Gareth Sleightholme

Posted on December 5th, 2016

Gareth Sleightholme is an illustrator, designer and comic creator based in Kingston Upon Hull. Gareth has been working as a concept artist for two decades, and is a prolific artist and writer. This week, Tom caught up with Gareth to talk comics, Lovecraft, and the creative process.

T: Let’s start at the beginning, what first got you into comic making?

G: Well, it probably goes back to my time at the Archaeology Unit in my late teens.

I’d remember reading comics when I was young, mostly just obsessing over particular panels. My cousin from Canada brought Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four and Black Panther comics for me when their family visited us, I always wanted to be Black Panther when playing out as a kid. My parents bought me the Beano when I was younger and I eventually graduated to the new line of Star Wars comics and 2000AD of course via Asterix from the local Library. Christmas occasionally brought a range of annuals/compilations, Starlord, Action and maybe Tarzan all of which were comics heavy. But towards my teens my interest in comics just fell away as I dug into the pulp novels of Robert E Howard, Robert Heinlein etc that I found at the local market.

sleightholme_2When I went to work in the drawing office of the Archaeology Unit I met a couple of guys that reintroduced me to published comics via Watchmen, Ronin, TDKR and others, but on top of that they were making their own books. Dave Chapman was writing and drawing his own comics ‘Drowning in Darkness‘ and Ian Beck was working on an adaptation of Beowulf in comics form. By the time I’d got to university in Norwich, I had files full of scripts and part finished artwork… again eventually abandoned as I went off to design theme parks and visitor attractions for living. I did however keep reading during this period, and more importantly writing, much of which became The Cthulhiad.

Jump forward to 2011 and Sarah, myself and my old friend Andrew Segal (Beached Rockets) were walking around Thought Bubble for the first time and Sarah asked me why we didn’t have a table. Flustered, Andrew and I “Umm?”ed and “Ahh?”ed a lot with no really definable reasoning other than we didn’t have any finished comics to show, and then the next thing I knew I’d booked a table and had to get something ready for that coming November.

And that’s how ‘The Indian Fighter‘ happened, ‘Beached Rockets‘ too, and ‘Iron Shod Ape‘ formed out of that. That first year was great fun, meeting other creatives, and of course talking to all the people that came up to the table, generally just feeling immersed in the culture of comics creation rather than just visiting. We booked the next years table as soon as we could, and so on every year since.

T: H.P. Lovecraft has an incredibly evident influence on this work. Why is it, do you think that comic creators are so inspired by his imagined realms?

G: I think it’s a number of things. But I think the real horror of Lovecraft, and the lasting influence is in the everyman’s realisation of our meaningless existence in an uncaring universe. It is a psychological horror that our basic biology is designed to steer us away from drawing even greater strength from the solid influences upon it, as the presence of Machen, Dunsany (see The Sorrow of Search) and Poe are evident. The spaces Lovecraft leaves in his descriptions of his creatures and moments of terror leave a lot of room for the reader to devise their own interpretations, and I guess this appeals to artists in particular who like that room to reinvent things visually. Writers have some pretty big themes to dig around in too; from mismanaged science, alien influences, and extinction’s shadow on the door.

It also has its issues of course, the underlying and sometimes overt bigotry in his work, which can’t be explained away with the “man of his time” arguments (lets face it Twain was writing 30 plus years earlier). But this doesn’t mean we can deny its influence on the collective horror genre from R.E. Howard to King through to Miéville, Del Toro and Ligotti, many contemporary (new) weird writers taking the cosmic themes within the work whilst attempting to overturn or redress some of the more out-dated and heinous attitudes that the author possessed.

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T: You previously mentioned working in an Archaeology Unit, baring in mind that your operating in a predominantly fictional realm, how do you approach the more historical settings? For example, are you a strong believer in researched details or do you gravitate more towards freedom in fantasy?

G: Well in the comics I’m making there are both “historical” fantasy settings, i.e. scenes set in the mythological past, and historical settings, those set in a past that happened just with characters that never existed or events that never happened but with characters that actually lived in the given time period, as well as a range of contemporary settings.

I tend to research a fair amount for both (mostly because I enjoy it) and I do try and make a solid representation of any truly historical or geographical setting. For example anyone who knows Copenhagen will hopefully recognise the main setting of ‘Severed Head Cult‘, and those sharp-eyed types who read ‘The White Ship‘ might recognise the artist at the beginning of the book who has just completed his commission for the secret society. Whilst in ‘Vanitas‘, the scene set at Walton Street Market was actually drawn on site, as was the scene in ‘The Dram Shop‘ (both in Hull). Basically I tend to scatter artifacts throughout the text and images for those readers who like an Easter egg hunt (again because I’m one of those readers who enjoy that). For the scenes set in the mythological past I tend more towards the psychology and symbolism of the narratives, the comparative elements of myths and folklore, where we see the same story told just with different names… maybe I can use them to tell or reflect or underline something from the main story I’m telling?

None of this is a mission statement though. I’m ultimately trying to write something that I’d enjoy reading, with the hope that some other people out there would want to come along for the ride.

T: You also hinted at travel there. Your comics adventures stretch across the globe, as well as time. What led you to that? Or, do the stories partly emerge as an extension of your own travels and observations?

G: Most definitely. There is a lot of autobiographical reference in the books. I’ve traveled a lot with work over the years and traveled alone, which has given me the freedom to explore places in a way that you might not do if traveling with others.

The characters in the books travel in the same way, they go through the same weariness in airports that act as culture-less, transient portals between the more real locations. Cities that come with their own unique characteristics and personalities and layers of mythology and history.

The time-hopping comes down to my interest in history… and the fact that objects (and the books deal with objects that change hands over and over) often remain a constant, regardless of the bodies left in their wake.

T: I love the idea of making sketches and then pulling them together into something. Sketches can be seen as an under layer to a lot of your comics. I ask this a fair bit, but how do you find that analogue and digital relationship? What’s your process?

G: I draw a lot… I fill sketchbooks very rapidly, but regardless of this I’ve not really settled on a particular process yet. I’m still trying to find a method and an aesthetic that is economical enough for me to draw as much as I write.

That said, mostly I work in pen (standard Pentel Brush Pen or UniPin Fine Line a 0.2 or 0.3) directly into my sketchbooks when working on thumbnails.

Then I work up loose pencils based on the thumbnails either at oversize straight on my own comics page templates, or at a smaller size that I then scan and add to a digital version of the page template, which I then print out in light blue line. Inking is then applied to the actual pencils or the digital blue line, which is then scanned again and dropped into Photoshop for toning and other finishes… I’m not even going to go into how I add the type, as all my designer friends will bang their heads off their desks in frustration at me… I really need to get set up with something like Manga Studio I guess, it may short cut some of my process… But this way works for me (for now) I guess – laughs.

I’ve put some of my process in the sketchbook we are taking to Thought Bubble this year, and I post a lot of it on my Twitter feed.

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Thanks as always to Tom and Gareth for this week’s interview. More of Gareth’s work can be found on his blog and the website for his collective. Gareth is also on Twitter @hesir.