One of the most entertaining debuts I’ve read recently is William Exley’s Golemchik. Check out my recent review, with the amazing Keith Silva, here. I had a great time skyping with William last weekend, talking comic debuts, comic theory and life at Nobrow.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: So how’s the book doing for you? How do feel about it turned out and such?
William Exley: We had a little launch at Gosh! Comics in London, me and the other two London-based artists who have done other 17×23 books, Joe Sparrow and Andy Poyiadgi. That went really well. So it was nice to see it finally getting out there and people being able to pick it up.
CB: So how did you get connected to this project?
Exley: Originally it was coming on for a few years ago now. A couple of years I had done the cover for a magazine called Off Life Magazine. I think it is Bristol based. They do a kind of free comics anthology. Some of their stories in there are one page long — maybe three or four pages at the most. They distribute it around Bristol and London. You can pick it up in comics shops and bars and cafes and things. I got in touch with them about doing the cover for it. So I did end up doing the cover for issue four, sort of as an illustration project.
They ended up stopping in the Nobrow shop when No Brow used to have the shop on Great Eastern Street. Alex, one of the guys in there, saw the cover and then got in touch off the back of that. I went in for a meeting with them.
CB: Had you done work with narrative or was it mostly static images?
Exley: Mostly static images before that. I had done some narratives in comics before, in most instances in kind of very work for hire directions. I had done some comics and some education resources for Sheffield University a few years before. I had done nothing too notable. The stuff I had done up to that point had been normally illustration, like single images.
CB: Had you been thinking in terms of narrative? Or was this something that was a new concept to you?
Exley: Definitely. I’ve been a fan of comics and I have always read them and been inspired by them visually. In terms of the way I do illustration, it had definitely had been inspired by growing up reading comics.
I’m pretty terrible at putting things off and never getting around to do things, so I have loads of ideas in notebooks and little notes on the phone and general things. There is such a good kind of small press scene in the U.K. that there is no excuse to not do it. But I kept finding excuses not to do it. And so I never ended up doing anything.
It .was always something in the back of my mind. I want to say I never had the opportunity, but the opportunity was off mind to not have. So it was always something I had thought about but never actually did.
CB: I think just about anyone can relate to having more ambition than time or energy. That is the polite way I tell my story to myself.
Exley: I think that’s very good. That exact phrasing I think I’m going to adopt from now on. That sounds excellent.
CB: Because I have so many ideas it is ridiculous.
Exley: Right. I think you can always get into a situation when they start to build up, it can then be harder to go back to them. It can then be harder to pick through them at a later date. If you don’t act on things quickly, it can start to get harder to finally get around to doing some things.
CB: They start to pile up, too. It’s like this mental space that is taken up by them.
CB: I don’t know if you do this on your days off. I will actually look forward to my Saturday because I can get things done.
Exley: Yeah. So I work on freelance illustration and also work in shop for like three days a week. So the days I have off from doing freelance work are then also days I still fill up and try to do comics and other types of illustration that aren’t commercial work for freelance illustration jobs. Definitely those days off are the days when suddenly you can dig that list out and actually try to tick some things.
CB: Try and tick things off- exactly.
Exley: Try and tick things off, underlined and emphasized, because it sometimes rarely happens unfortunately.
CB: Well, it can take a long time to get a project moving for one thing.
Exley: Definitely, yeah. Definitely, absolutely. When you are in those early stages trying to build up the momentum to find these sort of push forward with something can be particularly hard I think.
CB: Yeah, I can certainly relate to that. How long was Golemchik in creation?
Exley: A year. Just made me think about that because what was so nice about that was having it be something for a publisher meant that there was more of a push to be able to get started on things.
My first writing part of it was definitely the hardest part of the whole process. I think it took the longest segment of time to do. It was definitely a number of months before coming to the sort of idea of what could be done. And then a few more months before actually getting something that even resembled kind of an idea that would work or that could fill twenty-four pages.
CB: Yeah, and that’s kind of the funny paradox of it, right? It is twenty-four pages; it’s not really that long.
