S J Harris is a London-based cartoonist and purveyor of all things fine and strange. His first graphic novel Eustace (published by Jonathan Cape) was drawn entirely in pencil and concerned a young boy and his tale of salvation by corruption. It has been described as ‘a clapped-out car pointed straight at a brick wall.’
Hallo there, Steven. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Halloa. By day I work in local government and by night I take on my multi-armed form and become death, destroyer of worlds. It’s fun but murder trying to find a jacket that fits. Also I’m a cartoonist: my cartoon novel, Eustace, was published in 2013 and I’m writing the sequel, Eustace in the Smoke. You can also find me gadding about on the London comics social scene.
We’ve been big fans of yours ever since we first laid eyes on Eustace. Where did the idea for Eustace come from?
Partly from an idea about telling a child’s story through polaroids of his awkward life and partly from characters developed in a series of letters. Those characters were older; really the genesis for Eustace in the Smoke but I realised I could extend them backwards into the other idea and that’s what became Eustace. It had an online incarnation first and then I flirted with other forms, such as sitcom, while I put off the daunting thought that it needed to be a cartoon novel.
We were also obviously impressed that Eustace is drawn entirely in graphite. What particularly appeals to you about working in graphite?
It looks ever so much like pencil. Working in ink is also good but oh! the pangs I suffer when I ink over a pencil line. Therefore it’s rather lovely to leave them in their wild state.
Speaking of wild states, could you tell us about your creative process, from the initial idea to the finished piece?
Normally I have the idea while I’m somewhere inconvenient; then I go out for the evening and entirely forget what it was. Never forget that I’ve had an idea, that’s the bugger of it, although the ones that escape always seem better than the ones I find jotted down incomprehensibly in my phone. Maybe they look better from behind. Writing comes next, a horrible business because it involves thinking, a process which most people would go to lengths to avoid and quite right too. I’ve found that short bursts are best as longer sessions can lead to torpor and stupor. Although I work purely in text to begin with, I write with an eye to the visual, intrigued as to what I’ll end up drawing – and it doesn’t even always turn out a disappointment. I never feel entirely in control of the creative process but I think that’s for the best. Both writing and drawing seem to be going well when they veer off in unexpected directions. From feeble beginning to schizophrenic development, the whole thing might be summed up by words from The Bonzo Dog Band’s song Mr Apollo: ‘I was a four stone apology. Today – I am two separate gorillas.’
How do you conceptualize/construct a piece? Do you think of it as a story, snapshot, or abstraction?
It’s all story. A snapshot is a story and an abstraction is a story (an emotional one, perhaps). I’m interested in character, both in writing and artwork: looking at someone and thinking, ‘there’s a rum looking cove, what’s his story?’ The piece I did for Tiny Pencil’s Death & Resurrection issue treated the telling in quite an obtuse way but there was a definite narrative behind it: a girl is given a Box Brownie camera and she and her younger brother take a series of self portraits in different guises from the past or future. He pretends to be dead in a variety of ways until he actually dies and she has to pose for a death portrait with him. She grows up and becomes a photographer, continuing the theme by taking suicide selfies. Her last two portraits are of death approaching via whisky and old age and then her own genuinely dead body. Her adult life ran through a series of insets in the larger pictures from her childhood and, although both series were chronological, they were out of kilter with each other. I like jumbled chronology as it represents how we think: continually casting ourselves into the past and future in our minds. No idea if anyone interpreted that but it’s not meant to be a puzzle. Hopefully it conveys a feeling and the viewer brings their own story to it. Sometimes the story one extrapolates from a fragment is better than the full work. And sometimes it’s just annoyingly baffling.
Speaking of fragments, what size do you tend to work at? Do you have a preferred scale?
I like to work to the size of the finished art or smaller. There’s something about enlarged artwork that I love and pencil shows up particularly well: all that detail of grain one never knew was there. Forget what I said about story, abstraction’s where it’s at!
Well we loved the dark narrative abstractions of your Tiny Pencil piece! We knew you would be a perfect fit for Death & Resurrection. Do you have another favourite aspect of your subject-matter?
I tend to set my work in the Twentieth Century, ghastly though it was. We’re 15 years into this new one and I still can’t believe the last one is never coming back, though fuck knows where we’d put it if it did. I don’t know why I relate to it so much; I’m certain I’d have fared badly had I been born 50 or 70 years earlier but I find it thrilling when I encounter a place where the past seems still to be alive. Pubs are particularly good for this, of course …
Do you also have other mediums you enjoy using?
Ink and watercolour. I often combine the last with forehead grease for an interesting effect and in the most recent work I’ve done there’s some blood. Begins to sound like a washing powder advert doesn’t it?
Well we’ve always felt washing powder adverts were an under-recognised agent in the cartoon industry. But, what else has most influenced and inspired your vision?
Other people’s art, chiefly, of all mediums. I find photography, particularly street photography, an excellent jumping off point for ideas. The work of Saul Leiter has recently influenced my compositional style a great deal too. Forget what I said about story and abstraction, snapshots are the thing!
What are you early memories of drawing like?
