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Ambiguity, Interpersonal Relationships and Zines: A Conversation with Anja Uhren

Anja Uhren has been creating zines for several years now, although by her own admission, she’s not sure if ‘zine’ is the right word to describe what it is she creates. Is it books? Comics? And how exactly does one define a zine in the ever-growing world of independent comic creators?

Regardless of attaching a well-worn medium name to her work, Uhren specialises in crafting emotive, visual narratives, her characters often exploring the mechanics of their relationships with other people. She currently has multiple books to her name, including What is ‘Home’?, Encounters, Irgendwo im Nirgendwo and Reverie. This year saw the release of A Portrait of Sheffield, a 70-page booklet portraying an urban, dream-like picture of the steel city that’s built on scrap paper found on the city’s streets.

We caught up with Uhren as she slaves away on new projects about her work thus far.

A Place To Hang Your Cape: For those perhaps not in the know, how exactly would you define a ‘zine’?

Anja Uhren: I’m honestly still not entirely sure about this term myself and have heard various definitions over the years. Zines are usually self-published, small-circulated books and though they have evolved over time they traditionally where cheaply-made & cheaply-sold publications which is probably why I’ve been told a few times that my work doesn’t really qualify being called ‘zine’. I like to go for high quality paper and full colour printing which of course affects the sales price. I don’t want to get too caught up in naming things. So I mainly just call them books.

AP2HYC: How long have you been producing zines?

Uhren: Even when I was drawing as a kid I often got my mom to staple together sets of drawings because – however abstract they might have seemed – in my mind they belonged together and told a story in a certain sequence. Illustrated books have always been a big passion of mine and I’ve usually found it much easier to express myself in a series of drawings rather than individual ones. I drew a lot of manga in my teens and then at Art School progressed to picture books and comics/graphic novels. This was about 5 years ago now and it’s also when I first started producing physical copies of my books and experimented with distributing them in various ways.

AP2HYC: What kind of genres do you enjoy working in?

For a very long time my work was strongly rooted in the fantasy and fairy tale realm but in the past few years it has moved more towards slice of life which has resulted in a bit of an odd mixture which isn’t easily placed I think. I prefer my stories to be based on real life events and encounters and then add a bit of a fantastical twist to them to create an almost other-worldly atmosphere. Things aren’t quite as they seem. I’d like to make people look twice.

AP2HYC: What is ‘Home’? and Reverie are illustrations of other creator’s stories, and yet their illustrations feel vital in carrying the plot. Would you say you’re an artist first or a story-teller first?

I’m foremost a story-teller. In my favourite picture books and comics the stories are never complete in either text or image alone. The two actively work together in the reader’s mind to create the story. Both have very different qualities and story-telling potential. My aim is to create a fusion where both rely equally on one another without the images becoming purely decorative or the text purely descriptive. So whenever I work with other creator’s stories this is a big challenge because usually their text is already complete in itself. I really have to look hard to find the gaps that can be filled by my illustrations to add another layer or perspective.

AP2HYC: Do you perhaps find that, in your work, the two can complement each other?

Uhren: Absolutely! This to me is the most exciting part of making comics. Image and text when used effectively can complement, enhance or even contradict each other, opening up so much potential for reading between the lines and really challenging the reader to create their own interpretation. I’m a big fan of ambiguity and open endings and both can be so powerfully created in comics.

AP2HYC: Reverie and Irgendwo im Nirgendwo deal with rather abstract themes involving romance and forming friendships, what inspires you when creating zines?

Uhren: I am very much interested in interpersonal relationships. It’s fascinating to analyse the many different ways we interact with one another and the different world views we carry around with us. What I love most about art in general is that it can give us a glimpse into someone else’s world. It’s those personal stories which make us stop and think that I find most inspiring and that always encourage me to look more closely. Often times it’s more a feeling I want to capture than an actual message.

AP2HYC: Spinning off from that, do you have any major influences? What might have been your favourite comics, books, etc growing up?

Uhren: There have been many different influences over the years but the one artist who has left the strongest impression on me is Dave McKean. His work is so incredibly versatile and always resounds deeply within me even though I mostly don’t really understand it. Or maybe especially because of that. It sticks with me for days and makes me wonder. His latest movie Luna seems like the perfect mixture of all his artistic talents. I can watch it over and over and always discover something new.

AP2HYC: How might you describe your creative process when coming up with fresh ideas for new zines? Do you prefer to be diverse and open yourself to collaboration like What is ‘Home’? and Reverie? Or does an idea start entirely with you and grow from there?

Uhren: Ideas have come from places as varied as the creative processes I use to capture them have been. Being open to receiving them from anywhere at any point is the key. What is ‘Home’? wasn’t intended to be made into a book at the point I posed that question to everyone who had supported my first crowdfunding campaign. But suddenly I sat there with all these wonderful quotes and I knew I had to make something out of them. It’s an exhilarating feeling when ideas strike. A bit like falling in love. You’re obsessed with it and part of you knows ‘this is it!’. I just wish this feeling would last a bit longer before doubt and worries sneak in – finishing a project has always been the hardest for me. But I’ve definitely never lacked fresh ideas. Only ever the time (and, sadly, motivation) to see them through to the end.

AP2HYC: The stories and characters in your zines appear very emotionally driven – when people read your work, what kind of response do you hope or expect they feel?

I’m always really curious about that and love it when people take the time to let me know their thoughts. I don’t really expect anything specific. Mainly because as I said earlier, my work tends to capture feelings rather than messages. I guess what I’d be hoping for is to make a connection with the reader. And for them to relate to the stories in their own personal way. That’s always very special.

AP2HYC: What future projects might you have in the pipeline?

Next to a handful of smaller illustration jobs for clients I have been working on quite an extensive personal project since early this year. It’s still in the planning/storyboarding/concept stage but gradually coming together and hopefully ready to be shared in some way next year.

I’m super excited about it! At this point it’s not quite clear whether it’ll take on the form of a web comic or a full-blown graphic novel, either way it’s going to be a substantial body of storytelling with both autobiographical and fantastical elements. This really sounds quite vague, sorry….I’ll figure it out!

AP2HYC: If you could pitch your style of zines to a potential reader in one sentence, what might it be?

Uhren: Emotionally driven stories told in images and words, based on real-life events and encounters with a bit of a fantastical twist.

You can discover more of Uhren’s work via her website, and don’t forget to check out her Etsy shop!Are you a fan of Uhren’s work? Let us know in the comments section or send us a Tweet!

About the author

Fred McNamara