FERGUSON’S 7 QUESTIONS WITH… JOHN ROBBINS
I have said before that I don’t know everybody who works in Irish comics but I feel bad that I missed this creator given he’s hardly a new creator so, while you check out these questions, I’m off to check out his work. 7 questions really excellently answered by John Robbins.
What was the first comic work you did that was published?
‘Twenty-Second Sunday In Ordinary Time’, a one-pager published in FA #104: Britain’s Premier Comics Fanzine, edited by Martin Skidmore (Neptune Comics, 1988). Amongst the News in that issue is the milestone collaboration between Stan Lee and Moebius on Silver Surfer; Oink goes monthly as of #63; and issues 19 and 20 of Zot! are reported to contain a two-parter drawn by Chuck Austen, formerly known as Chuck Beckum on his less-than-acclaimed stint on Miracleman. There is an interview with Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, and V For Vendetta #1 is reviewed – “Welcome back V. Still brilliant after all these years”.
I began subscribing to FA (Fantasy Advertiser) in ’85; it offered Alan Moore’s ‘Writing For Comics’ column, heightened my excitement during the Watchmen and Dark Knight years, then introduced me to alternative comics like Yummy Fur and Love & Rockets, and European creators such as Mattotti and Manara. I remember my late-teens self being immensely proud to feature in the fanzine, and even now I remain delighted with the association. (FA’s online incarnation is here: http://comiczine-fa.com/)
What is the biggest thing you have learned since that book?
Neuro Linguistic Programming has this model which outlines the processes of learning a new skill or behaviour, and which is occupied with four stages: stage 1 – unconscious incompetence; stage 2 – conscious incompetence; stage 3 – conscious competence; stage 4 – unconscious competence. I think the more ambitious you are with how you tell a story – in any creative medium – the more relegated your positioning along this stage axis, but also the better understanding you have of your chosen medium. I’ve learned to embrace the fact that, in an artistic context, fluctuation between stages 2 and 4 is a healthy thing, and might occasionally even lead to a stage 5.
Something I’ve known from the outset is that I have no interest in creating within mainstream parameters; no interest in producing work sterilized by an ambition to reach the widest audience. I’ve never aspired to write or draw Spiderman or Batman – I just don’t possess the temperament to be adaptable to the strictures of an intrusive company bent on product development, where the loudest voice in the committee-fuelled creative process appears to be the marketing department. Not for me.
What’s your process for crafting a comic book?
I’ll have an idea, and that idea will arrive because creative individuals are more open to incoming stimuli from the surrounding environment due to possessing low levels of ‘latent inhibition’ – defined by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology as “an animal’s unconscious capacity to ignore stimuli that experience has shown are irrelevant to its needs.” Says psychology professor Jordan Peterson: “The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks.” The creative person, with heightened sensibilities, sees the complexity in things and explores their possibilities.
So I develop this idea, allow it to grow and branch out in many directions, then with some crafting know-how I cut it back and shape it into a script, to which I apply consecutive numbers, each number representing a panel and containing dialogue-enough to comfortably sit in that panel. With a rigid grid in mind (usually either three- or four- tier), I impose page-breaks on the script and, depending on page-constraints, tighten or expand the script to fit accordingly.
This script-tweaking occurs again while digitally lettering an empty grid in Photoshop. Panel-size is determined either by the grid, by the dialogue, or by my vision of the scene intended for the panel. With all pages lettered (but not yet with balloons and caption-boxes added) I begin drawing, both on paper and digitally – panel-content is mostly a composite of individual drawings, which allows for plenty of manoeuvring. I usually fully complete one page before tackling the next (because it’s less daunting that way): drawings are added to the panels of lettered dialogue, balloons and caption-boxes added to that dialogue and, if necessary, elements nudged about to improve composition and ease of reading.
