Ben Mitchell is President of the Board at The Roost Creative, an illustrator, lecturer in Visual Communication at the University of Newcastle, graphic designer and zinester cartoonist.
Ben’s comic book Storm Clouds , completed partly for his honours degree in Visual Communication Design, launched in March, and he is currently completing a sequel, Don’t Panic, funded by This Is Not Art (TINA), Creative Partnerships Australia and a crowdfunding campaign through Pozible.
Ben talked to Engage about his love for illustration, being a VIP at his own graduation, and how you can never have too many cupcakes.
Tell us about your background, including what drew you into design and illustration.
I was born in Belmont and I went to school in the greater Lake Macquarie region and only really started hanging around the city when I started University. My first couple of excursions into town were to see local hardcore/punk bands at The Loft Youth Centre when I was around sixteen, and when The Loft was still a thing.
Though I do a whole bunch of things, I see myself as an Illustrator, as it’s the professional area I think I’m best at, and have the most fun doing. Since I was a kid I’ve always enjoyed drawing pictures and the visuals I’ve been the most excited about have been illustrations and cartoons, but when I started studying to be a creative professional I never thought I’d be good enough at illustration to pursue it as a legitimate career. I focused on photography for ages while I was at university, but I wasn’t really excited by the work I was producing. Eventually I ended up joining The Roost Creative and everyone was pushing me to do work that made me happy, and I ended up an illustrator!
You have recently launched your first comic book, Storm Clouds and are running a crowdfunding campaign to release a sequel at the end of the year. Can you tell us a little about how that came about? How can others get involved?
I have always loved comic books and doing a full-sized one by myself was something I’d always wanted to do, but was too scared by the potential workload. My first comic was a 60-page deal that I completed over six months, called Storm Clouds. It came out in March. It’s a story set across two cities – one a fictional version of Newcastle – and partly deals with how visitors of Newcastle view the city for the first time. I think I once described it as a mix of Twin Peaks and Clerks – a murder mystery where everyone’s so caught up in their small-town drama they don’t realize they’re in a murder mystery.
Keeping with the theme of the story, the books were printed over two cities – the covers in Newcastle and the insides at a place called Dawn Press in Melbourne, using a special printing method called risograph. I’m a huge advocate for riso and have recently forced all my students to learn about it – it’s basically a photocopier that makes silkscreen prints, and it looks amazing. Sort of like letterpress, but without the indentation. I actually completed the comic partly as an exegesis project for my Honours degree, and this was my first project of this scale where I was working for myself. The Honours degree put a deadline on the project and people were depending on me to finish, which made it feel like a real job. I had a launch party for it at my friend’s café on Hunter Street and I sold like 80 copies in one night. It was ridiculous!
The story ended with a pretty big cliffhanger ending, so I am starting work on a sequel named Don’t Panic, funded by This Is Not Art, Creative Partnerships Australia and Pozible. Simone and Sarah at TINA caught wind of the success of the opening party for the first comic, and wanted to help me with a second one! This time the story is focusing on one of the minor characters from the first comic, and is set entirely in Bontown, the fictional version of Newcastle I mentioned earlier. While the first comic was about two detectives on the hunt for a masked serial killer, this one tells the story of the man they were looking for, his struggles with anxiety and career as a musician before he ended up a fugitive. In an effort to get more of my creative friends involved, my musician friend Crotty and I are writing and recording an original soundtrack to go with the comic, featuring real songs by the main character’s fake band. It’s going to be a lot of fun!
The comic is currently up as a campaign on Pozible, with TINA matching all the funds I make up until 30 June, and if you pledge funds you can get copies of the two comics, limited risograph prints, trading cards and a chance to be drawn into the story itself. I also just teamed up with a clothing label from Sydney to produce a limited edition t-shirt as a pledge reward for $35, which we announced yesterday morning. I’ve been a fan of the label for ages, so seeing one of their shirts featuring my characters has been really special! The whole concept of doing this project with TINA as a crowd-funded production was less about funds and more about motivation, for the same reason I did the last comic as a university project. Now that I know that people are keen to read another comic from me and have pledged to make it happen, it feels a lot more like I have a reason to be delivering, rather than just working in my spare time for fun. Luckily, I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it as well! I’m almost there with the funding, I just need to give it a bit of a push so I’m still applicable for my funds to be matched – I get the feeling people are going to enjoy these new t-shirt rewards though!
What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?
The university liked my comic so much, they gave me a medal! Ahahahah. As I said before, I did my first comic as part of an Honours exegesis in Visual Communication – basically I used comics to explain how to get people to read things in a certain order. Though my comic doesn’t seem like much on the surface, there is a lot going on under the hood to make it easy and natural to read, and a heap of design theory has gone into it. Because all the sources I was citing were things I would be reading out of interest anyway, the whole honours degree was really, really fun and I felt like I was sort of cheating, because I wasn’t stressed at all. Presentations would come up and I’d just talk about my comic for twenty minutes and everyone seemed to love it! A year later, I ended up getting first class honours and a university medal for a project I would’ve been doing for fun anyway. It was a shock, to say the least! They put me on stage as a “VIP” during graduation and I was very nervous that I would end up in people’s graduation photos – they even marked me down as the only person on stage not wearing a tie!
Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?
