Ali Graham is the creator of Nobody's Business, Afterstrife and HOUSD. I first discovered Graham reading Afterstrife, which follows two characters through their afterlife. It's kind of like Moonlighting meets Dante. The more recent Nobody's Business is based on a film Graham worked on over last fall and into this year. Graham is one of a small but growing group of webcomics creators in the UK. I got a chance to interview him via email over the last month about his current projects.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m 21, I’ve just graduated from the NCCA at Bournemouth University, I’m living on the South East coast of England, and I’m currently trying to convert my creative juices into a delicious money-making smoothie.
Where are you located?
I’m on the south east coast of England, close to Hastings. Close enough to too and fro from London, but far enough away from the rat-race.
What's a typical day for you like recently?
Depending on the day, I’ll wake up; do the online rounds (email, twitter, facebook, myspace, news etc.) then generally set about making a comic, with plenty of procrastination and computer malfunction peppered in between, just to make things interesting.
Do you have another job besides working on comics?
This is currently my self-proclaimed gap year — I’ve been in full time education since I was 2 ½ so I’ve allowed myself a year to try and dip my finger in as many pies as I possibly can.
Other than comics, I do freelance illustration work for club nights, and I’m currently working on some pre-production and fundraising for my next film based venture. None of them are really jobs, but they keep me occupied.
You've got a new comic you started this March called Nobody's Business. Can you give us the story on how that came about and it's connection to the film project of the same name?
Nobody’s Business started out as a short film me and my friends shot over the summer, it was a bit of a slap dash affair, having to deal with atrocious weather and a lot of bad luck. As a result we didn’t get to shoot everything from the script, so I felt the comic would be appropriate to plug those gaps, help people understand the script at their own pace (as it’s a big story to fit into 30 mins) and also hopefully expose the story to a wider (webcomic) audience.
It’s nice to work on a comic with a finite scope. The story is in place, so it’s just a relatively simple matter of visualising the script.
Your other previous comics include Afterstrife which began in late 2006 and Housd which ran from 2003 to 2006. Can you give us a brief overview of both of those projects?
HOUSD was my first delve into webcomics, it was very simple artistically, but offered a nice relief from the daily monotony of school life. As with anything long running, it eventually becomes a chore, and having moved away to university, I felt the HOUSD chapter of my life was played out, thus I started AfterStrife.
AfterStrife is a much more story based, complex project, that (through my own fault) has taken far too long to come to a head. Unfortunately comics take far longer to create than read, and with a full time degree and more recently full time film projects, two updates a week is all I have been able to manage.
Looking at all three comics, how do you think your work has evolved over time?
Since my comics are slow-burners, I feel the evolution of my style has been somewhat stunted. In each new endeavour I’ve tried to stretch myself artistically, while the writing reflects where I am in life (at least at the start), I don’t feel AfterStrife represents me as a person now, but the story has to be told and finished. Unfortunately once I’ve lost that primal link to my work, it does become incredibly difficult to motivate myself.
At this point do you have any long term goals or ambition for yourself in comics?
I like to see myself as a storyteller, than necessarily a comic creator. Comics are a great medium as you have the ability to create characters and worlds of your own, but they are exceptionally time consuming and isolating things.
I doubt comics will ever become a sustainable income for me, to do that I would need a genuine love for the medium, which I can’t say I do. The fact is, I’d much rather work in a collaborative film-making environment, where I can ask an actor to read a line of dialogue, rather than draw three complex panels resulting in exactly the same information for the audience.
How do you go about promoting your work? What seems to be most effective at pulling in new readers?
Pulling new readers is tough, especially now there are thousands of webcomics out there, constantly raising the bar in their art, stories, humour etc. I’ve dabbled with advertising (which does work), but I’ve always been a fan of organic growth in my comic.
The fact is the webcomic reader is a (paradoxical) fickle creature of habit. The established comics get robotically habitual readers that skim the dialogue, paying very little heed to the hours of drawing time, then hop over to their next injection of entertainment.
New readers are terrified of bulging archives of dense story telling and artwork; therefore opt for simple, single hits of humour based strips. Like television, the webcomic market has become saturated, so most people just want to channel flick, if you don’t grab them straight away, it’s unlikely they’ll wait around for anything to develop.
Is the Boxcar collective still active? Are you still a member?
Boxcar enjoys long periods of hibernation. We’re all busy people, that’s the long and short of it. Every so often someone comes along and prods the fire, and we all get proactive, but it’s tricky.
