Starting with a Blank Slate – we talk to the people behind the UK’s newest graphic novel publisher
FPI: It isn’t too often we see a new graphic novel publisher emerging in Britain, but this month sees the debut of Blank Slate Books, which isn’t just a new UK publisher, it’s a publisher looking to bring us unusual new work – the first two books out of the starting gate are from British small press star Oliver East with his acclaimed Trains Are Mint and a translation of German artist Mawil’s We Can Still Be Friends.
Blank Slate Books is the brainchild of two of Forbidden Planet International’s own directors – Jim Hamilton and Kenny Penman; as the first two books arrive on the shelves it seemed like an appropriate time to chat to them. Hi, guys and thanks for taking some time to talk on the blog. We should probably start by asking you both to introduce yourself and tell us a little about your own background in comics, how you got into the business, your roles in FPI, the works that especially influenced and motivated you?
KP: I’ve been in the comics business now since I was 28 – 22 years and counting. That was when Jim and I bought out what was Science Fiction Bookshop in Edinburgh (now the country’s oldest, still trading, in some form, store – having started in 1975). Previous to that I worked as a food commodity trader – buying and selling mostly pulses, dried fruit and nuts to the burgeoning hippy health food trade; at the same time I was SF Bookshop’s pretty unreliable, Boy Saturday. I sent out some mail order parcels, made the tea and added Bananarama records to the shop’s sound mix, all for store credit and first chance at all those lovely back issues that came in.
I had always loved American comics, in particular anything by Jack Kirby, I was 8 or 9 when Kirby was producing his great run on Fantastic Four which just blew my mind as a kid. I read them over and over from the old brown case beneath my bed. I stopped reading as a teenager, but seeing the cover of Doctor Strange #12, with Strange’s skeletal corpse, pulled me back in at 17; one read of Englehart’s mystic, quasi-religious prose and I was hooked again – this time for good. After that my tastes broadened slowly, really down to Jim pushing me to read certain things I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise – he always had better taste than me. Nowadays I can’t much see past Chris Ware and the Hernandez brothers as the markers for what comics can be at their best.
JH: I started in the Science Fiction Bookshop when I was 21, so that’s 28 years so far. I’ve loved comics since about the age of 5 and never really drifted away (although the 90’s tested me). I built up the comic side of things in the store and when the time came to buy the business I lured Kenny away from the comfy secure world of lentils and pulses to the soul shattering, insecure world of comics. Things expanded fairly rapidly after that and here we are.
FPI: You’ve both been running FPI for many years, selling and promoting countless works by different comics creators. Is this the first time you’ve been tempted into actually publishing some of that work yourselves? What was it that prompted you to decide to sink your own time and money into publishing new work?
KP: I think the many years thing is the key; everyone needs something new to excite them from time to time. I think we have both thought about it on occasion but simply never got it together before now. I think personally, I just felt it might be a good time to reinvest some of my energies into comics which have always been my first love.
JH: We did dabble with publishing around 20 years ago when the music/ pop culture mag The Cut wanted a comic section. We put together an insert in one issue looking at what was interesting at the time and looking ahead. This led to New Adventures of Hitler by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, Atomic Baby by Rob Moran and Bible John by Grant and Danny Vallely which we touted around but, great as the books were and as much as I got along with the creators, we drifted away from it. The stores were demanding and what should have been a fun diversion soon became a loathsome burden. Kenny was always keen to get back to it but I was reluctant because of the past experiences.
(TheNew Adventures of Hitler by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, first seen in Scottish arts and culture mag The Cut, where it stirred up a fair bit of controversy, before going on to appear in Crisis; this pic borrowed from Scans Daily)
FPI: There’s been a lot of talk about how the medium seems to becoming more accepted and even respected in the mainstream – we’re seeing regular features and articles in the Guardian and Times, panels at literary festivals and increasing numbers of graphic novels, especially those aimed at a mature audience, enticing in people who probably haven’t read a comic since their childhood Dandy days. Did this increasing visibility and acceptance of the medium influence your decision to create Blank Slate or was it just a happy coincidence that you were looking for a way to bring good, new work to readers as the market seemed to be more welcoming to them?
