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Nye Wright Talks Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park

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Small Pressganged is Broken Frontier’s weekly column designed to shine a spotlight on the often overlooked world of small press and self-published comics. Every seven days we’ll be providing a mix of review round-ups of the best of current small press comics and spot interviews with some of the movers and shakers of the scene.

This week I’m speaking to Aneurin ‘Nye’ Wright, whose autobiographical Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park *…When You’re 29 and Unemployed I gave deserved high praise to in a Broken Frontier review last month. Centred on the time Nye spent as primary carer when his father was dying of emphysema, it's a sometimes deeply poignant, sometimes very funny account that mixes slice-of-life storytelling with unfettered, symbolic fantasy. The series was originally self-published but is one of a growing number of small press books to be picked up by a U.K. publisher, in this case Myriad Editions who, alongside Blank Slate Books and now Titan (see last week's column), are astutely bringing worthy SP material to a wider audience.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Before we discuss Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park in greater depth could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your resume to date, which ranges from Image Comics to animation work on Bowling for Columbine?

NYE WRIGHT: First, full disclosure. I'm a Yank. I was born and raised in Idaho (potatoes, mountains, people who carry and celebrate the right to carry high calibre weapons, pick-up trucks, you get the picture...). My dad's Texan, my mother's from London. I moved to the UK in 2006 with the day job and have been here ever since.

As for art, I guess I've had an indirect journey toward doing art professionally. I studied English Literature at Yale back in the 90s. Then, unsure of what do with such an imminently practical degree, I got a job teaching in a secondary boys' school in Sydney, Australia for two years.

I had this odd existential alarm clock going off in my head (every time I drew I was happy; when I wasn't, I was ill at ease), and decided I wanted to return to the States to go to Art School. I enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn -- a venerable place that still gives people in England a chuckle. Pratt was amazing for having three years to immerse myself in drawing, painting, printmaking, graphic design, even sculpture. I just wanted to get my hands dirty.

On one of the summer breaks during my three years there, I took an animation class at another art school in New York called Parsons School of Design. I really enjoyed it and ended up being an intern for one of my teachers who had recently founded Augenblick Studios with a friend. I loved the animation process, but couldn't get into any animation classes at Pratt, so I wrangled my way into doing animation for my final project.

After graduation, my final project managed to attract the attention of Harold Moss, the director of a small Manhattan animation studio called Flickerlab. Flickerlab was a sort of paradise. I met a great group of people (one of whom is a tattooed Chihuahua in the book) and started to cut my teeth on Flash. I was hired to work on some broadcast animation projects they were branching out into (they'd done strictly motion graphics and web cartoons before that). One project we did was a pilot episode of a show for Cartoon Network of a far-too-brilliant-and-deranged-to-ever-be-picked-up-for-a-series show called Saddlerash (see below) - a "western" about a gunslinger with no arms out for revenge; he pulls the trigger of his six shooter with his tongue.

The other big project we worked on was the animation in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Moss, the head motion graphics guy, studio owner and my boss, handed me a series of drawings by a talented illustrator named Ryan Sias. He was knee-deep in other work for the studio and asked me if I could do some sort of animation test. I animated a segment where pilgrims come from England to the New World and greet the Native Americans by wiping them out. The googly-eyed, manic look of the designs made it a lot of fun. My boss sent the sample to Michael Moore and he dug it. So we built the rest of the animation on that style. I animated a good amount of the final clip (below) and oversaw the rest of its production. We went to a premiere in New York and met Moore. Then we were all laid off. The post 9/11 economy in New York was brutal.

We thought the layoff was going to be temporary until the studio rebounded (which it eventually did). So I took the time to work on a comic about gorillas behaving badly. I was able to use a lot of the tricks I'd learned in Flash animation and apply them to my illustration. In January of 2004, Image published the books as a 48 page, full colour one-shot called Lex Talionis: A Jungle Tale. Looking back on it, I had fun flexing some style and colour muscles, and there were the things that people really responded to. The story was a little light for 48 pages. But I learned a lot from it.

