Mr. Must-Read: Andi Watson talks 'Slow News Day'

Sun, March 31st, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[Andi Watson]
Andi Watson
He's arguably one of the most talented writer/artists in the business, his work is praised by virtually everyone who reads it and it is still likely that the name Andi Watson is foreign to most comic book fans, possibly even the ones reading this very interview. With his newest work, "Slow News Day," Watson has continued the momentum from his previous work, Oni Press' "Breakfast After Noon"(now available as a trade paperback), and continued to bring his work to the "mainstream" fans.

"I got back into comics when I went to art school," Watson told CBR News of his career's beginning. "'Love and Rockets' and 'Akira,' in retrospect, made the biggest impression on me. Just before I finished my degree I decided my final project would be a comic book, which marked the first time I ever drew a comic! After that I self-published (photocopied) 3 issues of my book, 'Samurai Jam,' and sent it to various publishers. It was pretty much ignored by everyone except Dan [Vado] at Slave Labor Graphics. One of the many great things about Dan is he's willing to put his money where his mouth is with new people. He's willing to take a chance with new creators; I don't see how the medium can thrive without people like him. Dan wanted to do new material, so I put out 4 issues through Slave before 'Sam Jam' was cancelled. Then I began on 'Skeleton Key' and without consciously intending to, began a 'career' in comics."

While Watson may not have intended to start down the path of becoming a comic book professional, he admits that it is almost natural for him to have gravitated towards the industry. "I've an illustration/graphic design degree so working with words and pictures and narrative is something I've always been interested in. I guess I like to draw and tell stories so comics are the prefect medium for me. What is especially good about comics is you can do it alone. You don't need investors or a huge amount of money, you have the freedom to express yourself however you want to without outside pressures. Of course, you're likely to remain broke." Watson laughs and then adds, "But the fulfillment I get from creating a good comic is unparalleled."

He also says that he was inspired by comic book strips that he read as a child, saying "I guess as a kid, the comics that have stayed with me are 'Tintin' and 'Peanuts.' I never grew up wanting to be a comic artist, at one point I knew I wanted to draw but it was pretty late that I got into creating comics. 'Love & Rockets' and 'Akira' had a formative influence on me; the manga storytelling in 'Akira' and the humanity of 'L&R' is there in my stuff. I like Seth and Dupuy-Berberian, also Seizo Watase."

With such a diverse and excellent list of inspirations, it is no surprise to learn that Watson approaches both his writing and penciling with a mature mindset, even if he isn't sure how to describe his style. "I really don't know, I guess I do dialogue based writing. I'm interested in what characters do and don't say and what that reveals about them. I tend to work with a broad theme and then fill out the characters to dramatize it as I develop the story. Of course, pacing is part of writing and that goes on at the thumbnail stage. The writing continues when I'm drawing, in the sense that a characters reaction or expression tells you a lot about them in any given situation. My pencilling is relatively loose; it's a lot about composition. Part of the less is more school. It gets more difficult as time goes on...the fewer lines you use the more important it becomes where you put them. It's no exaggeration to say that a fraction of a millimeter can completely change the meaning of an expression."

As with any job, one might assume that Watson would tire of either writing or pencilling, slowly finding more enjoyment in one part of the creative process. However, with Watson, this just isn't the case; "Like I say, the writing and drawing become indivisible when I'm working. They work in concert to tell the story. It's an organic process, you get to edit and tweak from writing to thumbnail to pencilling to inking. If you're removed from any one of those phases then you miss an opportunity to improve the story. I've written scripts before but you don't have control of the story, unless there's a meeting of minds it's usually unsatisfactory." So, when Watson loves being involved to this degree, is there a chance that you could see him collaborating on a project with someone else? "It's not impossible, it might work. The reason I like comics is that I can do everything myself and do things the way I want. It's how I communicate best. I wouldn't be able to describe an expression in words but I could draw it. Perhaps with less personal work it could work."

Watson also finds that his work is influenced by real world events and locales, especially some of the beautiful places in the world. "A trip to Madrid and visiting the Prado and other museums, alongside reading a book about Vermeer inspired the 'Geisha' book. A lot of stories in the news, particular to the area I live in, inspired 'Breakfast After Noon.' Local newspaper stories inspired 'Slow News Day.' Fairy Tales and folklore inspired much of 'Skeleton Key.' Henry James and French movies have informed a lot of my attention to dialogue...I'm inspired by pretty much everything but comics."

Writing company owned characters, like Superman or Spider-Man, writers obviously face the challenge of having to avoid repeating past stories and breaking new ground with decades old characters. But even with characters where you're in charge of the mythos, Watson says that one has to push themselves just as hard to stay exciting. "I guess repeating yourself and regurgitating clichés are the cardinal sins," says Watson of original work. "I work hard to avoid those. The early part of writing is the most exciting and fulfilling for me. What I find difficult is writing for other peoples characters. I'm much happier doing my own stuff."