KP: I think it influenced me slightly in that I suspect there is the possibility to get work which may not necessarily appeal to the normal comic-store comic-reader to a wider audience. I do have a feeling the dream of bookstore sales is something of an illusion for many publishers. Very shortly those comics shelves in book stores are going to be overcrowded so the chances of you as a small publisher getting on to them are probably pretty small.
The big publishing houses are muscling in on the comics space which is a bit of a double edged sword in my opinion. They have the financial and marketing clout to push books the way they really should be to commercial bookstore chains and that benefits us all when books like Fun Home and Persepolis become hits and open up the market.
I do think there is a chance though that they will take more and more of the space and, once they have it, fill it up with less good material – nature abhors a vacuum and all that. I think that is already starting with some of the scheduled material not exactly moving comics forward much in my eyes – comic biographies, prose adaptations and history in comics form – for the most part wouldn’t be my chosen path. The form is pretty pure in and of itself – I’m not sure it needs this kind of literary hybridisation which I think is starting to occur.
JH: Every year people think that we are approaching mainstream acceptance but in truth it happened a while back. We’ve had comic book stores on busy high streets for 20 years now and billboards surround us with one huge comic book movie after another so it’s been more to do with finding the time to it justice really.
FPI: Can I ask how you expect Blank Slate to run as a publisher? I understand that part of the idea is that the sales of each set of books will help finance the publication of the next, is that right? How many titles a year do you hope to publish and is there a rough schedule?
KP: I think in the short term we expect to sink some of our own money into it without much reward to be honest. Yes, any monies coming back in from sales will go towards whatever we publish next and in time we would hope to have a list that is big enough in terms of title breadth to have us ‘established’ as a comics publisher. We have a slight advantage in that any copies sold through Forbidden Planet International outlets and mail order return us more money than would those sold through other retailers so if we can maximise them we can perhaps break-even on books at reasonably low sales levels.
In some ways that is a pretty established model, comic store starts publishing books, sells a lot to its own customers at a relatively profitable level and then sell to other book stores at a much less profitable level. Once the external sales can support the costs alone you have a real business.
SF Bookshop did it itself many years ago with the comic New Myths (which first published Bryan Talbot and some early Grant Morrison) and people like Futuropolis in France (the original) and Bries in Belgium, I believe, grew their business that way. Our expectations are very low initially – if we sell 1,000 copies on most of our early books we will be pretty pleased I think. I would love to be producing 12 books a year – although in the first year if we publish 8 (given how long it took to get the first two out) I’ll be well happy.
JH: While we would be looking to new books mainly we may also revisit some of the titles I mentioned earlier and see how they stand up. Pretty well I’d imagine but we’ll see if there is any interest.
(Oli embraces the tool of photography in Trains Are Mint, published by Blank Slate and (c) Oliver East)
FPI: The always delicate questions of money and rights rears its head at this point – obviously a new, small publisher doesn’t have the pockets of a long-established major, so what sort of payment or royalties can Blank Slate offer to artists and writers? And I know a lot of our readers work on their own comics and will be interested in how you view the issue of creator’s rights?
KP: It is a difficult issue I agree. I think the better small publishers partly treat the whole thing as a kind of joint project. The author gets a royalty against sales, his or her work time being their risk if sales are low, and the publisher takes the risk of physically printing and marketing the books. It seems many publishers now like models where the print bill is split with the creator as are the royalties (to some % or another) and where they might make charges for staff time, warehousing, shipping etc.
I can see reasons for the publishers to do it that way – the print risk is very limited in that case, ability to grow your list quickly is accelerated etc, but it never seemed to be to be a great deal for the author. We have tried to stick to a more traditional book publishing model, we pay a royalty and as part of that will pay an advance of 25% against the print run. Which whilst it sounds great doesn’t mean you are getting rich initially if your print run is low. Then again we absorb all print and other costs as part of our side of the deal in taking the print risk.
