I have no idea how to describe Jonathan Chandler and neither does he. He’s not a cartoonist and he’s not an illustrator, and it doesn’t even feel like he’s drawing comics because he wants to draw comics — he’s an artist trying to get something out, something that won’t let go of him until he does. The fact that it comes out as comics is kind of irrelevant.
Your local comic shop probably doesn’t have his work in stock. If they do it’d only be for a week or so, until they sell out and the remainder of the run is exploded in a tree by the guy himself.
If you’ve picked up anthologies like Decadence, Weird, Mould Map, L'Episode, and Super-Structure you’ll have seen his stuff. Your TCJ editor Dan Nadel might have a copy of PictureBox’s (R.I.P.) DNA Failure kicking about, but who knows.
Last month two Jonathan Chandler books came out. Two. Another Blue World is a collection of older stuff (2by2 and Primitive Man, 2009 and 2012 respectively), but John’s Worth is entirely new. I somehow got a copy of the latter before Chandler did.
We worked at the same comic shop but years apart. He plays a cameo role in London now, having moved back to the middle of nowhere England. I interviewed him to find out what he’s doing there.
Hayley Campbell: Tom Oldham from Breakdown Press called you "Britain's most isolated cartoonist" in an interview I did with him over at VICE and I think it stuck, sorry.
Jon Chandler: It was Leon Sadler that first came out with that one. I was never sure if it was supposed to be meant physically or figuratively. I think that’s the idea though.
Both works. I think the last interview I read with you was years ago. Maybe 2009? What have you been doing since you left London?
I fucked off to Japan for a good while. Then I came back to Suffolk. There is something similar about both these places. It’s like being stuck in a web, but comfortable and wrapped up, and impossible to get out of if you leave it too long.
Would you want to leave the country? You seem pretty happy at your desk looking over the big field of nothing and crows.
It’s certainly satisfying watching the seasons change out here. And Suffolk is very flat, has enormous skies. My standing desk looks west into the sunsets. It’s a low horizon. Really good when a storm is on.
This is the same place you grew up in, right?
Yeah, I grew up in Witchfinder General country, in a sprawling crossroads village, between a couple of towns and a seaside village which is fake Tudor built on top of a small fishing hamlet. I’ve been playing cricket there. The other week I went up there to go in the nets and there was a cricket match going on –
What’s in the nets?
It’s an area with nets around it for cricket practice. The game that was going on had something to do with the family that rebuilt the village that way after the Great War, and they hire our pitch for a game every year, and in the past they owned the pitch too. Have you ever seen the film Society?
Do you mean the Brian Yuzna one with Billy Warlock or High Society with Bing Crosby? Both are about alien species.
Yuzna. But good point. I blagged some ale out their keg in the pavilion, but a man moved a straw hat full of money away from me. There’s a mill overlooking the cricket pitch that my great grandfather worked in, which was moved from where I grew up, which is called Mill Hill.
They stole your mill but it’s still called Mill Hill?
Yeah, I like it. It annoyed me they tried to change the name of Gas Hill. That mill fit the look they wanted for the holiday village for their cronies is my guess. And they did a golf course and a boating lake with Peter Pan themed islands, and they covered an unsightly water tower to make it look like a really tall house, which it now is.
We used to have a bench my dad made out of some of the wood left over from when the mill was moved. The house I grew up in was built specifically for my dad’s family. The old one was condemned and pulled down and now that place is built on again and there’s a cul-de-sac there called Chandler’s Way.
Sounds like an autobiography title.
It’s a good show-off for visitors. Go one way out of my village and you get to a posh seaside town. Keep on going through and you pass a fort built to keep Napoleon off, and then you’ll get to the spit of land with some desolate buildings left over from the cold war, and that’s also where radar was invented in WW2. There was another fishing village down there but the sea swallowed it off.
That’s the fort. A Martello tower. I just saw that film last year. The Disappearance. It starts off in winter in Montreal in this concrete prefab apartment block called Habitat ’67. Sutherland is a hitman. Halfway through the film he gets a phone call to go and take care of a job in Suffolk, England. That got me sitting up, it buzzed me especially because of it being the year I was born in (1977).
