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Deadbeat dads, weird kids and school bullies: An interview with Ned Wenlock | #datingscams | #lovescams | #facebookscams | #datingscams | #love | #relationships | #scams | #pof | #match.com | #dating

On the release of his debut graphic novel Tsunami, Ned Wenlock talks to fellow comic artist Toby Morris about self-righteous kids, skull T-shirts and the power of good sound effects in comics.

Ned Wenlock is an illustrator, animator and comic artist from the Kāpiti Coast who has just released his debut graphic novel Tsunami through Earth’s End Publishing. It’s a strange, insightful and unexpected story about a weird kid trying to fit in and figure out who he is. Fellow comic artist Toby Morris caught up with Ned to discuss the book, self-righteous kids, skull T-shirts and the power of good sound effects in comics. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Toby Morris: Congrats on the book does it feel like a big achievement having it out in the world?

Ned Wenlock: It feels really good. It’s nice to have something concrete that has taken quite a bit of time to get through, but way beyond what I’ve ever done in the past. So yeah, I feel pretty good about it.

How long did it take? I assume that a book like this is a massive undertaking.

I started in 2019, and did the first 40 pages as a mini comic, and then Earth’s End Publishing were interested in seeing where the story went. So I applied for funding, and in the application for funding, Creative New Zealand asked “how long do you think it will take”, and based on those first 40 pages, I thought, well, you know, this is only gonna take a year (laughs). I finished it at the very end of last year. 

You really get sucked into it. And there’s a lot of work I did on it which never got into the book itself – I did quite a bit of editing as I went along. I didn’t want to just write the script, and then just draw the pictures. I was developing the story as I went. So yeah, that also took a lot of time.

Spending that long on something, it seems like you’d have so much time to think about it and change your mind about it.

I sort of got to the halfway point and I had all these ideas in my head about where it was gonna go. But I just thought, no, I’m not interested in that. I threw all the plot structure out the window, because I wanted to follow the characters. The characters became a lot more interesting to me than I had assumed that they would. It’s very simple, but I just liked seeing what would happen in any situation – how they would react to each other rather than plotting it beforehand, you know, I found that really interesting.

I don’t want to spoil it too much, but the book takes very unexpected twists with where the characters go, which I thought was cool. I kept expecting it to tend towards everyone learning a lesson, or there’s some big moral, but that didn’t happen, and I enjoyed that. 

Yeah, I do know exactly what you mean. And it’s funny because how the story turns out in the finished book is actually how I imagined it at the very, very start. I wanted that journey – I wanted the very saintly character (in his own mind he’s very saintly) to go on this slow, slow journey to that ending. I just thought that would be really interesting. 

But in the development of the story, I grew to like all the characters a lot. Even the unlikable characters. And so in the first iteration of the ending, I did exactly what you said: I made it end nice and neatly in a bow. And I sat with it for a while, and I just absolutely hated it. I just thought what am I doing? I’ve gone on this whole journey and yet I’ve ended up in this very trite place. So it was good that I had the time to just go back and install the first idea that I had, and be truthful to the ominous feeling throughout the whole story.

I saw somewhere you posted about changing the title midway through, and then changing it back?

Yeah, well, that was also to do with the ending. When I was finishing the book, it was quite hard to come up with anything to really wrap it up. And I was a little bit burnt out by that point, too. So I got the guys at Earth’s End Publishing to organise a kind of roundtable, and we talked about what the various endings could be. I ended up writing a happy ending at that point, and I’d already had the title of Tsunami for the story, but it didn’t make sense in the guise of a happy ending. 

So I went through the story and had a look at what I could extrapolate to say what the story was about, and that’s where the second title of Badass came from – which is slightly tongue-in-cheek and silly in a way. But it suited that tone. Then when I got rid of the happy ending, I immediately wanted to back to the feeling of Tsunami rather than the trite tone of something like Badass, that’s funny and slightly tongue-in-cheek and silly. I wanted to get away from that, I think.

