"Michael", a weekly comic on Vice, tells the story of a man that spends his time playing video games, saying no to drugs, and daydreaming about how cool he'll look with a Hanson inspired hairdo which, spoiler alert, doesn't go as planned. We fell for Michael's steadfast resolution to always be himself and talked with his creator, Irish Illustrator Stephen Maurice Graham, to find out more about this character and to delve into Stephen's amazing illustration career.
First and foremost, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. You seem to be a pretty busy guy! When you were studying Art History and just starting to dabble in the illustration world did you ever imagine that you would be doing such high profile editorial work? Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you feel it's led to your current situation?
Hi guys, thanks for having me! I never imagined that I would be doing illustration at all really, I was dead set on becoming a journalist, having studied English and Art History in a joint degree, I was really just doing Art History as I never got a chance to take art classes in school so it was a sliver of a chance to see into that world. It wasn't a practical course so it was a lot of time spent looking a historical and contemporary works of art and writing about it, I loved it! But it was always outside of the classroom where I worked on my own stuff, mostly comics when I was younger and then progressing to gig posters as I got more and into it. I think since I just experimented and tried to develop my style over the recent years things have started to get me more work, I'm really passionate about my work and have invested a lot of time into it and it's only after 6-ish years of really focusing on it that I think I've started to find my groove – it takes a long time!
Besides being a skilled artist, you're also a great story teller, as is apparent from your ongoing comic "Michael." Can you tell us about the origins of and your inspirations for "Michael"? did you draw from yourself or anyone you knew while inventing his personality?
Thank you! I love working on Michael, it's become a big part of my life recently as it's gone weekly over on VICE so I've become obsessed over trying to get my comics work really tight and good! The origins of Michael come from a part of my own personality, the insular interior part of myself, the one that wants to stay in and play videogames in the dark, but also elements of other people's personalities that I've known though life which came together and helped form him. I've always noticed that other comic artists characters started as facsimiles of themselves so that's where I started at too, but the thing I didn't realise is that the more you work on a character and draw them and think about them the more they develop in their own direction and grow into something deeper than those initial sketchy ideas.
Michael often feels like a larger than life caricature while also remaining a sympathetically relatable man. He seems to be someone that gets the rough end of the stick but is always unapologetically himself. When you created him were you aiming to create a character that fell more into the anti hero mold? He also seems to have pretty strict morals in terms of substance use and social norms, is that someone you planned out or has his character evolved as the column has continued?
Yes that's it! Like I was saying earlier, it's interesting how the character grows. Michael does get walked over quite a bit as the assumption is that he's kind of a loser, and he is really by our societal norms but he's very happy in his own life and doesn't apologise for what he wants to do, good or bad. In a way it's the ideal way to be, he follows no crowd and his own moral compass. I just thought it was funny that when I was young the 'rebel' was the person smoking weed and getting into fights but really you learn as you get older that being a real rebel might not mean smouldering in the corner of a party looking sexy and cool but rather being frustratingly single minded, an outcast among your peers, a laughing stock and being ok with it because you're ok with yourself.
From his signature gold and magenta suit to the often muted color palette of the comics, there is an air of nostalgia that brings to mind printed comics from the 1950s and 60s. When originally creating the look and feel of “Michael,” did you plan on giving it a vintage edge? Do you feel your background in Art History influenced your styling on for the comic and your work in general?
Michael's look evolved out of that desire to have him at odds with his peer group, he's always slightly too formally dressed which puts others on edge. I remember growing up as the weird kid who would wear their school uniform on a Saturday, that's where the suit thing comes from, that slight mis-reading of what to do socially that instantly makes you stand out like a sore thumb.
There is a definitely a older style of dress I wanted to echo with Michael's look too, you're right! I made his suit trousers flared which is fun to draw and look at and also ties into the idea that Michael is not in the right place or the right time. I'm not sure if there was any direct inspiration for the look of Michael but if there was anything going on there I was say David Hockney is up there, as in the way he was so ostentatious in his own dress sense.
“Michael” is a relatively new project, having first been posted in March of this year. What kind of future do you see for the comic? Would you like to eventually create a graphic novel or a compendium?
There are absolutely plans to do a collection of the comics in the future! I don't know how much I can say about that at the moment but I'm really looking forward to having a book out in the next year or so, I'll give you a shout when it's happening!
At the moment Michael is on a weekly schedule which means that the scope of the comics is limited to 1 – 3 pages a week. It would be fun to work on a longer form of the comic after that but at the moment I'm enjoying the process of telling short succinct stories.
Beyond “Michael” you've expanded your work into many different areas. What have you created that you are the most proud of, or the most excited to develop?
I'm really proud of the work I've done around videogames, making a series of drawings about one of my passions which eventually led to doing a lot of the games related illustrations for VICE which then led to me doing Michael. I think as an illustrator you need to carve out a niche for yourself, not necessarily one that's going to lead to you doing the same thing over and over but something that you can use for inspiration to turn into something new and fresh. If you can combine things you love then hopefully that reflects in the work itself. In the future, I'd like to develop more gaming related zines to compliment my comics work, I just need more time!
What are some comics that have strongly influenced your work through the years? Were there certain pieces you looked at specifically while creating your own comics?
I'm a big fan of Charles Schultz and Peanuts, I love the style and the writing and have since I was a child. I would say that Michael is a bit of a Charlie Brown. When I was young I'd read Tintin and Asterix and British comics like the Beano. Nowadays there is so much richness in comic publishing, people like Julien Glander, Jonny Negron, Sophia Foster-Dimino and Alex Schubert to name a few are making diverse and exciting work and have been for years, I'd love to be anywhere near as good as them someday!
What is your current working space like? If you could build your dream studio, where would it be and what would it look like? And are there certain things you have to have around while you work?
I think where I work is my dream already – It's a small space (I'll send you a photo!) in a spare room in my house where myself and my wife Zoe live in the countryside with our dog Poppy. It's great, quiet and peaceful and I can go out on walks with the dog all about the place so it's really chilled.
The only thing is that it can be nice and inspirational to go out and speak to other artists in their workspace so from time to time I'll venture out into Belfast and see a few pals who have studios in the city and see what they're working on and perhaps work with them on different projects.
Do you have a favorite thing to snack on while working?
I'm a big snacker, I could eat snacks as a sport. I'm trying to be vaguely healthy though as my work is very sedentary so what I'll have during the day now is quite regimented! So I usually have a coffee with a dark chocolate rice cake (EXCITING!) and then later in the day another coffee and a healthy nut bar of some kind (usually pecan if possible) If I wasn't trying to eat right I'd love to have do-nuts with everything.
Lastly, creating a story and then cohesive artwork to couple it with seems like a very daunting task to take on. Do you have any advice for someone whose setting out to create their own comic?
The most difficult thing about making a comic is having the stamina to keep going and keep creating it, frequently the only motivation you have to do it is yourself. No one is ever going to tell you that making comics is a easy and quick endeavour so you're going to have to whip yourself together all the time and tell yourself that the only way to tell good stories and draw well and cohesively is to make comics and to keep making comics and do it for years and years and then you'll be good. A good way to start is make short one page comics and go from there, that will give you discipline and also is a quick way to gauge feedback from other artists out there. Get yourself a tumblr and start posting comics regularly and build an audience!