Exley: Yeah, I have absolutely no idea how anyone does anything longer. I guess the difficulty fills the space you have. But I can’t even fathom how, especially people when their first work are long, hundred page works. I would have no way to begin there. Twenty-four pages seemed both like a lot and not enough at various points. But definitely when trying to write it, it felt like a lot.
CB: Until the pump is really primed, it can be really hard to just get the words out there. It’s interesting to have that paradox of having a lot of say and then not being able to actually say it. How did you work through that?
Exley: With a lot of help from Alex, who is one of the guys at Nobrow. He was very good at having… When the idea was first getting started was when he had just moved to New York. Nobrow was opening their New York office. So we’d do Skype conversations about trying to work through the story.
I initially sent them three ideas that didn’t go anywhere and then hit upon this rough shape of Golemchik. Alex was very helpful in kind of making it into more of a story than a complete set of loose ideas. And then trying to pace it out visually was a big help as well. Just looking at those twenty-four pages and trying to figure out where things had to land, where things had to happen. And then doing that in conjunction with writing and drawing it out at the same time was the only thing that kind of seemed to work.
Whenever I tried to sit down and write a script, nothing ever really happened. It was doing both at the same time seemed to help.
CB: So you really benefited from working with an editor in doing this work.
Exley: Definitely, yeah. Alex was really good. When we first talked about doing the 17×23 formats and the first mentioning of it, it was very open in terms of, “Just pitch an idea if you have something,” which was very daunting after the first meeting. I went away from the first meeting very excited, but also not entirely knowing where to go next. Sort of like too much choice. It seemed very daunting.
But Alex also had looked through my work and picked out a common thread of… I actually looked at the email this morning in preparation. He used the phrase “something like a lost boys.” Not the film, but the idea of children, like a group of boys sort of like Lord of the Flies and Stand by Me. He specifically referenced those things as a rough starting point. And that was very useful in terms of getting a kick start on something, getting something moving. And then as the story took form, he was helpful in refining parts of it, which was great.
CB: Interesting. So it was very deliberate. And yet the story is very emotional, empathetic. I am not sure what word you’d use for it.
Exley: That’s probably it. Again, like I said the writing was the hardest part. I think some of what comes through is taking the direction from Alex. He was good with the structure and stuff. But then trying to find what the story was going to be about was quite hard.
CB: So you were finding what the story was going to be about. You had the general idea.
Exley: Yeah. At first the idea of the kid and the creature, I think the theme came first. I knew that I wanted it to be about something quite nostalgic in a way. This idea of these kind of stories about not quite coming of age, because I think it is a little bit before that, but those summer tree house sort of stories that are a very nostalgic concept.
CB: Yeah, that feeling of being free in the summertime.
CB: Your friends are gone. You kind of make up your own emotional world.
Exley: Yeah, having to invent your own fun. The reason I think we went for it (I can never actually tell how far it actually carried on through to the kind of final story) was the idea of Kevin being kind of like…
I always thought of with stuff like Stand By Me, but even the most sort of inactive and kind of shy person in that film was still very active and boisterous. Initially the idea was to think of Kevin as being someone who was like, “Why wasn’t he going to camp? His friends were going away. There must be sort of a reason he isn’t the type of person who is going to take action to make fun and have a good time himself.” So the necessity of the creature turning up to force him to do things. And then that slippery slope into the events that follow.
CB: I don’t usually like to ask author intent, but did you intend the creature to be real or kind of more metaphor?
Exley: It was interesting your guys’ review of it. For me (I am going to sound like a complete adult now) there was little where I thought it was a metaphor. For me when I was writing and drawing it, the creature was there; it was real. Obviously a fantastical setting, but absolutely the creature was present and was like the thing pushing Kevin on to do these things over his summer. But it was very interesting to read your guys’ review of it because I think the way it could be read was obviously very different from the way it was perhaps conceived.
CB: That’s part of the fun of being a creator though, too, is to get a very different perspectives on things.
Exley: Yeah, absolutely. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of obviously what you put in to it so the reader sort of gets your attention as well.
CB: Not to be pretentious about it. I was at a convention recently where Daniel Clowes was there. You’re probably familiar with his work.
Exley: Yes, I am.
CB: One of my favorite pieces of criticism I’ve written was on his Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. Clowes was talking in a panel about how he saw the book as a clouded metaphor about his divorce from his first wife.