Off he goes and meets John Hurt over here, with a few local places showing up, Rendlesham forest, the famous UFO one. And then he is at the White Lion hotel, and then they make use of the Martello tower for him to have some thoughts in front of while he stares at the sea. That bit looks quite grey, like they called off the day’s filming for bad weather but tried to get a few extra shots anyway. It’s worth getting the re-release of that film with the different versions, a real class in how an editing room can make or break it for you.
Go the other way out the village and you get to a working people’s town built up around an engineering works where they made steam engines and agricultural equipment and whatnot, and then turned to the war effort in the last big one, and that got bombed on by the Nazis. Now a nuclear power station by the sea is the main employer.
The pub at the crossroads in my village was a smuggler’s haunt. The vicar when I was a kid had a map of the tunnels between the vicarage and the farm on another corner and the pub on a third. In the eighties the landlord brought back a skull that fell out a cliff and made it into a lamp.
It’s that kind of place.
What was it like being a kid amongst all that?
There were only a few kids in the village but we had a good time. Things felt freer and wilder back then. Days went on forever, out down the woods or wherever.
You sound like an old man back from the war. Aren’t you pretty free and wild now? I don’t see you doing a 9-5 like the rest of us bums.
Well, now you say that. Yes! I’m not as worried about Black Shuck anymore. After sundown you’d have to leg it the fuck home as quick as possible, because the demon dog Black Shuck would be coming out. He has one red eye and if you look in it your whole family dies.
I’d never heard of Black Shuck until this. It’s a pretty superstitious area you grew up in. Do you believe in ghosts?
Don’t look at a new-moon through glass. Don’t put new shoes on a table. Doff your cap if you see a lone magpie. If a robin comes in your house, or you hear a click beetle, someone’s going to die. And never ever walk widdershins around a fairy circle.
They just found the skeleton of a very giant dog outside an old abbey round here. Shuck? Maybe. He’s more fable than ghost.
I don’t believe that ghosts are anything to do with superstition. Crossing yourself when you see one would be an example of superstition. I don’t have a positive theory about ghosts, but I do believe in people experiencing things that get called that. My old man saw one in the old part of a building in the village called Stone House. He was working there at night. The next night he went back with a camera at the same time in a hope for a second look. Forget that for a game of soldiers, I’d be gone straight home and not going back. Maybe. I’d definitely go back with company if I did.
Something happened to me in Japan that I’d rather not go into, but I know there are things beyond the ken of man, and you have to be open for it. If you’ve got a stubborn mind you won’t see them, your mind won’t let the information in.
And your parents?
My dad is a painter and decorator and my mum was a youth worker. They were very liberal and permissive, but that was in the eighties and there was always stuff on TV about nuclear holocaust and it was always a shadow over it all. I saw Threads. And there was a Tomorrow’s World special about what would happen in the event of a nuclear war. It was a real thrill of the worst kind. So it was a life of waiting to see all your loved ones melt in front of you, which seemed to be a dead certainty at the time, to happen any time without notice.
The countryside was more isolated back then, a real bubble world, and it was almost impossible to reconcile that world about me with the one coming out the telly box.
You’ve got a bleak futuristic thing running through your books, and no doubt the nuclear war threat fed into that. What other films influenced your stuff?
I’d say Michael Mann’s The Keep did some work on me.
I love Michael Mann but I fucking hate The Keep.
It’s an awkward film to watch, something about it makes me really restless, but I spent a lot of time thinking about it and always see it if it comes on TV again, which is more common that once-upon-a-time, because he tried to get that one squelched out of the public.
Look at the colors on the Another Blue World cover. I guess it’s in me.
True, you’ve used a Michael Mann color palette.
And Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a big one. That muddy nihilistic world slammed up against all that masculinity. Oddly, a guy at the Safari festival said that same book cover made him think of Sorcerer, but looking the cover up on his telephone he said he must have been mistaken and backed out of it.
Nah, I can see where he got that. They’re in the jungle, it should be green, but everything’s blue and red. I never figured out why that film’s called Sorcerer by the way.
It’s the name on one of the trucks. I think Friedkin said he reckons that helped kill it at the box office, because it wasn’t what people wanted from The Exorcist director, especially after getting it promised in the title.
