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In the doghouse with BARKING by LUCY SULLIVAN

Comic Book Yeti contributor Alex Breen recently corresponded with Lucy Sullivan, writer-artist of BARKING, SHELTER: Early Doors and Hagbound, to discuss the evolution of her creative process as a writer-artist, the real-life inspiration behind BARKING, and the importance of finding the right printer for your comic. BARKING is available for Pre-Order on Avery Hill Publishing's website HERE. Hagbound is available on Lucy Sullivan's website HERE.

 

COMIC BOOK YETI: Lucy, thank you for joining me today. First, can you give us a brief rundown of Barking and Hagbound?


LUCY SULLIVAN: Hello CBY! I certainly can…


BARKING is a tale of grief, madness and the ghosts that haunt us based on my experience of a grief-triggered breakdown. It combines mythology and research to tell the story of Alix Otto who finds herself sectioned to a mental health ward along with a phantasmagorical black dog and her dead friend. The new hardback edition launches with Avery Hill Publishing in February 2024.


Hagbound is my latest zine. It was created as part of developing the next story in my folk-horror series SHELTER. Drawn from archival research on women in 1970s West London. The narrative is a reflection on the societal boxes women are placed in as they age. It’s a risograph-printed comic and a limited print run.


CBY: Can you describe for us what your creative process is like as a writer/artist? Do you start from the story or lock in the key visuals first?


LS: To be honest, it’s an ever-changing process. Each project is somewhat different from the next and I try to adapt the way I work depending on the story and what’s happening in my personal life. However, I have started nearly all by jotting down ideas in sketchbooks or on my phone. I’ll undertake written, visual and audio research from multiple media until it starts to take shape and then I’ll begin writing or sketching pages. I try to keep a specific sketchbook per project but that doesn’t always go to plan.


For my latest comic, SHELTER: Mothers Ruin, I was awarded a grant to research and write for six months. I barely drew in all that time and focused on developing the research into an outline for what has become a long form story.


I’ve spent the rest of the year writing the script and sketching out page layouts. This is a really fluid practice of flitting between the disciplines as the development demands. I get a little frustrated at only drawing roughs so I’ll draw some more formal pieces when the need arises (That’s how Hagbound was born). I think it’s becoming a more productive way to work on both story and art at the same time. Although it does feel like literally wearing different hats sometimes and my artist-self gets pretty miffed at my writer-self for coming up with such complicated pages!


"...I think my process and understanding of making comics grows with every project... how much you have to say and what can be hinted at... It’s a constant jigsaw puzzle with an ever changing design and I really enjoy tackling it."

CBY: Who were some of your major inspirations for your art style? Have there been any evolutions in your style between the start of Barking and the completion of Hagbound that you've picked up on?


LS: I have a number of artists that I’m particularly drawn to; Dave McKean, Jenny Saville, Jorge González amongst many, but I try to look to other cartoonists in particular. There’s an element of balancing and compromising your attention when you both write & draw so I’m interested by the decisions other creators make in order to tell their stories. In that regard my major inspirations would be Eleanor Davis, Taiyo Matsumoto, Judith Vanistendael, Jeff Lemire & Gipi. They all produce unique, aesthetically delighting work with strong storytelling. Something I aspire to very much.


I think my process and understanding of making comics grows with every project. Ideas about how far you can push the reading experiences, how much you have to say and what can be hinted at, what needs detail or where to focus on the atmosphere. It’s a constant jigsaw puzzle with an ever changing design and I really enjoy tackling it.


BARKING was an evolution in itself. I created the first two chapters with around a dozen iterations to figure out my pagination and style. I drew the book by sketching out panels with biro pen & carbon paper, really loosely. I then figured out the layout in Photoshop, adding panel borders as needed. It was an interesting but long-winded way to make comics. Since then I’ve bought a large lightbox and sketch out layouts first in a sketchbook then to-scale digitally which gives me underdrawing to work to, but allows the freedom in my line that’s become a key part of my art. If you’ve not come across Carbon paper it’s essentially a black sheet that you press on the back of with dip-pens, sharpened stick, your nails… frankly anything to get a mono-print effect. You are essentially drawing blind with it so the lightbox gives me a little bit more of an idea of the final image. I think that’s been the main evolution really. My art style is so influenced by the media I use that to speak of one you have to mention the other.


