British Indy comics creators speak

Published On July 12, 2006 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Interviews

One aspect of British Comics Month which has made the online team at FPI very happy is that we’ve had a number of UK self-published comics creators getting in touch with us to get listed on our new (and growing) British Small Press section. A few days ago I posted a quick roundup of some of the creators and comics which have come on board – today it’s time for some of those writers and artists to speak for themselves. Obviously space and time means we can’t talk to everyone at once, although I’ll be doing my best to talk to more creators as we go along (and of course it’s something I’ll be doing long after BCM ends, just as we always try to do).

For today, however, I’ve decided to experiment a little and turned the interview into more of a conversation between myself and three Brit Indy comics creators, Ventedspleen (really, he’s a softy when you get to know him), Simon (Hope for the Future) Perrins and Bevis Musson, the artist who brought superheroics to Manchester and made it looks good in tights. I hope its interesting to you all – I found it fascinating to hear how three different self-published creators respond to the same questions, but without further ado, let’s hear from the guys themselves:

FPI: Hi, guys and thank you for taking some time to talk to us about your work, especially since many of you have to fit in your comics work around other jobs. One thing that has really struck me as we’ve been adding on your titles to the FPI webstore is the sheer diversity on offer. Perhaps we should start with you telling us a little about who you are and what your current title is about?

Ventedspleen: I started drawing comics about four years ago at art school, focusing my vitriolic disillusionment on drawing gratuitously spiteful character assassinations of my peers. Now I tend to write auto-biographical, cautionary tales for misanthropic twenty-somethings. The latest comic I’m working on is How to Date a Girl in 10 Days (less a self-help guide, more an insight into my pathetic but hopefully voyeuristically appealing love-life).

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Simon Perrins: My name’s Simon Perrins and I write and draw a comic book called Hope For The Future, which is about three normal students who constantly come into contact with the creatures of the underworld, mad scientists, shadowy secret societies and sort of general weirdness. That might make it sound a bit lame and like a million other comics out there, but the main aim with it is to mix up my two favourite comics genres, namely early nineties Vertigo supernatural shenanigans, and the more autobiographical, sarcastic, what I would call typically American indie comics. Sort of like Ghost World but with actual ghosts in it.

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Bevis Musson: I’m Bevis Musson (and that really is my name); I live in Manchester and work in my day job as admin support for a civil engineers. I’m a self confessed geek about a lot of things but think that’s a good thing rather than a bad one (hear, hear! Joe). At the moment I have two titles that I work on, The Queen of Diamonds, which I write and do the art for, and Oddcases which is written by Alistair Pulling and I do the art for.

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The Queen of Diamonds is a superhero comic of the classic type with good guys with powers fighting bad guys with powers. It’s set in a slightly altered version of Manchester with the Queen as its protector. In most way the Queen is a regular superhero with the usual quips, snazzy fighting moves and bright costume but he’s also a flaming queen and isn’t afraid to let people know it. It’s Batman if he were British and came to terms with his sexuality, basically.

Oddcases is about two ladies of a certain age who also happen to be paranormal investigators. Only rather than going in with guns blazing they tend to approach problems with a slightly more philosophical point of view. Of course if needs be then they will bring out the big guns as a last resort.

FPI: This is a rather obvious question, but still valid, so I’ll ask it: how did you first get into comics, both as readers and as creators? Any special influences?

Ventedspleen: It seems to be a common story, but I read comics as a kid only to grow out of them as puberty reared it’s spotty, hormonal head. I think it was after reading some Alan Moore and Adrian Tomine comics that brought me back to the fold.

Reading Tomine’s 32 Stories was what convinced me I might want to try drawing my own, and I started drawing short pieces for myself. The first thing I drew was a short, slightly derivative comic about my experience of having crohns disease. It still makes me cringe.

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Hard to say if there are any obvious and specific influences, but Harvey Pekar, Crumb, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Jessica Abel, Seth, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Jeffrey Brown, and countless others all had a hand in making me excited about the medium. So they’re probably to blame.

Simon Perrins: When I was a kid it was a combination of Marvel’s Star Wars comics, and Whizzer & Chips. Many years later a friend showed me Simon Bisley’s Judgement On Gotham, and I got hooked again. From there it was a lot of slightly pretentious painted comics that were big at the time, and a bit later onto the classics like Watchmen and Batman Year One. But when I discovered American indie comics like Evan Dorkin’s Dork and Terry Laban’s Cud, I sort of got inspired to start drawing my own stuff.

