Collaborating & Crowdfunding, Pin-Ups & Processes: An Interview with Lucy Sullivan
“Lucy Sullivan who?”
Readers who spend most of their time reading more mainstream comics may be asking themselves this exact question. But those of you that check out crowdfunding sites might recognize the name.
You’d certainly recognize the work.
It isn’t what most expect to fall under the “comic book” umbrella. The artwork, the topic, the narrative and style isn’t new but it isn’t the norm either. I don’t want to call BARKING a comic book. This is a narrative art book. And whether you like the art or not, or if the topic hits too close or doesn’t interest you at all, ask yourself this: is it evoking a response in you, negative or positive? That’s art.
It’s what Lucy Sullivan has done here. She’s looked into herself and shared a book that is a chaotic frenzy of scribbles and lines and words that lands on the page and either demands you look at it or softly eavesdrop in.
Comic Book Yeti speaks with Lucy about BARKING, the passion and difficulties of making a personal book, the processes involved and what we can expect in the future.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Barking was 10 years in the making, 3 years of crowdfunding and 1 year of promoting. That's a labour of love. Given its personal/cathartic nature, looking back at it all, do you consider it a success? (And can we call a book dealing with mental health a success? I don’t want to belittle the subject.)
LUCY SULLIVAN: BARKING started off in my ambitions as a self-published auto-bio comic about depression. To have it grow into a hardback graphic novel with a broad readership and some incredible backers has been surprising and very encouraging. It has reached much further than I hoped but it has taken a lot of work to get it there. It also has had many bumps in the road to production that meant it didn’t quite get the launch or coverage it could’ve had, so I hope there’s more to come for it.
However, I do think it’s a success as anyone who reads it talks to me, or on their platforms, openly about mental health. And that was the true ambition for the book: To open up conversations about something so many of us experience but yet remains taboo.
CBY: It’s a cliche question, but knowing what you know about the book, the process, the work involved, is there anything you would have done differently?
LS: I hadn’t attempted a long-form comic before BARKING, so it was very experimental in its making. I wanted to keep the art as raw as possible and allow the story to flow out of my memory, so it was loosely scripted and then freely sketched. It was an unusual process and I learned a lot from it. It was very long-winded though, so it’s not one I think I’ll repeat again, but it was perfect for this book as it was so personal. I wouldn’t change any of that process.
However, I would probably change my decision to go with Unbound had I known what was coming up. The crowdfunding process with their platform is incredibly stressful as the targets are high, but having the chance to work with Lizzie Kaye was worth that effort and she was a brilliant support. When Unbound had to make redundancies, including Lizzie, it all became very challenging and meant that I effectively had to take over as my own editor.
Again, I learned much from it, but there had already been a number of issues leading up to that, so I was almost topped-out on problems. Luckily, I found other allies and managed to launch the book myself online during the start of the pandemic. Nearly all the promotion is down to me, and that’s something I will take into future projects. So actually, I’m going to reverse that decision and say I wouldn’t change that, either!
I learned how to get a difficult story out into the world without a publisher, and that is valuable knowledge.
CBY: Visually, this book is stunning. For myself, I couldn’t imagine doing something so “visceral” digitally. I can only see that emotion flowing from me onto the paper. What was your process? Did you try different mediums? Are there color, painted, or other types of pages on the “cutting room floor”?
LS: BARKING was drawn traditionally...sort of! As mentioned, it was not a typical process for making comics. When I was mulling over the initial idea for it, I found a Cross biro. I was teaching life drawing at the time and started using the biro to do demonstration drawings to students. I loved how the biro flowed, enabling me to sketch quickly and how it often smudged. It felt immediate, honest, messy and everything my story would be about. So, once I’d loosely scripted BARKING, I would sketch each chapter direct in biro (no pencils) onto animation paper. Whenever the biro ink clogged up, I would smear it on the edge of the paper and build up a catalogue of textures. I had also, at the time, started drawing on location with carbon paper. For those that don’t know, these are A4 sheets of carbon and effectively black, so when you draw with it, you can’t really see what you’re drawing. I use an observational drawing technique to keep track of my line. This is also a messy and visceral way to draw and felt perfect for the Black Dog. Again, when I sketch, I would build up another catalogue of carbon textures from using the paper.
Once a chapter was drawn, I would scan it in and then thumbnail a page layout. I would then start laying out the sketches in Photoshop, adding texture from my catalogues where needed or digital inks if necessary. Each double-page spread and chapter is individually designed, a long-winded process, but it meant that I could allow the sketches to lead the narrative and keep the raw, honest feeling of how it came out on the sketch pages in the final book.
