When I caught Ramzee (the Artist formerly known as Ramsey Hassan) at November’s premier comics convention Thought Bubble, he was one day post-award show. On stage at the Young People’s Comic Award presentation (which he did not win, but top-five nationwide is nothing to sniff at) Ramzee wore a black and white Union Flag robe. Minding his table at TB, he wore butterfly face paint and a T-Rex hood. I’m calling it now: A national treasure.
But that’s going straight to the heart of themes suggested in his award-nominated book, Zorse–nations, belonging, identity, visibility. “Refugee” is a status consistently held by some people or persons, no matter which point in time you might pick. Demographics change, but that some community somewhere is in need does not. When should we start discovering this? When should we learn to welcome and make space? Through Zorse, Ramzee suggests that any child’s answer can be “now.” Kids just wanna make friends.
Appreciating his no-bullshit approach in person, I had to interview this astute, generous, vital cartoonist.
Hi Ramzee! We’re gonna talk about the Young People’s Comic Award, and your nomination thereof, but that’ll evolve out of a more basic chat, I think. Let’s start at the beginning. How’re you feeling?
Still pretty much digesting the outcome of the American election to be honest, which has made me even more zealous about making socially conscious art.
You move so quickly from dismay to determination. Has that always been your way?
Well, not too get too into it, I grew up with a lot of trauma and instability–divorce, coming to the UK with my family as a refugee, going to four primary schools and two secondary schools–you learn to readjust, because there isn’t any other choice. The determination came two years a go when I went to the “Comics Unmasked” exhibition at the British Library. The narrative of that exhibition was that British comics are traditionally subversive and addressed topical issues, which might have been true in the ’80s, but nowadays they’ve been completely gentrified from those roots into being a decadent form of expression for middle class artists. It was one of the things that spurred me into making comics–to tell topical stories and depict the people who are left out of the conversation.
How confident with a pencil were you at that time? Was comics a leap into the unknown for you or a new use for a tool–drawing, writing–that you were already solid with?
I’ve written stories and drawn for years, but Zorse was my first proper go at making a comic. There are a few things I didn’t feel too hot about–my draftsmanship for one–but I think it kinda fitted with the loose aesthetic of the comic.
The response to your first proper go has been pretty amazing–a nomination for the Young People’s Comic Award! What’s that meant to you?
It’s all a bit bonkers, but for me it meant that it struck a nerve with some people and, for this award in particular, the comics are given to young people in schools to read and discuss, which is awesome exposure for comics, because the readership is a bit on the old side. And they tend to be very esoteric and discussed in niche spaces, but also for young people to be discussing the topic of refugees in the current global political climate has got to be a good thing, right?
You published this comics yourself, am I right? That makes the nomination even more unusual, even more impressive. After receiving such prestigious recognition, have you received inquiries from publishers? Will Zorse be hitting Waterstones soon?
I wish! No inquiries from publishers, big or independent, but to be fair I haven’t approached them either. One of the many reasons I got into comics after years of reading them was because I got tired of being a runner up in writing competitions and after winning a film pitch contest where the only dissenting vote came from a film producer, I decided to tell my stories via comics, because they offered me a similarly wide canvas that film did, and I didn’t have to beg permission to be allowed to tell my stories. It wasn’t because those stories weren’t good, because I was doing good in competitions, but because there are lots of factors, mostly nothing to do with the quality of the story, why a film doesn’t get made. If a publisher got in touch and wanted to take on the printing and marketing duties I’d of course be totally down with it, but right now I’m getting everything from writing and collaborating with fantastic artists and with every story getting a little bit better. I have four wildly different books cooking up for 2017.
Tell us about’em. Any more kids’ books?
I’m in the very early stages of a kids’ mystery adventure book where one of the key themes will be gentrification from the perspective of the underclass. It’s just a bundle of notes at the moment.
Ooh. Mystery adventure is such a good genre for exploring social issues and institutional imbalances! It’s also a genre very well-suited to a few techniques you use very nicely in Zorse–the typographical excess, the first-person monologue. Are you comfortable in these areas and looking to work further into them, specifically, or is it just a bonus as you follow the muse?
[pullquote]Exploring the relationship between text and illustrations in comics is fun, because it’s pretty much an unplundered well.[/pullquote]Exploring the relationship between text and illustrations in comics is fun, because it’s pretty much an unplundered well. I recently read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins with my jaw to the floor–it’s sooo good! I was really blown away by how the story was told–multiple character POVs, and it brilliantly uses multi-textual sources like letters, diaries, and newspapers to tell the story. What I loved most was that it was this roller coaster mystery with outrageous twists, big secrets, and high stakes action, but it was all spurred by real life social injustices of the day. It gives it some value instead of it just being solely escapism. I came away after reading it like, “What messed up social injustice is happening in the UK right now that I can use to fuel a rollicking mystery?”
Right now I’m at the plotting stage–the BEST stage, because I’m just throwing up ideas, and I haven’t started properly writing it yet. Then the torture will begin.