“Wait till we tell Brian what we saw!”
I spotted “The Beginner’s Guide to Being Outside” browsing the small press shelves in plush comics emporium, GOSH! I was looking for something that might get a seven year-old girl into “proper comics” as opposed to the odd issue of The Beano (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as they used to say on Seinfeld.)
“The Beginner’s Guide to Being Outside” is a lovely-looking landscape format comic from prolific small press publisher, Avery Hill. It’s written and drawn by Gill Hatcher, best known in comics circles as part of Scotland’s Team Girl Comic collective.
The Beginner’s Guide… tells the story of Megan, a 14-year old whose mum and step-dad drag her away on holiday to a remote part of Scotland. She starts out refusing to see life beyond her mobile phone screen and complaining about the lack of signal, but soon becomes enchanted by the birds and animals that the family spot around them. Megan is sometimes stroppy, but always sympathetic. It’s an intimate, deliberately low key book that quickly charms the reader. The situations, dialogue and characters are all utterly convincing, while at the same time there’s a fairy tale quality about the whole thing. It’s a lovely life-affirming read that will appeal to a wide age range.
I asked Gill if she’d always enjoyed reading comics.
“The first comic I remember reading was DC Thomson’s Twinkle, which had the tagline ‘specially for little girls’. Then when I was about five or six I moved on to The Beano, as well as Scottish comic strips, The Broons and Oor Wullie. But the comic that really captured my imagination was Tintin. My local library had the complete collection and I would get a couple out each week. I just worked my way through them over and over again. I also read a lot of Peanuts comics, but I didn’t think of myself as a comics fan.”
There was then a gap when Gill didn’t read comics at all until “my late teens when I discovered indie comics and graphic novels by people like Julie Doucet, Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns.”
A Beginner’s Guide to Being Outside is a love letter to the Scottish countryside and it’s wildlife. Was the story was a great excuse to feature the animals or were the animals a great excuse to write the story?
“It was a bit of both really. I’ve always had a keen interest in wildlife and conservation, and a few years earlier I had produced a self-published comic called Go Wildlife, which was a collection of short strips about lots of different animals, including sea otters, kakapos and puffins. The stories were quite silly but usually had a bit of science or a conservation message behind them. It proved to be quite popular and I really enjoyed working on it, so I was keen to do more wildlife comics. However, after a few months of working on ideas, I realised I just wasn’t feeling very inspired by the format anymore. Instead I wanted to tell a longer story with a more human focus. I was aware of various campaigns to get young people reconnected with nature and used that as my starting point. The story then influenced which species featured in the book, although I wanted a basking shark in there no matter what!”
I asked Gill about the process of creating her comic. There are many ways comics can be made, especially when the same person is responsible for producing both the script and the artwork.
“I always enjoy answering questions about the actual process of making comics! The Beginner’s Guide… is the longest story I’ve ever done, as most of my previous work has been collections of short stories or contributions to anthologies, so I adopted a much more structured approach this time.”
Did you work by yourself or with an editor?
“I started off with a synopsis and rough page plan, which I submitted to the publisher (Avery Hill) for the go-ahead. They were helping me with editing throughout the whole writing process, which is another reason I had to produce a more presentable plan than my usual thumbnails and scrawled notes! I also produced some character sketches and did some research into scenery, wildlife species etc. The book is set by a sea loch somewhere along the west coast of Scotland, but I kept it vague to give me more flexibility with the species that I wanted to show.”
And the actual process?
“After the story synopsis was approved, I wrote the script and produced a storyboard, which was basically a very roughly drawn copy of the whole book, before moving on to final artwork. However I was editing constantly while drawing- adding and removing pages, changing dialogue, improving compositions. I suppose this would have been more complicated if I was working to someone else’s script.”
Does Gill draw by hand or digitally on a computer?
“Always by hand. I usually start a page of art with a very rough sketch. I’m quite impatient and usually just want to dive in. Although I do spend quite a bit of time thinking about panel structure, which I think is my favourite part of making a comic, maybe because I come from a design background. I still do all my art with pencil on paper then ink, usually a mixture of brush pens and technical pens. I’ve tried drawing digitally and it never feels right to me. I sometimes colour with ink washes but usually I’ll scan my pages and colour digitally on Photoshop.”
What are Gill’s favourite panel layouts in Beginner’s Guide?
“It’s difficult to choose, but I’m really fond of the sequence where Megan and her mother are walking through woodland with birds in the trees above them. At the Lakes Comic Art Festival comic guru, Scott McCloud, stopped at my table and said the white-tailed eagle pages were ‘harmonious’ and ‘had good flow’. It was so exciting I could have fainted.”
At the end of The Beginner’s Guide it felt to me as if both creator and reader could easily visit these characters again. Any plans?
“A few people have said this to me now, but I don’t have any plans to revisit these characters at the moment. However I’d like to continue working with the ‘reconnecting to nature’ theme, but in a more urban setting, like the one I grew up in near Glasgow. Most of my early encounters with nature were less white-tailed eagles and more collecting ladybirds and spiders in jam jars!“
If someone enjoyed Beginner’s Guide, which of your other works would you recommend they read next?
“If you liked the ‘human’ side of the book best, then I’d probably recommend my work in Team Girl Comic, the Scottish women’s anthology I run. That stuff tends to be a bit more autobiographical. And if you liked the animals best, then Go Wildlife is for you. I’m working on a new wildlife comic for 2015 about seabirds and climate change, so look out for that too.”
A big thank you to Gill for answering my questions. I really enjoyed The Beginner’s Guide. You might do too.
Oh, and the seven year-old girl also enjoyed reading Beginner’s Guide and especially that fact that “it was made by a girl. It’s like the comics you make, daddy, but better.” Gee, thanks.
www. GillHatcher.com – where you can buy Beginner’s Guide to Being Outside for £6. It’s 40 pages, printed in full colour, perfect bound 239x168mm landscape format, with a very fine wraparound cover.
Find Gill and pester her with stupid questions about comics, animals, and animal comics on Twitter at @GillComics
The Beginner’s Guide to Being Outside published by the lovely people at www.AveryHillPublishing.com
Gill’s anthology comic: