It was made in Jingdezhen sometime between 1690 and 1700 (Quing Dynasty) and depicts the tale of Xi Xang Ji (The Western Chamber) in a remarkably bande dessinée-like four tiers of panels. There are similar vases of the same period but many of them have panels designed as nested petal shapes and don't tell any story, just showing scenes of ladies on terraces and flowers. This one in particular, complete with panel gutters, looks as though it could have been transferred directly from the pages of a Tintin album (see it in more detail here).
Far Eastern objet d'art have long been adorned with traditional folk tales. I remember studying my grandparents' Willow pattern tea set through the glass of their 'best china' cabinet, with my mum explaining to me the tale it told of two lovers transformed into birds. Of course now, thanks to Wikipedia, I discover that particular story and design was an eighteenth century English invention, an imitation made to cash-in on the popularity of the real thing.
The Western Chamber - the real thing - also tells the story of two lovers, with the young man having to overcome the adversity of tradition, bandits, a civil service exam, and - worst of all - the girl's disapproving mother. The Jingdezhen vase is housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, though is currently in storage.
The Phoenix is a weekly children's comic featuring some of the very best in UK comics talent, providing a variety of funny, dramatic and adventurous stories in a beautiful, ad-free, wonderfully designed package. It is truly one of the best British comics around (for all ages), and one of the very few true UK comic weeklies in existence. If you want to support the future of British comics then this is a good way to do it. So, if you've got an iPad (I believe other platforms are on their way) then you really must take advantage of this stupendously amazing offer.
These are extracted from a file I've kept on my desktop over the past three years or so that I add to whenever a thought occurs. Some are learned from my own experience, and some are from observing fellow creators. All of them should be taken with a pinch of salt, and none are any kind of gospel, or even necessarily true. They're just notes, but perhaps one or two may resonate with you as well ...
The best defence against failure, and the best ally of inspiration, is to make sure you're working on a project that you really love.
You can learn from anyone, no matter what their level of expertise, no matter what their age is. Stay humble and be generous.
When 'character development' is mentioned many people think of the creation and filling out of a character before they are used in a story, but you should rather think of it in terms of the way the character develops because of the story. The story should develop the character.
In a story, for a character to change their mind (or have it changed) something dramatic should happen.
I don't like stories that are aimed at kids or aimed at adults. I don't like films that claim to be for both but are just slapstick for the kids and double-entendres for the adults. I like the story to be true only to itself, and not written for some imaginary demographic.
When you end a scene you need to end it with a full stop, or maybe an ellipsis, and when you start a scene you need to start it with a capital letter. Not literally (grammar goes without saying), but visually.
Writing for kids is difficult, which is why I don't bother. I write for me and hope that others, including kids, will like it too.
People sometimes seem to think that a strong female character is simply a girl who acts like a boy - in which case I think they're wrong.
I'm an expert in how to make comics the Garen Way. As for how to make comics any other way, I'm rubbish.
As soon as you get a book deal don't sit back and hope the publisher will take care of all the marketing from now on. What you actually need to do is double and triple your marketing efforts.
Self-depreciation and false modesty are all very well but don't forget you're a one-person marketing force on your own behalf, so it's best not to constantly put out 'press releases' saying how awful you are.
"That's brilliant, I hate you!", "It's really good, but I must say it's not how I'd have done it", and "you're sickeningly talented" are not really compliments.
Stop thinking you're important and get on with your work.
Stop thinking everyone else is better than you and get on with your work.
Stop thinking the world is out to get you and nothing's fair - and get on with your work!
I don't mind not being original, in fact I think that may even be beyond me. But I do want to be authentic and true to myself. That is very important.
How many comic creators does it take to change a light bulb? One, plus twenty-two to sit around saying how the light bulb industry is dying and if only they made light bulbs like they used to in the 70s then everything would be all right.
There's nothing wrong with occasional wordy scenes - as long as the words are useful, important and serve the story. If a comic is light on dialogue it might mean you're just reading lots of running and fighting. Either way, just make it good.
Success can often have more to do with not giving up rather than being brilliant or lucky. It's about not letting obstacles defeat you. It's about overcoming them and carrying on.
