ILYA: Reality Can (and Probably Should) Be Expressionistic

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

One of my favorite recent graphic novels is Room for Love, an intriguing May/September romance by the British writer/artist known as ILYA. Though unfortunately generally unknown in the US, ILYA has had decades of experience in comics, creating his own books, anthologizing others and teaching cartooning.

As you'll see from this interview, ILYA has some fascinating insights into the craft and medium of comics that makes this interview a real delight.

Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: What inspired you to create this May/September romance in comics form?

ILYA: I've answered this at some length in a set of blog postings for SelfMadeHero, which can be found here.

In short, it was a radio interview with Germaine Greer in the early 1990s that initially put the germ of a story idea into my head – a story engine, as it were: What would it be like to open up your home to somebody homeless?

The May to September element springs really from my desire to overload the odds, by making the two central characters such complete polar opposites – not only in age, but also class, religion, even sexuality. More than a romance, as such, I think of it as an "anti-romance".

Room for Love

CB: What was your inspiration for the relationship between Pamela and Cougar?

ILYA: They collide, more than anything. The hothouse atmosphere and their loneliness – one of the few things that they actually have in common – sort of drives them together, into each other's arms, seeking a little solace, human warmth, at any price. It is more like a slow-motion car crash. Sometimes, with people getting together, getting it on, it is more down to a lack of imagination on their part than anything else. In their right minds, or in any different situation, they might never dream of doing so, ending up together.

Once they have collided, it was up to me to follow through and work out or explore where they might then end up, or not, as this "odd couple".

CB: What was your approach for the art style and the contrasting colours between the two characters?

ILYA: Part of it arises out of necessity – I had to devise a shorthand cartoon or comics language for the two different worlds of two very different characters, one that is then modified or admixed once they have come together. I also wanted to explore for my own sake something a bit less illustrative, more sketched out, the colour scheme being only a part of this coded simplification. I'm not very into naturalistic or realistic representation. In cartoons or comics, really, that entirely misses the point.

I find it deeply ironic and not a little ridiculous that in the so-called mainstream of comics we've somehow ended up with an entire generation of moody gym grunters in wrinkly underpants or bad leather, instead of dashing and iconic superheroes. And all for being hung up on an entirely misplaced quest for "realism".

This story here is true to life, but even then the depiction of reality can (and probably should) be expressionistic.

Limbering up to go into full production on pages of Room for Love, I took inspiration from a number of existing comic book sources. I could see in my mind what I wanted and as and when an example of that passed me by in my wide-ranging forages, I made notes accordingly.

The following are for the most part very much touchstones rather than outright influences in this respect. Do seek them out if you don't already know them:

  • Helen Lord, UK – Here Comes Everyone (self-published)
  • Michel Fiffe, USA – Zegas (self published)
  • Igort, Italia – Letters from Korea (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
  • Posy Simmonds, UK – ‘Ask Doctor Derek', faux hospital-set romance from Literary Life (Cape)

CB: The romance between Pamela and Cougar seems fated for failure from the moment these people meet; do you think under other circumstances they could have stayed together?

ILYA: I honestly don't see how. As you say, it is doomed to fail.

For sure they do make some sort of genuine connection – they do get on. But they should never have ended up in a sexual relationship, and there's nothing there that could sustain one for very long. It comes about as a reflex result of their isolation, their loneliness, their desperate and disparate need for love, to love.

Room for Love

CB: I know many of the events in this book are based on real incidents; can you share a favourite story or two?

ILYA: Again I should really point you at the blog on the SelfMadeHero site, but I will say here that a version of their meeting on the bridge happened to me in real life. The events in this book are much more "true to life" than they are "true life", however. There's very little here that is autobiographical, beyond the exercise of my creative antennae and observation of life as it lived. As with pretty much everything that I write I am in all of my characters, and yet none of them. If it feels real, or at least convincing to the reader, then I'm doing my job.

CB: As someone who's been involved in comics for decades, how do you see the artform evolving? Do you think there would have been a place for Room for Love ten years ago?

ILYA: I came up with the basis for this storyline 20 years ago and took numerous previous runs at getting it into print, or on film – for the Japanese market, the American market, Hollywood. I think I might have succeeded with it at any point, yes. But, you know, I didn't. So much of that is down to being in the right place, right time, almost regardless of content.

