Knocking about with Tony Bennett

Published On September 13, 2006 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Interviews

With the stop motion animated movie of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (blogged here earlier) in production, new work from the great British cartoonist Hunt Emerson in the works and material from Rain Hughes and Grant Morrison scheduled this marks a welcome return to new titles from one of the few British independent publishers (and distributors) Knockabout. Not only has Knockabout been instrumental in pioneering the market for challenging underground material it has also been at the forefront of legal battles over censorship; it is probably no exaggeration to say that the increased leeway enjoyed in the medium today is thanks in no small part to the cases Knockabout has fought out with The Man so we could have the right to decide what we wanted to read for ourselves. It gives me great pleasure to introduce the man Fat Freddy is most likely to call to feed his cat when he’s away, Tony Bennett:

FPI: Today we are talking with Tony Bennett of Knockabout Comics, for a long time Britain’s main publisher of original adult comics material. Knockabout famously publish the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and such classics as Alan Moore’s From Hell. Tony, hello and thanks for talking to us. Perhaps we could start with you telling our readers a bit about how you got into the business and how Knockabout came into existence?

Tony: In the late 60s and early 70s I was working with a publisher and distributor called Unicorn Bookshop, originally in Brighton we moved to a farm in West Wales where we were growing our own food and had a printing press in the barn. Unicorn, as well as publishing books on self-sufficiency, cannabis and poetry was importing Underground comics from the USA. This really sparked my interest in comics, partly for the wide and weird content and partly because they were creator owned. It even encouraged me and a friend to draw and print our own self-indulgent heavily derivative comic, Trip Strip, which we distributed at Festivals. With the demise of Unicorn in 1975, due to bad debts I took over some of the distribution and started publishing the Freak Brothers in 1975.

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FPI: The underground comix scene was always stirring controversy among the more establishment types. In the UK this has lead to censorship, court cases (like the infamous Oz trial) and seizures by customs officers. You yourself having fought more than one court battle over obscenity charges. Censorship in other media like movies has eased up somewhat since the 70s and 80s; do you feel that censorship of comics has changed over the years too? Is there still, do you think, a perception of comics as ‘kids stuff’ leading to moral and obscenity barriers being placed in their way other mediums don’t have to navigate?

Tony: Well, no and yes. No, censorship is not nearly so bad partly due to the successful results of some of our own battles with HM Customs and the Obscene Publications Branch and partly due to some sex film distributors influencing the British Board of Film Classification to be more liberal so that more explicit material is now available in many media.

Yes, there is certainly a perception in Britain and the rest of the English speaking world that comics are for kids. I don’t see this attitude changing any time soon, however many Pulitzer Prizes or Guardian Book Awards are given to graphic novels. Comics may be ephemeral and ‘low art’ but every newspaper carries comic strips, many of which are aimed solely at an adult readership although I suspect that quite a lot of those adult readers might be shocked at what is inside the covers of many modern comic books. It is obviously in the financial interest of the large periodical comic publishers, Marvel, DC etc. to attract young teenagers to their product and so they quite rightly operate some kind of self-censorship.

Because there exists also a large adult readership for superhero and SF/Fantasy material conflict often occurs between creators and publishers. This is not a problem that we have at Knockabout as our books are only sold to adults or if younger people read them they are likely to be growing up twisted anyhow. The ‘comics are for children’ attitude does not seem to exist in the rest of Europe or elsewhere in the world. If for example you are a Belgian reader you just know that comics are a medium of their own, just like novels and that different ones are aimed at different ages; a concept that seems to be continually resisted by the British.

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FPI: Do you think all the legal hassles were worth it? Or do you see it as a simple case of standing up for the democratic right to the freedom of expression, something you had to do? Do you think contemporary comics would be more restricted in what they can portray if it hadn’t been for those battles – even though some of them were lost? It must have cost you a lot financially as an individual and a business?

