It’s always a pleasure to see new comics and zines spring up in Manchester, but it’s even better to hear more about them from the makers themselves. This time we caught up with Holly Cruise, local zine maker and a speaker at the 2013 MancsterCon for a chat about her latest comics zine, Bad Ass Wimmin Of History.
MancsterCon: How did you get started in comics?
Holly Cruise: You know when you’ve been doing something so long you’re not even sure how it really started? That. I know I must have been drawing constantly from a very young age because I indirectly contributed to my brother getting glasses at the very young age of four – my mother was apparently perplexed that he wasn’t drawing all the time as a child unlike Big Sister, so she took him to opticians and it turned out he had bad eyesight. However, even after he got glasses, he still didn’t spend all his time drawing like I did.
The drawing probably started coalescing into a narrative format when I was about eight or nine. I very clearly remember my weekly ritual of watching the Captain Scarlet reruns on BBC2, then spending the subsequent week following each episode reproducing what I had seen as a comic. I spent a particularly long time on the episode where Big Ben strikes thirteen, and I sort of wish I still had those drawings. I also had a penpal while I was at school who I sent comic strips to, rather than letters.
I loved art at school and was very good at reproducing stuff from sight – I was only half joking when I told my high school careers adviser that I was considering a career as an art forger. However, I dossed somewhat through my Art A level and only got a D (which is one grade higher than Damien Hirst) despite producing a highly surreal alien landscape as a final piece which I believe is still hung up on the walls of the new building at my school.
While I was at university I put the comic drawing aside for a couple of years and then part way through my second year I wandered into the campus newspaper office and told them I wanted to do the cartoons. I got to illustrate the weekly opinion column, do my own occasional strip, and generally rule the roost as far as cartoons went. I tried to get other students to contribute their cartoons, albeit with minimal success.
MancsterCon: What kind of comics do you do?
Holly Cruise: My main project at the moment is called Badass Wimmin Of History [which] I produce […] every two months. I aim to present four interesting women from history to the audience with factual accuracy, a sprinkle of story telling, a dollop of irreverence (to History norms, never towards the women themselves) and some distinctive artwork.
I want the subjects to cover a broad range of professions, time periods, countries and achievements. I want to get people interested in these women I find interesting. I want people’s reaction to be “I’ve never heard of these women before”, which is why I tend to avoid figures like Elizabeth I or Victoria or Florence Nightingale because half of all humans ever have been female and one of the biggest lies in History is that women haven’t done anything! No way, we’ve done loads, you just need to know where to look. I also wanted to make sure that I am not just drawing rich white women, especially as the histories of poor women, of women of colour, and of other marginal women often get overlooked which is completely unfair.
MancsterCon: Where do you get your inspiration from?
Holly Cruise: I did History at the University of Warwick more because I like history and I liked Warwick’s picturesque campus and good reputation, rather than any particularly sensible reason.
Having done four years and two degrees in History, I was saddened to find that funding for History PhDs was pretty limited when I finished my MA, and has only gotten more scarce since, which is crazy as I really do think the general public’s interest in the past has grown in the last decade or so.
One thing Warwick loves to encourage in its History department is thinking outside of the “Great Man” school of history which concentrates on kings, popes and generals. Now there’s nothing wrong with some Great Man history, but there’s a whole host of other histories out there, and women in particular get a real short shrift from Great Man history (Elizabeth I usually being the only one let into the boys’ club). So my natural curiosity about history was then shaped by this exhortation to look at other histories, histories which weren’t just about straight (acting) white rich men.
Having banged on about how interesting History is to my friends for years, I noticed they were all asking me what I was going to do about it. Becoming a History lecturer seemed out of the question, but I was always being reminded that people like comics, even low budget, punky style ones, and that this was a medium to get a message out, to talk about History. Aren’t some of the best and most famous comics ever factual, historical ones? Maus and Pyongyang and Joe Sacco’s work are all pretty notable in the graphic novel fields, and while I am not fit to touch the pens of great cartoonists like them, I figured why not give it a go and see if people were as interested in history comics as my friends said they would be?
MancsterCon: What do you like best about the comics medium?
Holly Cruise: A visual medium like comics offers a lot of storytelling flexibility. For instance, I use blocks of text to tell the details of the subject’s story, and speech bubbles to throw in some character and bring them more to life with humorous asides that might not strictly be words they’ve actually uttered but which bring to the audience a sense of the person behind the bare facts. That would be harder to do with just plain written text (and I wouldn’t get to show off my insanely neat and tiny handwriting).
I also think people find comics less scary than history books. Heck, I still quiver slightly at anything over 600 pages in size and I am a bona fide History nut. I want History to be accessible and using a format like comics is to accept the challenge to condense entire lives into a few pages while retaining the nuance. I like that challenge, and I also like sitting with my headphones on, drawing in the local library (I have no table in my current home on which to draw) and keeping the rest of the world at bay.
Drawing is fun and I love researching details like the clothes worn at the time of the women, or the items they would have had around them, and reproducing the little details. My artwork is a mixture of broad and exaggerated, as well a super-detailed, which is a contrast I enjoy.
MancsterCon: Who are your favourite comic artists and why?
Holly Cruise: I spend a large amount of time fretting that my own work is too much like that of Kate Beaton because she is a genius and an inspiration. I have one of her DRAW posters up in my bedroom (signed at Thought Bubble, natch) and she has the career I wish I had although I doubt I’d do quite as good a job as she has so maybe it’s best she’s the one doing it. I love Posy Simmonds, Marjane Satrapi, Mike Mignola, Alan Moore, Joe Sacco, Alison Bechdel, Bryan Talbot, people who aren’t just drawing huge, musclebound men with many many frown lines and unnecessary pouches on their costumes.
