Webcomic Name's Alex Norris and loop king Laurie Rowan on finding success and laughter with their characters

Oh no - two great talents whose characters you can recognise from anywhere talk to us from Pictoplasma and D&AD Festival 2019, with topics ranging from barmy ballet and comedy to the artist as a persona.

It's design festival and grad show season, meaning Digital Arts is jetting around Europe interviewing artists from across the spectrum. Along the way we bumped into two successful British talents with recognisable characters, both known for their quirky offbeat work.

One is the cartoonist behind beloved funny pages Webcomic Name, Alex Norris, who makes the poor purple blobs that navigate modern life and end their three-panel adventures with the catchphrase 'Oh No'. You'll no doubt have seen these strips online and that phrase all over the tees, badges and other things worn by the comic's devoted fanbase.

The other is Laurie Rowan, an animator and illustrator whose GIFs of humanoid figures doing impossible things with their bodies has caught the eye of the Beeb and Channel Four. Based in Brighton, we actually met Laurie at the Pictoplasma festival in Berlin, where he gave a talk and announced his new role as a director for creative studio Nexus.

Alex meanwhile we met at D&AD Festival in London, where, like with Laurie, we chatted about comedy, character design and challenging oneself as an artist.

A tale of two festivals then, and two terrific talents - with a healthy amount of hilarious comics and mind-bending GIFs for you to enjoy.

Queer influences from dance and drag

Laurie on Bauhaus god Oskar Schlemmer

"I saw Triadisches Ballett (below) a couple of years ago and it really resonated with me," Laurie tells me in Berlin. "I got very exciting seeing that.

"I love Oskar's playful nature. He constructed these amazing suits for dancers where they have to mix the naturalistic movement of their moves with a mechanised feel.

"It's something that plays into my own animations, where I have a lot of recurring patterns, and people having to accommodate structures within their choreography."

Alex on the 'failure' of drag

"Any kind of naïve art, I love," Alex says when talking about inspirations. "Picasso too, as he loved the childlike nature of things."

"I love campness as campness is doing something badly but with such confidence and love that it becomes something good in itself.

"Drag is often that. It's failing at presenting something in a certain way, but owning it. It wasn't until I looked back that I realised how much of an influence drag is on Webcomic Name. Even though it's not so camp, it always has that subtext of failing.

Alex Norris speaking with Graffiti Life at D&AD Festival 2019

"I've hung out with Nicholas Gurewitch of The Perry Bible Fellowship a few times. He was one of the people I looked up to as he's always trying to make good webcomics.

"He got the short format thing, and did something more interesting with it. The strips created their own world. In that respect he's more like Gary Larson. Each comics exist on its own terms, and that's very hard to do, whereas Webcomic Name is more in the tradition of Peanuts, where each comic is building on its own themes and its own world.

"In Peanuts they do the same thing all the time, the same kind of disaster, and that's why Charlie Brown is sad."

Character & Comedy

Laurie's comic past

"I used to do stand up comedy a few years ago, and quite a bit of writing," Laurie tells me at Pictoplasma. It was more autobiographical comedy stuff, narrative-based, and then I did some character based stuff.

"I met a lot of comedians and formed some creative relationships with them. I've been working with this comedian, Sean McLoughlin, co-writing an animated sitcom with him called Branbourne Rock.

Exclusive look at the characters of Branbourne Rock

"It's centered around a fictional seaside pier. There's a sweetness to it, but there is a sinister edge as well, and I would like to straddle the line between those two things.

"It's mainly a reaction to what I don't like about British adult-oriented cartoons. They're just bad emulations of the American ones, for example something like Full English which is meant to be the British Family Guy but just seemed like a massive wasted opportunity." Find an exclusive animation test from the collaborative project below.

The Joy of Painting with Alex Norris?

"I want to make a live show where it's me basically failing at art on stage. Doing like a queer Bob Ross but failing, is what I'd like to do," Alex tells me when asked about future passion projects. "Also, I used to have similar curly hair to him, before it all fell off.

"I would love to do something live action, too, because it's quicker to make and it can be lower-budget. Animation's great, but a show where it's live action and you can do anything within that, like The Mighty Boosh did, I'd love to write."

