This being graphic novel month, I have organised a few interviews with proper artists who do this sort of thing for a living. Alexander Matthews is a freelance cartoonist who draws comics for loads of people, including Private Eye, The Spectator, The Week and The Dandy (which I’d recommend buying solely for his strip, Nuke Noodle – read the first episode on his blog here). He currently lives between Russia (where he teaches art) and the UK. He very kindly agreed to chat about what it’s like to be a proper comicker, rather than a charlatan like me.
You trained in illustration and graphic design and you’ve also been a teacher – which came first and how did you get to the point where you are now?
Illustration came first; the teaching thing was really a way to make money. It’s extraordinarily difficult to make ends meet as a freelance illustrator straight out of college. Teaching very much took over my life for a number of years, however. It’s a tough job but one I love.
You draw in a few different styles (strips and panels, colour and monochrome) – which is your favourite to draw and do you have different processes for coming up with them?
I don’t really have a favourite style. The demands of the publication tend to dictate how I draw. With gag cartooning I might sell one out of every 10 I draw, so I tend not to spend so much time on the images. The strips sort of write themselves-I start at picture one and end up at picture 12. Then I go back and stuff a few more jokes in there! Writing gags is much more difficult-a lot of staring out of the window, drinking coffee and going for walks. I draw all my cartoons directly onto the computer because I’m lazy and paper is a fire hazard.
Why cartoons, as opposed to say Shaun Tan style illustrations without text?
I’ve drawn comics all my life but I decided when I was about 12 that I wanted to be an illustrator even though I wasn’t 100% sure what one was. When I graduated and started to get a bit of work I soon realised that I didn’t actually like it all. Cartooning gives me far more freedom than commercial illustration. I actually prefer the writing part to the drawing part so cartoons with jokes in were always the way I wanted to go. And I’m rubbish at drawing in comparison to Shaun Tan.
How did you end up lecturing in Russia? Do you ever submit to Russian magazines? Is cartoon humour different there?
I wanted to stop teaching in schools so I applied for and managed to get this job in Russia, working in a British university. It’s a good place, although I am returning to England really soon. I have no idea about Russian humour, they seem to laugh at jokes with no punch lines and their TV comedy is deeply unsophisticated. I’ve never submitted to Russian magazines. There is virtually no market whatsoever.
You’ve done stuff for kids comics and grown up magazines – what have you got left that you want to do?
Write a kids book I think would be the main one. Get into The New Yorker. The same as everyone else!
Would you consider doing an entire graphic novel with a particular narrative arc?
I’d consider it, but I’d have to know I was getting paid for it. It’s too much work otherwise.
You draw a web comic called Evil Twin, but what are your top three web comics to read?
Evil Twin is on a hiatus right now, but they’ll return in a week or so. Something had to give in my current schedule. I don’t really like any web comics right now. Tom the Dancing Bug is always worth reading but it’s not really a web comic. Michael Kupperman‘s strip ‘Up All Night’ is as wonderful as everything else he does, but it’s not strictly a web comic either. Most web comics are just not funny enough for me to bother with or I get bored of them quickly. I’m just not that much into reading comics of any kind any more.
Do you ever collaborate with other writers on your work? Why/not?
Nope. I’m open to it, but it’s a hard situation to manage.
Do you have any tips for people wanting to get into comics?
Don’t be deluded into thinking you can draw or write when you can’t-at least have a certain level of professional ability before you start. Also, there’s no money in it.