Thom Ferrier Interview
Next up to submit to scrutiny is medical comics creator Thom Ferrier;
Can you introduce yourself? What is your background?
My name is Thom Ferrier. At least, that is the name I use when making comics. I initially trained in medicine and have worked for 20 years as a doctor in the NHS. Now I make comics, do a bit of illustration and I write and talk about comics’ relationship to medicine, having packing in the ‘day job’ (for the time being, at least) about 10 months ago.
I was always ‘artistically inclined’ and after I qualified in medicine I started to paint like crazy. I was exhibiting and selling my work before I really knew what I was doing, so then a few years later I went back to college to do some part time postgrad studies in fine art and get some critical feedback. One of my tutors in Chester was a printmaker and he introduced me to the joys of intaglio. I was working part time in medicine and producing paintings and prints the rest of the time, but felt the need to find some way of bringing these two sides of my work together.
To this end, I enrolled on an MA in the relatively new discipline of Medical Humanities at Swansea University. Medical Humanities is about examining the discourse of Medicine using the conceptual tools of the arts and humanities, it is not about art therapy, ‘humanizing’ medical professionals or hanging nice paintings on hospital walls. When I started the MA I thought I would end up studying ‘medical’ art for my dissertation, but finding ‘Mom’s Cancer’ by Brian Fies in the bookshop of Tate Modern gave me the idea of looking at ‘medical’ stories in comics.
What drew you to comics?
I was into comics when I was younger, of course. After Beano and Shiver and Shake it was Action, Dracula Lives! and 2000AD. I still kick myself when I think that I sold issues #2 to #50-odd of 2000AD to someone at school for 5 pence each (this was a long time ago, mind). As a relatively clean living teenager growing up in northern England, my friends and I were addicted to the tales of drugs and sex found in the work of underground artists such as Gilbert Shelton.
Then of course Viz came along, just as I was going to university. I found something in all these works: a world into which I could escape or some commentary on our life and times that chimed with my own worldview. I guess I stopped reading comics for a while, but gradually became aware of these new-fangled ‘graphic novels’. I read Maus and was staggered by the genius of the work. For my MA dissertation I tried to find every comics work I could that ‘said something’ about medicine. It took me ages because I kept finding more and more of them and in my book just about everything can be relevant to medicine in some way. Instead of getting down to writing the dissertation, I set up a website which I named ‘Graphic Medicine’ to review each book as I wrote it. Of course I thought I was pretty clever– I didn’t think other people would be looking in this area, but as soon as I launched the site, others started to contact me to say they were interested in comics and medicine too.
The term ‘Graphic Medicine’ caught on and now the phrase I coined is being used to refer to this area of study. Last year the British Medical Journal used it on its cover! With two other scholars I set up the first conference on Comics and Medicine in London last year which went very well and we are setting up a follow up conference in Chicago next year with MK Czerwiec, aka ‘Comic Nurse’ taking the lead.
I do all this under my real name, by the way, which is Ian Williams. When I got back into comics in a big way, being a typical medic with a ‘see one, do one, teach one’ sort of mentality, I thought ‘I should draw some comics’ so I did. At first I drew short autobiographical strips about the frustrations of the job, then slightly silly ones– like wondering what would happen if a patient went to see a doctor who had quietly gone psychotic without anyone realizing. Then I started doing some more autobiographical work about my own foibles and neuroticism. There is a lot left to mine in that vein.
Who do you count as your influences?
Chris Ware, undoubtably, and Daniel Clowes, Ivan Brunetti, Gilbert Hernandez, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green. I gratefully embrace James Kochalka’s dictum that your drawing doesn’t have to be perfect before you make something, in fact that is the basis on which I work– hopefully improving as I go.
Can you describe your working process?
I generally pencil first on A3 Bristol board, then ink it with indian ink. I’m now trying acrylic ink and I think I prefer it. I used to use pens for all lines, but now I’m trying to do most things with a brush in the hope that my technique will improve. Then I scan it as a hi-res bitmap image (in two halves on an A4 scanner) and tidy up the image in photoshop using a wacom tablet. Sometimes I’ll leave out the paper and ink and just draw with the tablet, but most of the time I like to keep things at least a little bit ‘traditional’. Then I will generally convert the image to greyscale at 400dpi and flat it or render it with hatching on the computer. For digital colouring I found a great set of photoshop scripts that came with a book called ‘Hi-Fi Color for comics’ by Brian and Kirsty Miller which I would definitely recommend.
