Needle craft is, unfortunately, not a finger-busying pastime that I have yet taken up. After talking with Elsa Olssen, aka Fevernest, and ardently gazing at her eerie, elegant creations however, it has become an urgent priority!
(And if you’re thinking that one of her framed works features in the piece looks familiar, well, you’d be correct! I purchased it for myself back in early autumn, and it graces my shelf along with some other treasures from beloved artists!)
It is likely that in the year 2015, you know someone involved in the death industry. You may have a friend going to school for funeral services or have an embalmer or mortician in your circle of acquaintances. If you don’t know anyone involved in the eternally bustling business of death, it is possible that you know someone – a relative, an ex, a wretched high school Algebra teacher – who has passed away. And if not that, you are all too keenly aware of your own mortality and have spent no small amount of time fretting about the idea that yep, you’re gonna die one day.
Perhaps it is this last, irrefutable fact that is so integral to the revival that the hitherto taboo topic of death is experiencing of late. As evidenced by the popularity of New York Times best-selling memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by mortician Caitlin Doughty, people are ready to start challenging their fears and misconceptions, move past their death anxieties to death acceptance, and connect with others who are doing the same.
Or they are at least ready to start reading about it!
Nonetheless, this “Death Positive” movement is being embraced by those who would hope to explore their relationship with death socially, culturally, and – most importantly – on a personal level.
I had the opportunity to speak with five women passionately involved in this vital conversation; women who seek to educate our repressed society regarding the various facets of death and how to cultivate a relationship with death that is liberating, humanizing, and ultimately, life-enhancing. From mourning and memory to pathology and the intricacies of the human body, from the meaning of a “good death” to The Order of the Good Death and The Death Salon – we invite you to read further, learn much, and meet the new faces of Death.
Sarah Chavez is a museum curator and historian who writes and recreates historical and cultural recipes for her blog, Nourishing Death, which examines the relationship between food and death in rituals, culture, religion, and society. She is also co-founder of Death & the Maiden,which explores the relationship between women and death by sharing ideas and creating a platform for discussion and feminist narratives. She is the executive director of The Order of the Good Death and serves as the Social Media Editor for Death Salon. Sarah is also an author and advocate for improved care and support of families experiencing infant and child death and was a contributing author to the companion book for the Emmy nominated film, Return to Zero.
S. Elizabeth at Unquiet Things: How did you become interested in death, and how did that lead to your current role in the death industry and as a death-positive activist?
Sarah Chavez: As a Mexican-American I was fortunate enough to be exposed to very death-positive attitudes. My Grandmother, who is very vivacious, speaks about death frequently and planned her funeral early. For years she has told me what songs she wants played or what color limo she should rent for the family to ride in, exclaiming, “It will be such fun! Darn it, I’m going to miss it!”
I spent my childhood on sound stages watching countless deaths being meticulously created over and over again. When an actual death occurred on a set my father was working on, it completely altered everything. Observing the subsequent aftermath of this incident revealed a lot to me about the strange lack of relationship we have with death and dying. It was only reinforced more throughout childhood, and as an adult, when my questions and interest in death and dying were consistently met with negative, uncomfortable responses.
When I began working professionally with history, death was something I could explore in a more socially acceptable way. Although much of my work is solitary research, a large part of it was also sharing that research with the public in an accessible, entertaining manner through public engagement events and through social media. It was through social media that I – and so many others working with death – were able to connect, which led to what I’m doing today.
What drew you to your particular profession?
When I see people or objects, or even a street corner, they have fascinating, hidden stories to tell – and I want to know what they are! My love of history was actually sparked by culinary history. There was a cookbook in our house that recipes with the origin stories of each dish, which I find fascinating.
With my food and death research I am working to tie the historical and cultural research (the past), to practical ways we can use food to honor death, dying, mourning, and memory (present and future). In writing about history, being a museum curator, and working with the Order of the Good Death and Death Salon, it allows me to do everything I love and work with the most amazing individuals.
