This is a grim zine dealing with loneliness, abuse and self-hatred. It’s handled with an extremely dark humour. It doesn’t make light reading, but it’s got a pure angry voice that’s laughing whilst making you sick. It’s a classic underground comic, gross out, and in your face, but busily dealing with life at the extreme margin of society.
The zine mixes comic pages from Cameron Zavala with photographs from Livor Mortis Zine. These photographs have been used as a springboard for the settings of the story and it’s fascinating to see the original and the drawn version in combination. Impressive how such a loose and quick looking style managed to still take these references and render them so recognisable. But more interesting is seeing how a few images can inspire the creation of a story.
I’m a huge fan of Livor Mortis Zines photos and these are great, managing to capture corruption, decay and out of time artifacts of fashions left behind, with a grimy beauty. The star of this zine is Cameron Zavala’s comic story. Riffing on the images and the mood within them he takes it and runs, making a story that delves deep into cruelty, absurdity and boundary pushing extremity. It scores its points against alienation faced by those rejected from love in their lives. It digs at homophobia and the othering and criminalisation of those outcast from mainstream society.
In fair warning though, it does this with huge amounts of depraved and cruel dark humour. The kind of bitter humour that isn’t so much funny as a cry of anger. Yes, it’s out there pushing your buttons (and this could trigger abuse survivors for sure) but it wants to because it’s damn angry about the cruelty being called out.
The art and the story are ugly and in your face, are crude and bitter and scratched out and it’s horrible. But it’s got a bleak humour in its hysteria and it’s making its points against the cruelty of making people outcasts from love and hope.
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Contents copyright iestyn pettigrew, all rights reserved
I love Adam Yeater’s art. For some of his work, like Blood Desert it’s simple and cartoony and unpolished and deliberately so. That bluntness, that getting it done and not worrying about the anatomy is what’s appealing. It’s the lines and storytelling that matters.
But I love it the most when he takes that style and then just fills the space up with visual noise. He does this a bit with World of Knonx, but best of all are his big mushroom or plant paintings and images. They channel psychedelic art and that lovely scratchy line of black metal art.
This zine takes that visual noise and scratchy line and drags them through Where’s Wally to make a horror monster picture search.
I personally hate doing Where’s Wally because I get bored with looking for things, but I love just drinking in those pages and letting details surface up. This zine is so much fun to stare at and see how inventive all the character designs are or to just let the noise drown you.
A great little zine to pick up and drink in when you feel like it.
I asked Adam why we are looking for little toads and he explained his reasons to me, which I thought were fascinating, so I thought I’d share what he said with you.
“It is a tribute to the Sonoran Desert Toad. Its habitat is in my local desert region here in Tucson, Arizona.
It is going extinct from people abusing them for the DMT in its poison glands.
People dry and smoke the poison. I have seen them when it rains. I have never been on a toad trip but I heard it is very intense.
I did the comic as a tribute to these magical toads.”
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Contents copyright iestyn pettigrew, all rights reserved
Cui Shirts is an online project and zine that documents t-shirt slogans gone wrong. It’s a fun project with a big task. It’s squarely aimed at making fun of bad design, poor translation and the sometimes genuinely weird slogans on the fast fashion of Asia, but at its heart it wants to show the hollowness of that consumerism and the lie that it lets you be an individual.
Fast fashion squarely sets its stall in sass and an ‘up yours if you don’t like’ attitude, with the occasional foray into ‘positivity meme’ territory. At its heart it’s crass, trying to sell individuals the sense that mass production can make them truly an individual.
So, whilst there’s a little sense of harshness to laughing at awkward translations into a foreign language, there’s the balance of mocking such a hollow cash grab and the lying mask it wears.
Cui Shirts latest zine really pushes into that thought by adding additional commentary in the form of the life costs these slogans carry with them. You can see its aim clearly, it’s about trashing consumerism and it’s fake ‘I’ll set you free to be you’ lies and not so much about poor grammar or translation.
I also love the shiny, textured paper that the zine is printed on, it looks and feels lovely.
There have been previous issues, including my personal favourite that came hung on its own coat hanger.
Cui Shirts is a touch of class in the trashy fashion slogan market.
P.S. even the envelope is great, look at those seals!!
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Contents copyright iestyn pettigrew, all rights reserved
It’s hard to define Fraser Geesin’s humour, but it’s fun to give it a try. In all his work there’s a feel of the satire being spot on in an uncomfortable way. My favourite of his is The Cleaner where he’s doing humorous, gentle observational humour about his life. However, he’s excellent at handling farce, loves to throw in social satire and is often about pushing things to absurd extremes to make his point.
Even when he does really push it, it still doesn’t have that sense of hysteria to it that absurd humour often does, for want of a better phrase it’s not zany or wacky, in fact, even with how odd it is, it doesn’t feel odd. The best way I can describe it is that it has a hyper real sense of absurdity. You know it would never happen, but it feels only one step away from being real. I think it’s the way he mixes farce with the absurdity that keeps it feeling grounded.
Purple Hate Balloon, co-written by animator and director Laurie Rowan, is working in that vein of believably absurd, too close to the bone humour that makes you laugh and bears thinking about afterwards. It adeptly makes its points, has a good plot whilst telling funny jokes. It’s a fun read and it scores some good points.
It’s all helped with Fraser’s amazing art. A fine balance between realism and cartooning that just adds the feeling of being one step off reality. There’s a lovely rubbery realism to it that makes it good to look at and easy to understand.
This is a great little comic, like a Carry On for the angry online troll era.
I’d add in that there’s a nice one-pager from Laurie Rowan at the end. A lovely gross sight gag. Also, go and see his site as it has some very awesome animation to watch.
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Contents copyright iestyn pettigrew, all rights reserved
Gareth Hopkins is really one of the main reasons I got back into comics reading and particularly became interested in the small press and zine culture.
His comics are not comics as you think of them, they’re not linear representations of actions and events. They are stories and his stories have become more linear and less like the broken poetry you’ll find in Intercorstal Extension. His art, though, remains mercurial and abstract, sometimes colourful and explosive, with pages broken up by panel shapes and sometimes, as with Not This House, like mists of lines and spots of black where suddenly something coalesces into almost the shape you’re reading about.
Not This House continues his moves towards prose storytelling and does so with great skill. There’s a sense of really manipulating what’s happening with the images, how they almost make scenes that illustrate the words on the page, in particular page seven evokes the sense of moving through tunnels in the dark, which feels deeply fitting for the story unfolding at that point of the comic.
There’s also the sudden tonal shift that hits home so very effectively with the change in lettering style and tone of illustrations. The shift, feeling sudden and, for me, emotionally affecting.
All in all, this work picks up threads from his earlier work, such as the use of poetic repetition of key phrases, but also adds a sense of intentionalism that is skilled and assured whilst also delivering some very powerful emotional tonal shifts within the story. That Gareth can manage this with the art, the story and the lettering is impressive in an inspiring way, that he can make this work as an emotional story, with emotional heft without any of the normal props of drama shows why I find his work so inspiring.
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Contents copyright iestyn pettigrew, all rights reserved
I enjoyed this. A quick read that I think I could go back and spend some more time dealing with the bigger ideas it touches upon.
I often see these kinds of comic zines or this style labelled as experimental, but I’m not sure the label fits as well as alternative would. I feel there’s too much in the history of comics, I was immediately reminded of the cartooning on Dick Tracy as soon as I looked at this. The story approach is similarly easy to follow and parse, with its brevity seeming at points both dreamlike and histrionic, by which I mean there are strips where each line is designed to be dialogue delivering drama rather than naturalistic speech so it all seems like high drama pounding out the beats.
There are a couple of nice one pagers that amused me, such as the one below.
But there were a couple of strips that I found much more interesting, that got me actually thinking. They both deal with current society in its post-Thatcherite state, one obliquely and one more directly. Specifically ‘Disaster!’ and ‘Problem Solving’.
They’re both still short snippets, respectively four pages and one page, but together there is a personal thesis about post-Thatcherite UK society that I think bears expanding upon. It’s not so much that the thoughts are necessarily in depth in those stories but the combination of the two coming at the subject manages to make it so that we get a more rounded understanding of that thesis. It’s an interesting way to experience opinions without having to commit to reading a long heavy storyline exploring the subject.
I particularly like the approach to sci-fi in ‘Disaster’, it’s a very New Wave of Science Fiction attempt to look at matters, with a good use of ‘disaster’ as metaphor. I’d personally like to see that idea expanded as I think that world has some legs, but it doesn’t need expanding for the story to work as it is.
UKPLC also touches on current affairs in a nicely timed and confidently cartooned way. I like the visual approach and the somewhat abrupt approach to timing in the strips. Not all of the ideas work for me, either they’re a bit too pat or didn’t have that much of a new idea (‘Writing’ and ‘New Name’), but the work itself is strong and individual whilst still feeling part of a contemporary comic scene.
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Contents copyright iestyn pettigrew, all rights reserved
I think the true nature of what makes Avery Hill a truly worthy publisher comes not from the work that they publish, but from the approach that they take.
It seems to me that the two most important things to be taken from this whole interview would be these comments, “..we had a responsibility to sell as many books as possible and make some money for the creators…” and “…we put a massive amount of our time into the company and don’t take any money for that…”
It’s that approach to creator first commerce that I admire. It seems to pervade their whole ethos and, I think, informs much of their editorial aesthetic as well – people first. At the heart of what they do is the belief that people matter and so should be shown respect.
ZL – Hi and thanx for agreeing to this interview!
Having looked around, you seem to have entered your 15th year as a publishing company and it seems like a terrible year to be in business, especially the business of comics. It made me think though, did you believe you’d last 15 years when you started, do you feel like you’ve accomplished more than you ever thought you could?
RM – It’s actually 8 years that we’ve been an LTD and a couple of years of making zines before that.
I think when we started, we probably saw it going a few years and our major aim was to have a nice row of a few books on our shelf which wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for us.
To some extent that’s still the philosophy of what we do, although as we’ve taken on more overheads, we’ve had to make a few more decisions based on business reasons rather than other reasons. We didn’t have any idea that one day we’d be doing print runs in the thousands rather than in the tens and that we’d actually have books winning awards! The day that Tillie (Walden) got nominated for an Eisner for I Love This Part is still one of the most mind-blowing things to have happened.
ZL – I don’t know if you want to, but that sentence ‘…although as we’ve taken on more overheads, we’ve had to make a few more decisions based on business reasons rather than other reasons. ‘, really cries out for unpacking a bit!
It’s very open to interpretation and I’d love to dig out some detail.
With comic companies so often being so negative, I’d normally be inclined to read that as, ‘we’ve started screwing creators and shipping production out to the cheapest printer we can find’. However, in my experience, creators seem incredibly positive about working with you, both in terms of the value you add to their work and your treatment of their works as published.
So, my assumption about what you’re saying here is that the kind of projects you take on has changed rather than the treatment of creators or is it something else entirely?
RM – It’s more that we now think a lot more about how commercial a project is before we take it on. This hasn’t led us yet to do a project JUST for commercial reasons, every book we’ve put out we believe in from a creative point of view and it’s a book we’d love to read ourselves, but we’ve probably had to not pursue a few projects where we just didn’t see it making any money at all. In the past we might have gone ahead with that type of project just for artistic reasons, but we’re trying not to do that anymore. It means saying no to some books we might love to do, but in the long run it’s best for us and also for the creators.
ZL – For me, the whole idea of taking on ‘overheads’ seems damn scary! It’s sort of the difference between being in zine publishing and book publishing. Which is a loaded statement for sure.
What I mean is, for me zine publishing doesn’t require much money up front and doesn’t really expect to do more than break even or even just net back a bunch of reading through swaps. Book publishing carries the expectation of income to fund new publications, carrying back stock, selling in bulk and at discount, handling returns and all sorts of other time consuming and expensive upfront costs and gambles.
Does that seem like a fair view or am I over simplifying matters horribly!?
RM – The main thing is just not totally overstretching ourselves. We’ve so far not had to do anything financially that we couldn’t see a way of surviving if everything went wrong. We always pay invoices immediately, especially for staff and smaller businesses that we deal with and being responsible is really important in that we don’t want anyone else to hurt from mistakes we make.
Our biggest costs are always by far print costs. Reprinting something like On A Sunbeam is a massive cost. Our latest reprint of that cost £20K+, but that’s a book that will always sell and it’s just a short-term cash flow problem rather than a risk.
ZL – Do you miss the simplicity and immediacy of zine publishing. I don’t mean that as a ‘would you prefer to go back to zines’, more of a question of whether you appreciated having the opportunity to approach publishing in that manner and whether that had its own appeal and does that appeal still exist for you?
RM – I don’t really miss the zine aesthetic, I was never particularly into it. Dave might feel differently on that score as he was very much the one who produced all of those early zines that got us started and I was just a contributor for most of that. I like buying and reading zines more than I did making them. I’d encourage every creator to self-publish something at least once as it gives you a great education in the whole process of making, selling and marketing a book.
ZL – In the face of all that complexity, what is it about the process that keeps you going and motivated, what emotional aspects of it reward you, as I presume you’re not rolling in money from this, it’s publishing and comics after all!
RM – I’m more interested in getting as big an audience for what we do as possible and I get most of my enjoyment now from figuring out the business side of things and seeing how far people like us can get without any insider knowledge, connections or experience other than what we’ve managed to gather as we go along. I see our logo as something of a metaphor for this, that we’re bunking over a fence into the publishing industry.
ZL – We’ve dived quickly into depth here without really getting any history for context, which is terrible in an interview! So, to step backwards for a minute, how about you tell us what background you have with comics?
RM – Dave, the AHP co-publisher/co-owner, and I have been friends since school and definitely bonded through comics (as well as music). We both started reading lots of Marvel UK stuff when we were very young. I was particularly into Transformers and used to do my own Transformers fancomic when I was about 14. Then when we met at senior school we were reading some superhero stuff (it was the early 90s so mainly the Image guys pre and post them leaving Marvel) and then the DC mature readers titles that became Vertigo, like Sandman, Animal Man and Shade. Also a few self-published titles, such as Strangers In Paradise, Bone, Hepcats and A Distant Soil. Cerebus was probably the biggest one for us though (until it went off the rails) and I’d say that a lot of the stuff that Dave Sim used to discuss, with regards to creator ownership and self-publishing, still massively resonates in how we think about Avery Hill.
We both drifted from comics when we went to uni and then Dave got back into them when we were in our late 20s and leant me Y: The Last Man and Fables, which got me back into them as well.
ZL – I’m always interested to see Dave Sim mentioned because of how his place in comics seems to have shifted from Cerebus as a comic and more to what he did when publishing it and what he wrote about publishing itself. I could do a whole discussion about the value of the comic, but that’s a whole other interview!
What I am intrigued by is, how a publisher took what Dave Sim said and got inspired by it when you consider how anti publishers and pro creators doing it all themselves his writing was. So, at what point in Avery Hill’s history did he influence you and what impact does he still have on your approach to creators and publishing?
RM – I think the main thing is the stress on creator freedom and ownership. We don’t take any rights from creators in terms of licensing, image, etc. And they’re totally free to tell their story however they want. The way he worked directly with comic retailers as well is really important and how he built his audience from the ground up pre-social media.
ZL – As a random question, have you ever considered reaching out to Gerhard and seeing if he’d want to be published, can you imagine a comic just filled with his illustrations of different environments!
RM – I’m not sure if he’s ever written a comic, but I’d definitely love to see a nice book of his drawings!
ZL – Just to tack a further wide open question on there, what do you think the legacy of that generation of self-publishers has had on comics now? I personally feel it did a lot to re-introduce diversity of subjects and approach back into comics and spurred what I’d class as the book market side of comics.
RM – I’d love to read an Easy Riders, Raging Bulls type book on those creators and that time. I’m sure it would be fascinating, although equally male-centric. I’m not sure that many of today’s younger creators have read much of that stuff and I don’t think any of them are making enough from self-publishing to turn up at shows in limos like Sim used to. I think we have to look at it more in the context of an Image style business model nowadays, where books like Saga, The Walking Dead, etc kept some of that ethos, albeit with some work-for-hire aspects that Sim would frown on. The most influential on today’s market from that time is definitely Jeff Smith’s Bone, which blew the doors off of the middle-grade market. The lasting influence there is massive.
ZL – Going back a bit to something else you mentioned, specifically publishing your own Transformers fan comic, and I can’t leave that stone unturned! What was it called and was it something you did for yourself and your friends or did you put it out to the wider world and are there still copies available to buy or maybe a link to read it somewhere?
RM – Thankfully it was pre-internet and I don’t think it will surface. It was done through a Transformers fan club and was an incredibly ambitious prequel to the whole Transformers saga called Pathformers that (shockingly) I abandoned after about 6 issues. Sadly, a lost masterpiece of the form.
ZL – Do you think that early experience had an influence on setting up and beginning Avery Hill?
RM – I don’t think I would have thought of doing Metroland if it hadn’t have been for the Transformers comic, but I always enjoyed writing and drawing so I’m not sure.
ZL – I’m a nosy person that’s very interested in how people get to a point, not just what they do, so I’d really like to know what was the trigger that finally persuaded you to publish your first book?
Also, when setting up the company, what was the initial impetus to make Avery Hill exist? I just think it would be interesting to know whether the original dream has been met, but also, digging into that a bit deeper, what moment persuaded you that it was possible to go out and publish comic books?
Finally, to heap in the questions like an avalanche, what did you think you’d be able to achieve, in what timescale?
RM – Dave wanted to start a zine called Tiny Dancing and I decided to contribute a comic to it called Metroland, which I used to write and draw. As we got more into that world we found loads of other comics creators who were much better than us, like Tim Bird, Owen Pomery and Simon Moreton and decided we should just publish their stuff instead. So the first book we put out that wasn’t by one of us was Grey Area by Tim and the The Megatherium Club by Owen. Simon’s collection, Days, was the first big graphic novel we ever did.
We had absolutely no background in publishing, no contacts, no financial backing and not much of an idea about the small-press scene. We didn’t really expect it to go anywhere and thought it would just fizzle out at some point. There was definitely no grand plan. We often compare ourselves to those small record companies that start because they like a band, like Electric Honey, Jeepster, or Factory Records. I like the idea of doing something where no one can tell you “No” and taking control of what you want to do. Neither of us would be remotely interested in working for another publisher (I’d maybe consider running Marvel for them…).
ZL – I’m going to jump around because that’s how my head works sometimes and because I realise it would be good to get some context.
I know many people don’t really want to talk about numbers, particularly sales and income, but I’m not one of them! Forewarned is forearmed I fully believe. So, what were your initial expectations for sales and break even for published comics and on what did you base those? Was there a network of people you could reach out and did you reach out to them?
RM – From the point of view of the books making money, we didn’t start out with that intention and the print runs and costs were never going to generate a meaningful profit. We were fan amateurs doing our best to publicise work by people we liked (and we had to like both their work and the person themselves) and that was very clear to all of the creators as well. However, at a certain point it got big enough that we realised those terms had changed and that we had to take it even more seriously and that we had a responsibility to sell as many books as possible and make some money for the creators. A lot of companies can start as hobbies and then grow beyond that and it’s really, really important to notice when you have crossed that line so that you don’t start failing to deliver to the expectations of your creators. We feel a deep responsibility to the creators for the amount of work they put in. We want the final book to look as good as possible and sell as many copies as we can.
ZL – I don’t want to derail this set of questions yet, so I’ll come back to some of those points in a bit, if that’s alright? I’m wondering if you ever achieved those initial numbers, or blew them out of the water, or did you find yourself still sitting on a fair amount of dead stock?
RM – We made some mistakes in the early days in terms of print runs. Everyone does. It’s rare you have “just enough” books, which is what everyone is trying to aim for. You either get stuck with a load or you go to a 2nd print after a short period of time because you printed too few.
ZL – What did you do to decide on those initial numbers, was it based on a marketplace assessment, segmented by a target audience, more of a finger in the air informed guess, or the more hopeful, ‘well if I sell this amount it’ll cover all the costs and it doesn’t seem that unreasonable to expect these sales figures’?
And the punchier question, how much better have you got at making those estimates now that you’ve been at this for so many years?
I would guess there’s no great problem thinking you’ll only sell 500 and suddenly finding 5,000 ordered. Of course, I’m just assuming that, so feel free to re-educate me!
RM – It’s all finger in the air as in those days we had no clue what print runs other publishers were doing. A few people took us under their wing and gave us some idea. I’ve always been interested in developing out the business side, so I always ask people questions. All of the published data is close to useless for comics as so many aren’t sold through tills. We’re a lot better than we were, but we’re still pretty conservative and get taken by surprise a lot. Storage is expensive, printing is expensive, shipping is expensive…it’s an expensive business.
We have UK and US distributors who sell our books directly to bookshops and to comic shops, either directly or through Diamond. All books are returnable, so each month we’ll get a hit on books that come back. A while ago we got notified of 650 books that were returned and unsellable again due to slight dings or scratches on them, so they have to go to be recycled and we lose all of the money on those. They pay us on a 4-6 month lag, so it takes that long to get any money back on most books. Which means cash-flow is king. You need a pipeline of good sellers to be able to stay afloat if you don’t have big financial reserves as you’re always paying for the next book out of the money from the previous book.
ZL – Heading back to your earlier point about starting as amateur publishers, could you expand a bit on what expectations you set yourself at first and how realistic those sales or rather, your measures for sales, were in the end? How much of the continuation of publishing over the time was linked to your expectations shifting to meet reality and what emotional effect that had upon you?
There’s also the flip, in terms of how creators’ expectations have been managed by you in this process. Have you ever had to sit a creator down and go ‘Slow down, you’re thinking mountains and we’re thinking hills’?
RM – It’s all emotional with us. If the creator is happy, we’re happy. If the creator is delighted, we’re delighted. If the creator is not happy, we feel awful. A lot of that is managing expectations at the outset.
The main focus for me for the past few years has been putting everything possible in place from a structural perspective to make sure that we can do as good a job as possible. That’s distribution, printers, marketing, PR. and sales. It’s all about sales when it comes down to it. Every job we do in this company is about sales. A friend of ours, Gareth Brookes, who makes graphic novels and some years ago we published a couple of zines by, said something the other day which really resonated with me. He said that we’re “too professional” and I knew what he meant, in that we can give the impression that we’re bigger and more successful than we are in reality. That’s because we put a massive amount of our time into the company and don’t take any money for that (we have day jobs). We also hire three contractors to work on sales, marketing and publicity who are all great at their jobs and we punch way above our weight.
ZL – This is a tricky one to slip in, but I wonder after how much emotion and anxiety you expected to be involved in the process and whether you were prepared for how much there actually was?
There seems to be a lot of opportunity to build up a large amount of guilt around having your expectations for success and having to reconcile that with reality and having to deal with the creator’s own sense of worth and expectations of what makes that work worthwhile?
RM – I didn’t expect any anxiety. I expected to care, but not anxiety. The way we work, we get emotionally invested in every creator and we don’t want to let them down in any way. A lot of them we’d consider good friends. I feel massive amounts of guilt when we take tough decisions, but everything we do is done with good intent and never about our financial gain. There have been some lows, especially in the early days where we probably made some mistakes due to lack of experience or lack of resources. If a book doesn’t sell enough it’s always our fault and we just have to try harder. We do the best we can.
ZL – I think emotional investment is probably the least thought out part of anyone’s initial business plan, it’s almost always ‘Where do I get the money to make this?’ What advice would you give about remaining emotionally healthy when getting into publishing?
RM – I don’t think it’s taken a massive toll on us; we can sleep at night and I can look every creator in the eye because I know we’ve cared about each book and done our best. I’d say you just have to be very honest and aware of your capabilities. You also need a business model where you and the creator share success, so you’re all working towards the same goal.
ZL – I’m thinking not just about being a publisher, but also considering your creators’ emotional wellbeing now. At the start of becoming a publisher did you begin by managing the creator’s expectations, or did you start to realise they needed managing?
Or, have you been lucky to work with creators that are already realistic? I hope you’ve never found yourself dealing with a creator whose work you thought had gone successfully into the market where they were devastated that it had been a failure, and I wouldn’t want to open old wounds for anyone.
I am intrigued though about what you do when something goes very badly or very well, what challenges does that offer you as a publisher, particularly a publisher that has managed long term relationships with a number of creators.
What happens, say, if they’re disappointed in responses or sales, but you’re proud and can see that they could go on and achieve more – what do you feel is your role in that situation?
RM – A lot of the time we’re the creator’s first experience of working with a publisher, which is a responsibility that we take seriously. I like to think that we’re a really good publisher to start a career with as we’ll look after them as much as possible and also not rip them off or keep any rights that we shouldn’t. We’ve worked with a number of creators who have gone on to bigger publishers and we always feel great about that. It’s a feather in our cap and means we’ve done our job right. It also helps the sales of their books with us if the creator is then being marketed by a bigger company.
ZL – You don’t take submissions of work so how do you find new creators to work with? Do you actively search out creators on social media or through word of mouth from other creators or did you start this with a hit list of creators you wanted to publish? Basically, how does a work or creator get on Avery Hill’s radar and how do you think about prioritising that work for publication? Is that approach to do with being curators as much as publishers, about carving a space in comics that looks like the shape of your tastes?
