LOCAL PROFILE: Jess Brown – Illustrator, Damsels Don’t Wear Glasses

Words and photos by Bianca Pirvuneanu

Born, bred, schooled, and fed in Erdington, Jess Brown is the fantastic mind behind the Damsels Don’t Wear Glasses website, as series of online graphic novels and digital comics with dark humour and kick ass protagonists.

Recently exhibiting her work at the Love Erdington Festival, as curated by Arts All Over the Place, Jess’s dark imaginings and strong characters were a bit hit throughout the weeklong showcase. Erdington Local caught up with Jess to learn more about her inspirations and ambitions.

You grew up in Erdington, going to school here – were you creative in the classroom too?

“I went to Yenton Primary School. From what I remember I didn’t do too well at a lot of classes, but I did manage to excel at things like art and poetry (even if my spelling was extremely bad).” 

What inspired you to get into illustration, and what were your first creations like?

“Honestly, I wanted to become a writer. I’ve always wanted to tell stories, but in a more visual way than just the written word. I love comics, animation, and games a lot. So drawing was always a way to convey the stories I wanted to tell.

“My first creations live in a long forgotten sketch book somewhere. I’d like to say they were baby’s first masterpieces, but honesty…? Probably a lot of Sailor Moon tracing.” 

Your stories are very evolved, with a ‘cast’ of characters living in their own new worlds; where did the inspiration for these come from?

“From my childhood, which consisted of a lot of VHS tapes (Disney, straight to home video animated movies), video games (J RPGs, Action Adventure games) and other comics (a lot of manga).

“I’d like to say I did a lot of reading as a kid to, but I didn’t. Though there are a number of authors that did inspire me in my teen and adult life – Terry Pratchett.

“I’ve always liked mix genres like urban fantasy, or horror sci-fi, stuff that’s hard to pin down but gives you a lot of creative room to explore stuff outside of general story conventions.

“I think a lot of creative people who ‘world build’ do it to explore things that don’t get explored in the stories they liked (or maybe stories they didn’t like). Especially when it comes to characters, at least that’s what got me started. Wanting to tell the story you’d want to read is cliché, but true.”

On your social media you talk about your ADHD, calling ‘your brain like soap that refuses to be gripped’. Is your artwork important to your health and wellbeing?

“Yes, I would say, art is important for me to stay in focused because ADHD makes me hard to keep focus at one thing in a time and it helps set a routine for me.

“It can be hard to start into something, like normal people can just stand up and say, ‘OK I’m going to do this right now,’ and for some reasons my brain is like ‘no you can’t do that.’ I do something for like 10 minutes and then I stop and then I do it again for 20 minutes or an hour and is important to taking many breaks for recharge.”

You mentioned you are working on a children’s story; can you tell us any more about that?

Ah yeah, it’s my next project. Working title is Knight’s Folly. It’s about a little girl who enters an enchanted forest to become a witch, with the help of a monstrous looking knight. It’s going to be aimed at kids and young adults.

“I’m a little hesitant to describe the story as traditional fantasy, but movies like The Dark Crystal and The Never Ending Story are big inspirations. It’s still bare bones at present but I’m developing the script and am hoping to maybe get it professionally published.”

You also mentioned you write narratives for phone games; can you tell us any more about that? 

“Not much to tell really, my job title is usually ‘Narrative Writer’ or ‘Narrative Director’. My role tends to be writing the stories and creating character scenarios for the games I’m brought in on.

“My last job involved writing a choose-your-own-adventure style narrative using a new app. There’s also the general writing that goes into some of these games, like item descriptions and so on. Someone’s got to write all those little blurbs, right? That’s usually me.”  

Where would you like your artwork to take you next?

“I want to be financially secure; and I am thinking of trying to do some 3D modelling, as a hobby.”

For more on Jess Brown and a full online archive of her graphic novels and comic visit www.damsels-dont-wear-glasses.com

INTERVIEW: Terry Guest – Erdington BID & Town Centre Manager

Words & pics by Ed King

“The main plan and priority have to be now… increased security, we have to emphasise to the police and the Council the importance of providing the necessary security for this High Street and the support for our Warden.”

On Friday 12 November the future of the Erdington Business Improvement District (Erdington BID) will be known, as voting to renew the organisation finishes on Thursday this week.

Over the past month, local shop owners and businesses have been casting paper ballots ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – a vote which if successfully passed will see the Erdington BID in place for another half decade.

Each business that falls within the catchment area – which stretches from Six Ways to Edwards Road, including all shops on Erdington High Street and Sutton New Road – pays 1.75% of their rateable value to finance the BID, which stands as ‘a partnership between the business community and other local stakeholders… helping to sustain Erdington as a vibrant urban village.’

