Interview by Stewart Loud.
Calvin is a UK based freelance illustrator and cartoonist who has been working for clients around the world for almost a decade. His cartoons and illustrations have been published on every continent and in a whole range of places, from Children’s books to comics, from character designs to advertising/branding.
Calvin is the founder of My Little Big Town Ltd, a publishing company based in Yorkshire, UK. He writes and illustrates the comics ‘Barley’, ‘Billy Bob Cletis Jr’ and ‘The League Of Really Bad Superheroes’ along side creating illustrations for several children’s books. Calvin has been a regular illustrator for The Brownies, Girl Guides and Rainbow Guides for the last four years and continues to create weird and wonderful illustrations for people the world over.
He very kindly agreed to take the time to answer a few questions for Comic Addicts.
How long have you been interested in comics and what drew you to a career in illustration and writing?
I guess a lot of artists say the same but I’ve been a fan of comics for as long as I can remember . I suppose my interest started when I was about 5 or 6 and I started collecting the Beano and Dandy comics. It was never so much about the stories for me, even at that age, but the artwork. I spent hours copying the characters and artwork, creating my own versions of the Bash Street Kids (always my favourite as a kid) and developing my drawing skills. I bought every comic I could, from charity shops and car boot sales and before long my bedroom was filled with hundreds of different titles.
I still have most of my old comics and some of the artwork in those is still great. Simple but so effective. I’ve seen the comics recently and they seem to have lost a lot of what they had when I read them, back in the 80’s. I think there is too much focus on trying to make them look ‘cool’ and modern and a lot of the appeal of those earlier strips is gone. It’s a shame really.
I then discovered Marvel and DC comics thanks to my Dad… in particular Batman and the early Star Wars comics and a whole new world opened up for me. It sounds a little cheesy but it really was an incredible feeling the first time I saw a Batman comic. The artwork was a million miles from the ‘kid’s comics’ I had been reading. It was dark and exciting and I felt like I HAD to learn to draw (and write) like that.
I looked through your list of publications and saw that you’ve worked on a number of children’s books as well as comics. Do you have a favourite genre of book or comic to illustrate or write for and what titles have you most enjoyed working on?
I have a fairly limited attention span so whenever possible I like to mix up what I’m working on. I enjoy drawing comics, particularly pencilling/drafting ideas and layouts, but I like the freedom that comes from illustrating children’s books too. Often the comics I work on can be dark/serious in nature and fairly technical so when I illustrate a children’s book it’s a nice break and a chance to do something bright and a little different. Anisha’s Adventures by Moinul Islam is a recent one I worked on which was a lot of fun.. just very bright and lively. The Ecobears, by David Sterriker and Yvonne Wright is another that was a lot of fun to illustrate.
When I’m working on one of my own titles (as opposed to another author) it allows me to get all of the weird stuff I have in my head down on paper. Most of my own children’s stories tend to be a little dark, or creepy, or just a bit odd. Jonny Moor for example is about a boy who dreams of becoming a werewolf so he can eat his teachers. Stuart The Bug Eating Man is about, a man who eats insects for a living. Roald Dahl was, and still is my favourite children’s author. I think the way he wrote stories and created off the wall characters influenced me more than any other author. I still enjoy reading his books now as much as ever.
As far as a favourite type of book to illustrate goes.. I’m not sure I could choose one over another. It depends how I feel on any particular day. Some days I feel like drawing cute and furry kid’s books… the next I might be in the mood to draw something much darker and more serious.
What, of all your work, are you most proud of and why? If someone was going to read one book you worked on, which one would you recommend?
I tend not to look back too much on past projects. That’s not to say I don’t like them, or aren’t proud of them but I’m always looking to the next thing.. and hopefully to improve on my last piece of work.
The comic book project I’m currently working on, called ‘Barley’ has been waiting to find it’s way onto paper since I was a kid. It’s actually based on a game I used to play with a few of my favourite toys. I have a special connection to this title just because I’ve been waiting to write/illustrate it for so long.
