Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Interview with Tom Humberstone

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Interview with Tom Humberstone

Two years ago at TCAF, I met a comic artist from the UK named Tom Humberstone. Somehow he was invited to Pen Club (more on this later) where he quickly became a welcomed guest during his short visit. Over the past couple years, he kept in touch with some of the other Pen Club members including Anne Koyama of Koyama Press, and also produced an entire library of comics (a few obtaining critical success in the UK...winning an Eagle Award in '08 for best B&W UK comic). During this time, he also produced a blog inspired comic book about a road trip he took across the States during their Democratic Primaries, called My Fellow Americans. You may wonder, what does a Brit comic dude have anything to do with Canadian comics? Well two things: a very small Canadian publisher, Koyama Press helped Tom out on some of these projects, AND he is thinking about moving to Toronto soon (which would make him a 'Landed Canadian Comic Artist'). Anyways, besides all of this, Tom is a total dude and deserves some press over here in Canada (a place he might be calling home soon).

Trio Magnus, made up of Steve Wilson, Aaron Leighton, and myself, caught up with our favourite Brit, Tom and asked him a whole whack of questions about comics & Canada. He is a great guy to promote comics to newbies because he does comics that are real & honest. Comics that people want to read and that aren't difficult to relate to because they are so close to home for most people. He doesn't bullshit or do artsy-fartsy crap. His stories are legit.

TM:

Describe your comics style in four words or less.

TOM:

Honest.

TM:

What differences would you say there are between the Toronto and London comic scenes?

TOM:

The comic scene in London is a lot smaller and disparate than most North American comic scenes. While the alternative comic community has been thriving and growing for over twenty years in Toronto, I'd say London's current scene has only been gathering pace in the past couple of years.

TM:

Which do you prefer and why? (though we already know the answer!)

TOM:

From my perspective, Toronto has the more exciting scene. There's a wealth of incredibly creative and imaginative comic creators experimenting and getting stuff out there. The 'can do' approach is very infectious and inspiring. I was influenced by Torontonians like Seth and Chester Brown from a fairly early age so it feels like I'm on the same page with the Toronto comics scene. Every time I visit I leave feeling inspired and encouraged. I always feel the need to improve and rise to the challenge presented to me when I see what everyone in the city is doing. That's necessary for a healthy arts scene. Sometimes the work I see in London leaves me feeling underwhelmed and worried that it is stagnanting. Which is not to say that the comic scene in London doesn't have great stuff too of course. I suppose it just doesn't excite me as much.

TM:

I've heard that you are contemplating a move to Toronto? Does this have anything to do with the Toronto comic scene?

TOM:

It has a lot to do with it. It's a fantastic city with a lot to offer. Could you put in a good word for me with customs?

TM:

As a person presently living outside of Canada, what is your first impression of Canadian comics?

TOM:

Well, that's a tough question. There are so many different comic artists working in Canada that it's hard to put my finger on a national style. The most striking thing about Canadian comics is how thriving the alternative community is. TCAF is a great way to showcase that.

TM:

What brought you to TCAF originally (two years ago), and what perception does the event give to comic people outside of Canada?

TOM:

It was one of the International comic festivals I'd heard about and I was determined to go to at least one in 2007. I'd always planned on visiting Canada, so I just applied to be an exhibitor and bought my flights as soon as I was confirmed. It was a fantastic event and this year's was even bigger and better. I think this year cemented TCAF as one of the largest and most diverse festivals for alternative and independent comics. Everyone I've spoken to from the UK who went were blown away and agree that all comic festivals should be run in a similar way (free entry for punters, cheap table space for exhibitors, fascinating panel talks, etc.)

TM:

What's your creative process like when making a comic?

TOM:

I tend to let ideas fester in my head for a while and make notes when I need to. When the time seems right - when several things come together and make sense for a single story - I thumbnail the pages roughly and start drawing. Writing detailed scripts ahead of time seems like the wrong way to go with comics, and I prefer discovering new ways of telling the story as I draw it. It's a hard process to describe as it feels very natural and organic. Because of the length of time it takes me to finish a page, I tend not to have a problem with coming up with ideas for new comics - the problem is finding the time to do them all.

TM:

Pick one: crappy pen and awesome paper, or, awesome pen and crappy paper?

TOM:

Awesome pen and crappy paper. Every time.

TM:

Creativity seems to run in your family. Can you talk a bit about that and how it might have influenced your decision to do comics?

TOM:

My grandad was an animator and I ended up studing animation at art college which was an odd choice for me as I always expected to go into illustration. I was very serious about being an animator and continue to enjoy the process even today, but I became increasingly attracted to comics toward the end of my degree and haven't really looked back. I always used to read my dad's old comic collection as a kid and have always been fascinated by the medium, but it wasn't really until I was in my late teens that I discovered Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Seth and the Hernandez Bros. – that was a turning point for me in terms of understanding that comics could be something really special. While comics and animation aren't a million miles away from one another, there's something very liberating about the way timing works in comics as opposed to the very linear 24 frames per second nature of animation. You have both more and less control over the way in which the viewer perceives time – it can force you to be very inventive with panel composition.

TM:

How has your love of movies and literature influenced your work?

