Mark Stafford
by Sherif Awad



Hello!

This is artist Mark Stafford!

I grew up around Bournemouth on the south coast. Two sisters. Dad was a carpenter, so we had a workshop next to the house, which was next to some woods. Mum made her own wine and jam and bread and sewed and painted a bit. We seemed to be a family that created stuff rather than bought stuff, at least in my memory. It all seems a bit 70’s hippy-ish now.

The house had a lot of books in it, and we were encouraged to go to the library. There always seemed to cartoons around, Searle and Thelwell and Giles and Asterix and Peanuts. We all drew a lot as kids but I was the one who didn’t stop. I used to buy some Disney comics and then The Beano with my pocket money, and have a memory of an aunt, or friend of the family coming around one day with a huge stack of IPC/Fleetway comics that we just read to shreds. Drawing cartoons just became that thing I did. At home, at school, everywhere, and I was generally encouraged to do so.

My parents divorced when I was about 11, and the hippy-ish phase ended, but that was how it all started.




I was a bit of a Star Wars kid, I think, I saw that film when I was 6 or 7 and then didn’t see anything at the cinema that didn’t have lasers or aliens or barbarians in it for the next decade, which kind if makes me cringe now. It took a long time for my tastes to develop beyond space-ships and sword-fights, But I slowly came around to loving Cronenberg and Kubrick and Scorcese. British TV in the 80’s was actually pretty good at serving up art-house films late in the evening, and Alex Cox curated a couple of seasons of a show called Moviedrome on BBC2 which introduced a generation of teenagers to a world of cool cinema.

 

But I devoured everything. A lot of books and magazines and music began to pile up in my room. I think a lot of my sense of humour and aesthetics came from the sleeves of Dead Kennedy’s and Cramps albums. I had phases of loving the Surrealists and Francis Bacon paintings.

 

In comics I really got into 2000AD, and loved that mix of dark humour and action that involved an insane body count. That class of British creators: Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, Mike McMahon, Brendan McCarthy and John Wagner and Alan Moore and so on were all my idols. And at the same time my friends were seeking out whatever copies we could find of Heavy Metal and whatever undergound comics we could sneak past our parents, so Moebius and Druillet and Corben and Shelton and Crumb were entering the picture. The 2000AD crowd got poached by DC comics in the mid-80’s so I followed them there, and put up with them making superhero comics, which was/is a genre I’ve never really loved.

 

Whenever you’d read an interview with Moore or Bolland or whomever they would always mention creators and comics they liked, which would introduce you to Love and Rockets and RAW and Dan Clowes, who would then make you aware of other creators and other comics. There are too many to list. I devoured everything I could,

I drew and drew and didn’t stop. Got good grades at ‘O’ level, terrible grades at ‘A’ level, and had a lot of fun doing Foundation Studies at the Shelley Park annexe of the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design, but after that I started an HND in graphic design in East Ham in London, which was a mistake, I think. My dad has just died and I was a mess and I really don’t think I knew what I was doing. I dropped out, but stuck around in London and basically didn’t do much for the next decade or so. Paul Gravett intoduced me to the Comics Creators Guild at some point which led to me meeting a lot of cartoonists and doing a fair amount of small press and being in a few art shows , but I would spend an awful lot of time producing not very many pages. If I had a time machine I’d go back and kick my own arse for being so unproductive and squandering so many opportunities. I spent a lot of time and the tax-payers money drinking and going to gigs and squat parties and cult film screenings and such but got very little done, other than building a pretty healthy social network of fellow weirdos.

 

Generally I learned to draw comics by drawing comics badly.

 

 

I contributed a lot to anthology comics, one pagers and short pieces in a lot of obscure titles. And, largely through the generosity and help of friends managed to put out three small press comics, Botulism Banquet, Scenes From Books I Have Not Read and Coin,

 

But it was a call from Bryan Talbot that turned me into something resembling a professional. We’d met through the CCG and at various convention bars thereafter and he’d seen, and clearly liked my work because he wanted me to do the art for a book called Cherubs! For the US market. It was that book that forced me to knuckle down and produce 200 pages of story, under Bryan’s guidance, so I learned an awful lot, and had to find my own methods of doing what needed to be done. It’s a big cartoony apocalyptic romp that required me drawing heaven and hell and New York City and all things in between. It came out through a company called Desperado, and was then completed in a Dark Horse hardcover and has, to this date, earned me no money whatsoever. Still pretty happy with it, though.