People who draw only sexy girls draw brilliant sexy girls, but not very good telephones. Sometimes you need to draw telephones.
The UK comics scene is small. When someone has a success with their comic, it is a success for all comics.
If fight scenes or extreme situations are too commonplace then they can lose their potency, their danger. If, like in life, fights are rare, then when they do happen they have greater impact, especially if the result on the characters is serious. Too much death and it takes on very little meaning.
When I make comics I am not a writer when I write the script and I am not an artist when I draw the pictures - I am a comic creator with both tasks. Making comics is a single discipline with a single end product - the comic.
Don't sit there sobbing over everything that's wrong with a drawing you've just done. Go and do a new drawing and make it better.
Don't concentrate on what you haven't got. Focus on what you have got and develop it.
Don't respond to bad reviews of your work. Don't, don't, don't, don't don't.
Things in publishing aren't always great. When this happens, don't withdraw - you've got to keep engaged. Keeping engaged means opportunities will still come your way and things will improve.
It's very easy to spend all your time writing emails, doing interviews, attending events, dealing with admin - and not writing and drawing. Don't do that. Writing and drawing must come first.
People are fond of saying how comics are great for slow readers to hook them into reading. Then they complain when comics are seen as dumbed-down kids' stuff, useful only as a stepping stone to 'proper books'.
The greatest enemy of the comic artist is to think you're worthless. Don't think that, it's not true.
Wherever there are awards, there are arguments.
If someone says "I could do better than that", what they usually mean, probably without realising, is they think they could improve on what they have just seen or read - not doing better from a fresh, uninfluenced, start - a blank sheet of paper - as the original author did.
You don't find the time to draw comics, you make the time to draw comics.
Everyone thinks there's a clique and that they're not in it.
If a gun is used, it must have serious consequences. A gun must not be used to solve plot situations. Guns don't solve problems, they make them more complicated.
A drawing will lay bare your soul. No wonder artists are so sensitive to criticism!
When I type a comic script I'm writing with words. When I draw a comic strip I'm writing with pictures.
Successful artists suffer from a lack of confidence in their own ability just like every other artist does, the difference is that they don't let it rule their lives.
Don't write for children, write a story with children in mind. The emphasis is on 'write a story', not 'children'.
Talking heads are fine if: a) the talking is interesting, and b) the heads are interesting. Oh, and it doesn't go on too long.
Isn't it time we moved beyond the idea of girls' or boys' comics?
For a villain to be a threat they must be shown to do something with real and serious consequences.
You are not in competition with other cartoonists.
No book reviewer has ever found a fault with my work that I wasn't already painfully aware of. Where my own work is concerned, I am the Critic King!
The Three Excitements: Action, Tension, and Comedy. Try to use at least one in every scene.
There seems to be this idea that there's a tiny room called 'Comics' and only a few privileged souls can fit in it. Actually 'Comics' is a universe, and it's bigger than all the comic creators in existence, many many times over.
See part two - more thoughts - here.
As well as accompanying me to one of my workshops (at the Forest Row Festival) we also went through the process of making a single page comic featuring Tom's own characters, The Larrys. Here's a little interview I conducted with Tom, as well as a few pieces of his fantastic artwork, more of which you can see over at his website.
Tom, can you introduce yourself - age, interests, and what you'd like to do when you leave school?
I'm Tom V. Leighton, I'm 17. I love to draw and create my own comics, I like watching films and spending time with my friends. I am in my last year of Imberhorne Sixth Form and I am studying Art and Design as well as ICT. When I leave school I would like to go to University in America (Brigham Young University) where I will study animation and hopefully get a career at one of the large animation studios.
You recently visited me one day a week for a few weeks as part of a school project, can you give some background to this - what you had to do and what you wanted to get out of it?
I had to produce a case study of the business over a few weeks, I had to learn about the trade and gain ideas for a final piece. To begin with I learned about some basic business and the process of how you created a comic strip, which I found very interesting! We had some discussion and over a few weeks we decided to produce a full six panel comic strip starring some of my own characters, The Larrys. We also attended the Forest Row drawing workshop where I helped as an assistant. This was a new experience and I felt that I would observe to see the basis of what happens at these workshops. I learned a lot from these visits and I am very grateful for the opportunity I had in doing so!
