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"I really like the idea of little stories happening on the periphery of a bigger world" Joe Sparrow on his artistic process

Joe Sparrow on the intersection between comics and animation

Joe Sparrow
Image credit: Joe Sparrow

Joe Sparrow is different things to different people. For comics fans, he's the writer and artist behind the great comics Homunculus and Harvest (both published by Shortbox). But for others, he's an animator on the projects Amphibia and The Owl House. He even designed his own tarot deck, so for some that's Joe Sparrow.

Joe Sparrow
Image credit: Joe Sparrow

But just who is he?

As part of a weekly interview series called 'Popverse Profiles' spotlighting writers, artists, and creators that you should know about, we spoke with Sparrow about his artwork, his career, his methods, and himself.

Popverse: How did you get into comics, Joe?

Joe Sparrow: I initially got into comics because of my dad, basically - he read a lot of comics growing up in the '60s and '70s and accrued a big collection of them, some of which I'd read and some he'd read to me. When I was a kid, there was a Sonic the Hedgehog comic too that Fleetway published, written and drawn by a bunch of English comics people (it shared some artists with 2000AD). He used to buy me that and we'd read it together.

I just kept reading and buying them as I got older, some manga, some more underground comix-y stuff (which he also had a pretty extensive collection of), stuff like Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, that kind of thing.

Around when I went to uni, I started tentatively trying to write and draw some of my own (I drew a couple when I was really little, but it was just stuff like little Sonic fan comics). Around then I started to going to lots of comics expos in London, and saw all the independent artists tabling at them, and that made me want to try it myself, try and just self-publish something and sell it there.

I self-published stuff for a few years after that.

Who or what are your biggest influences?

A bunch of people! Chris Ware was an early one, just seeing what he could do with colour and how adventurous he'd be with page layout and structure. Also, he has this neurotic streak that I really resonated with.

Plenty of manga/anime, too, which in some ways seems a pretty far cry from Chris Ware, but it definitely left an impression. I loved Miyazaki's Nausicaa comics, the anime Escaflowne. I love the fantasy storytelling in those, the worldbuilding.

Joe Sparrow
Image credit: Joe Sparrow

There are tons of video games that visually influenced me too, I think. I got bought the art book for the game Final Fantasy 9 - I hadn't even played the game, I just thought it looked cool - and now that book is one of my most treasured possessions! I go look at it all the time for inspiration.

Do you feel like you draw a lot from games in your comics and animation work? If so, in what ways? From the art only or from the playing experience too?

Joe Sparrow
Image credit: Joe Sparrow

I think so, at least from a lot of the games I played when I was younger.

I think a lot of console games in the '90s had to rely on kind of a chunky cartoony aesthetic for the sake of clarity, since there wasn't as much those games were capable of in terms of complexity, so characters have to be readable even at low resolutions and low poly counts. I'd like to think I've internalized some of that.

I think probably also in the playing experience to some extent too, although I haven't explored that as much as I'd like to. For sure there were games that I got a certain *vibe* from that I've tried to recreate on occasion - one example being in the game Majora's Mask, when the moon's about to fall and destroy the world, there's just this really weird, eerie calm, and this lightly spooky music plays, all the NPCs are just quietly cowering.

Joe Sparrow
Image credit: Joe Sparrow

I found that utterly terrifying as a kid, it really stuck with me! I think there's a bit of that feeling in my comic Homunculus, in this scene right before the 'apocalypse' happens.

I don't know if I was consciously referencing that at the time, but in hindsight, I can definitely draw a line from one to the other.

Homunculus and Harvest are both short comics, but they remind me more of the prose short story form than most short comics do. Do you draw a lot of inspiration from prose? Or are you mainly a comics/animation/games type of person?

Yeah I love prose! I try to read a fair amount. Not as much as I should, probably. but I love little self-contained stories.

Harvest is definitely influenced by Hayao Miyazaki, but I think I got the idea for it after reading a book of Ian M Banks short stories. I can't remember what it's called right this second.

