From comics to television – Kellie Strøm talks with FPI’s Kenny Penman
Kellie Strøm is one of those cartoonists you maybe wish had just a little less talent – then he might stay doing comics. Kellie was born in Copenhagen (1967) but was raised in Ireland where he first came to attention with work for local papers and magazines like “The Yellow Press”. In 1992 he and writer Stephen Walsh produced “The Acid Bath Case” for Kitchen Sink Press – a hard boiled cop drama that Kellie had worked on intermittently for around 3 years. It remains his longest comics work – and although his style was still coming together then it shows a vast talent that we would have wished to produce more comics.
Interests in illustration, film, theatre and TV as well as more recently in producing a children’s book have kept Kellie busy over the years. We spoke to Kellie, whose children’s book and his design work for BBC’s Jackanory will be taking their bow before readers and viewers shortly, about his career in and outside comics.
FPI: Hi Kellie can you give us a bit of an idea of how you became a cartoonist in the first place? Was it just I can draw well, I’ll do this for a living or were you a comics/cartooning fan from the start?
KS: From at least the age of seven I wanted to write and draw comics and picture books, and from that age on I did my best to learn how to draw as professionally as possible, drawing in ink and all that. Choice didn’t come into it.
FPI: You started producing work for Irish newspapers, right? Where was your work appearing – was this editorial cartooning, or other stuff?
KS: My first taste of being published was a Christmas strip I sold to “The Galway Advertiser” at age fourteen. This was a very good paper for a local freesheet, edited by one Ronnie O’Gorman who gave me great encouragement. He put me in touch with the features editor at the now long gone national daily “The Irish Press”, and I had a strip published there the same year. So when I dropped out of art school a few years later, newspapers seemed the natural place to go, and I freelanced doing all kinds of illustration from age eighteen on.
FPI: The first thing I remember seeing by yourself was a startling illustration of Sinead O’Connor on the cover of an early issue of “The Yellow Press“. A lot of the guys whose work was in that magazine, Gerard Crowley, Tom Matthews and more, had been cartoonists at “In Dublin” magazine – they were mostly people looking at things with a political or literary viewpoint rather than doing comics as such. Yourself and Brian O’Toole (whose Shem and Sam strip can be seen here) kinda stood out as something different from that – how did you hook up with them?
KS: Brian and I had been “In Dublin” regulars as well. The magazine had been a great hangout for cartoonists in the eighties, with an old office above the Winding Stair bookshop overlooking the Ha’penny Bridge. It was a place where it was possible to push the boundaries further than in other Irish publications. When it went bust following a libel case, there were a bunch of cartoonists with nowhere to go with their best stuff, and so they started “The Yellow Press”. Being a collective enterprise it sometimes had a pretty confused identity, but when it was good, it was very good.
FPI: Did you meet Stephen Walsh (he had written the Brian O’Toole strip mentioned above) through the Yellow Press? How did your collaboration on “The Acid Bath Case” come about?
KS: Stephen I knew from art school, where we both did our best to get in trouble by pasting satirical comic strips all over the canteen walls. Stephen’s were much better than mine – his were very sharp, funny and surreal attacks on leading staff members!
FPI: How did it end up being printed by Kitchen Sink? Did Denis Kitchen approach you or the other way round?
KS: We just mailed it over to Wisconsin, and then had quite a few transatlantic phone calls with Denis and Dave Schreiner. They always sounded like they were talking from a rocking chair on the porch, while we were watching the clock thinking about our Irish phone rates!
FPI: I’m guessing that the market at the time probably conspired against it doing that well? If it was out today I can imagine it being sold through bookstores as well as comics stores – I guess back then it was comics stores only. That was a hard market to crack for black and white material back in 1993; do you think it would have done better now? Would you like to see it republished or would you just find yourself running back wanting to change it all?
KS: I think it probably sold as much as could reasonably be expected, which is not a lot – the crazy part was taking three years over it, but I wasn’t really good enough to work faster – I was learning as I went. The other crazy thing was having nothing to follow it, nothing to continue building an audience with. I naïvely expected the world to fall at our feet, but it was just one comic. We sold some copies, got a fan letter and a Harvey nomination, and then we disappeared. I was too damn slow and I had to make a living.
“The Acid Bath Case” still stirs up interest every now and then, which is very nice. There are people in Europe talking about translating it, so we’ll see. Both Stephen and I have grown quite a bit since then, but there’s still a lot that I like about that book.