By December of 2002, a rehire at the studio was not likely. So I moved out west to live with and take care of my father; these were the incidents that take place in the book.

BF: For those of the Broken Frontier audience who haven’t heard of the book, can you give us a brief introduction to Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park, and that time in your life in which the book is set?

WRIGHT: Things to do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park is precisely that: it's a guide to help anyone in the unlikely event that they find themselves stuck in a retirement home trailer park when they are 29 and unemployed. More seriously, it's an account of the time I spent living with and taking care of my father from December 2002 to May 2003. He'd been an architect and a smoker. At the end of his life, he couldn't draw or do much of anything but read and watch TV. I was out of work and had nothing better to do, so I moved in with him, and became his chief carer. Soon after, I realised that I needed to do something to avoid going slowly out of my mind by my circumstances. So I took over his now vacant drawing table and started a visual diary about my life with him in the static caravan park.

         

BF: Things to Do… was originally work you published yourself. What were the respective freedoms and attendant pitfalls that self-publishing brought?

WRIGHT: In early 2003, I attended the Alternative Press Expo (or APE) in San Francisco. It's a lovely little alternative comics festival put on by the same people who organise the mother of all geek gatherings: Comic-Con in San Diego. What was amazing about APE is that you had rows and rows of little tables with people sat behind them selling their wares. The wares mostly consisted of folded and stapled 'zines. Some were pretty rough and tumble, but others were inspired works of homespun genius. I spoke to one guy whose stuff was particularly impressive and asked him how he got a table. He looked askance at me and said, "Um, you fill out an application, pay them some money, then show up and sell stuff." You could tell he felt like he was having to explain gravity to a halfwit. But I was thunderstruck.

I went back, immediately reserved a table for the next show in San Francisco -- WonderCon in April -- and started furiously producing my own wares. At that show, I sold small black and white photocopied minicomics of Lex Talionis. That was also where I met then Image publisher Jim Valentino who went on to offer to publish Lex Talionis.

That show was so enjoyable that I signed up to exhibit in the Small Press section of Comic Con that summer. I was already drawing away my trailer park anxieties so that by the time Comic Con rolled around, I had 40 pages or so of work to share. I put it in a zine and people miraculously bought it.

I did take self-publishing one step further: in 2004, I self-published a 200 page anthology of work by people I'd met in the New York and Los Angeles Animation scenes; it was called the Monon Street Power Collective (I lived on Monon Street in LA at the time and the stories were meant to have something to do with power). It was a pretty glossy production and I naively thought that having a bunch of work of a bunch of talented people on shelves in a comic store would sell itself.

The reality is that, as with any product, you need to sell your brains loose.

BF: How did Myriad Editions become involved with bringing the book to a larger audience?

WRIGHT: A Scottish Pilates instructor!

I've been living in Brighton since 2009. Before my wife and I moved down, I'd done a Google search to see what "arty" things Brighton had on offer. I found Cartoon County, an amicable group of people who get together in a pub once a month to talk comics and drink (or vice versa). One of the driving forces is David Lloyd (yes, THAT David Lloyd). The other is Myriad Editions' Creative Director, Corinne Pearlman.

But it didn't stop there. I went to some of the meetings and had a lovely time. Through Cartoon County, I met a lovely and very talented cartoonist who pays the bills as an equally talented and patient Pilates instructor, Andy Pearson. He and I worked on a project for Brighton's 2010 White Night Festival. He also happens to be Corinne's Pilates teacher. One day, he said to her that I was working on a Graphic Novel about my dad. Corinne asked me to present at their Feb meeting last year.

What's truly wonderful about working with Myriad, is that they really only want to publish a great story and to get it in as many people's hands as possible. That sounds frightfully obvious, but they have done an amazing job of bridging the gap between people who read comics, and people who read literary fiction and therefore not books with pictures. The response we've had so far is that people who would never read comics really respond to the story and are engaged by the drawing. And people who dig comics generally and would pick it up for the art work find themselves engaged in a story they wouldn't normally read.