What do you want people to take away from the work that you do?
Helping and comforting someone is what I hope to accomplish the most and there’s a big part of me that likes to provoke and challenge people intellectually and emotionally. I put a lot of thought and care into what I choose to share on social media. I posted a piece that elicited a response from a man whose parent had died. He and his family were carrying around guilt and confusion about the death, but after reading that piece he understood his experience was normal and not his fault. He could finally come to an understanding and be at peace with what happened. I see responses like that quite a bit. If I can help people, support them or even teach them something, that is most important.
As for Death & the Maiden, which I created with the wonderful Lucy Talbot, it explores the large role women are currently playing in death care. A large part of our intention was to provide an inclusive space to highlight the work and experiences of those individuals, (female, genderqueer, non-binary) but also as a place to inspire.
What are some of the most common misconceptions you’ve run into about your job, and to a larger extent, the death industry in general? What do you do to disabuse people of those notions – or not?
In my museum work, and I think this is in small part a symptom of location, it’s that a woman is not capable.
As for the death stuff, people are often confused at first. Death is something everyone experiences yet, they know nothing about it. I can’t tell you how many jaws I’ve seen drop when I say something like, “Embalming is not a legal requirement.”
The issue that seems to cause the most strife is the way we handle grief in our culture and the lack of ritual. People are rushed through the process and told to move on. Consequently, grieving people are forced to hide how they feel and are isolated in their experience of loss, just when they need love and support the most.
Many people find working with the dead or talking about death creepy, macabre, morbid – how do you enroll those people into the conversation?
Really, everyone loves a good story so I use that to my advantage; by contextualizing death in telling the story behind an artifact, a favorite food, a piece of clothing, or a person, I can tie death into pretty much anything. Through the story I can evoke empathy or emotion and once you’ve tapped into that, people are pretty open.
What I find often is that people desperately want to talk about death. I am often taken aside and pulled into quiet corners where I become a sort of vessel for people to pour their fears and curiosity into.
Can you tell us about the death community in your area, is it welcoming and/or responsive to what you are doing?
There is no death community where I am currently living, so I’ve tried to create opportunities for conversations or experiences myself. I slip in death-themed stuff at the museum whenever I can. Last year I created a school program where I talked about the pioneer experience of children their age including deaths along the way, how would they deal with the corpses, things like that. I also created a hands-on Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit for kids with bones, taxidermy specimens, biological specimens, some Victorian mourning jewelry. This creates an opportunity for kids to experience and talk about death.
What is your role within the Order of the Good Death, and can you tell us a little bit about what you talked about at October’s Death Salon?
My day-to-day role is a supportive one: answering emails, handling social media, promoting the work of fellow Order members – a lot of little things like that, but I also get to be creative. I help generate content for the Order blog or do research for videos, which is a lot of fun for me.
For Death Salon: Mütter Museum, I wanted to explore what happens when one of the most death positive cultures in the world deals with one of the most tragic events imaginable – the death of a child. I encountered this practice for the first time while I was in Mexico doing research, not long after the loss of my own child.
It is believed that when a child dies before the age of 7, they transform into a supernatural being – a sort of hybrid between a saint and an angel called an angelito. The child then acts as a mediator between the living family and God. Family, friends, and neighbors all gather to celebrate the child and surround the family with love and support for the next 24 to 48 hours with food, drinks, and fireworks that accompany the child’s ascent to heaven.
Although I don’t hold the same beliefs, after researching and learning about the angelito rituals, I felt comforted and understood by my ancestors. In Mexico, I was surrounded by representations of death – in music, art, food, conversation – my loss was acknowledged, and I did not feel the need to hide my grief or feel guilt for upsetting others as I do here in the US. That is something I want to change – this culture of silence, which is why I am finally sharing my story. In my small way, I too, am breaking that silence.
