Interviewed by Garen Ewing in August 2008
All artwork reproduced by kind permission of David O' Connell © 2008
GE: Can I start with some very basic biographical background? I think we're roughly the same age, perhaps you're a bit younger than me - I'm 39, so I'll be interested to move on to what influences and childhood favourites you had.
DO'C: I'm 37 - so you've a couple of years on me there!
GE: Ah, sorry. Not too far off, but every year counts! So, where were you brought up?
DO'C: I was born in Ashford, Middlesex and lived there till my early teens. It's not a bad place, but a bit of a nothing town - typical London suburb. We then moved to Bracknell, Berkshire. I don't recommend it.
GE: My only experience of Bracknell is driving over its roundabouts on my way to Reading, so no comment on that. What about your education, did you have any specific art training?
DO'C: I had the typical state education of the time: junior, middle and secondary school (the current UK education system is a complete mystery to me). I studied Biochemistry at Bristol University and after a couple of years working I went to Cambridge to do a PhD in Clinical Biochemistry. I've not had any art training which I regret a little bit, but I'm glad I've had the opportunity to work in other fields.
GE: What is your occupation now?
DO'C: I work in IT, although I've had the last couple of years off as my partner's job was seconded to Amsterdam, and I became a house-husband over there. We came back to the UK at the beginning of the year and I'm looking for a proper job, though not very enthusiastically.
GE: Was biochemistry something you wanted to get into, did you have ambitions in that area, or was it one of those subjects you kind of fell in to when university suddenly loomed into view?
DO'C: I had no idea what career path to take. I'd had a science bias at school so picked biochemistry as it was fairly general, and had broad career potential. Biotechnology was an up-and-coming thing then and the chance to muck around with DNA appealed to the sci-fi fan in me.
GE: Did you ever entertain the idea of a career in art? For instance, was it something you thought of but dismissed as unrealistic, or did it never even enter your mind?
DO'C: It did enter my mind, but none of my family or friends were artistic in any way, so it was foreign territory. I had ability in sciences so it seemed like a safer option, which pleased those around me, so I was happy.
GE: Drawing has obviously been a long-time interest. Was it entwined with an interest in comics, or were they separate pursuits that came together later on?
DO'C: I've certainly always drawn. My father worked for the Ordnance Survey and brought home pads of paper made from the off-cuts of all the maps, so there was always a supply of good quality cartridge paper around. I used to make my own newspapers and magazines, rather than comics. Although I was an avid Beano reader from about 6 years old, I had no interest in creating my own comics until much later.
GE: Was there a story-telling element to the newspapers and magazines you created as a child?
DO'C: Certainly a world-building element, which is something I really enjoy doing, probably more than creating a linear storyline. I'd create news stories about fantasy countries with their own histories - the great thing is that history doesn't have neat endings, the stories just go on and on through the generations. In that case the 'story' is merely a slice of time taken from that history, and left open-ended for the future to write, if that makes sense. I'd also write travel guides to the countries with illustrated sections on their customs, clothes and food.
GE: I used to do a very similar thing, but they were called 'role-playing games'! I did far more world-creating and writing than actual playing. So 'The Illustrated Gazette' that appears at the back of Tozo chapter 1 would be a direct descendant of those newspapers you created as a child?I loved that, with everything from a main news story down to fashion and weather reports of Nova Venezia.
DO'C: Yes - and I loved doing it too. It's a chance to let my imagination run riot as well as adding depth to the central plot. It's also a wonderful way to generate ideas about the direction of the story. Things that I've created specifically for the Extras section of the printed comics do creep into the tale later on.
Character sketches from Tozo chapter 3
GE: So when did the thought of making comics more seriously come about? Is it something you can pinpoint, or was it a gradual process?
DO'C: I'd always drawn characters from the comics, and created my own characters, but to be honest, I couldn't be bothered to create any comics around them - it seemed like a lot of hard work, drawing the same characters over and over again from panel to panel, and I was far too impatient for that. It wasn't until I felt I had original stories to tell that I actually thought about taking comic creation more seriously. Up until my thirties, the only comic I'd created was a superhero comic when I was 11. The story was a Legion of Super-Heroes story where I'd replaced all the Legion characters with my own.
GE: Can you remember any of the characters' names?