 

After that I hooked up with the writer David Hine, through the London scene, and working the 2D festival in Derry/Londonderry together. He got approached to do an adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story for Self Made Hero’s The Lovecraft Anthology volume One, which is how we first worked together, on a version of The Colour Out of Space. It worked pretty well, so when he got it into his head to do an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs (again, for Self Made Hero,) he infected me with his enthusiasm for the book, and that’s the work where I really found my feet as a visual storyteller, It’s tragic and romantic and grotesque and angry and political and needed to be all those things played to the hilt and succeeded, I think.

 

We then pitched our first original book, Lip Hook to Self Made Hero, and whilst we were waiting for the green light, got an offer from John Anderson of Soaring Penguin to do a serial for his anthology title Meanwhile which turned into The Bad Bad Place, so the creation of those two books was kind of entwined.

 

I contributed a lot to anthology comics, one pagers and short pieces in a lot of obscure titles. And, largely through the generosity and help of friends managed to put out three small press comics, Botulism Banquet, Scenes From Books I Have Not Read and Coin,

 

But it was a call from Bryan Talbot that turned me into something resembling a professional. We’d met through the CCG and at various convention bars thereafter and he’d seen, and clearly liked my work because he wanted me to do the art for a book called Cherubs! For the US market. It was that book that forced me to knuckle down and produce 200 pages of story, under Bryan’s guidance, so I learned an awful lot, and had to find my own methods of doing what needed to be done. It’s a big cartoony apocalyptic romp that required me drawing heaven and hell and New York City and all things in between. It came out through a company called Desperado, and was then completed in a Dark Horse hardcover and has, to this date, earned me no money whatsoever. Still pretty happy with it, though.

 

After that I hooked up with the writer David Hine, through the London scene, and working the 2D festival in Derry/Londonderry together. He got approached to do an adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story for Self Made Hero’s The Lovecraft Anthology volume One, which is how we first worked together, on a version of The Colour Out of Space. It worked pretty well, so when he got it into his head to do an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs (again, for Self Made Hero,) he infected me with his enthusiasm for the book, and that’s the work where I really found my feet as a visual storyteller, It’s tragic and romantic and grotesque and angry and political and needed to be all those things played to the hilt and succeeded, I think.

 

We then pitched our first original book, Lip Hook to Self Made Hero, and whilst we were waiting for the green light, got an offer from John Anderson of Soaring Penguin to do a serial for his anthology title Meanwhile which turned into The Bad Bad Place, so the creation of those two books was kind of entwined.

 

Lip Hook (A Tale of Rural Unease,) is very, very loosely inspired by an old strange Mexican murder case (google Magdelena Solis,) and involves two criminal types on the run who take refuge in a small, isolated village and inspire a weird religious uprising that ends in bloody mayhem. It’s got a lot of pagan/folk horror vibes and a matriarchy vs patriarchy thread to it, and I worked a lot of my childhood memories of Dorset in there.

 

The Bad Bad Place is set in a bland suburban new town that is doomed to a twisted fate when an old victorian house suddenly appears on its outskirts and begins to beckon people in. It’s shorter, and denser, and more on-the-nose ‘Horror’, than Lip Hook, but there’s a fair amount of dark humour and social satire in there. It came out as a hardcover through Soaring Penguin in 2019.

 

On my own I also created Kangkangee Blues, as a project for the British Council and the Kangkangee Arts Village in Busan, South Korea, after spending a couple of weeks out there. It’s a largely silent, short, melancholy little love story set amongst the shipyards. It got printed in Korea, and published in the UK through the LICAF fund and I’m very happy with it. I’d love to do more along those lines but who knows?

