“It was just like a natural story to tell for me because it is my everyday life and what I have found funny or interesting” – This is what local comic book creator Maria Flower tells me about her debut graphic novel, ‘A Cinema Near You’.
Born here in the Granite City, Maria has spent most of her life being quite creative. While she has always had an interest in art and reading it was not until she studied English Literature at The University of Aberdeen where she became introduced to graphic novels.
Maria has recently released her debut graphic novel, ‘A Cinema Near You’, a humorous autobiographical comic that is mostly set in her workplace, an independent cinema, that is staffed with other creative individuals and interesting characters.
Despite being her first release, ‘A Cinema Near You’ was just recently shortlisted for the 2019 Laydeez Do Comics Awards. For those of you who don’t know, Laydeez Do Comics are a voluntary organization that celebrate the works of female-identifying graphic novelists.
I had the pleasure of recently sitting down with Maria at her book signing event at local comic book store Asylum this past weekend, and she is incredibly interesting and easy to talk to. It was here that I learned a little more about her debut graphic novel, as well as more about herself and her work;
So, we’ll just begin with an introduction. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your work?
So, I was born in Aberdeen, and I have lived here almost all my life. I was also in Australia for one year. I have always been interested in art, both of my parents are artists and they met at Gray’s (School of Art). So, I have grown up doing a lot of different things such as drawing, painting, clay, and sewing.
I have also been quite a big reader, but I didn’t really discover graphic novels until I went to university. I studied English literature there and it was during a ‘controversial classics’ course that we read Art Spiegalman’s ‘Maus’, and I realized that comics and literature could go together quite well. I learned that you could do what you want with a comic, it didn’t have to be Batman or Rupert the Bear, it could be whatever you wanted. I was just doing them by myself as a bit of fun, showing my friends, and then eventually built up to having this little book.
When did you first get involved in comic books and what attracted you to that form of storytelling?
Being quite a visual person I enjoy looking at really nice art work, I think you can express things through that in a different way, and to a different extent than just words. It just kind of made sense to me that English and art should be combined.
You mentioned earlier that you went to university and you studied at the University of Aberdeen. How much would you say that your time there has shaped and influenced your work?
Probably like a fair amount! If I had never went there I might never have read ‘Maus’, and then it might never have occurred to me to get into something like this. So, I would say quite a large amount. I did a lot of reading there that I think was quite important to my development as a writer as well.
You’re saying that it was during your university course that you learned more about graphic novels, and do you think graphic novels and classic literature are treated as the same medium?
I mean graphic novels have recently begun to be respected as a higher art and literature form in the last couple of decades. Maybe less than that. I myself went to university and thought that it was for kids, but I have read so many amazing graphic novels that have been written so spectacularly and drawn amazing. It doesn’t take you long to realize that it is something that should be recognized on the same level as other mediums and art forms.
As a local comic creator here in Aberdeen, would you say that the city has provided you with enough to flourish as a writer and an artist?
I think I have been generally quite quiet, personal, and solitary when I have been doing comics. I haven’t been seeking other people. It has only been recently that I thought it would be good to connect with other people who are interested in making comics, and there is that community and there are opportunities. It has been more of a recent thing for me to be thinking about this, but I have found some groups in Aberdeen on Facebook that have been quite helpful, and of course the comic shops! Since it is more of a niche thing it is not going to be plastered around for what opportunities there are and you probably still have to do your research.
And you are here today with your first graphic novel, ‘A Cinema Near You’, and can you tell me a little about the story and how it came about?
Yeah! It was just like a natural story to tell for me because it is my everyday life and what I have found funny or interesting. It is the kind of thing I would like to tell my friends, or something that I am thinking of in my head. It’s about working at this independent cinema with quite odd characters, and with my personal life I had just gone into a new relationship and that is always quite an interesting thing to write and talk about as well.
I have also read that with this story you wanted to celebrate the traditional form of the humorous comic strip. Was there something that influenced this decision?
I don’t really know. I also love things such as Calvin and Hobbes and old Popeye strips . Doing these 6 kind of panels is the traditional way of doing comics and also having this punch line. It has been built up historically that I thought it was a good place to start as a structure, and it is something that I enjoy – I enjoy that traditional comic structure and humor. I think it works better sometimes when you are using something traditional with a more modern twist. Or, when you mix the two it can make it look more alive, rather than just ‘one or the other’. It’s a bit more surprising and engaging.
I know you are saying that lot of it is influenced by working at an independent cinema. Is there a lot of stuff that happens there that influences you creatively?