Barley was a bear I had since I was very small… he was always the hero who would wake up in a strange world inhabited by other toys (sounds a little like Toy Story but believe me it’s a long way from that). Barley was always a brave loner who was on an epic quest to find out who he was and where he came from. The comic sticks very closely to the adventure stories I came up with as a kid, all be it quite a bit darker and more developed. It certainly isn’t for young kid’s any more.
Stan Sakai is another huge influence on me, with both his artwork and writing. The Usagi Yojimbo books really went a long way to helping me see how this epic story I had in my head could be put down on paper in an effective way. I can’t praise the guy enough (if you’ve not seen Stan’s work I urge you to check it out) … if Barley ends up being just half as good I will consider it a success.
Is there anything you dislike or struggle drawing? I used to do a lot of drawing in my spare time and I always hated hands and feet! Used to have characters legs disappearing off the bottom of panels or obscured by bits of scenery.
I struggled with horses for a long time until I had a commission where I had to draw a bunch of them in various poses. After a few days of trawling through reference photos and sketching repeatedly I had them pretty much figured out. I can draw them pretty quickly from memory now, but as with all drawing the more you work on a particular subject the better you get. This doesn’t always mean you get more realistic either.. it may mean that your own style develops or you figure out different ways to draw a particular subject.
Hands and feet are always tricky when you’re starting out, but the more you draw them the better you get. Once you have it nailed the hands in particular are an important tool for showing actions and emotions in a character…. and eventually a strategically placed vase covering the hands just wont cut it. I still occasionally use reference pictures or take photos of my own hands to get a difficult pose correct. I find this particularly useful when drawing close ups of hands at dramatic angles and in a lot of detail.
If you could choose any one existing title to work on, what would it be and why?
There are two comic book titles that I would give my right leg to work on.. Batman and Spawn. Both are just great comics, the writing, the colours, even down to the lettering styles. Each has be worked on by the artists I look up to the most too, so it would be a real feather in my cap if one day I got the chance to work on those. You never know.
Is there a comic title you find so sickeningly bad that you wouldn’t work on it no matter how much they paid you? In fact, have you ever turned down work for this reason?
No I don’t think so. Every comic has something about it, otherwise it wouldn’t be out there. If it was a case where I could add my own spin on the comic then I’d be totally happy to work on most things. It’s all about having that creative freedom.
I have turned down a couple of projects in the past where I was asked to copy another artists style completely, with no freedom whatsoever. I find that sort of work frustrating, not because I don’t like those particular styles, but if an artist has spent their career perfecting a certain style then their work is going to look a lot better than my own ‘imitation’. I can’t really say which comics they were though.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about and what are you most excited about.
It’s going to be a VERY busy year both for myself and at my company, My Little Big Town.
Personally I have another four children’s books coming out this year, including a collection of short stories and poems I’ve written over the last eight years or so. They’re all very short and silly (Timmy, The boy who wanted to be a Redwood tree is just one of them). I’m really enjoying putting that one together because of the chance to look back over some of the daft stuff I’ve scribbled down and forgotten about. The illustrations will all be nice and simple, with none of them taking more than ten minutes to draw.
Gorgeous George and The Geriatric Generator by Stuart Reid is a great little book I’m illustrating. I’ve worked with Stuart on a few things before but this is the first kid’s book we’re doing together and it’s just the right amount of silly, gross and weird to keep me interested.
On the comic book side of things I will be launching Barley which will be released as six comics over the year, followed by the first graphic novel (six issues collected in one book) around Christmas.
I’m also working on a further four comic book titles as either author, penciller, inker, colour artist or in one case all four. Those projects are still a little hush-hush at this stage though but any fellow horror/sci-fi fans keep your eyes peeled for The Place Below, by far the darkest thing I’ve worked on to date. It has a lot of Gothic horror and film noir influences and is easily the most fun I’ve had illustrating any comic.
There are also two comics I’m illustrating/developing with author Anish Patel. The first is based on the classic Christmas Carol story, but set in London around the time of the July bombings. The style of the artwork means that each page takes a lot of time to put together but the final result should be great. Keep an eye out for the 10 page preview soon.
