With his debut comic, In., Will McPhail has struck everyone. Young but already popular cartoonist for the New Yorker, McPhail made his debut in 2021 with In., a bittersweet graphic novel which, through the daily events of Nick, tries to tell the incommunicability between people and the difficulty to really connect with others.
In. now arrives in Italy thanks to Tunué, who took McPhail around the country to promote the book, also passing through the Turin Book Fair, where the cartoonist immediately made himself known. During one of the meetings, for example, after each answer he added flattering or embarrassing phrases for his translator to say. Apparently sunny in spirit (don’t be surprised if reading this interview you will happen to read “[laughs]” very often), we met him to chat about his work. Not before discussing the most important thing in the world…
Calvin and Hobbes, which I’ve read is one of your earliest comic book memories. It sounds like a joke because every time I find someone who likes it I divert the conversation to that topic.
Please, let’s just talk about Calvin and Hobbes!
Your very first comics though were The Dandy and The Beano.
Yes, those were the very first comics I read. Every Christmas my mom would buy the annuals. But aside from that, I only read Calvin and Hobbes from the time I was 5 until I was 15. Really, I didn’t read anything else. I know every strip, every panel, every line.
How did you discover it?
My uncle introduced it to me. He’s a wildlife artist, a proper artist. In the UK I made a collection of my cartoons for the New Yorker called Love & Vermin and I included a quote from Calvin and Hobbes. To do this, I asked Bill Watterson for permission and he agreed. I am very proud of it.
It’s probably the closest thing to an encounter with him.
Yes, certainly. Getting a nod of approval from Bill Watterson, what a great moment. [laughs]
In the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson there is an anecdote that drives me crazy: Stephan Pastis tells that Watterson, with whom Pastis was collaborating on a handful of strips, didn’t want him to have his phone number.
That man is a real enigma. I think about it often. Of course his artistic skills are out of the question, but I’m also fascinated by the human side of him. His attitude towards selling out is interesting to me. In general, I share his position. But I think, selfishly, that as a kid – and even now as an adult – I would have loved a Hobbes doll. And I don’t think the existence of that toy would have ruined the strip’s reputation. Watterson could have wisely given himself to the market, because he would not have detracted from the quality of his work. We’re not talking Calvin and Hobbes advertising credit cards. I don’t see anything wrong with a little merchandising, if done tastefully.
Speaking of Calvin and Hobbes, in In. there is this visual leap between the normality of Nic’s life, in black and white, and the moments when he manages to connect with others, in color. After finishing the book, I went back to reading Calvin and Hobbes and was confronted with strips where Calvin daydreams while at school, imagining himself driving a spaceship or being in the Jurassic period, only to find himself in class. And I realized that I did the same thing in my book. [laughs] So maybe I inadvertently copied Calvin and Hobbes.
Favorite Calvin and Hobbes strip?
Probably the one I used in Love & Vermin. It’s the classic scene where Calvin and Hobbes are walking in the woods and discussing an extremely profound topic. In this case, they talk about why humans developed a sense of humor for the absurd and what kind of evolutionary benefit that is. And the answer is that if we couldn’t laugh at the absurd we wouldn’t be able to react to most of the things that happen to us in life.
Are you curious to read Bill Watterson’s new book?
Of course, I can’t wait to read it. What I hope is that we will open the book, and behind the cover we will find new Calvin and Hobbes strips. [laughs]
If you do mental archaeology, what is the first memory you have of the act of drawing?
As a child I was very clingy, I was always attached to someone. I have this memory, which dates back to when I was maybe 5 years old, in which I see crayons that no one was using and I go towards them, as if attracted by a force, surprising even my parents. I remember very well that I hid behind a white couch and starting to draw, like it was a huge canvas, with these red and blue crayons. I really remember the physical, material sensation of the wax crayon on the fabric as it is disfigured by the colours. I think I spent most of my adult life chasing after the feelings I had in childhood, trying to relive them. Your child is the funniest version of yourself. And when you draw you get very close to it, like in a sort of meditation. It’s very liberating.
Then as a teenager you abandoned comics, but you continued to draw. How did your sign develop?
In those years I drew by copying Bill Watterson, basically. And then I think the discovery of the New Yorker was a turning point. It wasn’t so much the desire to be in the magazine but to be one of those cartoonists. You know, like, like a title: “New Yorker Cartoonist.” I think that slowly influenced my style. I stopped drawing the eyes in dots like Bill Watterson did and started making them bigger until they got out of control. And the reason for that feature is because I’m obsessed with drawing the precise emotion that I want to represent. The bigger the eyes, the more space I have to modulate the line that traces an eyebrow or eyelid. And then of course, as I was saying, I was influenced by the style of the New Yorker cartoonists.
But your style seems to me far from the standard of the New Yorker.
Yes, it’s a little more fussy than more childish styles, in the positive sense of the word, like Liana Finck’s, for example. The truth is that I really enjoy the act of drawing and painting and therefore I take my time and enjoy the process. And this naturally leads to more refined images because I wanted to make them. In the general economy of my time, when I work for the New Yorker I spend a week writing jokes and ideas as a stream of consciousness and then two days drawing the cartoons. I’ve always had good hand-eye coordination and I know exactly what I have to draw.
Your study path was not artistic, given that you studied zoology, why?