Yeah, there are lots of people that work there that are creative and knowledgeable, especially in film, like encyclopedic! It can have its busy moments and it can be quite quiet. So, you have got that time where you are just getting to know your colleague and getting to know some of the customers that come in. So, it is probably a place where you can have the time to notice things more than you would maybe do if you were busy doing something else!
And there is always something different happening, we have these festivals, and there is always something new coming through the door. And it is linked up with other art organizations, so you are always meeting new interesting people there.
You have spoken a lot about the influences for ‘A Cinema Near You’, and you have said that a lot of autobiographical for you. How important would you say that it is to focus on issues such as identity and meaning in any form of creative medium.
Very important. For me it is more like a compulsion. When you are drawing or writing about your life you are understanding it, and I think there is quite a human desire in people to want to communicate what they are living, and have it understood by someone else. It is nice when you can read something and relate to it, and at the same time it nice to write something and have someone sit down and relate to it as well!
Yeah, it always good to hear a story that is similar to your own and something that you can relate to and see yourself represented.
Yeah, I think as well that a lot of the comic writers that I enjoy are male and having a female comic maker and a female main character is going to have a different side of things. Like a different perspective that is probably important for women who are reading comics.
Talking of the female perspective on comics, your graphic novel was recently shortlisted for the 2019 ‘Laydeez Do Comics Awards’. How did that come about and how did that feel for you?
I had been making these comics for a while and building them up, and I joined one of the Facebook groups for comic makers and someone posted the opportunity for this award. It just seemed like the perfect opportunity, a woman comic book writer, autobiographical and maybe working up to a bigger novel. You only had to enter 12 pages, so I did, and then got long-listed and then short-listed. It was great because I had these things that I had just been working on by myself and I have this huge back log of things that I have been doing over the years, like little sketchy things. To then really put out your first thing for people to see and have really positive feedback was just amazing!
With this being your first graphic novel that you have published by yourself,
what would you say was the most difficult aspect of the creative process?
I didn’t really struggle with any of it creatively, because whenever I sat down I never had to force myself to be doing something that I didn’t want to be doing. Things that I probably found more difficult was editing it all. I found it hard to find out which order to put it all in, but it is a passion project so all of it has been things that I want to do!
Apart from ‘A Cinema Near You’, are there any other projects that you have worked on before or any other work that you are looking forward to doing?
Well, when I was in Australia I had these little zines that I sold in independent shops, and they were kind of a take on the coloring in books that were popular at the time. So, I did like black and white outlines of places that I had been visiting for the first time while travelling there, and I bought a twenty-dollar printer than I bought on Gumtree and carried that around a few hostels with me. I had this big backpack and I printed out all of these little zines, and I never made any money of them , but it was just something that I wanted to do.
I was thinking of something that I was quite keen to do for the future. I volunteer with a Syrian family for English teaching, and I would quite like to do a comic book with them. Like workshops for different people who can put different things together in their own drawing style, and it could be about anything. Maybe quite a rounded view on what it is like to be a refugee, and it could be funny stories or more serious ones. That is something that I would like to do, and I have been speaking about that with them recently, and it would depend if there were enough people interested, but it is something that I would like to do!
I think it would be interesting to hear from them themselves. Do you think that graphic novels are a good medium for them to get their story across?
Yeah, definitely. There are some things that are going to be more effective with a drawing style added to the words. Especially something that could have heightened emotions, and I think drawings is just another form of expression that could be something more from your soul. If you think about it, words are already set out for you, when you are speaking with language you are using a formula that is mostly set out, except for slang. However, when you are drawing you can really break boundaries a bit more and be a lot more expressive.
Outside of the graphic novels are there any other creative mediums that have had an influence on your work?
Lots of painters. I like the impressionists and the idea of just doing something natural and on the spot with a lot of feeling involved. I do plan these out to some extent, but rather than drawing every line perfectly in pencil before I’ll just have the rough outline in pencil.
And just the last question! But as an independent graphic novel creator what advice would you give to other people who are looking to follow the path?
Like me, I took a lot of influence from reading a lot of graphic novels and getting ideas from them. Then I would just tell them to keep doing what they are doing and put in loads of hours of writing and drawing. Also, print it yourself.
This is stuff that I haven’t been doing, but it’s things I know I should be doing in the future, since I have just started putting these comics out now. I would also tell people to get involved with social media and their local comic shops. Just try and find other people that are interested in what you do, as they can help you expand from there.
You can pick up a copy of ‘A Cinema Near You’ in your local comic book store here in Aberdeen.
You can also follow Maria on her Instagram at @maria_flower_comics