BARKING was always meant as a black-and-white book. Not only for the symbolism of black with both depression and grief but also to make a point that not everything is ‘black and white’.
I also enjoy using negative space in my compositions and felt that I needed to hone my pagination before I started adding colour considerations.
There are early drafts where Alix is called Ada and had blonde hair, the Black Dog was initially enormous, but this became impractical to draw and frankly a bit too on the nose thematically speaking. As it was sketched in biro, I often didn’t get the image right first time. I have a portfolio full of unused drawings from several attempts at one image. This was often frustrating, but all part of this unique approach to comics and when it worked it was very special.
CBY: In your afterword, you explain what went into making this book. Your experiences, those of friends and straight research. It will be with you forever, but is it behind you now (or, at least manageable)? What’s in the future for Lucy Sullivan?
LS: It’s a mix, really. I think the specific events in BARKING have been exorcised in some way, but the scars will always be there. I miss my dad enormously and will never not feel like that. I still struggle with depression and anxiety. I use meditation, yoga, gardening and drawing to cope with it. Having strategies in place has worked best for me. I’m currently reading about “psychobiotics,” using probiotic microbes in your diet to aid good mental and physical health, a fascinating science. I’m constantly reading around the subject and trying to stay as mentally healthy as possible.
My future is most definitely making more comics. I feel extremely lucky to have joined a community of supportive creators and readers to discover that I absolutely love making comics. I’ve just finished a year’s worth of guest pin-ups and collaborations with writers such as Dan Watters on a Razorblades story and Fraser Campbell on IND-XED. All of the projects were fascinating to work on and helped me further my craft.
I’m currently scripting and thumbnailing my next comic SHELTER, a supernatural cautionary tale set in London, 1969. It’s looking at being about 30 pages and will be a prequel to my next long-form story. I haven’t yet decided if that will be a graphic novel or a series, but it’s been a lot of fun to create so far. I’ll be launching SHELTER on Kickstarter later this year (2021). I also have a couple of collaborative projects lined up that I’m not able to mention as yet, and hopefully another story with Fraser one day, but I need to create my own work again for now.
"I think I would always like to be moving forward with my art and I’m not interested in repeating myself. Every project I create will aim to be distinct from another and specific to that project. Repetition is the death of art for me."
CBY: Can you share anything more on SHELTER? Will it have a different look (painted, colored, pencils, etc) or more of the black-and-white pen work? Do you have anyone assisting you? If it is a prequel, does that mean the follow-up is only guaranteed by its success?
LS: SHELTER was created as part of a pitch to a publisher. I had been brewing a longer idea for a while and they wanted something shorter, so I created a one-off story within the same universe. However, the contract, when it came in, was frankly exploitative and I declined to sign it. The story had bones to it though, so I decided to develop and create it anyway and then self-publish.
I’ll be doing everything myself, pretty much. I may yet bug Hassan [Otsmane-Elhaou] to letter it, as he’s so much better than me and it’s a much more complicated story than my previous work. There are numerous characters in SHELTER, but predominantly, it follows Ealga, a recent immigrant from Ireland to London. It’s set within the London Irish community of Shepherd’s Bush that my Dad grew up in, his family having emigrated from Dublin in the ‘40s. It’s a fascinating part of my city, with a complex cultural mix and lots of characters. In my version, however, not everything is as it seems, with much mythology interwoven into the story. I’ve been trying to figure out a comparison, but perhaps if American Gods met the Long Good Friday? Except centred around the female characters.
I’ve recently settled on the look I’m aiming for it, after some experimentation. I wanted to bring in the painted look of IND-XED, but mixed with [the] linework of BARKING, so this one (SHELTER) will be painted with watercolour, then I’ll draw carbon line-work over the top. There’s a glimpse on my social media feed, if anyone is interested. The script is pretty much written, and I’ve just started figuring out the thumbnails, so it’s gradually coming together. I’m excited to see what people think as it’s quite different from my other work so far.
CBY: Are you comfortable producing work only through crowdfunding? The industry is flooded with crowdfunding, small press, and a variety of indie publishers. If you had the right project, would you consider pitching a work to go through someone else?
LS: I think I’d ideally do both. I love the freedom of crowdfunding and how you get to know your readers really well. However, it is extremely stressful, and it’d be nice to not have to do everything from creation to print to distribution yourself. SHELTER seems a good fit for a Kickstarter due to its size. Plus, as it’s new ground, I can test the reader response. If all goes well, I may approach publishers for the longer-form story. I feel it’s my most commercial work to date and could do well in markets apart from the U.K, but we’ll have to wait and see. I’d definitely like to work with publishers in the future, and have done so already, but I’ll stick to creator-owned. The Work-For-Hire world gives me the shivers!