It was good fun, and I learned some stuff too! Can you introduce us to your comic characters, The Larrys - what's it all about?
Sure, The Larrys is about a group of young boys (around 7 yrs) who get up to all sorts of adventures. There are 5 of them to begin with until they take on a new member later on! They have certain adult characteristics to them and they occasionally refer to themselves as characters in a comic strip in some way or another. The adventures are based on what I would have liked to have done as a kid. There are quite a few adventures, I haven't developed all of the stories yet but all in good time! I came up with the comic idea from a dream I had; I dreamed that my Mum bought me a t-Shirt that had The Larrys on it.
Curious! We made a little 'Larrys' comic together (well, 90% you, 10% me*) - how did you find the experience? Was it very different from the way you usually work?
I found it very fun, I learned about the processes in scanning and colouring the strip and I thought it was great that we combined our two illustration styles. The process was definitely more technical than the way I would have done it without any guidance; I would have just drawn out the boxes and characters, followed by outlining it with black ink and then colouring it using comic pens. I will definitely consider the process for the future.
Sometimes it's interesting to know how other people do things, perhaps pick up a tip or two, but we all find our own way in the end. Can you tell me when and how you got interested in comics?
When I was in year 3 [age 7-8], I had a friend who 'taught' me to draw cartoons. From there I guess I became interested in different cartoons and came across different comic books. I came across a Wallace and Gromit comic book and a Garfield annual. I then became interested in The Beano when I got an annual for Christmas. I then went to Florida in 2004 and got a Fantastic Four comic book. I guess I came across other comics and started to develop my own characters and stories.
And what comics do you read now? What are your all-time favourites?
I mainly read The Rainbow Orchid, Garfield and Marvel. I did read some Adventures of Tintin and after working with you I have gained an interest in Tintin. My all time favourites are: Marvel, Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, The Rainbow Orchid and there are probably other comics which I can't think of right now.
So, if you had to pick one comic to take to a desert island, what would it be?
That's a tough one, hmm ... If I had to pick one comic to take to a desert Island then I would probably have to take a big book of Marvel as it would be made up of lots of different stories.
Good thinking! Is there any interest in comics amongst your friends and fellow students?
A small amount, I don't really discuss comics and such, if I do then it is usually about my own works. I don't mind this as I enjoy talking about my own ideas and it implies that people are interested in my interests and hobbies.
As a young chap looking to embark on a career in comics, how do you see the current comics scene, especially in the UK? Do you feel optimistic both as a creator and a reader?
I don't really know. To begin with I genuinely thought that I would get a lot of money straight away from my comic ideas, now I see that's a bit dumb! Ha! There are many different comic ideas and there seems to be a lot of repetition over the years. I guess it is down to personal tastes and popularity. One comic may gain a lot of interest and some may not get much interest. It would probably be different in the USA. As I plan to live there when I'm older it may help as there is a different comic culture over there. If that makes sense.
Yes, it's good to have a clear plan like that. Having something to aim for is really important! At this moment in time, what is your ambition in art, comics, or any related fields? What is your ultimate aim?
At this moment I aim to get good grades in my A levels and to get into university in the U.S. and see where it takes me. My ultimate aim is to work at Pixar in many different fields of art, animation and illustration or even start up my own successful comics company. but we shall see...
Well, it seems you're certainly setting off on the right foot, so I wish you all the best with it! Thanks very much for your time and for answering my questions, Tom.
You can visit Tom's website here.
Firstly I should say that I haven't read any Tintin in a long time. That might surprise you, but there's a reason for it. When I started The Rainbow Orchid I wanted it to be a British comic but in the mould of European classics such as Tintin, Blake and Mortimer, Freddy Lombard, Yoko Tsuno and their ilk. But being so heavily influenced from the start I wanted to find my own feet with the style and story, so I pretty much cut myself off from reading Tintin (the best-known of the influences) over the next few years. I perhaps sneaked in one or two reads in something like eight years.
In that time I was given a hugely generous 40th birthday present from Egmont - the UK publisher of Tintin (and The Rainbow Orchid) - in the form of a complete set of Tintin in hardback. In the US the Tintin books have been published since the 1970s by Little, Brown, and recently they released a series of young reader editions, sporting newly designed covers and - the best bit - fascinating bonus material at the back of each book.