Didn't you make some films of your own at some point?
Yeah I went to film school, and graduated in ’99. I just shoved a few of my muckabouts from back then up onto YouTube.
Then what happened?
After that I wrote a script for a feature and my girl at the time was producer and a Finnish lad was going to direct it. But we all fell out and it went tits up. A couple years later a film came out that was pretty much exactly my script, and the writer was known to be having writer’s block, and a guy my girl was getting help from with the producing was friends with him. At the time I was sure we’d been ripped off. There was even a difference that was a change that the guy had suggested to us.
But now, depending on my mood, I also think that it might of been synchronicity, and that we were both bad generic writers at that time, though I was still pretty much a kid and it was only really a first draft that got finished. So that other guy can fuck off.
It did very well at the box office. The Finnish boy later said he felt like he’d been a stupid bastard about it. It’s good I can even talk about it now because it right knocked the wind out of me. I only ever told a few people I trusted over the years and made all of them swear secrecy and no I’m not saying what the film was.
Gonna ask you what film it was next time you’re drunk enough to tell me.
So then I was fed up with working with others and went back to try and do comics while I worked some weird night job in an office block, because I could just get on with it by myself. But that was a big bloody mistake, and now I can’t seem to get out of it again.
Every comic is the last one. I tricked myself into doing John’s Worth by telling myself it’s a drawn idea for a film.
The more I learn about filmmaking the more astounded I am that any actually get made.
It takes a total maniac to get into film. I might not be finished with it. But for me to do anything in any format I need to have something wanting to get made. Which is why I’m often a poor choice for being asked into comics anthologies if they catch me at the wrong time. If there’s something that’s ready to get done and it’s the right format, then I’m into it. I’m getting much better at declining if I’m not. It’s always a great flattery being asked though. That bit’s great.
You said every comic is the last one. Why do you want out? I tried, it doesn’t work.
It might not be the right format for me. It often feels painful getting to the space you need to be to get them done. I visited Gabriel Corbera in Barcelona this year. He seems to have appeared fully formed out of nowhere, very suddenly, this very developed cartoonist, a natural. It was something of a surprise, or a relief, to hear that him say he doesn’t actually much like doing the drawing. But once you do get to the right place, when you make it work the way you want it to, there’s probably not much better of a feeling to be had. I think he would agree with me on that.
And also you carry on to do one over on your past attempts, to craft better. It’s always just around the corner. How are you supposed to walk away from that? It’s like looking for a summit that’s not there, probably, but you go on, just in case it is.
But comics aren’t your endgame? Where do you wanna go from here?
I don’t think in those terms, only about what it is that wants doing next. Right now I’d like to get John’s Worth cracked, then I’ll see what to do with it next.
You mentioned that being out here is like being stuck in a web. Would you want to go back to the city?
There’s an itch. I just spent the last couple of years writing. I was offered a job in London and turned it down, and on the day I was supposed to start work I realized I had to get up and start work on something straight away, thinking I’d do a hack job like you hear people’s first efforts at novels are, just for the kick of it. So I wrote a crime thriller. And now that it’s done how I want it (as long as I don’t look at it anymore) I’m ready for the next thing.
Why did you do this one as a novel instead of a comic?
It would never work as a comic. And it didn’t come to me as that kind of idea. The writing world is very alien to me though, and I really need to think about if and how the hell I can get that into print. Gabriel reads a lot of crime fiction and laughed when he found out that I am not at all well read. He thought that would make my effort a very strange go at the genre. So he’s having a read now, and we’ll see what he says about that. But I’ve seen a ton of films. That’s my reference. Maybe it’s a novelization of a film. Three. I accidentally wrote three books.
Writing is best started immediately on waking up in the morning, before the mind gets in the way of yourself. Drawing is another energy entirely, best started when the sun is going the other way. It’s a darker process, more like it should be done inside a pentagram.
Your stuff is so odd I don't even know who to say it's like. What comics were you into when you started drawing your own?
A childhood best pal and I got lost in a fantasy world for a few years and we used to draw the characters for that, but I didn’t draw comics much growing up. I wanted them to be perfect immediately, which is daft for a kid, but it was too frustrating. I preferred writing stories I think. A little while ago in my old man’s loft I found a Star Wars one I did, which managed to mention the Earth and God.
