Find Harley online here
All art by Harley R and the House of Harley unless otherwise noted
Please note – I have a story in Ugly Mug 6
ZL – Hi Harley! Thanx for agreeing to this interview, I’m really interested to find out more about you, your history in the small press and the history of Ugly Mug!
HR – Delighted to be asked.
ZL – It’s probably best to start with a bit about where and when you grew up and how you first got involved in the small press?
HR – Sure. I grew up in West London. My parents were Aussies who emigrated to the UK in the mid-‘60s.
I like to say that I was brought up as an Atheist with a Protestant work ethic and Catholic taste. Also, my dad has always applied himself successfully to many different types of jobs and activities with endless enthusiasm and vigour and I owe a lot to him for showing me that a busy life is a good life.
ZL – I wonder how your parents having come from Australia affected your childhood, did you find that they had a different attitude to life and culture from those around you and, if so, how did that affect you and how you felt about yourself?
HR – Well it’s handy to have two passports and be able to pick which team to support in the Ashes. I’ve got lots of powerful memories of visiting Oz as a youth (I haven’t been back as an adult) – such as the goods trains that used to hurtle through the field behind my grandma’s house like giant iron caterpillars, or the enormous huntsman spiders that lived in every corner of my uncle’s farm. I used to amuse myself at school by saying I could speak ‘Australian’ and then jabbering some nonsense. But to be honest I can’t pinpoint anything that made me feel significantly ‘different’ to people I grew up with in London.
ZL – Tell me a bit about your time in school?
HR – The biggest impression my primary schooling made on me, outside of the actual lessons, was when our headmaster broke into the school at night, killed all the animals in the school’s science lab and blamed it all on ‘awful teenagers’ (a story recounted, with names changed, in Ugly Mug 4).
He was a very strange and unpleasant man who for some reason had it in for Australia and used school assemblies to regale us with absurd and blatantly ridiculous reasons that no one should ever visit the country. So that taught me some healthy scepticism about adults at a young age.
ZL – My god, that must have felt fairly personal.
So, comprehensive was better than primary school?
HR – In all I had a pretty typical and happy middle-class comprehensive school childhood. I went to the same secondary school as cartoonist Brett Ewins (RIP), although he was there some years before me. I often used to see him walking past the school, but I never got the courage up to introduce myself, to my regret.
Winding back a bit, my folks, unusually for Australians, had no interest in sport so unlike most 1970s boys who liked to spend their time kicking footballs around down the local park, I gravitated towards drawing and other solitary pursuits.
I can date my desire to be a cartoonist to September 1977 when six-year-old me saw a TV advert for a new UK Marvel comic called The Complete Fantastic Four. I pestered my dad to order it from our local newsagents but there was a mix-up and the first issue of Plug, a Beano spin-off which launched the same week, popped through the mailbox instead. I somehow persuaded my dad to let me get both – so right from the start I was interested in humour and superheroes/fantasy, which you can probably see coming through in Ugly Mug.
The splash page from my first exposure to The Fantastic Four, featuring a miserable and despairing Ben Grimm wandering the streets of New York, is indelibly burned into my memory. Something about the combination of bold visuals, larger-than-life characters and wild storytelling in both those comics gripped my imagination and has never let go. That’s when I knew cartooning was what I wanted to do, although lots of other things have been added into the mix over the years.
ZL – So where in the timescales does drawing and writing come? I’m guessing you could well have been drawing for a while by this point, but I’d be thinking you weren’t writing at age six, or were you very precocious? Actually, how easy did you find reading that comic? Stan Lee’s language could be pretty flowery.
HR – I was a keen reader and I don’t remember struggling with those early Marvel comics, although no doubt lots of it passed over my head.
It’s hard to remember when writing and drawing came together for me. My early creative outputs involved things like making elaborate paper railways which ran around the house or filming magic tricks using primitive stop motion on my dad’s home video camera.
In English lessons at school I wrote a lot of rambling fantasy stories, which were bigger on imagination than structure or coherence. When I was nine I sent an outline for a Doctor Who story to the BBC which was rejected, unsurprisingly as it featured all my favourite villains and lots of spaceships being blown up and would have been well beyond the Beeb’s budget to film even if the story had been any good. (We still have the rejection letter).
