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Andi Watson on The Book Tour, Kerry and the Knight of the Forest, and comics for kids vs. adults

In this interview, Andi Watson talks to Popverse about his long-spanning career from independent comics to big five publishing.

Cartoonist Andi Watson has had a varied career, starting in the indie scene with graphic novels like Breakfast After Noon and Slow News Day, then branching into comics for kids like his Kerry and the Knight of the Forest. Most recently, his breakout hit The Book Tour has made it's rounds in the awards circuit both in France and in the US, becoming an official selection of Angoulême International Comics Festival and garnering a nomination for the Eisner for Best Graphic Album.

Watson's varied career is owed to his ability to attack each new project with a completely new style and tone, and in that way, he has been able to cross over the boundaries of genres and audience type. In this interview with Andi Watson, we talk about the first comic that really had an impact on him, how he shapes his style for each project, and what he's reading right now.

Popverse: How did you get into comics, Andi?

Andi Watson: Well, I read them as a kid obviously. I read Peanuts in the newspaper, I read Star Wars Weekly, and I read The Beano-- which is a British humor comic for kids. Then I kind of fell out of it, and I got back in via role playing games and thrash metal— you know, the whole Anthrax being big fans of Judge Dredd, and then there was role-playing-games with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I kind of edged back in, and almost straight away when I was like 19, I picked up a copy of Love and Rockets, and that kind of slowly, I didn't realize at the time, but that kind of ruined my life.

Because yeah, I eventually became a cartoonist, but it was really picking up that one book, a collection called Ape Sex, which was from Titan Books in the UK, that really blew my mind as to what you could do within the medium. I was at the right age at 19, and punk rock, and all the rest of the music and comics and arts coming together— it didn't immediately make me think I could do comics because I didn't think I was good enough, because it's really hard obviously.

Cover of Love and Rockets Ape Sex

What specifically about Love and Rockets stood out to you?

It was just the right book at the right time. It really took me a few years to think could I do this myself. Anyone who looks at Jaime's draftsmanship— it looks like too high a mountain to scale. I did a degree in graphic design and illustration. For my last project I thought, "I'm never going to get a chance to do this again because I'm going to be illustrator, and I'm going to go live in London"-- complete fantasy.

I decided I was going to do a comic. I hand drew it, and I color copied it. I did a screen-printed cover, and I did baseball cards and a t-shirt for my final show. I thought that would be it, but then I went to live in London and tried to start an illustration career. I was incredibly naive about how difficult that is straight out of college, so I had a lot of time on my hands, in between schlubbing around my portfolio to various companies. I mean, this was the days when, 30 years ago maybe, you actually did take a physical portfolio around town. Sorry, I'm very old. Between that, I just started to do comics. I'd been bitten by the bug.

I knew I wasn't very good, but I really wanted to get better. My first book was called Samurai Jam, and then I did three issues at a small press, just about copying it myself. Then I sent it to Slave Labor Graphics. It took them maybe six months to reply— this is all by mail back in the day. They replied and said, "Yeah, we'd like to do it," and they kind of warned me that, you know, this is quite small stakes, the world of independent comic books.

But that's how I got hooked, and I never quite unhooked myself from the medium because I think that thing that motivated me then, still motivates me now— just trying to get better and explore those different things you can do with the medium and the freedom that it gives you. There's no barrier to entry, really. That's what really encouraged me early on. Anyone could do this if you've got paper and pen, and you've got time, and a slight problem with your brain that means that you are obsessive enough to do this or dedicate time to this.

Here I am, incredibly. I wish there had been an off ramp somewhere on the way, I'd get distracted by trying to find a living or something practical like that, but I'm silly.

Color image of Kerry from Kerry and the Knight of the Forest.

So you went from self-publishing for your school project to publishing with an independent press. How did you make the jump to a Big Five publisher?

I guess many, many years. It was really when the graphic novel thing took off again. I went through the first one with Maus and Watchman and The Dark Knight and all that, so the late 80s, maybe, and that seemed to be the moment when graphic novels were really going to take off. But no, they didn't, and they still don't have them for adults really. For around the younger age, like Middle Grade and YA, they have taken off. So there's a market there, there's opportunities, there's slots to pitch to publishers.

