Every time I go to a comic con and my friend Nout is there, he introduces me to comic creators. This is both a blessing and a curse.
I’m always delighted to meet writers and artists, because I am interested in their stories, their way of working, their experiences – there is so much to learn. But then Nout tells them I’m making my own thing, and sometimes they start asking me about it, whether out of politeness or genuine curiosity. And I get utterly and completely tongue-tied. It’s as if all reasonable thought leaves my head.
People usually start off by asking who my influences are. This is a logical question – it helps you to place someone on a sort of creator spectrum. The conversation tends to falter if no real answer is forthcoming. And guess what: I usually draw a blank. Out of sheer nervousness. It’s like an exam for which I haven’t been studying.
The question of ‘influence’ also tends to puzzle me because I feel I should reply with names whose influences are visible in what I do. And I can’t really say that any are. I mean: nothing is particularly obvious to me personally, but I may be a bit blind to them of course. I’d be thrilled to hear if any are obvious to *you*.
I have a sizeable and rather eclectic collection of European, American and Asian comics. The list of creators I admire and whose work I cherish is long. But here I propose to look at a handful of people who made me look differently at the medium of comics.
Claire Wendling has drawn only one comic – a 5-part series called Les Lumières de l’Amalou (The Lights of the Amalou). The first book was published in 1990, and a Dutch translation was serialised in a children’s magazine called Zonneland which we got at school. I loved Zonneland primarily because of its two-page comic spread (and its history pages).
Looking back, I don’t think The Lights of the Amalou was entirely age-appropriate for Zonneland, a magazine for 10-year-old Catholic schoolgirls. The editors probably got the wrong impression because some of the characters were ferrets. But I adored it. The impression it made on me – especially art-wise – was so vivid that one of the first things that I did when I started earning my own money was to track down copies of all five books of the then out-of-print series.
Claire Wendling’s art changed drastically over the 6 years of drawing the book. It became more swishy and dynamic and whimsical. I find her art inspiring in the sense that it makes me want to draw, all the while admiring her incredible mastery. Her drawings shine in her pencilled sketchbooks.
Raised on a diet of Belgian and French comics, I encountered my first American comic in our local public library. It was ElfQuest. This was the first comic I read that had a sustained, ongoing story to tell – something which baffled me. I was used to comic books that told an entire story within 48 pages.
ElfQuest also had art of a kind I’d never seen before. The page layouts were freer than those of the newspaper strips I read, and the bold lines with cross-hatching were quite different from the ‘clear line’ with which I had grown up.
Richard and Wendy Pini’s work was an eye-opener for me in several ways. It combined adventure with character exploration – it made you care about Cutter and Skywise and Leetah and their people, and it had great villains too, with Winnowill in particular.
I still find Wendy Pini’s artwork from the eighties some of the most riveting comic art around. I remember that I briefly tried to imitate it when I was a teen, but I don’t think my current way of drawing screams Pini. However, when two years ago I drew Cutter and Skywise for a friend, I astonished myself by the extent to which I had memorised the shapes and style of the characters, and I ended up producing a rather Pini-like drawing almost automatically.
Dave Sim & Gerhard
I was at university, deeply immersed in everything Oscar Wilde, when I discovered Dave Sim’s Melmoth (a volume in his Cerebus series) in a small bookshop. I only picked it up it because it was about Wilde – but once more, this was a book that taught me a lot about the ways in which you could make comics. The stark black and white, with Gerhard’s marvellous cross-hatched renderings, changed my comic-making life.
First of all, having been raised in a world of colour books, I realised that a comic didn’t need colour. You could make them with just black ink, and that ink could be so powerful.
Secondly, you could do absolutely anything with the layout of a page. Your page could be an ink black rectangle combined with a close-up. You could combine one large panel with a paragraph of typed text. You could do anything that served the telling of your story. Comics, I learnt, could in fact also be literature.
Once again, a new world opened to me. There is a “Before Melmoth” and an “After Melmoth” in my comic-making life.
(Note: Dave Sim is a controversial figure. I did not know that at the time, and I certainly do not share his opinions. But this book is still important to me, and I didn’t want to leave it out. It’s an ode to Wilde, whoever made it, and it is visually stunning. Consume critically.)
I have a special admiration for creators who both write and draw their stories. The first thing that struck me about Colleen Doran was her art. In her series A Distant Soil, and especially the second volume, The Ascendant, Doran seems to channel Aubrey Beardsley without losing her own very individual style. A Distant Soil is, again, a black-and-white book. It’s gorgeous.
But there is something else about Colleen Doran that means much to me. She has been drawing professionally since the age of 15, and the original idea for her epic saga A Distant Soil dates back to that period. That is obvious in every way. If you look at the premise of A Distant Soil, it seems like a teenage girl’s fantasy. (…I recognised so much of it.) BUT. Although the basic elements may be a teen fantasy, the story has matured with its author/artist and turned into a rich, engaging and thrilling space opera. It also has some of the best villains I have ever read.
So, Colleen Doran taught me that my beloved 19th- and early 20th-century illustrators (think Beardsley, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac…) can be a legitimate source of inspiration for comic artists, and that the power of a story is in the telling.
I’ve summarised my view of Becky Cloonan to Nout & friends as “a goddess with a brush”. What’s not to love about her chunky, bold inkwork? It’s strong and substantial, but elegant at the same time.
I discovered Becky Cloonan’s work much later than the other writers/artists I have mentioned, so her influence is perhaps less of the shaping kind. But it is because of her that I have started inking with brush pens. That is especially important for my current comic. Cloonan – especially through her self-published books Wolves, The Mire and Demeter – helped me find a visual language for Gawain. That said, my inking is nothing like hers at all! Sadly, I would say. There is no comparison possible.
Clearly, there are many more artists whom I admire and whose books I always look forward to, whose drawings and paintings I suck up like a sponge, and who make me want to draw (Alex Alice! Jill Thompson! Man Arenas! Mike Mignola! Ted Naifeh! Virginie Augustin! Enrico Marini! P. Craig Russell! Charles Vess! etc.). But I think these few I mentioned above have probably shaped me most in the way I (try to) make my comics. Thank you, all.