Ramsey Hassan – also known by the moniker RAMZEE – is a comic creator based in London. This week, Tom spoke to Ramsey about the personal experiences that motivated his latest book Zorse, along with Ramsey’s origins in small press, and advice for those who may yet have a story to tell of their own.
T: Perhaps a good place to start would be – How did you originally get into small press?
R: I’ve been reading comics since about 1993 but small press comics never really bit me because of where they were placed – shunted off in the dark, cobwebby corners of comic shops like Black or Gay writing in Waterstones, it’s like they wanted you to think they were junk. My first exposure of them didn’t come until 2009 and it was all Kate Beaton’s fault.
I was a huge fan of her web comics and she wrote a bulletin that she was coming to London – my city – and was exhibiting her mini comic ‘Bigger Ruffs For Everyone’ at ‘UK Web & Mini Comix Thing 2009‘ (a weird convention where tabling artists took turns dealing out refreshments like a hippy commune) so I tubed it over to East London and met her (she was lovely), bought her mini comic (it was rad) and got it signed (she doodled Ayn Rand inside). I thought I might as well have a look around. It blew my mind. There were comics that were adaptations of text messages from discarded old phones, Glaswegian Stig of The Dump cave girls, Polar Bear gentlemen explorers – the art wasn’t always amazing but for a mainstream comics-head like I was, it was like a kid raised on 70s Prog Rock going to their first Punk gig. Technique gave way to ideas and the artists ranged from school kids to middle aged women making Kay Mellor kinda stories. It was incredibly exciting and empowering to see.
T: Your book Zorse discusses immigration with quite a personal motivation. For those who haven’t yet read it, could you give us a bit of insight into the story and drives behind it?
R: The story is about a nine year old boy named Baxter who idolizes David Attenborough but seeing that there aren’t any wild animals in Battersea he’s turned his curious gaze on his classmates but soon realises that, despite small variations, middle class kids are very similar. Everything changes though when a new boy, Kamal – a refugee from Somalia – joins his class and becomes his most interesting case study ever.
In 2014 I set myself a challenge where I’d create two comic books – the first comic called Triangle which would be made up of three short genre stories that I’d write and commission three artists to draw (Josceline Fenton, Tom Crowley & Liz Greenfield), and the second comic would be a comic I’d both write and draw myself. What story was I going to tell?
The big light bulb behind it came when I visited the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library where the narrative advertised was that comics in the UK were traditionally subversive and addressed topical issues, and I was immediately struck by how gentrified UK comics have now become. There are a lot of middle class people telling very safe and twee stories that – to quote Mozzer – say nothing to me about my life – let alone this country!
As a young black book nerd growing up I was utterly invisible in what I read, as much as I was in society, so as an adult I wanted to try and subvert that, to make a comic about my own childhood experiences of coming to Britain with my family as refugees and adapting to an exciting, and sometimes confusing, new culture. Most of the stories I’ve read or seen performed about the subject I’ve found very po-faced and melodramatic and not told by the refugees themselves so I wanted to tackle the subject but try to tell it in an imaginative and fun way whilst still giving the reader an insight into the refugees POV whilst myself exploring the White gaze.
Making a comic is a huge, scary task as it is, but the subject meant too much to me to foul up. When I put pencil to paper I took comfort that I didn’t have to hit a home run because just coming up to bat in a society like ours is a big deal, like the fellow immigrant comic nerd writer Junot Diaz once said ”even a badly uttered sentence would go far in a place where none of us are allowed to speak”.
T: I certainly found that one of the reasons the book worked so well was that it had that playfulness throughout and that meant that when there’s that moment near the end – I won’t say for those who haven’t read it – actually it’s quite powerful. In allowing the migrant to bring a new lease of life to situations it also did a nice job of emphasising the idea of contribution and an exchange, over one-way charity.
R: A big influence for this book was reading ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ at school. The funny thing about Tom Sawyer is the way he and his gang see Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry in their eyes is so cool and lucky because he can swear, he doesn’t have a bed time and the dude doesn’t have to go to Church! Amazing, right? It’s reading it as an adult you see that it’s because Huck lives with an alcoholic father who takes no interest in raising him. Baxter is my version of Tom Sawyer – a new kid has joined his school and he’s totally fascinated. Kamal has a different view on things and a completely different background to the homogeneous culture of the rest of the kids Baxter knows. He is freer than them in some ways and visa versa. Together they learn and grow a lot.
The playfulness came from wanting the story to go in a completely different direction than the solemn polemics about this subject that are out there and to try and do something that was initially fun and zany but subtly builds up into an emotional suckerpunch. I also was into the challenge of seeing my childhood from a different perspective than the white protagonists I grew up reading.
