‘Nothing pans out the way you expect’ | Mark Stafford

From intense and emotionally wrenching literary adaptations to sights of mind-bending horror, British comic book artist Mark Stafford has created some memorably twisted visuals over the years, all marked by a distinctive trademark style. He speaks to TEODOR RELJIC ahead of his visit to this year’s edition of Malta Comic Con

Mark Stafford
Mark Stafford

It’s always interesting to hear about how artists find their way to their careers. What was your trajectory as an illustrator, and did things always pan out the way you’d planned them (ha!)?

I always drew, and I always wanted to draw cartoons from as far back as I can remember, but it took an embarrassing amount of time to figure out what I was doing and how to put a page together. After I moved to London from Bournemouth I spent years on the dole hanging out with other cartoonists, largely in pubs, slowly meeting people and learning things, getting work into small press anthologies and doing only the occasional piece of actual paying work. Eventually [renowned British comic book creator] Bryan Talbot chose me to work on the 2007 comic Cherubs!, and things began to take shape and I got a bit more professional from there.

In my experience nothing pans out the way you’d expect. For better or worse. The ‘big break’ earns you nothing and gets no reaction, dumb little sketchbook doodles and chance conversations evolve into great books. Cartooning can take you to some strange places, if you let it. You’re best off just saying ‘yes’ to the projects that feel right, even if they seem daunting at first, and hoping it all makes sense in the end, though my bank balance might testify as to the wisdom of this philosophy.

Comic books have always been a hybrid genre/format whose reputation in the wider culture tends to vary from country to country and ebb and flow with time. How do you feel to be working in comics at this point in time, and from your current geo-cultural, geo-political standpoint?

It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times, as always. I’m grateful to be around when so much great work is being put out by so many fabulous creators, the British scene feels buzzy and fertile right now, and there are good publishers putting out good work, but it’s hellishly difficult to earn a living from comics, and the platforms that would allow a cartoonist to get widely known in the past are fewer and further between. The cultural domination of superheroes is as much a curse as it is a blessing, as far as I can tell, repelling as many as it attracts.

And, of course, the current political mess isn’t helping either, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over everything. Generally speaking, artists, writers and performers like to be connected with the wide world beyond our shores, because that’s where the audience is, so our current state of deranged grumpy insularity isn’t a good look. I’m being polite and restrained here....

The Man Who Laughs, an adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel and one of your many collaborations with writer David Hine (a former guest at Malta Comic Con) is very much a perfectly sustained piece of work – melodramatic in all the right ways and richly layered both narratively and visually. What was the process of putting together such a carefully conceived piece of work like, and what excited you the most about such an endeavour?

David got me excited about it, describing scenes he loved from the novel, in one of those pub conversations that turned into a couple of years work. He also did a fantastic job of filleting Hugo’s novel to bring out the actual story, free from the journalism and ranting and philosophical flights of fancy that make up much of the book, all the while trying to retain that voice. Comics is a ‘show, don’t tell’ medium, and Hugo was clearly quite happy doing a lot of telling and a little showing when he felt like it, so there was a lot to consider and research and rethink.

He sent the script chapter by chapter, I sent him sketchbook ideas and pencils and there was a lot of discussion. We wanted to include all that incredible tortured romantic imagery and we needed the melodrama to work as melodrama, but the political anger had to shine through it all. Hugo was as enraged by the 99% and the 1% as we are today. Enraged, as much that so little has changed since the era he described. But it wouldn’t work if you didn’t care about Dea and Ursus and that little kid lost in the snow...

On that note, how would you describe your creative relationship with David Hine? Among your collaborations one can also find an adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space’, which was just adapted into a film by Richard Stanley, starring Nicolas Cage...
That was our first work together, and it was all kinds of grisly fun, with the central problem of rendering a colour which does not exist in the human spectrum, in colour, on the printed page. Piece of cake! We’ve developed a way of working, through The Man Who Laughs, and especially with Lip Hook, our tale of rural unease that came out last year, where I’ll throw a stream of sketchbook pages and story ideas his way and he comes back, after much sculpting and shaping, with something that has an actual structure and themes and characters and such. I’ll then draw more, and he’ll send photos of imagery he wants to include and it evolves. Lip Hook happened because I described the weird Magdelena Solis Mexican mass murder case to David, and it just seemed like an interesting notion to take that tale and relocate it to somewhere in the English countryside, so that we could make it more personal, throw in all sorts of childhood memory and folk weirdness and hazy pop cultural traces. Our next book’s at the sketchbook and vague concept stage… Lord knows how long it’ll take to become whatever it is.

Now, The Bad Bad Place is coming out in hardcover. How would you describe this book to those not in the know, and are you proud of your latest collaboration with Mr Hine?

The Bad Bad Place is in many ways a sister book to Lip Hook, though it’s quite different, like its wonkier, more wayward Siamese twin. It was commissioned around the same time and evolved from the same sketchbooks, serialised, chapter by chapter in Meanwhile magazine over some years. It’s the tale of a newly-built town that suddenly has an old old house appear overnight on the edge of it, and the effect the old house has on the residents. It’s a bit madder and broader and more concentrated than our other books. Dave threw out all these challenging images for me to tackle and I’m pretty damn happy with the results. It’s fun: dark, creepy, relentlessly tragic, unpleasant fun!

Are you looking forward to Malta Comic Con? What kind of atmosphere are you expecting from the event?

I’ve had friends go to the Con over the years and everybody said it was a sweet, friendly one. I’m very happy to be invited. I think it’s going to be a blast. The guest list is good, the events include swordplay – which can only be a fine thing – and I’m really looking forward to meeting everybody and exploring a bit. Though I hear, for the guests at least, that a frankly unnecessary amount of karaoke is involved, which scares me. As it should everyone...

Mark Stafford will be a guest at the Malta Comic Con, taking place on November 2 and 3 at the MFCC, Ta’ Qali. The Con will be open from 10am to 6pm on November 2 and 11am to 7pm on November 3. For tickets and a full programme, log on to: http://www.maltacomic-con.com/