It’s possible you haven’t met James Albon yet. He’s a Scottish writer and illustrator who now lives in Lyon in France and works for clients as varied as the Folio Society, the Wall Street Journal and WIRED. His latest venture is a graphic novel. His first. Her Bark and Her Bite is a gorgeous thing. A comedy set in a brittle, self-regarding bohemia featuring wannabe artists and a pug in sunglasses called Princess, it’s notable for the confidence and expressiveness of Albon’s graphic line and a sly humour.

If nothing else, Albon has a real eye for spatial awareness. He guides the reader and his characters around the page with real panache.

Here, James tells us about the challenge of the graphic novel form, arty hedonism and the one alcoholic product he won’t drink.

OK. Let’s begin with some introductions? Who is James Albon? Where is he from? Where does he live? What colours are his socks? What’s his alcoholic drink of choice? How did he become the man he is today?

Who is the real James Albon? The question on everyone's lips. As an infant, I was found in a basket on the banks of the upper Volga. I was raised by wolves in the nearby mountains. After learning the ways of the forest, I took my first tentative steps into the fringes of civilised society, which is to say: I studied illustration at Edinburgh College of Art. Turns out, I took to civilised society quite well, and took to illustrating extremely well - I can't imagine doing anything else with my life. I lived in Edinburgh for several years after that, then spent a year in Hong Kong, and then got a scholarship for the Royal Drawing School in London, which is where I started working on Her Bark & Her Bite. 

I had, in some ways, an excellent time at the Royal Drawing School, but in some ways it was a frustrating time – compounded by the fact that I couldn't stand living in London. So the moment I graduated, I packed my bags and moved to Lyon, France. This brings us to the next question (the colour of my socks will remain a secret); my alcoholic drink of choice seems to be wine, because I drink huge amounts of it here, and it's extremely cheap. 

As anyone reading HB&HB will guess, the book comes from a background of riotous parties. I will drink pretty much anything except Unicum, a disgusting Hungarian spirit that tastes like cleaning products. 

Why did you decide to work on a graphic novel?

I'd spent a year living in Hong Kong, and then moved to London, and felt both excited and overwhelmed by these huge cities and everything they had to offer. My experience was essentially that of the protagonist of the book, Rebecca: a battle of arriving in a big city and wanting to go to these really hedonistic parties, which is exhilarating but also overwhelming, especially when she's come with intention of making it as an artist, and needing to work.

As for why I told the story with a graphic novel: I've always loved writing and drawing, and graphic novels seem to me to be the most natural way in the world for the two to come together – an opportunity to write about these colourful, ridiculous parties, and to draw big, exciting scenes to bring the story to life. 

The Herald:

The other side to this is that I started to work on it towards the end of my time in the Royal Drawing School, which is quite a traditional school, where to an extent students are encouraged to follow in the footsteps of great and extremely serious British artists (Francis Bacon, Leon Kossof, Frank Auerbach, etc). It's a tradition that I couldn't fit myself into! But it helped a lot – both because it really improved my technical skills and because reacting against these fine art traditions made me realise how important it was to write something comedic and silly. It helped push me to make the graphic novel as good as it could be. It made me take being frivolous extremely seriously!

For me the biggest challenge in graphic novels is finding balance. On the one hand, especially at the start of the process, I find myself overflowing with ideas for characters and situations and images, which is incredibly fun. But on the other hand, I have to be fairly disciplined in making the story clearly structured, in keeping the ideas legible, in being ruthless in what gets kept and what gets cut out – and that's a fascinating part of the process in itself. It's a question of finding my own line between writing and drawing something wild and exciting, but also lucid and inviting for readers. 

Here at Graphic Content we particularly love the way you manoeuvre your characters around and about pages and spreads. Was that the most fun aspect of the book for you?

It's true, I do take particular joy in drawing the page layouts. I learnt a lot not only from other graphic novels, but from seeing how people approach similar challenges in other visual media: I take a lot of inspiration from classical paintings, which have really richly detailed and complex composition (the likes of Bruegel, Rubens, Tiepolo), and also from cinema, because of the way that narrative is told there through a series of shots of specific size.

The really interesting challenge for me is to look at a blank double-page spread and say: "What can I do here?" The go-to method for graphic novels is often to divide your page into a dozen panels of regular size, and put a character and speech bubble in each (I call these “talking heads panels” – not a technical term). This is a really efficient way to put across dialogue and straightforward narrative, but for me it's the least exciting way to draw. I'd much rather have one enormous composition across both pages full of characters running wild!

I call these “pride pages”, by the way. Again, not at all a technical term. Once more, it's a question of balance: I want to keep every double page spread looking fresh and exciting, I want to keep the reader inquisitive. But, of course, I want to tell a story and not get lost in the hubris of endless large compositions! 

The Herald:

James. Be honest. Are you telling us that the art world is a shallow and vain arena best suited to egos running wild?

Hands up! You got me!

Well, yes and no. There are two worlds in Her Bark & Her Bite, a dilemma which I think a lot of artists and creative people will recognise. On the one hand there's "the art world", vibrant parties, exhibition openings, people showing off, wearing amazing clothes, listening to cool music and saying things like: "Oh it's this really great band but you've probably never heard of them" – a world where Victor is king! But on the other hand there's the world of Rebecca, our protagonist, tucked away in her little studio, wearing overalls covered in oil paint, and just sitting down and working. While they're both nominally "the world of art", they're vastly different experiences. Rebecca's main dilemma is between the need to work and to concentrate, versus the desire to join the party.

At the same time, I don't at all want to write a moralistic, Calvinist book that says: "Beware the devils of hedonism, get back into your studio and work!" So while, yeah, Victor's world is pretty shallow and vain, and while he never finishes any of the art projects that he dreams up, he and his friends are having a great time. Everyone deserves to go out drinking and dancing if they want to, so I wouldn't want to damn him too much. 

 I suspect you have been to a few exhibition openings in your time? Have you ever embarrassed yourself at them?

I've been to plenty of exhibition openings; and I've been on both sides – both as the artist or organiser, and as the punter coming to talk rubbish and hoover up the free wine. I've never embarrassed myself (to my memory) though I've certainly blurred the line between "all welcome" and "invite only", and probably turned up in places that I shouldn't have.

Princess is a key figure in the story. What’s your own relationship with animals?

My mother was a vet in a small practice in rural Aberdeenshire, and when I was a teenager I worked there as a receptionist at weekends and in the holidays. But when they were short-staffed I'd sometimes have to help in the surgery.

Indirectly though, my experience working in the vet practice is linked to the book, because my mum very strongly took the attitude that dogs should be "proper dogs", healthy working dogs (collies, labradors, mongrels) who should go on long walks in the countryside, and she was filled with disdain for people who had "handbag dogs" (pugs, Chihuahuas, etc – which are bred for looks and end up with horrible genetic disorders), and people who really infantilised their dogs. So in HB&HB, Victor having a pug is really evidence of his moral failings and his vacuousness. 

Are you working on anything else?

Yep! I'm working on a second graphic novel, and as a reward for reading this far, I will reveal a number of tantalising details: 

– It is much longer than Her Bark & Her Bite.

– It is more serious, and not as funny. 

– It features zero dogs. 

– It features at least one artist. 

– It will be called A Shining Beacon

– I'm about halfway through drawing the final pages, and it will hopefully be released in 2018.

Her Bark and Her Bite, by James Albon, is published by Top Shelf Productions