I’ve also moved further into producing traditional work by adding watercolour. I’ve digitally coloured in the past and felt I had a tendency to overwork it. As SHELTER & Hagbound are set from 1969 onwards, I wanted the colour to reflect the era so I limited my palette and aimed for a Cathode-Ray-TV look. Hopefully it adds a deeper sense of time to the comic and certainly makes for more pleasing original pages.


CBY: One aspect of your work that I've always given praise to is the paper quality of your comics. Can you describe for us your approach to the print side of your comics? Do you have a preferred printer that you work through?


LS: It’s such an important aspect of comics for me. The reading experience can be incredibly tactile. In getting the right stock your readers can pick it up and the feel of the paper is already setting the mood. I’m completely reliant on Rich at Comic Printing UK for that. I’ll email him for a quote and ask for his advice on the best stock to use. Rich loves comics and knows printing like no other so will always be my number one choice for self-published Litho printed books.


I also have a weakness for Risograph printing and tend to use that process for my zines. It’s a Japanese process somewhere between screen printing and photocopying. The colours have to be separated by layers so you can get fascinating results and every print is always different. I love the effect it brings and find the results really pleasing. I’ve used a number of studios for that, most recently Duplikat Press (UK) for Hagbound. I also regularly use Footprint, a Co-operative printer in Leeds (UK).


If you’re a self publisher it’s crucial to find a printer that suits your work and get to understand how important an aspect it is to your comics. Why go through all that effort to put out an inferior print quality at the end? It would kill me!

Avery Hill are also very keen on this aspect and have done a beautiful job with BARKING.



CBY: For BARKING, it’s still a livewire of a read (in the best of ways!), both in the artwork and the story. Clearly, this is a deeply personal story for you. Can you take us through how you approached bringing complex subject matters like depression to the page?


LS: BARKING is a very personal book and was born out of my own mental crisis in my 20s. As I started creating it, I realized I wanted to tell a wider story, one that encompassed the experience of friends and family as well as research into the mental health care system and ideas about madness. I had to find a cohesive way of bringing that all together. I also wanted to be as honest as possible about what my breakdown felt and looked like. I’d been sketching out a character loosely based on myself and found I was depicting them so much nicer than I was at the time. I was really angry and aggressive, not at all easy to help. I’d not seen that side of depression displayed much so really wanted to get it across. It’s a proper challenge to put the worst of yourself on the page and so I created a lead character, Alix, who could be me as I was and behaved, but put in a situation that enabled me to talk about the UK health system.


This really freed up my ideas so I started writing out scenes, not as a formal script but more like a film script or stage direction. Each scene would be based around a topic I wanted to cover and an idea around a narrative to pull it together. There might be some action described or dialogue but mostly the bare bones of the idea. I’d then start sketching out visuals and often find I would draw something more exciting or subtle to describe the impact of a mental health crisis. I’d then begin adding to the script, rechecking my notes or research and sketch out page layouts. It was a really fluid process and one that helped to maintain an almost automatic-drawing feel to the book. I often describe making it as an exorcism and it really was. I took all the anguish and fear I went through and threw it around the page with ink then digitally put it in an order that hopefully makes sense to another person and helps them to feel the unease and chaos of losing your grip on reality.


CBY:  On your website (lucysullivanuk.com) There's a mention that BARKING was supported by public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England & the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, initially published through Unbound. Can you describe what goes into applying for that fund and anything you learned from the experience?


LS: I’d created about three chapters of BARKING when it got picked up by Lizzie Kaye at Unbound. They were a slightly unusual publisher in that the author raises the funds to publish and the list is curated. It’s similar to what Zoop are doing now, but Unbound was more Literary focused. When I joined, Lizzie was developing her graphic novel line and it was looking really great. After we launched the crowdfund we were at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (LICAF) and through Lizzie’s skill, and my handing out ashcans of the early chapters, the Festival chose BARKING for its funding strand. That left us with £4.5K to raise so it was suggested I went for a National Lottery Project Grant through Arts Council England (ACE). It’s not something I’d heard of or even considered, so I did my research by reading up on the ACE website and attending a day long course on getting funding by Nicola Streeten of LDComics. There I met James Trevelyan from ACE who helped check over drafts of my application before submitting.


