It's not easy being a comic book creator. Not only are comic book fans some of the most critical fans you'll meet, they have a voracious appetite for something "fresh," something unlike anything else they're currently reading. Few creators seem impervious to mounds of criticism, but writer/artist Andi Watson is one of those creators whose work not only is consistently hailed by critics, but also by the fans. The prolific creator recently released the story "Princess At Midnight," part of the "Best New Manga" anthology and recently previewed on CBR. It's the first new project in a while from Watson, who's been busy with family. We spoke with Watson to learn more about his upcoming projects and to learn why we haven't seen his names in the headlines till recently.
"This year I finished off 'Little Star' which was then released as a trade in April. I did the 50 page story for the 'Best New Manga book,' did a couple of short strips, wrote another graphic novel, and worked on a bunch of pitches and ideas that may or may not see the light of day," Watson told CBR News. "I traveled to France a half dozen times or so in support of the French versions of 'Little Star' and 'Dumped,' which was great. I also had a couple of original art shows in Paris and there'll be a mini-folio of art called 'Chat Noir' out at some point soon. So, all in all, I've been quite busy, just not on the monthly solicitation treadmill."
From "Breakfast After Noon" to "Paris," Watson has found a warm reception from critics and fans alike. When asked about the key to keeping his work so fresh, he replied, "I guess I get bored easily, I always want to try new things, new art styles particularly. Drawing a hundred or more pages in a certain style gets dull after awhile, I'm always looking to incorporate new elements that I've been playing with in sketchbooks. I also like a lot of different stories, I like classic literature, crime, romance, I get inspired by trying to create something different from what I've done before. With 'Princess at Midnight,' the story for 'Best New Manga,' I really wanted to do a fantasy type story, with Orcs and whatnot, and incorporate some classic childrens book illo style into it, which I did while finishing up 'Little Star,' a different kind of story all-together."
With such down-to-Earth stories, and very realistic characters, the success of Andi Watson's work seems like a no-brainer. Informing his work are the very real events in his life, though fans shouldn't assume that his stories are all autobiographical. "There's some quote somewhere about Henry James taking his inspiration for a story from a 'mote' in the air, some tiny thing can grow to inspire a story," explained Watson. "I can see that, usually there's a mix of a couple of elements that combine and I have a story. Like with 'Dumped' I had the overarching framework of consumerism and climate change, big, abstract themes on their own. When I brought in the second hand books and Deb's clothes shop, which exists in Wolverhampton, where I was living at the time, it brought it down to earth and relevant to myself in a concrete way. After that I could tackle the story, I knew who the characters were and where they lived, it was then manageable somehow."
Still, that doesn't mean that Watson doesn't like to include some fantasy elements in his work, as fans were reminded in the recently released "Princess at Midnight." Like much of Watson's work, the story focuses on a very ordinary person in anything but ordinary circumstances, and this is one project Watson hopes to expand upon later (perhaps as an OGN). "It's about a girl called Holly who lives in a cramped house and is home schooled along with her obnoxious brother. She has an overprotective father and longs to get out into the world, but feels smothered at home. When the midnight moon shines on her she wakes up in a fantasy kingdom where she is Princess Waxing of Waxing castle. She has a couple of advisors, Tranquility, a Dandyish 'yes' man and The Chancellor who's much more serious and is also a dragon. There's a border dispute with the Horrible Horde, an army of Orcs and Trolls, over Holly's favourite picnic spot and they go to war. On one level it's an all-ages fantasy romp, on another it's a metaphor for sibling rivalry, and on another it's about an inexperienced leader going to war, expecting to win, and then getting bogged down in difficulties – draw whatever comparisons you like with the last one."
Fans can also see Watson's artwork on display in a comic that's not his norm-"Usagi Yojimbo," the acclaimed series by Stan Sakai. Watson is joining a host of all-star artists to celebrate issue #100 of the series, contributing two pages to the oversized affair. "I got involved because the writer, Jamie Rich, asked if I wanted to do it and I said yes. What I like about Usagi is that it reflects the good natured personality of the author. I always get the impression Stan is a really nice guy and that's reflected in the integrity of the Usagi. He's a hero, a character who will do the right thing. I love that the book is a kind of expression of the author's character, it's got heart, it isn't a ground-out work-for-hire-gig, it seems like Stan really loves the character after all these years, he's enjoying the work. Also, Stan's a great draughtsman, there's such a relaxed fluidity to his line, it's a pleasure to look at."