It’s only during this comic-making process that I ever feel creative ownership of the material. After that I don’t really recognise the comic as my own. It’s like the initial idea was left in a basket on my brain-step, and I’ve nurtured it, put manners on it and, once it reached adulthood and established an identity of its own, I’ve let it go to make its own way in the world. To be honest, by that time I don’t even like the fucker – I’m glad to see the back of it. Go! Find your birth-mother, you ingrate!
What is the biggest influence on your work?
The affecting work of Alan Moore is certainly responsible for ingraining in me a deep friendship with comics, and with my own efforts I aspire to Moore’s ambition to offer something more profound than mere entertainment.
However, almost all things I write are basically representations of selfhood and, to some degree, are personal detective stories – I think I get that from dramatist, Dennis Potter. Almost 30 years after its first broadcast – my first exposure to it – ‘The Singing Detective’ remains my favourite bit of telly, and one which continues to cast its spell over me. It sifts through what Potter described as “the superfluity of clues”. Involved is “contending with all the shapes and half-shapes, all the memories, all the aspirations of life – how they coalesce, how they contradict each other, how they have to be disentangled as a human act by you yourself; by you, this unique sovereign individual behind all the selves that are being sold things.”
What are you working on right now?
I’ve not been inclined to write or draw anything thus far this year. In fact, I’ve been un-writing: a planned ‘Best Of’ book covering the first ten years of Ireland’s longest-running and foremost magazine of the Fantastic, Albedo One (http://www.albedo1.com/), is to include a short story of mine I’m not mad about. So I submitted an updated, distilled version of the story shaved of 500 words or so. I’m not sure it’s any better, but at least there’s less of it.
What do you have out now or coming out next?
Blackshapes Books has just published Unlucky Unlikely, my eighty-page graphic novella. The book mines humour in the struggles of a maladjusted man not reconciled to a life with familial binds, whose ill-fated attempts at developing a sexual identity speak more of a self-saboteur than of a wannabe-Romeo. It’s one of two titles released by Blackshapes Books, the other being In Bits, a superb collection of short comics by the excellent Phil Barrett – in fun, funny-peculiar form. For a limited time you can get both attractively packaged books plus a personalised note (drawn by Phil) for only 12 euros. (http://www.blackshapes.com/blackshapes_books.html)
Also out now are issues one and two of RhiZome, the alt sci-fi/fantasy comic anthology co-edited by Kyle Baddeley-Read and Rob Jackson (http://www.robjacksoncomics.com/) – my six-page comic, ‘Swallow Me Hole’, features in #1; my prose short story, ‘The Mallow Motivation’, is in #2. The most recent issues of 100% Biodegradable (#4 and #5, available via Comixology Submit) contain comics lettered by me. And Brian Boru And The Battle Of Clontarf by Rory McConville and Deirdre De Barra, with lettering by me, is available in Forbidden Planet Dublin. Further evidence of my involvement with the irrepressible Rory – in the form of short comics – is to be found at Rory’s tumblr (http://rorymcconville.tumblr.com/).
Coming next is To End All Wars: The WW1 Graphic Anthology (http://toendallwarscomic.wordpress.com/). It features ‘Bottomly: Brand Of Britain’, a ten-pager written by Andy Luke, illustrated by Ruairi Coleman, and lettered by me. At the checkout just tell ‘em John sent you, and it will make no difference whatsoever.
What is your favourite Irish comic?
Phil Barrett’s In Bits. A book you can sit with for a satisfying amount of time, it provides a fresh, left-field perspective on his work, and is a reminder of just how funny-disturbing Phil’s slice-of-life stuff can be. Stitched together from an assemblage of sundry pieces, In Bits really is an odd little monster. The quiet humanity and good humoured sensibilities one associates with Phil’s classy oeuvre remain – the nuances of time and place, and of relationships and society, all captured with the warm magic that is masterful storytelling married to a disarming cartooning style. But also present is an off-kilter edge which incorporates a greater sense of an authorial voice, and suggestion of inner turmoil. I loves it, I does.
John Robbins on tumblr: http://johnrobbinslimited.tumblr.com/