Art Talk // BEN MITCHELL
What's up, Ben!? Thanks for having a yarn with us.
It sounds pretty dangerous, but tell us a little bit about Ben Mitchell and where you came from.
My name is Ben Mitchell, I have lived in Newcastle West for like five years since migrating from the greater Lake Macquarie region and the things I am most known for are my work as a commercial illustrator and a series of comic books I make called Storm Clouds. I’ve been doing the series - which is a thriller/drama story set in a fictional city based on Newcastle - for around five years now, and it has taken me all around Australia, as well as Europe and the UK. The story is very much a celebration of this city and though I thought parts of it could only really be appreciated from a local perspective, outsiders have been able to see themselves in it too. I think there’s a Newcastle in every region. In the past two months I’ve travelled to Melbourne for the Homecooked comics festival to deliver a workshop, and Adelaide, to the Papercuts festival, where I did two readings, a book launch and a market day. It’s been a busy year! My work life has been pretty nuts and I’ve had next to no time to actually make any new comics since, like, May, but I’ve been putting a lot of energy towards getting the comics I have made out to new audiences. And I am a Scorpio.
How did you begin to make art?
Looking back on my life and my choices it is pretty obvious how I ended up where I am. My dad has worked in IT since the 80’s, which meant I grew up around large computers, large loading times and large boxes of dot-matrix printer paper. I loved drawing while adjacent to computers, which eventually lead to me using computers to draw. When I was in year five or six I used to make little comic books about my friends, copy them on my dad’s work’s xerox equipment and distribute them throughout my school, which had less than 30 students from K-6. I promptly forgot all about drawing and writing when I was a teenager and wanted to be a musician – I played in a few hardcore/mosh bands in the all ages scene and then also played bass as a session musician in pub bands as my first job. Eventually I found myself surrounded by musician friends who had no idea how visuals were supposed to work (which came very naturally to me) and started making flyers, taking photos, designing merch and album artwork. The DIY ethic I learnt from hardcore was a huge influence on me and I just figured I could make everything myself if no one else was going to do it, and sort of fell backwards into a career in freelance graphic design. I still do this - most recently I designed a double A-side for the band Bootleg Rascal, and designed their whole tour suite of promo/merchandise - and I still apply that same DIY ethic to my work in comics. Once I got into digital illustration I was focused on screen printed gig posters and design exhibitions, modelling myself on Tyler Stout, Ken Taylor and Rhys Cooper, but eventually ended up in comics, which is a very similar gig except you have to draw the same people like sixty times before you’re finished.
Who or what are your biggest influences on your creativity?
The first proper comics I read when I was a kid were Archie double digest comics, which I got into for economical reasons. They had like 200 pages and only cost four dollars! Huge. After a couple of false starts trying to read X-Men as a literal child, I could follow along with Archie's dorky Saved By The Bell-esque plots without getting lost in super-elaborate science fantasy lore. These books really shaped my understanding of illustration and I ended up absorbing that flat, bold, Dan DeCarlo 50’s style of cartooning through osmosis. Once I’d grown up I got heaps, heaps into Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine and Seth, which is where I get the bulk of my influence from now, because I think in a roundabout way all of these artists (and myself) can be tied together with a shared visual philosophy of trying to communicate how a setting feels, as opposed to what it looks like, focusing on stylisation and minimalism over complex anatomy and perspective. But maybe I just don’t want to learn how to draw properly.
Like I mentioned before, a big part of my perspective on my comics is a result of me coming up around hardcore. I treat this work as a creative outlet and a representation of myself, as opposed to a product I am trying to express to specific demographics. People are into it, which is fantastic, and means I’m able to create more and connect with likeminded creators, but I’m not necessarily trying to become the next Parkway Drive. It’s also, ah, not entirely a coincidence that the protagonist from Storm Clouds is an ex scene celebrity in his late 20’s attempting to escape anyone who remembers his embarrassing, angsty lyrics.
What does your work aim to say to the world?
That - and I understand the grand irony of this when considering my art style - it is very naive to see everything in black and white. There is usually good in the bad and bad in the good, and no one is a hundred per cent on either side. The world is full of shades of grey and understanding that is a big part of growing up. This is represented, most obviously, by my “good” characters doing very bad things, but also through celebrating the specific charm of a city like Newcastle in spite of people trying to drag it down.
Describe how you produce artworks. Do you have any rituals or superstitions?
This is going to sound dumb, but so much of my creative process happens inside my head. I have always been a very visual thinker and am able to do the bulk of my thumbnailing in my imagination, while I am out running or listening to podcasts or cleaning my apartment, even if it just boils down to imagining how certain shapes fit together. This has evolved out of necessity - I have plenty of time where my brain isn’t doing anything important, but only a certain amount of hours at my desk every day, so when I do actually get the chance to draw I hit the ground running. I do just about everything digitally - I work in Adobe Illustrator and use a Wacom tablet to get the idea out of my head and onto the page, but the bulk of the finished lines you see are done with a mouse. This is super backwards to most artists I know, but it has always made sense to me. I have a lot of friends who are making the jump to the iPad pro for doodling, and I’ve been on the cusp of trying it out for a long time, but it’s a pretty steep barrier for entry. One of my first jobs was at a screen printers (in Blackalls Park, which then moved to Newcastle - it was in the building where the Flying Tiger was most recently) where I spent a lot of time setting up work for print. You can probably tell this by looking at my work, but I am always working as a print technician at the same time as being an artist. I’m always thinking in two colour separations, and imagining how it’s going to look printed and bound.
