Belfast-based illustrator Stephen Maurice Graham has published his first book called Michael, which portrays the adventures of a “man with no concept of how to live as an adult”. The comic first appeared in single panel form on UK Vice.com, and the weekly instalments have continued to explore the daily struggles Michael faces: “He’s a bit of a big baby who is pretty happy to live in a fantasy world and escape from real life troubles where he can,” says the illustrator.
Stephen has worked on the comic for over two years now and this book contains a curated collection of 33 of the Michael comics, offering up some of the title character’s most memorable and amusing moments. “I draw everything by hand first on the drafting table with pencil. I like working out the script on the side of the page first, getting a skeleton of a story to work with and then as I draw things frequently shift about and jokes start to form, sometimes the visuals inform the story and vice versa. Then once the sketch is completed I ink and colour the comics digitally,” explains Stephen.
The book has been published by Space Face Books, and the composition of the comic panels have been reworked to sit within the confines of the landscape format of the book. “The tactile feel and the unique letterbox format of the book are important as it makes it something worth holding, worth looking at for a little longer than if just simply presented on the screen,” says Stephen. Now in physical book form, the way the illustrator reads the individual stories as a compilation has shifted slightly. “In terms of the actual story, the collection changes the flow of the comics, read all at once it feels like a contiguous story told over a year in the life, you get a better sense of Michael and a greater appreciation for the character.”
To maintain the narrative for one character over several years is no mean feat and the challenges Stephen has faced didn’t always get easier the more he created the comic. “In my work I’m frequently building to a joke and by the time you colour the final panel after hours and hours of slog, that joke isn’t funny any more, so you just have to trust in your earlier self that it was actually good,” he explains. “I now have a real appreciation whenever I see that someone who has worked on a comic, they’re not easy but the sense of fulfilment when you know you’ve made something halfway decent or when you hold the finished book, that’s a fantastic sense of accomplishment.”
Stephen describes his style as vibrant and colourful and Michael’s work is “full of soft edges and candy-coloured palettes”. “It helps add to the unreality of his life and his fantasies,” says Stephen. “All these colours are bordered by heavy wavering black lines. I’ve always wanted my work to be inviting to the viewer and to have a colourful appeal but I always like to cut through that with weirdness and implied narratives, especially in my normal illustration work.”
To sit alongside the book, Stephen has worked with developer Rob Prest (AKA Superpomme) to make a modified version of the classic video game Doom, so they could replicate Michael’s bedroom and living space. “Frequently in the Michael comics the character will play DOOM and make reference to it, it’s his favourite game,” says Stephen. “I re-drew a lot of assets and animations so the 3D space has the look of the comic, albeit in a glorious 1993 graphical style.”