Tony Wants – Q&A with Lucy Bergonzi

Ryan Prout interviews Tony Wants writer/artist Lucy Bergonzi

RP: Can you remember some of your first drawings? What did you want to draw, and why?

LB: I always start my projects with thumbnails, or a storyboard. My thumbnail drawings are scruffy and sketchy – I always envy artists who have the facility to make beautiful storyboards – but on the whole mine are just for my own purposes. They help me get to know the characters, establish the sequence of events, and give me rough visualisations of scenes, environments and viewpoints. I’ll physically cut and paste my storyboard images so I can play around with the sequence – an A3 sketchbook acts as a scrapbook, with drawings and words on bits of paper stuck down. That gives me my pages, and from that point I’ll do my research and take lots of photos, which I use as the basis for my images.

RP: Did the idea for this story come to you first as images or as a narrative?

LB: The story came to me in a dream! In August 2019, I woke up one morning with it in my head, almost fully formed. Luckily, I wrote it down before I forgot it. I find there’s something about that lucid dreaming phase shortly before you wake up, that can produce really great stories, images and ideas. I didn’t do anything with it at the time, but I felt it could be made into a comic one day.

The pandemic came along, and then in 2021 when I was invited to contribute a new comic to ‘All Is Not Well’ on the theme of homelessness, I realised I had a story which, with a few tweaks, was ready to go. I also realised that the story could be enriched and deepened by having the theme of Covid enfolded into the narrative, contributing to my main character’s isolation and sense of separation.

RP: Cardiff is almost another character in the story. The strip gives us a really strong sense of place. How did you approach making this a part of the strip, and what sense did you get of the city’s character?

LB: Cardiff isn’t a city I know well – but I do like site-specific comics, so when I was asked to set the story in Cardiff it was a nice challenge. Luckily, while I was creating the story, a friend moved to Cardiff, so we spent a weekend wandering around the city, taking photos, and seeing things that Tony would see. It helped enormously – I definitely recommend that sort of direct physical research. Most of Tony’s time is spent in the area near the Castle, so I had to include the Animal Wall, for its distinctiveness and odd charm. The pedestrianised street where he lives could be Queen Street or St Mary Street, but it’s pretty generic – lots of streets in different UK cities look like that. I also have him at Cardiff Bay gazing out at the water.

RP: Both your contributions to ‘All Is Not Well’, this strip and ‘It’s All About Choice’ are very distinctively your work. Is there a different approach to the line and definition in ‘Tony Wants’, and if there is, how does this connect with the content?

LB: I use Photoshop, and my drawing is done with a Wacom tablet, often tracing from reference photos. In ‘It’s All About Choice’ the final output has pencil lines which I traced on a light box from digital lines, and then scanned and coloured digitally. In ‘Tony Wants’ it’s actually digital lines made to look like pencil lines with a granular texture, using a bit of technical trickery. The drawings in ‘Tony Wants’ are more detailed than in ‘It’s All About Choice’, and that was my intention, to get the drawings more focussed, in-depth and complex. I owed it to Tony to get it right.

RP: The strip gives us a sense of Tony as an individual and of how he’s excluded from companionship by being homeless. Can we extrapolate from this a sense of what the strip conveys about the individual impact of homelessness?

LB: I’m so pleased that Tony’s individuality – his personhood – comes across. We don’t know his story, but things must have happened in his past to lead him to be homeless. He wears a khaki coat which could hint at a past in the services – but we don’t know. What we do know about him is that he longs for a connection with someone or something – we see his love of animals, and we see his connection with them. Perhaps he trusts animals more than humans. The title ‘Tony Wants’ reflects his yearning for something, using the word ‘want’ as in ‘lack’, as in ‘in want of’ – as well as indicating his conscious desires.

The comics format is the perfect medium to show the lack of interactions and conversations in Tony’s life. Many of the frames are wordless, and silent, as Tony wanders around and simply exists, with the lack of speech bubbles accentuating the spaces in his life. But when he’s with someone, whether Sian, or the dog, or a passer-by, his hunger to interact populates the frames with speech bubbles. I loved that – the way the visual aspect of the medium totally lends itself to the storytelling.

When I created the first frame on Page 3 when Tony says ‘Bye now’ and no-one in the pet shop answers, I found it incredibly moving. We’ve all been there, in various settings: that sense of loneliness and the painful feeling that others are living a more fulfilled life, and that they don’t really notice us or need us. I wanted the rest of that page to build that feeling – and I think it does – with the viewpoint panning out as Tony prepares his bed for the night and we realise he is living there on the pavement, isolated and small in the city. With no more conversations that night.

I added the Deliveroo delivery guy on that page as an ideal embodiment of the contrast in how Tony lives with how other people live. The delivery guy is bringing someone else their evening – but not Tony.

RP: I have the feeling that the scale of homelessness in the UK is either much worse now, or much more visible, than it was twenty years ago. Do you have that sense too?

LB: I’m not sure I know the answer to that – but I know that Covid threw a sharp spotlight onto the situation of homelessness, at least for a while. I was influenced by the inspirational story of the Prince Rupert Hotel in Shrewsbury, which opened its doors to homeless people during the pandemic. I read Christina Lamb’s book about it, and this helped me with my research in forming the story. It reinforced the reality that everyone is a complex individual, and that many of us are only a few paychecks away from finding ourselves in a situation like Tony’s.

I like the character of Sian in ‘Tony Wants’ – she’s got compassion for Tony and she cares about him, but she’s also got to do her job properly. So within the bounds of what she can provide, she’s a care-giver for him – organically, kindly and subtly. I hope the reader is left with the feeling at the end of the story that Tony will be OK, because he’s got Sian helping to look after him. That’s how I feel anyway.

RP: There’s a really engaging combination of grittiness and polish in ‘Tony Wants’. From a technical point of view, how do you achieve that?

LB: Stylistically, I love a clear line – a ‘ligne claire’ – but I also love a variously weighted, brushy line. And I love flat colours, but I also love texture. For this story, I’m showing a guy living in a street, so I needed some dirt and, yes, bits of grit on the pavements and walls around him. I needed a certain roughness to the lines – not too smooth and clean. I considered adding graffiti onto the walls near where Tony has his pitch – but I held back as it would have been a bit ‘in your face’. But the ‘To Let’ sign tells a lot of my story for me, and adds to the atmosphere I wanted to achieve – the many closed shops in many high streets are never very well-kempt places, let’s face it. So it was a bit of a gift when I had the idea for the sign.

RP: Laydeez Do Comics’ sharing of news about this project was fundamental in getting it off the ground. Is there a particular way that ladies do comics? In sequential art and illustration, is there something equivalent to ‘écriture feminine’?   

LB: It’s hard to define differences between female and male comics creators – there may be fewer differences increasingly, with more people in general creating more comics in general. Though I wonder if autobiographical and memoir comics is rather more of a female approach? But of course all stories are informed by our own experiences and thoughts, to varying extents.

RP: How do you see the current landscape for comics and graphic novels in the UK? Where are things heading?

LB: It feels healthy to me. Of course the online world helps hugely, with projects like ‘All Is Not Well’ providing space for comics to be published; and forums – like Laydeez Do Comics – creating opportunities for creators to come together and share, to be visible, and to support each other. Comics and Graphic Novels shelves in bookshops seem to be well stocked with really interesting books, including lots of new ones – and long may that continue.

October 26, 2022