ZL – We were chatting a while ago and you mentioned to me that you put Ugly Mug on hold when you went to university, so how old were you when you first started editing it and what spurred you on to put it out?
HR – I started it while I was still in high school and it ran for around four years. Although my dream at that stage was to be a full-time cartoonist, by the time I got involved in the small press I’d realised that it was very difficult to make a living out of comics. Credit to those that do, but in the mid-late ‘80s the mainstream comics world where I might have learned my craft just didn’t appeal to me. I never had any interest in being an illustrator or drawing things to order, although I have a lot of respect for people who can do that. So I made a conscious decision to pursue a career outside art – which I don’t regret and which has been rewarding in lots of ways. That has left art for my own time and means I have complete freedom over what I draw. Just not as much time to draw as I’d like.
ZL – How did you get to know that earning a living in comics was so difficult and how did that make you feel at the time you found out? Or to put it another way, what was it about comics that meant you weren’t put off from creating them by the knowledge that you couldn’t earn much from them?
HR – Another hard one to reconstruct forty years on, especially as it was mixed up with so many changes in outlook as my teens rolled on. But the aspiration to do comics is a given for me, it’s etched into my thought processes and it’s not something I ever sit and weigh up the pros and cons of.
ZL – So what type of production was it, was it printed or photocopied and how did you get it out to people?
HR – The first three issues of Ugly Mug were xeroxed at local print shops, and the print quality was very mixed as you might expect, with lots of grey smudging on the pages. But at least they came stapled. For issue 2 I recruited some fellow A-Level art students to hand colour the cover according to the artist Ed Pinsent’s specification, which was also a good excuse to spend time with girls I fancied.
I think the cover price was in the order of a quid for the first two and two quid for the double-sized issue 3. The print run for issues 1-3 was probably a couple of hundred each and they eventually went, mostly sold via the Fast Fiction stall and mail order service, apart from a handful of copies I still have (available for purchase at inflation-busting prices via https://houseofharley.net/shop).
For issue 4 I splashed out on professional printing which meant committing to a lot more copies to justify the investment in the (pre-digital) plates. It looked great, apart from the wrong tone of green being used on the cover and overwhelming Marc Baines’ brilliant drawing. I should have asked for a proof copy! Lessons learned.
But the release of UM4 coincided with me moving away from London to go to university and having a whole bunch of new things in my life to think about. So I didn’t give it the focus it needed and consequently it didn’t make the splash I hoped it would. And that was the end of that for the next three decades.
ZL – Stepping backwards a minute to get some context, and throwing a bit of a twofer out there, what first drew you to small press comics and what drew you into making them?
HR – At primary school, some mates and I wrote and drew a regular comic strip for our school magazine, very heavily inspired by Tim Quinn and Dicky Howett’s loosely drawn and irreverent strips for various Marvel UK mags.
In my early teens I aspired to work for 2000AD, spent lots of time copying drawings of Judge Dredd and co and got pretty good at it. But by the time I went to my first comic convention when I was around 15, I’d become interested in indie comics, especially Love and Rockets, and had just discovered Escape, which featured a lot of material by British small press artists.
At a small press panel at one of the mid-80s UKCAC events, I introduced myself to Glenn Dakin and Ed Pinsent and showed them some of my crude comic strips about a superhero called Captain Maroon, who spent most of his time arguing with supervillains and his girlfriend rather than using his powers which were never particularly well defined. I guess Glenn and Ed must have seen something in those strips because, firstly, Glenn put me in touch with the political cartoonist Steve Way, later the Cartoon Editor of Punch, and we had a mail correspondence which lasted several years. We actually spent most of our time talking about life in general rather than comics and he was a very welcome sounding board for my developing teenage view of life.
Secondly, Ed offered me a slot in Fast Fiction magazine which he was editing, and we ended up becoming great friends and eventually musical collaborators. It’s a sort of mentor-friend relationship which endures to this day, although we don’t get to see each other as often as I’d like. Ed introduced me to different ways of thinking about art which took me off the conventional path I would probably have gone down otherwise and I’m eternally grateful for that.