The comedian Nathaniel Metcalfe — who you and I both used to work with in the comics shop at different times — was once looking over my shoulder when I was logging in to a bank or something and I said, “guess my password.” And he said “Doomlord.” And he was right. It was a photo-strip in the relaunched eighties Eagle that my dad started buying for me and him, when I was four it must have been. Doomlord was a shape-shifting alien with human eyes peeping out and with a sinister grin on him. He had a ring he could vanish people with, after he’d sucked their minds out with his hands, and then he’d steal their identities. It was terrifying to me. I loved it very much. It was written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, a kind of updated The Day The Earth Stood Still, a lot about nuclear weapons of course.
As a teen I would go into the Ipswich comic shop and was trying to get into superhero comics but was really just forcing myself. Then I gravitated to the dark bit at the back of the shop where the alt stuff was kept. After the miles of surface you’d get in the X-Men books I fell down this other world like a really deep well. I bought Panter’s Jimbo and was outraged that some kid could draw that and get it published. The next week I went back and bought another one.
I got into Hup and Eightball and that became the kind of work I aspired to after university when I tried my hand at comics. But they were horrible because my energy was misplaced going that way. I got hundreds of the first one printed and then went to a Bristol comics fair with all of them, a total isolated Bambi, and sold hardly any, though Alan Grant bought one.
My dad’s still got a massive box of his first comic, printed at an enthusiastically and naively high number.
A few years ago Leon Sadler and I took the rest of them out into the woods round here and set them up in the trees and shot them up and then stuffed their bodies in the bole of a tree. You and your dad should do that together. It’s brilliant. Grenade them from a boat or something.
I know so many artists who’ve burn their shit down that it’s a cliche. But their life genuinely changes for the better after it. I don’t know how that works. Was this before or after you saw To Live and Die in LA and watched Defoe burn his work?
You’re onto something, because every artist not just playing at being one must get a thrill to see that bit. Until you’ve started to figure out where you’re going, that old work feels like it was done by a doppelganger, and who doesn’t want to slay their doppelganger? Or at least want to make them go out and do the bits of life they’d rather not?
I think something really clicked on for me when I got the Comics Journal Fort Thunder special. There was a section on Panter in that same Journal, and I found out he was older still than all these others, and they’d all been to art school. And of course that was why he’d had an impact on me earlier, because it was actually an advanced practice going on, and he wasn’t some autistic fourteen year old genius.
This seems like a mad story, but before cyberspace woke up properly it really was a loner’s game. I used to advertise in the back of Comics International or whatever it was called, and people would send a cheque in the post based on the description. One was a school kid, Robert Brown. We are still pen pals and he is now developed into a cartoonist in his own right.
What were you advertising? Can you remember how you described it? This seems alien to me but I was a kid from the internet, so.
I can’t even imagine. It wasn’t until I bagged a job doing mail order at Gosh! Comics down London that I had the fortune of crossing paths with Leon Sadler when he wandered in off the street with his comics to sell. It was a pretty lonely game up until then, I think for both of us. It’s a relationship he’s described as a creeping vine slowly throttling him to death. He had his Famicon clan but it wasn’t until a bit later that his brother Stef got more into the comics side of it. We soon found the Decadence crew though. And soon enough our web spread out over the pond and the other way into the continent and things are a lot different now.
Back when I met Leon, LiveJournal was becoming a strong community for weirdoes, and we found cats like Matt Lock on there. And Flickr kicked off, and at some point I suddenly twigged that it was a lot of the same people from LiveJournal, and Myspace, and it was an eye opener that, internationally, it was a pretty small little corner we were all squashing into. That made it more powerful somehow. Free, and to an extent it remains that way.
When did you start to feel like you were drawing the comics you wanted to be drawing?