Badass feels like a sillier title or a funnier title, and I like the ambiguity and menace of Tsunami. There’s something more dangerous about it. That tone thing you’re talking about – avoiding the silliness I was interested to ask you about that too, because the visual style of the book is almost quite kidsy. It’s quite a simple drawing style with very stylised characters, but there’s something unexpected about the combination of the tone of the drawing and the tone of the writing. I feel like it manages to not feel silly, or not feel like it’s too jokey or too tongue-in-cheek.

That’s interesting you should bring that up, because I’ve been drawing in this style for quite a while now. And for a long time, I didn’t think I could do anything serious with it because it does look quite kidsy and cartoony. I did a brief story for Bristle, Brent Wilson’s comic, where I used that style and I went off on a tangent, not trying to be funny, just being absolutely serious, just to see if I could do it. I don’t think the comic was very good, but I realised I can really go into realism and dig out some real characters rather than always play it for laughs. 

I think the other thing is working in advertising [in some of Ned’s animation work], my characters always have a smile on their face. They’re always upbeat, they’re always doing the right thing. And that’s great, but I think that seeped into my own personal work too much. I think to be real, it was quite nice to just go “No, not everything’s quite like that”.

It’s about kids, but it’s not really for kids.

I particularly like the way the adults talk. There’s a realism to it that feels very well observed. Like, Gus’s grandmother telling him to “stop fucking swearing”. 

(Laughs) That exact example was something that I overheard. I thought it was so hilarious, I had to put it in. I think by drawing something that actually happened, people can tell there’s a little bit of realism to that, rather than making everything up.

I think you do a really good job of conjuring up that kid’s sense of dread, that all encompassing social anxiety that can suck up your whole world. Are there bits that you’re drawing on from your own childhood there?

(Laughs) Absolutely. The character of Peter came from thinking about myself when I was that age. In a sort of humorous way I was thinking about how I might have been a bit righteous. And I still find it quite funny, someone who is that age (12) being so clear about what he believes in. It’s such an interesting age because you’re not a young child, and you’re not a proper teenager yet. It’s that area where you don’t know everything, but you think you do. So I found him to be an interesting character to portray. And I don’t think he’s very likable (laughs) but I also see some humour in that as well.

(Laughs) There’s a charm in being like, “oh no, mate, what are you doing?”. I love the drama in that earnestness and righteousness when he’s in the school at the start and he’s talking about being “surrounded by evil on all sides”. It’s so dramatic. 

Yeah, even though I’ve drawn on myself a little bit, I’ve also seen other people like that as well. There was a boy in our school who used to get picked on a lot. But for some reason, he had this internal drive to goad the bullies. At break time he’d stand outside the headmaster’s office, and people would walk past and then he would walk after them and goad them. And then they would run after him and he’d run back to the headmaster’s office and just stand there (laughs).

I love the relationships to the adults in the book, too. You have this kids’ world, and they’ve got their own dynamic going on – Peter particularly seems totally oblivious to what’s going on with his parents, which is contrasted to Charlie, who seems to have a really good relationship with her dad. 

As a character, Peter really has very little personality. There’s nothing in his room. Nothing. He doesn’t seem to have any interests, apart from maybe he can draw well. He seems to be wrapped up in himself completely. Whereas the other characters are far more interesting, because they’re outward looking. Like Gus. He’s got a lot going on. He’s quite intelligent, and knows what he wants. And the same with Charlie. She’ll grab what she wants. 

If there’s a theme in it, it’s about deadbeat dads guys who basically look after themselves, and don’t worry about their partners or their kids, or anything like that. But I think, as a balance, I wanted to make sure that there was a character (and that’s Charlie) who has a dad who is the opposite of that, who looks out for Charlie and is a good image of a dad. 

I wanted to ask you about Gus. He’s a great character because at first you think he’s just the archetypal school bully character, but there’s much more to him, right? He grows on you as the book goes on. It’s almost like it flips who’s the protagonist and the antagonist.

