Our ‘Six UK Small Press Creators to Watch in 2015’ coverage resumes today as I chat with Alice Urbino, an artist whose work in the graphic medicine strand of comics narratives I first featured in this column at the end of last year when I put a spotlight on her webcomics work here. Since then I’ve also reviewed her self-published series Dimension here describing it as “one of the most inventive uses of the graphic medicine genre of comics I have seen for a long time.”
A fantasy-tinged exploration of living with depression and anxiety, Dimension follows the trials and tribulations of twentysomething Terry whose gradual withdrawal from interaction with the world around him takes a strange turn when he finds a portal to another reality in the plughole of his bathtub.
After our hugely popular interview with Danny Noble on Monday, my discussions with this sextet of artists I firmly believe deserve to be propelled to the next level of recognition continues today. Join us as Alice (below right) and I talk about why the comics form is so effective at communicating personal experience, her involvement with the Comic Book Slumber Party collective, and the future for her series Dimension…
ANDY OLIVER: As one of my ‘Six UK Small Press Creators to Watch in 2015’ list here at Broken Frontier this year, Alice, let’s begin with the obvious introductory question. What was Alice Urbino’s original route into the world of comics?
ALICE URBINO: I’ve been drawing cartoons practically all my life. As a kid I was very sick and ended up getting diagnosed with M.E. on top of other things. I had to leave school at around 14 which led to me spending a lot of time at home in bed by myself. I think most kids in that situation usually end up turning to the internet as their form of escapism.
It subsequently led to me making a lot of online friends that I still keep to this day, all of them having their own webcomics. I think you know Sarah Burgess (you can read my review of Sarah’s The Summer of Blake Sinclair last year here – Andy), she ended up being the first person to really open my eyes and tell me that I could pursue comics further and study them at university. I didn’t even know that was an option, and I had never drawn a proper comic before, but I guess I wanted to follow in my friends’ footsteps.
In terms of both solo work and anthology contributions where have your comics been printed to date?
I feel like I’ve been in so many zines that seemed to just disappear off of the face of the planet. I don’t know if a lot of my stuff ever got printed or not. I guess the main things I’ve done are self-publishing Dimension and being in the Comic Book Slumber Party anthology…
Left to right – Dimension #1 with full cover dress, the original illustration for the cover of Dimension #2, and one of Alice’s haunting images that touches on associated themes
While many small press self-publishers come from an art school background you are rather unique in that you actively studied the form at undergraduate level and gained a BA in Cartoon and Comic Arts from Staffordshire University. What attracted you to that course in the first place?
After I was set on studying comics I originally applied to study sequential illustration at the same college Sarah went to, but I didn’t make the cut. Instead of giving up I googled around and found that Staffordshire University had opened the course for the first time that year. It kind of felt like fate I guess. I was in the right place at the right time.
What areas of comics practice did the course cover and how do you feel your style evolved as a result?
Since the course was band new, it was kind of in a trial run and I guess you could say our class were the guinea pigs. I already knew a lot of stuff but I think what the course was great at was giving me a reason to draw comics. I was given lots of prompts and challenges and it was fun seeing what I could create.
Interior pages from Dimension showing off Alice’s considered use of colour as a narrative device (see discussion below)
I improved at a really fast rate while studying there. It was great to be in an environment full of other people passionate about comics and I learned so much from the other students. I started out drawing in a more cutesy cartoony style but by the end of uni I ended up evolving into a style that can be taken more seriously.
I recently reviewed your ongoing self-published series Dimension in this column saying your “command of the form to impart information and immerse the reader in [the] characters’ emotional mindscape shows an exceptional talent in the making.” For readers yet to enter this dark metaphorical fantasy can you provide us with a basic premise of the series and the characters involved?
Dimension is basically a story about the dangers of running away from your problems instead of taking responsibility for them. The main character (Terry) finds a portal to another dimension in his bathtub and ends up getting lost in his own world instead of facing reality. You see how his actions affect the people around him and how his depression and anxiety end up affecting the environment around him also. It’s really a slice-of-life character piece masked with surreal fantasy elements. I promise the action happens in part 3! Haha..
Yes, while Dimension is ostensibly a fantasy series its core focus is really an examination of the effects that depression and anxiety can have on a sufferer’s life, both directly and indirectly. What were your creative reasons for tackling these issues in a narrative framework that is more allegorical in structure?
I think a lot of my favourite stories take on a more surreal/psychological element to them. I like it when emotions manifest themselves into physical things, I like stories you can read into and interpret in your own way. And I feel like it was only natural for me to write about subjects that draw from my own experiences.
How long do you see Dimension being as a series? Does it have a projected endpoint?
The entire story is written out and I have a clear ending. The first two issues felt very rushed to me because of university deadlines, so part 3 (see teaser image above right – Andy) seems like where the real story kicks off. I’m currently in the middle of drawing part 3 and ideally I’d like it to be the last part but it will probably end up being too long and turning into a 4-parter.