Stephen is now writing stories for Commando comics as well as developing projects of his own. He’s also done a lot of writing for film and television. He’s written some short comic scripts starring Nat Slammer, the detective in “The Acid Bath Case” and as soon as I have a minute I want to draw some of them.
FPI: Along with the covers for some issues of “The Yellow Press” you were doing the lovely Airforce Amazons strip. Does it predate “Acid Bath” – certainly some of these strips look more polished. With hindsight some of the styles that are now appearing in your children’s book seem to have started here (the aircraft, character designs etc); the later Sparky episodes are really quite beautiful. Any chance of these being collected and expanded?
KS: “The Airforce Amazons” came from a drawing of a newsstand in “The Acid Bath Case” where I was making up imaginary magazine titles. The “Amazons” strips were the first things I wrote myself that I felt were actually good, though a lot of people found them mystifying. I have lots of unrealised plans for them.
FPI: After that your work in comics seems very sporadic. You did a Star Wars strip for “Star Wars Tales ” back in 2000 and had a strip in the “9-11 Artists Respond” project and you have done some selected pieces since but your focus seems to have drifted away from comics. Was there a reason for this? Was it because other forms of work seemed more interesting, more financially rewarding (during these years Kellie did a lot of illustration work for magazines like Business Age and Times Higher Education Supplement)? Do you feel that despite everything else you might do you will always be coming back to comics?
KS: It’s mainly that I’m too slow. Comics seem to me to be the most natural way to tell a story, but the way I work I don’t know if I’d ever be able to make a living at it. I’ll always want to do comics, but economically it’s like writing poetry. I do hope to do stuff in picture books that leans more towards comics.
FPI: Having briefly covered the past there are two projects you have coming up that should appeal to our readers. The first is a load of work you have done on the design of new episodes of the BBC story show Jackanory. For those outside the UK “Jackanory” is a children’s show usually running around 10 – 15 minutes which has a celebrity reading out a story (in the manner that a parent would read to a child); it was something of a British TV institution starting in 1965 and running uninterrupted for 31 years. It must be quite exciting being involved in a re-launch of one of the shows that virtually every person in the country, between 15 and 55 has grown up with? How did you come to be involved, and what have you done for the show?
KS : There are two Jackanory stories coming up, each in three episodes. I was only involved in the second story, The Magician of Samarkand. The first one, Muddle Earth, is based on a book by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell (who write a terrific series of fantasies for younger readers, highly recommended – Joe), so that should also be of interest to your readers. The filmmakers worked closely to Chris Riddell‘s drawings on that one. The transmission dates are:
Jackanory – Muddle Earth – Monday 27 November, Wednesday 29 November
and Friday 1 December 4.30-4.45pm CBBC/BBC ONE
Jackanory – The Magician of Samarkand – Monday 4/Wednesday 6/Friday 8
December 4.30-4.45pm CBBC/BBC ONE
I was one of five artists who did art for The Magician of Samarkand. The others were Claire Bushe, Martin McKenna, Paul Catling and Andrew Williamson. Messrs Catling and Williamson are both from the film biz, specialising in concept and effects art. Martin McKenna mostly does SF, fantasy and horror art for book jackets, though I’ve also seen something he’s got cooking in comics. And Claire Bushe is an illustrator with more of a children’s picturebook style.
The whole thing was storyboarded by director Nick Willing who then divided the locations amongst us. We were given a very free hand – the idea was that the style should be allowed to change a bit from place to place. I did city and palace exteriors, Claire Bushe did the interior and garden of Anahita’s house, Martin McKenna did wildernesses, caves, tunnels and dungeons, Paul Catling did palace interiors, and the interior of the shoemaker’s shop, and Andrew Williamson did the Magician’s camp. Some of the images by Claire Bushe and myself were done as 2D plans and elevations, and then turned into 3D CG scenes by others, but most of the art was rendered as flat layers, like the work I did for the Kaiser Chiefs video.
The main parts were played by actors, extras and animals were painted. Nick Willing’s concept was that the film should be what a Victorian magic lantern show might have looked like if the Victorians had a bit of our technology, so not an attempt at a completely realistic illusion, but more of a theatrical or storybook look. The first story, Muddle Earth, was done in a more conventional 3D CG style, with CG characters and all 3D backgrounds.
