Joe Decie – Interview

This interview was first published on Febuary 24th 2011.

Joe Decie is a Brighton-based cartoonist who has been publishing comics online and in minicomic form since 2008. I’m a big fan of his off-beat sense of humour and it’s been my privilege to have been table-mates with him at a couple of conventions. His subtle monochrome ink-washed stories-with-a-twist have gained quite a following and as a result UK publisher Blank Slate are producing a collection of his work as part of their Chalk Marks project, due out in Spring 2011.

David: What was your first exposure to comics?

Joe: From about the age of three I loved In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. I read the Beano from the age of about seven. After a few years I tired of it, but as luck would have it Oink! arrived in the newsagents and I read every issue printed. The formula was different from the DC Thomson comics, visually at least, more in line with Viz. I enjoyed Asterix too, but had no time for Tintin (I foolishly declined a complete collection handed down from an older brother!)

D: Were your family comics readers?

J: My older brothers read grown up comics of the late eighties: Tank Girl and Deadline stuff like that, you know, Watchmen, Eightball as well as zines, there were always zines. My Stepdad, he drew comics for Viz. Mostly single panel gags.

D: I imagine your stepdad would have had a stash of comics himself to plunder too – what was his background?

J: Some musty old comix down in the cellar, mostly Freak Brothers, maybe some Crumb. Roger (a.k.a Roger Radio) had an art school background. He did some sci-fi comix, counter culture, and mail art stuff.

D: You got to see some fairly alternative stuff at quite a young age – were you ever into any kind of mainstream comics?

J: For maybe six months I collected mainstream comics after a brother gave me an issue of Lobo in 1991. Seduced by Simon Bisley cover art I bought quite a lot. I enjoyed collecting but I don’t think I really enjoyed the stories, I’d rather read Calvin & Hobbies. Besides, the comic shop owner was a caricature of ‘Comic Book Guy’ from The Simpsons and he stank. And all the folks in the comic shops were virgins and I aspired not to be a virgin.

D: As you have a (presumably biological) son, it’s good to know you’ve achieved at least one of your aspirations.

J: Yes, that’s why I include him in so many of my strips, just showing off my lack of virginity.

D: It sounds like comics were considered as perfectly normal reading material in your family, then. Were your friends comics readers too?

J: I’m not sure. When we wrote graffiti we all read Vaughn Bodé, just to rip off the characters. But comics were never a big thing in my youth.

D: Tell me about the graffiti – was that a serious interest or a youthful rebellion thing?

J: Graffiti was an all consuming part of my life through my teenage years. I drew letters constantly and painted most weekends. My handwriting is completely influenced by my hand-style of those days.

D: Was it linked to the music that you were into? Do you still do any graffiti now?

J: Graffiti tends to go hand in hand with Hip-Hop and rap music, and that was the case with me. I don’t know which came first: my love of the music or the art. I no longer paint, although I do have some cans sitting waiting for a special occasion. I think once you’ve been involved in graffiti seriously, you’ll always stay interested in the art form. I still doodle letters and keep an eye on current styles.

D: Were you always interested in drawing?

J: Always. I think anyone can draw, nurture over nature. If I look back at my childhood drawings there were pretty average. But because I received praise and encouragement, and because I loved the process, I stuck with it and in the last few weeks I’ve started to draw pictures I’m happy with. I’ve always loved visual communication, verbal too.

D: Only in the last few weeks? Are you very self-critical?

J: Very: if I look back at work from six months ago I generally hate it, visually. I’m just a beginner, still learning. That said, I love it the morning after I’ve drawn something, to give it a second look and still like it. I think that’s why I post online, it’s instant. Draw it, scan it, post it, receive feedback. I live for the comments, retweets and all that.

D: Did you study art at school?

J: Yes, three years of foundation stuff and then another three on a fine art degree. I didn’t draw much though, I mostly made books. My major influences were DADA and Fluxus. Aren’t art students great? I loved art students: self-absorbed, affected, pretentious, foolish, lazy and lucky – didn’t know how lucky they were.

D: What kind of books were you making?

J: All kinds of artist’s books. Books on tracing paper, books with Letraset, typewriter zines, proper bound volumes, books with drawings, books of lies, documentation of projects, collections of thoughts. In a similar vein to my comics in that they mostly contained a dialogue with the reader, or a monologue that tried to reach the reader, usually with humour. The first artist’s book I read was Mark’s Little Book About Kinder Eggs By Mark Pawson. I read that and thought “I’m gonna make books and zines and get a long-armed stapler” (except I didn’t know long-armed staplers existed then).

D: Was art school a positive experience over all? I note from Dan Berry’s interview that you still count Fluxus amongst your influences.

