Q & A with Ilya

Ryan Prout interviews The Kindness of Strangers artist, Ilya.

RP       How would you define yourself creatively?

ILYA    I tell people I’m a cartoonist. There’s no shame in that. These days, people are more likely to understand what it is I do if I say I work on graphic novels, rather than comics. Using ‘graphic novel’ in marketing is very obviously to do with the quest for acceptance, though, and about mainstreaming. Too much of what comes out under that guise is destined for the coffee table, in my view. I prefer good, solid pulp.

I’m also a fiction writer. At the moment I’m trying to write a comic about the Victorian era, the same milieu and period where my historical novel, The Clay Dreaming (Myriad Editions 2010), was set. In the novel I explored the position of a woman who had no clearly defined role in that society and I want to go back to the subject of characters who were side-lined at that time. It’s tricky because our current sensibilities—for example, squeamishness around the portrayal of nudity, and of children—problematise a realistic approach to the Victorian era, especially when you want to focus on its margins, and de-romanticise it.

It’s difficult to juggle this with making something acceptable enough to be commercial. Coupled with that, I want to go back to an earlier era in visual storytelling when conventions for how to read and format a comic weren’t as formalised as they are now. 

RP       And one of the earliest successful comic strips was about a child, wasn’t it?

ILYA    Yes. That was Little Nemo, which was also quite free form. As was Gasoline Alley, which dates from the same era and to the beginnings of comics in the US. Gasoline Alley stands out as a comic that introduced real time into its story line. The main characters in the strip aged with the comic. By the 2020s some of the original characters–succeeded by their progeny– would have been centenarians. That can make comics seem like a very venerable medium. But it isn’t. Comics only goes back 120 years, and manga 70 years. This is, relatively, a very young medium. When you compare comics with sculpture or painting, for example, it’s not even an infant art form. It’s still an embryo, or a cell, even.

Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor was a great achievement but it’s a bit boring. McCloud was great when he was doing proper comics, such as DESTROY! And ZOT!. For a comics writer or illustrator, though, the experience of reading those books of his about the craft and making of comics can feel a bit like being mansplained to. I wish he’d go back to doing actual comics, breezy pulp fun, and not try to be so worthy.

Comic strips in American newspapers were part of the glue that held together early US society. The polyglot communities of the early twentieth century without a common lingua franca could come together over the shared experience of reading newspaper comics. The purging of text in Fahrenheit 451 means that the newspapers shown in the filmic realisation of the world Bradbury imagined are entirely comic strips.

And the front page of every issue of the Illustrated Police Newswas a comic. The paper most famously of all covered the Whitechapel Murders— serial killings of prostitutes in the East End attributed to Jack the Ripper— in a series of front page comics over three years between 1888 and 1891.

Up until the early 1990s there were magazines in the UK that used photo stories, like Jackie. Photo romances like My Guy and Oh Boy were popular in the 1980s. This genre still exists in Italy were it’s known as fumetto.

Photo narratives were popular in South African comics until the 1980s, for all sorts of genre story telling. The Bittercomix guys can tell you all about that. As I discovered when guesting at a Pan-African Symposium on Comics held in Algiers in 2011 or so, there’s a lot of ground-level comics activity across the whole African continent: street papers and social welfare programmes with subject-content like condom use and domestic violence, designed to work around illiteracy. I wish that I’d never lent out all the examples I gathered while there: they’ve never been returned to me.

RP       You’ve made documentary comics, for a UK context, haven’t you?

ILYA    Yes, and my interest in All is Not Well stems partly from this being a project that uses comics to try and make a difference. It’s not dissimilar to the sort of work I did with Corinne Pearlman over a twenty-year period for Comic Company, where we created comic strips for health education on subjects ranging from family planning to healthy eating, issues around smoking and drugs. These publications enjoyed circulation figures in the 100s of 1000s, putting the likes of Batman – these days – to shame.

My public information projects on early cinema and on the Bristol-born poet Thomas Chatterton have also been very successful. Time Traveller, which I co-wrote and illustrated, recovers pioneer filmmaker Robert Paul from film-history obscurity. It’s been associated with a travelling exhibit on origins of cinema. This has toured venues in the UK, including the National Science and Media Museum, based in Bradford. The comic on Chatterton, A Poetic City, was made for the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. I was the writer for this project and also the mentoring collaborator for Willem Hampson, who drew the comic.

