His comics and graphic novels are a result of his observation, wit and skill for well-timed, sometimes single-frame, narratives.
With the release of his latest book, ‘The Snooty Bookshop’, we thought it would be the perfect time to catch up with Tom and find out more about how he has developed his practice.
‘The Snooty Bookshop’ published by Drawn and Quarterly is out now and can be purchased in their online shop.
Can you tell us about yourself and the kind of work you create?
“I call myself a cartoonist and illustrator. I make a weekly cartoon about literature for the Guardian Review and a weekly cartoon about science for New Scientist.”
‘The rest of the time I make illustrations, occasional New Yorker covers, other comics and sometimes graphic novels."
Your comics seem to be a great example of finding a balance between creative output as a writer and an illustrator.
Do you feel like this is something that has come together over the years you have been working or do you think it had already been formed when you graduated from The Royal College of Art?
“When I started at art school in Edinburgh, Scotland, I thought that I wanted to be a full-time illustrator and devote myself to illustrating other people’s text. I don’t think I’d ever considered writing anything except for assignments at school or silly cartoons to amuse my friends.”
“However, over my years at art school I slowly came to realise that telling stories with words and pictures was what interested me most.”
“When I left the Royal College of Art, I earned a living from illustration and made comics in my spare time, but over the years the balance has shifted so I now spend more of my time making comics.”
“My early comics were mainly visual and only featured a very little text because I felt I didn’t really know what I was doing with words.”
“Over the years, I’ve become more confident with text and have more fun with it. I still really enjoy illustrating other people’s text partly because of the feeling that I’m collaborating and that much of the imaginative work has been done by the author.”
‘The Snooty Bookshop’ is an intriguing title. Please tell us a bit about the book and what you had in mind when you brought this collection together.
“I have been a fan of Gary Larson’s ‘Far Side’ cartoons since I was a teenager and he always took the names for his books from the text of one of the cartoons in the collection. So when I was looking for a title for my first book of one-page cartoons, I tried this and ended up with ‘You’re all just jealous of my jetpack’ which seemed to work, so I’ve continued to use this system for my collections.”
“This new book is a selection of my cartoons about literature, all printed on postcards which can be removed and sent or shared.”
“My cartoons get shared online a lot, reaching an audience much larger than the printed versions do. It’s lovely to see people tweeting my cartoons and @ing in their friends so I though it would be nice to make an analogue, shareable version.”
Has literature always been a topic of interest for you?
“Yes, but perhaps less than people imagine. If I didn’t have to make a weekly cartoon about books for the Guardian then I would still make cartoons about books, but not as many as I currently do.”
“I sometimes worry I’m going to lose interest or run out of suitable themes for literary cartoon, but even after doing it for 13 years it still interests me.”
As with some of your previous titles such as ‘You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack’ and ‘Baking with Kafka’, ‘The Snooty Bookshop’ features select pieces from your extensive collection of weekly cartoons created for The Guardian.
How much, if at all, does your thought process change when working to different formats, be it for weekly slots or longer-form projects like your graphic novels?
“The basic process is exactly the same: I take walks and sit in cafes or at my desk and doodle in my sketchbook until something interesting comes together, then I make pencil drawings until it looks good and finally I draw it in ink and colour it on the computer.”
“The difference with longer projects is that the first stage, where I figure out what I’m trying to say and how to say it, goes on for an excruciatingly long time.”
“I’m pretty happy with my process for making short cartoons, which is efficient and pretty painless, but both times I’ve written a graphic novel (Goliath and Mooncop) it’s been a horrible mess of indecision, doubt and writers block.”
“In the end, I think they both turned out well, but I hope to find a better process for my third graphic novel.”
What have you found the most useful way of keeping track of all your ideas?
“When I was at art school, I was frightened of using a sketchbook because I felt every page should be a work of art, but I’ve come to realise that if I treat these books as notebooks then that stops the worry."
“I make shopping lists in them or let my kids draw something alongside my doodles and generally try not to think about how they look to others. So now I’ve got a big pile of loads of books from the past 18 years and if I have no ideas I can look back though them and hopefully find an old idea that sparks something new.”
“I have a small notebook in my pocket and a bigger one in my bag and I note down or draw anything that might one day turn into an idea. I also use Simplenote on my phone where I can quickly note down ideas even if I’m walking along the street.”
“Sometimes a weird half-idea stays in note-form for years, then one day I re-read it and it grows into something else and becomes a cartoon.”
When it comes to comic timing in your shorter or even single-frame comics, is their much spontaneity in coming up with the concept or is it something that you re-visit and refine over time?
“Often, after a period of wracking my brain, and worrying that I will never again have a good idea, there is a moment when an idea sparks, in a split-second, seemingly from nowhere and that feels lovely. But it’s usually followed by a longer period of refining and reworking the idea so it works on the page.”
“The fact that the cartoon has to fit into a specific, small space in the newspaper can mean that I have to cut things out and even abandon ideas that are too long, but generally, I think this process of editing down helps my storytelling.”
Where did you find inspiration while growing up and how do you think it’s influenced what you do today?
“I never really read superhero comics, which is unusual amongst the cartoonists I know.”
“I think my visual style owes more to newspaper comics like ‘The Far Side’ or ‘Peanuts’ (or even ‘Garfield’, which I found very funny as a child) than DC or Marvel.”
“I watched a lot of sci-fi movies and played ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and I think these specific worlds inspired my visuals and storytelling but also, more generally, introduced the idea of making up not just stories but imagining the whole world in which they happen.”
What advice would you give to someone just starting out or trying to develop their work as an illustrator and comic artist?
“Read as many comics as you can. Look at how different artists create images and tell stories. Think why you like one artist and dislike another. Analyse how they use the panel, the page, words, pictures, and all the other tools of comics. Copy the good ideas and mix them up with your own.”
“Write as many comics as you can. Keep them short and keep doing it. Try and finish them, but if you hate one just give up and start another.”
“Don’t rush to write a graphic novel, short stories are a great way to learn your craft and experiment.”
Do you have any interesting projects in the works for the new year or anything in particular you would like to do?
“I am currently putting together a collection of my science cartoons which will come out next year.”
“I’m also working on a picture book for children which is an interesting new challenge that shares many elements with comic storytelling, but has its on set of rules, strengths and rhythms.”