Last month as part of The Luton Book Festival, comic writer and artist, Neill Cameron ran a comic workshop - we caught up with him after, flipped open the top of his head and took a peak inside ...
Hi Neill thanks for agreeing to chat with us – you’ve just finished a day of workshops at Luton how do you think it went?
Lots of fun! I had a great time in Luton, the library staff running the event were great, everyone was really friendly and the kids were full of suitably insane ideas and questions! Numbers were a little on the low side but, at the risk of getting into a whole other conversation, apparently this is due to cuts in funding meaning that they've had to start charging for these kinds of events, which sadly has a real effect on how many people come along. Still, I think those who were there had a good time. *I* did, and that is of course the main thing.
You must be exhausted how many workshops do you normally run in a typical year, if you have such a thing as a typical year that is!
I've only really started doing workshops since my first book came out, last year, so I don't know what a typical year may yet turn out to be, but on the whole I'd say it averages out at about 1 or 2 workshops a month. It's actually a really nice balance, because I spend most of my time in a room, on my own, drawing, so the chance to get out and about and do something completely different is lots of fun.
The most fun thing about doing these kinds of workshops is just getting to see and hear the sheer flow of hilarious, insane creativity that comes pouring out of kids' minds once you give them the chance. Obviously it varies, and there's always one or two kids who find it really hard to begin with, or who claim to have no ideas, but that's part of the idea of the workshops - giving kids the tools and the confidence to start making up stories and having fun with it, rather than seeing it as some difficult thing you need some mysterious special skills to do.
So comics … how did you end up getting into that whole field?
I've just always loved comics, really! Love reading them, love making them. Ever since I was a kid, that's what I wanted to do - it was never 'I want to be a writer', or 'I want to be an artist', it was specifically 'I want to draw comics'.
My kids want to ask: how do you come up with your designs?
I come up with designs by doodling! That's the most important thing an artist can do: doodle. Doodle a LOT. And of course there's 'looking at reference', 'finding inspiration in art, fashion, photography, videogames, cinema, people you see in the street', and all that sort of thing. But mainly: DOODLING.
Well! The pages of Doctor Who and the Dinosaurs that are on my website were actually just a bit of a cunning ploy on my part. I absolutely love Doctor Who, and at some point I decided that drawing Doctor Who would be a pretty cool job, but I didn't really know how to go about it. So I did a few sample pages and stuck them on my website, in the hope that someone out there on the internet would see them and magically end up giving me a job drawing Doctor Who. (I put the dinosaurs and pirate ships in because I was developing a story called The Pirates of Pangaea with my friend Daniel Hartwell, and just because I like drawing dinosaurs really and it seemed like it would make a cool Doctor Who story.) Anyway, I did end up getting hired to illustrate a story in a Doctor Who annual, which was very exciting, and Pirates of Pangaea found a publisher, so I guess it all sort of worked.
Mo-Bot High came about through the aforementioned highly important artistic practise of DOODLING. I was at a comic’s convention, and it was very quiet so a friend and I were just doodling, and I doodled a slightly stroppy-looking schoolgirl with a massive great giant robot. And thought "hmmm, there's a story there."
"Boy with a giant robot" is the kind of story you might read in a lot of comics and manga, but "Girl with a giant robot" - specifically "ordinary British schoolgirl with a giant robot" - struck me as a story I hadn't really read before, and pretty much exactly the kind of story I would like to read.
It went through various versions, and I read a lot of Mallory Towers, and eventually I ended up pitching it to the DFC, a weekly comic that was then in development, and they really liked it. My editors at the DFC, Ben Sharpe and Will Fickling, were a huge help in getting me to think about it and find the right tone for the story - my original version was kind of older, darker and more cynical, but Ben and Will shepherded me gently to the obvious-in-hindsight revelation that a kids' comic about giant robots should maybe be a bit more, y'know, FUN.
What came first the artwork or stories or have you always done both?
I think drawing came first, but when you're a kid there isn't really that distinction - every time you draw a picture you're kind of making up a story that goes along with it, so comics is just a natural extension of that.
