Interview: Faye Spencer, creator of Nonniverse

This week on the Good Blog we're bringing you a fantastic interview with Faye Spencer, creator of Tales from the Nonniverse Vol. 1. We released Nonniverse back in November 2016 at Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds - and nearly 3 years later we're here to catch up with Faye to see what she's been up to since!


GC: It’s been over 2 years since Nonniverse came out - how time flies! Can you tell us a little bit about Nonniverse and how it came to be?

FS: The Nonniverse was the first proper comic I’d ever done, and it started off as a bit of a joke. It’s an alternate universe in which the things that can be deemed as having the quality of ‘nonny’ necessarily exist.

What is Nonny? The short answer is that it’s anything which might make you think, ‘Oh, hey nonny-no’ with mildly affectionate mockery. It might incorporate things from ‘Western European Medieval Fantasy’, folk tradition, or fairy-tales, but it also excludes large swathes of things from each. A Fool with a big belly riding a drunk pig through the market on Shrove Tuesday is nonny, a maypole on a village green is nonny, elements of Shakespeare are nonny. It incorporates both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.

The long answer is usually problematic, the problem being that the Nonniverse shouldn’t really work as a world. This is all part of the fun of it, and, in my view, reflective of a real-life vague collective memory we have of a past which never really existed.

The Nonniverse is inherently unstable because its own rules are able to change, to be turned ‘upside-down’ - a radicalised version of the carnivalesque mode. Really, though, the Nonniverse functions as a lazy way of doing world-building (which I’m bad at) which allows me to jumble up time periods and get away with inconsistencies. So, this very stupid world I’d created became the setting for a story about a young person stuck on a recently sacked monastic island, dealing with personal calamity with only a fool’s marotte (puppet) to talk to.

I think it’s a very flawed piece in many ways, which is part of the reason I never did a follow-up (or, at least, I never published the follow-up – I made stacks of finished pages which ended up being recycled and used for papier-mâché sculptures). I still love the world, but I don’t want to to pick up the narrative where I left off for various reasons. I am, however, planning a sort of ‘reboot’, less plot-driven and more about exploring the Nonniverse itself.

GC: What was your process for creating it?

FS: I am a slow worker. I’ve heard it said that some of us are cigarette artists, and move deftly from project to project with ease, while some of us are cigar artists, and spend a long time dwelling over a single subject. While this is admittedly a simplistic analysis, I relate to the latter.

It took months simply to figure out how to draw the comic. I knew I wanted to make everything by hand, since at the time I was teaching drawing classes in traditional media and I guess I must have I felt like I had something to prove. I tested every pencil and paintbrush going. I tried doing fancy multi-layered processes such as pencilling in the lines, scanning these in and then watercolouring the scans, but eventually I just settled for good old pencil and printer paper, because I was poor and I liked the amount of control it gave me. I naively thought it would save me time, but this was not the case.

The main characters themselves went through several iterations before I was happy with their look, gestures and feel. The first thing I knew about Evelyn is that they should have a long nose like the Zanni (buffoons) from the commedia dell’arte – a grotesque mark of humility. Rott the puppet started off as a purely functional object, or a secondary voice to talk to Evelyn to avoid that jarring trope you get in cartoons where characters talk to themselves as a form of narration. Eventually Rott became thematically indispensable and a character in his own right.

I thumbnailed panels in sketchbooks for a while, but soon I was composing the panels directly onto the paper without really planning them first. I opted to go for a pre-determined format of six panels on A3 paper, which gave me a bit of structure, since I needed to determine what would happen at the end of each page and how I would get there in six panels. The shading was the most time-consuming and unexciting aspect of it.

GC: You also contributed to our Dead Singers Society anthology and the Good Comics Reader. Do you find your work relates well to short stories?

FS: I like doing short stories/smaller pieces because they require a bit of discipline and tightness, which I often find hard to do when I’m working on a self-set project. Rules, limitations and briefs are a tonic for procrastinators and perfectionists.

Saying this, in my Good Comics Reader contribution, I moved away from plot completely, and focused on the implied narrative created by the figures’ poses and expressions. This open-endedness seems to appeal much more to me, and is what I’m focusing on in the new Nonniverse.

Also, sometimes it is just good fun to challenge yourself with a short project outside of your primary interests. I seem to be stuck in this ‘folk tradition and early modern history’ groove I started in 2012, so whenever I see a chance to work on something short, sharp and finite, I’ll jump on it.

GC: What have you been doing since?