What can we do to open up the conversation on death? To not just increase awareness of it, but to make more sense of death and dying and allay our death anxiety?
This is work that each individual must take up of their own accord. Read, meditate, talk, engage with life. Death is so much a part of life and by engaging with death you will discover ways to live more fully.
The next thing is raising death positive children. Mind you, you cannot do this if you haven’t done the work yourself. Read fairy tales, play outside – these things offer engagement with death on levels children can relate to and readily engage in.
How have your views on the afterlife affected your involvement in the death industry, or vice versa?
I’m absolutely fascinated with beliefs and “experiences” of the afterlife. I studied parapsychology through the Rhine Research Center for a couple years, but I don’t believe in an afterlife where our consciousness continues to exist.
However, our corpses have an opportunity for an afterlife. We can advance science, learning, and understanding by donating our bodies to science or continue another’s life through donation of our organs. We can be naturally buried and facilitate new plant growth, be a diamond, part of an ocean reef, or even be a firework! I really encourage people to contemplate, research, and plan for the afterlife of their corpse!
And lastly, what is your ideal death scenario – your dream death, as it were?
Painless – and I mean that physically and emotionally. It is important to me that everything is planned and accounted for so there are no questions or burdens on loved ones. Shirley Jackson, my favourite author has written very few books, and I’ve read all but two. I put them aside to read at the end of life, so I have something wonderful to look forward to.
(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)
In late summer of 2016 I was invited on board as a staff writer for Haute Macabre, a website and dark lifestyle/culture resource whose aesthetic I had long admired and whose blog posts I had been fervently following for many years. As you can imagine, this was right up the alley of one who describes her style as “goth-adjacent” and “must love cats and darkness”–and so of course I jumped at the chance to provide content for them relating to art, and perfume, music, literature, witchy wonders, and marvelous magics.
Below are some of my favorite interviews in 2017 with Artists, Creatives, and Visionaries who I was thrilled and honored to have spoken with and whose works and words I was entrusted to share with you. Thank you, a million times, to all of the creators who have given time to me this past year for these illuminating interviews, and I sincerely hope that 2018 will bring even more of these singular opportunities!
The Somber Poetry Of Dreams. The Collage Art Of Hidden Velvet deals in bittersweet contrasts of lightness and glooms, blooming, fluttering life and the stillness of death, and furtive dread juxtaposed against a serene sense of tranquility.
Unfolding A Daydream: The Art Of Amy Earles The progression following an artist’s depiction of young girls facing the lurking menaces of childhood and transforming into empowered young women with agency, autonomy, and an awareness that they are in control of their own fates.
A Woman With Power: Pam Grossman A spirited discussion with this independent curator, writer, and lifelong student of magical practices for her thoughts on witchcraft and the occult as it relates to art, activism, and anger, and what it means to be a woman with power.
Illuminating The Many Moons Workbook with Sarah Faith Gottesdiener. In which I speak with the creator of The Many Moons Workbook, a notebook and manual which imagines a world where witches, women, femmes, & weirdos make their dreams come true, and help others and the greater collective in service of their higher self and of spirit.
Delicate and Unflinching: The Art of Nicomi Nix Turner. An artist who explores Human and flora, fungi and bone, beetle and animal are examined in delicate, unflinching detail, and are at turns both lush and fiercely throbbing with life, and ripe and rank with death and decay.
Artist, Chemist, Goofball: Catching Up With Tyler Thrasher. Tyler Thrasher is a hoot, and, while I don’t like to pick favorites, our Q&A exchange was high on my list of favorites this year! It was a pleasure to discuss with him topics ranging from creation in dark times, and the importance of curiosity, experimentation, and living your own goddamn story.
When perusing Alice Rogers’ portfolio, or perhaps scrolling through her Instagram account, you get the sense that she wants to frighten you, just a bit. But this isn’t some sort of jump scare, shock-value fright – no, there is a sense of intent here.