Watson's recent "Little Star" mini-series tugged at the heartstrings of readers with a tender tale of two parents and their newborn child. Inspired by Watson's own experiences, the book opened a door into the author's heart, and showed his own struggles with childhood. So does it ever get easier? "I think it does get a bit easier in terms of time and energy, babies are very hard work," answered the scribe. "Kids grow up and start school, you start to get a good night's sleep and the problems wriggle out of your fingers and transform into something different, you're constantly playing catch up. Five years or so in and you do get a bit more of a perspective on how your life has changed, how your priorities have shifted, how precious time is, how your ability to concentrate is totally trashed [laughs]."
It's not often that you see Andi Watson's name on the cover of a project from the Big Two - Marvel Comics and DC Comics - but expect that all to change next year as he launches a couple of new "top secret" projects from DC's mature readers imprint, Vertigo. "The book that's coming out through them I came up with in the summer of '02, soon after my daughter was born. I pitched it to Shelly Bond at UKCAC the following year. It will finally come out in '07, it's been one hell of a trip!" he smiled. "I'm scripting it and I've written a second volume that's being worked on at the minute. There'll be announcements soonish as the marketing people will start work on promoting to the book trade who work six months ahead of time. I've been good and kept schtum all these years so it'll be nice to finally be able to shoot my mouth off about the book I'm so excited about."
With such a strong reputation for quality and consistency, it's safe to say that Watson could shop his work around to any company, but said that Vertigo just felt right. "It's the right book for them, content-wise and they've overhauled their marketing dept over the last few years, they're serious about bookstores, graphic novels being the future, market research, and all the rest of it," he explained. "It'll be nice to have some promotion and marketing muscle behind one of my books, and the focus not being solely on the Direct Market. I've always believed my books would work best in bookstores so it'll be exciting to find out for sure."
But don't expect Watson to branch out into any of DC Comics' superhero universes, not because he doesn't like superheroes, but because he's got other projects to bring to life. "The pay check would be nice, but I mostly like to work on creator-owned stories," admitted Watson. "I've never been one to have a Batman story in a drawer that I've clung on to since childhood. At the moment I'm working on a period piece, something I've wanted to do for years, a Gothic Tale with curses and crumbling country houses. It's still pretty early days, but it'd be a good story to serialize, once I'm further along I'll look into publishers."
Over the years, Watson has noticed a lot of changes in the comic book industry, and when it comes to the UK market, he said he doesn't find it all rosy. "For me it's the collapse of singles, you have to approach a serialized book differently these days, making a single issue into a desirable object in its own right. Also being more organized with promo materials, having PDFs ready before solicitation and the rest of it. The graphic novel continues to grow, not just here but across Europe. A lot of US material is being translated by European publishers of various sizes in a variety of formats. The French market is in flux with 40% being made up of manga and the traditional hardback album being challenged by the GN. GNs have always been the Holy Grail, the gateway to a 'larger audience' but it seems to be very difficult to crack the bookstores without the backing of a large book publisher. It'll be interesting to see how the book publishers develop their lines in future and there're the parallel worlds of on-line comics and downloads. Seems like there are more ways than ever to reach readers nowadays, it's just a small matter of getting the right material in front of the right eyes. What has remained fairly consistent is the paucity of outlets for UK cartoonists within the UK. It has always been the Judge Dredd/Beano axis that's existed in the past, but people like Walker books are dipping their toes in the GN waters. It shouldn't bother me, but it does, that book publishers in the UK like Jonathan Cape are more interested in reprinting US material than home grown talent. It's one of the things that's been really nice about seeing Best New Manga in print, a showcase for UK based cartoonists."
Finally, with the explosion of comic books into the worldwide mainstream, much has been made of how people who aren't comic fans still don't quite take the position of "comic book creator" too seriously. Some creators have told stories of not admitting their exact vocation when questioned by strangers, but that isn't the case when it comes to Andi Watson. "I used to just say I was an illustrator or graphic artist, but I'm out of the closet as a cartoonist nowdays. Slowly but surely there's an acceptance of the term graphic novel, particularly amongst the chattering classes, Posy Simmonds work is serialized in the Guardian newspaper. Most people's reaction is 'cool,' despite everything cartooning is perceived to be an interesting job, but I think a lot of that is to do with being able to work in your pants all day and 'not having a boss.'"