I put all my work online, but I also self publish in print. I like to do a bit of simple bookbinding so my comic ‘Disrepute’ is hand stitched in between grey board and made to look like a set of patient’s notes. I make hand made mini-comics too. I had ‘Fear of Failure’ printed commercially.
What does your workspace/studio look like?
A mess, like most peoples’ workspace, I’m sure. I’m lucky in that I do have space, but it is mostly filled up with large paintings or junk and all surfaces are piled up with stuff I’m working on, or have abandoned, or should be working on, or have lost in the clutter. It is bad, truly. I have a couple of paint spattered computers that I don’t use any more, and I have an i-mac which is my sole working computer, in a separate room which, at this time of year, is freezing. We live out in the sticks– In the hills of North Wales, so If I look out of the window, I’ve got an amazing view. A lot of the time, however, I’m staring at a screen.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on the second issue of my soap-opera style series ‘Fear of Failure’ which is about a female, 40-something G.P. working in a small South Wales market town. She is a feisty anti-hero called Dr Lois Pritchard. I made the main character female because I didn’t want it to look too autobiographical, and because I didn’t think it would be difficult to write from a female perspective– I don’t see too many differences between the sexes. I have however, been questioned about why I made her a woman and why I made her attractive… I’ve also had people tell me they have ‘fallen in love’ with the character, which is a pretty good result, and Maureen Burdock, who has sound feminist credentials, told me she loved Fear of Failure, so I may be doing something right. I’m also doing other short strips as and when I feel like it. It is all on my website: www.thomferrier.com
What are your ambitions for the future?
I’d like to get better, for a start. I’ve been painting and printmaking for years, but it is all abstract and I haven’t really put in the time drawing. Now I am drawing regularly I see things improving all the time and am rather embarrassed by some of the dodgy drawing I’ve put out there.
Of course I’d like a publisher to pick up my work. I intend to make several volumes of Fear of Failure and naturally I’d like to see them collected. I’ve printed up the first volume and so its available as a floppy. I’m probably going to do some more autobiographical work too. I have so far tended to avoid too much in the way of autobiography as there seemed to be ‘a lot of it about’, but I’ve had a varied and ‘interesting’ life so far, so I feel I’ve got a tale of rampant neurosis and medical mayhem within me that needs to get out. I’m not under the delusion that I am in a position to make a living from comics, so I have been doing a bit of teaching, writing and workshopping and have also had a few illustration commissions, so I am hoping to be able to form some sort of portfolio career around comics and Medical Humanities, as I’m not in a rush to go back to medical practice.
What advice would you give to an aspiring amateur cartoonist?
I’m not sure I’m quite out of that bracket but, pretending for one moment that I am, and have been given the platform to bestow sage advice I’d say:
“As long as you don’t expect to make a single bean out of it and are prepared to put up with knowing that however hard you try there are still going to be so, so many people whose work is effortlessly cooler and superior to your own, you should read James Kochalka’s ‘Cute Manifesto’ and just go for it. And try and be honest and not pull too many punches. And thoroughly digest Ivan Brunetti’s ‘Cartooning– Philosophy and Practice’ and always carry it around with you.”
What do you think of the health of the UK comics scene at the moment, and what do you think it can do better?
I can’t really say I have much to compare it to, being a relative newbie, at least in the ‘making comics’ scene, but it seems pretty damn healthy to me, and there seems to be a feeling that comics are on the up again which means that, at least before the next bust, we might be seeing the start of a boom.
Where is the best place to buy your work?
From me in person, or on my website www.thomferrier.com (I take paypal).
Orbital Comics in London have some copies of Fear of Failure and I’m just sending some to OK Comics in Leeds. (I would be very pleased to supply them to other outlets too) My website about medical narrative and comics is www.graphicmedicine.org
Thanks Thom! Click some links, buy some comics and follow Thom on Twitter.