What would Tom Sawyer think about me?
T: For such a weighted topic, it’s delivered through a platform that’s easily accessible to adults and children a like. The latter seem to be the key audience in terms of tone. Was there a particular reason why you were drawn to that age group?
R: Weirdly, I wasn’t. I was going for an All Ages readership. The story is told by a child so I wrote it in a very child-like way. There’s one scene in the book that’s written from a completely adult perspective but I wrote it in such a way as to not alienate a child reader.
The visual aesthetic in keeping with the story is very child-like. Around the time of making Zorse I was reading a lot of picture books because I was on a epic Will Eisner kick and rewiring all my ideas on what comic storytelling could be so everything visual that conveyed information to me was suddenly now comics. Ikea manuals! Infographics! the Tube map! my favourite new comic was picture books.
The subtle and powerfully creative ways in which picture books play with the partnership of imagery and font, and especially how they use the entire page as a canvas to inform a story, instead of the page being something to be chopped up into panels, was eye opening to me and I wanted to give it a go.
Animation theory was important too. Pixar coined a storytelling term called ‘Simplexity’. The ‘Simple-‘ is the Art of simplifying an image down to its essence and the ‘-xity’ is the complexity that you layer on top of it—in texture, design, or detail— which is masked by how simple the form is. It is all about selective detail which helps when you’re tackling a tough weighted subject in 30 pages. There’s a court scene in the book that’s laid out like a board game because for the barristers that’s exactly what it is.
Denzel Washington plays this attorney called Joe Miller in the movie Philadelphia, where he asks people throughout the movie to explain the thing that they want to get across to him as if he’s a four or six year old. This isn’t because he’s dumb, but as adults we tend to over complicate things with minutiae and for situations like the refugee crisis you don’t need to know the intricacies of asylum law, you need to understand the basic human questions and comics are a great medium to do that.
T: You mentioned earlier about migrant voices coming into comics. If there was someone reading this now, are there any tips – from your journey through the processes – that you would pass on? Or are there any areas you feel need to be touched on more?
R: Advice-wise, just make comics! Don’t be scared. Read a lot of them. Practice. Don’t undermine the worth of your experiences. We all grew up with stories usually about boys who were mostly white and felt alienated from their society then discover The Force or get bitten by a radioactive spider, then he goes on a journey where he kills a dark wizard or drops a magic ring in a volcano. Those stories have been done and redone. Where are the stories that haven’t been written? Comics are a very democratic medium and are especially great for people who aren’t confident with the language, because with modest drawings you can tell a simple and profoundly moving story. All you need is a few pens, some paper and a box to draw on.
SO MUCH can be touched on more in British comics . The great British artistic monument is Music. The British public from every walk of life, race, gender identity and orientation has collectively made a monument to last the ages. Far greater and more influential than UK Film and Literature is right now, because you don’t need to speak a certain way or to gone to a certain school, and the equipment and opportunity of spaces to make and present your work is relatively cheap. Small Press Comics are just as easy to take part in but is why is it such a middle class whitewash?. If you’re a British woman of colour, queer or come from an underrepresented minority you have a real advantage because your stories are yet to be told, and most importantly, by YOU. As we as a society become more fractured and pushed down into statistical layers, we have to fight more and more to remind each other of our collective worth, and our stories and unifying factors in the face of the wave of right wing hysteria that’s sweeping the world right now.
T: Is there anything else on the horizon, or that you’re currently working on?
R: I basically have no life, so there’s a lot cooking. Somewhere in 2017 I’m dropping a one-off youth culture comic magazine, the pitch for it was ‘a 21st Century Deadline’. It will have six new comic stories that I have written and which were drawn by a sextet of amazing artists: James Harvey, Sammy Borras, John Bishop, Lucie Ebrey, Sarah Burgess and James Gifford. It will have a bunch of pop cultural articles written by a few journalist pals who usually write for Dazed & Confused, The Guardian, Line of Best Fit, Coup de Main and The Fader. It’s shaping up pretty gnarly.
I’m currently in the middle of a graphic novel that I hope will be done & dusted in 2017 too. No title as of yet, but it’s my riff on Robert Altman’s Short Cuts set in modern day multicultural London and tackling, as usual, topical weighted issues.
Also working on a couple of one-shot comics – a modern, Wilkie Collins style children’s horror story with the comics creating dynamo that is Paul Shinn and a YA mystery story with an incredible Taiwanese artist I found on Instagram.
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