This week, ahead of their appearances at Yarra Plenty’s Comic Con on Saturday 18 May, two Melbourne-based comics artists got together to chat about what is most pressing to them as artists.
Mandy Ord is a comics artist, a cartoonist, an illustrator, a speaker and teacher of comics, a greengrocer, and a disability support worker. Her most recent graphic non-fiction book When One Person Dies The Whole World Is Over was published by Brow Books in February.
Ben Hutchings is a comics artist and co-founder of Squishface Studio, Melbourne’s only open comics studio, located in Brunswick. Here, he draws, sells comics and helps run regular events.
We’ve got the transcript of their conversation below. Enjoy!
Ben: Now Mandy, we’ve known each other a long time...
(Laughter from both Mandy and Ben)
Mandy: We have known each other a long time. That’s why I thought it would be a good thing to just start off talking about. Because it’s been a long time. How long has it been?
Ben: It was 1992 and in Canberra, and you wrote me my first letter.
Mandy: Did I?
Ben: My first comic letter, yeah.
Mandy: Was that because I had one of your minicomics and you had a post-box suggestion that I wrote to.
Ben: Yeah you wrote my first ever letter. It was really exciting. I used to get some. Yeah that was ‘Buckets of Bile’, that was fun. Then we met up, and you said, “Do you use Wella?”
Mandy: Wella, as in the shampoo?
Ben: Yes, you were making fun of my hair.
Mandy: Was I? What? You’ve got beautiful hair, why was I being… I was young and stupid.
Ben: Yes (laughs).
Mandy: I’m sure it was more of a compliment.
Mandy: That’s so good. I love that you brought up the letter writing. You know, back in the early ’90s we weren’t really corresponding by email or anything… Did you have a postbox, or did you have people write to your house?
Ben: To my house where I lived with my parents.
Mandy: Well I had a postbox, and when I was doing all my minicomics I would write to everybody that I knew who did minicomics and send everyone a mini-comic when I finished one. Like that was the most exciting thing. So everybody I knew had a postbox and it was so exciting, you would put out a new mini-comic and you would go check the postbox and it would be stuffed full of other people’s minicomics. It was amazing.
Ben: Wow. And the term minicomic: I used to just draw in books and stuff as a kid, but then I discovered the photocopier, just on my own in the school library. I thought I can reduce comics down and I can fit them on an A4 sheet and make them on this photocopier and I learnt how to use it and I made a little comic. I didn’t know anyone else was doing that, and it turns out that people in all cities were doing it.
Mandy: Everywhere, yeah.
Ben: And without really consulting each other, everyone had figured this same thing out, and they call it minicomics now. Isn’t that amazing, everyone just had the same idea. Let’s make comics out of A4 sheets on the photocopier.
Mandy: Yeah, I think that it goes all the way backwards. Like people use the technology that they can, in the time that they have it and it was just really accessible. I think it has been for a while. I was reading the other day that the earliest minicomics were like in the mid-60s.
Mandy: I first found a photocopier at uni in the painting department.
Ben: That was when you first started doing that?
Ben: Because we all just worked in black and white, you didn’t really need anything high-technology. You didn’t need much more. It was pretty exciting.
Mandy: Although I think it was a bit different, like nowadays it’s digital, the quality of the print is very different. The ink on the paper, it must have been a very different different technology where it was actually wet, sinking into the paper. So some of my early comics are looking really trash, and are sort of disintegrating.
I used to draw in sketchbooks, and I got the idea to put it all together in a comic. Just collecting them into little short stories that were just insane and, I hate saying badly-drawn, but in my mind I could have been doing such better work but I couldn’t because I didn’t have the skills. It was pretty rough. I have this crazy comic of Billy Ray Cyrus and Michael Bolton having a wrestling match to the death, but mainly with their hair tied together, their mullets. It was kind of violent, and stupid, and funny.