Really it was Gina [Gagliano] who dragged me onboard with Random House Graphic. I've known Gina for a long time; we'd email back and forth for years and years. She started this imprint up at Random House, and we were talking about something else, and she said, "You want to pitch something?" I pitched this Kerry [and the Knight of the Forest] book. It wasn't quite my first dip into the book publishing world, cause I'd done a book called Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula for First Second. So yeah, I'd kind of been 'in' a little bit before, but this was a really big book, like 240 pages, and it felt like I had entered the world of book publishing which has a different culture and moves at a different pace and has a different feel to independent comics, which is much more Wild West, seat-of-your-pants kind of stuff.

Back in the day, I'd just say to my editor— like at Oni Press with Jaime [S. Rich], who was my editor there, I'd say, "I'm gonna do a story about a couple who are unemployed, and they work in a ceramics factory in the Stoke-on-Trent area in England." And he'd say "Yeah, cool let's do that," so it was very different back then.

Within the book publishing world, it's much more formalized; it's much more bureaucratic. It's less seat-of-your-pants, but professional, I guess. There are upsides to both worlds, although I probably prefer the world of independent comic books in that it's a bit more freewheeling.

So now I'm in the book publishing world doing Middle Grade stuff. I did that Kerry book. I'm now working on a book called Punycorn; I'm contracted for two books for that.

Color image of Kerry and Knight of the Forest

Tell me about Punycorn.

Punycorn is a funny fantasy story starring an underpowered unicorn hero. It's kind of a traditional fantasy in that there's a quest and there's a bad guy who's trying to take over the world. It's really a metaphor for the kid who is picked last for sports. He belongs to world of superpowered unicorns who are heroic and can do everything and have amazing powers, and he's the runt of the litter, if you like. He's, like me, very bad at football.

The Punycorn character goes off on a quest to save the world and meets friends who have similar disadvantages, and they of course save the day because it’s a fantasy story. It's nice when the evil overlords are beaten. Unfortunately, it's usually only in fiction, but I hope it happens in real life someday as well.

Fingers crossed.

Going back to Kerry, which is a great classic adventure in the way that you're describing Punycorn as well. Can you tell me how you built that visual world, how you designed it? You mentioned that you have an illustration background, so, how did that apply to the design of the book?

Black and white chinagraph thumbnail drawing

The design was kind of the starting point really, because it was inspired by a short animation called the Hedgehog in the Fog [dir. Yuri Norstein, written Sergei Grigoryevich Kozlov]. It's a classic piece of animation. It's very poetic and very kind of Russian as well. It's very textured and atmospheric, and it's set in a forest, and that was my starting point. I started from the idea of a dark forest— traditional fairy tale stuff, which I'm really into. I used Chinagraph pencils on watercolor paper to get textures and shapes and get the feel of an oppressive forest environment.

That's my starting point for the character. From there, it's like, what kind of person goes into a dark scary forest when they don't have to? That's where the story took off really— that this character Kerry has to travel on a shortcut through the forest to get medicine to his parents who are sick, where he meets a knight of the forest who isn't the knight that you expect he'd be.

Speaking of art style, you've drawn in a lot of different styles throughout your comics career. How do you develop your artistic voice for a specific project?

It's definitely about the specific projects. For the Kerry book, it was about the textures and the atmosphere, the texture of the bark, the wood, which set off my thinking of how to capture that on paper.

For The Book Tour, which was my grown-up book, I found I couldn't do the story until I had the art style. If you have one but you don't have the other, then I don't have a graphic novel because I need both to work in harmony together. As soon as I find both, then it's like Bam! I'm writing away. It's finding the right tone of the artwork for the correct tone of the story, and sometimes it involves changing the art style to fit the story or vice versa.

That's the unique part of graphic novels, I guess. You have to have the visual and the story element, and they have to work together. There has to be an alchemy there and they have to inspire and bounce off each other.

The reason I change art styles between projects is not only so it suits a project, but also to stop me getting bored, because you do an awful lot drawing. And if you do an awful lot of drawing in one style, you know, it's 250 pages or something, it's just tons and tons of work. After that, I'm eager to switch styles or try new things to stop me getting bored. That's really what's kept me in the medium, the challenge of being able to do new things and explore new styles and different stories.

What does the process of figuring out that style look like? Are you sketching? Are you doing thumbnails already?

Something like Kerry, before I actually started drawing, I did a fair amount of visual development. I played around with different materials and different coloring approaches until I felt I had the right way of working. Often, it's something that I've done in a sketchbook years before and thought, yeah, this is good, it's in my head, I've made a note of it, however it's not appropriate for the next project. Kind of like keeping a notebook, if you're a novelist. You have the style that you know will work for something, but you don't have the story yet for it. For Kerry, it was a style I worked on maybe three, five years previously. So, quite a long time. I knew it was a good style and would be a way of working that would keep me interested for about 250 pages.

