From growing up in a remote part of England to being the chosen illustrator for a major horror comic adaptation, Alison Sampson’s artistic journey has certainly been a twisty one. She was a late arrival to comics, with a perspective on the business that comes from the all of the experience she built up along the way.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist, inker, sometimes colorist and/or letterer
Your home base: London
Current project titles:
Sleeping Beauties (IDW)
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What is it that attracts you to working in comics specifically over other artforms?
Alison Sampson: They give structure to art. I need structure. Without it, my brain and my hands will just go all over the place. Comics give me something to say, and it’s a discipline.
KS: When did the idea of working in the arts — comics or otherwise — originate for you?
AS: I was brought up in a house in the middle of a field in the U.K. The 1970s were a very austere time there. My parents didn’t have a great deal of money, but one thing I did have was paint. I was certainly painting before I could read. Aside from seeing people at school, no one really lived near me, so this was something I could do on my own. I didn’t even have paper a lot of the time; I would paint on household packaging, discarded bottles, and jars. I even painted on the house. [Art] started very early for me, which is why it’s so integral to my makeup.
KS: Any specific art project you remember from back then?
AS: One of my first memories is a paining competition from when I was three — we had a village show, and I painted Humpty Dumpty on a big piece of powder paper. I came in third it what was presumably the infant class.
KS: When did you first make a serious effort at being a professional artist? Was it in school or…?
AS: My school tried to persuade me out of it. I was going to go to Cambridge to do biology, and I changed subjects at the last minute because I couldn’t bear to give up the arts. I decided on architecture, which was my idea of being able to do art while still having some kind of profession. My first job was in a drawing office when I was sixteen; I used to set up perspectives for the architects. I worked as an architect for two decades, but for women in [that field] life was quite cruel. I finished my contract and got made redundant.
KS: Did comics enter into the picture around this time?
AS: I was learning to draw by drawing children, and I drew [artist] Rob Davis’ daughter. He said to me, “You should make a comic.” I’d never drawn one before, but I applied to the anthology he told me about: Solipsistic Pop. I wrote and drew a four-page story about losing my job, and I made it. It was published.
Not long after, there was some kind of blog on CBR where you sent in pictures of your bookcase. I’d drawn a bookcase in my comic, so I sent in a picture of that — all my world was sketched across it. And — this doesn’t seem to happen anymore, but it ought to really — within 15 minutes of it going online, someone rang me up and asked me to draw their graphic novel [Genesis, written by Nathan Edmondson and published by Image]. The first page of that was the first time I’d ever drawn a man.
That one went all right, so I thought I’d do another one. And that’s where we are.
[Author’s Note: The CBR feature was called “Shelf Porn,” which focused not only on bookcases but collections of art, comics, statues, toys, etc.]
KS: To back up earlier in the timeline, between the girl painting Humpty Dumpty and drawing the anthology story, when did comics first come into your life?
AS: They came and went and came back. 2000 A.D. started to come out when I was about seven or eight. I read that on and off for ten years but when I went to Cambridge, that stuff was very frowned upon. After that, I didn’t read another comic for 20 years — I completely missed all the interesting stuff happening with Vertigo and elsewhere during that time.
I was commuting hours a day by train to London, reading film magazines, and I saw an announcement about [Zack Snyder’s] Watchmen. Then, I found out it was a book, as well, and decided to read that. From there, I read things like Negative Burn, which was great. I was having comics mailed to me from a shop in Belgium because I had no idea how to get them otherwise.
This was also around the time I started Space In Text, where I’d store interesting comic art I found online. That got me thinking maybe I could do it myself.
KS: What was the U.K. comic scene like for you back then? Were you able to get any helpful advice or encouragement as you started your journey into this field?
AS: I went to Thought Bubble to find out what all this stuff was about, and [Marvel editor] Stephen Wacker had come to do portfolio reviews. I made this tiny, boutique “pocket portfolio” with my eight or ten drawings. At the review, I asked him, “Do you think this is worth continuing?” and he said yes. Which was all I needed to know, really.
Very early on, when I was drawing Genesis, I used to write to comics people and ask advice if I got stuck. When I was having difficulty inking a page, I wrote to Nate Powell and showed him a page. He gave me some really helpful art advice: when you draw a line, draw a little bit of a curve on it.
KS: Imagine yourself as an art teacher today and one of your students is that university-age version of you who has no idea the path that’s ahead of her. What’s a piece of art guidance you would offer?
AS: Everything good that’s come to me out of comics has come from two things. First, your emotional responses are true. You may not necessarily understand something, but if it feels right it probably is. The second one is, be yourself. Your style is your own and it will come.
KS: I would be remiss, after talking with the great Triona Farrell, not to mention Hit Girl. How did you get involved in the world of Kick-Ass?
AS: I don’t know how Mark Millar first became aware of my work. He got in touch with me about drawing Kick-Ass when I was first wrapping up Winnebago Graveyard. I had all these character designs, and [the Millarworld team] came back to me and said, “We think we’ve got you on the wrong book.” Which was true. They wanted to put me on Hit Girl in India instead. I thought, “Yes!”
I brought Triona on board for that. I wanted somebody on the upward learning curve, and also someone who had a track record of drawing both color and people of color. My art is not easy to color; she’s working on everything for me for the foreseeable future.
KS: The look of those characters, and Hit Girl in particular, are largely associated with John Romita Jr. What was it like working in his shadow, so to speak?
AS: You can’t draw it exactly like him. I have gained a huge, huge amount of respect for his art after going through that process. Doing those characters is much harder than it looks, and I realized just how good he is.
KS: Debuting this month is Sleeping Beauties, based on the Stephen King/Owen King collaboration novel. What makes you good “casting” as the artist for this?
AS: Well, Owen King requested me, on the basis of Winnebago Graveyard. [That] was a regional horror book, set in a certain part of the U.S., with ordinary people doing ordinary things… and some fairly weird shit, as well. There are a phenomenal amount of people in the cast, which I’d handled on Hit Girl. And there are a whole range of women in the story — I’m best on women and children, not a particularly wonderful drawer of men.
Those things may make it sound mundane, but it really is not!
KS: Finally, what’s a comic or graphic novel that you look at as example of the craft at its highest?
AS: I’m going to have to do a top three. If we’re talking pure craft, first is Swords of Glass illustrated by Laura Zuccheri. She is the most amazing artist. Next is Children of the Sea by Daisuke Igarashi, which is probably an answer a lot of people would give. Incredibly beautiful books, very emotional. Finally, anything by Nate Powell; he’s very consistent.