Sarah Firth is one of my favorite creatives. She is a Melbourne based artist who studied visual arts at the Australian National University. In the last decade or so she has earned numerous awards, commissions, residencies and a fellowship. Firth is a creative entrepreneur running a creative services and consultation business offering graphic recording, illustration, animation, film and creative workshops. Her first graphic novel, Eventually Everything Connects, has a publisher, JOAN (Nakkiah Lui with Allen & Unwin), and will launch within a year. More details on that as we get closer to that date. In her new book, Firth explores, as she states, “personal narratives woven together with philosophy, psychology, theory, and criticism. It’s a humorous and idiosyncratic exploration of multiplicity, fragmentation and intertextual play that fits into the autotheory genre.” In this interview, Firth shares a little bit about that upcoming book, the world of graphic recording, and thoughts on the whole creative process, particularly the creation of comics. For one thing, we discuss the amazing Comic Art Workshop residency program. We also discuss the awesome Graphic Storytellers at Work research project. Firth says, “It’s really worth downloading and reading their report. If you want a printed poster contact Gabriel Clarke.”
Sarah Firth, the artist, the person.
So, now I’ve set up for you a little bit about who Sarah Firth is but let me go further in sharing with you about this remarkable talent. I find Firth to be a vibrant artist, unafraid to be silly and to experiment with various media. She mentions in our interview that she began as a sculptor and I’m not surprised. If you take a look at her videos, you get a strong tactile vibe. Firth uses her hands a lot: to mold shapes, to present, to sew, to draw, to perform. And I’m not surprised that such a lively and curious artist gravitated to graphic recording. That is a special discipline that, on the face of it, is essentially documenting some meeting, whether a conference or a workshop, and distilling the essentials from it in concise words and picture. Of course, it’s more than that–as if that wasn’t enough!
Graphic recording can be a vehicle for deep exploration. You can’t just be an artist to do it professionally. And you really can’t just be a writer either. You need both skill sets along with a strong analytical mind, and even sheer guts, to do this at an exceptional level! That said, anyone can do some form of sketchnoting and Firth offers up a free mini-course to help you discover the world of graphic recording.
Graphic recording is just like any other skill, you can do it at your own pace to meet your own needs. You’ll discover that, if you can take notes of any kind and even if you think you can’t, sketchnoting is useful at work and to help you problem-solve just about anything.
Sarah Firth books.
You get good at graphic recording over time as you develop your own style, your own way of problem-solving. I’ve reached a certain level with my own graphic recording and I know I’ll keep getting better at it. Everyone keeps getting better as long as they’re curious.
THINK ON THE PAGE by Sarah Firth
Finally, I’m not surprised that, after years of doing graphic recording, of getting down into the weeds of processing raw information, that Firth has found her way to creating a graphic novel, one that, in a sense, attempts to make sense of it all. Autotheory, as I understand, is using the self in order to understand the world. That’s a lot of what graphic novels are about and I know Sarah Firth is a natural at synthesizing data and explaining the world around her in whatever medium she chooses to use.
I hope you enjoy this video podcast. And, if you get chance, I’d really appreciate a like and even a comment on my YouTube channel. It’s totally free and it helps to keep this whole enterprise moving along. I will continue to provide more of this kind of content, as I juggle various other projects and assignments in the background. I reached a point some time ago where I can only post the content that engages me the most. As always, your support means a lot and is actually part of this whole process, whether you know it or not. It’s so true. Eventually, everything connects!
Think on the Page. Sarah Firth. 2021. purchase here.
Sarah Firth is a very busy and quite popular artist and all-around visual storyteller. Based out of Melbourne, Australia, Firth is a Eisner Award-winning cartoonist, comic artist and writer, speaker and internationally renowned graphic recorder. This book is a collection of various observations which all add up to a heady stream of consciousness, an expansive working out of this or that issue or problem, plainly said or with a touch of mystery. Just one human, being human, being real. She’s made an art out of removing any filter and letting all the bits and pieces of life tumble out in messy, funny, and profound ways.
The theme of this book is about embracing the process of problem-solving, not overthinking it, going with your first impulses, and drilling down to something authentic. It’s part improvisation, part meditation. It’s what happens when you think on the page! This is about comics, art, illustration, and especially that curious beast, live illustration or graphic recording, where the creative is engaged with the subject in the moment and proceeds to not only document but to synthesize, digest, and filter down to the essential. The results can be pretty awesome.
Here’s an insight I’m happy to share again and again: there is an art to sketchnoting. What Firth does with her graphic recording is an art. The industry mantra is to say that any form of quick concise drawing is not art because the thinking is that this message appeals to a general audience. So, sure, the tools and techniques involved here are generally in the service of commercial and educational interests. But what it all amounts to depends upon who is using these tools. If you need remarkable results, something that truly resonates, then you hire a professional like Sarah Firth.
