**this is another very late post up of an interview – i think this has sat around for nigh on 8 months – so, please do bear that in mind when reading?**
When we talk about scenes we often talk about those creators working within a group, style or friendship circle. Rarely are activists who buoy up those scenes referred to or approached. Yet, as often as not, it is these individuals who make a scene vital. Not just because of their financial or social support, but because they organise and raise awareness, sometimes even being the creators of the support network that bring the scene together. Sometimes, arriving on their radar is something of a badge of approval.
Some of these people are purely activists, some are also creators themselves, and that’s what we have here with Sarah Harris. A creator who is also one the heroes of a scene, in this case UK small press comics and sometimes zines. This interview was done long while ago and I’ve been very slow in organising myself to get it live – so in the meantime, Sarah has since contributed to the comics anthology The Whore Chronicles, as organised by Anthony Esmond.
In this, I was particularly interested in how a fan moves into the role of a scene activist and sometime organiser. I think this is a fascinating interview, not just because of the insight into small, fan led occasions, but because Sarah is such an engaging person to talk to.
ZL – Hi Sarah, let’s start with the obvious question, can you tell us a bit about yourself please?
SH – I’m Sarah Harris, and in the grand scheme of comicky things I’m nobody remotely important. I’m just someone who has loved comic books for a number of decades, buys thousands of the little buggers (for other women it’s shoes and handbags, for me it’s paper pamphlets), and even reads about half of them…
ZL – What’s your history with comics?
SH – Like a lot of people of my age, it’s hard to remember a time before comics were a part of my life, as, in the *ahem* 70s when I was a nipper, ALL kids read comics. We literally had no other entertainment 😊 There were like 2 TV channels or something, not that my parents let me watch either of them, or there was tree climbing – and that’s no fun on a rainy day. So, I read real books when I wanted to feel intellectual, and comics when I wanted to be entertained – they were my equivalent of cartoons or computer games for young ‘uns nowadays, I guess.
Generally, though, I wasn’t following any specific comic from week to week until 2000AD which was the first one I had a proper newsagent subscription for. Before that I’d just spend my pocket money on spec on whatever looked good that week. I was lucky enough to get 2000AD from the very first issue at the age of 9 due to 1) a cool TV advert that said that the launch issue came with a free frisbee! (comics didn’t generally have free gifts back then and dear god I wanted that piece of round throwable plastic!) and 2) my dad being a huuuuuge science fiction fan who had given up on having a son to pass his passion down to – he saw an opportunity here to get me hooked on Heinlein and Wyndham and Van Vogt and Phil K Dick and Asimov and Aldiss and Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke, and it totally worked.
2000AD and, while it lasted, the wonderful British girls’ horror comic Misty, were my weekly obsession until the mid-80’s, when I moved away from home to work my gap year before university, and for the first time discovered that there were actual comic shops! Until then I thought they only came from newsagents, because I’m a twit.
Those shops were the original Denmark Street Forbidden Planet and a shop in Nottingham that might have been called Strange Tales (my gap year job was with IBM and I moved around between their London, Warwick and Nottingham offices) – and they blew my tiny miiiiiind. I was aware of American comics before this point, obviously, but I thought they were just all superheroes, which I had absolutely zero interest in (I blame Pat Mills for that 😊 2000AD was very snooty towards capes and spandex). But at Forbidden Planet and that Nottingham shop I discovered Swamp Thing! and Elektra Assassin! And Watchmen! I mean yes, they are all kind of still superheroes 😊 But they were more, I dunno, “edgy” 😊 and the art was amazing (and in some cases painted, which really sung to me). I was hooked…
I never looked back from that point, soon after came the time of Sandman and Vertigo, spooky narratives and lots of gorgeous painted and collaged artwork, and I was totally in my element. Horror, supernatural and sci-fi stories have been my lifelong sweet spot ever since.
