An interview with Joel Stewart

posted in: Joel Stewart | 5

One of our favourite reads over the summer was Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie on the Road (reviewed here), so it is with much delight I bring you today an interview with the book’s author and illustrator, Joel Stewart.

Joel Stewart. Copyright: Joel Stewart.

Interwoven amongst Joel’s answers to my questions are his selection of 8 books which have influenced him on his path towards becoming an author and illustrator.

Playing by the book: Hi Joel, thanks for joining us on Playing by the book! Let’s start at the beginning… What are your first memories of books?

Joel Stewart: I’ve been told that I used to love Ivor Cutler’s Meal One, and that I learned the whole of Where the Wild Things Are and pretended to read it aloud. I can’t actually remember either of those things, but both those books seem to have a resonance now, so they must have been going in. I feel like my earliest actual memories are of my dad reading Ursula le Guin to me, and a book of Italo Calvino Italian folk tales. Also of taking home stacks of Asterix from the library in Sheffield.

Book choice 1
Where the wild things are by Maurice Sendak.

This is still one of the greatest picture books ever. Not a very controversial view, but there you are.

Playing by the book: I believe you left school at 16 but then went on to take an academic qualification in illustration at Falmouth. If it’s true that “something as personal as drawing you can only teach yourself” what are the benefits of an academic course? What were the highlights of the course at Falmouth for you? What advice would you give to any aspiring illustrators?

Joel Stewart: I was probably being a bit arrogant then, but I do think that one of the best things a course can do is not put someone off! What I mean is that inspiration and space to learn for oneself is a good kind of inspiration. I actually got that in spades at Falmouth. I didn’t get very inspired with technical things (apart from teaching myself photoshop by copying Dave McKean), and I don’t think the ideal mix of technical and exciting is very common on any course.

I didn’t really leave school at 16 I just went on to do a vocational kind of art and design course at a 6th form college. That one was good, but I transferred when I moved and the course I ended up on was not so good. Fortunately I ended up near Falmouth and got onto their amazing art foundation course.

Book choice 2
Meal One written by Ivor Cutler, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.

A warm, weird slice of Cutler, with beautifully dated and wonky pictures.

Playing by the book: From what I’ve read, you’ve an interesting relationship with your computer (eg “Despite being somebody who uses the computer all the time, I’d rather people didn’t“). Are any of your books available as e-books or apps? What do you feel about books going digital? What opportunities and what threats do you see for authors and illustrators in a digital book age?

Joel Stewart: Again I was being a bit flippant. I meant really that often charm is more often inherent in the handmade and has to be kind of injected at arms length in a kind of intellectual way if you’re going to succeed on the computer. Generally though I think it’s always the marrying of the intellectual to the emotional that gets people somewhere. What goes on on screens has all that, and sometimes an amazing power to surprise the maker, which doing things slowly by hand sometimes kills. Computers are great and terrible things.

I think that the Stanley Wells books are going to be e-books really soon, and possibly also the Dexter Bexley books and Addis Berner Bear Forgets.

I’ve yet to see a picture book app that has all the charms of a paper picture book. It’s a contentious issue, but I feel that e-books, for prose and text only books, work rather well because they essentially deliver a very similar experience to real books, and have several real-life advantages (portability of an entire library, weight, font size, and you can read kindles etc. in the bath too you guys, just use a zip-lock bag). E-picture books don’t quite deliver the same replication of experience. The resolution is too low, they’re too small, when there are interactive ideas they are too often retrofitted or unnecessary. I’m sure fantastic things are possible, but the two don’t really compete at the moment as far as I’m concerned.

Quite often an interactive book is essentially a substandard video game, and would be better off being one thing or the other. I’m not knocking the idea, I’m sure fabulous things are being worked on. I just still think the picture book form is a wonderful one, and that it works better in print so far. Maybe there are advantages in distribution and portability similar to prose e-books I haven’t thought of. I do have app ideas that I’d like to do to go with the tv show, but in my head an app is more akin to a video game than an e-book.

From an industry point of view I don’t know what’s going on with e-books, but it’s scary and exciting. I’m not convinced that many people do know what’s going on or what to expect. I love books, but I like my e-reader a lot too, that’s my personal experience. I do get very annoyed at the assumption often made that one cancels out the other, or that e-book users are nerds. A lot of people love physical books, but the thing is that some of the same people love reading more than the object that they’re reading, and those people find great advantages in e-books (and don’t stop buying real books either). I would hate to see weak e-picture books cancel out strong print books, which is probably possible. Hopefully quality will win out in whatever medium.

