My latest conversation is with the graphic novelist Rachael Ball. She is an inspiring educator and an incredible visual storyteller, excellent at representing inner lives and tying it into a naturalistic narrative told in a comic book world.
I love her sense of nostalgia and her interior animalism
Aspects of the self are turned beneath in her pen into character and avatar, whether penguin, wolf or crazy inventor. She uses many aspects of children’s storybook worlds and there’s something of the golden age of children’s fiction that has informed her very adult themes. For me, having been brought up on Puffin books, I see many influences from those writers spreading into her drawings. She is also skilled at using the softness of pencil and the fragility of mark-making, and the instantaneousness of these forms to create work that is not only very expressive but also stunning and visually surprising.
There’s so much to learn from Rachael it was a delight to interview her and listen to her answers even though she took a very long time, having to fit it in in-between her summer reservoir swims and cycling marathons!
Jude Cowan Montague: Rachael, I came across your work first with The Inflatable Woman. It was very inspiring for me. How did you sublimate the intimate experience of illness using a graphic narrative?
Rachael Ball: Narrating intimate experience is a weird one, isn’t it?. After illness or trauma, there is a sense of unfinished business that often draws us to recreate experiences, perhaps in an urge to understand it. Whether or not that’s interesting to others is the risk we take when we put pen to paper. Once we do our bodies navigate us. They tell us how much we can stand to relive; drawing us in or pushing us away saying ‘Talk about this! Or ‘Not ready yet!’ A lot of the imagery I used in The Inflatable Woman was hardly invented at all, although it seems fantastical. The experience of having cancer and going through all the strange treatments, bodily changes, and interventions felt like being in a strange movie of someone else’s making…perhaps from a David Lynch movie! Ordinary experiences felt similar but oddly suspicious. The only thing I can compare it to is when I had a fever as a child and every day became terrifying. The heightened raw experiences generated by fear, cancer treatment, and heightened excitement from a love interest during internet dating created strange alchemy bubbling below the surface. Unsurprisingly I had semi hallucinations, imagining death following me onto the tube or paper dolls soaked in blood marching down Charing Cross Rd.
Jude Cowan Montague: What things were you conscious of and what things weren’t you conscious of but which you feel worked. For me, I loved the surreal quality of the drawings which took it inside the self as well as into the harshness of encounter with the health treatment systems and the fragility of the body. Tell me about this from your point of view as the writer and drawer of this.
Rachael Ball: When you are trying to create a sense of empathy with your audience, you take advantage of the vocabulary you have to hand as best you can. Graphic novelists don’t have music to convey the feeling of key moments in their story which is one of the most powerful of human senses. But we have colour, suspense, expression, composition, tone, etc. to play with. One of the most powerful elements we can use to exploit emotions is a visual metaphor and sometimes it does feel like exploitation! With that, we then have the power to raise or lower the level of its impact. We don’t want the visual metaphor to appear too obvious and cliched, but also we don’t want it to be too ambiguous, so our reader is confused. The other great thing about visual metaphors is sometimes we can be very clear about what we are doing and other times it might occur to us later what the symbol might mean. Which is so cool that there is perhaps a narrator concealed from ourselves ..the writers! The visual symbol in ‘The Inflatable Woman’ where Iris’s doctor opens her chest and there’s a dead tree inside with tumours hanging off the branches was inspired by a creative visualisation I did with a friend of a friend soon after diagnosis. She asked me to picture what I saw inside and that was all I could see. I got a bit weepy afterwards! Creative visualisation is an—amazing tool for diagnosing your feelings and place in the world and reframing it and renavigating your future. I recommend to anyone interested to check out Dina Glouberman’s work on it. I reimagined the internal tree as healthy and growing new buds which helped me feel strong. I’m not saying the visualisation cured me, but it made me feel positive about my life and future.