As far as superstitions go, the other night I went out for a run and my keys fell out of my pocket. I remember running past someone’s bin, which had been knocked over by the wind, and considered stopping to pick it up but thought it wasn’t my problem. The whole week when I was trying to find and replace my keys, the back of my mind was telling me I lost them because I didn’t stop to pick up that bin! I believe in karma, for sure ahaha.
What's the dream project?
More than anything I think my dream project is what I am already doing, but with a larger audience to connect to. The absolute dream for me would be to have my work published by Fantagraphics or Drawn and Quarterly or Top Shelf or Avery Hill, and go on book tours with Seth or Daniel Clowes or Simon Hanselmann and meet people all over the world who appreciate my work. I am currently… part of the way there.
As far as a commercial gig, I would love to work on a movie or TV show where the story focuses around a cartoonist, and it was my job to develop their drawing style and make it look legit. Most recently, I saw something similar to this in the film Under The Silver Lake, where there was a local conspiracy theorist producing little crackpot zines about local mythology. When he was explaining one of his theories, all of his illustrations became animated and took up the whole screen. It was one of my favourite things I’ve seen in a movie this year! This also means I’d get to work by myself at the same time as working in a big group of other people, so I get the best of both worlds. I guess I’ll be holding out for a gritty reboot of Caroline In The City.
How do you combat the inner critic?
I spent a lot of time shitting on my own work and telling myself I’m terrible, so if I want to get anything done all I can do is listen to everyone else, rather than myself! I have just had a very exciting weekend at the Papercuts festival in Adelaide where everyone got very excited about seeing my work, and I’m going to attempt to ride that high until I launch another book later this year.
How do you counteract the isolation of being an artist?
So I currently work from a co-working space in Hunter Street Mall called The Roost, with the express purpose of being around people and socialising. I love being around people and chatting about mundane aspects of life, like cooking and plants, and having a schedule and rituals and having workplace relationships. The “work” part is only part of it. For nearly two years I worked from a Renew Newcastle studio in the centre of the city, very very close to where Art Dork is now, and I was by myself all day. I’d get an insane amount of work done in one sitting but I was legitimately miserable and it was, in the long run, affecting my work. I ended up becoming very close friends with the staff of The Press Bookhouse, the nearest cafe, because they were the only people I’d see during the day, and I was so starved for interaction. I think isolation can be important to get things done but I, personally, need to be around people to keep myself sane.
What do you love?
This really ties into my last response, but I really like putting people at ease. I understand what it’s like to be nervous or stressed or scared or whatever and I very rarely will have someone around who understands and can adapt to this, so I get a lot of relief out of being that person for someone else. Helping people come out of their shell or solve problems or understand their surroundings is always my favourite thing to do.
What do you hate?
This is a very big question, but I guess it boils down to people who act selfishly and don’t think through how their actions affect the people around them or recognise their own privileges. So many of the decisions I make come from considering how it will affect the people around me - the opposite of putting people at ease is making people uncomfortable - so it comes as second nature to me and it always blows my mind how difficult this can be for people in positions of power. At a large or small scale, people can be pretty fucked.
What scares you?
It depends on the day! So many of the main plot points of my comics are based around scary things that have nearly happened to me but my subconscious has had a field day with - being mugged on a train, being followed home, having my studio broken into, coming home to find someone waiting for me, etc etc etc. I am afraid of a lot of things but I find it helps to be outspoken about it anyway. A little while ago I was moving a bunch of big heavy printing equipment from one building to another and I realised that quite possibly my biggest fear is being crushed. No thank you!
Is there any work you are really proud of?
Yes. My most recent comic is called Open Heart, which is a big love letter to the performance poetry scene in Newcastle and is largely devoid of many of the characteristics people come to expect from my work. There’s no violence or danger, it’s in black and white and there’s (almost) no swearing. I was nervous about doing a straight up comedy/drama story in the midst of my more noir-heavy comics (especially one about fucking poetry ahahaha) but everyone seems to be okay with it.
Marvel or DC?
Yeah it’s gotta be DC for me. I don’t really read superhero comics at all anymore but almost all of my favourites come from the greater Batfamily and The Flash, with the exception of Daredevil and Hawkeye. As a kid I could never really get in to X-Men or Thor or Spider-man or anything, but straight up detective stories (or sci-fi based in physics and chemistry, as opposed to space shit) have always clicked with me. I think if I hadn’t read Batman books like Dark Knight Returns or The Long Halloween, I never would have understood that comics could be for grownups as well.
How would you explain the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel to a regular person?
I don’t want to alarm you, but I don’t think there actually is a difference. An important difference can be found between people like me and “regular people”, who feel the need to intellectualise comics by giving them a smarter-sounding name. I call them comics or comic books regardless. Most people will tell you that outside of intellectualism, the difference is in length, or how thick the spine is, and that you could put a “graphic novel” on a bookshelf whereas a “comic book” would just slide off. This term is pretty flawed, though, as most traditional “novels” aren’t made up of collected smaller works, originally published through serialisation (like Watchmen) or just straight up memoir (Fun Home, Maus, Persepolis, etc). Comics started out as funny little books in the same way punk rock started as music for angry shitheads who can’t play guitar properly, and I don’t see anyone trying to rebrand that genre as, like, “minimalist rhythmo-aggressive vignettes”.
Where do you go for inspiration and where do you go to escape the manic creative brain?
Different cities. Every time I get a break from my usual routine - even if it’s a day trip to Sydney for a comics event - I always come back more appreciative of what Newcastle has to offer, and ready to get back into the swing of things. The only real way I can shut my brain off is by running, which I’ve been doing more and more often recently, even if it results in me losing my keys!