RM – We’ve always had a very loose list of creators that we’d like to do a book by at some point. A few of those we’ve managed to tick off in recent times, such as B. Mure, Lizzy Stewart and Kristyna Baczynski. We like the process of curating what we do; seeking out the creators in various places. We follow lots of people we like on social media and Patreon and always seek out new creators at shows. If they’ve self-published it’s a big bonus as then you know they can get a project completed and also understand a lot of the production side of things as well. Getting submissions ends up taking lots of time and 99% of the time we’ve had to pass on the projects, so it’s not particularly fun for us. We’ve also now got such a large roster of existing creators that we really want to leave space for them to come to us with new projects as well.
ZL – I noticed that you hired outsiders to fill non-editorial roles and seeing how considered your other decisions have been, I’m presuming that’s because you valued the editorial role most? Would that be fair to say?
RM – I think having someone freelance as an editor would be a loss of control over the relationship with the creator that I wouldn’t particularly enjoy. I think so much of what we do with Avery Hill and what makes us different is that it’s locked into mine and Dave’s taste and aesthetic and it’s that influence that we bring to bear on the creative process. It would be hard to relinquish that input and those decisions to someone else and then having to just market and sell something we didn’t feel like a tiny bit of ourselves had been involved in. That’s pretty much why we don’t publish works in translation that other publishers have put out or why we don’t really like taking finished projects.
ZL – How much editorial input do you have in any work that you produce or does that vary depending on the creator?
RM – It varies greatly. There are some creators that basically just want us to proof-read it and then there are some that want input at every stage of the process. I’m happy with either scenario really, we try to work however they’d like to work. Ideally they would rough out the whole book in a way that’s legible and I’d then go through and make suggestions on structure and pacing and anything I don’t think is right in the story. Then they go off and start drawing it and I’ll give input as and when required. Then feedback on dialogue and any bits that might need redrawing if they haven’t come out right. Mostly I just make suggestions and leave them to determine if they agree with what I’m saying. I like to make it clear it’s their book and their vision and I’m just asking them questions to make sure they’ve thought about all of their decisions. Just because I don’t like something or don’t think it’s the right decision, it doesn’t mean they should change it. It’s their work and they have to be happy with what ends up on the finished page.
ZL – Philosophically, what do you aim to achieve through your input?
RM – Really I think we consider ourselves more project managers than editors. We’re there to help them get it done and make sure they’re happy with the results. We’re enablers, and that can take many different forms; mainly it’s about keeping them confident in their ability to complete it and helping them where necessary. It’s more people skills than anything.
ZL – Considering what’s going on in the comics market are you worried about your future sales or are your sales firm outside of the direct market of comic shops thanks to your use of book distributors? To add to that thought, what are your opinions about the future of print comics both here in the UK and in the US as well?
RM – I think the direct market is definitely on its last legs, but there’s still a place for specialist comic shops in whatever comes out of it. I feel like in the UK, where shops are a lot less reliant on Diamond and already use multiple distributors and wholesalers, we’re in a good place to weather what comes next. Although obviously the full repercussions of Covid on top of all of this are still working their way through the system. We sell a lot of books through bookstores and directly through our online store so we’re prepared for whatever happens. But the relationships we have with a lot of comics stores are vital and without them I’m not sure what the wider industry would look like in this country. I don’t think the answer is just to become a small part of the wider book industry, we still need our specialist places to champion this medium.
ZL – What do you think your company’s legacy has been in the market place and in creators lives so far?
That’s a slightly loaded question I know! But I think this is one of those issues of appreciation.
Tom Spurgeon used to say that he thought comics has this built in attitude towards believing everything that has not got a run for 100’s of issues behind it is a complete failure. I’m with him in believing this is completely wrong headed.
To put it in personal terms. You’ve also introduced artists who are now published with other companies and have therefore then gone on to create more work.
If you sit back and reflect upon that, how does it make you feel about your efforts?
RM – I’m proud to see our creators go on to greater successes. Publishing the first books of people like Tille Walden, Zoe Thorogood and Charlot Kristensen will be a great legacy. I hope we’ve given them a good experience and platform to jump off from and that they’ll come back one day when they have a personal project they want to do that doesn’t fit anywhere else. I think the way we do things has also influenced publishers like Good Comics, who put out great books. I’m not sure beyond that at the moment, we’re still going and I think will only get stronger, so the full extent of what we’ve done isn’t clear to us yet.
ZL – Do you see yourselves continuing to grow in terms of output and staff numbers or do you feel you’ve reached a good balance of what you can achieve within the limits of your energy levels?
RM – We’ve just hired someone to do the bookkeeping which means that I don’t have to do it anymore and to me that’s the most exciting thing to happen this year!
ZL – Right – to lighten things up and spread some love. Which three creators would you recommend people search out if they were fans of Avery Hill books?
ZL – What’s the last (non-Avery Hill) comic or zine that you read that made you really think about what it was talking about or how it was using comics?
RM – I only very recently started getting into manga and it’s totally reinvigorated me. My main favourite is 20th Century Boys which might be the best comic I’ve ever read. It’s an incredible lesson in storytelling structure and the art is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Working with creators like Tillie Walden, Charlot Kristensen and Zoe Thorogood who are heavily influenced by manga has really made me appreciate what that language can bring to comics and I think some of the most interesting things happening in the US and UK area mesh traditional UK/US comics and manga.
ZL – I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk to us and for giving such honest answers. I hope you enjoyed the process!
RM – Thanks for the opportunity to talk about some of this stuff, it definitely made me think!
ZL – And finally – please plug away anything you want to plug!!
RM – You can check out all of our titles in our store!
We spoke to Adam a little while ago about his influences and inspirations and found his answers intriguing, so we decided to dive in and dig a bit deeper. We just kept on going with it all until we ended up with a mammoth interview going into every corner of his mind, from practice and accessing his creativity, to grafting to make a living outside of the norms of the mainstream.
I think it’s a fascinating look into the practice, experiences and the will to succeed that powers Adam, as well as a window into the wider world of underground creators.
ZL – Hi Adam! Thanx for agreeing to this interview, hope you enjoy it.
Let’s get introductions out of the way. For anyone that doesn’t know, can you tell us your name, where you grew up and where you currently live?
AY – My name is Mr. Adam Yeater. I grew up a swamp rat in Florida and traveled around a lot. I finally settled down in Arizona as a desert rat. I went from one Florida to another.
ZL – For a little bit more background. You clearly enjoy underground and mini comix, so how did you first find out about them and what were you interested in before you started reading them?
AY – I discovered zines through the early Death/Grind Metal scene in the 90s. There was no internet so everything was done via snail mail. I used to get so much great printed matter. Demo tapes, fliers for bands, albums and review zines. I eventually started my own zine called Subliminal Message. We lived in Ohio in a shit hole little town. Trying to get high, fighting, reading comic books, listening to Metal, Punk Rock, Hardcore Rap and skateboarding.
I was a very industrious broke ass 14 year old kid. I found a way to get some of the mainstream metal record companies to send me promo stuff for their bands for review. I was getting stacks of stuff in the mail. The record companies were mailing backstage passes to me! My mom thought I was running a mail scam.
I once did a phone interview with Chris Barnes when he was in Cannibal Corpse. Chris called for an interview and my mom picked up the phone. He was like “Are you a fucking kid? Holy shit! I usually do interviews with old dudes?” We talked for an hour and half about Metallica selling out. It was amazing. I idolized these weirdos and was getting to just hang out with them.
I did an interview with Cro-Mags right when the original singer got out of prison. I did an interview with Entombed for my high school newspaper! I even interviewed the Goo Goo Dolls when they were on Metalblade Records just for the hell of it. Those metal bands were my heroes. They treated me as an equal and I was this punk kid. They all encouraged me to keep at it. I was getting first hand knowledge of trying to make a living as a creative in American society from them. The good and bad.
ZL – What did it feel like the first time you ever spoke to one of your heroes? It must have felt pretty excellent, right?
AY – It was awesome talking to those bands, it was a real rush. I would get so nervous. I got to hang with some of the bands before and after the shows. All these dudes just embraced me as one of them. I am super tall, so I looked a lot older than I was. I was also a big nerd for the metal scene so I was turning them onto all this other new stuff I was getting. I think they saw me as an oddity. Then we moved to Tucson where there was no metal scene.
ZL – Is that why you stopped making your zine then, moving to Tucson?
AY – Yeah, moving from Ohio to Arizona. The scene was pretty lame in AZ. No bands would come through Tucson at the time. So I ditched the ‘zine and started a Grindcore band with some friends. We did pretty well for a local death metal act. We played shows with Napalm Death and smoked a ton of weed with Sadistic Intent, that was cool.
Lots of drugs and drama, bandmates stealing from each other. . . even more drugs. It was a very fucked up time in my life that I am happy to have survived.
ZL – At what point did you get back into zines and start to think that self-publishing comics was something you could do or that you were good at and wanted to do more with, to just keep going and going and see how far you could take it?
AY – After the band and metal zine I started printing my own mini comics and comic books. I really got into self publishing and art because I had nothing else really. My last “legit” job was as a janitor before I decided to do art and publish full time. I figured I would rather starve as an artist than starve scrubbing shit off toilets. Art is the only thing I have ever been really good at. So I just keep doing it.
ZL – Circling back to get a bit more from your background for a minute, what first turned you into a comic reader and from there, did you move to be a collector or fan, if that distinction makes sense!! And where in all of that did you start making your own comics?
AY- I was into comics a lot when I was young as a collector and fan before I moved into extreme music. I was keeping up with the medium but was focused on the death metal band I was in.
After the band. I was doing paintings and fine art for quite a while. I had also done comics on the side but my fine art was doing well. Then the housing market crashed and nobody was buying art for foreclosed homes.
Luckily I had been doing an extreme comic strip in the metal ‘zines and in the mini comics I was doing. I saw that a local comic convention had started. So I printed them all up and booked a table. I sold out of my first printing and a bunch of art. That is when One Last Day started.
ZL – How did that feel, selling out of books like that? I’m guessing it must have been quite a boost as you carried on and set up an online store! What was the convention like, if you remember at all, did you have a good time there chatting and meeting fans and creators? A lot of people talk about how much the community at a convention matters to them, was that important to you at the time?
AY – It was a real boost. From that little bit of seed money I have been able to keep the ball rolling and have kept printing comics ever since. The comics scene in Tucson in the early 90s was really small and bare bones. It was me and like 2 other indie guys actively printing their own comics. I have encouraged and fostered so many people to make their own comics since then. Many writers and artists from the Tucson scene are now in the mainstream and indie comics system.
The couple who started the Tucson Comic Con have been the best thing for our local comix and art scene. Rather than neglecting local and indie comics they embraced and promoted them. I was so lucky to be in a place where the local comic convention focused heavily on independent comic artists.
I see kids that I taught inking classes to that are now publishing their comics on Amazon. Kids that now give me their books and thank me for all the support and inspiration I gave them. It is humbling. Before the ‘rona I was leaving 1000s of mini comics all over town instead of fliers for the last 15 years. It has exposed people in this town and state to my art and a world of comic books they never knew existed.
ZL – Speaking of coronavirus, I’m wondering how much that has affected your income currently? Do you rely heavily on con sales or do you have a whole set of ways to get sales, which is a terrible way of asking that I’m really interested in how you generate sales for your work, what venues and sources and what sort of percentage of sales comes from them. Have you got a regular set of fans that buy everything, are you using email communications, just facebook?
AY – In today’s art and comics world every successful artist has to be a little bit Andy Worhol and a lot of P. T. Barnum. Otherwise nobody will give a shit about you. So I have a ton of different ways to move my stuff. The website is my main hub but I do small zine fests and shows whenever I can. I have been doing OK but had to switch gears during the crisis. My online sales picked up so that helped a lot. I also have new books coming out all this year. I think that helps too.
Comic conventions at one time were a really good source of income when I first started doing them. I was making great money. Every year it has become progressively less of a viable option for creators like me. The big comic shows are just pop culture festivals. The last few years a lot of the larger shows could care less about indie comics. Table prices and entry fees are way too high for a self publisher or upcoming creator to make any money. Especially out of state shows. Hotel, travel, etc. Because of this I was only doing smaller zine/comic shows and focusing on my online sales already. The virus was a great reason to really focus on my online presence.
ZL – I first saw your work through a facebook group, one of the indie comics groups that sort of specializes in small press superhero and space operas, and I was wondering whether you think those groups help the creators reach more readers, or whether they are all more community pages as in it’s all people that want to make comics and they’re all working to support their own bubbles? (Obviously I’m exaggerating a little, they often have horror and then there’s oddball work that pops up, but there do seem to be a lot of big boob bad girls and massive muscles in some kind of genre thing. )
AY- I look at social media differently than most. I talk shit about comics on it but I have never used it as a political soapbox or a place to talk about my “personal journey”. I post my art and comix. That is it. I speak through my art. I like to “post and ghost”. I feel I am a healthier person for it.
This year I have slowly been taking my art off all the platforms. They are not an unbiased purveyor of ideas. Like the original internet was intended for. Social media is making us all sick. Scientifically proven sick.
I have grown to hate the self imposed censorship imposed on social media by advertisers and cancel culture. We as artists should have the right to dictate our expression by taking risks. Without having to worry about some simp nerd in Silicon Valley shadow banning or blacklisting us.
These leeches profit heavily on ALL of us. Especially artists. They work to infringe on our rights and hinder our freedom to express. The platforms are privatizing our existence. Fakebook and the Twits are just digital emotional vampires.
They should be paying you a fee to use your content and sell it to their stupid advertisers. They make billions off you and you know what you get, a little dopamine for that “like”. Wow, sweet trade off. Not!!
We all need to stand up in some way as artists. Post fucked up art and weird shit all the time! I wanna see a sea of artistically drawn dicks and vaginas. Shitposts, and fucked up memes on my “news” feed. Random acts of artistic defiance. We need confrontational art more now than ever! I want to see original artwork that pushes against cultural dogmas and shitty societal norms.
Instead I see oceans of fan art and trash pop culture mashups. Useless e-rage and cat pics. Art without confrontation is just advertising at this point.
ZL – Now, that’s an interesting one, because there are two sides to the argument on this and I sort of flop wildly between the two without any great reason. I can see why social media is not going to allow seas of dicks – they are easy triggers to SEE, so they’re easy to switch off to maintain acceptability, it seems pointless to me, but is important to a lot of people, so… There’s also the issue of managing genuine freedom to express and people posting images of tentacles raping 6 year old girls and how you manage to monitor that, so it’s just EASIER not to try and figure it and blanket ban it all.
What I think calls bullshit on their motives for me is that they’ll censor that, but allow neo-nazi lies or channels where people openly spout homophobic, racist or sexist bile. There’s a stinking dichotomy there that calls a lie to their talk of community and keeping us safe from damaging content.
I certainly wouldn’t want to have to be the poor sod that sifted through all of this stuff to check it though!
Equally, with work like yours or – to call in someone else I follow who is always getting bumped from facebook – Dexter Cockburn – who does some great porn comics. I see these things as being completely ok and not deserving of banning, but seeing cape comics and how innately sexualised and soft porn like the women are made to look, that makes me feel very dubious, it seems wrong in that context, as it’s so pervasive and so unspoken and clandestine.
AY – Exactly. It is weird how the mainstream sexulizes it’s heroes. The guys look just as bad. It is a form of repressed erotica. I think it all looks so funny. Balloon shaped breasts or the massive man bulge. There is a big market for that stuff so more power to them.
It just seems erotica in comix is ok for some and not others. The censorship online is selective. Dexter is a comix friend of mine and a great example. The guidelines are so ambiguous and filled with jargon it becomes nonsense.
I totally get censorship for criminal reasons. That is a no brainer. What I saw was not that.
I saw the platforms actively destroy the online followings of some extreme horror artist’s I was following. Some of us had built large fan bases on Myspace and brought our fans over to FB with us. When FB started shutting accounts down it crushed a lot of those artist’s online communities and sales. A lot of artists had to start all new accounts with different names causing them to lose 1000s of followers. Some just gave up or stopped posting extreme art all together. They are still doing it to some of the Ero Goro artists from Japan. It is really fucked up.
ZL – That’s part of the curse and benefit of social media though, they give and then they take away when you’ve made them successful. I do wonder what we can do about that though, maybe they should migrate back to Myspace, maybe the whole retreat to mailing lists is the answer? I don’t know, we need community spaces but we need them to not go dark and end up being hiding places for crime or the dark web. What do you do about it, eh? Maybe you should start curating work into new mail lists and have link sites for different peoples’ interests!!
AY – I like that idea. I have always wanted to do a monthly brochure of underground creators. Like a double sided mailer. I might do one for the Smalll Press Express to hand out at shows. Getting the word out is why I do the YouTube channel. Nobody is shedding light on the best part of comics. The odd, voiceless, strange and marginalized. I think anything that promotes the underground scene and unites indy comic artists is good. I feel every little thing helps. We are all in this sinking ship together. The mainstream comics people keep poking holes in the boat. The indy creators have to keep bailing it out.
ZL – Moving on from that unanswerable conundrum… Is community important to you and comics? Is publishing and buying and communicating with other creators a way of building a place in the wider world for the kinds of things that you enjoy and the kind of things you want to make?
AY – What community. The comics community?
It just saddens me so much lately. The internet and social media had so much potential to dissolve physical, cultural and social boundaries to our communication around the world.
Instead most people have developed the attention span of a gnat. I doubt anyone will actually read all this. So I am just gonna lay it all out. How I see it as an outsider looking in.
There is a massive world of art and comics that is ignored in the west. It is where I exist as a creative. I work with toy making friends in South Korea and send comix pages to Artizines in Spain. Send instant messages to slap sticker artists in Japan. All in a few seconds!! This used to take weeks, even months via phone and mail. Many here just take this shit for granted.
I had a “stick poke” tattooist from Taiwan ask if she could use one of my mini comic images in her little shop. How sick is that!! I live for that!!
I have worked with 100s of the most creative and amazing artists from all over the world. I have had enough love and inspiration from the global art community to last me two life times!!
The American comics community is a weird story. My books sell well. My fans are awesome. First time readers always come back. I do really well at every comic convention I have ever done, even small ones. I have printed, sold or given away thousands of my mini-comics, floppies and magazines. All over this crazy earth.
Somehow I have largely existed as an outsider in Western comics. Other than a few supportive cats in the southwest comics scene like Brian Pulido. I feel like they largely just ignore my comics. I have had a few pros refer to my work as ‘zines’ as a sort of insult.
I started Blood Desert as a big middle finger to the whole corporate comics crowd. The main character is stuck with a permanent middle finger. Good luck co-opting that sucktards.
When I complete the World of Knonx series I wanna only make comics that are a massive fuck you to that whole unimaganitive self indulgent English centric corporate comics world. I wanna make comics for shitheads all over the world like me.
Most of the comics in the mainstream indie world are leftovers from that hokey auto-bio movement. All of them are still pining over Crumb and Pekar to this day.
Who knew making super boring comics about your masturbation habits and history no one cares about would be considered as works of high literary art. I guess it is an easy claim to make when the critics also work for the publishers of said high grade comic “art.”
That is just the indy crowd. At this point most people’s knowledge of modern comics comes from dopey stupor hero comics and movies that are made for mouthbreathers by ex-television writers.
These books are made by “Professional” comic book writers that get top billing over a bunch of lazy artists. These are the same “professionals” who waste their time all day on Twitter and YouTube race baiting each other and blathering nonsense about politics. Somehow they can never seem to get books out on time or any real work done. Go figure.
Can we all just agree that the comics Youtubers are totally obnoxious. Normal people do not care about all your dumb nerd drama. The “comics news” channels love to foment drama in the industry to make money off of more views. They live to promote division among creators. Mind numbing 4 hour live streams of inane political blather. Interviewing the same old industry jobbers about some dopey superhero comic they made 20 years ago. Effete dorks gushing jizz in their whitey tighties over their wonton nostalgia.
These formerly bullied nerds bully each other constantly online. Doxing, Blacklisting, Censoring, Attacking and Canceling each other. Bunch of grade school kid popularity bullshit. I want absolutely NO part of either side’s dysfunctional cult. These sad people must love to live in a heightened state of anxiety.
There are 100s of amazing prolific working storytellers chomping at the bit to talk about and sell their titles. Why not interview and promote these creators. Artists who choose not to engage in either side’s petty childish games. Those creators are largely ignored or admonished for not taking sides.
The industry seems to only want to dwell in nostalgia? A Nostalgia that actually hurts creators. I really wanna talk about Alan Moore.
Let’s all wax about the greatness of Watchmen ONE last time and finally let it go. Watchmen is the comic book Alan Moore won’t even have in his house because of the disdain he has for the American comics industry.
Comics culture could care less about Alan. They talk about his work gushing with praise. Then they call the man a nutter behind his back.
The majority of the comics press treated him like a clown and discounted his opinions at every turn.
Watchmen, the comic they keep in print just so Alan does not regain any of the rights back.
By promoting and working on Watchmen in any way they are all pretty much saying fuck you to Alan. It is just accepted by everyone. “Oh well! We should just keep screwing this dude cause we all really love those characters.” It is shameful.
Shall I go on about the other creators that were screwed by this “industry”. Seigel, Shuster, Kirby, Finger, Simon and so many more.
The House of Morons track record with creatives is just as terrible. It would take all day to list the Big two’s transgressions against their freelancers.
All their Editors in Chief make millions while their freelancers get crumbs.
Or maybe there is hope in the price gouging comic book store owners. They did nothing but complain about Diamond and the Big 2’s scams non stop for years. Then they still lap up everything they do or make like pablum. Accepting and still embracing this constant abuse. Over and over and over. I wonder if the majority of store owners are into BDSM?
Should I bother mentioning all the sex predators that the major comics companies have been covering for?
So now after a long career and all my hard work building a loyal following I am supposed to kiss ass and play nice as a potential artist for them. I am supposed to work on shit I don’t care about? I get to beg for a job doing interior pages for less than minimum wage and no healthcare? No thanks. I am busy building my own worlds not piggybacking on the stolen worlds of others.
The US comics “industry” is kind of a total joke to me at this point.
ZL – It sounds like you are existing as part of a community though, maybe not an American comics community, but an international underground art community, does that seem fair to say?
AY – I was actually becoming a big part of the community for a popular comics Youtube channel for a minute until I was excommunicated. The two creators that host the channel constantly espouse to be a bastion for indie creators. As Maury Povich likes to say…” that is a lie.”
The channel blacklisted me because of a mini comic I did showing cartoon portraits of accused sex predators and general jerks working in the American comics industry.
I am not part of Comicsgate or any other stupid comics cult. I am not a lecherous ogre who harasses women at comics shows. I am a boring family man who makes weird comics. I speak through my art not by posting constant drama online.
I made a mini comic that someone didn’t like. That was it. Instead of finding out my side of things related to the matter these hosts just booted the videos my comics were featured in off their channel. They also had admins remove my posts off other platforms related to them. I was blatantly censored by these “artists.”
So looking back I think it had nothing to do with that mini comic. They have featured sexually violent work like Vigil’s. My stuff is tame in comparison. I feel they were threatened by my output and my dopey little youtube channel. Which is laughable.
I have worked tirelessly my whole career to support marginalized creators in my community and around the world for over 20 years.
At this point I would rather work with the people who get what I do and dwell in quiet obscurity rather than work with these kinds of self-serving troglodyte hacks that are so prevalent in the medium of modern mainstream comics and the art world.
Most of these “pro comic artists” are just glorified fan artists with a little bit of stylized skill. I think that’s why all their books are so derivative of all the other stuff in the mainstream lexicon. They dwell in constant nostalgia and their work is proof of it.
I actually feel sorry for them. To have so little faith in yourself that you have to try to take down other artists is such a sad pathetic way to live.
One thing you can count on with some artists and comics creators. Their egos are as fragile as glass.
Comics culture in the US is steeped in all this kind of nonsensical dogma. It has become an idiotic cult of reactionary clones with Youtube and Twitter accounts.
ZL – Thinking about that wider world of community and how there’s always been an underground arts community and sometimes people travelled through them, often linked to universities or small art publications. Do you feel like that community is something that is now easier to achieve and to curate for yourself with social media, but it involves a lot of effort and commitment to do that and that’s why it takes those in a scene, those dug into that creative feeling, to do that kind of curation?
AY – I guess It is easier to find new stuff now, but there is a lot of oversaturation online. Lots of skilled but boring fan art. Way too much fan art online.
All the crowdfunded stuff is pretty boring and derivative of the mainstream comics they say they hate. Plus there is a high failure rate. Very slow/low delivery rate on those projects that nobody likes to talk about.
I kind of wish the companies cracked down on all the IP theft at shows and online the way they do obscenity. Before the pandemic the comic conventions in the states sucked for indie creators because of all the fanart.
ZL – Yeah, that seems to be a big issue all round, but it’s also tricky as a lot of indie creators make bucks doing commissions of existing mainstream IP. I also think that the move from mini comics and zines to pop-culture sources and attempts to be as professional as professional comics has done a lot of unspoken damage. Yeah, sure, you get a lot of a crowd, but how many are BUYERS?
AY – That is why I stopped making any kind of fanart about 15 years ago including commissions. I think fan art and commissions are a crutch for artists to lean on.
To me it shows a lack of ability to tell stories or have faith in their own creations. They are too afraid to go all in and only make and sell their own comics. They wanna draw cool spidey pin-ups not tell stories with art. There is a huge difference between the two kinds of artists.