ZL – What was it that made you start COLLECTING comics rather than just reading them
SH – Hmmmm… good question. I don’t think that I realised I was collecting at first. In the 90’s we had the big speculation boom with all the foil covers and variants and craziness – but that was mainly happening at the more testosterone-fuelled end of the superhero market, especially with the launch of Image – and that wasn’t ever my thing. All a bit too macho for me, all those muscles and pouches 😀
So, I figured that I was a reader but those “other people” were collectors.
Of course, by the time we got to the new millennium I had a converted garage full floor to ceiling with long boxes, containing many thousands of comics I’d not even got around to reading yet, and I couldn’t really deny any more that I was a collector (today I’d say hoarder 😊 ) – but it definitely crept up on me…
I carelessly lost all of that original collection (long sad story, sob! I could have retired on it!!) in the early 2000’s and for years I resisted getting back into comic collecting as it had hurt too much to say goodbye to them. I didn’t set foot in a comic shop again until around 2012, but from then it was a very slippery slope, and here I am again with a room full of boxes. This time around I’ve even started going back to the silver and bronze age and buying back issues of all those classic superhero comics I turned my nose up at for so many years. Turns out they are pretty good! Who knew???!!
ZL – When and why did you moved from collecting into FANDOM?
SH – To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know what “fandom” means. It’s a relatively recent term, I think, I can’t remember hearing it before a few years back, and I tend to associate it with big groups of people who rabidly support a TV show and get all arsey and defensive about it on twitter.
I don’t think I’m like that. Except maybe a bit with the Battlestar Galactica reboot (best show ever!!!!! If you don’t agree, fight me!!!)
I came late to conventions. I did go to lots of signings in the 80’s/90’s (mainly at Forbidden Planet in London and Nostalgia & Comics in Birmingham) – but I never went to a UKCAC or anything like that. A lot of the guests were from the “superhero” side of things that, as we’ve already established, I stupidly thought I was too good for 😊 and I didn’t have any comic book reading pals to go with – everyone else I knew had grown out of them like you were supposed to and got into alcohol or drugs instead.
My first proper convention was LSCC (London Super Comic Convention) 2013, I think. I wasn’t really overly fussed about it in advance, I went as company for a non-comic-reading illustrator pal who wanted to see Artists Alley, not really knowing what to expect, and I had a blast! After that I went to quite a few, especially enjoying the more grass roots comic shows like True Believers (which is local to me and I haven’t missed one since they started).
My kids were young at that point and I had nobody to look after them while I went gallivanting, and they had no interest in comics (heathens), so if I wanted to go to a con for the day, I had to somehow get them interested enough to want to come with me. The route to that was cosplay – they really enjoyed the dressing up, and I got to buy comics while they did so. As a bonus, I discovered I was quite good at making their costumes and it was a fun hobby for a while (they have since outgrown it and I now just go to cons on my own, and no longer have to build armour for the privilege :D)
ZL – What differences do you see in the comic world since you first got involved, for example, how do you feel about getting closer access to creators through social media?
SH – I don’t know that I’m best placed to answer this one – as I don’t think I am really that closely involved in the “comic world” now, and I certainly wasn’t back in the day. I just read ‘em 😊
The question about how much I’m influenced by creators’ views and opinions and actions now is an interesting one though – the whole “can you separate the creator from the art”. I think I am pretty good at that. I don’t think that someone needs to be a wonderful person for me to enjoy their art or their writing. If you start going down that road, there are very few great pieces of music or classic works of literature that you couldn’t pick holes in. I think that’s a generational thing, more than anything. I think we old gits just got used to the fact that the people who created the art we liked weren’t always nice people! There are limits, obviously, but if it is just a case of someone being a bit of an arse on twitter, or not lining neatly up with my own politics, then I don’t care. If they make good comics, I’ll still read them.
ZL – What got you involved with the small press?
