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Chris Thompson attended the Comica Conversation between Richard McGuire and Steven Appleby on 14 November 2011. The following review appeared at Pop Culture Hound.

Although the weather had taken a turn and there was a definite chill in the air, around 30 people turned up at Gosh! Comics in London last night for a very special conversation between two incredible artists. I have to admit I’m not actually one of the cool kids - I wasn’t aware of Richard McGuire or Steven Appleby prior to this latest Comica Festival event being announced - but once I saw their work and some of the amazing things they’ve done, I just had to be part of it.

Things kicked off just after 7pm with comics impresario Paul Gravett on hand to moderate and keep the night flowing. He had an easy job this time around as both artists were engaging, interesting, and had a lot to say about their work. As always, I was there to take notes and capture some of the key points of the evening, so that you didn’t have to… Enjoy!

Starting the talk, McGuire explained that he was most interested in structure first and then hanging things on that structure. This is the foundation for most of his work, and it shows.

He displayed a number of cartoons on the big screen provided, including one called The Thinkers which follows people’s trains of thought as they escape the panels and, ultimately, the page. Like his famous strip Here, it makes use of unusual panel layouts and grids to convey these thoughts.

In 2003 he contributed a six-page strip to McSweeney’s, curated by Chris Ware. It was about control and the idea came from working on the garden at his cabin in upstate New York. He started to think of what this garden would look like from above - a tiny square of perfectly manicured soil and vegetation - and the ridiculousness of the thought inspired him. A lot of inspiration seems to come from the mundane aspects of life.

At one point he started experimenting with calligraphy, which led him to discover new shapes and ideas. This resulted in the book Popeye & Olive, which was released by French publisher Cornelius. McGuire describes it as ‘ abstract love story based around shapes’ which ‘...provides a vocabulary of their relationship’.

Many people read unintended sexual meaning and symbology into the book, which McGuire had not foreseen. It got him thinking and he followed it up with a second book, P&O, which used the same method to express the sexual adventures of Popeye & Olive.

McGuire’s most famous work is probably Here, which was published in Art Spiegelman’s RAW Volume 2 #1 in 1989. It tells the story of one location over time by just showing one corner of a room. In doing this he makes the little moments seem really important, while the bigger moments become more trivial and zoom by.

The inspiration for Here came when he moved into a new apartment and was thinking about who had lived there before. He’d also done an art class under Spiegelman and was thinking about doing a split-panel strip for an assignment, so that was also on his mind.

McGuire is now preparing a book based on Here to explore and expand the concept further. He experimented with using the book format to simulate the corners themselves (an open book forms a right angle), but found the idea too restrictive. There’s still a lot to do and at this stage the book is scheduled for Fall 2014.

He does a lot of work in Adobe Illustrator these days - scanning in sketches, then tracing them, manipulating and moving things around, adding effects, and dropping the original layers. Although he’s experimented with doing some pieces solely in Illustrator, he’s found that it’s too controlled and not loose enough for his liking.

The idea is to make Here more textural this time around. To achieve this he’s experimented a lot with painting, photography and other media, but each one seems to have its shortcomings. Paintings are too large and his scanner can’t handle them, while photographs don’t offer a high enough resolution for what he wants.

While working on the original strip, McGuire went through a dilemma as he felt he had no particular style. Ultimately he decided to tell the story and not worry about it as the story was more important than his own concerns.

McGuire grew up in New Jersey and told the story of how archaeologists came to his family home to ask permission to dig up their backyard. His mother said no, but apparently it was once an Indian burial ground. This inspired the scene where the Indian dies on the patch of ground where the corner of the room will eventually be.

He has since researched the tribe who used the burial ground and discovered they were the same ones who settled Manhattan. For the new version of Here, McGuire is trying to incorporate their language into the book (with appropriate subtitles, of course).

As part of his research, McGuire has built styrofoam sets and filmed them to simulate various things, including the way sunlight plays through the windows at various times of day. He showed a brief sample from one of these videos to illustrate the point.

When he’s not working on side projects, McGuire’s day job (as such) is doing covers, strips and occasional interiors for The New Yorker. Once again this is a wonderful avenue for him to experiment and play with new ideas.

For a Valentine’s Day cover, he depicted a large group of people all checking one another out - it was inspired by watching people at the airport. Then, for April Fools’ Day 1995, he decided to create a cover with 95 mistakes on it. One of the big changes was altering the logo - something that’s never been done with The New Yorker.

Occasionally McGuire will create single images that are scattered throughout the issue to tell a simple narrative. A lot of people would miss these flourishes, but each tells a story and takes a lot of thought to create.

Aside from his continuing work with The New Yorker, McGuire has released a number of books, including several books for children. The first one was The Orange Book, which was inspired by an orange on the subway tracks. He started to envision a huge back story for this orange, including a childhood in Florida, and wondered what led it to this point in time.

He’s also created a children’s book based on the 1995 April Fools’ cover, another called What Goes Around Comes Around, and one called Night Becomes Day. They’re all very conceptual and come from one single idea or thought that he expands on.

McGuire started creating toys after experimenting with a character called Puzzlehead. Somebody saw his work and offered to produce them. The early versions were produced in a small factory in Indonesia where everything was done by hand. He found it strange to see these poor workers cutting out each individual shape and the toys were eventually moved to Europe for mass-production.