Exley: Right, yeah.
CB: And it’s full of symbolism for that whole experience. We were chatting after his panel and I said, “That’s interesting because I had never seen it that way.” I interpreted it as a completely different thing than what he had presented on the page. He seemed to really appreciate the fact that there’s just a different perspective on his authorial intent.
Exley: Yeah, I think that’s fantastic. I think it’sweird having made something now because I really liked, before having written and made something, reading criticism and listening to podcasts on comics and film criticism, that kind of stuff. So like the idea of (I might be using this wrong) death of the author sense where you’re meant, as much as possible, to disregard the author’s intent because at the end of the day it kind of doesn’t matter when you’rereading it. And yet it is fascinating. That’s all fascinating.
CB: This is your first experience on that side of it, right?
Exley: Yes, which is very strange. It’s quite interesting. It is very different.
CB: I am not sure how much criticism have been written about this book yet.
Exley: That is why it was so good to read your guys’ ones because (again this is going to maybe sound terrible) I was not expecting someone to go so far into it as well. It was great.
CB: Keith and I write these pieces together fairly often. That is actually one of the real pleasures, pulling each other forward in our thoughts about something.
Exley: It’s such a good format. It’s a fantastic way to do a review I think.
CB: One of the things Keith discussed was the plot loopholes in the story. How do you feel about the state of the comic as it ended up being produced? Are you concerned that there are some holes in it?
Exley: Yeah, potentially. I think when I obviously am reading it back now (because it is also like a year old since I actually finished and the work was done), I think I can see some of those holes myself. I think the worry is knowing obviously all of what I hoped to put into it is then maybe then some of that doesn’t come across and doesn’t get through either because of the art or the writing or those gaps or something. So that is definitely a worry.
CB: So what’s something that you wish had come through that didn’t come through?
Exley: I am trying to think of some specific ones because part of me feels more work doubt after it’s done. So I’m prepared to say, “Everything is terrible. Let’s put this away and not look at this at it again.” That’s sort of my base reaction.
But I’m being a bit more positive. I think certainly the ending. I think there was a thread that perhaps doesn’t get pulled all the way through to the end. I feel that we sort of knew. I think I had some conversations with Alex about it and we knew that the ending was obviously very important because in the 17×23 books, Nobrow want them to be stand-alone satisfying story. And I think there is perhaps a beat missing at the end or something just to get it through.
I worry that the connection between Kevin and the creature isn’t strong enough. The ending should come when he has to essentially sacrifice the creature to both save the creature from getting pulled apart by the mob that’s coming after him and also that realization that the creature is trying to help out, but in a clumsy way. I think there are potentially some beats at the end that could have done with being tidier.
CB: What would you have changed or added?
Exley: A few extra pages.
Exley: I think it potentially needed a threading back through to his friends at the beginning and more of the reason why Kevin was so invested in this all work was because of his friends and wanting them to come back see the fun that he’d had or see what he had been able to do over the summer while they were all away. I think that’s missing from that last section in particular.
CB: I suppose that is sort of part of the promise of a series like these slimline books. In some ways these works can be rough drafts for a larger project.
Exley: Yeah. And there’s something satisfying about being happy to have made it to the end of twenty-four pages, it being kind of a mad dash to the finish. Having not done it before to getting to that end point…
CB: There’s nothing wrong with saying that. It is the classic line: every journey takes a single step. You’ve got to get something done, in hand and complete, before you can even think about doing the next thing. It sounds like this was such a long project particularly for you that you really needed to get some momentum under you.
Exley: Yeah, definitely. I think it helps because it was learning. Even just the process of laying out a page and getting everything in place was something I hadn’t done before. So every step was a first time step. So it definitely feels better having done it now.
CB: Are you ready to do more work? Or is this now…
Exley: I think so, definitely. I’ve been kind of doing small things since this. I am very aware of that idea that you need to fail a whole bunch of times before you can kind of build up a body of work. So it feels slightly strange that my first effort is on kind of a big publisher and printed on very nice paper. I would love to be able to do some more in the future. I just try to take everything that I’ve learned from doing this one and the stuff I’ve done in between and hopefully apply it to something new.