The best Mangaka spend their whole careers telling these long form epic stories. We should aspire to that aesthetic not do a bunch of cool variant covers.
It is easy to draw an existing IP. The design and imaginative work was done for you. You are just a human copy machine. It takes a lot of time and faith to go all in on your own ideas. I think a lot of artists try it and just give up and fall back on selling fan art at shows.
I do great at shows without any fan art. You don’t need it. I think selling fan art actually hurts indie creators. They are selling books for our competition.
If you just offer people something new and different and work hard to sell that work they will buy it. I offer people something that is unique. Not just another Deadpool print or sketch.
ZL – Do you see yourself as part of a comics lineage, either style or approach wise? Do you feel it’s important to leave your own mark on the world, hence the making of items rather than posting online, or are you interested in building a space for now or are you trying to just get out what needs to be got out to keep your brain quiet?
AY: Comics lineage is less of a thing now because of oversaturation in the medium. Everyone can make and print their own comics now. So the key is to have your own style of storytelling. I don’t like the autobio comics genre but at least they know how to tell a story.
That’s why I think physical media is still very important. An artist is not curtailed by the formats of printing anymore. You can adjust your style to any kind of printing process now. It used to be the other way around.
Aesthetically I want my work to be as beautiful and be as prolific as Osamu Tezukawas. Dark and creepy as Hideshi Hino‘s. Confrontational and cooky as Mike Diana‘s. With a mad dose of the dark action of a 2000AD Magazine.
ZL – I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember the Mike Diana obscenity caseand the outcome of that ridiculous situation? It was big, even in UK comic magazines at the time. I remember them telling him that he wasn’t even allowed to draw AT HOME and that they would be coming in to check that he wasn’t drawing! So, I guess there’s that as a check to what we were saying about social media silencing creators, it’s not like it’s a new phenomenon, sadly.
AY – I started getting into making fucked up comics at the same time as him. I was making One Last Day which is nowhere near as extreme or pornographic as Mike’s stuff, but it was really violent. His case scared me into being real careful who I sent my books to.
ZL – When did you first encounter Mike Diana’s work, then and what’s so inspiring about it?
AY- I have seen more of his work recently. I like the absolute absurdity of it. It was so hard to get out here in the west coast unless you ordered it. I am not a big fan of pornographic or cheesecake comics. I do like some of the cruder stuff that is just too weird to be arousing. The work exists more as a piece of weird art rather than porn in some odd way. I have not gotten to read a ton of his stuff. He is actually a big fan of mine on Instagram. The punk rock kid in me loves seeing a block of “likes” by Mike. I have mailed him a bunch of my comix for trade.If he is reading this “Yo man! You gotta mail me some of your books!” Heh!
ZL – I’m also intrigued to know how you found out about 2000AD as my understanding is that it’s not well known over in the US. What’s your favourite strip from there?
AY: I got a huge run of the re printed 2000AD and Dredd comics from a comic store when I was 13. I really love the old Rogue Trooper strips the most. They were some of the best sci fi war comics made essentially. Those artists were all emulating those old Action war comics they were reading
Rogue Trooper – War Machine is a work of comics art. It definitely inspired a lot in my Blood Desert series. “The Fatties” stories in the early Judge Dredd strips are some of my all time favorite comics. I have read them a hundred times. It is just so nuts. I love that line between absurd and gross.
ZL – Oh yeah, those early works were really UK punk as punk can be! I’m surprised you like Rogue Trooper more than Nemesis though, Pat Mills and especially Kev O’Niell’s art is extreme as extreme art gets in comics back then. You mention in many interviews I’ve read that Japanese comics, particularly horror comics, have been an influence. How much influence do you see from Japanese horror comics in small press and self-publishing circles, it’s something I see a lot of in the creators I follow for sure, but I’m wondering what your experience is?
AY – I follow the underground Japanese scene pretty well. I am pen pals/friends with some of the newer japanese horror artists. It is funny. They all wanna get published here and I want to get published there.
There are huge barriers in Japanese comics for Westerners. I would kill to get World of Knonx published in Japan. It is specifically designed and made for a world audience. It needs no translation. Manga publishers should be more open to Western comic artists the way we have.
I have grown very weary of all manga flooding the market lately. Most of it is just nicer formated versions of reprints of that older stuff I read in the 80s. It is not the weird upcoming stuff you see on the shelves.
The American publishers bend over backwards to reproduce a lot of Manga but largely ignore American artists working at the same level of productivity. It has become a one way street.
ZL – I see that a lot of publishers seem less inclined to have cartoony horror, they seem to have decide it must all be cheesecake or more realistic, I mean, you’re not going to see the likes of Shaun McManus on Swamp Thing art chores nowadays, which seems absurd because cartooning lets you play up emotions or gore without it getting all pornographic and seedy. I wonder if part of it is that as well, they want everything in that style. It’s also something that’s changed in horror as well. You think about something like Saw and how realistic those horror movie effects are compared to, say Friday the 13th, it’s changed what horror is. You could laugh at those things, not so much Saw, they’re far more EARNEST and wanting to show things REALISTICALLY.
AY- Yes! Exactly. I have been embracing the cartoon aspect of comics very heavily. Cartooning is dying in comic books not just in the horror scene. Comics have lost the ability to move the fans to a desired emotion.
I think it has to do with the industry’s reliance on writers. Artists are usually more creative and experimental than writers. Artists think in images and writers think in words. Writers can hammer out stories all day. The storytelling artist has to really think about every panel in a conscious way and how it will move the story. Images should drive comics not inane narrative. I should be able to understand the story in a comic by just looking at the art. If not then both the writer and artist have failed. Being able to type does not automatically make your stories interesting. Kirby’s cartooning made all those comics great not Stan and his stupid dialogue.
Personally I don’t wanna spend 12 hours drawing the perfect building in a panel that no one will care about. I wanna move the story. Cartooning creates a fluidity through the pages that perfect structure loses. Manga is great at moving you through a story in that way.
ZL – So, in all of the ways you make things and with all of your feelings about being a part of US comics and international makers, what place do you see your new youtube videos playing into what you do? Is it more boredom relief or is it a way of pumping up awareness of the community you enjoy?
AY: I do the YouTube channel for fun and to shed light on independent creators. I also wanna try to create a new narrative in comics. Not just regurgitate the one fed to us by reactionary corporate comix culture.
ZL – Why the trash talking of something at the end? I ask because I have this pet theory that there’s a strong link between people doing underground comics currently, especially over the top gross out ones, and wrestling and I’m wondering whether that’s a bunch of nonsense I’ve made up, or whether this is like the trash talk between wrestlers, a funny sort of way to make a point about something, to build some low stakes drama? Or, is it a way to disarm a serious point by making it funny!
AY: A little bit of both I guess. There is some carney action to all creatives who do it for a living. I think a long life as an artist hardens you.
Comic book artists could learn a lot from Tattooists. Talk to a hardcase who has been making money everyday drawing. The one doing it in your hometown the longest. That is someone who can teach you a lot. They have had to put up with so much stupid shit from customers and society. They have a confidence and respect for their trade few artists do. They have real confidence that is inspiring. They won’t even fuck with some stupid walk-in. They are not gonna deal with some kid who wants a shitty Mickey Mouse tat. Some hokey fan art commission bullshit. People pay them good fucking money for their original style, skill and creativity. Comic artists conceded all that when they settled for being what amounts to storyboarders for ex-TV writers.
Artists have to always remember Western society devalues you at every turn. You really have to learn to sell your art and self. Your skin better be real thick. You hear “no” and that “you will fail” constantly! You will work your ass off just to barely make it in most creative fields.
ZL – Yeah, that really comes with the territory, especially if you’re coming at it from an underprivileged background, art seems to still be a very middle class opportunity and still seems to need strong patronage to make a living, so if you’re aren’t populist or aren’t from the right background you need to get money from somewhere else or learn to live cheap.
AY – Starting out it is always a struggle in any field but comics has kind of embraced and even fostered failure among it’s creatives. A perfect example. No one with the talent level of Tim Vigil’s should ever be living in poverty. Which he pretty much is. If Tim started in tattoos he would probably be pretty set by now. Instead he chose to work in comics.
ZL – You seem to be really knocking out your comics and developing an amazing backlist. I remember sharing a video where, I think that you were drawing a page from The Lottery, where you were filling in your spot blacks with this chunky dip pen nib and that just seemed like it would take a long time to get work done! So, I’m wondering whether you’ve changed up a gear and started doing lots of work, or am I just in circles where I’m seeing you pop up and you’ve been constantly busy for a long time?
AY – I mainly use a brush for large areas. Sometimes a fat nib. I have had the same process for the last 10 years. I have always had a pretty good work ethic with my art but my tools are just that. Lots of trial and error for the first 5-10 years. I had no one to help or any training. I am a lot faster at inking with some modern stuff but it is still the same process it has always been. I try to only work full time M-F 9-5. I love creating so much I get addicted to it. I will draw 18 hours straight if I am not careful.
ZL – What inspired you to get making, not necessarily the style you make, but the actual circumstances behind you getting yourself together to put out comics instead of just sketching or posting online? What is the difference for you between posting online and publishing?
AY – Posting online is just a form of promo to me. Online is so ephemeral. I feel printed comics and animation is the best way to tell new stories and get them out. Period. It is hard to say what inspired me to start creating. I can tell you how I create though.
I have always hated the idea of needing drugs, a muse or constant inspiration as motivation. It is not a sustainable model. It is a crutch for lazy artists to lean on. We all can learn skills and borrow from influences to make pretty art but real creativity comes from our imaginations.
Clive Barker said it in interview after interview for years! He spoke of how fostering the imagination is being lost and even stifled in today’s world. He stressed the utmost importance for working artists and children to have an active and focused imagination. He is the greatest living horror artist of our age. The Poe of our time and everyone completely ignored him!!
Well I didn’t! I would meditate and do mental exercises daily for years to try and imagine whole working worlds. Clive was 100% right. I don’t get artists’ block or any of that shit.
This is gonna sound super new age but it is the best way to explain it. With short meditation techniques I can light the fire of creativity instantly now. It can keep me awake some nights if I let it. My mind’s eye fills with the most moving and colorful images you could ever imagine. I have learned to embrace it and snatch stuff from the ether. It’s like a true form of art magick. When I break into the astral plane of endless creativity it recharges my inner being and overwhelms my soul with love, and joy. I am flooded with new ideas constantly. The Buddhists actually have a name for this place but the name escapes me.
ZL – I remember reading that Moebius, Jean Giraud, the French comic artist took a similar approach, that he drew all his Moebius strips in a semi-conscious state of meditation, so it seems reasonable for you to do the same!
AY – Exactly! I have read that and felt a kinship with him. I think Jim Woodring works in a similar fashion as well.
ZL – Yeah, I’ve read that about Jim Woodring as well.
Looping back a second to The Lottery, I really admire the style of character design, the shapes you put down on the page, that I’ve seen in that. I’m guessing, from what you’ve just said, that much of these things arrive semi or fully formed? How much planning do you put into character design and story content and then could you give a general idea to how you approach a story and what you’re trying to achieve with your stories?
AY: Like I said prior, the initial ideas will come like a flood or in pieces. I will mentally “hang on” to my favorite ideas and build a story around them. Once I get most of it all sorted out in my brain I will do some general super loose thumbnails of a story or idea or the whole book. Sometimes I will start with a one shot style story and expand on it. The one shots will inspire more stories or ideas for other worlds as well.
ZL – I know we touched on this earlier, but I’d like to dig deeper into whether you’re making money and what sort of sales you’re achieving, because, you know, I’m just damn nosey! More seriously though, I think part of making and why people cease making is an unrealistic idea of what can be achieved within an arena. The amount of people coming into comics and underground comix all thinking they’ll end up on Adult Swim or bankrolling a comfortable life always saddens me. You know they will get worn out banging their drum to sell 10 copies and lose hundreds because they completely over print.
Which is a very tortured way of asking whether you make money from your comics or, at least break even? Are you happy to tell us numbers of sales and if not exact amounts of income, what sort of percentage of your income comes from your comic sales and for context, the kind of lifestyle you currently live?
AY: I grew up pretty poor. I was out on my own at around 17 with zero money. So it has not been an easy road for me in art and comics. I am not complaining, I have made good money off my comix.
I print modestly with print on demand services. I can print a few copies up to a few 100 at a time. It just depends on demand. You don’t need to have a warehouse of stuff. I focus on the stuff that does well.
It took a long time but I am in a great spot on my own. Because of the virus a lot of the mainstream crowd are kind of sitting around with their dicks in their hands. While I am hammering out stories. I am 100% owner of all my titles. I am not an LLC so a corporation can’t get my “creative content” without my direct consent.
Luckily I don’t really need them. I have done the math, I make way more per page and book then I ever would with a publisher. I can create, print, promo, mail and repeat. I have no need for censors, editors, publishers, stores, mob run distro or other middle men. They are all just standing between me and making the profit from my books.
No one will admit it, but the Cerebus model is still the best model for creators to sell their comics. If you are serious about ownership. More people should have the same faith in their work as Dave Sim does. Only without being a total jerk.
ZL – I’m guessing your politics don’t mesh with his, but I think Dave Sim is definitely someone who has lessons for self-publishers and creators alike. If you were going to pass on any of his advice, how would you summarise what you’ve taken from his example?
AY – His politics aside he was pretty cantankerous in most of his interviews but he was not afraid to speak his mind. Everyone is so afraid to speak up in fear of never getting or keeping that “sweet corporate comics gig”.
Dave was right about a lot of stuff. If you can’t stand up for your own work then who will? Before I started reading all his interviews I thought he was just a jerk but now I kind of get his anger. I could only imagine what the mainstream tried to pull back then when they saw he wouldn’t play ball. What’s worse is nothing has changed really. All the shit he was raving about in comics is the same or even worse.
I think he was really hated by the industry when he started speaking out about all the shadiness going on. It always felt the comics press started attacking his political stances after he started to state his opinions about the practices of some of these publishers. I don’t agree with him on a lot of stuff politically but he never backed down and stayed true to his ideals. I admire him for that.
Comics has a long sordid history of trying to silence voices they don’t want to hear. It has happened to me and many others still to this day.
ZL – How long has it taken to build up your back catalogue and what sort of tail end do you currently see on your titles, are we talking release and then forget it, sustained sales over months/years or occasional bumps when you get new titles out?
AY – It took 20 years to build the whole catalogue of large format stuff. I have printed 100s of different minis along the way. I now just mainly sell my larger format floppy and magazine stuff that does well continuously. I do have a goal to be able to fill a whole small magazine size comic book box with all my different floppy comics and mags.
ZL – And how far away from that goal are you?
AY – I have never actually checked. I would say I am well over halfway there.
ZL – How do your sales and income compare to where you thought you’d be when you first started making your comics or did you not really care about that, other than not losing money?
AY: It is a weird thing that exists in indie comics. It is like they are ashamed of making money.
You hear so much altruism in indie comics. “It is not always about the money man.” Tell that dumb shit to a career tattooist. They will laugh in your stupid face while they make $200 bucks an hour and drive off in their fully customized Dodge Challenger. While you stand there with a handful of comics and empty pockets.
We should look at indy comics like tattooing or a little like a one man touring metal band or rap act. People wanna buy my books for my nutty unique style. So, yeah I am doing better than I ever could have dreamed of in such a dismal backwards looking field. I would rather be like a Tech 9 or Frank Zappa in comics.
ZL – Last question, for you as a fan now, if you could get everyone in the world to read one of your books or series and a book or series by someone else, what would it be?
AY: Out of all my books I would say the World of Knonx series is my crowning achievement. I dumped every skill I have developed into one massive tale.
Park Bench – by Christophe Chabouté. It is one of the most amazing comics made in the last few years. It is one of the most beautiful comics ever made. It flows like water. It is the zen of comix. I cried the first time I read It.
I only make silent or wordless comics. So that is mainly what I am into. It is more common in European comics. So I try to mainly follow works coming from there.
Comics should move us and excite us. Gross you out or move you to a new place emotionally. Not just be inane 80s TV sitcom serials. I am only interested in comics that exist and aspire to be comics. I have no interest in storyboards with dialogue.
ZL – Thanx for your time Adam!
AY- Thanks for this in-depth interview. It is not often I get to talk deeply about things in comix that I care about. I never really get to explain how I create or how I truly feel about the medium.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak my mind. To everyone who has ever supported me and my art. I truly frikkin’ love you all!!
all art copyright and trademark its respective owners.
Anyone that’s followed zinelove or iesorno on any kind of social media knows I’m partial to a few creators including Phil Elliott and Nick Prolix who have both featured on the site and who I might have banged on about a bit…
When I saw Russel Mark Olson dropping hints about a magazine that would feature both, as well as his own work I was immediately interested, even more so when I saw the names of the others involved, many of them creators I was checking out on social media already. Then they blew through their Kickstarter goal on day one and added in Lucy Sullivan and Mark Stafford whilst also putting out a rallying cry dropping the names of some mighty UK anthologies that I love.
So, I thought I’d followed up with some questions to dig into it and flesh out their plans and ethos. You can see more details about the anthology and contributors at the end of the interview!
ZL – You mentioned that the SKRAWLLORDZ formed after meeting up and chatting at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival and I was wandering what it was at that meeting that galvanised you as a group to get together and put out SKRAWL?
RMO – Away from the con, we were sharing an Airbnb. While individually, most of us knew each other, none of us knew everyone. But we all knew of each other’s work. I took my laptop and a microphone along in the hopes that at some point during the weekend-long convention we’d get a chance to all sit down together and talk comics. The Friday night before the con we recorded over an hour’s worth of discussion on topics ranging from individual process to the ins-and-outs of printing. From that conversation, and many more over the weekend, we bonded and formed the SKRAWLLORDZ. For the particulars, you’ll have to ask the group’s chronicler, Pete Taylor. We kept in touch and over the coming months the idea for a joint publication developed. Looking back, it was a pretty natural progression. Put a bunch of comic makers together in a room full of chimps on typewriters and eventually the chimps type out a note to the comic makers reading “Make a damned comic together, morons!”.
Escape Issue 5 Phil Elliott cover
Revolver cover by Shaky Kane
ZL – You’ve mentioned Escape, Revolver and Pssst! as inspirations, what is it you see in these that’s common to what you hope to achieve with SKRAWL?
RMO – Firstly, the magazine format allowed these great publications to stay nimble, agile. To bring in topical work that could address issues quickly and not get bogged down in exposition. The format allows for comics, journalism, prose, and the kitchen sink to sit side-by-side without being a jarring read. These magazines could capture a moment in comics and culture so quickly and effectively. We’d really like to be able to bottle that lightning.
Secondly, we loved the freedom to think about short form and long form comics. That’s the beauty of anthology mags. Ongoing stories and one-offs. If say, Nick Prolix hit on an idea that we wanted to run with, he could produce 5-8 pages every issue of a single thought or storyline while still being able to focus on his personal body of work. If say, he decided that he wanted to change tack for one issue, the melting pot magazine allows that. If he wanted to run with a political space thriller and dropped it into an issue of Slang Pictorial and had to elbow out the residents of Bouveray Town, readers might be a bit confused. The mag allows for that freedom of experimentation and for quick directional changes.
Tertiarily, collaboration. In future, we plan on doing much more of it. We’re all cartoonists, meaning we write and draw, and can letter, colour, do product design, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. We’re all confident with each other to send scripts around, share inking work, do colours here, or letter there. Many hands make light work.
Fourth, the opportunity to invite some incredible talent to add to the mags. To give both industry stalwarts and up-and-comers a chance to explore, or maybe dust-off stuff that’s been sitting around for years which has yet been able to find a home. At the moment, everyone is UK-based. But it’d be great to run with the international ethos of LICAF and bring Europeans, South Americans–hell, the world— to SKRAWL. Escape did that brilliantly. Something Pete said recently has really stuck with me. “I’m a fan of good comics. If it’s a good comic, we want it in SKRAWL.”
Lastly, they all had a bit of an edge. Hard to define, harder to capture. I suppose it boils down to risk. Risk in many forms. I think we’re all pretty comfortable with risk. Pssst!, Escape and Revolver were definitely happy taking risks.
ZL – As you’ve already blown through your first target and will definitely be putting out your first issue, what are your plans, if any, for the future?
RMO – The short answer: there will be more SKRAWL. The longer answer is a bit inchoate. We’re ironing out the details at the moment, but the things that we’re sure of, is that we have loved putting this together and want to do more. More contributors, more collaboration, wider reach. What we’re not sure of is output. Ideally, we’ll put out two a year. That might mean making the individual issues leaner, maybe 3 SKRAWLLORDZ per issue + guests, or the SKRAWLZ will do more collaborative pieces while guests can show off what they do best, or a combination of these things. We’re all involved in other projects, so we have to cut our cloth to measure, but we’re staying forward thinking. That’s not necessarily a hinderance. Ultimately, SKRAWL, as Pete said above, is about good comics. It wouldn’t surprise me if it naturally evolves. It probably will several times. But at its heart, we’ll do our best to take risks, explore, collaborate, and lift other voices.
ZL – I’m always banging on about money, so I have to ask whether any of you will be making anything from this anthology and whether your future plans include paying contributors or using additional money to widen distribution or anything else you may have thought of?
RMO – Possibly not the soundest business model, but almost all of the money will be going to pay our guests and cover print costs. Anything that’s left over we’ll be using towards the magazine. That may mean figuring out distribution channels (we’d love for SKRAWL to act as an ambassador for the UK scene (even though we do plan on widening our net and bringing in international voices), so possibly translated editions), convention representation, promotional materials, marketing, or plugging back into guest rates for the next one. Ideally, we’d get to a place of self-sustainability. But print markets are increasingly tumultuous, new and established magazines bite the dust daily. We might move towards a subscription model if we can get a few issues out on a trackable schedule, but these are all questions that we’ll be deliberating on once the first issue is in circulation. It’s exciting, wild stuff. Possibly a little mad. But no one stays in comics for the money.
ZL – Last question, I promise, what do you hope Skrawl will bring to the current marketplace for comics and the history of comics?
RMO – Maybe it’s just because we’re in the shadow of Covid-19, but this “feels” like one of those Moments in Comics. Distribution has been partially/temporarily disrupted. Books have been canned, pushed back, mothballed. Artists and writers are roaming the prairies, tasting the dust, listening to the ground for the tell-tale signs of buffalo, dipping their tin pans in streams new. Retailers have scrambled onto their rooftops, their eyes scanning the horizon for the arrival of the airlift helicopters. When we started planning SKRAWL, Covid had yet to hit the news, but by coincidence, we feel we’ve tapped into something, a moment, which is bigger than your average occurrences. How SKRAWL fits into that moment, we’ll have to wait and see. But there have been anthology periodicals which have managed to be more than just a genre vehicle, more than just a single-topical-issue-mag-of-the-hour. This is possibly–as were books like those mentioned above or RAW or Rubber Blanket–a time capsule of what was going on in the UK indie scene at this point in time.
RAW cover by Art Spiegelman
Rubber Blanket cover by David Mazzucchelli
Let me add a caveat to that. The UK indie scene is massive and has talent of which no single mag could possibly hold. The last thing we’d want to do is self-proclaim ourselves to be the keepers of the keys. Lemme tell you. Give us a set of keys and we will lose them faster than a hot minute. But our camaraderie, and our combined network means that all of those creators currently delivering gold are an email away from joining in on the fun. I guess we’re all at a point in our careers where we’ve been around long enough to have a decent grip on the ins and outs of book production but aren’t so swamped with phone calls from the big leagues that has allowed us to confidently produce something which we feel is a good and necessary addition to the indie market. How does that sound? Time will tell. Finger’s crossed in twenty years from now an aspiring UK cartoonist will find a bundle of SKRAWLS in her local Oxfam for a tenner, and she’ll take them home, read them, and then feel inspired to call her friends and say, hey, let’s make something special. That or “Christ, people didn’t know how to draw back then.” I’d be happy with either. Being remembered is being remembered, right?
ZL – I’m sure they will be inspired! On which note, tell us some more about the details of the anthology.
RMO – Continuing in the tradition of Escape, Pssst!, and Revolver , SKRAWL is a comic anthology magazine featuring cartoonists, artists, and writers primarily from the UK’s independent comic scene. The magazine was launched on Kickstarter on August 1st and met its goal in under 24 hours. With a long list of up-and-coming UK talent as well as established professionals, SKRAWL promises to be one of the most exciting comic anthologies of the year.
The core of SKRAWL are the SKRAWLLORDZ (Mark Hughes (Silverbeard), RussellMark Olson (Gateway City; Tripwire Award Best New Talent 2018; Yancy Street Award Best UK artist 2018), Nick Prolix (Slang Pictorial), Martin Simpson(Needleman, Pipedream Comics Top 10 Indie Comics of the Year 2018), Pete Taylor (Silverbeard) and Gustaffo Vargas (Manu, Pipedream Comics Indie Comic of the Year winner, 2019)) who formed during last year’s LICAF. The magazine will also feature guest spots by their chums, including UK-indie royalty Phil Elliott (Tales from Gimbley), Rosie Packwood (Bun), Jessica Lucas (Yours, Yesterday), Matt Simmons (Bastard Galaxia), and the Cartoon Museum’s Artist-in-residence, Mark Stafford(The Bad Bad Place). To further accentuate the magazine-ness of the anthology, John Reppion (Conspiracy of Ravens) and Lucy Sullivan (Barking) will provide an illustrated short folk horror story.