J: I loved how privileged I was to be at art college. To be able to work from nine till six doing art all day with facilities and like-minded people. I was quite bitter about all the idiots, there were a lot of idiots at art college back then. I’d love to be able to study again, this time illustration where I could learn techniques and approaches. My Fine Art tutors taught me nothing, really nothing. Where were they? I hardly saw them. But it gave me plenty of time to figure things out and contemplate. And the technicians were gold. Maybe now students have to pay fees those tutors will be working for their money?

Fluxus is a big influence. It was playful, fun, honest and great to look at, it involved the viewer. I could talk a lot about it but the link to my comics is tenuous.

D: When I see your comics at shows they certainly stand-out in terms of their design. How important is that craft side of comic making to you?

J: Well, I want my books to look good, like something you’d want to keep, something that’s had time spent on it. There’s two ways I think you can achieve this. Either making the book look really slick and professional (like for instance J.P. Coovert and One Percent Press) or handmade and crafted (like those made by Colleen MacIsaac) The main thing I didn’t want was a boring A5 comic with a horrible white border, straight off the copier. That said, the hours I’ve spent trimming and stapling comics is probably ridiculous considering most people will read them once and put them in an old shoe box.

D: What happened after art college?

J: Oh, you know, various things: bit of design, photography, jobs in offices wearing a cheap tie, then working in a screen print studio with dangerous inks. But most recently I’ve been working with young adults with learning disabilities, first in a care setting and now in education. I teach comic drawing. But more than this I use comics as social stories and aids to communication.

D: Tell me more about this – how does a class work? What’s the thinking behind it?

The classes vary depending on the ability and understanding the students. Here’s two examples…

I have some classes with a group of mostly non-verbal autistic students, where we are working on ideas of self and others, similarities and differences (concepts that can be very challenging for people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders). The last few weeks the students have drawn characters of themselves and then on a separate piece of paper have drawn background scenes of their favourite places. The students then place their characters into the scenes and we role-play different interactions.

At the other end of the spectrum I have classes with students with Asperger’s Syndrome, most of whom are competent artists and writers (they all have deviantART accounts). These guys lack confidence in their abilities and, also due to their Asperger’s, are reluctant to explore new drawing styles and try new things. One student is heavily influenced by manga and has taught himself using several awful ‘How To’ manga books and was not willing to explore or even look at other styles of comic art. However, I slowly introduced him to the Scott Pilgrim books and he noted the similarities with Japanese comics, read the whole series and tried his hand at replicating the style. I’m now showing them work by some European artists with some success.

The students are visibly benefiting from the lessons. It’s great fun but very challenging. I wish I’d been taught comics.

D: So when did you seriously start making comics yourself?

J: Tuesday 15th of January 2008. James Kochalka, on his forum, had pointed me in the direction of, so I started an account and got drawing. Right from the start using nib pens and wash. It’s all I’ve known.

D: There was no experimentation with styles or materials?

J: No – I jumped right in and was getting positive feedback so stuck with it. Here’s one on my cruxes: I have to have conformity or, if you like, consistency within a project. Any deviation from this, be it only a slight change in style and I start to feel uneasy. Even the natural improvement in my drawing and painting bugs me and I feel the urge to scrap all the older entries from my website. I’d love to experiment more with style, colour and approach, and I do a bit, but to really go for it I’d need to host it elsewhere. It sounds ridiculous, I know. As a student I went under different names for different projects, so as not to get bogged down in all my self-imposed rules and styles.

D: Your style is very distinctive, and there’s a ‘brand value’ in that. You know a ‘Joe Decie’ when you see it. I take it you haven’t got to the stage where you feel trapped by that?

J: No, but it may be my desire to keep things uniform could be hampering my development. I’d love to be able to work quicker. My current process is slow and labour intensive. Books I’ve been loving recently seem so much more fluid, for example Joann Sfar’s Klezmer, Mawil’s We Can Still Be Friends, Manu Larcenet’s Ordinary Victories. I need a bit of that.

a page from Women by Charles Bukowski for Jason Turner’s Page 100 Project (2010)

D: What did you want to do comics about once you’d started?

J: Initially I’d just re-started carrying a sketchbook and was drawing observations and incongruous little doodles. I’d previously drawn diary strips for the zine Not My Small Diary, plus I was aware of diary-type strips like American Elf and Jeffrey Brown‘s books. So I just did that: diary comics with added lies and bits. It wasn’t really considered, though it’s a genuine reflection of something.

D: I love how your comics start off grounded in reality and then spin off in some whimsical or humorous way. What makes you want to diverge from reality like that?

