When he was twelve, James Norris’ mother committed suicide. "It’s almost as if I’d always known she’d do it," says James. "I wasn’t told the specifics until I was eighteen: that it was caused by depression and alcoholism. My folks broke up when I was young so I was always at my mum’s house. I knew she was always drinking but it wasn’t until I started looking backwards that it started to make sense."
With a background in theatre and about to undertake his MA in Performance, Culture and Context at Leeds University, James’ foray into graphic novels has been a gradual, perhaps unexpected but somehow natural journey. "The last theatre piece I did was called A Mother’s Trace, which is kind of the working title for the graphic novel."
My philosophy is that what happened is unacceptable, so I'll make art out of it forever. It's a pointless task trying to find the answer.
"The show got a good reception at Uni and one of my lecturers recommended I read Alison Bechdel’s tragicomic Fun Home, so that’s what caused me to start reading graphic novels. There was so much academia and intelligence combined in Bechdel’s work, as well as the great artwork. I’m also inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations and theses on the philosophy of history and I figured that if my novel has a historical background, it becomes not just about me and my mother, it’s more universal."
"Graphic novels are a great art form. I love the idea of image and text working with or against each other; they can clash in the way theatre can’t. I showed my partner my initial sketches and she liked the idea so it went from there. What really got me going was graphic novels like Nicola Streeten’s Billy, Me and You: A Memoir of Grief and Recovery, which inspired me as the quality of the drawings is not always perfect, more of an expression but still emotionally affecting. Every page is an explosion of ideas."
I asked my partner, 'How am I going to be a parent when I'm so messed up about my own childhood?'
This is the first of a series of planned graphic novels for James: "I feel like I have so much to say and could go on forever really. Fictionalising things is a good way of stepping away. It’s allowed me avenues where I can turn the real story into fiction." This is evident in pages like the one which shows James’ mother held at gunpoint and forced to make a decision:
"It’s about me but it isn’t. The main character looks like me of course but, philosophically speaking, turning real memories into pictures has solidified the past for me. If you only look backwards, all you’ll find is the abyss unless you use remembering it as an act of revolution. It’s no longer in the oblivion once you’ve pictured it."
Five months ago, further tragedy struck the family as James’ uncle also committed suicide. "He was an ambulance driver and I think the job got to him, it was too much. That and my mum’s death have certainly put my own life into perspective and graphic novels have this intimacy yet emotional distance at the same time: for better or worse, the medium lends itself to the more tragic stories."
James is working at a rate of about a page a day to realise his first hundred-page comic opus, using ink and watercolour to create some truly arresting, involving pages. Having just reached the quarter point of the process, the artist hopes to gain publisher interest as the novel progresses. "It’s a deeply personal story and I think that level of intensity makes the novel an accessible read for anyone, even if they haven’t experienced this kind of thing in their lives."