FS: So much has changed since I finished the Nonniverse – I moved towns four times, started lecturing in video art in Preston after a long string of random jobs and settled into a lovely new studio in Preston. Oddly, I’ve been making mostly sculptural and textile-based works of late, though I wouldn’t say I’m a sculptor. Drawing seems to be at the root of everything I do, and I often make physical versions of the things I’ve drawn as part of a fictional world I’m exploring. For example, I got really into making puppet heads (like the puppet Rott from the comic) and stuffing them with herbal charms, a bit like the poppets used by cunning-folk in the past.

Most recently, I’ve been working alongside fellow artist Anna FC Smith on an Arts Council-funded research project exploring the archetypal Fool. We found that we shared a deep interest in folklore/folk tradition, and both felt that, while we’d each held a long-standing fascination for the Fool, we’d never truly explored him explicitly in our work, so after several months of research and development we created a touring exhibition of mixed-media works exploring the Fool’s role of a societal leveller.

As part of the project, I decided that I would morris dance between the two venues of the exhibition as a sort of absurdist pilgrimage. And so on Easter Sunday 2019, I began a 18-mile dance in full Elizabethan costume from Preston to Wigan over nine days, in homage to the Shakespearean clown Will Kempe, who in 1600 performed his ‘nine daie wonder’ from London to Norwich.

My fascination for Fools and clowns has only grown stronger since the exhibition, and, rather frustratingly, the project doesn’t really feel finished - only the beginning of a much larger body of work.

GC: How hard is performance art vs comics? How do the processes/conceptions differ?

FS: Both are hard (in a relative sense!) but in different ways – though these differences are surprisingly subtle. As I’ve established, comics take me a long time to make – but I think this is possibly because I haven’t made that many of them and am still figuring out an efficient process.

The thumbnailing and composition stage are the most exciting parts for me because they are immediate. I get to improvise and find things out about the story and characters, and often the lines are at their most alive and interesting. But, because I am still a bit of a comics amateur, I tend to get bogged down in months and months of overthinking and the fine details (down to the last blade of grass) after that point. It is similar with the stories themselves. I am bad at plot – at ‘making things happen’ – I like lingering in moments and expressions.

Performance art is different in terms of process, but I tend to think around both forms in similar ways. There is often a long build-up of planning in the abstract, thinking about it in an indirect way and standing in front of a mirror to try things out, but you know that these movements aren’t ‘the thing’ that will be realised.

Then the moment comes and you have to be grounded and present in order to commit, and then it’s over. I realise this sounds very lofty and serious, despite my performances being largely ridiculous!

The Fool is someone who is a conduit for general human folly, so it’s important that my performances are deliberately humiliating (I am basically a morris dancing clown). Once a performance is over I will find that I get something totally new out of having done it. New thoughts and ideas are formed, and because of this the work is never finished – it lives on. It’s a bit like that Samuel Beckett quote taken literally – ‘Dance first, think later.’ I should apply this maxim to my comics process more often – I would certainly get a lot more done.

GC: You work in so many different forms and your artwork is so fluid. How do you think you might be able to bring this fluidity to future comics?

FS: I work across different media in part because I have a short attention-span, but also because I’m constantly looking for the most appropriate form for an idea. For me, the problem of art is trying to find its form. I don’t know who said that, but I tend to live by it. This is probably why I tend to drill holes deeper and deeper into a subject rather than just getting over myself and moving on like a normal well-adjusted person.

The more I’ve researched Fools and fooling, the less I felt I knew about them. The more I write, the more I feel I should learn about writing. I’m prepared to admit that this may well be a damaging mindset that stops me from producing anything I can truly say is done with. Perfectionism (for this is what I’m really talking about) is a terrible affliction, an anxiety-induced defence mechanism which keeps one safe from criticism, because, after all, you can’t be attacked if you haven’t really said anything.

However, once I understood this, I immediately turned it into another rod with which to beat myself. I had a period of months where I would yell at myself WHY HAVEN’T YOU JUST DONE THE THING YOU COWARD repeatedly until I wore myself down, which is equally, if not more, unhelpful.

There is no need to get something out as quickly as possible just to prove that you aren’t a failure. I’ve never stopped being interested in the set of ideas that the Nonniverse encapsulates, and in a way the work I’ve been doing outside of the comic is all part of its very bloated and pock-marked extended universe. I’ve found that I’ve only become more interested in the idea and become less rigid in how it is explored, instead of losing passion for it, as I feared.

I’m now looking into ways of becoming a real clown, because I don’t think I will ever understand the way of the Fool fully until I have lived the life of one.

As for comics, they will always be there for me when I need to use them.


Thanks Faye! Keep up to date with Faye's fooling on Instagram.

Tales of the Nonniverse Pt. 1 is available in our store, and to celebrate fools of all kinds it's on offer for £2 until the end of June. Go forth and folly!