Black and white thumbnail page layout

When I had the Kerry story and a publisher onboard, Boom! the two went together. Immediately, I had the way forward. But that's just the starting point, the art style and the story. It's really the start of the process because then I tend to write script next, and then I work on thumbnails, and then I'll start doing the pencils and inks, and then I'll do the color. I'll integrate the lettering and the speech bubbles at the same time. It's important for me to keep all those things in my head at the same time.

There's a lot of work that goes into it, and what you see in a book like Kerry is the tip of the iceberg. I have free to download, on my Gumroad, all the thumbnails from that book. That's two hundred and fifty pages of thumbnails I did in pencil, which are kind of cool in their own way because they're more expressive and loose. You lose some of that in the finished book. But yeah, you may do a draft or two of that, and that will interact with the script again. So you go back and do another draft of the script. It's a very organic process, and that's the way I like it because there's always something new to discover on each step.

If I know exactly what the book is going to be immediately when I'm working on the script, then it's kind of dead really, in your hands. You want to be adding new things and discovering new things every step of the way even down to the way you color it, and then that effects the atmosphere and the tone of the story. So again, it's another thing that keeps me interested.

Maybe I have an attention span problem, but I have to always have an apple dangling, a carrot dangling in front of me constantly pulling forward until I've finished the book.

Detailed black and white art, two-page layout

You just mentioned, The Book Tour, which is an incredible, weird graphic novel about an author on tour who is just having the absolute, most impossibly bad time of his life. Where did that idea come from?

I've done my share of signings and I've also heard other people's anecdotes about it, but it really started maybe a couple of decades ago. I got a book of Atget, a French photographer, a book of his photographs. He was around the end of the 20th century. He took photographs of Paris, generally when there was no one around, these very atmospheric street scenes, and I thought, "There's a book in this"-- 20 years ago. Like I was saying, I didn't have the story for it.

However, when The Book Tour began to gestate a bit more, I had this idea of an author who goes on tour. Initially, it was the story of the author who never meets any readers, he only meets writers. So that's my first draft approach, and then I add this book of Paris photographs as reference, which this would be the place where this story was set, and I had my own experiences, and then the story changed. There was an idea of a murder mystery element as well. So again, there's something new to explore, as I develop, as I do another draft. Things get together like a snowball, like the story and art are a snowball at the top of the hill and you push it down and gradually it grows in size and more interesting ideas get involved and folded in.

Cover of The Book Tour

Eventually, it grabbed me enough that I was willing to spend the year working on it. I had no publisher interested; I just completed it off my own back. I was thinking, "Maybe this would be my last book," for various reasons. I thought, "Well, this is it. This is the one book I want to do. I'm gonna do it my way. However I want to." I had real problems finding an English language publisher, but my French publisher picked up, and then it kind of went from there.

The art style for that was kind of a reaction against what I'd done before. I'd been using a brush earlier in my career, and I really wanted to use a pen again, and working with watercolor paper with a pen breaks the line. It was the right art style for that story, a nervous kind of angsty line to it. As soon as I knew I had the right art approach and I had the location and the character, I was away.

It was a long process of drafting scripts, thumbnails, and then the actual murder mystery story kind of introduced itself or became more prominent after I started drawing it. I went back and did more work to develop that, and I think that was the key to its popularity really. A genre element that captures the reader, and the way it's folded into the story about boring details of being an author or the horrors of having a cold breakfast or whatever. The contrast between those two elements was what made it accessible as a black comedy.

If you don't mind sharing, what made you feel like this was going to be last book?

I'd kind of run out of options. As far as The Book Tour goes, before that, I'd done an entire graphic novel which hadn't found a publisher, which is the equivalent of a 'novel in the drawer' or whatever people often have at their start of their career. But I was, hopefully, in the mid of my career. The book before that was another graphic novel that only found a publisher in France and nowhere else.

I was thinking, "Yeah, I'm really not on a good track here. Things are on a downward spiral." It didn't look that promising. I thought [The Book Tour] was a good book and I was totally behind it, but I couldn't find an English language publisher. So I sent it to my French publisher, and they were enthusiastic, and it picked up momentum and it was nominated at Angouleme and stuff. Things kind of went from a trough to a peak. Which is probably what you have to expect if you're going to have a career of any length really, but also it's the nature of the business in that you've enjoyed relationships with publishers and with editors, which are very fruitful for periods. The time I spent at Oni Press with Jamie Rich, who was my editor there, brilliant. We had a really good time, and then Jamie left, and then things changed.

