By Olly MacNamee
From The Beano to The Regular Show, Laura Howell has quietly been working to build a career in comics that spans both sides of the pond as well as taking time to offer comic book workshops in schools and libraries around the Midlands here in the UK. As a local artist, this interview has been a while in coming, but I finally took the plunge and caught up with Laura to discuss her path into comics and her adventures so far in the funny papers.
Olly MacNamee: From The Beano to BOOM! That's quite a journey. But, how did it all begin for you, Laura, for those who may not know?
Laura Howell: You could say it was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. At just around the time (2004/5) when I was considering taking the plunge into an art-based career – something I'd always wanted to do – I found out about a course called StripSearch, aimed at helping people break into the comics industry, running in Birmingham. I got a place on it, and through Hunt Emerson, who was one of the tutors on the course and also a Beano artist; I was able to get my work under the nose of the then Beano editor. It all stemmed from that.
OM: Like me, I know you're a big fan of Cartoon Network but how did you get to work on the Regular Show comic?
LH: I followed the standard BOOM Studios application process that everyone goes through – uploading art samples to their Facebook page – and was contacted with the offer of some work on Uncle Grandpa comic. With a foot in the door, I contacted the Regular Show sub-editor and asked if she was looking for pitches for short stories. Obviously I wasn't expecting to get offered the lead artist job, so that came as a massive (and very nice) surprise!
OM: Apart from working for BOOM you've also appeared in Mad Magazine. Do you have to accommodate how you work for international publishers?
LH: As long as you don't need an urgent response to an email before about 5pm, it's generally fine!
OM: Along with more mainstream comics, you've also recently published the wonderful The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan. A labour of love, I'm sure; was it a comic you were always destined to tell? Where did your inspiration come from?
LH: The first strip was just drawn as a joke to amuse my boyfriend back in 2001 – I thought a mash-up of Topsy-Turvy (the Mike Leigh Gilbert & Sullivan film) and Di Gi Charat (a surreal anime series) would be funny. Turns out it was. My interpretations of Gilbert & Sullivan are close in character to their real-life counterparts, as in, a very mismatched duo in terms of temperament; so some of the stories practically write themselves.
OM: As an illustrator, what drew you to specialise in the more humorous and cartoony style synonymous with the UK's comic book tradition?
LH: Comics and cartoons have always been extremely important to me, and making people laugh is a very worthwhile goal. I'm not an artist who's interested in impressing people with exquisite technical skills; I want to make them choke on their tea with a good gag.
OM: You're also a gifted humorous writer. Do you feel that's something that can be taught or has to be within you?
LH: Thank you! Truthfully, some aspects of comic creation are incredibly hard for me, especially coming up with new ideas. Which is probably why my career is so focussed on existing characters, whereas some artists, such as Jamie Smart; are like endless fountains of brilliant characters and concepts. So there is definitely an element of innate ability somewhere.
OM: Who were your early influences in comics and whose work do you keep an eye on these days?
LH: I read comics from a very young age – The Beano, Dandy, Buster, lots of girls' comics too. However most of my early influences are cartoons, such as the output of Cosgrove Hall. You can probably see a lot of the punning and quirky British humour from Danger Mouse and Count Duckula in Gilbert & Sullivan. Also Oink!, which I still maintain is one of the significant British comics from recent decades. I loved the parody, the irreverence and the absurdity. Nowadays, particular favourites include Kate Beaton, Aaron Alexovich, Jill Thompson and Ellen Forney.
OM: You do a lot of workshops in schools. Indeed, I've been fortunate enough to see you up close and personal and you seem to enjoy it immensely, regardless of the age group. What keeps you going back for more?
LH: I do! It's great to see kids getting passionate about drawing, and especially satisfying to see their confidence growing as the session goes on.
OM: You previously contributed to Toxic which was the bestselling magazine for boys in the UK, and have the distinction of being the first regular female cartoonist for The Beano and the first ever female artist to work for Viz. Do you consider these achievements, the breaking down of stereotypes, or just places where you, presumably, get to enjoy drawing strips?
LH: It's nice to have that distinction, but I've never felt like I was waging some kind of battle. Going back to Oink!, that was one of the first comics that really made a feature of its artists – I knew who drew and wrote practically every strip, as they were all signed – and they were all men, as I recall. But not at any point did I think to myself "Oh, gosh, you have to be a man to get a job in comics then." I assumed, perhaps naively, that you just needed to be good at drawing comics.
OM: And finally, with such varied stories and strip already under your belt, who are some of the characters you'd still love to tackle?
LH: If you'd asked me this a year ago I'd have said Regular Show, but I ticked that off the list already! I'm keen to get going with Gilbert & Sullivan Volume 2 at some point. In terms of existing properties, drawing Steven Universe would be cool.
For more about Laura Howell's visit her website: www. http://laurahowell.co.uk