J: I think that’s the natural way my thought process works. In the past I’ve likened it to the way a child might recall an event, with the story becoming more fantastical as they tell it. And I love the way children are such excellent story tellers, with truth and lie, fiction and reality all just part of their tales. It’s a fun way to live. It’s just playing I guess.

D: How important is humour in your work?

J: Humour is important full stop. Most of my favourite people to be with are the ones who make me laugh. And I’ll acknowledge that I like being a funny guy. That said I’ve never written my strips to get laughs. It’s never my intention, but if as a by-product of my story-telling people find humour then that’s good. Sometimes I have a problem with the word ‘comic’ because the expectation and connotation in some circles for comics to be funny things: “Wait – a stand up comic tells jokes but a comic in a book can be a depressing story of teenage angst?’”

from Solipsistic Pop #3 (2010)

D: Which do you find easier: writing or drawing?

J: The drawing is less considered for me, I just do it. Whereas the writing usually starts with a small written note that then gets worked up into some kind of narrative, or monologue. That said I have started to thumbnail my comics to try out different compositions, but usually the one I drew off the cuff will be the one I plump for. I guess I have it all planned out in my subconscious. At the momentmy comics are all in my comfort zone. Writing pure fiction and illustrating other peoples stories is something I have only dipped into.

D: I’m guessing you use a bit of photography as reference – are they snaps or do you take pictures specifically so you can use them in your work?

J: Yeah, as my drawing style has developed my comic drawings have become more realistic and I’ve started to use pictures quite a bit for reference. I prefer to work from life as photos, although making things easier to draw by flattening the world also acts to squash any life from the drawing. But yes, I use them. I pose for pictures, use Google Images, Google Street View, I sketch a lot and I look at other people’s work. That said I’m quite good at drawing from memory too, but with all these tools to hand, might as well use ‘em.

D: I found your work through LiveJournal and you were already on Webcomicsnation – by then you’d already built up quite a following amongst the US online comics community. I perceive the US small pressers as being much more into the craft of making comics than we are over here. Are Joe Decie comics more ‘at home’ in the US scene?

J: I’ve got comic pals all over the place, but mostly they’re from ‘the internet’. True a large chunk of them are from North America, but I don’t really think in terms of scenes. Tom Humberstone has done a great job of highlighting the UK talent through his Solipsistic Pop anthologies and we have excellent UK publishers in the form of Blank Slate and Nobrow. But does that make a scene? Who knows! I prefer to think we’re all part of a global comics community. As far as my audience is concerned a lot of them are North American and so, on occasion, I offer translations for some of the more ‘English’ English words. And I once wrote ‘put the trash out’ instead of ‘taking the rubbish out’.

D: You’ve also been picked up by Top Shelf’s online comics showcase (Top Shelf 2.0) – how did that happen?

J: I emailed Brett Warnock saying how much I was enjoying Grug and Jessica McLeod‘s ‘Love Puppets’ comic (one of the first comics on their 2.0 site) And I offered a list of names of people’s work I thought would go down well on 2.0. I don’t think they took on any of my suggestions but invited me to contribute. I did, and still do every once in a while. Top Shelf are one of my favourite publishers and are all round good guys.

D: The UK comics scene is very busy at the moment with loads of events to choose from. How do you approach the whole convention thing? Do you target the events where you think you’ll sell well or are you not worried about the ‘business’ side of things?

J: I go mostly because I like meeting other artists. But unfortunately, being stuck behind your tables can make it difficult to discuss screen tone or spot colours in any great depth. My comics always sell well at zine fairs and don’t sell at all at the MCM Expos, so it makes sense for me to go to ziney type events. But The Thing [now defunct] and Thought Bubble are my favourites – oh heck, I go to them all, getting myself out there! I know I could tailor my work to have wider appeal and make more merchandise. But I’m not going to, not at the moment anyway. If I wanted to sell t-shirts I’d have become a t-shirt designer. But I reserve the right to back track on that one.

D: And now you’re working on a collection for Blank Slate. Tell me how that happened. Will there be new material?

J: Kenny Penman approached me last year about contributing to his new Chalk Marks imprint, possibly after seeing my work via twitter. His plan is to produce large format comics, not dissimilar to the Fantagraphics Ignatz series, showcasing previously unpublished artists, so I signed up. My collection, called The Accidental Salad, will be the cream of my current work, including a nice chunk of new and unseen strips. I really hope people like it. But hey, you should see the other artists in the series, I’m going to be amongst some amazing talent.

D: It sounds fantastic. Any other future projects?

J: I’m sure there’s a few ideas written in these notebooks, if only I could read my own handwriting…


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