Peony Gent makes work across media – drawings, books, comics, installations and ceramics, and is most at home working with both text and images simultaneously. As she states on her website, ‘The things we keep closest to us are often the things we feel least allowed to express, and there is peace to be found in their release’. This sentiment is the driving force behind her output of imaginative comics, allowing for a creative journey that is embarked upon on her terms, and not on the terms of what expected from the medium. In this post she describes her inspirations and process.
By Peony Gent
I’ve always loved comics. My childhood to teenage years were full of them. Crumpled issues of Hellboy from the £1 bargain bin at Forbidden Planet, my dad’s Marvel classics liberated from the living room to live piled up by my bed, the hours spent refreshing webcomics on our old whirring Windows 95.
Despite that love I’ve always felt instinctively, the deep satisfaction gained from that just-right combination of author and artist, word and image, I never really tried to make my own when I was young. Now I can look back and see a lot of it was from fear of the knowledge that I knew I couldn’t produce art that looked like those glossy pages, either impressively realistic or slick and stylised. I had never really seen an art style in comics that reflected my own, definitively un-glossy and not-so-slick, so I self-excluded before even trying.
I was almost halfway through a four year illustration degree before I can even remember putting a comic together for the first time, and even that was for a mandatory assignment. We had two weeks to create a four page comic on anything we wanted. I decided to exorcise something that had been going round my head for about a year, the death of a man I had done some work for back home, who I had not seen in a long time, and now never would again. We had not been particularly close and I had not known him particularly well, but his passing had continued to tug at me.
It really sparked something, those few four pages that compiled ‘Earth’. It gave me a way to process and offer out my feelings in a way that I’d never quite had been able to before through art, it helped me start conversations about grief and guilt after over a year of leaving my bottled up feelings unspoken and untouched.
Despite its many flaws it is still one of my most treasured things I’ve ever made. ‘Earth’ changed something in the way I worked, a way I’ve never returned from. There was something addictive about the feeling that I’d created something purely of me, but something that actively seemed to speak to those who read it. After terms of editorial illustrations of office spaces and visual puns, it felt revelatory.
Approach to comics-making
From there I continued to make comics – most involving some element of the autobiographical. This element of comics-as-catharsis I very much valued, and still do. However as much as I look inwards I am also constantly reaching outwards, looking for my work to become a kind of connection point for others who may have felt or thought similar things.
That comic, and indeed most of the ones I’ve invested so much of myself in afterwards as well, act as a kind of time capsule of how I felt at the time I was making them. When I re-read ‘Earth’ I’m taken back to where I was when I felt those feelings, when the grief and guilt were still strong, and also back to where I was when I drew those images, to sitting in a dark uni halls room in Edinburgh. This
returning quality that these comics posses for me, it’s not as damaging or difficult as it might sound. Instead there’s something grounding in being able to see the change in me, to see my life through little windows to the past that are so clear to me, parts of time that might have become long since muddled by distance.
For example I made the zine ‘Evening Light’ in quite a bad time of my life, and that zine is saturated in the overwhelming anxiety I was possessed by at that time. As well as acting as a way for me to regain partial control in a time where I felt I had none, making that zine has also become a strange source of strength for me now. To be able to see so clearly what I have moved on from, what I no longer feel and now almost can’t imagine feeling, that’s good.
Becoming involved in the UK small press scene and discovering the work of people such as Simon Moreton and Aidan Koch really influenced what I believed my work could even be seen as – I came to care much less about the ‘rules’ of comics, realising it was perfectly acceptable for you to define the medium, that the medium didn’t have to define you. I could find a place in the community I loved without changing the way I naturally worked.
Not to say that’s an easy thing either – working perhaps slightly unconventionally definitely reduces your options in terms of who will hire you for commercial work, it’s definitely a pursuit for passion as opposed to financial gain.
The Power of Poetry
To get a true look at my practice it’s important for me to state how I am equally as influenced by poetry as I am by visual artists – the written side of my work I consider as integral as the illustration side, and when creating my comics is it usually 50/50 whether the words or the images come first. I am greatly inspired by the modern feminist tradition of poetry (those such as Maggie Nelson and Holly Pester) that see poetry about the self as an act of resistance: that because society’s narrative is so overwhelmingly male and suppressive that the presentation of any other ways of living or being is a balm. The value I put on poetry can be summed up in a quote from Metahaven’s Daniel van der Velden, that “poetry transforms what can be seen or sensed into what can’t be forgotten”. This power is something I see also in illustration, and is the thing I now strive to achieve in my work. I don’t particularly wish to convey factual representations of aesthetics, I wish to capture the essence of the feeling of an event or story, to create something that a reader may see and feel an authentic connection to.
At their best both forms have the ability to capture the essence of something – whatever that is, a feeling, a memory, and relate that to the viewer in a much deeper and truer way than facts could. Both are also deeply personal mediums, being expressed directly from the mind and pen of one person straight to the eyes of another – an intimacy that is explicit in the form itself. More recently I’ve also begun to feel comfortable experimenting further with the form of my comics – pushing both the imagery within them and the balance of abstractionism and text. I’ve been exploring how comics can transfer into installations, playing with the idea of how a physical book can be translated into a physical space that you experience in a time limited way. These installations, despite their connotations with the fine art world, are for me 100% still a part of my continuing experimentation with comics and graphic novels. They are about testing the boundaries of how image and text relate to each other, the breaks and pauses of the page turn being scaled up and replaced by the pauses and gaps caused by the spacing in how a piece is curated inside a room.