The SKRAWL Kickstarter campaign offers backers the chance to get on board the publication either as a fully digital or print edition, with retailer tiers for comic shops and bookstores. The magazine will be US format, (a bit bigger and a lot wider than a US comic– at 280 x 210mm) perfect bound, and currently sitting at a page count of 84… but we’d like to expand outwards a bit through stretch goals.
The campaign can be found on Kickstarter. Funding began August 1st and ends on Thursday, August 20th at noon BST. Digital backers can get the full magazine for £5, while the physical magazine is £12 (plus shipping). Retailers in the UKand EU can take advantage of the retailer tier which offers 8 copies for £48 (plus shipping). For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gallery of contributors
What The Actual Folk – Mark Hughes art
Gateway City – Russell Mark Olson
Issue 1 page 23
A Carnival for the Lost – Martin Simpson
Monster Kids Show & Yell – Pete Taylor
MANU – Gustaffo Vargas
Illegal Alien page – written by James Robinson
Blinker – Rosie Packwood
Jessica Lucas illustration
Bastard Galaxia art by Matt Simmons
Lip Hook art by Mark Stafford
all art copyright and trademark it’s respective owners.
I first saw Daniel Bristow-Bailey’s work when he offered up free copies of his prose zine Dog. I ordered it on the strength of the cover, Dog handwritten above a very detailed drawing of a frog. It made me laugh, there was something oddly significant in that juxtaposition, couldn’t tell you why, but there was.
Shortly after that he started his Anxious Comics series, which is a fast paced, underground influenced mash series that has a lot of nonsense and yet some very powerful moments. It’s daft, but also on point and so, exactly what I enjoy.
He’s an eclectic creator and has a set of skills that make his work pop.
Can you tell us a bit about the first creator whose work you recognised?
It would have been someone from 2000AD. I remember being very excited by Kevin O’Neill’s run on Nemesis and Simon Bisley’s painted artwork for Sláine. If I look at Bisley’s stuff now I find it hard to get past the grotesque anatomy, but as with people like Todd MacFarlane in the US he pushed past his technical limitations with a raw energy that appealed to adolescent boys. I don’t mean that as snootily as it sounds! Adolescent boys can be fierce critics.
Kev O’Neill – Nemesis the Warlock
Simon Bisley – Slaine
Which creators do you remember first copying?
My mum, who should get most of the credit for teaching me to draw, always strongly discouraged me from copying directly, but I came pretty close to it with Moebius! He always makes it look so (deceptively) easy that it’s hard not to have a go oneself.
Who was the creator that you first thought ‘I’m going to be as good as you!’?
That’s an interesting question. Probably Gilbert Shelton. I started reading the Freak Brothers when I was far too young (got to thank my mum again for that) and that “underground” style with lots of fine linework and cross-hatching seemed to be achievable with the materials I had at home. I think the Shelton influence still shows in my black-and-white stuff.
Which creator or creators do you currently find most inspiring?
In terms of comics, I’ve recently discovered Al Columbia. I can’t remember the last time I found an artist who really disturbed me like his stuff does. Even the more restrained stuff has an evil, haunted quality. The book I’ve got (Pim and Francie, Fantagraphics, 2009) feels like a cursed object, like the Necronomicon in Lovecraft’s stories, or the video cassette in the Ring. It’s a great example of text, illustration and book design all working together.
Al Columbia – Pim and Francie
Nabokov – Pale fire – Gingko Press edition
I’ve been reading a lot of Nabokov. He’s one of those writers I keep coming back to. Sometimes I like to think about how you could do a graphic novel of “Pale Fire”. The first half of the book is a very long poem, written by one fictitious character, and the second half is a collection of footnotes to the poem, written by a second fictitious character, who has stolen the manuscript and is preparing an unauthorised edition of the poem. As the notes digress further and further from the text of the poem, another narrative emerges, that may or may not be “true”, so it would probably be impossible to do a graphic novel adaptation, but thinking about how one might do impossible things is often creatively rewarding.
Which creators do you most often think about?
Aside from the people I’ve mentioned already, I think a lot about David Lynch. I’ve always liked his stuff but Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) absolutely blew me away. There were points I was watching that when I thought “I didn’t know you could do that with television”. I think whenever a work expands your ideas about what’s possible within a particular medium you know you’re in the presence of real Art with a capital A. I love the sense of mystery in Lynch’s stuff, which I think comes from his letting the subconscious take the lead in the creative process – he talks a lot about using ideas or imagery from dreams, or meditation. It’s a process I’ve consciously been emulating with “Anxious Comics”.
Anxious Comics – issue 3 page 4
Can you name the first three creative peers that come into your head and tell a little bit about why?
Gareth Hopkins, because I’ve just finished doing a page for his “no new ideas” project. It was great fun getting to paint over a copy of one of his pages. Gareth posts a lot of his process online and I’ve found it inspiring how he reworks and recycles stuff. His work has definitely encouraged me to veer more towards abstraction, and not to be afraid, in comics, of decoupling the text from the image – I think he was a big influence on my one-shot “the Screaming”.
Gareth Brookes. I’ve not talked to Gareth much about process but he seems drawn to ridiculously labour-intensive media, like embroidery or linocuts. As if making comics wasn’t hard enough already! But as I said before, there’s nothing like setting yourself an impossible challenge to get the creative juices flowing. Also, when I look at the spread of stuff he’s got for sale at conventions – a mix of self-published zines and two or three big hardback books published more traditionally, I think it’s where I’d like to be myself in a few years’ time, so I guess he’s kind of a role model for me right now.
Hannah Lee Miller is producing some lovely stuff. I picked up a copy of her zine about condiments at Catford Zine Fair and it’s one of those things that initially seems rather slight and inconsequential but is actually really, really good, it just doesn’t shout about it. Also, Hannah is, in my limited experience, infallibly enthusiastic about other comic / zine people and always ready to help out or lend support where it’s needed. An asset to the scene.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about your recent work and yourself?
For a long time I tried to be self-disciplined and only work on one thing at once, but recently I’ve come to accept that I’m happier when I have several projects, preferably in different media, on the go at once.
The last thing I self-published was “The Screaming”, an experimental one-shot comic about dreams and mental health. I wrote about it in some detail for Broken Frontier.
I’ve got five pages in the upcoming anthology by Obsolete Comics. I’m really excited about this one as it looks like it’s going to be great, and hopefully represents the start of another small comics press. We can never have enough small comics presses.
I’ve also got Anxious Comics, my ongoing series – four issues out to date and the fifth long overdue! My long-term plan with that, if you can call it that, is to keep it going between other projects for as long as it needs to, or until I get bored. At some point it would be nice to do a collected edition.
I’m currently drawing a comic written by Steve Thompson, which he’ll be pitching to publishers soon I think. I like drawing other people’s scripts because it forces me to draw stuff I otherwise wouldn’t think of.
Looking to the longer term, I’m working on a script for a longer-form comic. It’s kind of a superhero thing. But not quite. I’ve got this character who’s kind of my own take on the super-violent costumed vigilantes like the Punisher and Deadpool that were popular when I was a kid, but transplanted to the “real world” of early-noughties London. It’s pretty bleak. I think it’s funny myself but as with some other stuff I’ve self-published in the past it will probably cause people to express concern for my mental health.
Bio: Daniel Bristow-Bailey was born in London in 1978. Growing up during the “dark age” of mainstream comics, he quickly became attracted to the alternative / indie scene and, encouraged by his mum and the bloke in the local comic shop, started drawing his own from an early age. Like many others, he drifted away from comics in his late teens, put off by their uncool image and lack of seriousness compared to grown-up art and literature, but came back to them in recent years as he realised that no-one was going to think he was cool or take him seriously anyway. As well as making his own comics, he draws other people’s scripts and sometimes writes prose fiction. He has a day job working as a mental health person in schools. He lives in Richmond with his wife and two children.
Thank you very much for taking the time to fill this out and let us into your mind.
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At the beginning of the year I wrote about 5 works that I thought deserved recognition. One of these was Star Bright and you’ll find what I wrote about it here, this will be a very specific dig into just a little thing I noticed in the work that struck me.
I keep coming back to this work for a couple of personal reasons, not the least of which is that it’s really a good world to spend time in. By that I mean that, I enjoy how calm it is, that it’s filled with kindness, but most of all, the strongest sense that brings me back is how it models acceptance. Sometimes showing an answer is the best way to help someone with hard questions.
So, I guess I’ve read it four or five times by now, critically read it I should qualify and then the other night, that’s mid-April 2020 or mid COVID-19 lockdown, I just sat down to enjoy it and not dig in.
Then I started noticing something I’d not picked up before, which is one of the joys of re-reading really. Now, I can’t say for definite whether it was intentional, whether it was the writer or the artist or the team figuring it out. I can say it doesn’t matter, sometimes you’re a good story because things happened that came together well. I can tell you that I had seen these things, but not consciously considered them before. To unpack that, my mind has felt the story being built those actions, but until now I’d never THOUGHT about how that was achieved.
I’m going to stop being coy in just a few more lines, but I want one more piece of context before I do that. When you write a story, you will have actions, scenarios and often similes and analogies in your story. It’s considered good literature if you manage these in a consistent way, so all similes relate to water or fire. In visual media you can achieve the same but in a slightly different manner, they are often repeated visual cues. Critics have picked apart works like Watchmen for its use of such literary techniques.
Well, here I was stuck inside and facing another seven weeks before I could go out. I have a child we’re having to shield and had spent two weeks with them having to be separated from my other two children and then from me as we showed symptoms. Then I was reading and seeing all these panels with hands clutched away from friends, afraid to reach out as well as panels of hands just gently held, friends in love with their friends. It was like fire through my veins, but it was also so very simple and very human and that’s why I keep coming back to this beautiful little comic.
Robin and Sarah in the background holding hands
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We’re back with a lovely long interview with cult comics publisher, maker and general poetry aficionado Ken Eppstein.
I’ve known about Nix Comics since its first being mentioned on The Comics Reporter and been intrigued by how grass roots and open it seems as a publisher.
Then I saw a blog post where Ken went into details on sales and breakeven and knew I had to dig into this. Ken was incredibly helpful and polite throughout this whole process and comes across as a genuine and honest person – it made it great fun to be in touch and sort this out.
ZL – I’m going to start all sensible and check my facts out first. My understanding is that Nix Comics started around 2008 as a publisher, is that right?
KE – More like 2010 for Nix proper. I started doing some cartoons and submitting them to Roctober Magazine around 2008, though. They were adaptations of interviews that I had conducted a few years before that as part of a newsletter for Evil Empire Records’ regular customers. I couldn’t mentally have gotten to “Nix Comics” without Roctober. Advice/help from Jake Austen was pretty instrumental to me, though, so I wouldn’t quibble if you called 2008 the start in that sense.
ZL – I’ve read that you had decided to end your record shop and find new adventures. That went with coming back to comics and finding there weren’t many comics that suited your tastes, so you thought you’d make your own. Does that sound about right?
KE – Hahaha…. “Decided” is a generous way to put it. The brick and mortar Evil Empire Records was a flop. Not enough people in Columbus who want to buy Billy Childish records, I guess. (Town full of fuckin’ heathens.)
By the time I was starting to do comics stuff, my retail efforts were limited to on-line sales, which didn’t bring me the same joy: the only part of running a retail operation that I really enjoy is meeting people and making recommendations. I was at a point where I needed more personally. I can’t tell you why all the pieces of Nix Comics snapped into place specifically at that point in time, but long stifled creative urges were finally bubbling over in my brain.
And yep… My perception was that there weren’t a lot of comics to my taste when I started making my own. And there hadn’t been for many years. I felt that way and said as much at the time, but I do feel like qualifying that opinion nowadays. I hadn’t had my ear to the ground for a while and the only experience I was going from was my knowledge of what was coming to stores that only sell Diamond distributed products. If I had bothered to actually go looking instead of shooting my mouth off, I would have found stuff. What I should have said is “there is never enough” stuff that I personally want to read.
ZL – When you started, did you expect that you’d be able to make a good living – well, as good as selling records – from doing comics, or do you have an additional set of income, so it’s more of a moot point?
KE – A good friend of mine once ribbed me by saying it was “awesome” that I based the Nix Comics business model on the tiny, mostly defunct, independent records that I loved. I had to laugh, because it was definitely true… My plans had a lot in common with how outfits like Estrus Records and Get Hip Records operated. Those labels were distribution efforts created to be vehicles for the Mono-Men and the Cynics, respectively, but they grew to include other acts that fit into that 90s garage punk scene. Anyways, I figured it would be a way to make a little extra side cash with the potential of it becoming a fulltime thing if all the streams converged properly.
I also was aware of the worst-case scenario, that maybe Nix would never would catch and I would blow a lot of money on something that only a handful of people appreciated. I mean… How much mass appeal can there be for a comic whose main distinctive feature is that the lead writer likes to include oblique references to Kasenetz & Katz Super Circus songs? I was (and am) cool with that in the sense that I don’t really have any other vices these days. Don’t drink or smoke or gamble outside of the occasional lottery ticket. Making comics keeps me out of trouble.
I should add for the record, Get Hip = NOT defunct! (Record pun intended.)
ZL – Is that lack of commercial need aided by you living somewhere cheap or do you just have low expectations for cost and lifestyle?
KE – Ah… you know… My expectations are always butting up against my pragmatism. Expectations are my Mr. Hyde: furious, sad and confused that I can’t sell a couple thousand of the comics and zines that I feel are good and different. That’s what? 50 copies per state in the US? Even accounting for the relative paucity of people in Montana, that’s not an unreasonable goal, right?
My pragmatic Jekyll knows all too well that it’s never been easy or likely for artists to make a living. My guess is that it’s harder than ever because thanks to things like crowdfunding and print on demand services, the bar for entry into the field is lower than ever. That’s great in the sense that I believe that all artists should have access to means for creation, but it’s a drag in terms of an overcrowded field.
The funny thing is I sometimes feel like I’m by default Hyde and I need to take the potion to turn into Jekyll.
ZL – Yeah, I know what you mean. I’ve got to a point where I feel like I’m so likely to fail it just doesn’t even matter anymore, not sure what that counts as but I’m going to coin the phrase ‘entropic pragmatism’ I’m so despondent it seems like it doesn’t actually matter so I can justify giving it a go. That sounds quite messed up when I say it out loud! Moving quickly back to you then…
When you first started up Nix comics what did you think you’d be able to achieve, in what timescale?
KE – Ack. You ask hard questions. Tough to answer because the immediate goal has always been the next book or next few books, whatever they may be. Everything else was (and is) pretty experimental.
I had a good day job at the time I started and spent year one throwing money at Nix, hoping it would jumpstart things. My goals were pretty standard, I think, for wannabe publishers: I wanted to make sure all the artists got paid and to print enough copies that I could make some money if they all sold. I thought I would pick up distribution and get to the point where it was at least self-sustaining. I was also hoping to get a core group of artists locked down… Like, so they could plan on having X amount of work every year from me.
It was pretty clear to me by the end of the year that things just weren’t going to work out that way.
Second year I tried to just do titles where I paid artists a percentage of sales. Only two titles in 2012, Nix Western Comics and Nix Comics for Kids. It worked OK… Nix Western actually made both me and Bob Starker a little money. (Sad story: the little bit of money Bob made was by his account more money than he had made in his entire three-decade musical career.) Nix for Kids was a bomb and I went into the red for it and only paid Brian Kraft a pittance for a 20-page full color comic.
Kind of hated the extra work for not a lot of money involved in that whole process and, with the exception of the Belligerent Kitties minis, haven’t done anything but a flat rate for a maximum number of printings since. Like if I give somebody $150 for a Bus Stop Ned, that’s good for printing 2000 copies of that comic. Any other publications or merchandising would require a new deal. There’s potentially a lot more money on the back end for me than the artist gets up front, but I think that’s fair.
I also changed my plans for reach. After being rejected by Diamond and a brief relationship with Ubiquity Magazine distributors I adopted a “Columbus first, then the world” mentality. I’ve really tried to concentrate on being a notable publisher here in town in hopes that I can spring off of that into something more broadly notable. I have NO IDEA how to get that done, so no timeline on that goal.
For a long time, my focus was just on getting books out. I was pretty resigned to them not making money, but I really wanted them to get made! A couple of years ago I was forced to leave that “good job” and since have had sporadic employment. This has led to more of a focus on the books making money, or at least all of my side hustles making money. I miss the days when I could do whatever-the-fuck I wanted.
ZL – It seems like many creators have to flit about, scraping pennies together, more so than ever. I can’t really say why that is, I’m not sure anyone can, really. It seems like society is moving more and more to the job and side hustle and the hustle to the hustle. It’s like everything is just too much for even the basics to be affordable.
ZL – I skipped this in my fact check, sorry for going back but, for those who don’t know anything about you, could you give a brief history of Nix comics; where you’re based, and the kind of titles and creators you publish? Am I right in saying your based in Columbus, where CXC and the Billy Ireland started up in the last few years?
KE – Yep, I’ve lived in Columbus for the past 30 years, minus a brief stay in Boston in the early 90s and a brief stay in San Francisco in the early 00s. I think this is the 5th year for CXC coming up and the 7th for the current Billy Ireland digs. (Those numbers should be right within a year or so.)
The Billy Ireland had been around as a library and archive for many years prior to that: divided up between a warehouse and a tiny library in an Ohio State University basement… I think one of the great shames OSU should feel is that they kept such a great resource buried in a basement for fuckin’ decades. I’m glad now that it is starting to get the space and recognition it deserves.
Wait… This question was about me and Nix Comics. Like we said, I started working on Nix in 2010. My idea was to make the kind of comics that would sell well in record stores in addition to comic shops. The old saw is true: you write and publish about the stuff you know. There was also a certain amount of math to it, too: There were, I think, 3 comic shops in town at the time and 8 record shops. I knew the people at record shops but didn’t really know the comic shop folks at the time.
Digging down on that a little, I’ve always focused on music themed comics…. Whether that connection is something obvious like stories about bands and record stores, doing biographical material or just based on the artist also being a musician. That has led to a lot of different genres, artistic styles and book formats, so I don’t know how successful I’ve been in communicating that to readers. Sometimes I feel like no one else gets it and sometimes I feel like people get it and are just quietly nodding until I shut the fuck up.
ZL – I was doing a bit of research on you and was very impressed by your commitment from the very start to have open books, particularly for the sake of the artists working with you, so they understood what had been achieved. As well as ensuring everyone was paid as fairly as you could.
Has that worked out positively for you, or not made any real kind of impact?
KE – Well, I think that the answer to that has more to do with anecdotal experiences leading up to my deciding to pay artists. I guess first up, I am a recovering Stan Lee True Believer. I bit hard on the Stan mythos as a kid and it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I really read up on him as a subject and was forced to examine the reality of the person behind the myth. I still idolize the mythic figure in ways, but I want to be a better person as an actual collaborator, editor, and publisher. Same goes for Bill Gaines and Jim Warren…. I’d like to take the good from their careers and improve on the bad.
Along those lines, right before I started Nix Comics I had read Eric Davidson’s “We Never Learn” about 90s punk and garage. There’s a great part where Danny Kroha from the Gories relates about he had the most respect for Tim Warren from Crypt Records of all the record label folks because Warren always sent a sales report with a check every year. Kroha admitted that he sometimes doubted the accuracy of the numbers, but that Warren was the only label/distro that even bothered with regular reporting.
For more musical context, Nix Comics was also formed right on the heels of the Dead Kennedys’ royalty lawsuit. Not that I was ever a huge fan of the band, but I ended up losing a lot of respect for everyone involved in that mess. Like, how on earth do these self-identified leftists end up fighting about royalties? It didn’t help that in addition to actual court, they tried the matter in the court of public opinion in the opening days of social media connectivity.
All that said, the experience that most fixed my point of view on all that was a personal one. Bear with me, because I’m going to tell a story without mentioning any names because it involves people I like on all ends and I don’t know the whole actual truth… But there’s a guy I know who worked at a local record store and is in a garage rock band of note. Not like Mudhoney level famous or anything, but beloved by a lot of people who are into such things. This fella and I were talking record store business when a specific distro came up, and my friend melted down. Like a full-on fist waving and red-faced vein-popping out of his forehead screaming meltdown.
He ranted on about how the distro in question was a bunch of crooks who owe his band money. I know the distro folks in question, and while I don’t doubt that they may have owed my friend money, I don’t think they are nefarious. I do think they are capable of fucking up and not communicating well about it. I think all parties concerned are capable of blowing up and ending an argument before its resolved, creating a feud. Anyways, I hated suddenly being in the middle of a fight like that and can only imagine how much I’d hate being actually a participant in the fight. Pretty much I want to avoid ever having somebody blast me like that, and the only way I can think of is to be as transparent and forthcoming as possible.
So… you know… Some altruism and some being chicken-shit was involved in setting those policies.
Has it had an impact? Maybe, but I think that’s not the right word for it. It’s bought me a lot of leeway with artists as they always know where I’m coming from. Maybe a little too much leeway as I still owe Rick Brooks a couple hundred bucks for his work in Nix Western #4. Similar, I feel like I owe Andy Bennett some extra money for Jenny Mae ‘N Jerry Wick because the page count went up on him between start and finish of the project. I don’t think and wouldn’t expect those guys to give me any leeway on all if I didn’t have open books and a history of making good. I feel like I’m in a little bit of abuse of that goodwill at the moment and am working on making it right.
ZL – This interview came about partly because of I follow you thanx to the mentions on Comics Reporter, but specifically because I picked up on your post about breaking even, and I wondered if you’d met with any increased interest because of that post? Has there been any kind of feedback at all really, or just some tumble weed and me going, ‘Oo, oo, that’s really interesting!’ because I’m nosy like that?
KE – I do that kind of essay periodically and do get feedback and interest on them, mostly from people who are interested in the nuts and bolts of the industry. You’d have to ask him to be sure, but I think that kind of material is part of why Tom posts about me on Comics Reporter.
I guess the column I did for the Outhouse for a year or two had some fans. I look back on those writings, though, and kind of hate their tone… They read like I’m trying to “establish myself as an expert.” Maybe I was trying to do that, but nowadays I don’t like the idea of trying to turn experience into social currency.
I do keep beating head up against the notion that sharing information about my finances and how much money I pay to artists is a “big” selling point. It’s not. There are a few people for who that is true, but by in large, hardly anyone cares.
I also get a lot of fellow creator-types saying, “wow that’s really brave of you,” which is weird to me. I don’t understand what’s so scary about it. Like is it a big secret that making small press comics isn’t a moneymaking effort? Is money so personal that I’m breaking taboo by talking about it? Like revealing how the magic trick is done or wrestling match is choreographed or something? I dunno.
ZL – In my experience, money is always a risk area of conversation, I don’t tend to care about it, but then in my first few weeks at current job, I mentioned my pay rate around a colleague who’d been there longer, was more experienced and more senior and earning, it turns out, thousands less than me. They got quite personally upset and that shook me. I mean if they’d just been mad at work, I’d have felt vindicated, but that was personal for them, so it was really ‘urgh, why didn’t I shut up!’
I think it’s the same in most fields. Maybe, in the arts, it’s almost like having to admit you’re not a REAL artist if you can’t pay your way, you’re a hobbyist or something? I’m going off track and casting wild aspersions here.
Back to tack, I mentioned the reasons for why I follow you, because I’m always intrigued to know the causality of relationships, what led to what led to what etc. I wonder if part of what you’re trying to do is to create a space where work you can admire can start to flourish, where people can see it has a place to exist? Essentially, trying to create a place that suits you and then attract others to it. Or are you making stuff because you can’t stop yourself?
KE – Yes to both.
ZL – What are your feelings about the lack of honesty about numbers in comics in general – were you surprised by your numbers when they started coming in, or were you clued in early to sales and sales barriers within comics?
KE – Is there dishonesty or just a deafening silence amongst the people involved? I guess that would be lies of omission, but I don’t feel like anyone out there is being particularly deceptive about the financial realities of making comics.
Going back to an earlier answer, an expectant Hyde was surprised and dismayed by sales numbers and the ever-pragmatic Jekyll wasn’t.
ZL – You make a fair point there, that’s a mis-characterisation, maybe it’s more accurate to say what are your feelings about the lack of a wider discussion about financial realities.
I’m guessing there will be many that haven’t read your article, so could you briefly describe where your sales are in terms of break even, just a sort of, ‘this many titles made money, this many titles are within 1-20 of making money, this many have a loooong way to go’?
KE – Sorry for a bad interview answer here: They should just go read the essay! Or at least lookit the graph that answers your question!
ZL – That’s more than fair I think. It’s a good article, I enjoyed it very much.
Getting back to the start of Nix Comics, I’m interested to know how you decided on your initial numbers, was it based on a marketplace assessment, segmented by a target audience, more of a finger in the air, or the more hopeful, well if I sell this amount it’ll cover all the costs and it doesn’t seem that unreasonable to expect these sales figures?