 

I think that it’s more true to say that the comics cultures of every country reflect peoples lives back to them, in filtered and distorted ways, and these in turn affect the perception of sociopolitical reality in the reader. In terms of my country?The dark-humoured cynicism of much of 2000AD definitely fed into my perceptions of the world as a teenager. Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta became the face of the worldwide Anonymous movement. Viz had a massive influence on a generation of comedians and comedy writers. Tank Girl spoke to a lot of punky girls in a way no other media did at the time. Readers of all this stuff then go out into the world and create their own lives and their own media, but pinning down specific cause and effect is difficult.

 

The Marvel/DC superhero movement western culture has been going through for the last 20 years or so clearly reflects something of our sociopolitical reality, but I fear it’s mainly infantilism and the need for shiny, distracting baubles. The clear desire amongst a lot of the population for powerful ‘special’ people to come and sort out all our problems is obviously troubling to anybody who’s read a history book. Enron and Iraq and the 2009 financial crisis were all brought to us by the smartest, most gifted, most confident men you ever did see….

The whole scene becomes so atomized, and readerships are so small that it’s hard to see much social impact emerging from any single cartoon entity. The print platforms that used to reach the masses are shrinking in readership. Though I may be missing something. There may be oceans of influence happening online that I’m blissfully unaware of. We’re all in our bubbles now.

 The Cartoon Museum, which I work for when I can, has on its walls countless reminders of the conversation that occurs, in ink, between cartoonists and the public and the powers that be, and how that conversation has changed over time. I don’t think we’re living through an administration that gives much of a toss about art or creation of any kind. Probably the only art they pay attention to are drawings of themselves, so it’s always worthwhile to use that platform honourably. And point out that they’re a useless, venal cluster of horrible, horrible bastards whose every action seems engineered to make the country a worse place to live in.

 

It’s hard to evaluate your own work. One badly drawn hand can have you dismissing a whole book, but I’m happy with all the David Hine books. They’re all good stories with a hard-won funny/creepy aesthetic that’s pretty singular. They’re all about something, and mean something, rather than being just exercises in style or genre. It’s always nice to meet readers who were genuinely moved by the Man Who Laughs or Lip Hook.

I’ve gotten a similar positive reaction to Kangkangee Blues and that makes me happy

I’ve got a hand-written sign at the top of the corkboard over my desk that reads ‘DO THE FUCKING PAGES,’ and that, crude as it is, is my advice. You need to create work to learn about how to create work. Try not to obsess about your style, or design and redesign every element in the story or spend ages making notes about the background lore of some epic you’ve got in your head, or, at least, don’t let all that get in the way of actually drawing pages and telling stories.

My other bit of advice is to actually think about whether what you’re doing is going to stand out on the shelves. Have a look around and try to notice what’s missing. Draw the comics that don’t exist yet.

I’ve done a comic through Newcastle university that’s turning a piece of social research into stories and presenting it in graphic form, it’s a welcome change of pace to do something about clear communication rather than my usual exercises in the eldritch and obscure.

I’ve done a couple of stories recently for books by Shelly Bond, one about college radio in the 80’s, (Heavy Rotation) one about the life of a comics editor (Filth and Grammar,), and I hope to do another before much longer. They’re fun, and a little outside my usual wheelhouse.

Myself and David Hine have been sending notes and drawings back and forth for a couple of years and we’re finally going to pitch a new book. Don’t want to say much about it, because it’s not set in stone, other than it’s going to be longer and a bit more ambitious than our other stuff. It’s all about identity and humanity and derangement, and I will need to raise my landscape game. Last year we did a little four-page creepy thing for Dead By Dawn, an anthology comic.

Also, Soaring Penguin are going to assemble a collection of my old stuff, all the short stories and illustrations and graphics and such, into a book called Salmonella Smorgasbord. I’m currently going through old hard drives to see what I can rescue, and what needs to stay buried….

Other than that, the usual paintings and illustrations and short strips and such. Might try to get into screen printing.

Get hold of me if you want to start something.

 

Twitter: @marxtafford

Instagram: @marxtafford

 

https://www.facebook.com/marxtaffordcartoonist