Interview with Philippa Rice

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Mixed media comics, cuteness, and cartoons: Claire talks to Philippa Rice about her webcomics My Cardboard Life and Soppy, and the process of self-publishing.

Claire Napier

cardboardlifePhilippa Rice is a mixed media cartoonist and animator. Her webcomic My Cardboard Life can be found at MyCardboardLife.com or on Tumblr, where you’ve also probably seen her comic-turned-book Soppy. Soppy was a  2012 comic book of the month, at the prestigious Page45 in Nottingham, where her diorama work has also been seen. Mistress of mixed media, you can find her animation here or in gif form. Philippa’s comics work has appeared in many compilations including the current girlfest Bimba! For her self-published wonderlands, click here.

The sweetness in your work has huge teeth; the cuteness is wielded; Jessica Lee on the Beat used the phrase “gut-wrenchingly cute”. The most adorable panels in Recyclost, for example (ex: the three-panel introduction of the intern: “since when do we employ a baby? // I’m not a baby I’m an intern”), hurt my heart, contract my diaphragm – there’s just something about your composition and story structure that prevents me from taking the character’s safety (emotional? physical? apparent childhood?) for granted; they activate impotent protective instincts maybe? Is this a conscious or innate quality? How do you cultivate such an atmosphere?

I’m really into cute stuff. Especially cute baby animals! And it interests me, why is one thing cute and something else might not have the same effect. I think about it a lot! Protective instincts are definitely a big factor. Something will probably seem cute if you feel a little bit sorry for it and want to look after it.

“Breaking the fourth wall” is an accepted method of ‘avant-garde’ storytelling in film and television, and it’s not unknown for comic artists to transfer and utilise this same basic dimensional concept. They’ll treat the page or each panel as the television screen/camera combo, and have the characters occasionally peer out. Similarly letterers will sometimes use creative typography and bubble graphics to expand the reading experience; embracing the medium in order to enhance message. Of course, all comics rely on some small amount of media-acknowledgement, even if it’s just the audience engaging with the assumption of ‘progression’ between panels.

But in your work My Cardboard Life you push much further by allowing the characters to organically interact with the physical make-up of their panels! The “We’re Out!” potential storyline suggests that this is something you’re pro-actively interested in. Why were you drawn to this? Did it come out of working with collage, or was it a reason FoR working with collage; does it interest you conceptually or was it simply an inevitable result of experimental art/craftworking?

When I first started making the My Cardboard Life strips most of the jokes were based on the materials the characters were made of. That was the basis of the whole thing really. The character based stuff got added gradually and longer story arcs, but I’m always going back to referencing the materials I use.

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It feels to me like semi-unreality, or acknowledgement of the characters’ secondary existence, is a consistent quality of My Cardboard Life which makes it interesting in a way that transcends both the self-contained strip format and the adventure of longer plotted stories. It’s not the normal kind of metafiction – what is it? Is it special to comics? Special to you? And is this a honed creative technique, or something you do quite naturally?

Someone reading one of my comics can easily see how I’ve made these things,     they’re just cut out and stuck down, so it’s easy to reference that, and having comics where the characters break out of the panels is the next stage up. Colin isn’t just a depiction of a cardboard man, that’s what he literally is too. Characters in a comic that’s been drawn with ink or painted or whatever can only exist in the world that’s been drawn for them, but my collage characters will be themselves wherever I stick them, so it’s not such a massive leap for me to have them breaking out of the panels.

How many times you you tend to thumbnail a page?

It varies, but typically I’ll thumbnail a comic twice, once when I’m writing it initially and a second time more neatly so I can see exactly what I’ve got to cut out.

The cut-out figures you use are so expressive! The timelapse for MCL’s 300th episode appears to show you freehanding them with a scalpel, which is terrifically impressive to me. I wonder if you do or have done a lot of anatomy studies?

Never done any anatomy studies. I’ve done life drawing… ? I used to draw outlines with pencil first and cut round the lines, but doing it freehand is much neater. If it’s something I’m not used to cutting out I’ll practice by drawing it a few times first.

You’ve been working on My Cardboard Life for many years and have barely missed an update! That’s a long time and a lot of work. Is sticking with the same title and characters a… business strategy, I guess, or just what you’ve wanted to do? Can you see yourself continuing indefinitely?

I certainly can’t imagine myself ending it. For the past four years the update schedule has been either five or three comics a week (usually five). If I didn’t do that many, I’d definitely be making worse comics. I can only get interesting ideas by thinking of twenty rubbish ones first, and if I didn’t invent a tight schedule to stick to I’d never finish anything.

The reveal of mutant Colin from Recyclost is just stupendous! Seeing draughtman’s skills (in this case perspective, but also anatomy as above, composition, etc) utilised in the unusual medium of collage really brings home how useful they are to comic illustration (so often a product of linework only, where these mathematical rules blend in and go unnoticed due to our familiarity with lines being used to create them). Can you talk a little about your relationship with these skills? Do you bring any of them from your background in animation?

