Amber Chloe Carvan: No Wild Stallions!
Posted: Tuesday, May 6, 2003
By: Darren Schroeder
I really like the comics by Amber that I have managed to find, so after quite a long process of trying to track her down I managed to ask her a few questions.
Darren Schroeder: What is your full name?
Amber Chloe Carvan
DS: How did you get into making your own comics?
ACC: I was introduced to "alternative" comics by a close friend when I was at uni and was really taken aback by how effective the comic medium is for telling personal stories. The first ones I read were Ed The Happy Clown, Dirty Plotte and the Peepshow series. I started trying to draw my own comics in 1995 but nothing really came together properly for a few years. When I moved to Melbourne in 1997 I fell in with the Silent Army/Braddock Coalition crowd (formerly The Malvern Stars) and it all just snowballed from there. In particular, John Weeks was a big inspiration for me with his whole you could have done this ethos.
DS: Same with me. John passes on the comic making bug like a typhoid mary. Should we make him the small press good will ambassador to the world?
ACC: Definitely. He's certainly done more than his fair share of promoting Australian comics to the rest of the world. His own work is also tremendous and increasingly sophisticated. Sorry, that last sentence sounds really wanky but I can't think of a better way to say it. I suppose what I'm trying to get at is that it's been amazing to watch the evolution of Quickdraw... though I haven't seen one in a long time.
DS: Was art an important part of your education?
ACC: It was in Primary School. As a young kid I always wanted to be an artist and I could frequently be found donning large smocks and fake palettes in order to complete my "painting by number" kits. My greatest hour came in Year 5 when I won the Operation Noah Art Competition with my painting of a rabbit-eared bandicoot. I won a yellow plastic desk organiser. When I went to High School I lost interest in art largely due to the fact that we had a crappy and vindictive art teacher who focused all his attention on those girls who could draw really good horses. It was only much later on in life that I realised that one's ability to render lifelike images of wild stallions has nothing to do with one's ability to create imaginative and authentic art.
DS: I don't think I've ever read a comic about wild stallions. Where do all those budding "artists" go?
ACC: Who knows?! I reckon most people don't see "doing art" as something that could be continued after High School ends which is pretty sad really. Deep down I feel quite pleased that I've done it the other way round.
DS: What was the first comic you published yourself and how did that come about?
ACC: My first comic was Big Smoke Issue 1. I just put together all the little bits and pieces that I'd been working on over the past two years, photocopied them sneakily while at work and then walked over to Polyester Books on Brunswick Street and handed them over. I ended up doing eight issues of Big Smoke over a period of four years.
DS: Was it reaction from readers that encouraged you to do more or personal satisfaction?
ACC: A bit of both really. Because my comics are about very personal things I find the actual process of writing and drawing them to be wildly cathartic. So, personally I get an enormous amount out of creating them. Having other people say nice things also helps a huge amount - it's very nice for the ego. I also just love connecting with people through comics - it makes us all feel less like freaks.
DS: How did you distribute your comics then?
ACC: I've always been bad at distributing my stuff. I am one of those people who becomes consumed by the process of creating something. Once I've actually finished I completely lose interest. When I was putting out Big Smoke I would try to distribute them to distro's and to zine friendly shops but mostly it was by word of mouth and via mail. These days I tend to do stuff for other people's publications so that I don't have to bear the burden of distribution.
DS: Do you keep a copy of all your comics?
ACC: No. I wish I had though. The reality was that I never seemed to have enough copies so I would always wind up giving away my own. I don't think there's a single person in the world who has a full set of the Big Smoke comics - me included.
DS: What materials and equipment do you use when drawing your comics?
ACC: Believe it or not I am really picky about what I use. The paper has to be fine grain Windsor and Newton smooth drawing stock. I use a Rotring pencil and rubber to do my rough copies. Then I use Rotring Graphic disposable black ink pens in either .1, .2 or .3 depending on what I'm drawing.
DS: Do you let the people in the art supply shops know that you draw comics?
ACC: Are you kidding? I'm a complete scaredy-cat! I find it very difficult to strike up conversations with complete strangers (or with anyone for that matter) especially if they're of the intimidating beret-wearing, I-go-to-art-school variety. Maybe this is why I communicate via comics. I can only ever recall one conversation with the guy that works in the art shop where I go and it went along the lines of:
Him: Are you planning to buy that pen?
Me: Um, no - I was just testing it.
Him: We don't like people testing the pens.
Me: Okay, sorry.
DS: Same with me. Even though the shops stock all the stuff comic makers need, they don't actually seem to be very comic/cartoon friendly. Or is that just our insecurities coming out?
ACC: I think those shops tend to be pretty unfriendly to most people who don't talk the talk or walk the walk. I was going to go to art school a few years ago - I even sat the entrance test and got accepted (!) - but I ended up deciding against doing it cause I didn't want to end up being an art school type. I'm pretty sure that this makes me a reverse snob.
