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28 June 11 words: James Walker
"Most of my work was as a political cartoonist as I was bloody angry at what passed for sanity in this world."
 Brick at home with his line manager...

John Clark (aka Brick) is a cartoonist who has created illustrations for just about every publication you can imagine. He’s also written graphic novels, the most recent being Depresso. This Saturday he’ll be hosting a workshop as part of the Nottingham Writers’ Days series and discussing, among other things, that awkward marriage between writer and illustrator...   

I take it Brick isn’t your real name…
Nope. Believe it or not, Brick came about because, way back when I was a steel erector, I was earning far more than I could spend and was happy to ‘sub’ blokes who had young families and heavy bills. So I was a brick, but I was originally called Navvie Brick, which lasted until I got into cartooning. I figured a pen name would serve me well after I was involved in a citywide poster campaign that fingered a certain local councillor who was up to her neck in dodgy deals. ‘Ma Baker and the Untouchables’ was an A1 comics page drawn in the style of a gangster movie, and she came gunning for the author.

You’re holding a workshop as part of the Nottingham Writers’ Days series, what kind of thing can participants expect?
This is not a ‘how to write a graphic novel’ workshop, more a ‘how does the medium work’ in which we’ll unpick the nuts’n’bolts so that budding comics creatives have all the tools necessary to do something interesting and original with the medium. Graphic novels are a child of the Second World War, but almost immediately the language was hijacked by the super hero brigade, the industry. It is only in the last twenty years that authors have returned to the basics of text and image, and really explored the medium’s potential for telling ‘grown up’ stories.

Is the workshop for artists or illustrators?
This is primarily a workshop for budding writers. No drawing ability is needed. But if you are an artist then, of course, you will learn how to write for comics, so we hit both bases. We will also look at the often fiery relationship between writer and artist, and how that works.

You gave a talk at Lowdham at the weekend...
I love Lowdham, mostly because it is a village festival and isn’t suffocating. There is always something I want to go to, somebody I want to hear, and I’m not a big reader. That said, there’s this brilliant second-hand stall, a perennial, run by a geezer who collects mountaineering and Polar books. He always has some wonderful dog-eared paperback from the Fifties for me, generally about a long forgotten expedition that goes badly wrong or even right. I’m a sucker for that sorta stuff. Anyway, who can fault a book festival that one year featured cartoonists Posy Simmons, Steve Bell and the irascible Martin Rowson, and a festival I can walk down the Dumbles to. You’ve met my dog?

What’s the best or most exciting assignment you’ve been given?
I was invited to East Belfast to work with ‘the Loyalist community’, which meant the UDA and UVF in plain clothes, I discovered. Kind of bizarre, since my liaison was a Catholic ‘protected’ by the Loyalist dons who had neglected to tell the locals. One day we got an anonymous phone call to stay well away. It was the day Johnny Adair kneecapped his son for muscling in on daddy’s drug turf. Reaction riots were expected from the young guns, but daddy’s goons kept the lid on.

More scary were the insane prejudices expressed round polite dinner tables by ‘lapsed’ members of the paramilitaries now bucking for respectability in local politics. Bottom line, it was (and as recent events suggest, still is) gang warfare over there, between each other (for drugs, prostitution, protection etc) and against the Catholics (for nothing better to do) in the small enclave of the Short Strand.

When I returned I sent them an A3 cartoon panorama of East Belfast featuring all the idiocies, evils and corruption I’d seen in just one week with the bastards. I’m not welcome back.

"Most of my work was as a political cartoonist, dealing with issues rather than events. It was something I fell into, partly because I was bloody angry at what passed for sanity in this world."

Your illustrations over the years have focussed on ‘big issues.’ Is it important for an illustrator to have a niche in order to help them gain commissions or is it better to be flexible with your portfolio?
I have done illustrations, mostly for mainstream magazines and educational books, but that was only ever a sideline, where people basically paid me to practice my drawing skills (I’m self taught). Most of my work was as a political cartoonist (as against editorial, a la Steve Bell), dealing with issues rather than events. It was something I fell into, partly because I was bloody angry at what passed for sanity in this world, and partly because commissioners bought into my brain more than my pretty pictures. In a way I was an investigative cartoonist. I took on the big issues, rooted around to dig up the dirt, then encapsulated what was at the bottom of it all in a simple cartoon that had to hit your irony bone in under four seconds.