I suppose the best evidence of that is that, through Myriad, I've been invited to the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. I'm not sure a publisher that was only engaged in publishing comics could have bridged that gap. It's really very exciting, because, though I came to comics because of superheroes, I've stayed because of the sheer untapped power of the medium. Both Corinne and Myriad really understand and are exploiting that. It's not about comics or not comics. It's about powerful stories that move you.

Oh, and if I stand on the fire escape in my flat, I can throw rocks and hit her house. Brighton is that small.

BF: When you were originally working on Things to Do.. to what extent were you thinking about a potential audience? Or was it initially more a therapeutic exercise for yourself - a kind of creative catharsis?

WRIGHT: That's a good question. I've done a couple of talks alongside Nicola Streeten, another Myriad author of the powerful Billy, Me & You. She's done a graphic novel about the aftermath of the sudden death of her 2-year-old son, Billy. I cannot imagine the spectrum of emotions she and he husband went through. The first time I heard her speak, at conference in Leeds in January, she said something very interesting: the book for her was not a catharsis. 15 years on, it is an examination of what happened. There's a great quote of hers that I loved from a past talk: "The facts remain the same, it's the meaning that changes." It's not catharsis, it's about trying to find the meaning in the facts of what happened.

For me, the amount of time it took to draw a single story meant that I had long passed from catharsis into "hard work." If it was just catharsis I was after, I could have driven to the top of a hill, beat my chest and bayed at the moon. And I'm definitely not a fan of public therapy for therapy's sake. I've got enough British DNA in me to know that that is simply not done.

No, for me, I think I was always aware of a potential audience. Comics are another form of story telling. Story telling is meaningless without an audience.

BF: This is not a question I could normally ask pre-publication but, given that Things to Do… has had a previous self-published incarnation, what kind of feedback did you get at the time? I’m thinking specifically here about those readers who may have gone through similar experiences.

WRIGHT: It's a great question and it has been one of the things that's kept me going for the past 8 years. I got an email in 2006 from a guy who'd bought my zines in 2004. He'd lost them, then found them again in a closet 2 years later when he discovered where his wife had hidden all his man stuff. He didn't remember why he'd bought the books in the first place; just something he liked, he said. But in the intervening two years, his father had been diagnosed with and succumbed to cancer.

Suffice it to say that when someone writes out of the blue to thank you for a comic he bought from you a couple of years earlier because of how it resonates with what he's going through, well humbled isn't a big enough word. There are a couple of emails like that I've gotten that have refilled the inspiration battery when it'd got low. My wife, far smarter than me, got me to make a folder where I've put them all so I can re-read them when self-doubt puts inspiration in a headlock.

BF: Obviously, as we’ve mentioned, you began the comic during your father’s illness. Did you share any of the work with him and, if so, what was his reaction?

WRIGHT: Yeah, actually I did. I was working one day over at his old desk and he'd gotten tired of watching the morning news and listening to lawn mowers outside so he asked me what I was working on. I told him I was doing a comic about us living together. You could see he was more than a little discomfited by it. But he was intrigued enough to shuffle across the trailer -- huffing and puffing, oxygen tube dragging behind him -- and have a look. Once he saw that he'd been transformed into a blue Rhinoceros, he couldn't wait to see new pages. I think he was enough of an egotist to love the idea of being immortalised in art.

BF: Whenever I read an autobiographical comic like this – and Nicola Streeten’s Billy Me & You and Ross Mackintosh’s Seeds last year also struck a similar chord – I am always in awe at the immense courage and honesty involved in bringing it to a greater audience. Were there ever points during the process of putting Things to Do… together, though, when you had your doubts or misgivings about going forward with sharing such a personal story?

WRIGHT: There are probably two answers to this question: the first is, there's a whole lot of stuff that I didn't put into the book. Had I, it simply would have been too much; too personal, too revelatory, just too much. The second answer is that, there are times when I did feel like I was a bit of a vampire. You find yourself standing there, living through something that will fundamentally change you for the rest of your life, and at the same time, there's this part of you observing, recording, picking up pieces here and there, details, snippets; and saying, "Hmm, this might be interesting for something later." When you think about it, it feels a little diabolical.