Ben: Did you stop at any point just writing for yourself with no thought of anyone else? It’s difficult, do you reckon? Because I think it is.
Mandy: Yeah, I think I’m more aware now that family read my comics or like kids, sometimes. I think when you’re older and you get a bit of feedback, you’re like ‘Oh, people are looking at it’. But I don’t really worry about it too much.
Ben: I was also thinking about the initial idea as well. I teach high-school children sometimes, and just watching the way they think and why they want to draw, they get so excited, and they are laughing and giggling about the silliest stuff. To watch them is really inspiring, and then I remembered when I was back in high school my stuff was like that as well. Half of it was nonsense, because it was just something meant for me and I wasn’t thinking outside of making me and my friends laugh. So even now, I think my best stuff is when I’m thinking like that. Then sometimes I start to think of lofty ideas, like that will be moody and clever, and that stuff’s not as good.
Do you have that kind of thing? Do you ever think ‘They’ll like this one’, or that sort of thing?
Mandy: Sometimes I have a hang-up about work maybe not appearing mature enough or sophisticated enough or complex. Then I look at the sort of things I write about and I think, ‘No, it does have some of those things in it’. I guess humour can be a way to deal with some of that stuff. There’s that misconception that humour takes away some of the depth of something where it is actually like a coping mechanism, and it can actually be a way to make people feel more connected to what you’re saying. Also, if you’re drawing something, and you’re intensely engaging with it yourself and finding it amusing, I think that the joy comes across in the line work, the way it’s written and it basically is infectious. I think that people get that energy from the work you’re doing because you’re enjoying the work. You can’t please everybody, but there will be people who fully connect with it.
Life is so funny and stupid, but it’s hard to get that on paper, and then transmit that, and that sort of energy. Humour is tricky, you can kill it by breaking it down into small parts sometimes.
Ben: Trying to be clever, that’s the problem. You got to just blurt out what’s funny at the time.
Mandy: I think because we’ve been doing this for so long, as we’re writing, you’ve got to be instinctive about it and in the moment. Drawing is a present-type activity, it sounds a bit cliché but all the magic does happen in the moment with your drawing. That’s when you make the decisions. You just sit there and you know what you’ve got to do.
Ben: I tend to plan mine out pretty well nowadays, so they lost a bit of the abandon.
What gives you the urge to write? Maybe I’ll answer this first: all the different feelings. When I’m angry about something in the past, I’m angry about an issue I’ve read about or something that I think I should speak up about. I’m really actually bad at it. I get mad and I just want to lecture. I try to make it funny but really I just want to lecture my audience and tell them exactly what I’m angry about and it comes across really heavy-handed, really lecture-y, and really just forced and contrite. But the feeling that I get that makes me write the best stuff is the funniest, it’s just being slightly annoyed. Like just slightly annoyed at people and the way they talk and the way they sort of sniff too much or the way they smell a bit. Stuff like that, that are just a bit irritating are the ultimate best motivation to just draw anything, and the funniest mild anger where I think this is funny and I just want to let off steam. Like that will be my primary emotion for motivating me to draw a funny comic.
Mandy: That’s kind of cathartic. Like it feels like a release. It’s also transforming what you’ve seen into something crafted rather than it being just the raw subject matter. As opposed to things like social media where it’s like a reflex, where it can be just reaction sometimes, whereas when you create a story you have to maintain the energy and the feeling but you have to think about it, you have to construct it, and you have to transform it and that sort of turns it into something. I think it’s a bit richer than just being reactionary. I’m similar, I feel a lot of things. But I think my urge also definitely comes from curiosity. I tend to spend a lot of time watching and observing. Even if I’m participating, I let my eyes linger just a little bit longer.
Ben: That really comes through in your comics – it comes through in all of them.
