How illustrator Jules Faber makes it matter
Faber is President of the Australian Cartoonists Association, award-winning illustrator of the wildly popular WeirDo and Kaboom Kid series and he also carries with him a bent for the satirical, especially when it comes to political issues. Plus, he’s a teacher and dad to a (somewhat) toothless child. He moves between these roles with ease. And you guess nothing much phases him. His practical approach to his craft and to the business of cartooning is revealed in this interview with him.
How do you give it mouth?
Until three and a half years ago I made political cartoons for regional newspapers. So I had an opportunity there to poke fun at local events and personalities. But occasionally I got to play on a larger nationwide scale. That was at the time of Rudd and Gillard and their hijinks and shenanigans.
Did you have any particular cartoon at that time that caused a shakeup?
No, it was regional so I seldom heard from my audience, which was actually kind of frustrating.
What I do now is I work in kids’ books where I get to meet my audience, which is more entertaining.
I’m also President of the Australian Cartoonists Association. And that’s very important to me because I believe that everyone is a cartoonist. Cartooning was our first language and the first way we could ‘give it mouth’.
What does your role with the association involve?
We represent the interests of cartooning in the media. I mean the bean-counters would get rid of us entirely I think, but the public like what we do so much that it’s a constant civil war between the two. And fighting for the rights of cartoonists, not just locally, where we have a very placid environment for that kind of thing, but internationally too where cartoonists are going to jail or being murdered for the part they play in educating and making strong political statements about things. You know, everything from people in Egypt and being arrested and jailed in Iran right through to the after-effects of Charlie Hebdo.
Is there anything you won’t make gags about?
Definitely. Like most cartoonists, I’m on the left wing. I don’t make jokes about racism, sexism, religion…and then other major taboos, child abuse stuff like that. I can offer an opinion about it. But it won’t be funny.
Have you had any wins in terms of advocating for cartoonists?
Not anything profound, but we are a presence and something cartoonists can use for strength even for something as simple as what to charge. Because a lot of people feel cartooning is a skill you’re just naturally gifted with. Which is patently untrue. And so they don’t want to pay for it. An organisation like ours can stand up behind them and say, “This is the accepted rate.”
We’re not a union, but we’re the oldest cartooning body in the world – we’re 92 this year – and so people know who we are and will listen. That’s on the local front. We also represent cartoonists internationally for instance at FECO which is the Federation of European Cartoonist Organisations and others where we are included in world condemnation of things like Charlie Hebdo.
What about condemnation on social media of dissenting political voices.
In Australia the political climate changes so rapidly that it never gets to the point where we’re barricading ourselves and dodging bullets. Rather than forgive and forget, it’s just forget. It’s a bit of a tragedy because that’s how we’ve had the dodgy governments we’ve had over the past 5-7 years.
What do you tell fledgling cartoonists about running their business?
We suggest pricing for them. We encourage ideas about how to get your name out there: how to show your work; what to get involved in.
And what do you tell them about getting their name out there, because that can be tough?
The secret to my success is versatility, and that’s what I completely encourage. Don’t just sit on one comic strip and think you’ll make your fortune. You need to get out there at events where you can do live drawing of people or you can do illustrations or editorial cartoons. Doesn’t matter. 99% of the population don’t have the skills you have, so you’ve got to show them what you can do. That means a lot of rejection. And that’s something else I tell other people too. If you can’t handle rejection then you’re in the wrong business.
Are there any keys to handling rejection?
I guess you just develop a tough skin. When you consider that as a cartoonist you’re dishing it out to people with your political and other opinions, you have to be able to take it as well.
It sounds like you’ve been an inspiration for a lot of people. Who inspires you?
I’ve never had a mentor. My only real mentor has been myself.
When I was young I found a job I wanted to do and I set to work at about the age of ten to develop the skills I needed. I’m a firm believer in the adage that when a student is ready the teacher appears. When I found something I wanted to branch into, the right person would walk into my life at the right time. But I’ve never really sat at the shoulder of someone.
I’m an unapologetic fanboy. I still geek out at Supernova. So it’s weird for me to have fans, when I’ve always been one to be a fan of others.
As a fanboy, who would make you swoon?
I’ve met so many now that I have managed to learn to control my swoon. But sometimes I’m still in my head … “Oh my god, oh my god.”
But there was a comic I started reading when I was very young, it was 2000AD, a UK comic. That comic set me on a path where I understood that you can tell things with not just words, which are dull sometimes; and not just pictures, which are dull sometimes; but you can marry the two.
