All images here are copyright Bill O’Donovan 2020

Sydney based artist Bill O’Donovan came into the MM office with his folio, just around the time we were doing our last print issue. We would have loved to commission some illustrations but couldn’t offer him any work. All we could suggest was, that he stick around, and that we’d probably do something together on the web. He did and we did, and the collaboration was 32 Views of Mt.Fuji. We could only offer payment in computer time and Photoshop lessons, but that was enough. Bill took that experience, and with collaborator Steve Bellman ran to the AFC with a grant submission for a Web comic strip, Johnny Ice, Digital Detective. The AFC liked the idea and the result was on MM (as well as on the new Village Theatres site in their Channel 99 section – yes, that’s another story).

Interviewing your friends doesn’t allow a lot of journalistic perspective, so without my waffle, here’s the result.  This was originally in a multipage 800 x 600 format. FH.

FH. I’ve watched the evolution of your Johnny Ice character, and to me it’s pretty obvious that he’s your fantasy alter ego. When did you first start using him?

When I was still living in Wollongong. We were making videos for no money and we chose a detective character and called him Johnny Ice. By the time we were finished the video, I didn’t want to have anymore to do with the character…let me out of here! And I went to Tokyo! When I got to Japan I realized that Johnny was a good character to play with, and I developed an affection for him. Grant Osborn, the director, put the video together back here and everyone loved him, they went for it. In Tokyo I was talking Johnny up and when the video arrived it was huge. People liked Johnny and he was a great calling card. I was recognised by people who’d seen him at a show in Harajuku, and I did some shows with a Kyoto artist who popped up out of a crowd and said ‘Hey, come to Kyoto with me and we’ll show my pals in this gallery’. It introduced me to a lot of people. Tension magazine did a special issue on Japan and a lot of the people I hooked up with are mentioned in the there.
Johnny just kept going, he was a thing that I could keep using. He was skinny, sweaty, stupid, smoked heaps of cigarettes, so he became an easy alter ego. Starting on video, he then became my business card, now he’s the Web comic. The best thing is that he allows you to make fiction, anything can happen to him without the rationalisations of reality. Starting from there, I can then fill it with bits of my own reality.

 

I believe that Australian fiction, narrative, hasn’t been able to grasp that in the way the Americans did in the late 1800’s with their cowboy adventures that lead to Hollywood. Outrageous fiction, shamelessly outrageous! Whereas Australian fiction is rooted in reality, it doesn’t have that freedom to let a giant kookaburra swoop down and fly everyone up to the sky. Johnny Ice is something that lets me skip out of that reality. It’s surprising the support we’ve had for the character. If we’d gone to the AFC with Johnny as a movie they would have laughed and said ‘what are you talking about!’. But as a comic and with the multimedia angle, it works.

What was it like growing up in Wollongong?

I’ve got a very strong connection to the ‘Gong. It’s the freedom of the place, you’re out of the rat race, the beach in front of you, mountains and bush behind, it was a great place to grow up.

Wollongong is a steel town, and everyone has to do a bit of time at the steel works. After leaving high school I got a job there as a personnel trainee, it only lasted six weeks when I got a call from the local TV station. I’d done some work experience there and they said did I want a job? It was just lucky, we were coming out of the seventies, a quasi-dreamy time where the popular culture in Australia was the beach, Bellbird, and the ABC, very remote from what it is now. In ’81 I came into TV as it was expanding, we were making a daily live kids show, we did a weekly live Tonight show, and I was learning to be a floor manager, a camera operator. I even did some time covering for people in the art department. The corporate plan was to get kids and multi-skill them, so they could do everything. We did the Bernard King cooking show there for years. It was a big production facility then, different to the network approach now.

Wollongong Uni were going to have a Film and TV course, which I wanted to do, but it was canned. They started an acting course so I said ‘why not, I’ll do acting’. I couldn’t get in because my academic qualifications were poor but someone dropped out and they offered me the place. It was real serendipity. A time of free and available education. A flaky time.
I did a year there part time, then took a year off, I was working at the TV station doing film timing, I was there for a long time. They had their own processing lab and shot film for the news, but we were timing all the American programs that came in on 16mm, (there was not much overseas videotape until 1985). I was joining the reels, putting in the tabs (to control the telecine switching that set up the commercial breaks). I watched all those Bugs Bunny cartoons, the Humphrey Bogart movies, hand winding them , dreaming of sticking a rewind tab in the Sunday Movie as revenge for the boredom. It was a great place to learn. The head of the studio was a big influence on me in making you believe that you could get a program together for very little.

