Every year, in the countdown to the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in October, we bring you a series of interviews with guests at the event. This “Festival Focus” for 2019 is with artist, author and animator Lucy Sullivan, whose graphic novel Barking, supported by the Festival, gets its launch at the event this year.
Since graduating with a BA (Hons) in Illustration/Animation from Kingston University she has co-directed and animated music videos, created pre-visuals & storyboards for film and TV, and she's taught Observational Drawing at a number of Universities.
In 2016. Lucy followed a lifelong ambition and moved into comics. Her recent works include 1in4 Zines, part of the Wellcome Library Zines catalogue, commissions for Black Hammer from Dark Horse and as the invited artist on a collaboration with writer Ram V for the Thought Bubble Anthology.
She is passionate about breaking stigma around mental health and is an ambassador for the research based charity MQ.
Her debut graphic novel Barking is published by Unbound, supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and by the Lakes International Comic Arts Festival.
What are you working on, comics-wise, right now, and when will it be published?
Lucy Sullivan: I’m currently having a wee break after the hard push to finish my graphic novel, but have two commissioned projects, a couple more possibles and a new zine project brewing to develop towards my next graphic novel idea. Next up are two Kickstarters: the first is a 20 page comic that I’m drawing with writer Fraser Campbell called Indexed. It’s a lo-ﬁ sci-ﬁ, in a Black Mirror/ John Wyndham way, and just my kind of story. I loved The Edge Off that Fraser created with Iain Laurie. I can’t produce with the extraordinary vision that Iain does, but I do good brooding menace!
At the same time, I’ll be writing & drawing a one page "How to..." comic for Black Crown’s Hey, Amateur! Anthology. I’m one of 50 creators teaching you how to go from novice to expert in nine panels. The topics are a mixture of practical, bizarre and humorous skills so something for all tastes, and it’s teen/ YA friendly.
It’ll go out to backers I think this Winter, if it funds. We need more backers though so please check out the project.
I’ll also be developing my own work. I’m planning a series of zines called How to Build a Feminist that will be part of a wider project around my next planned graphic novel. I’m quite excited about this one, as it’s set in my childhood in a live-music pub in late 1970’s London. I had, shall we say, quite a unique upbringing!
Your book, Barking, gets its release at this year’s Festival through Unbound?
Lucy: Yes! I’m thrilled to be launching at the Lakes this year. My partner Stephen at I were at last year’s wet but wonderful Festival and I guess that’s when the Lakes generously came onboard as a collaborator on funding Barking. It took 18 months, 281 backers including the Lakes and a National Lottery/Arts Council England grant to crowdfund the graphic novel with Unbound and in spite of the monumental effort I couldn’t think of a better publisher for the project or better editor than the brilliant Lizzie Kaye. I can’t wait to see the printed book and people’s reactions to it. If readers are coming to the festival I will happily sign and sketch a copy for you.
What spurred the project?
Barking is based in my own experience of a mental health crisis combined with that of my friends and research into the mental health system. My dad died suddenly when I was 23 and living in New Zealand. It was a very traumatic experience of course, but my problems came about a year or so later. Grief is individually complicated and often hidden but it can also fester and develop into much bigger problems, as it did for me.
I was lucky to not be sectioned, but I saw friends who were and felt enraged by how we treat people in such a vulnerable point in their lives. The more I researched the more I felt compelled to say something and so began developing Barking.
The story is an allegory born out of all of this and aims to be entertaining as well as thought provoking. I really hope it will help someone who hasn’t been through such a terrifying moment in their lives to understand that a person can look completely ﬁne but be in a world of turmoil on the inside.
Are you pleased with the final book? Is there anything you had to cut but might return to?
Lucy: Oh, that’s a tough one! I think I’ve managed to say most of what I wanted to express but there’s so much to talk about around mental illness and grief that I had to chose carefully to ﬁt the story as well.
It’s hard when you’ve worked in such detail on a project of this size to like it. I could barely look at it towards the end as you just see things you could’ve done better but that’s what deadlines are good for I suppose. It has to end and you have to walk away.
I think I will probably take a break from that topic for a while now, it’s been an intense and very personal work to create but I do have thoughts around some of the background characters that I might explore one day. I have lots of other ideas I’m developing and I’m looking forward to broadening my range.
How do you plan your day as a creator? (Do you plan your day?)
Lucy: My work plan is more to the task at hand than a daily one as I’ve been both writing and drawing. I’ve found I need to work in a very linear way whilst story telling but it’s driven by the task first, so for Barking it was: writing a loose script for each chapter, then thumb-nailing per spread and further research, followed by a more written up script and, finally, drawing out each spread, a chapter at a time.
My scripts are more like movie ones though, not comics, I write the action and dialogue but let the artwork form itself.