JCM: Wolf is another important, substantial narrative. Grief. Loss of a parent. Loss of a partner as well – I found I really empathised with the mother as well as the son in this story. What I loved as well was the evoking of a 1970s childhood. The outdoor nature of playback then. The allure of machinery, the inventor, the maker building odd things in the shed. The association of maleness with these activities and then the loss of a male role figure, how that becomes intertwined with these physical things. Can you tell me something about why you chose this story and how you feel that the graphic narrative was right to tell this story?
RB: Something goes on with using words and visual imagery. Creatively you are accessing different parts of your brain, there must be something in that and the act of revisiting memories, you get to dip your toe in again to past events..only you are in control this time. You can feel the emotion; you can step forward and back as you wish. It’s sad if it’s those that you have lost that you are visiting, but it’s a wonderful gift that we all have as well to go back in time and be there with all that.
I think in the future, I will actively search and select stories but with Wolf and The Inflatable Woman they were both life narratives that I wanted and to a certain degree needed to tell. Many years earlier, I’d created an illustrated book about losing my Dad. When I was a child, I dreamed he’d gone to live in a very tall building and his work was so demanding he couldn’t come home. And when he returned, no one knew how to relate to anyone anymore. It seems that Wolf was a long time coming! So you’re right, why did I write it later? I haven’t a clue. I started planning it whilst I was finishing TIW.. like a relay. I didn’t want a dry spell between the books. I hadn’t known how to approach the story about my Dad without it being the story of how a woman grows up without a father. And I didn’t want it to be that story. Maybe because I don’t understand that enough. I have a file of various half started ideas and thoughts. One of them was a kid’s book I worked on for eight years then scrapped called ‘The Wolf Who Lost His Hat.’ (I roped my talented cousin Lee into helping me rewrite it and we couldn’t make it work.) It suddenly occurred to me that the Wolf story and the story of my Dad together could create something. And that’s when it became the right time—a big pinch of happenchance.
Jude Cowan Montague: Influences! I see the influence of Daumier in your work, I’m sure you had told me before that he was an inspiration for you. Could you tell me more about how you were drawn to him and why?
Rachael Ball: I love artists who work with character and love people, Daumier is all about that for me, he’s very humane. He saw the wit, warmth, and tragedy in the human condition and that makes him timeless. Other influences:
Jules Feiffer, Giles, Jillian Tamaki, Mattotti, Posy Simmonds, Claire Bretecher, Clement Ouberie..tons more. So much past and present talent out there!
JCM: Materials. You’re known for working creatively in pencil, but I know you work in other materials too – in watercolour. Can you tell me something about your work with pencil and other media, the strengths of particular materials for your work?
Rachael Ball: The pencil is one of the most sensitive materials I feel. Oddly I find it very painterly. Almost more painterly than paint weirdly. It’s the ability to create that tonal gradation and sfumato effect that’s quite tricky in paint but easy in pencil. There’s something very nostalgic about pencils too isn’t there? It’s such a multi-skilled medium and heavenly in its simplicity. One of the reasons I chose to work in pencil for ‘The Inflatable Woman’ and ‘Wolf’ was I have to admit purely practical. I could work on the book anywhere, cafes, trains, in bed, and all I needed was a pencil, sharpener, and A4 sketchbook. My friend Suzy bought me a pack of Palomino Blackwing pencils (the Queen of pencils), and I was away!
‘The Patsy Papers’ will be in colour, so I’m looking forward to the sensuousness and language of colour again. Bring it on!
JCM: I’m interested in dialogue at the moment. Would you share with me some thoughts on dialogue in your own work and that of others?
