Between the Panels: Cartoonist Lucy Sullivan on Stepping into Her First Comic Shop, Putting Life into Art, and Having Jeff Lemire in Her Corner

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived above a London pub and discovered comic books in her spare time. That might sound like the opening for a graphic novel, but, in this case, it’s also from a true story we might title The Life of Lucy Sullivan. The girl in this story grew up to follow her dream of becoming a professional artist, carving a path for herself from animation back into comics.

First off, the basics…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist/Writer

Your home base: London, UK


Social Media

Instagram: @lucysullivanuk

Twitter: @lucysullivanuk

Facebook: @lucysullivanuk

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What’s the attraction for you as an artist of working in the comics form?

Lucy Sullivan: Two things mainly. It is an extraordinary and utterly unique language. I’m reading Hilda and other kid-friendly comics with my kid at the moment; in doing so, I’m not only teaching her how the text and image combines with the layout, but also how the flow and pagination of the comic works. It’s so complex and yet easy to understand. I’m constantly blown away by the breadth and scope of what comics can do.

Secondly, there are few other mediums that can foster such an intimate moment with your audience. You can lead people into extremely deep and heartfelt emotions and that as a storyteller is a wonderful experience.

KS: When did you start as a comics reader? Some guests first encountered the medium through single issues, or graphic novels, or newspaper cartoons. What about you?

LS: I grew up in a pub in London. By which I mean, my parents ran the pub and we lived above it. We also had a number of live-in staff, so I had access to comics I shouldn’t have probably read at quite a young age, such as VIZ and 2000AD, but luckily I mainly read the strips in my dad’s newspaper. The ones I remember most were Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes — I still think the latter is a work of genius. I probably started buying my own comics at around 7 or 8. I would get magazine titles like Oink and The Beano from the local shop and was often found with a Asterix or Smurfs annual. I was well into my teens before I ventured into a proper comic shop, and I won’t lie — it was a very intimidating experience — but still started a life long love for them.

KS: What comic shop was that? Did the intimidating experience originate internally or externally?

LS: Forbidden Planet, which in the 1990s was in Covent Garden, London, and it was such an unwelcoming environment. I got the full "comic book guy" treatment from the lad behind the counter. I was 16, I think, and ready to embrace comics but with no idea what I was buying, so I blanked him and searched the back of the store, picking comics based on the art. I bought Hellboy: Wake The Devil, Domu: The Dreams of Children [a.k.a. A Child’s Dream], Signal To Noise, and a bunch of floppies like The Maxx and Lobo. The guy at the till judged every single comic before adding the price. By that point, I realized he was just a little man with no power, and [I] smiled back. Those books are still my all-time favorites so I chose well in the end.

I haven’t visited a FP since. These days, I go to independent comic shops like Gosh! London — when I can — and always get a warm welcome and leave with way more than I intended. Or buy online from Page45 in Nottingham. I think they both know how to develop readers interests and help you build collections, as the staff are genuine lovers of the medium. I can’t abide snobbery in any form and definitely not in comics.

KS: If you discovered those favorite titles after braving the store, when were you old enough to first identify different artists and their styles?

LS: Probably as a teen. Although I would painfully copy and trace early comic faves — my Odie was legendary at school. I think when I started to read Deadline and realized there were art styles I couldn’t get on with even if the writing was good or vice versa.

KS: Who were some of the first ones you did get on with?

LS: I fell deeply for Jamie Hewlett’s artwork on Tank Girl and around the same time was reading The Maxx and watching Aeon Flux. I think there’s certainly a link between styles there and not one I emulate now, but I tried at the time. My continued art crushes remain for Dave McKean who I found through Signal To Noise with Neil Gaiman, and Katsuhiro Otomo, not through Akira — although it is an all-time favorite — but through Domu. It remains one of my most cherished graphic novel buys.

KS: We’ve talked a lot about the idea of story here recently. What was a particular comics story that had an impact on you as a reader?

LS: I think the first story that really shook me was reading the collected edition of Halo Jones (Titan). As a young, female comics reader, I often had to contend with depictions of women that felt inauthentic, but this story hit hard and was probably the first time I realized I had mental health issues. It also was the first time I felt I understood what being in a war might be like. I was around 17 when I read it. I think although there were many stories that I enjoyed and admired greatly, Halo Jones changed the way I saw the world — and for the better.

KS: Looking back, why was that the right story at the right time?

