Roberto Millan is a Cape Town based illustrator, cartoonist and picture book artist. His portfolio is jam-packed with everything from miniature neck pendant comic books to children’s books, scientific illustrations and illustrated manuals. Roberto also works as a colourist with local cartoon legend Jonathan Shapiro (yep, that’s Zapiro!). Here’s how he does it all:
What is your background?
I completed a BA in Information Design at the University of Pretoria in 2008 and later an MPhil in Visual Arts (Illustration) at Stellenbosch University in 2012. I’ve always been interested in drawing and felt a design degree would provide a platform for me to play and experiment. The staff members at the department were friendly and had pitched the course particularly well when I attended the open-day before. Everything looked so darn cool and I wanted to make images like the students on show. After I completed my BA I was offered a position as a junior creative director at a big advertising agency in Joburg. The pay was bad and I decided to further my studies in Illustration at Stellenbosch University. It was the only post-graduate degree in illustration that I was aware of at the time and it seemed to breed a variety of excellent illustrators and entrepreneurs.
When and how did you discover your love for drawing?
I think drawing comes quite naturally to everyone when they’re young. It’s a natural part of our development and it’s something we all have in common. It’s an incredibly human thing to draw, just like dancing and singing. I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember.
The University of Cape Town’s Transformation Services Office (ADAPT Lekgotla/Conference)
What was your first graphic design/illustration job ever, and which valuable lesson did you learn from it?
Shoot. I’m not entirely sure. The first illustrations I had published were in an Aikido Karate Manual. A friend of mine’s dad was an instructor and had commissioned me to produce a series of pedagogical illustrations depicting all the throws, knocks and actions. The client insisted on showing me the throws during consultations so that I would better understand the movements before illustrating them. He had me in head-locks, twisted my arms and knocked me around more than a few times. It was fun to see how this translated into the drawings. It’s one way of imbuing an image with life and character, which is really what illustration is all about.
Take us through your creative process. What inspires your work, and how do you go about capturing it in an image.
I’m inspired by social issues and I find topics of personal and collective identity quite fascinating. The Pink Tongue was important to me in the sense that nobody seemed to be publishing cartoons that dealt directly with gay topics. Zapiro did this irregularly as a political commentator and liberal cartoonist but I wanted to profile myself as a gay cartoonist, not only as a good way to break into the market but also to open the ‘pan-Dora’s’ box containing all the humorous idiosyncrasies that comes with South African gay culture.
What do you enjoy drawing most?
I enjoy drawing different things but my main body of work consists mostly of editorial cartooning for newspapers, online publications and bespoke comics for corporate organisations and social media. I’ve always, however, been somewhat interested in politics and social commentary. This may have indirectly led to my collaboration with master cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) as a colourist – I had always admired his work. I would ideally like to think of myself as someone who is, to a moderate degree, socially conscious and enjoy incorporating this into my work.
My favourite comic strip thus far is the one I’m currently busy with. It is for a monthly LGBTI publication (lesbian gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) called the Pink Tongue. It’s called Squeers and is about two gay squirrels living in the oldest cultivated pear tree in the Cape Town Company’s Garden. The ‘rumoured to be dating’ couple live just above Squrew night club – a reference to a very popular gay bar on the Cape Town Pink Strip. The comic strip makes a legitimate and underrepresented social commentary within the context of South African cartooning, accompanied by various political references to LGBTI culture.
What has been some of the greatest challenges in entering the local creative industry?
As an editorial cartoonist, it’s difficult to book a regular spot in a newspaper or publication as most papers already have established cartoonists producing work for them. Cartoons and comic strips are always the first to go when there’s a budget crisis and there simply aren’t enough publications producing this sort of content, despite the fact that there are tons of new online publications making their way into the market.
I started out working for a commercial comic book studio as a colourist and cartoonist in Stellenbosch after graduating from my masters. The pay wasn’t great but it provided an excellent platform to learn certain skills, the most important one of which was visual writing for narrative communication. We mostly produced comics for semi-literate audiences, safety comics for workers in construction, mining, fabrication and finance. Our comics intended to reduce injuries and fatalities at massive companies by streamlining the communication process between workers and supervisors.