[Slow News Day]As mentioned previously, Watson's current comic book project is a series called "Slow News Day" and the writer/artist sums up his project for those unfamiliar with the 6-issue mini-series. "The main characters are Katharine, a Californian who comes to England to work for a newspaper, and Owen, the sole reporter for the Wheatstone Mercury. It's a story about the differences between the UK and US, office and personal relationships and the bottom line. 'SND' came out of reading regional newspapers. I spent a long time cutting out the stories that eventually made it into the book. With the addition of the US/UK thing I could introduce some of my own experiences and my love of 30's screwball comedies also went into the mix. Katharine and Owen came out of that...my own version of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell." But if you are a fan of the series and want some hints as to what will happen in the final issue, Watson isn't letting any spoilers out for public consumption. "The final issue is out in May, so you'll have to wait and see. I don't have any plans to work with these characters in the near future, but like most of my stuff, there's more I can do with them."

Within the intricate and delightful story of "Slow News Day," Watson has been able to touch on some universally relevant themes like love and commitment, while also tackling important pop culture topics. Specifically, "Slow News Day #5" featured the two main characters debating the merits of small press versus highly funded endeavors, an argument that could be taken as an analogy for the division between "mainstream" comic book fans and "indie" comic book fans. "It's the ongoing theme of the book," says Watson of this scene. "Katharine coming from the US with certain expectations and Owens defense of his place in the world. It's an argument you can put in a comics context but it has a wider relevance. The Mercury is a small, regional paper but it's pressured by the same financial considerations of a much larger organization. When everything is reduced to profit and the bottom line then there's a corrosive effect. I touched on that with the 'health care' issue but it's obviously something we're faced with in every part of our lives."

As with "Slow News Day," Watson's other big hits have unique and interesting inspirations behind them. "'Geisha' started from nothing really, I wanted to do a manga type book with this robot girl character. Then I researched the fine art stuff and the Vermeer forgeries and the concept came together about real and fake and whatnot. I still included mecha suits and whatnot but I really got excited by the theme and exploring that in the writing. I'd wanted to do a story about unemployment for a long time...not the 'Full Monty' stuff, but what it really feels like. Manufacturing has been in decline in Britain for a long time, specifically in this area, the ceramics industry. Just from watching the local news and visiting local places it all came together in "Breakfast After Noon." I researched the ceramics a bit more, most of which didn't make it into the book, but I at least felt I had a decent foundation. I wanted to draw on some of my own experience and use English vernacular etc."

One of the most common elements in all of Watson's work is a strong female protagonist, something that Watson finds appealing, even if he isn't completely sure why it is such an appealing creative aspect. "I guess it's my feeble attempt to redress the balance of all the exploitative bad girl crap and generally retarded attitude in comics. It's an industry dominated by men and I find that surfaces in uncomfortable ways. If I was a woman, just looking at the shelves of a comic book store, I'd be insulted. I try to write characters, not adolescent fantasies. I'm not a prude, sexy is cool, and I just try to avoid being dumb." This, along with the spelling of Watson's first name, have led to many people thinking that he is in fact…a she. "I'm usually flattered by the confusion," admits Watson. "It reflects well on the books."

Another common element in Watson's work is the format, specifically the fact that most of his work consists of mini-series as opposed to the traditional ongoing series. "Skeleton Key was monthly for 30 issues, so I've done that," explains Watson of why he isn't current involved with an ongoing comic book series. "I don't lack ideas. It's back to economics again, I'd have to earn enough to live off a monthly book otherwise I wouldn't have time to do paying work. It's not just my wife and me anymore; we have a five-month-old daughter. Also, my interest at the moment is in finite stories, they can be long, but require a conclusion."

Even with his finite stories, Watson admits that there is some desire to revisit old characters and places, though there are restrictions upon when he'd do this. "There'd have to be a good reason to go back, not just for the sake of it. By good reason I mean a strong theme or 'dramatic arc,' I hate the whole 'illusion of change' thing. I do want to do another series with Rob and Louise [principle characters of 'Breakfast After Noon'], because now that they're parents, there's a lot to explore there. I think there are still interesting things in 'Geisha' that weren't touched on previously. I have a story about Jomi [protagonist of 'Geisha] painting a portrait, because that whole process is interesting, but don't have any plans to do it soon. Also, in some way 'Geisha' was a transitional work. Now I've done a few non-genre stories so it might be hard to go back."

