Glamorous camping? Can there really be such a thing? Joe Decie’s new book Collecting Sticks from Jonathan Cape recounts the Decie family’s “glamping” holiday – camping from the “comfort” of a heated log cabin – with the usual Decie-an melding of slice-of-life reality and digressions into bizarre fantasy. It was reviewed here earlier this week at BF when I described it as “the perfect showcase offering for the singular talents of this most distinctive practitioner of autobio comics.”
Joe Decie’s name, of course, will be familiar to Broken Frontier readers from coverage of his work on the site over the years including The Accidental Salad and The Listening Agent (published by Blank Slate Books) to self-published work like There’s No Bath in this Bathroom and micropublished comics like Pocket Full of Coffee from Retrofit Comics. He was also a contributor to our ‘State of the Small Press Nation‘ series of articles.
Today I talk to all the stars behind Collecting Sticks – Joe and Steph Decie and their eight-year-old Star Wars-loving son Sam as we cover Joe’s particular idiosyncratic take on autobio, the joy of the Great Outdoors, and what really makes a truly great stick…
SAM DECIE: Sam Decie, 8-years-old, born two thousand and something… I am a Star Wars-obsessed boy but now I’m more obsessed with Minecraft™.
STEPH DECIE: I’m Steph. Joe draws me as the straight, sensible one but I’m actually much funnier than he is.
JOE DECIE: I’m Joe Decie I draw comics about us, this family. Sometimes I make them up.
What was your route into comics, Joe? How did you first get started in the medium?
JOE: In the mid-90s I was trading art zines. I was very influenced by the Fluxus artists, Mail Art Ray Johnson, Mark Pawson, A1 Waste Paper Company etc. I think through correspondence with Shouting At The Postman‘s Ken B. Miller I got access to the alternative and minicomics scene in the US. Back then America was pretty foreign to me, my only knowledge of the US came from The Fresh Prince and Roseanne, and a handful of skateboarding videos.
I was interested in American counter-culture and the outsider art scenes and so this was a perfect way for me to gain some understanding about these goings-on. I discovered diary comics, notably Delaine Derry Green’s Not My Small Diary and used to contribute irregularly. My stepdad, Roger Radio was a occasional cartoonist for Viz so I was no stranger to the make up of a comic, letraset tone, penciling etc.
For those among the Broken Frontier audience who may be coming to your work for the first time this month can you give us a quick tour of Joe Decie’s greatest hits to date – from small press to comics picked up by publishers?
JOE: Probably my first wade in the waters of comics was on Top Shelf’s webcomic page. I had great fun putting out some of my early stuff there, and a lot of the other artists they hosted went on to become my good friends. That and LiveJournal, but my best stuff I saved for Top Shelf.
Solipsistic Pop issues 1 to 4. I was thinking about the “British Scene” the other day and I think we have a lot to thank Tom Humberstone for. His anthology Solipsistic Pop was a really well executed project, with good design and some lovely choices of spot colours. And the artists, we were mostly all on the cusp of making great work and that combination made for some really interesting comics. I think as a group we pushed forward.
The Accidental Salad – my debut from Blank Slate Books. We all know it’s daft, but until you’re “published” a lot of people don’t take you seriously. This book got me quite a lot of attention, which was nice. I really enjoyed playing around with the design, hiding lyrics to The Fall songs in the strips etc. A collection of short vignettes which I followed with the hardback collection, The Listening Agent. Both were nominated for, and failed to win, British Comic Awards.
Pocket Full of Coffee, from the first run of Retrofit books was my first go at a 24-page story. I proposed to Steph secretly, via text hidden in the background of the panels of that comic. She proofreads my stuff, and I hoped she’d spot the hidden message. I handed it over and said “what d’you think?”
Pages from The Listening Agent
I’ve done a load of other comic books, 24-hour comics, hourly comics, small collections etc. Which can sometimes be found in all good bookshops (well, you know, half a dozen comic shops worldwide)
Your new book about your “glamping” holiday is published this month by Jonathan Cape. What’s the premise of Collecting Sticks?
JOE: It’s a story about me and my family going on a trip to the woods and all that entails for us townie folk. I’m really out of my depth in the countryside, but I love to get stuck in, and stuck up a tree etc. The book details our family dynamic, the various roles we play, or pretend to play. There’s elements of fiction in there, that’s just the way I weave a yarn.
Looking back on it now what was the one thing you all enjoyed the most about glamping and what was the worst?
SAM: The best thing was going out on walks each morning. The worst was going to bed (boring!)
STEPH: The best thing was cooking pork and bean casserole on the open fire, it was delicious and smokey. I don’t remember any bad bits. Perhaps Joe’s idealistic representation of it has blurred my memory.
JOE: I like the dark night skies. So much darker than the city, you can really see the stars, eh? Worst thing was chemical toilet. The horror. The horror.
What one item from your home lives did you miss having the most while you were glamping?
SAM: Probably all my teddies.
STEPH: My bed.
JOE: My toilet.
Based on your own experiences what would be your most important piece of advice for anyone considering dabbling with glamping?
SAM: Take Hob Nobs™ and marshmallows (for smores)
STEPH: Take wet wipes.
JOE: Take a torch, we forgot a torch. Bottle opener. Tea bags.
The signature element of your work, Joe, is that juxtaposition of the observational and the autobiographical with the surreal and the totally bizarre – often with the former gradually slipping into the latter. What is it about that merging of the everyday and the outlandish that so appeals to you?
