When 2017 starts off with a broken arm and you and your spouse seperated due to immigration issues, it hopefully can only go up - and it has for UK-based cartoonist James Harvey. Fresh off work on Bartkira and two pages away from finishing up his OGN Mouth Baby, Harvey broke his arm but is now back on track and fully recovered.
He recently completed a back-up serial in DC Comics' Bug! The Adventures of Forager called "Midnight in the Phantom Zone" and a card game which he drew the art for just raised over $150,000 on Kickstarter. But Harvey has bigger plans, and a tongue-in-cheek plan that includes Big Two success, another creator-owned OGN, a Cartoon Network series, and his death.
Newsarama spoke with Harvey about his recent work, his vision for his future, and the real-life problems he's encountered along the way.
Newsarama: James, we’ve been talking about this for several months, since you broke your drawing hand. But you're back, out of the cast and in seemingly full recovery. How is the hand feeling?
James Harvey: It’s good! I’m going to miss the regular appointments at Stafford Hospital (aka “Britain’s Most Dangerous Hospital”, Google it), but I’m pretty amazed at how resilient the human body is. It’s the first bone I’ve ever broken. My hand is just a normal hand now.
Nrama: Injuring your hand would be a major loss for someone who does their work by it - artists, but also writers. What was it like for you?
Harvey: Well, 2016 was just a terrible year for everyone, so when this happened I was just like, “of course.”
My wife and I had a very trying year for a bunch of reasons. Without going into too much detail, in the early part of the year we had some pretty nasty health issues, we had to suddenly find a new place to live, and Zoe had a family member she was very close to die. The one good thing that happened is that we got married in February, which was the best day of our young lives. Then when we went over to Los Angeles to attend a gallery show I organized, I got stopped at the gate- “you just married an American woman a week ago and you’re tell me you’re not here to emigrate? Fuck outta here”, and I got thrown in a back room where a bunch of people were watching the DVD menu of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and waiting to find out just how fucked up their lives were now. So my wife and I, newly married, were then separated for eight months with no idea when the next time we’d see each other again would be.
Getting Zoe her United Kingdom citizenship was a long and expensive process, so it was probably the stresses of me working all hours to pay off our lawyer fees and application fees that led to me punching the back of my office chair - and then realizing I punch way harder than I think I do, or I have the weak skeletal structure of a baby bird. This is just as I was making fantastic progress on this new book, and about to land an incredible gig that would have paid off all our bills straight away.
The year continued kicking us while we were down. When I finally got Zoe over, she broke her toe. My sister broke her leg. In January we made a book that lost a lot of money, because we miscalculated the shipping and handling, which we’re still recovering from. Another beloved family member got diagnosed with a health problem that made all of our problems look like very small fry. Also, I don’t know if you noticed, but someone elected a Nazi into the White House. Even the one subset of people who actually got what they wanted in 2016 (i.e. Trump and the dipshits who voted for him) still seem to be angry about something. Not a good year for anyone.
Nrama: Did you have any revelations about your work or working with your hands in that time you couldn't use it?
Harvey: Yeah, absolutely: that I can’t train myself to work with my right hand. You can cut some of this stuff out if it sounds too whiny. Part of my business as an independent artist is I send out books and prints via mail order, and writing 20 addresses and return addresses with the wrong hand was the most brain-meltingly excruciating thing I’ve had to do in a very long time, maybe since my primary school teacher Mr. Stonier made us all sit indoors on a blazingly hot day and write a five-page essay about fog for sadistic reasons known only to himself. (Postscript: The following week he took ten whole minutes to berate the class about how awful our fog essays were. What happened to this man? What happened in the prison camp he was kicked out of, that made him decide to teach fifth year primary?).
Nrama: So what, work-wise, did you do in your spare time since you couldn’t draw – or address labels?
Harvey: I took the opportunity to get a lot of writing done. I wrote a couple of stories for myself I’ve been meaning to write for a very long time. I also wrote a pretty amazing story for my buddy Corey Lewis, because in the back of my mind was the thought that my drawing hand might never get better again, and maybe writing things for other artists was going to be my whole hustle from here in. Luckily, I’m fine now. I don’t know when Corey is going to make that story. I thought he was going to put it in the next issue of Sun Bakery but then a day later he was like “Nooooo! I’m doing new episodes of Sharknife now!! It’s gonna be baaaaaad!!!” so maybe he’ll get to it in 2019 or something. But this is why we love Corey; he’s a special butterfly fluttering on the winds of his own muse.
Life lately has been like one of those Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Bomb Shop mazes where you think you’ve got a clear path to the treasure chest, but you can’t see the invisible walls of the maze until you bump into them. At which point you just have to stop and find another way around. I’ve been in that maze for a long time now, and the chest is starting to look reeeeeal close, baby.
Nrama: And that turns us to your recent OGN Mouth Baby. The description is a bit mind-boggling - tell us in your own words what it's about?
