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John Broadley:

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“Does everything seem a little unreal to you?” quizzes a bearded gent in his strip for Art Review magazine, offering a “Yes” and “No” box to tick. A certain musky strangeness wafts through most of the topsy-turvy, “back-to-tnorf” worlds of John Broadley.

In 1996, this Yorkshire lad walked away from unfulfilling freelance illustration and took up a night-time post at a press cuttings agency. After spending the small hours trawling through every article in the papers, he would bring home dozens of photos and illustrations to stick in a huge scrapbook. His magpie instinct soon gleaned still more sources: old British broadsheets, chapbooks, annuals,  folklore, stamps, half-remembered films and TV shows, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and other master print-makers, and pulpy comics. And from this personal clipping service he set about making pictures, not for a client but for himself. Collated into hand-crafted hardbacks in small editions, some as few as ten, with titles like The Twisted Tongue, Pond Life and Dreams of Rotting Teeth, these are about to reach a much wider public compiled as a “graphic novel”.

Creating comics was not his aim. “I always find that drawings lose their spontaneity when you draw the same thing again, so the idea of drawing the same characters again and again scares me.” Broadley nevertheless found himself responding intuitively to the tensions sparked when he put random drawings in sequence. Adding captions and speech he transformed his compendia of images into quasi-comics, their settings and characters forever changing from one panel to the next. “I remember thinking there was a certain absurdity already in those three-panel action strips in daily newspapers like Garth or Modesty Blaise, because there is such a limited space for anything to happen. It’s like watching a film in ten second bursts over a period of a year.”

This plus Dada, Situationism, Punk, surrealism, all helped unfetter Broadley from logical narrative and let his nonsense non-sequiturs unravel freely. The more you read, the more his works amass a cumulative resonance of colliding scenes, periods and genres within and between panels. Puritan scientists test rats for viruses, and electricity pylons dot the horizon of a 17th-century landscape, in his mischievous fusion of associative, looping feedback.  “I like the idea that you have a place where everything which ever was now exists at the same time.” Where better to make that place than in the unreal simultaneity of comics?

In preparing the above article for Art Review magazine I conducted a short interview by email with John Broadley, which is reproduced in full below.

Paul Gravett:
I was wondering about your working methods, how you compile and order/disorder these Wild for Adventure sequences? Do you make them one panel at a time, one after another - or is there any prior planning? In other worlds, is there method to your madness?

John Broadley:
When I sit down to work on a strip I’ll already have a notebook filled with bits of text I’ve picked up from a range of sources and I will sit down with a pile of comics and books and basically flick through till I find a picture source I think goes with the piece of text I’m looking at. I’ve always got such a small window of time to work that I don’t really agonise too much about it - the main thing for me is to get some work done and worry about it later.

The picture I’m working from is usually just acting as a trigger - it’s a bit like not wanting to start drawing on a completely blank piece of paper - you need something to bounce off. The final drawing will usually look a lot different to what I’m working from, unless its something like a panel from a comic book, in which case I’m wanting people to know what they are looking at is a distortion of a really familiar genre.

What role does the addition of captions and dialogue play?

I’m looking for some ambiguity in what the text might mean. I have a book on me all the time and when something comes up I jot it down. Dialogue from existing comic strips is quite difficult to find because you have to find something which isn’t specific to a certain comic but which could have other meanings. When I put words in a panel above a scene, I’m looking for some tension between the pic and the words - there’s the real meaning of the text, there’s what you can see in the pic. The pictures are usually so banal that it requires the reader to join the two up. As I’m doing this I’m aware that the reader will lose patience, which is why I started introducing the super-hero references and the Hostess Twinkies ads as I thought these might help stabilise things, especially if they were repeated throughout.

How did your work first transform from disparate drawings into these comics-like strips and pages?

The first 5 or 6 books I made were just collections of drawings, made as above though without text. Doing the strips was just a better way of presenting the drawings, but I remember at the time thinking there was a certain absurdity already in those 3 panel action strips you get in daily newspapers (Garth or Modesty Blaise etc), because there is such a limited space for anything to happen, it’s like watching a film in ten second burst over a period of a year. At the same time I read something about a Situationist strip, The Return of the Durutti Column. Although I’ve never seen it (only recently a few panels online), the thought of what it might be like inspired me to not worry about bothering about narrative.

Dada, Situationism, Punk, surrealism, nonsense - the whole idea of doing something to get up peoples’ noses has always appealed. I’m not thinking for one moment that there’s anything revolutionary or new about what I’m doing, but the spirit of those things are what really inspire me. I recently saw Dennis Potter’s play about Charles (Lewis Carroll) Dodgson and it had him dreaming up his version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, by singing the first thing which came into his head (tea tray in the sky) and he has this sense of mischief when he does it, because people can’t relate to it. With stuff like this I don’t really think there has to be any particular worth in it, it just has to provide an escape from the things (work/bureaucracy etc) that people have to suffer daily.