Tony: Not worth it financially or for all the worry and hassle but certainly I would do it again if I had to. The agencies of the Government that deal with censorship use a somewhat heavy handed economic weapon by seizing goods and then taking a long time to bring them to trial and even when the defendant is acquitted there is no compensation for loss of business. Before our big trial in the 80s the police had many of our books for nearly 3 years.

We did, without so intending at the time, help to change the law or at least the way the law is used, particularly in 2 cases. In 1985 we had a long trial at the Central Criminal Court (The Old Bailey) in London under the Obscene Publications Act as to whether Drug references in comics should be allowed. We were acquitted on all charges and this enabled not only a certain liberalisation of comics but also the growth of cannabis growing books and the shops selling such material.

The other case was with HM Customs in 1996 over Robert Crumb’s comics and explicit sexual imagery. We won this overwhelmingly as well and Customs were kind enough to write to me after the case setting out a list of what sex acts might be shown in comics. I haven’t actually framed it but it is a precious document.

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FPI: Turning to contemporary publications, can you give us a little taste of what Knockabout will be tantalising our comics senses with in the near future? There has been something of a hiatus in new material from Knockabout but you seem to be gearing up again as a publisher. I believe you have work from Hunt Emerson and Rian Hughes in preparation? And what’s this about the next League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and other Alan Moore works? That must be a real feather in your cap.

Tony: We have been slow with publishing for the last few years, partly because of financial pressures from court cases and partly we have been concentrating on distribution. Now that I am no longer involved in that I hope to gradually accelerate a new publishing programme over the next couple of years. Hunt Emerson is working on Dante’s Inferno, which looks great, and we would hope to sell to schools and colleges as well as comic fans. It always seems a shame to me that Hunt’s work doesn’t sell as well as it should, as he is one of the best and most original cartoonists that we have in the UK (quite agree – Joe).

We still don’t have a title for Rian Hughes’ comic collection that will be out in the New Year, although I suppose if we called it Dan Dare and put Grant Morrison’s name on the cover bigger than Rian’s that would do it. It will look very stylish of course as that is what he does and even now Rian is still tweaking little bits of art and lettering to get is just right.

We are of course carrying on reformatting the Freak Brothers and have a Complete Fat Freddy’s Cat book in preparation, all of which will be helped by the upcoming animated film. Working with Alan Moore seems a lot easier for us than it does for some larger companies. He produces the work and we put it out to the comic trade and the book trade and since we don’t exert any editorial control over the content, only the packaging, what could be simpler? Because we are small we can sometimes do a better job than larger publishers by putting more energy into each title and keeping on pushing them into different markets after the initial listings.

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FPI: How do you usually select what creators and titles you want to publish? Do you find yourself having to strike a balance between personal tastes and what you think will sell to a wider audience?

Tony: We have been going for 30 years with ups and downs so even when we have put out something that is very much personal taste we do hope it will sell enough to pay for the print costs and the artists royalties and leave enough over to pay the rent or buy new shoes. With stuff like the Freak Brothers well over half of it has sold outside the comic specialist trade to bookshops, head shops and record shops. It was the first non-music title ever sold in a Virgin store for example.

I have great respect for the specialist trade and know some of the shop proprietors very well but it is a captive audience and easy for us to service so most of our energies are put into finding other outlets for the work. For example a book like Hunt Emerson’s version of The Rime of the AncientMariner , now about to be in its fifth printing, sells 90% to non comic fans through bookshops, schools and universities.

FPI: The publishing trade has always been volatile, with the comics business even more so, especially at the independent end of things – what pushes you to keep going? Obviously you are in a business, but I get the impression that it’s also as much about the love of the material and a desire to get it out there too. Would that be a fair assumption?

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Tony: Got no skills, can’t get a job and probably too old to work for anyone else.

FPI: You’ve been in the business for a long time now, how do you think it has changed since you entered it? What are your thoughts on the UK scene today? You also go to Angouleme every year (the world’s largest comics convention held in late January in southern France) and there seems to be an invasion of French reprints coming from UK publishing house like Jonathan Cape. Many of these works are from L’Association largely regarded as revolutionising French comics and broadening comics appeal. Do you see the same thing happening here? Will it be home grown or mostly through imported material? Are there any cartoonists from your travels abroad that UK readers should be looking out for?

