This famous quotation, by the Olympic runner and Czech national hero Emil Zátopek, has struck a new chord here at SelfMadeHero. It hasn’t been an easy time for anyone during Covid-19, but the ability to go the distance, against what can often feel like futile odds, is a trait that we both admire and aspire to. It wasn’t just Zátopek’s record-beating success as an athlete, in the 1940s and ’50s, that made him a self-made hero, nor the unorthodox training methods he pioneered. It was rather (in the words of an official report) that he “completely upset all previous notions of the limits of human endurance”.
There‘s perhaps never been a better time to feel inspired by such feats of endurance, and in our graphic biography Zátopek (October 2020) – written by the award-winning writer and documentary maker Jan Novák, and drawn by the acclaimed artist and musician Jaromír 99 – we follow in the tracks of this extraordinary Cold War Olympian.
From sports to socialism: Robert Tressell’s 1914 masterpiece The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists finds its first – and definitive – adaptation as a sumptuously illustrated graphic novel this September. An amazing work by Sophie and Scarlett Rickard, this is the socialist novel that, according to George Orwell, “everyone should read”. An inspiration to generations of political thinkers, from Orwell to Tony Benn, this timeless and compelling work is a must-read – and now a must-see.
September also sees the release of a book with a cute bunny on the cover. But don’t be fooled: When I Came Out tells a story every bit as courageous and beautiful as our other new titles. Danish author and artist Anne Mette Kærulf Lorentzen centres this semi-autobiographical tale on Louise, a rabbit with a big secret. As her comfortable life begins to unravel, we join Louise on a delicate, complicated, but ultimately life-affirming journey and learn what it takes for a woman in her forties to acknowledge her true identity and come out as gay.
Till soon, stay well, and always remember: UNITY IS STRENGTH!
At SelfMadeHero, we stand in solidarity alongside our black readers, creators, booksellers, librarians, and colleagues, in support of the global fight against racism. Our prime mission has always been to champion projects that break cultural boundaries, and we have always sought to be as diverse as possible in the dozen-odd stories we publish each year. But we recognize we could go further.
There is a lack of cultural and ethnic diversity among published comic-book creators in the UK. As one of the UK’s leading graphic novel publishers, we have a responsibility to promote the comics medium to creative practitioners and readers from marginalized communities. We are therefore pleased to announce that, by working with social enterprises, cultural institutions, and individuals, we will provide a platform to amplify the multifarious voices of UK-based Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic creators (writers and artists) through SelfMadeHero’s Graphic Anthology Programme (GAP).
The GAP has three principal aims: first, to provide a platform from which to showcase the work of UK-based artists from under-represented cultural and ethnic backgrounds; second, to inspire creative practitioners from those marginalized communities to create comics; and third, to promote the medium to a wider audience. The anthology will provide a springboard for creators looking to get published, with a particular focus on bringing to print the work of UK-based BAME artists. In our commitment to diversifying our publishing list, we will be making a call-out for submissions specifically from BAME creators – more details to be announced shortly.
Writer Thomas Von Steinaecker and artist Barbara Yelin discuss working together on their new book, The Summer of Her Life, a story of love, loss and astrophysics.
Where did The Summer of Her Life come from, how did you end up working together?
Thomas: Around ten years ago, I scribbled a 300-page graphic novel about passengers on a train that was due to crash. Since I’m a disaster as an artist, I was looking for help and asked Barbara – who I knew only from a distance – if she’d like to work together with me on it. Very reasonably, she suggested working on a shorter piece to see how we’d get along.
I contacted a German daily newspaper, which agreed to publish a short strip each weekend. This set the tone and framework for the story. Because I admired Barbara’s Irmina, about a woman’s fate during the Third Reich (and because I hoped it would be easier for her to get into the story), I initially decided that it would deal with a woman’s life. Then I thought (since we were talking about a newspaper and the storm of daily events) about dealing with the topic of time: how fast it goes from a certain point in your life, and what remains at the end of one’s life. And voilà, that was the beginning of the story.
