Alex Norris on why it's better to create like a child than a genius
Published on July 26, 2018
After the success of his first series, Dorris McComics, suddenly attracted hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, Alex Norris decided it was a good time to take things to the next level: parody.
The result is Webcomic Name, a satire of relatable comics that features a “badly drawn blob” who greets an unending onslaught of disappointments with the recurring punchline: “Oh no.” At a recent Nicer Tuesdays event, Alex delved into the origins of his series and the inspiration behind his approach.
That inspired us to learn more about what fuels his creativity and why he thinks confidence is one of the most important tools an artist can possess.
Alice Tynan: What does creativity mean to you?
Alex Norris: [Dorris McComics] was me figuring out creativity and how I was creative. The thing I like to do often is just state the obvious. Webcomic Name took that to the next level. I literally just state the most obvious thing that you can possibly think of. Too often, you see people trying to be clever, but the way that they do that is by being esoteric or being purposefully confusing or mysterious. I was doing the opposite. [Creativity] is not mysterious at all. It's really obvious. I love reading books on creativity. A lot of the time the book is just saying: Don't read the book—do some of the art. If you want to be a writer, do some writing.
“Creativity by necessity is doing something that's unusual and not logical. We're trying to look logically at something that is inherently not logical.”
Does the idea of creative energy resonate for you?
I think creativity is just habit. My entire life, I've always been drawing. When I was younger, I'd just be doodling a lot, so I'd often have ideas. But I never felt like, "Oh, I'm a genius. I'm having all these ideas." It was just play. Now I've just learned to sit down and do that on demand. People always use the word energy when they don't know what it is. A lot of time I just think of it as just confidence. There is no such thing as writer's block. It's just that I have ideas and then I'm not confident in them enough to carry them to the point of being finalized ideas.
“I suppose what they are saying when they talk about creative energy is the excitement you get from being creative.”
I definitely find that once I have some ideas that I'm really pleased with. I'll lead into thinking of more and more. All that is is confidence. You become more excited by your own ideas. That can be triggered as well by seeing a good movie or going to see a good play or a comedian or reading a book. I have learned to know when to capitalize on that feeling.
What does flow state mean for you?
I had that a lot with Dorris McComics, because they were slightly longer comics. I could sometimes sit down and be writing or drawing, then look up and it's been three hours and I'm hungry now but I didn't realize. I really like that feeling. With Webcomic Name, that doesn't happen all the time. Webcomic Name is the smallest units of creativity I could possibly make. I can sit down, then sometimes within an hour have a completed thing. It doesn't matter about flow state then. I'm not dependent on that kind of mindset for working. I find it funny how people love this flow state idea—whenever people enjoy feeling nothing or not thinking about anything. It’s like when you go on a night out, you get really drunk and you're like, "Wow, that must've been amazing 'cause I don't remember anything."
Can you give an example of something that’s a drag on your creative flow?
Most of my comics are written in the space of a few hours. Maybe I'll have one day in about a couple of three weeks or so, where I'll be like, "Oh I have all these ideas," then I write them all down. They're a bit more laborious the rest of the time.
“I think the drag state normally comes from lack of confidence.”
Sometimes I look at what I'm doing and go, "Is this a hack art?" As soon as I lose the ironic enjoyment I get out of it, I'm like, "I'm just a bad artist." This is the good thing about doing loads of comics. The value of them isn't measured individually, it's as a series as a whole. Not every bit of work you do has to be amazing. Eventually, the standard of the ones you just churn out will become higher. When we talk about work, stuff is very different in the last 20 to 30 years. You talk about how much content you are producing. Like you are a machine of productivity. You're the best when you are like an automated machine.
Whereas, a lot of the books I like to read are all about the kind of weird poet figure who is kind of weirdly inspired. It's about tapping into that. Just think about yourself as a sensitive, and skillful, natural person, rather than an art-making machine.
“I think the idea of the genius is very damaging.”
What do you say to people who don’t identify as creative? How do they think they might tap into their creativity?
I think the idea of the genius is very damaging. I was reading a book about people drawing as children. This is a classic Picasso idea: All children are artists, and the trick is staying one when you get older. I think drawing is one of the most pure acts of creativity in many ways because kids do it all the time. All you need is a pen and paper, then you can make something. Kids get a real joy from just literally making a mark on a page. There's something special about drawing a circle and then putting a dot and a dot and a line in it and then being like, "Oh, I recognize that, that's a person." There's a real magic to that. As people get older, it makes me sad when people say they can't draw. They're afraid of having that childlike joy which drawing definitely gives you.
“Starting is fun. Finishing is scary.”
What advice would you give younger self?
I'd probably say just chill out. Stop trying to be so clever all the time. When children draw, they draw very automatically. If you watch a child up to the age of about nine, drawing, they will compose a picture. You know like the whole house with a sky and a sun and a family and some flowers? It's amazing. That's actually a well-composed picture. Then as you become a teenager, you start trying to make things look realistic. I got obsessed with things looking really good to the point that I stopped completing stuff. That's a big issue: Starting is fun. Finishing is scary. Cause then you've got something to look at and be judged on. So if you never finish anything, then, "Oh, it's unfinished, so it's fine." I used to do that all the time.
But now I realized that it's fun finishing something, looking at it and going, "That's bad. That's funny, I made that, I spent the last two hours making this bad thing." I find that really satisfying. If I just made more final pieces when I was younger, then I would've more quickly learned how to do things that are more interesting with art than just starting projects.
Is there a point when you found yourself being able to step past the fear of judgement and just say, "Even if it's bad, I'm finishing"?
Yeah. I started drawing these cartoons that were like doodles, but I'd always finish the doodle. I got into this habit of finishing these doodles, and it became bigger and bigger when I was about 16, and I used to get A4 pages. They were like a meditation kind of thing. I would just start with drawing that in one plan. They'd always have the same elements. So I would draw something in a way that was very familiar. Then I would draw another one. I would tweak things and experiment a little bit. I would do those obsessively.
With writing, it was basically making my stuff smaller and smaller. Now it's three panels long. By the time you started, you basically finished. If I was to write a novel, I would have very short chapters, a bit like Kurt Vonnegut. It'd be like these little pieces. You can then edit them to make really nice large pieces. Which I think is actually how novelists make novels. But I only realized that recently.
How does technology figure into your process?
I'm not very good with technology. I still write all of my ideas in a sketchbook that I carry around with me 'cause I'm out and about a lot. Also, I have the worst laptop you have ever seen in your life. It's embarrassing... Held together with tape. Seven years old. It makes a really loud kind of clunking noise. I have a weird relationship with technology, but at every point that I do get new technology it makes my life a lot easier. I kind of relish making my life a bit difficult. At the moment, I draw on a tablet, which I find really nice. I got it for Webcomic Name because Webcomic Name is so spontaneous. I want to do it very quickly and also on the go. I can just draw anywhere.
To see some of Alex’s webcomics, check out webcomicname.com and dorrismccomics.com.