More wisdom I can pass down to you: sketchnoting and comics do indeed mix. Now, the general misconception is that the world of graphic recording and comics have nothing to do with each other. Again, this is an industry mantra thinking that, to even suggest otherwise, is going to confuse people. Ah, and again I state that it all depends upon who is making use of the virtually limitless possibilities available to any artist/commercial artisan. Yes, anyone can doodle (and gain so much from it) and some folks cultivate a special skill set that includes doodles and beyond! Okay, as you can tell, I’m passionate about comics and the wider world it is connected to. That is what is so wonderful about Sarah Firth’s work. This is someone who said, hell yes, here’s a massive playground of creative fun and I’m diving in and making the most of it! As you can see from these examples, Firth is a master at taking choice bits of images and text that result in compelling content that invites discussion and contemplation.
Let’s focus in on one of Firth’s longer comics in her book, this story is entitled, “On Loving a Difficult Creature.” It’s an 11-page story told with a sharp and vivid energy. The little guy who stars in it is named, Ferretie. This is a very specific tale from Firth’s youth when she inherited a ferret from a previous relationship. It all sort of just happened. Firth never intended to find herself with such a challenging pet. Ferrets might seem cute but they pack a wallop of a bite and can take down a rabbit within seconds. It became an ongoing thing for Firth to explain to newcomers to the house that, when Ferretie began to gnaw on your finger, he was only playing, actually holding back quite considerably. What is so impressive to me is how clean, crisp and clear the whole narrative is. That’s not to say it can’t be messy, unclear and ambiguous because that approach can definitely work as you are figuring something out. Firth is capable of whatever vision she wants to share. My point is that there is much to celebrate for well-executed clarity of purpose. What drives this story is providing a portrait of Ferretie and Firth. The ferret proves to be an intelligent, loving and noble little soul. Firth, despite feeling misgivings, does very well by her furry friend and learns many valuable life lessons on responsibility, empathy and compassion. Ferretie lives on in Firth’s own noble and genuine work. Firth is the real deal with her memorable and engaging comics.
There is a true art to comics storytelling. Don’t let anyone tell you different. And, if you’ve joined me here, you most likely already know. Heck, you can tell when a story has got that crunchy goodness and when it falls short. Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of reading the comics of Brian Fies. He’s the guy who did that webcomic that went viral and ended up inspiring the creation of a Digital Comics category at the Eisner Awards. It was the webcomic, Mom’s Cancer, which won in that category that first year, back in 2005. Comics scholar Scott McCloud was there to hand Brian Fies his award. Recently, Brian’s book, A Fire Story, was released in an updated and expanded edition. Read my review here.
How do you end up creating a comic about your own mother’s cancer? Well, that’s where the power of storytelling comes in. You can tell any story, of course. And there’s something about the nature of comics, the medium’s built-in tendency to organize thought, that can lead both the creator and the reader down some very unexpected and rewarding paths. And, yes, you can even extract a touch of humor from the most challenging situations. Fies did it with his groundbreaking webcomic and he did it again with his more recent, A Fire Story, which has just been released in an updated and extended edition.
A Fire Story
I hope you enjoy this interview. It was a pleasure to do. I hardly had to refer to my notes as I had a million things I could talk to Brian about. He even knew, right away, about my favorite pop culture hero, George Clayton Johnson. I focused much of our talk on comparing Mom’s Cancer to A Fire Story. Maybe we’ll need to do another talk that compares his book, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? with his upcoming book, The Last Mechanical Monster, due to be released early next year.
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?
The Last Mechanical Monster
It is safe to say, in my opinion, that all auteur cartoonists share the same trait of being compelled to also be journalists: to act as caretakers of a big story and be obligated to gather all the facts, process all the facts, and present the best, most detailed yet concise, version of these facts. Some do it better than others. There are numerous variations and ways of doing this. But, at the end of the day, a real cartoonist is every bit as capable and driven as a real reporter.
Panel excerpt from A Fire Story
If you are new to Brian Fies and to A Fire Story, and if you’re looking for a perfect textbook example of how to tell a story through comics, then seek out this book! For more details, go to Abrams ComicArts.
BONUS: We avoided a detour during our conversation and had meant to return to it. So, for all you true believers, this is the bonus content. Brian wanted to share some hard-won process insights. Here is what he later related to me via e-mail:
“My Last Mechanical Monster anecdote is that I’d written the whole story and penciled more than 100 pages when I realized I wasn’t having any fun drawing the story. Every day at the board was a slog. I figured that if I didn’t enjoy writing it, nobody would probably enjoy reading it, either. So I paused, rethought the whole thing, turned those 100-plus pages of penciled drawings over, and started drawing a whole new story on their backs. I thought of it in the context of “wasted time”—in one sense, I wasted many months (maybe a year?) writing and drawing a story that I abandoned. But I had to work through that story to get to a better story I liked.
My lessons from that: you have to trust your process; you can’t be afraid to toss something that isn’t working; and sometimes you have to dig through crap to find gold (or at least less stinky crap.)”
Thank you, Brian! You are a modest and gracious person!