Rachael Ball: I love good dialogue. Dialogue is the lightning in the fire and the drum of the rain on the roof. It’s got energy and edge. It’s one of the areas that allows everything to flow. Unnatural, stilted conversations are the crack in the pavement that will make everything in a story comes crashing down. Good dialogue like good stories starts with well-formed characters. Know and love your characters, warts and all and they will do all the work of writing great dialogue for you. The conflict between characters is also one of those tips often mentioned in screenwriting articles. It can seem a bit forced like putting the cart before the horse, but I think it’s a good one to be aware of when scripting. Character conflict can make dialogue rich and interesting. That and don’t let your characters say what they mean. I like that one; it makes you realise how often we complain about stuff we don’t care about at all. When really we are upset because our friend/partner didn’t ring, and really we are upset about that because maybe they don’t love us at all and we are upset about that because maybe, just maybe we are un-loveable. The layers of dialogue and what it hides and reveals is fascinating. How little we communicate with words and how much we convey with physical expression and pauses.
The only thing I hanker after with cartoon strips is the musicality and rhythm of sound. Wouldn’t it be lovely to make a film just about that?! The pure joy of conversation. The cadence and rhythm of how people talk are denied the comic page, but you can go along way with prose devices and pauses. I really like pauses. They can speak volumes. The exchange of two comrades or adversaries, the yes, no, yes, no of conversation switched off by a sudden silence or the silence of wonder when two characters are held together by a thread sharing a moment in time…wonderful!
JCM: Tell me about your current project. What is it, what stage is it at and what thoughts do you have about it at this moment? Obviously, we are all working through lockdown and beyond, during the COVID period. Has this affected your current project?
Rachael Ball: Unexpectedly, COVID gave me the time to immerse myself in the planning of my next book. Like many freelancers, I lost a lot of teaching work, but that opened a lot of space to focus. I’ve been very stop-start with this project for the past few years and distracted by teaching projects So the past four months I’ve been able to move from a truculent teenager avoiding putting pen to paper to enthusiastically building up the bones, plaiting up the muscle and filling in the flesh of my next book. Now I’m at the point when I’m jumping out of swimming pools with new ideas or searching for a pen in the middle of the night as I’ve just had that gem of an idea that’s finally, finally glinting all turquoise blue at me from the bottom of the deepest, blackest well in my brain!! YAAY!!
‘The Patsy Papers’ is based on my experiences teaching in secondary schools. It poses a few questions- what is the value of education and looks at the hierarchies of power within the school and looks at a newly qualified teacher learning how to teach. She questions what authority is and transforms herself through personal difficulties. The book is based on my last two years of teaching. Three and a 1/2 years ago, I was teaching at a small secondary school with above-average results and a great ethos imparted by the Head, which resulted in pretty good behaviour by the kids. After a negative Ofsted, the Head retired; a new Head was appointed and the school rapidly went downhill. It all had the air of tragedy about it for everyone who knew the old school. The new Head that came in stripped away much of the old strengths that the old Head had put in place. It felt like the heart of the school, its values and culture were pulled out and much of the scaffolding that supported the school community- Heads of House, SEN support, Heads of Department, the valuable, wise sermons and assemblies were hacked away. The new Head didn’t appear to see it as her role to support staff or maintain behaviour online and her attitude was dangerously casual and inconsistent. Subsequently, behaviour slipped and the school went downhill. When you work in a school, the atmosphere and quality of behaviour is almost visceral. It’s like you are all, every adult and child an organ, living and breathing and interconnected in the body that is the school. That body can’t thrive if organs are ignored and corrode. You can feel your interconnectedness and the energy and wellness of the school at all times. You can feel it inside like a thread. And when it’s not well, you feel it in the pit of your stomach..every day. A good Head needs to be sensitive to human values, emotions, and needs and have high expectations morally and culturally. The new Head treated the school like an expendable business, then moved on. The school closed down this year.
I think it’s very tragic. Politics and austerity are leaving schools very vulnerable. Many schools need radical support. We see it everywhere at the moment, business models and the economy is King, sensitivity, nuance, wisdom falls to the wayside. Most schools and teachers are doing an amazing job, but more and more teachers are getting burned out by being expected to multi-task every minute of the day and the emotional pressure is huge. Many teachers who now join the profession see it as a stepping stone to another career because it’s simply too hard to sustain that level of hard work and focus.
