Q&A with artist Mark Stafford

Q+A with Mark Stafford 

Interview carried out by Dr Ryan Prout, Cardiff University, co-organiser of the All Is Not Well 2.0 project.

RP: How would you define your style and are there particular influences or formative experiences that you would point to as significant? 

MS: My usual one-liner about drawing style is that it’s not something you aim for, it’s something you end up with. I could fill pages listing all the creators that have had some impact on me at various stages of my life, but neither of us has the time and half of them would only mean something to me. I was raised on British comics. Love a lot of European comics. Love bits of manga, and am generally more inclined to arty ink-spreaders than the stuff that gets turned into blockbusters. Big names for me would be José Muñoz, Ronald Searle, Max Andersson, George Grosz, Lynda Barry and thousands of others that my work looks bugger all like. Generally I’m drawn more towards surrealism and expressionism than realism, but that’s in there too. 

RP: Are there any drawbacks to using digital media and devices in comics creation, and how do you work between digital and analogue when drawing a comic? 

MS: I’d give the standard – ‘it’s all just tools, it’s just a matter of how you use them’ answer, but I really prefer working on paper with ink and dip pen/brush to working on screen. Partly because, as the century lurches on, anything that drags you away from the sodding screens for a bit is to be cherished. That said, I use computers to compose my pencil sketches into something workable before inking, and use it to colour the work afterwards, so it’s a mix. The emergence of AI imagery recently, and reactions to it, has been interesting/terrifying for cartoonists who can see their jobs on the line, and who weren’t exactly being showered in gold to begin with. I don’t know. Maybe having a wonky ink line is a bulwark against the encroaching future… 

RP: Would you say there is a look, character, or set of concerns that’s distinctive to the work of comics artists and graphic novelists working in the UK?  

MS: There’s definitely a difference in the sense of humour and more of a down-to-earth sensibility when racked up against the aspirational American product, but pinning down a definitive UK comics aesthetic is difficult. Definitely the war-horses of the UK newsagents shelves, the Beano, 2000AD, Viz, seem to have survived because they have very strong national identities that don’t have easy equivalents from elsewhere in the world. There seem to be a lot of downbeat biographies and memoirs in the British graphic novel world at the moment, indulging our instinct for the kitchen sink. I hope that this gets balanced with another of our strong suits. More William Blake and Mary Shelley wouldn’t go amiss. I’m doing my bit. 

RP: How do horror, satire, and unease fit together in your work? 

MS: Beautifully, I hope. My favourite parts of horror and disaster films are often the early scenes, where we’re seeing things that the characters don’t notice or can’t understand. Clocking up signs that something awful is coming down the track. I love images that contain that sense of foreboding. I hope I’m good at that. Characters are smiling, and saying positive things, but the linework suggests some kind of imminent collapse. That’s my look. I think it has become satirical because we’re surrounded by inane sloganeering and false positivity. Everybody has been advised to become their own brand, and be on message at all times. Unfortunately I’m not great at drawing imagery that matches with that aesthetic, So everything looks a bit psychotic and wrong. I’m sure I shall master it some day… 

RP: Are there any limits to the stories that can be told through sequential art? What would you like to see more of? 

MS: I can’t offhand think of any story that couldn’t be tackled through the medium, though it’s obviously a matter of the sensibility, and abilities at work in the creator as to whether that’s a good idea or not. Especially in the UK I’d like to see a lot more of everything that’s not there at the moment. Murder mysteries are thin on the shelves, historical romances, absurdist satires… there are very few sports comics about. I mean, I wouldn’t want to read them but I think they should be there. Big, sweeping melodramas with tall ships in them. Stories about being in crappy bands and weird pop scenes. Personally I’d like to see the comics equivalents of Burroughs, B.S Johnson and N.F, Simpson arise. Maverick sensibilities conjuring wild images and wayward ideas. A man can dream. 

RP: Can you tell us about the history of the Cartoon Museum and your role as artist in residence? 

MS: The Cartoon Museum is owned and overseen by the Cartoon Art Trust, a charitable body that has been around since 1989, when it was set up to preserve and promote the rich history of British cartoons, caricatures, comics and animation. It didn’t have an actual home for a long time, but popped up in Euston and Hatton garden and the like. only finding a more permanent location in 2006, in Great Russell Street, moving to Wells Street in Fitzrovia a few years back. I worked as a volunteer when it was near Russell Square, helping to set up and man the Viz and Hoffnung shows, but it had been important to me for ages, just as a hub for cartoon types when I was drifting about London with a portfolio. I became the very loosely defined ‘cartoonist in residence’ in 2006, after another bout of volunteering, and have been hovering around ever since, running family fun days for a bit, doing odd graphics, and generally occupied with whatever art I’m working on in full view of visitors so that they can ask me questions about the process and such. The pandemic has broken that connection to some extent, but I’m trying to get back into the swing of things. 

RP: What was your approach to interpreting ‘Loss of Habitat’ as sequential art? 

MS: I was drawn to ‘Loss of Habitat’ because it had that human conversation at the heart of it, which was something I could immediately see myself drawing, and the neat idea of comparing the housing sector with a polluted river becoming unfit for its inhabitants was something I could see working as a strip, alternating the panels. You told me to watch the George Monbiot ‘Rivercide’ documentary, which sparked much of the imagery, especially the distressed swimmer emerging from the river. It took me a while to get a rough version to you, I recall, just organising which bits of imagery should go where, which lines of dialogue should go with that imagery. The idea of the dying fish taking over the conversation in their panels came from your reaction to those roughs. It’s an odd strip. The dialogue is a set of non sequiturs, really, so placing them over other imagery seems to work well. The women aren’t so much conversing as unburdening themselves, which left it to the art to provide small interactions. I loved rendering that nasty water. Really going to town with a Chinese brush, and getting positively psychedelic with the layers in photoshop. The horrible is often more engaging as a subject than the beautiful, or maybe that’s just me. I hope it works for people. We’ll see. 

October 6, 2022