It took a period of writing for three months on and off and around five drafts of the application. I had to come up with public engagement aspects, so I found a gallery, Deptford Does Art, where I held an exhibition and workshop on zine making. I had to devise a schedule and budget for the grant by working out costs for materials, travel, printing and most importantly paying myself to create the artwork. We’re really lucky in England to have ACE funding as their key stipulation is that creatives must be paid. Without it I just couldn’t make comics full time. I didn’t get an advance for BARKING and no share of the crowdfund income so I had self funded through teaching work and support from my partner. The grant legitimised the project and meant that I could dedicate time to making it. I now try to find funding resources where I can to make work. I got a 50/50 split on the sales profits from Unbound so I bought the majority of the stock and sold it myself through my website and at festivals. I use those profits along with part-time teaching work to fund my next work and, when I need dedicated time, I try to get more funding.


I received a second ACE grant, Develop Your Creative Practice, to work on SHELTER. This was specifically to develop my writing and research, as I felt my greater strength was artwork and needed time to bring other aspects of my work to a similar level. I started with the BBC Maestro online course with Alan Moore to get my thinking focused on writing practices. I then spent 12 days at the British Library reading everything relevant from Celtic Folklore & Medicine or books on Voodoo with hand-stitched poppets to original typed notes from London Women’s Lib Groups in 1970. They have a newsroom full of original magazines and newspapers plus microfilm from specific papers and years. It’s an invaluable resource, and it’s free, which is really mind boggling.


I took all of this and started developing an outline for Mothers Ruin, the next story in my SHELTER series, working with two editors; Claire Napier to pull it together and Shelly Bond to shape it into an enticing read. They were both a great help, especially when the idea was becoming so ambitious I felt like I was drowning in it. It was a really useful experience. I highly recommend finding any funding you can so put time into your comics and develop as a creative.


CBY: How would you describe the experience in working through Unbound vs Avery Hill Publishing for your releases of Barking?


LS: Total opposites! In all honesty Unbound was a very difficult way to publish a book. Lizzie Kaye is great and working with her was the key reason I went with them. Although she had explained it clearly, I hadn’t really taken onboard how difficult raising £13K would be as an unknown author. I had to build a network and readership from scratch. It took 18 months of social media, talks, podcasts and comic fairs to get to £6.5K from 250+ backers and then the LICAF & ACE grants to reach full funding. We were finally set to print when Unbound made a number of redundancies including Lizzie. Things got really hard then with some major issues on the initial print run that led to terse exchanges. Unbound were literary publishers so had no idea about printing comics or I feel, even understood Lizzie’s expertise. Fortunately I had already worked with Rich at CPUK so we managed to get a great book out in the end but it was tough. I had to be the sole marketeer and worked incredibly hard to get the book out. Especially when it launched a week into the first Covid Lockdown in the UK!


Avery Hill Publishing (AHP) are an absolute delight by contrast. They love comics and only publish comics so know exactly how to get great books printed and into the world. They’re also hugely ambitious and great at marketing. This allows their creatives the freedom to focus on making comics. It’s only a small team but full of considerate, knowledgeable people and I couldn’t be happier working with them. I spent years trying to find a new home for BARKING and found it hard to find a canon of work it could sit alongside plus a publisher with similar ambitions to mine. I’ve known AHP for years and love their books so thought maybe they might be interested and when they said yes it was so clearly the perfect fit. Not only do I get a passionate team to work with but they release in US & Canada as well as the UK and are well-stocked around the world. AHP are also represented by Full Bleed Rights so hopefully there may even be some translations some day soon… Fingers crossed. I’m glad in retrospect to have worked with entirely different publishers but for me, AHP is the perfect companion to my self-publishing and gives me the same freedoms but with industry heavyweights in my corner. I feel very lucky to be with them.


CBY: Another element of your work that I admire is your willingness to create in various formats (OGN, Comic, Zines, etc.). Hagbound, in particular, is the latest zine you’ve created. What initially sparked your interest in making zines? And do you have a different goal when making them vs other comics of yours like SHELTER: Early Doors?


