After a summer break we’re back with a fresh round of small press interviews, talking to creators who are making waves in the British comics scene. We’re kicking off with Tim Bird, a Comica/Jonathan Cape award winner and critically-acclaimed cartoonist who himself was featured in Dirty Rotten Comics (way back in issue 4!). Tom spoke with Tim about his exploration of silver age comics, his collaborations with Luke James Halsall, and his Rock and Pop anthology.
TM: The Bullpen, which you worked on with Luke James Halsall for Avery Hill’s Readers: Volume 2, is a really touching – bordering on brutal – story set in the “Silver Age” of comics. What attracted you to that setting? Can you tell us more about it?
TB: Strangely enough I didn’t know very much about about the Silver Age of comics before I started working on The Bullpen. I grew up reading Tintin and Asterix, then moved over to American indie comics (Ghost World, Optic Nerve etc) as a teenager, without ever really getting into superheroes. Working on something I didn’t know much about was part of what drew me in – I find I get into a bit of a creative rut when I’m working on the same thing for long periods, so it was good to switch to something different.
The main attraction to this project was the way Luke developed the characters, and how the story is as much about Jack and Bill’s family lives, as it is about their rivalries within the comics industry of the time. Luke incorporated scenes from The Nucleus (the comic Jack and Bill are working on in The Bullpen) into his script, which I thought was a really clever narrative technique. He’s a great writer, and I think working with him helped me develop my own writing and drawing style.
I’m a big fan of the aesthetic of the era that the story is set in – 1940s/50s New York. This made it lots of fun to draw!
TM: That’s quite interesting, as there seems to be a trend of people beginning with superheroes and then exploring indie titles as a gateway into alternatives. So now that you’ve explored this silver age era a little, is there anything that’s emerged from the experience? Such as stand out shocks or subtler traces that you can link back?
TB: Since starting work on The Bullpen, I’ve looked at lots of comics from this era as research. It’s a really interesting period for comics in terms of transforming superheroes into believable characters and creating stories with more depth. I think that has had a huge impact on the way comics have developed since then. A lot of the artists and writers I admire came out of the American underground and counter culture scenes that arose as a response to the explosion in popularity of comics in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The silver age comics have been hugely influential on modern comics – even amongst independent creators. This influence extends beyond the characters and stories of the time, and has led to comics being accepted as a valid art form in a wider sense.
TM: On the subject of The Bullpen, although hopefully not as emotionally damaging, how did you and Luke work together on it?
TB: I worked with Luke a few years ago on a short comic called The Terrible Truth About Mimes, which was included in an anthology, so we both knew a bit about each other’s working practices. With The Bullpen, Luke had written a script that was originally going to be a much longer piece, so part of the challenge with serialising it for Reads was editing the dialogue so that it would fit as we only had eight pages per issue.
I drew The Bullpen entirely digitally, using Manga Studio, so it was possible to email Luke with pages in progress and make changes on the go. Sometimes Luke would ask me to change elements such as backgrounds to fit in with the setting of the story, or change bits of text, but in general his scripts were very clear and detailed.
Working with a writer is a very different way of making comics to what I’ve been used to with Grey Area, where I write and draw everything myself. I have to be aware that I’m illustrating someone else’s ideas, which comes with a certain amount of pressure to get it right, or as close to Luke’s vision as possible. On the other hand, I can get on with drawing the pages without having to think too much about plot, dialogue, the pacing of the panels etc. because that’s already been done for me.
TM: What projects have you got going on at the moment?
TB: I recently self-published Rock & Pop, which was a series of autobiographical comics about songs that soundtracked significant periods of my life. I’m working on a follow up – Rock & Pop, Various Artists – and asking contributors to send me their experiences for a webcomic.
I’m hoping to have the fourth issue of Grey Area finished fairly soon [editor’s note: since conducting this interview, Grey Area is now finished and available to pre-order from Avery Hill]. I’m trying to work a lot quicker, and have switched from drawing digitally to using pen and ink, which might sound like a contradiction, but I found that when drawing digitally I’d spend a lot of time trying to correct mistakes. Using pen and ink, I have to accept that mistakes will be a part of the finished drawing.
I have another zine planned for after Grey Area, which I think will be self published, and then I’d like to work on a longer book, probably with Avery Hill Publishing. I keep thinking about doing a children’s book, too, but haven’t really got anywhere with that idea!
I’m trying to attend more comics fairs, which is something I haven’t done much of in the past. It’s a good way to see what other creators are doing and share ideas.
TM: You mentioned doing a children’s book – what is it about that idea that appeals to you?
TB: I read a lot of children’s books to my daughter, and it’s partly that there are a lot of really good ones that have inspired me to want to try it, and partly that there are a lot of bad ones that make me think I could do better! It’s such a pleasure to read to my daughter, and I love the idea that I could be part of that with other families.
TM: Does your daughter take an interest in comics? What would be your advice to her if she wanted follow in your footsteps?
TB: She’s still a little young to get comics (she’s 3), but she likes a bunch of characters – particularly Moomins at the minute. I spend a lot of time reading with her, and will definitely push the comics when she’s a bit older! I think kids comics are having something of a revival – The Phoenix is a great example.
It’s nice when I take her in to the comic book shops and she can recognise my books. If she wanted to draw comics, I’d be very happy, but I’d support her whatever she ends up doing. My advice if she did want to would be to draw for herself rather than drawing to try and please a certain audience. Ultimately that’s a lot more satisfying, and the only way, really, to create art.