A trendy rabbit couple wander through an art gallery whose walls are completely empty. “It’s contemporary!”, one explains to the other. It seems the public have voted for what they want to see and all the art got voted out. What got voted in is “Ordinary People Doing Ordinary Things - an extensive showcase of modern Britain.” The bunnies buy their tickets and walk in, only to step out of Tate Britain into the “ordinary” wonders of the world outside.
The secret of Simone Lia’s disarmingly simple-looking comics is how they wittily question pre-conceived ideas and pose philosophical puzzles. This example, printed by the Tate as part of a free fanzine, offers a perfect vehicle for the public to ponder The Great British Art Debate and also features in Tate Britain’s summer show Rude Britannia: British Comic Art, a survey of humour in British visual art from Hogarth and Cruikshank to Steve Bell and Viz, open from next Wednesday, June 9 until 5 September.
A British-born Maltese with parallel careers in children’s books and illustration, Lia developed her first graphic novel Fluffy as one half of Cabanon Press with Tom Gauld. At its heart lies the peculiar, touching relationship that forms on a trip to Sicily between a harrassed single Brit, Michael Pulcino, and Fluffy, a young rabbit. Michael tries telling Fluffy, “I am not your real Daddy” as he wipes up the droppings left on the sofa, but nothing deters Fluffy’s love for him. Lia spins together realistic emotional situations with fanciful, cartoonish playfulness, using diagrams of the thoughts cramming a character’s head, guest narrators like a cheery dust particle and a grouchy piece of dandruff, or “footage” of a little brain cell. Lia can animate the most minimal figures into thinking, feeling characters, such as her double-act Chip and Bean, or in the strip below created for Art Review magazine, two ants called Adam.
Her shorter pieces are uncalculated and intuitive, but for her next longer graphic novel, she had to wait for inspiration to strike. It came three years ago in Leicester Square. “I had a fuzzy vision of the completed story of my adventure with God whilst standing near a red telephone box. Showing that relationship is such a personal thing. Part of me did not want to open that up for everyone to see but the feeling to make the book didn’t go away. I thought I’d get all the material I needed by spending two weeks in a convent, but the story needed more time, because the story in real life has had to unravel.” She is also harking back to her trip to Sicily to research locations for Fluffy, when she found God in a Catholic church, and earlier still, to her grandmother’s conversion. “As a little girl, I remember her becoming very Catholic. I thought she was great but I remember the conflicts in the family. I could relate to my grandmother and see the experience in a new light.” Already seventy pages into this memoir of her faith, she is now discovering the challenges and rewards of putting herself centre stage.
In preparing the above article for Art Review magazine I conducted a short interview by email with Simone, which is reproduced in full below.
Where did Fluffy come from? What personal significance did its characters and themes have for you?
I’d made a drawing at college of a bunny saying to a man ‘you smell like my Daddy’ - my bosses little son had said that to me once and I thought it was funny and a bit weird. That was the thought behind that drawing. Then I started wondering about this bunny and his personality and who his Daddy might be and I became very interested in their relationship. I had the characters swimming in my head for a couple of years and I’d made a couple of strips with them for Sturgeon White Moss; Fluffy the graphic novel emerged from that. I had a few themes in mind when starting the story - it wasn’t plot based though, the story came from the relationship between Michael and Fluffy and how they reacted to the people and places around them. Before I started I didn’t have a definite story but wanted to include some ideas. I knew that I wanted Fluffy and Michael to go on a land and sea journey to another place that was very familiar to them - I chose Sicily because I wanted something of the Mediterranean in the story. All of my family are from Malta and I wanted to draw upon some of those influences in the story.
I wanted Michael’s mother to be a strong character and to have had some kind of life changing experience that had affected her and was not going down well with the people around her, I wasn’t sure what it would be. The odd thing was that whilst doing the research for the story I made the journey to Sicily on trains, boats and buses and when I got to Sicily I actually had a life changing experience when I found God in a Catholic Church, that moment changed my life completely. I was so excited but it didn’t go down very well with the people around me, it was strange because that was what I wanted for the character in my story. I drew parallels to my Grandmother, I remembered being a little girl and her becoming very Catholic, I thought she was really great but I remembered the conflicts in the family. I could relate to my grandmother and see the experience in a new light. The character of Michael’s mother and family and some of the events that happened in the book (like the kidnapping of Fabrizio) were amalgamations of distant memories of events and perceptions of my relatives from when I was very small.
Since Fluffy and DFC, what other comics have you been getting into print? How free have you been to do your own thing?