KE – For the first couple of years a lot of it was pretty much dictated by where the price breaks were on print runs. Since I had aspirations of getting distribution in year one, I had to print quantities that would get me to the point where selling at 40% of cover price made sense. While I was working hard to get my books in stores sans-distributor I was shooting for whatever print run quantity made sense to sell at 50% of cover. I guess I’m still at that point, but I have cut back my wholesale activities a lot because it’s a lot of work with crappy margins. I’d rather make the sale myself at cover price than sell a copy for half that only to see it slaving away on a forgotten shelf in some store. That shit is debilitating.
In terms of artist pay the quarterly has maintained a store rate as opposed to a page rate. It started as $150 for a short (1-3 pages) and $300 for a feature (4-8 pages). I offer a little more for features now. This kept things in the range where I could look at wholesale distribution as a viable option. I also wanted it to incentivize shorter submissions, which was a punk rock thing; viewing each issue as a compilation record, I wanted lots of short rippers and fewer drippy ballads. I don’t remember how I arrived at those specific rates.
ZL – It sounds like you were considering breaking even on sales. Would you say that’s what drove you at the start, were you considering this in terms of your own ongoing business concerns or were you aimed more at driving sales or attention to the creator(s) and their published work?
KE – Clearly breaking even isn’t a prerequisite for me moving on to something else! I mean, ideally one project would pay for the next, but that’s just not the reality. Almost all of my decision drivers in that sense are whether or not I want to see the thing happen. More often than not the motivation for wanting the thing to happen is that I think the creators involved deserve an audience or that their work deserves “life.”
ZL – I also wonder after what expectations you set yourself at first and how realistic those sales or rather, your measures for sales, were in the end. I just wonder how much energy over time has been linked to your expectations not being met by reality and what emotional effect that had upon you?
KE – Shit. I’m always disappointed by sales. I’m in love with what I put out and don’t understand why it’s so damn hard to sell. There might be a step on the ladder where I’m satisfied with sales, but I ain’t hit it yet.
I don’t stress about it like some artists and publishers, because it’s not life or death for me, but I definitely feel it.
ZL – This is a tricky one to slip in, but, I wonder after how much emotion and anxiety you expected to be involved in the process and whether you were prepared for how much there actually was?
I particularly wonder after the amount of guilt involved in publishing, around having your own expectations for success and having to reconcile that with reality and having to deal with other creators’ own sense of worth and expectations of what makes that work worthwhile?
KE – Well, I’m here to tell you that the anxiety of no-one-buying-my comic is NOWHERE near the anxiety level of starting and failing at a brick and mortar retail business. I would spend days alone in a shop sweating over how I was going to pay two rents, two electric bills, two phone bills, etc. There were days when I was hoping just one comic or record would sell so I could go buy some eggs for the week. I think that experience for me definitely tamps down any angst I might feel about comics. If a Nix Comic flops, I’m out some dough and I have to decide what to do with the boxes of unsold material, but I’m not sitting alone in a room sweating about how will I be able to pay for one of my two rents. Or worse, hoping for just one sale so I can buy some beans and rice on the way home.
I do struggle with my expectations versus the reality of things, but I find guilt to be one of those angsty emotions. Frustration that I can’t reach more people? Yes, definitely. Anguish that even in a group of noted weirdos, I’m still the weird kid out? Yeah, that too. I guess that on occasion I feel envy of peers who have some success. That in turn leads to guilt over having such shitty thoughts… But that’s not guilt about my lack of success.
ZL – Did you even consider emotions and their impact on you going into the process and did it rear itself as an issue more as you went on?
KE – Yeah, I suppose I did. I’ve always hung out with artist types and was vicariously familiar with the ups and downs of an artistic career. Thanks to that I feel like I can avoid most of the emotional pitfalls of the process.
ZL – Moving away from commercial matters to more community related things, you’re now in something of a comics heartland I believe. I certainly know that I first heard of you from The Comic Reporter site and Tom Spurgeon mentioning you when he’d moved to Columbus and started working on CXC.
Have you seen anything of a change in the area relating to the new festival and the Billy Ireland library opening?
KE – Well, they are big public resources and as such they are what people in the comics community make of them. Some members of the community embrace the Billy and CXC, making the most of their presence, and others don’t.
The Billy Ireland doesn’t have any specifically local bent to its programs, so I have a hard time saying that the institution has made changes to the local comics community. It’s just not part of their mission. The Billy did hire Caitlin McGurk who has been a tremendous friend and supporter of local artists since her first day on the job, so that’s pretty impactful.
I know that CXC has the desire to enhance the local community, but it’s not really their main focus. It’s a cool show: having a cool show in town is good for the community and they’ve been really good to me personally. I think there are some little things they could do here and there to help the local community, like hire a local artist to do a promo poster.
ZL – Is there a sense of change within your comics community, or does it feel like that’s a million miles away from where you are?
KE – I don’t know. I can’t speak for the Columbus comics community. It’s a pretty eclectic group with different needs and points of view. I’ll say this: It’s grown a lot. When I started it was pretty easy to go out and meet everybody who makes comics in Columbus. Now I only know a fraction of the crowd and more kids are starting up every day.
ZL – Thinking about the wider community, are you finding that the nature of the area itself is changing, are rents increasing for example? Does this make you concerned about how viable the lifestyle you can currently achieve is going to remain?
KE – Yeah, like everywhere, rents are going up. Both residential and commercial. It’s driving out both a diversity of people and a diversity of businesses. That means fewer places to sell DIY type products combined with less money in everyone’s pockets. I am constantly ruminating over the increasing difficulty of day to day survival and what that means for art. This city right now is a lot different than the one I moved to 30 years ago and the changes are not “artistic lifestyle friendly.”
ZL – I seem to be hitting with some pretty heavy questions, sorry! I guess, particularly for someone based in the UK, the whole financial situation and publishing situation in America seems hard all round, especially when you’re having to think about medical bills or insurance as well!!
I’m going to lighten up a bit in a minute, I promise!
But not just yet!!!!
Tell us about your experience with running Kickstarter campaigns. You seem to have had your ups and downs with some failing to meet their target, but your most recent was pretty ambitious and ended up successfully. Have you picked that apart for yourself as to what may have made the difference?
KE – If you’ll permit me to continue to beat the metaphor to death, the two campaigns that failed were run by Hyde and the others were Jekyll operations.
For the 2013 “Big Ask” I was asking for $25K and figured I could get around 300 people to subscribe. There were plenty of people who I considered my peers getting that kind of action at the time. Turns out that they were my artistic peers, but in terms of having an active network of fans I wasn’t even close to them. I don’t remember if I thought I could actually make it or if I was just swinging for the fences. Either way, I whiffed.
The mistake I made for the 2014 campaign was that I knew I was asking for a fairly large chunk, but I figured people would step up for the two artists I was focusing on. Darren Merinuk has done posters and record sleeves on the cheap for literally 100s of bands. Bob Ray Starker has played a million live shows with and contributed on dozens of records for local bands without ever getting paid. I mentally multiplied those “100s” and ”dozens” of bands by number of band members and figured that there were more than enough people out there who owed Darren and Bob a little something and that I would make goal easy. Turns out all of those fuckers are ingrates. Still mad. Fuckin’ fuckface fuckers.
ZL – Are you finding it easier to get purchases now that Kickstarter has become something more central to the comics production cycle? Or has this hurt you, with the money and attention getting spread thinner now?
KE – For me personally? Kickstarter has been nothing but good. It’s a tool I understand, and my results have steadily gotten better over time. For the comic community as a whole, I do worry that it leads to overcrowding in the field since anyone who wants to make a comic book now can. That relationship between supply and demand is a real tricky thing.
ZL – Do you feel like this is a good way to sell and market your comics, along with convention attendance, or are you yearning, actively searching even, for a better way to get comics out there and making you money and getting you eyes on the work?
KE – Ideally people would just go to my mail order site and I could skip the third parties and middle men. It really annoys me that that doesn’t seem to be a viable thing.
ZL – Yeah, I wonder if site like Kickstarter have had an effect on audience expectation, maybe now they expect to find everything in one place, at their convenience. I remember being in love with the idea of subscriptions as a (lazy) kid and as an adult, I sort of feel like a subscription model should be able to work, but, anecdotally, I’ve got the feeling that it’s dead on the vine now as an approach. Unless you’re big enough to get a Patreon running…
I’m veering off subject again! I’ll lighten up on the heavy finance stuff and try for some controversy instead!!
This is probably a horrible question, but not too bad as you write most of your stories yourself, so I’m going to ask it anyway!
What title that you published is:
Your personal favorite?
The work you’re most proud to have published?
More commercially, what was the greatest income made for a creator?
KE – Funny story: I’m horrible at picking favorite anythings. I know I have them, but they don’t often bubble up when people ask me. Like recently someone asked me who my favorite actor is, and I couldn’t come up with a specific one. I went home and told my wife Kate about it and she just shook her head and told me that Vincent Price is clearly my favorite actor. She’s right of course. Unfortunately, for the purpose of this interview, I’m going to avoid embarrassing myself by asking her what my favorite Nix Comic is.
Right now, the book I’m most proud of releasing is Kent Grosswiler’s Beauty Found in Darkness. An illustrated book of urban haiku is about as far as I could push the envelope of “rock n roll comic” as I can imagine.
It was definitely a return to form of using artists peripheral to comics… Kent is an artistic polymath (Poet, painter, drummer) but not a comics guy. The illustrators on the book, Rob W. Jones and Alli MacGregor are fine artists, but also aren’t comic book people. It was really rewarding to work with all of them. Before that I think I was most proud of Nix Comics Quarterly #2. It’s not my “best” by far, but it was proof to myself that comics wasn’t just a one off for me. With issue #2 I knew that I could spend the rest of my life making comics if I want.
I don’t know for sure which artist I’ve paid the most money to. That’s a good question and probably worthy of some research and a personal blog post! It’s almost gotta be Andy Bennett since he has done two full lengths, a zine and a couple of features for Nix Comics Quarterly. ZL – What is it you feel being published by Nix comics has brought to the creators that worked with you that they couldn’t have found for themselves?
KE – Forgive me, but I’m not going to project on my collaborators that way. It’s got to be different for every one of them. If I can make more work for you, I’d be interested in hearing their answers if you are willing to ask them! (Hah!)
I know that there a few people who had never had their comics published by someone else before Nix. It’s a pretty cool feeling to have done that for someone.
ZL – What is the best outcome you’ve seen for a creator or work that you published?
KE – Three of the contributors to Nix Comics Quarterly #8 ended up winning Eisners last year! (John Jennings, Tillie Walden and Gideon Kendall) I can take exactly zero credit for that, but I’m so proud of them and happy that the world recognizes their talent and hard work as much as I do.
ZL – What do you think your company’s legacy has been in the market place and in creators lives so far?
That’s a slightly loaded question I know! But, I think this is one of those issues of appreciation.
If you sit back and reflect upon that, how does it make you feel about your efforts? Do you sit back and think about that?
KE – Y’know, I always joke about selling the rights to my epitaph. “For $1000 bucks you can write whatever you want on my tombstone.” Or whatever. The joke comes from an honest, if somewhat morbid, place: I’m not going to care what’s scrawled on a rock after I’m dead. In a lot of ways, I feel the same way about my comics legacy. Such a thing is always written by other people and I don’t have a lot of control over it, so let it be what it will be.
That’s not to say I don’t celebrate my successes or ruminate over my failures as they happen. Each comic I put out is its own triumph. I’m not sure that I care that much about who or how much they are celebrated after I’ve stopped. Recognition for my efforts now would be nice. Same for being called out on my failings, I suppose, in the spirit of letting me know what I’m doing wrong so I can feel bad now and course correct.
ZL – Do you have plans to do anything differently in the future? I’m thinking, for example, of whether large magazines and large crowdfunding campaigns are going to remain viable, have you considered the success of companies like Oily comics and how they published comics through a subscription model, with regular publications and small page counts to keep it cheap and build momentum. Let’s face it, The End Of The Fucking World was published monthly with only eight photocopied pages and it’s done pretty well for itself. There are other publishers adopting this model, skip out on the big social media platforms. Have you considered that as an option?
KE – I do have plans to do some things differently.
For one thing, I am going to make some format changes, which are a response to being sick of those break-even numbers. I’m sick of trying to get “there” five bucks at a time. I need to make more stuff in the $10+ cover price range. One Idea I’m seriously toying with is doing my horror anthology comic as a 12×12 book with an optional LP compilation “de-luxe” version. It’s a pretty natural step, given that in my mind the comic anthology format is a clear parallel to compilation albums.
I’m thinking of doing a quarterly zine that is available for download as well as in print. Ideally It would be more ad revenue driven than sales revenue driven. I need to get on the hog with looking for sponsors for that.
Oily comics mini-comics was a really cool service, but I suspect the reason it’s no longer a thing is that it was a lot to keep in line. I love the idea of taking a classic zine club swap format and turning it into distribution, but there are so many moving parts involved in that and I don’t know if that machine bears up under the pressure of having paying third parties. (I also attribute the success of The End of the Fucking World more to Chuck’s talent and hard work than I do to the format it was released in.)
ZL – Yeah, I should have been clearer in saying that it did no harm to it putting it out in small chunks, but it seems to have made it easier in terms of ‘getting it done and getting it out there’.
ZL – Another question I’m wondering is whether digital would, in your opinion, have a place within your sales plans now, and what platforms would you consider if it does?
KE – I am down for some digital zines, but not super keen on doing digital comics. I don’t personally consume comics that way and that prevents me from wrapping my head around how to make them. I’m not even happy with the way my books look in PDF form when I send them out for reviews… The page turns don’t work the same way!
ZL – What are your sales venues in general?
KE – Crowd funding, shows/events, my website, ebay and discogs. There are a few comic, record and bookstores that carry Nix Comics.
ZL – What are your most successful route to sales?
KE – Crowfunding. Hands down. Lowest cost to entry and the biggest gains. It’s become the default marketplace for self-publishers and micro-presses.
ZL – Do you deal with any distributors for your work and do you have any insights on managing those relationships?
KE – Not right now. Well… Bela Koe-Krompecher distributes his contributor copies of his books as part of the Anyway Records catalog with Revolver and sometimes Matador, so I suppose I do have distribution through his efforts.
I’m not sure that distribution is worth seeking out unless I can sell a few thousand copies. For that I would have to up my marketing budget significantly and the margins are so shitty even at that economy of scale to begin with. Maybe down the road if things grow, I’ll feel different.
ZL – What is an average sales lifetime for a work, as in, are all sales front loaded up to publication date or do you continuing making sales over an extended period of months or even years and how do you manage to generate those sales?
KE – Average lifetime? I don’t know. Another good idea for a blog post! If we’re talking “lifetime” I guess that I would have declare some of them “dead” and I’m not sure that I’m willing to do that while the boxes are still sitting in my basement. They’re just comatose and may comeback, right? RIGHT!!??
The usual lifetime is that there’s a big burst of sales upon release and then a pretty dramatic drop off. Sales at that next level down tend to be steady for a year or so and then drop off again to almost nothing after that year. The only exceptions to that to date have been Nix Comics Quarterly #1, because when you meet new customers they normally want to start at the beginning and Jim Shephard: Negotiate Nothing which kept selling OK for a couple years thanks to Jim’s cult hero status. It has since settled down to the levels of other backstock.
I usually try to push backstock when something new is coming out, because it’s when I’m most likely to have fresh eyes on Nix as a whole. That’s my main strategy. I also try to bring copies of everything-but-everything with me when I’m at shows, because you never know who is going to want what. For stores that carry Nix books I try to rotate stock in and out. Chances are a book is new to someone!
I would welcome a good way to clear out backstock. I keep threatening to throw a small press/tiny record label “Box sale” where people like me vend backstock out of boxes of comics, records, CDs, et. all. at a deep discount.
ZL – Do you do that normally, engineer interest in older works with sales or packing them into bundles?
KE – Yeah! At shows I usually offer the first four issues of Nix Comics Quarterly for $10, which is basically the wholesale rate. I usually sell at least a couple of those packs per show.
ZL – On a practical level, what happens to any stock still left over, is it propping up someone’s bed or hidden away in a storage facility somewhere costing extra money to store?
KE – I have a decent sized house with a big basement and tiny home office, so no problem on the storage front. I do worry a little about dampness creeping in to the boxes in the basement (All issues 1-4 of the Quarterly) and would like to accelerate sales on those somehow.
ZL – Thinking about the future, what do you think is the future for idiosyncratic comics of the kind that Nix comics publish, self-publishing, web comics, digital platforms or something else?
KE – I have no idea. That’s serious crystal ball stuff, there.
The lefty in me hopes that print stays a viable option because it has the most potential for subversive use in the digital age. “They” can easily track and hack you on-line but try to hack this pamphlet I left in the men’s room of the Dubuque Greyhound station, jerk! (Not that I’ve ever been to Dubuque. You can’t prove that I have…)
Artistically speaking, I hope that short stories come back into vogue… I like my comic stories like I like my songs: Fast, loud and short! The whole sprawling epic thing that is in vogue across most genres really bores the piss outta me.
ZL – Yeah, definitely me as well, I don’t know why people like it. The whole idea of sitting down and watching some intricately plotted epic series where I have to keep everything fresh in my mind to understand what’s going on… I just want to switch off and relax, that’s harder effort than my job. How is that entertainment?
ZL – So, thinking again about community and particularly as you area publisher, so have to do some keeping your eye out for talent, which three creators would you recommend people search out if they are fans of Nix comics?
KE – Oh man. I’m gonna tap out on this question. Too many people deserving of a nod and I don’t want to apply any sort of hierarchy to them. How about this, here are my three favorite ways to find new creators that I admire:
Follow zines, blogs and sites dedicated to uncovering new and old comics of all sorts. Some of my go tos are Almost Normal Comics, Poopsheet Foundation, anything Comics Reporter marks as OTBP, Your Chicken Enemy, Robyn Chapman’s Tiny Report, the review section of Razorcake Magazine… It doesn’t hurt to pick up old zines for their review sections, for that matter. Roctober had a great one.
Invest in anthology reading and take the time to look up the artists you find in them. It’s the cheapest way to get exposed to a lot of artists. It absolutely perplexes me that they don’t sell better for this very reason.
Look for publications by artists who you discover through their art in non-comics publications. (or other work like posters or record sleeves) You can kind of tell when a graphic artist has the chops to do narrative work, and chances are that if they have the skills, they’ve acted on them.
Hope that’s not too big a cop out.
ZL – Well, it’s just told anyone who wants to work with you how to get discovered by you. ZL – How about we move onto fantasy futureland? Given unlimited time, budget and resources what 3 projects would you deliver so that you could retire proud?
KE – Wow. Unlimited time budget and resources? We’re not talking about individual comics or publications at that point!
A Nix Comics Music festival. Put a bunch of comic/poster artists in a spotlight at the same time a bunch of the bands that inspire Nix play.
Open a Nix Comics brick and mortar flagship store. Something like Quimbys meets Amoeba Records.
Hire a full-time art and writing staff, giving them a salary, health insurance, vacation time and a chunk of the IP on anything they create.
ZL – Finally, what can we expect from you in the next 6 months?
KE – At the moment I’m in the last days of my kickstarter crowdfunding two publications:
“Kenttucky Pussy” is a comic book by Sexton Ming and JT Dockery. The text elements are all poems by Sexton and inspire the visual narration by JT, so I’m really excited by this. I’ve wanted to work with JT since I met him at the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (SPACE) a buncha years back and I have been a fan of Sexton Ming ever since his role as the bionically enhanced and thoroughly evil Queen Victoria in Pervirella. (THAT movie is everything that the cyber punk genre failed to be!) “Kentucky Pussy” has everything that I would expect from a pairing of these two great artists: Lush imagery, outsider lamentations and proper use vulgarity. It’s weird to me that within two years I’ll have put out two poetry centered books. Never considered myself a “poetry guy.”
The second book is a collection of Sketchbook art by me! For the past few years I have been drawing picture sleeves for 7” records in my sketchbooks. I cut them out and pair them with the record that inspired them; selling them at comic shows and record fairs. It’s a good fun way to take a lonely 7” and turn it into a unique part of someone’s collection. People have been asking me for a book version of it for a while… Hopefully they were for real about wanting one!
I also just overspent at a local comic sale, so I expect that I’ll write a zine about comic collecting in the same vein as my “Tales from the Crate” record collecting zine. I gotta recoup that money somehow!
ZL – I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk to us and for giving such honest answers. I hope you enjoyed the process!
KE – Thanks! I did! A very in depth and unique interview.
ZL – You’ve published a number of zines now, through Colossive Press, have you any plans for new publications?
CP – Oh yes! Putting out the first few things through CP last year was a bit like opening the floodgates to ten or fifteen years’ worth of ideas that I’d not had the opportunity or confidence to pursue. They’re all at a fairly nebulous stage, so I need to focus on one at a time and get it done – it’s easy to get a bit paralysed and not know which way to go first.
We’re also launching 3:52 AM, an A6 zine of words and photography by our brilliant friend VJ Sellar, based on her experience of insomnia (and raising money for the Maggie’s Wallace centre in Cambridge). I like to think we’ve coaxed her into the world of zines, and hopefully there are more to come.
Given the time I’d also like to publish more things by other people, as a bit of a patron. I’d like Colossive to be a bit like Ghost Box or some of the small music labels I follow on Bandcamp, finding interesting work with a strong identity and bringing it to the world.
ZL – Do you remember the first time?
CP – At my age, most of my “firsts” are lost in the mists of time. However, I’d say that the first work in the print medium that really blew my mind was Bryan Talbot’sLuther Arkwright. As a teenager I was a casual and slightly ironic reader of whatever comics I could find in the newsagents of Chorley. However, when I landed a plum part-time job at Morrisons (in 1985), my horizons soon spread to Odyssey 7 in Manchester, where the world of comics opened up in front of me like a thousand-leaved lotus blossom. And one of the first goodies I picked up was book one of Arkwright.
Even though I was also getting into series like Swamp Thing, American Flagg! and Moonshadow, Arkwright totally captivated me with the intricacy of the narrative and the incredible craft of its execution. When, after a seemingly interminable hiatus, the second and third volumes dropped, Talbot’s mastery of the medium just seemed to expand exponentially.
As much as anything, the whole work implanted the idea that at their best, whether dealing with the mundane or the cosmic, comics could do stuff that other mediums couldn’t even dream of. That notion has kept me coming back, through thick and thin, for 30-odd years.
ZL – Given an unlimited budget and all the time in the world, what would be the project you’d make to be remembered by?
CP – Ha – I’d have no idea what to do with a budget! I guess a full-blown Croydon Spaceport visitor experience somewhere in the town’s now legendary Whitgift Centre, complete with historical artefacts, audio-visual displays and – naturally – a lavishly furnished gift shop.
ZL – Ad Astra is an alternative history story, what was the initial trigger for that idea?
CP – Oh blimey… I think that somewhere along the line, during a period of creative paralysis, I had an idea for a series of one-page text-and-image concoctions under the overall title Going Somewhere, Going Nowhere, based on the idea of travel and journeys. Little one-shots I could aim to wrap up quickly.
One of the notions I had was a voice remembering when the 119 bus used to go as far as Croydon Spaceport, how it used to be packed with people going to see the launches etc. I think that came about from the heritage work being done at the site of Croydon Airport – the very first London airport – and the sort of faded sci-fi, “lost future” feel that some of the town gives off.
Anyway, one of the benefits of my characteristic procrastination is that the idea had time to germinate in my noddle into something a bit richer. I started to come up with a more detailed timeline and cast list for the short and ultimately disappointing history of Croydon’s municipal space programme.
Another influence was a bit of street art that thousands of people walk past every day without even noticing. Underneath Blackfriars Bridge in London, the pedestrian underpass is decorated with tile displays showing alternative plans for the bridge, scenes from its construction etc. However, some enterprising ‘guerilla historian’ has dug out the Letraset and staged a bit of an intervention to come up with an alternative history involving flat-pack bridges from Argos and lost instruction manuals. I loved the element of absolute toot being delivered in a very straight-faced way.
The final piece of the jigsaw was the discovery of Flickr Commons, where various institutions make their image archives available with no copyright restrictions. With NASA and the San Diego Air and Space Museum among the participating institutions, I soon found plenty of images that lent themselves to gags or unlikely developments. Once I’d cracked the format, it kind of wrote itself.
ZL – You’ve had a lot of success and good feedback from ‘How Graffiti Saved My Dad’s Life…’ As that’s such a personal book, what does that feel like and mean to you?
CP – We’ve both been blown away by the response to the book – and we’re very proud on Gordon’s behalf. The initial aim was to showcase some of his photographs and the brilliant work of the street artists he admired. But Gordon was such an amazing man that Jane just had to tell his story.
Gordon was effectively written off when he received his second terminal cancer diagnosis in July 2016. but within weeks he was out with his camera again. Although he was clearly very frail, nobody on the graffiti scene really knew how ill Gordon was or what he was going through. Many of them have only found out recently through the book – something we now regret in a way.
There’s been a massive wave of affection and admiration for Gordon from all over the world, both from those who knew him and from complete strangers. We always knew what a brilliant person he was, of course, but it’s been great to spread the word. And although she’ll kill me for saying this, I’m pleased that more people now appreciate what Jane went through and what an amazing support she was for her dad.
