It’s inspiring how far Britain’s Andi Watson has come over the past ten years or more. I’ve known him since 1993, when out of art school he self-published his skateboarding, street-smart Samurai Jam, part Love & Rockets, part boy’s manga.
From the start, Andi proved he could deliver ambitious, substantial narratives in the comic book format. This earned him the chance from Slave Labor (aptly named, as he got no money up front) to learn in public on an all-new Samurai Jam miniseries, changing his stylistic influences with every issue. Though this series flopped, his next project for them, Skeleton Key, clicked with it’s all-ages tales of school girl Tamsin and her fox-spirit friend Kitsune, nearly 600 pages in all collected into five volumes.
Skeleton Key opened doors. An animated series was proposed but never quite escaped development hell. More importantly, Andi was noticed for being good at writing women. This, and confusion over his first name, has caused some readers to assume he is a woman, something he takes as a compliment. Out of this came an offer to be the first writer to adapt Buffy The Vampire Slayer to comics for Dark Horse.
Better still, this got his robot-girl proposal Geisha accepted in 1998 by Oni Press. What began as a mostly mecha-action SF romp developed into an intriguing allegory about fakery and a subtle character study of a struggling android artist overcoming her creative doubts and society’s robophobic prejudices. Geisha also shows how Andi’s roots in mainstream manga and earlier alternative comics were revitalised by his studies of other quieter manga and French bandes dessinées and by his renewed passion for art history.
The location and subject for his next Oni Press graphic novel in 2000 came from much closer to home. Breakfast After Noon is set in the contemporary English Midlands, where Andi and his wife and daughter live and where many employees of the ceramic-pottery industries have been made redundant. Its title refers to unemployed protagonist Rob seeing no prospects of finding another job and so no purpose in getting up early. As Andi has witnessed, "If you take their job away from people, they lose their identity, and you see that in whole communities."
Andi focuses on the strains of unemployment, as well as better opportunities for women to move out of the home and get on in the work place, can exert on Rob and Louise, a young engaged couple.
Through his skillful pacing, understated characterisations and supple brushwork inspired by Yves Chaland, François Avril, Serge Clerc and other French masters, he makes us empathise with both partners, even when Rob can be an egotistical slacker and Louise an irritable nag, and root for them both to pull through somehow.
Andi stretches himself to improve constantly on every new project. Next, he returned to Slave Labor in 2001 for Slow News Day. Another real-life Midlands-set story, this "fish out of water" comedy of manners explored the Anglo-American culture clash and sparky attraction between an English reporter on a regional paper and his newly arrived American colleague, Katharine Washington. There’s lots of snappy repartee right out of those Thirties screwball movies (Katherine might be named after Hepburn), and the Cold Comfort Farm notion of the sophisticated outsider who turns a modest provincial place around. For his art here, Andi dropped the tones and went for an even more European style, breezy black-and-white brushwork.
A turning point, and personal favourite of mine, is Dumped, also from Oni, a brief but touching love story in the same ‘Watson-verse’ as Breakfast, about two fragile individuals who eventually rescue each other from loneliness. It’s here that he arrives at a lightness of touch, in his writing as well as in his pictures in dry brush and grey tones, that singles out his work.
Surprisingly, his next move was into superheroes, a genre he had admitted to having no interest in. Andi scripted an amorous Namor for Marvel’s manga-esque line, but its promise was never fulfilled.
Far more fulfilling was Love Fights, his 12-part Oni series from 2003, compiled into to two manga-format paperbacks. Flashy superheroes are taken for granted here, flying over head and disrupting daily life, but they stay firmly in the background to Andi’s main interest, a down-to-earth love story.
His lead is regular American guy and comic book artist Jack, who hasn’t had a date in three years and blames it on being unable to compete with the city’s superpowered, brand-labeled celebs.
As he sees it, when it comes to attracting women, "Unless you’re saving the world pr swinging from tall buildings, they don’t want to know." His luck seems to change after a chance subway encounter with Nora, a go-getting reporter for a Heat-style superhero glossy. Her goal is to uncover the sex scandal behind The Flamer’s alleged love child and soon Jack’s helping her out.
Andi has loads of fun inventing wacky heroes and villains, showing the dubious practices of a major comic book publisher, and revealing the secret identity of Jack’s talking moggy Guthrie. And through it all, Jack and Nora manage to build a relationship with a child in tow.
Andi and his wife have a little girl of their own and in 2002 he told me of one graphic novel project, "about parenthood, obviously a pressing concern to me!" The result was Little Star, now a book from Oni. Partly based on personal experience, it’s a sincere slice-of-life portrayal of the responsibilities and rewards of raising a child from a young father’s point of view. A few have dealt with these questions, including American Joe Chiapetta‘s free-flowing autobiographical Silly Daddy, reprinted in 2004 by the defunct Reed Graphica, and Finnish cartoonist Pentti Otsamo in his lyrical piece about an unexpected pregnancy, The Fall Of Homunculus, from Drawn & Quarterly. Andi Watson’s take is to look unsentimentally at the practical issues and social expectations fathers like him are now facing.