Tony: I’m not sure that the UK scene has really improved at all if we are talking about UK publishers with UK creators. I’m pleased that new small publishers like Kingly Books are concentrating on British creators but there are still only a handful of comic publishers in the UK and the largest of those only reprints American books.


Yes, its great that Jonathan Cape is bringing out large graphic novels but barely originating anything. I’ve tried to get the rights to some of the books they’ve done but for some reason artists agents are more impressed by the biggest publisher in the world than by Knockabout. It is true that L’Association has had a big effect on French publishing since the early 90s, although it hasn’t stopped the inevitable rise of Manga now being 25% of new books coming out there. I am translating some French comic work at present that will be out next year. It is good that graphic novels get reviewed in the papers and even on the TV but they tend to be the ones that Cape puts out as they have the media contacts.


FPI: Do Knockabout have any plans to try and cultivate up and coming UK cartoonists who may currently be self-publishing and try and bring their works to a wider audience. There must be some hits there waiting to be found? Do you actively solicit manuscripts and new work?

Tony: We get loads of unsolicited stuff sent to us, a lot of which is complete rubbish and some is really good, interesting and different. I am trying to pluck up courage to bring some kind of ‘New British Comics’ anthology if I can think of the correct title and way of presenting it. Anthologies are notorious for not selling very well but since we are not a vanity publisher and will pay royalties I want to find a way of publishing it by give-aways with style, culture and music magazines or some such. There is a very strong scene of self-published work in the UK but I suspect that the number of cartoonists who actually make a living from their work without being dependant on American publishers may be counted without taking your mittens off.


FPI: You were also until recently the driving force behind Red Route Distribution, which has now been absorbed by Turnaround. How do you see the state of comics distribution in the UK into the comics stores and also the book trade?

Tony: The book trade has been responding well to graphic novels, partly thought Red Route’s work and partly due to media coverage. I hope Turnaround will be able to keep this up although graphic novels are not the only things they do. The better comic stores have always sought out new material and Red Route helped with keeping a steady supply of good backlist titles available, something that is difficult for Diamond to do as they are very much concentrated on the new front list periodical business. I still despair over some comic shops that are so conservative that their limited stock is displayed in comic boxes and their customer base is not expanding. One of the best things of recent years is how much better and more attractive some of the better-run comic stores look – this has to attract new customers.


FPI: All business and monetary considerations aside for a moment, are there any creators out there you haven’t worked with who you would love to publish?


Tony: Alex Robinson, Moebius, Joost Swarte and Noe among many others.


FPI: It is always a bit unfair to ask this, but have you any special favourites from Knockabout?

Tony: The Freak Brothers, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, From Hell (although we didn’t originate this one) and Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament.

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FPI: Which comics are you reading at the moment?

Tony: Nothing in particular, whatever comes in front of me. Since I am no longer distributing I don’t get such an easy choice. I much prefer to read a graphic novel or collection than a part work so I have never been a regular purchaser of periodicals but I am an avid reader and constantly delighted when a new comic uses the medium to tell a new story.

FPI: Do you have any involvement on the Freak Brothers animated film? Will it be a good excuse to push classic Freak material back on an unsuspecting public?


Tony: Only helping with publicity and of course we’ve never needed excuses to repackage the Freak Brothers in a dozen different ways. Gilbert Shelton, much against his will, is slowly working on new Freak Brothers pages to help the film. What I have seen so far looks great and I think it will be a film that is true to the original material. The website gives more insight, www.grassrootsthemovie.com

FPI: Could you recommend a couple of good independent comics for the more mainstream reader who is thinking on expanding their horizons but isn’t sure where to start?

Tony: Box Office Poison. Love & Rockets. Bone.

FPI: Tony Bennett, thank you very much

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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.