TOM:

Probably in a lot of ways I'm not even aware of. I've always been really interested in peering behind the magic curtain and finding out how stories work. I read countless books and articles about screenwriting and tend to watch a lot of movies simply because I enjoy narrative. I enjoy storytelling in most forms. But you have to be very careful about translating the lessons who can learn from these other mediums into comics. If you try to draw a comic that mimics the way a movie works it can only (as Alan Moore pointed out once) be a movie that doesn't move or have sound. Likewise, the same problems apply with books. It's good to learn from other ways of delivering stories but it would be a shame to lose sight of the particular advantages and possibilites of the medium itself.

TM:

What was the last comic you read?

TOM:

Pretty Little Book by Lucy Knisley. It was absolutely charming. Worth seeking out.

TM:

What is your favourite comic of the moment, and why?

TOM:

Acme Novelty Library. Chris Ware is a remarkable cartoonist and continues to impress with every book he releases. Reading his work is at once inspiring and disheartening. I always feel like I'm woefully underselling comics whenever I see what he's managing to do with them.

TM:

Your style, particularly in How to date a girl in ten days, seems to be somewhat Impressionistic both in terms of the artwork and the writing as opposed to the traditional grid / panel approach. Would you say you are using these techniques intentionally to accomodate the story or are they simply elements of your style?

TOM:

It's very much intentional. I spend a lot of time considering the panel layouts and composition of each page. The way the pages look and read are crucial in terms of setting the mood and getting the timing right. Obviously, a comic artist has little control over how fast or slow the viewer will read a page, but you want to leave as little to chance as possible. It can be the difference between a joke or an emotional moment in the comic working or falling completely flat. I try and play with composition as much as possible and be inventive. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I'm still figuring it out.

TM:

What's more important in comics, the story or the art?

TOM:

In the nineties, the mainstream comic industry was all about superstar artists. Now, it seems, we're in the age of the writer and a successful comic is often credited to be because of the script. In my opinion, they're both as important as each other. To place higher prominence on either is to misunderstand the boundless potential of the medium.

TM:

Tell us a bit about your last book, My Fellow Americans, which followed your road trip through the US during their election preliminarys. What inspired you to do this?

TOM:

The project was a collaboration with journalist Dan Hancox. We'd been discussing the 2008 Presidential race fairly early on in 2007 and we'd decided it was going to be a historic primary season no matter who came out as the winning candidates. We knew we wanted to witness it firsthand and have an opportunity to learn more about the American election process. I'd never even been to America before and I think we both wanted an excuse to do a huge roadtrip across the country. Everything just seemed right. Once we settled on the format of doing a blog on the road - Dan providing the words, and me providing the images - we realised how similar it was to the Hunter/Ralph Fear & Loathing days (not that we would dare compare ourselves) and we knew we were onto something. For me personally, it was also an attempt to focus on grander ideas than relationships and the usual auto-biographical comix fare. I was getting more interested in reportage at the time and wanted to take a break from my other comic work and see how a journalistic book would fit me.

TM:

In your UK opinion, what is the major difference travelling in Canada & travelling in the US? What about the comic scenes?

TOM:

They're a little friendlier at customs in Canada. But honestly, it's very hard to answer that question. Travelling around America is like travelling to fifty different countries, and I haven't seen enough of Canada (just Toronto in fact) to offer a comparison that isn't grossly unfair and imbalanced. With that major caveat aside, the one noticeable difference for me is the ability to be slightly more caustic and sarcastic when meeting new people without worrying that everything you say will be taken at face value. Which is a huge generalisation as, like I say, America is a big place and each state is very unique.

TM:

What advice do you have for comic artists to stay slim (like yourself) despite long, sedentary hours at the drawing board.

TOM:

Get an auto-immune disease that dramatically reduces your bodies ability to digest food. Or go for a daily walk/jog/swim/bike ride. Whichever's easier.

TM:

Do you ever have comics-related dreams? Like the one where you have the most AMAZING idea in the world – the one comic idea that is going to make you rich and famous, but you can't find a pen or a pencil or a writing instrument of any kind anywhere, and you're frantically searching because you're afraid you'll forget the idea? I haven't, but it sounds pretty bad.

TOM:

No, I've never had a dream where I've thought comics are going to make me rich and famous.

TM:

Any projects or new books coming soon? In other words, what are you working on these days?

TOM:

I'm working on about three or four short comic projects at the moment so that I can experiment with a few stylistic ideas I've had. The next lengthy comic requires a lot of research and preparation but I'm hoping to get started on that over the summer. I'm going to be annoyingly secretive about it for the moment though.

TM:

One last question - what is your Canadian power animal?

TOM:

I'm not entirely sure what that is but I'm going to go for the moose.

TM:

Nice! Thanks again, Tom. Good luck with everything & we hope to see you gracing the streets of Toronto soon as a transplanted UK 'Canadian' comic creator. ;)

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Clayton Hanmer

Clayton Hanmer (aka CTON) is a Toronto-based illustrator, author and graphic artist. He is the creator of CTON's Corner, a popular feature in OWL Magazine, as well as the author/illustrator of CTON's Super A-Maze-ing Year of Crazy Comics.

Go to Clayton Hanmer’s Author Page