Rogers, through her explorations of dark themes on canvas and photography and in sculpture, invites – nay, demands – the viewer to do the same as well. It’s not the stark horrors of fearsome wolves, menacing swords, or lean, beckoning claws of hungry spirits that are the threat here.
As you peer more closely closer at Rogers’ work – despite yourself – you also begin looking inward. Your own shadows, secrets, devils, and darkness are brought to light. Rogers’ works reflects both the damage we do to ourselves and the scars of those old hurts inflicted by others, and at its heart, it is about the vulnerable magic in making something beautiful from these wounds – and the balance achieved in doing so.
I recently caught up with Alice Rogers about her works, these painful yet ultimately cathartic worlds she creates, and the magic and manifestation, power and purification that is part of the process.
S. Elizabeth: Tell us a little about your artistic background – What were your first inclinations that you had a strong creative instinct? Can you pinpoint the moment you decided you wanted to become an artist?
Alice Rogers: I loved drawing from the time I was a small child. My family and teachers encouraged me to keep at it, so I painted murals and designed the school t-shirts and all that sort of stuff. I actually went through a period where I rebelled and said, “Maybe I don’t want to be an artist!” and decided I was going to study forensic science instead, but I ended up double-majoring in fine art and English in college, anyway. I was never able to choose between those two things – art and writing – and I still try to organize my life so that I don’t have to.
You are a writer, photographer, illustrator, and sculptor – within so much of your work you show us liminal worlds and stories within these worlds, and it’s all just brimming with what seems to be intensely personal symbolism. In what medium are you happiest working, when creating these worlds?
I think of all various mediums and forms of expression as tools. Some tools are more appropriate for certain projects or ideas than others. I find that drawing is the most immediate way for me to express something, so even though I’m also a writer, I tend to draw instead of journaling. Occasionally a phrase or sort of poem will come to me before I start a drawing and I work around that. I can’t always communicate everything I want to get across in a drawing, and that’s where the three-dimensional stuff comes in.
I wouldn’t call myself a photographer. I’m certainly not skilled, technically, in that area, but I’m having fun exploring the idea of creating little worlds in three-dimensional space and capturing them in still images or short films. Sometimes I’m just drawn to one medium more than another; for three years I didn’t create anything visual at all and only wrote, and then it sort of flipped. Having all of those tools available keeps me creatively stimulated so I if I get burned out doing one thing, I move on to the next for a while.
From photos of your studio, it is difficult to tell where the altars end and the workspace begins. This idea/philosophy of “art as magic” – can you speak to that? And along those lines, in your Instagram, I came across the term “Seiðr,” which I found to be an old Norse form of sorcery sometimes associated with the goddess Freyja. Do you consider what you do, the art that you create, a form of Seiðr?
Last December, I was thinking a lot about manifestation. I sort of ride the line between intellectual curiosity and belief when it comes to magic and the occult, and I interpret most of it as a system for refining and manifesting intent. You have to determine what you want and why, then make all sorts of small changes in your life that add up to make it real. Magic isn’t just about manipulating energy; it’s finding power in knowing yourself in a really intimate way. At the time, I was preoccupied with negative patterns that were repeating themselves in my relationships and I drew out what I wanted to manifest, which was a deep connection with a person possessing certain qualities. That drawing turned into several more, and sort of ushered in a new phase of creative expression for me.
Symbols are just such potent visual shorthand, and joining them together can give them even more power. They can say so much with just a few strokes of a pen or brush. The symbols I prefer to use mostly originate from Western occult traditions and Germanic paganism, and in this way I draw upon my own ancestral heritage and the knowledge and power of so many people who have come before me. So even though I’m incorporating these symbols and ideas into my art in a way that’s intensely personal for me, others can look at what I create with it and find something that resonates for them in a totally different way, or so I’ve been told.
