Jamie Coe is an illustrator from London who recently saw his first graphic novel, Art Schooled, released in the UK and the US. It’s both a work of fiction and a reflection on art school and his own experiences in that particular micro-climate.
There are some metafictional elements in the book, making it easy to confuse the creator with the protagonist. However, Coe assures us that this is not the case. Daniel Stope is not Jamie Coe, but the quintessential small-town boy, struggling to overcome his own stereotyping and perspectives when thrown into the cauldron of extremes and diversity that is art school.
The most obvious question needs to get handled first; how fictional is Art Schooled in terms of story and characters, in relation to your own experiences?
Art Schooled is a fictional story with fictional characters; some of the characters and events are based on amalgamations of my own experiences, but I wanted to create something that worked well as a story, and real life doesn’t always fit into a ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure.
It also allowed me to be more honest with the characters, letting them have bad traits without worrying about targeting anyone personally.
Whereas your art previously had a rough quality to it, your style has evolved to be really meticulous and fluid at the same time – a change that has become apparent since the ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ story in Nobrow Magazine #9. How did this change come about?
Thanks. I think I always wanted to have a cleaner aesthetic to my work, but was using more traditional methods of painting and even pro-markers – which I do still like, by the way – probably because I had an irrational fear of Photoshop at the time (not any more).
I decided to use a brush to ink my work (as opposed to fine-liner pens, which I was using before) when I started Art Schooled, which felt like a big change for me, but I loved the depth of thick and thin that a brush can give. I think my thought process was along the lines of ‘I need to step up my game for a Nobrow book!’
Is the art done in a traditional way or digital – or maybe a combination?
It’s a combination; I ink my work over the pencils and then use watercolour to shade the panels so that I can use flat colours in Photoshop. I wanted to use watercolour for this project to give it a personal feel.
Your page layouts pop out as original but still relate to the story. How did you decide to break with traditional grid page layouts for Art Schooled?
I love grid comics, but I prefer personally not to draw them myself. Because of the nature of the storytelling – dividing the book into small vignettes – it seemed like a perfect opportunity to experiment with layouts and colours.
I tried to use the layouts as a way of carrying the narrative; there’s a double-page scene where everything is going wrong for the protagonist, Daniel; the page spirals into the centre of the book, so the reader has to unsettlingly turn the book round to read it.
Layouts seem like a big advantage of comics storytelling compared with other narrative forms, so I try to embrace that. Some of them work better than others, but hopefully they enhance the story.
Something else that stands out is the colouring, which really adds atmosphere to the point that it becomes a separate layer for distilling meaning from a scene. What are your views on colouring and the colours used for particular scenes?
Thanks, I’m really glad you think that. My process was to think about what emotion I’m trying to evoke through the scene and to choose a colour palette that compliments what’s going on.
I tried to create a surreal atmosphere (I sound like a pretentious douche, I know) for some of the scenes, like the ‘Walk or Talk’ scene, which uses bold reds and oranges to signify a sense of danger, anxiety and frustration.
I used mellow blues and greys for the ‘Charlie’ scene, because I wanted to create a quiet, reflective tone.
I also used colours to code different time periods. There are flashbacks in black and white and flashforwards in shades of orange.
How would you describe the emotional centre of Art Schooled? What is its core theme?
It’s quite hard to pinpoint one theme. It’s certainly partly about perceptions of people in new environments. I think art school, more than anywhere, has lots of people trying to showcase their individuality through appearance, which can lead to superficially judging people, in a positive or negative light. There are also themes of friendship and the anxieties of transitioning to a new chapter of life.
In general, the students in the book are portrayed as rather stereotypical. Was this part of your outlook on art school after graduation, or is this an externalisation of Daniel’s inability to look beyond the fronts these characters have all built for themselves?
I think stereotyping is something that we all do to an extent. That said, my protagonist, Daniel, is not a character you’re supposed to agree with or like the whole way through the book. I tried to keep it within his narrative voice and to show you his inner perceptions of the people around him.
There’s something quite disconnected with Daniel; he has a self-deprecating arrogance that makes him feel different. I designed the ‘Labels’ section to look like encyclopaedia diagrams of animals, where he categorises the different stereotypes, such as The Hip-Hop Stoner Student or The Earthy-Hippie Student. I think as the book progresses, so do Daniel’s points of view.
Also, it is a 96-page book and I wanted to give focus to developing my core characters (and a few side characters) in full, rather than spreading everyone’s characters too thin.
Daniel certainly seems shell-shocked when he enters art school. He ends up looking as clichéd as the fellow students he describes in his own graphic novel. I found the ending rather downbeat, since there’s no real discernible difference between him finally publishing his graphic novel and the anti-establishment vegan working for a successful big advertising company. What is your interpretation of the ending?
I wanted the whole book to feel honest, like real life. I think the ending emphasises that – There are positive things that happen, but there’s no freeze-frame fist pump whilst the characters are jumping in the air.
I think Daniel does have a positive realisation after the story climax, towards the end; he becomes much more open-minded about getting to know people, rather than being the guy who sits in the corner of the room judging everyone. I think the fact there’s redemption for his character, as well as others, allows him to publish the book so that he may open a new chapter of his life.
Art Schooled reads like a John Hughes movie with some heavy satire inserted and a sprinkling of Daniel Clowes. Being a movie buff, what are some of your favorite movies in the teen drama genre – or any other movies that were an influence on Art Schooled?
I think Stand By Me had a huge influence on this book; I find friendship a really fun and engaging focus to a story. Twilight – just kidding! Superbad was also a big influence – again a story focusing on friendship, with loads of hilarious moments.
A British film, Submarine had a really funny and interesting look at coming of age, while including dark, edgy satire. There’s loads of stuff that influenced Art Schooled, and I tried to think outside teen drama so that I’m not just rehashing similar themes and ideas.
Art Schooled by Jamie Coe is published by Nobrow. It is a full-colour hardcover, counting 96 pages, and retails for $22.95.
For more on Jamie Coe, please visit the artist’s website.