Book choice 3
The Wizard of Oz written by By L. Frank Baum, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger.

This is the book that made me take the idea of making children’s illustration seriously; some of Lisbeth Zwerger’s finest work, that suits the text so perfectly. I stumbled over it in a bookshop in Boston, having never heard of her, though I’ve since had the pleasure of meeting her briefly in Munich.

Playing by the book: Linked to the question of e-books and apps (at least in my head!), I’d love to know more about the animation series you’re working on (if you’re able to reveal anything). Is a good picture book app anything different from a great animation? What can the two do differently or better?

Joel Stewart: The animation I’m working on will be going out in September, all being well. The first 20 episodes anyway. We’ve made some wonderful episodes so far. Really far far far beyond anything I’ve ever achieved working alone, in any medium. But the work is so hard! I’m exhausted to be honest, and there’s a lot more episodes in the pipeline (52 in total).

I’m not really allowed to say too much I don’t think, but it’s called The Adventures of Abney and Teal and will air on Cbeebies in September this year. It is an all new concept and centres around a group of characters/friends who live on an island in an inner city park. It has a very involved, and hopefully beautiful and unique animation style, and is deeply silly and joyful. Even if it’s going to kill most of the team who are bringing it to you!

The team are all wonderful. If you’ve seen DipDap on CBeebies you’ll already know that there are geniuses at work in Ragdoll studios at the moment, and several have jumped from that show to mine. We use a lot of computers, even though the style has much more to do with the handmade (I’ve handpainted all the set elements down to hundreds of individual plant parts). It’s about charm, not about being a luddite I think. About whether the story is served. The carbon footprint of all those computers is terrifying to me though.

In comparison to apps I just think that I am personally more interested in storytelling in a linear way, and app development would only come after capturing the imagination with more ‘traditional’ story structure.

Book choice 4
The Remembered Visit by Edward Gorey.

I love everything Gorey. In this one I love the waves on waves on waves in the sea drawings, and I aspire to the crumpled sartorial heights of the old man.

Playing by the book: After drawing, am I right in thinking music, both listening and creating, is the next big thing that gives you great enjoyment? I’ve read you “often listen to strange and scary music while drawing sweet pictures.” Could you give us an example or two? I believe you play a couple of instruments yourself (button accordian and banjo) – what other instruments (if any) would you like to be able to play? Have you ever jammed with any other illustrators?

Joel Stewart: Yeah, music is very important to me and is a big deal in the show too. We have button accordion superstar Tim Van Eyken (many will know him as the original songman in Warhorse, and folkies’ll know him anyway) doing some of the music, and another great musician is writing more music to picture and using real instruments as far as is possible throughout.

Personally my music tastes are getting more and more Luddite, and I’m learning the bagpipes at the moment! Not the Scottish Highland pipes, but the Leicestershire Smallpipes (made by my sort-of uncle Julian Goodacre) and the English Border pipes, which are really like the pipes played in central French music, which is really haunting but joyful dance music that I have somehow grown up surrounded by.

I have a kind of obsession with obscure folk instruments actually. We shouldn’t get into it. It’s a whole other topic. I’m even thinking of learning how to make bagpipes one day… Most of my musician friends are not illustrators, which is kind of a good thing. The excellent Matthew Robins is an exception and is fantastic in both fields and many others!

Book choice 5
The Amazing Screw on Head and Other Curious Objects by Mike Mignola.

The silliest, and best superhero comic ever!

Playing by the book: Do you know about James Mayhew’s illustration-to-live-music events? Would you like to try something like this? Or, say, if the Cambridge folk festival had an illustrator in residence would that be something that would be an interesting project to you?

Joel Stewart: Ha! Whenever any other sort of project is mentioned at the moment I start to shiver in panic. Who knows what’s possible when the show is done? I have really enjoyed bringing music together with pictures though. Music and dance together can be a kind of escape from ruminating over pictures for me though, sometimes. That does sound an interesting idea though.

Book choice 6
Der Werkstatt der Schmetterlinge written by by Gioconda Belli, illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch.

