Toby Morris is an illustrator, comic artist and designer. These days you might know him as the writer and artist behind the comic series The Pencilsword or from his animated editorial cartoons for Radio New Zealand. We recently chatted with Toby about his work and his shift to becoming self-employed:
Hi Toby, for those who don’t know you, can you start by giving us a brief intro into who you are and what you do.
My name is Toby, I’m an illustrator, comic artist, cartoonist and occasional writer. I’ve been drawing comics since I was 13, and over the years I’ve worked as a graphic designer and an advertising art director, but these days I’m drawing full-time. I do a regular non-fiction comic series called The Pencilsword, and I illustrate a column called Toby and Toby for RNZ’s website. I also draw for Metro, and do regular work for Allbirds, and I draw band posters and all sorts of commercial work. Plus I’ve got my first two kids books coming out this month through Beatnik.
Tell us about The Pencilsword and your Radio NZ gigs.
The Pencilsword is a regular non-fiction comic series I do for the Wireless, and essentially it’s an opinion column in comics form. I didn’t start it off thinking it would be a political thing, but I try to write about things that I think are important, or scary, or confusing, or just need to be talked about, so often it ends up being quite political – lots of the topics are about social issues – I’ve written about poverty, inequality, domestic violence, homelessness, mental health. And I’ve been trying to expand it from just being my opinion into something more like journalism – interviewing people so I can talk about all kinds of things and present a range of views.
It’s been something where I feel like I’ve been learning on the job as I go with it. I’m working on Number 32 right now, but I still feel like I’m working out what it is and what I want it to be. I guess what I’ve learnt through doing it though, is that comics can be a really effective tool for presenting topics that might otherwise seem really daunting or overwhelming.
For Radio NZ, I’m half of a column called Toby and Toby, in collaboration with the writer Toby Manhire, who I’m constantly in awe off, he is the best. It’s current affairs really – we take a topic that’s in the news and try to lay the facts out with a combination of his writing and my cartoons. That’s been a great experience – I’ve been learning lots from Toby, and it’s really good exercise to work as a team – we try to integrate the text and images as much as we can so it feels like a cohesive thing.
Where do the ideas and inspiration for these come from?
There is never an easy answer for that! Lots of the time with the more political, social, or current affairs stuff; it’s about being engaged with the news – reading lots and thinking on it, and then things always bubble up that are my personal feelings on various issues.
Other times, who knows? I think being active and doing lots of creative work leads to more ideas though, I’ll say that. At one point I used to think ideas were like a jar – like you had a finite amount of good ideas and you’d better be careful not to use them up. But that’s not right. I think, actually, it’s more like a muscle – the more ideas you come up with, the stronger the muscle gets. I think about creative fitness. If I’m being very precious and careful about ideas, things come slowly, but when you’re super busy and have got lots of projects on the go, then hopefully you get cranking and it’s fun and things start firing – and you get on a roll. I say use your best idea today and you’ll have a new and better one tomorrow.
Can you tell us a little bit more about some of your favourite publishing projects and how they came into being?
I’m pretty excited about my two new kids books – they’re called Capsicum, Capsi Go, and The Day The Costumes Stuck. I’m a dad, our two boys are 3 and 5, so I’ve got a few years of experience reading bedtime stories now, and I love it. I’ve gotten really into them – in lots of ways the goals of a kid’s book are very similar to what I try and do with comics – it’s about efficient storytelling – getting across a lot in simple pictures or stories, but hopefully also building something that has some heart or some humour.
So, for the last couple of years I’ve been reading all these books thinking,”I like this aspect of this one,” or, “This doesn’t work,” and the feeling started to build up: “I reckon I could do this”.
I’m lucky to already have a good relationship with a publisher. Beatnik released my book Don’t Puke On Your Dad a couple of years ago, and they’re great, so this was a matter of me going to them and saying, “I’ve got a couple of ideas, you interested?” and luckily they were.