When I was young I thought only those who were able to draw almost lifelike humans were likely to have a career in cartoons, but as I got older I realised the world of comics can take in everything from the lines and circles of XKCD to Jill Thompson’s beautiful and realistic watercolours in Beasts Of Burden, and everything in between. It’s good because I always see faults in my work and realising that I don’t need to be perfect, only interesting, was the biggest obstacle I had to overcome.
I also have a deep love for many of the newspaper cartoonists, going back to the eighteenth century creators of the artform like James Gilray, Thomas Rowlandson and the Cruikshank family (I did my master’s dissertation on their depictions of women, people of colour and Irish people), through the likes of David Low during the war era, through to the modern masters like Steve Bell and Martin Rowson.
MancsterCon: What do you think about the comic community in Manchester and the North West?
Holly Cruise: I come from a small village in rural Cheshire where comic options were limited to the Beano or the Dandy, so even now, ten years after I left home, I still have a massive appreciation for any major city (apart from Stoke On Trent) and the opportunities they offer.
I’m a regular at the Madlab graphic novel reading group, which is a brilliant way to motivate myself to read comics rather than just buying them and then leaving them on my bookshelf forever because I am scared that once I’ve read them then I can never read them for the first time again. I like talking about the things I read/watch/listen to, and the reading group just means my friends don’t have to put up with me babbling on about something they’ve not read. It’s also a great place to get recommendations for things to read as buying graphic novels isn’t cheap and I do want to invest wisely.
I went to the first MancsterCon last year and that was great fun. I knew it was there and went deliberately, but I like to think it’s the sort of event people could stumble upon unawares and find something interesting or exciting or new. They also very kindly let me talk about History and comics in the context of cities, specifically Manchester which I think would make an excellent city for a graphic biography.
I’d always like to meet more people, especially more creators, but I am not very good at networking! So if anyone wants to chat comics and the like, say hello.
MancsterCon: Bit of a niche question, but what are your favourite tools to do art with?
Holly Cruise: Muji’s 0.5 and 0.38 rollerball pens are my weapon of choice, which usually means venturing to the Trafford Centre or bribing someone else to go there and buy them for me. I am not joking when I say that every bag I own (I own three bags) has many of these pens rattling around inside. They are so smooth to write and draw with, they make it even more of a pleasure than it already is! I’d love to master proper artist’s pens and brushes, but I will always love my Muji pens.
Editor’s note: No, we’re not being secretly funded by Muji, but I feel I ought to join in the Muji love and add that I have a deep and abiding love affair with their brush pens. Only downside is they’re not reusable…
MancsterCon: Have you had any support from local feminist activists/academics?
Holly Cruise: Not directly, but that is my fault for not yet being brave enough to approach them. A colleague where I work took several copies to give to her local WI and they apparently went down well. I have also had orders from feminists further afield who are friends of friends, which is nice. I would love to talk to as many interested parties as possible because I am always interested in spreading the History love, and in finding new names to research for inclusion. This whole thing is a learning opportunity for me too, and that’s brilliant, just how I like it.
MancsterCon: What are your plans for the future? Any ideas for future projects?
Holly Cruise: Yes. Normally the words “I had this dream last night” should inspire fear in the hearts of any creative as dreams are almost always incoherent nonsense which isn’t as interesting as you think. However I had a dream earlier this year which had some incredible imagery in it, and more surprisingly an actual narrative which still made some semblance of sense when I woke up. I have been trying to bash it into shape to do as a one shot, sci-fi ish short graphic story.
I was recently asked to do a one off commission for a friend which required me to pick up my water colours for the first times in ages, and I really enjoyed that, so that’s the sort of artwork I’d be looking at for this fictional piece. Very different to Badass Wimmin Of History, but that’s a good thing as I like to mix it up a bit.
MancsterCon: Have you had any notable success with the zine?
Holly Cruise: Getting Badass Wimmin Of History on sale in Travelling Man was a highlight. I’ve managed to sell over a hundred copies of issue 01 which blew me away, I never thought it would do that well.
MancsterCon: What about your readers? What has their reaction been like?
Holly Cruise: The readers I’ve spoken to seemed happy with it, lots of cries of “I had never heard of [name] before but she was interesting” which really is the best possible outcome for me.
I’ve also had quite a few readers ask if I would include this woman and that woman which is absolutely the whole point of the project and I am chuffed people want to contribute suggestions. It’s fascinating to see just how many fans Anne Boleyn has, she’s incredibly popular.
Holly Cruise: Indirectly – I am planning on having a stall at this year’s MancsterCon despite personally being in Northern Ireland for a wedding that weekend! It’ll be a big shame to miss out, but I’ll have an eye on any future events where I can come along and meet people, talk history, etc.
MancsterCon: What ways could there be more support for comic artists in Manchester/North West?
Holly Cruise: Hard to say, I would love networking opportunities and chances to meet people, but I am very disorganised, so these might well exist already and I just haven’t found them. Obviously in a dream world it would be possible to get support from government or similar to take time off work to engage in projects, similar to how the Canadian government does grants and stuff for musicians which explains Canada’s insanely great crop of musicians in recent years. However I doubt this will happen any time soon!
MancsterCon: What would you say to an aspiring comic artist?
Holly Cruise: DRAW! Draw what is comfortable, draw what you feel like drawing. It’s not all about big, pseudo-realistic superheroes, draw small stories, draw big stories, draw scrappy or draw neat, just make sure you are happy with the things you are drawing. Or at the very least not thoroughly unhappy. I’m passionate about Badass Wimmin Of History, and that’s what makes it work.
Thanks to Holly for taking part in this interview! If you’re an artist based in the North West with a new project you’d like us to share, or would be interested in undergoing the interview process (it’s not that bad, really!), feel free to get in touch.