A new ‘golden age’ of independent comics publishing
The idea of a paperless digital future took a serious knock at the recent Thought Bubble Comic Con in Leeds (17-18 November). So did any idea that big publishers like Marvel and DC are shaping the future of comics on this planet. The event gave me a strong sense that independent publishing is the biggest story in comics today, and this was borne out by UK comics legend Dave McKean, who told a gathering of graphic novel aficianados at a Comica event in London the following week that we’re now in a new ‘golden age’ of comics publishing. McKean wasn’t simply affirming the power of what Scott McCloud has called ‘the frictionless environment’ of the Internet. He was talking specifically about comics on paper.
The new renaissance of independent comics publishing is a case study of how paper has surrendered its role as the primary medium of mass communication and gone back to what it’s best at being – an endlessly adaptive printable surface. New high-quality, low-volume colour printing technologies have enabled the footsoldiers of the indie comics revolution to imprint the creations of their febrile brains in a wild assortment of colours on a variety of surfaces and formats. On show at Thought Bubble, amongst the plethora of digitally printed 24-pagers, were Japanese-style concertina fold-outs, pulpish multicolour risograph ’zines, comics printed entirely in outrageous neon Pantone spot-colours, books embellished with weird die-cuts and pop-outs, and anthologies packaged like ideographic lucky packets in handmade envelopes.
Far from disappearing into the ephemeral digital world, comic books seem to have reclaimed their physicality as sacred fetish objects.
Since I was only at Thought Bubble (www.thoughtbubblefestival.com) for a day, I decided to focus exclusively on self-publishers and trendsetters in the burgeoning British indie comics scene. There must have been 500 of them in the two halls where the exhibitors were gathered. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Instead of imposing halls imperiously dominated by the hegemonic comics publishing companies of yesteryear, you had rows and rows of creators sitting behind their self-published creations – cartoon barrow boys (and a few girls) for a day – eager to engage you in some promotional chitchat about the wild and wonderful offspring of their brains and hands.
The self-published full-colour 24-pager is the new common denominator, and most of the publishers of these books have been in business for two or three years or less. While bookshop sales are limited, there are hundreds of comics conventions and events (downthetubes.net lists dozens of UK events for the month of November alone) at which small publishers can rack up substantial sales.
Attracted by an amusingly bloodthirsty banner advertising ‘Zombie Bears’, I stopped to chat with Jeremy Briggs, founder of Subversive Comics and publisher of Bearlands, written by himself with art by the highly accomplished Thai artist Bakki. Their 12-page Bearlands promo issue debuted in May this year and Issue 1, a high-energy teddybear tribute to Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead, was out in time for Thought Bubble.
Then there’s Terry Wiley’s Verity Fair. Walking past the crowded tables I came upon a ginger-ponytailed geezer of a certain age hawking his comic books, and tarried there long enough to take in another inspiring tale of independent comics publishing. Newcastle-born Wiley first emerged in the late 1980s with Sleaze Castle, authored by Dave McKinnon, and could easily have sunk back into anonymity if it hadn’t been for his energetic embrace of all things digital, and his likeable anti-heroine, Verity Bourneville, a very funny – and convincing –middle-aged bit-part actress with borderline Tourette’s who describes herself as ‘a hiccup on the road to success’. She has the most outrageous booze-up in the first issue of the comic, followed by a terrible nightmare that causes her to flee across town into the arms of a mild-mannered Jewish man who receives her naked into his bed but sends her packing next morning without the bout of ‘sexual healing’ she was hoping for. It’s a very down-to-earth story, set in a very realistic London neighbourhood (made more so by the incorporation of photo backgrounds), combined with very strong characterization and rollicking good humour. Wiley’s own story – ageing underground comic artist reinvents himself to become the self-publisher of a wonderful comic book series – is itself all about the new possibilities offered by digital comic-making. And it is in the physical comic book rather than his self-effacing online presence that the magic lies.