It goes up and down, really. I love twitter, and try to blog as regularly as I can, but at the moment I'm in the middle of one of those phases where I've got a load of work on and a ton of deadlines to get through and so I've actually banned myself from using twitter and Facebook and such during the day in an attempt to focus and up the productivity. But I'm sure I'll be back to tweeting ten million times a day before too long.
I've had some really great experiences using the internet. A couple of years ago I decided to start doing a project where I would post a drawing on my blog every day, one for every letter of the alphabet, with readers of the blog getting to suggest what I drew each day, with all the realms of comics, movies and pop culture to choose from. The resulting projects, 'Neill's A-Z of Awesomeness', ended up blowing up way bigger than I could ever have imagined - it was getting linked and reposted all over the place, and at its height was getting hundreds of thousands of views a day, way more than my humble hosting package could cope with. It was weird because it ended up being seen by more people than have ever read one of my comics, by a factor of hundreds, and actually only a tiny proportion of those people hang around and take a continued interest in your work. But that tiny proportion? They're the good ones.
Do you have a dream project or partnership that you’d like to do in the future?
I have a few dream projects I'd love to get a chance to do one day - there's a long-cherished interdimensional martial arts romantic comedy soap opera that I'd love to get back to one day, for one thing - but 'finishing Mo-Bot High' is the main one! I've got so much story planned out, so much cool stuff I barely even got to hint at in the first book, so I'm just bursting to get on with it all really.
I have been toying lately with the idea of trying my hand at writing something in non-comics form. It's not so much that I'm dying to write prose, just that comics take ages, and getting through a proper long-form story is such a monumental investment of time, effort and good fortune. Essentially, I just have a bunch more stories I'd love to tell than I have time to draw, so it seems like just 'writing books' might be worth a shot at some point.
Or, I guess, just writing comics for someone else to draw. Someone fast!
Heh heh - well I look forward to your first novel soon! What are your interests outside the sphere of comics: hobbies etc?
The thing about ‘hobbies’ and ‘interests’ is that I seem to recall they require something called ‘free time’, and between the demands of freelancing and the demands of having a young child, that…that is not a thing that exists.
I think that's something we can all understand especially in the world of writing. Any tips you can give artists/writers that are thinking of trying to break into comics themselves?
“Begin, and then continue”
Or if you want more specifics: the great thing about comics at the moment is that it’s easier than ever to get started writing and drawing your own and then to actually get it out there and out to readers, through things like self-publishing and webcomics. This is the best possible way to find an audience at the same time as honing your craft, finding your voice, and all that jazz. The independent comics scene in this country is bigger and healthier than it’s ever been, to the point where I’d argue it’s outshining the ‘mainstream’ industry – creatively for sure, and probably not that far off commercially.
It’s a really good question, if one I’d struggle to fit my thoughts on into one short, intelligible answer here. It’s important to bear in mind that writing for comics is a distinct discipline from writing prose; it’s closer in some respects to screenwriting, but separate again. I think the most important thing you can do is to READ COMICS – and to read widely, from Alan Moore to Osamu Tezuka to Calvin & Hobbes to Chris Ware – so that you get a good sense of how the medium works and the possibilities it offers.
Also: read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is highly entertaining and thought-provoking, and impossible to read without being inspired and filled with the desire to make comics.
Alan Moore’s essay Writing For Comics is very good, too, if you can track down a copy.
Can you tell us about the new projects you’re currently involved in?
I’m currently working on a couple of projects for a new weekly children’s comic, The Phoenix, which will be launching in January 2012. The first is The Pirates of Pangaea, a serial adventure strip about a young girl who finds herself on a lost continent, having all sorts of adventures with pirates and dinosaurs. That’s pretty much the pitch, right there: “Pirates and dinosaurs”. And I’m also writing and drawing a weekly feature called How To Make (Awesome) Comics, which will cover a lot of the kind of stuff I do in my workshops, but in comics form, as a way to get the kids who read the comic involved and fired up with enthusiasm for making their own! You can find out all about it all at the Phoenix website: www.thephoenix comic.co.uk
Thanks for talking to us Neill.
For more info about the talks and workshops Neill does visit his website at www.neillcameron.com/events.html
All artwork copyright Neill Cameron