DO'C: Oh Lord - far too embarassing to remember. Electric Boy, Magnet Guy, A-bit-like-Saturn Girl. That kind of thing.
GE: What about Johnny Dishwater - that came just prior to Tozo, didn't it? Was that a little try-out, or was it meant to be bigger and then Tozo came along and you dropped Johnny?
DO'C: Johnny Dishwater was a test run to see whether I had the stamina for a multipage comic, as well as being a practice of the ligne claire style, which I hadn't really tried seriously before. I like the characters from Johnny Dishwater and want to do something a bit more serious with them sometime. They make a cameo appearance in Tozo chapter 1 (in the panel where Tozo and Klikker walk through the little market).
GE: What were the kind of things that made a big impression on you growing up - comics, films, books and art? I'm especially interested in the earlier stuff, from the 70s and 80s, that perhaps made a deeper impression.
DO'C: I've always loved the fantastic. I had quite an appetite for Enid Blyton's books when I was a youngster - although the language hasn't necessarily aged well she had some wonderfully mad ideas: a wishing chair with little wings! A gigantic tree with people living inside it, and bizarre lands above the clouds that rotated around it like a turntable! Fabulous. That strange kind of odd coziness can also be found in the Smallfilms animations of the time, which I loved - Bagpuss, the Clangers, Ivor the Engine. I like weirdness that has the potential to be threatening but hasn't quite crossed the line into horror. Understatement makes for a much bigger impact when you eventually turn the scaryness up a notch. A classic Grimm fairy tale (with illustrations by Rackham) was (and is) always welcome.
I've noticed that bright colours have always made a deep impression, so things like 'Thunderbirds' and the garish technicolour films of the 50s have always been very appealing. Comics like the 'Trigan Empire' series that appeared in Look and Learn were a translation onto paper of that same kind of vivid colour scheme.
When the Superman film came out in 1978 I discovered superhero comics, and spent all my pocket money on them (I can remember they were 20p each then). Again, the brightly costumed superheroes appealed to my colour sense, whilst the generally optimistic, morally upright story-telling fit with my simplistic view of the world. A friend showed me a copy of the new 2000AD comic with its black-and-white art and gritty stories and I wasn't very impressed. I'll probably have my comics membership card taken away when I say that I don't think I've ever actually read it since.
In the mid-80s, I discovered a little comic shop relatively close to home and that proved a revelation. I discovered Bryan Talbot's 'Adventures of Luther Arkwright', which remains to this day, at least for me, the best comic ever written. And it was black-and-white! It's been hugely influential on me with its multi-layered, non-linear plotlines and original story-telling techniques. I also loved the fact that I didn't have a clue what was going to happen next, in complete contrast to the reliable predictability of superheroes.
At around the same time I discovered the French artist Moebius and was rocked by his magical art in the same way I was rocked by Talbot's writing. There is nothing quite like Moebius - his sense of the fantastic is unmatched, and he's deeply influenced my drawing style.
It was also in the 80s that I learnt about some of the comics of the past, like the original Eagle and Winsor McCay's 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' with their delicate linework and (once again) rich colouring. And of course there was Hergé, whose Tintin albums were used as teaching aids in my French class. Although I loved them, I wouldn't say they were influential until much more recently when I was consciously trying to establish a drawing style. But the 80s were certainly a busy period, influence-wise.
click to see larger
early version of Nova Venezia (1989)
click to see larger
rejected page 1 from Chapter 1
GE: Well it's very interesting to read that and then look at Tozo and see what's seeped through. Of course it all comes through the David O' Connell Filter, but I can see a bit of the slightly side-ways science fiction that comes from Luther Arkwright, and while the graphics put me in mind of the Franco-Belgian ligne claire, the colours and design gave me a definite Moebius vibe. There's an Art Deco flourish to the buildings and objects in Tozo, with some wonderful detail. Do you have any particular favourites in that direction, or is that more a stylistic choice brought about by dipping your story into a bit of steam-punk, which also has a presence in the technology of Nova Venezia?
DO'C: That probably comes from Flash Gordon, both the Alex Raymond strips, which the Sunday Times ran for a period of the 80s, and the 30s movie serial which used to appear regularly on the BBC. Art Deco features heavily on Raymond's designs of planet Mongo, and to me is a style that says 'sci-fi' far more than some of the glass-and-steel buildings of today.
