A Q&A with Doug Wright Award winner Alex Fellows

alexfellows.jpgOn Saturday, May 7, the best of Canadian comics from 2010 were honoured at the 2011 Doug Wright Awards. Three awards were handed out that night: the Pigskin Peters Award for experimental and abstract comics, Best Emerging Talent and Best Book.

Alex Fellows won this year's Best Emerging Talent Award for his comic Spain and Morocco. The award recognizes artists in the developmental stages of their career or artists in mid-career who have exhibited great change or growth in their work. Alex Fellows is an artist who falls in the second category, having previously been nominated for the same award in 2005. 

The Montreal-based artist has been creating comics since 2002, when he began publishing his first comic, Blank Slate, online. His work has been published in Drawn!, Pitchfork, Grafika, Forbidden Planet and Applied Arts. You can find his award-winning comic, Spain and Morocco, serialized online. It will be completed in 2012.

Spain and Morocco is the touching story of two roommates who, tired of their mundane existence, drop everything to travel through Spain and Morocco. They live it all: cramped hostels, beautiful beaches, rough hangovers and interesting people. Their journey is slightly strange, but completely unforgettable and life-changing.

Fellows answered some questions about his work, how he feels about winning the award and more.

We will also be checking in with Pigskin Peters Award winner Michael DeForge, and Pascal Girard, who won Best Book, so stay tuned!


Q: Congratulations on your Doug Wright Award. How does it feel?

A: I'm pleased and surprised to have won a Doug Wright Award. I figured that an online comic, let alone a work-in-progress, had no chance of winning. I'm also happy to have been chosen by a jury of such varied and talented people. Whenever somebody who isn't a comics fan reads my work and enjoys it, it means a lot to me.

Q: Tell us about your winning comic, Spain and Morocco.

A: The story follows two young roommates, Walt and Dan, who decide to leave behind their uneventful lives to go on a two-week trip through Spain and Morocco. With little money, not much travelling experience, and almost no social skills, they hope to find something that will awaken their spirits. What they do find is that the mundane routine of life as roommates doesn't always translate well to the hectic pace of life on the road. They have to deal with the challenges of a different culture, chasing women who want nothing to do with them and carrying a backpack in the midday sun while nursing a hangover.

Q: Did your own adventures inspire this story?

A: I did travel to Spain and Morocco in the early 2000s, but the comic is more inspired by all of my travelling experience rather than that specific trip. In my case, trying to write something autobiographical is like trying to control a dream; whatever plan I might have, I keep getting pulled in different, more mysterious directions. It's really out of my control. When I try to drop in anecdotes of events that actually happened to me, it feels weird and forced.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of creating Spain and Morocco?

A: Keeping to some kind of schedule is hard. I set out to do a weekly strip, but sometimes I miss a week here and there. I still do pretty well, considering it's in full colour, has about 12 panels per page, and I have a 15-month-old son. Long-form stories are also challenging because they become exponentially harder to write the further you go. Every new episode has to take into account all the episodes before, while revealing something new to the reader, and being careful you don't seem too cold and schematic. At the same time, I want it to feel like I'm expressing how I feel at the moment I'm working on the story, kind of like a diary.

Q: What was the most fun or exciting aspect of creating Spain and Morocco?

A: Despite all my grievances about how difficult it can sometimes be, I love writing and drawing comics. It's immensely satisfying for me to create characters and put them in different settings. I'm always surprised at what comes out. The same goes for using watercolours; the best part is often the accidents.


spainandmorocco.jpgQ: How did you become a comics artist?

A: I've been doing comics since age five, so I feel like I've always been a cartoonist. I've studied and worked in other art forms like painting and drawing, film animation and prose writing, but I always end up back at comics.

Q: What comics artists or writers do you return to again and again? Why?

A: Once in a while I open up my box of traditional, stapled "floppy" comics, now that everything is released as a book, and I'm always surprised by how much of it is still great. I have huge runs of Palookaville by Seth, Eightball by Dan Clowes, Hate by Peter Bagge, Acme Novelty Library by Chris Ware, and Optic Nerve by Adrian Tomine. I also look back at my Gaston Lagaffe collection a lot. André Franquin is one of the best cartoonists of all time, especially later in his career when the drawings were wild and manic. When a character gets mad in Gaston Lagaffe, you really feel it. It's visceral cartooning in the best possible way.

Q: How do you feel about the Canadian comics scene?

A: I feel it's pretty strong. Being nominated for a Doug Wright Award really opened me up to many creators I didn't know about. There are a few new books by Canadian cartoonists released by Drawn and Quarterly, such as Mid-Life by Joe Ollmann and The Klondike by Zach Worton, that are distinctly Canadian, but not boring, which is hard to pull off.

Q: Do you have a day job? If so, what is it?

A: Yes, I work as a medical animator. I animate the various mechanisms of our internal organs and how they interact with specific drugs. These are interactive modules which are used to educate pharmaceutical sales representatives about the products they're selling.

Q: Has this day job influenced your work as a comics artist?

A: Well, it's certainly taught me a lot about why drugs are such an enormous part of our culture. I've worked on many animations concerning the use of anti-depressants, and, as a writer, it really changed how I thought of people's emotional lives. When you see an illustration explaining how a certain receptor or gland in your brain isn't functioning properly, therefore causing symptoms of depression, it makes you rethink the illness. I don't suffer from depression in any serious way, but I used to feel a certain condescension towards people who did, as if they were just wallowing in self-pity. Now I see that it's essentially a physical problem, even if it's just at the cellular level. Combine a deficiency in your brain chemistry with a traumatic event in your life and the results can be horrible. Nobody would ever blame somebody with sleep apnea as being "lazy" or "unmotivated," but people are often made to feel guilty about feeling anything other than simple contentment.

Q: What do you plan to do with your trophy?

A: I put it next to my new orchid. They're both beautiful.

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