RP       Is making a good comic all and only about technique?

ILYA    It’s the ability to make marks and to communicate that’s the measure of a good cartoonist. Some of the most successful comics and graphic novels have been made by people who aren’t necessarily the best illustrators, from a technical standpoint. The simplicity that comes with technical limitations can make a strip more accessible for the reader. There’s less decoding of the image that has to be done.

Communication is what I had in mind in my approach to drawing the strip for the care section of All is Not Well. I made it as simple as possible. There’s not really much genuine correlation between films and comics, with the exception of the language that we use when referring to techniques like zooming, and cutting. For The Kindness of Strangers, to use a cinematic analogy, I kept a camera fixed in place throughout. The actors are passing through the frames and nobody should find that on reading this strip that they don’t know where to look next or how to follow the story.

(Whenever anyone says ‘I don’t know where to look next’ about a comic – especially your comic – it’s really very frustrating, as most often it’s a way of them saying they’re not really interested enough to look. They may think it ‘beneath them’ – there persists an incredible and ignorant cultural snobbery around comics in the UK. Or maybe, just maybe, your storytelling is faulty and you do need to rework it!)

I would say that comics is our most natural form of communication. When I’m teaching, or even pitching a comic strip based proposal to any neophyte unconvinced of the virtues of the form, I’ll often use an airline safety card as a demonstration of this – sequential art as an essential form of communication that can cross all barriers, be they cultural, age-based, differing levels of literacy, or whatever. If your plane’s crashing you’ll need to absorb the crucial information as fast and efficiently as possible (even as we deny everyone’s going to die anyway!). Cartoonist-design maven Rian Hughes has made an animated on-board safety film for Virgin Airlines, AND also a comic strip leaflet showing how to put a condom on. I don’t think the two were connected…

RP       Are comics, and spinoffs from them, doing a good job of reflecting social realities?

ILYA    If we look at TV drama, it used to be quite patrician and followed an ‘issue of the week formula.’  On the other hand, it drew a large audience’s attention to important social issues, and some of the UK’s most admired screenwriters and filmmakers came out of that tradition, like Alan Bleasdale, and Ken Loach. They developed a facility for representing ‘reality’, as opposed to the utopian and bland fantasies of series like Heartstopper that have more recently come out of a comic book or manga.

The problem with reality is that it isn’t very neat or susceptible to easy packaging. That kitchen-sink realism in TV carried over into film from the 1990s, in Billy Elliott for example. Where’s it gone now?

Heartstopper describes a world where nothing really truly bad can happen. To me it feels as if there’s nothing really ever at stake. It’s written by someone who identifies as aromantic and asexual and I think you can sense this, too much, in the progression of the narrative. It doesn’t feel as if there’s any real drama or romantic attachment beyond an idealised imagining of same, and minus any sort of true life or true-to-life experience. Bullying and homophobia crop up but are never really tackled, for example. A gender and/or sexuality based storyline shouldn’t have to be issue based. Yet, on the other hand, there has to be some sort of anchor to reality for the reader or viewer to care. My objection to it – or rather, disappointment in it – goes well beyond my not being the target audience. There’s something synthetic in place of a relatable romantic experience and that lends it a weird, almost AI dead-eyed quality.

There are surface resemblances to Yaoi, the Japanese manga genre that depicts male homosexual love and sex and yet is mostly created by women and intended for female readers.  Yaoi shows – again, fairly superficial – fascination for gay male relationships as a means of exploring unrequited or unexpressed love in general, framed to represent or stand-in for almost any other kind of ‘love that dare not speak its name’. It’s rarely literal, although of course, like all manga genres, it continues to mutate apace.