GE: How did Tozo come about? What was the germ of the idea that led to the more fully fledged story and characters?
DO'C: The place came first, I think (I was in my first year of university so my memory of it is not so clear). A rotten old city, beautiful but past its best and hiding secrets. I visited Venice the following year and found it absolutely magical, so my city became a city on water. Giving the city futuristic technology set it firmly in the realms of sci-fi and fantasy. I suspect Moebius' art may have been the driver behind that development.
I imagined the different aristocratic families battling it out for supremacy. I also remembered the case of Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found dead under Blackfriars Bridge in 1982 after a scandal involving the Vatican and the Mafia. The idea of a ruling church getting its hands dirty in financial corruption and murder added something darker to the mix and resulted in making the story a murder mystery, at least to begin with.
GE: I'm sure I remember seeing a documentary on that Calvi case, or some long news item anyway - God's Banker - very intriguing. So what was next in the process... did you have the plot quite well formed, after it gestating for so long, and start scripting? How well planned, if at all, is the entire story?
DO'C: The story is pretty thoroughly planned, though it does evolve and I'm not above changing things right at the last minute, literally at the point when I'm about to post the comic online. I had bits of plot in my head before I started writing it, so it was a process of sticking that together coherently and detailing the finer points. I wrote the whole thing right to the very end over a period of years then, after leaving it in a drawer for about 10 years (!), put it through a drastic editing process which gave me the master version. I use this script as the framework from which I create the page layout and weave in the changes when they pop up, using a timeline to keep track of all the subplots.
GE: And didn't you tell me at Caption last year (2007) that the story itself would take ten years to tell? Does that mean we have to wait a decade to find out who killed Luco Lello, or is that ten years of a bigger Tozo story to be told?
DO'C: That was a guestimate that I'm gradually revising downwards, although the past eighteen months since I started have gone very quickly! I have promoted Tozo as a murder mystery but Lello's death just kicks off the story (and the readers should already know by now who killed Lello, if not why). The tale gradually gets more epic the more Tozo sticks his nose in to other people's business - it's a lesson for him on the use and abuse of different types of power: religious, financial, political and economic. I've written the story in three acts and have given myself a get-out at the end of Act 1 if I'm getting fed up of doing it and need a break. That's probably a couple of years away, however.
GE: There's a nice pace to the story that gives a sense of the growing scale of things. And though we may know who killed Lello - we don't know the big whos and whys quite yet! I do like these stories that start with a seemingly simple affair but soon reveal their global scale - a bit like 'The Thirty-Nine Steps'. And hints of war and religious tension have uncomfortable contemporary echoes. Is that something you're playing to, or is it just a natural result of the world-building? I notice a slight Nazi symbolism to the Spider Empire.
DO'C: You're probably right in that is a natural world-building consequence. I'm not consciously playing to current events - the script was written years ago, so perhaps that's a sign that the world doesn't really change. However, there is a benefit to having a setting or scenario with which the readers are slightly familiar. Nova Venezia is a bit like Venice, the Papal City is a bit like the Vatican, and so on. Everyone is familiar with these organisations and places even if they've never been involved with them or visited them. If I suggest a situation in the plot, the reader will fill in the gaps themselves through their fore-knowledge without me having to put in too many talking heads explaining everything. That's a very useful trick if you're trying to create an atmosphere.
Having said that, the Nazi symbolism of the Spider Empire is more deliberate. The Nazis recognised the power of imagery for propaganda and it's amazing how a simple graphic symbol like the swastika has become so intimidating - the spider symbol is meant to look swastika-ish and so be rather scary. That's the only parallel with the Nazis: the Spider Empire is not meant to be Nazi Germany. It's an authoritarian state with a massive personality cult so it could be any authoritarian regime you'd care to mention.
Tozo encounters trouble on Mortuaria, the Isle of the Dead
GE: Do you work from that original script still, or have you written it afresh? Is it something you look at tier by tier (as it appears on the web) or, once it's written, do you then have a few pages 'in the bank' to get on with drawing? What's your writing process?