Broadening horizons

Digital to physical

Besides moving into the world of animated sitcoms, Laurie's show at Pictoplasma 2019 was his first stab at an exhibition of his work, and featured interesting transitions of his digital work into the physical.

Visitors to the gallery could find a character made out of crochet, wooden figurines and a series of digital characters incorporating photography of clay models for texture. Find out more in the captions below.

"This was a collab with my wife (the artist Peasandneedles). I created the character and together we sprayed it into shape with a tufting gun."
"Making these wasn't too dissimilar to the way in which I do things digitally. When I'm painting my characters, a lot of them start defined by half a silhouette, then wrapped around and from that will be the base I work from."
On the left of Laurie is Mr. Wobbleparty. "It was made with a program where you can take your mesh, simplify it right down to its manageable constituent parts and then you print it out into paper. This came out to about 40 A4 sheets mounted to card and glued together."
"I take clay, press into it and photograph the light from four different angles. One after another, I compile those and then place over the top of my digital work."

Webcomic to paperback

This month has seen Alex's first printed collection of his books hit the shelves, oh no (find on Amazon).

While proud of the book, the artist already has itchy feet.

"I would love to make another book so I could use the format to its fullest. I talked to Nick Gurewitch and he also wanted to keep pushing it with what he could do with the print format.

"A lot of people make a webcomic and then they bring out a huge book as like the climax or crowning glory. I think that can be dangerous sometimes, because if the book doesn't do particularly well then that will reflect the success of their series as a whole.

"But making a book exactly like that was the goal all along. It's a good way for people who want to own books. It's also good for people who don't respect webcomics but who respect books.

When people see a book they go, 'Oh, this is an actual thing that people like rather than a random thing on the internet,' and I enjoy giving that option.

With oh no, Alex's one qualm is that the comic's three-panel format leaves a lot of extra space on the printed page - a format that may also not be the best fit for our age of social. 

"I chose three panels because it was a traditional format, but also it's small enough to fit well on most platforms.

"But if I was to make a new webcomic series right now, a whole new one, I would make a two-by-two because that fits on Instagram better. It would fit on all of the platforms, basically. 

"But I like Webcomic Name having a three because it feels so much more rigid than a four-panel comic does. That rigidity means it always feels like it's leading towards the punchline."

Audience Response

Cosplaying the Blobs

I ask both Laurie and Alex whether they give characters names during the creation process. 

"In Webcomic Name, the characters have no real names because they're supposed to be the most generic thing," is Alex's answer. "It's like webcomics abstracted as much as possible.

"So, the shorthand I tend to use is 'Pink Blob,' and I'm also always really insistent that they don't have he or she pronouns. They're just a blob; they're not a he or a she."

"The reason I designed them as blobs is so that the most number of people can look at them and see themselves back. They're the most relatable character. They have as little gender or cultural bias as possible, and can be anything."

I point out to Alex how the characters are very generic looking - and yet Alex being in make-up and bright clothes as we talk shows how the art is completely opposite to the artist behind it.

"I've always been obsessed with the artist as a figure," Alex agrees. "For a long time I hid myself away from doing talks because I didn't know how to present myself as an artist figure.

"Now I've become more flamboyant as embracing my queerness was an interesting thing which doing more talks encouraged me to do.

"I think wearing silly clothes as much as possible, wearing makeup, painting my nails, it's all part of being an artist. I thought the best way to present as that is just to be the most ridiculous, cartoonish artist figure I could be."

Has Alex ever thought about dressing as a blob, though?

"I've seen fans cosplaying as blobs, and they've always looked horrifying. They look like weird horror movie monsters. Something about the dot eyes in real life is terrifying. They look like weird ghosts."

The Webcomic Name fanbase is strong then, but as of yet without a name. I suggest The Blobs to Alex, who has yet to think of a name for them yet either.

"I'll think of a good name, but I feel like it might be too soon. I'd feel like a pop star in a way that I don't quite feel yet."

Human after all?

Laurie is another artist who doesn't name their characters, so I wonder if he thinks his audience sees human figures in his strange-looking humanoids.

"I don't know to be honest," he says. "But people like to imbue them with something that I didn't necessarily intend. 

"My characters always have muted expressions,. They're flat and passive all the time and I like that because it's more of a blank canvas. People can pour a lot of meaning on to that."

Read next: How being bad at illustration encouraged Julian Glander to make his own AI art teacher

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