SH – All credit/blame here goes to the Awesome Comics Podcast – episode #8 (I think), 3 years or so ago. I had seen small press creators at their tables at various cons, but I had never had the courage to actually stop and look at any of the comics, figuring that I would be given the hard sell and end up buying a load of naff homemade comics that I didn’t want (sorry guys!!).
It was the week before Melksham comic con and the organisers had put a link to the podcast on their facebook page, as the ACP guys had done a kind of preview rundown of what was going to be at the con. I downloaded it for a listen in the car – mainly to see if they mentioned anything I could use to get the kids enthused – and they had Shaun Dobie on as a guest talking about his comic Descending Outlands. It was due to have a new issue launched at the con, and it sounded right up my street (I’m a sci fi girl, as previously discussed), and I decided to pick up a copy. Already knowing that the comic sounded good removed my fear of being hard sold something I didn’t want and gave me the guts to approach the table…. dressed as Rocket Raccoon 😊
From then on – having discovered that some small press comics are actually very good!! – I sought out reviews and recommendations from the Awesome chaps and other sources and have bought a TON of small press comics since. I still mainly buy mainstream comics, but small press is definitely a big part of my reading repertoire now.
Also, everyone is so damn friendly! I’ve made a load of new friends in the small press crowd, which was a real unexpected bonus side effect, after being a total loner in my comic reading hobby for the vast majority of my life.
ZL – What was the tipping point into organising a small press day at your local comic shop?
SH – I think I just wanted to contribute in some way. Suddenly I had this great new circle of friends who all make comics. I didn’t have any urge to make my own (which they all thought was weird 😊 ), but I wanted to join in or help somehow…
At the same time, my LCS (Incredible Comic Shop in Swindon, Wiltshire) moved to a much larger premises, and didn’t really have enough stock to fill it all. I asked if they would consider stocking some small press and they said yes, as long as I did all the work and they didn’t have to pay for anything 😊 So they gave me a couple of shelves, and I asked a few creators I knew to come along for a signing event to launch the new “department”. We had 5 tables, so it was like the world’s smallest convention, but it went down really well with the shop customers, and everyone had good sales – both the creators who were there – and those I had stocked on my small press shelves.
ZL – What made you think it was worth doing a second time?
SH – The fact it went down so well the first time, I guess.
To date I’ve organised two small press signings at the shop with multiple creators (5 or 6 tables), and a couple of individual events for more mainstream artists. The first small press event was the best attended of the four. Unfortunately, as time went on, I think that the novelty of small press product and signings wore off for the shop and its customer base, and it is now very difficult to shift independent product there.
ZL – What support did you get when setting up the initial event and how did that change over time?
SH – There was definitely more enthusiasm at the start from the shop themselves – for the first event they printed leaflets and posters, and paid for online advertising, and most importantly, when customers came in store in the weeks before the event they were keen to tell everyone about it.
It made a difference when the shop was pushing hard on local promotion. Mainly they used flyers, (in store, but I also put them in the local library, on noticeboards etc), posters and locally targeted paid facebook ads. I also put links to the events on local community facebook groups, although I’m not sure how much good they did.
I did try to get the local newspaper to show an interest too, but they were spectacularly disinterested.😊
By the second/third event that support had all but gone, sadly, but perhaps that was down to me not cheerleading strongly enough. Also – at first, probably due to the novelty of it, the actual small press product was really moving off the shelves, so that was clearly a plus point for the shop, cash going through the tills… but the shop’s customers very quickly moved back to their Marvel/DC heartland and sadly it was difficult to keep their interest up in the indie stuff. To the extent that the last couple of events were so poorly attended that I was genuinely embarrassed. I felt so bad for the creators turning up to a field of tumbleweed, and that (combined with some health issues) has put me off doing any events this year. I am not writing them off completely forever, though.
It is even hard to sell Image / IDW / Dark Horse etc books to that crowd! These aren’t generally people who go to comic cons at all, so there was no “brand recognition” for any of the small press stuff. If it isn’t Marvel/DC IP it is a very hard sell. Therefore I can’t really blame the shop for moving their promotional muscle back behind things that are more likely to generate them actual funds.
