Between the Panels: Cartoonist Kat Chapman on Autobiographical Writing, Getting Great Feedback, and the Power of Mundane Details

“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.

Kat Chapman’s path from artistic dreams to making comics professionally first took her through the worlds of children’s books and self-published zines. Since then, she’s created two graphic novels of her own, and currently also has an inside view of the business as head of marketing at Avery Hill Publishing.

First, the particulars…

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

Your home base: London


Social Media

Instagram: @katrionachapman

Twitter: @katchapman

Facebook: KatChapmanIllustration

YouTube: Katriona Chapman

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I start with the big question: Why comics? What’s the appeal for a creator for working in this field?

Kat Chapman: I think probably because I enjoy both writing and drawing, so it’s a medium where I can use both skills and have a lot of control over the final product. I was always into drawing but never had much interest in fine art, so I wanted to find a way to use drawing where I could use words, too! Plus, I’ve always enjoyed reading comics.

KS: What did that reading look like in your younger years?
KC: As a kid, I read Asterix and Raymond Briggs comics and sometimes the Beano and stuff like that. There was a gap until I was a teenager, but then a friend got me into comics like Hate by Peter Bagge, and I started buying comics for myself. I was never that much of a regular collector, though, more an occasional comic shop visitor.

KS: Looking back at the various material you encountered, was there a particular comic that really hit home?

KC: It was definitely Hate! I’ve always tended to prefer stories with a naturalistic setting, and until I read Hate I didn’t really know that that existed in comics, outside of newspaper strips; another comic I grew up reading was For Better or For Worse, a Canadian newspaper comic about a family that we had some collected editions of. Outside of Hate, most of the comics I bought as a teenager were either classics like V for Vendetta or genre comics which I never really connected with that much, except that I sometimes really liked the artwork. Hate made me realize that you could make comics about everyday life with all its mundane details and it could be really good!

KS: I’m always interested in where/when/how the notion of an artistic career first arises for a person. Was there a specific “a-ha” moment of inspiration for you?

KC: I never had much of an idea what to do with my drawing until someone suggested I could be an illustrator. I did a degree in literature because I was so certain that I didn’t want to do fine art, but after my degree I still had no idea what my career should be. The illustration suggestion made me realize that there were ways I could use my drawing skills and my love of books to maybe make a living. I also knew it would be really hard to make a living that way, so I worked part time and did illustration part-time. I always had the vague idea that I’d like to draw comics at some point, but I was so slow at creating illustrations at first that I didn’t see how it would be possible! I was in awe of the amount of work involved in making comics.

KS: What was the first professional project you would call fully yours? By that I mean you weren’t supporting someone else’s story with art — as you did in children’s books — but were delivering your own pure vision.

KC: It would be my first graphic novel, Follow Me In. After illustrating other people’s work for a while, it became a real goal to be able to tell a story of my own. Before Follow Me In, I produced eight issues of a self-published zine, Katzine, which was a way for me to experiment with storytelling and visual comics styles before I embarked on a big project. I don’t know if that counts as “professional” or not!

KS: When you consider Follow Me In now, what’s something you can see as different about the Kat who made it vs. the current you? Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

KC: I think my confidence has grown a little. When I finished Follow Me In, which was autobiographical, I really wanted to do a book that was fiction, but I didn’t know if I could do it. I’ve now published a fiction book so that feels like a huge achievement and I feel like like working on my two books must’ve helped improve my ability to write to some extent!

KS: Was putting yourself out there in an autobiographical sense any more or less freeing that creating something from scratch?

KC: I guess working in fiction is probably more freeing as you can make up anything you want, and change things in any way you want to better serve the story. In autobio, you're always aware that you don't want to misrepresent a person or a situation. I think it's a given that in autobio you can still have a bit of artistic license; you could move events around in time - for example, if it's going to improve the storytelling. But you feel more of a sense of responsibility about how you're depicting people because they're real people.

KS: One challenge in telling that kind of story is that what may seem hugely significant to the person living it in the moment might not translate with the same importance to an outside audience. Was it ever difficult to stand back with enough distance as if you were the author and not also a character?

KC: I think it helped a lot to have Ricky [Miller] editing my work, as he acted as the outside audience and was better able than me to decide on cuts as he had that distance. I did try to look at the story from an outside perspective too. I tried to put myself in the position of the reader a lot. But it was also really helpful to have an actual other person looking at the work and giving feedback.