The new covers are the first thing you'll notice about the books, each one enlarging an extract from one of the story's panels on a flat colour background. There have been mumblings from some Tintin fans that the original albums shouldn't be messed with, but I have to say I think, for an offshoot edition, they're good; deliciously designed and rather attractive. The next thing you'll notice is the size - these are digest books measuring roughly six by nine inches but they're mostly perfectly readable (a few of the illustrated documents and longer balloons can be a bit of a struggle for older eyes) and they double up as an ideal and portable travelling edition.
Before you reach the start of the story you'll find seven pages, each devoted to a key character from the album with a little introduction to them and the part they play in the adventure ahead. So, in Cigars of the Pharaoh we get Tintin and Snowy, Sophocles Sarcophagus ("Doctor Sarcophagus only has one thing on his mind throughout this adventure: Ancient Egyptian pharaohs!"), Rastapopoulos, Thomson and Thompson ("The world's silliest police detectives make their first appearance in this Tintin story. Right from the start their investigations are in a hopeless muddle!"), Sheik Patrash Pasha, The Fakir, and The Maharaja of Gaipajama ("The dignified Maharaja of Gaipajama welcomes Tintin into his palace, and the heroic reporter returns his kindness").
The bulk of the book is, of course, made up of the most important bit, the Tintin adventure itself. I don't think I need to go into any more detail than to say that Hergé was a master of graphic storytelling, tight and exciting plots, wonderful characters, and sublime clear-line drawing ... do I? There's a very good reason the Tintin books are still selling in their hundreds of thousands to this day. There are currently ten titles in the Little, Brown young reader series; in order of publication: The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure, Cigars of the Pharaoh, The Blue Lotus, Tintin in America, The Broken Ear, The Black Island, King Ottokar's Sceptre (all 2011), The Crab with the Golden Claws, and The Shooting Star (2012). In the UK Egmont have so far published The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure in this format, with further titles to follow in 2013.
The most interesting unique feature of these young reader editions is the bonus material at the back of each book. Entitled 'The Real-Life Inspiration Behind Tintin's Adventures', this section provides twenty-two pages of behind-the-scenes notes, research, facts and figures relating to the story, and sketches and photos to help provide context. All this has been put together by Stuart Tett, working directly out of the Moulinsart vault with access to the entire Hergé archives, and he's done a terrific job. There's no doubt these are written with a junior audience in mind, but - even with my own well-stocked library of books about the making of Tintin - I found them fascinating and informative.
Let's take a look in more detail at one particular volume, one of my favourites, The Black Island ... First of all you get a Hergé timeline, from birth to death, placing the volume in the chronology. The main text kicks off with Hergé's connection and interest in England and then moves on to a bit about Tintin's role in the story as he takes on the guise of detective. Next we learn about the book's publication history and the vital part played by Bob De Moor in the final updated version, including some of the reference photos he took on location and a postcard he sent to the Hergé Studio from Dover. We then come to a section common to all the books, 'Explore and Discover', where particular scenes from the story are looked at in detail with the research that informed them and connected trivia: the model of trains used in different editions, Dr Müller's country house, Craig Dhui Castle, a bit of cryptozoology, the real-life Dr Müller, and aerobatics. We end off with six post-it notes of trivia - all interesting stuff. All of this is profusely illustrated with gorgeous Hergé art and related photographs.
These Little, Brown and Egmont young reader editions will be a nice addition to any Tintin collection, no matter the age of the reader, but for children in particular they will really help to give some idea of the work put into these comics, and a new dimension is added with the very well constructed and written supporting material from Stuart Tett. I highly recommend them!
If you'd like to know a little more about the work behind these new editions, there's an interesting interview with Stuart over at The Compulsive Reader. And, if you're on Facebook, do check out the Tintin Facebook page.
He was not known as a comic artist, but was a well-known and well-loved science-fiction and fantasy illustrator. Even so, I planned to publish a one-off special of his comic strips, for which he provided me with good copies - unfortunately this never came to pass, mostly due to funding issues on my part. My last contact with him was in June 1997 when I returned his prints to him, but he came into my thoughts again in June of this year after I read Jeremy Briggs' article on Near Myths, a comic that Alan had contributed to (Private Eye in issue 5), and I discovered, thanks to Steve Holland, he was still living at the same address as he was in the 90s. Sadly I never got round to writing to him again, as I intended.