Mandy: It’s kind of like that thing with autobiographical cartoonists putting themselves into their comics. They’re not only observing and critiquing the things around them, they’re like, ‘I know I’m not perfect and I’m just like everybody else.’ I don’t ever want it to seem like I’m critiquing that stuff and putting myself on some separate pedestal. We’re all kind of in this sticky connection in the world, where all things mesh into one another. There’s not distinct separations. I like to put myself in context of whatever’s going on. There’s my art life and my life but they’re regularly sort of mixed in. I find that whatever’s happening in my life affects the way I draw and write. But now because I’ve had to practice every day for so many years now, I’m kind of more settled into being more present. I think that’s why diary comics is the way it is, because it’s all consumed with the way I had to be at work, which is super present.
So that’s the When One Person Dies the Whole World is Over, which is a diary comic. So because I could only choose a few things a day, from out of that book came a little bit of frustration that some of the things that happened I couldn’t write longer stories about. So now that the book’s done, I want to write a whole bunch of short stories. So it’s like one thing leads onto another.
Ben: Do you mean based on things that you want to expand from that book?
Ben: I would enjoy that actually. I love the format of that book because you are forced to condense an entire scene into one frame and I imagine that would have been pretty frustrating. I would find it frustrating because I just want to talk and talk and talk about every little bit, because the things that you observed were all quite interesting in themselves. There was a bit where there was an old woman getting angry about refugees, just you mentioning her made me feel a bit rotten, and I didn’t like her and I was a bit annoyed at her. There were other bits too, there was a nice man that you met with a friend and he had a nice-looking beard, and I thought, ‘He looks nice, who’s that?’ Lots of little things. Such a pleasant little life it seems that you have and it just feels nice to read. It’s very Australian.
Mandy: I like that, that it’s Australian. I like that it’s got that kind of local flavour.
Ben: It’s weird to say Australian. It’s good when a writer is good and they are Australian, and their stuff will appear Australian without sort of ‘contrived Australian’. It just has that mood, you can’t really put your finger on it. Magpies, and trees, and quiet, and space.
Mandy: I think sometimes there’s pressure when you’re talking about being Australian to talk about history, to talk about some of the big issues that Australia has, and has had. I think there are some issues that I touch on that are definitely part of real life for people but I kind of also just like thinking about the day-to-day life of living in a particular city. I think we see that in a lot of comics from other countries. Some of my favourite comics are about the everyday existence of living in New York or Canada. There’s one guy who I really like, his work is from Serbia. He’s writing around the 1990s, it’s really just everyday life.
So you were doing comics when you were a teenager in high school?
Mandy: Did someone introduce comics to you or did you find them somewhere?
Ben: I always drew and always owned comics, like Archie, but what made me go suddenly into comics was British comics. I discovered Beano and Whizzer and for some reason, something about those ones was really different and just grabbed my attention. I immediately just switched and drew nothing but comics all the time. I bought this book called The International World of Comics and it was just the front covers of all these comics and it was just so fascinating. I always found the most appealing and the most influential comics for me when I was starting out, was if they were mysterious, and I didn’t quite understand where they were from, and I didn’t quite understand what the point was. You don’t quite get it, but it’s obviously real raw, and real dirty, and there’s something naughty about it. Or picking up some black and white manga. Finding these Japanese comics where I didn’t understand a word of them but the artwork was so unusual and strange compared to like Superman. I couldn’t stop thinking about them and looking at them.
All of my influences were then. From teenage years to maybe 20 was when the stuff that I looked at influenced how I drew. Since then nothing does. Nothing is an influence.
Mandy: Yeah. The way you know the comic language is just so particular and also well-practiced. The way you use exaggeration and caricature, all the sort of key things that make a comic that can also push the boundaries of what a comic can be. With my work, I always feel like I’m trying to do that. I find sometimes my drawings are more illustrative and I really want to use comic language more in them. I think in my new book, I was using the panel to experiment a little bit, to try and use the language a little bit more. There’s this language, and I can use it, but I want to use it more than I am. I’m sticking to what’s comfortable, but I really want to push it out a little bit.
