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  • Helen Lederer

We find it all… so amusing

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

Helen Led here – STOP PRESS! – One of  the funniest, skilled impressionist performers of the 80’s, morphs into this clever, funny, graphic artist – from biro notes to charcoal strokes. (Remember those sneaky biro prompt notes on the hand while doing a gig Jessica?) CWIP salutes your amazing journey – We love your sharing’s … (Not shavings - although I’m sure you like a sharp pencil…)

Jessica Martin, on the CWIP Graphic Novel Longlist with Life Drawing

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

I usually start with an idea (hopefully funny but not necessarily) which will then reveal itself as a visual image. In the case of this book, Life Drawing, I was drawing on memories of my life experiences. I then had to decide how I was going to convey that visually. Sometimes that could be a literal reconstruction of events or something more poetic. The double page which has an image of my Dad walking on a path shaped like a piano keyboard was a visual metaphor for him as a jazz musician and errant husband.

What publications are your dream places for publishing your work?

This question probably applies to longlistees who have yet to be published (mine is published with Unbound) but let’s dream big. One day I’d like to create a book that sparks a bidding war between Bloomsbury and Random House!!

Extract from Life Drawing © Jessica Martin

How long does it take to draw one picture and how many do you need for a novel?

How long is a piece of string?! One picture on a comics page may be one of five or seven panels making up the page. How long the picture takes depends on the amount of detail. If I’m drawing a well known celebrity (like Julie Andrews eating an M&S sandwich in my book) you have to research and draw as accurate a likeness which requires extra time. When I’m in the flow of drawing a graphic novel, I would expect to be pencilling and inking a page a day.

Favourite cartoonist please?

Posy Simmonds.

What’s the different between cartoons and a graphic novel?

I think of cartoons as being a strip of at least three panels you would see in a newspaper or comic, whereas graphic novels are a long form visual narrative just as a novel is a long form literary work.

When did you first hear about the CWIP Prize and was your entry specifically written for it or were you working on it already?

I first heard about the CWIP Prize on Twitter and I already had my book published. I then had to decide whether it was ‘humorous’! I don’t do jokes but there is a lot of comedy drama in my memoir for sure.

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

I am a recovering actress of some repute with a long career which saw me start off as an impressionist and then become a leading musical theatre actress. I am married with two children, now aged 18 and 21 and my transition into writing and drawing graphic novels came at a time when I was juggling motherhood with acting and feeling that I was sinking fast. This new form of self-expression came at a time in my life when I was feeling ‘blocked’ and frustrated in something that had always come so easily to me. I took up sketching again in 2010 after a long hiatus (I’d taken A level art at school). When I performed in a tour of Spamalot, the leading man, Phill Jupitus, who is a massive fan of comics saw my drawings and said to me, “Why don’t you write and draw a graphic novel? Like writing a play but with drawings.” That was a massive lightbulb moment. By 2013 I’d written, illustrated and self-published my first comic, It Girl, 2014 saw my first graphic novel Elsie Harris Picture Palace shortlisted for the Myriad editions First Graphic Novel Prize which was published by Miwk Publishing in 2015. So I’ve been creating graphic novels for five years now.

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

Life Drawing. A Life Under Lights is not just the rollercoaster story of a performer’s life but a universal tale of family, identity and the importance of following your creative muse.

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

I had always kept a journal of sorts for many years. Maybe I thought that one day I’d have material for a ‘showbiz’ memoir but not being a high profile celebrity, I didn’t think anyone would be interested. However, after reading memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love, Wild and discovering graphic memoirs like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home I realised that a compelling story isn’t a whitewashed fairytale of uninterrupted triumph. An honest account of life’s struggle is unique to whoever is telling it.

I was at a lovely stage in my life when I was receiving recognition for my comics and I was doing really interesting acting work at last. Perhaps this was a good place to start looking back into the darker corners of my evolution without going awol. As it turned out, my mother, who was the biggest influence in my life, was diagnosed with cancer when I starting writing the book so recording the memories became all the more important.