Because when you ask a 17-year-old what he would like to do with the rest of his life, he’s always going to make the perfect decision, right? [laughs] I don’t know, I went to art college for two years before university and I hated it. I really didn’t like it, I don’t know if it was the teachers or whatever, but the experience made me desist from enrolling in art universities. Furthermore, I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about this idea that you need to ask permission to be creative. I never thought you needed a permit, a certificate or an academic career certifying your creative skills. Since I still wanted to go to university and I liked animals I chose the zoology degree in Glasgow. Too bad that, instead of paying attention to what the professor said, I spent all the time in the classroom drawing.
And then how did you end up being a cartoonist?
While I was at university, to pay for my studies, I started selling my drawings to English newspapers. I sent some to Private Eye and they bought it for me. And from there I made my way to the New Yorker. I sent tons of bullshit cartoons to the New Yorker before I could pity them and get them accepted. [laughs]
What was your experience working on In.?
It was a complicated but liberating change of pace. Not because I literally had more space on the paper, but because trying to be funny in a cartoon, present a world, the premise and the joke, in one image can get exhausting after a while. Instead with a comic I could take my time and not be funny every single moment at all costs.
A page is a much more complex organism than a cartoon. How did you manage all the choices that a board requires?
When you have a deadline to meet, you make decisions in panic by the seat of your pants. Trying to rationalize those moments retroactively is hard. [laughs] Most of the time I was trying to draw what felt right in that moment. My goal was almost always to slow the reader down. I realized the profound discrepancy between the time it takes me to draw a page, a whole day, and what the reader spends on it, two seconds. This is why my compositional choices were all aimed at slowing down the pace and focusing the gaze on each panel. The grid is also affected by the two states of the book, black and white and the colors scenes. In the first case, I wanted to build a closed, rigid and constrained world, which in the color scenes opens up to wide-ranging images. In those sequences I wanted to give the sensation of breathing for the first time.
How did you visually develop the color scenes where Nick enters the inner world of the person he’s talking to?
Each of those worlds is based on places I’ve visited and I’ve tried to associate them with the inner world of the characters.
The most bizarre is that of his nephew, in which Nick is a sacrificial idol of this population of little monsters.
I have a nephew of that age and every time I talk to him I feel in the balance between being adored or sacrificed. I had been to Burning Man in America and I liked that pagan desert atmosphere. In the case of Nick’s mother, on the other hand, since the protagonist discovers that his mother is someone who doesn’t cease to exist when she doesn’t perform the function of mother, I wanted a world that was the opposite of what we would expect from motherhood: strange, frightening, obscure. Phoebe Bridgers’ album Punisher had just come out and I used the colors of the cover, red and blue, as inspiration.
The bars in your comic become characters, almost evil characters.
I often go there to work and leave the house, like Nick does, and they are pretentious places, where everything looks like a fake facade. In the book they are mirrors for Nick’s sense of emptiness but, as you say, they then become full-fledged characters, almost tragic in their attempt to draw Nick back into their coils. Incidentally, Tunué was the only publisher to have translated the names, proving that they are an important aspect of the story, in their own way.
Many authors when drawing their characters end up, even unintentionally, by portraying themselves. Is it like this for you?
Nick obviously looks like me, but I think the characters look like me in facial expressions. My natural state is that of a panicked face and the characters reflect that… I was doing some book signing earlier and I realized that if I drew happy characters I made a happy face and if I drew angry characters I got a grumpy expression.
Dis you draw In. digitally?
Much of the book is done in watercolors on paper. The color scenes are digitally painted and in some cases I have corrected the live panels on the computer. It was a logistical choice, to meet deadlines, it was more practical and faster to work digitally. If I had all the time in the world I would have drawn everything on paper. Also because in this way I would have more originals to sell, which doesn’t hurt. [laughs]
For some designers it also serves to fill artistic gaps… Even if in the end the final result counts, whether it is valid or not, regardless of the means.
I think that in some cases there is an excessive emphasis on the practical aspect of the drawing, which becomes a performance. Seeing someone do something. I care little about the means, if the result is the same. The problem is that, as far as I am concerned, digital watercolor has not yet reached a level of simulation that is naturalistic enough to make digital and life painting indistinguishable. True watercolor is too messy to be replicated perfectly by a digital brush. It will probably happen in the future.
The idea of performance is central to the book. You are back from a good promotional tour here in Italy, you are also experiencing it as an author who meets the press and the public. Have you felt the pressure to perform?
Yes obviously. If I may be vulnerable for a moment, the truth is that many of these days have been black and white, to use In‘s metaphor.
This perhaps was a moment in color.
Yeah. [laughs] In general, it was like a curse of the book: I covered the topic of empathy and genuine relationships and then I spoke about it in interviews conducted on Zoom, at the time of the domestic release, or in situations where it is very difficult to get in contact with people.
Is irony a way you use in your life to interact with others, as a shield?
It’s interesting that you ask because a lot of people think I’m Nick, as I look a little like him, and ask me how much of myself I put into him, but I actually feel much closer to Wren, who uses humor as a way of relating. Nick is desperate to connect with others and he hates small talk, which I like to do. Each character has their own way of hiding and avoiding intimacy. Nick is an observer who avoids taking part in the dynamics and just watches them from the outside. Hannah, Nick’s mom, is defined by her motherhood and Wren uses humor as a shield, which is what I do all the time. It’s something I should work on, actually: stop turning everything into a joke. I don’t know if it’s due to the culture or the family I grew up in, but it has always been the most used currency in social exchanges: are you funny? Can you make others laugh? But I must say that it has also been useful in many situations: whenever I am sad, humor helps me out of a dark moment. It’s a superpower.