The royalty will vary between 6 and 10% given the degree of risk I see being involved. All IP rights are with the author/s and we take the usual split % (50/50) on secondary revenues should there be any, serialisation, foreign rights (where we have them) etc. We have no protection on creators rights outside our ‘in print’ continuations and we do try to have a contract which will give us first refusal on any given authors next two projects – although that may vary from person to person.
I think most of this is pretty standard for book publishing and I’d prefer everyone knew that we aren’t trying to do anything unusual. On the printed books one advance has been paid , the other the author declined for a short time so the monies might fall into the next tax period. Both contracts were very short and pretty much knocked up on the back of a fag packet – something I’m sure I’ll regret, but it seems to me I wouldn’t want to hold someone to anything much they didn’t want to do, can’t see them producing good work that way. Who knows as we get used to the realities of sinking money into a black hole our opinions may change…?
FPI: It’s a sliding scale, of course, but the lower end of it at 6% sounds a bit low?
KP: The 6% is low, but it is very likely to be very unusual. Neither of the first two books we published were actually at that rate. I guess it is for a time when there is an author both Jim or I think has great potential but is probably currently not very commercial. Where we know we are going to be wearing copies for some time to come. It lets us publish them and get them started where even small sales will help us recoup our outlay whilst getting them into print. Then their next book once established will get a higher percentage, or they might find they have unexpectedly become the Stephen King of comics and can walk away and get 12% at a major. It won’t be used much but I can imagine there being a time that I just want to publish something everyone else seems to hate. It’s for that moment.
FPI: That seems fair enough, a lower initial payment to the author balanced against perhaps non-commercial work getting a chance to be seen in print, it at least offers a potential starting point even for work which may not have much of an audience to begin with. Despite the increasing acceptance of the medium and the willingness of more non-comics readers to give graphic novels a chance success is, as we all know, not guaranteed. For an initial launch some might have gone with a large, well-known name, but you’ve gone for Oliver East and Mawil. Mawil is obviously very well known in the Continent and Oli has a great reputation on the British small press circuit (and both have featured in free comics inserts in the FPI catalogue in the past), but I’d imagine they will be new names to quite a lot of readers.
What was behind your decision to make them your debut authors? Was it a conscious decision to start as you meant to go on and offer something unusual and different? Was it simply because you both really liked their work and wanted to give it a chance in front of a bigger audience? Or was it a mixture of personal preferences with business considerations? I’m guessing that in publishing those two qualities are probably both required in selecting possible publications to run with.
KP: I think it largely, for me anyhow, was a matter of getting out two books relatively quickly where we weren’t involved in long drawn out negotiations on contracts. We know the people at Reprodukt a little so the Mawil one was an easy-ish one to do once we had decided we wanted to do it (given he is probably Germany’s favourite comics creator it does seem like a relatively safe bet) and with Oliver he hadn’t had a book published before so between us we found it easy to work out terms.
Having said that we love both books – and if we could pick and choose what we publish going forward we would like to continue with this kind of balance – new British creators, some translated works – German ones might be a constant possibility with a fluent German/English speaker on FPI’s staff and possibly a few bigger established names as we grow.
From a business point of view I’m not sure how you go about it any other way unless you are independently wealthy or have a large publisher or backer behind you – neither of which apply to either Jim or myself. It’s very much a ‘from small acorns’ philosophy and hope that we back some winners along the way. Anyhow, I like British comics and I really would like to see more of the excellent undiscovered cartoonists in print.
FPI: What drew you to their works in particular and how did you first encounter their comics? I know our Brit small press scene has some great work out there right now, but what made you focus on Oli? And what inspired you to go for a German cartoonist who would need to be translated?
KP: I pretty much picked up on Trains through our interest in the small press on the blog. It got me reading around a little on some of the creators and I saw some very good reviews for Oli’s self published comics. Once I got hold of copies I thought it was a brilliant thing. Fully formed from the small press without the drawback of being steeped in comics history, it just seemed a very forward step in what could become a new British comics renaissance – having looked around more I feel more and more there is a huge wellspring of talent waiting to be tapped.