The University was different then because it wasn’t kids coming straight out of school, with Mum and Dad saving up and sending their kids off like an American sit-com. There were a lot of older students, I was 20 and probably the youngest. Gary Stonehouse who was in charge of theatre production was a wild guy. He encouraged us all to go off and do independent theatre, outside of school and just perform, set up our own companies. So we did it. When I went back and finished the final year we setup a performance ensemble called Swamp (I think the university, the steel works even my old high school was built on a swamp). We did original work, pretty funny, whimsical things, with cardboard costumes, Dada stuff. My final piece at Uni was on Alfred Jarry and Ubu, something that has stuck with me. It was just prior to Dada being brought in from the cold, they’d been pushed out by the Surrealists. And that was about the only time I’ve ever really pursued formal study.

The theatre company lasted five years, and I was always doing some drawing. Once with a friend we did a series of original paintings and stuck them up at night around the streets so that in the morning the citizens went ‘holy hell what happened here’. I was still freelancing for WIN TV, I trained as a Betacam operator, floor managing, I did the artwork for a kid’s news program, all on a freelance basis. Then the network aggregation happened and local production stopped, and I was pushed out. It was ‘88-’89, the time of Alan Bond, interest rates etc.

What made you head for Japan?

For fourteen months I hung out on the dole, and then a pal of mine who had gone to Japan said ‘come here’. I could either move to Sydney or go to Japan. It was going to cost me a couple of grand either way, so I went to Japan. I planned on being there six months and stayed for three years.

That was really good because you’re a gaijin you had an advantage, you could get a job. $30 an hour teaching English, working twenty hours a week in Tokyo and easy after you got over the panic. Within six months I’d met up with a guy, Gonzalo Robledo who was in video production, working as a stringer in Tokyo for Mexican and Spanish TV. Gonzalo was into indie production, he wanted to give things a go not neccessarily for instant profit. He wanted to make a video of Johnny and we played around with some animation tests, but it was nothing I ever made real money at. I could do it because I had all that time free.
We worked with Fab5 Freddie from MTV-YoRaps out of New York, and I got into the Tokyo Place and the same room as the Emperor! I also went around and introduced myself to the art directors. I had a stumblebum folio with the Kid’s News stuff, and some rock’n’roll posters I’d done in Wollongong. The opportunity was there, and I got some work. I got much more as the guy from Australia who stumbled into the English press in Tokyo than what I would have as the guy from Wollongong who stumbled into Sydney. When I came back I went around to the art directors in Sydney and when said I was from Tokyo they were impressed and I got work.

With the Japanese jobs, my folio got bigger, I had some regular work and then I was able to exhibit. I was lucky.

When I arrived I stayed in a gaijin house in Hibarigaoka, a house with twenty rooms for travelers, like a youth hostel except that everyone was working and had safes bolted to their walls full of cash. There were lots of Americans paying back their university studies.

Before I’d planned to come back to Australia, my father died, a terrible thing, really sad. I’d just started to get published and he was very happy about that, I’d pulled of this shonk and was a quasi-success. I’d been doing all that stuff in Wollongong but because I wasn’t making any money it was different. The whole family were always frustrated about survival stategies. I’ve always received a lot of support from my mum and dad. I was a worry but I was trying to do something. It’s terrible sad he isn’t around for this latest round of laughs.

I liked the movie you showed of all those different people peeling apples. How did that happen?