So inspirationally in my career, there’s Norman Hetherington, whom I never met until 2009, though he was an enormous influence on me as a kid because he was the puppeteer behind Mr Squiggle. And Mr Squiggle was the first thing I saw on television that blew my mind. Then in 2009 I was invited to Norman’s house and he took me down to the basement where all the puppets were and they were the same puppets. He hadn’t changed them. It was truly one of the most remarkable moments of my life. Even just for a moment I was inside my own childhood mind. It was completing a circle. It was a glorious day. A couple of years later Norman died and that was really painful. Norman was the first major influence. He changed my mind. Or he set my mind, if you like.
Over the years I found other things that channelled me where I want to go. Like some of the artists in 2000AD, for instance Carlos Ezquerra who is a Spanish cartoonist, one of the creators of Judge Dredd. A couple of years ago I hooked up with him on Facebook and I sent him this gushing fanboy note. And he responded he wrote back. And that was a great moment. I met Neil Gaiman a few times. His writing is so good and he can write anything about anything. And he’s such a lovely gentleman as well. Because my end game is not to be an illustrator forever. I want to move into being a writer/illustrator. And then a writer.
How are you learning the new skill of writing?
I don’t set rules, I just get drawn to things and I’ve learnt to allow that to happen. If I’m drawn to something I’ve learnt to go with it and to see where it will take me. I had a book published in 2004, which sold limited numbers, but it was a very limited print run. And it was short stories. And I was fascinated by short stories at the time, and had been since I was a teenager, because I loved the idea of compacting the maximum amount of information into the minimum amount of words.
And yet now I feel that that doesn’t interest me anymore and I’ve kind of ticked it off the list. I did everything I set out to do and I was ready to move to the next thing. And the next thing was comics and I did a few full colour comics, then eased away as work commitments took over. And I’ve just finished writing this comic book series which was going to be my opus. It’s called Golgotha. I was drawing caricatures at the time for corporates so I wanted to make a comic with no people in it. There was one character but I turned him into the worst character ever.
I wonder if that was part of your response to doing corporate work?
Haha. That might be true. I hadn’t thought about it like that.
I recently decided to redraw the whole thing in black and white…it’s part of the evolution. Black and white is what I’m fascinated with at the moment.
Will you self-publish the black and white version? Is it viable to self-publish?
From what I understand there’s much more money to be made in self publishing than there is in traditional publishing. If you have the right product to sell.
But at present I have fourteen books in print, so there’s a lot of latent income from that.
Is it enough to live on and if no, what is?
Not yet. No, but by next Christmas the number will be at twenty-two. It’s about having books in print but it’s also about sales. You have to have a viable product and nobody knows what will take off and what will fizzle.
So that’s where versatility becomes important . . . a lot of irons in a lot of fires.
My next question was going to be is there a secret to making sure a book sells?
No. But the secret to getting work is to sell yourself.
How do you do that?
As an example, I had lost all my newspaper jobs in the space of one month. As it turned out JB HiFi opened in Coffs Harbour where I was living at the time…and I got the job. At the same time I was about to start, I got an email from Scholastic saying that they had this author on board who had written a funny new series and would I be interested in illustrating it. And I said yeah because I’d wanted to get into publishing. And that came from the Australian Cartoonists Association as well, where we all have our details.
So in my breaks I was drawing roughs for this book. And that was the first Weirdo book of course…but once I had that the book was out and we’d won book of the year and the second one was out, I got my agent to contact all the other publishers in town. I got meetings in Sydney with all of them. Before the weekend was out I had another series and two more books that people were keen to talk to me in the future about. That was integral. I could have sat in my room and kept drawing and gone nowhere.
But by getting out and talking to real people in a real environment…that was the secret there. I haven’t been sitting and waiting for the phone to ring. Plus it’s a good opportunity for me to pitch opportunities for my own book. I’m learning what the industry wants.
So you’re giving them what they want?
Yeah, well they’re all stories I want to tell. But I’m telling them how they want them told, I guess.
My experience with teaching is often that students can be inflexible about how ideas will roll out. And probably what you’re saying is be willing to adjust.
You’re a professional. And a professional is a commercial creator of work. And sure you can defend this chapter and blah. But if you’re saying, “No I don’t want to draw a character that way because the character is this” – it’s not really your place to do that because you’re working for the publisher and I think it should be a 50/50 collaboration on the work between author and illustrator and each should receive an equal cut for the work, but that’s not the way it is.
And when publishers know you are flexible and easy to work with – and I’m not saying you have to be a doormat – but you have to do what they’re hiring you for. You need to do work for them, not you. And that brings in the work.