JOE: I like to joke around with fiction and reality, just playing with the reader really, pulling your leg, nudging you in the ribs.
Your ink washed artistic style complements your subject matter so well by rooting it firmly in reality and yet also giving it a hazily dreamy feel. From my first exposure to your comics in The Accidental Salad through to Collecting Sticks there’s been a notable visual consistency to your work. Do you feel you quickly found a settled style early on that fully encapsulates your storytelling voice?
JOE: Yeah, I think so. But also, I’m a creature of habit, a bit set in my ways. It would be nice to break from that style a little. Maybe on my next project… or maybe not. I fear change.
Autobio work, by definition, will always involve a certain element of vulnerability in the sharing of the artist’s life with an audience. Is that a consideration to you to any degree? And does that ever influence your often uncompromisingly self-deprecating depiction of your on-page avatar?
JOE: Yeah, it’s a funny one, putting yourself out there to be judged. I’ve never been afraid of being mocked, laugh at me, laugh with me, it’s all good. But by bringing my family in to this, it’s difficult, I’d never want to paint them in a bad light. And there is issues of consent at play here. For now, Steph and Sam are happy to be depicted in my stories, but if ever that changes I’d have to start drawing sci-fi or something. Could be fun.
Following on from that… how excited are you all about your glamping adventures being captured in print?
SAM: To be honest, I am quite chuffed but being in a book is a weird thing.
STEPH: I’m really excited for Joe and incredibly proud of him but it has been odd realising I’m not just me anymore, I’m a character in a book who people feel free to comment on.
JOE: Yeah I agree with these guys, it’s weird and odd. I didn’t really think it through.
Joe, can you tell us a little about your creative process in terms of planning, reference and structure?
JOE: I make notes all the time, every little idea gets scrawled down, half eligible in cheap pocket-sized notebooks. From these notes I work up threads and connections, narrative flows. I thumbnail the comic pages, but at this point I’m not to worried about the drawings, the panel structures come to me mostly fully formed but the words are trickier, I have to play with them quite a lot to get the rhythm or beat correct.
Next I get some visual reference, which generally means taking some photos of us, the family, in various goofy positions. I’m quite good at drawing, but I do rely on reference for facial expressions and a lot of anatomical poses. Backgrounds I make up. Then I draw it, ink it and scan it all. Japanese G-nib is my pen of choice. Windsor and Newton indian ink.
You’ve been an established part of the UK indie comics world for a number of years now. How would you say the scene has evolved and grown in that time?
JOE: I think the boom of digital printing has really impacted the books that are getting made, that coupled with the relatively cheap cost of printing has made the task of making great looking comics a whole heap less daunting. I think the advent of crowdfunding has helped so many people cut out the need for professional publishers and the boom of social media has made it possible for artists to reach worldwide audiences with ease.
In fact, to that point, I wonder how much we’re part of a UK scene or more a homogenized worldwide scene? Whatever. It’s all good. There’s really a scene for everyone, right? Illustration students making riso comics, middle-aged folks crafting autobio comics, bearded hipsters making Simpsons bootlegs… you name it, there’s a gang for everyone. It’s in pretty good shape our scene, right? Always seems plenty of new artists for you to share with us Andy.
Here’s the most crucial question of this interview… what makes for a truly great stick?
SAM: A good stick has many possibilities – e.g. sword, light sabre, walking stick (for hiking) and hole poker.
STEPH: It has to be long enough to use as a walking stick. If it’s too rough you can wrap moss around it to make a handle.
JOE: Gandalf staff size, good for whacking through the undergrowth. You shall not pass.
Which Star Wars character would be most suited to a weekend of glamping and why?
SAM: An Ewok because they are cute. They also live in tree huts.
STEPH: BB8. He’s good on rough terrain and has a lighter for starting camp fires.
JOE: Chewy’s home planet is forests right? I’ve seen the Holiday Special. But then why does he fall for that simple Ewok trap on the forest moon of Endor?
Post-Collecting Sticks are there any other projects you have coming up that you can let us know about, Joe?
JOE: Yeah, something local. Next month as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival, Daniel Locke, Hannah Eaton and I are working on a week-long project, in situ at Family Gallery upstairs in Family Store (the shop brought to you by the same people who run Brighton Illustration Fair) What we’re doing is re-imagining print shops of eighteenth century London, but in modern day Brighton.
Drawing comics and cartoons reflecting life around us. And anyone who’s’ visited Brighton will know there’s a whole heap of people ripe for sending up in this town… from mindfulness gurus to Down From London media executives. It’ll be fun. And I’m looking forward to working with Daniel and Hannah, they are excellent artists each with a pretty cool aesthetic I hope to be able to steal.
And, finally, now that you’ve all got glamping out of your systems what would be your next dream holiday?
SAM: A trip to Megalordia, the place I invented myself.
STEPH: I quite fancy an exotic beach holiday next. If this book goes well perhaps we could get Arts Council funding for a sequel – Collecting Shells?
JOE: I don’t want a beach holiday. If the Arts Council are paying, how about Japan? I know we’d all love that. Except for the spiders, they have big spiders, the internet showed me.
Collecting Sticks launches at London’s Gosh! Comics tonight, Thursday April 13th. Details on the Gosh site here. Collecting Sticks is published by Jonathan Cape priced £16.99. Follow Joe Decie on Twitter here and visit his website here.