Yeah, absolutely. That was that was the plan you start with Peter, and you go on his journey and he goes from good to bad, you know, real simple, and Gus is the opposite. He’s even drawn completely differently: Peter’s all soft, and he’s got this soft hair, and Gus has sharp hair. In the simple style that I draw in, I made them complete opposites. He’s big, Peter’s small. But yeah, I wanted to do that through the story, show where his actions are coming from why he is like he is, and to show the family dynamic that leads to that, like not having a father around. But also to show that he’s an intelligent person, and I’m sure that down the track he would be a great guy. He’d be absolutely fine – it’s just a period that he’s going through.

The soft lines of Peter, the spikes of Gus.

Within the drawing style you’re playing with the language of comics – I loved all the sound effects, and just talking about Gus, the character design of him having this skull T-shirt is very classic “cartoon”. Like, this guy’s the bully. And then you play with that when Peter also gets a skull T-shirt. 

There’s little things that I throw in there to amuse myself. It’s exactly what you say if you look at a cartoon from the 80s, or 90s, like on TV, the bully always has some kind of skull T-shirt on. And I just thought, oh, let’s just lean into that. By the end of it, you realise this is just a T-shirt that you get at some local shop or whatever. There’s nothing special about it. Peter can easily get one himself.

When I finished the book, as a gift to people who had helped me along the way, I actually printed a bunch of those T-shirts. and handed them out. Most of them are people my age, you know, in their 50s. So they’re walking around looking like teenagers (laughs). 

I love your comic book sound effects, too. I think my two favourite ones in the book are there’s a BOOMPH when they do a bomb in the pool, and there’s a big THUNK when Gus hits the tramp…

I normally do animation, so you have the ability to play with music, but also I find in short films that working with sound effects is so rewarding. It’s just so much fun. So I really wanted to do that in the comic too. All you can do really is hope that someone who’s reading it gets kind of a sensory image from the words. There’s one part in it towards the end where Gus’s grandma goes to the toilet. And the sound of it is like BOR-RUSH (laughs).

I was trying to write it almost phonetically, as it would be, rather than so much of the obvious stuff, you know? It was interesting we got the graphic novels spellchecked by someone, and all the sound effects they were like, “uh, what’s this?” (laughs). 

The magic of good comic sound effects.

On your visual style in general, did you feel like there were limitations to it? It reminded me a bit of a two-piece band, or a painter who’s only going to use blues or something – where you have to work within this set of rules that you’ve invented.

Yeah, absolutely. When I started drawing the comic, everything was very flat, it was like, layered up. So, if someone was standing in a room, you see a line on the floor, and they’re standing on that line, and then underneath that, you might have the carpet and couches and stuff, but it’s very very flat. And then as the story went along, I played around with more 3D drawings of spaces. So it became a tiny bit more real as it went along.

I think it has the advantage  of being idiosyncratic. It doesn’t look like any other book. When I was a kid, I was always really obsessed with this idea of wanting to read books in the author’s handwriting. Which I think is a cool thing about comics. Even if anyone else had the exact same script as you, it would come out completely different. Your hand is really evident in it.

I think the only limitation in terms of that style for me that I find that because the characters are so simple, it’s quite hard to show change in the character. There’s one thing that goes across the whole story, which is that Peter has a mole on his chin. And the reason for that is basically so that I can cut his hair and he’s still recognisable. But that sort of thing is quite difficult. So yeah, they can’t change dramatically.

Well, congrats again. Just the fact of a book like this existing is so cool to me. We’re both old enough that we grew up when New Zealand comics were all photocopied zines and mini-comics, and hard to find. To see books like this on the shelves in bookshops and libraries, and available for more people to find, is amazing to me, still.

I mean, there still aren’t a whole lot of New Zealand-made graphic novels. There are a few. I like what everyone has done in that medium, you know, and I think that it’s so cool being able to tell your own story in that medium, however mundane it is. It just adds to the culture of the media, you know? It’s a wonderful thing. 

Tsunami by Ned Wenlock ($35, Earth’s End Publishing) can be purchased from Earth’s End Publishing and from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.


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