Other people – such as the Awesome Comics Podcast, and Stuart over at True Believers – were great at both publicising and attending my little events, because they are heroes – but the podcast in particular covers the whole country, and it’s not easy persuading people to come to Swindon for the day! 😀
ZL – You mention the idea of ‘brand recognition’ and the difficulty in maintaining an interest from customers in small press creations. I’m wondering how much, you think, considering the fact that these comics can be 24 pages in length and take sometimes a year between issues and are often created in thanx to Kickstarter backers, how much do you think that robs them of a chance to sell well?
SH – It is difficult to maintain interest yes, I found it easier to sell one off comics or ones where there were already a few issues out, so they could buy up a set at once.
A few customers at the Swindon shop tried to put some of the small press stuff on their pull lists and were told that they didn’t really work that way as not diamond distributed plus it could be a long wait. They weren’t too impressed! They are used to monthly or fortnightly titles.
ZL – That’s an interesting consideration, with the environment you’re trying to sell in – these are comic shop buyers so they’re likely to be people who want regular publications to deliver regular updates and that’s likely to be an important sales point. Do you think that comic shops are a good place to sell these sorts of semi-annual comics creations?
SH – It’s definitely a different world for those used to having a pull list of regular ongoing comics. They like one offs or already complete collections best…
But in general, at least in a comic shop, you have a captive audience of people who actually already love and read comics… but who very rarely go to comic cons or have any other exposure to small press stuff. Most in our shop didn’t know the small press existed until we introduced them to it! So, yes, I think it is a good place to sell small press IF you can keep the momentum and interest up.
Some customers weren’t interested and considered the small press stuff to be inferior in some way to their big 2 faves, but most were enthusiastic, at least at the start.
ZL – Just to loop back on something you said, there’s a point I want to pick apart a little more about advertising and expanding the audience for buying comics and particularly the issue of expanding that reach beyond the normal ‘monthlies’ crowd. It seems to me that, in general, comics is very much concerned with talking to comics people and we’re very locked into that closed circle of ‘collecting’. I think local advertising of an event can be an opportunity to open things up and I wondered if you felt the same, because there’s a dynamic here that I’m seeing, in terms of, with the flyers in store and with the facebook advertising, it’s still talking to the converted. Whereas, I’d say, you attempted to get the information out to a wider public. Had you considered that dichotomy before, was that why you were trying new places to drum up interest?
SH – Hmmm. Tricky question, and I don’t know all the answers. The best results we got for attendance at events were when the shop did targeted facebook advertising in the local area (so not just to the people who follow their page, they targeted anyone interested in comics within a 30-mile radius) and also when they printed flyers (which I distributed all over!) and posters. When they stopped doing this the attendance fell off significantly, but that was probably also down to natural attrition.
The creators themselves pushing the events and the fact that the shop carries their books, also helps a lot. Some are a lot better at that than others.
Whether we can get people into the shop who aren’t already interested in comics at all is the big question. It is possible that some of the small press titles might appeal to them more than the pro comics especially if superheroes aren’t their thing. The shop is very Marvel/DC heavy though, so that might put them off.
I actually found that the small press comics that were a little more arty or different sold a lot better at the shop than more trad superhero style stories. I think for the fans of more traditional types of comic stories, they would rather buy their usual pro titles and didn’t think the small press alternatives looked up to their standards. Whereas for an artsy autobiography comic, for example, Marvel and DC don’t really have an alternative offering for that.
With hindsight, I should have bought more of that alternative kind of stuff in and less of the traditional stuff. But I thought I would need lots of “normal” comics to transition my “normal” customers!
You live and learn…
ZL – OK, but I’d still say that most of that advertising was going to the ‘converted’ though.