Fond. I’m sure there must have been times when I was frustrated at not being able to achieve what I wanted, but I don’t think children measure themselves so critically and can therefore enjoy it more.
Can you tell us about a favourite piece of yours, or a favourite creative experience?
The piece I’m working on for “Meanwhile…” (a forthcoming anthology) is amongst the best I’ve done but I’ve havered for eons over how to colour it (and I do want to colour it) for fear of fucking it up. However, I have found a formula and I’m going to use it. I won’t go into detail but it’s the story of a love affair in six pages. It was initially created out of some entirely disparate single frame gags but is now its own complete little Frankenstein’s monster. It felt good stitching it together but when the muscles started to twitch and writhe beneath my hand and the thing leapt up from the slab and did a sad little soft shoe shuffle, I knew it was out of my control. That’s not meant to sound mystical: it’s all just part of the general, random chaos.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Oh lots. In a drawer. Some of ‘em have even got stuff in ‘em.
Would you mind shedding light on your nom de plume spimcoot?
It’s a nonsense word that was edited out of a frivolous gift book I once wrote. It sprang to mind when I need something unique for an email address and has stuck with me ever since. In certain quarters it’s my soubriquet in person. I might have chosen more carefully if I’d known that was going to happen.
How was your time in France? We heard you spent time at an artists’ colony, and regularly produced satirical cartoons?
Artists’ colony, eh? I suppose Angoulême is a bit like a craggy rock inhabited only by puffins. I fled there in the midst of a mid-life crisis which I was getting out of the way early, and lived in poverty in a hovel at the bottom of the hill with an alcoholic woman I’d met online. I was only there three months but it was a time packed with incident. When I left she tried to strangle me but I escaped by leaping out of the window: if you’re going to live with the emotionally unstable, make sure it’s on the ground floor. Somehow I became part of an atelier whilst there, to much bemusement on both sides, but they were very charming to me. The handful of cartoons I produced for the local paper weren’t of the best, but I enjoyed working on them with my French writing partner – and the afternoons we pissed away in the café where he was a regular, playing darts and drinking. He introduced me to the apéritif Suze which, as he put it, ‘is like all life’s best experiences: it starts off sweet, then turns bitter.’ Angoulême is so ridiculously picturesque that one has to drink to blur the edges. My time there wasn’t always pleasant but I don’t regret a moment.
What is the difference, if any, between a cartoonist and an illustrator?
The smell (one smells charming, the other delightful).
What’s wrong with Martin Freeman?
Casting. I think he can act but he is often cast as – and falls back on – this so called everyman schtick which is tedious in the extreme and makes me want to cry out ‘not in my name!’ He should never have been cast as Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film: should have been David Mitchell (with Robert Webb as Ford Prefect, of course. Sam Rockwell can stay in: he made a very sexy Zaphod). I managed to overcome my dislike of the Freeman to watch the TV series of Fargo recently. He was cast very cleverly in that, playing with type rather than against it and I enjoyed his performance. All the performances were good, actually; shame the writing was such a load of old rubbish.
Right or left-handed?
Favourite pencil: Wood? Mechanical? Other?
Mechanical with an emery board to hone the edge to an atom’s width.
Coffee, nicotine, or booze?
Coffee in the morning, booze in the … well, sometimes in the morning: smoked salmon and scambled eggs are nothing without a spot of something fizzy. Booze generally. I often make too much of it and get on my own tits but I do enjoy alcohol.
Last film you saw in the cinema?
Whiplash. It wasn’t very good but that’s a mean version of Caravan they play in the final scene.
What books are on your bedside table?
The Devils of Loudon – Aldous Huxley
Intruder in the Dust – William Faulkner
Fleeting Faces – Wallis Eates
Nairn’s London – Ian Nairn
A to Z of London, 1966
Coot Club – Arthur Ransome
The Comix Reader 6
The Compleat Flea – Brendan Lehane
Favourite city in the world?
London. Admittedly it’s the city I know best but I love all of its various parts.
Favourite city to draw/sketch/illustrate/create in?
Have pencil, will travel, open to suggestions (and plane tickets).
Lastly, what can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I’m accepting small commissions that come my way – anthologies and the like – to keep my hand in but Eustace in the Smoke is the big project for the future. The end of the writing is in sight and then it’ll just be the hundreds of little drawings. I’m afraid this one won’t be pencil but inky line work. It’s a return to an earlier style of mine but I’ve also been looking at a lot of 50s jazz album art, particularly that of David Stone Martin. The book is set 19 years after the first book, in 1955, albeit with a lot of flashback. Eustace is living in digs in London and working as a lowly filing clerk. He bunks off work to spend the day drinking and we accompany him round his various haunts. The inevitability of loneliness is a big theme in this – though not necessarily a depressing one, I think, but there are plenty of gags too.
Thank you Mr. Harris! We look forward to your next projects!
S J Harris’s graphic novel Eustace is available at bookshops and online.
This interview was brought to you by Heather McCalden and The Tiny Pencil – fine purveyors of the pencil arts. Follow us on twitter @TheTinyPencil, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram for the latest news on all of our new anthology artzines.