LS: I’m conscious of creative stagnation and find that if the project I’m on is becoming tedious or long winded I can shift to quicker work to liven it up again. Zines are the perfect format for this. I started making them after meeting Rachael House, a UK Zine maker & Artist, at an event. Rachael did an impassioned talk on self publishing and handed out riso zine sets to the audience. I was immediately smitten with the combination of paper folding and more immediate creation. I was well into making BARKING then, so I took a breather to develop my 1-in-4 Zines to see what I could make. It became a faster, more honest way to develop ideas and themes. In that case around mental health. I now use zines as a way of working out ideas for longer projects. So SHELTER: Early Doors has my How To Build A Free Woman Zines where I worked out my thoughts on growing up as a woman and becoming a mother in a Patriarchal system. Hagbound grew out of my visual research for Mothers Ruin, which at its heart has two somewhat monstrous matriarchs. I got entranced by the concept of the Hag and the way society views aging women. It’s a really helpful way to hone in on what you want to say and find your characters' voices.


I try to let the story dictate the format so it’s not a planned decision to flit between them, but it certainly keeps me interested in making more. It’s been a great help for me with long form work too. BARKING took years to make so having zines and collaborative comics means I still have something to take to festivals and a way to keep my readers interested too. Comics are arduous to make and Mothers Ruin is looking frankly massive at around 160-180 pages of watercolour and inks, so it won’t be out for a while. I’ve also got a film job coming up and a potential commission on a long form book, so I expect I’ll make some quicker, smaller works alongside it. No idea what those will be just yet, but no doubt they’ll be a tonic to my longer work.


CBY: Where can people buy a copy of Hagbound? Also, where and when can people purchase the Avery Hill Publishing version of BARKING?


LS: Hagbound is only available from myself at festivals or via my website:


BARKING is available for pre-order from Avery Hill now:

The first 100 orders will get an exclusive bookplate too. It’ll then be on general release through comic shops plus online from AHP with a UK launch on 02/27/24. We have a launch party planned at Gosh! Comics in London on 02/29/24 and a number of events throughout the year.


I’m so excited to exhibit at TCAF ’24 (Toronto) in May and will have copies of both plus my zines and comics with me. I’m hoping to get to at least one US festival too but not sure which yet. However, BARKING will be released in North America and widely available from Spring 2024.


CBY: For people who've already bought Hagbound and pre-ordered Barking, are there any other comics from your peers that you'd recommend people check out?


LS: There’s a brilliant UK comic scene so I highly recommend checking out some of my fellow comics makers…


Rachael House’s zines are a perfect example of the form and her Instagram is a delight to follow:


For a wealth of zine goodness head to Colossive Press & get collecting their Cartographies series featuring many small press creators:


One of my absolute favourite cartoonists is Gareth Brookes whose work and media changes with every project, and yet is still uniquely his. I honestly suggest you buy everything from his website but my favs are The Black Project (Myriad Editions) which is the tale of Richard who makes himself girlfriends from household items and was created with Lino-cuts and embroidery. Or The Land of my Heart Chokes on its Abundance, a mind-melting comic unlike anything else beautifully mono-printed and hand stitched. It’s exquisite and I think about it often even if I still don’t quite understand it.


Further afield I’d also strongly advise you to read The Hard Tomorrow (D&Q) by Eleanor Davis and seek out her beautiful shorter works too. I absolutely covert my copy of Libby’s Dad my partner picked up for me from Printed Matter in NYC.


Finally you must read anything by Gipi. Start with his earlier translated work like Garage Band, be stunned by his gorgeous epic One Story and then giggle like a doped-up teen at the brutal youth antics in My Badly Drawn Life (both Fantagraphics).


CBY: Where can people find you on Social Media?


LS: I have several social accounts and never sure where to put my efforts these days. I’m posting a lot more on Instagram as @lucysullivanuk


I have a Twitter account in the same handle and do go there occasionally but it’s a social bin-fire so try not to hang about.


I have a Facebook artist page:


I’m also on Bluesky and hoping it can be a genuine alternative when it opens up


I’m lurking on Hive, Tumblr, Mastodon & Vero but I stress lurking. I’ll try to do better.


CBY: Lucy, thank you so much for your time!


LS: Absolutely my pleasure. Thanks for chatting with me!



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