LS: Like many teenagers, I was highly introspective. My mind was consumed with the details of my everyday life which, looking back, seems bizarrely uneventful. Growing up in the pub and clubs of London, I met all sorts of people, many of which had been in combat and were pretty messed up by the experience. They were all men so I couldn’t fully empathize with how they felt until I read Halo Jones. It gave me an insight into their lives and their behaviors. I think, as a creator, understanding and observing people is a great skill. There’s nothing quite like comics to shine a light on that.

KS: Aside from your legendary Odie, were you generally artistic in those years?

LS: Yes, I drew all the time from a very young age and on any surface — walls, doors, shoes, my bunk bed. Much to my parents’ annoyance. Although my dad was happy to utilize it, as I often drew t-shirts, posters, and notice boards for our pub’s various happenings. In fact, every bar or restaurant I worked in, I would end up as the on-hand artist. Never paid extra, though!

KS: Roughly when did the idea of turning that hobby into a career arrive for you?

LS: Surprisingly late really. I come form a working-class background. I got my first job working in a cafe at 13 and worked in hairdressers, bars, and restaurants until my late 20s. It wasn’t until my dad died suddenly when I was 23 that I thought very hard about what I wanted to do. It’s an intense age to lose a loved one and gain mortality. It wasn’t my first experience of death but the one that hit hardest. I was very close to my dad and although he died young, at 54, he lived an amazing, jam-packed life. He always did what he enjoyed and always found a way to make that work. At the time he died, I had been living in New Zealand, working bars at night and snowboarding in the day. It sounds idyllic, but it was actually a very hedonistic and alcohol-fueled existence that was making me deeply unhappy. I came back to the UK and after a mental breakdown sought help in recovery, took stock, and decided to go to art school. It was a good decision.

KS: Had art school ever occurred to you previously?

LS: I had considered [it] as a teenager and tried to get a pre-University qualification, but I wasn’t ready and ended up bunking off — skipping classes — and hanging out in Soho with my best mate. In fact, we became friends on that course and were each other’s demise. We had a lot of fun, but we’re terrible influences on each other. We quit the course and moved to France to become snowboarders — a passion I followed until my dad died. It was [that] same friend who suggested I should go back to art school, and I’m grateful for the advice.

I studied a degree in Animation & Illustration and have worked in the arts ever since. Doing so has also improved my general mental state enormously. I do miss the camaraderie of bar work, though, but not the hours and definitely not the drunks!

KS: Your bio mentions that you made the jump to comics in 2017 as part of a lifelong ambition. Was animation your sole career focus up until then?

LS: I’d initially started off as a 2D animation director. I love traditional animation and there’s much it has in common with comics. Especially from my specialist area of hand-drawn animation. I had some success in the industry with my graduation film and as part of a collective making music videos. But I was constantly being asked to “cute-up” my style and making work that frankly was of no interest to me. At the same time, I was teaching life drawing at universities and drawing backgrounds for animation studios in London. It was well paid but unsatisfying work on an artistic level. I knew I wanted to create my own stories without having to please others and draw in my own, not at all cute style. I think in comics I’ve finally found a home for it.

KS: We can probably imagine what you mean by “cute-up,” so my question for the artist is: What was that friction like, either mentally or on the page? Did you not feel that the results were “true Lucy?”

LS: It’s incredibly uncomfortable, like a bare-faced lie or an itch you can’t scratch — but also for me it’s even stranger. I just can’t do it. It’s like the art gods refuse to let me do anything cute. There’s an artist called Yoshitomo Nara who draws unnervingly cute girls holding flick knives behind their backs. That’s the closest I can describe to what happens to my artwork. It just comes out creepy and menacing. I discovered it working on a music promo where the band were represented by animals. My co-director, Matt Latchford, and I both designed our versions, and his were infinitely better. Everyone agreed that mine looked like at any point it may slit your throat! Not ideal for the gentle song we were animating to.

It’s interesting moving into comics and drawing in the way I feel works best for me. I’ve been increasingly categorized as a horror artist, and it’s probably a part of what I do. I have a messy, scratchy style, and it’s one I enjoy working with greatly so I’m extremely happy that I no longer have to compromise. I think everyone has an innate art style it’s just a matter of finding the right home for it.


KS: So, what inspired the move to comics in 2017 particularly? Was there an outside project all ready to go that you could be part of, or did you simply decide to make the leap on your own?

