Harvey James is an English cartoonist who comes from a fanart background but makes work that is undeserving of that opprobrious title. Many people are familiar with his Mario Brothers comic
which is just one giant long vertical page. You'd remember it if you saw it. The Mario Brothers descend a giant vine and then have a break up conversation before horrifyingly well-rendered drawings of Mario's pained face morph into one another and eventually turn to dust. He also did an amazing 26-page comic
for Vice about his Livejournal friend, Daphny which started out as a fun and cute goofabout and turning a horror-filled journey of rape and imprisonment before rebecoming goofy.
And now he just did a new comic based on the movie, Mask
. (The one about the tragically deformed guy, not the one with Jim Carrey.) We've been internet pals for a while but there are stll a lot of things I don't know about this guy who walks the fine line between fanart and fineart.
Vice: How'd you end up with this "Harvey James" name when your actual real name is James Harvey?
I was inspired by the current wave of amazing Hong Kong comic artists whose work I was very excited by at the time, and still am. There are all these amazing people working over there who are practically unknown in their home country, and their stuff is all exhibited in this one comic shop called KUBRICK. They've all got these wicked names like Little Thunder, Telephone Fung, Lego Wong, and Tat Graphicairlines. For a while we all thought Little Thunder's name was THUNDERLITTLE in all caps, cause that's how it was written in the few websites I could find about her. I guess I started calling myself HARVEYJAMES in all caps to align myself with the spirit of that movement. The idea was that my work would be sort of authorially opaque and mysterious and you wouldn't know whether HARVEYJAMES was a man, or a massive company, or a robot. It didn't really work out the way I wanted since so much of what I make is about me in the bath or whatever, and I'm pretty direct and personable with how I talk on the internet. I've since split my artistic output into two halves. So now you've got HARVEYJAMES covering the fine arty, designy side of my work and then the balls-out, scratchy shit is under my real name. I want to make different types of comics under the different banners.
Tell me about how you are always ripping off Akira.
The other day I was thinking about how I still love most of the shit I loved when I was 11 years old. Gangster Rap, Reservoir Dogs
, Pulp Fiction
, Chris Morris, bacon sandwiches. Other stuff like Discworld novels and Warhammer, not so much. Anyway, Akira
is a thing I loved back then and still do. The first time I saw it I was probably eight and my dad had it on a VHS he got from a bloke down the pub, which was the only way you got to see Japanese cartoons back then. I remember going over to his house to watch it on the weekend and having to cover my eyes for tons of it, and then shutting it off when Tetsuo's intestines spill out onto the floor maybe ten minutes in. My dad's 18-year-old girlfriend made fun of me for being scared of a cartoon. I knew lots of children at the time who would boast about how many Freddy movies they'd seen, but I was never like that. It shook me up quite a bit, and I couldn't get it out of my head.
Finally I got to watch the whole thing late night on Channel 4 maybe a year later. Channel 4's this British TV channel which at the time were committed to showing challenging, experimental programming. It was the first time I ever stayed up that late, and the film was subtitled by the same in-house subtitlers they'd get to do stuff like The Seventh Seal
and whatnot. I had no idea cartoons could be like this--not only was Akira the first time I'd ever seen blood in a cartoon, it was more blood than I'd seen in my fucking life. I couldn't work out who the good guys were--even the hero seemed like a total jerk, and in the first ten minutes a guy we feel sorry for is machine-gunned to death by police. Up until that moment, I'm pretty sure I thought all policemen were nice guys. So the film was the most visceral and compelling thing I had ever seen. There's so many scenes in that film I don't think I'd ever have forgotten, even if I'd never seen the film again--the guy shooting the attack dogs as they leap at him and the dog landing on a parked car, for example. I had nofucking clue what was going on in the story besides that two friendswere being torn apart, but I was totally glued to it--the animation, the physicality of the characters, the pace and music. Kaneda was the first time I'd seen a main character who looked like me in a cartoon--dark haired and skinny, doing shit I'd love to do. I loved the clothes Kaneda and Kei wore, too. Not only that, but the way the film progresses is probably a huge influence on everything I've written since. It starts out in a little bar, but by the end, the film is just clouds and crazy Phillip Glass organs and totally non-linear cut-up narrative and the world's been destroyed. The version I saw that night ended like no other version of the film I've seen since- it just turned into this odd, experimental charcoal animation that faded into a white tunnel and then stopped at four Japanese characters I couldn't understand. Then the film ended, no credits, and the channel announcer's voice came back in.
