Friday, 15 August 2014

WOW! Let’s Celebrate; Comics, Graphic Novels and Magazines! Interview with Illustrator & Comic Book Museum Volunteer Simon Russell

Father of two; partner of one; feeder of cat; illustrator - Simon Russell and family moved to Brighton five years ago and are still discovering new reasons to be glad they did!

Having studied illustration in the 80s, Simon entered the ‘real’ world just as cheap colour printing saw photography take on a lot of the traditional bread-and-butter jobs that illustrators used to survive on between big projects. Step-by-stumble, he accidentally found himself reinvented as a designer - working in agencies, newspapers, national magazines and finally at the British Tourist Authority working in 26 different countries.

In 2004, Simon left his salaried position and set up boing as an outlet for freelance design, illustration and art projects (

Along with such mixed company as circuses, universities and drama groups, Simon’s clients include the Cartoon Museum in London where he also volunteers on a regular basis and production work for digital comics The Phoenix and AcesWeekly.

He has written and drawn numerous comic strips over the years, mostly for commercial and academic clients, but also many small press publications which are made for fun and experimentation (and small audiences rather than for money).

One on-going project is a series of strips for medical publications, where he takes the articles and anecdotes about specific subjects written up by The Four Doctors and turns them in to comics explaining symptoms and treatments for various neurological diseases. These strips are building a sizeable readership among medical professionals at conferences and in specialist journals and are a hint of how useful comics are making themselves in other areas than commercial entertainment.

In his all-too-rare spare time, Simon writes an occasional blog on comics- related events at


What was your favourite children’s book as a child?

I’m sorry, but it’s impossible for me to pick a single favourite. I want to say Tales of the Norse Gods & Heroes by BL Picard  it was the first really thick book I read for myself - and then reread on a monthly basis thanks to my junior school library.

But then I remember The Tramp and the Dog by Chris Williams.
This was bought through the fabulous Puffin Book Club and stayed in my heart for many years until I reread it as an adult and found it as charming and moving as I remembered.
Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books were probably my real favourites and I bought every copy I could and in multiple editions because you could always hope to find new illustrations and her drawings were as influential as her writing. I longed to be Snufkin but lacked his bravery so was probably a Moomintroll!

But if I was to pick ONE book I suppose it would have to be The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton Juster’s gleeful wordplay had a lifelong effect on me and Jules Feiffer’s illustrations fit perfectly. I saw Mr Juster talking in Foyles bookshop a year or two ago and he was that rarest of authors - exactly the character his books made me want him to be!

What was your favourite children’s magazine/comic/annual as a child?

I read comics and books without any prejudice between the formats so I read a LOT of comics - almost any I could get from generous adults, my pocket money and local jumble sales and markets.
I was never a fan of the Look & Learn ‘educational’ magazines disguised as comics or of western/war stories, but everything else got added to my nascent collection.

The kids comics that included strips by Leo Baxendale were always highly prized - especially Whizzer & Chips and the Marvel/DC American superhero comics were astounding - helped by the fact that there were UK reprints of the early stories from a few years before on sale at the same time as the then-current colour comics were available in newsagents so I could read EVERYTHING!

The one comic I prized more than any other was Mighty World of Marvel number 1 because it introduced me to The Hulk and The Fantastic Four AND had an iron-on t-shirt transfer! But the comic I most desired must have been Planet of The Apes number 1 - I’d seen the first few episodes of the tv show and the brown-toned painted cover of the comic promised so much that even though I’d spent all my pocket money on Dracula Lives number 1 that week, I stole 10p from my sister’s piggy bank to run out an buy it. To this day I still get a shiver of excitement and shame whenever I spot the cover!

Giles and The Perishers collections that we bought for my dad every Christmas and Trog in a friend’s parents’ newspaper were also great treasures, but so much of them went over my head at the time!

What is your favourite children’s book as an adult?

The Phantom Tollbooth for myself but I love reading picture books to my boys and books from Chris Riddell’s (Angus drives the Goods Train; Emperor of Absurdia; Mr Underbed) and Sarah McIntyre (Titus Takes the Train; Vern & Lettuce) are among our most-read. I have a particular soft-spot for Ed Vere’s Mr Big. And for Andrew Cottingham’s double-entendre filled Winderbilt Over Floodsville and Mr Winderbilt and the Modern Conveyance - if only because I illustrated them ;-)

Do you read comics/graphic novels as an adult? If so which is your favourite?

