Tom Mortimer is an artist and comics creator known for his stark black-and-white imagery. Tom’s work combines occult themes with a pitch black sense of humour that gives him a voice uniquely his own. Tom has also recently joined the Dirty Rotten Comics team, and has conducted a host of fascinating reviews and interviews for our website. This week, interviewer became interviewee; Gary sat down with Tom to talk about his introduction to the small-press scene, his creative process, and channelling energy into art.
G: Firstly, I’m amazed it’s taken us this long to sit down and get an interview done! You’ve been an active and very welcome addition to the DRC team over the past six months, but I realise we’ve never fully introduced you to our readers. Can you give us an idea of your background, and what initially attracted you to comics?
T: It’s been great to join the team, and at such an exciting moment too! I’m genuinely humbled by this whole small press world.
Comics were something I moved onto while exploring possibilities for my ‘art practice’. Before this, I was doing all sorts: drawings, animations, sounds, videos, sculptures. Often, Fine Art utilises a white walled space, in order to remove something from the context of everyday reality and enhance the demonstration of it’s qualities… the issue I faced was that – almost like the Victorian approach to animal cataloguing – anything you present is killed in the process of that separation. Galleries feel very cold to me, and they use a demeaning structure of authority to establish the connection, like how a parent needs to take a position of power in order for their child to listen to them. There are a lot of artists working against this, but it’s a difficult thing to dance around.
Publications get round this, firstly because a book carries an authority in itself, but also because the reader actually owns it and can take it anywhere, including into their own home, where it will still work because it’s ‘self-contained’. Now, couple that with narratives which are something we all use to inform and connect with others, and you have a much more promising format. At least to me. With the visuals as well, there’s a much more immediate connection – even written books need a cover to lure someone to read them. Once you’ve earned a person’s time and trust, then you can start taking them somewhere else.
In relation to small press; I got into this from zines, as I saw the start of what I was looking for in them. I also work with children quite a bit, and self publishing approaches were one way of letting children take ownership of their learning through art. In that way, they actually connect through playing with input and not just repeating for the sake of examination. Politically there’s been a lot of assault on art in schools and learning in general, the irony is that when art subjects are so devalued – they actually gain substantial potential. That exists in comics too, perhaps.
G: Your comics are often very different in terms of content, but all are recognisable for an underlying sense of unease that’s hard to pinpoint, but is uniquely your own. I feel that your work reflects a cynicism toward human nature – an almost weary acknowledgement of our baser instincts – and an understanding that often all is not as it seems. From where do you draw your inspiration? Is it guided by personal experience, or more philosophically rooted?
T: Although polite, I’m generally angst-ridden. More so in comics, because in real life I compensate for it by joking around. The problem here is that the process of presenting that is so laboured with comics, I find that side of things dies… so I go for an undercurrent of ‘dark humour’ and playful bleakness instead.
Also, where stories are partly tied into making things up, and made up optimism has a corrupted association with the “falseness” of advertising framings etc, I think people have developed an association that when we hear “our yoghurt will make you healthy, successful and popular” it creates a knee jerk reaction of “fuck off, just for that I’m gonna die alone in a ditch”. It helps, perhaps, if we pause then try and work out a way to use that reaction more constructively.
In relation, I also have some anxiety issues, depression stuff etc… it does make you quite bitter about everything and generally tries to isolate you. Being able to identify it’s influence and to play with that actually helps overcome it. Part and parcel of that is an ongoing existential crisis, so I do philosophise regularly as a result. Actually, the theorising and all that art academia stuff was a useful structure for it.
In terms of content – My interest in occult themes comes from a mix of many things, although I suspect the childhood origin starts with the books my grandad had from the 70s. Perhaps where I’m supposedly now an adult, I’ve slightly (only slightly) got past a love of monsters, and become more interested with the dullness it all comes packaged in. Like a ritualistic circle of stones that don’t really do anything, positioned round the corner from a carpark or motorway, where it’s raining and there are people walking around in waterproof hiking wear. Once you can mentally connect the enchanted with the dull or bland – so much around us becomes enriched with potential, and from new angles.
In terms of the basic instincts, I also find that pulp fiction elements, which cheaply prey on our primal lustings, have room for that similar separation, exploration and subversion while still providing enough lure to make the more ‘arty’ elements easy to swallow.