(a happy scene from We Can Still Be Friends, published Blank Slate, art and (c) Mawil)
As for Mawil I had known his work before through the book Top Shelf did previously (Beach Safari) and thought even then what a terrific cartoonist he was although I didn’t think the narrative was that fully formed. When we started stocking German language books on the FPI website we had a look at all the books that went into stock (when I fell in love with Anke Feuchtenberger’s work). Isobel who is an FPI buyer is German, although she has lived here for 10 years and previously had lived in the US so her English is very fluent (she even has a Scottish accent), and she read the books and absolutely fell in love with Mawil’s work. Given that her normal comics reading is Spider-Man and other Marvel books this made me realise that Mawil’s work had real crossover appeal if you could get it to the right audience. So we decided to do a translation of his first book and see if we could build that audience over time.
FPI: I think its only fair at this point that we also bring in my colleague Isobel Rips who actually translated the Mawil strips into English. It’s a task that’s often forgotten or taken for granted by readers, but each comic or novel that starts life in another language needs someone to translate it for another audience to enjoy (think on some of those lovely D&Q, Fanfare or Typocrat titles). And it isn’t always just a matter of a straight, literal, word-for-word translation – as I remember all too well from my schooldays, German in particular often requires to be re-ordered and interpreted a bit to translate into a readable, ordinary English sentence.
Iz, can I ask how you decided to approach this? Did you know Mawil beforehand or did you get to know him during the process? I’m guessing you had already been aware of his work and read it before? Did you interpret his original German into an appropriate English phrase and then check back with him in a regular back and forth or did he leave you to get on with it?
Iz: Yes, I already knew Mawil (well, his work) beforehand. I own all his books and to varying degrees loved them all. The humour in them is great, and in the autobiographical stories, since Mawil and I are about the same age, there are quite a few bits and pieces in them that just remind me of myself growing up – albeit he was in the East and I was in the West. His Supa-Hasi stories are clever and cute and his drawing style is just brilliant.
Like Kenny said, I usually read Marvel superhero comics, so for me to enjoy Mawil as much as I did, surprised even me. Thanks to him I have now opened myself to lots of (mostly German) other non-superhero artists and have as a result discovered quite a few gems like Flix, Kleist, Ruthe and Sauer.
Translating German into English (and the other way round) is something I’ve been doing for years. Well, not so much these last few years, but I majored in English in high school and also got a degree in English and American language and literature. So I really just read the book and started translating. I ran it past Kenny, to try and make any slang sound natural, and apart from a few changes we just went with it. I’d met Mawil at Frankfurt book fair and had a chat with him about the project, the translation etc. He just said he trusted us and pretty much left it to us to come up with an accurate but ‘natural’ sounding translation, and I hope that’s what we’ve achieved.
(the two images above: the original German-language page from Reprodukt and then the same page from the English-language edition by Blank Slate, translated by Isobel Rips, art (c) Mawil)
FPI: Did you find that most of his dialogue translated into equivalent English sentences fairly simply, or did you have to sometimes do a more liberal interpretation of the words in order to convey the actual intent rather than literal meaning? Looking through We Can Still Be Friends the text flows nice and naturally, so the reader would probably never guess it began life in the land of the umlaut, which is the aim of a good translation of course, but I’m curious as to how this normally neglected part of publishing actually works, how to balance translation versus interpretation to preserve the flavour of an artist’s work but make it seem natural in another language.
Iz: As a whole, it was quite easy to translate the text and preserve the meaning. Although some of it was surprisingly tricky. I always think that English can say more in fewer words than German can. This book showed me that is not the case! There were some German phrases that said so much in just 4 or 5 words, to express the exact same in English, I would have had to use 8 or 10 words. Luckily we either managed to get all those extra words into the speech balloons or we came up with a shorter English phrase that pretty much meant the same thing. Also, we are not translating Goethe here, so it was easier to change the conversational German into conversational English. 😉
FPI: Turning back to Jim and Kenny again, obviously any new publishing venture carries a certain amount of risk, but do you think it’s fair to say Blank Slate has at least the support of being available nationwide through the FPI stores and website, something some new small publishers can’t take for granted? It doesn’t guarantee success but it does give the opportunity to be seen on the shelves up and down the country, which must be a help, surely? And it isn’t just the FPI stores, is it? Kenny, I think you mentioned to me recently that some other good stores like Gosh! and Page 45 were stocking them, with an appearance in Previews coming up too, is that right? So this is a full-blown concern, not just relying on our FPI stores as outlets; you want to try and sell these books to as wide a range of comics and booksellers as you can?