I also think the reason I really wanted to add the personal storylines running through Follow Me In was to give it a more universal/emotional appeal to readers alongside the more factual stuff about the physical journey I was describing. While not everyone has backpacked across a country, most people have had a difficult relationship with another person, or a difficult time of their life so I was definitely aware of wanting to make the story interesting to the reader on that level.

KS: Aside from Follow Me In, you recently put another graphic novel out into the world.

KC: My book that came out in November [2020] is called Breakwater, and it’s a story of cinema workers in a crumbling old cinema on the seafront in Brighton. It’s about friendship and how much of ourselves we’re willing/able to give in our relationships with other people. So far, I’ve had some wonderful responses from readers and reviewers. The ones that mean a lot are ones where people share their own experiences with mental illness —one of the themes of the book — and a lot of people have let me know that they found that aspect of the book very real and moving. It was the aspect of the story I was most worried about getting right, so it’s been great getting that feedback from readers.

KS: For both books, did you find your way in through story or through images that then grow into story?

KC: I start with story. There’s so much drawing involved with making a comic that I don’t particularly want to do lots of drawing at the start that won’t end up in the final book. I prefer to work the story out first and then start drawing, though obviously I still have to explore my characters visually a bit at the start and figure out what they’re going to look like and what the visual style of the comic will be.

KS: Was the creation process at all similar between the two?

KC: [It was] very different as one project was autobio and so a lot of plot came from reading my old travel journals and adapting them into a story. Whereas with Breakwater, I created the story from scratch. I’d had the rough idea kicking about for a while. I just wasn’t sure how to write it until I sat down and started.

KS: Tell us about where your work gets done these days. Do you have a dedicated studio space?

KC: I have a studio space, but especially in the winter I honestly prefer to work in bed if I can! I work on a laptop and an iPad these days so I’m able to work wherever I’m most comfortable — and in the winter, warm. So during the winter, I only really use my studio if I need to use my printer or shoot photos or video or something like that.

KS: Any work rituals or routines you find helpful?

KC: The only thing I can think of is that I made a decision at one point not to work evenings and weekends unless I have a really important deadline. I can tend to be a workaholic, and I found it helpful to be strict with myself about work hours and leisure hours.

KS: In addition to being a creator, you’re also involved in the business end at Avery Hill. There’s a general tendency to look at the “creatives” and the “office” as two different camps, but I’m interested in your experience. Does the publicity work you do scratch a creative itch for you?

KC: It’s definitely not something I ever really trained for, so there’s been a lot of learning on the job. I think I’ve learned to become better at graphic design through laying out graphics of all kinds for Avery Hill. I’ve recently gotten really into video editing and I’ve been able to bring that into my Avery Hill work a little too, which has been really enjoyable. I’ve also really enjoyed meeting people and making contacts through the job. I’ve met great people in the press world, plus creators, printers, retailers… all sorts. And that can be really rewarding. I think it’s good for creators to find out more about what’s involved in making and selling books, which is one reason I’m a huge fan of self-publishing. It teaches you a lot!

KS: We’ll spread some love with the final two questions. First, who’s a person who was helpful to you along your professional path? It could be someone who offered encouragement at a key time, opened a door of opportunity, or made an introduction.

KC: Ricky from Avery Hill has edited both of my books, and also has been very encouraging with guidance and support over the years, so he’s definitely the first person who comes to mind! I’m a details person who can struggle to maintain an overview of a project, whereas I think he’s great at big picture stuff. I think that’s why we work well together, both on the books I’ve worked on with him and in our Avery Hill work.

KS: What about a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration?

KC: Kingdom by Jon McNaught. I’ve always loved his work ever since I bought his book, Pebble Island, about ten years ago. His work manages to create so much atmosphere, which is something I strive for, as well. His artwork is stunning, and he loves to focus on micro moments and mundane details which is again something I enjoy doing in my work. Kingdom is full of feeling and so evocative.

KS: Finally, tell us anything we should be on the lookout for in 2021.

KC: I’m still recovering from getting Breakwater finished, so I actually don’t have a plan for the next project yet. Though one of my hobbies is making vlogs, and I post fairly regularly on YouTube, so if anyone’s interested in checking out my process or anything, there are some vlogs that show me drawing and working on books!

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