“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.
A fascination with art from an early age informs a child’s hobbies, area of study, and eventual career. That opening might apply to many professional artists across many different fields, each with their own unique voice and skillset. In Lizzy Stewart’s case, while she may describe herself as standing apart from the traditional comics field, her work as a sequential storyteller is about to put her name in front of more readers than ever.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Illustrator/Writer
Your home base: London
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I start with the big question for each guest: Why comics? In your case, what attracts you to working in the sequential/graphic novel format specifically?
Lizzy Stewart: I draw and I write, so I guess it makes sense with the specific skillset I’ve been dealt! I wish I could say that I love the form or I’ve been devoted to comics all my life, but I think it’s less noble than that. I want to tell stories and I’ve worked as an illustrator for almost eleven years. It just sort of makes sense that if tell a story it’ll be with pictures? I don’t necessarily consider everything I do to be “comics;” I think I definitely feel quite external to the world of comics for some reason or another — all internal, all irrational — so I tend to think of what I do as being illustrated… stories? Graphic… fiction? I don’t know. I don’t feel like I am embedded fully enough in comics to claim that title! I don’t know enough! I’m aware this is nuts. My work definitely is comics sometimes. I’m just being neurotic about it.
I think, crucially, the thing is that when I sit down to think about an idea, some of it comes out as words and some is pictures. It boils down that simply! And that means the natural outcome is the thing we call comics.
KS: Please tell us about how you first started down the art path. Was this career an ambition from early on for you?
LS: I don’t think there was ever anything else on the cards for me, I was always going to try to be an artist in some capacity. I was fortunate to have parents that, despite having no connection to or experience of working in the arts themselves, didn’t really try to deter me from what is, obviously, quite a precarious life plan! As well as helping me through University financially — obviously very, very helpful and important to acknowledge — I think the fact that my parents never raised an eyebrow from aged seven or eight when I decided it was art for me forever. That kind of support meant I didn’t question my decision making, didn’t wonder if I should do something sensible, something with a financial future! I was very lucky in that respect.
So, initially I went to University to study Fine Art — specifically painting — but I ended up switching to Illustration. Looking back through my life, I realize that illustration was always there, I just didn’t know what it was. I think it’s a lot more present now, through Instagram mainly, but at the time I just didn’t know it was an option. But I’d always written (badly) as a child and teenager, so finding something that combined storytelling with image-making was a revelation!
KS: Your art school was Edinburgh College of Art?
LS: Yep, I did a BA in Illustration [there] and an MA in Communication Design at Central Saint Martins in London.
KS: What was the impetus for switching from Fine Art to Illustration?
LS: A few things really. I was on an MA fine art course, five years long. You did the BA part and then just plowed on through to the Masters without pausing. There were only twelve of us on the course. It was super intensive but that meant, because of the tough timetable, it was also quite isolated. It was that first moment of leaving home and meeting new people and then having, essentially, a full time job in the studio whilst all my new friends were out having fun and only having to go to three lectures a week. So, that played a part. Also, the course involved Art History at Edinburgh University and Architectural History, too, for first year. Which was interesting enough but not really what I wanted to focus on. Essentially, it just wasn’t the right course for me. If I’d gone to do Fine Art somewhere else I might have stuck with it.
As a result of feeling dissatisfied with Fine Art, I found myself working on more “illustrative” work in my free time. The thing that I was enjoying and that was making me happy was storytelling with pictures, so I made the switch. It was, in that instance, the absolute right thing to do, I think.
KS: On the topic of storytelling with pictures, do you remember when you first tried that? Or when things clicked into place for you to realize that was your ideal medium?
LS: I guess when you experience books, they’re books with pictures, so any early dabbling with storytelling would have been accompanied by pictures. I remember filling a notebook with “facts” about animals and each fact was accompanied by an illustration of that animal. I was about six, so the facts were… well, they were loose to say the least!
When I was in my teens, I remember making a picture book with my friend for a teacher we liked who was leaving — and who had just had a baby, so the book was for the baby. What a supremely nerdy thing to do! And that got me to thinking about words and pictures again maybe. I think I followed the picture book with an illustrated story about two pen pals. It was definitely a love story — I was about sixteen — and it definitely owed a heavy debt to the film, Amélie. Amélie really did a number on me.
KS: When was the first time you ever got paid for a piece of art?
LS: I was seventeen, I think, and I sold a painting, a large abstract canvas, to a friend of my friend’s family. I’d done this painting for my pal, Will, and his family liked it so much they put it in their living room. Their friend saw it and wanted one. So, I did, basically, the same thing again and she paid me £150. Which was, aged seventeen in the West-country, an absolutely absurd amount of money to me. I couldn’t believe it!
KS: Was reading comics or comic strips or graphic novels a significant activity in your younger years?