One series that Watson will be returning to is "Skeleton Key," which has been optioned as a TV series. "It certainly feels weird going back to these characters, especially in the collaborative context of animation. There are occasional feelings of 'What am I doing, letting these sharks get their teeth into my babies?'" laughs Watson. "So far it's been relatively painless though. It gets tougher the closer you get to the network types... 'SK' is about Tamsin, who lives in a quiet corner of Canada. She finds a key that opens doors to other worlds where she meets her fox spirit friend, Kitsune. It's a fantasy series I guess, it's got a lot of fairy tale and folklore influences in there. In the end though it's about the friendship between the characters. We haven't gotten to the storytelling nitty-gritty yet. The main difference is obviously that it's a collaborative medium. And in the end you don't have creative control, you have an opinion which is valued as much or as little as the network allows."

[Dumped]Even though Watson may not be making comic book trade magazine "Wizard's" top ten list of hot creators or selling millions of copies of his work, he doesn't feel sad or ignored by comic book fans. "Ignored, no. If I was working with other publishers the attitude to my stuff might be different and if I was selling more books that would be nice. But in the end I'm happy that I'm continuing to improve, that's really all that matters. I'd like to think 'Slow News Day' and 'Breakfast After Noon' and 'Dumped' will still be on the shelves in a few years time and stand up as good books. A dozen crazes will have come and gone by then but I'm interested in creating work that will be around for a while yet." And if you're interested in his work, Watson has his own website: AndiWatson.Com. "The site was designed by James Lucas Jones at Oni Press. It's all his work and looks really good. He keeps it going for free and I'm eternally grateful to him. The site is a good place to let people see your stuff and let them know what you're doing. It's accessible to anyone with a computer, so I'm all for it."

Accessibility is a key factor in the success of Watson's work and it is also something that the creator believes needs to become more prevalent in the comic book industry. "It's pretty obvious. You need good books in a wider variety of subject matter to appeal to both sexes and all ages. That's not to say all ages books, but stuff that's relevant beyond the teen boy audience we have at the moment. I have nothing against teen boys, I was one myself, but they have narrow areas of interest. In Japan and on the Continent, books cater to all tastes and the medium is healthy in those countries. The books then need to be marketed to these other audiences. There are some good comic shops out there but the majority will never lure in the kind of customers that bookshops do. More generally I think comics should be relevant. Most of the mainstream comics out there mean nothing to me. In my own work I deal with love, work, relationships etc, etc. It's stuff people can relate to, not who's fighting who this month. If sales do increase over the next few years, I'm worried the industry will think it's okay to carry on as it has been. If it doesn't change then the medium will die."

When asked about the success of comic books like "100 Bullets," "Transmetropolitan" or "Red Star," Watson is happy that they are successful, but still has some reservations. "To be honest, I haven't read any of those books. A wider range of genres is an improvement on the usual spandex stuff though. Personally, I want to read books that don't rely on black magic or gunplay. But who knows, I might come up with a really good idea about gun-toting necromancers, then I'll have to change my mind. One of the problems with the industry is its reliance on trends and fads and gimmicky covers and all that crap. It's exactly that kind of short term-ism that's landed it in the toilet. An emphasis on a broader variety of stories, concentrating on creators not properties and marketing to a wider audience would be a nice start. But it hasn't happened yet and I don't see any signs that it will."

In addition to his dreams for the industry, Watson has some dream projects that he'd love to work on: "I have two things I really want to do, one is a period piece and the other is revisiting Rob and Louise from 'Breakfast After Noon.' It's down to money and time, since I became a Dad. I don't have Batman stories (or whatever) I've always wanted to tell. I've nothing against that stuff, I just don't think about it." When asked if there are any superhero projects that he'd at all be interested in, Watson replies, "I have the desire to get the page rate of a superhero book. Whatever, if it funds my personal work, I'm willing to give it a shot. But, I don't 'get' superheroes. I didn't read them as a kid and I don't now. Super powers are pretty hard to accept...but there's mileage in ideas about vigilantism, personal and public morality and revenge."

So then which comic books does Watson read? "I'll always pick up stuff by Seth, for his pacing and mood. Monsieur Jean by Dupuy and Berberian because it manages to be wise but with a light touch. Stanislas, mainly for the artwork. Mitsuru Adachi for his storytelling. Sugar Buzz by Carney and Phoenix because they tell funny stories with a disturbing undercurrent."

Watson also reminds readers that he has some work that will follow the conclusion of "Slow News Day," which means that fans won't miss their "Watson-fix." "'Dumped' is out in April, which ties in with the biennial in Turin. I'm also creating a twelve-page colour strip for artbomb.net that should be up in May. Then the SND trade is out in July."

In the end, Watson says that, "I think my books can be read and enjoyed by everyone. That's what I aim for, that someone who's never read a comic before can pick the books up and enjoy" and has an important message for fans of his work:

"Once you've read one of my books, pass it on to a non-comic reading friend or relative. Get them to look at it...we all need new readers."

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