That’s consistent with what I see as a tendency across cultural production more generally, to use a bevel for anything that might have an edge or awkward angles and corners to it. The quest is for the biggest possible buck returns on investment. I recall working on the old Sonic comics, for example – for Sony, via Marvel. They disallowed the use of green on the covers for some oddball data-feedback reason and Sonic – a character entirely based on the expression of aggression – couldn’t be shown with teeth. The bland corporate reasoning behind this is understandable but remains spurious, if not ridiculous. The mindsets shouldn’t be allowed to inform, neither to become nor to justify, the ruling diktat. We have to maintain, even defend, sufficient cultural courage and ability to meet our fears and explore them.

Where difficult topics are avoided they can be ignored. It’s no longer en vogue, for example, to know or care about the global south. But this huge arena for post-colonial malaise is a subject area I get to explore for my regular platform —the kind of semi-regular 4 to 5 page comic strip slot that’s very rare these days—for the New Internationalist. People looking in from outside will presume this august journal, going since the 1970s, has a very left wing, old-school socialist bent and that’d be me… I mean, they’d be right.

I’ve researched, written and drawn 17 episodes of my Cartoon History feature so far (although most often they’re more akin to Graphic Biographies, or Reportage).

RP       What would you like to see more of in comics, in terms of narrative experimentation?

ILYA    Complexity doesn’t always come from the arrangement of images alone. A really interesting area of comics, for me, is where there’s a counterpoint between the words and the images in a story told through sequential art. Steven Seagle and Tim Sale used this approach in The Amazon. There isn’t a straightforward marriage between text and pictures here and the authors use this feature to gradually expose an unreliable narrator. The images tell one story; the words another.

Engaging with this sort of narrative requires a willingness to step back from the current tendency to interpret everything literally. Given this tendency irony becomes almost impossible.  So does anything but the broadest comedy.

RP       Is comedy becoming taboo?

ILYA    Comedy has some similarities with teaching, in that, for it to work, there has to be a common baseline or broad frame of reference. With people’s tastes and reference points as fragmented as they are now, both disciplines get much harder. It’s not like in the 1970s when millions of schoolkids would tune in to the same teatime TV, like The Goodies, and when you made a reference to it the next day or whatever, chances are it would resonate with almost everyone: what in grown-up circles became known as water-cooler conversation. True popularity now equates to blandness and the literal. Any common frame of reference is limited to family foibles, office politics and funny pets. If you want a picture of the future, imagine cat videos on constant circulation—forever. It is a hell of our own making.

Comedy can be intimidating when you’re the butt of the joke. Growing up ginger I had a horror of poor-quality stand up routines, forever flirting with the probability of a nightmare trip straight back to the schoolyard. But comedy is by nature irresponsible and *should be* irrepressible. A court jester is the only one that can get away with insulting the King. In a way, a comic artist is a sort of court jester, pointing out hypocrisies and poking holes in the powers that be. Manga is a compound phrase and not a word, Man and Ga a paired kanji that best translates as “irresponsible pictures”.  Popular print maker and proto-cartoonist Hokusai coined it.

Another way that comics can follow a different path is to delve into forgotten stories and details of history.  Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s The New Adventures of Hitler would be one example of this approach. Was Hitler really with his Irish sister-in-law in Liverpool in 1912 and 1913, avoiding conscription in Austria? And if he was, what did he do while there? I’ve always wanted to create something around Oscar Wilde’s tour of the Wild West whilst on the same playbill as rough-and-tumble displays of pugilism (boxing to you or me). The Wild Wilde West, anyone?

RP       What do you make of manga in general?

ILYA    Manga outside of Japan has a very problematic fanbase that we need to distance ourselves from as creators in order to succeed. These self-appointed ‘fans’ prefer their manga to be ‘authentic’: to be valid and desirable it should read backwards, from back to front, which is proper and true when the product comes from Japan. Trouble is there have been multiple generations of cartoonists, of which I’m among the vanguard, both inspired and influenced by manga in their work.

Manga has become a truly global medium. It is the modern face of comics – bringing with it many benefits, not least readers AND creators of all sexes. But, if you’re a creator living outside of Japan (or the Middle East, say) and you choose to draw your manga backwards – in reverse of your own culture’s natural reading order – then you’re just being an imposter.