CBY: Glad to see you want to move forward and create more work. I think it's safe to say you jumped into the “comic book” pool deep end by yourself. You can see the lifeguards walking about, but you were swimming alone. BARKING was practically a solo endeavor. You mention some collaborations and the upcoming SHELTER. How do find the solo process vs team process different?
LS: It’s been really great to collaborate lately. I used to draw 2D animation and would often work in a team. I enjoy bouncing ideas around and having pals to create with. I’ve been extremely lucky with my recent commissions, as they’ve all given me a free reign on the visuals. Both Dan and Fraser are very cinematic writers, and their scripts are a joy to translate into imagery, as was John Reppion’s story, BLACK CAT, for Skrawl Magazine. It was also helpful in reading their scripts to figure out myself a bit more as a writer, although Dan and Fraser’s scripts were panel-based, so had at least some structure. My own are more like film scripts with dialogue and action but, I’m quickly learning, harder to translate.
I think collaborations help you grow as a creator. Every project adds to your skill and knowledge base. I’ve drawn things I would not have written for myself and found out I can draw anything once I’ve found the right reference. That’s very liberating for my writer side. I do, of course, get more personally out of creating my own stories, but again I hope to continue mixing the two together. I’ve got 3 new writers lined up for collaborations with projects that are all very different but equally open to my interpretation, so it’ll be interesting to see where my artwork goes after those projects and how that manifests in my own work.
CBY: On collaborating: Now that you have had some experience working with others, do you want to find an editor or writing/creative partner that you can grow with?
LS: I’m not sure that I’m looking to be in one of those constant pairings, but you never know. There are many pairings I love: Gaiman & McKean, Lemire & Ormston, Hine & Stafford, I could go on. I would absolutely work with Fraser, John and Dan again, no question, but equally I’d like to be open to possibilities. Like I said, if I can combine collaborating with solo work that’d be ideal.
I’ve already worked with a couple of editors: Lizzie Kaye (Cast Iron Books) on BARKING, Shelly Bond (DC Vertigo/Black Crown) on Hey! Amateur! and a couple of bits for her new imprint Off Register, and they are both a delight to work with. I think if I get a publisher for the wider story around SHELTER, I will probably need a good editor, as it’s threatening to become a wide and complex world and will need someone keeping a check on it! I guess I’m not ruling anything out.
CBY: You mentioned some creators that are synonymous as a team or by a certain work. Have you connected with anyone that you feel in time will make you synonymous as a team in the years to come? Is there someone you feel you can create something amazing with?
LS: Oh, that’s a tough one. It does seem like many of the current pairings are very fluid collaborations at the moment. Take Dan Watters, for instance, whose collaborated series HOME SICK PILOTS with Caspar Wijngaard is a perfect melting of their talents and a brilliant series. I would still hope to see what they can both create in other collaborations.
It’s much the same with Fraser Campbell, whose work I discovered through his collaborations with Iain Laurie. It’s a wonderful pairing, but I want to draw stories for Fraser too and he may have stories that don’t quite suit my style or Iain’s and instead would suit James Corcoran, his collaborator on ALEX AUTOMATIC. I guess it’s what the story or idea demands, really.
If I’m the right artist for the writer and the writing is the right project for me, then I’d give it my best. My only red flag is when I’m asked to draw something that’s very similar to previous work either in subject or that they’re looking for that style. I think I would always like to be moving forward with my art and I’m not interested in repeating myself. Every project I create will aim to be distinct from another and specific to that project. Repetition is the death of art for me. I would, however, mostly prefer to be more focused on my own creations, but I’m always open to new stories.
CBY: Thank you. It was great to talk to you about YOU and your work. Comic Book Yeti wants to thank you for your time and honesty.
If anyone wants to support and see more of Lucy Sullivan’s work, follow the links below.
LS: Both BARKING & IND-XED are available on my website as are my zines and some prints. I ship worldwide once a week, and shipping is as cheap as I can make it.
For updates on SHELTER & pre-launch signups, head to my socials or sign-up to my (very infrequent) newsletter from my website:
And also, some Comic-Con appearances I have coming up:
I’m a digital exhibitor for TCAF (Toronto, Canada) from May 8th-15th and [this is] a great opportunity to buy my work in North America.
I’ll hopefully be in person at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (Kendal, U.K) from October 15th-17th.
And with every hope, also in person at Thought Bubble Festival (Yorkshire, U.K) from November 12th-14th.