Then there’s psychological studies or media theory… so much out there to play with…
G: That disillusionment with advertising, and the knee-jerk response of “fuck off”, seems particularly prominent today; in a world of Buzzfeed and Facebook and suchlike, we’re now so connected to everything that it can compound these feelings of frustration. In this regard, I agree that immersing oneself in creative pursuits can be a welcome retreat, and channelling those feelings into a project can be incredibly cathartic. What do comics uniquely have to offer in this regard, compared with other forms of self-expression?
T: Cathartic makes it sound like leisure! There’s a bit of that but generally making comics, or mine at least, takes some work. But it’s work I own and it forces me to tune my voice and contemplate my message. It’s what I make it.
I think an important thing to mention here, in respect to the internet – is that if you genuinely care about something – please don’t just wait for a franchise to provide it. They will never cater to every individual taste and, if only out of practicality, it will never be completely you. But with a small press comic – you could carve that vision yourself, create something the way you want and it will visualise the potential to others. It’s a far more constructive argument then a slagging match on social media.
It can feel isolating to live in a world where we live purely to another’s view, and the more control we take over something, often the more exhausting the task. But if you want something just that bit more personal then the choice framework offered by others – then we’re starting to assemble a community here. You won’t be alone.
G: Your narratives are complemented by a distinct visual style that brings to mind lino-cuts and lo-fi computer graphics. What methods and techniques do you use when putting together a comic? Talk us through your usual creative process.
T: That came about by the use of 2bit, you have pure black and white with no greys to soften. So if you want to create mystery you either have to do so with symbolic suggestion (stuff like, associated gestures or iconic imagery), structurally (view points etc), or with shading work (to construct tones through illusion). All of which, for me, tap into German expressionism stylistically – so that’s where that lino cut comes in. There’s also some influence from US alternative comics – People like Charles Burns – which I discovered quite late into trying to work myself out – but he resonated with a lot of what I hoped to achieve, that helped my confidence a little.
The lo-fi graphics came out a desire to use software available to everyone (and my lack to this day of up-to-date programs). The low resolution created a pixel pointillism, which was something I used a lot more back in the early days. Growing up in the 90s, it has a slight nostalgic value to me too. I also quite like the political ‘edge’ of something that looks ‘amateur’… and finding the line between that and ‘professionalism’.
Generally my approach is to think about the tone, themes, and set-up of the story. Write that out with a rough page pacing, some spatterings of key dialogue, then visually map it all out so it flows right. I approach it almost as if it were a silent comic. Finally I come in with the text, which mainly acts to fill in gaps, expand on certain aspects or pull the visuals a little more tightly into what needs to be delivered.
I like to use a collaged zine type of visual, it’s just more fun if anything else. This stuff takes so long – much longer than it looks – that I need some pleasure from the process. Although I think I now need to make efforts to use a wider range of approaches. If only so I don’t fall into a default – and make more of an effort to do what’s right for the work.
G: What are you working on at the minute? Can we expect to see a collection your work in the future?
T: I’ve wanted to release a nice thick graphic novel sized collection for a while, it’s a long term goal but realistically, I think some smaller publications (20-40 pages) are much more likely for now.
Currently, submitting shorts to anthologies like Dirty Rotten Comics is the most attractive idea. The pieces I sent in for issues 5 and 6 were actually planned for my own publication but I found it better to let them surface this way. I find where DRC places my work in with all these other incredible artists, it gives the kind of variation I can currently only dream of; I did a test zine a few years ago, and found I needed to have distinct differences in approaches to keep things interesting. The four page limitation is also a much more welcome goal to target – not only because in negotiating the time it’s much more achievable, but also because it has this great ability to let a mini idea expand and make a vast idea condense.
There’s two publications I’m currently producing work for, but both are currently hush hush. Ultimately, I’m still pretty new to the UK small press world. Although I’ve done some inclusions and interviewed all these great creators, I think until I make that solo statement and it’s received, I probably haven’t yet ‘joined the club’. This is something I’d love to be a part of but I’m also keen that anything I put out meets a level of quality I’m content with… people don’t respect someone unless they’re given a reason to – I need to be able to meet that bar, but at the same time I have a very independent vision and it’s gonna be my back carrying all this for a fair while. We’ll see how things work out…
Other than small press comics, I’m currently part of a team attempting to set up a charity that rescues books from landfill, and also hopefully doing some more work with art education in local schools.