For better or worse I think that film is part of my DNA now.
Are you making a living at art and comics?
I am broke as fuck, no joke. I've been working on this graphic novel for about a year and a half. As I write this, I am waiting on a phone call from a bigshot at a comic book company I can't name who has offered us a deal. So I'm basically on the cusp between having no money at all and having a lot.
How'd you start doing all these comics about Daphny on Livejournal?
I'm a fucking nerd, so Daphny's a friend of mine I know from when I used to go on videogame forums. As soon as I realized videogame forums are the worst thing ever I quit out and just stayed in contact with the few cool people I'd met there. Daphny has basically the best taste of anyone. She introduced me to Shintaro Kago
, who Vice later started paying to do stuff
for them. He's big news now but for the longest time Daphny's livejournal was one of the only google results for his name. I was an animator for television back then, but seeing her post his comics like "Abstraction"
on her blog was the first thing that made me think "Shit, comics on the internet are an exciting thing." I wrote a load of Kago-inspired comic scripts that I've still not done anything with.
Anyway, it turned out Daphny had a million amazing stories and is a pretty hilarious person, so I started making comics about her life. I guess it got a little tricky because I was trying to write these Ozzie and Harriet situations where her real boyfriend was the long-suffering butt of the joke each week, and I was never quite sure whether he was cool with it or not. The best thing we ever did together was the comic about her going to jail on her 19th birthday, which you ran. I've sort of retired Oh Daphny comics, though I'm thinking about submitting something called "Oh, Princess Daphny" to a British kid's comic called The Dandy
You're one of my favorite in the current wave of working cartoonists. We're all Internet Artists. You, me, Lala, Inechi, the Wowee Zonks... A lot of the work is full of casual pop cultural references, anime and Pokemon being the big ones. The comics feature dialogue based on close observations of how people speak and often get away from the idea of left to right square panels, all this being very post-Chris Ware. Also no more nostalgia for stuff from a hundred years ago. Do you think this is just me being an asshole journalist making up a "trend story" or do you feel like exciting things are happening that you are a part of?
I think you're right that there's common trends in terms of the stuff we're all doing, and I'd put you and Lala and Michael Deforge
and some other people in the box of people who I think are making exciting work in that vein. Since I'm mostly working on this graphic novel, doing work I can't show to anybody, it's hard to feel like an active contributor to the "scene", if there is one.
It's also hard to feel like you're part of something when you've never met any of these people in person. You and Lala and Inechi have all hung out and whatnot, but I'm basically stuck in Scotland with this lightbox. If you don't live in a major city, the internet just feels like a great way of meeting amazing people that you'll never meet.
I heard the comedian Marc Maron say that the person you were in high school is the person you'll be in the comedy scene. I think the same's true of comics. As a high-schooler I had friends, but I never felt entrenched in any one clique--I didn't have a tight group of friends I was a part of. Now I seem to be a small part of nearly every comics subgroup--webcomic circles, british children's cartoonists, mainstream comics circles, art comics circles. Even this Choose a Cat, Draw a Girl
thing I do seems to be making me extremely popular with like 15-year-olds who have a deviantart. But, I don't feel like I fully belong in any of those groups.
The other day the dude from Anamanaguchi, a band on the Scott Pilgrim
game soundtrack, wore one of my shirts onstage. That right there is an "exciting thing" happening--one of our guys gets a major movie and game made of his book, and by a couple of degrees of separation, I get to feel like a part of it. But it's all happening in another city, with people I've never met--if not for a photograph someone took and put online, I wouldn't even know it happened. So it's like exciting things are going on but I'm only able to interact with it like an invisible ghost who can't wave hi or eat the food.
I feel like the Deviantart people are beneath us since all they want to do is make fanart and obsess about other peoples creative properties. You same?
Yeah, it's funny how many people are obsessed with other people's creative properties to the detriment of, like, building their own house. I've never ever listened to Howard Stern, cause I'm not from the states, but there's a thing he said I read in a magazine when I was young which stuck with me. Someone said to him, "You would get a lot more listeners if you played music. How about classic stuff everyone likes like The Beatles?' And he said "Screw The Beatles! I want to be The Beatles!"
Reading it back now it just sounds like your standard, stereotypical asshole thing, but at the time I took as an important lesson. I took it to mean that you'll never become a great artist if you spend your whole time paying homage to other artists. Actually, this is advice I could stand to take stock of
INTERVIEW BY NICHOLAS GAZIN