Initially voted in by local businesses in 2007, Erdington BID’s current five year term is set to expire in July 2022.

Terry Guest has been Erdington BID & Town Centre Manager since assuming the roll in 2011. He explained the organisation’s responsibilities:

“It’s twofold these days. One of the things that the BID has always done is put the basics in place – such as security, the Christmas lights, hanging baskets.

“But the BID has also done its own projects, such as the garden area we created next to the library – that was a project that proved very popular.

“One of the things I’m keen to do is to expand that green aspect of the High Street… so that anyone there can actually sit down and relax and have something of a more pleasant view than just concrete.

“There’s that sort of basic thing. But the other side of it now is that the BID has become more of a voice – a voice with the Government and a voice with the Council. And we need that now more than ever.”

Erdington High Street has recently seen applications rejected for two multi-million pounds pots of Government investment, missing out on the Levelling Up Fund in October and the Future High Street Fund back in January.

If successful, each application would have seen over £50m pumped into the High Street from the private and public sector.

Terry added: “We’ve been behind both the Levelling Up Fund and Future High Streets Fund applications, which have failed so far – but we’re not stopping at that. In the future, what the BID is evolving into, and has been for some time, is to be a voice with the Government and the Council.

“Which is important, because we know that both governments and councils recognise BIDs – and that’s becoming a larger part of it, where we have to make our voice be heard and get the best deal for businesses.”

But the fate of the Erdington BID still hangs in the balance, as local businesses ultimately vote and pay for the organisation’s next five years – a levy of around £116,000 per annum. And as in any election there are mandates and manifestos.

“One is policing,” explained Terry. “We’ve been involved very heavily in getting a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) put in place for the High Street – which, when we’ve got that in, allow us, allows anyone, to contact the police to remove anyone who is causing anti-social behaviour. Drug deals, minor crime, and so on.

“We’ve seen since 2018, when the last PSPO was cancelled, that really the aspect of working with the police is incredibly important. As it is with the Council, such as the state of the roads and pavements, the fly tipping and so on – a big portion of my job (as Town Centre Manager) these days is walking up and down the High Street taking photos of rubbish, then reporting it to the Council.”

Fly tipping and anti-social behaviour are problems raised by people across the constituency. But what can the Erdington BID do to tackle these issues on the High Street?

“What I think the BID has done… and I had evidence about this in an email from Birmingham City Council this morning about the PSPO, is that the BID has been very active in raising these issues and perhaps now getting some results.

“We’ve had a few incidents on the High Street recently which has caused me to react to the slowness of the police and Council to act in this (reinstating the PSPO).

“We are now at the stage where the Council have issued a press release and a notice of public consultation about the PSPO

“So, we’re at that stage, we will go into a public consultation about this. Not quick enough for me, whenever it is.

“I pressed the councillors about this, and I was told it could be pushed towards the end of the year.

“The original promise, by the Council earlier in the year, is that this would be done and dusted by the 30 September. To me it’s three years too late, not three months too late.”

But Erdington BID does more than tackle crime and disorder on the High Street, as the organisation allots £20000 per annum to ‘marketing, events, and promotion’ – including the long standing Christmas lights switch on.

“What we’ve also taken to doing in the last few years is sponsoring other people’s events,” explained Terry.

“So, when Oikos Café have a street event we’ve sponsored that in the past. When St Barnabas Church have their village fayre in the middle of the summer – before lockdown – we sponsored that as well. So, there’s number of ways we can promote ourselves.

“This year we’re not going to have a Christmas lights switch on… I would have had to order the lights a few months ago, when our futures were all in doubt; we didn’t know if we were going to get another lockdown so we had to abandon that.

“But there is a proviso in the business plan that if we have money somewhere that we can’t spend, then we’ll put it somewhere else.

“For instance, it’s about time we had some new litter bins on the High Street – we could perhaps finance that if we haven’t got the event money (for the Christmas lights switch on).”

But the main priority for the Erdington BID, if re-elected this week, remains a firm hand on crime and disorder – seeing anti-social behaviour on the High Street as a systemic problem.

“The main plan and priority have to be now… increased security, we have to emphasise to the police and the Council the importance of providing the necessary security for this High Street and the support for our Warden.

“The ideal is that we want daily police patrols back on the High Street and our Warden in support of those, rather than him being so proactive.

“I’m keen to get the High Street looking greener than it is; I’m keen to get more awareness of the High Steet out to the shoppers.

“But the shoppers need to feel it’s a safe place to walk up and down, or a safe place to sit on a bench and have a cup of coffee and enjoy the scenery.”

For more on the Erdington Business Improvement District visit www.erdingtonhighstreet.co.uk