I love most things Wolf Erlbruch. I chose this one at random because it isn’t the one about the mole with a poo on it’s head.

Playing by the book: Early on in your career, comics were a big love, and recently it seems some aspects of this love affair are reappearing in your work (eg the speech bubbles in the two Dexter Bexley books). Might you contribute to The Phoenix (the new, reborn DFC Comic)? What about writing a graphic novel in the future? What are your favourite comics (for either adults or children), can you recommend any online comics in particular?

Joel Stewart: Yes, there’s some of that in Dexter certainly. And I’ve really enjoyed geeking out with storyboard artists for the show, as they are universally comics nerds! I did actually try to make a Stanley Wells strip for the original DFC, but I couldn’t keep up. I love comics, both strip cartoons and graphic novels, but I don’t know whether I’ll ever manage a real one. Perhaps one day. I do have a few ideas knocking around. French comics star Joann Sfar has asked me more than once to make a comic for his publishing imprint but I think he’s given up since my response has always been ‘oh, ah, umm, maybe…’ he’s one of very few people I can think of that make comics look like they’re actually fun to make as well as read. Kate Beaton’s online comics are pretty flipping marvellous too.

I have learned a lot about drawing while making the show and working (collaboratively) on 52 stories in so short a space of time, maybe I will have the skills for comics one day soon, but it strikes me as not a simple task, and often not a thanked one.

Book choice 7

Socrate le demi-chien (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3) written by Joann Sfar, illustrated by Christophe Blain.

My French is bad, but I’m sure this is brilliant. Joann Sfar is unstoppable and Christophe Blain draws like an old master, but with all the flippancy of… well… a french comic book artist. It has rude bits. You’ve been warned.

Playing by the book: I’ve read that you’re especially interested in continental illustration. Here on Playing by the book I’m particularly interested in picture books in translation and am gradually working my way around Europe discovering new illustrators. Could you recommend some European illustrators you think are particularly interesting who perhaps aren’t so well known in the UK?

Joel Stewart: Well… Wolf Erlbruch seems to be getting some recognition over here at last beyond the (brilliant) book about a mole with a poo on it’s head. He is a genius. And Lisbeth Zwerger has made some astonishing books. I don’t keep up with contemporary illustration the way I once did, so I don’t know of new stuff from the continent so much. Kitty Crowther and Marc Boutavant are great…

Book choice 8

Original and later reworking of the front cover of The Hobbit, illustratred by Tove Jansson. Copyright: The Estate of Tove Jansson

The Hobbit written by J. R. R. Tolkien, illustrated by Tove Jansson

I probably needn’t explain how wonderful Tove Jannson was. And I hope this’ll be published in English soon, as her Alice and Snark have recently been. This gives such a different spin on the feel of the book. A million miles from Peter Jackson and Games Workshop. Incidentally, she draws Gollum as a giant. I don’t know whether it’s because Tolkien had not yet mentioned his origins, or it’s a metaphor for something in the Swedish translation…

[Zoe adds – to see more images from Tove Jansson’s illustrated Hobbit click here].

Playing by the book: Thank you Joel for taking the time to talk to Playing by the book. We’re really looking forward to seeing your animation series later this month 🙂

Before you go, do pay a visit to Joel’s blog where you can see lots of examples of his illustrations. You can also find Joel on Twitter.

5 Responses

  1. Zoe

    Thanks Donna. I was excited to discover Tove Jansson’s Hobbit, did know about that. And I’m looking forward to watching Abney and Teal with my kids later this month!

  2. Ali B

    I’m so excited by the Tove Jansson Hobbit illustrations! I have to look out for them (and get to her museum one day)

  3. Fred

    Hi Zoe,
    Sophie and I have been fans of Sfar and Blain from their beginning but Socrate le demi chien is far from their best according to us. From blain I would advise “Isaac le Pirate” piracy and adventures with bits for teenagers and youngs adults only. From Sfar the choice is vast, this guy has wrote dozens of “bandes dessinées” in a few years only. The “chat du rabbin” is probably translated in english since it was a best seller here and has just been released as a movie adaptation
    A tale about a cat who speaks and his rabbi’s masters with in depths discussions about jewish identity and religion but accessible to everybody : just brilliant
    We also loved is series “grand vampire” and “petit vampire” as well as his several autobiographicals “carnets”..

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