The second, The Final Nine, is a graphic novel focusing on a poker tournament in Las Vegas and the players involved. It’s an interesting piece to work on as it’s really focused on the people and their individual personalities and backgrounds. There are no sprawling action scenes, which brings it’s own challenges when it comes to the illustration.
What advice, if any, would you give to anyone who thinks they have the talent necessary for a career in comic book illustration and wants to get themselves noticed?
Just keep drawing. You can never draw too much. Not only will your work improve and develop the more you do it, you will also start to accumulate a collection of illustrations for your portfolio. A good portfolio is essential to any illustrator.
Try to push yourself and try new things. A varied portfolio with good quality work in a few different styles will always impress potential clients as they will see that you can adapt to their needs. Although a portfolio with a bunch of great illustrations on one subject, or in one style can look pretty good it may be limiting in the work you get.
Work on your weaknesses! If you can’t draw hands then that’s what you should focus on. Sketch and re-sketch from photos and if possible a real model (your own non-drawing hand is perfect) until you get it right. The same goes for anything you feel you can’t draw well. By learning to draw the things you find difficult you not only expand your illustration arsenal but you’ll also get a feeling of satisfaction when you finally nail it.
What was the first work you had published and how did it happen?
I’ve worked as a commercial illustrator for several years now, and all of my work for the first three or four years was just that, commercial illustrations. I illustrated everything from posters and advertising material, to clothing designs and character/mascot designs. Still a fair percentage of my work is this sort of thing, but the books and comics are taking over more as the years go on. I’m pretty happy about this to be honest as that’s where my real passion lies.
My first experience as a published illustrator/author though wasn’t exactly a pleasant one. I had only been working freelance for a short time and was approached by a publisher to work on a book for them.. a collection of short stories by different authors. I jumped at the chance without really looking much further into it and got to work. I wrote a few short stories for them and illustrated stories by three other authors as well as myself. Everything seemed fine until the book was actually launched. From that point on the publisher did nothing, and was impossible to contact.
None of the authors received their royalties or fees (nor did I) and the book disappeared into oblivion. It was a pretty annoying experience but I learned the hard way to check and double check contracts and agreements before going ahead with a project. Something any freelancer just starting out should make sure they do to avoid making the mistakes I made.
Thankfully I’ve only had a bad experience like that the once, for the most part publishers are great people!
What comics are you reading at the moment?
Spawn is probably still my favourite title. Every issue just blows me away, it’s been consistently good for years now and it just seems to keep getting better. Greg Capullo is possibly the best comic book artist around at the moment so check out his issues for some incredible artwork.
Namor: The First Mutant is a great comic and seems to be getting better with every issue. I’m usually drawn to the artwork in a comic before the story (Stuart Moore) and it was the cover of issue #2 (by Jae Lee) that sucked me into this one. The writing has to be good to keep me reading and in this case it really is. Deadpool is another title I always like from the Marvel family.
The Spirit by David Hine is another I’ve really enjoyed recently. Beautiful artwork again (Moritat) and it has that film noir sort of feel that I can’t get enough of.
On a lighter comic note if you get chance check out Callous Comics, a very funny daily comic strip by my friend Carlos Jose San Juan. http://www.callouscomics.com He’s a talented guy who writes consistently good stuff and has been doing so for years.
And my own web-comic about an overweight superhero who really can’t be bothered with the whole thing ‘Billy Bob Cletis Jr’ can be found at http://www.billybobcletisjr.com
Do you have any jobs going? I make a great cup of tea and I’d work for food and a desk to sleep under.
Haha, ask me again in a couple of months. MLBT has some exciting things happening this year so you never know!
Finally, you can either have super powers or cure cancer. What would you choose?
I’ll admit, stole the idea for this question from Clint magazine in case you wondered.
I’d be a bit of a dick if I didn’t choose curing Cancer, so that….. I would kinda The Flash’s powers though, it would make meeting deadlines a hell of a lot easier.
Just kidding about the job. Mostly.