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William Goldsmith:

Vignettes Of Ystov

Whole worlds and even entire universes can spring from the pens and minds of comic artists - after all, the imagination needs no special effects budget. Sometimes, though, a city is more than enough. This is true of William Goldsmith, an upcoming British graphic storyteller born in Athens, who is imagining his own ‘bleak but whimsical’ metropolis named Ystov. Located in an unspecified East European state, Ystov is ‘translated only very roughly’ as Y-Town, its name derived from being founded at the fork of a river. Its buildings and streets provide the linked settings for Goldsmith’s two-page tales about the city’s eccentric citizens, or Ystovians, collected as Vignettes of Ystov.

As non-Ystovians, we begin our readings and wanderings of Ystov somewhat lost, like most foreigners in an alien place. But with each interlocking story, each different perspective, both the ensemble cast of characters and the city’s landmarks - like the recurring thoroughfare of ‘Tamarisk Utt’ or the Trexlar Tower, a looming bureaucratic edifice which dominates the skyline, festooned with statues of the city’s padded-shouldered president -  become incrementally familiar and compose a map of locations and relationships in the mind. To the point where, literally, the penny drops, as a labourer atop the Trexlar Tower accidentally lets go of a coin, whose plummet proves lethal. A tiny moment or a bit-player waiting in the wings in one story can take centre-stage in another. The more closely we pay attention, the more a web of connections becomes clear.

Goldsmith, a 2009 graduate of Glasgow School of Art, developed his ‘Vignettes’ while still a student there, drawn to comics by ‘their condensing of information, layers of story that you can linger over and return to.’ Ystov grew partly from his visits to Hungary and Slovakia but also from his own quirky urban narratives. ‘There was some level of absurdity in them, in the nose-sculptor, the debris-cataloguing janitor, or the coincidence-monitoring scientists, an absurdity which could spar well with a faintly authoritarian society that tried to oppress it.’ For example, his new strip for the March issue of Art Review, shown below, exposes some young Ystovians’ trade in misplaced gloves.

In his striking graphic novel debut, Goldsmith’s typography and design derive from a sort of hand-drawn, humanised Constructivism, while Seventies Soviet-era magazines triggered ideas, as did Bruce Chatwin’s final novel Utz and Jan Svankmajer’s film Conspirators of Pleasure. Awash in subtle greys blended with typically subdued colour accentings, Goldsmith’s comics shine via his texts, concise and precise, delighting in the choicest word. He is a paper architect, building his city story-by-story.

In preparing this profile, I did a brief email interview with William Goldsmith which he has kindly let me share with you below.

Paul Gravett:
What were you doing before you started making comics and what attracted you to take them up?

William Goldsmith:
I was studying illustration at Glasgow School of Art when I began Vignettes of Ystov, and was always interested in working with narrative and sequential imagery. I liked comics for their economy - the condensing of information, layers of story that you can linger over and return to. Although extremely time-consuming, they’re a very concise and understated way of working, which appeals to me. 

Why this fascination with Eastern European culture and society?

Ystov is a fictitious city, and really an amalgam of several places - but I think Soviet Eastern Europe is the one that comes across the most.  The stories came first, and the city was created in response to them. There was some level of absurdity in the stories, in the nose sculptor, the debris-cataloguing janitor, or the coincidence-monitoring scientists. I thought perhaps this absurdity could spar well with a society that tried to oppress it, so a bleak and faintly authoritarian society seemed one way to try this.

Have you visited this region or have you any special connections to it?

I visited Hungary and Slovakia a few summers ago, which probably inspired me a little bit - but no, other than that there are no special connections to it as such.

What writers influence you especially, in comics but also in literature?

Ben Katchor’s comics are quite an obvious influence; I think Bruce Chatwin’s final novel Utz triggered ideas, as well as Jans Svankmeyer’s film Conspirators of Pleasure. I also love George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody and the short stories of Bohumil Hrabal, particularly a collection called The Death Of Mr Baltisberger.

How do you develop a story, what starts you off and inspires you and what’s the process and stages?

I would like to work in a linear set of stages but it’s never worked out that way. I make daily observations or speculations in tiny notebooks, and will try to weave as much imagined story as possible around a quite trivial detail. This will gradually grow and link to other stories. At the same time I try to collate visual references for stories - I looked at a lot of 1970s Soviet Magazines for Vignettes of Ystov. Other sources will come in too - newspaper obituaries, anecdotes, sketchbook drawings, packaging, old postcards, things that people drop or discard - I am a bit of a hoarder!

I then make lots of development drawings for the specific scenes or backdrops in the book, and do little visual tests for colour, character, lettering, panel structure etc. I do quick thumbnails to map out the comic strips as well.

Finally, I will create quite a rigidly pencilled page of the comic - showing the grid layout and lettering. Then I will trace over this on a separate sheet on a lightbox, using coloured inks and brushes, in quite a loose manner. It’s a long process.

You’ve added some new non-comics material to the Vignettes book - what was your thinking behind these and how they relate to the 2 page comics?

Because the comics are quite condensed, I hoped these could act almost as ‘breathing space’ as you read through the book. I also wanted to create the effect of zooming in and out of scenes of Ystov, as if through a film camera.

These big images also contain details that link the stories in the comics pages to each other.

I notice a number 1 on the spine. Do you see Ystov and your cast of characters as themes and subjects you will return to and elaborate further? If so how?

I think there’s plenty of room for development for Ystov, from both a visual and narrative point of view, so we’ll see what happens. This is still a very new way of working for me, so I’d like to experiment further with it, and with the basic premise of snapshots from an imagined city.

Do you have ambitions to develop a full-length graphic novel? If so can you reveal anything about your plans?

It’s something I think about, but it would be premature for me to dwell too much on it, as I’m still working out how to improve and play with the shorter comics in Vignettes of Ystov.

What else are working on - illustration? Do you paint? Are there other medium you’d like to explore?

I do work as an illustrator as well, and there are other areas of illustration to explore, and I am interested in film and animation - but this will all come in good time hopefully!

Here’s a subtitled and edited video of William’s workshop in Moscow at the Kommissia Comics Festival:


Posted: February 20, 2011

This article first appeared in the March 2010 ‘Future Greats’ issue of Art Review.

Vignettes Of Ystov is published by Jonathan Cape on March 3rd. You can meet William, Bill to his friends, at Laydeez Do Comics on Monday February 28th, where he and other interns from the London Print Studio Comics Collective will join Karrie Fransman in reporting on their first visit to this January’s Angoulême International Comics Festival.


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