The artform evolves, for sure, yet so very far ahead of the market and what the general audience is aware of. The market progresses – if at all – at a crawl.

There's a lot wider range of materials/genres available now, online, in the bookstores, and self-published, but it remains almost impossible for any creator to make anything like a decent living at it, unless they are at the very top of the sales charts. Getting a shot at publication doesn't get any easier.

We're kind of coffee-table acceptable now, as a medium, but this doesn't necessarily translate into broad sales. We definitely need to be more widely available, better distributed, both in demand and immediately accessible, and unfortunately the newsstand sales don't exist anymore. The web is still finding its feet as a conduit for commercial creation.

Comics or "graphic novels" will remain in a bubble until there's much more in the way of pulp content – sport, sex, biography, crime, horror, and so on – straight up and unashamed, without sophisticated gloss. It's all a bit worthy just now, and that's simply not enough.

CB: What is the most important advice that you give your students?

ILYA: Be original – wear your influences but find your own voice. Make comics that look like they could only have been made this year, and only by you. And don't give up your copyright for nothing. Never, if possible: Grant a license, but always retain your copyright in your own characters or creation. And try and make sure to get paid at least something for your time.

CB: Who are some of your favourite cartoonists in the next generation?

ILYA: Ross Campbell, Sean Gordon Murphy, Richard Short, Asia Alfasi, Katja Hammond, Liz Suburbia, Joe Sparrow, Jim Rugg, Paul B Rainey…rising stars, all, however old and broken they might be!…there are so many, I could happily list them all day. Despite the woes of the market, I don't think there's ever been a better or more innovative time in this medium. Stuff is just busting out all over…what Tom Scioli is doing with Satan's Soldier and the aforementioned Michel Fiffe in his Copra comic shows that even superheroes like what grandpa loves don't have to be predictable.

Room for Love

CB: I know you published several volumes of manga anthologies. This sort of book seems like it would be much more common in Japan. Do you see English speaking comic readers as embracing more types of comics, in the same way that Japanese readers do?

ILYA: There's no good reason why not, just a huge big hole in editorial knowledge within book publishing, and no real distribution channels for it all, no advertising budgets capable of reaching the average reader or new readers. You are spot on with what you surmise about Japan, where comics or manga are happily embedded within the true mainstream of their culture. This is what I was trying to do with the three annual book volumes of The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga (2006-8) that you refer to – the operable word in the title being New. In the mix of styles and genres showcased, representing a truly international spectrum of original creators influenced and inspired by manga – and not just replicating what they saw from Japan. And these books I only edited, not published, that was Constable & Robinson.

Each anthology volume of BNM was really only akin to one of Japan's weekly magazines. What we could only publish once a year, happens about 400 times every week over there! So, we've a long, long way yet to go…

Everything's potential!

CB: What are your next projects?

ILYA: How long have you got?

Foremost I guess is Kid Savage, in collaboration with American writer Joe Kelly, for Man of Action. We're 80 pages done of a 120-page or so first volume of that, planned as an ongoing series. We're spending some of his Ben10 money on producing it, which is a cool, independent place to be creating from. Plus universe-building from the ground up is a ball!

More Mammoth anthologies – The Mammoth Book of SKULLS and The Mammoth Book of CULT COMICS – are in the pipeline. I have my editor hat on for those.

Then there's Dog Eat Dog myself as writer this time, in collaboration with a Bosnian artist Amir Idrizovic, who I met at an arts biennale in Turin, Italy, back in 2000.

Pantheon, a new solo concept. Others that it is too soon to talk about. Possible assignments for Cityreads, for whom I partially adapted Oliver Twist last year; more medicine-based comics (I've done work for comic company for twenty years, although this is something new and different); potentially some reportage about the Syrian situation; I'm also keen to get a lot of my stuff that has fallen out of print – which is most of it, unfortunately – collected into single volumes and available once again. That's probably enough to be getting on with!

I‘m not so very good at self-promotion and especially not when it comes to talking about my work. Although I'm trying to get better at it. Whenever I get asked about what I'm busy on – which is all the time really, you think I'd be better prepared – I just panic and my mind goes blank. Which, considering how much I do, is a tad foolish and ironic. But there you go.

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