LS: I was looking to create my own work and had been working on an animation idea based around my experience of having a mental breakdown. One of my life drawing students at that time, and now good friend, Nick Abadzis (Laika / Hugo Tait) and I were talking about self-directed projects and Nick encouraged me to take the leap into comics. My partner Stephen, who is a 3D traditional animator, thought that I should see if my idea could work as a comic and from then on I started to develop BARKING. This was back in about 2012 and in that time I also had a child. I lost about two years of creating; while pregnant and then while she was young. I started up again really in 2016, but it wasn’t until 2017 that I had two chapters of BARKING developed and started looking for a publisher.

Really, BARKING took 10 years from idea to page, but the "professional" bit started in 2017. There’s always so much work in comics that no one sees or accounts for!

KS: How did your first paid job in comics come about?

LS: Bit of a crazy one really. As BARKING was crowdfunded with a publisher (Unbound), I came into contact with an array of creators online during the campaign and picked up some amazing supporters, an early one of which was Jeff Lemire. I couldn’t believe it when Jeff followed me on Twitter and backed BARKING as a supporter. I’m a huge fan of Essex County and was reading Black Hammer at the time. I sent Jeff a message to say how grateful I was and how much I loved his work. He asked if I’d be up for doing a pin-up and I, of course, nearly bit his arm off (not actually). So, my first professional comics gig was a Madame Dragonfly Pin-Up in Black Hammer: Age of Doom #4, and I still feel giddy about it. Jeff is not only a superb creator but an excellent supporter of other creators. I’m extremely grateful for his continuing support.

KS: Tell us more about BARKING. Was this a story you had in mind that you decided to tell as a graphic novel, or did you set out to make a graphic novel and then found a story to fit the format?

LS: BARKING grew quite quickly from a shorter comic to looking like it might be a series to realizing it was a one-shot graphic novel. I had no definitive idea of what length it would be starting out, and it took developing and working on it to see that it was becoming a chapter-based book. I had some specific points about mental health care I wanted to make plus maintain an immersive story. It was a challenge, but by breaking it into chapters it helped me to define each part and keep a view on the overall book. I think stories create their own formats really. I don’t think it’s wise to create for a format or specific audience; there should always be room for an idea to grow beyond your initial concept and no one can every really say what a reader may enjoy.

KS: I won’t ask how much of the book reflects your actual experiences, but rather about the process of shaping a narrative from real life, of taking “the good parts” that actually happened and buttressing those with events invented for the occasion.

LS: Part of creating BARKING was the ambition of having an honest dialogue about my experience of a mental health crisis. I’m happy to speak openly about it and feel no shame in doing so; however, I did find it difficult to put a cartoon version of myself into a book and wanted to include events that had happened to friends or that I had discovered through research. Pretty much everything in the book, bar the manifestations, happened in real life to me or someone I know. I used an invented character to combine the experiences and drive the narrative, Alix Otto, but how she reacts is how I would have reacted at that time. I also found that although my breakdown was triggered by my dad’s death, it was the living that I couldn’t cope with, so the loss that Alix suffers is more about the friendships I struggled with at the time. Grief is a complex and unique experience but there are aspects that many of us will go through and it needs to be spoken about more openly. I hope BARKING can be a part of that discussion. It’s not uneasy or even cathartic experience to put the worst of your life on page, but it matters and that in itself is like an exorcism of those demons.

KS: You mentioned your occasional dips into teaching. Do you get some different professional satisfaction in the classroom that you don’t get creating work on your own?

LS: It’s a real privilege to work with students on their projects — seeing them develop and grow their practice and being able to help them problem solve the issues. I think it brings a greater understanding of my own practice than anything professionally satisfying. It’s good to be reminded of the pitfalls we all face in creating and how there is always a work-around. I often work on the degree I studied at Kingston University in London. There’s been a massive shift there towards adding comics creation into the course, and I’m starting to work with some very exciting new voices. That definitely spurs me on to keep creating and developing my own craft. It’s a brilliant side gig to have.

KS: These days, what kind of studio or workspace do you do most of your art in?

LS: I’m now working full-time in comics with the occasional dip into teaching, so I have a home-studio set up. It basically half our living room partitioned off with glass doors. It gives me lots of room to work in and I need a fair amount of space for drawing and writing. I have a drawing desk in one corner and a computer table with Wacom tablet, scanner, and printer in the other. I also have a comfy chair for reading comics and I feel very lucky indeed — even if the glass doors often mean my kid can smush her face on it and demand I stop making comics and play with her instead.