All profits from the book are going to St Christopher’s hospice in Sydenham (south-east London), from where Gordon set off on some of his final graffiti trips. With a little help from our friends – including Steve from London Calling Blog, who organised a charity street art walk in Penge – we’ve now raised more than £1,300, and we hope that figure will continue to rise. (We’ll also be donating the profits from Things My Dad Saw…)
We’re very pleased and proud to be able to support such a worthy cause in return for all the help St Christopher’s has given our family. Jane’s mum Pat was also cared for there, and following Gordon’s death, Jane received bereavement counselling through the hospice. Its work is absolutely vital to the local community, but it remains alarmingly underfunded.
Ultimately, the message of the book is: find something you love doing then find a way to carry on doing it. That’s one of the driving impulses behind DIY culture, and it’s what we’re both trying to do with Colossive.
all art copyright and trademark it’s respective owners.
ZL – Hi both of you, thanx for agreeing to this interview about your new comic Malty Heave! Rob, I understand you’ll be launching it at Portsmouth Comic Con.
Where will people be able to find you in Portsmouth, do you have table details yet, will you be tabling both days?
RW – I’ll be on Table 6 in Comic City 4 at the Portsmouth con. I hope people can find me as I think the event is going to be even bigger this year, and it was big (and busy) last year.
ZL – Phil I believe you’re going to be at Ace Comics in Colchester for Free Comic Book day to launch it, as well as doing sketches? Pretty jealous for those people in Colchester, I’ll tell you! Before diving into details about the comic, I thought it would be interesting to get some background about how it came about.
I was wondering how long you’ve known each other and what led up to you two producing this comic together? I’m guessing you both agreed a theme and didn’t stumble upon one by accident, so I was wondering how specific that theme was and what went into agreeing content to publish together?
RW – Phil and I have known each other for about five years. I used to live in Maidstone in Kent, where Phil has lived for many years, and we met not long before I moved away (only to Ashford, which is also in Kent). We have kept in touch and met up a few times since then, and we have also done a few local comic events together. The last time we met up, a few weeks ago, we were talking about how things like Heavy Metal magazine and Epic Illustrated used to be available in newsagents (I had been chatting to Andy Oliver from Broken Frontier about the same topic on Twitter a few days earlier, which probably led to the chat me and Phil had). Then, the next time we talked, I said I wished I had something new to sell at the Portsmouth Comic Con and Phil got back to me and suggested we do a comic together, twelve pages each, inspired by Heavy Metal magazine. I was quite intimidated by the thought of doing a comic with Phil to start with, particularly as we only had about two weeks to write and draw the whole thing, but I think we both enjoyed doing it and we are both pleased with the finished comic. We each created our own strips separately and showed them to each other when they were done (or more or less done in my case, as Phil finished his first and needed to see what I had done to design the cover) but we did tell each other roughly what our strips were about after we’d come up with some stories. The cover was Phil’s idea. He did his part first and then sent it to me to draw my characters in and add the logo, etc.
ZL – I’m deeply impressed you two could make these stories in two weeks, they’re very accomplished full stop; considering the turnaround time, even more so. Rob, your cartooning and character design really impressed me, they’re beautiful and solid forms and there’s a lot of details included in your work, how much actual time went into drawing and how much to writing? Do you layout, thumbnail or pencil a work like this?
RW – I can’t believe we did this in just a couple of weeks either. It’s amazing what you can do when you’ve got a tight deadline. It may have been a day or two over a fortnight, but it took me a few days just to come up with a script I was happy with and the actual drawing / putting all the files together was done in under a fortnight.
I wrote a script for Rank Bottom, which took a few days. I knew more or less what I wanted to do right away, and I had a beginning and an end, but it took me a while to work out what was going in the middle. I did do very rough thumbnails, just to work out what was going on what page, and then I just threw myself into drawing it and one panel at a time. I used to do quite detailed pencils and then felt like I ruined them when I inked them, but since I’ve gone digital my pencils have become very rough and I spend more time on my inking. I even draw some stuff straight down in ink, which I can do, because it doesn’t matter too much if I make mistakes. I letter it one page at a time, as I go, and tend to re-write bits of dialogue / add in new jokes as I do.
ZL – Phil, just because I can’t believe it’s possible, I’m also going to ask you about the fact that you made this comic in a two-week period, which seems amazingly quick considering the quality of the work!
PE – After suggesting to Rob that we create a comic together in two weeks I had a sudden panic attack, but I’m really pleased that we pulled it off and have created something decent, which we hope people will enjoy.
When I suggested this comic to Rob I had no idea what I was going to draw apart from that it’d feature robots and that I’d be working to a one panel per page format. Once I had the opening line the story, such as it is, developed from there and I only changed one caption along the way. I really enjoyed the freedom of drawing large panels (which were drawn same size A4). The pencils were very loose and most of the details came at the inking stage and I had fun playing around with different textures and styles. I’ve always enjoyed sketching and wanted to keep that same spontaneity with my story.
I should also mention how much I enjoyed drawing the cover and working with Rob on it. I drew my parts first, which I scanned and sent to Rob who drew his bits on the computer, which is his preferred way of drawing.
ZL – Rob, I don’t really know anything about your comics work so I wondered if you could give some details about how many years have you been working at making comics, did you start as a kid and come back, are there many years of work to dig into?
RW – I started reading comics as a kid, always wanted to draw comics, and self-published my first comic, Crisp Biscuit, in 1991, when I was 22, but in the 20 years after that I only published another handful of comics. I had very little self-confidence, was very slow, and had no idea who would ever read or publish my work, so there were quite a few long periods of time where I just wasn’t drawing at all. For a few years in my mid-20s, I just focused on writing, which boosted my confidence in that department, but I still felt like I was just bluffing it with my art. I didn’t draw much at all in my 30s and had pretty much given up on ever drawing comics again, but for some reason, in my early-40s, I got back into it again, was a lot more patient and focused than I had been before, and I stuck with it. I was 50 in February and I feel like I’m just getting going. I think the things that made the biggest difference to me this time were social media, which I hated to start with but it meant that I could connect with fellow creators and potential readers in a way that I’d never been able to before (at least I knew that someone would see my strips on Facebook), the way that printing comics became more affordable, and most importantly, getting into digital art. I bought a drawing tablet and a copy of Manga Studio a few years ago and the first thing I drew digitally was my book. Before that, I was always changing my mind about what tools to use for inking, always thought my pencils looked much better than my finished art and going digital has really improved my art and boosted my confidence in my drawing.
ZL – I’ve been sounding off a fair bit about how there aren’t any venues to get comics out there in front of people’s eyes, are you concerned that UK comics is becoming something of an Ouroboros constantly eating itself? What’s drawn you to attend Portsmouth Comic Con?
PE – There are far more comic conventions in the UK now than there were when I first started. More than one a week so there should be more venues to sell comics, especially independent ones but these conventions seem more interested in having tables selling merchandise and having “the 3rd actor who played the 2nd Storm-trooper who gets shot before he makes through the hole in the wall in The Empire Strikes Back but was later replaced by a CGI Storm-trooper in subsequent versions” signing photos at £30 a time. I know that not all conventions are the same and Portsmouth is an exception but the cost of tables, travel and possibly accommodation makes it difficult for creators to attend and make any money selling their comics.
RW – I think I’ve always been worried that there aren’t enough venues out there for cartoonists. In some ways, things are better for people like me right now than they have been for years, because at least there is a graphic novel market and a chance that I could get another GN published and into bookshops, but that is hardly a path to riches (or even a minimum wage).
ZL – I know we’ve talked about how tricky getting work out to new people can be and I’m a bit prone to talking about how things are a bit ‘best of times, worst of times’ so I was wondering, when were the worst of times and the best of times for you?
PE – I think my best times have been and gone but you never know!
ZL – Phil, you’ve been around the UK small press and zine scene as well as working in professional comics and I’m wondering how the current scene feels in comparison to, say, the early/ mid 80’s and you were in Gag! and there were companies like Harrier, Trident and Valkyrie? Do you still feel like there’s a scene and do you feel part of that scene?
PE – I’m not really part of the comic scene these days, probably because I stopped going to comic conventions and meeting anybody. It was some years before I plucked up the courage to contact Rob even though he was living a short bus journey from me in Maidstone. Rob’s younger than me and was more familiar with the scene that developed after Harrier, Escape etc but we shared a similar interest in a certain type of comics.
ZL – Rob, I’ve seen the advert for your comic, Back, Crack & Sack (& Brain), but I was wondering what else you’ll be bringing to Portsmouth and what else of yours is out there to be found?
RW – I will probably bring copies of most of my old comics to Portsmouth (although there are some I have run out of now) but will mainly be focusing on Malty Heave, my book, and a couple of issues of a comic I drew called Department of the Peculiar. DOTP is a superhero / sci-fi comic (sort of) written by Rol Hirst, and the first two issues were drawn and published just before I went digital and got distracted by my book but me and Rol are working on a 48-page special right now, which will hopefully be coloured by Phil, and we intend to Kickstart that in the summer. I have a table at the Lakes festival this year and I definitely want it out by then
ZL – Apart from your work on Department of the Obscure, which I know you’ll be working on with Phil and writer Rol Hirst, whose name I recognise as a reviewer from Comics International, (yes I’m old enough), but apart from that, what projects have you both got coming up?
RW – Everyone seems to know Rol from Comics International. Phil’s friend Reuben knows him from CI, too, but I didn’t make contact with him until quite some time after that. Department of the Peculiar is my main project at the moment, and I’m still not quite half way through drawing it, but I have an idea for another graphic novel I would like to start after that, unless I end up getting distracted by something else. I would at least like to put a few chapters together and see if I can find a publisher / maybe even get an Arts Council grant. I also drew a story for Aces Weekly last year and I would like to do more with the characters who appeared in that story (Love Her Madly) and maybe build that up into a graphic novel.
ZL – Would you like to work together again, or even with a larger group of people on another anthology?
RW – I would love to work with Phil again. We enjoyed doing this comic and have since talked a bit about the possibility of doing more with Malty Heave, but with a different theme next time. I think Phil already has an idea for a story, and I’ve had an idea for something myself in the last couple of days.
PE – Malty Heave is our first project together and we’re already talking about a second issue which we think will have a horror theme (it may surprise people that I’ve always been a huge fan of Berni Wrightson and the work he did for Warren magazines in the 70’s)
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ZL – I was interested by the fact that most of the stories in the anthology were about female protagonists and made the connection that the artwork was also drawn by women artists, was this a conscious decision or did it just come about organically?
AW – Much of the media that influenced me growing up had strong female protagonists, Buffy, Tomb Raider, Terminator and I think this has ended up being reflected in the work I produce. More often than not I tend to write female protagonists and this anthology is no different. The choice to have only women artists wasn’t something I had decided from the start it was more something that occurred naturally as the anthology progressed. Kat, Sammy and Emma I all knew personally before starting the anthology. Kat I had originally worked with on Tails of Mystery and in its early stages this anthology contained a Tails of Mystery story but I felt it didn’t fit the tone but I still wanted to have Kat contribute to the story so wrote something that I thought her art style would complement nicely.
Sammy, I had wanted to work with for a while and Sprouting was an idea that she came up with in its earliest form and we fleshed out together with me writing it and her illustrating. Emma’s work I had seen previously and thought it’d be a great fit for the kind of story I was planning with Finders Keepers. From there I realised that the artists were all women and thought why not just stick with that and see how it goes. It wasn’t hard to find extremely talented women artists, Michelle I met at a convention, one of the MCM’s I believe, and Emily I was a fan of from her work on The Wilds and I had seen her posting on twitter about looking for cover work. And with that I had all the artists I needed.
ZL – I’m always interested in how a writer works with the artists on a story, so I was wondering whether the approach varied between each artist or whether there it varied between each story?
AW– So for some of the stories I wrote them specifically for the artists. With these I tended to write a little less detail leaving the artist to make decisions about placement or character look. The way the main character of Sprouting looks for example is all down to Sammy. I trusted in her design and she delivered fantastically. For Hanging in the Darkness the script was pretty sparse with much of the exact dialogue coming post art because I wanted the short to act as two stories within one, having worked with Kat before as well I was happy to leave a lot of it to her and the choice to have much of the final panels only lit by candlelight was her idea. Whereas with A Witch’s Penance I hadn’t worked with Michelle before, so I wanted to make sure I gave her as much as possible to work with and she absolutely smashed it. Some of my favourite things in that story are things that Michelle came up with without any direction from me at all.
For Finders Keepers I finished the story and just handed that over to Emma and asked her what she would be interested in illustrating to sit alongside it. I think the only illustration I requested was the final one. And then for the cover, which was completed before any of the interiors I gave Emily a brief synopsis of the stories within and she designed a few covers initially with us both agreeing the one that went on to become the actual cover our favourite. So, with each artist I took a different approach but the one thing I made sure not to do was restrain any of them.
ZL – What are your plans for the anthology and the stories in it, will A Witches’ Penance going to be ongoing, will there be further issues of the anthology sooner or later and will they feature the same artists or are you interested in finding new artists?
AW – I have a couple more anthologies planned for the future but the stories within Sprouting & Other Tales of the Curious will not be continued. I wanted to portray that these stories all resided within a bigger world around them and that there was maybe more to each of them if you looked but the stories are themselves complete. A Witch’s Penance is the most open ended of the four stories, but I wanted it to reflect the world it was in and the characters it contained where nothing is ever finished for them and the world keeps moving even if they aren’t around.
ZL – You also write Tails of Mystery with artist Kat Willot, are there any plans for this title or any new titles planned?
AW – Yes, I’m currently working on the script for issue 3 and once that’s all done Kat will start illustrating the pages. Tails of Mystery is going to be a 4 issue complete mini-series so as of writing this we’re half way though the series. Within the first issue of Tails of Mystery we also featured a small back-up fantasy story titled World Weary centred on a Gnome barbarian and a Half-Orc monster hunter and we may also be working on some more stories for those characters in the future.
Tails of Mystery issue 1 cover
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I enjoyed reading this. There are some interesting subtexts to chew over and some skilled pacing and design. I really love that cover a lot!
The ongoing serial A Witch’s Penance had me interested to follow it. It was certainly my favourite story.
As an anthology, it felt consistent and well balanced. It mixed up approaches to story telling and left me thinking about some of its themes. It’s a solidly created anthology with some interesting and more personal moments. Essentially, it delivered a good read and I was left thinking.
This is an anthology mixing prose and comics works. It uses a traditional ‘horror story with a twist’ format that, when I’m looking at it, seems well handled. Nothing comes from left field in terms of the twists. It manages the foreshadowing and punchlines well.
Now that probably sounds cold coming from me and that’s really a matter of my reading of the work. ‘Horror story with a twist ending’ is low on my list of likes unfortunately. However, there’s a bit more at work in these stories than just that format. Maybe I’m reading more in there, maybe I’m not, but I’m going to come back to both Sprouting and Hanging in the Darkness to get into my thoughts about what they made me think about.
First, I want to discuss Finders Keepers, the prose story, then go onto A Witch’s Penance.
Finders Keepers is a fine prose story but, for me, didn’t move me too much. It’s paced well, it develops it’s plot well, it builds its tension well. But that’s it, which is not a complaint or a method of damning anything, it’s a recognition that I don’t really get into these stories. The prose is clear, avoiding being purple and that’s to its benefit. I guess the only thing I wonder is what it’s trying to tell me or talk about? I hate saying that, because I hate anytime when someone says, ‘it was done well, but…’ because that’s just an awful snipe. Things have a right to exist the way the are without having to meet my sense of meaningful.
Unpicking my thoughts really does just bring me back to the fact that the style of story is not one I am personally invested in, with the other stories I feel like there’s enough extra there to dig hooks into me, where this one feels like a nice pot boiler without much to say for itself outside of being well executed. If you like stories with twist endings, it’s well made for you.
I like the illustrations style for the story. It reminds me of a Ladybird books and that matches the tones of the story and age of the characters well. They also given some very lively acting, giving a good sense of personality and action.
A Witch’s Penance, the only ongoing story in the book, and the other two tales gave me much more of an idea that there’s something at work under the surface. I picked A Witch’s Penance out from the other two for a reason though. This story, at the moment, seems to have less of a theme and have more of a plot. Unlike the others, this is not a ‘twist at the end’ plot. This is very much a ‘revenge doubled’ plot. By which I mean, a mysterious figure with a past seems to be revenging something, but exacting this revenge sets up an excuse for the antagonist to also seek revenge. The circle of revenge is spinning and pulling in unwitting victims all around.
It’s not the plot, or even the characters that interest me as much as the approach to storytelling. Here, it’s very much that delivery which makes it my favourite in the anthology. The pacing and rhyming between panels is handled poetically. It’s got that bouncy rhythm of doggerel verse. Plain, driving, seemingly simple but incredibly effective at dragging you along. To mix my metaphors. It’s a catchy pop chorus, very simple structure delivering something immediate and accessible and hiding some very clever production techniques underneath it all.
This piece comes into its own in the chase through the wood, with panel layout and the positioning of figures (and a tree!) creating rhythm, leading to comparisons between characters circumstances, if that makes sense? To pick that apart, I get a lovely, punchy sense of action happening. It’s tense here, because there’s a sense of the figures moving around each other, of proximity and the level of danger and luck involved in trying to escape and how thin the line between success and failure will be. The end delivers a couple of cliff-hangers that set the future wheels in motion and maintain that sense of things happening and matters to learn.
It’s difficult to know how the layout was decided, where writer and artist begin and end, but I would say that the layout and characterisation achieved in the woodland scene by Michelle Marham impressed me and I thought delivered the tightest storytelling in the anthology. Whoever worked it out, did a good job, but the delivery sells it well.
As mentioned, Hanging in The Darkness and Sprouting gave me a sense of subtext in the work. Each has a nice little plot. For both, the artwork is a little rough in places in terms of anatomy and expressing emotion but paces itself well. It adds atmosphere and I like the colouring on Hanging in The Darkness most of all, I’m not sure whether there was a single colourist, or if each artist did their own. As no colourist is named, it seems likely that each artist did their own work.
Hanging in The Darkness seems to me to be a study in the slow eroding of memory and the chill and dread that comes with the loss of that memory and, as such, the art is very much telling a separate story to the text. It’s atmospheric but lacks a bite of good character work to it. The art has a hard task as it’s there depicting a story that’s less engaging than the text, which gets to delve into and explore the deeper psychological content of the piece. The art is there to deliver the chills, which it does very nicely, but I can’t quite work out what point that was serving other than as a plot device.
Sprouting on the other hand has art that is very much in sync with the writing, adding layer to the words and working together to deliver additional depth to the plot. Where Hanging in The Darkness played with loss of identity and personality, Sprouting is dealing with a sense of dysmorphia and the ability to come to a safe space where we accept our form and ourselves. Where we find friends that accept us for who we are and, through that, a place in the world.
I very much feel like this idea needed more space to develop a sense of the person, to make them meaningful, for my tastes a story dealing with such themes needs to get me to see the lead as a person rather than delivering plot beats. I think the limit of the space and the scope of the storyline conspired against it making its message deeper and more meaningful by affecting me emotionally. It ended up delivering something polemical rather than persuasive or personal.
They’re both good ideas though, ways of dealing with their subjects that I thought were quite effective concepts, interesting ways to explore those concepts and personify the psychological physically.
I do feel like there was room for these two stories to breathe more and get down to the bone. It’s a bit grisly here, you can feel it roll around as you’re chewing over the idea. To be clearer, and I can’t second guess creators, but to me these seem like strong ideas that either space or time didn’t allow for a full resolution to. I didn’t come away with a sure image of what the creator was trying to say about these things, or whether they were meant more as hooks to hang a good story on. That may be on me, and that may indeed have been the intent here all along, but to me it felt like there was room to go deeper and more personal in these stories, to commit to an opinion. They had interesting things to bring up and interesting ways of personifying the abstract, I just wanted to know more about what they personally felt about these subjects, because I think there’s an interesting set of voices here.
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ZL – I have the impression of you as a long-term and influential individual within the UK small press scene. How do you think of yourself in those terms and who would you consider your peers?
KR – Perception is a funny thing. I’ve only been involved in making comics in any capacity for the last 5 years or so… I started shortly after my daughter was born. That’s not really a long time when you consider how long it can take to pull small press comic projects together. We’re 3 years and 3 volumes in on Sliced Quarterly, and it took about 3 years to do 5 issues of Cognition. That felt pretty quick to me.
So, I don’t feel like I’ve been around for ages.
As for influence… If you run an anthology it can give off a perception of being ‘in charge’ but that’s never really the case with Sliced. I round things up rather than commission on that one.
All in all, I still feel as though I’m figuring things out. I think back 4 years to the person that had aspirations of making comics… I’d have looked at me now thinking, ‘wow, you made all this stuff’. I guess that’s the trick. Keep making books.
The only way I’ve ever felt influential is when I can help other creators. Something I will do any time I can. It’s indie comics, you don’t step on people on the way up, we all lift each other.
As for peers… I guess that’s just all the people I work with consistently, the people that help me as much as I try to help them. Chris Sides, Jimmy Furlong, Jon Laight. But I could list hundreds of creators. Anyone I’ve worked with through Sliced, anyone that’s hired me as a letterer.
There aren’t levels to me. If you’ve made a comic, any comic, you’re a creator. You’ve done something special. After that it’s all subjective. But if you’ve had an idea, do everything you have to do to get that book over the line and made a reality, you have my utmost respect. If you keep doing that over and over, you might get a reputation, I suppose? But if you make good stuff, you make good stuff. I always want to read books I love.
ZL – You’ve mentioned that you’re planning on focussing on single publications now that you’ve put Sliced Quarterly to bed, are there any concrete plans in place or is more of an ambition at the moment?
KR – I have one book that is a definite. We began to serialise a story over the last 5 issues or so. We got to a nice pausing point, and when I decided Vol 3 would be the last collection I promised the creator that I would continue to help them publish the story in some form. That is partly where the idea came from.
Ultimately this move is an extension of what Sliced has always been about. Getting stories in front of readers that don’t usually get that chance. Now it seems like a natural evolution to do the same thing with longer form books instead of short comics. My experience in self-publishing and crowdfunding can be useful to someone that is attempting it for the first time. It’s still that principle of helping other creators. The Sliced banner is just a label for that.
ZL – Do you remember the first time?
KR – The first thing I really remember loving when I was growing up that made me want to make something myself was Wallace and Gromit. I couldn’t get enough of it. The animation delighted me. I tinkered with simple animation throughout my design education, but I never fully committed to it.
There was something about the style and sense of humour that made it all so accessible. It was tangible and real. Animation that you could reach out and touch. There is something special about stop motion animation, even now as it becomes more scarce. Anything that takes that much time, effort and artistry deserves attention and respect.
If we talk comics, I recall the moment I realised comics could be more than what I knew them to be from my childhood. I’d loved the Beano etc, but when one of my college tutors showed me Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, it opened my eyes and I went on to discover how diverse the medium can be. I wish more people had this sort of revelation. My main bugbear is comics being described as a genre rather than a medium. It’s reductive because comics can and should work in ANY genre.
ZL – You’ve spent a few years now working with creators as an instigator of some kind, what do you personally gain from taking that role?
KR – I think I’ve touched on this a little in an earlier question. In indie comics we HAVE to help one another. Simon Russell once said something that I thought particularly pertinent to this point. “Art isn’t a zero-sum game.” It isn’t a competition. By helping others succeed you don’t affect your own chances of success.
Another answer would be the realisation that lots of people helped me on the road to making my books, and I would have to be a huge arsehole not to do the same for others.
As for what I gain? Satisfaction. To know you helped someone makes books that are special. To know that without you something special had less chance of existing… If you think of it like that, then it’s a responsibility to help, isn’t it?
Making is the aim. It isn’t sales or reviews. It’s the process of making. That is the goal. Everything else is out of your control, and to put your hopes on how things are received is a set-up for failure and unhappiness.
Enjoying making something, put it out, it has a life of its own, make the next one. And the next.
ZL – You are gifted the opportunity to set up a new museum showcasing all of the creators who have influenced you from birth to now. The first show is called ‘First, Formative and Now’ who do you pick and why?
When I discovered and researched his work in college it cemented my career path.
The friends I’ve made in small press comics. The people I speak to regularly, the people I send my work to for feedback, and they in turn send their stuff to me. It’s comradeship, support and guidance from people that are trying to achieve similar goals in very different ways. It’s not competitive, we all want to see the others make the best stuff they can. There are hundreds of these small groups in the wider scene, everyone drives everyone else on and it’s a fantastic atmosphere to grow and explore your art. Each time I go to a convention, meet new people, see new work, it refuels me. Encourages me to make my next thing. The vibrancy and enthusiasm within indie comics is special, and we shouldn’t take it for granted.
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ZL – What made you choose folk tales for your series?
SR – Art is many things at the same time for audiences and artists, but one of the most important to me in this phase of my life is the idea that Art is Play – making or appreciating anything provokes an emotional response and in a world of hard noses and cold shoulders, the emotion I am most keen on pulling to the surface is delight.
Every time I set out to make comics, I was finding that I’d box myself in by insisting that the piece must be Original or Important or Worthwhile.
I think that was a valid reaction to seeing a lot of work that is very well executed but … why does it exist?
So much stuff consumed, with no change in my world and no desire to reread it left me muttering ‘that was well done, but why did you bother? And why should I care?’
But I was letting other people’s work dictate how I approached my own and that lead to me taking everything too seriously
I didn’t have that problem with my paintings or drawings – I was embracing accidents and chance and letting images grow from the different ways I could play with the media.
