Interview with John Broadley and a sneak peek into his new book

John Broadley is coming out with an anthology of all the many handmade books and artwork he has made from 1996-2008. A while back I bought one of his books at PictureBox’s table at MoCCA and have remained intrigued by his work ever since. I asked John if he would do a small interview about his work and this new book and he happily agreed:

What is your background in art? Were you formally trained?

Yes, I did a degree in graphic design at Liverpool Polytechnic, UK. 1988-91.

When did you first start making books? And why books?

I’d made some at Liverpool, but it was 1996 when I made the first in the series of books I’m making now. From 91-96 I was working as a freelance illustrator. I stopped doing that and took a full-time job and started drawing in my spare time. The first books are just collections of drawings done in a certain period. The original drawings are shoved in boxes, carrier bags, so having them reproduced in book form was a way of preserving them.


They are always handcrafted and very limited editions. It seems like so much work goes into each copy. Please explain why you enjoy working this way.

I like to make them look a little better than the photocopied/stapled ‘zines’ that they essentially are by giving them hardbacks, end-papers and occasionally hand-colouring. I’d make 10 or 20 copies and send some out to friends and some to art directors, small publishers etc, but, apart from a few illustration commissions, the speculative ones generally came back return post. With a growing pile of books I didn’t know what to with, I didn’t really consider having a couple of hundred professionally printed.


Your comics are often strange, surreal and absurd and often hard to follow in a linear way. Where do you get your ideas and inspirations for these “stories”?

I haven’t got any grounding in comics, so I’m not really approaching the idea of a comic strip from the same place as other people might. To me, it was a way of presenting drawings which had previously been floating free on a page. As soon as I’d put three panels together I instinctively started adding speech bubbles. The strips don’t have a narrative flow, and there aren’t any punch-lines. I pick up lots of second hand books on films, supernatural, nature, stamps, encyclopedias etc which I use as visual references, whilst also collecting lines of dialogue and nuggets of useless information which will form the text of the comics. I match text to pictures quite randomly, most of the time I can’t remember what I’ve drawn.


It feels like the characters and scenes from your work are from another era. What era is this? Is there another time period you would have liked to live in?

It’s not set in one era in particular. Predominantly it’s all set in the kind of central European village as seen in Hammer horror films or the Universal ones of the 1930s. But there are also elements of 1960s kitchen sink drama, figures from medieval England, 50s film noir and science fiction – I also like to drop in panels showing the absolute banality of modern life. It all exists side by side – a panel may contain electricity pylons next to a castle with someone dressed in plus fours and a hat – you could probably see that in some parts of the UK right now. The place were I grew up, a mill valley in Yorkshire, is in there quite a bit too. I’m fascinated by folk-lore and ‘olde’ language; fairs being called ‘feasts’, the temperance movement, as well as traditions which have lasted; for example, in Yorkshire there’s an occasional festival called the Denby Dale Pie, where thousands of people would congregate to eat a portion from a 20ft meat pie.


How did this big anthology John Broadley’s Books come about?

I entered a competition, which was run by the Observer newspaper, in conjunction with Jonathan Cape, to create a short story designed to run across a double-page spread of the publication. My entry, which consisted of 96 WFA panels, didn’t fulfill the requirements of the ‘story’ aspect as it had no narrative, but it caught the eye of the judges and I received an email from a director at Jonathan Cape asking me if I’d like to bring some work in. When he saw my books he asked If I could come back with ideas on how to present them all in one volume.

Can you tell us a little about what you’ll find in this book?

It’s a purely visual collection of images from a selection of my books. There are reproductions of virtually all of the covers, as well as end-papers and title pages, while some of the books are reproduced in their entireties. Most of the content is made up of my comic strips, but there’s also a section of drawings from the early books and a number of pages from an illustrated version of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. It’s very close to the feel of one of my hand-made books, as it’s basically the pages lifted straight from the original editions.


And lastly, can you give us a brief “day in the life” of John Broadley?

I actually have a full time job on a night shift – something completely unrelated to art. I try to manage to do an hour’s drawing before leaving for work. As it’s nights, I get every other week off, but then I’m looking after my 3 year old twins and a 6 year old, so again, the artwork has to wait until the evening. If I’m working on strips, I’ll try to do three panels a day, other work I’ll do in bits and then assemble in photoshop.

Thanks so much to John for sharing! The book will be out in March published by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Random House UK. (You’ll be able to buy it from Amazon soon here- so you can add it to your wishlist now.)


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