In the end, it’s not about what other people find nice to look at. It’s not even about the final product. It’s the meditative, half-conscious, magical act of translating emotions and abstract concepts into visual form, which is therapeutic for me. It’s a deep analysis of self, relationships with others, and how I interact with the world that’s really for no one’s benefit but my own, but everyone is on their own particular version of the same journey.
You write of your fascination with the line between the scientific and the supernatural, and that you “reside in the balance between reason and belief.” I find myself marveling at the stark contrasts in your work, the extreme juxtaposition of dark and light, of shadow and exposure… and yet it all speaks to a sort of balance, if I am not mistaken. Tell us about the value and meaning of balance in your work.
When I really started paying attention to the themes that were popping up in my life over and over again, the idea of balance really stood out. I’m not sure why exactly, just that it seems like the universe is constantly reminding me that it’s part of my life’s work, along with a search for truths that a lot of people might find scary or uncomfortable (which is what draws me to the occult). There’s no light without darkness, and without pain, we could never fully appreciate beauty. That might sound clichéd, but it’s true. I don’t necessarily see things in black and white – there’s an awful lot of gray in the world – but for me, the starkness of monochrome is sort of a way of creating order out of chaos, even in my wardrobe or my personal space. It fosters a sense of harmony and continuity.
The motifs in your art and photography vary wildly from sacred geometry to Twin Peaks to yokai – what would you say is the underlying theme in these inspirations? What can you tell us about your current obsessions and fascinations, and how they may be finding their way into something you are working on right now?
Almost all of my creative inspiration comes to me in half-sleep. I have a sleep disorder that keeps me in the hypnagogic and hypnapompic sleep stages much longer than most people (the “falling asleep” and “waking up” phases where you’re sort of dreaming, but still partially conscious). With that comes sleepwalking and hallucinations, but mostly a trance-like state that enables you to access the deep reaches of your subconscious, or other spiritual planes. So almost every night, I wake up with an idea or three. I write them down if I’m conscious enough. Sometimes I remember them in the morning, and sometimes they slip away.
Like last week, when I woke up with the words “ars moriendi” in my head – I couldn’t recall ever actually hearing that phrase, and I looked it up, and it roughly translates to “the art of dying.” Since I tend to work intuitively, sometimes my symbolism is very purposeful and sometimes it feels like a mystery even to me.
But I do have a preoccupation with atmosphere and mood, especially when it feels really primal, which is why I’m drawn to David Lynch, and “Butoh” Japanese performance art, and music by artists like Pharmakon. I think it’s very powerful when art is disturbing, but not in a cheap way, not in a way that relies on gore or shock value. It’s like strumming an instrument and finding a note that vibrates through your entire being. For me it all goes back to the junction of psychology and mysticism. Is it all brain chemistry; are we nothing more than sentient sacks of meat? Is it a means of accessing universal energies that we can’t fully process in the physical world? That’s the essential mystery and that’s what fascinates me.
Earlier this year you had a piece in Sticks & Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls – can you tell us a bit about the venue and the pieces that you chose (or created) for it? Is your work showing anywhere right now?
I actually haven’t shown my work very much at all. For a long time, I worked in oils, and then everything I created over a period of fifteen years or so was destroyed by mold after a flooding incident. Ultimately, I see that as a positive development because it forced me to detach myself from each piece as a finished product, so the emphasis is on the act of creating.
The Sticks & Stones’ show, which was a benefit for a local nonprofit called Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, was the first time I put up any of my black and white drawings. I’d love to show that work again somewhere, or the drawings I’ve produced since then, but I’m also shifting focus a little bit to larger sculpture, photography, and film.
I’m also planning a collaborative show with my friend, Angela Thornton, who’s a knitwear designer and art director. We’re still in the early stages, but ultimately it will be an experiment in combining visual art and design with performance, so we’re excited about that.
Another powerful project you are involved in is Ask Me About My Abortion, “a safe space for people to share their stories, and read about the experiences of others, with zero judgment, pressure, or bullshit.” Can I ask how the creation of this safe space came to be and why it is important to you?