It seemed that retelling existing stories could be a way of getting past myself, so I wouldn’t obsess over the ‘value’ of a project and could enjoy the Play. Folk tales, myths and legends have been a recurring choice for me as a consumer over the years and I like the way that the same story can be told in ways that differ slightly or wildly. It’s like music in that respect.
So, I reasoned that if I work (sometimes) under the banner of Once Upon Again… I would never run out of material or challenges and wouldn’t hit a what-to-do block when snatching odd hours for work, as I often have to.
I may never have tested the idea if it hadn’t been for a chance meeting with Jon Mason, the Storyteller who became a collaborator. We both had a love of Norse myths and the Marriage of Njord & Skadi turned out to be one we’d each been tinkering with independently – so it was a quick decision to work together on the new comic, focusing on ‘the giantess who came for revenge, but chose a husband… and then chose again.’
That makes Once Upon Again number 1, and number 2 is a 2-page comic I did of Loki & Coyote Talking By A Tree, but OUA 3 will probably be my more comical retelling of the Njord & Skadi tale – old stories being told and retold in different ways really appeals to the part of me that wants to use more than one approach and my interest/obsession with formalistic aspects of the comic form.
ZL – Do you remember the first time?
SR – The first time? That was probably a Goofyt-shirt I had around age 5. I probably wore it for a while, but what I remember is tracing the image over and over and over and then drawing the cartoon character without tracing because I’d worked out the ellipses he was made from. And then drawing other figures. It may not be a true or accurate memory given how early it was, but I treasure it as the spark that lit a fire in me for drawing.
Tove Jannson – Finn Family Moomintroll cover
The Mighty World of Marvel issue 1 cover and free t-shirt transfer
The first identifiable pieces of art I can remember loving were Tove Jansonn’s pictures with pen and word in Finn Family Moomintroll; Starry Night by Van Gogh (on a biscuit tin or a place mat at somebody’s house, I think); and the drawings of Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko in Mighty World of Marvel number 1 (and the t-shirt transfer that came with it! for somebody who never got in to self-expression through fashion, pictures on clothes seem to have loomed large in my formative years)
ZL – Given an unlimited budget and all the time in the world, what would be the project you’d make to be remembered by?
SR – I’d like to publish a line of superior comic works by other artists – funded to create their best work over a proper time frame; edited and mentored and stretched to make each piece a substantial and lasting work; promoted and distributed to an audience that is taught to appreciate comics as more than stories or visuals
ZL – What single creation would you settle down with and just chill?
SR – I watched Star Wars hundreds of times growing up so that film is definitely a relaxing comforter. I would read the works of Tove Jansson or the Tales of the Norse Gods & Heroes by BL Picard in books and Krazy Kat or Calvin & Hobbes in comics. Maybe listen to Colours by Ken Nordine (Spotify)or something
ZL – You have a new comic, NORSE COMIC: (Once Upon Again) The Marriage of Njord & Skadi, out soon. What image from this work would you choose to have pasted all around town?
SR – I guess I’d use the cover image for Njord & Skadi, because it shows her as the one with more gravitas and it’s obviously a ‘love story’ but it’s not a romance comic or a norse battle. Plus it shows the sort of drawing inside as well as anything can when so much of the art was made though deliberately accidental mark-making
Having run the review of The Secret Protectors yesterday, I caught up with it’s two creators, Adam Wheeler and Ben Nunn in a follow up conversation after they very kindly responded to the draft review with some very interesting points.
They’ve been very accommodating and considerate, so I wanted to take a minute to give them a big thanx and wish them both well as they grow, and their comics grow with them.
The Secret Protectors Interview
ZL– What was the initial kernel of the idea for The Secret Protectors, that initial thought that made you start to build the whole story?
AW– The initial creation of The Secret Protectors characters and universe was a fair bit different to how Ben and I have it all structured at this point. These characters began, believe it or not, as Superheroes and Supervillains on the now defunct MMO ‘City Of Heroes’. I’ve always had a keen interest in sci-fi and fantasy. Playing that game as a young teen really allowed me to get my creative juices flowing. A fair amount of that ‘work’ still exists within these characters now. As time went on I started to imagine my own comic book universe where all my characters would take part in a grand narrative. As such, they’ve all ‘existed’ in my head for around a decade or so.
ZL– What are your backgrounds with comics?
BN– For me it all started when I was about 3 with watching the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons with my nan. It wasn’t long before we were watching the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, then the New Adventures show, then we branched out into the Marvel offerings. Every time my mum dragged me shopping she’d get me a Superman/Batman comic but the first comic I really remember is one I still have to this day. An issue of Spider-Man illustrated by John Romita Jr. That’s when I saw the potential for telling stories with uniquely stylised artwork.
AW– I’m bit older than Ben, so I can’t remember being 3yrs old! Ha!
But, growing up I always loved my cartoons, TMNT, Transformers, Batman TAS, X-Men, Spider-Man… the list of great cartoons is endless. As for comics a good friend of mine when we were growing up had a bunch of copies of older comics like ‘Journey into Mystery’, ‘Action Comics’ and some old Spider-Man comics. I wasn’t poor growing up, but I know money was tight for my parents and locally there wasn’t really anywhere to buy comics, so growing up they weren’t as big a part of my life as they became later on.
ZL – When did you start making comics and when did you start thinking about The Secret Protectors and the world you’ve built?
BN – I started off with some obscure webcomics in a kind of manga style but it wasn’t until meeting up with Adam that I decided to take it beyond a hobby.
AW – Hmm… I remember making a stick-man book when I was wasting classroom time at school but that’s about the limit of my artistic capability. I wouldn’t know exactly how to describe how bad my drawing is. With that said, making a comic alone is not something I’ve ever given any serious consideration to!
Although I had all the story written up for The Secret Protectors, I only began giving serious thought to it when I told my now fiancé (soon to be wife) Kate about my idea. She really got onboard with it and supported me in trying to get it actually made into a comic. It was not long after that I found Ben via a website. We met up soon after and began working on the project together.
ZL – Can you give us a few details about:-
The first creator you ever remember recognising the work of?
The first creator you remember copying or studying for hours to work out how they made things work?
Creator you most wanted to be like when growing up?
BN– John Romita Jr was easily the first creator I remember recognising. His characteristic style is what made comics real to me. While most of what I’d seen before that was very silver age, ironically heavily influenced by the likes of Romita Sr. But Romita Jr showed me that it was possible to create something totally visually different. In the days of dialup I became obsessed with Dragon Ball Z and found myself recording episodes onto VHS and desperately trying to copy that distinctive Toriyama style. Needless to say the weird warping that happened when you paused a VHS certainly didn’t help. I wouldn’t say I wanted to be like Romita Jr or Toriyama. I’ve always just wanted to create the best art I could and tell some great stories.
AW– As the one here who cannot draw at all this is a tough one. I do actually love both Romita Sr and Jr! Add Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane and Alex Ross to that.
ZL– Are there any particular influences fuelling The Secret Protectors?
BN– When Adam approached me with the story we were in a Starbucks. Adam explained the premise then launched into an enthusiastic breakdown of the characters and their backstories, their world, and even the eventual endgame of the entire story.
I think Adam and his enthusiasm has been a driving force. His drive to get these stories we believe in out there and in front of people has inspired me in my work on TSP and other projects. We’ve been really happy to have kids and adults coming up to us at events thrilled to see a black protagonist. I don’t know how much thought Adam gave to creating a diverse cast, I think it just came naturally when you’re writing a story that spans the globe. Not every superhero has to be a 6’2” white American dude with black hair, blue eyes and a jaw that could cut glass, right?
AW – There are so many influences… Some are perhaps more obvious than others. The genre of Superheroes is clearly our playground (The 90’s X-Men cartoon for instance) but beyond that I have so much love for actual sci-fi, fantasy and maybe just as importantly iconic series like The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Fargo. These sorts of influences may not be apparent in an obvious sense, but I’ve always drawn great enjoyment from storytelling that makes you think, doesn’t spoon feed you, allows you to draw some of your own conclusions so to speak.
ZN– You’ve already made your goal on Kickstarter – that must feel pretty good! Was getting the money the main goal or were you hoping for something more out of Kickstarting your comic?
BN – We’ve been overwhelmed by the support. The idea that there are kids and teenagers out there that cared enough to contribute what they could means just as much as the people who were able to pledge on the higher end of things. I think the Kickstarter was about getting the audience excited and being able to offer them more bang for their buck. I probably can’t say too much about the statistics but we’ve had support from some very unexpected places.
What’s most exciting is that some young fans have already taken to drawing the characters even having only read issue 1 so we just want to be able to get it out there more and be able to thank people for their support in some cool and interesting ways. And, of course, how could we resist the opportunity to duct tape my phone to the wall for two hours while we tried to read a 2-minute script for the Kickstarter video!
AW – Having followed Tyler James (ComixLaunch) for a while I always thought that if we could find an initial audience that we could use Kickstarter as a platform for the project so that one day it could become self-sustaining. We’ve received amazing support on the campaign itself.
With that said, I’m not a businessman, if I was, I probably wouldn’t be doing this! Ha! The Secret Protectors is very much a passion project. I draw great meaning from it. My main hope was that we could begin to garner a larger audience of readers. Promoting the comic and getting eyes on it has always been the toughest side of the ‘business’. I’m not a natural salesman and especially with something that has so much of my heart in it. Ben and I both know rejection is part of the game though. We have both had cause to pick each other at some point in this process.
ZL – I’m hoping the review comes across as supportive and that I enjoyed it! Sometimes I think I sound terribly negative!
AW – Ha! I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve read it a few times and I’d like to thank you for your honest feedback. We know we aren’t perfect and we’re still at the beginning of both our creative journey and actual story. That’s our first review! Ever! That’s a huge deal to me.
Issue 1 pacing was always a concern we had but we wanted to show the ‘status quo’ of this world and set things up. We wanted the reader to be able to just spend a bit of time with Ben before he gets dragged into the main conflict. He’s a normal guy and by showing him with his family we hoped to show how tough the decision would be to make in issue 2, obviously you can be the judge of whether or not we pulled that off! Ben doesn’t know or understand his powers and that’s something we hope to explore with him as the story unfolds.
BN – Yeah, the most important thing is honesty and I’ve got to say your review was thorough and will no doubt help us continue improving in future issues.
ZL – Going back to your comment about this being your first review ever, I’m interested in picking apart the experience of getting copies out to reviewers, whether you’ve found positive responses, or it’s been more a wall of silence! What you did to find sites that would be useful for promoting your comic and Kickstarter in general and what your method of contact was?
Also, generally, how it felt to send things out, waiting for a response, what it felt like if people haven’t responded?
Also – what was your first gut reaction to receiving a review and whether that felt different/ was different to how you thought it would be?
AW – Having never run a Kickstarter before I can’t say that I truly prepared for everything it would require from me. Even though we’ve surpassed our target if I could go back and start over I would probably do so. I realise now that we could have done a fair bit more pre-launch. I sent copies to quite a few people, I won’t name names, but essentially it’s been a wall of silence. I’m not at all salty or complaining about that though. Time is precious and those who do this sort of thing, like yourself, on behalf of Indie Comics are providing a service. There are so many projects out there at any one time that, understandably, getting reviews actually done is a real tough task if you don’t perhaps already have a reputation. That’s something that as a creator you need to expect and plan for. The only advice I could really offer is cast a wide net. Contact anyone and everyone!
As for receiving your review (as our first)
I can honestly say it’s a very humbling experience. By that, I mean, actually having our work prodded, tested and pulled apart is awesome! It’s helped us evaluate our work and goes down as a real sign of the progress we’ve made so far. Reviews should, in my opinion, always be tough on whatever the product in question may be. Reviewers / critics should be the stress test, the mechanism by which they the consumer can make an informed decision whether or not to spend their hard-earned money.
ZL – I wondered a bit about your thoughts on Ben being more a cypher and whether that’s a part of the plan, or a product of focussing in on the plot?
AW – I would admit that Ben does suffer slightly as you point out as the ‘cypher’ but our take was also that; he is extremely unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time at the beginning of issue 1. Bad things unfold and as a twenty-one-year-old growing up in a world where the existence of super-powered beings isn’t common knowledge he was completely out of his depth; emotionally, mentally and physically. He was basically a passenger as he’s in over his head.
ZL – I guess there’s a fine line between being a cypher and feeling lost and out of your depth and my feeling is Ben is too much of an empty vessel, I kept wanting to know what he was, how he was thinking but at the moment he seems to be all anger and little of the implied gentle side of him is coming out. Put another way, I feel like I spend more time thinking about him and who he is than I do feeling what this is like for him – if that makes sense?!
AW – There’s a few things to unpack here… so, as much as Ben is a very important character to our series this is also an ensemble title. With that said, we made a conscious decision to not spoon feed the reader too much. I definitely did not want us beating the reader over the head with a stick but it’s a fair criticism. Ben in the first issue is still reeling over the loss of his father. We made that decision early on that Ben should not be laughing and joking (just yet) as I don’t know how natural that would be. There’s a lot to Ben too, but at this stage in his journey he’s at sea really. He doesn’t know what’s going on, who to trust, what to do. He’s a mess. Issue 1 and 2 take place within quite a small timeframe.
We have a number of characters who, over the course of the next few issues will be introduced but spending time with Ben is definitely something the reader can expect, and we’re excited for.
ZL – What are the longer-term plans for TSP? Is this intended as an ongoing series, a number of story arcs with a beginning and end to each, that also build to an overall story in sum? What kind of things can we expect to see dealt with in the series?
AW – Our plan, which may be naive given our experience, is for TSP to be a long running series. We know where we want to get to though and hopefully the reader sees that and enjoys it. Although on bare face value it’s a superhero comic we want to explore the notions of good and evil being relative. Other themes we want to explore are parenting and the duality of the human-psyche. It’s a tough one really because we don’t want to give too much away. This initial run, the first story arc, we envisage running at around 12 issues. These first 12 issues will really help develop and provide the reader context for the world. The characters all have lengthy backstories as to why they are the way they are which we’ll get the opportunity to explore more of in our future issues.
ZL – So, for me, this is interesting for the very reason that we’re talking themes and plots here and I wonder if it’s because they’re part of the big plan and less of the by issue planning? Anyway, that’s not actually a question sorry!
What plans have you got for dealing with the character of these individuals? Their relationships, the nature of who they are, how they behave? What I’m wondering is, for example, the scene in issue 2 where we see Mohammed and Mika. I thought that was a nicely handled way of showing the relationship and managed to put some flesh on the characters and on their relationship, so I’m wondering what sort of planning goes into that?
It felt very organic, was it planned in that way, or did it come to you from getting to know your characters?
AW – in my opinion the grand narrative of any story really should be shaped by the individual actions and motivations involved and that is something I believe we have achieved. Each of our characters, both good and bad, have their own way of thinking. Their own plans and schemes. Early on that may not be completely apparent but as things take shape the reader will notice things early on that we did that have affected the flow of events.
ZL – Are there any questions or points you had that you’d like to make?
AW – Firstly, the close-up on page 1 of issue 2 is actually of the mech, not the van, not sure if you wrote van by mistake or just thought it was the van / not the mech.
ZL – My bad! Sorry about that. Still is a beautiful panel though!!
And that brings up an interesting point? This is aimed at Ben more – what style of art do you normally create and what source and references, in terms of artists, are you pulling in to your work?
What is your input in the comic, do you share writing credits, are you working full script or sitting around and working it out together?
Does the style feel comfortable for you yet or do you find you’re still trying to figure it all out a lot?
One final one! What is your favourite moment/ drawing in the two comics and why?
AW – We were certainly trying to go for older ‘Adventure style’ comic sort of feel, as it’s set in the 80’s we wanted the art be similar to the styles employed in that era but obviously Ben has his own style on top of that. I’m a big fan of Claremont & Byrne’s long run on X-Men. We also thought that having the comic set in the past gives it the chance to have that, for lack of a better way of putting it, ‘nostalgia’ feel.
BN – Thanks! I suppose I like to draw from people like Ryan Ottley and Sara Pichelli. I’m not sure how much I specifically draw from either of them. Consciously I draw from Hirohiko Araki when it comes to faces, but with a bit more of a westernised slant. Occasionally I’ll work in a simpler style when I’m commissioned to do a light-hearted comic for a birthday or anniversary present. That’s apparently more reminiscent of Herge’s Adventures of Tintin which I apparently loved as a child, but truth be told I don’t have much of a memory of it.
It’s hard to nail down how much of a collaboration the writing was, especially early on. There was definitely a lot of back and forth and we still discuss scripts in detail. Then there are those times when I’ll cheekily just do something differently to how it was written and just see what happens. Sorry Adam!
I enjoy the style and I think it’s evolving as I do. I spend a few hours every day studying so that’s always going to reflect in my work. Hopefully that’ll be as noticeable between issues 2 and 3 as it was between 1 and 2.
My favourite moment was one that you mentioned in your review. The panel of Wildfire propelling himself forward on page 4 of issue 2. That page was one of the last to be completed after an 11th hour decision to punch up the fight a bit. I think that shows. I’m always tempted to go through a whole issue again to bring it up to the level that I’m at by the time we finish but I’ve fallen down that hole before. I’m reminded of a quote, though I’m not sure where it comes from: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”. Obviously, that could be taken as permission to half-arse things but I think of it as permission to let things go and keep moving forward, instead of getting trapped in an endless loop of building up and tearing down your own work and never showing anything to the world.
AW – To make this point easier I’ve just copied and pasted what you wrote:
“Just looking at things, we can also see that we’re dealing with a battle between diversity and racism/fascism/the shadow government”
So, just between us! As we get into spoiler territory that’s kind of it, but also kind of not. Now if it hits home that way then that’s our fault as the storyteller so I don’t take any fault with your description, the bad guys SCIMITAR, or Supreme Command for Incident Management and Initial Tactical Armed Response are obviously somewhat of a homage to Shield, or Hydra or any other clandestine organisation in comics, in a certain sense, however, we certainly weren’t going for them being viewed as fascist, is there a reason to you that that’s the case?
ZL – Well, partly, the Shadow Government is a form of fascism, but not of the race variety, (there are many forms of fascism as it’s essentially the belief that one group of people are superior to any others), it’s a form of free market fascism, where the possession of money and the associated power that comes with that, means you are worth more than poorer individuals. Also, though, there were the two thugs in the store with the Texas Flag, and one had a swastika, that sort of foreshadowed the presence of fascism and racism. The look of Mayhem Marauder is also quite fascistic and felt like a reference back to those thugs. I guess I’m saying, maybe my understanding of fascism is slightly different to others around the shadow government and that the character designs have sort of flagged a feeling about fascism being a part of the work’s themes.
Does that sound like a question even!!
Um – What are your thoughts on that?
AW – Gotcha! I see where you’re coming from now. Again, I’m careful to not go into spoiler territory. S.C.I.M.I.T.A.R have an agenda, but I can’t really go into that just yet, but they aren’t really drawing from a fascist playbook in my mind. The thugs in issue 1, we wanted individuals who were clearly detestable from the off. They were shaking down a shop for money. Ben, being a good guy (but naive) rushes in trying to do the ‘right’ thing and gets beaten down pretty quickly. As for Warren AKA Mayhem Marauder there’s a reason behind his appearance, something which again, will be explored later on in the series.
What we really wanted was to have a diverse set characters on both the good and bad side. This isn’t a tactical or political stand (we’re bombarded with more than enough of that in real life), it was more just a ‘why not?’. Why not have Ben be a black guy? Why not have Mika be Japanese? Why not have Mohammed be Asian? Instead of making our cast all white, black or any other ethnicity we wanted to have a diverse cast. But yeah, we certainly aren’t looking to go for anything racial at all. I’d love to know why you thought it?
ZL – The theme I picked up on was the use of a diverse cast, just generally, and sadly, nowadays that carries with it the weight of the current world political climate, with Islamophobia, institutionalised racism being highlighted by a highly racist American president and British ‘Johnny Foreigner’ scaremongering leading up to Brexit. There’s also the opposite side of the argument around why you’re writing in characters of colour when you’re not familiar with the culture or background.
So, I’m wondering from what you’ve said, whether you’ve had positive or negative or no feedback on any of those issues? Also, what have you done, in terms of research, to avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping characters by race and gender?
Essentially, it’s a very thorny area to walk in and I wonder how you’re planning on finding the safe path through?
BN – Speaking for myself I’m always wondering about that delicate balance. I think it comes down to doing your due diligence, but more than that, just treating characters like they’re human. Trump, Islamophobia, Brexit, they all come down to a basic lack of ability or willingness to empathise with people who are slightly different from you. I guess people just prefer to feel superior or succumb to fear (or both somehow) but at the core of being a good person, and at the core of good writing, is empathy and compassion.
AW – There’s certainly a minefield of different opinions out there on that subject. Personally, I don’t want The Secret Protectors to be a vehicle for my own personal politics. It’s a strange one really, I can see why politics often find their voice in comics, but I’ve always thought that if super-powered beings did exist then our way of politics would be completely different, if that makes any sense? There certainly comes a point where, logically, politics within the context of the story / world would need to be addressed but that doesn’t represent my own thoughts but rather reflects the story and the characters themselves.
I don’t want anyone to read our comic and feel like we’re preaching an agenda to them as that is not our prerogative. As for the diversity of our characters backgrounds I’ve always believed that good characters are written as individuals with their own mind, ambitions and problems. Their group identity should always be a secondary factor, that’s not to say it’s unimportant but I don’t think it should be the primary driver behind their actions.
The feedback so far, from readers, has been really great overall. I think, that with everything in life, if people can see you’re trying to put something good out into the world, even if it’s not their cup of tea, they do tend to get behind it. They can see its value and the love behind the project. I believe that the reason behind that is that, for the most part, we are more good than not.
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At the start, this may seem like I’m going in hard on this comic and also going in hard for choosing to be something I don’t like.
So, I want to say this clearly up front.
I like this comic, it’s a work forming for sure. So if you want the slick, mature work of creators fully situated in their styles, or a very settled format of superhero comic similar to corporate comics, this is not what you’re looking for. I think it’s not yet formed, and I think it’s still firmly rooted in its genre work, but it does nothing badly. For most people who read the kind of thing I’ve reviewed before it’s likely not the kind of work that will interest them, and I’ll argue why I can fit this in my mind in the same space as those works at the end and why I think it has a virtue worth investing in. It’s entirely possible these are patronising things to say and I’m going to hold my hand up to that if I’m called out on it.
I also add the extra caveat that all comments about style and genre are not to be considered as a definition of the creators’ interests, influences or personal systems of categorising. They are comments upon my thoughts, values, and ways of thinking. They deal with what I’ve put together and brought to this work. Talk to the creators for their opinion.
It all gets quite deep and specific as I parse those things out for you.
On that sinister note, let’s go!
This is an interesting comic
Maybe you’re old enough, maybe this will mean nothing to you, but this really reminds me of the comics put out by Adventure Comics in the black and white glut. Now, I really like them, in fact, I’d say that I actually own comics just like this one.
They’re the sort of comics that mix ideas the creators have seen in fiction and thought, ‘Oh my god, I want to do a story with that in it because it’s so COOOOOOOL!’ Then there are moments where there is something so personal and out of context with the stuff in it that it throws you sideways. I like them for the very reason that they’re often just this weird stew of genre cliché and they’re often characterised by being about plot point and cool scenes and some stuff to string them together. I just like sitting down and parsing all of those influences out and enjoying how clearly these are people fulfilling their kid comic dreams.
This work is near to that experience, but there’s something more than that about it. It’s one of those ones where you can see it has potential for the creators to get better an not just sit making their own weird stew of fan-fiction.
Which is to say that this is a work that leans heavily on its inspirations, has not shaken off that inspiration enough to call itself its own thing yet, but it has these moments and ideas that could really be exploited if they dig into it. It’s a work you can see where the creators are figuring out their choices and solutions a hitting some and missing others.
Which is an appallingly long way of saying that this is the work of a team finding its feet between doing the stuff they’ve loved reading and wanted to make since they began wanting to make stuff and finding their own style and purpose and their own way to say it. They have made some quick steps between issues though.
I found the second issue, for example, much more interesting than the first both story and art wise.
Let’s go back in time
Now, we have to establish a bit here. This is a ‘modern’ superhero comic and I am genuinely not a fan of modern superhero comics, they take too long to get to anything and they don’t know that they’re too serious or how to package an idea. They equate heroic poses with emotional gravitas and, as with all modern media, angry emoting is seen as ‘character’ and ‘depicting male emotions’. I’m not a fan of either thing, it’s hysteria not emotion, its going ‘BOO’ when you could sneak up and tap someone quietly on their shoulder. It’s a smiling emoji rather than laughing with your friends.
That’s definitely a taste and age thing. It’s also a bit damn unfair of me to knock something for reminding me of a style that I’m not a fan of. However – there’s work in here that has a much more interesting nature than the genre it’s leaning into, so I need to deal with why I feel this could ‘move up’ (in my estimation). It is also the nature of this blog that I’m talking about my reaction to thing, so honesty around that is required.
To me, this story doesn’t get going into the characters quickly enough because it has decompressed its story too much. Its story also seems more plot than story, as in, stories have character arcs not just things that happen. Stories talk about something relatable to their audience, not relying on a familiarity with genre to carry the weight of identification.