KS: Do you prefer a soundtrack or silence during work time?

LS: I have very specific sound needs depending on what practice I’m doing, but never quiet. I need no dialogue or lyrics when I’m writing and prefer electronic/ambient music. I love an atmospheric soundtrack. I listen to a lot of Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds and Max Richter. With Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross soundtracks on heavy rotation — I’m listening to their score to After The Flood right now and it’s perfect.

If I’m drawing, I need to sing very loudly — probably badly — so I have playlist of songs that I love. I tend to make playlists for my projects so I’ll be building up and listening to that list. Currently, it’s a lot of '60s music with newer artists so Nina Simone, Billy Nomates, Joni Mitchell, Sault, and so on. Or I’ll listen to BBC 6 Music. The Lauren Laverne show is also a winner. When I’m laying out artwork on Photoshop or coloring, I like an audiobook. I’ve just listened to Mrs. Death Misses Death by Salena Godden that is utterly brilliant and the Koli Trilogy by M.R Carey, a thought provoking and unique Sci-Fi. I’m halfway through the new Kazuo Ishiguro book, Klara and the Sun, and enjoying it immensely.

KS: What’s a passion of yours totally unrelated to art? Something you collect, study, practice…

LS: I am obsessed with growing plants from seed. I have boxes full of seed packets, and read books and articles about it all the time. I grow a range of flowers and vegetables every year from seed with varying success. This year, my chilis and tomatoes are doing well, but everything else has been eviscerated by slugs and snails. Or squirrels. Even the fox cubs have wreaked havoc. There’s a surprising amount of wildlife in a London garden. It won’t stop me, though, and I’m already eyeing up next season’s seed packets — more inedible, hardy flowers I think.

KS: To spread some love at the end, please recommend a comic or graphic novel from any era that you look at with admiration.

LS: I have a couple of absolute crushes. Anything by Eleanor Davis but most recently The Hard Tomorrow. It’s beautifully drawn and paced with a close-to-the bone story. I find I have an increasing existential dread about the world and Davis understands that feeling and envisages it perfectly. I also adore Gipi and have his latest book, One Story, next to read. I first found him through Garage Band and then Notes on a War Story. His ability to depict everyday moments amid stunning (and clearly Italian) landscapes is breathtaking. I love Gipi’s delicate line and skillful use of watercolor. Lastly is Taiyo Matsumoto. I read Gogo Monster while creating BARKING and have just finished Sunny #1. Again, it’s an ability to render the mundane as just as important and beautiful as any epic. I love Matsumoto’s storytelling and admire how his work remains distinctly Japanese without being like any one else. I would give my drawing hand to create anything near as good as any of their works.

KS: Finally, fill us in on what you’re working on now and what we should look out for in 2021 and beyond.

LS: I’m just about to start my last art commission for a while, drawing a short comic written by Jordan Thomas. I believe it will be Kickstarting next year. Then, I’m focusing on only writer/artist gigs. I’ve got a very exciting commission lined up that I absolutely can’t talk about yet, but when I can I will be shouting it across social media — so do follow my profile if you’re interested to find out.

I’ll also be re-scripting and drawing out my next comic, SHELTER. It’s an urban fantasy/horror set in London, 1969. It’s all based around a part London where my dad grew up and chock full of mythology based on his Irish roots. It’s been fun to develop and is written and thumbnailed now, so it’s just a matter of finalizing the look, then getting going on the artwork. I’m still hoping to launch it on Kickstarter this year, but with Covid-related delays to other projects, it may well be Spring 2022.

I’ll also finally be in person, hopefully, at some cons. In October, I’m a guest at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal, where I’ll also be running a drawing workshop focusing on drawing hands and faces. I’ve got some great tricks from my teaching days to help folks brush up their skills or learn how to see and depict people from observation. I’ll also be tabling at Thought Bubble in Harrogate in November, so I’m hoping to see some real-life comics people again. If you’re not in the UK, I’ll be online for the whole of September with Hackney Comics & Zines Fair and shipping worldwide. BARKING is nearly sold out in first edition hardbacks and currently only available from my website. There are plans afoot for a second edition but it’s a way off so I’d snap one up if you’re interested.

Thanks for chatting with me and the excellent questions. And thanks for reading!

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 September 2021 21:29

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