Ask Me About My Abortion came about because my best friend, Laura Slack, wanted to help anyone searching for information about abortion online find actual first-hand experiences, instead of religious propaganda. So many people we know have had abortions – straight, queer, religious people, atheists, people with female reproductive systems who don’t identify as female. It’s far more common than a lot of people realize, and the culture war in our society over this issue relies on a sense of shame and guilt to silence the voices of anyone who believes we should have agency over our own bodies and when or whether we become parents. It’s a passion project for her, and as a feminist it’s an important issue to me, too.
The controversy over attempts to defund Planned Parenthood has ignited similar projects recently, like #ShoutYourAbortion, which we think is great. We’re hoping that we can ultimately provide a searchable database full of a broad range of experiences from all sorts of people, whether they feel great about it or had difficulty. We’re not censoring any of the stories; we’re just not accepting any anti-choice perspectives. We want to reflect reality. So please, everyone, send us your stories!
Textile artist and knitwear designer Caitlin Ffrench is an incredible inspiration for me and such a lovely human, as well. I am thrilled that our interview is up over at Haute Macabre this week, and I can’t wait for you to read it (You don’t even have to be a knitter to fall under her spell!)
Bonus material and behind the scenes peeks: In preparation for this piece I did a great deal of research…in the form of knitting up several of Caitlin’s patterns. What! That’s totally research, and I won’t hear differently. Each one of them worked up simply and smoothly, with no issues, but with enough detail to keep me interested and engaged. I can recommend her patterns without hesitation (and as I matter of fact, I am knitting another one right now!) I have included links to each of the ravelry pages if you are interested in creating any of these gorgeous knits yourself.
What a treat it was to interview and get to know this wonderful, brilliant woman! Listening to her recount her marvelous experiences at Lily Dale while recording for this exciting project was truly one of the highlights of my year. I hope you’ll enjoy read her stories as much I did hearing them, and translating them for the page.
Katy graciously indulged my questions about this curious compendium in our illuminating Q&A, (and I like to think that Taisia was there in spirit, too.) Thanks to them both, for conjuring these connections, channeling these women, creating this wonderfully special, utterly splendid book.
100% of profits from this design are donated to Make the Road New York (MRNY), which is a grassroots organization in NYC that fights for Latino and working class communities, including: “workers’ rights, tenant rights, LGBTQ justice, youth power and policing, public schools and education justice and immigration justice.” Learn more at www.maketheroadny.org
“I created this design in response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA. I was so angry – it’s 2017 and Nazis are still alive and well in America. Since Trump’s election, bigots have felt safer voicing their hate. I’m fortunate enough to live in a liberal NYC bubble, which protects me from much of this direct rhetoric. However, I wanted to acknowledge this horrible phenomenon in the best way I know how: drawing about it.”
My previous charity designs have focused on love and healing, but I wanted this one to express my rage. The imagery of the cat attacking the snake paired with the phrase “Neo-Nazis Not Welcome” shows anger while still cultivating a safe space. I hope it inspires and empowers others to speak up against ignorance and hate.
How might one style this powerful statement tee? I have some suggestions for you, below!
As always, click here, or directly on the image for a full listing of the items used in the ensemble. Also included with these selection is Chase and Scout’s Watchful Eye Amulet, featured here, previously.
Are you a creator who gives a damn? Are you aware of artisans or indie businesses speaking up, reaching out, and creating art or goods to express outrage with injustice, promote anti-hatred, or which encourage safe spaces in their communities? Please let me know about them for future Friday Fripperies!
Devoted and cultish readers extol John Allison as “a rare gem in the often hard-to-navigate web comic underbelly.” Though you may not presently be reading John Allison’s current endeavor, Bad Machinery, chances are that you are perhaps already familiar with him through his older works,Scary Go Round (2002-2009) or Bobbins (1998-2002), or as an artist/chum linked to through one or more of his contemporaries.