Barbara: I knew Thomas from his novels and his comics reviews in the arts sections of the German press. As he said, we agreed to do a shorter piece together as a collaborative experiment. I was curious about which topic he’d suggest, and it was only years later that he told me he’d chosen a retrospective of a woman’s life because of my previous work. But I liked Thomas’ idea a lot: to focus on how time passes in a single life. From the start, Thomas included me in a discussion about the storyline, which was great.
Can you talk us through how you get from the script to the finished page, what's the process?
T: When I was thinking about the woman’s job, it occurred to me that astrophysics would be nice – where the very nature of time plays such an important role. Then again, the question arose: as a woman, why would she pick such a profession, and what would that mean at that time? And the whole story evolved in this way, like putting together a puzzle. During all this time, I stayed in constant contact with Barbara to discuss the story. Her questions - What about her parents? Does she have friends? Why is she so shy? etc - forced me to think about details that I usually wouldn’t have considered.
B: We exchanged hundreds of e-mails! I tried to find out more about this fictional person, Gerda, our protagonist. It was interesting that Thomas’ and my thoughts about the story were different sometimes. While he was focusing on the philosophical aspects, I was interested in how Gerda would deal with being an outsider in the society of the 1960s. To answer these questions, it really helped a lot to write down the words (Thomas) and sketch storyboards (me), and then to reflect on what had been revealed by doing that.
T: I could only think about the story by imagining pictures and words together, what an episode as a whole would look like and what the rhythm of the words would sound like. So the words and pictures came at the same time. Then I sent the script for each episode to Barbara, which again lead to lots of discussions, renderings and new ideas. Lots of work! But what a wonderful, inspiring process this was.
B: It was challenging, but it was wonderful! Having equal participation between writer and artist in the process of making comics is rare. I’m also convinced that the process of drawing a story constantly influences the story itself, back and forth.
T: In the meantime, the newspaper ended our run (damn them!), and the publisher who published my novels gave us the chance to showcase our episodes in their online magazine. Again, this changed everything, since we now had more space than we’d initially thought.
B: In fact, we had as much space as we wanted… vertically. We tried to explore this space by creating overlong images that would only be revealed by scrolling. So we could show the high skies that Gerda looks up at as an old lady and as a child. And we invented a deep staircase that turned itself upside-down in an Escher-like way, which shows Gerda’s career path.
When it was all done and the online version was finished, publishers approached us and asked us to make a book out of it. And again, the new format reshaped the story. Rearranging the vertical panels into pages, we realised that we needed little scenes in between. It added another rhythm to the narration, including the page turns. This whole process was absolutely fascinating. And it was wonderful to finally have a book in our hands!
What kind of tools do you both use to create?
B: I work on paper most of the time. Of course, sketches are the basis for every panel and sequence, and for this I use pencils. And owing to our mutual work process, there were a lot of sketches. Pencils are also my first layer in the final drawings. I don’t erase them, but instead draw on top of the sketches, finding a line with a black pencil first and then starting to bring in colours: using aquarelle colour pencils, aquarelle brushes with gouache, and also opaque white at the end.
My drawings are always a process, and I find out while working what the final drawing will be. Sometimes I discover story ideas, too, while I’m drawing. I need a technique which is flexible and erasable, allowing me to redraw, redo, reshape and rethink. As a last step, I scan my pages and continue working digitally: retouching, bringing in the text, cleaning the white space.
T: I start with sketches for both words and images, using a pencil, but this is just for myself, to get an idea of how the two might go together. Then I go into greater detail in my descriptions (just words) on the computer.
What is the book about thematically, and what did you want to bring to the story personally?
B: I was interested in Gerda, in how she managed her life as a woman in the 1960s and ’70s, having to decide between succeeding in her profession or having a family, and the consequences of that. I was also very interested in the method of narration that we chose: showing only short episodes, single moments of Gerda’s life – and leaving big gaps to be filled by the reader. Sometimes, it felt like producing a very poetic, fragile, fragmented work, more like verses than a storyline.