DO'C: I do still work from the original script which is now covered in pencil scribblings. It's still got Tozo's old name on it (another fairly last minute change). As well as my timeline, I have an 'ideas' page where I jot down sudden brainwaves and an 'issues' page listing parts of the plot that are a bit weak and need tightening up. There's also a 'relationships' page which is a flow chart that maps where the different characters interact. The Tozowiki on the website was created for my own personal use, as a way of keeping track of things but I thought it would be useful resource for readers too.
The script is all in dialogue form, with a few stage directions where I feel I need them. This is converted into a very rough thumbnail layout where a lot of that dialogue is made redundant by the action and so can be edited out. I plan the layouts for the printed version of the comic with each page being split into three when serialised online. Thus Tozo is not a true 'webcomic', more a 'comic-on-the-web' but I do try and make each web strip feel as self-contained as I possibly can in a serialised story. It doesn't always work but I'm usually happy with the result. I'll thumbnail about 10 pages in one go, then work on the pencils. I do like to have a couple of strips as a buffer so I'm never caught out with nothing to post online. I would like to post more often than once a week but it's just not practical.
GE: I was going to ask you about the Tozowiki - it's a great idea, and I keep thinking of nicking it myself... but have wondered if it's making it almost too easy for the reader, a way for them to get information that's not perceived through the characters or action of the story? Is there ever a danger you'll think, oh, it doesn't matter if something's not too clear in the strip, I'll explain it on the wiki?
DO'C: No - the most important thing is that the story is able to stand on its own. I'm trying to be quite careful in the way I construct the wiki, approaching it in a similar way as I approach the extras in the print comic - not putting in too much information that's directly related to the plot, and making it all about the world-building. Having said that, I am putting a 'story so far' at the beginning of every new chapter which spells everything out in a couple of paragraphs, so you could just read that and completely ignore the comic if you wanted to!
GE: But then you'd miss out all the wonderful character, humour and action - which is how such stories are made interesting, of course. Can you give me a description of your working methods as far as the artwork goes, getting it from the thumbnails you've already mentioned to the finished full-colour page?
DO'C: I'm not very consistent as I'm always looking to find a better (and if possible, quicker) technique. Currently, I do the pencils on A3 bristol board (so slightly more than twice finished printed size), scan that into Photoshop at 600dpi and 'ink' over that on the computer. I used to ink traditionally over the pencils but found that I spent so much time cleaning up the inks in Photoshop that it made more sense to do the whole lot in the computer. I'd like to got back to proper inking at some point, just because an inked page is a nice thing to have. Colouring and lettering are done within Photoshop - I colour using a method described by Les McClaine on his Jonny Crossbones website. I'm always over-confident about how long it takes me to do a page. I always start out thinking I can do the whole thing from beginning to end in one day, but it normally takes about three. I think I'm a very slow worker.
GE: Crikey - you sound exactly like me! In my mind, I can also do a page (pencils to lettered and coloured page) in a day, but the reality, including sleep, is more like three. I am constantly hovering over the idea of inking digitally, but in the end I do like the scratch of the dip pen on paper. Do you use a regular Wacom pen tablet, or something more up to date, like a Cintiq? What Photoshop tools do you use in the inking process?
DO'C: I've a Wacom Intuos 3 - actually I have two: an A4 size one I bought for myself, and an A5 version that was bought as leaving present for me by my old work-mates by pure coincidence. I've found the smaller one to be the one I'm more comfortable with. I use a couple of the basic Photoshop brushes to ink and the line drawing tools for the buildings. I don't know much about Photoshop and try to use as little of the fancy stuff as I can so that it doesn't look too computer-y.
GE: I know you started out by looking at some Hussar uniforms for Tozo's outfit. Despite the imaginary setting, do you use much reference as a starting point?
DO'C: I have a stash of pictures that are more visual inspiration than reference, e.g., photographs of Venice and some stills of period films. I don't want to import too much of the real world into Tozoworld, just enough to set the atmosphere.
Klikker dreams of the hero, Ercalo, from 'Legend' created for the Thing 2008
GE: Yet those little details transposed from the real world can lend the imagined world a touch of authenticity for the reader, and I think Tozoworld has that. Do you do much designing of the buildings beforehand, or do they pretty much go straight down onto the paper, working it out as you go?