Ben: What influenced you? What influenced you to even start?
Mandy: I don’t know if I was particularly good at it, but I just used to draw because I liked to draw. I think it became my sort of super power because I could draw and people would respond to it. In school, I found a friend that drew and that helped a lot. My dad saw my interest and would buy me a comic series and Mad Magazine. Obviously Mad blew my head off. It did seem like this subversive magazine that had stuff in it that I hadn’t really seen before, that I could just get from the news agency. I was just doing comics about little silly things. I always had a sense of humour that was more into poo jokes.
Ben: There’s not heaps out there that does that. It’s really weird. I love Mad as well, I really appreciate that there were grown adults somewhere in the world together making rude silly jokes about whatever. I just thought that they were the coolest people.
Mandy: It was like legitimate to make a living off drawing pictures and making jokes about popular culture and taking the piss.
Ben: And not taking anything seriously. We’re allowed to be like that, how nice, how good to know.
Mandy: It poked a finger at establishments and at politicians and at media figures, and it was a way to be a be a part of the idea of democracy. You don’t have to be scared to poke fun or to criticise. It was just liberating knowing that you had that freedom. Then going to Canberra, I thought that I would be a painter but then I met people who were into comics.
I felt like I always wanted to tell stories, and comics were a comfortable space to do it. I was shy, I actually hate the word shy, it pisses me off. I was just a kid who wasn’t loud but I still wanted to communicate and had lots of things to say. For me, comics were my saving grace.
Ben: Like I feel sorry for movie makers. What a pain in the ass if you’ve got an idea and you’ve got to get actors and equipment. Comics artists can just get a pen and can do their own story.
Mandy: I feel spoilt for being quite independent. There’s something nice about being so much in control of the work.
Ben: Every step of the way it’s like a craft. Nothing is ambiguous.
Mandy: Coming from a background where you enter into an art form and you don’t know where it’s going. You don’t know if you’re going to make a living from it. you don’t know if you’re making a mistake by going into this field. What’s going to happen? I think being trained to be so independent and self-driven helps you out later on when you are getting opportunities. It makes you a lot more equipped for timelines and stress.
Ben: There was no community really. You would just do it because you really wanted to. It’s really nice now, especially here in Melbourne. I'm really excited by how many young people are doing comics, and making just little zines. They’ve got all the same old methods too, like the photocopiers. I love what young people are doing with comics now.
Mandy: Yeah, I’m blown away as well. I’m really awed by the work and I’m excited to see what happens with comics in Melbourne and Australia. It’s crossing into all sorts of things now, like live readings and live drawing.
A lot of people are getting opportunities now, internationally as well. I love being published in Australia, but way before I was ever published in Australia I used to send all my stuff overseas. I was super ambitious. I was very determined. I think it’s a good thing to aim high.
I still really passionately pursue self-publishing. I always have something on-the-go that I’m going to do myself. You get that adrenaline, feel-good serotonin, that you’ve completed something and have that pile of books in front of you. It kind of softens the blow when you have those moments of: ‘What am I doing? It’s very quiet out there and I don’t know what my next opportunity is.’ Just basically keep working constantly.
One of the things we were going to talk about were the sorts of projects we decide to invest our time in. Would you think it’s worth investing your time into a graphic novel-length comic that’s quite long and complex, and has layers, if it’s going to take you years to do it and you’re not sure that it’s going to be published? Is that something that would hinder doing a longer scale project?
Ben: I’ve just finished a graphic novel, a children’s graphic novel. The first drawings of that I did were in 2003, so that was a long time ago. From the start, I knew that it was going to have to come out and that I was going to have to finish it. So I was fine with that. I’m self-publishing it. I’ve been seriously working on it only the past couple of years, that’s colouring and drawing it and everything, and it’s 111 pages.
