Joe Todd-Stanton is the award-winning British brains behind the very brilliant Marcy and the Riddle of the Sphinx. Literati talked to him about the inspiration that comes from London’s obscure museums, how he couldn’t imagine a 9-5 job, and how he once turned the Pillsbury Doughboy into a superhero.
When did you realize you had a talent for illustration?
There’s that Picasso quote — “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” When you’re a kid you don’t know what’s good or bad. But I remember trying to draw my own comic books based around the Pillsbury Doughboy when I was nine. I turned him into a superhero. I’ve no idea why but I was obsessed by this character.
Have you ever told the Pillsbury company?
I’ll keep that one logged in the bank for if the children’s book work dries up: the Pillsbury Doughboy Reboot.
Were your parents artists?
I grew up in Brighton on the south coast of England. Mum worked as an illustrator until I was born, then she needed something more stable so she went into teaching. I didn’t grow up with my dad — he’s lived in east London his whole life and worked as a teacher at the University of East London, specializing in performance art. He sometimes gets me involved in that, too.
Oh really? Tell us more about the performance art.
Oh God, why did I go down this road? One particular one I did for his doctorate, I was made to wear an all-black SWAT team outfit and had to blow up party balloons till they popped in my face. This wasn’t that long ago — a year or two after university. But I’ve always come up to London to see dad and visit galleries. Growing up in Brighton we had so many picture books at home, and as mom was an illustrator there was an incredible amount of quality control in terms of the books I had.
Do you still have any of the comic books you created back then?
Mom saved one of them: Batman vs. the Big Baddie Batman. There’s a school I’ve been to a few times to talk about my books and for some reason the kids keep asking me about this.
Do you use schoolkids as a test-bed for your book ideas?
I’ve never done that, and actually I don’t even try to imagine what a kid would think when I come up with ideas. Luckily, I’m still very childish and my taste hasn’t really developed since I was 10, so I think I can get away with being my internal moderator. Maybe I’m not right 100% of the time, but I do carry out research: if I have a spare moment to watch a movie I’ll always watch a kids’ animated movie, and I’ll buy kids books. Children’s book art is incredible — and it’s a certain type of artwork that’s rarely catered to. Galleries rarely show it. Outsiders so often assume everything is Peppa Pig!
How do your friends feel about you running straight for the children’s book aisle?
I go on my own so I get away with it.
What does your working day look like?
I couldn’t imagine doing a nine-to-five now. I could be dossing around in my PJs for a few days and it could seem like I’m not working very hard, but then when a book deadline’s coming up there’s a three-month crunch and I put everything into it and it completely takes over my life. When I work hard I work hard but it’s sporadic so I’m trying to piece together some kind of normality: I’ve got a note to myself on my noticeboard that says: ‘Try to work from this time to this time please.’
You live in London now. What do you like about living and working in that city?
I do sometimes wonder why I’m not living in Barcelona paying far less rent and catching more sun. But I used to love Peter Pan and 101 Dalmatians and all those books that showed London in a certain kind of romantic light. I love the museums and the parks and find it an inspiring city. Many of the museums are great for research and ideas, like the Hunterian (which showcases the history of surgery) and Wellcome Collection (medical antiquities) — it’s so left-field; one day there could be an exhibit on the history of Indian medicine, another a famous explorer from the 18th Century.
What inspired you to write Marcy and the Riddle of the Sphinx?
The story leads on from Arthur and the Golden Rope. When I was 15 I went to Egypt and had such an amazing experience seeing all that stuff. There’s a tiny museum in London called the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and I looked through famous myths from that era until I came across something I thought could work.
How easy is it to be a storyteller as well as an artist?
I don’t know how much I count myself as a storyteller yet but I’m learning to enjoy it more. You hear that when actors aren’t getting enough work they write their own script. Illustrating for educational children’s magazines or other editorial is fun, but you’re always hoping someone is going to drop an amazing text on your lap — the next Peter Pan — but it doesn’t happen. So I wrote my own.
Was Arthur your first attempt?
I did an earlier version called The Urn of Urk but I wasn’t happy with it so I started from scratch. I loved drawing weird mythological creatures, but also — do you remember Tales from the Crypt? — I loved that idea of the ridiculously over-the-top narrator who leads you into the story. I tried to bridge that gap between comics and illustration. I think comics can feel a lot more filmic — like Sin City or The Watchman — and I wanted to bring that graphic novel sensibility to kids comics — and to include pages with no words, no speech bubbles, just art.
How did you find your publisher, Flying Eye?
I actually had an exhibition at my university and they spotted my work and asked if I wanted to do a little 24-page comic. We went back and forth over the next few years and eventually that comic morphed into a book.
Did you anticipate such a great reaction to your first book?
I’ve been waiting for people to realise the genius I am. I’m joking. It’s been insane. I’d always thought it’d just be amazing to have a book out. I made one and I was happy with that achievement. Anything after that was another surprise. Then Arthur was nominated for an Eisner Award.
Which artists do you most admire?
Maurice Sendak is my hero. I listened to an interview with him talking about his life, and even when he was older he’d have illustrators come and stay at his house and he’d show them the ropes and teach them bits and bobs. I also love this Spanish artist called Júlia Sardà — her work is pretty amazing. I like illustrators who can bring a more adult sensibility into a children’s book. Sardà creates amazing painted textures that make it feel like a book you saw as kid that you’d forgotten about.
Marcy only recently came out. What are you working on now?
I’m slowly starting to piece together a third book in the Brownstone series but nothing much to say about that at the moment.
Is it a secret?
I wish it was a secret because then I’d feel less scared. The truth is I have three or four ideas but it’s up in the air. I can only decide if an idea is good once I start fleshing it out. I usually do the drawings first. I’m dyslexic, so I find it easier to add words if they’re needed. A lot of time my publisher wants to cut away words. Some people told me that they could read the whole of The Secret Of Black Rock (which was published in the summer of 2017) without them, which was an amazing compliment.
What’s been your funniest interaction with child about your books?
There’s a fine line between funny and surreal. Once, during a Q&A, a kid asked why I looked so much like Simon Cowell. It was nothing related to my books; just a dig at my fashion sense. What did I say? I asked if my trousers were too high up.
Do you keep a sketchbook on you all the time?
If I’m going to a meeting or traveling round London, I’m always drawing nonsense. But after a week of doing those doodles, I may think something is interesting so I’ll add more detail and color it up. That’s where Black Rock came from — one tiny illustration I did at university. Four years later, I looked at it again and thought: this could be story.
Are you the type of person who goes out for dinner but spends the whole time sketching on a napkin?
I haven’t tried to do it Picasso-style and pay for the bill with it yet — but yes. I was just at a meeting with the head of sales at Flying Eye and I was drawing her while she was talking to me. I can listen better if I’m drawing; I find it comforting. But at school I always used to get told off for doodling on books.