DO'C: There isn't much pre-design work in my buildings and I think that's something I need to work on a bit as some of them look a little awkward or un-natural to my eye. I do a bit more work on the interiors to make sure that there's space for the characters to move around. Personally, I've found it's one of the hardest things to get right when you're restricted to little panels - to provide a feeling of space and yet get in everything you need to make the setting as real as possible. I think I'm better at the soft furnishings!
GE: With so much left to unravel in your tale, do you ever feel a bit in awe of the work you have still to do, or do you just feel excitement at what is yet to come and you can't wait to get on with it?
DO'C: When I first started drawing I was massively in awe of the task. About twenty different versions of page one were created and rejected and it seemed like I might never reach the end. Now that I've started I feel much more comfortable with it and have learnt to accept my limits. The story will get much more demanding to draw as the epic nature of the tale unfolds and I'm really excited about that.
GE: Do you enjoy making Tozo?
DO'C: I do enjoy doing Tozo and feel quite proud of the storyline. When I first read the script on 'rediscovering' it after I'd stuck it in a drawer for years, I'd forgotten a lot of it and actually found myself wondering what was going to happen next at several points! Although the Tozo readers tend to be rather quiet on the whole I have had a lot of great feedback and that really helps too.
GE: You said earlier that Tozo was always meant for print, so why did you decide to publish it online as well?
DO'C: You can't beat the internet for getting your story in front of a large audience. Most of my readers are in the US, and that wouldn't have happened if I'd been trying to hawk my comics around the local comic shops. Also, I'm currently producing one print collection every nine months (I want to make it 2-3 a year) which is a long wait for even the most loyal reader.
Klikker blueprint from the print version of Chapter 2
GE: And what do you make of the whole webcomics thing?
DO'C: As far as comics-on-the-web are concerned, there's loads of good stuff out there that caters for every single niche taste, if you're prepared to plough through the rubbish. The internet has been a great vehicle by which people can get their work seen, and though I'd rather have a paper comic, I don't have an issue in reading things on screen. I've not seen anything so far that makes ground breaking use of technology - a webcomic in the truer sense. I've seen some of the experiments into the use of infinite canvases and interactivity and they've been universally awful, partly because the stories have been poor (and there's no substitute for good content, ultimately) and partly because they interpret 'interactivity' as 'clicking on things' which gets boring very fast. I suspect that the ship has set sail on the whole interactive webcomics concept anyhow: an online narrative where the reader/user plays an interactive role is called a computer game isn't it?
GE: Technology is very good at blurring the edges where definitions are concerned, but in the end (I'm glad to say) it's still just a darn good story that wins every time. Anyway, what's your experience of using print-on-demand for the Tozo comic been like?
DO'C: I've used Ka-blam.com, a US company that specialise in comic printing, and they've given an excellent service. The exchange rate in the last couple of years has meant it's been cheaper to get printing done over there, even with the shipping costs. I'll have to review that now as the dollar strengthens. I'd like to give more business to local printers but as I work in colour, which adds on quite a bit to costs, I have to shop around. It's possible for readers to buy Tozo direct from the printer too, and I like the fact that it means people anywhere in the world can get hold of the comic fairly easily (and without me having to bear any of the production costs!)
GE: What's the reaction been like when you've gone out to sell Tozo at events such as the Web & Mini Comix Thing or Caption?
DO'C: People have been really positive. I think they respond to the ligne claire style, which most people know from Tintin, but is still not seen very much in the UK, and also to the fact that it is in colour. I think that's something that's really missing from the UK small-press scene (although I understand why). In the US, the small press crowd seem to be much more experimental with colour, not just for 'colouring in between the black lines' but also in the general design - their books seem to be very crafted, and that's something I'd like to see more of in the UK. I've got a table share at this year's Birmingham Comics Show and I'm really looking forward to that - I think I'll probably do a couple of conventions a year as it's been a very positive experience so far.
GE: I think there is a slight barrier to break down, if that's the right phrase, where the ligne claire style is concerned, as there is so much more to it than Tintin, but as you say, that is the main reference point for most UK and even US readers. I keep noticing, Tozo, Jonny Crossbones and The Rainbow Orchid often mentioned in the same breath (or blog post) - a little English-speaking triumvirate of ligne claire bande dessinée! Did living in Amsterdam have any impact on your experience of comics, either reading or creating them?
