BRICK in Easy Bits

Portrait of the artist (with hair) discussing the different merits of biographies of Shackleton.

Left Lion – I take it Brick isn’t your real name…
BRICK – Er… correct. Believe it or not, Brick came about because, way back when I was a steel erector, I was earning far more than I could spend and was happy to ‘sub’ blokes who had young families and heavy bills. So I was a brick, but I was originally called Navvie Brick, which lasted until I got into cartooning. I figured a pen name would serve me well after I was involved in a citywide poster campaign that fingered a certain councillor who was up to her neck in corruption. ‘Ma Baker and the Untouchables’ was an A1 comics page drawn in the style of a gangster movie. She came gunning for the author.

You’re holding a workshop as part of the Nottingham Writers’ Days series, what kind of thing can participants expect?
This is not a ‘how to write a graphic novel’ workshop, more a ‘how does the medium work’ session in which we’ll unpick the nuts’n’bolts so that budding comics creatives have all the tools necessary to do something original with the medium. Graphic novels are a child of the Second World War, but almost immediately the language was hijacked by the super hero brigade, the industry. It is only in the last twenty years that authors have returned to the basics of text and image, and really explored the medium’s possibilities for telling ‘adult’ stories.

Do ‘artists’ need to be at a particular level to do the workshop? Similarly, can writers come along as often graphic novels can be a collaboration between writer and artist?
This is primarily a workshop for budding writers. No drawing ability is needed. But if you are an artist then, of course, you will learn how to write for comics, so we will hit both bases. We will also look at the often fiery relationship between writer and artist, and how that works.

You gave a talk at Lowdham at the weekend. How do you find the festival in general?
I love Lowdham, totally because it is a village festival and isn’t suffocating. There is always something I want to go to, somebody I want to hear, and I’m not a big reader of word books. That said, there’s this brilliant second-hand stall, a perennial, run by a geeser who collects mountaineering and Polar books (see photo). He always has some wonderful dog-eared paperback from the Fifties for me, generally about a long forgotten expedition that goes badly wrong or even right. I’m a sucker for that sorta stuff. Anyway, who can fault a book festival that one year featured cartoonists Posy Simmons, Steve Bell and the irascible Martin Rowson, and a festival I can walk down the Dumbles to. You’ve met my dog?

What’s the best or most exciting assignment you’ve been given?
I was invited to East Belfast to work with the Loyalist, which there meant the UDA and UVF. Kind of scary, since my liaison was a Catholic ‘protected’ by the Loyalist dons. One day we got an anonymous phone call to stay well away. It was the day Johnny Adair knee-capped his son for meddling in Daddy’s drug rackets. Riots were expected but never materialised.
But perhaps more scary were the insane prejudices expressed round the dinner tables by members of the new breed of ex-paramilitary’s bucking for respectability in local politics. Bottom line it was (and as recent events suggest, still is) gang warfare, between each other and with the Catholics.
When I returned I sent them an A3 panorama of East Belfast featuring all the idiocies, nasties and corruption I’d seen in just one week with the bastards. I’m not welcome back.

Your illustrations over the years have focussed on ‘big issues’ relating to the environment. Is it important for an illustrator to have a niche in order to help them pitch work or gain commissions or is being flexible with your portfolio better?
I have done illustrations, mostly for mainstream magazines and educational books, but that was only ever a sideline, where people basically paid me to learn to draw (I’m self taught). Most of my work was as a political cartoonist (as against editorial, a la Steve Bell), dealing with issues rather than events. It was something I fell into, partly because I was bloody angry at what passed for sanity in this world, and partly because commissioners bought into my brain more than my pretty pictures. In a way I was an investigative cartoonist. I took on the big issues, rooted around to dig up the dirt, then encapsulated what was at the bottom of it all in a simple cartoon that had to hit your irony bone in under four seconds.
These days I’m semi retired and totally focused on producing my own graphic novels, but the only way any working stiff survives in the cartooning/illustration world is by being flexible. I just got sick of being flexible and settled into doing what I wanna do, and to hell with the current crop of toadying editors. You have to remember, I started work during the rise of Thatcherism. I’ve seen how fear and censorship has transformed newspapers into celebrity flim-flam.

Depresso combines a wide range of styles and influences from Hunt Emerson, Leo Baxendale to Viz. It also uses contrasting page layouts. Why such variety? Is this your style or was it necessary because of the subject matter (the main protagonist, Tom Freeman, searches high and low for various explanations to his condition).
You’re too kind, but my main influences are all from the continent. My folks lived in Paris during my formative years as a ‘toonist. They were stationed at NATO headquarters, so I had access to the best of both the amazing French comic book artists and the off-the-wall American comics like ‘Mad’ and ‘Sad Sack’.
The subject matter did dictate many of the page layouts, but it never hurts to disrupt the regularity of a graphic narrative in whichever way suits your purpose. For the narrative sections I adopted a simple three line, four frames a line max, format specifically so I could blow it to bits when Tom gets into something like his music or investigating Chinese medical practices.

Was Depresso part of an ongoing therapy to work out your emotions or were you trying to pass on useful advice? (you could mention here that you’ve done mental health workshops.)
Yes, but I wasn’t trying to pass on anything other than insight, optimism and lorra laffs. I volunteer with the mental health service users group Making Waves. We take sessions with student nurses up at the Nottingham University. That’s when I pass stuff on, ‘lived experiences’ as they’re now called, in the hope improvements to our impoverished services will be brought about by these future professionals.

Interviewed Sat 2 July 2011

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