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Comic artist Joe Decie on his first long-form work

PUBLISHED: 11:51 07 November 2017

Joe Decie

Joe Decie

Archant

Brighton-based comic artist Joe Decie takes the everyday minutiae of family life as his subject. His first long-form work, Collecting Sticks, details the trials and tribulations of a family glamping trip. He tells Jenny Mark-Bell about his process

Brighon-based illustrator Joe Decie creates adult comics with an autobiographical bent which gently parody modern, middle-class life. His latest work Collecting Sticks (details shown below and left) is an account of a family glamping trip which turns out to be somewhat less glamorous than expected. The sweet nostalgia of the everyday and surreal flights of fancy are bound together by Joe’s spare text and beautiful drawings made with Japanese dip pens and Indian ink. There is a lovely contradiction between the immediacy and everyday minutiae of the comics and the laboriousness of the work. Joe says: “If I were to think about the amount of time it takes me to draw compared to the amount of time people spend actually looking at those pages, I would go mad.”

Joe, whose childhood was spent in Kent, didn’t grow up with comics. He’d been a skater in the 1980s and 1990s and fanzines and graffiti were part of the culture. While studying for his fine art degree in Leeds he became interested in the Fluxus and Mail Art movements and through them hand-assembled book art. He’d met his Brightonian girlfriend (now wife) Steph in Leeds and after a spell attempting a long-distance relationship, moved to the coastal city to be with her.

It was in Brighton that he became interested in publishing his own work. “I’m not a traditional comics reader. I don’t read any of the superhero stuff but I became aware of indie comics. I saw that people were self-publishing things through Dave’s Comics in Brighton, and on the internet, too. A guy called James Kochalka [of American Elf fame] had a daily diary online and I thought that looked fun so I gave it a go. Prior to that you just had to publish stuff yourself and put it into people’s hands at comics shows, but because of the internet I was able to meet with an online community almost immediately.”

Joe was receiving constant feedback online. Contrary to the popular perception of the internet, his experience of the comics community has been extremely warm and encouraging. Instant approval can be very addictive, he says. “In some respects I don’t get the criticism I need. I look for advice from my peers and generally online they seem to be overly positive whereas if you were face-to-face in a studio setting you might get more constructive criticism.”

Joe worked with fellow Brighton creators Daniel Locke and Hannah Eaton on a project generating art depicting the city at this year’s Brighton Fringe. They had an open studio at the Family Gallery in the North Laine. Joe says: “It was nice to be able to riff off each other’s ideas and just have someone to talk to because comics is quite a solitary pursuit, just sat at home on my own with the only feedback coming from Twitter. I also go to a lot of comics conventions and the thing I really enjoy is meeting up with my peers and having a good gossip.”

Brighton provides plenty of inspiration for his work and Joe has a monthly comic in the city’s Viva magazine. He also recently completed a month’s stint as Brighton & Hove Buses’ cartoonist in residence, creating comics about different routes (the number two to Steyning being his favourite).

Collecting Sticks is based on several trips around Sussex and Kent and all the small dramas actually happened: “I always carry a little notebook around with me and write it down when something fun, silly or daft happens. All the text is based on actual dialogue. My son is nine now but when he was younger – five, six, seven – he was always coming out with really funny stuff.”

Dialogue is at the heart of Joe’s work. He thinks very carefully about the flow and rhythm of the words. “That’s the most difficult part for me. Visually I can picture it very quickly and I don’t find it difficult building the drawings but the flow of the book relies very heavily on the words and how long people linger on each bit. I see it kind of like poetry. There is a lot of snobbery around poetry and I wouldn’t ever want to say I’m a poet, but I guess I probably am because I think very much about the beat and the flow of the words.”

Collecting Sticks developed from a commission at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Joe applied for Arts Council funding to work on the book full-time. The discipline of working on long-form work was quite different – not least because he was working with an editor for the first time: “There were a lot of things I hadn’t considered. I use photo references for my work, especially with facial expressions. The process took about two years, so I was working from a lot of photos and getting my son to pose for things. But he was growing, so when I came to do edits I had to shrink him down. Continuity was very tricky and that wasn’t something I’d ever had to consider before.”

As a chronicle of family life there is an intimacy to Joe’s work that has recently left him feeling somewhat uneasy. He is careful to portray his wife and son in a positive light, and his son loves being in the limelight – he even signed books at the launch of Collecting Sticks. “But he doesn’t fully have the capacity to consent, he’s a nine-year-old boy. When he is 15 he might look back on this and resent it.”

Asked why holidays are such a crucible of domestic life, Joe replies: “There’s a nostalgia. We all remember the camping trips of our childhood and you’re in such close proximity – there’s no getting away from each other!”

Collecting Sticks is published by Jonathan Cape and costs £16.99 in hardback - www.joedecie.com

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