T: There’s a point I always strive for as an artist, where my (invented) characters become alive (real, as it were). This is as magical as it sounds. From that moment on, I know that I’ve lost control. And this is wonderful. But it also means that I don’t fully understand my characters or my story any more. I guess this is a way of saying that while I wanted to write something about the questions we always ask about our lives and that you’d also ask about this story (What’s this all about? What does it mean?), I no longer know.
With everything that’s happening right now, what makes The Summer of Her Life a must-read?
B: Gerda’s story is a universal one. I think that many of us are now stuck in situations where we feel some futility about our (artistic and other) efforts. I feel that a lot at the moment. Maybe looking back on a life and seeing the volatility of it (but also why that life was really worth something) is somehow similar?
Events and efforts that we thought of as being big and important might be revealed to be pointless. But at the same time, small moments become big. What remains? A summary of your whole life? A single moment There are no definite answers. But we can at least ask the right questions.
Award winning creator Jean-Marc Rochette (Snowpiercer) discusses his latest release, Altitude; an autobiographical account of his early years as a mountain climber on the French Alps.
Why did you decide to make Altitude? Why the need to tell this part of your life?
I’d had this idea for a few years, I’d told episodes from my youth to my editor Christine Cam, and it was she who encouraged me to do this project. Then I discussed it with a co-scriptwriter who I’d worked with on the last volume of Transperceneige (Snowpiercer). I asked him if he’d be interested in helping me with my biography; I wanted an approach that would add some distance to my story and perhaps soften certain aspects. I invited him to my house, and we started writing.
Although I was a little sceptical at first, I quickly realised that the book would work. So I told my editor that I was going to write my autobiography, and that I was ready to sign the contract. Why tell my story? I thought it was a fairly universal tale that the mountaineering community would be into, and perhaps a slightly larger audience. Finally, it was to pay tribute to missing friends, and to perpetuate a state of mind found in the mountains in the 1970s, characterised by a sense of tragedy and carefreeness.
How long did it take you to produce the book, what kind of routine did you follow?
The writing and storyboarding lasted roughly two months. Drawing and colouring the book took, I think, a year and a half. When I work alone, I write the outline of the story, then I write the dialogue and the narration, and I do the storyboarding at the same time – for me, the text and the drawings are inseparable.
When the book is fully storyboarded, I start to produce the finished pages, which is the longest and most needy part. In fact, I have a lot of routines for my work, and the most surprising discoveries can arise from this system.
Did you revisit some of the places presented in the book, or is it all from memory?
I redid some routes: the Coolidge, the Rateau, the Dibona, the Meije, etc. Others I did from memory, although it’s not that impressive a feat, as I live in the valley where much of the story takes place, so I had the mountains and paths in front of me.
What do the disciplines of drawing and climbing bring to your life - are there any similarities, or are they completely separate?
Drawing and climbing have completely shaped my existence. In both cases, risk-taking, beauty and freedom are based on profound know-how – but for mountaineering, it’s vital!
There are some exhilarating moments in Altitude, as well as very graphic scenes – what event(s) in the book stood out the most, and did you encounter any difficult or complex episodes that you struggled to put on the page?
There were a lot of moments in the book that affected me – almost all of them, in fact – but if I had to choose two, it would be the episode with my grandmother, and the accident with Bruno Chardin on the Long Glacier at Ailefroide. These were the two moments that were the most difficult to draw: the accident was complex to render on the page, a very “technical” staging, while in the scene with my grandmother, she was very strong emotionally – how to convey that? It wasn’t easy.
Being a climber, and having lived through some great adventures, what do you think of Alexander Honnold, and films like Free Solo – are they a source of inspiration, or simply a little too insane?
What Honnold did was a pure masterpiece, one of those moments that changed the discipline. In my day, a friend, Patrick Cordier, climbed El Capitan solo with ropes, and it took three days, I think. But Honnold did it full solo in 3 hrs 30 mins. It’s just unimaginable. I have a lot of admiration for him, but I really hope from the bottom of my heart that this sort of thing will stop in time – no single mountain is worth a man’s life.
Altitude by Jean-Marc Rochette and Olivier Bocquet is available now.