I love independent cartoonists like Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Paul Hornschemeier, Alex Robertson, Box Brown and Adrian Tomine – they are all one-man-bands when it comes to producing comics, so they do all the writing, art, design and direction themselves. It’s sort of a more personal, punk-rock way of looking at comics than how you’d usually imagine them. As great as mainstream comics can be, I would compare best-selling titles like Batman and X-Men to your Lana Del Reys and Beyoncés, produced by cashed-up professionals designed specifically to be appreciated by the masses. This is in no way a bad thing, I think Lana is sick. Tomine, Clowes and the other names I dropped previously would be up there with bands like Joyce Manor and Ghost Mice – they’re not necessarily there to appeal to anyone in particular, but to be an extension of the artist’s mindset, and can be challenging and interpreted subjectively. That being said, I read as much as I possibly can on train rides to and from the city, and am constantly getting inspired by new artists and writers – and not just in comics.
What do you hope will be achieved by what you are doing and what did you achieve or re’alise personally?
Once I’ve got this Pozible business sorted, I will be effectively taking a ‘vacation’ from my freelance clients and teaching to work solely on this second comic. I am really excited about this, and it’s been my light at the end of the tunnel for months. The way I wrote Storm Clouds was to work as a one-off thing in case people thought it was dumb, but after the response I’ve got I want Don’t Panic to be the beginning of a bigger story – in a couple years I want to have a pretty extensive tale under my belt. Imagine that!
What’s been your proudest achievement to date?
Last winter I put on a show with my friends at The Roost called Super – it was an international pop art show about superheroes that we put on at Curve Gallery on Watt Street. I got to work with some huge artists I had previously thought of as idols, who now see me as their contemporary. Putting on events like that (and my opening night for Storm Clouds) can be a physically and mentally draining experience, but that opening night rush is all worth it. For the Super show, we had the American designer Jeff Julian be our guest speaker for the evening, since he lives in Newcastle now. Mr Julian is a famous concept artist – he designs sunglasses, cars and set pieces and scenes for big blockbuster films, and we asked him to open the show as he’d worked on designs for The Avengers, Superman Returns and The Green Lantern. After a bunch of mix-ups leading up to the opening night, my first time meeting him properly and shaking his hand as a professional happened to be when I was wearing an ill-fitting Green Lantern costume. It was a pretty ridiculous, but he was really cool with it – being able to share a room with someone that important wearing pants that tight definitely tops the university medal for proudest achievement!
What would be your dream project?
So far, these comics have been my dream project. I’ve tried to incorporate everything that interests me creatively – design, comics, bizarre printing methods and collaboration for the first one, and now music and crowdfunding for the second. As long as we’re not limiting my dreams by realism, I would love to design all the art for a pinball machine, or work as a concept artist on a video game. I’m actually a huge fan of independently-produced video games (for the very same punk rock analogy I used regarding comics) and would love to work on one some day. We once had a game developer staying at The Roost for a little while, an American guy named Chris Wnuk, from New Jersey. I thought he was Canadian for like half the time I knew him. He had this running gag where he would end emails with ‘see attached link’ and the link was just to the music video for Truly, Madly, Deeply by Savage Garden. Once he moved back to the United States I was pretty bummed I never got to work on a game with him!
What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?
I spent New Year’s 2013 in Cooks Hill and it was really nice. I’d like to live there but I can imagine having to walk past Cooks Hill Books to get home would be detrimental to the amount of space I’d have to live in. Like because of all the books I’d be buying.
What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?
Wearing t-shirts that have prints on the back. It’s winter and I’m always wearing jackets, so no one can see the design on the back of my shirt. What a waste!
The Renew Winter Wander tour on Hunter Street. If you don’t already know, Renew Newcastle run walking tours of all their new projects once a season – it’s sort of like a pub crawl of opening parties, except you can bring your kids! I went to my first one last week, and I loved it – usually I have to be manning the fort up at The Roost, but when we’re not a stop on the tour, it’s really fun to go and see what everyone else is doing with their spaces. I made a bunch of new friends at the new Wolfe Studios, and got to hear a poetry reading.
Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?
This is going to read like I’m being paid to say this, but I’ve recently been doing illustration work for this new golf/pizza bar called Slice on King Street. Last week, after the Renew tour, I had spent the entire week working on their menus without being able to actually eat anything on them, making sure all these delicious ingredients were spelled right and kerned correctly. I managed to avoid all the free nibblies on the tour (a lie) and I hadn’t eaten since lunch – it was 9PM and I got to Slice’s big opening night and ordered this pizza called The Tiger, named after Tiger Woods. All the pizzas have golf-related titles, but I didn’t get why it was called The Tiger until they told me. I deliberately got it in a take away box (because I had designed the boxes the week before) and at the time I felt like it was legitimately the best thing I’d ever put in my mouth. I marched right into the kitchen and hugged the chef. He thought it was great!
Your #1 Newcastle insiders tip?
It’s a really difficult thing to say where the ‘best coffee in Newcastle’ is, because everyone has different tastes. My money, however, is on Hello Naomi, on King street in the east end – which is first and foremost known as a cupcake bakery, but their barista is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. He is an app designer and could be making crazy dough doing that full time, but he does the barista thing because he loves it, and he is so finicky about it. Like the other week he was testing the pH levels of the water he was running the shots through, and was getting steamed about it not being perfect. I have started getting off at Civic to walk to work in the morning, specifically so I can walk past Naomi’s and hang out with them. This, however, has lead to that Cooks Hill Books situation becoming a reality, except with buying too many cupcakes. This, I can live with.
Can you name a local hero?
I just did! The barista at Hello Naomi’s name is Dave Pogson. There is an Officer Pogson in my first comic named after his young brother, but sometimes I tell people it’s named after him instead.