The apple peeling thing was the most Japanese characteristic of the Japanese to me. There’s this idea that Japanese culture is a total mono-culture, that the Japanese are very unified, but there’s the usual layers of individuals. It’s a lot like Sydney. The myth of the individual is just that. A myth as far as I’m concerned. A lot of hooey. The big unifier was that all the Japanese could peel apples, everybody. When I came back from my father’s funeral, I hooked up with some people who are now living in the flat above me in Sydney, but were living below me in Tokyo. They introduced me to a whole lot of people I’d never met, the underground scene in Tokyo. There were a lot of strange people there running galleries, these gaijin guys who were doing an art director’s job and running their own gallery. There were Germans who were cruising around without a visa trying to survive on no money, lifting stuff from the 7-11 stores. Wild characters, and a lot of wild Japanese kids, artists. We’d go and hang out until three in the morning in this tiny gallery space and one night I’d brought a bag of apples, and we were drunk and stuff and I offered them around, and zip, everyone started peeling them. I noticed that everyone peeled their apples, they never ate the skin, and everyone could do it well. Two years later as I was getting ready to leave, and I wasn’t going to be able to come back for some time, I borrowed a video camera and spent the last two days videotaping everyone I knew, and some strangers, peeling apples.

With the connection of the Artist Incubator that was run by Dave Aitkin I met all these people who weren’t English teaching. From that I had an exhibition at Vision Network in Jingumae, which is like the Paddington or Elizabeth Bay of Tokyo. It cost me $800 for three weeks and I sold enough paintings to pay for the thing. I did camera work for Gonzalo doing a documentary of a famous Spanish playwright who was doing this thing with a kabuki actor, it all kept happening.
My mother had got married again and I came back for that, but when I returned the school I was teaching at went under so, for the last six months I survived without a job, on my artwork. It was a good feeling to have hung in there and survived, although it was down to a lot of help from my pals in Tokyo.When my visa did finally run out, I left. It was time to go because, unless I could manufacture an English Degree all the jobs were being taken by Americans with MA’s in languages, much better qualifications then the skinny white guy from the ‘Gong.

What was it like when you came back to Australia?

I came back in May 1994, then returned to Tokyo for a month in August. I ended up staying for three months as I got another bit of cash piece by piece, but finally I came back to Sydney because with the cheap air ticket I had there were no seats for three months unless I wanted to spend two months on standby in Narita. I was really frustrated with the city it was so slow and peaceful and I felt there was none of the opportunity for adventure and chance that you get in Tokyo. Within six months I’d settled down and come to terms with it, and about a year ago I gave up my schemes of returning to Japan, and its been really great. There was the Fuji exhibition at Moran’s, the Fuji on the Web, I’ve been getting some work, and now we’ve started Johnny. I’ve been able to get off the dole for the time being, and get on with it. I’ve tried for jobs as a tele-marketer and the like but they’d look at the resume and shudder, saying ‘you’re weird man’. I’ve also done some videotaping of Japanese weddings here in Sydney, and that’s just a dream, edit in camera, leave room at the head for the titles, walk away.

Let’s talk a bit about the process of doing the Web comic.

Back in the 80’s I’d taken performance and video pieces and turned them into comics, which were published in a couple of Australian indie comics, Pounding Tales and Fox. With the Web happening and Fuji giving me a taste for Photoshopping I hooked up with Steve Bellman and we gave Johnny a multi-media makeover. It’s been Steve who has really got the HTML and management together to make Johnny happen as well as he has.
Then getting this thing with the AFC is just huge and I’m really appreciative of it.

First we do a script markup, then I do a blue-line layout of the panels. I do all my sketching in blue pencil, I’ve managed to keep this one pencil for years. I use tracing paper and a light table to produce a black line version, and it helps to do all the animation in-betweens. I then reduce the images on the photocopier to A4 black and white and scan those in and colour them in Photoshop.

We’ve finished Episode 13, we’ve now got eight weeks to plan the format of the next series. We might make more use of frames, we are going to make more of Java animation. The best thing for me has been producing Johnny for a weekly deadline. I’ve always been scared of that, and I’ve learnt why I was scared! To get everything happening we had planned to have another month before we started, so when we lost that, my learning curve was substantial. But then we produced a new episode and put it up every week.
There’s lots of potential for him, and there are lots of other characters as well.

Tell me about them. Where did Rouge Hen come from?