It was during this time that I was fortunate enough to jump onboard as a colourist to Zapiro on his Vuvuzela Nation cartoon anthology through a referral. He liked my work and I’ve been colouring for him ever since. I eventually received a referral from Zapiro himself and started producing my own political cartoons for weekly online publication, GroundUp. I had earlier approached an LGBTI publication, The Pink Tongue, to do political cartoons centred on LGBTI rights as I felt approaching community newspapers would be a good way to break into the editorial cartooning industry. Starting small has been a useful approach in my own experience. Eventually, the Pink Tongue cartoon turned into a comic strip and I pretty much was given leeway to do whatever the hell I wanted.
If you weren’t an illustrator, graphic designer or cartoonist, what would you be?
Botany looks like fun. Possibly some sort of writing.
What have been some of your favourite projects and why?
The Young Gay Guy’s Guide to Safer Sex was tons of fun. The aim was to produce a fun way to show and encourage young gay men how to have safe sex without bombarding them with decrepit images of victims with STDs. About 14,000 copies of the book were distributed for free around the country to various NGOs and health organisations. Squeers is always fun in the sense that it caters towards a slightly more adult audience and I’m always given free-reign.
Another personal favourite was an animation I illustrated and directed for The Social Justice Coalition for their Safe Communities campaign. It was an eye-opener in that it was the first time I was working with and managing a team of people, all of them creative professionals, while working full-time at my previous post in Stellenbosch. Our 3D animator, Alexander Gilfillan, was extremely knowledgeable and translated Sibapiwe Matiyela’s script and my illustrations into exquisite 3D models. He was responsible for bringing our idea to life and animated the figures as if they jumped straight out of our heads and onto the screen. Talented composer “Coloured Black” provided the exact urban-electronic sound we were looking for.
Arguably, my most memorable project, however, was a collaboration with Zapiro on a cartoon of his for the front cover of The Times newspaper the day after Nelson Mandela had passed away. I spent the afternoon with him in his studio listening to tributes by ordinary people, while colouring in his obituary, a cartoon that was originally published when I was 13 years old. Had you told me then what I’d be doing the day I found out Nelson Mandela had passed away, I would never have believed you. It was a surreal experience and one I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m a bit of Facebook addict. I’m the jerk constantly liking things in your newsfeed! I tend to like images, artists and articles that inspire me in an attempt to archive documents, ideas and references for later use. I’m quite inspired by other people’s work and it’s exciting to see what people are doing. Chances are I’d find what you do pretty interesting if you’re really into it.
Which other local creative inspire you and why?
Alex Gilfillan (3D animator), Theo Krynauwa (Children’s Book illustrator), Su Opperman (comic book artist), Ryan Ross Reynolds (comic book scriptwriter). Google them! They’re all excellent at what they do but most importantly, their work is somewhat off-beat and imbued with a superb sense of humour.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working with HR and Recruitment company Status Staffing on an exciting new comic strip about an entrepreneurial little boy obsessed with looking for work as a result of rising unemployment. Superhuman Capital is another example of a bespoke comic strip I’m currently producing for Status Staffing.
I’ve also just completed some colouring work for Zapiro’s new cartoon anthology called Democrazy: SA’S TWENTY YEAR TRIP with text by Mike Wills, which will launch on the 3rd of June. I coloured the cover and it recently appeared on the front cover of the Mail&Guardian for their 20 Years of Democracy issue.
What can we look forward to from you in the future?
I have a few things lined up. A stand at Open Book Comics Fest 2014 in Cape Town this Septemeber and a comic book collaboration with stalwart human rights activist Zackie Achmat on the abolishing of the Dompas system.
Feet First – A deeply personal narrative document
Hello Neighbour – Winner of The Africa e Mediterraneo Award for ‘Best Unpublished Comic Strip by an African Artist’ (2009-2010)
Robbie, I Rode Over Snowball – Finalist in the 15th Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Festival’s 6th International Digital Cartoon Competition
Here’s a sneak-peek at Zapiro‘s new book, Democrazy, launching 3 June 2014, colouring by Roberto Millan: