Music, relationships, diaries and comics – Propaganda talks to Marc Ellerby
Marc Ellerby was one of those cartoonists I was aware of but hadn’t picked anything up by until I walked into a comic shop and saw Venal Muse and Polar Opposites sat on the shelves, looking fun, fresh and frankly, out of place amongst a morass of crappy comics.
So I got hold of more of his books and sat down to review them. The results of that can be found elsewhere in the blog, but it’s always nice to be able to talk to these British cartoonists and get a little insight into what makes them tick.
So without further ado, Marc Ellerby:
Richard: To start off with, what’s your background, and how the hell did you wind up doing comics? I gather from the blurbs on your books that you’re relatively new to the whole scene. So was your intent always to make your own comics or has it merely occured through necessity?
Marc: I guess I am still kind of new to the industry. I’ve been working on a book for Oni Press for the past two years called Love The Way You Love and before that I illustrated a story in the Belle & Sebastian graphic novel (Put The Book Back on the Shelf – Joe) that Image put out (both these were written by Jamie S. Rich) but with regards to the UK scene I’ve only been a part of it for the past year and I’m only starting to find my feet I think.
I’ve always loved comics but I had a falling out with them in my mid teens, but when I went to university I got back into them in a big way, Blankets by Craig Thompson came out in my second year and that was hugely influential and I was loving Jeffrey Brown’s books and I saw the opportunity the medium provided with telling a honest and introspective narrative through illustration and that just inspired the hell out of me.
R: Obviously, when looking at your work and it’s autobiographical content the reference points for me are the autobiog cartoonists I read during the time when every other comic of note was some cartoonist talking about themselves, whether it was Chester Brown, Seth, Joe Matt or Adrian Tomine. Is this something you’re aware of or did the desire to tell your own life in pictures come from somewhere else?
M: Oh yeah I’m totally aware of it. Autobio has it’s own sort of cliche and stereotype that the medium often falls into and more often than not, new work produced has hints of Tomine, James Kochalka, Jeffrey Brown and therefore doesn’t stand on it’s own rather it’s a just a poor cover version. With my book Venal Muse and like wise with my personality I try to engage the reader as much as I can, inviting them to relate to what I’m saying or question if I’m wrong or if they have a different viewpoint. As I with all my autobio stuff I just try to write stories that people can go “oh this reminded me of such and such” or “oh I do that too!” I think sometimes with Joe Matt or Chris Ware they can often alienate the reader because they’re so self critical and self deprecating, personally I find it a bit tiresome, I mean they can be endlessly harsh on themselves that it’s sometimes hard for the reader to care.
R: Artistically you’re nothing like those artists, although the lines and stylings of Tomine are in certain panels. What artists have influenced your work?
M: Matt Groening is probably the single biggest influence, I mean I was a huge Simpsons fan growing up and the Simpsons is something that’s embedded in my generation and it was really hard to ignore it, seeing as it’s been in my face since the age of 10. But there’s something so simple yet engaging about his stuff, the big eyes, the overbites, the ugly yet somehow attractive nature of his characters. I love his Life in Hell books and they’re really crude in places but that’s what’s so great about his stuff. It’s not perfect and he knows that but he just carries on with the tools he was given.
Andi Watson too is a huge influence. He’s probably the most underrated and underused artist in the whole bloody comics industry and that’s completely unfair. Perhaps some of the book companies jumping on the graphic novel bandwagon could stop looking overseas for creators to sign when Andi has a extensive back catalogue that’s bursting to get out to to the mainstream audience. Other than that, I guess a lot of my contemporaries influence me, like the early Oni crew of Jim Mahfood, Scott Morse and Chynna Clugston. Chris Bachalo, Bryan O’Malley, Tom Gauld. The list is endless.
(From the Venal Muse, fine detailing on the flashback sequences to set these pages apart from Marc’s direct to the audience panels.)
R: In the last year, from Venal Muse to Ellerbisms there’s been a shift in your art style. Venal Muse had a somewhat finer line and more detailed background. But Ellerbisms has a more solid, simplified style. Is this just a natural progression in your art or some conscious decision to change how you draw?
M: No, with Ellerbisms it was originally going to be a daily web-comic so I kept things as simple as I could so I wouldn’t get bogged down with it as I was still drawing Love The Way for Oni at the time. I think with Venal Muse, the subject of muses and clouded emotion sit well with adorned backgrounds and textures plus I wanted something that would look drastically different from the scenes where I’m talking to the audience and there’s a blank white background to where you turn the page and it’s suddenly got gray tone and detail and hopefully the reader is taken back by that.
With the Ellerbisms I’m drawing now, I’m using a brush (as I did with Love The Way) and it’s got a lot more weight and expression to it. I’m also putting in more backgrounds, doing away with the stationary shots and moving things around more. One of my original goals for Ellerbisms was to use it a ‘playground’ for my sequential art, so I could try new things and if they don’t work, well so what? I’ll know not to use it next time.
R: My main criticism with Ellerbisms (and it’s only a small one) was that I found the single page diary format too restrictive. In Venal Muse you showed that you obviously have the talent and ability to work to a longer narrative so when I was reading Ellerbisms I kept thinking that I wish you’d expand on some of the pages, give us more of the story. Is there any chance that future volumes may have a slightly longer narrative?
