The graphic novel of Central Saint Martins graduate Jamie Coe, ‘Art Schooled’, is a challenging and humorous portrayal of ‘first impressions’, anxieties, making friends, and the awkward stage of coming of age. Following the protagonist Daniel Stope through his ‘enrolment at art school and consequent move to the city’, the reader experiences a vibrant and high pressure environment through his sometimes naive and critical eyes. We are reminded of the difficult truth that we are all too quick to judge at times. We ask Coe about the origins of ‘Art Schooled’, why he feels graphic novels are a powerful medium to discuss social and political issues, and how comics interact with their audience unlike other art forms.
“At the end of the day when you work on a book, you learn everything and then chuck it out the window. You don’t always want the weight of having to play by theory and rules.”
To what extent are your works autobiographical?
Art schooled was the most. I’m not the main character, but the protagonist is based on parts of my personality. Daniel is a really anxious guy who overthinks everything, and his friend Charlie is obnoxious and over-confident; I wrote it so that Charlie and Daniel are two sides of my personality. I found it more interesting to make Daniel the protagonist, as I could explore the anxieties of moving to London, coming of age and that of experiencing art school.
What are some of the visual techniques you have used to develop the narrative?
I tried to use colour to show different time frames and different parts of the story. I wanted some of the panels to feel out of time — for instance when some of the characters are in different shades of green, it helps the reader identify the different space and time of the narrative.
Will we be seeing Daniel Stopes again as a recurring character in your work, or have you left the art school narrative behind?
I prefer to make a story and then move on to a new project. Never say never. For now I am moving on from art school, but not from fiction, non-fiction or autobiography. For my next project I want to show versatility; I don’t want it to be set within reality and so I have chosen to include elements of sci-fi.
Is the new work commissioned by Nowbrow again?
Nothing is settled, but I can say that the book is a sci-fi western with a coming of age story, again. I do like that theme, but it’s at a younger stage this time, rather than teenage to adult, it’s about being a kid becoming a teenager. I’m hoping it will be something that my little cousins and grandma can read, as ‘Art schooled’ had way too much swearing!
I used to do political cartoons and that was a real driving force. I need to get back on it, and I just need to find the right platform.
The question for my dissertation was ‘what do graphic novels bring to social political commentary?’, and the tuition fees march was part of my research. I find myself going in and out of making social/political comics. If I do something, I want it to come naturally.
In my upcoming work, I want to interject little bits of social political commentary rather than having it as the whole concept. A book I’m working on now, for instance, has elements of consumer society, a very done topic, but I want to interject my own ideas and add something new to it.
“You really have to show your work and meet people face to face, it’s far more valuable to you as a learning process. It is going to be beneficial because people remember you if you see them.”
Do you feel that graphic novels have the ability to reach people in a different way?
Yes. I was looking at Joe Sacco as an influence, who makes really interesting, direct political work. Then there is also Robert Crumb, who makes trippy comics from the 60’s, all about hippy culture; now it’s like a little piece of history and reveals a lot.
Do you think graphic novels are a childish medium or can they be powerful and seriously grab our attention?
They are childlike in some ways, but they can also be as ‘adult’ as a film or book. At the end of the day, it’s a story telling device. You can tell any type of story and it has benefits that film and music do not. Comics are pictures and words; something that people have had for an incredibly long period of time, and the combination of the two can evoke something completely unique.
One of the best things about the comic industry at the moment, is that it’s beginning to understand that it’s good to have comics for kids. There was a period where they became really dark and just for adults. If you get young people into comics earlier, they realise it’s just a medium. It should be just as valid as film, books, art and music — they all tell stories and narratives whether abstract or direct.
Is there any theory behind your work?
In comics, you have to understand where the eye goes first. You have to make sure the reader will see what you want them to see first.
In ‘Art Schooled’, I created a spiral double page spread; this was an attempt to make it interactive. The whole book is centered around a book within a book, so the object is intertwined within the whole concept. I wanted it to be something tangible that you have to move around and play with. At the end of the day when you work on a book, you learn everything, and then chuck it out the window. You don’t always want the weight of having to play by theory and rules, there’s a weird balance to try and keep the story instinctive and fluid.
How has your relationship with Nowbrow Press developed?
I was very lucky. I got in contact with Nowbrow myself — I was in an internet cafe in Greece and decided to email them. I shared my blog and they responded positively! So we set up an interview and I took a portfolio to their offices. They gave me advice so they weren’t just blowing smoke up my arse, but they were critical in a constructive way. You really have to show your work and meet people face to face, it’s far more valuable to you as a learning process. It is going to be beneficial because people remember you if you see them, especially with the small business of comics.. I started the relationship whilst still at uni; reacted to their comments, and developed how I could build more of a harmony in my work.
Nowbrow then approached me about producing a graphic novel about art school! I was fresh out of it and able to use my own experiences as a basis for the narrative.
Is print really important to you, or have you adapted to a digital practice?
I prefer print. I like having something I can hold and read. I read online comics but, for me, a comic can be a printed piece of art.
To check out Coe’s ‘Art Schooled’ and other works, visit Jamie Coe Illustration.
Interview by Louella Ward