Mandy Ord is a Melbourne-based comics artist, illustrator, disability support worker – and one of the artists we’ve been lucky enough to program for our 41st edition. GDS Marketing Manager Wai Mun Mah spoke to her via email about working digitally, the reason she’s drawn to comics, and the inspiration behind her COVID-themed piece. 

Wai Mun: Tell us a little bit about your overall process for approaching a piece. What do you start with– an idea, a thought, or an image– and how do you proceed?

Mandy Ord: Often it starts with a moment that I’ve experienced that sticks in my mind that I then build upon to form a story. I’ll definitely see it as a visual image first, like a snapshot. Something happens that stands out to me. Something resonates on a deep level whether it be a moment that is truely ridiculous, hilarious, poignant or difficult. Sometimes it’s not always clear why something strikes me as memorable but I just trust my gut feeling and go with it. I’ll go back to it in my mind repetitively and examine it, asking myself questions about why a particular circumstance is so striking. I’ll be thinking visually about the idea but also forming the words to tell the story usually in short sentences or even choice words. Some words are perfect for describing elements of my story but I won’t use them because I don’t like the way they look on paper or feel to say. Before I even write or draw I’ll be refining a story in my head and I’ll be entertaining myself. I’ll go for a big walk and tell myself the story over and over in an obsessive way. This helps me sort out structure and timelines as well as dialogue and narration. I then write down a rough description as a paragraph as well as pivotal features of the story that I know will definitely be an element. I get ideas for the composition and framing of panels in my mind and then I quickly sketch them so I don’t lose them.

My scripts are always fairly rough but I do like structure. I also like to write in the moment. There is a degree of improvisation and spontaneity that I think is vital to my work. If I can surprise myself at the drawing desk then I can transmit to the story the freshness and delight I experience in having discovered something new.

An image of Mandy Ord’s workspace.

Wai Mun: Your art has a very distinctive and almost idiosyncratic style. Can you tell us a little bit about your influences?

Mandy Ord: I’ve always been influenced by the graphic work of people like Julie Doucet, Charles Burns and Max Andersson, all masters of the visual power of striking black and white comics. I’m also inspired by the work of the groundbreaking woodblock novelists Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward. Feeding into my work of late is my early training as a painter. I work with a paintbrush and I’ve noticed my style becoming more textural, loose and expressive. The influences for this would be cartoonists Carol Tyler and Frank Stack. I’m also really drawn to the evocative and emotional work of Joy Hester.

The work of Julie Doucet, one of Mandy Ord’s inspirations.

Wai Mun: What drew you to making comics in the first place? How do you find the form supports your freedom of expression?

Mandy Ord: I’ve read comics my whole life so it made sense to pursue them as my main creative practise. Images have always been important to me as have stories. My rooms and studios over the years have always been filled with my favourite images stuck up on the walls. They’re something that I need to be surrounded with and are a comforting presence. I’ve always been aware of the power of a single image to communicate and connect and to hold within it a lot of information.

I grew up in a close knit neighbourhood with old-time hardcore bushwalkers, so many of the stories I heard as a child were told around a fire or at a dinner table and the people who told them were very good storytellers. I heard the same stories told for decades and I never got sick of them because it was the way they were told that made them interesting. The repetitive telling of the stories refined them which is how I work today in my process.

I knew I wanted to tell stories so I started with what I knew best, which was my own life experiences. Luckily I was in art school where I met a group of cartoonists who were doing a similar thing, and who also introduced me to the work of some of the great autobiographical cartoonists working at the time. I was swapping mini-comics for years with cartoonists all over Australia and this connection to a community of like minded souls was very motivating. I enjoyed the freedom of creating the work I wanted to make as independently as possible. I basically learnt by experimenting over a long period of time. Discovering life writing as a legitimate and celebrated genre in comics meant I had a path in which to follow and in which to make my own mark.

