This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 15 October 2015.Kate Brown was a lovely person to interview, but the process of getting this to print was a bit convoluted. The interview was arranged while I was Arts and Lit editor, but conducted after, and with a massive summer break in between issues, and then it was significantly cut to fit the new format the editors were going for. So here’s my longer, original version. As ever, edited for re-upload.
Kate Brown has had an eclectic career, working on projects as wildly various as children’s adventure stories, Marvel’s Young Avengers and even a comic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was recently hired as a guest artist on the Kieron Gillen’s critically acclaimed series The Wicked+The Divine, and she was kind enough to meet with me to discuss the comics industry, collaborative storytelling and the power of fairy tales.
IWe kicked off with The Wicked+The Divine. Was there any pressure in working on a book that had been so acclaimed? “Definitely. It’s a bit of a hard gig, after Jamie [McKelvie] and Matt [Wilson], because they’re very highly regarded, for good reason, so it was a little bit scary, but at the same time, because I’d worked with them before, that eased up on the pressure a bit.”
Did working on WicDiv bring any unique challenges? “I was reading the issues as they were getting released, and I had no idea what was going to happen. I just had to read it as it went, and the issue before mine, issue eleven, had quite an extreme amount of character death, including one of my favourite characters, and I was really upset about that. It was an emotional challenge, actually, because I was really into the storyline, and having to be suddenly professional about it was a bit tough. Technically, it had a lot of things that I do find very difficult. There’s a big fight scene in issue twelve, and I don’t feel very confident drawing action. Even though I’ve done a fair bit of it by now, it’s always out of my comfort zone, so that was a little bit tricky. So it was emotionally and technically challenging!”
Brown has also worked for British comic The Phoenix, including the recently-concluded strip Tamsin and the Deep. How does that format compare to the American industry? “I’m working as a partner on Tamsin with Neill Cameron, who’s doing the writing, which takes the burden off. But obviously I have done series before with them where I’ve been handling everything. There is definitely a different approach. With The Phoenix, a lot of the people who were behind the project came from the book publishing industry. We got a lot of guidance with writing for children, and learning how to make things appealing— I do struggle with that sometimes, with my writing. My personal stuff does tend to lean a bit adult, and I did find it hard to knock it back to something less grim. I would say the comics I have done this year have been a little bit on the grim side, but I guess that’s just me, really! I’ve kind of accepted that.”
Brown’s solo projects are also a key part of her career. She recently produced the spectacular fairy-tale-cum-poem The Unicorn and the Woodsman, and in 2011 she received great acclaim for her graphic novel Fish+Chocolate, which reinterpreted three folk tales for the modern day. What is so attractive about these old tales? “I’m fascinated with fairy tales, folklore, that kind of thing. I particularly like them because they’re so loose, you’re able to interpret them in so many different ways, and they’ve stayed with me as I’ve grown up. As I grow and experience different things, I’m able to read different things into it, even if it’s only a tiny, tiny 200 word story or something I’m always going to get something different out of it, because of the kind of loose style. I love things that require repeated readings, I get the most joy out of those and I love thinking about them. I wanted to try, as much as I could, to replicate that kind of thing within my own work. I wanted to try and give that opportunity to other people as well. I realise that it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but my true love is these kind of interpretive aspects of literature.”
What’s it like to write something you’re also drawing? “I’ve really only worked with two writers, Kieron [Gillen] twice, and Neill [Cameron] one and a half times, and it is very different. When I’m creating the actual artwork, I’d say that it’s not really any easier. When I’m writing my own “scripts”, I don’t really do that classic kind of ‘page one, panel one, this happens’. I write paragraphs, and I’ll also write dialogue. Sometimes I don’t even break it into pages, I’ll just work straight off that, and go into thumbnails and rough layouts. You don’t really get that kind of opportunity when you’re working with a script writer, you’ve got a final script and you need to adhere to that. That was a skill I did not have before I started working, first time I did it was for Young Avengers, and I didn’t have that skill to interpret a proper script. I was totally out of my depth, actually, it was a little bit stressful. I was panicking because I didn’t know if I was getting down what the writer was expecting to have on the page. I’m getting more used to it now, but I still have that worry that I’m disconnecting somehow, I guess because I do come from this background where I’ve done everything. It’s a panic thing for me, I try my best but I guess you’re always going to have a bit of mild disconnect if you’ve got many people working on one book. But maybe that just comes from my point of view. I think I probably just overthink things!”
Kate Brown is among the best up-and-coming artists in Britain today, and has demonstrated a versatility and style which makes her a compelling figure of the British scene. Her self-confessed tendency to overthink things is revealing; the amount of thought, effort and craft put into her work shines through in every panel.