Maisie Cowell’s new comic is a “totally self-indulgent” reflection of frustration and loneliness in lockdown
The illustrator graduated last year, and since she’s been through a whirlwind of self-doubt. As a result, she turned her feelings into a comic.
- Ayla Angelos
- 11 March 2021
The last year has been quite unsettling for most, let alone if you’re an emerging creative trying to navigate the art world. Maisie Cowell, an illustrator and comic writer who recently graduated from Brighton, has found herself freelancing and painting a lot in her spare hours spent in lockdown. A “lovely” activity no less, she refers to the process of doing so as one that’s helped keep her mind in check, or in her words, “half-sane”. Besides this, Maisie has also been writing and drawing this into her larger works, a move she hopes to do more of in the future.
For those who aren’t familiar with Maisie’s work, we last wrote about her witty illustrations as one of our continued graduates of 2020. We knew her dry humour and detailed line works were set to go on to great things, and let’s just say we haven’t been disappointed. Towards the end of last year, her friend Sam Wood thought of starting up a small press company named Bug Belt Books, and with it he asked if Maisie would like to produce a run of Riso comics in the first release. She did, and with it proceeded with a characteristically clever and amusing comic named Sidelong Glance. “It was wonderful to be able to work with a friend, especially during such a weird and isolating time,” she says, pointing out the many difficulties of keeping creative during the pandemic. “I think at the time I was really exhausted and bored by my own work, I’d only just graduated and I was experiencing a lot of self-doubt and uncertainty in my identity, and where I wanted to go with my work. I think I was feeling really stuck and struggling to communicate how I felt in both my wrk and personal life, and I really wanted to just be totally self-indulgent and write about feeling frustrated and lonely.”
What better way of processing the feelings than by turning them into a piece of art? To begin, Maisie wrote the story into mini scripts, loosely working out the initial idea, structure and narrative. She admits she's a little impatient, however, and tends to resolve the ideas or jokes in a single page or a few at most – “so I decided I’d rather structure the project as a collection of single page comics,” she notes of the overall get-up of Sidelong Glance. The result is a collection of entertaining pages created in ink and black acrylic, scanned and printed in purple Riso. Maisie’s previous works often depict heavier tones and more solid colour palettes, meaning that her choice of purple gave it an abnormal – but very welcomed – soft and sensitive aesthetic.
The story of Sidelong Glance revolves around a dysfunctional relationship between an artist and a bird. Although far from being directly autobiographical, Maisie states how this piece, in particular, does behold referential elements to herself and the people she knows – projected onto the characters that she’s drawn. What’s more is that the female artist character and the scenarios she’s placed into reflects a lot of how Maisie has been feeling of late. “I think I was trying to find a way to personify that frustration I had, in the literal sense of being an artist unhappy with the work they’re making but also with feeling emotionally a bit stuck.” As for the bird, this was originally intended to be a human, but Maisie was concerned about it appearing as too much of an obvious romantic storyline between them both. It’s also a character that she’s been drawing since her former teenage years, which arose with a fascination with Leonard Baskin’s crow drawings.
There are many enjoyable spreads throughout this comic, where scenes of loneliness and dry wit come across in the most familiar of manners. One spread – the page featuring the artist smoking and crouching on the floor with her artworks splayed in front of her – resonates largely with Maisie. It shows the easiness of getting stuck in a cycle of self-doubt, especially with the work you make. “Every time I’ve had one of these phases, it feels like this time, I’ve definitely just used up the last of the good ideas I’ll ever have, and I’m doomed to make terrible work for the rest of my life,” she says. “At the same time,” she continues, “I think I was also aware that there can be a really self-indulgent and melodramatic aspect to writing and making work about yourself, which I don’t think is a bad thing at all. I just think there’s humour in that kind of slight self-importance.”
Sidelong Glance, in this sense, shouldn’t be taken too seriously, even if her characters do quite the contrary. Aside from this obvious tone of remedial self-indulgence, there’s also a hidden undertone of optimism and reassurance – like that which is displayed in the closing sequence wherein the characters take a trip to the aquarium. Artists can become unstuck, and it’s important to ride the wave of self-doubt and remember that it really is just a phase. “I think they sort of deserved a sweet moment for them both at the end. I liked the idea of turning the question of anxieties back on the fish, I guess it’s the idea of these things being more universal than we think.”
GalleryMaisie Cowell: Sidelong Glance (Copyright © Maisie Cowell, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.