"There's no reason to be snobby or look down on comics. Snobbery in general just makes no sense—if you're too cultured to enjoy a great story, it's your loss."
This article is presented by Steinlager Tokyo Dry, a Japanese inspired New Zealand beer. We explored the cultural similarities and differences between Japan and New Zealand in a three-part video series. You can watch the episode featuring comic artist Toby Morris and read our interview with him below.
Since drawing his first comic at 13, Toby's had a leaning towards political subjects. Inspired by Japan's love of comics, Toby wants New Zealand to embrace the entertainment and education potential of comic art. He's on a quest to get Kiwis to take comic art seriously, which means creating stories that address serious subjects with a serious sense of humour. It's no wonder he calls himself 'Pencilsword.'
We caught up with Toby to talk social commentary, snobbery, and why we think we have to leave picture books in primary school.
VICE: What's it like to have made it as a professional comic artist in New Zealand? Did you feel like it was a super unrealistic prospect when you were starting out?
Toby Morris: I honestly assumed I would never have a career in comics, no matter how good I was. I just resigned myself to the fact that I'd never make a job of it. You can think of that as depressing, but in a way I found that kind of freeing as well. I wasn't stressed about it, I just thought, 'I'm doing this because I love it'. I made my first comic at 13 and it felt like it was always my path. I feel really blessed to be making a living from it now.
Why comics over anything else?
I don't even remember consciously starting to do it. I was reading Tintin comics and just got sucked into that world. He's going to all these cool places in the world, but the drawing was also so clean and perfect—that's what I really liked.
So is that the part of comics you're drawn to—the simplicity?
Exactly. It's a narrative, which means there's a real clarity to it. I moved around a lot growing up and comics were a constant in my life. No matter where I was or what I was doing, those books were always the same.
You've lived all over the world, how much inspiration do you draw from other cultures?
I take little bits out of lots of different comic traditions. I love European comics and I've taken inspiration from Japanese comics.
How do those two differ?
I feel like the storytelling in Japanese comics is really heightened and imaginative. It's really dialed up, whereas European comics are a lot more restrained. The Japanese style is more over-the-top in the themes and the storytelling.
You recently checked out the comic art scene in Japan. What was that experience like?
The place is so full of people and there's so much going on. I met a director at a film studio called Studio C and they talked me through the whole animation process, it was super cool. We also went to this crazy comic mall that had such a big range of comics, it was mind boggling. There was also a six-storey art supply store. I'm a mega fan of Japanese brush pens, so I got to go pen shopping.
What was it like seeing firsthand how much more comic art and illustration is part of culture over there compared to in New Zealand?
The scale is crazy. Outside of all the train stations they have newsagents that sell comics. They have weekly comics that come out and they're like phone books. It's a scale that we would never see here. The guy at the comic store told me one of their artists sell six million copies of their comics a week.
I told the guy that if you're making comics in New Zealand and you sell 1,000 copies a week you would be feeling like you smashed it. He was shaking his head and said if you only sell 1,000 copies of your comic in Japan you would be a laughing stock. Cancelled straight away.
Do you think that reflects a difference in social attitudes? I feel like the Western approach is to do away with the picture books after primary school, which sucks because what generation doesn't enjoy a visual aid?
In Japan, there's no stigma. Japan has comic books for teenagers, and old people, and parents. There are comics about cooking, and golf, and history. The genre is so much more varied and part of everyday life. There's no reason to be snobby or look down on comics. Snobbery in general just makes no sense—if you're too cultured to enjoy a great story, it's your loss.
As a comic artist, you're not just an artist—you're making pictures and writing the dialogue too.
If you think of it like a film set, you're doing all the jobs. You're the writer and the director but you're also on costumes and makeup and casting and everything else.
That's a great analogy: from the story's conception to post-production, it's all you.
Yeah, which is cool. I love having a vision for a story and then influencing every factor of it. I love that control.
You don't shy away from dealing with deeper topics either. What's it like exploring heavier themes with comic art?
I definitely like to explore stuff I think about a lot and stuff that winds me up. I've found even a really serious or heavy topic can be communicated best through text and visuals at the same time. It can be really emotional and it works for everyone. It's just such an effective way of telling a story.