Every year, in the countdown to the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, we bring you a series of interviews with guests at the event. This “Festival Focus” for 2018 is Owen Michael Johnson, a writer and illustrator who grew up near Penrith.
Twice nominated for the British Comic Award for Raygun Roads (2013) and Beast Wagon (2015), his semi-autobiographical debut graphic novel Reel Love is published by Unbound and launches at The Lakes International Comic Art Festival 2018.
Owen, what are you working on, comics-wise, right now, and when will it be published?
Owen Michael Johnson: As of right now I’m casually building up some ideas for new work. I believe they are going to be short stories, short comics, and very different styles to what I’ve tried before. I’m really excited at the idea of experimenting more with what I can do as an artist. I’m between projects, and that’s great. It feels wide open.
Which comic project you've worked on are you most proud of and where can people see it or buy it?
Owen: I’m proud of every comic project I’ve ever done, but as of right now, Reel Love. It’s my debut graphic novel as writer and cartoonist so I’m thrilled to be talking about that a lot. It’s a coming of age story set entirely in Cumbria, about a boy’s relationship with a local cinema. It’s about films, friendship, creativity, falling in love and perhaps more than anything about growing up.
It’s published by Unbound and advance copies will be available at this year’s Lakes Festival. Alternatively you can buy it from the Unbound website or from shops across the country in the new year.
How do you plan your day as a creator? (Do you plan your day?)
Owen: I work a full-time job at Rebellion, the comic company that publishes 2000AD, so I work on my personal projects either in the evenings, or the weekends. I go in cycles of being more interested in drawing or in writing.
On days when I’m exclusively working on my art, I will put on music, make coffee, and tackle whatever is the most pressing on my drawing board. Audiobooks are best when inking as your mind can really wander.
Most of the writing process for me these days is reading and taking notes. Planning. I’m more interested in historical rather than fantastical subjects in this moment so there’s a lot of background work involved. But it can sometimes feel like you’re making no progress so I’m trying to mix it up with drawings of weird planes and goblins.
What's the best thing about being a comics creator?
Owen: You have complete ownership over what you do. You are only limited by your imagination and your skill, and that is a constantly evolving process. It’s so unique to you as a person and how you view the world. Drawing reveals who you are.
And the worst?
Owen: They take forever to make. You make one graphic novel and you look like Gandalf.
What most distracts you from getting your work done?
Owen: Scrolling Twitter and being dispirited by the incredible work of other creators. There are so many people like Sam Bosma doing Fantasy Sports. That guy is total ‘I quit’ fuel haha! Hamish Steele. Tillie Walden is a mad genius who is so prolific, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Reimena Yee (who also has a book with Unbound). All these incredible creators who are both inspiring and soul-crushing in their talent. Ha! Really got to roll your sleeves up with those cats about.
Do you think it's easier or harder for young comic creators to get published today?
Owen: Publishing is certainly changing, the old routes are gone. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Unbound is a mixture of a traditional publisher and a crowdfund site. C. Spike Trotman who runs Iron Circus is a brilliant publisher who still makes use of Kickstarter as another branch of their business. Whatever works. There are no rules, especially in comics. That’s why it’s exciting to me. It’s wild!
If you have a pen and paper and an internet connection, and you’re smart and want to learn, you can make yourself heard. What’s hard is working out what makes you different as a creator, and letting go of your inspirations or the creator you would rather be. That’s very difficult, and took me a long time to learn.
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?
Owen: I grew up in the village of Kirkoswald – not far from Kendal – so the Cumbrian landscape is part of me, in many ways. I’ve put a lot of those wide open spaces and local places into Reel Love. Scafell Pike, The Derwent Pencil Museum(!), Carlisle, all feature in the book, albeit transformed by the imagination of this weird little kid who’s seen too many films.
Which one comic creator would you most like to meet, and why?
Owen: The obvious choice would be Jack Kirby, it would be an honour. But he was so immovable and gruff I think he would have found me pretty wimpy, ha ha! I would have loved to talk to Will Eisner, or Alex Toth. Monoliths, each of them.
How do Festivals and other comics events help creators most, do you think?
Owen: They help in the same way that the best comic book stores do. They create a place to meet, to share ideas, to make community of like-minded people. They make a space for people of all walks of life to come together and learn from one another about their own art, the art of others. Ideally, they expand your horizons and send you back into the drawing cave with a new perspective.
What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in the comics industry?
Owen: Work out what it is you are doing this for, and. If, like me, it’s because you love to tell stories, never forget that. Work exclusively for the enjoyment you get from the process of making the work. Cultivate that. It’s crucial. Working for validation from anyone else will ruin it.
Owen: What's your favourite comic right now and where can people get it?
Owen: Isola by Brendan Fletcher. Karl Kerschl is the best fantasy comic I’ve ever read. It’s tender and enigmatic and savage but always beautiful. It's published by Image Comics. I’ve been adoring Jason Aaron’s run on Thor for years now. Also the aforementioned Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma is just wonderful. I’m also really slowly working through the IDW Terry and the Pirates books.
Owen, thank you very much for your time and we look forward to seeing you in Kendal!
• The Lakes International Comic Art Festival will be back in Kendal 12th – 14th October 2018. Tickets for the Festival are on sale now from: www.comicartfestival.com