These days I’m semi-retired and totally focused on producing my own graphic novels, but the only way any working stiff survives in the cartooning/illustration world is by being flexible. I just got sick of being flexible and settled into doing what I wanna do, and to hell with the current crop of toadying editors. You have to remember, I started work during the rise of Thatcherism. I’ve seen how fear and censorship has transformed newspapers into celebrity flim-flam.

Depresso combines a wide range of styles and influences from Hunt Emerson, Leo Baxendale to Viz.  It also uses contrasting page layouts. Why such variety? Is this your style or was it necessary because of the subject matter?
You’re too kind, but my main influences are all from the continent. My folks lived in Paris during my formative years as a ‘toonist. They were stationed at NATO headquarters, so I had access to the best of both the amazing French bande dessinee artists and the off-the-wall American comics like ‘Mad’ and ‘Sad Sack’. I was never into super heroes or any of that Dandy/Beano stuff. I thought they were silly rather than funny.

The subject matter did dictate many of the page layouts in Depresso, but it never hurts to disrupt the regularity of a graphic format in whichever way suits your purpose. For the narrative sections I adopted a simple three line, four frames a line max, format specifically so I could blow it to bits when Tom gets into something obsessive like his music or Chinese medicine.

An extract from DEPRESSO. Tom Freeman is the 'deranged' character searching for a solution. 

In Depresso you interject some real life images which upset some ‘purists’ within the genre. Why was this and why did you do it?
I think readers get used to a cartoonists drawing style, much like they do to a novelist’s particular style of writing. By injecting a found image into a panel you disrupt that cosy familiarity. The eye goes, ‘Bogger me, what’s this then!?’, but it has to be used judiciously. It’s a bit like inserting well-known French phrases in spoken or written English.

But I’m sympathetic to the purists who revel in the delight of the hand drawn. It’s just I’m not that good. I’m no Shaun Tan, and have to call on technology to back me up. So I’m a devotee of Photoshop, but I try to keep it low level and everything but slick. Let’s get nerdy - I’m still on Photoshop 4! 

Was Depresso part of an ongoing therapy to work out your emotions or were you trying to pass on useful advice?
Yes, but I wasn’t trying to pass on anything other than insight, optimism and laffs. I volunteer with the Nottingham mental health service users group Making Waves. We teach student nurses up at the University. That’s when I pass stuff on, ‘lived experiences’ as they’re now called, in the hope improvements to our Cinderella services will be brought about by these future professionals.

How do you read a graphic novel? I ask as a ‘reader’ who loves the written word and tends to skip past the images.
Text and images - it’s a marriage. Whether you listen to him first or her just depends on who starts the conversation. Essentially the most difficult thing for the bookish is to get their heads round reading pictures, which deserve longer than a glance. The pictures are not there to simply string the words together. Repeat readings will always reveal so much more simply because the images will always reveal so much more. You rarely see quality comic books in charity shops. People hang on to them and go back to them again and again. They keep them in plastic wallets. In their very being, graphic novels are works of art. Open a Dickens and a Dan Brown next to each other and they pretty much look the same.

How do you write a graphic novel? Could you give us a little insight into how an initial idea makes the various translations to the page?
Jeysus! With a lot of fags and tea and walks in the woods. Oh, and tearing your bloody hair out. Answer y’question?

Can you recommend similar books?
David B’s Epileptic is a real mind warp but fascinating. Took me eight months to read that one. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is fabulous – witty, beautifully drawn and incisive. I love Daryl Cunningham’s bold and retro drawing style in Psychiatric Tales, but have major issues with the sense of voyeurism and the orthodoxy he espouses. The final chapter, however, is excellent. Couch Fiction by Philippa Perry - who is Grayson Perry’s wife, so she knows a thing or two about nutters - is uncomfortably close to the bone, coming as it does from the opposite side of the psychotherapist’s couch.

In terms of graphic fiction, many stories are touched by madness but I can think of no equivalents to Poppy Shakespeare or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Maybe you should write one, James.

The workshops take place in Nottingham city centre. 10.30am to 5pm, followed by a light dinner and a glass of wine. £75 for a day, or £50 for members of NWS.
To book, download the booking form from the NWS website or Robin at
[email protected].

Brick's website
James Walker's website  

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