It was actually his work on toys and games (specifically a card matching game, not unlike Snap) that led to him doing children’s books. He’d already come up with the idea for The Orange Book when someone asked him about it.

That seems to be the pattern for McGuire’s career, one thing leads to another leads to another and so on. At one point he was working on some animations for a Japanese website and that led to doing some animations for the children’s programming segment on PBS, a public broadcasting service in the US.

From there he was asked to do an animated short called Micro Loup for a French company, which ultimately led to his segment in Fear(s) of the Dark. McGuire took some of his inspiration in Fear(s) from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

Overall, McGuire’s interest is in ‘abstract representations of things that are real’. He’s going to experiment more with that in a regular blog for The New Yorker starting next year.

McGuire concluded with some discussion about his time as bass player with Liquid Liquid in the early 80s. The band produced three EPs, but didn’t achieve cult status until their songs started getting ‘sampled out the wazoo’. As a result, the band’s output was reissued twice - once in 1997, then again in 2008 (for which McGuire got to do the packaging).

Liquid Liquid’s most famous song is probably Cavern, which formed the basis for Grand Master Flash’s classic White Lines. The distinctive bassline for that was laid down by McGuire himself, though the sampling wasn’t credited and led to a huge legal battle between Sugar Hill Records (Grandmaster Flash’s label) and the band. They also ended up suing Duran Duran when they covered White Lines.

In an interesting bit of trivia, McGuire pointed out that one of Spike Lee’s earliest jobs was directing the clip for White Lines while he was still in school. Years later, when making The 25th Hour, Spike rederessed the balance by using the original song Cavern in one of the film’s scenes. McGuire doesn’t know if it was deliberate, but he appreciated it nonetheless.

Liquid Liquid did a one-off gig at the Barbican back in 2008 as part of their ‘comeback tour’. McGuire says they were nothing as a band, but they became huge afterwards.

When it was Steven Appleby’s turn, he started by sharing his earliest influence -some of his mother’s comics which were drawn in the 1930s. They were based on the romantic films and things of the times.

Appleby’s early cartoons were based around imagining that the world was not exactly as it seemed. In one cartoon, his father is looking at a piece of metal sticking out of the crowd unbeknownst that it belongs to a vast spaceship buried under the lawn of the Appleby family home.

Some of his earliest professional work was doing strips and illustrations for NME. They asked for a regular strip, so he came up with Rockets Passing Overhead (aka Captain Star).

At first it was rejected for being too strange, but NME finally agreed to run it as a regular three-panel strip. There wasn’t a great narrative or punchline, but that’s what he was into at the time.

Appleby then started doing pages for a German publication which allowed him to go off on tangents and explore other ideas.

Eventually the strip started running in The Observer as the result of an errant email. It turns out one of the editors had a virus which sent out emails to everyone on their contact list. Appleby emailed them back and explained he couldn’t open the message, but was glad they’d got in touch. The editor apologised for the mistake, but agreed it was good timing and they started discussing the strip.

One of Appleby’s biggest influences came from American illustrator Edward Gorey. You could almost mix up his pages and panels yet still get something from them, which freed Appleby from the bonds of specific structure.

He actually got to interview Gorey at his home by performing a bit of clever ‘subterfuge’. First he contacted The Observer to ask if he could interview Gorey for them. Appleby said he was already going to the US (which he wasn’t) and that he could do the interview while he was there. They agreed, so he then contacted Gorey’s agent and said The Observer would like to do an interview. The agent surprisingly gave him Gorey’s number and Appleby made the necessary arrangements himself.

A lot of things seem to have just fallen into place and Appleby admits that sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time. For example, he met an editor for Bloomsbury at a friend’s birthday drinks and that’s how his publishing deal with them originally came about.

Although he didn’t have anything particular in mind, he knew he wanted to do a book, so the editor agreed. After going away to think about it, he drew a picture of a man with a chair on his back under the title ‘Normal Sex’ - the concept was approved straight away.

A lot of the Bloomsbury books are now out of print, so he’s looking into the option of re-releasing them as a series of e-books.

Appleby is known for his clever absurdist strips. He had the idea for a series of ‘last moments’ based on a cartoon he did of snow people discovering fire then suddenly becoming extinct. He tried to come up with other cartoons based on that theme, but none had the same impact.

In addition to NME and The Observer, Appleby has also worked for The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and briefly did a daily strip in Germany which they translated and lettered for him.

Outside of print, he has created a number of works designed to create a narrative event in your head. One series of pieces uses rotating discs to communicate different ideas as you turn them.

At one point, Appleby experimented with doing Captain Star as an animated series. It took seven years to develop and raise the money, but eventually they created thirteen 22-minute episodes of the show. Although originally pitched as a more mature show, it found its home and funding through children’s television.

It was originally shown around 4pm in the afternoon, so even schoolkids barely got to see it. Since then it has enjoyed some late night runs around the world and can be found on YouTube for those who are interested.

To summarise the evening, Paul Gravett cleverly identified that ‘go with the flow’ was the message of the day. Both artists had amazing careers largely based on keeping things diverse and allowing one thing to lead them to another.

Thanks once again to Gosh! Comics, Paul Gravett, and Comica Festival for a great night. You can read more about Richard McGuire’s work on his website and keep updated on the progress of his expanded version of Here. You can also read more about Steven Appleby’s work on his website, as well as pick up his new book The Coffee Table Book of Doom.


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