Josie Cray talks to Josh Hicks and Ioan Morris about the comic art scene in Wales and what inspired them to co-found the Cardiff Comic Carnival in 2019.
My first encounter with cartoons and comic strips was in the newspapers my grandfather used to read, whilst eating his tomatoes on toast in the morning. Smudged with ink, my fingers would trace the images and words telling the story of cats eating lasagne or basset hounds trundling around the garden. Then, on birthdays or at Christmas, my siblings and I would be gifted the Beano annuals and Dennis the Menace collections. We would spend hours flicking through the colourful pages taking in the fantastical adventures of Bananaman or finding out what the Bash Street Kids were up to. As I grew up, I inherited my brother’s collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics and my love of cartoons grew from there. Bill Watterson’s blonde-haired boy and tiger-teddy best friend took me on space adventures before bed and gave me some great ideas on how to avoid eating the vegetables on my plate at dinner.
When we think of comics and cartoons, we might be consumed by the images of the US giants of Marvel and DC, superheroes and mutants who have come to life on our screens in the last decade and a half. Many people stop here, potentially put off by stereotypes around those who read comics or overwhelmed by storylines which have developed over decades. However, if we look beyond these huge comic publishing houses, beyond the seemingly ever-expanding universes of Superman or Professor X, we begin to find an exciting world of illustration and cartoons by independent artists at all stages of their career. Year after year, the sales of graphic novels have increased with readers enjoying the unique art styles and compelling stories of artists like Liana Finck (Passing for Human, 2018) and Tillie Walden (Spinning, 2017; On a Sunbeam, 2018), or adaptations of novels like The Handmaid’s Tale giving a new dimension to stories we are so familiar with. Readers are becoming interested in the visual possibilities of storytelling. And, with the rise of online comic platforms like WebToon (taking its name from the South Korean style of vertical comics) or Tapas, comics and cartoons are now more accessible than ever and open to any level of artist. From retellings of Greek mythology in ‘Lore Olympus’ or the adventures of Erma, the fictional daughter of the television-exiting demon Samara (‘The Ring’, 2002), comic art’s only limit is the artist’s imagination.
Wales is home to a number of exciting and innovative artists who are producing stimulating and stunning illustrations and cartoons. Carol Swain’s Gast (2014) is a haunting tale of a young girl investigating the death of a bird in rural Wales. Black and white images of small cottages with Welsh hills looming over them set the scene as Helen moves through the farmland on her investigation. We might consider Welsh-based artist Kamila whose work tells empowering stories from a female perspective. Her illustrations are colourful and fantastical, with young women wielding swords in front of yōkai or, in her comic ‘Floating’, trying to make sense of a world in which they feel lost.
In an effort to bring the community of Welsh and Welsh-based artists together, Josh Hicks and Ioan Morris—two comic artists from Wales—co-founded the Cardiff Comic Carnival, an event where artists in wales can meet each other, share their work with the public, and build invaluable support networks. I contacted them recently to discuss their comic art and the Cardiff Comic Carnival.
Hicks’ comic ‘Glorious Alliance: Premium Special’ is, as he describes, a ‘comedy ensemble’. In this simple, but colourful story we get ‘behind-the-scenes goings on at a larger-than-life wrestling promotion’. It is, Hicks explains, ‘basically an excuse to get a bunch of strange characters in a room so they can bicker with each other’. A comedy, the comic is a fun and fantastical reminder of where the form can take us. From characters shaped as gravy boats to Great Carp, the seven-times champion of the ring, and the Female Division made up of Gertrude Steiner, Joyce Carol Ouch, and Miranda Fury, ‘Glorious Alliance’ makes the most of its simple colour palate, delivering visual gags and transporting us into a world of burly wrestlers worried about convincing performances.
Set in the backrooms of wrestling halls filled with cameras and producers running around, you might be hard pressed to find how Wales has influenced Hicks’ work. ‘I think you’d be hard pressed to find any overt Welshness in my comics—but maybe that in itself is a result of a specific kind of valleys upbringing’ Hicks writes. Having grown up in the Valleys, Hicks has found that his art has come from the lack of representation in mainstream media: ‘It’s a weird thing growing up in the valleys, because you don’t really see yourself represented in the English or American media that you watch every day, but then you don’t really see yourself in the Welsh-language stuff that’s being made in the country either, and it’s interesting to think about how that might affect the art that comes out of it.’ ‘Glorious Alliance’ is a comedy and it is here Hicks suggests we might catch a glimpse of Wales in his work. As wrestlers vie for championship there are constant reminders about what happens when you get too big for your boots. As Hicks writes, ‘There’s got to be a Welsh sense of humour in the book […], something about ego and not getting ideas above your station—or having ideas above your station and getting punished for it—and those things seem a bit Welsh to me’.
Morris describes his latest comic,’Biggol’, as a ‘documentary-style account of a fictional TV series from 1960’. The ‘docu-epic’ plays on the stereotypes we see in TV, from the ‘oversexed bachelor’ to the ‘fluttersome eccentric’ as corporate types try to make a family fantasy series on a very low budget. Predominantly in black and white, Morris’ comic makes use of mixed panel arrangements, still allowing a smooth reading of this fictional history of ‘Biggol’. Characters are memorable and, as Morris has previously been told, his work is ‘obsessively detailed’. This doesn’t draw away from the fun the comic has in exploring the ‘fascinating, shocking, contradictory and unbelievable’ scenes of television production.
Born and raised in Brecon, comics have been a large part of Morris’ life. Time spent in Wales has formed part of his comic art, with Morris commenting that ‘Wales has frequently been the setting of [his] comics and I’m sure influences my work in lots of unconscious ways, from how characters speak to the look of the landscape’. Wales has seeped into his work and formed the background to complex stories often hinging on one defining event […] some life changing trauma or controversy’, making for some exciting and enticing storylines.
After attending numerous other UK comic and zine events, Hicks and Morris, along with friend Andrew Rhys Lewis, thought a Wales-based event would help bring Welsh artists together. ‘We thought it was a shame that there wasn’t anything that brought together comics, zines and illustrators in Cardiff in the way that say, BCZF (RIP) used to in Bristol’, Hicks writes. Their ambition for the carnival is, Morris explains, ‘to reflect the work going on in Wales and to make it as easily accessible to the general public as possible’. The working life of an artist, illustrator or zine-maker can be a solitary one, and for Morris, ‘Wales especially […] can feel like the spotlight is only given to those in major cities.’ Cardiff Comic Carnival is a chance to take connections offline and for artists to share their work with each other and with the wider public. First held in 2019, the Carnival enticed crowds from St Mary’s Street into the view the work of local artists: ‘the people who came in off the street on the off-chance and left with a bunch of amazing art and literature’. Although postponed this year due to the pandemic, the Cardiff Comic Carnival will be back looking to build upon its initial success and continue helping Welsh and Welsh-based artists’ work recognised on larger scale.