© Becky Barnicoat
Becky Barnicoat works as the commissioning editor on the Guardian Weekend magazine, but is also a cartoonist and currently works on a new comic about a musical bear – you can see a couple of sketches from it on her blog.
She’s always drawn, and when she was at school I did a whole English project (the title was ‘My future career’) in comic book form. She got a D- and a detention for it. One could say that was kind of the theme of things – most authority figures think cartoons are for babies. “I wish I could have shown them Maus so they could see how wrong they were, but I didn’t know it existed back then” Becky says.
She started the blog Come in, Everyone is here already a couple of years ago and since then has started drawing for various people – including Le Cool magazine, Harry Hill and Five Dials. She was on the panel at the Salem Brownstone event at Comica this year, and last year drew the ‘Bowie and Bowie’ comic strip for Comica PoCom – which was on the wall in the ICA.
She is an enterprising gal as she also sporadically self-publishes a zine called Everyone Is Here Already.
Valerie Pezeron: What is the inspiration behind your work? Did you use visual references doing your faces?
Becky Barnicoat: Actually, that particular page all came from my head. It’s probably what I have always done from when I was a kid sitting in lessons, just drawing faces and caricatures of my teachers, that was quite a big thing. One of them was quite a nice woman, but she had an odd-looking face and I drew an awful caricature of her. She found my notebook and she looked really hurt, that was awful!
VP: Was it the lady who sent you to detention?
BB: She wasn’t one of the bad teachers but one of the good ones. It’s just that she looked a little bit like a guinea pig. But I won’t say anymore because she might read this! So this what I have always done; I just did “Faces” from my head, I find it really fun. I love the possibility of how ugly something could be but I don’t find that disgusting: I love weird faces so much and sometimes I see people on the street and their faces are just bizarre. The odder the shape the better it is.
VP: I agree with you there are so many different characters out there, especially where you live, in Stoke Newington.
BB: Oh yes! I cycle to work and I see many faces I want to draw! The other day I was cycling through Newington green and I saw this woman crossing the road and she had so much of something on her face that her skin was almost reddy-orange. And I was thinking “My, she’s put a bit too much foundation on, it looks extraordinary” and I thought maybe the poor woman has some terrible skin condition. And she would be a wonderful drawing but not in a way that would be mocking her. I love it when people look unusual.
VP: So would it be fair to say it is people that draw you to being creative? It’s not about the blandness of objects…
BB: That’s probably true; I’m not very good with objects. Landscapes? Not so much. It’s never been my thing, which is actually now a problem. I can get my pen going on a person or an animal but I have to put them somewhere and perspective is tricky.
VP: Don’t downplay your abilities!BB: (Laughter) So this is one side of what I am interested in. These were people who were on the Internet, and I drew them in on style…
VP: Glad you bring that up. I have noticed you don’t have one particular style.
BB: No, Definitely not!
VP: Is it on purpose or did you try to develop one or you don’t care that much?
BB: Good question as I think about it a lot. I definitely don’t try not to have one style. I just can’t imagine myself committing to just one style; I’d really miss too much the other style.
VP: So do you apply one style to one specific subject?
BB: Yeah, I suppose that is it, but it’s not that conscious. It just happens. I think of an idea and it’s immediately obvious to me what style should be for that.
VP: I see, very interestingly, you use all kinds of medium, inks, pen and washes, watercolour…
BB: It’s not premeditated when I use, and I love to use pen and ink. And I use this medium mostly.
VP: Tell us about the fanzine. When did you start it?
BB: That was a project a comic book artist friend of mine called Tom and I started. Just like me, he has a full-time job. We both want to be comic book artists and we decided we should do a comic book. A friend of mine who used to work in a bookshop called Persephone proposed we do a comic book evening; it will be in two months, you both work on the comic book and then we can sell it in the shop with drinks and music and we invite people along. They were ALL of our friends, there weren’t any strangers there at all!
VP: How many people?
BB: It was quite full actually…all of my family, friends of friends! I had about 50 copies of my magazine and they all sold! But another project came up at the same time and I had to really rush it!
VP: So this is issue 1 and issue 2 is planned for later? When did you do this one?
BB: That was earlier this year, sort of June / July.
VP: How often would you see yourself doing this fanzine?
BB: I’d like to do them much more often than I do but with my full time job, it’s not really that straightforward. Wake up every morning at 6.30 am, draw for an hour and then go work full-time at the office. I’d like to do it much more often. What Tom and me are going to do in the next couple of weeks is a 12-hour comic and whatever comes out of that will probably be issue 2. It will be much messier, scruffier and perhaps not make much sense!
VP: So I’m really interested to know about your journey? Did you go to university and study journalism?
BB: I didn’t, no, not for journalism. I went to an all-girls school in Barnes and then to Wimbledon Art College for foundation. It’s not that exciting, I was shocked at how crap it is. Everyone said “this is one of the best art schools” but it was awful! I stayed and I just about scraped a pass. Some of the people who I thought were the best there got fails because they just didn’t care. They were vicious about your actual work: “This is fine”, looking at someone’s beautiful drawings “but where is your reflective notebook and diary…sorry but that is part of your course requirements. If you don’t have those then we can’t pass you. Some of the students were part of that course in the 1st place because they are dyslexics, they didn’t want to write, and that’s why they are artists! It’s just insane. Wimbledon wanted everyone to be totally institutionalised, do their 9 to 5… The people whose work was the least inspiring but came in every day got the best grades. They were the stars of the year- the work was not great but they got lads of it!
