To Party Or To Paint? James Albon On Her Bark & Her Bite From Top Shelf
Her Bark & Her Bite, a new graphic novel coming this Spring from Top Shelf, takes a fresh new direction in art comics from illustrator, and now cartoonist, James Albon. His first foray into the comics medium, it brings together his love for storytelling through art and his personal enthusiasm as a sometime writer. Already embarking on a second graphic novel, Albon feels he discovered a great deal about comics narrative technique in creating this tale of artistic aspiration, social hedonism, and the ambiguous nightworld where the two often meet.
Her Bark & Her Bite follows the life of Rebecca, an aspiring painter, who moves to a new city to attempt to make inroads into the local art scene, exhibit her work, and kickstart a career. That alone would make for an interesting story, but Albon has created an intriguing dance of opposites by focusing on Rebecca’s encounter with the blazing socialite Victor, and the time she spends swept up by his way of life. The title of the book refers to one of Victor’s many successive obsessions, a pug dog named Princess, who proves to be a lynchpin of difference between Rebecca and Victor.
Rebecca is our narrator, so we hear her thoughts as well as her sparkling observations of Victor’s vivaciousness and the way in which his friends interact with him. We also get to witness her perspectives change over time, which is the groundswell of momentum in the book. Albon didn’t take this narratorial decision lightly, but settled on “Rebecca’s journey” as the center of the book. He also found that Rebecca’s narrative was a very “efficient way” to tell the story. A character can say how they feel, for instance, rather than the reader having to deduce their mood from a full conversation. Albon observes: “While Hemingway would surely be turning in his grave (too bad!), it leaves more space on the page for fun drawings”.
Told in a highly fluid, sinuous style and through the soft linework of colored pencils, Her Bark & Her Bite follows the gradual unfolding of Rebecca’s personality from a somewhat closeted artistic aspirant to a much more confidant participant in life. Albon preserves an air of neutrality in presenting a hedonist’s view of life and a more work-driven perspective, and lets situations and scenes play out for the reader to consider and weigh in their own mind. Albon agrees that this opposition between two approaches to life—that of attempting to achieve specific goals vs. simply enjoying life to the full—is central to the book:
The question is whether hedonism, crazy parties, being popular, is enough to sustain us – or is there more to life? But I didn’t want to spell out a specific answer, because I’m sure all readers will bring their own perspectives to the table. I’d much rather write a book that works as an interesting jumping off point for a conversation, than a book that spells out a moral (especially the kind of moral that says “Oh hedonism might seem fun now, it’s bad for your soul, you know!”)
While I felt that there’s actually a lot of sympathy for Victor’s effervescent party-hopping attitude in the book, Albon noted that friends of his who have read the book have felt Victor’s presentation was “quite damning of him”, so that shows the range of possible interpretations in this nuanced work.
The question can be handled in a fun, light, way, or a serious and heavier way, too. It’s essentially about choosing how to balance our lives. The idea came to Albon from observing his own life, living first in the “small and calm” atmosphere of Edinburgh, Scotland, then living for a year with his partner in Hong King, which was “hugely exciting and really crazy”, and then taking on the melee of London, which felt “manageable” after Hong Kong. Though he currently resides in Lyon, France, during his time in London, Albon lived in what he described as a “hipster epicenter” off Brick Lane, where there was plenty of “fashionable buzz” surrounding “artistic activities”.
As an illustrator, he got caught up on gallery openings, parties, and the like, and felt a fair amount of “pressure” to keep up the pace. Social media also played a part, interestingly, in feeling compelled to take part in activities since people present “’curated’ lives on social media”, Albon observes, and you begin to feel you are not involved enough in social activities by comparison. But as for Rebecca, Albon felt a tension between this constant round of activities and the need to be “in the studio actually drawing or painting”. He invented Victor as “this madman who actually manages to go to all the parties and who knows, and is loved by, everyone”. Rebecca’s attitudes are more closely aligned with Albon’s own feelings.
Albon did, however, want to bring a slightly edgier aspect to the question of work vs. play, or at least hint at its more frightening aspects. He explains:
More specifically, on the balance of work and play, I wanted the book to just edge into a darker place, to evoke that feeling where a party starts to turn from being a good time to being something a bit threatening; when things become more lurid. It’s difficult to describe exactly, but it’s certainly something I’ve felt personally, a sort of fine line between thrill and panic.
However, Albon still hopes that a lighter atmosphere prevails in the book, hoping that questions of “moral ambiguity” are a big part of the experience for readers and they feel the book is “funny” rather than being forced to question whether the actions of the characters are wrong or right. He noticed after finishing the book, he says, that it bears some similarity to a play that he’s a fan of—Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue, where a choice between youthful “partying” and “settling down” also hangs in the balance.
In the end, the question of deciding between social events and creative work may also seem all too familiar to comic creators, though Albon, as a new arrival on the comics scene, may not have faced exactly the same situations yet. Comics creators, too, are faced with the dilemma of whether to attend an endless whirl of comic conventions, which results in more work opportunities and interfacing with more fans, or to stay in the studio making sure their looming deadlines are met.
But it’s a universal question for those in “creative jobs”, Albon admits. And there’s no easy or singular answer. He feels that he’s begun to develop a balance in saying “no” to going out when it doesn’t suit him to do so and also allowing some more social events that may mean time out of the studio recovering. He even thinks it’s possible to come out victorious in this struggle: “I certainly think it’s possible to ‘win’ in this scenario though. For me, it’s the days where I go to the studio, get a good day of work in, and stand up and 5pm and go ‘Well, that went well, I’m going to go and have a drink with my friends now’”.