In terms of technique my work is fairly varied in medium, often combining collage, photographs, deliberately warped pieces of text, and pencil or digital drawings and textures. However the approach to the work is always the same: I will collect together a variety of drawings, textures and photographs, and play around with them in Photoshop until I create a pace and appearance that suits the story I’m attempting to tell. This organic and loose way of working for me is very helpful, allowing the narrative to evolve in a natural feeling way. However I do feel the basis of my work will always be in pencil drawings- at the heart of it I enjoy the childlike joy of drawing too much to ever go purely textual or digital, and still feel there’s something about a pencil on a page that can’t quite be replicated.
Park Bench Kensington
For a closer look at my method here’s an examination of Park Bench Kensington, a recent self published comic. Park Bench Kensington is a documentation of a conversation I had (perhaps unsurprisingly) on a park bench, in Kensington. I was eating lunch when a man approached me and asked if I could take a second to talk for a bit. We did for a while, and after we said goodbye I wrote down every sentence I could remember, and turned it into this comic. I’ve added two sentences of my own, but the rest is all his story word for word as I remember him telling it. He talked to me about how he was currently waiting until 3pm where he had an appointment at the Bangladesh High Commission, where he was going to announce himself as an illegal immigrant within the UK so he could return home to his family. He told me about how hard it been living and working in London for the past 10 years, and how his illegal status had made it almost impossible for him to get well paid work, despite him being a talented chef. He had become very very depressed, and felt abandoned after his girlfriend of a number of years had left him. He also felt torn about returning to his home country, both looking forward to seeing his family whilst feeling sad about losing the freedoms London provided him. He was in a lot of pain, and hoped returning to his home would ease some of it.
It was one of those small but deeply important encounters that very much remained stuck to me afterwards, and I felt I needed to make this book to relieve that a little. There was definitely a part of me that struggled with something that felt almost exploitative (telling a story about migration from a man I had no further contact with), so I tried to keep it entirely honest by only using his own words, rather than putting my own into his mouth.
I made it very quickly in a couple of days, using a strict six panel grid system to restrict myself compositionally. Everything was constructed together by hand, using a photocopier to xerox copies of my pencil drawings which I could then cut and paste into each page, and then digitally colour after the final composition was scanned in. Like most of the work I make it was done really intuitively page by page, with little more planning than that. This restricted grid however is admittedly very different to a lot of the work I make where I usually go with a more freeform structure, rarely limiting myself to a ‘traditional’ system of comic book panels. However this is usually because I am exploring a theme or a state of mind which benefits from a more meandering tone, whereas here I was documenting a specific moment in time. The limitations here were also very useful because of the short time frame I had to make it – squashed in between other projects as it was.
In comparison here are some pages from another comic from last year, Morning Tide. This was an illustrated poem that looked at my relationship with anxiety, and how overwhelmed moving to a large new city had made me. This book contains no panelling or framework of any kind, yet I still consider it a comic or visual narrative due to the importance of the drawn imagery in relation to the
This page below also demonstrates my more common working process, where I will draw each element of the page over and over before picking my favourite versions (whether they’re the one with the most energetic line, or the one that captures the spirit of the subject the most) and combining them on Photoshop. Again for this method I will rarely overly plan what the final page will look like, rather continuing to shift things around and try adding and subtracting varying sections until I am happy with the final piece.
Possibly the largest challenge of Park Bench was the colouring of it – I often struggle with digitally colouring as I find it difficult when faced with so many possibilities and micro-choices. I tend to enjoy a process much more when I already have restrictions. As you can see in a lot of my other illustrations I tend to stick to very limited colour palettes of one or two contrasting colours, or use printing processes such as risograph which limit my colour choices for me. I actually finished a whole version of Park Bench that is entirely yellow and orange tones, with very occasional spot sections of red to highlight moments of drama or tension. Whilst I liked the nostalgic vibe this gave off (to suit the work’s theme of fallible memory) in the end it was simply too gimmicky to feel considered, and it really overwhelmed the pages. I decided to settle with a more varied palette of greens and light yellows, inspired by the park the conversation took place in. I then kept some of the yellow and orange sections for the imagined scenes of Bangladesh, and kept the rare panel of bright red.
Advice for Aspiring Comic Creators
If I had any overarching advice for those interested in either comics or poetry, or indeed the combination of both, I think it would be to ensure that with each piece you make you are fulfilling first and foremost some kind of need within yourself. Not that your art has to be about yourself, but you are the person it should be made for. People respond to authenticity in whatever form that takes, even if it is just a clear authentic love for the story you are attempting to tell.
And for those who may be thinking of getting into comics, or are interested in the medium I have compiled a list below of people, presses and publishers which I believe are pushing the medium at the moment, and who may be useful to look at further.
– Aidan Koch
– Simon Moreton
– Disa Wallander
– Tommi Parish
– Wallis Eates
– Molly Mendoza
– Anders Nilsen
– Linnea Sterte
– Maria Medem
– Pale Froi
Presses / Distribution
– Fidele Studio
– Peow Press
– Shortbox (run by editor Zainab Ahktar)
– Breakdown Press
– O Panda Gordo (run by Joao Sobral who makes his own comics)