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I guess people like Philip Bond, Duncan Fegredo, Peter Snejbjerg and Brian Bolland, all artists with extremely individual and appealing styles were always favourites. In addition, I’m a big fan of writer/artists like Mike Mignola, Peter Bagge and Daniel Clowes. All of those guys are such masters of their craft that they can create worlds that feel real and suck you in. There’s nothing like dodgy backgrounds, or bad poses or facial expressions that pull you out of the story. In fact I have this plan to kidnap all of the artists I’ve mentioned here and force them to draw my stories, but that’s probably illegal and immoral, and more to the point it would stop Mignola getting any more Hellboy done, so it’s probably best that I don’t pursue it any further.

Bevis Musson: Like a lot of people growing up in the UK in the late Seventies and early Eighties I really got into comics through The Beano and The Dandy just because US superhero comics were few and far between in the newsagents where I got comics. I do remember having a couple of Superman annuals and a little digest edition of a JLA story which is where I first read about characters like Green Lantern, Black Canary and Green Arrow, but other than that they were few and far between.

While I was at university I started getting trades of Batman stories and then on moving to Manchester in 1999 I started getting into monthly comics and it all grew from there. After meeting various people through message boards I went to the Comics Expo in Bristol and was encouraged to start doing my own stuff. There’s been no stopping me since.

As for specific influences there are a few. Sandman has influenced me a lot in terms of storytelling, as has V For Vendetta. Peter David’s run on Supergirl and Young Justice are my ideas of almost perfect superhero comics. In terms of art a lot of my style comes from having studied art at school rather than comic art, but I have certainly been influenced by Tim Sale, Leonard Kirk and Peter Gross among other. I have quite an eclectic taste in art styles, but I tend to go for people that have a distinctive style. I like to see personality in art coupled with great visual storytelling and nice body language and anatomy.

FPI: I get a stronger impression of more personal tastes here than I sometimes do with more mainstream work from larger publishers. Since one of the great rules of creativity is ‘write what you know’ that isn’t a bad thing itself, but do you ever worry about striking a balance between telling a tale or creating a character you want and making sure that it will still appeal to other readers?

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Ventedspleen: Essentially, I don’t make a huge amount of money producing small press comics, and that’s never been the intention. Most small press comic artists are acutely aware there’s very little money and/or success awaiting them. The process of creating a comic is a remarkably cathartic experience and self-publishing gives the artist the freedom to succeed or fail on their own terms.

Having said that, comics are a mass-produced medium – they’re inherently designed to reach a large audience. As much as my work is indulgent auto-biographical tat, I’d like to think it still deals with universal themes that most people can relate to. If they can’t, they can surely fill the aching chasm in their cold, dead heart with one of the many power fantasy superhero comics out there.

Simon Perrins: The only reader I’m trying to appeal to is me, because I don’t see any point in trying to guess what other people are after. If I did that I’d probably get it wrong and end up falling on my arse (metaphorically speaking of course). As long as I can do a story that I find pretty funny, that has good characters and decent artwork, people who read it seem to enjoy it. The real bitch is promotion.

Bevis Musson: Honestly, not really. I don’t set out to write or draw anything that I know will only ever appeal to me but nor do I set out to try and meet a particular market. The Queen of Diamonds is, to all intents and purposes, a fairly standard superhero comic and fits in with certain conventions and story telling techniques. I’m not trying to break new ground with it or revolutionise superhero comics since I like superhero comics and think that as long as the stories and characters are enjoyable and well crafted then there isn’t any need to recreate the format. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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There are some awful superhero comics out there and they do swamp the market to the detriment of other genres but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad. The fact that I’m self publishing does mean that I can do whatever I like with my characters but I’m also wanting other people to read and enjoy my comics. Because of that I don’t modify my stories at all to fit what I think people might want. I write and draw to entertain myself and hope that others will also enjoy my comics.

So far that’s proven true for the most part. The people that I know are reading the Queen of Diamonds are very diverse, so I know I must be doing something right. People who don’t read any other superhero comics have told me they enjoy it as have people who are the biggest superhero geeks in the world.

FPI: I know most of you have to fit in your comics work around other jobs. Is the comics work more of a hobby that you like to share with others or is the dream to actually work full time in comics?

Ventedspleen: If I was getting paid to draw comics for a living, I’d probably be fairly content. Being predominantly fuelled by bitterness and resentment, this would have a seriously detrimental effect on my output. It’s also highly unlikely.

Simon Perrins: I reckon working full time in comics, (and doing it well) would be way too hard! Give me illustration any day – much easier and more money!