When I’d moved to London and changed my drawing practice and started over, it still took a while to get away from it being this horrible exercise, not being able to get something out that was lurking. But until I got there I couldn’t back out yet. It was when I started the strips collected in Another Blue World that I felt I’d cracked something. The first couple of pages are good to look at now. A hot Tokyo night and I was totally spaced out and you can see it. Then I wrote a cute manifesto. I found it still in my archive:
1. No characters should be pre-rendered in design before the comic is drawn.
2. No panel borders.
3. No sound effects.
4. No thought balloons, though floating words may or not be associated with the `on-screen` character talking at another time or in his/her mind.
5. No motion lines, though the effects of movement or action may be depicted physically, ie the splashing of water or the fragmentation of rock etc.
6. No title pages or author creditation in the main body of the work and no narrative information regarding place, time, or any other voice that comes from an invisible narrator.
7. No penciling.
8. No violence for its own sake.
9. No overt autobiograhy.
10. Humanity or human issues should be at the core of the story.
No sound effects? One of the things I liked best in John’s Worth was the sound when he bashes his head on the bannister and it just says “cunt”.
It’s not something I intended to live by for all time. Of course you should just be crafting the next one however the hell it wants doing.
How much does being left alone in the middle of nowhere contribute to the weirdness of your work?
The more I think about that, the more astute it becomes. Even though we got the net now and we can share straight away, it does still feel like I am away from the world, any imagined audience when I’m working. The wilderness can be tough on the mind though, it takes a strength and a power, and maybe a little moonshine. It can also mean that you can go further than you could with the constant distractions that the business and social life of a city will force on you.
I envy you and don’t think I could stand it all at the same time.
You said that Another Blue World was dead weirdo at Safari weekend when it got launched, and it caught me off guard a bit, and I suddenly thought, yeah, maybe it really is.
How would you describe it if not “dead weirdo”?
I think being a nowhere boy lets you not even think about that. I see the comics only in degrees of success, or lack of, as an object I was crafting.
Being isolated physically and mentally means you’re not getting the immediate feedback everyone here is getting by accident. I was talking to a novelist I know about a book I’m writing and she said “don’t show it to your editor until you’ve finished, otherwise he’ll get a version in his head and when your version doesn’t go that way there’ll be problems.” If you’re just toiling away and making an object it’s never gonna be any weirder than what you’ve just puked straight out of your brain uncompromised.
That’s right. I didn’t even tell some quite close friends I was writing a book instead of drawing one until it was a few drafts in and even then I didn’t say what about. You say it and you can kill it dead so easily. Too easily. Maybe that’s a good thing sometimes. My friend Joe Howe was just asking on Twitter about how best to record ideas in the middle of the night lest they get away from you. I reckon if the ideas are worth their salt in the first place they’ll come back somehow or another. They don’t let you off.
Plus it’s a good one to spring on people, to say you’ve written a book, rather than that you started one. Did you tell your novelist pal about what you were working on?
Nah, it’s too messy and I may yet abandon it. And this interview is about you. Speaking of which, the naked bird in John's Worth looks like you naked. Do you need to see naked ladies more often? This is a blatant offer.
There is always a desire to get someone to model, but then it wouldn’t match the men well enough. With men I can be rough and it looks like a man. When I get a woman a bit wrong it looks like a man. At the book launch a lass was looking at the woman in Another Blue World and said, “Oh, she’s had a boob job.” I think because I got the tits a bit wrong in one of the panels. Maybe they hadn’t fallen flat enough when she was on her back. That kind of detail gets noticed.
The lines are smoother like you were trying harder, I noticed.
Oh man, maybe I should have left her kit on. Sometimes you need nudity to get to a more physical place with the story though. It’s never gratuitous with me, though perhaps common.
The character John is not supposed to be an accurate depiction of myself, but an idea of what I think I might look like without thinking too hard about it. So I thought maybe it doesn’t, and I couldn’t get him to look the same from one panel to the next anyway.
The first feedback I got when I showed it to someone was that the John character looked like me, without me even asking about it. But I guess having the same name helps that too.
Yeah, it’s you. But all cartoonists in real life look like they drew themselves. That’s the actual best thing about cartoonists. Look at Seth. Gary Northfield looks like a Gary Northfield drawing.
Have you told him that yet?
The other characters, Vince, and the half-nuddy lady you spoke of, are supposed to be variants on the John character in some way, and that’ll make more sense later on.
How many parts is it gonna be?