Mandy: Hypothetically, if there was more access to support for projects maybe it would open people up to bigger, more ambitious projects. For me, I do a lot of minicomics because I don’t want to disappear for two years and not have any work out in the world. Part of drawing is the giving it over to people. I always want to be like, ‘Here’s my comic and I want you to read it’, but I don’t want it to take three years. I like to do a new comic every six months.
Ben: For me too, that is the single downside. That is why I sort of dislike doing a big comic because I won’t have anything out for ages.
Mandy: I also see some really great work in the form of these handmade minicomics. I think the frustration is that not as many people get to see them. I like the idea that as well as that, there are other opportunities for more ambitious projects, read by a hell of a lot more people. That makes reading comics something that people see as a familiar part of their habit, rather than the odd thing that they might do. I definitely think it’s improving.
What do you think that it’s going to look like in 20-30 years?
Ben: I don’t know what it will be like. I’d like to see more funny comics, I feel very alone. Yeah just stupid funny, people being idiots on paper.
Mandy: I’m really interested in using all the different genres in comics. One of them, which in the last five years or so has really exploded, is comics talking about health, mental and physical. There’s such an amazing range of subjects. I actually collect them.
I know there are some writing courses that are teaching graphic narratives as part of the coursework but I think something dedicated to comics, that’s what I would like to see in the next couple of decades. Also publishers that exclusively publish just comics.
Ben: That’s what I would like as well. That’s the main thing, to have a nice little industry. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a few more magazines full of any kind of comics.
Mandy: I realise that there are publishers of comics but I’m thinking on a big-world scale. I say all this, but I think I’m a little bit stuck in the ’90s. I’m a cartoonist in Melbourne but I’m probably not in touch with a lot of what’s happening out there. For all I know there are a lot of good publishers pumping out comics, I’m just not aware of it.
Ben: That’s ok, we’re allowed to be old and stupid.
Mandy: Yeah, I like the idea of something big.
Ben: So you moved to Melbourne in…
Ben: What was it that drew you there?
Mandy: I was actually meant to leave Canberra a couple of years previously, immediately after I finished studying but things just didn’t turn out that way. I actually wanted to stay in Canberra because I had made friends and I liked Canberra, and I definitely met some cartoonists there. But then it was time to come. I had been writing to a bunch of Melbourne cartoonists for years anyway, so when I moved here I knew people, through the mail mostly. Everyone I knew in Melbourne were cartoonists apart from family members. We landed in Malvern, staying with some cartoonists there. A household of cartoonists. Comics central. I always knew I would end up in Melbourne. I also think that a lot of people who study art and are creative in Canberra have Melbourne in their minds as the place to go if you’re creative.
What about yourself?
Ben: Same. The same story. All those people I knew by mail. And we had those comic camps, remember? I’d come to those and meet other people who I knew their names, but not them. I’d come down from Canberra and go to those comic camps in the bush, then go back home and think, ‘Why do I have to wait a year for that?’. So I decided to move down as well. Then you and I did the Inherent Vice through the NGV, like a residency, open to the public. I loved that so much. We were open to the public, and being watched by the public while we drew comics. They were amazed by us for some reason. You don’t think of it like that when you’re making your own comic. You just do it.
Mandy: Yeah I think it’s that amazing difference, like when someone says:
‘Oh so you’re creative?’
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a cartoonist.’
But when you’re sitting and drawing and someone’s watching, it’s a very different reaction. You take it for granted that not everybody feels like drawing is something they can do and do confidently. For us it’s just like talking. It’s our language.
With Inherent Vice, having the backing of something like the NGV, it does really make you feel like you could have faith that the work will be well-received and that there are definitely people out there who are interested.
Ben: Tell me about your artist tools.
Mandy: I’m a simple creature. I like to have very few tools. I have this jar of water, that’s dirty, inky, gross. That’s where I wash my paint brushes. I paint with ink, with a very, very thin paintbrush. That’s how I work. That’s it. I have a particular kind of paper. The kind of paper is very important, having good paper. It’s called Schoellershammer, and it’s an off-white paper. It’s very good the way ink sits on it.