DS: Have you noticed any common denominators in the people who enjoy your comics?
ACC: Yes, they all seem to be related to me! Only kidding, well, kind of. Autobiographical comics are quite a niche art form I suppose so those of us who like them tend to have some similarities. Testimony to this is the fact that I have formed many close friendships through autobio comics - for example, it was through Big Smoke that I met my partner Richard.
DS: Does Richard do his own comics?
ACC: Oh, he does and they're so wonderful. He carries a visual diary around with him and he draws little comics about sitting at the bus-stop or whatever he happens to be doing at the time. He's an excellent artist and he writes really well too. However, he has trouble disciplining himself to plan and script out a comic which makes him much better at the train-of-thought variety. We also write comics to one another... he'll start off by drawing one or two panels and leaving them on the kitchen table when he goes to work. I continue it later on in the day etc. They're very cute but very boring to anyone other than us cause they're just about silly day-to-day things like what we need from the supermarket or a description of something cute the dogs did.
DS: Do you two ever argue about who gets to draw a comic about this or that family event?
ACC: Believe it or not, sometimes we do. Usually it's because we'll come up with a really great idea for a comic by talking to each other and after that there's a bit of a race to see who'll draw it first! We have very different styles though so most of the time it's quite clear who should be drawing what. Rich is the excellent drawer so he's the obvious candidate for complex visual stuff. I'm better at the longer form narrative work cause I have the patience to map it out. Because I'm an editor by trade it's natural for me to labour over language and structure whereas Rich finds the whole planning process pretty painful.
DS: What work have you been doing recently?
ACC: Having a baby and crikey, it was hard work! Comics-wise I have recently finished a 60 page collaborative comic book with Mandy Ord. It's called Brick Dog and Other Stories and is available in good book shops or through Pluto Press. Also I have a comic in the latest Dee Vee Collection which I believe is called Molotov - you can get it from all good comic stores. I don't know what's on the cards next - I'll have to think about it. For now I'm busy changing nappies.
DS: If your child said they wanted make comics for a living what would you say to them?
ACC: I'd be chuffed.
DS: What comics have you read recently? Why did you like/dislike them?
ACC: I am old and boring and set in my ways. I always read the same old comics. My favourites are King Cat by John Porcellino, anything by Jeff Levine, and pretty much the whole Drawn and Quarterly stable of artists. I tend not to read new stuff from the shops cause I never have the money to take the risks. Sad - isn't it? In terms of local artists I love 'em all though I feel a bit out of the loop sometimes cause they're all based in Melbourne and I'm in Sydney.
The most exciting thing I read recently was a collection of French language comics called Stereoscomic. I had contributed a comic to the anthology so I was lucky enough to get a free copy. My French isn't that great but it was fantastic to see stuff from so many artists that I'd never seen before - it was very inspiring. I always go for the same style of stuff - very personal stories with extremely simple and occasionally child-like drawings. I'm so predictable it's frightening.
DS: Does your drawing style effect the type of stories you attempt to tell?
ACC: It used to. I was so insecure about my drawing that I would tailor the stories to suit the types of things that I could draw. All my early stuff is full of the same old pictures. One day though I had a bit of a revelation and realised that I was never going to improve if I didn't stretch myself. Ever since then I have written comics without reference to what I feel comfortable drawing. Also, seeing as my drawing style is child-like I feel like I can get away with the dodgy stuff.
DS: ...they're all based in Melbourne and I'm in Sydney.... So there's no local comic scene in Sydney?
ACC: As far as I know there is no regular comics thing going on here though I could well be mistaken. Maybe it's just that I'm not invited :) The Melbourne scene though is just so well organised. John Weeks was instrumental in getting people to talk with one another and share ideas and even though he's gone it has continued and really flourished. I think part of the reason why it's been so successful is that the individuals involved are quite like-minded and get one with one another on a social as well as "professional" level. Also I think that logistically it's easier as Melbourne is a much friendlier city in terms of attitude, public transport and venues. Us Sydney folk are too absorbed in working crazy hours so that we can pay the exorbitant rent for our falling-down inner city terrace houses.
DS: Are the people who call comics art out of their minds or what?
ACC: No, I love 'em. They're all mad but I love 'em.
DS: When was the last time you said sorry, and why?
ACC: To you, for taking so long to respond to your questions.
DS: I picked up a copy of the issue of Big Smoke you did in Fiji and really enjoyed it. Did you see any signs of other people creating comics there?
ACC: No - not at all. Fijian culture is a very verbal and physical one - they tell stories and sing songs and dance but very rarely write anything down or draw pictures in order to communicate ideas. For me, drawing comics while I was there was fantastic fun. It was a very creative time in my life as I had no distractions like TV. I'd just go home each day after work and sit at the table and write and draw about my day. I was completely absorbed in the process and not the outcome - I never did any roughs - it was all just straight from brain to paper, very different to the type of stuff I'm doing now which is really finely tuned.