Home grown manga has to have its own identity, but self-identified ‘manga fans’ (buy and large, sic.) won’t touch it. There have been rising generations of comics artists practicing the craft – as well as older farts like me – who want to make their manga, and are already very capable. But they aren’t able to do it well AND sell, not while waiting for the broader mass audience, as well as a VERY S-L-O-W publishing business, to catch up. We are at peak productivity here and now but with very little yet to show for it, in comparative terms. Still, manga is a singular growth area in publishing sales – a skyrocket unlike anything else that no-one yet seems able to grasp. If we can broaden that core market beyond just ‘authentic’ Japanese manga then the sky really is the limit. Creatively, we’re there: and moment is ready to seize now, now, NOW. There’s just no sign of the editorial expertise or knowledge that’s sorely needed In order to tap into it all and make that great leap forward. I’d do it, but I want to create!

I have been on the judging panel for the UK Japanese Embassy’s annual Manga Jiman (‘having pride’ in manga) competition, for the last 17 years. There have always been more submissions from women than from men (percentage-wise about 60/40 in favour of women, reflective of the split in global population, which helps make all activity for once in my life feel very ‘normal’). In just the last couple of years, though, there’s been a shift toward more male winners in the Top 10. I’ve no idea what that means. Submissions as with entrants are hugely diverse and defy any and all expectations about who makes comics, and who reads them.

Homemade manga and imported manga are so very different, by their very nature, and as they should be. Import books are mostly those purely intended for a teenage audience – nothing much for adults, young or old, and perversely very little for younger readers. Last decade’s frustrated younger bothers and sisters are now behind the new huge spike in sales – and yet STILL importing publishers don’t get that! Manga of every sort exist in Japan, of course. We’re just very limited in terms of the vision behind what gets brought over. I personally prefer those manga more oriented towards an adult readership – Hideki Arai’s From Miyamoto to You is just one long-cherished favourite, but one I cannot to this day read in translation. 30 years, and I’m still waiting…

RP       Do you work mostly with digital or analogue when you make a comic?

ILYA    I don’t want to give up that link between the immediate and vital thought process that goes into making art and working on physical pieces of paper. While my ideas are forming I sketch thumbnails and scribble on whatever comes to hand, usually scraps of paper. When more discipline is required, my sketchbook comes out. I used to use pen and ink for my drawings, preferring these days to try and preserve the immediacy of scanned pencils. Lettering I tend to balloon on the actual artwork to calculate size and placement most effectively, then tidy and perfect it digitally. Good lettering should not draw attention to itself: when it works properly it should effectively disappear from the conscious mind of the absorbed reader.

I prefer to submit finished work as a print ready digital file (so that no-one else but me can eff it up – yet somehow, they still do!), but my working practice remains mostly analogue. It’s unusual now to work like this. Younger artists do everything digitally. I’ve tried out digital drawing, on tablets and direct on ‘digital paper’. For me there isn’t the same haptic connection as there is with paper. I like the feel of the tool in my hand (!), the hard fought communication between hand and brain and eye. I more or less decided almost 20 years ago now not to make that switch to digital. I didn’t and don’t want to spend all my days staring at a screen.

Whether you work on paper or digitally, there’s a significant difference between something created by a human being, and something synthesised by AI. Unfortunately the average citizen can’t always tell the difference between something mediated by AI and art made by a person. Nor do they—or, I suspect, the studios and the publishers greedy for their bottom line—even care. It’s a major battle we’re going to face between content made artificially and the creations of human artists and creators. Already we sense the presence of AI in recent film, animation, illustration, even concept and scripts. There’s a distinct and very sudden drop in quality overall, something—a blandness: ironically enough a lack of innovation—that doesn’t smell right. (CITADEL on Amazon, anyone? I get it. Vast amounts of money are invested and at stake. But boy oh boy do we deserve better.)

We’re perhaps not as aware of this incursion of AI into so-called creativity as we should be. Morally, ethically, socially and socio-economically it presents a minefield and it threatens horrendous mass casualties in the properly creative industries. What’s happening now in films is coming to and for your comics. It’ll be touted as a creative selling-point but driven by the usual short term business thinking – chasing a maximised profit margin. And there’s no long-term satisfaction for the rest of us in that. Care? Do we care? Very much, we should.

To contact/follow ILYA:



edwidilya on Instagram

May 26, 2023