Ben: What kind of ink?
Mandy: Just India ink. The one I’ve gotten, I think it’s French. It’s the kind of India ink that is thicker than most. So when I draw, I never have to do more than one layer.
What about you?
Ben: Japanese felt-tip brush pens. That’s what I use. Just sign pens. There’s a whole bunch of different brands. And I use slightly thicker than normal office copy paper. Mechanical pencils too, to pencil things in. That’s it.
Mandy: And you do a fair bit of digital colour work?
Ben: I do. Then I scan it in. If I do colour, I just do flat digital colour. I don’t go in for the sophisticated digital techniques or anything like that. Colour’s not a passion of mine. I use whatever technique to colour it in. I like the crisp black and white.
Mandy: I’m definitely drawn to black and white, the more graphic stuff. I find occasionally doing colours is a bit exciting.
Ben: A bit of a break out.
Mandy: Yeah. I actually don’t use computers for any of the creation of my art at all. But it’s only for sheer lack of not knowing how to use a computer in that way. That’s one of the things that I would do if I had more time. I would learn more computer software of how to colour, how to put tone. Also I don’t even know how to format to print. I just really don’t know any of the basics. I’ve gotten away with it so far, so I’m not to worried about it. I think if i had more time and resources, I would learn about that. Be more independent using technology.
Ben: Yeah I think there’s so many things that I would love to learn how to do. So many kinds of art that I want to learn how to do. There’s just too much.
Maybe just chat about your favourite book or story that you’ve created?
Mandy: I think that I always like the latest thing that I’ve done, because it’s all fresh and exciting. So definitely the new book with Brow Books, I’m really so excited about that. And a new minicomic I did called Kyoto Pants Down which made me feel like I could keep writing short stories, like go back into the short story format. But I think the one project, and ironically it’s the project I struggled the most with, that I have a soft-spot for is called NY and it was a little booklet I did. It was a long, thin book so I struggled with how to fit the panel. I thought this is an opportunity to do something different. That sounds fantastic, but the idea of going out of your comfort zone, and experimenting, and everyone seeing your glorious discoveries and seeing your hideous mistakes. It was a very uncomfortable stage to be in. I think I just pushed through it. It’s when you have a story that you really want to tell. I look at it and I think that story got as close to what I wanted to say than any of my other stories. I got as close as I wanted to. It was satisfying for me.
What about yourself?
Ben: I’ve got this one, and not many people have read it, but it’s called When the One You Love is Gone. This was not based on anything that happened.
Mandy: I have it right in front of me, by the way.
Ben: Do you? It’s this little mini. The reason I like it is because it was really inspired. You know when you get an idea and you think, ‘Oh that’s cool’, and you just love it straight away and sit down and do it. It was one of those. I just remembered what it feels like when you do break up with someone, someone that you really care about, or maybe someone leaves. And how when that person’s gone, the world just looks like a slimy pile of shit. Everything looks stupid. And it feels like everything is mocking you and like a joke has been played on you. It feels like everything is nasty and gross to the core. Then the second half of the comic is what it’s like when someone you don’t really like has gone out of your life. How when you’re free of that person, how free and happy it feels. How everything feels joyful and there’s so many possibilities now. It’s just really silly and completely funny. I had a really fun time. I was incredibly proud of that little minicomic.
Mandy: I love the cover. It reminds me of those old school covers.
Ben: Thanks. I think that one was very satisfying to make. Start to finish.
Mandy: Do you think cartoonists are a special breed of weirdos?
Ben: Nah. I think everyone’s weird, man. Not just cartoonists. We’re just lucky we know how to draw it on paper.
Mandy: Yeah. But all the funny and weird things that everybody does, cartoon people are just more willing to brag about it.