M: With Ellerbisms, it was only ever meant to be a daily web-comic, so in terms of narrative, there is no ending, but I do agree that there is perhaps no overall structure of the book when collected. Again though, I wanted to highlight small things in life that people could relate to, perhaps without much context. However saying that, I am hopefully going to launch it as a proper web comic later this year and one of the things I hope to achieve is to develop a sort of story arc over time, so when collected it won’t be so all over the place.
(From Ellerbisms by Marc Ellerby. The coloured versions are from the website. Ageism rampant in the under 20s. I wonder what they think of 30 somethings standing at the back with a pint?)
R: At the moment the British Small Press scene appears to be in a purple patch, with a lot of really great work coming out. How are you finding things at the moment, is it a good time to be doing what you’re doing?
M: Yeah it does seem to be going through a resurgence but then I think the whole industry is, so perhaps it’s a knock on effect from the mainstream interest in graphic novels and Manga currently kicking arse in the book shops. It’s a pretty good time for the British small press scene as there’s plenty of good stuff coming out, though I do question just how far the British scene can go. I mean I know I can’t live off photocopied minis so I turn to the U.S for publication and work as far as the U.K is concerned there’s fuck all over here. Where is the British equivalent to Oni or Top Shelf? What publishers do we actually have over here? Rebellion? Jonathan Cape? They are the Marvel and Drawn And Quarterly of the U.K world, but there’s no middle ground. It’s still bewildering why the industry is so behind what’s going on in Europe and Japan. Is there a demand over here though, I guess that’s the question. Maybe the bubble burst of the industry in the 90’s still scares people and they’re waiting for the current one to go pop?
R: Where can we get hold of your work, have you had much success getting into comic shops at all? What do you think of the current retail comic scene in Britain. Do the shops cater for you and similar cartoonists or do you find them reluctant to venture beyond those blokes with the underwear on the outside of their suits?
M: Oh a select few shops are great. Gosh in London, Page 45 in Nottingham, Dave’s Comics in Brighton, OK Comics Leeds and the Travelling Man chain are joys to work with. They have excellent small press sections and don’t make much if any money from selling my stuff but do it because they love comics. There’s a few shops around where I live and one employs old ladies to work there and just caters for the superheroes crowd so I know not to bother with them as it’s not my audience. It’s a weird place to go into, actually, come to think of it.
It’s nice to get emails from people who don’t usually read comics saying they found my books in Page 45 and they loved them. You know your work’s in good hands.
Other than that you can buy everything from my web site http://www.marcellerby.com and at conventions (I’ll be at the Bristol expo, No Barcodes in Camden, the Birmingham expo and maybe Thought Bubble in Leeds)
R: You’ve had some involvement with the London Underground Comics stall I believe – how did you find it? Personally I think Oli’s doing a good thing and obviously has a knack of getting incredibly good promotion for the stall.
M: None at all I’m afraid. (Bad interviewer edit: Research is a great idea. In my defense I was sure he’d been mentioned in some of Oli Smith’s posts. Must have just been talking about the comics. Ooops.) I’ve heard nothing but good things about it though. I’m exhibiting at the No Barcodes event on May 31st, so that should be interesting especially with the prospect of reaching non comic fans. It’ll be good to see just what outsider demand there is for these type of events.
R: What’s next for you?
M: I’m working on a pitch for a creator owned book about a monster hunter that I hope to be a multi volume series. It’s so early in the planning stages that I don’t want to say much about it, but it’ll probably end up being less about the actual monster hunting and more about getting the bus.
Me and Jamie S. Rich also have the second collection of Love The Way You Love coming out in August from Oni Press. It collects volumes 4-6 of the regular series, the first collection is out now. We’ve talked about working together on a new book so we’ll see how that pans out.
Also www.ellerbisms.com should start seeing some content soon. A second mini comic collection should be out in time for the Birmingham expo in October.
(As Marc points out so subtly – his Ellerbisms website should start seeing some action later in the year.)
R: And finally, because one of the best ways to hear about new stuff is to get others to point you in the right direction, what sorts of things are you reading right now? Is there anyone out there we should all be paying attention to?
M: I picked up a book called Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki from Dave’s Comics last month and that knocked me out. The drawings are immaculate, the lines are rich in expression and the layouts are gorgeous. I really recommend that for anyone who loved Juno or Freaks & Geeks. Mariko’s doing a Minx book with Steve Rolston soon, so that should be pretty cool.
British small press scene wise, you could do no wrong by checking out Lizz Lunney‘s books. They’re a bit like Simone Lia, maybe slightly cruder but are just as hilarious. They features lots of dinosaurs and cats with issues. My convention buddy Adam Cadwell’s Everyday books are getting better and better with every release, the art’s stronger than it’s ever been I think. Liz Greenfield‘s new mini Fancy Circumstances features strips about a cardboard boyfriend alongside a new, rougher style of art that I hope fans of her Stuff Sucks web comic enjoy because it looks amazing. Urrm who else? Jim Medway, Edd at Hey Monkey Riot! oh the list just goes on and on. Lots of lovely books!
And with that we have to leave him. Thanks very much to Marc for the interview and for sending me his comics.
Marc’s going to be at the Bristol Expo with Kieren Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and John Cei Douglas. He’ll also be at the Birmingham Con later in the year, where I shall stop by and say hello and try not to look to old next to his youthful visage.
Email Marc to tell him how much you love his comics and he’s a git for making me feel old.