Harvey: It’s about a young couple who are in their early thirties. Leonard gets Bernard pregnant in her mouth, leading her to give birth to a red, veiny baby who turns into a full-grown walking, talking adult within a week.
At some point after I wrote it I saw the “Raising Gazorpazorp” episode of Rick & Morty, which has a similar premise. My thing explores different themes in a very different way and the resolution is very different, too, so it’s fine. But man! That’s happened twice in the past few months! I had another story idea I’d been sitting on for a few years, and then I saw the exact idea become the first episode of season three of Black Mirror. It’s too bad my shit takes so long to do. Maybe I should just start crapping this stuff out as fast as I can so I can beat these people to the punch.
Nrama: Personally, your work is like watching an auteur's movie - you're pushing limits both visually and with storytelling and dialogue. Would you consider Mouth Baby a natural progression of what you do, or did you consciously push yourself when creating it?
Harvey: I think it’s a natural progression, but it’s also a release from working on mainstream comics.
I had a tremendous amount of fun working on We Are Robin and Batgirl, and while the cooler news outlets loved what I did a few meat-and-potatoes comics bros were like, “I literally can’t look at this, what the hell are these shapes and colors, grass isn’t blue” or whatever. So with this Mouth Baby I was like, “let’s do a book these guys will fucking hate” and I doubled down on the abstraction, the influence of Bauhaus and abstract art, Ukiyo-e perspective. There’s nudity on nearly every page, the people on the subway look like Basquiat paintings, and it deals with themes it would be absolutely ridiculous to deal with in a world where Batman also exists. I wrote it as a play, essentially - the whole thing takes place in one tiny set, with occasional cutaways to the world outside. I think it would make a good short film. There’s no new wave of abstract expressionism in cinema and this would be a pretty great spearhead to such a movement. I think working on cape comics gives me a new confidence about the purpose and potential of independent work.
Nrama: Did that forced hiatus while your arm was on the mend affect your final work on Mouth Baby?
Harvey: Possibly. I only had two pages left to pencil when I had to stop, so it didn’t affect the story at all. But the cover was the first thing I drew since I got my hand back, and I think you can really see the joy and exuberance of a guy who finally got to play with his toy again after having it taken away for ten weeks. It’s the only piece of art I’ve ever done that my whole family have been asking for prints of to hang up in their houses. My dad is hoarding framed Mouth Baby covers right now.
Nrama: Your coloring technique has made you quite the in-demand expert, even being enlisted for Frank Miller's work, Batgirl, and most recently Doom Patrol. What do you think about this subset of your career?
Harvey: I think it’s rad, especially since the coloring style that’s so in-demand is actually pretty easy to do. It took a long time to source the textures and samples of old inks from the 1910s and to figure out and perfect my process, but once I’d done that the actual process is a fairly simple thing. Which is why I was able to do about 30 pages worth of Frank Miller recolours without being paid for it - it was a quick and fun thing I’d do in the morning before I started my actual work. I like that I’ve become the go-to guy for replicating that old-timey colouring process because I’ve looked at thousands of comics that attempted to do a similar thing and thought “man, I could do this so much better.”
I’ve also done a lot of experiments with watercolors and the type of photographic effects used on 2D animated movies in the 80’s. I have a lot of techniques where I’m just waiting for the perfect project to try them out.
Nrama: I've read that in addition to your creator-owned work and art consulting, you're also pitching to the Big Two. Can you say anything about that at all?
Harvey: I am pretty sure I can’t say anything! But this is a good thing; I’ve learned to not talk about anything I’m doing until they are just about to come out. Anything can happen in between the moment your dream pitch gets accepted and the final all clear to actually start on a book. It’s a position I’ve been in more than a few times. So right now: nothing to report.
Nrama: Getting paid for your work is everyone's goal, but do you have anything specific in mind when approaching publishers like DC and Marvel?
Harvey: I think the reason I started studying Frank Miller in such earnest a year or so back is because his career path is interesting to me, and maybe something I want to emulate (I mean, maybe not the latter half so much). I like that he was able to stake out his turf within the mainstream comics sphere while remaining fiercely independent and original. He sacrificed nothing of himself to exist in that world, which is admirable. Of course, It’s easier to say that that’s what I want to do than it is to actually do it.
Nrama: Before we go, last question - big picture, what are your goals in comics, James?
Harvey: 2018: Finish independent graphic novel.
2018-19: Take mainstream fanbase over to Image to do big cash-cow space opera. Bidding war for the movie rights erupts. Buy house.
2020: Start wearing only silver jumpsuits, referring to self in third person. Get own series on Cartoon Network.
2022: Cartoon Network series cancelled due to internal “drama.” Breakdown of home life. Become alcoholic.
2023-2075: Reclusive lost years leading to final death. Documentary about failed movie projects pieced together by lone fan.
2076: Publication of OGN Zygote.