Can you tell us a little bit about your use of colour as a storytelling tool in Dimension?
When starting Dimension I used it as a way to experiment with different styles. I think I’m still trying to find the right medium I feel comfortable with, but until then I’m going to try as many different things as I can. I thought the idea of using colour for the dimensions really highlights the fact that the greyscale of his reality reflects his depression and escaping to a bright, vibrant, colourful world is something he cannot resist.
Examples of Alice’s graphic medicine work…
Aside from Dimension you’ve created a number of short comics that can be read on your tumblr dealing with subjects that fall firmly in the graphic medicine strand of comics. Your formidable use of visual metaphor to depict depression in ‘Twister’ for example, or the cuttingly succinct ‘S**t People Say to Chronic Fatigue Sufferers’. What is it about comics as a form, do you think, that makes them such a powerful medium for conveying personal experience?
I think it is much easier for an audience to relate to an image than words alone. Being able to add metaphorical images next to your words really helps people understand what you’re trying to put across in a much simpler way. I wouldn’t say I’m the best writer in the world… It’s hard for me to express myself in words.
The moment I add images to my feelings it suddenly becomes a valid form of art that people can relate to, instead of being just me whining and writing about my problems. The moment I add drawings to my experiences it’s no longer about me anymore, it’s about the reader. One of the most touching experiences of my life was reading through the comments and tags of ‘S**t People Say to Chronic Fatigue Sufferers’ and seeing how many people saw themselves in it. The comments are filled with people sharing their own stories.
Your recent contribution to the Comic Book Slumber Party: Fairytales for Bad Bitches anthology (right, cover by Becca Tobin) – a gruesomely witty retelling of the Cinderella story – was the story I marked out as the highlight of the issue when I reviewed it here at Broken Frontier. Its violent slapstick humour was a real change of pace from some of your other material. How did you become involved in the Comic Book Slumber Party collective?
I met Hannah [Chapman] who runs CBSP through… Sarah! (yet again!) I don’t really remember how I ended up being in the anthology though… I did go to one of the CBSP workshops in Plymouth and somehow ended up living with her and a bunch of other artists I really admire for a week and we all got along like a house on fire. I have no idea how that happened. I think Hannah is just a super nice person who decided to give me a chance!
Visually, your comics have a very fluid, malleable feel to them that is highly expressive in terms of both characterisation and emotional resonance. Whose work influences your art, both within and outside of the comics world?
Oh man… I think my style is a mixture of so many influences I can’t even pick them all out. There was a point in my life where literally everything I looked at I was inspired by. I think one of the main reasons I started being more fluid and raw was after becoming a huge Daniel Johnston fan. I like the way his drawings and music look like they are just spilling out of his brain. I got so hung up on anatomy and perspective and then his work kind of taught me to let all of that go and just be yourself. Just draw what you feel. I like how truthful it all is. I still have to remind myself to be more loose sometimes… I’m still learning.
I think I’m pretty much inspired by the art of every comic I own.
Comics aren’t the only medium you work in. Could you give us some background on your artistic practice outside of the world of sequential art?
I did fine art as an A-level and ended up doing a lot of oil painting. Everyone wanted me to pursue my oil paintings further but I was a big nerd and in my heart I knew I always wanted to draw cartoons, even if I wasn’t as good at them. Cartoons and comics are what I love and oil paintings are what I’m probably best at.. I still do them every now and then for bands that want album art. Man, you should have seen the look on people’s faces when I said I was going to university to study cartoons… utter disappointment.
Are there any hints you are able to drop about upcoming comics projects you’re involved in?
Other than Dimension part 3, nothing is set in stone. I hope to be doing more with Comic Book Slumber Party in the near future. There have been talks of putting out my own little book but I still have yet to come up with a solid idea for it. Expect me to pop up every now and then in random zines and see me post one-offs on my blog. I’m just gonna see where the wind takes me.
For BF readers inspired to check out your work further how can they get hold of it? Which shops are currently stocking Dimension, for example? And are you planning on exhibiting at any shows this year?
I know Gosh! Comics and Orbital Comics in London both stock it. And I think Dave’s Comics in Brighton stocks it too. I think I’m planning to go to ELCAF, Brighton Illustration Fair, Thought Bubble and maybe an MCM this year. Most of them I’ll probably be with Hannah at the CBSP table though. Come and see me!
And, finally, what targets have you set for yourself for 2015? Where would you like to be with your comics practice by the end of this year?
I still consider myself fairly new, I’ve got plenty of time to work on my art, I just need to take it slow and set myself small goals. Finish Dimension. Stop procrastinating. Don’t let art block conquer me! If I can get Dimension finished and be at a place where I’m happy with it, I’ll be proud.
For regular updates on all things small press follow Andy Oliver on Twitter here.