With Ed’s encouragement, I self-published a collection of Captain Maroon stories and went swiftly from there to Ugly Mug, which was an attempt to create an irreverent regular publication in the spirit of the comics anthologies I loved, like Mad, Weirdo and Raw – encompassing personal, experimental work as well as humorous stuff. With an anthology you can take lots of risks – if someone doesn’t like a strip, there’s another one coming along soon.
It was published by the House of Harley, my answer to Stan Lee calling Marvel the House of Ideas. The HoH is a sort of fantasy publishing imprint which can be whatever I want it to be. It has proved to be a highly flexible and durable ‘brand’ which has grown to encompass (in my head at least) edible products, hotel chains and boutique fashion wear. It also helps draw a line between my artistic and personal life which I think is important.
ZL – How did you get to know and recruit other creators to contribute and what sort of request did you give them?
HR – For several years I helped out selling small press comics on Ed’s Fast Fiction stall at the bi-monthly comic fairs at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. So I got to meet lots of interesting artists that way. I also was a regular attendee of the fortnightly Escape gatherings organised by Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury at the Duke’s Head in Great Russell Street, where I first discovered the joys and dangers of Tennant’s Extra lager (rarely seen now in London pubs) and became good friends with Tom Baxter Tiffin, Marc Baines, John Bagnall, Mark Robinson and other talented people.
My ‘editorial’ policy for Ugly Mug though was simply to ask people whose work I liked if they’d contribute, and thankfully most of them said yes.
ZL – I often read a lot about the London Comic Mart and how influential that was on getting works out from groups like Fast Fiction so it’s interesting to know that you were a part of that scene. You mention meeting up and talking a lot, so I wondered what it was that inspired your conversations. There’s a lot of talk about the TV ad for Marvel UK titles, but I also see a lot more European comics influence in the works of Ed Pinsent or Phil Elliott who were both involved in Fast Fiction, so what was the cultural stew, inside and outside comics, that was feeding Fast Fiction, or at least, your experience of it?
HR – An off-the-top-of-my-head sample of the cultural artefacts and artistes I was introduced to by the Fast Fiction and Escape crowd – Krazy Kat, Herbie, Bizarro Superman, Raw, the Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, the Beverly Hillbillies, Sgt Bilko, The Sweet Smell of Success, William Wyler’s The Collector, The Cat and the Canary (Bob Hope), Harvey (the rabbit), Kiss Me Deadly, My Neighbour Totoro, Kenneth Anger, Eraserhead, Raoul Servais’ terrifying animation Harpya, Stan Brakhage, Jean-Luc Godard, Gerhard Richter, Paolo Uccello
ZL – I’ve mentioned in a brief facebook review I did that this book really feels like a work made by the late 70’s early 80’s group of creators from the small press, it has the absurdity that is played very straight faced, but it also lacks bitter cynicism, maybe it’s more romantically cynical? (Have I just created my own definition there??) So, I’m going for another twofer here. Do you feel like you were part of a generation of creators and if so, who would you say were your peers? Do you feel like small press comics are a different beast now, with different tastes and a different blood running through its veins?
HR – I think there’s too much negativity, pessimism about humanity and general cynicism doing the rounds in wider society, so I’m very pleased you’ve said that. It’s hard to recall what was going through my mind when I was putting the original run together, but I have always liked a mix of sweet and sour, like life really. The ‘theme’ for Ugly Mug 5 was ‘optimism/pessimism’ – a tension which was very much on my mind during lockdown – and contributors were free to place themselves wherever they liked on that spectrum – so while there’s some very bleak stuff in there, there’s lots of light and humanity too.
As for the 1980s, I feel very lucky to have been welcomed and accepted by the ‘Fast Fiction gang’, and it was an exciting, inspiring time for me. But I also recognise I was ten years or more younger than most of them. I was immature in many ways and had a lot to learn about life and art. As Peter Stanbury observed back then, ‘Harley hasn’t lived yet’.
I confess I’m not that au fait with modern small press stuff. What I’ve seen in shops seems to be overly biographical or graphically experimental in a way that doesn’t particularly engage me. But I realise there may be great stuff out there I’m not aware of and reviving Ugly Mug has prompted me to think I should look again.