DO'C: The Dutch domestic comic scene is unsurprisingly small but very healthy. They have fun with what they do and are more interested in the 'artform' of comics than in the 'business', or at least, that's my perception. I've found that idea very important to hold on to: if you go looking for some kind of material gratification through comics, whether it's in terms of cash or number of blog comments then you'll end up miserable. Amsterdam is home to the wonderful Lambiek comic shop and is not too far from a little town called Haarlem where they hold a big open air comics festival (and which is also where I had my first encounter with the UK small press, in the form of Sean Azzopardi). And it's only a couple of hours away from the comics mecca of Brussels, so there is plenty of inspiration to be had in the region - and none of it involves superheroes or Judge Dredd. There is such a wealth of material unheard of outside Europe and it's such a shame - it'd really open people's eyes. It was certainly an education for me.
GE: You're currently in the midst of a very fun-looking comics jam with Sarah McIntyre (of Vern & Lettuce fame). How did that come about, and how's it work?
DO'C: I know Sarah from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) internet community - she was instrumental in setting up their group blog and we both contributed to a comics jam there. We've met for several coffees since I've been back in London (the tea shop we go to in Butler's Wharf features in the jam) and have talked about doing another collaboration, but Sarah was particularly inspired by the real-life airship that has been doing tours over central London recently and we're using that as our starting block. It's improvised, and we take it in turns to do one page every day (or whenever we can fit it in) and keeping it simple so we don't get too involved in it, as we both have other things to do. We often use it as a kind of 'warm-up' sketch first thing in the morning. I keep thinking I know where the story's going to go and then Sarah sends me a page that completely goes off at a tangent.
From the zeppelin-themed comics jam with Sarah McIntyre (2008)
GE: Tozo is obviously quite a long-term project, but do you have any other side-projects planned, or do you, dare I suggest it, even look beyond Tozo to what might be next?
DO'C: I've always got a list of projects I'd like to do, mostly massively ambitious and requiring years of research. I'm keeping them on long-term hold until I'm at least getting a good way through Tozo or I get better at managing my time! I'd like to do an historical comic set during the Wars of the Roses, and also a fictional story set during the London Tube bombings (although the moment may have passed for that). I've also got hold of the libretto of an opera that I think could be turned into a great comic.
In the shorter term, I'm doing a five page story for the Accent UK 'Western' anthology, which I've really enjoyed doing as it's in a different style to Tozo, and I'm also planning a piece for this year's Observer graphic novel competition. I've got some ideas for the DFC, although they may end up as a pitch for a children's book. I'd like to do book illustration ultimately so I probably need to be focusing on that a bit more, though I keep being drawn back into comics... As well as things such as the jam with Sarah, I like to do a few little minicomics every year that are usually jokey stories or poems as a bit of light relief, and to play around with different drawing styles.
GE: Let's end on what I like to call the 'Smash Hits' questions... Can you give me a handful of your favourite films?
DO'C: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Princess Mononoke; Sense & Sensibility; Raising Arizona.
GE: What about music - what are you into?
DO'C: I don't listen to music much. I'll listen to anything as long as it's not at a volume that makes my internal organs vibrate.
GE: Going anywhere nice for your holidays?
DO'C: Just got back from the Caribbean. I was at a wedding on a yacht. I got to drive the yacht but someone else had to park it for me.
GE: Do you have any other interests or hobbies outside of comics, writing or drawing?
DO'C: I love history, particularly London's history, so I'm really grateful to live where I do. I go on historic walks and 'tut' when the guide gets their facts wrong.
GE: What are the last three books you read?
DO'C: 'The World According to Bertie' by Alexander McCall Smith; 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafon; 'The Interpretation of Murder' by Jed Rubenfeld.
GE: Do you play a musical instrument?
DO'C: I played the violin when I was a boy. It was like listening to a cat being sawn in half but without any of the pleasure.
GE: You're at a party and have to do a turn... what's it going to be?
DO'C: 'Delilah' by Tom Jones, probably. I make a good stand-in pole dancer too, if your usual one is off sick.
GE: Delilah I'd like to see, but I think I'll leave the pole dancing for now! Thank you very much for your time and effort with this interview... and I can't wait until chapter 3 of Tozo gets going!
You can read Tozo here and buy the comics and other goodies here.