Joe Sparrow
Image credit: Joe Sparrow

I really like the idea of little stories happening on the periphery of a bigger world, and I really like how certain writers use words differently. Like I really love Hemingway (some of his books, anyway) and how much he can get from these really stiff, blunt sentences. Or on the other end, someone like Nabokov, who's really florid and rambly.

It's interesting to hear what you think about each writer.

Joe Sparrow
Image credit: Joe Sparrow

Can you talk about your process?

For comics? It's a bit of a mess. I've been making them for a while now, but I still feel like I don't make them often enough to have a really reliable process. At the moment, I usually toy for ages with a rough concept, then just start thumbing it out really roughly (I don't really write a text-only script, although I might try that in future). I'll mess with it a bunch at that stage, changing dialogue or reordering scenes, then from there just start cleaning it up.

I guess I approach comics similarly to how I do with animation - like I use the term "clean up" [which] is an animation term. You thumb out your storyboards, you do rough animation, you tie down the key frames, then you "clean it up" and make it look nice.

The difference with comics is you're probably doing it all yourself! On most animation jobs someone else will do the cleanup for you. [Laughs]

You've experimented with animation in some of your comics. What do you think animation can bring to webcomics?

I think they're just like two closely-related languages, really. If you can do one you can do the other, at least in part. I think the idea of actually mixing the two is cool, but I'm not sure how far you could develop it? Like for my animated version of The Hunter, it was fun making little animated loops of certain panels. But after a certain point, I kind of wished I was just fully making an animated short from it. It felt like as much work.

There's definitely unmined creative space there. I love making little animated gifs that loop; I think maybe you could do some neat things with that. I remember Zac Gorman did those great little four-panel Zelda comics where the rain in the background is a little two-frame loop.

Joe Sparrow
Image credit: Joe Sparrow

And then there's that infamous Korean horror comic that's like a flash comic that moves when you get to a certain scary part. I really want to see more stuff like that, that was terrifying.

I think it links up with games too, actually. Like some of the ideas I have for mixing animation and comics are just... basically video games.

What are your favorite games?

Hmmm. Majora's Mask is definitely one. Shadow of the Colossus on PS2, as well... I love the crazy sci-fi setting of Zone of the Enders. More recently, Undertale has been one of the more memorable experiences I've had - great designs and music too. And I love the Dark Souls series!

Do you prefer to work digitally or analog?

I'm probably 60/40% digital to analog.

Joe Sparrow
Image credit: Joe Sparrow
Actually... probably more like 70/30%, haha. I do the vast majority of my professional work on a computer, but I do keep sketchbooks that I try to draw in a lot.

Tools-wise, I've gotten into a real habit of just using a selection of fineliner pens when I draw in my sketchbooks. I LOVE crosshatching, like it's one of the parts of art that I find truly pleasurable, so I just love spending ages building up tone with those.

There's a specific pen called a uni-ball eye that is probably my favourite.

I read somewhere that you sing. What do you like to sing?

Hahaha! I'm trying to think where I would have said that.

I do, I used to be a singer more or less professionally when I was younger in choirs and stuff, but I pretty much stopped when I started doing art full-time. I have a background in European liturgical music, churchy stuff. I used to have a tenor range, but it's likely shrunk a lot by now. Nowadays, I still play guitar and sing to myself a lot. I like anything that's fairly easy to play and has pretty lyrics. Mitski and AJJ are two current favourites!

Joe Sparrow
Image credit: Joe Sparrow

That's so cool! I am also a big fan of AJJ!

This leads into my last question, which is: What are you excited about right now? Could be any media/medium!

Hmm! For myself, I'm excited about the graphic novel that I'm working on, Cuckoo, that should be coming out later this year... It's a lot longer than any previous book I've done, but I think it'll be good.

In terms of other stuff, I'm quite looking forward to seeing that new Michelle Yeoh film Everything Everywhere All At Once, which (finally!) got released in the UK.

I'm excited to see what the future brings in general, though. Despite everything!