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  • Helen Lederer

Warning! post it notes and wine can cause brilliance and laughter – illustrated by Kate Charlesworth

Helen Led here. I love the fact you had a dream job - richly deserved. May I add that Sensible Footwear is the gift that keeps on giving… remarkably gorgeous and fulsome. Thank you for sharing these enticing facts. Your ‘cheeky take’ on Stephen Hawkins has piqued my admiration already….  

Kate Charlesworth, on the 2020 Humorous Graphic Novel Shortlist with Sensible Footwear

What comes first - the graphic image or the funny idea for story?

Almost always the idea. When I was drawing a weekly strip for the Guardian, Millennium Basin, I was basically writing a two minute sitcom. A day or two for the script, then a day for the artwork.

What publications are your dream places for publishing your work?

As a working cartoonist back in the 1980s, the Guardian had always been the one I aspired to. My dream job (my only dream job, in fact) was Posy’s Saturday page slot. Thrillingly, a year or so after she’d stepped down from her strip, I was commissioned to draw Millennium Basin for the page, which I did for around two and a half years - 1994 to 1996.

Then in 2019 my graphic novel Sensible Footwear was published by Myriad Editions, and they were just fabulous to work with.

How long does it take to draw one picture…

I dunno! Depends on the style - from Stripped Back Cartoony, Annoyingly Difficult To Reproduce A Realistic Likeness, to Loose, Free & Arty. The latter is the quickest.

and how many do you need for a novel?

I’ll have a look. For Sally Heathcote - Suffragette, with Mary and Bryan Talbot, Bryan’s layouts (he designed the book) are based on a 9-panel grid, but he often goes off-piste, as you do, with whole page drawings - and any combo in between. So 164 drawn pages came in at 1020 panels. I thought about counting through Footwear, but at 320 pages I prefer to hang on to the will to live.

Favourite cartoonist please?

Always a three-way split between Giles, Osbert Lancaster and Ronald Searle.

Perhaps Gary Larson as a late entrant.

What’s the different between cartoons and a graphic novel? (in a small sentence if you will)

Cartoons pay more for less effort.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing graphic novels?

I’ve drawn cartoons and strips since the early 1970s. Professionally, mainly for magazines, newspapers and publishing, although It took me a long time to call myself a ‘cartoonist’; early on, work was mostly illustration commissions, often humorous. But when, one day, a client asked me to draw cartoons with speech bubbles I felt the tide had finally turned…

In 1996 I collaborated on The Cartoon History of Time with John Gribbin (a cheeky take on Stephen Hawking’s book) - more a graphic album than novel, perhaps, but a long-form comic; I contributed to Nelson, Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix’s 2011 ‘exquisite corpse’ collaborative GN, and than in 2014 illustrated Sally Heathcote.

Extract from Sensible Footwear © Kate Charlesworth

Can you describe what your graphic novel’s about in two sentences?

It’s an LGBT+ history of Britain interwoven with personal memoir, from drab 1950 to rainbowtastic 2019. Inbetween there’s jokes, facts, songs, drama, heroines, heroes and villains. PLUS added lesbians.

What made you write your graphic novel? Where did the idea or impulse behind it come from?

History is lived on public and private levels, and I think LGBT+ history especially so. Even as far back as the late 70s I felt this history was in danger of being lost; lesbians in particular had always, in the context of the wider world (and the L&G world, as it then was), been more or less invisible. Around the Millennium I felt there was a real need for a visual record - a huge comic crammed with facts and pictures of everything and everyone. So I thought I’d better do it.

Where do you start when writing a graphic novel? Is it with an outline, writing the story, or storyboarding that?

Because I was writing a factual account I started by collecting together all the relevant historical ephemera and documentation I had at home (and I had a lot). I researched in print and online for information, and particularly for images, (an ongoing activity to the very end); and I decided to use the device of a personal narrative to link the many strands and elements I knew I’d be covering.

When the script finally emerged, the ‘personal narrative as linking device’ had become a memoir in it’s own right, really personalising the story and making the book all the better for it.

I made three timelines (post-it notes on the back of the door); my history, LGBT+ history, and UK history, so I could see how the different elements would interweave - then I made the storyboard, and finally design, pencils and finished artwork.

Do you enjoy the flexibility which using a combination of words and images gives you when writing a graphic novel?

Love it. That basic combination transcends the original components to make something much more original and exciting. Unlike a film director you can go anywhere and do anything - exotic locations and improbable costumes; shedloads of eye-wateringly famous people; a cast of thousands. (Although you may come to regret that one).

Did you set out to write a funny book? Where does the humour come from in your graphic novel?

I did, yes. And I wanted to make a book where humour celebrated the fabulous, the camp, and the day-to-day - and to embrace and affirm sadness, anger and outrage -both personal and collective.

I’m from the North.

Alan Bennet didn’t make it all up, y’know.

Can you tell us about your writing routine and where you write/draw?

Workroom © Kate Charlesworth

I can’t honestly remember my writing routine for this - that bit was such a long time ago.

However, I usually write on a keyboard. Partly because I can’t stand to see so many lines of crossings-out on ink and paper; partly because I can’t read my own writing.

I draw mostly by hand, then work up the images in hi-res Photoshop. So I flit (or crawl) between two office stools, as it were.

Can you read (funny) graphic novels when you’re writing your own? Who do you enjoy reading?

When I was writing I was probably re-reading favourite text authors for comfort - Barbara Pym, wonderfully funny and so well observed; or Patrick O’Brian - thrilling sea stories, with a good dash of humour.

When drawing, the work was so full on (plus Life on top of that) I barely had time to read anything. Listened to lots of speech radio. Stupidly long working days - 12 hours at least during the latter part.

I remember Bryan Talbot saying the only time he had to read other people’s comics was on the train.

Posy, of course, is terrific. Bryan’s Grandville series is funny - very layered, full of sight gags and sly references. And if only Ronald Searle had made a graphic novel…

You can’t find the right picture or words to make a sentence chime: do you (a) swear? (b) cry? or (c) eat? - if (c), what item of food?

(a) and (c) (c) wine.

What difference has being shortlisted for the CWIP prize made to you? What would you say to anyone thinking of entering?

It’s thrilled me, not only because it’s a huge compliment (particularly from one’s peers, and them as knows), but that coming at this time of planet-wide madness it’s lifted my spirits tremendously, and renewed a sense of connectedness to the comics community.

Go for it. Without a doubt.

Me again – I love the fact Kate is brilliant at connectivity – may I offer that E.M Forster quote ‘Only Connect.' (I know there’s a bit more to the quote, but I like these two words best.)

Kate Charlesworth is a cartoonist and illustrator from Barnsley. After art college in Manchester she was part of a golden age of gay publishing.

She has drawn storyboards for Aardman Animations and worked for newspapers, magazines, books, indie comics, exhibitions and electronic media.

Kate collaborated with Mary and Bryan Talbot (Costa winners) to illustrate Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, published by Jonathan Cape.

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