If you’re a fan of graphic novels, chances are you’ve come across Nicola Streeten’s incredible graphic memoir, Billy, Me & You. And if you’ve ever been to a Laydeez do Comics event, you might be familiar with Nicola in person. She’s a big part of the London comics scene, and does amazing work championing women in comics.
Billy, Me & You is a memoir about the death of Nicola’s two-year old son, about the extreme grief that followed. Drawn from a diary she kept, it is honest, heart-breaking, and at times incredibly funny. It’s also about how other people react to death; pages describing the condolences (or silences) she received from family, friends and strangers make it a candid and vital exploration of grief in general. The comic is black-and-white with sketchy drawings; there are panels printed on diary pages and photographs, both of which play with form and tell a story that is impossible to put down once you’ve begun.
Published by Myriad Editions, Billy, Me & You received Highly Commended in the Popular Medicine category of the 2012 British Medical Association Medical Book Awards. It’s really a fantastic book, and if you haven’t read it yet, then you should!
Nicola is super involved in the comics world. She co-founded Laydeez do Comics in 2009. It’s a forum that focuses on comics made by women, on what it means to be a woman making comics, on narrative, memoir and storytelling. Through monthly meetings and events, Laydeez discuss all these things; there is usually cake, and there is a good lot of friendly socialising. The forum has been described as ‘a combination between a book club and a series of TED talks’ which pretty much sums it up! It’s a very cool – and very necessary – thing, so much so that it now has branches in cities across the globe. Add this to the fact Nicola is doing a doctorate on British women’s comics, it’s basically not hard to see why she’s going to be included in the Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics exhibition that starts in London this Friday!
Ahead of the exhibition (which we’re all very excited about), we are very grateful that Nicola took the time to answer a few of our questions….
How long have you been making comics? Have you always drawn, or was it something that you came to gradually? Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?
I have been illustrating since 1996 and my illustration style has always combined text and image. This lent itself to adaption to the language of comics, though I hope I push and/or question the conventions of the comic form in my work. I attended art school for a year after completion of a degree in Social Anthropology in the 1980s. I then taught English as a foreign language to beginners for some years and incorporated drawing on the board into my teaching, honing up a cartoon style.
My creative process starts with an idea that becomes written and drawn simultaneously. The result gets thrown away a few times until I think it works…it doesn’t always. I hand draw with a technical or brush pen and usually add a wash of ink or watercolour. I use a lightbox to redraw from my roughs and like a thin smooth watercolour paper best, or cartridge paper.
There’s been a lot in the news recently about women in comics, especially after the Angloume Prize announcement. But as this exhibition well shows, women are doing amazing work in comics! What is your experience of being a woman in the industry… have you had any negative experiences, or has it been mostly positive?
As long as an exhibition has to include “women” in the title or strapline, feminism is still relevant and necessary. It is notable that this exhibition doesn’t have an accompanying catalogue. This means there will be no historical documentation within the archives. My current research towards a PhD at the University of Sussex is into the history of British feminist cartoons and comics since 1970. One of my most significant findings is a confirmation of the paucity of archived documentation.
I co-founded Laydeez do Comics with artist Sarah Lightman in 2009 for the very reason that we couldn’t believe there were no other women creating or interested in comics that we liked. The popularity of the organisation and its spurring of branches nationally and internationally is evidence that there are a lot of women interested in and actively drawing comics, in the widest sense. However, very often they are operating in a wider context than “comics”. If we look at the work of Alison Bechdel, her early cartoon strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, had a key loyal following from an LGBT audience. The primary readership for my graphic novel Billy, Me & You is the bereaved. This was my aim, ensuring a reach beyond comics readers and longevity for the work. The benefit of this is that the work can introduce people to the exciting possibilities of the comics form.
Do you have any advice for women who want to start making comics? Or for those who already have work to show and are looking to break into the industry?
Just make the work! Anyone can have a great idea, it’s more difficult to realize it. In Britain – come and make friends, in particular, at the usually free Laydeez do Comics events! I have met the kindest people in the comics world and there is a lot of generosity and knowledge sharing in our community. My other piece of advice is to read every comic or graphic novel work you can, including small press publications. Begin with the works you are attracted to and then tackle the ones you don’t find so appealing and try to critically identify what it is you don’t like. In this process you will be able to locate your own work, both stylistically and in terms of subject matter.
Who are your favourite women comic creators, and what do you admire most about their work?
I have so many. Worldwide: Rosalind B. Penfold for her Dragonslippers that uses the comics form to create the feeling of being kicked in the stomach. In the UK: Hannah Berry, Karrie Fransman and Simone Lia… They just keep going and their styles and influences are rich and varied.
I am also interested in older generation women cartoonists and how they used humour to impart a feminist message in cartoon form. I love the work of Jacky Fleming and also artists such as Paula Youens; Christine Roche; Annie Lawson; Maggie Ling… many.
Thanks so much Nicola!
If you’d like more info on the Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics exhibition, or to book your tickets, head over to the House of Illustration’s website.
And be sure to head over to Nicola’s website to have a look at her amazing illustrations and blog.
And while you’re at it, why not sign up to the Laydeez do Comics newsletter to keep up to date with all their news and events!