Marked by clever, peculiar dialogue, absurdist humor, dotty characters (and delightful ladies fashion!), mysterious happenings and hi-jinks, and a dense mythology (though compelling and completely addictive, to which anyone who has begun to peek through his archives can attest) – John Allison’s story-telling genius is unmistakable. And in a medium where visuals are the reason most viewers show up in the first place, the exquisitely charming, highly stylized art is “as big a draw as the comedy”.
Described as “postmodern Brit horror”, Allison’s previous comic, Scary Go Round followed the hapless denizens of Tackleford, a fictional British town beset by all manner of supernatural activity including, but not limited to: zombies, space owls, the devil, and portals to other dimensions. Though Scary Go Round ended in 2009 [EDIT: though it periodically picks back up again!] a few of his beloved characters have moved on to Bad Machinery, which picks up in Tackleford 3 years later. The focus is on an entirely new cast of sleuthing schoolchildren attending Griswald’s Grammar School, whose well-intentioned energies may be causing more problems than the mysteries they solve – but they throw themselves into it all with much vigor and aplomb.
I recently caught up with John Allison about his new endeavor; see below the cut for our Q&A in which John talks about the transition between old stories and new, the state of web comics today, and the meaning behind the monsters.
UNQUIET THINGS: Right now the “Big Push”, as it were, is your current series, Bad Machinery. When you made the change to become a full time comic-ing man in 2003-ish, was Bad Machinery even a twinkle in your eye at that time, or was it something that evolved over the years from the characters that you developed in Scary Go Round? Has it been almost a year now since Scary Go Round ended? How has the jump from Scary Go Round to Bad Machinery gone? What were your expectations regarding your fans reactions? Were they met, or exceeded? (or neither?)
JOHN ALLISON:I certainly had no notion of creating Bad Machinery when I went full-time back in 2003. That was 7 years ago! It seems like a lifetime. At that point, Scary Go Round was just starting to get on its feet, audience-wise. It had only been running for about 12 months. Last summer I was frustrated with how sprawling Scary Go Round had become, and (not for the first time) I tried to work out what would make a good spin-off. I wanted something with a tight concept, so I couldn’t drift too far off my initial idea. And I wanted something that I could sell to a publisher in good conscience – something that wasn’t a mess!
I had some vague thoughts in my mind, a kind of Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys setup in the Tintin format (having read almost none of the former and admiring rather than loving the latter). I was probably very tired at the time!
The reaction wasn’t great, people loved the Scary Go Round characters. My last year of work on the series had been really spotty and I thought that readers would breathe a huge sigh of relief. And they did – as they stopped reading. Over the first month, half of the old SGR audience went south. It was a very frightening time. It wasn’t helped by what may have been the slowest introduction to a comic ever. Some readers were angry about “having to read about children”. They strongly identified with the old cast and were horrified by the new.
In that first month, while I was trying to find the mood and the tone of the piece, some long and pretty scathing reviews appeared on prominent blogs, the general theme being “by the end Scary Go Round had lost its way, and this is more of the same – but WORSE!” They tended to cite Berke Breathed’s Outland, his follow-up to Bloom County, where all the old characters slowly re-appeared. But for me, bringing back all the fan favourites that, to be honest, I never wanted to see again, made me feel ill. It was a miserable time, I went from believing in this new thing, to quickly doubting everything I did. I was fortunate that many of my friends in comics really supported what I was doing.
After a year, the comic has started to find new readers alongside the ones who stuck around, and it’s extremely gratifying when people write and say that they never read Scary Go Round, but they love Bad Machinery.
While Scary Go Round focused a on group of young adults in their early to mid twenties…and then later in the series you added several high school characters, this new batch for Bad Machinery are little folks, rather young – in grammar school, I believe. What prompted you to go in this direction?