VP: Woody Allen said a big part of success is showing up. It’s one of my favorite quotes and I think about it often.
BB: It’s so true! There were these brilliant dysfunctional characters with amazing imaginations and absolutely raw talent…you should allow them to thrive and allowing people work in the way that they naturally do because that is going to produce the best work. I hated doing the foundation. I really liked the idea of going to art school and part of me regrets it now; I don’t regret the choice I made because I had a brilliant time going to Leeds reading English Literature. Before that, I had a lot of pressure from everybody; I went to an all-girls private school all through my secondary school and all they were interested in was academia. They didn’t care about you wanting to be an artist; they just thought that was pathetic, they hated me. I’d say I want to be a cartoonist when I am older, and they’d go “Come again?” I always wanted to be a cartoonist since I was about 5. And then I ended up doing English, what was I thinking!
VP: I think it actually ties in, as it’s very close. I call what I do visual journalism or… cartoonist?
BB: Oh, but you’re not allowed to say cartoonist! We are visual communicators or sequential artists.
VP: So you knew that young! I remember doing my 1st graphic novel at 7.
BB: But in France, they have a much stronger culture of comics.
VP: That is true if you come from the right background. My family did not have a clue and I had to come here to explore all that was possible…
BB: I feel exactly the same. I did not even know people did comic books until I was maybe in my 2nd and 3rd year at university. I was in Cornwall on a holiday with my family and I was getting the train back to London. We went into Waterstones as I wanted to buy a book for the train. I noticed this really colorful cartoon and I picked up this book and it was Daniel Clowes “20th Century Eight Ball”. I thought grown-ups didn’t do cartoons, I had nor idea! Some of his pictures are so grotesque and disgusting; then I realised some of them were just about people chatting over coffee and having existential conversations.
VP: It’s very close to what you do, isn’t it? It’s definitely inspired you?
BB: Oh yeah, oh god, completely! I picked up this thing and it was a revelation! I recall thinking I can’t believe this thing is real; I can’t wait to read it. I was laughing so much while reading it on my way back on the train. Then I read this comic strip called “Art School Confidential”. You have to read it if you did not have a good time at art college. It’s so fun, it’s just the best, it’s perfect, and it’s exactly my experience of Art College! And then I realised other people were like me, they wanted to be a cartoonist and everyone at art school told them they were fools. You have to read it, it’s very good, it’s a collection of a lot his fanzines. It’s a satirical expose of his time at art school with a lot of people who are very pretentious. It seems amazing now that I didn’t know that he existed. I always associated comics with either superheroes, for boys or the dirty and sexy stuff like Vizz. Part of me wishes I could really love Vizz but I am put off every time I read it. “Yeah, right, woman with massive boobs naked in some joke…” it’s really basic toilet humour!
VP: We need more women graphic novelists!
BB: I agree. From those books, I discovered a whole world of cartoonists in America. It’s massive over there!
VP: What do you think of the UK comic book industry?
BB: I don’t think it even exists. There is not even a publisher that has an interest in it, really. Jonathan Cape do a few but they mainly bring American ones over. They just publish so very few British people. I don’t feel there is anyone really looking for it. So everyone over here is getting obsessed with Daniel Clowes, Charles Burnes and Chris Ware. They’re just about discovering people that, if you don’t know who they are, you must be living in Britain.
VP: Have you had a look at what’s going on in Europe?
BB: I did take a look. I went over to Portugal, in Lisbon to write a feature on the arts scene there for the Guardian. I met up with a load of comic book artists and illustrators such as Andre Lemos, Joao-Maio Pinto, Filipe Abranches. It was fantastic! They had that wonderful European attitude: “We grew up with comic books, it’s part of our culture”. I said I only discovered “Strip Burger” when I was 21. They said “Strip Burger, we knew about that when we were only 2!”
VP: That’s true with French people too. When you went to Comica festival, did you feel that something was about to take off? I know Paul Gravett feels very religiously that it is happening!
BB: Ah, Paul! Paul is incredible and without him, it would be…he is basically the comic book scene now. It all kind of stems from him, it is fantastic to have him there like this uncle who advises all those artists who didn’t’ think they could do this. He is the catalyst. Since I have discovered that, I’ve realised there is this world of people who want to do this, who love it, who know about all these artists. And they’re really frustrated in this country because it’s not really understood. People are quite illiterate, I think, regarding comics. But I have met loads of people now through Comica and other things. I just discovered this guy called Dash Shaw; his first book is about a thousand pages, called “Bottomless Belly Button”, Fantagraphics. He did this living in a tiny bedroom; he said he was so poor. I asked him how he made it as a comic book artist, how he paid his rent. He said, “ When I left college, I went and rented a tiny, tiny room for $200 a month and I worked part-time as a life model and I drew every second of every day. And he said it took him years, he must have drawn over a thousand pages of comics until anything happened. And he presented a manuscript to a big editor at a comics’ fair; they took him on and published it immediately. It’s a fairytale.
VP: Well, it is. You have to have some kind of break otherwise…
BB: Otherwise you are plugging away in the bedroom!
Tune-in next week for Part 2 of the interview!
Becky Barnicoat, blog, books, comic art, comic books, comica, comics, comicstrips, Fantagraphics, fanzine, graphic novels, humour, ica, journalism, leeds university, Paul Gravett, sequential artist, The Guardian, viz, Wimbledon college of art
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