What does it mean to become a father today? Apart, that is, from never getting a full night’s sleep, learning to change nappies, constantly worrying about the slightest risks, somehow juggling the demands of child-care and earning enough to pay the mortgage, and totally transforming your life and your partner’s forever.
Our narrator is Simon Adams, a part-time ceramics painter and childhood Star Wars fan who drifts into his dream of becoming an astronauts and can’t help thinking, "I don’t remember at what point we decided to have kids." Andi weaves together day-to-day scenes with Simon’s outer space reveries and repeated star motifs: a dead star fish, his pattern designs on the the plates, the name of the day nursery, his "little star", daughter Cassie (short perhaps for the constellation Cassiopeia?). We share Simon’s dilemmas of trying to balance work and life, support his supply-teacher wife in her career, get ahead in his own job, move to a bigger house and be more than merely "an occasional Dad, strictly nights and weekends". We get to understand the exclusion he feels when Cassie seems to always prefer her mother to him - "When did my daughter become a feminist extremist?" - the fear when she disappears in a department store and the need to hide his fear when she is found. A modern father’s turbulent emotions are beautifully captured in Andi’s latest, and perhaps finest, graphic novel so far.
2006 will see the conclusion of Andi’s collaboration with fellow Brit Simon Gane writing for him a four partner called Paris, hopefully due soon in book form from Slave Labor. A love letter to the French capital during the Fifties era of jazz, "Beats" and bohemia, it traces the intertwining lives of two female visitors, poor American art student Juliet hired to paint a portrait of bored upper-class English debutante Deborah.
Escaping her tiresome chaperone, Debs discovers the sensuous paintings in the Louvre’s galleries and the Latin Quarter’s uninhabited nightclubs with Juliet and their friendship starts to blossom into something more. It’s so good to have Gane drawing his chunky ‘clear line’ comics again, like some distinctive hybrid of Jacques Tardi and Mike McMahon. It’s as if they have restored some forgotten movie, ‘nouvelle vague’ meets Fifties rom-com, with its footnotes providing translations of the French words and sources of the works of art and sometimes vanished locations, it also doubles as a phrasebook and retro tourist guide.
Considering Andi’s deep appreciation of French comics and French culture, it must have been a thrill to have both Breakfast After Noon and Slow News Day successfully published in French, by Casterman and Editions Ça et La. Meanwhile, for the American market he is authoring a Vertigo graphic novel to be drawn by Dead@17 artist Josh Howard.
Pay a visit to Andi’s web site to sample all of his oeuvre and get a taste of more treats to come.
PG TIPS REVIEW EXTRA:
Andi Watson’s latest heroine is his most delightfully English and eccentric, one Glister Butterworth, a bright little spark who breezes through all manner of strangeness at the family home of Chilblain Hall. His series of bi-monthly 64-page tales may come in a thin manga format, black-and-white pulp paperbacks, but his storytelling avoids manga’s typical, highly visual, low-wordcount, crisply finished momentum. Andi has redefined his drawing and writing yet again and found a style totally appropriate to his subject and setting: a determinedly hand-drawn, hand-written, high-touch approach recalling children’s illustrated books. His linework is more free and exploratory, heightened by softly dabbed greytones, combining the influences of great cartoonists popular in Britain in the Fifties like Trog of Flook fame, Gerald Hoffnung and Walter Trier, and perhaps Arthur Horner’s Colonel Pewter, amongst others. His writing too is different, now richly captioned in charming upper- and lower-case wobbly letters and taking off on flights of fanciful words and ideas. You can share the sheer fun he is having with this on every page. The first story revolves around a haunted teapot, that most English of crockery, and Glister’s role in transcribing the interminable unfinished masterpiece of a ghostly author. The second story is if anything stronger, starring Chilbain Hall itself. When the country pile is insulted by the judge of the ‘Bonny Village’ competition, it goes off in a huff on a world tour leaving Glister and her father homeless. On one inspired page, Andi shows how the hall first “drew itself up in affrontery, like a middle-aged man drawing in his stomach.” And in the next panel, “But that couldn’t hold, and the beams creaked and sloped as the deflated building slumped in self-pity.” Throwing in trolls, witches, magic beans, and a battle swine named Mr Gullinbursti, Andi constantly surprises young and old with his fresh take on fairytale fantasies. He proves here that “All that glisters really can be gold”.
Posted: October 28, 2007
The original version of this article appeared in 2006 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.