WHEN GRAPHIC DESIGNER HEAVYWEIGHT BEN MITCHELL ISN'T COVERING LOCAL DUDES NAMED NICK FOR THIS HOT LITTLE MAGAZINE, HE'S WORKING ON HIS TASTY NEW COMIC CALLED STORM CLOUDS, KIAN CAUGHT UP WITH MR. "MAD DOG" MITCHELL THIS MONTH TO GET THE LOWDOWN.
Without giving too much away, What should people know about Storm Clouds?
Storm Clouds is a 60-page risograph comic book about a young detective from Sydney travelling back to her hometown in search of a masked serial killer, wanted for a series of night club murders. The story deals with a lot of different themes, as the main character finds herself losing sleep, losing friends and having a love-hate-love with the city she’s in. It’s all printed in two colours – black and gold - so the graphics are pretty cartoony, and though it has moments of comic relief and satire, the story is actually a pretty serious crime thriller with a bunch of twists and secrets.
Why a comic book?
I’ve been an avid fan of comic books since I was a kid, and as my line of work – as a graphic designer – is always forcing me to experiment with different ways to show things visually, I’ve been really interested in how the comic book format works, and how it can be experimented with. Part of the comic was actually made to support a thesis I wrote last year about comic book design, and how you can use graphic design principles as tools to tell an immersive story. I’ve worked on comic projects before, but this is the first thing I’ve ever done of this scale, and the longest I’ve ever stuck with one project – I remember starting the artwork around the same time we were organizing the Super show, back in July. It’s certainly been a labour of love putting it together, and I’m really excited to share it with everyone when it launches this March!
Having read the first few chapters of your comic book, my first question has to be where did the inspiration for this come from?
I think anyone close enough to me will see a lot of my life reflected in the story, which is, I guess, a result of me trying to write about what I know. When I was first working as a designer, two of my first regular clients were a chain of nightclubs in Sydney and the PCYC of NSW, both of which I ended up working really closely with – so the initial story revolving around a young police officer investigating a series of night club murders came very naturally to me. A big part of the story revolves around the two main characters’ reactions to travelling from Sydney to a much smaller fictional city named Bontown, and the differences between communities based on size. Considering the majority of my friends have moved cities within the past year, I’ve witnessed a lot of this sort of culture shock first hand. One of the main characters is in an obnoxious, misogynistic hardcore band, and that whole sort of scene mentality is explored in the comic – something I dealt with a lot when I was growing up, both as an insider and an outsider looking in. That, and a few of the characters are loosely based on people I’ve met and worked with, and there are a lot of Newcastle-related inside jokes hidden in the story which I think will mostly go over a lot of people’s heads. Like the two main streets in Bontown being named Queen and Collector. I’ll give you a minute.
How long has this idea been floating around?
Quite a while, now! A very, very early version of the comic was bouncing around five months ago, with the same story but extremely rough artwork. After months and months of rewrites and bouncing ideas off friends for feedback, polishing off the artwork is the last piece of the puzzle, and I finally feel as though I can see the finish line! I’m very close now. Today I smashed out two of the final pages in record time, and have one last spread between me and the end. I’ve had a schedule worked out for the past couple months, but due to a bunch of stuff popping up at work for January (and also, most recently, my old band getting back together) I’ve fallen a little behind! As I’m not completing the pages in chronological order, the last scene I need to draw is smack-bang in the middle of the book, where shit starts getting real. I’m very excited for it to be finished so I can read the whole thing all the way through!
Ben, you certainly have a Signature style, who do you take inspiration from?
It’s funny you’ve picked up on this, because I’ve been struggling with the idea of a ‘signature style’ for a while now. Like I said before, this is the longest I’ve ever worked on the one project, and the longest I’ve had to stick with the same illustration style, so the whole thing feels unified. Prior to working on Storm Clouds, I would be experimenting with different styles all the time, so sticking with the one way of drawing eyes, lips and fingers for this long has been driving me bananas!