The drive to over assess is polluting and takes away time for kids to learn properly. The real experience of learning can’t and shouldn’t be tracked and documented in a spreadsheet. Grades are without value in comparison with the love of the subject. Instead, grades are there to create a meritocracy that only helps a small percentage of pupils and undermines the rest. Encouraging competition over grades feels like encouraging kids to play a kid’s game.
Anyway, that’s the back of the story, the flesh of it is the interplay and hierarchy of the teacher characters and pupils within the school, their power play, and Patsy’s important journey transforming from one kind of person to another. There will, of course, a mysterious forest!!!
JCM: As an important educator of illustration, could you tell me about what you like to bring out for your students. What do you think graphic storytelling, particularly graphic memoir, can do for people’s lives? Is this continuing during lockdown, are you running online classes? Also please tell me about any institutions for illustration that we could be supporting at the moment.
Rachael Ball: I missed my one-week ‘Graphic Novel Your Life’ summer course at the HOI this year. I missed the fabulous buzz of creativity. It’s like the best energy from art college, condensed and hot housed into one week.
I had thought about moving towards online teaching after COVID shut real-life teaching down but decided to go the other way and work on my book. It looks like I will be running my House of Illustration graphic novel workshops online next year. My Art Academy’ Design a Children’s Book ‘course starts as normal in real life with a much-reduced class size on Thurs evenings from 8 October.
Other than that, I’m mentoring some brilliant and teaching some students for Pathways (a 2-year initiative to grow diverse kid’s book illustrators.)
I also mentor for the Art Academy and LDComics. LDComics have run professional development workshops for cartoonists in the past as well as creative residencies and we are sure to run more in the future so if you’re interested sign up for the newsletter.
JCM: As an important co-ordinator of Laydeez Do Comics along with Nicola Streeten, Wallis Eates, Emma Burleigh, Charlotte Bailey and Lou Crosby can you tell me something about what Laydeez Do Comics are up to now, for example, the mentoring scheme. I’m lucky enough to have four online sessions with Karrie Fransman and believe I am really benefitting from them. Please tell us more about the scheme and who is mentoring – are there places available? What can people expect to get out of this opportunity?
Rachael Ball: LDComics are rolling out the mentoring continuously throughout the year, so if you check, you will see who is available at any one time. There are lots of great female graphic novelists to choose from:
People can book a package of 4 hours of mentoring and these are conducted online and are shaped by whatever the mentee wants to focus on, be it planning a story from scratch, shaping, and refining an existing project or/ and professional tips.
JCM: Finally, please take this opportunity to tell us anything important in your work right now that hasn’t been mentioned. What are you up to? What plans do you have going forward? Are there any unrealised projects that you would like to see come to fruition? What would you like to do that you have not done, or may even never do – a fantasy project?
Rachael Ball: The French version of ‘Wolf’ will be released soon with ‘Presque Luna’ so I’m really looking forward to seeing that!
My childhood desire was to write and illustrate children’s books. I’m still working on that one and currently have a children’s book ‘little Pea and the Alien’ being considered with publishers.
Unrealised projects would be a story I wrote whilst having chemotherapy some years ago. It’s called Shadows and somehow, someway I will go back to that when the time is right. I fancy going to live on an island for a few months like Tove Jansson to develop it! I do play with the idea, at the back of my mind of mixing up media, introducing dance, music animation but perhaps at the end of the day I am better being a one-woman band.
At a time when fine artists are increasingly using references from graphic novels, comics, popular visual storytelling forms, to give a contemporary power to their work I want to look at interesting practitioners in the graphic novel form and explore what they are doing right now. Unpublished and published, I want to give the people who are pushing boundaries and producing creative solutions to today’s questions a voice within the fine art community through this series. Previous conversations have been with Wallis Eates, Mark Stafford and Patrick Wray and forthcoming will be Desdemona McCannon, Nicola Streeten, Eze Chimalio and Danny Noble. I will be expanding the series to talk to animators through 2020 and 2021. – JMC