If it’s a drawing day, I always start by doing some warm-up sketches. These are done as ‘blind’ or ‘contour’ drawing, a technique where you follow your subjects contours with your eye, moving your pen at the same time and not looking at the page. I use typewriter carbon sheets which means I really can’t see and often draw myself so I’m sure I look quite strange to the neighbours that can see in! It’s a really good practice to improve your drawing and helps shake off that blank paper fear we all get.
Then I find I’m all set to draw and will do so all day with a little break for lunch until it’s time to get my daughter from school. I’ll have had music blaring and been singing my heart out all day and end up feeling pretty good. They are my favourite days by far.
What's the best thing about being a comics creator?
Lucy: It’s extremely satisfying to be in in full control of your own work. I’ve drawn and animated other people’s ideas and although it was enjoyable at times it cannot compare. The comics community is also the most friendly and encouraging creative group that I’ve been a part of. Particularly the Small Press scene. It’s been a delight becoming a part of it and really encourage people to join in too.
And the worst?
Lucy: The finances are not great. The effort to pay ratio is pretty poor, but not as bad as being a 2D Animator, where I was often expected to work for free. Otherwise trying to explain what you do to non-comics people. I try not to snap, but it really bugs me when people presume your work will be funny or for kids only. I have to hide my work from my kid, and trust me, no one wants to see me make children’s comics. If I try to draw cute is comes out very creepy indeed!
What most distracts you from getting your work done?
Lucy: My daughter. Being a parent is non-stop distraction. Especially when your kid is a combination of the Tasmanian devil and Lady Gaga. She’s very funny though, so I often welcome it. I work from home, so it can be hard to ignore what needs to get done around the house and the daily happenings of family life, but I’m trying to not let it get too conflicting, especially when a deadline is looming.
Do you think it's easier or harder for young comic creators to get published today?
Lucy: I’d say easier. It’s a great time to create if you have a bit of gumption. There’s so many avenues to getting your work out there, like zine-making, webcomics, self-publishing or Kickstarter.
Creating short form work for yourself or with a collaborator is a great proving ground. You can get it easily into the hands of a site like Broken Frontier, who welcome small press and new creators, or into comic shops like Gosh! or Orbital Comics in London or Dave’s Comics in Brighton, that all have Small Press sections.
You could also get it on a communal table at some of the Comic and Zine fairs or enter it into a competition like Laydeez Do Comics. There’s so much out there just waiting for you to get involved.
Get your work out into the world, be it online or in print and see where it goes.
Have you ever been to the Lake District before and if so what did you think of it? If you haven't, what are you expecting?
Lucy: I’m hoping for a little less rain this year. It was a deluge last year, but still lots of fun. I didn’t get the chance to explore the area much and have a plan to do so with my family in the future.
The landscapes really remind me of the South Island of New Zealand where my Mum’s from and I used to live, so I’m quite drawn to it. It also rains a lot there too, so I’m used to that.
I’m mostly looking forward to the books being launched this year, like The Book of Forks by Rob Davis and Mark Stafford’s Kangkangee Blues, plus catching up with comics pals and meeting visitors and new fellow creators. I’m a huge fan of Judith Vanistendael, whose graphic novel When David Lost His Voice was a great inspiration for me on Barking and I can’t wait to see more of her work.
Which one comic creator would you most like to meet, and why?
Lucy: I’d love to meet and chat with Eleanor Davis. Eleanor has exquisite draftsmanship and seems to be able to work beautifully in any medium. Added to this, she is an excellent writer. Her stories are well paced, plotted and always from the heart. She has a deep held political stance and manages to maintain a prolific career.
I’m quite in awe of her, as you can probably tell, and would love to meet her one day. I throughly recommend reading her short form compilation How to Be Happy and I’m sure you’ll feel the same.
How do Festivals and other comics events help creators most, do you think?
Lucy: In getting to know your fellow creators. Comics is a community and a brilliant one at that. I don’t think anyone can under estimate the importance of meeting and chatting to people face to face. I’ve made good friends and great connections out of attending festivals and fairs whilst picking up a wide variety of comics and zines to inspire my own work.
It’s also a great opportunity to bring new people into the world. Getting the chance to chat to someone about comics who’s yet to find the pleasure is a very enjoyable way to spend your time.
What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in the comics industry?
Lucy: Get your work out there as soon as possible. Get online and start posting your work, whether it’s to a blog site or social media. Sign up to Twitter and come find the comics people. There’s so much support, encouragement and engagement on there and really, all you need to do is let them know you’re about and what you’re creating.
It doesn’t have to be your best stuff either. It’s exciting to watch someone grow and develop as they keep working at it.
Also get out to the comics and zine fairs. Find your local comics community. There’s bound to be one and your local comic book shop is a good place to start. If you’re lucky you might even have a regular meet up group like WIP Comics in London and if not start one yourself.
Be pro-active, be kind to others, reciprocate the support and you’ll be amazed by what can happen.
Lucy, thank you very much for your time. We're looking forward to seeing Barking - and have a great time in Kendal!
LUCY SULLIVAN ONLINE
Interview questions by John Freeman | All art © Lucy Sullivan