The style I’ve been trying to go for with this project has been heavily inspired by alternative cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine – who usually tell stories that focus on the mundane subtleties of social norms – like the comic book equivalent of Seinfeld – and have a very static, clean cut illustration style to match. I wanted to tell an action thriller using this style, rather than in the dynamic, cinematic look used in mainstream superhero comics, to create a sort of unsettling juxtaposition when shit starts to get real. There’s something offputting about showing a violent action scene in the same flat, straightforward way that you would a relaxed conversation scene, rather than show it over a series of exaggerated camera angles bursting out of each panel. I feel like that would just get exhausting!
Once Storm Clouds is out there, do you have a new project ready to work on?
I think for the past two or three years, there’s never been a period where I’ve been without something to keep me busy. As soon as I finish the art for Storm Clouds I’m collaborating with a local writer on another comic project, which will be very exciting, along with a bunch of other large-scale illustration projects I’m currently involved with but can’t say much about! Depending on how Storm Clouds is received I would love to do another story with these characters – I mentioned one in an obnoxious hardcore band – in a sequel or prequel story. I think once you’ve read the ending to Storm Clouds you’ll get how both could work. I’ve been kicking around different ways I could approach another installment, and how I could get some of my friends (namely writer Nick Milligan) in on it as well. Working on this comic has been a learning process, so
I’m excited to try another one in a completely different manner – different art styles, shorter stories, not having the entire thing in black and yellow… We’ll see!
As a long time contributor to Mirage, Ben, you sure do work in a lot of creative fields, is there a particular field you prefer or is being creative the main driver for you?
This is a difficult question to answer, especially since I’ve recently began playing with a band again, which is a very different kind of creative outlet. Visuals are always going to make more sense to me, and so I always prefer working with pictures over words, but I’ve always enjoyed the idea of being a storyteller. When I was writing songs for the aforementioned band – like four years ago – I would always try to tell a story with the lyrics. I think using comics as a form of visual storytelling is the most comfortable I’ve been creatively in a long time. I am very excited and very nervous to pursue it further.
If you had to pick one thing about Newcastle to show, or tell, a visitor, what would it be that everyone should know about?
The Sunday markets at The Store across the road from the Cambridge, in City West. There is a dude there who I am pretty sure has just found a shipping container of untouched treasures from 1999 and is slowly selling it all off. Last weekend my buddy Luke went home with a Danny Buderus action figure. I’ve never been prouder to come from this city.
Renowned for some highly creative and successful events in the community, is there something special in the pipeline for the launch of Storm Clouds?
Ah, yes! I’m planning a launch for the comic on March 14th at Churchkey Espresso – a week after my friend Nadia, who I named the main character after, returns from Japan. So far all I’ve set is the date, but it’s going to be quite the night! There will be art on the walls, a performance from the actual same DJ featured in the comic (aka K-Rock wearing a mask), watermelon, a chance to pick up a special edition version of the comic for a very special price and just a good excuse to have a fun evening on Hunter Street. After the launch, the comic will be available at Graphic Action, and online through my friends Fun Apparel’s zine distro service.
Anything else NM readers should know about you Ben?
I’m single, and looking for a girl who can distract me from the fact that all of my friends are moving to different cities.
Oh yeah, and what is Risograph?
A loaded question to finish on! It’s an artisan printing process that sort of looks like a mix between photocopying and letterpress. Essentially, rather than the pages being printed digitally with four inks, they’re printed manually with two inks (black and gold) and you can see how the colours overlap and bleed into each other. A few of my favourite indie artists, like Ryan Cecil Smith, Box Brown and Luke Pelletier have produced riso books in the past, and I love the way the look! My comic is being printed in Melbourne by a small company called Dawn Press – who produced Marcus Dixon’s Better Me Than You/Better You Than Me
zine last year – on super pulpy newsprint stock, like an old comic from the 50’s. I’ve got a proof copy of the first few pages back from the printers, and being able to feel the ink raised on the page, getting sucked into the paper, provokes a feeling you’d never get from reading the comic on an iPad, or on your computer. I’m really, really excited about being able to hold the final copy. Even if no one buys one.
Facebook.com/stormcloudscomic (for news)
Benmitchell.com.au (for ben)