I wanted to write all-ages books, kids’ literature that stands up when you read it today. I loved the Just William books, and I can still read them now, the writing is sophisticated and hilarious. It may be that this is not what the market wants, but as an exercise it was what I wanted to do. It also stops you leaning on lazy attention-getting devices – sudden death, sudden sexy times. You have to be a lot more resourceful as you write.
Both your comics are /were quite character driven, but the plots usually revolve around the general strange goings-on in town or the odd beastie du jour. .. previously we’ve seen zombies, vampires, dimensional portals etc., but I imagine writing about children presents the opportunity to introduce all kind of imaginative monsters and new bits of wonderful weirdness into the story. Your thoughts?
The idea of Bad Machinery is that the supernatural mysteries are a distraction from the real dangers, which are personal. All through “The Case Of The Good Boy”, the actual manifest danger is how Jack is being victimised through no fault of his own, and he can’t really ask for help. He’s the good boy! No one has spotted this. I’m probably not doing my job very well, am I? I like drawing monsters and beasts, but they’re not real so they lack a certain weight for me.
With regard to “ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night” – I am keenly interested in hearing about your influences as such things go. From some of the references culled from within the Scary Go Round archive, one might be inclined to think that you’ve had some personal dealings with the Old Deceiver himself, ha! Or perhaps some passing familiarity with esoteric studies of some sort. Or at the very least a subscription to the Fortean Times. Can you tell us from where you draw your inspiration?
I’m an arriviste in this field, a dilletante. I don’t like horror movies and I’m scared of books about ghosts. There was a Dennis Wheatley book in the house when I was a child, with a picture of Satan on the back, I was scared of that too. All my work is a metaphor for actual real life problems. I did a story where a character’s girlfriend is blown up in a caravan and thereafter exists, and is seen sporadically, in the afterlife. That was about long distance relationships. When I tried to do actual mystical stuff, and I say this with no fear of contradiction, it wasn’t all that good. The problem is, when you’re generating a lot of material, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re doing.
You’ve been doing this for quite a while now, practically when there were dinosaurs on the internet (as opposed to in space) – what are some changes – for the better or the worse – that you’ve seen in that time? Can you tell us briefly about your progression from when you got started to where you are now?
People’s attention spans are knackered. The internet has become a Las Vegas casino, a comfortable, noisy area designed to keep you disorientated and keep you spending money. Good luck trying to find attention with longform work. But I think there’s a sense now that we have to push back in the opposite direction, that people don’t want to read articles surrounded by video ads and animation.
I started in webcomics when almost no one was doing them and occupied a privileged position at the forefront of almost every movement – Keenspot, merchandising, bigger web presence at conventions, when there was less competition. Based on that, I have probably underperformed to an extent! But when people who went on to huge success cite me as an influence, I am enormously proud. I just wish they would put a huge link to my work on their website, next to a giant animated arrow.
Now that we have caught up to present day…can we expect to stick with these characters for awhile, to see them grow and mature as they continue to battle monsters and solve mysteries? Can you give us a peek into what might be in store for our young friends? Or…do you already have something else – something entirely new – brewing?
I’m going to take a month off Bad Machinery to do a mini-series about one of the Scary Go Round characters. It’s kind of a pilot for a series, though if it became a full series I doubt I would have time to draw it myself. I’ve spent months working on the character designs and getting the look and feel of the thing. It gives me a chance to draw adults again, something i do miss. I love drawing fashion and of late have started to feel out of it – there’s only so much of that kind of design work that you can do with 12 year old characters. But I have a thirdBad Machinery story worked out, it’s kind of ludicrous and sad at the same time. Even though it’s been an uphill struggle, post Scary Go Round, I love writing the new comic. If people get that from it, then the difficulties are by and large worth it.
The idea is to do a “case” for each of the three terms of seven years of grammar school. If I get that far, we’ll have been places together. I hope that I get the chance.
*For extra art not seen in the main comic, be sure to check John’s blog, as well as his Flickrstream for doodles and magnificent sketch fiestas, such as this Beardsley-esque Gaga.