Put another way, these could be interesting characters, but we don’t know them. We know their plot points, not their personality and those two things are very different in my head. We know the main character got his powers in a disaster and that there are shadowy powers at work and a superhero team at work. Just looking at things, we can also see that we’re dealing with a battle between diversity and racism/fascism/the shadow government.
All we know about the personality of the main character is that he’s a bit shy around a pretty girl, loves his family and gets angry when confused. We’re two issues in, for me that’s two chapters of this story, which means two chapters in and I’m still not comfortable about whether these he’s going to be an interesting character to read about. I know he’s there to be a cypher for the reader to identify with so they can be led into this new world through him, but he’s too much of a cypher, really too much of a stereotype and not a person yet. Sometimes you need to know the head of a character before you trust their heart and their insight.
As to the Secret Protectors, the same is true for them, except that there are some moments where you get a little ‘in’ on their relationships. I’m unsure whether issue 2 delivers more interest because of their presence, or their presence in issue 2 mean that they’re treated with more skill and so come across as more interesting.
I think the art also needs to work harder at selling this comic at this point as well. It’s uneven at the moment and fluctuates in ability sometimes panel to panel. There are moments where the anatomy is bang on, followed by some really awkward posing or poorly executed foreshortening and that throws around the reading of the story. On the whole though, those anatomy issues are about time and practice. There are more fundamental decisions here about the approach to the story where there’s an uneven approach that throws the story out. Choices of posing and pacing and sequencing that at points flatten the character portrayal or the excitement of the action, but at other points serve to really punch it up a notch.
Diving down into the detail
Now – I’m going to get into a quite close read of this here and this is where I talk about why I enjoyed this comic and what I see as its virtues. That all comes with the caveat that I’m neither writer, nor artist, nor editor and that none of these things are anything other than the reasons I have for reviewing and recommending this.
So, lets begin by picking 2 pages from issue 2 to compare, page 2 and a detail from page 5.
Page 2 is the first half of a double page spread and we’re seeing what should be a really impactful moment where a mech droid is confronting the Secret Protectors. I’ve decontextualized this a lot by removing the big robot, because I want to talk about character and the depiction of those characters.
Secret Protectors 2 page 2
Secret Protectors 2 page 5 detail
If you look at the poses being struck here, I find them vey static and generic. There’s nothing individual about those poses where you couldn’t reverse the costumes and be showing them as having the same personality. Also, the composition relies very heavily on the action lines to feel dynamic. That barn in the background carries as much dynamic force as the figures themselves in my reading of the scene.
Compare that to the action shown on page 5, the position and shape of the body, the placing in the frame and the composition of the action between those two panels. They’re small on the page in the actual comic, but they carry much more action and punch and show more of the character’s personality, The writing here adds an extra element to the character depiction, seemingly at odds with the ‘go in there and do it’ look of the action we can see someone concerned with not causing harm to their enemy.
Then you look at that pose in the panel and instead of opting for a typical ‘blasting out flames’ pose, the arms are thrown backwards whilst getting into position, so now I see that the writing explains why they are thrown back without banging you on the head with a hammer.
Interestingly, the anatomy in both drawings is no better on a ‘realistic’ scale, it’s just that the flame panels have their own rhythm where those shapes put together make sense as a person running fast. Also the shapes made by the flames between each panel match up dynamically, twisting the eye around in a near circle, moving your eye down from top to bottom before retuning it to the right so you move on to the next panel. My eye moves quickly, like the action it’s depicting.
Even the computer art works differently; the orange flames, though very painterly, sit within the context of the image; whereas, the action lines on page 2 stand apart, almost speaking a different language to the image on the page.
The computer art has a nice pace of its own at points in this comic as well. There’s a panel on page 4 of the 1st issue that is just orange colour with a white speed line filter applied. It works, at that point, as a nice story beat, it’s very otherness serving to break out the rhythm of the story. The approach is not used in such a considered manner throughout though.
The 1st page of issue 2 also has an interesting moment like this and shows my point more clearly, I think. If you look at the whole page, the middle panel again uses some computer made speed lines to give a sense of dynamism. This time, I feel, they’re working against the real dynamism achieved in the figure drawing and panel composition. They’re dumped so artificially onto the panel it breaks up the flow of the story where it should move dynamically. Then you get that final panel, where there’s this amazing, expressionistic depiction of the van shown very realistically in the first panel. Break beat. Sinister yellow eyes glowing out. Impact of the message driven home. Game changer engaged. Essentially, such a different outcome.
I guess the point that’s being skirted around is that there is some really good work here, but I’m not sure that it’s a choice as part of the story delivery. I hope so for the creators, because these are interesting techniques to employ consciously. Personally, it doesn’t matter so much, intent doesn’t stop me from stopping and looking at that and thinking it is awesome.
But the application is inconsistent throughout the two issues and that’s a shame as it can really block the story at points.
Maybe one last group of examples might make my point clearer.
The use of computer colour and design on the drawings, particularly on the buildings, has a sort of deadening effect on the art quite often, as do the pacing and drawing choices. If you look at the 1st page of the 1st issue, the very precise nature of that building, the point of view disappearing into the centre of the building, the matching tones of most of the page, all of these serve to force you to just stare at the centre of the hospital complex. It’s a real work of effort to move your eye on.
When you do, it’s the same battle over again to move your eyes off those repeated panels, then again, the first panels of the bottom tier are matched so closely that the final panel of the page seems like it’s clipped from a completely different story. That page is just hard reading all the way through. Yet I can feel that it’s trying to create a rhyme on the page, a pace to draw you through.
I get the same feeling about the pacing set up on pages 8-9 of issue 1. Just looking at page 9, you can see the rhythm being aimed for. Yet it’s so flat, the characters aren’t made interesting in either drawing or writing. It’s stiff at all points. Maybe not stiff, forced, like the creators know they’ve got something to get across and they’re going to make it happen.
Now, why I’m interested in this comic can be seen when you contrast that with issue 2 page 13. Just stop and look out the layout and how it rhymes and matches up, window panes below matching panel layout above, colours in top and bottom tiers balancing yet contrasting. Even the way that the panels show the change in character personality. The anatomy may be no better or more consistent, but the pacing is on point so it doesn’t matter to me.
Look at how the relationship of characters is mirrored between their powers at work, the story beats are well chosen and well depicted. They sell the relationship of those characters to each other, rather than labouring the point. It’s subtler already. It’s unfolds before you rather than TELLING you about itself.
One last dive
I just want to look at this last page, mainly because of those bottom three panels and the way I like the look of them! Also though, because that middle panel works so well to deliver an emotional moment. Simple, good facial expression and body language and colours focussing the moment. Then those last three panels delivering such a different artistic style, changing the rhythm of the comic instantly. It’s moments like this that make me enjoy this comic.
It’s served up in a way that shows me some character and emotion, in a way that feels like it’s a personal solution for its creators. It’s fine entertainment and I’m all about that at times.
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ZL – In my mind, Jazz Creepers is your first anthology and did amazingly well. From a personal note, I was just jealous at the fact you got Sarah Horrocks, Gareth Hopkins and Paul J Milne all in one anthology, 3 favourites of mine! Why did you decide on an anthology and what was the experience like organising contributions?
DN – The title jumped out of a conversation Paul and I were having, and after a couple of days of it rattling around my head I found myself seized by the urge to make that the title of an anthology. The look and feel of it was pretty much all there from the off, even down to the design of the cover and the idea to integrate art from the past into the comic, and it really coalesced after talking it through with Sarah Gordon, who is also in the first issue.
As an anthology Jazz Creepers has only two rules: Florid, and no autobiography.
After that I just asked people who I knew or who’s work I liked, told them the rules and let them get on with it. Of course, not everyone was available, or able to contribute, but I was extremely lucky to get exactly who I had first imagined in there in there. I knew everyone involved would make great comics, so was very hands off in terms of editorial involvement.
Organising how everything fit together was maybe the part that I enjoyed the most. There’s a specific aesthetic to Jazz Creepers: ripe fruit, velvet, the masquerade, and peeling paint. It was fun to try and preserve that in the flow of reading the comic, flitting between stories in a way that made sense, making sure everything fitted in, and making sure that the design of the comic helped the whole cohere into something that reflected the intention.
The award seemed to say that it did. Next time, it’ll be even better.
ZL – Do you remember the first time?
DN – I came to comics fairly late, though having thought about it, I keep revising the date back.
Was it Colin McNeil’s splatterpunk take on the world of Judge Dredd in Chopper: Song of the Surfer,with its splurging sunset golds and russets, violence refracted to the abstract through a kaleidoscope of colour? Or earlier, John Ridgway in Doctor Who Magazine; lines scratching into the page, nervous and febrile, pushing the TV show toward the epic? Or before that, maybe The Quest for the Gloop, with its wild flights of fancy, it’s weird worlds and textures?
Colin McNeil on Chopper
John Ridgway on Doctor Who
Jan Pienkowski art and Helen Nicholl writing Quest for the Gloop
ZL – You are gifted the opportunity to set up a new museum showcasing all of the creators who have influenced you from birth to now. The first show is called ‘First, Formative and Now’ who do you pick and why?
DN – It’s a grand museum this. A great sweeping thing of interlocking chambers and vaulted ceilings, a museum with weight behind it, so it’s only fitting that it should house my vast obsessions and passions.
The first chamber:A visitor walks up into an enormous blue space, like a summer sky, and there in the centre of that space is a golden column, quite thin, with a black sphere atop it. The visitor can walk around and around it, and, if they reach out and squeeze the sphere, it will make a noise.
At that sound screens drop down from the ceiling and the image of Harpo Marx flicks across them, mute, in constant motion. Running and chasing and doing impossible things. Unlike anything and utterly true to himself.
The second chamber:A green room, like the colour of a hillside at dusk, clover flowers on the walls. In great slashes of charcoal, the art of Carol Swain. Swain’s work is something that stays with me, and towers over comics in general. There’s an essentiality about it, a truth to it. Her landscapes of borderlands and between places speaks to the places that I grew up. The elliptical tilt of her stories is an angle that appeals to me.
The Third Chamber:A room full of old nitrate stock, and in the centre a candle. Old peepshow machines lining a wall, each with a different Guy Maddin film playing. I think the reason I enjoy his work so much is that it explodes the normal tools for building stories and finds new ways to say things. It takes fragments of the past, grafts them onto current techniques, and produce a glorious hybrid – something that never existed but should have. Something like his recent Seances builds a wonderful, never to be repeated experience from the bricks of lost films.
ZL – What one publication would you choose if you had to choose something for all the world to read?
DN – Under my benevolent fist, my troops will round up my people and force them to brutalist storerooms where everyone will be provided with a copy of Flannery O’Connor’sThe Violent Bear It Away. They’d be given strict instructions to devour it, to give in to it; in short, to be the good and loyal citizens that I demand. They will thank me.
It’s a sensuous, lyrical book, tense and muscular, about the awful weight of destiny and the race to outrun it. It starts with the death of a prophet, and follows his nephew as he rejects both a religious and a spiritual life. There is fire along the way. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
ZL – If you could live for a day in the body of any creator and experience what it was like for them to create, who would you choose?
DN – I’d choose a sculptor, because it’s a medium that I haven’t really worked in, and the physicality of it, the fight and the heft of it is something that appeals. I think that Elisabeth Frink is wonderful – the textures and life that she managed to put into her work is something that seems almost channelled rather than decided upon. So, Frink then, building up one of her shattered ravens, or facing the solidity of making something real.
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ZL – I feel like you’ve been doing zines for a while, when did you start and what inspired you to do so? PJM – After I graduated art college in 2003, I started contributing pieces to various publications. I did a fair few one page things for excellent Dundee arts zine ‘Yuck n Yum‘, and I was trying to get some work going as an illustrator with varying amounts of ‘for exposure’ success, but finally decided to make an actual comic around 2009/10. I had a lot of spare time due to being unemployed, and wanted to vent frustration about how rotten the ‘Jobseeker’ life was, and so I made my first ‘proper’ zine, Guts Power 1. It was pretty rudimentary but it exists and that’s what’s important.
Unemployment’s not a particularly entertaining subject and was covered surprisingly accurately already in League of Gentlemen, so in the end Guts Power was less about the dehumanising aspects of the jobcentre, and more about absurd jokes, ridiculously specific pop cultural references, body horror and musclemen in fetish clothing, plus lots of thinly-veiled self-hatred. Basically my attempt at a ‘Deadline‘ sort of thing but with much better taste in music.
Once I’d made issue 1 and realised that it was a thing I could actually do, it spurred me on to start making other comics. The final issue of Guts Power 6 finally came out last year, phew.
ZL – Do you remember the first time?
PJM – Comics-wise, I was very taken with the weekly Marvel UK Transformers comic,
specifically the ‘Time Wars’ storyline by Simon Furman and Andy Wildman. It seemed impossibly dark and important to young me, and maybe the first time I was aware of the comic as something other than just nonsense with my favourite toys in it.
But I still abandoned it when the Hero Turtles comic came out, as I sure did like those Turts, and kids are daft.
Other formative “what is this, this is incredible” moments as a tiny bozo were the Night on Bald Mountain section of ‘Fantasia’ , catching a random and unadvertised showing of Ghibli’s ‘Laputa’ on ITV on a school holiday (which seems to be an experience shared by many people of my generation), and first contact with Street Fighter 2, which broke my brain.
ZL – What single creation would you settle down with and just chill?
PJM – I find it hard to ever properly relax due to my delicious cocktail of mental health issues, but at the moment a pretty good time can be had lying in bed with a glass of milk and a volume of Q. Hayashida’s ‘Dorohedoro‘ which is ludicrously imaginative, gory and kinetic. It’s also very sweet, but crucially not twee. No tweeness at bedtime, I don’t want to go to sleep angry.
ZL – You have just published your second Grave Horticulture issue after what seemed like a good amount of success with the first publication, does that make it harder or easier this time around?
PJM – I suppose it was a kind of success as people seemed to like it, but the box of leftover copies cluttering up my bedroom says otherwise! The fact anyone had an opinion on it is quite daunting, and as a result while working on issue two I’ve definitely found myself overthinking things.
This is useful when it comes to stuff like “will people be able to follow this sequence?” as it pushes me to consider storytelling clarity, but not so useful when I start second-guessing nearly everything and worrying about if something seems “professional-looking”.
Best just to try and follow my instincts I suppose, which is certainly easier in theory.
ZL – (Let’s hope this never happens, but let’s also pretend!) A psycho runs up to you in the street and chainsaws your hands off. Your life is saved, but they couldn’t save your hands. Who draws in your hands’ place?
PJM – First of all, I hope the chainsaw person gets the help they need! And secondly I hope I’d still carry on with art in such a situation, but I suppose it’s good to have backup plans.
Not sure I’d want anyone else to draw my comics really, it’d be pretty unfair on them as my scripts are very vague and confusing. I mainly piece the story together as I go, apart from a rough outline and certain scenes. I’ve done ‘full script’ once or twice and it’s been much easier for me to draw, but the final results haven’t been as good, I don’t think.
I like the idea of making Michel Fiffe draw whatever I tell him to, but I would feel bad keeping him from making more issues of Copra.
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ZL – I’m really interested to know the influences for your comic?
NP – I call it a slice-of-life in as much as the characters and their stories are imagined if not directly from real life, then from lives that could plausibly have been real. Will Eisner prefaced A Contract With God by saying that the book contained “stories drawn from the endless flow of happenings characteristic of city life. Some are true. Some could be true.”
I would say exactly the same for Slang Pictorial. I’ve taken characters, incidents, stories and sayings from my own life and the lives of my parents, recollections of friends and relatives, events recounted in memoirs, plots borrowed from TV narratives and the best lines stolen from the pulpiest paperbacks and mixed them all up in a hodgepodge to such a degree now that I’d be hard pressed to be able to tell you what was true and what was just plausibly, possibly true-ish in the sense that Eisner identified.
In terms of specific formal, thematic and structural influences I’d point to Film and Television as being very central to my thinking, as befits my coming from an academic Film Studies background. Take a love of the French New Wave, mix it with a deep admiration for the ambition of Anthony Newley’s criminally under-rated creative endeavours such as The Small World of Sammy LeeandThe Strange World of Gurney Slade, chuck in as much Sam Selvon and Colin MacInnes as you can read plus the long-form narrative ambitions and character-driven genre storytelling of contemporary TV like Fargoand The Deuce and I’d say you’ve got a good sense of the kinds of art that feeds my drive to keep making The Sheep And The Wolves
ZL – Do you remember the first time?
NP – For comics it would be Iron Man #150, the special double-sized issue in which Tony Stark and Dr Doom find themselves thrown back in time to the court of King Arthur. It had fantastic John Romita Jr visuals and a done-in-one story featuring sorcery and pseudo-science and an army of undead zombie knights that I read and re-read hundreds of times. I found the comic in a pile of my primary school teacher’s rainy-day comic books and so had no idea of continuity or who the characters were beyond what I’d seen in cartoons, but I was absolutely hooked and have been an Iron Man mark ever since.
ZL – Your cartooning style is very reminiscent of classic Belgian cartooning styles. Is the style influenced by the retro nature of the content, or is the content influenced by your retro style of drawing?
NP – I have a very binary brain and so as a child I was a Marvel reader which meant I didn’t read DC and I was an Asterix fan and so avoided Tintin. I loved the energy and dynamism of Uderzo’s art and the knockabout humour of Goscinny’s writing and compared to that Herge’s clean lines were always too clean, his characters too buttoned-up and the worlds he created too rigid, rule-bound and well-ruled in terms of everything being about straight-lines whereas Asterix was all curves and swooshes, architecture bending and straining to contain the lolloping limbs of these bonkers characters. I loved the historical aspect of the stories being a big ancient history buff, but I also remember wishing that Goscinny and Uderzo would do stories set in more modern times, with gangsters and spies and detectives, etc. I had no idea that there existed a slew of artists and writers working in the magazines Spirou, Pilote andHeroic that were doing just that sort of stuff, Franquin with Spirou and Fantasio,Maurice Tillieux with Gil Jourdan, Francois Walthery and Natacha, even Peyo and Benny Breakiron. I only discovered this side of the Franco-Belgian bookshelf when I came back to comics about six years ago and ever since I’ve just been steeping myself ever deeper into this stuff.
ZL – You are gifted the opportunity to set up a new museum showcasing all the creators who have influenced you from birth to now. The first show is called ‘First, Formative and Now’ who do you pick and why?
NP – I’d say First is going to be Dan Clowes, certainly not my earliest cartooning memory but very much someone whose work defined my return to comics in the early 2000s. I readGhost World, David BoringandIce Haven in pretty quick succession and each one seemed to progressively build on and transform what came before it. These were revelatory comics for me, both formally and thematically, in terms of what comics could be and say and how the interlinked craft of comics-making; of inking, hand-lettering and book and page design; all served to strengthen the kind of storytelling being showcased.
Formative is probably Franquin, a cartoonist I feel an affinity towards both in terms of his wonderful art style as well as, less positively, his psychology; but I am always trying to emulate and incorporate his character designs and world-building as well as to try and keep pushing myself to adopt new styles and techniques, adapting them hopefully into my repertoire in productive ways.
Now is definitely Gus Arriola, a cartoonist who doesn’t get enough love or column-inches, but his Gordo strip is very much everything I strive to make Slang Pictorial, expressive and animated cartooning in a character-driven soap-opera set within a fully-realised and jazz-infused world that’s just the epitome of hip, mid-century modern comics.
ZL – You are currently Kickstarting and you’re offering a package collecting all previous issues as well as the current 4th issue of Slang Pictorial. I like the way that the whole of the work is being made available as a tier, by the way! How was it to have successfully achieved your funding within 90 minutes?
NP – It’s always amazing when you hit that target and you can breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing that the project is going to get funded. Slang Pictorial #3 hit its target in under 12 hours and that was huge for me as it was my first ever time on Kickstarter and I really had no idea how it was going to go. I won’t say with #4 I was specifically trying to hit that 90 minute target but I did do a lot of work before hand in an effort to try and beat that previous result. So I set up a pre-launch mailing list, did a lot of Instagram and Twitter promotion to start hyping up the launch as well as offering a couple of Early Bird only rewards for backers who pledged on the first day. The point of doing all of that was to try and get us over the line as quickly as possible, but the fact that the project funded as quickly as it did is ultimately all down to the fantastic folks that jumped on board and did such a great job sharing and spreading the word.
In terms of the logistics of this Kickstarter, the funding will go towards printing issue #4 as well as reprinting some more of issue #3, issues #1 and #2 were reprinted as part of the previous campaign. I always try and budget the funding ask to cover printing enough copies of the comics to fulfil the backer rewards and leave me enough stock to cover convention sales for the following year. After issue #5, which I hope to launch at the end of this year, I am going to have to think about perhaps a trade collection of the first five, as I can see that after a certain point, new readers might like to engage with the work in a nice chunk, however I am very much committed to maintaining the serial form of the single issues. The challenge is working out a balance between what to keep exclusively for the individual issues and what to put in the trades by way of back matter, etc.
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It’s a funny thing getting something you’ve watched grow and come to life over a long time. It’s funnier when you realise, suddenly, how the experience of watching it grow is little to no indicator of what it is you end up getting. Which is a loopy sort of way to say, I’d never thought about this as a story and surprised myself upon reading it, reacting to the comic as a story rather than the artwork as ART.
That’s still not picked apart terribly well, so let’s talk about my background with this comic.
I knew Simon for a while before he started posting images for the comic. When I first saw Simon’s art on Instagram; these big splodges of messy colour, no form and all texture and space for the imagination; I immediately just loved them.
Absolutely wanted to take those images, run away with them and make things with them. Then I watched him carve and inscribe meaning to them, hewing image out of those spacious textures, making space into form.
They still LOOKED cool and I knew I’d buy the comic because I wanted to see that art and stare at it, all together. Compare it to what I’d seen made, space to form to object.
I backed it and recently picked up my copy from Simon and sat down at work, thinking I’d flip through and wallow a bit in all that mark making. Now, to digress from my own point a minute, the art is great, the writing too.
There’s a lovely moment in this spread I particularly like. That little image set at the end of the left page telling a story in just two panels. Succinct but meaningful, art and words punching together to tell it all with impact.
There’s also just this lovely balance and variety. That first panel stretching, summarising. How it places the end of the story told in those two bottom panels as a single moment before retelling the same story with greater emotional impact. That small panel/ large panel combination flipping on the next page. The story focus moving from past to present, from fire to ice. From one enemy to another. That first summary panel that stretches time reflected by the final summary panel that concatenates moments. Frozen memory, action bursting from the frozen castle.
This tale tells itself so simply whilst using this very clever structuring, pulling in colours and textures, balancing pacing and time patterns seamlessly. The images rhyme and pace and create new contexts without you even really paying that much attention to it. It’s structured so that it’s just there to tell the tale, it gets out of its own way and does the job it needs to do. Yet it’s so well thought out if you want to pay attention.
The strength of this comic, though, is the story-telling, the emotion it delivers. You don’t need to appreciate the art, you don’t need to admire the structuring. None of it is done to impress you. It’s written in word and image to make you feel, feel what is going on and nothing is getting in its way.
When I sat flipping through it at work I just read the odd word but had to turn back to the start to read from the beginning. I got to the end and just felt this welling up of sadness about what happened to the two of them. I don’t know whether we’re meant to feel like it was inevitable, whether it was good that it was fleeting, but I felt like it was a terrible and sad outcome to it all. It should have worked, they should have had the chance to stay and be. Sorry to be oblique but still spoil the story for you!
It’s now over a week later and I see that cover and I think about how I want to read it again and imagine how they could make it work, find the answer to their problem.
Njord and Skadi, that is, not the creators. My memory is fixed on the story and the creators and the creation don’t really matter at all.
To put a context to this, when I sat down to write this, I went back to look at my notes and realised that my plan was to talk about how awesome it was to see all of these marks off a flickering screen and sat on a page, how much I loved the mark making and how it was exciting to follow its journey; space to form to object. That’s not what was actually exciting at all. Reading the story, how the words and images were so in tune, was exciting. How all of it just wanted to tell this story, in fact the story itself, that’s what mattered.
Another slight digression, but I want to be a bit clearer here, when I’m talking about words and images being in tune, I’m not talking action to word matching, but rhythm and style. No words rhyme, they’re not epic couplets, yet it has that ‘rhyming’ rhythm one associates with poetry. Everything is told in these simple beats. Short clipped captions condense time to a feeling, a synopsis, to pack a punch. The same with time between and in the panels. You’re not getting a linear transcription of time passing here. You’re getting a succinct timeline carefully weighed up to deliver an emotional punch.
When I put the comic down I didn’t think about the art or the language. What I thought about was how sad it all was and kept thinking about that. About how differences can, in the end, tear us all down, keep us all apart. That’s what’s stayed with me. Just that crushing sense of emotion, of promise failed. It’s maybe a mirror of my mood, maybe a door into my feelings, maybe just melodrama on my part. But it’s there. That sense of being broken hearted, of seeing a story that’s an oblique observation of actual life and people; not just structure, characters and plot. A tale telling us what it feels like being broken and let down by life and how you can snatch a gift from that. That may be the message of the story, but it’s not how I felt afterwards, I felt like the world had let me and these people down by not having space for them to be together and it made me sad.