Bevis Musson: My day job is the job that I do to pay the bills and enable me to do comics. The comics did start out just as a hobby, something that I enjoyed doing for my own entertainment. As I’ve progressed it’s become more than that and would be what I would like to do as a career. Actually getting paid to do comics, something that I just love doing, would be a dream come true. In the meantime though just sharing my comics with other people makes me happier than almost anything else I do.

FPI: Naturally you want to reach as wide an audience as you can for your work, but do you also see your own comics as a possible investment, like a portfolio of your work which you can use when seeking work from other, more established publishers?

Ventedspleen: Possibly. It would be preferable to have a large body of work finished before seeking out a top publisher. But it’s not “the plan”.

Simon Perrins: I think there is a veneer of professionalism that I haven’t quite mastered yet, which would stop me getting work with large publishers. It’s probably harder if you want to do your own stuff your own way, rather than aping other artists, because then you could just use their tricks than making your own.

Bevis Musson: Oh yes, completely. It’s all well and good showing a publisher a portfolio which can be used to show a wide range of styles, techniques and artwork but it’s also good to be able to hand an editor a finished comic for them to take away with them. They may never read it, but they have something with them that they can consider and respond to at their leisure. It’s like having a business card but even better.

FPI: Self-publishing is obviously a very difficult path to tread, although it can work for some – for example Gary Spencer Millidge has written, drawn and published Strangehaven and now has it being translated into several other languages. Would you prefer to stick to publishing your own work, trading the problems that brings against the total creative freedom it allows? Or would you be prepared to take your work through an established name publisher? Or even to leave aside your own work (if temporarily) to write or draw for an established series?

Ventedspleen: I’m quite happy (as much as an auto-biographical cartoonist is capable of being happy of course) self-publishing at the moment but might see what happens when How to Date… is completed. Ideally, it would be nice to be distributed through a small publisher that deals with all the tedious, organisational drudgery of self-publishing.

I suppose it might be quite fun to collaborate with another writer/artist on an established series, but it would depend who that person was, and whether the project seemed exciting.

Simon Perrins: My ideal would be to just work on my own stuff all the time, although in order to achieve that I’ll probably have to resort to robbing a bank or something. However it’s always a challenge to draw something that someone else has written, so, I dunno, if Alan Moore came to me with a script he wanted me to work on I’d definitely give it a look. After hyperventilating, probably.

Bevis Musson: In a perfect world I would be writing and drawing my own comics but with the financial backing from a big publisher. In reality that only ever happens once in a blue moon, and even then you don’t have complete artistic freedom because at the end of the day the purpose of the big publishers is to make money not to make art and as such you are part of that process. If your comic doesn’t sell then it won’t get published.

If I did get backing from a big publisher then I would probably be willing to work within their requirements even on my own stories and characters within reason, simply because that’s the way the industry works. I wouldn’t be willing to make drastic changes or completely alter the way that I work though. There has to be give and take but if I were working on a creator owned title then I would still want to dictate the way the stories go.

That being said I wouldn’t refuse to work on an established series either. I would love to work on something like Birds Of Prey or Hopeless Savages. There are titles that I simply don’t think would suit my style and I probably wouldn’t agree to work on something that I didn’t think I could do justice but I want to make comics and while I would love to get paid to make my own comics I would be just as happy to be working on an already existing series.

FPI: One thing all independent artists find, from movies and animation to books and comics, is that it seems very difficult to try and get help to support your work. Have any of you had any luck trying to get grants from arts councils or arts bursaries? Do you think it would help new talent get established if the bodies who administer grants for artists, such as the Arts Council, offered support (financial and advice/contacts)? Do you think the comics industry itself should have more visible programmes for nurturing fresh talent?

Ventedspleen: The problem with funding (in the UK at least) is the general view by the “artistic community” that the comic medium is still the juvenile, four colour, bastard son of literature and art. While America has something like the Xeric grant, we have to use terms like “sequential, juxtaposed text and static imagery” to get taken seriously. Whereas some ugly, performance art project with bugger all artistic merit will get thousands thrown its way because the artist happens to have an innate, uncompromising vision of his/her own self-importance.

But yes, ignoring my own bitter tirade, a visible scheme to encourage British comic art would certainly be welcome.

Simon Perrins: I’ve never tried, partly through laziness, and partly because I think my stuff is a bit too mainstream for that kind of thing. The Arts Council would probably rather support some comic that was a bit more of an “Art Object”. You know the sort of thing, A7 size, made of twigs and old stamps, and individually coloured in felt tips by a hermit.

Bevis Musson: To be honest it’s something I’ve never looked at. I know there are grants available and support to be found but it’s not something I’ve looked at.