KP: Yes, I do think the FPI stores give us a chance to at least get the books before an audience and that is an advantage that most small publishers don’t have. I have, as you say, sold it into the UK stores who I know are very supportive of more literary and art based comics, for now Nostalgia & Comics in Birmingham, Worlds Apart in Liverpool, Page 45 in Notts, OK Comics in Leeds and Gosh! in London, with more to come. The books will be available to all comics stores through Diamond Previews via the July issue and we will hope that many will stock them although comic stores who want them earlier can contact us direct at Blank Slate and we can work something out.
(the cover to the hardback edition of Trains Are Mint, published Blank Slate Books and (c) Oliver East)
The books should also appear in art venues like the Cornerstone in Manchester and hopefully ICA in London and stores like Magma. We are also in the process of sending the books to a few US retailers to see if they will support them, amongst them Chicago Comics, Rocketship, Meltdown, Isotope, The Beguiling and a few others who are known to support the kinds of material we are publishing. It was always intended to be a full blown concern (balloon isn’t very full yet though’) and we have the books on Amazon and they will be available through wholesalers like Gardeners also (a major UK supplier to the mainstream bookstores – Joe).
FPI: We know that behind the finished books and comics and graphic novels we see there are, usually unseen to the reader, months of work, finding the right book, nurturing it, editing, setting contracts, finding the right printer, working out costs and a multitude of other tasks. How have you actually found the role of publishers? I mean just the actual nuts and bolts of arranging and laying out work properly is time consuming, finding a printer than can produce to the right quality but not cost the Earth, there’s a whole new range of problems and tasks to be solved when you move from selling graphic novels to actually publishing them – it’s a fair old learning curve to take on and I’m wondering how you found it.
KP: It was interesting. We already publish a quarterly magazine for FPI for our mail order department and I edit that and buy all the print so to some extent I already know how to deal with printers. We also had the advantage of the people at Reprodukt being very, very helpful in us finding a printer who wouldn’t gouge us on price (the Polish printer we went with was 40% of the prices I was getting from UK based printers).
Where I was totally lost was on things like paper weights, bindings etc. but we are lucky to have my friend Duncan Bullimore, who is a fully blown graphic designer and general Mac guru, who is pretty up on all that stuff having done loads of all kinds of work over the last 20 years to hold our hand. Without Duncan it would have been very hard indeed to get things right – with him it was relatively easy and as we progress we will learn more every time.
It was more time consuming than I thought – the translation got reworked many times to fine tune the nuance with Iz and of course we all have full time jobs so most of this was done weekends and nights which is why the books ended up a little late. We enjoyed most of it though – although waiting for the first book to be delivered and hoping there wasn’t something you did wrong is a bit scary.
JH: These books have been Kenny’s babies right from the start so it’s been an easy ride for me. It was great standing back and seeing it all come together without any of the stress attached. I think they turned out great.
FPI: Having finally seen the finished books arriving in the stores in the last few days I’de have to agree – I remarked to Kenny that the Mawil in particular looked like something from the Top Shelf catalogue, which I meant as a high compliment since they have such a great range. And I know a lot of our friends in the British small press scene have been waiting to see how Oli’s book turned out – I think they’re going to be pretty pleased with it.
(graffiti catches Oli’s eye on his Lancastrian wanderings in Trains Are Mint)
So after the ups and downs and now finally getting the first two books out you’re happy to go forth with more publications after these? Can I ask if you have any particular works in mind or is it too early to discuss that?
KP: A bit early; we have had talks with a few people – Stuart Kolakovic might do something with us if he can work round his schedule with Cape who have an option on his first book, I’d hope to do something with Richard Cowdry and Kellie Strøm (see here for a previous interview with Kellie) who we have had brief talks with us, we’d like to do more Mawil and maybe there will be a few surprises.