SH – Ah. I didn’t explain myself properly. By facebook advertising I meant the shop originally paid extra to promote to local people but outside of their own page followers. You can serve an advert to everyone within 30 miles of Swindon who likes comics, conventions, etc. That was what worked really well.
For the later events they stopped doing that and only posted on their own page (the captive audience, as you say).
Ditto with the flyers, I took those all over the place, local conventions, other shops, the library, the local market etc. Anywhere I could get the word out. But then for subsequent events they didn’t print any flyers.
So yeah basically, when they advertised beyond the existing shop base, it worked. But that costs money and they clearly didn’t think they saw enough return from the first one to justify that expense again. (I think they are wrong about that, they made plenty on their margin on the small press stuff alone, and I know that some of our event visitors bought standard shop stock while they were there too…)
ZL – Ah – you did answer clearly, I think I was not clear enough!
I was thinking that the advertising, the flyers in the shop and even the facebook ad, they would be to people ALREADY interested in COMICS, rather than just general PEOPLE, the expanded audience I was thinking of. That’s what was interesting – only you tried something that took it to PEOPLE and not COMICS interested. You put it out on community message boards, went to the library, stretched to reach a different audience. I just wonder if that had continued where it would have gone. Maybe I’m deluding myself, I’m good at that! I seem to think that there must be better ways to get comics in front of people than we currently have.
Here I’m thinking about a little rant I had on twitter a while back, where I questioned whether graphic novels or comic magazines are actually likely to expand comics readership. I also question whether these individual, slow running comics are best served by being published individually on a slow timescale and whether something more on the model of 2000AD might not serve them better? Maybe even a group website along the lines of something like Aces Weekly or Study Group where brand and content can be regularly pushed, a wider base can build momentum? Maybe even advertising used to monetise the work?
I guess that’s a lot to ask you, so maybe a fairer question would be, how likely would you be to sign up to something like that – an anthology with regularly changing strips, either online or physical, or a combination, where the content gets packaged up at the end of a storyline, much like 2000AD monthly?
SH – I guess the Comichaus anthology is along those lines. That came out regularly every month and was pretty good. And, also the Dirty Rotten Comics anthology was similar in format. Not sure if either are still going though. Anthologies are often a tough-ish sell in my experience as people flick through and judge it by the weakest looking story in the book. Trick is not to have any weak stories!
ZL – How does it feel to have stopped?
SH – Let’s say “paused” not stopped – never say never 😊 Another interesting question. To be honest, I totally feel like I failed. I should have worked harder at keeping the customer base interested in small press, written weekly reviews for the shop website, rotated the stock more often, been in store more often to hands-on sell stuff… But there was a limit to how much time I could devote to what felt like a losing battle, week in week out. And stock wise – I had already spent a hell of a lot of my own money buying comics upfront that are still sat there a couple of years down the line, stubbornly refusing to sell – and it gets to the point where you have to draw a line…
It was an experiment, to see if I could get the locals excited about small press enough to sustain a section of the shop, without it being any work or expense for the store owners – and it looked for a minute like it might work… but in the end, I failed.
That doesn’t take away from the success of the first two events though – they were a lot of fun, and lucrative for the attending creators, and I’m proud to have – at least temporarily – expanded a few Wiltshire comic readers’ horizons.
ZL – On a final note, you mentioned earlier that your comic friends think you mad because you’re not trying to make your own comics. I find that interesting, because I know you’ve made your own books before (I’ve added images throughout the interview), and some of those are pretty comic like to me. Also, I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that you’re working on a short comic story, but I can’t find where I saw that, so maybe I’m just back to deluding myself again?
SH – Yeah. I’m slowly dipping my toes in with a short 5 pager I’m doing for an upcoming anthology that I can’t talk about yet and before that I did a cover for Sliced Quarterly, so I seem to be getting involved!
(EDIT – This was a strip that appeared in The Whore Chronicles co-ordinated by Anthony Esmond)