Post-Fluffy I was very keen to become absorbed by a new comic book as well as doing illustration work. The only trouble was that I didn’t have a bubbling inspiration in my stomach for a big comic book so I didn’t know what to do. People kept asking when a new book would be coming out and I’d panic. I was making comic work during that time, yesterday whilst doing a studio clear out I found a box of drawings and short stories from my stuck time. I had a chuckle as I was going through them, I’d forgotten about the stories, I think I’ll re-visit these at some point. It’s quite useful sometimes to let ideas percolate for a few years in a box. I did have the inspiration come back for a big book in 2007, I was so relieved, excited and happy and I’ll talk more about that below. I still get the beginnings of a panic when people ask me when the book will be out and I have to remind myself that the creative process has a timing of it’s own.
You had that show in Cheltenham last year - any other gallery shows before or since?
I did a show with Tom Gauld in Edinburgh a few years ago, that was fun. He made some beautiful prints. I bought an eclectic range of frames and then made paintings of slugs or (and) worms to fit the frames. There were a few of slugs and worms wearing silly outfits. It was so much fun to make those paintings and I am looking forward to making some more after the big project that I’m working on. I was talking to my Dad the other day, he was an engineer for more than 30 years and then took early retirement, moved to Malta and enrolled at the art school. He’s discovered this hidden talent and has been making interesting work, naive and funny and poignant sculptures that make you weep and laugh at the same time. It would be brilliant to do a show with him. He’s been totally prolific and absorbed by his work. He reminds me of Tony Hancock in the film The Rebel.
I don’t want to jinx anything, but what can you tell me about your next graphic novel please?
The graphic novel that I’m working on hasn’t got a name as of yet, this time it’s got me in it and it’s about my relationship with God. I was passing through Leicester Square almost three years ago and the bubbling inspiration came to me and I had a fuzzy vision of the completed story whilst standing near a red telephone box. I was so excited and happy to be suddenly inspired again, I had a sense the book would be about an adventure with God. When it came to starting the work however I really didn’t know how to go about having an adventure with God and how I might show it in a comic. Showing that relationship is such a personal thing. Part of me definitely did not want to open that up for everyone to see but the feeling to make the book didn’t go away. It’s been taking a long time to produce partly because of that uncertainty of depicting this personal area of my life and also because the story in real life has had to unravel. I thought I’d get all the material I needed by spending two weeks in a convent and I practically ran to the convent I was so keen, but the story needed more time to unfold. I won’t go into more detail here, it’s still a work in progress. I do have the material now and I’m drawing it up and am looking forward to seeing the completed project. I hope that people will enjoy it and maybe relate to it.
What are the pros and cons of trying to express yourself through comics?
The pros are that you can transport the reader into another world in a way that is different to film - for example you can have a man and a bunny who talks and for that to be normal in a comic, it wouldn’t be the same in a film I don’t think. Also ordinary, everyday or ugly things can look very beautiful in a drawing somehow. Like a drawing of an ordinary nondescript corner shop if it was a good drawing it would have an instant appeal. If I’d taken a photograph of the same cornershop I don’t think that it would be appreciated until time had passed and the building changed and then it’s something to reminisce over. Maybe that’s because I’m a not very good photographer, I’m not sure. I do think that drawing can transform the ordinary into something beautiful.
I love the intimacy of a comic book, it’s between the reader and the story. With a novel a reader can read out loud and share the story with other people but a graphic novel doesn’t have the same quality when it’s read aloud I don’t think. I love the timelessness of a comic book too, all of the movement of a story is captured in drawing stills and you can go backwards and forwards, it’s something complete in your hands and somehow can bend the rules of time.
The cons, hmm probably drawing the frames, it can get a bit mathematical. I don’t mind it so much now now that I’ve re-discovered graph paper. Pre-graph paper the mathematical part to comic making could induce a minor panic attack.
Where do you see your work relating within the art world?
When making work I really want for it to be accessible and to communicate to an audience who may or may not be interested in comics or in art. With Fluffy I really was hoping that people who had never picked up a comic before would pick it up and have a look. I want to communicate ideas in a simple way. My mum is a good judge of that, she’s not really an art fan. Only yesterday I was chastised for making a ‘horrible’ piece of work because it was too difficult to understand. The artworld is big and can contain a lot of different ways of working - I like to see art that makes me wonder what it’s all about that I need to read about. With my own practice however I would like the work to communicate in a direct and straightforward way.Posted: June 6, 2010