At the end of 2010, I took it upon myself to interview as many comic artists, publishers, retailers and writers working in the UK as possible. There was a sense at the time that something was changing in comics. This change, however, was difficult to define. I asked a relatively standard set of questions that explored working process, influences and ambitions. I also asked the question ‘What do you think of the health of the UK comics scene at the moment, and what do you think it can do better?’
However hard it is to define change or progression, it is made all the harder to define without a benchmark against which to measure it. What I hoped for with these interviews was the beginnings of a record of popular opinion amongst the comics industry.
There were of course omissions from the interviews. Although I interviewed over 40 artists, publishers and retailers, it was by no means a complete list of people doing interesting work in the UK. As with most exercises of this nature, it is notable by its exceptions rather than its inclusions. I did not focus on the mainstream comics industry for two reasons. The first was that there didn’t seem to be the same sense of change in the mainstream, and the second that there is more experimentation and innovation in the independent comics scene, which I find far more interesting than the same tired characters being rebranded and rebooted into perpetuity.
A number of key themes emerged from the interviews, and they were approached from various standpoints. Any insight gleaned from these responses represents initial penetration of the topic, and may not represent the opinions of everyone interviewed. A large proportion of interviewees commented on the acceptance and validity of comics in the UK. Many spoke of the ‘creative death spiral of the US superhero industry’ and how the perception of those books impacts on the perception of the medium. A few suggested that the way to develop this readership is through increased engagement with schools and literacy programmes. Faz Choudhury in his interview said ‘We should be trying to build a healthy scene like that in France or Japan, making sure there’s a wide variety of material for everyone. Engaging, original children’s comics are probably the most vital of all, it’s important to get them started young and then have comics they can move on to as they grow up. People that don’t read comics when they’re young often find the medium impenetrable when they’re older.’
A similar sentiment was echoed by Rob Davis; ‘If we get the kids reading and also get the book-reading older generation reading, by taking the medium seriously (it’s not just Maus and Watchmen on offer this time), then the business won’t revolve solely around comic shops and superheroes.’
This isn’t to say that the overwhelming response was that there needed to be more comics for younger readers, but that there needed to be more comics for people of all ages and backgrounds.
Many people highlighted the existence of new venues for creators to showcase their work, from festivals to anthologies and newer publishers. Publishers such as Blank Slate Books, Self Made Hero and Nobrow were frequently singled out by creators as potentially rivaling established American publishers such as Drawn & Quarterly, First Second, Top Shelf and Fantagraphics. Darryl Cunningham spoke about the perceptions of comics from publishers that traditionally hadn’t published comics. ‘Very quietly, a generational change has taken place in big publishing. The editor I work with at Bloomsbury US, who runs the graphic novel side there, told me that she’d got interested in comics when younger after reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and other DC/Vertigo titles. This told me that there’d been a huge shift, because not that long ago, you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone in publishing who’d read a comic book. Younger people have come into both publishing and the media, who are much more aware of the possibilities of the comic book form, than the older generation who came before them. This is a genuine lasting change, I think, that isn’t going to fade away. The UK small press scene needs to take advantage of this.’
An aspect of the comics community that was singled out on occasion as being negative was the continued fragmentation of comics away from the rest of the world or from itself. David O’Connell said ‘Getting work seen by the outside world and introduced to new audiences is the real hurdle as comic shops are few and far between and very niche. We should be exploring all avenues: bookshops, school/library visits and workshops, literary/arts/music festivals. A number of people are already doing these things as individuals but I wonder whether some kind of collective, organised push would be beneficial.’
The fragmentation of the comics scene was discussed by Luke Pearson; ‘What do we mean when we say ‘the scene’? Whatever it is, it feels disjointed to me. However you’d name it, there is a definite ‘small press/convention-going’ scene that you can kind of pinpoint on a map of UK comics, but there are a lot of UK creators who I don’t think necessarily associate with that. I feel like the scene (or scenes) needs to be more unified somehow so that we can raise our international profile as ‘a scene’. We can all namedrop countless North American and European comics artists, but who and what do those folks think of when they think of UK comics? Who are our superstars?’
Edward Ross articulated similar views; ‘I’ve just discovered the scene in the last year, so I’m not best to comment. What’s great is that the people working in comics are very positive and supportive of new work, and there’s a sense that we’re all working towards the same ends. There’s so many talented creators, just searching to find an outlet for their work, and striving to make this a paying career. The bad is that it is a ‘scene’, or more accurately a number of small scenes that rarely overlap. Until we start thinking of comics as more than just a scene, and get our work into the hands of the general public, this will never be anything more than a hobby for the vast majority of us. We all need to do our part to push comics, any and all comics, into the mainstream, and make sure that the market continues to grow and develop. Just coming into this scene recently, I see it quite clearly. For all our hard work, it is virtually invisible to anyone but those on the inside. This needs to change.’
The overwhelming sense from these interviews was one of optimism. It is clear that while there is a variety of approaches and aesthetics, there is a unity in purpose. While there may be some disagreement in how it is achieved, there is agreement that people want to see comics and comics culture continue to develop in the UK.
Dan Berry is a Senior Lecturer in Visual Communication at Glyndwr Universty. There he runs the art school’s specialism in graphic novels. He is a cartoonist and designer, and alongside publishing his own work, he has recently contributed to Blank Slate Books’ Nelson and the anthologies Solipsistic Pop, Paper Science and Ink + Paper. He is currently working towards his PhD, looking at the ways in which technology can support innovation in the creative industries.