Many in North America first became aware of Manchester, England based artist and writer, Oliver East, through his album cover work for the acclaimed English alt-rock musicians, Elbow. His drawings and paintings for the band’s seminal albums, The Seldom Seen Kid and Build a Rocket Boys!, perfectly captured the spirit of that music: at once puzzling and implicit, melancholy and joyous. But East had been hard at work making comics too, eventually releasing four books over the last five years through publisher, Blank Slate Books.
Renown for landscape-fuelled inspiration, his latest comic book offering, Swear Down, is also his most personal story. It debuts at the upcoming Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF), an event that East will fly over the Atlantic Ocean to attend and exhibit as well as meet and greet like-minded sequential art lovers.
JP Fallavollita got a chance to speak with Oliver East via email about his love of exploring the world and understanding life through walking, his evolution as a writer and an artist, and his affinity for American comics.
JP Fallavollita: It would be good for readers to get to know you a little bit. You describe yourself as a “walking artist” and a “creator of landscape comics”. So, a few questions then: tell us a little about yourself and your interest in sequential art, and tell us what you find inherent in the act of walking, physical or otherwise, that inspires you as an artist?
Oliver East: I use walking as a way to gain experience from which to draw. I’m terrible at reading due to dyslexia and retaining information is difficult so book smarts are a lost cause with me. I still have a need for learning though so my walks are a kind of self-tuition in the world around me. I like to walk far and alone. I’m an only child so I’m my own best company. I’ll place arbitrary lines on maps which I follow as closely as possible and which take me to places you wouldn’t think to go on a common or garden stroll. I’m hoping the collection of waste grounds, industrial estates and desire lines creates a new kind of intelligence that texts can’t provide. It’s character I’m after, I guess.
Comics came about as I thought they looked a quick and easy way of getting my ideas out to my audience. I’d done some gallery shows, which involved sculpture and text, or video and text. So it seemed obvious, when I didn’t want to wait for another gallery opportunity, to do pictures and text and stick them in a wee self published book.
JP Fallavollita: Everyone is familiar with comic books and graphic novels, but how would you describe a “landscape comic”? That seems a little more niche, a little more obscure. How might it differ from other sorts of sequential art?
Oliver East: Landscape comics are something new I’ve been doing separate from my book length works, although there are a few in my new book. They just do what they say on the tin: they’re landscape comics. A celebration of landscape and mark marking. Little or no narrative. A lot follow a four-panel model: in fact the first one I did, the fence panels are the same ratio as a Peanuts strip. Basically I have a hard on for those grey fence panels you see on constructions sites the world over and I like to construct abstract comics as I walk past them and then draw some down when I get home.
It’s niche, aye, but I’ll be rolling in winnings when the hipsters tag on. You watch.
JP Fallavollita: What are the landscapes you experience on your walks communicating to you? Further to that, what are you communicating to your audience through your interpretation of those landscapes? Are they different conversations?
Oliver East: I’ll take extensive written notes along my walks. No sketches or photos. I’ll note the things we all see as we walk. I’m not claiming ownership of a mystical third eye that allows me to see a world you don’t. We all love a well-worn desire line, don’t we? Bushes growing out of brick walls? Off colour and badly spelled graffiti? The choice of line to walk is mine and maybe uniquely so, and so I’ll be in places you won’t, experiencing things you won’t. But if you had been alongside me, you’d have seen them too. Then we kiss.
There’s a big schism then in how I show these things to you though. Working from written notes only, I replay the walk in my mind and draw it out how I remember it, rather than how it actually was. So you’re seeing a very personal interpretation of the land I walked. In the past, I’ve been tempted to take photos. I did a few on the Berlin walk but it didn’t feel right and used each one as collage in the book to get rid of the evidence. My hand often wonders to Google Earth if I get stuck but the work’s always shit if I cheat. My notes are sometimes decipherable due to walking and writing at the same time. Those pages are fun.
JP Fallavollita: How has your own form of storytelling, visual and literary, progressed or changed from your “walking trilogy” books, Trains are…Mint, Proper Go Well High and Berlin and That, to where you’re at now?
Oliver East: Man alive, I was wet behind the ears naive, and arrogant, at the same time when doing Trains Are…Mint. I didn’t know anything about comics but I was sure that, because I loved the walks I did, then other people would too. I just knocked that out at about three or four pages a day.
Over the first three books I think my writing has been pretty consistent. I’ve always been able to write in short bursts. Get a laugh in a couple of sentences or play around with imagery: turn a phrase and that. The visual aspects of the books came on leaps and bounds from first page of the first one to the end of Berlin. I’d only drawn three black and white minis before starting Trains Are…Mint. I never drew at art school and only picked up a pencil in anger for the first time when I was 26. So I had a bit of hang up about not being able to draw properly. But rather than squirrel myself away for a year or two and learning my style, I decided early on that every first attempt at a page would be the page. So as you’re reading you’re watching me learn to draw also. I haven’t a copy to hand but I think Berlin And That is around 160. I redid about 5 pages of that. Swear Down is 130 pages and I redid 8-10. So for the most part the page you see is my first stab. Because I’m never going to be a quality draftsman, so I thought this would make my work more live, I guess. More instant
JP Fallavollita: You’re debuting your new book, Swear Down (a trailer for which can be seen below) at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival on May 11-12. Why TCAF? What does this particular festival, or festivals such as these, mean to someone like yourself and the type of art you make?
