Freedom of Information & Legends of the Past

In his cartoons, Chris Slane ventures into the gaps of the modern world with his fabulous Privacy and Freedom of Information Cartoons. With the same ease, he moves back in history with works like the graphic novel, Maui: Legends of the Outcast. 

His new project, Nice Day for a War, could be placed with both graphic novels and illustrated history books. Written by Chris Slane and Matt Elliott, it tells of one Kiwi soldier’s experience of life in the Great War, from training at Trentham to the trenches of Flanders and the battle of Messines.

NZ Post Children’s Book Award for Nice Day of War

Nice Day for a War was recently awarded the 2012 NZ Post Children’s Book Award. One-part war comic and two-parts history, it features never-before-seen ephemera from a soldier, as well as official histories, contemporary writings, cartoons and art created in the trenches by soldiers themselves. Postcards, photographs, letters, news reports, statistics and other original documents enhance this account based on a war diary.

Interview with Chris Slane

Did you find working with this historical material more difficult than other projects? And of all the ephemera you studied to put together Nice Day for a War, what surprised you most as you moved through the materials and discovered the story you created with Matt Elliott?

Research for book illustration is addictive, I find. After getting acquainted with lots of books on a subject, I need to collect as much visual reference as possible. Before the internet I would fill a box with clippings of articles and images, known by American cartoonists as a ‘morgue’. I still have those stored away, in case I ever need them, but it is much easier to compile images on a computer. The websites for ArchivesNZ and the National Library were great resources when working on Nice Day.

Using GoogleEarth enables me to virtually visit battlefield sites, the next best thing to going there in person. I zoom in, get a birds eye view, look at photos taken by people on the spot, then match them with historical images. That way I am more confident drawing background landscapes. When creating storyboards, I script dialogue and sketch scenes simultaneously. As I draw up the final art I need to keep reference photos in view on the computer screen and refer to them frequently.

When we took one of the faded pencil entries from the battered old war diary of Matt’s grandfather and illustrated it we were pleased to find it coming alive, but surprised to find a nice kiwi understatement emerging from the page.

Projects such as Kahe Te Rauoterangi and Hinepoupou feature heroic women, and much of your work explores heroic Maori stories as well. Is it more the human element in these stories or their mythical nature that lends itself to graphic storytelling?

A little of both. Superhero comics do typically revolve around a central hero and the drawing is mostly of one human figure. One central character is more easily identifiable than numbers of drab figures. That’s one reason they have such graphic costumes. I illustrated one myth (Kaitoa), in which the characters were vegetables and animals. In the end, these mainly human figures morphed into ingredients of a large bowl of boiling soup.

Comics can be used as a means to teach as well as entertain, as we see in the case of Art Spiegelman’s Maus books, for example. Your creative impulses seem to come from an urge to enlighten as well as entertain, going all the way back to your UN youth project, Poverty, Power & Politics. Would you say that’s true (with the exception, perhaps, of Knuckles, the malevolent nun and your cartoon books Sheep Thrills and Blokes, Jokes & Sheds)? Are you more teacher or entertainer?

Yes, it’s good to add a drop of entertainment, but the educational element adds depth, I feel. There seems to be so much untapped potential for graphic stories based on our history and prehistory, it would be a pity to ignore them. These stories just seem more distinctive to me. As a freelance editorial illustrator and cartoonist my work focuses on communicating with text and visuals. Nice Day was another chance to combine those skills with my interest in history.

The world of comics has enjoyed a resurgence in recent decades. What do you think this might say about the culture we live in? And is there more appeal now than in, say, previous centuries or decades? What is it about comics that can capture an age so specifically?

Visual storytelling certainly seems to be more mainstream now. TV productions and films usually go through a storyboard stage at some early point in their production, when they appear much like a graphic novel. Comics are accepted now because more people recognise they are another powerful medium for telling any kind of story. Previously, comics were seen as purely low-brow popular culture. I remember the only comics I ever saw at my school were Classic Comics. Now librarians and teachers actively support graphic books, perhaps because some teachers and librarians I know are cartoonists themselves.

And finally, what writers or artist have influenced your work, either directly or indirectly? And where do you draw your inspiration?

Comics creators who inspire me are both writer and artist, such as Will Eisner, Moebius, Daniel Clowes, Mike Mignola and Frank Miller. They give you a fully integrated comic, where visuals and story work seamlessly and you can find a singular vision. Humorous cartoonists also have that appeal, especially some of my favourites in magazines, like Addams, or Gross in the New Yorker.

Thank you, Chris Slane, for the interview!

Chris Slane is a New Zealand editorial freelance cartoonist and illustrator. His comic work includes the books ‘Maui: Legends Of The Outcast’, ‘Nice Day For A War: Adventures of A Kiwi Soldier in WW1′ , Maori history, legends and a contribution to Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars Tales. Work as a commercial storyboard artist further utilises his graphic story-telling skills. As a freelancer Slane has contributed to a wide range of magazines and newspapers. His cartoon books include ‘Sheep Thrills’ and ‘Blokes, Jokes & Sheds’.

Co-creator of the satirical group puppet troupe ‘Hands Up’ Slane wrote, constructed and performed satirical items for Television New Zealand’s ‘Tonight Show’, designed and performed puppet characters for the children’s series ‘Space Knights’. He has won the Qantas and Canon Cartoonist Of The Year and Editorial Graphics Artist Awards numerous times.

For more, visit Chris Slane’s website.

(interview by Michelle Elvy, layout by Dorothee Lang)