DS: Are you happier with how things turn out with the fine tuning?
ACC: Mostly I'm happier with my stuff now because it's very considered - I know that I've really thought about what approach to take and have usually tried my hardest to get the best possible result. But every now and again I see some of my old stuff and really like it - some of it was really quite funny and it all has a spontaneous and flippant quality that my new stuff lacks completely. But in general, yes, I'd say that I'm certainly a lot less embarrassed of my new stuff.
DS: Where do you "draw the line" regarding what issues you deal with in your autobiographical work?
ACC: I have no hard and fast rule on what I do or don't include - I just take it on a case-by-case basis. I guess it also depends on how I'm feeling at the time. There's some stuff I look back on now and feel very embarrassed by but at the time I didn't mind including it. In general, I really like my comics to be honest so I try not to stray too far from the truth.
There's a comic in one of the most recent issues of King Cat where John P is telling a story about how he found a tick on himself. Scared that he may have another one on him, he takes all his clothes off and starts examining his whole body for ticks. In one panel he is using a hand held mirror to check in his bottom and he's thinking If I end up writing a comic about this I wonder if I'll include this scene?
I think that'd have to be my favourite panel ever.
DS: LOL That's a good story! Some people criticise autobiographical comics, saying it's comics by people who can't think up a story. As a creator and a reader of them do you think this is a valid criticism?
ACC: The thing that springs to mind immediately are those comics that claim to be autobiographical but are actually re-telling someone else's stories. I really hate those comics, and I think it's valid to say that they're created by people who have no story ideas!
I think it takes a certain amount of courage and clarity to be able to write up an autobiographical story. I can honestly say that I've never actively disliked a genuine autobiographical story because, in a way, they're not open to judge. Autobiographical comics, whether I'm making them or reading them, are how I make sense of life.
DS: If you could get anyone to illustrate one of your stories, who would you ask and why?
ACC: Sorry, I don't know.
DS: Describe the view out your front door.
ACC: The view from the front door is obscured by our three dogs who take up post on the pink circular rug pretty much whenever they can. Unfortunately they don't just sit there - they wait until someone walks past or until they see a bird, a cat or another dog and then they go nuts, barking hysterically and the like. Our street is pretty quiet which makes their carrying on seem even louder and more hysterical than it actually is.
DS: What's the best bit of advice you've been given about doing your own comics?
ACC: Over the years people have been really forthcoming in offering encouragement and support but I can't really think of any advice that anyone has offered up. One of the most important things that I've learned is that it's possible to strip things down without dumbing them down. Until I realised this I used to spell everything out in my comics - everything was explained and labelled. Now I try to spell out, explain and label as little as possible without sacrificing the story that I'm trying to tell. It's been a much more successful and challenging approach for me.
DS: What do you say when people at work find you using the office photocopier to make comics?
ACC: Ah, see, the trick is never to get caught using the work photocopier for comics cause then you have to explain yourself! Believe me, some of my most anxious moments have been spent waiting at the photocopier or the printer listening out for footsteps of my boss or colleagues.
Before you even start to print or copy comics at work you've got to get organised. First, wait for the appropriate time, lunchtime is usually good, and then get some decoy papers ready. The decoy set of papers are what you pretend to read while waiting at the printer for a 16 meg image file to print or alternatively to place over the top of the comic pages as they're coming out of the printer or copier. It's also important to have a contingency plan as sometimes, when you're about to get sprung you have to take drastic action. This involves actually switching the printer or copier off and creating a paper jam. It is very drastic but sometimes it has to be done. Of course, after you've taken this course of action you face the dreary and equally stressful task of fixing the paper jam and making sure you have removed all the concertina comics from the guts of the machine before the whole stressful saga begins again.
I am yet to get caught, though once I did leave my originals under the lid of the copier overnight! Thankfully I got in to work early enough to remove the evidence before I was discovered.
DS: What's the thing you find hardest to draw?
ACC: Oh, everything! Really! The drawing is always the biggest challenge for me and everything I draw is equally challenging. It's very frustrating sometimes and leaves me throwing things at the wall. If I'm ever really stuck I'll persuade Richard to draw it for me and then I'll copy his approach and incorporate it into my comic.
DS: Do you have a web page?
ACC: I've been maintaining a page about my little girl, but I don't have a comics site up and running at the moment. Maybe that should be next on my list.
DS: What's the URL of your little girl's page?
ACC: Oh, it's really daggy Darren but if you're interested you can see it at: http://home.iprimus.com.au/ambercarvan/
DS: Wow, now that's thought provoking writing. Thanks for taking the time during a busy time to answer the questions.
Amber can be contacted via i_love_pigeonsSTOP-@-SPAMhotmail.com
An Amber Profile
John Weeks chats with Amber
One of Amber's Comics for sale
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