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That panel was tough to make! I kept thinking when I was making it that it would be so much easier to draw. In the end I cut round my drawing of it. Collage really just wants to be flat. I don’t think I could have made the depth look real without a lot of help from the shadow details as well, and that’s all done with marker pens.

If I’ve brought anything from animation into my comics it’s probably something to do with poses rather than anything to do with perspective.

Speaking of animation, I was foolishly surprised to see you worked in multiple media and multiple dimensions there too! How do you decide which form of image-making is suitable for which story or which job?

Normally if I’m commissioned to do something it’s already pretty clear which medium I should use for the brief. But when it’s my decision, unless it’s something My Cardboard Life related I probably won’t choose collage. Not that I don’t enjoy it, but I always like a chance to try something a bit different.

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How much of an influence on your work or working processes is your decision to publish to the web? Do you view print comics as a level up or just a different mode of publication?

I don’t think it’s a level up in my case because I’m self publishing my own books and mainly selling them to people who have found them through the website.

If I had made the books first, and then put them online the comics would be completely different. A lot of the things I’ve done have come out of trying things out and getting an immediate response. Plus with a book your starting point will be the page size, but I     don’t think about that with the online comics until I have to cram them into pages when I come to making a book.

Tell us about the journey between webcomic and book! How do you make that happen? Who’s helped you along the way, and how have you strengthened that support network?

In the beginning I used to print and assemble my own mini-comics and sold them on Etsy and I went to some comics and zine fairs with them. That progressed to getting them printed as slightly longer pamphlets, still at a small scale. When I brought out my big book collecting the first two years of comics, it was quite a scary thing to do, but because I’d been selling these smaller things already, and people were asking me when I would bring out a big book, I had a good idea of how many I could sell, so It wasn’t really a risky decision at that point.

I ask my friends and Mum for advice sometimes, but my main tactic is to research a lot so I can make informed decisions by myself.

Social networking and/or social media: how much do you do, how much does it help you get your work seen, and what’s your enjoyment/drag ratio of social media management like? Do you have any advice to share?

Definitely a great way to get your work seen. At the moment I post every new My     Cardboard Life comic to its Facebook fan-page. I occasionally put some comics and images on Flickr and DeviantArt, and use Twitter sporadically. Tumblr is my favourite at the moment because I feel     like I can put anything and everything on there, plus I love making animated gifs! Oh yeah and Instagram! It seems like quite a lot when I write it down but most of these things I’m looking at to see other people’s work as well so I’m already there for my own enjoyment anyway. Social media works both ways!

Does it take a lot of organisation to sell through bigcartel? Why did you choose to use a sales-only webshop, instead of one of the sites that prints and produces as part of the service?

I don’t know much about the sites that print things as well. Selling stuff directly from me to the customer is the best way to make the most profit. I have to be quite organised or it can get out of control, but printing out labels and packing books are my favourite tasks (because I don’t have to use my brain) so if I have to spend a portion of every day doing that then I’m glad!

You live (I believe?) with fellow comicker Luke Pearson, and worked with him at least once in Paper Science #4. During Forbidden Planet’s interview with you you mentioned you’d not collaborated before that. Your oldest animation “Sweets” – and several other examples in your showreel – doesn’t feature any voicework, only music, and as a webcomicist you continue to provide scripting, plotting and art. What are the pros and cons of working alone?

It’s true! I’ve been living with Luke for a year and a half. Although we did the collaborative comic before that. Actually the only reason that happened was because Luke couldn’t think of a story for the “Science Fiction” theme. I like working alone at my own pace and being in charge of everything that goes into a comic. It was nice to     write something for Luke that one time though, it felt like I’d got away with doing the fun part and then he had to do all the hard work!

Does living with a colleague-slash-competitor noticeably affect your work or your creativity? Has that proximity changed your thoughts or feelings about collaboration – if so, how?

The best thing about it is that we can pool our resources. When we first moved in together I suddenly had twice as many (or maybe three times as many) books and comics to read. And Luke has access to my extensive supply of envelopes and paper supplies.

We often talk about collaborating on something but it’s always on the bottom of the list of things we need to do. We might get around to it one day!

If it’s not too personal a question (it probably is, so please only answer if it doesn’t bother you at all), how do your private careers and personal relationship interact? A lot of creative or artistic people are drawn to others who also create art and sometimes the crossover can be hard to navigate. Especially as a woman in a heterosexual relationship in British society – with our historical inclinations towards suppression of the woman’s career in favour of the man’s – and in a publishing industry with a still-visible gender disparity. Do you have any lessons or advice to share?

Alternatively/hopefully, is this something that isn’t even relevant to you?

It’s a tricky question! It doesn’t bother me at all, but I just don’t know if I’ve got a good answer for it.

I think in the case of me and Luke it’s easy to stay equal because we both work from home, and we both like to work a lot.

What has been interesting is that because we’re both working in similar areas, and being around each other all the time we both get a behind the scenes view on what goes on, it becomes really noticeable when we’ve been treated differently. Not that that really helps anything!

Soppy

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Claire Napier

No-good rotten snake. @illusclaire