I read them, help produce them for a couple of publishers and occasionally make them myself so there are probably too many to choose from!
I shy away from superheroes and adventure stories these days - not because I’m ‘too old’ for them, but because with limited time I’m happier to read other stories.
My absolute favourite comic is Eddie Campbell’s Alec: The Years Have Pants which chronicle his magical life for the last 30-years or so.

What do you think makes comics and graphic novels books so inspirational?

Comics is a unique art form - it uses elements common to other forms (pictures and written words) but is distinctly it’s own thing. Just as the printed text can be used to make novels, poetry, short stories, biography, histories, reference and instructions etc, comics can be used for entertainment, education, experimentation, profit and pleasure.

One of the greatest things about comics for me is the way that information is received in two routes - through the eye when looking at the pictures and through the ‘ear’ when reading the text. This split is something no other form that allows the audience to control the pace can offer. On screen or stage you get both but when you experience them is dictated by the director - in comics the reader can control the pace, backtrack or jump forward and the two information routes can (by design or by chance) diverge and come together in different ways on different readings.

If that sounds too technical, there’s also the immediate pleasure and understanding to be had by looking at a whole page, then individual panels then reading each in order... the amount of reading you can get out a few pages of comics is amazingly broad for the space used. And they are portable!

Simon's Recommended Comic Reads!

Young Readers (5-7)

Young Readers are poorly served by comics these days although there are a lot of toy-oriented magazines in the supermarkets that look like comics!
Beano annuals and the like are a good introduction to the form because they have short stories and are durable.

Asterix and Smurfs books are reliable and newspaper collections of the Mutts strip by Patrick McDonnell.

Sergio Aragones’ Funnies is great for all ages - short funny strips, memoirs and puzzles.

The Phoenix  or on the iPad  is probably better for the Older Readers age range, but could be enjoyed with a parent and Moose Kids Comic is another that straddles both ranges.

Older Readers (8-12)

Older Readers are the perfect age to enjoy superheroes but unfortunately looking at the shelves of our local comic shop a lot of Superman/Batman type comics now cater for an adolescent crowd with ‘serious’ violence and sexuality shoehorned into a childish concept. Creative teams and editorial directions on these characters change at unpredictable intervals so it’s impossible to say with confidence which titles would be good for Older Readers. Parents should talk to their local shop every few months to see what’s recommended or ‘safe’ for their family.

I’d go to Asterix, Tintin and similar books for this age group too - Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar are a good place to go next!

Snarked by Roger Langridge is a brilliant extension of the adventures of the walrus and the carpenter from Alice in Wonderland. Castle Waiting by Linda Medly is perfect for fans of gentle fantasy and fairy tales.
And The Encyclopedia of Early Earth  by Isabel Greenberg is amazing!

Young Adults

Young Adults may be the target for most superhero comics now but most ages would be best served by buying graphic novels and reading online strips:

iPad families can enjoy all sorts of comics at
Some are adult (like prose novels not like smut - usually) some child-focused so a parental-overview is necessary of course

What I Drew by Joe Decie is a wonderful series of 1-page strips about a father and son ( is an anthology with an all-ages policy

Any children wanting to make their own comics should look at How to Make Awesome Comics by Neil Cameron of the Phoenix  or The Cartoonist’s Workshop by Steve Marchant of The Cartoon Museum . Or look for the Cartoon Museum’s school holiday workshops.


  1. Thanks for the fascinating answers, Simon. Not everyone has a local comic store, however, where they can ask for advice on reading levels. Brighton does seem to be particularly blessed, though - we were shopping there on holiday recently and were amazed to walk out of one great comic shop and find another in the same street!

  2. Thanks Nick
    We are indeed lucky in Brighton - and being a city boy I often forget not everyone has a local comic shop. Page 45 in Nottingham ( has a regular review of the best comics comic out the following Wednesday and they are always very engaged with their customers and ready to offer advice... as well as a reliable mail order service if you like the sound of anything

  3. Sadly we have no local comic stores here in leafy Buck's we do have a wealth of charity shops that have a good selection of second hand comics though! In fact i managed to recently get a vintage X-Men comic from the month and year my sister was born, from one, which was a well received birthday gift!

  4. Hi Sally - that's a nice find
    According to Bucks actually has a shop in Chesham and one in Milton Keynes... I've never been to either so can't say if they are clean and airy like our beloved Dave's Comics in Brighton or more along the lines of the Comic Book Guy who appears in The Simpsons, so definitely go with children for the first visit!

    1. Thanks Simon, i'll check out the one in Chesham!


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