LS: I had so little contact with comics that the few instances where they occur in my childhood are incredibly vivid. I was a reader from a young age and would read anything that was put in front of me. In the UK, and I’d imagine everywhere else, if you’re a strong reader, the books with pictures get whipped away from you by teachers pretty early as you get ushered towards chapter books and “real stuff.” So, I think I missed the sweet spot where comics might have more easily slipped into my regular reading habits.
KS: Do you remember specific works you encountered?
LS: Of what I did read, I had an Asterix anthology in French that was given to me by an exchange student who stayed in our house. I could read maybe three words of it at that point, but I liked flicking through the pictures. I remember feeling very conscious of the fact that someone had drawn all those pictures, that all the movement and energy came from drawing. I was also very aware of the women —there were these women who were all drawn in a hyper-feminized way, tiny waists, big hair, pointy, pert boobs. I was fascinated and horrified by them in equal measure. I guess I felt threatened and alienated that that was what women were meant to look like but also super drawn to them because they were all brightly colored and had different outfits. It was a complex conflict of emotion to have at seven!
I also read Bunty magazine. Which… well, in the mid-’90s, no one still read Bunty. It was a really old-fashioned illustrated magazine for girls. It was very wholesome, I guess! But it had all these stories in comic form which I absolutely loved looking at. Even if they were about girls at private school — which I did not relate to — or girls with horses or whatever, I just liked that they were drawn. I didn’t know where to go to find more of that stuff once Bunty disappeared from the shelf at our newsagent, so I guess I lost comics for a good long while after that.
KS: Among all that, can you think of a sequential art story that really had an impact on you as a younger reader?
LS: Ethel & Ernest is a book by Raymond Briggs who is, traditionally, viewed as a children’s author and illustrator. It tells the story of his parents’ lives and marriage over the course of the twentieth century. It’s beautifully dispassionate — and all the more emotive because of it —sparse, and controlled. He chooses descriptive moments rather than big plot points and, almost without noticing, you’re fully embedded in this family by the time the inevitable sad ending comes. It’s also incredibly beautifully drawn.
KS: Sometimes, a book and reader find each other at exactly the right moment. Why was that the right material for you?
LS: I think I first read Ethel & Ernest in my first year of University. I’d read Raymond Briggs as a child — his books, Fungus the Bogeyman, Father Christmas, and The Snowman, are canon for a British childhood in the 1980s and ’90s — but I’d not read Ethel & Ernest. In the year leading up to leaving home, I’d become interested in graphic novels; I’d read Jimmy Corrigan, Maus (the kind of stuff stocked in chain bookstores in the UK in the early 2000s), quite a lot of American indies (Jeffrey Brown, James Kochalka), and webcomics (Nothing Nice to Say, Patches, Perry Bible Fellowship) — but I’d not read anything that felt like it came from the world I came from. At the time I was studying Fine Art but feeling a pull towards Illustration. Ethel & Ernest was one of the things that helped me make the shift. It showed me a kind of storytelling that might be possible with pictures and that it existed in the UK as well as the US. Thankfully, after that I finally managed to find some comics and graphic novels by women, and then we really hit the ground running!
KS: To switch gears to your own work… A book like Walking Distance isn’t quite a graphic novel, but isn’t a more classical picture book either. Was that format pre-planned, or did it grow as you worked?
LS: I think Walking Distance was, potentially, the most organic thing I’ve ever done. It sort of unfolded in its own way, completely naturally. I went between drawing and writing quite fluidly, depending on what felt the right way to approach the subject. It’s non-fiction and autobiographical so it felt right to treat it honestly and that meant an equal weighting of both, I think. A few years ago, I would have drawn the whole thing but, increasingly, I do feel that writing is becoming a bigger part of what I do and the book reflects that, I think.
KS: This summer, your debut graphic novel, It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be, will be released by one of the iconic comic publishing imprints, Fantagraphics. How did that pairing come about?
LS: I was contacted by an editor there a few years ago about putting together an anthology of my self-published comics. And it sort of went from there. I’d never really seen my comics — self-published and mostly very ephemeral and intended as a fun side-project — as being a coherent collection but, luckily they ended up fitting together quite nicely! With some tweaks!
KS: How was the “collaboration” between current Lizzy who curated the collection and past Lizzy who originally made those comics?
LS: It was interesting. Each of the short stories in the book was created at a specific time with a specific set of limitations or allowances. This one has to be knocked out in a week between commercials jobs. This one has to be thirty pages long. I can’t afford to print this in color, so this has to be black and white. Etc. Etc. So, the first hurdle was trying to get these disparate comics, drawn with different materials at different times to different sizes, to sit coherently as one book. A hefty part of me coming face to face with my past self was me wondering why the hell I didn’t work to a regular format and name my files correctly — which I am pleased to say I still have not learnt to do.
KS: If the two Lizzys have that trait in common, did you notice any big differences between them?
