We spoke to AF Fellow Esther McManus about making comics in the year of Covid.
How has your professional life changed since lockdown?
Some of the activities that constitute my daily life and annual schedule have been considerably altered! My comics are underpinned by physical processes of printing and binding, and access to equipment was necessarily restricted. This took a while to adjust to, as I had to turn away from making as a source of inspiration and hone in on the things I was able to do: drawing & research from home, and brief forays into the outside world.
The annual cycle of zine & book fairs, which I attend as both exhibitor and visitor, has been put on hold, but it’s been exciting to see how publishing communities and organisers have experimented with online formats to fill the void in physical fairs. I think that void is simultaneously social, creative, professional, financial, and is certainly not unique to zines & comics.
How have you adapted your methods of making in the light of those changes?
At first everything took a lot longer than normal, and I felt like I was working constantly and achieving very little. The fear, uncertainty and isolation during that period of time made it harder to push myself to work really long hours to get something finished. But I continued to structure to my days around ‘normal’ work hours, ensuring that I took breaks for fresh air and getting away from my desk. I crave time outdoors, and this has always created a tension with my professional need to be indoors, drawing or on a laptop. Over the last few months I’ve started to acknowledge the outdoors-loving side of myself, and have found ways to build some moments of walking or cycling every day.
Importantly, I also had to radically rethink the project I proposed to the Arts Foundation, which was centred around visiting archives, exploring physical records and building relationships with people and groups. As lockdown unfolded, I changed the focus of my project to something that could be researched and developed within the new restrictions. My research is currently quite self-generated – visiting locations on my bike and doing lots of drawing, reading books and journal articles. Compared to how I habitually approach projects, my work is currently more rooted in drawing and exploring visual connections, rather than being shaped by archival research.
What have you learnt about making in the changed environment?
I’ve always been suspicious of finding creative work ‘too’ pleasurable, and assumed that the only way to make progress was to move towards the things that felt challenging or even anxiety-inducing. It took me a few months to accept that I should let go of the project I proposed to the Arts Foundation (for now), and work on something that was actually possible under the current restrictions. In this context it felt acceptable to work on something exploratory that might not directly feed into a larger work at all. I was surprised that moving towards rather than away from fun & pleasure yielded much more conventionally ‘productive’ results than my usual approach, which had started to feel stultifying. Through explorative drawing I was still able to explore my original intentions about how comics represent time, but in a way that was playful and which can subsequently inform larger works.
What have you learnt this year that you intend to carry forward in your future career?
This year I embraced drawing with a faith that improving my skills is central to the success of any project, and this commitment is something I’ll actively be carrying forward into the future. Weekly online life drawing became a very enjoyable habit, and something I can’t wait to keep up when in-person classes resume.
Researching and developing a new comic over the last few months has helped me appreciate the knowledge and breakthroughs that only come from drawing. A really compelling project doesn’t necessarily benefit from being planned or theorised into existence! Even though I’m keen to approach my work with rigorous theoretical & historical research, I’ve begun to value the eloquence of image-making more deeply.
This year is teaching me about pace too, through a process of unlearning the habits of ‘using’ time to maximise productivity. Approaching time in an instrumentalising way isn’t overly helpful for creative work, especially at the research and exploratory stage that I’m currently in. Working more slowly and reflectively, and being comfortable about not knowing where something will lead has been beneficial in this context. I know it takes time to unlearn old habits & tendencies and replace them with new ones, but I’ll keep challenging the old stories of productivity and give myself more flexibility in my creative process.