Even more interesting than these single-author works are the ambitious artistic collaborations undertaken by some of the new comics publishers. The most ambitious of this year’s crop is Nelson, from indie outfit Blank Slate Books. Edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix, Nelson is a story composed and executed by 54 of Britain’s top comic artists, with the profits going to a homeless people’s charity. Each artist has taken one day of one year of the life of the protagonist, Nel Baker, executing it in his or her own style, in entries varying in number of pages from one to ten. The end result is a 250-page graphic novel that meanders all over the place stylistically and storytelling-wise, and yet somehow holds itself together.
Another noteworthy anthology is Nowbrow 7: Brave New World, from Nobrow, the hippest of London’s new comic art publishers. Like its predecessor, Nowbrow 6, it’s a flipflop format, with comics going in from the one side, and illustration going in from the other. If the illustration side is a bit too reminiscent of Blab, Blam! and all those achingly trendy portfolio ’zines executed in currently approved avant garde illustration styles, the comics side has the virtue of formal innovation combined with some intriguing narrative responses to the ‘brave new world’ concept. But the book’s impact comes not so much from the content as the production itself: the printing is out of this world. It’s printed on uncoated cartridge paper using a limited palette of muted spot colours, including silver and gold, to which all the contributing artists had to conform. This technique has the effect of integrating the very varied comics and illustrations – including a spread by Cape Town’s increasingly ubiquitous Jean de Wet – into a wonderfully cohesive gestalt.
Nobrow have made an art of spot-colour printing, giving their products a very distinctive postmodern look. Another good example is Megaskull by skateboard artist Kyle Platts, a very funny Johnny Ryan style comic printed in vibrant neon spot colours, the plates for which were digitally colour-separated by the artist himself.
Another new digital printing technology that’s impacting on self-publishing is the Risograph, a digital version of the old roneo machine, which has suddenly given underground publishers the chance to produce comics at a fraction of normal printing and photocopying costs. But it’s not an easy technology to master: the covers of Cape Town’s Jungle Jim lit-zine, for example, are so badly out of register that they actually look quite good in a weird way. But spot-on Risograph registration is possible, as demonstrated by Joe Kessler’s Windowpane, a Risograph comic printed in purple, yellow, red and green. It’s edgily existential content is perfectly complemented by the grainy printing and absorbent paper. Windowpane is published by newly formed London publisher, Breakdown Press, and printed by Risograph experts Victory Press. Another amazing limited edition Victory Press masterpiece is Tom Edwards’ Nine Tales, a tabloid sized book printed in nine soy-based inks in a limited edition of 100 copies. The A2 sheets were folded to A3 before being fed through the printer, and then re-folded to print the other side. A perfect example of digital-meets-artisanal publishing.
But perhaps the most weirdly wonderful comic I encountered at Thought Bubble was by digital artist John Miers, simply entitled A Collection of Comics. Miers is a philosopher of the comic art form, exploring the semiotics, syntax, hieroglyphics, ideography (or whatever you call it these days) of comics through the production of enigmatic wordless narratives in which graphic motifs are framed and ‘extracted’ from the background picture, imbued with symbolic meanings and then left up to the reader to interpret. I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of longish chats with the intense but likeable Miers, and it’s clear that he’s at the front end of Britain’s new comic art intelligentsia.
For more information about Miers, and indeed, almost any comics-related subject under the British sun, consult Paul Gravett’s Comica website at comicafestival.com. or his blog at paulgravett.com. I’ve been a fan of Gravett’s work ever since the ‘80s, when I used to collect Escape, his prototypical comics-zine. Eddie Campbell, in his wonderful autobiographical tome Alec: The Years Have Pants, calls Gravett ‘The Man at the Crossroads’, and its a position he’s held through the successive waves and movements of British comics since the ‘80s. He’s an indefatigable champion of independent comics publishing, and it was great to finally meet him at Thought Bubble, followed immediately by a Comics event entitled ‘Comics: Refreshing Parts Other Literature Can’t Reach’, where veterans Dave McKean, Rian Hughes and Posy Simmonds shared the stage with new comics auteurs like Simone Lia, Karrie Fransman and Glyn Dillon.
I came away from these events with armfuls of comics, a head spinning with ideas and lots of tales to share with my comics comrades in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. The message is really quite simple: there’s never been a better time to publish your own comics.
London, 25 November 2012