book began life as a two-page Save the Date when we announced our engagement, then became a 60-page booklet given out at our wedding as the favour and now is a 140-plus page graphic novel.
It’s a romantic comedy/slice of life, following us as we meet, fall in love, move in together and get married. At one point my wife tricks me into living with two cats. It’s a clash of cultures and personalities and is a deeply personal story.
How do you plan your day as a creator? (Do you plan your day?)
Matt: My main gig is teaching comics-making workshops, so I prioritise my lessons and lesson plans. Once that work is taken care of, I fill any remaining time in the day with writing and/or drawing. Over the past few months, I’ve given myself the goal of drawing two pages a week so I don’t get overwhelmed. But no two days are ever the same!
What’s the best thing about being a comics creator? And the worst?
Matt: Comics take forever to make and then are read so quickly! Building up enough pages/content so that you can actually hold a reader’s attention for more than a few minutes can take months or even years.
But there’s an immense pride in holding a book in your hands that you have written and drawn and it’s always a huge victory anytime someone wants to read your work. It’s rare that you hear anything from most readers once they take your book away (if you enjoyed a book, reach out and tell the creator, you’ll honestly make their day!) so when you have any feedback (positive or constructive), it’s huge.
But the absolute best moment is when you exhibit at a convention and someone returns to your table and says they liked your first book so much, they’d like to buy a copy of everything!
What most distracts you from getting your work done?
Matt: My cats. Housework. Emails. Planning workshops. Any excuse not to draw!
Do you think it’s easier or harder for young comic creators to get published today?
Matt: I’ve seen a lot of competition to be noticed by the big publishers (I’m still working on it), but there are a lot of small-press anthologies being published these days, so it’s a great way to build your resume and credentials.
I think there’s a bit of mystique around self-publishing, but anyone is allowed to apply for tables at conventions or to put a webcomic on Instagram or Webtoons (there’s no comics police, you don’t need to ask permission!). Kickstarter was intimidating, but I was overwhelmed with the response I received during my campaign for You’re Stuck With Me Now.
How has the Pandemic affected you, work wise – good or bad?
Matt: The pandemic has been a crushing blow to most independent creators I know. I have my books on the shelf of a few fantastic comic book stores (thanks, Forbidden Planet Glasgow!) but I sell books when I’m standing next to my table promoting the comics and myself. Without comic conventions, I am sitting on boxes and boxes of books waiting for the day they can be proudly displayed on a table! I am very curious to see how the shift to virtual conventions will affect sales.
On a positive note, I tried to take advantage of all the free time I found myself facing. You’re Stuck With Me Now had been sitting on my hard drive for four years. I hadn’t heard back from any publishers so I finally decided to self-publish and fund the book through Kickstarter. I was able to devote my full attention to finishing the book and running the Kickstarter campaign.
And in the past few months, without any distractions like “activities” or “socializing,” I’ve been able to make a decent amount of progress on my new graphic novel.
What do you think might be its most significant impact on the comics industry in general, long term?
Matt: I am honestly worried we will lose a lot of talented indie creators who will have no choice but to give up. No one gets into comics for the money, but selling books at conventions helps me pay for print runs, convention fees and hiring artists for collaborations. Comics are such a fantastic medium for sharing unique voices from a diverse range of people, but I fear there are a lot of creative cartoonists who won’t see the value in completing their stories if they can’t afford to print books and/or if they have nowhere to sell their comics.
Which one comic creator would you most like to meet, and why?
Matt: I’ve seen Dave Gibbons speak at Glasgow ComicCon and I passed him and Frank Quitely on the way to the bathroom backstage. I didn’t want to bother him (and I was in a bit of a rush), but I’ve since purchased his How Comics Work and Watching the Watchmen books. I was really looking forward to chatting with him at LICAF and asking him to sign my books. He’s obviously a gifted storyteller, but I’ve learned a lot from his approach to comics creation and he always comes across as the nicest guy.
What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in the comics industry?
Matt: I know there is an appeal to selling your work to a publisher (I know I will be sending out samples of Earth Shattering once I have a few more completed pages), but I think a lot of new cartoonists forget that printing your own books and selling them at stores, conventions or even on Etsy actually does count as “work in the comics industry.” If someone pays you for your work, you are a professional.
So while you are working on the perfect pitch for a publisher, put out your own stories! Start building your audience and refining your craft.
Matt: What’s your favourite comic right now and where can people get it?
Matt: The best comic I’ve read in a while is Adrian Tomine‘s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist, published by Drawn & Quarterly in Canada and Faber and Faber in the UK. It’s available everywhere (but please support your local comic book store!).
It’s an autobiographical/memoir made up of vignettes that span Adrian’s career as a cartoonist. I found it incredibly relatable as a cartoonist, but I believe it will appeal to anyone who is creative or has spent time on the road for work. Truly fantastic stuff!
Matt, thanks very much for your time and the very best of luck with Earth Shattering and your other projects!
• The Virtual Comics Clock Tower is online at licafclocktower.com
Matt is one of many comic creators taking part in this year’s virtual LICAF LIVE in October, the digital replacement to the Lakes International Comic Arts Festival and has a “stand” in the Virtual Comics Clock Tower. “I was really excited to exhibit in person for the first time at LICAF this year but I’m very excited for my first virtual comic con appearance!” he says.