FPI: All creators I’d love to see more of myself and none of them strangers to any of our regular blog readers – I’m betting quite a few of them wouldn’t mind seeing any of them being picked up too. If any writers and artists reading this think they may have just the work for Blank Slate are you open to submissions and if so how should they go about that? Is there a particular type of style or genre Blank Slate aspires to or is it open to any style of comics work as long as it is interesting and good? Judging from the initial two titles I’m guessing you’re pretty open to various styles and subjects?
KP: We are always open to submissions, and we have had a good few already. There are details on the Blank Slate website of how to send them to us and we are interested in pretty much anything barring super-heroes and the totally avant-garde. I’d just ask people to bear with us regarding replies. I’ve already responded to many submissions but have a good few yet still to reply to. I will reply to every one but sometimes that may take a while.
FPI: Okay, a question we always ask our guests here on the blog – which comics and/or books are you enjoying at the moment and, Oli and Mawil aside, any new talent you’d particularly recommend readers should pick up and check out?
KP: Things I like right now are Morrison and Quitely’s All Star Superman; I loved Darwyn Cooke’s Spirit stories, I think Josh Middleton produces some of the loveliest art out there (shame he doesn’t seem to be able to do many comics), I have a deep soft spot for Rocketo, not so much for the tale more Espinosa’s amazing art.
Pretty much anything Chris Ware touches is wonderful and mesmerising in the level of detail and thought that has gone into it. Likewise I could never walk past a Hernandez brothers comics – I doubt there is a better cartoonist in comics than Jaime. I’m not a big web comics fan but I adore Karl Kerschl’s The Abominable Charles Christopher.
I think the aforementioned Stuart Kolakovic has a big career ahead, he’s an amazing artist and illustrator. I’ve been in love with Elanor Davis’s work since her small self published comics and her work in MOME has been of a uniformly high standard and bodes well for her children’s book. Garen Ewing has just signed a deal for his Hergé-like book Rainbow Orchid and that is a lovely thing; he also has some work, I believe, in the new David Fickling comic along with some other up and comers like Kate Brown.
I think Gipi’s work is amazing and from Germany Sascha Hommer and Kati Rickenbach work in styles I think would go down well with English speaking audiences. There are loads more but we’d be here all day.
JH: Here are my favourite comic things – Kirby, Adams, Steranko, Kane, Williamson and so on . All the usual suspects really. Currently love All Star Superman; pretty much anything by Morrison but I think this is his masterpiece. Brubaker also – Criminal is outstanding. I also enjoy anything by Mignola, Terry Moore’s Echo, Eric Powell’s The Goon. I’ve just read Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein and that blew me away . Looking forward to seeing Herbie collected and the brilliant Archie Goodwin edited Creepy archives.
Iz: Pearls before Swine – I’d never read these before, but I just received a collection of strips from my boyfriend for my birthday and am currently enjoying the stories of Pig, Rat and Zeeba Zeeba Eatas. Brilliant fun – I love it.
Action Sorgenkind – more fantastic autobiographical stories from Mawil. Hilarious in places, very sweet in others, and skilful and clever throughout.
(Action Sorgenkind, another Mawil graphic novel, published by Reprodukt)
Flix & Ralph Ruthe’s webcomics – I have to admit, I read these daily. In my lunch break of course. Ruthe always brightens my day with his humour and Flix’s diary just takes you along for the ride. I love these guys’ books too, but their websites are just something I have to check every day, or I feel like I’ve missed something.
And last but not least – Civil War, Invincible, Amazing Spider-Man, Thor (who I never really liked, but I love the new series), Daredevil, Kick Ass…of course, they had to be on the list. I love my superhero comics! Can’t do without them! ‘Nuff said.
FPI: Jim Hamilton, Isobel Rips and Kenny Penman, thank you very much. The first two Blank Slate graphic novels, Oliver East’s Trains Are Mint and Mawil’s We Can Still Be Friends are available now from Forbidden Planet International stores and some other excellent comics retailers such as Page 45,Gosh!,OK Comics, Smallzone and Cornerhouse Books, and of course you can order it from our webstore; you can check out Mawil’s website here and Oli East’s blog here.