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Steve Malley: graphic artist

Steve MalleySteve Malley is a Christchurch artist, writer and a graphic novelist. His passion is telling stories, whatever the form: paintings, or comics. He spoke to Shirley Library's Michelle Feary about how he got started, drawing, and six tips for getting good at graphic storytelling.

Do you remember the first graphic novel you read? What was its appeal?
My first graphic novel was one of the Love & Rockets volumes, by the brothers Hernandez. I was just a kid at the time, and I'd met comics artist Howard Chaykin at a convention. (That's right, my favourite thing to do as a kid was sit for hours, watching artists draw — that ought to tell you something!)

He recommended Love & Rockets, and off I scurried across the convention floor. I remember opening those pages and feeling like the top of my head might lift off. After a childhood filled with superhero comics, here was something new and original. Women, every one of them beautiful and unique. Stories about punk rock and witchcraft, small town gossips, espionage and dinosaurs, professional wrestling and robots. And a smattering of sex. :)

Basically, these were stories about people, the whole wild human experience. It was a whole world away from men in their underwear throwing cars at each other. Love & Rockets opened a door into comics I'd never dreamed possible.
Graphic novels are extremely popular — what do you think makes them so appealing?
This subject could be a book in itself. Long story short: I think both graphic novels and YA fiction are so popular exactly because the literary establishment doesn't take them seriously. Ignored the way they are, graphic novels have been free to do pretty much whatever they want. Also, don't forget that most cartoonists are pretty young themselves. There's definitely a lot of peer-to-peer storytelling going on here!
coversWhat would you say to those who dismiss graphic novels as nothing more than 'comics' that have no real literary value?
One thing I've noticed about comics and graphic novels, people who want to rubbish them tend to compare the worst in comics with the best in literature. The fact is, like any other branch of literature, graphic novels run the gamut of people's reading needs, from potato-chip beach reading to serious and weighty literature.
There are excellent graphic novels in non-fiction (The Cartoon Guide to the Universe is a favourite of mine), historical fiction, romance, crime, mystery, science fiction, horror, biography, autobiography, erotica and literary fiction. Graphic novels have been written by Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon and Jodi Picoult. A graphic novel even won the Pulitzer Prize, but it's still hard to get certain people to see past the guys in their underwear throwing cars at each other! :-p
Do you think graphic novels are a more effective way of storytelling, as opposed to novels that have only words?
To me, it depends on the story you're telling, and the gifts of the particular storyteller. Movies, books and graphic novels all share certain storytelling tools, and each medium has its own particular strengths. For instance, I've never read a single novel with a particularly compelling car chase! It's all storytelling. The particular strength of graphic novels is that they can combine certain visual tropes from the movies with tightly focused prose to create an experience that is truly unique.
In your opinion, what kind of people do graphic novels appeal to?
I certainly think there's something for everyone in the graphic novel. Just like 'regular' (prose) novels, not every book is made to appeal to everyone, but no matter what kind of story you like, somewhere out there a cartoonist is bent over a drawing board, scribbling feverishly away on something you'll love!
If there are people out there who would like to pursue a career in graphic novel writing/illustrating, what advice could you give them?
  1. Steep yourself in the medium. Read all your favourites, and read WAY outside your favourites. Read the best of the new stuff and the best in the industry. Then go and read the folks who inspired THEM.
  2. You don't have to be the best artist in the world, but you do need to be versatile. Labouring for days and days over a single panel on a single page isn't going to do it — cultivate the ability to draw a quick and recognisable person, building, hotel room, car, horse, bridge, lamp, kitchen, etc.
  3. Resist the urge to overwrite. Never use a word where a picture will do the job better, and vice versa.
  4. Work hard on faces and hands. The ability to draw faces in any expression, hands in any position is probably the single most important drawing skill you can have.
  5. There are good books on the finer points of visual storytelling by Will Eisner, Dave Sim and Klaus Janson. Find them. Make them a part of you.
  6. It takes ten thousand hours of practice to get really good at anything. Quit reading and get scribbling!

April 2010