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

I start with a mind map with central ideas branching out into lots of sub ideas and themes. Setting it  all on the page lets me see all the ingredients in the pot. From this, I’ll write a treatment for the whole idea. In the case of my memoir, I was sending the various stages over to my editor, Lizzie Kaye for her feedback. Then I’ll start doing my favourite thing in the first stages which is laying out index cards with a sentence on each which might expand to a one page or two page idea. I use an app called Scrivener on my laptop which has a corkboard feature. And then when the whole book is laid out, I’ll write up a script which looks almost like a film script. The ‘action’ is a description of what will happen in the panels and the ‘dialogue’ is what will become speech bubbles. Again, I have an app for the purposes of that process which is the scriptwriting tool, Final Draft.

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

I absolutely love the flexibility of using words and images together. It feels like you’re creating a movie on paper but with the bonus of being able to stop, take in the words and the picture and feel the emotion of a story in a visual as well as literary sense. You can influence the timing and pace of the story by the size and amount of panels on each page. There are no boundaries to expressing the imagination of a graphic novel artist.

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

I have a theory that women, contrary to some people’s belief, are inherently humorous. (I remember my father telling me that I was not a ‘funny person’!) We use the humour of self-deprecation to stop other people from taking us down and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Even a psychological thriller written by a woman will have a lot of humour in it. I did not set out to write a funny book but my memoir has a lot of observational humour in it and irony. To quote the famous song, “And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing.”

Board at work © Jessica Martin

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

My writing routine is something I try to adhere to once I have committed to creating a graphic novel, especially if I have a deadline. A desktop calendar is an essential and I will spend a great deal of time writing in what I want to achieve for each day… in pencil. The reality is that life will get in the way or I will get in my own way finding all sorts of unnecessary tasks to distract myself or hitting a wall in my research. But the thing about having a desktop calendar means that I will guilt myself into doing some of the tasks I’ve appointed for the day. It’s always good to schedule in wiggle room and not over promise what you can do in a certain amount of time.

The routine of drawing only happens after I’ve got the complete script written. Again, I’ll have my trusty desktop calendar filled out with pencilling work for one week and then inking the following week. The inking will be quicker than the pencilling. All this is done by hand and then the pages are scanned in and touched up digitally. If nothing else, I’m grateful that the process of creating comics forced me to make friends with technology. And then the lettering happens after all the art work is done, on the computer. I have a special font that was designed based on my own handwriting which I used in my memoir.

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

Honestly, I don’t have time to scroll through social media let alone read a book once I get my head down to working on my own graphic novel. But I did find dipping into Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Will Eisner’s A Life in Pictures inspirational when I was looking for ways in to tell my story.

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?

I might swear and cry. We were on a family holiday when I was working on the art work for Life Drawing and I was finding the workload overwhelming. I remember crying, saying to my husband that I just wanted to give up and he calmed me down. He then talked through my projected schedule and helped me re-jig it into something more manageable. As for food comfort, I always make sure I have a supply of Snickers at the ready in my art room drawers.

Have you ever read anyone else’s bad review and felt slightly chuffed? (Lying is permissible in this answer.)

Ahem.. Moi? Really, the karmic calories involved are not worth the brief intense rush of schadenfreude. Let’s just say I may have once looked for a bad review for someone else and the laugh was on me, as I couldn’t find one! In theatre, it’s all about the reviews after opening night and even if you get a spread of great reviews there will always be someone who doesn’t like it and that’s just fine. Why would you want to please everyone? How boring.

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

The wonderful thing about being longlisted is that someone out there, aside from your friends and family thinks your work has merit.

The great thing about entering any kind of competition it gives you a chance to bring your work to  wider audience. When you work on a book, there is often a nagging feeling of self-doubt. “Who’s going to read this? Why am I bothering. This is a vanity project…”

And, of course, I’ve just had this great opportunity to share some of my work processes in this interview which has come about because of being longlisted.

The choices of works on the longlist are so eclectic. So my advice to anyone thinking of entering is absolutely go for it

Me again - Thank you Jessica – from meticulous comedy on stage, to the page! x 

Jessica Martin is an actress and graphic novelist. In 2013 she wrote, illustrated and published It Girl, about Clara Bow. Her first graphic novel was shortlisted for the Myriad Editions First Graphic Novel Prize 2014, published by Miwk Publishing in 2015.

She’s continued to work independently and collaborating with writers and artists for mainstream comic publishers Titan and DC Comics.

Life Drawing. A Life Under Lights was published by Unbound in 2019. She’s currently working on another graphic novel. 

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