Rouge comes from the word ‘hen’ in Japanese which means strange. Chotto Hen means a ‘little bit strange’, the first exhibition I had in Japan was called Chotto Hen and I drew this tiny chicken next to a ruler.(Ha!) Rouge serves tea, and is friends with a dog character I had developed earlier. They are in the ‘Have an Adventure’ postcard and resurface in the same way that Johnny has. I dropped them into the illustration job for the Good Weekend computer supplement.

And the inspiration for Mt.Fuji series you did for MM?

I’d always wanted to do this Fuji series that included city views. It’s almost autobiographical. One day after a storm I saw Fuji from a train window heading out of Ikebukuro. When I was living in Oku near Ueno you could see Fuji on a very clear day, from the roof. That was on the northern side of Tokyo, that’s a hell of a long way away. It’s a really big thing that Fuji.
When I was leaving Japan, Sony were running a competition for artists, weird corporate stuff. A friend of mine had won it a couple of years before and was a Sony Artsalaryman, just experimenting. They let him do what he wanted, crazy stuff. The (apple peeling) video was made for one section and there was a comic section. Views of Mt.Fuji was developed for that as thirty two, four panels strips, obviously influenced by Hokusai which I remember seeing as a kid. When I was 15 it had a big effect on me. 32 Views just popped out, I was trying to find out how many Hokusai had, (it was thirty six but I didn’t find out till later). I sat down and made a list of ideas and they came to 32, so that was it. Then, I got cold feet about the corporate conditions and didn’t enter it.

Did all that Japanese manga influence you graphically as well?

When you say you’ve been to Japan, people look at the work and say “oh, of course, the influence is there’, but my biggest influence is the New York graphic style of the early ‘80s, of RAW magazine and things like that. There are a lot of people doing work like me, with the hard line. Something happened in New York with RAW that made black line acceptable as a graphic style. In Japan the manga is so stylised that you only find a very few of the great artists who can break the formula, most of it looks the same. Everybody reads it, but it’s all very much the same. What does change is that they can take the serious narrative version and do the mini version, like with Ultraman. There’s a serious version and the ‘comic’ fun version and they often switch mid-narrative. That’s wild, what an audience!

Now western comics like Marvel have adopted the manga style. You can see the elfin faces appearing. But they still don’t have the freedom to change their superheros. When you go back to the ‘50s and ‘60s you see a more playful approach. The super Bat family, Bat Dog, Bat Mite. Remember the Bizarro world in Superman?

There are so many things that are pre-cursors in western comics that we’ve forgotten about, and we now look at the Japanese and say, how weird, what a strange culture! In manga you’ve got something much more like the English Beano, with different styles existing together, whereas the Marvel look has defined what a US comic looks like. The real publishers at the moment are Fantagraphics, great stuff, and Dark Horse is pretty good. They run progressive comics beside their spandex superheros and girls with big tits.

Where do you go from here?

I’ve been stubborn and adapted to a bug lifestyle, working with a 36 hour forecast of the future. You just look at the next 36 hours and don’t know what happens after that. I can cop it, because when you get into the business approach it just gets too confusing. The motivation dries up. When I came back to Australia it was with the view that this is the land of no opportunity, this is the land where people stand still on the street. My therapy was to walk around Sydney, Lady Macquaries Chair, through the Botanic Gardens, to look at everything, just looking at this great big 3D postcard you could cruise around in, and that kept me calm. I soon began to appreciate all the chance that is here and how accommodating the society is for a whacko like myself. We’ve thought about making a hard copy version of the Web Johnny but it would have to be completely rebuilt for the single page format. For now I just want to get Johnny right, experiment with more animation and see it get more hits!

Johnny Ice is produced with a 100Mhz Pentium, with 16Mb RAM, 600Mb hard drive,17in Samsung monitor. Storage is on an Iomega Zip drive. Scanning is done in B&W on a cheap HP ScanJet 4s scanner.
Software used- Windows’95, Adobe Photoshop 3.0, HotDog HTML editor, Netscape Navigator 2. Goldwave for Audio. Bill and Steve are experimenting with Sausage Software’s Igor to add Java animation.

You can contact Bill O’Donovan at
Secret City Documentia