Lina Itagaki is the artist on Siberian Haiku. Here she tells us about painting street caricatures, the biggest challenges in creating the book, and being gifted an origami crane.
Hi Lina, can you tell us a little about yourself?
Hi, I am an illustrator and comics artist. I live in Lithuania and am the artist on Siberian Haiku. I lived and studied in Japan for 6 years, which was a great experience. And then about 5 years after I returned to Lithuania, I applied to the Vilnius Art Academy and became an artist.
How did you come to work on Siberian Haiku?
After graduating from the Art Academy, I moved to live in the port town Klaipeda because I wanted some change. There I started drawing my personal comic Mister Pinkman, and was posting my drawings online hoping that someone will notice. Then in 2016 Jurga got in contact with me, she’d seen my work, and we met in Vilnius. She told me about the idea for Siberian Haiku, and I loved that it would be a real story and there will be some places about Japan. And she said I could draw it however I wanted to, as a comic but not a standard comic. I knew that this book was perfect for me. So we agreed and separated. Jurga then moved to Spain, and we continued to communicate through emails for more than a year.
How did you relate to the idea, and how did you see the story visually at this point?
At the beginning I didn’t see the story visually at all. But I knew that I would have to start drawing and then it would come naturally. Around the time Jurga contacted me, I’d participated in a workshop that was held by the German artist Mawil in Lithuania. We had to prepare real stories told by our parents or grandparents about the Second World War, or life after that. Mawil chose some artists and then we published a comics anthology, which was presented at the Berlin Comics festival. So I’d already had this little experience of drawing a historical comic, and felt comfortable with the project.
And is it true that you were drawing Siberian Haiku while painting street caricatures?
That’s true, I started drawing caricatures during summers when I was a student, and maybe a third of Siberian Haiku was drawn while sitting on the street of our resort town by the sea, waiting for customers. I was also drawing on the beach, in the libraries… I like to carry my drawings wherever I go and draw in various locations, so that I have to sit in front of my computer only when I really have to. I hope it didn’t influence my drawing though, I really don’t like caricatures and was a little bit afraid they would.
What's your process for creating pages? Did you work closely with Jurga or did she leave you to it once the script was created?
First I read the whole text once, and kind of forgot it. I didn’t think about the amount of work there would be in total or anything like that. I decided to just do one chapter at a time, and move forward step-by-step. I didn’t plan how many pages there would be, didn’t draw a storyboard, and didn’t make sketches. I did make sketches of the main characters to decide what they will look like because that was very important.
But later, I would just read one chapter, make a little plan if it would be 4, 6 or 8 pages, and then just take a piece of A4 paper and a pencil, and draw. Having almost forgotten the text I was always interested in what would happen in the next chapter. I made this process interesting for myself.
I was contacting Jurga a lot. Because I wanted to draw this book historically correct and I didn’t know what things looked like – the people, their clothes, houses, furniture, nature, trains, etc… I was using a lot of photographs.
What were the biggest challenges in creating Siberian Haiku?
The hardest thing was to imagine how everything looked. In many places I did not draw anything in the background, I left it for the reader to imagine what could be there because I did not know. It was a challenge to draw all the sad scenes, especially during summer when there were sun smiles and happiness all around. And drawing the trains, and the Russian church was a challenge because I do not like drawing things like that, with so many details.
What kind of feedback have you had from the book?
We had a lot of positive feedback. This book connects different generations, it creates an opportunity for the grandparents to tell their stories to the grandchildren (in almost every Lithuanian family someone has been deported).
And what’s been your favourite memory of Siberian Haiku?
There was an interesting coincidence with the chapter on ORIGAMI. As usual I was driving from Klaipeda to Palanga (the resort town where I draw caricatures) and I saw three girl hitchhikers on the road. I took them to Palanga, we said goodbye and when I came back to the car I found this origami crane hanging on my car mirror. They left it as a thank you present. That day when I was sitting on the street and was ready to start drawing I took the text and saw that that day I had to draw the chapter that is called ORIGAMI. So I used this crane as a model. It is still hanging on the mirror of my car.