Hugh Frost at Landfill Editions has already offered to carry it on, so it will. It was supposed to be a drawn feature film, and I worked out that maybe the first part could be fifteen minutes if so. So that would require six or seven parts if it carries on at that pace, so we’ll see how different the characters end up looking by the end. Even my bloody handwriting changes depending on what mood I’m in.
I like to draw anatomy quickly and without thinking about it too much, a remembered anatomy always seems more offbeat and awkward than a properly studied one and more interesting for it. I didn’t really have any art education so I never formally studied anatomy. Perhaps a blessing. My high school art teacher was a souse who did nothing to nurture any talent I had. Then I went straight to college instead of sixth form and started messing about with film.
One of the reasons I like to draw in a rugged way is to battle a perfectionism, that same one that stopped me getting very far as a kid. Because unless you push on you can’t get to where you want to go. But even in more brutal mark making there is a perfectionism. When I hit on that more sculptural style I started having a better time. It’s also about tripping out for a few hours.
How do you work? Is it just paper and a pen or do you fuck around on the computer?
I used to redraw things in the spaces and then plop them over the originals on the computer. But then you realise how very small choices were making the composition on the page. For John’s Worth I just used a cartridge pen and very thin paper and did fixes on the reverse instead, to keep a better hold of that. Two scans and flip one.
If I’m using biro it’s on A3 printer paper. When it’s dip-pen it will be on Bristol Board, but the right paper can be hit and miss, even different batches from the same brands. For dip-pen choice Sammy Harkham put me onto the Tachikawa G-Pen, a manga standard. But the best one is a Brause Iserlohn Pfanenfeder #50.
I’m glad to get that information recorded here in case I lose it.
That is the only reason I’m going to let you keep that in this interview.
As a kid I bought a dip-pen from a jumble sale because it came in this smart ornate box I liked. Years later I saw Comic Book Confidential and in the opening credits I had a squint at what was being used and a lightbulb went on and I dug out the pen.
Before the net, and without any friends doing comics it was a matter of staring at little black and white badly reproduced drawings in books. I’m sure I should have just written to Dan Clowes or whoever, and they’d have been very generous with a response.
Maybe you would have got an essay about a long ago kind of ink that some company erroneously discontinued, because every time I ask a cartoonist what they work with that is the story they tell me. Different ink though, every time.
I was using this one nib as a favourite for special occasions over the years and when I was in Tokyo, Sukiwa Gallery commissioned an exhibition and I did the whole thing in that nib. It was in the deep summer and the humidity played havoc on it and it got rusted. I’d already long years ago found the inscription impossible to read. Always I was on the lookout for a replacement but never found it. On the last drawing for the show it snapped in half. That night a lot of rice wine got drank. Some months later I found another one already in my possession. New, with the make and type on it. I have no recollection of where it came from. It came to me like sorcery.
Not much of the original art for the comics survives after the work gets hid in the digital archive. The rest more often than not gets a Willy Dafoeing.
You've just done a collection for Breakdown Press. What were your thoughts going back over old stuff?
It can be painful knowing what to do with older work. I am sure any cartoonist or writer or artist knows about that; there’s a wish to publicly archive things which only have a small print run to start with, to allow people to see the path you’ve trod, and equally wanting to let it go away. Having John’s Worth out from Landfill Editions on the same weekend gave it an extra dynamic. Those two works offset each other well. When Breakdown said they were interested in looking into my archive for reprint potentials, we managed to whittle it down quite easily to those few strips. They are the most personal of the back catalogue.
And it was very nice to be able to tidy it up here and there in the editing, to do things like take out a floating penis I’d accidentally left in Primitive Man that we hadn’t even noticed until a couple months after we’d printed them. No one saw it though, because it was like a dog’s lipstick, and not obviously a cock. Our minds decide to discard a lot of the information around us if we can’t interpret it, just like with apparitions.
But I left the tits alone. No boob jobs.
Jon’s tumblr: http://jonathanchandler.tumblr.com/
Jon’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/newmancruise
Another Blue World at Breakdown Press: http://www.breakdownpress.com/store/another-blue-world
John’s Worth at Landfill: http://www.landfilleditions.com/jonathan-chandler-johnsworth/