I think the fact that we’ve never managed a full collective based convention has hurt us somewhat. It’s a lot easier to get enthusiastic with people you’ve actually met in person.
What conventions are your favourites to exhibit at? What advice do you have for others just starting to show their work at conventions? Do you have a favourite convention story?
I’ve only really done conventions in England (except one in Holland once), the main one I’ve been involved in from its very start is the UK Web Comix Thing.
This year’s event was a little different to previous years, in that there were far more big hitters from the web exhibiting, which for the event was great, but it meant a lot of the money that people would spend on browsing and discovering new stuff was spent on established names.
To those starting out, I’d say give it a whirl. If nothing else it’s a fun place to observe human behaviour in its rawest form. Whether it be the quivering wrecks stood in the corner planning out exactly what they’re going to say to Rich Stevens, or the hardcore comic fans that scowl in distain as they fumble through your wares.
When you create a comic, how do you appproach it? Do you start with the words and then think about the scene that should go with it or do you start with more of purely visual approach or none of the above?
I’ve never really been one to work with scripts. I generally have an idea of where the story’s going, and then make up the dialogue as I go, with the maybe the next three strips in mind.
I have ideas all the time, so working to a predefined story just frustrates me. I much prefer having flexibility in my work, although when people ask what’s going to happen next, I usually can’t tell them.
Visually, I want to make it as cinematic as I can, purely as a challenge to myself, and hopefully a compliment to the story as a whole.
What tools do you use to make comics? Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?
I pretty much work entirely digitally. I’ve tried the sketch, scan, ink, colour approach, but my comics take long enough as it is. I used to just draw HOUSD with Flash 5 and a mouse.
Nowadays I can’t live without my Wacom tablet, still working with Flash 5. Using either photo reference, or poseable 3D maquettes (as in the case of Nobody’s Business), then I draw in the lines, fill the colours, then shade. Easy in theory, time consuming in reality.
The great thing about creating comics in Flash, is that they can be exported at any resolution, meaning no ridiculously large 300dpi files until they’re required for printing.
How would you describe your relationship with your fans? Do you engage in a lot of online interaction with your readers?
I don’t know if it’s the subject matter, or the fact that AfterStrife is just one of many webcomic stops my readers make, but I don’t really have a huge amount of interaction with them.
I try to answer every email I get, but in truth most of my readers are just plot points on a Project Wonderful graph.
In real life I’m a very approachable person, but I’ve never really been a “down with the kids” kind of person online. I put my stuff out, if people like it, they’ll read it, if they don’t they won’t. Sadly that’s about as far as the relationship goes.
Did you read comics as a kid? Which ones? What are your influences from comics today?
I didn’t really read comics as a kid, other than the odd Garfield or Peanuts. Comics to me are a conflicted medium, do I read it like a book, or do I watch it like a TV? I suppose I’d rather have read a book and let my imagination be the artwork, or watched it on the TV, where the sounds and visuals are served to me on a plate.
Other non-comic influences on your art and/or writing?
Influences come and go as tastes change and new content comes into my consciousness. When I first started HOUSD, I took a lot of inspiration from sitcoms such as Spaced or Black Books, if I suddenly became exposed to something else, it would subliminally seep into my work.
Do you read other comics? What are you reading online or in print?
I used to read loads, now I feel I’m a bit out of the loop in terms of the webcomic world. I suppose Scarygoround is my webcomic staple, and I dabble in the likes of Octopuspie, and Overcompensating. Most of the original comics that I enjoyed (Penny Arcade, PVP, Ctrl Alt Del) I have no interest in whatsoever. But just like music, tastes change.
What is it about comics that leads you to pour your creative impulses into that form as opposed to writing or some other art form?
Comics let you do what you want, you don’t have to be optioned, or published to tell a story anymore. I do a lot of writing as well, but you get to the point when you become disillusioned by the fact that it will most probably never be produced. Whereas with comics: you think, you draw, you publish.
Any other creative endeavors you're working on?
Always. I have new ideas on a daily basis; it’s just choosing the best and most realistic medium in which to manifest them. Whether it be comics, animation, film, podcasts, written word etc.
I’m going to be making another film over the summer, possibly taking over a large, local shop space and turning it into a creative hub, hopefully starting up my music satire podcast again, and all sorts of other crazy ventures I require to placate my stupidly short attention span.