CB: Yeah, I suppose you could say, “I could have gone through the zine world and rose like so many great British cartoonists have done.” Really, it is a classic British tradition going back at least forty years at this point, right?
Exley: Yeah, totally. And it is so strong at the moment. So many great artists and good work. So many people are doing stuff at different levels, from zines up to more publisher-based stuff. It’s such a healthy scene. It seems like a real option for people. Because it’s the idea that you could be doing and developing in the field on actual projects that you are putting out and learning from them as you go. That is something that I kick myself for missing up to this point. But it is something that I’d like to do in the future.
CB: To some extent that hasn’t even been available in comics up to very recently.
Exley: Yeah. I guess I don’t know enough about it as a culture as a whole to know where it came from. In America, has that been a lot more of a continual thing of sort of seeing level…
CB: Much less in America than it has been in England to be honest.
CB: There is this long and kind of august British tradition of great cartoonists coming up through the zine scene, literally back to the late 1970s. It seems to have grown a bit out of an offshoot of the punk movement and the zines and DIY movement. But there were dozens of British cartoonists who have now become quite prominent. Eddie Campbell is the first one who pops to mind. I have a number of his old zines. Glenn Dakin.
But almost any of the British cartoonists you can think of as part of that early ‘80s wave all started in that kind of format. And they all used to get together in London at shows every month or so and compare notes and kind of challenge each other. There are great stories of them getting together at the pubs and comparing what each one is doing and really trying to one-up each other. So that’s something that has been a long, great British tradition that’s a little different in the U.S. There’s always been people who have come up through the zines, people like Adrian Tomine. He had done his first Optic Nerve comics as minis. Chester Brown’s another. But there are fewer in the U.S. than there are in England. It is a particularly British thing.
Exley: Yeah. It’s interesting to hear you say that because I guess for me it might just be a grass is greener sort of thing. But it does seem in America (maybe I am overemphasizing) sort of American people I like and the work I’ve seen. Maybe because the English scene started a bit later, it doesn’t seem as relevant or come as quickly to mind here at the moment. But I think it is something that is definitely still going on, which is good.
CB: Well, you are also coming out of the time the market is really changing and where the medium is really changing. I think that’s just exciting to be a part of, in whatever area you are a part of. We have a lot of shows like the one you are describing, which are artist curated type shows.
Exley: Yeah, I think it seems like there are quite a few shows that take that inspiration, like Thought Bubble as well up in Nottingham, which I think both took an inspiration from those kind of art-minded American and I guess Canadian shows as well.
CB: Yeah, absolutely.
Exley: That kind of tradition.
CB: Yeah, it is interesting. So you get to be a part of this.
Exley: Yeah! I have been to the Lancaster show for the last four or five years now. I have been to every single one since living in London. We have the big MCM Comics Expo, which I think is a bit closer to a ComicCon type thing. I have always been to that. We had Kapow, which is more ComicCon like. I used to live in Brighton as well, which had lots of zine fans and zine symposiums and that kind of stuff. So it was always something I was into and been interested in. Again, it is one of those things that is going to be fun to be on the other side of perhaps.
CB: You are in a very fortunate position as a creator.
CB: Yeah, I have had a copy in hand for a long time now. That’s why I was surprised it still a little ways to come out.
Exley: Yeah, it is on this strange staggered release. Like I said, we had a launch a few weeks ago, which was me, Andy, and Joe at that one. Also Jenn, who I think is based in America, so wasn’t at the launch. But her book was as well. It was sort of the 17×23 launch. And then shop, Gosh!, is probably the biggest comic shop in London. They’ve had copies for the past few weeks. I am fairly certain that tomorrow is the official release date.
CB: Do you feel like you are a part of the scene with this now? Do you feel like you are a part of the new group of cartoonists who are emerging in the mid-2010’s? Or do you not think about that?
Exley: No, I don’t think about it. The first thing that came was probably not just from I am very aware this is the only thing I’ve done and there’s lots of people I know have done a lot more work. It is going to be a much more part of their life. There are people who have obviously built the comics community in London. I think it’s the moment- is interloper the right word? It is from sort of the outside coming in. I’m quite aware of that. I would say I have not really thought about it. But then all of that just came out.