ZL – Pursuing that more, what do you think influenced you and your peers to make that work and do you feel that there were other streams of work around that were significantly different to what you were making?
HR – The artists associated with Fast Fiction and the small press scene were all very different, but if they had anything in common it was a) a love for comics and b) wide ranging interests outside comics.
For a long while I’ve thought that mainstream comics are too insular. By the time Jack Kirby and all those great Silver Age artists produced their best work for Marvel and DC, they’d grown up and been to war and worked in different industries and had drawn every type of comic you could imagine, so there was lots of different stuff feeding into those superhero stories. But by the mid-80s you had a generation of artists copying from those older cartoonists with, I would say, diminishing returns, and it went downhill from there as far as I’m concerned. I’m generalising a lot I realise, and possibly unfairly, but I find visiting comic shops these days a depressing experience. I buy what I’m after, have a quick look round to see if anything else grabs my attention, and get out as quick as I can.
I should be clear that I think there is lots of untapped potential in comics, so I remain optimistic about the medium’s long-term future. But what appealed to me about the small press, apart from the sense of creative freedom, was that it was influenced by lots of other aspects of culture – fine art, literature, Hollywood movies, trash culture, experimental film, and life in general. And the aim was to use the freedom of self-publishing to say something personal and interesting. A Chris Reynolds or an Ed Pinsent strip or a Carol Swain strip are all totally unique, only they could have done them.
Fundamentally I like the freedom – and cheapness – of comics. All you need is a piece of paper and something to draw with and you can put anything you like on it. That cheapness also means you can take risks which are much harder to do with, say, films, which involve a lot of money, people and organisation to make, even when it’s an indie production.
After the comic marts, a loose group of us often retreated to Ed’s flat to chat about comics, art and films. Mark Robinson remarked that when he came to London he expected the small press scene would be like a group of wild Californian cartoonists indulging in plentiful sex and drugs, but it was more of an urbane gathering with tea and cakes – and that’s what it was like.
That small press spirit spilled out into Escape of course but also semi-mainstream publishers such as Harrier Comics and Fox Comics in Australia. But by the early 90s, the artists I liked had gone off to pursue other things, and I felt the small press was becoming a vehicle for cartoonists to build up portfolios and get spotted for mainstream comics, rather than to produce personal work which was interesting in its own right. It’s an understandable approach to CV building, but it didn’t appeal to me. I got much more interested in music which seemed to be more vibrant and experimental at that time.
ZL – Just thinking about this further, how do you see yourself in relation to the history of small press comics in the UK? Is there a history that you feel a part of from the 70’s or even the 60’s. Or do you feel that the 80’s was where small press and alternative comics took off in the UK? Is it even that you see more of a link with the likes of DIY zines than you do with comics at all?
HR – I think there was something open-ended and outward-looking in the art I most liked from that time. I think honest personal takes on life are very important and are what people respond to at the end of the day. To be clear, by ‘personal takes’ I don’t mean dwelling on oneself, or minutely detailed autobiographical strips which are a creative dead end if ever there was one. There’s been a lot of bad art created in the slipstream of Robert Crumb, but the biographical aspect of his work is deceptive – he distils something profound out of his experiences.
As for me, I don’t delude myself that I was anything other than a minor figure in the 80’s small press scene, but I am always very pleased when I learn that someone has kept their collection of Ugly Mugs all those years. That said, I’m more interested today in looking forward.
ZL – I guess the big question is, why did you come back and why now?
HR – Well, partly because I only got to publish the first four chapters of Ed’s Saga of the Scroll epic, and there were eight more episodes to go, six now. (Ed gave up waiting, understandably, and published the complete story some years ago, although with his blessing I intend to continue serialising it, meaning there should be 12 issues of Ugly Mug at least).
As far as my own comics went, it always felt like unfinished business. But it was a long process getting back to it, way too long really. I was seriously missing art after a few years at university, so I packed off for a month to the Cyprus School of Art Summer School to try to get the creative juices going again. As I discovered, that ‘summer school’ mainly involved hanging around with naked women, riding scooters around town on a fake licence and drinking Keo beer, all of which was a lot of fun, but no art was being produced. I can’t blame it all on the distractions – I was too bogged down in trying to find the perfect idea to work on.