Oliver East: I’ve seen other UK comic artists wax lyrical about TCAF and I’ve always wanted to go to a North American show. I idolise America and Canada. UK comics artists who know more about comics than I do say it’s a much more receptive audience than over here. I enjoy comic shows but they don’t really like my work. I never do very well at them but I don’t mind. I like being in a room full of eager beavers plugging their wares. I can’t imagine I’d be able to afford another US or Canadian show again so it just made sense to make the extra effort for this one when I’ve got a new book to push. Also Dash Shaw.
JP Fallavollita: I was watching some of your Swear Down You Tube videos. Where some artists will actually work in-situ, it seems you record some of your walks as a video diary of your experiences and thoughts. Some of them are just running images of trees and concrete walls – you can hear cows “mooing” and birds “tweeting” in the background! It’s an interesting experience to watch them and then think about how they affected your final art. Tell me about the importance of this kind of pre-work.
Oliver East: That’s not pre-work. They’re work. They’re comic pieces. The walk they were from was carryon on from where Swear Down leaves off. I was just playing around with video comics.
Ah, the dairy one? I realise the one you mean now. I tried keeping a video diary of one leg of my Swear Down walks but it didn’t work. I haven’t seen it for a while but if it’s the one I think you mean, I just edited all my dialogue to just my stammering. I’m a chronic stammerer and thought that was more interesting than anything I’d said on the walk. I’ve also made a few ‘video comics’ using found frames in the environment. Just trying new things out.
JP Fallavollita: Swear Down takes the reader from Manchester, England to mainland Europe, to Africa. We’ve been told that it’s a very personal story. It seems like the ultimate road trip: a story detailing the journey of self-discovery. Is that accurate? What was the process of writing and illustrating Swear Down – it’s the first volume of a continuing story, isn’t it?
Oliver East: Aye. Following the line of longitude out of my front door in Old Trafford, Manchester, it cuts through England, then Brittany, Spain, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso then Ghana. In Swear Down I get as far as Congleton, about 23 miles away. It’s a life’s work I guess. You’ve got to keep yourself busy.
It’s a very personal story as it deals with my inability to deal with the near death of my wife in childbirth and our son’s two months early arrival. The two of them come along for part of the walk. I’ve joked to mates that it’s my first romantic comedy but I really believe it is. My wife’s well funny and I adore her, and this comes across well in the book. The process was the same for every other book apart from the original art is the same size as the printed book. The book’s drawn at 100%. There are new visual motives: I go to town on marker bleed and there’s more spreads and collages. There’s more space on each page. Berlin and That was very busy, this one’s more relaxed.
JP Fallavollita: Being UK-based, how does someone like yourself view North American comics and North American sequential storytelling? Are there any influences coming from this side of the ocean – anything that speaks to you?
Oliver East: I feel closer to American comics than I do to British one’s, despite my stuff being very British. Four books in and I’m still not really accepted over here as part of any scene. I feel once I step off the plane at TCAF there’ll be people there with open arms offering me cuddles and naps and that everything will be ok now I’m here.
I really like a lot of the younger US lot: Warren Craghead, Aidan Koch, Blaise Larmee, Jason Overby, Austin English, all that lot are doing exciting things. Dash Shaw, Frank Santoro…a whole bunch of guys. But online as well, on twitter, you all seem really keen, really excited about comics. It’s exciting watching what Box Brown and Charles Forseman are up to 24 frickin 7. Man, they shit comics them two.
JP Fallavollita: Finally, at Biff Bam Pop! We’re always keen to know how different writers and artists work; their day-to-day routine. What’s your typical workday look like? Are you listening to music whilst creating and if so, what kind of music are you listening to?
Oliver East: Well, I’ve been a full time parent for the last three years so I’ve been scraping by with a couple of hours drawing here and there. I work at home in a spare bedroom with my drawing table and all my books. There’s a couple of gold discs on the wall from my Elbow days but I hardly ever mention those. If I get a good run up, and I have a day to draw, I’ll get 3-4 pages of a book done.
Aye, I always have music on. I need silence when I’m conceiving a page, it’s layout and content and that, but once it’s just the execution then I’ll stick music on or football podcasts. Music wise depends on what mood I’m in. I’m a terrible air guitarist and will drop my brush mid flight to shred along to Shellac’s My Black Ass. I’m also a terrible dancer but love a bit of Roisin Murphy while I’m waiting for something to dry.
JP Fallavollita: Thanks for taking the time with us, Oliver.
Oliver East: Thanks for having me.
Oliver East will be exhibiting and debuting his new book Swear Down at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF) this Saturday and Sunday, May 11-12. Make sure to give him a cuddle and make him feel at home. You can visit his website at www.olivereast.com or find his catalogue of publications including Trains are…Mint, Proper Go Well High, Berlin and That and Swear Down at Blank State Books.