Renowned Canadian graphic novel genius Seth recently enthused in an email to me: “England has produced another artist recently who has completely won me over, Jon McNaught. Two fantastic books in a row. I am an admirer.” Seth is not alone.
A recent graduate from UWE, Bristol, McNaught is making his name as one of Britain’s most sophisticated poets in comics. A landscape printmaker, he brings the mark-making and colour-mixing of traditional lithographs and relief prints to the medium, refining each borderless panel in his square-in-square grids down to its sparsest elements and painstakingly drawing and separating by hand each layer of colour, typically black, grey, pale blue and sunset pink. His narratives are less concerned with plot, drama or action than capturing melancholic moods and ephemeral plays of light and shadow, connections and contrasts between the man-made and natural worlds, and the extraordinary in the ordinary.
During evenings after work, McNaught managed to print himself only a handful of copies of his first book Birchfield Close. Luckily, eagle-eyed London publishers Nobrow spotted it and reissued it last year in a compact hardback reminiscent of Ladybird Books. It’s a deeply nostalgic reverie of a long summer’s twilight in suburbia, as two listless boys on a rooftop, barely distracted by their hand-held computer game, silently watch the world go by, shadows lengthening, birds flocking, planes and clouds passing overhead, the sounds and sights of the estate gradually falling asleep.
Childhood shapes McNaught’s second project, Pebble Island. Its two vignettes grew out of prints he had been making, inspired by Ravilious, Bawden and Nash and based on his explorations as a boy of an island in the Falklands several years after the war. He recalls, “A burnt-out landrover or a military bunker were just another part of the otherworldly landscape, another thing to play in.” In the first story Peat Bog, a young cyclist, dwarfed by giant skies, feeds Hula Hoops to fishes swimming inside an old tyre, before sparking an abandoned van’s headlights into life. In the second story Broadcast, we intercut between one man’s evening in a remote outpost on the island and the Indiana Jones video he is trying to watch. In both cases, the people seem only fleetingly sensitive to the natural beauty surrounding them.
For his new strip below, Adrift, McNaught transports us to strangers on an evening train, alternating first their views from the windows as the sun sets and then the ghostly reflections of the passengers and their stuff in the window glass as night falls. It’s yet more magic by a truly elegant conjuror of time and place.
Coming from a background in print-making, what attracted you to comics and what qualites do you think your background and expertise bring to creating them?
I guess my work has always essentially been landscape print-making (often situated within the city), but with quite a simple intention of capturing the sense of space, light, time etc. When I started working with comics it felt like a natural development of this, - the places I was interested in depicting always had so much more going on than the visuals, for example; the sounds, the bustle, the movement etc. It was hard to ignore the radio playing in the background or noise of cars in the distance when it is such an essential part of the place I was trying to depict. Working in a comic form gave me a chance to combine some of these elements that I found made a place interesting, and hopefully create something that felt a bit more real (than my prints).
You’ve tended to avoid, or minimise, close-ups and any exaggerated cartoon expressions - and prefer instead more distant viewpoints. What appeals to you about this approach? Does it create problems?
I’ve used this approach on the comics I’ve produced so far, as I wanted the characters to feel like elements of a landscape or an environment, (the environment being more of a focus of the book than the characters). I tried to use the figures and posture to suggest expression rather than close-up facial features, kind of like deadpan silent movie charecters. I guess it creates a slight detachment, giving the characters a sense of shuffling impassiveness within the landscapes of the book. Its quite a limiting approach though, and there is often a need for much more expression and charecterization. This was a rule I set myself for these books, but I’m hoping to develop and improve these elements in future work. Its something that will take a bit of practice - I don’t think I’ve quite got it figured out yet.
How personal and specific is Birchfield Close to your own childhood memories? What feelings were you trying to evoke here?
Birchfield Close started off as a print series, based upon the area I lived as a child, (I did these prints whilst working in a school back in my home town). I did some sketching in the area, and ended up exhibiting a series of screenprints documenting trees along the road, trees I would have passed every day on route to school, the shops, on paper-rounds etc. I continued making prints documenting aspects of this area, but began working with comics to try to make something slightly more lyrical, trying to capture the sense of the slow passing of time, and a feeling of endlessness that we often had on long afternoons.
It’s a vague, fleeting feeling that I was interested in, and something that places no longer really hold when you return to them, I guess it has something to do with the intimate knowledge of an environment that you can perhaps only have as a kid, - when your world is so small and constricted, it becomes vivid and condensed, or something.
Your use of text is also fairly limited - do you believe comics should show, more so than tell? If so, why?
I’m really interested in silent comics, I think there can be something very magical about reading a story just shown in pictures - I guess the lack of a clear narrative voice can make it feel like you’re discovering the story yourself, rather than being told it.
An example of this would be Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman; the fact that there is no narrator or dialogue describing the story to you gives a very strong sense of experiencing the events yourself, achieving an intimacy that would be hard to achieve in any other medium, causing it to almost feel (retrospectively) like a memory. This is something I’ve always been very interested in with comics, and been trying to play with in my comics so far.
My limited use of text is also partly due to a lack of confidence; making silent comics out of my prints seemed like a logical step, but working text and narration in has been much more of a daunting progression (but also very exciting). So far I have only really used incidental text, overheard noises, TV soundbites, radio etc, and nothing particularly written by me, but I am cautiously exploring this and trying to work with dialogue and narration in places.
How did Pebble Island develop from the initial suite of prints and what was the idea or memory that sparked this project?