When I got back to England I thought ‘this is ridiculous’ and started keeping sketchbooks, working rapidly and not caring too much about the result, just drawing whatever I was interested in (predominantly, but not exclusively, women). I had a full-time job and had to fit this in wherever I could – so for example I sketched fellow commuters on the tube journey to work, trying to draw everyone in the carriage before they or I got off. (I highly recommend that as a way to learn to draw people quickly, if not accurately.) And at home I drew from whatever printed material was around the house, mainly Sunday magazines and fashion supplements. I know that drawing from photos is considered to be bad form for artists, but if you approach it with a certain amount of irreverence and spontaneity, I think you can learn a lot about how to convey personality and draw clothes and the like.
Over time I got looser and looser in my sketches and began treating my source material as a springboard. I developed some intuitive techniques for abstracting drawings until unexpected and interesting results would appear on the page.
Around 2015 I also got involved in the London life drawing boom and went to as many sessions as I could for a few years. I really liked the different approaches of the groups, from traditional art nudes to burlesque and it was a brilliant way to loosen up even more as well as experiment with techniques and materials.
(Some highlights from my sketchbooks and life drawings have been collected into a series of House of Harley artbooks, available from https://houseofharley.net/shop)
So, I’d always kept drawing and posting examples regularly to my blog, and I developed a lot of different styles and approaches which I knew I wanted to put to use somehow. And life keeps coming up with stuff to respond to and comment on.
That urge to draw comics and tell stories had never gone away. On the rare occasions I had a day or two to myself, I would draw a comic strip just to prove to myself that I could still do it (and some of these pages ended up in Ugly Mug 5). But the ‘final straw’ that led to getting back into comics was turning fifty. I thought if I don’t get a move on now, I’ll never get back to it.
ZL – So why bring it back as a printed magazine, why not a website or e-zine?
HR – I’ve always loved printed objects for some reason I struggle to pin down. Nowadays I spend too much time working on screens for work so digital comics hold no interest whatsoever for me as a format (however good the content might be).
ZL – Also, why continue with an anthology, what interested you in the first place about creating with others? I know back in the 80’s anthologies were much more common, but they’re quite rare now, and I wonder whether you thought about that when thinking about restarting Ugly Mug at all?
HR – Well many hands make light work. I have a family, a day job and other commitments, so there’s only so much I can produce and I wanted this return to be a substantial piece of work. Beyond that it just seemed like a natural continuation of what went before.
ZL – Just to pull those two questions together a bit, was it more the fear of never getting to publish again, or a combination where; you’ve settled in your career, your family has got old enough to allow you time to undertake publishing? I guess what I’m saying is, is it just a matter that your age pushed you to it, or is it more that enough has changed to open your mind to the idea and your confidence in your own work is enough that it feels possible?
HR – There’s never enough time, so it was a matter of finding spaces in the day to devote to the mag and then getting down to it. Other than that, there was a gradual accumulation of factors – most of which were nothing to do with comics – that led up to me thinking ‘I know how to do this’.
ZL – I think we’ve also established my love of a two-fer, so, do you feel that being a part of an anthology gives a voice to a community? By which I mean that the grouping of like spirited works, works that are appealing to the central motivator (that’s you Harley in less obscure terms!) lets you situate your work within an artistic space? It’s like you’re carving out a space in existence not only for your own work but you’re also giving a home to the vision of your work by situating it with other works you want to see exist within the world. Does that make sense?
HR – I can’t say to what degree the artists featured in Ugly Mug comprise a community with a coherent voice. I haven’t even met half the people in the latest one. And the ones I do know, we disagree about lots of things. But I see what you’re getting at.
Compiling the magazine is all very instinctive. I had a theme in mind for the latest issue which winds through it in different ways, but when it came to sequencing the stories, they fell into two obvious groups, so that’s how I organised it. This was totally unplanned and just leapt out at me when the final contributions came in. I’m not saying what those themes are, people will either pick up on them or they won’t and perhaps they’ll spot themes that I hadn’t even noticed. I like that creative serendipity and hopefully it means there’s more to Ugly Mug than ‘just’ a bunch of drawings and strips by people whose work I like.