For a work that plays with ideas of hedonism vs. hard work, Her Bark & Her Bite displays an intricate level of detail and care for composition. Evoking a kind of musicality and movement in architecture, people, and even everyday objects is a big strength of the book. You feel the presence of places Albon has created, no doubt based upon his own travels and experiences in Edinburgh, Hong Kong, and London. He chooses color schemes that provide strong emotional tones and add to impression of character and mood.
Rebecca wears a gold-colored dress when she makes her first social foray, and at our first introduction to the blonde-haired Victor (a name which conjures up images of imperial standards), he, too, is wearing a gold shirt with a turquois, cape-like sweater or scarf. Albon’s night scenes are richly purple and blue rather than black, and his night-time cities bristle with red highlights and golden pathways. Rebecca’s progress as a socialite seems to be marked in color choices, leading up to a bright red dress. Victror’s pug, Princess, too, is golden, and for this reader, comes to represent Victor’s nature. Like Princess, Victor is fleeting in focus, good-natured, and a magnet for attention.
You can dive deep into the themes of the book, or simply enjoy the exuberant storytelling. Albon hopes readers can simply enjoy the work on one level, while making their own judgments on the difficult decisions life poses if they so choose. He says: “Much like Victor himself, I just want everyone to have a good time! I hope people find it fun, and enjoy the pictures. As I say, I didn’t want it to be a moralising book, I didn’t want to say ‘Partying is bad, go home and work’, and I hope that different readers will all take different things away from it”. For a lighter reading of the book, we could focus on the “change” Rebecca undergoes in the book, he suggests. In the end, Rebecca “isn’t defined by her relationship with Victor” and perhaps Victor, too, could change his ways if he preferred to, rather than continuing in his “partying purgatory”, Albon observes.
Having looked through some of James Albon’s highly varied illustration work, I think he’s shown his own capacity for change when approaching the comics medium. When you’re capable of a number of “styles” as an illustrator, how do you choose how your first graphic novel will look? Albon says:
I’ve always found the idea of choosing a “Style” (with a capital S) very strange. I think it comes from the sort of art school education I had, both in Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal Drawing School, which are quite traditional and classically-based establishments. For me, it’s really important to try to get as far away from saying “I have a Style” as possible – the marks you put on the page should be instinctive and feel natural, and inevitably, if you just draw and draw and draw, the personality of your mark-making will come through.
Albon postulates that “style” is mainly something that observers might see in an artist’s work, rather than something they always recognize. The more you produce, the more audiences might perceive a commonality among your works. He doesn’t feel compelled to consider whether his work fits into a recognizable box any more, he says. Seeing other young artists try to make this decision and commit to a personal style has made him wary, since it might lead to a “small number of types of drawings” one would feel comfortable with. It’s like “putting up a wall”, he says, to set this kind of artistic boundary for oneself. One of his motivating factors in creating Her Bark & Her Bite was the desire to “be surprised and excited” by his drawings, something which could have only happened with a more expansive attitude toward style.
As for why Albon chose to create his first graphic novel with colored pencils, it was partly a reaction against his “very traditional fine art education” that focused on large oil paintings, and partly a desire to do something “light and funny in a non-traditional format”, he says. Pursuing the creation of a comic book rather than a large oil painting was his idea of “liberating”. This sense of released energy and creative exploration set free is certainly palpable in Her Bark & Her Bite. Albon also suggests, however, that his conception of “mark-making” comes into play in this book. While many artists think of black linework and color as two separate things, or two steps in a process, his “brain just doesn’t seem to work that way”, and creating in colored pencils allows him to express his sense of “line and color as the same thing”.
Since Albon was approaching the comics medium for the first time in Her Bark & Her Bite, he learned more about the potential of the medium as he worked, encountering new challenges from page to page. When laying out the book, he focused his experience as an illustrator and painter on certain “Pride Pages” which included large illustrations, ranging from single to double page spreads. He tried to avoid using too many “talking head” panels since he found them less “visually exciting” even though they have their merits in conveying storytelling well through dialogue, he says. The challenges he faced were real, particularly in stopping himself from rushing into final drafts of pages when several rough drafts might be necessary to reach a point he was happy with.
I was wondering what lured Albon from illustration into comics in the first place, given how relentlessly difficult the medium can be. He professes that is a late-comer to the medium, since he didn’t read comics much growing up, and his knowledge of “classic comics” he describes as “dreadful”. But late in his time at art school, he read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, and that started him thinking. He “loved them”, he says, and they led to his decision to “immerse” himself in other sequential narratives, particularly European comics. It didn’t immediately occur to him that he could create comics, despite his interest in the medium, and only when he felt a desire to somehow combine his love of writing short stories and drawing did it all “come together” for him. But he’s actually happy it took a while to reach his destination. “I’ve certainly really enjoyed all the circuitous influences and routes I’ve taken to get here.”, he says.
Coming up, Albon is carefully approaching a second graphic novel, this time presented in ink, and as of yet, its contents are a secret. It’s reassuring to know that the comics medium has won Albon over thus far, and we’ll see yet more compositions from his teeming brain. He says it’s going to be “much longer” and “more serious as a story” than Her Bark & Her Bite. Just as he did in composing Her Bark & Her Bite, Albon no doubt intends to surprise himself, and readers to, with this new work.
Her Bark & Her Bite is shipping in April from Top Shelf, a division of IDW Publishing.
ISBN 978-1-60309-407-8 – Diamond: JAN17-0576
Special thanks to James Albon for participating in this feature.