I lived in the Falkland Islands for a year or so as a child, and have always loved the photographs of my brothers, sister and myself shuffling through the dramatic, windswept environments.
I’m very interested in how we viewed the place as children; my clearest, fondest memories of the islands are not of the perfect skies and rolling hills, but more often of abandoned military bunkers, or kitchen appliances dumped on beaches. Things that we had discovered, and that at the time felt compelling and mysterious. This initial interest sparked the print series; trying to play with the slight discord between the bleak, dramatic landscapes and a childish sense of wonder. The prints quite naturally moved into comics, initially just to depict the grass billowing in the wind, flies buzzing round a dead sheep etc, but the environment began to really lend itself to small, silent human narratives. It’s an environment and idea that I’l’ continue to explore in my work, I think Pebble Island only really scratched the surface.
Who are your inspirations, in art and in writing? I wondered about Japanese prints for example for their palette and compositions?
I went to see an exhibition of Hiroshige’s Tokaido Way woodcuts a few years ago and became mesmerized by his images. I love the way he has managed to capture small moments of life wittily and compassionately in his pictures - workers in fields, children playing in gardens, tired travellers on long journeys etc, and the way that these are dwarfed by, but simultaneously part of the huge, graceful landscapes. I look at a lot of British landscape painting and printmaking, including Eric Ravilious, John Nash, Edward Bawden etc, I love these landscapes, there’s such a modest beauty to them, - they really capture for me some of the landscapes I grew up with in England.
In terms of comics; since my early teens I have been in awe of modern comic artists such as Raymond Briggs, Seth, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes etc, etc, and I am endlessly excited by the beauty and poetry of their works, and the possibilities that they’ve opened up for the medium.
I also read a lot of short fiction and poetry which inspires and hopefully informs my work. I love the poems of Philip Larkin, Louis MacNiece, Seamus Heaney, etc, and the short fiction of Nabakov, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Stephanie Vaughn etc. I think that think that there is a lot to be said for the relationship between comic strips and poetry; I feel that most of my favourite comic strips have much more in common with poetry than novels, in terms of pace, structure, and ambition. I’m spending quite a bit of time at the moment looking at poetry and poetic meter, and starting to try to apply some similar rules to my work.
I know little about the current print-making world and wonder if there is an emerging trend in it towards narratives, whether in comics or other forms?
I have a few friends and contemporaries who are moving in that direction, I think that publishers like Nobrow are really helping to give an outlet for artists who may not have considered comic strips before, I guess there has been a trend towards more traditional methods in commercial print, and that has naturally appealed to print-makers.
Do you have ambitions to conceive a longer graphic novel and if so along what themes?
I am planning to do this, I think the next project I work on will be the first chapter of a longer story. It won’t be an epic ambitious story, but hopefully something fuller and more in depth than the work I’ve done before.
The story I am most enjoying thinking about at the moment is set in a similar environment to Birchfield Close, but much more involved - where Birchfield Close was largely a evocation of a place, my next project will hopefully be more of a study of characters, and hopefully have more in common with the short fiction that I love than any of my previous comics. It is very early stages though.
What aspects of your comics-making are you keenest to improve and develop?
At a basic functional level I am planning on sticking to a much larger scale for a while (more in the realm of A4 pages). I would like to create work that is denser, and more involved than my previous books (and stray slightly away from the ‘giftbook’ sizes).
In the past I have been very cautious, trying not to be too ambitious with story, charecterisation and text, and these are all things I would like to improve on and carefully weave into my work.
I am also looking at ways of simplifying my artwork, - It is a natural instinct of mine to make artwork more complicated and intricate as I progress and improve ( I guess its just showing off), - but this can often lead to clumsier comics.
I think it can sometimes be easier to do a very complex, patterned panel with multiple colours, and clever colour overlays, than a very simple, sincere bit of drawing that really gets a feeling across. I’m keen to improve on the latter, and not get so bogged down in the process.
What do you enjoy about collaborative works, such as your book illustration or other commissions?
I havent done a great deal of collaberative work to date, but the book illustration has been a real pleasure - I’ve been lucky enough to work on a couple of beautiful, evocative novels by Sonya Hartnett, with a great art director called Sophie Burdess. Its been very rewarding to try and compliment these very elegant and haunting stories with illustrations, and a real treat to work with other people. I have also done some work (shows, prints etc) with Rob Hunter (fellow Nobrow artist, - his book The New Ghost is recently out and is stunning). This is always a pleasure - we are collaberating on some writing at the moment which is a lot of fun. I think that in this kind of work, the enjoyment we get from the process of coming up with the ideas together makes the work lighter and fresher than anything we might produce on our own.
What is your next solo narrative project?
I will have a book coming out early next year (released by Nobrow), It doesn’t have a name yet - its currently a few notepads full of messy handwriting, but in the intervening months I’ll pull it together. In the meantime I am working on contributions for a few anthologies, including one or two for Nobrow, and a new magazine for St Judes.
Many thanks Jon, and thanks too for sharing a few photographs below showing the stages you take putting your comics together.
“This is the final pencil drawing of page one of the comic, from which
I’ll trace the separations.”
“This is my initial cut and paste rough of the comic, which is a bit scruffy,
but gives more of an idea of the tonal balance of the finished thing.”
“Here’s my quick test of the ‘lady eating sandwich’ panel,
which gives me a better idea of the finished look.”
“Preparing the colour seperations…”
Posted: May 8, 2011
“Keeping my desk organised!”
The opening part of this Article appeared in the June 2011 issue of Art Review.