I confess I’ve never seen the original Jackanory – it didn’t reach the west of Ireland.
FPI: Have you seen the finished show yourself yet?
KS: Not yet, but I hear it’s been getting a very good reaction.
FPI: Does this mean “Jackanory” is back on our screens full time – or is this an experiment? Do you see yourself being involved again in the future.
KS: The idea is to continue doing specials, but nothing’s confirmed. Nick certainly wants to do more, and I’d love to have another go if asked.
FPI: Your other recent project is the children’s book “Sadie The Air Mail Pilot” which is due for publication in February from David Fickling Books. What drew you to doing a children’s book? Was it a story you had always wanted to tell – perhaps made up for you own kids? Did you approach the publisher with it ready to go or was it a long development process. How did it differ from doing straight illustration or comics.
KS: “Sadie” started life as a comics project with Stephen hundreds of years ago, but as I said, I’m too slow. Then we thought we’d try developing it for animation, and some years went by with that. So there’s a lot of ambition that’s been distilled down into those thirty-two pages. Now I feel it could never be done as well in animation as it is in the book. It would have to be completely different, like an old Felix the Cat cartoon, black and white drawings with title cards, maybe.
Making it work as a picture book was not easy. Writing doesn’t come as naturally to me as drawing, and I think I went through five dummy versions with David Fickling. I learned a lot through all that editorial bat and ball.
FPI: I read it the other night (thanks to David Fickling books for the preview copy) and I thought it was really charming and seemed full of a pioneering spirit which I guess appeals to us all kids or adults alike – John Ford made a career out of it. It also didn’t seem to want to be preachy – although Sadie’s recklessness endangers herself, it is seen more as heroism than stupidity. Do you find writing for children is a wide canvas or are people mostly expecting you to thread some moral guidance through the story – is there any/much interference at editorial level?
KS: Yes, a moral lesson was the last thing I wanted. There was an earlier editor who came with some health and safety concerns about the short runway on Knuckle Peak, all of which I batted away ferociously, but David was more focussed on good storytelling, getting enough tension, drama and economy in the writing.
FPI: Do you see it as a one off or the first of a possible series?
KS: Well, a series would be the obvious thing, and I’m not saying no, but the next book I do will be something a bit different. The “Sadie” book was such an intense experience that I need to renew myself a bit before I could go back to those characters.
FPI: I know that there is going to be an exhibition of the work you’ve done for “Sadie” at the KattenKabinet (for those able to visit you can find it here: The Cat Cabinet, KattenKabinet, Herengracht 497, 1017 BT, Amsterdam) in Amsterdam, running for a month from 15th Dec – how did that come about? Do you have any plans to show the work in other towns or countries.
KS: The Amsterdam exhibition was arranged by the Dutch publisher Rubinstein. They were very impressive – I casually said “wouldn’t it be nice” and a week later it was all sorted! I hope to get something organised in the UK around the time the book comes out here, but nothing’s confirmed yet.
FPI: With all that behind you Kellie you might just want to take a break for a while but can you give us some ideas of what you have coming up over the next year or so.
KS: Well, I’m doing another short strip for Vrij Nederland magazine, and then I’ve got to get down to another draft of the next picture book. I’ve done the first draft dummy, so only another three or four to go before I start on the final art!
FPI: Our last question is always to ask if there is any favourite artists you would like to point our readers towards – either for old or new works. Basically a little list of some of your favourites.
KS: Liverpool’s late, great Brian O’Toole is someone who should be a lot better known. Palle Nielsen is someone I’ve talked up on message boards before – he’s still hardly known outside the realm of Danish fine art, but anyone doing comics should search him out. And recently I’ve been looking a lot at the work of Walter Trier. He’s best known now as the illustrator of Erich Kästner’s books, especially “Emil and the Detectives”. He was in London as a refugee in the forties where he did a long series of wonderful covers for Lilliput magazine. Another name which may not be familiar is F.G. Cooper, an early twentieth century American comic strip artist, illustrator and lettering artist. Leslie Cabarga has written a very nice book about him. I came across it while researching another Cooper, Oz Cooper, the designer of the typeface used on “Sadie“.
FPI: thanks a lot Kellie and good luck with all your projects. Come back to us and let us know when you have other projects coming and don’t forget we comics readers would love to see more comics from you. in the meantime please do pay a visit to Kellie’s website which is stuffed with astonishing illustrations.
KS: Well, thank you very much for having me!