FPI: How has new technology affected the way you create your work and the way you disseminate it? Do you use software to help in creating the art or stick with more traditional methods? Have you found the web allows you to offer your work to more people than you could previously?

Ventedspleen: Publishing on the web is obviously a cheap and very easy way to get feedback on your work and build an audience. However, I have to say most self-professed web comics have left me rather cold and uninspired. I’ve still yet to see a comic designed specifically for the internet that succeeds in making full use of the format.

The great thing about the internet is that anyone can publish comics. The problem with the internet is that anyone can publish comics.

As far as using the computer goes, I only use it as a way of preparing the comics for print, although I’ve started to come around to the idea of using Photoshop for some of the more fiddly halftone shading I’m doing.

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Simon Perrins: Utterly, totally transformed by technology. All my comics are scanned in and finished in Photoshop. I use computer lettering (because my handwriting sucks). I use a digital print on demand service (comixpress.com) that I found through the internet, and I use Paypal to sell my comics. The web potentially offers a much wider audience, but once again the problem is promotion. Getting people to actually know about it is what I’m really struggling with at the moment.

Bevis Musson: I don’t use any technology when it comes to actually creating the art. I ink and letter everything by hand and don’t know if I’d ever want to go down the route of electronic inking. Computer lettering isn’t something that I object to but I do like the fact that with hand lettering I can plan the page layout right from the pencil stage including exactly where all the lettering is going to go. The only thing that is done electronically is the colour on the covers, which I don’t do myself. I have a brilliant colourist, Wolfie, who does the colouring for me. She’s a very important part of the whole process of creating the comics and does the colouring a million times better than I ever could.

In terms of actually putting the comics together however technology is indispensable. I scan everything on a photocopier and print all the pages on the copier as well. All the issues are then also published online at www.gayleague.com and it’s the best way that I have of getting my work out to a wider audience. Although I meet a lot of comics fans in the UK I can’t afford to go to any of the conventions in the US or get The Queen of Diamonds published there. By having it on-line it’s available all over the world without it costing me anything. Again in that respect I’m indebted to Joe Palmer, who runs the Gay League website, for offering to host The Queen of Diamonds in the first place.

FPI: Other than actual sales, how do you use your websites (and I was generally impressed by the sites I’ve been seeing) to promote your work and to entice readers? Is it generally easier to sell online than in bricks and mortar stores?

Ventedspleen: Comic stores and conventions are still the most successful way to shift units for me. Having all my work available for free online helps to build up interest in the work, but I find people prefer to hold the comics in their hand before shelling out for some stranger’s badly illustrated life story.

Simon Perrins: It’s definitely easier to use your own website as a shop. You can offer previews and free webcomics, and can instantly communicate with anyone who shows the remotest interest. You have a million other comics out there to compete with, of course, but I guess you have to play the long game, and keep endlessly plugging away on message boards and that kind of thing.

Bevis Musson: I still don’t actually have my own website set up, although it is high on my ‘to do’ list. Although The Queen of Diamonds is available on-line I know from experience and from talking to other small press creators that a website is a perfect way to keep in contact with people, to let them know what you’re up to and to give them little insights into the way you work. It’s all about marketing at the end of the day, and the internet is one of the greatest assets to small press creators in that it can give you the kind of coverage that you simply wouldn’t get if the only way you had to get your comics out there were actual comic shops.

FPI: Other than having enough free time to work on your titles, what do you see as the main barriers to new, self-published creators? And do you have any good tips or advice for others?

Ventedspleen: I find the business side of self-publishing ridiculously tiresome and if I made enough money to do so, I’d hire someone to take it all off my hands immediately. My advice for budding comic creators is to marry someone with impeccable organisational skills. But if you draw comics, your social skills are probably somewhat lacking… and beggars can’t be choosers…

Simon Perrins: I reckon the main problem is indifference. Most comics readers traditionally stick with what they know, and it can be quite tricky to convince someone to buy something that wasn’t published by a large company. On the other hand the general public aren’t going to bother with comics of any description. A lot of the time you find your only audience is other independent comics creators, and they generally tend to be wrapped up in their own stuff to notice anyone else’s (I know I usually am!)

Bevis Musson: There really aren’t any insurmountable barriers to producing your own comics as far as I’m concerned. Time is an issue of course as is cost, but if you have the motivation and desire to do comics then you make the time and they don’t have to cost much to produce. Getting your comics out to the buying public can be a problem in the first place but I have found that most people who already buy comics are surprisingly willing to give something new a try. There’s a great word of mouth tradition in comics fandom and you find that as soon as one person reads and enjoys something you’ve produced then there’s a domino effect. There are readers out there who will only ever pick up titles from the mainstream publishers or works by known writers and artists but they’re not the norm as far as I can tell.

