When illustrator Will Sweeney was a boy, he liked to visit the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Its Victorian collection of archaeological and ethnographic objects made a great impression on young Sweeney. ‘I loved the shrunken heads, the armour and swords,’ he reminisces. ‘It’s kind of where I learned to draw. Whenever I was stumped for inspiration, I’d go there.’ Doctor Who, 2000AD, Tintin, Asterix, Dan Dare and Rupert the Bear also loomed large. Sweeney laughs self-consciously as he mentions these boyhood obsessions. ‘They’re really childish influences, but as an adult I’ve gone back to the books and places that I loved as a kid,’ he says.
A talented guitarist (he plays lead in a band called Zongamin) Sweeney assumed his future lay in music. ‘I took it for granted that I could draw because my dad [Chris Orr] is an artist. I was a little bit over-confident,’ he smiles. ‘Then I went on a really tough foundation course and had the wind completely knocked out of my sails. At Liverpool University I kind of regained confidence slowly, then I went to the Royal College of Art and had it taken away again. It comes back and forth now.’ Graduating in 1998, he waited tables until editorial work began trickling in.
Working from his east London home, he enjoys immersing readers in complex, fantastical worlds. Culturally diverse, his imaginative drawings are dense with typically Sweeney-esque references and preoccupations. Asked about influences, he mentions European animation, sci-fi, psychedelia, horror, The Cramps, Monty Python, Moebius, Paper Rad, Charles Burns, National Geographic. ‘For me, that’s the fun of being an illustrator,’ he explains. ‘It’s about content and detail, taking all these different reference points and collating the material into a world that’s really vivid.’
Detailed, epic crowd scenes are something of a speciality. ‘I suppose I have more confidence in an image if I know that there’s a lot to read into it,’ he admits. He claims to find these images easy, but it’s sweated labour. One full-bleed spread, drawn for his comic Tales from Greenfuzz 1: Kebabylon!, took him a fortnight to complete. Published by Amos Novelties, Greenfuzz tells the tale of a living sandwich, Slingsby, whose girlfriend is kidnapped by a villainous hot-dog man called Helmut, and his sidekicks The Kebab Twins. ‘Food has always been a good subject for surrealists,’ he says of this edible world. ‘It’s a good device to make an alternative universe from,’ he adds. ‘I like being absorbed, and with Greenfuzz that was the aim, to draw a really rich, absorbing world.’
Sweeney intends to publish six instalments of Greenfuzz. With another four still to go, he admits finding the balance between personal and commercial work frustrating. Commercially, he’s been lucky to work with adventurous clients, among them fashion label Silas & Maria, for which he has designed T-shirts, posters, catalogues and large-scale store art. He also works with labels such as Stussy and Gimme Five. Other clients include Microsoft, Volkswagen and Virgin Mobile, and his illustrations have featured in magazines such as Sleazenation, The Face and Dazed & Confused. His imagery appears on the cover of Beck’s latest album, The Information, and his drawings have also been brought to life, in a video for musician Stephen Malkmus. And through Amos Novelties, Sweeney has developed vinyl figures based on his Greenfuzz characters.
He and wife Ayako Terashima recently launched T-shirt label Alakazam, and various illustrators have been invited to create imagery for the label. ‘It’s a bit of an experiment, seeing if we can do something that’s purely visual,’ he explains. ‘We’re planning to sell prints on-line, do parties, possibly create accessories and jewellery. We just want to make an interesting concept out of the whole label.’
Together with ongoing commissions from Der Spiegel, and a comic strip and cover to design for comic art book Kramer’s Ergot, it’s fair to say that Sweeney has got his hands full. He’d like to experiment with film, and is particularly taken with the idea of a computer game version of Greenfuzz. For the moment though, the 2D world of comics and books keeps Sweeney busy. One long-standing ambition remains: he’d love to draw for children’s books. ‘As a kid I really enjoyed the way that they ate wild boar in Asterix books. I remember getting really hungry when I saw those scenes – that level of detail, where you get completely immersed – I’d love to have that effect on people.’