ZL – Just thinking about creators now and coming back to publishing, have you stayed in touch with your peers, I know you’ve said that you’ve not stayed current with other small press creators, but I wonder if there are a few that you are aware of and that you think share an aesthetic or creative spirit with what you are making?
HR – Yes. Ed Pinsent has always carried on making brilliant comic strips, but for a decade or so he and I made noisy improvised music together, recording albums and playing gigs as Mystery Dick (named after an old Dandy character). We also formed a trio called Pestrepeller with Savage Pencil. There’s some samples of our music on http://www.mysterydick.com/discography.html and we have two further albums in the can which I’m very proud of and still intend to get a proper release for. Also look out for Pestrepeller’s 40 minute cover version of the Bonzo Dog Band’s ‘Noises for the Leg’, coming to YouTube soon.
As well as Ed, I’m still in touch with many of the original Ugly Mug contributors and producing the new one gave me an excuse to track down some old friends I’d lost touch with.
But although Ugly Mug 5 featured a lot of familiar faces, I was determined that it would not be an exercise in nostalgia. All the artists have moved on in the three decades since the original run and their work has developed in different ways. The 21st Century Ugly Mug is a continuation of the little traditions we established back then but also contains, hopefully, a few surprises.
When I decided to revive it, I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return and I loved the way David Lynch and Mark Frost brought it back after a 25 year gap, picking up the story and producing something in the spirit of the original yet in many ways an evolution and improvement. Hence some of the Twin Peaks references that fans of the series may have spotted in Ugly Mug 5. And I also tried to emulate the show’s air of mystery and open-endedness. We need more of that in comics, and the world in general.
Other than that, I was thinking more about music like The Fall, B-52s, Sparks and Sun Ra.
As far as other contemporary cartoonists go, I like the Hernandez Brothers, Ben Katchor, Robert Crumb, and Peter Bagge. I’ve just belatedly discovered Jason Atomic’s Satanic Mojo and I’m enjoying its totally un-PC British take on underground comix
I approached some interesting (non-comics) artists I’ve come across on social media about appearing in Ugly Mug 6 and I’m really pleased that most of them said yes. More about them in a minute.
I’m open to submissions too. Issue 6 came out in October and the intention from here on is that Ugly Mug will be an annual event.
ZL – Thanx for taking the time for this interview Harley, it’s been really interesting. Here at zinelove we always like to share the love, so this is your chance to drop three links for creators whose work you’ve found interesting recently and finally to plug anything else you feel needs plugging!
HR – Been a pleasure.
I’m going to take the opportunity to mention a couple of artists who are featured in Ugly Mug 6 but, as far as I know, wouldn’t consider themselves cartoonists, so they may not be familiar to your readers.
Masaman is a mysterious and remarkably prolific Japanese artist who appears to spend his or her life posting bold and dynamic pen and ink drawings to Twitter (or perhaps they’re digital drawings, but I like the fact I can’t tell). Every time I look, there’s another addition to this crazy stream-of-consciousness visual notebook. The drawings are fascinating mashups of oddly designed monsters and semi-human figures, which could be made out of mud or jelly, with Escher-like visual conundrums.
Patricia Gaignat is a New York resident and enthusiastic participant in local art groups. She sketches evocative postcard-like nighttime scenes of quiet corners of the city, and fills folded paper booklets with drawings of the characters she meets in her art groups. These pen-and-ink folks all look the viewer direct in the eye, inviting us to join in the camaraderie. I think of them as the benevolent cousins of the Blue Meanies in the Yellow Submarine. She also draws lovely little nudes who look like they’re going to jump off the page and start frolicking around your kitchen table.
Finally, many of your readers will be familiar with Ed Pinsent’s comic strips, but perhaps not his role as a ResonanceFM DJ. His Friday evening Sound Projector radio show showcases experimental music from around the world as well as highlights from Ed’s extensive personal collection. Its motto is ‘Better listening through imagination’, a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse and would apply to reading comics too. Many years worth of archives are available on the Sound Projector website, a real treasure trove.
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content copyright iestyn pettigrew 2022