Julian Hanshaw

Posted on December 17th, 2015

Julian Hanshaw perhaps needs no introduction. A veteran of the UK comics scene, Julian won The Observer/Comica short story award in 2008 and has since had graphic novels published by Jonathan Cape and US publisher Top Shelf. This week Tom sat down with Julian to discuss his latest graphic novel Tim Ginger, his creative storytelling process, and projects for the future…

T: First of all, let’s talk a bit about Tim Ginger, which came out in July. Your auto-biographical-like investment of personal experience, observations, and knowledge into the characters help give a realistic grounding to something which is also fairly free to explore surreal or fantastical territory. Did that come easily?

J: It all stated out in the Arizona desert. In a trailer. With me writing down a list of what was interesting me at that time for a possible new graphic novel. The list comprised a number of very personal things to me; being childless by choice and the implications for my wife and myself. I was thinking about cricket as the new season was close to starting and so was drawing up a team. Also being in the American South West we had recently visited White Sands Missile Range and seen twinkly lights in the distance of the test facility. A kind of ”what are they doing over there…?”. Oh, and I have trouble seeing out of my right eye! So Tim and his world was beginning to form. Tim’s job as a test pilot gave me the opportunity to explore the slightly more fanciful elements and theories that are out there, whilst seeming a regular every day thing for him as someone who had been in that environment all his life. He doesn’t see what is extraordinary about his life. That funny little man holding up the supermarket queue looking for his store card has done things we can only dream of. His stoic normality counterbalanced the more surreal aspects of the story.

T: That normality also comes through with the pacing. Tim Ginger plays with a softer or more natural tempo, and that also seems to be the prime set up for surreal spins (both gentle and surprising). Like a song, the reader if absorbed falls into it and you can play with them a bit. You threw me a few times. Those moments also help invigorate the journey and include alternative approaches to things such as internal thoughts. How did what reads like such a flowing deployment work in terms of planning?

J: After I have thumbnailed in my sketch book I then photocopy each page and put them up on a wall and stare at the bloody things for days. Seeing if the flow works in my mind, how pages will sit next to each other etc. Oddly music is kind of important when planning as each book has its own playlist. Tim Ginger was lots of Brian Eno and The Stars of the Lid. That helped with the flow and planning to get a rhythm and a mood going through the book. Hopefully successfully.

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T: At a technical layer, and I’m keen to dissect these things a bit in case creators are reading, there’s a lot we could open up but let’s perhaps look at colour? There’s a very simplistic but greatly effective use of colour. It helps define tones, lighting, emotions and time periods. It’s beautiful. Which so many different possibilities, how do you approach that?

J: My previous book I’m Never Coming Back was a collection of short stories. Each with a different style and tone artistically as well as narrative approach. It was a very complex and time consuming book colour wise. With Tim Ginger I was very wary that I wanted to pull the colour back as I felt that with so much going on with the story thematically, I didn’t wish to clutter the panel. And also by using a restrictive palette I felt I could explore the dusky hues of the desert setting more. As you alluded to with the question I tried to use a different palette for different sections of the book. Conveying the mood of Tim and the environment he finds himself in to the extent in my script I wrote down colour themes almost like stage directions. Influences on the colour and tones to me were comic artists like Seth and also M Sasek. Basically anyone one with surname beginning with ‘S’!

I colour in Photoshop. But never use the ‘click and fill’ tool. I colour on a tablet as I would on the page and if the colour breaks the black lines, then so be it. I never go back and correct. I try to treat the digital page as though its a page in my sketch book.

T: You’ve produced a few graphic novels now, and each is roughly between 100 to 160 pages. That’s a substantial work load to set yourself and you’ve done animation too, which has broken many an artist. How do you prepare and play out these heavy tasks?

J: I like the phrase ‘animation has broken many an artist!’ It pretty hanshaw5much broke me as I was fired by my producer at the time whilst eating a bloody jacket potato! The actual animation didn’t break me, it was the studio set up that did it for me. So being left alone to do my comics with no producer, set design, layout, line producers etc to deal with it’s quite easy to pick up a head of steam.

I was trained in animation in the old skool ways (not wishing to sound like The Karate Kid!), producing 25 drawings a second, if you were doing a scene on 1’s. So that’s pretty labour intensive work. And I guess it was a good grounding for launching into a 100+ page book each with quite a lot of panels on each page.

I start out thumbnailing the pages very, very roughly and quickly. Then scan them into the computer and work them up from there. The drawing and colouring side is for the most part enjoyable, it’s the writing and getting to that ‘go’ stage that is like pulling teeth. For me anyway.

T: Some comic artists seem to develop a “style”. Although this can sound like a trapping, its association to your work seems closer to building a malleable set of abilities, for whatever you might need right now or next. Is this an ongoing journey or have you got something you’re particularly aiming for/working towards?

J: In the best reality TV show cliché… it is a journey. To where, ultimately I’m not sure. My next book will take me into the future and will glimpse into the world of the Secret Space programme.

All my books have been a learning curve whilst on the job. The Art of Pho about Vietnam and it’s food viewed through a fractured kaleidoscope with each page differing in construction from the last. Like a travel diary. [In] I’m Never Coming Back my story telling got tighter, with me bringing seemingly stand-alone short stories together with a thread of time and locations. And Tim Ginger, with the assistance of Chris Staros at Top Shelf, was pulled into focus over a long time. So the next project which is just lines and squiggles at the moment sits ready to move forward and I’ll buy the ticket and take the ride.

Thanks to Tom and Julian for taking the time to sit down for this week’s interview. For more from Julian, check out his website. He is also active on Twitter @hanshawjulian