LS: In terms of revisiting my work as a writer and artist, I guess I found that more of a curiosity than anything else. I had to look back and wonder what I was trying to say with a story and then try to gauge whether I actually did that. A lot of flashbacks to my twenties! There was a definite sense of L’esprit de l’escalier, of getting to improve the thing you were trying to say after the initial moment has passed! I remember hearing Zadie Smith say that perhaps the best time to edit a book is two months after it’s been published! That’s when all the better ideas suddenly materialize! So, in that sense, I was very lucky to get to revisit my old thoughts to tighten them up a bit.
KS: On Lights, Planets, People, you’re the artist for someone else’s text as opposed to being your usual “one-woman band.”
LS: It’s been a real joy, to be honest. Largely due to the fact that Molly Naylor, the writer, is an excellent collaborator and a great human being. As a rule I steer clear of collaboration because it seems so ripe for disaster and I like writing my own texts.
But I’d been a fan of Molly’s work on stage and in her poetry collections for years, so when she suggested we collaborate — we have a mutual friend — I didn’t hesitate. I was incredibly fortunate and the text she gave me to work from is something I could absolutely never have written but that I love. I think that’s the key, perhaps: I couldn’t write about the subjects in this book and yet the minute I read it I felt it had to exist and I had to be involved.
KS: How do you know when a piece of work is ready to “leave the nest?”
LS: It varies! Sometimes, it has to leave the nest because the deadline is up and it just has to go! But mostly, I think I’m super protective of my work and only let it out of my sight once I’m pretty close to being done with it. I think I like things to be as close to what I intended before I share because I don’t want it to be misinterpreted or unclear I guess. Which is putting a lot of pressure on myself to assume that I’m communicating the exact thing I want it to!
KS: Do you have any trusted readers to give you feedback?
LS: The first person who gets a look is usually my partner. He’s very conveniently located and, even more conveniently, he is also a comic-book artist: Owen Pomery! He’s got a completely different approach to me — calm, controlled, neat! — and he will usually see things that I’ve missed or come up with questions I haven’t asked myself. Which is invaluable really. He also has a really strong grasp of layout and perspective and angles and things. Which I… do not.
KS: Is there a particular type of feedback you’re looking for on work in progress?
LS: As a rule I tend to feel pretty clear on the goals and intentions of my work and, for better or worse, pretty firm in that. So, if I ask a question, I know that [Owen’s] response won’t be, “Well, I’d do it this way.” Instead, he’s good at helping find my own way of going at things. Which is great. I really like when someone can look at a WIP and not get bogged down in how crap the rough drawings are. This applies to my commercial illustration job, too! I really like when people don’t say, “Will the final be….better?” I appreciate a bit of optimistic vision!
KS: Do you have a set daily (or nightly) work routine, or does it vary wildly depending on project?
LS: I have a routine in as much as I have to get out of the house and make it to my studio in order to work so that sort of dictates things, I guess? I don’t keep any work stuff at home anymore — a healthy, if occasionally frustrating, separation of church and state/work and life — so I do all my work at the studio. I tend to get there between 10 a.m. and 11 a. m. and I work till 5ish before coming home again. I’ll do some work in the evening, but more usually that’s stuff like emailing or doing things like this interview! Maybe editing images if I’m feeling up against it! If I get into that “flow” type state I might, once in a blue moon, work late into the night. But it’s really rare. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come to value having a healthy working setup that allows me to sleep regular hours and socialize and so forth. I don’t have that impulse to work every hour of the day that I had when I was a student
KS: Can you share a passion of yours totally unrelated to art or comics?
LS: Swimming. I love it. It’s the perfect counter activity to sitting at my desk drawing — whole body gets a stretch!
KS: As we wrap up, what’s a comic/graphic novel from any era that you look at with admiration?
LS: Super Mutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki. Ooof, it’s so strong. It’s a joy to look at for starters. Tamaki has such a deft line; it wavers and it alters but it’s always expressive and confident. Yum. It’s also a way more complex book than it appears on first glance. It seems like it’s this anthology of strips, kind of light, kind of jokey, but it’s actually this incredibly wise and funny meditation on… absolutely everything. I think it’s brilliant and should be handed out to writers and artists and all humans.
As a bonus choice, I’d also like to mention Heimat by Nora Krug. I read it last year and was blown away by the scope of the project, the strength of the writing, and the beauty of the book as a whole. I think it got some good press from critics, but I don’t feel as though it’s been celebrated enough. It is genuinely a masterful use of comics/illustration to tell an incredibly complicated and difficult story. Read Heimat, everyone!
KS: Lastly, please tell the readers what you’re working on now and what else we should be on the lookout for down the line.
LS: Weeelll… First up is my book, It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be, which is published by Fantagraphics [July 27], and then in September is Lights, Planets, People, the collaboration with Molly Naylor! Which is being published by Avery Hill.
I have a third book out in 2022 which I’m currently editing. It’s still under wraps [at the time of the interview], so I can’t say much, but it’s an illustrated novel… being published by a fiction publisher here in the UK, as opposed to a comics publisher. [I]t’s about art and relationships, I suppose. I’m pretty proud of it; it’s maybe the closest I’ve come to making the thing I had in my head!