You like to juxtapose all sorts of references from different eras, harking back to old movies and illustrations.

The whole thing (including the books which aren’t strips) is a mix of escapism and nostalgia. The freedom I felt after ending my period working as a freelance illustrator was very important. I mean I, even now, really appreciate that I can just draw what I like without having to depend on it financially. My initial drawings were a kind of delve into earliest memories of half-remembered TV programmes and stories - although these days, some of that mystery has gone as everything can be sourced online.

What else do you do? Do you have a full-time job?

I’ve been working in a press cuttings agency throughout all this, and up until quite recently we used to sit and read through every paper (nowadays the publishers have the articles cut electronically) so I used to bring home dozens of photos and picture library illustrations which are collected in a huge scrap book.  That whole work experience is quite weird and may also account for the disparate range of images in my work. You’re basically sitting for hours on end (in the middle of the night which adds to the unreality) trawling through every single article in a newspaper - enforced to concentrate on every piece, whether it be a terrorist attack, a celebrity piece, recipe, etc.

Where else do you source your visual inpsirations?

Stuff that I actively seek out are reference books on old illustrations, from chapbooks to illustration collections of work from the early 20th century. Lots of supernatural/esoteric books.

Every so often I get really interested in a particular thing. My Cauff Riddles/Nettlesome book, which appears in the Cape JB’s Books compilation, is all about the folk traditions of Britain. But I was interested in the way it was picked up in the 1960s and 1970s through Play for Today and other TV work of the likes of John Bowen (Robin Redbreast, A Photograph), David Rudkin (Penda’s Fen), Alan Garner (The Owl Service), Peter Dickinson (The Changes) and Dennis Potter & Nigel Kneale. All of these deal with myths and legends but bring them into the present and I kind of like this idea that you have a place/scenario where everything which ever was now exists at the same time. So electricity pylons in a scene which could otherwise be a 17 century woodcut. If there is a telephone, it will be a dial one - not push-button, or be situated in a telephone box. A car will be a vintage one. Likewise clothes will be from any period or country, but chosen because they look better in the drawing, unlike modern dress, which generally I don’t think does.

What’s your relationship to illustration?

While I didn’t really find working as a freelance illustrator suited me at the time, I do really like lots of illustration work, like Bawden, Ravilious, John & Paul Nash, Edward Ardizzone, and all those people. I like the look of those two colour spot illustrations you used to get in things like the Saturday Book. I do tend to produce work which looks a bit like that from time to time, though I haven’t been faced with their problem of conceptualising an idea, I am merely making an image which looks like an illustration rather than actually being one, which is like my strips I suppose, in that they are not what they appear to be on the surface.

Can you give me a couple of specific examples of how you work and arrive at these strange connections in your work?

Well, one of the panels in a WFA strip has a woman exclaiming ‘The Pie is gone!’ which is a reference to Great Expectations. Great Expectations has the scenario of Pip going to London, trying to fit in, which is also a theme used in Billy Liar, even though he never gets there. That also links to Dick Whittington, for which I might use the Ladybird book version to find a picture to work from, and then maybe use the old oranges and lemons rhyme.  The experience of coming from the north to London - in search of freelance work - is referenced quite a bit, but is a small part of it. This is a snapshot of how it is formed. I’m not trying to communicate these references to people - I mean I’m not trying to make the references so explicit. In the end I’m trying to create something that stands up on its own and not something which is simply a pot pourri of found images.

Then in the most recent “Wild For Adventure” book, there are two pages featuring a character called Fuad Ramses giving recipes associated with the Hand of Glory. Fuad Ramses is a character from the first ever gore film, ‘Blood Feast’ directed by H G Lewis. In this Ramses recreates an ancient Egyptian recipe which requires sourcing of body parts. The Hand of Glory features widely in folklore, also in The Wicker Man, while the text for this comes from an old LP called ‘A Graveyard of Ghostly Tales’ read by Vincent Price. The images in these pages are adapted from ones taken from broadsheets and chapbooks.

I was surprised, and pleased, to find in your latest WFA a “proper” five-page sequential story, “Bond of Reunion”. How did this come about?

The text for this came also came from the Vincent Price LP. It was my first attempt at doing a story. I’ve always avoided doing this as I’ve been put off by worrying about continuity. When I draw something I’m not sure how its going to turn out, and often they’re on the verge of being failures when you suddenly draw big shoes and it all fits together. I always find that drawings lose their spontaneity when you draw the same thing again, so the idea of drawing the same characters again and again kind of scares me. I’m not sure if the story was a success or not, no one’s mentioned it. I definitely feel more comfortable flitting from subject to subject, but the problem I’m faced with now is where I go from here. I don’t think I can continue the WFA strips as they are without adding some purpose, so I’m always thinking about a story I could use which would allow me to retain some of the elements of chaos but also take the reader somewhere.

Good luck John, I look forward to going wherever your work takes me to next.

Posted: May 9, 2010

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