Isabel Greenberg’s debut graphic novel, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, will be published in October, just three years after she graduated from an Illustration degree at University of Brighton. She talks to Rob Fred Parker about making the most out of competitions and staying motivated...
Tell us a bit about The Encyclopedia of Early Earth and how it came to be.
It’s an interlinking series of stories set during an imagined era of Earth's evolution, tied together by an overarching narrative. I don’t want to drop any spoilers, but I will say there are a couple of instances in which an old lady uses poisoned sausages to get her way.
In 2011 I wrote Love in a Very Cold Climate, a short comic about a man and woman from the North and South poles respectively, who fall in love but are kept apart by a magnetic force field. It went on to win the Observer/Cape Graphic Short Story Prize that year.
Through writing it, I began to form the beginnings of a graphic novel. Shortly after winning the competition, an agent approached me. They sold what became The Encyclopedia to Jonathan Cape, and subsequently publishers in America, Canada and Germany.
How did you develop the world of The Encyclopedia?
I took Love in a Very Cold Climate as a starting point, and the story now forms the prologue. I made maps, as well as Russian Dolls and clay figures to develop the characters. I also drew a lot of influence from mythology and folk tales, which I’ve always been immersed in I was encouraged to read a lot growing up, I studied Classics at school, and my Mum and sister are both historians.
What’s your working process like?
It’s a fluid negotiation between images and text. I initially write stories out as scripts, but these change dramatically as I put images together. I draw in ink, and usually add colour digitally — although sometimes I paint onto paper and change the colours in Photoshop.
How was the transition from writing short pieces to a full-length graphic novel?
Learning to craft stories on a large scale was difficult. I looked to my favourite graphic novels for inspiration: Epileptic by David B, The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon, and It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken by Seth. They have stories as satisfying as novels, and reward re-reading — everything I wanted my book to be.
How has your Illustration degree helped your career?
It was so beneficial to spend three years drawing amongst talented peers, constantly putting my work in front of others. I didn’t properly realise what I wanted my work to be until after I graduated, but I wouldn’t have got to that point without the course. Throughout the course, I kept a daily diary comic, which really helped develop my visual style.
How valuable are competitions?
They provide a clear deadline to work towards, and are excellent practice. It was through entering the Observer/Cape Graphic Prize three years in a row that I learnt how to craft comics. I'd advise anyone entering that particular competition that storytelling is as important as artwork, since the judging panel often includes writers.
How are comic events helpful?
They're a great chance to meet people. At a convention, I mentioned to Dan BerryI was finding it hard writing the text in The Encyclopedia by hand. Shortly afterwards he developed a font based on my handwriting, and the book is much easier to read because of it.
What’s your advice for recent illustration graduates?
You need to adjust your expectations. After university, I expected to make it as a freelance illustrator. I’ve had work in anthologies and a commission for The Guardian since, but I've realised that my style doesn’t quite fit commercial illustration. Once I figured out that my talents were better suited to comics and storytelling, things became much easier.
Don’t worry if you need to keep working in an unrelated job, because the vast majority of artists do at some point: whilst writing The Encyclopedia, I worked as a nanny, and I still work part-time. It may take a long time, but keep going: keep being as creative as you can, and make the most of opportunities open to you.
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is published by Jonathan Cape on October 3rd.
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Image of Isabel Greenberg by Lydia Garnett.