As I’ve said the internet is a great way of getting your work out there but it’s also well worth attending one of the comics conventions in the UK, Bristol in May, Caption in Oxford in August and Brighton in November. Even if you don’t have a table to sell your comics it’s a chance to meet other creators and comics fans and start to build up a fan base.

Basically the best thing to do if you want to make your own comics is to get out there and do it. If you enjoy what you’re doing and have a passion for it then there’s nothing stopping you. Don’t expect to become the next big thing over night, although it could happen, but don’t tell yourself that you can’t do it either. The market is there. There are people who will eagerly read small press comics so the only thing stopping you from doing it is yourself.

FPI: What comics are you currently reading and do you pick up the work of other British Indy creators as part of your regular comics reading?

Ventedspleen: I try and pick up the latest Love and Rockets, Mome, Super F**kers, Babel and various other small press comics whenever I can. Also looking forward to reading Moore’s Lost Girls and Brian K Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad.

Simon Perrins: The best independent British comic book I’ve seen is John Allison’s Scary Go Round, which I know a lot of people wouldn’t even classify as small press or self published because it’s a webcomic. However, the guy puts out a page on his website every day, and when there are enough of them they are published as full colour collected editions (and very nice they are too). The clever bastard seems to have circumvented the whole depressing put-your-comics-out-as-tatty-stapled-photocopies-and-try-to-sell-them-to-blokes-who-just-want-to-complete-their-Green-Lantern-collection stage.

The main thing is that it’s got great art and terrific characters and stories, I mean what more do you want?

Bevis Musson: My tastes in comics are somewhat eclectic. I love my superhero comics but I also like almost everything else as well. In terms of the ‘mainstream’ publishers I’m a huge fan of Birds of Prey, Young Avengers and Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes. Hopeless Savages and Blue Monday are must reads as well and almost anything written by Peter David, especially Fallen Angel which is one of the best comics being published at the moment.

In terms of Indy press I’m fairly limited to what I can get, but every year at the Bristol Comic Expo I end up spending far more than I can afford to on small press comics. The Girly Comic is consistently brilliant (although I do have a vested interest in that since several Oddcases stories have been included in it) and The O-Men is one of the best superhero comics I’ve ever read. The Goodman brothers always have something new that I need to read and Bulldog Empire can always be relied on to entertain. I’m also waiting eagerly for anything new from Karen and Anna Rubens who published the utterly brilliant Dark.

FPI: Finally, what’s coming up next from you?

Ventedspleen: The second issue of How to Date a Girl in 10 Days is on the way (some of which can be previewed on my blog and I’m starting to work out some of the specifics of my next project while finishing off various freelance jobs.

Simon Perrins: Well I am working on a Hope For The Future short story in colour for The Judge Dredd Megazine, which is currently printing the work of independent creators in its small press section. Hopefully I’ll get it finished before they lose interest and cancel that bit. In addition I am about halfway through issue 10 of the ongoing Hope For The Future series. And at the same time I’m putting out bi-weekly webcomics (that can be found at Flying Monkey Comics’ site) that compliment the ongoing series (and give me a regular giggle fix, well worth checking out – Joe). They’re the little bits of character interactions that I can’t quite fit into the books. Hopefully they make my characters seem a bit more rounded and fleshed out. And failing that they’re full of stupid jokes that make me laugh, anyway.

Bevis Musson: I’ve just finished doing a page for Rich Johnston’s Civil Wardrobe comic, coming out from Brain Scan comics in October. It’s Jailbait Avengers and is as wrong as it sounds (makes us want to read it all the more – Joe).

I’m also doing a huge Oddcases story that I’m hoping to have finished by the end of this year, all being well. It’s almost four times as long as anything else I’ve done so far and is challenging me artistically but I’m happier with the pages that I’ve done so than I have been by anything else. I’m pushing myself as hard as I can and it’s paying off.

At the same time I’m working on The Queen of Diamonds #9, which I’d also like to get finished this year. It should be the first of a two part story introducing an important supporting character in the Queen’s life. Of course that story was originally meant to be in #6 and that all got changed so it may end up being a different story entirely.

FPI: thank you very much for joining us.

Ventedspleen: Frankly, this interview was a gift from the procrastination gods. Can I start telling you about my childhood now? Seriously, this is like really cheap therapy.

Bevis Musson: My pleasure.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon

Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk’s chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

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