Alan was born in Coventry in 1923 and, inspired by some of the best pulp artists, particularly Virgil Finlay, got into science-fiction and fantasy illustration in the early 1950s. His work appeared in both professional and fan publications and he started the Fantasy Art Society. In his day job he worked as a technical illustrator for the Ministry of Supply, though he later had his own shop, a newsagent and stationers, at which point his illustration work all but disappeared due to work and family commitments.
In the late 1960s he left retailing and returned to drawing, this time for a large electronics firm, eventually working in computer graphics. He also made a welcome return to illustration for the SF/fantasy fan scene. He retired from work in 1989, though continued drawing. His wife, Joyce (Kirkham), sadly died in May 1994. They had a son, Christopher.
Alan was a superb illustrator. You just have to see his work to know the care and dedication he put into every piece, no matter how small. He was also a lovely chap, and very supportive of my own, then quite amateur, scribblings. I have put a few samples below, including the strip he contributed to Cosmorama 3 (Broken Contact, 1980) and a strip that would have appeared in the planned special (The Big Oak).
My condolences to Alan's family, friends and fans, the latter of which I most ardently include myself. You can read a little more on the British Fantasy Society website.
Broken Contact by Alan Hunter
On Saturday I went down to Lewes to give my adventure comics workshop at Bags of Books, an outstanding children's bookshop in a town that boasts a number of fine little bookshops. I think there were about 25 children and the imagination was in full flow as we created fabulous heroes, dastardly villains, and the shortest little epic adventure strips you'll ever see. A special thank you to Anna and Vikki for hosting me. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Lewes, do go and give their wonderful shop a visit.
On Monday I was invited by Forest Row Primary School to give four comic workshop sessions to four classes, all in one morning - it was hectic but great fun. This time we added a dash of the Olympics to the proceedings as I set the story of the Olympic flame being stolen. As for by whom, and who would save the day, that was up to the children to decide, and I must have seen over 200 unique, bizarre, and amazing Olympic heroes and villains that morning! Another sincere thanks for having me, this time to Denise for setting up the event, and to Siobhan and her colleagues for looking after me so well.
This Saturday I will be at The Bookshop in East Grinstead, available to sign copies of The Rainbow Orchid, and I'll also have some original art pages to show. I'll be at the shop from 11 until 1, and if you tune into 107 Meridian FM from 10am you should also find me on Krys O'Brien's morning show just beforehand. I look forward to chatting to anyone and everyone who comes about comics - making them and reading them!
If you've seen the current issue of TBK Magazine (Summer 2012) you'll see a lovely mention of The Rainbow Orchid, and also a page I wrote and designed that gets you going on your own comic strip, complete with some handy hints on how to write a gripping adventure story.
Which reminds me ... I have, at last, updated the online shop to include volume 3, either as part of the complete set, or as a signed and sketched-in edition on its own. From interest and enquiries so far I am expecting a bit of a glut of orders to begin with (I've had four in the half hour since I updated the page), so please bear with me if they take just a little longer to get out in the post than usual - thank you.
Finally, don't forget that this week sees part three of The Bald Boy and the Dervish, the penultimate chapter in Ben Haggarty's Silk Roads story, illustrated by me and appearing in The Phoenix. Here's a little sneaky-peek ...
Look carefully and you might spot a character or two (or four, actually) from The Legend of the Golden Feather, that appeared in issue 1, hidden somewhere in the story!
If you're not yet reading this fantastic weekly comic, go and get a subscription, right now!
He was a rare genius of the art of the comic strip with an incredible imagination and vision. He leaves a treasure trove of work - hopefully more of which will be translated into English.
Visit this wonderful tumblr blog of his work.
It wasn't really a piece where I was able to promote The Rainbow Orchid in particular - though it got a good mention, of course, and I also managed to give mentions to The Beano, The Dandy, Toxic and The Phoenix. It's available on the BBC iPlayer to listen to for the next week, roughly 20 minutes in.