Actually, it’s a bit of a long story, but initially I pitched them several ideas. They chose Capsi first, which I was happy about, and I went away and produced it, and then a while later we had a meeting where they said, “You know how you pitched us several ideas – could you make the costumes one too?” Which was never what I thought would happen, but it’s pretty cool.
You are self-publishing a lot of your creative endeavours, too. How does this work (can you explain the process a bit)?
Yeah, I kind of do a mix of self-published projects and things like the new books that are released through a publisher. And I’m happy about that – I feel really honoured that I’m at a point now where other people want to release my work, and it’s a huge weight off because it’s actually really hard doing all that stuff, but, on the other hand, I definitely see the value in having some projects that are really self directed too, I think that’s really healthy.
I started off self-publishing at about 13, so I learnt about designing and printing and distributing a comic at the same time as I was learning about how to make the comic itself. For a long time I was juggling day jobs with my comics, and through that I learnt how positive it was for me to have projects on the go that were very much mine all the way through. When I worked on magazines or at ad agencies you have those shitty days where something you’re liking gets killed by a client, or a creative director doesn’t get where you were going with something, and it can be quite demoralising – so I learnt that it was really good to have other projects that you get to come home to and be like, “This one is quite weird, but at least no-one can mess with it!”
I think we’re in a golden age for self publishing. The internet has been such a leveller in terms of tools and access and promotion. It’s still hard – nothing good is easy – but I reckon lots of walls that used to exist have been busted down in terms of producing work and also getting it out to the world.
As a long term illustrator and comic creator, what are some of most rewarding and most challenging aspects to what you do?
I still get a massive buzz out of finishing things. It still kind amazes me when you sit back and see something done. I actually love drawing, I don’t think I could do this if I didn’t, I guess, but when you have a clear head and no nagging emails and no distractions and you’re just drawing, it’s a great state to get into. It’s like dancing, I think. I find it really satisfying.
Challenges? There are lots, it’s definitely not easy. Balancing fun jobs with paying jobs, working out work/life balance, planning time as a freelancer, the public scrutiny/trolling/abuse that comes with doing work online, deadline pressure. I think lots of the challenges at the moment come from doing work that is publicly visible – I feel like I have to come up with something good and I also feel a responsibility to do my research, know what I’m talking about, and do a topic justice. I’m quite a quiet person really, so it can be quite stressful putting a lot of opinions out into the world. It has taken a bit of getting used to.
You’re very active, creatively. What else are you involved with?
I’ve always got a few things on the go. On top of the Pencilsword and RNZ jobs, I also do regular work for Allbirds, the shoe company, who I really like working for, and then I’ve been doing some quite full on work for UNESCO too, translating some of their work into comic form. Then I do bits and pieces of commercial illo work – some beer brands, some food packaging, some ad stuff. And then, on top of all of that, I do try and keep some self directed personal stuff happening too – the books or exhibitions or art prints. And then the kids, of course…
How do you balance all of this?
Yeah, that’s a big challenge. Basically, I have an amazing wife. I’m really bad at taking on too much, working night and day, but I’m always trying to make sure I make time for the kids.
Being freelance has meant I can be more flexible with time which is cool – my older boy, Max, has just started school, so I’m lucky I’ve been able to shuffle around my routine so that I can take him to school in the mornings, which is cool and, if and when I need to, I can drop what I’m doing and be there for them.
So, what does the future hold for Toby Morris, then? Where to next?
I’m not sure! Got lots of half cooked ideas. More comics, of course, and I’ll see how these kids books go down, but I’d like to do more of that if these ones go down alright. I’m not sure… I would like to try some different things too – maybe try and write some comics for others to draw, because I really enjoy the writing side as much as the drawing, and I’d like to push the animation side of things a bit more too – I have lots to learn there. I have a foolish cocky side of me that thinks I’d like to have a go at writing a film or tv show or something, but that might be in the long long term I think – but you gotta dream, right?
Thanks for your time, Toby, and all the best with your upcoming book launches.
See more from Toby at: http://xtotlworldwide.com/