Yet, at the same time, the way I look at artists and their relationship toward life: society gives artists a bit of a free pass. You're allowed to step outside of the ordinary flow of things; you don't have to join the rat race in quite the same way. But the price you pay is the obligation to report back on what you've seen from the fringes. It's like being a bit of an existential reporter at large. At least, that's how I rationalise away the diabolical bits....

BF: I’d like to move on to some of your presentation choices now because the stylistic elements of Things to Do... are such an integral part of the book’s voice. Can you share with us some of the thinking behind the distinctive use of colour and that very evocative use of reds and blues?

WRIGHT: The thinking probably starts with me being a rubbish colourist. If the task at hand were to replicate natural colours, I'd fail miserably. I think much more in terms of line and then value (lights to darks). That helps me build something three-dimensional, believable. The colour I use both to convey mood and draw one's eye around a page to places where I want it to linger. Simplifying the colour hopefully also puts the focus on the story telling and not on gilded lilies (not that I could gild a lily if my life depended upon it). I also have enjoyed how, though I did have some things in mind in the choice of these colours, people bring their own meanings to those choices.

But mostly I just suck at colour.

BF: You portray yourself as a minotaur and your father as a rhinoceros in Things to Do…, and the anthropomorphic animal theme extends to some other, but by no means all, characters in the book. There’s a later sequence in the book between yourself and your father, where this theme reaches a natural conclusion, that is beautifully played in an understated way and probably the graphic novel’s pivotal scene. What was your thinking behind that visual characterisation and the choices of animals for specific cast members?

WRIGHT: I went to a lecture once at a writers' conference and someone (I think it may have been E.L. Doctorow) said "writers write to find out what it was that they meant by writing in the first place". That's a wooly way of saying that you don't often know why you do something until you've actually done it. My choices definitely ended up coming to mean something significant that I felt was important to the story. But they didn't start out that way.

As I said, the project started as a kind of visual diary. I needed to make the process interesting for myself, and drawing myself is not very interesting. So I turned myself into a Minotaur, and my father into a Rhino. Maybe there was something profoundly, psychologically interesting happening in the depths of my unconscious. But at the time, I thought it would be fun to draw a Rhino and a Minotaur.

BF: Finally, what can we look for next from Nye Wright, both within and without the comics field?

WRIGHT: Well the next magnum opus is a joint venture between my wife and myself: our first child, due in June, currently code-named "Sprout."

I've spent the better part of the past year doing storyboard work for a friend's documentary called Kingdom Come. Directed by Paiman Kalayeh and John Lyons Murphy, it's about the struggles of actor-turned-filmmaker, Daniel Gillies (he was Mary Jane's fiancé in Spider-Man 2) trying to make an earnest independent film in the face of brutal entertainment industry economics. His story is intercut with interviews of some pretty amazing, well-known actors and filmmakers -- Bruce Campbell, Tim Roth, Kevin Smith, and Mark Ruffalo among others -- talking about their own struggles in independent film. It's quite moving to listen to people we see as being quite successful struggling to give voice to their dreams outside the "day job". It's quite inspiring. It will be in film festivals this year.

In terms of comics, I'm at work on the next graphic novel; it starts with a car crash and ends with a wedding. It's going to be fairly long as well. I just have to find a way to not take 8 years to finish it.

Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park *…When You’re 29 and Unemployed is available next week on February 16th from Myriad Editions priced £19.99 in paperback and £24.99 in hardcover. You can check out the book's official website here. Nye can be followed on Twitter here and Myriad Editions here.

###

Andy Oliver is Broken Frontier’s Managing Editor and a contributor to Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.

If you are a small press comics creator, or self-publisher, and would like your work to be reviewed in a future edition of Small Pressganged then e-mail Andy at andyoliver@brokenfrontier.com for further details. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.

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