Wai Mun: 41 will be the first time GDS works with augmented reality (AR), which we’re all very excited about. I presume this’ll also be the first time you’re working with AR. Can you talk to us about the challenges you faced working in this field, like what you were excited about and conversely what you were nervous about?

Mandy Ord: I was excited about the use of AR as a new way in which people could engage with my work within the context of a sequential story. I also have a background in animation so the opportunity to see drawings move and really come to life is always thrilling. I think there is a magical quality to animation that is unlike anything else in the creative fields.

I was initially nervous about the story that I would need to create in order to suit the AR content. I was a little confused at first about the ideal format but with the guidance of the excellent GDS team we quickly figured it out.

Wai Mun: To shift topics to a slightly sadder area, it’s a fact that COVID-19 has affected all our artists’ output this year. Some of the pieces we’ve commissioned reflect on COVID-19, either directly or indirectly, but I’d argue no piece is more explicit than yours. Can you talk to how COVID-19 affected your creative output and why you chose to write this particular piece?

Mandy Ord: At the start of the first lockdown I lost most of my work very quickly (I am a disability support worker). It was quite stressful as I felt my ability to earn was out of my control. My work opportunities picked up again quite quickly but in the space in-between I took myself on long walks around my neighbourhood to give structure to my days. This was before mandatory mask wearing where the main focus for people in public was keeping each other at a distance. I was curious as to how this new way of being in the world made strangers relate to each other. In a not-very-funny situation I couldn’t help but see the humorous side to the behaviour of the people I encountered including my own and this inspired my story. There were people following and breaking the rules all in one moment. The good intentions were there but the common sense wasn’t. Nowadays it’s the same when people I encounter pull their masks off their face to allow me to better understand what they are saying. It drives me mad but it’s ridiculous at the same time. I also became more aware of the local bird life which I know during lockdown wasn’t unique to me. I felt a new appreciation for where I live where I am surrounded by trees and animals.

In terms of COVID, I was quite productive over the quiet times during the year as isolation and time at home suits perfectly the lifestyle of the cartoonist. I’ve always had to be very self-motivated so it wasn’t hard to set to work. I took advantage of the time I had to start work on a collection of new short stories that I plan to publish.

Wai Mun: For all its challenges, one of the benefits of COVID-19 has been the way it has prompted us to rethink how we approach our institutions, processes and overall expectations of the world. What has COVID-19 challenged you to consider or change, either as an artist or person in the world?

Mandy Ord: I was more proactive in applying for creative funding because I needed support and the support was there so I had nothing to lose. I had more time to work on my funding applications. I used to be very particular about the work I picked up as a disability support worker but since COVID-19 I am more flexible and willing to be in new situations. I feel even more inspired to provide the best support to the people in my care. I’ve appreciated the value of time and the opportunity to read and to educate myself. This is something that I’ve integrated more fully into my daily creative work practice. I’ve embraced technology more as a means to communicate as I stay in touch with family who unfortunately I don’t have the opportunity to see in person.

Wai Mun: Back to brighter topics. What was the most exciting thing for you about working on #41, and working with GDS again?

Mandy Ord: It was so nice to be asked to be a contributor. It’s always wonderful to have opportunities to publish and meet new readers. I was excited about the AR aspect of the content and new ways of accessing stories. I’ve published work with GDS over the years and at one point was guest editor for a comics edition so I already felt very connected. It’s been lovely to meet the friendly and enthusiastic GDS team.

Wai Mun: Pitch time: describe your piece in 41 words.

Mandy Ord: The best ideas can come on foot. The pace of walking fits well with the unraveling of thought. Humans keep their law abiding distance under the watchful eye of magpies. Masks spray spit and packets of lollies are worth fighting for.

Wai Mun: And if you were to describe your piece if it was a warning sign?

Mandy Ord: Say it don’t spray it.

Going Down Swinging’s 41st edition launches on 22 January. Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to stay tuned.