Page from The Book Tour

There's just the peaks and troughs, the ups and downs of the business end of things, which is separate from the creative part. You can be doing the best work of your career, and if there's no one there to support it or take it on at a publisher, then you're really in a bad spot.

Do you have any materials and tools that you like working with the most? Or does it depend on the day?

It mostly depends on the project, but if I'm at the end of a project, I'm usually sick of those tools and approach. At the start, I'm very enthusiastic, and it's the same with any part of the process as well. I'm starting scripting, it's usually exciting. Then after you're getting towards the end of a story, it's a bit of a grind. It's the same with coloring. I've just started coloring the first Punycorn book. It's exciting— I haven't done any coloring in ages, so yeah, it's brilliant. 200 pages in, I'll probably feel less excited.

At the minute, as far as materials go, pens on watercolor paper. I find it works for me for the stories I'm telling at the minute, but it really depends. In fact, for the Punycorn book, I've been doing it on Procreate, so I've been using the iPad for the first time. That's been a new exciting development for me. Totally appropriate for a middle grade book with a cartoony style with funny animal characters. Would not be the right approach for The Book Tour which yeah, needs that scratchy line.

It's very analog.

Exactly. I felt that I needed to put physical pen on paper for that book. Just something in my head said that would be the right approach. Whereas this approach for using the iPad for Punycorn feels certainly right; you want quite luxurious brush lines and lots of quite bright colors for a fantasy world. Where The Book Tour is obviously this monotone work of a Third Man, neo noir sort of story, thinking of a story that maybe was from the 50s or something, that you'd see on the cinema screen.

Page from The Book Tour

Is there a big difference for you between writing for children and writing for adults?

It's good to work with an editor when I'm working on a Middle Grade book because of these very fine definitions between what's Middle Grade, what's YA. I mean, I don't read voraciously in these areas. I just kind of get a story that I really want to tell, and then I rely on an editor to guide me to make sure I keep within the guidelines. Not that I'm doing gratuitous violent scenes or anything, it's just a very specific emphasis and tone and how the characters react and how they behave.

There are real expectations of how you tell a story for children in a certain age group. I'm not sure if that's specific to the US, and I'm British, and I don't recognize the signals or whatever, the way you're supposed to do things. I'm not saying that I'm doing things completely wrong, and then an editor's going to have to put me on the straight and narrow all the time. It's quite subtle, small things.

Do you have an example of something that wouldn't have occurred to you, but an editor pointed out?

I would say a character like Punycorn, they suffer self-doubt, which I see as a positive aspect to a character, whereas an editor might see that as… whining. It's just a small difference slightly, but if the readers perceive your characters are whiney or ungrateful or something, it can really affect how they relate to that character. So, I rely on this second pair of eyes to guide me to some extent.

Cover of Kerry and the Knight of the Forest

The Book Tour, for grownups, I just do totally on my own back. There's no editorial input at all, and I just rely on my own instincts. But then, there are fewer limits on what you can do in a graphic novel for adults. I think as long as you've got a good vision, that you know what you're doing, then yeah, I can work my way through an entire graphic novel for adults and not really need too much a second opinion to bounce off of. Sometimes that can be a bad thing in that it effects your confidence or, for someone like me who second guesses themselves a lot, it can continue to build a spiral.

But with books for Middle Grade, I found it really useful to have an editor to help me and just navigate the waters of doing stuff for kids. I'm not a kid anymore obviously, and it's been a long time, and my daughter is grown up as well. The further away I get from reading that kind of material more regularly, the more I rely on an editor's advice.

Speaking about reading, are there any comics or books or movies that's exciting you right now?

Right now, I am reading New Grub Street by George Gissing. It's a Victorian novel about the life of a middlebrow writer. It strikes so many chords about being a freelancer even today, it's unreal. I'm not quite halfway through, but just the pull and push of writing for the market and writing to what you feel is your best work. It's all in there. This is a book that was published in 1890 or something like that, but I'm reading it shaking my head, thinking "Wow." Every freelancer in every creative industry should read New Grub Street by George Gissing, and you'll kind of know what you're in for from the start. It should be on the curriculum of any kind of art course or college. It's a real eye opener that creative people have been going through the same processes for centuries.

I think George Orwell described it in a review as "not enough money," which is a central problem of the novel, but often the way for cartoonists as well.

If you're interested in reading another interview with a cartoonist who straddles the line between comics for adults and comics for kids, check out Popverse's interview with Lucy Knisley.
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