Comic life - Rich Johnston interview

Many illustrators and designers have their interest in the industry piqued at an early age through comic books. Digit caught up with Rich Johnston via email, to see what the world of comics is like today.

Johnston is well-known on the British and international comics scenes. His column, 'Lying in the gutters', is the best-known industry column on the internet and Johnston is himself an author, responsible for the Flying Friar and Rich Johnston's Holed-Up, a comedic tale set among a community of separatists in Idaho – in American television sitcom style.

Jason Walsh: First, can you tell us a little about yourself? When did you start reading comics and how did you get into the industry?

Rich Johnston: I'm a London-based advertising copywriter, working for a Soho ad agency. Married, with two mortages and a fifteen-month-old-daughter.

Probably about 3 or 4. I was an early reader. Comics are are very good way to start reading - they're very instinctive and the iconic imagery is very strong in a young mind. People who don't read comics when they are young find it difficult to even start when they're older. There's a language to comics, how panels and text work together, that isn't instinctive when your brain has hardened.

JW: Is the anglophone world finally opening-up to graphic storytelling in the way that France and Japan respect it?

RJ: Not a chance. Even today's Metro newspaper has a 'Smash! Pow! Wallop!' first sentence to a comic book story. Increased coverage has not increased the level of sophistication. And sales are still embarrassingly low.

JW: What is the relationship between literary graphic novels such as Maus, Persepolis and Jimmy Corrigan and the comics world?

Looking on with awe. Many are seen as unrepeatable exceptions to the rule.

JW: Back in the late 1980s, comics like Crisis tried to break out into the mainstream by tackling difficult subjects in an adult fashion - what happened to the people involved? Do they have a legacy today?

RJ: Definitely. A lot of the creators went on to greater comics works, from designing the Gorillaz band, to rewriting the rules of the
medium, with works like Marshall Law, We3, The Ultimates and NextWave or working behind TV shows such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica. One or two write Eastenders

JW: Is there a single comic in the UK which has the importance that 2000AD did during the 1990s? Does 2000AD still rate as important?

RJ: I think Viz has had a greater impact on the British mindset than anything since the Beano in the nineteen thirties. It's much more a part of our everyday language than 2000AD, which has consolidated its readership into a shrinking demographic.

JW: Jamie Hewlett has obviously gone on to great things; do you think he'll prove influential on the next generation?

RJ: Certainly publishers are open to more cartoony styles. Frank Quitely, who owes a debt to Hewlett, is now the best selling artist on All Star Superman.

JW: Is the underground and small press comics scene still thriving? How has the internet impacted it?

RJ: Much has gone onto the web, as the photocopying is cheaper there. But figures such as Mark Stafford, Roger Langridge, Jeremy Dennis, Paul Rainey and many more still put out high quality work in print, however occasional.

JW: Popular in cult circles since at least the early 1990s, manga has exploded of late. Is this changing how comics are perceived – or even how they are drawn?

RJ: There's a much greater audience for authentic manga, but original English language work doesn't have the same audience. There is a different language to be learnt, from a different culture, so it's not totally instinctive. Yet.

JW: Finally, what is the industry actually like to work in?

RJ: If anyone gives me a job in it, I'll let you know. There is the danger that turning a hobby into a career sucks all the fun out of it though.

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