Bigging up the Scene: a Conversation with Jimi Gherkin
Over recent and upcoming weeks and months, the Forbidden Planet International blog, Down the Tubes and Fictions are going to be cross-posting Q&As by Matt Badham with the organisers of various British comic conventions. Our aim is to give the conventions themselves some well-deserved publicity and also to, hopefully, spark a wider debate about what’s good and bad about the convention circuit in this country. (NB: Answers have been edited only in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, and not for style or content.)
For this sixth instalment of the series, Matt chatted to Jimi Gherkin of the Alternative Press Fair.
Matt: Please tell us about a little about the history of the Alternative Press Fair and how it’s evolved over the years.
Jimi: ‘Over the years’!
We (Peter Lally and myself) organised the first Alternative Press Fair (APF) in February 2009! Previous to that I had organised a little comics and zine event above a pub called The Plough next to the Cartoon Museum [in London]. We had 13 tables and two creators per table, so it was a small event. It was successful and people were asking, “What next?” Peter had helped a lot to organise that event and so we naturally started working together.
We wanted to include different types of self-published material, so we dropped the ‘comics and zines’ reference. I had heard the name Alternative Press Expo and thought that alternative press was a term that was general enough for what we were trying to do. We were invited to have a table at Handmade and Bound (a book arts event at St Aloysius) to represent small press comics. We had about fifteen artists on that one table!
We liked the venue and so booked it for the APF in February. Then we had 26 tables with enough room for four creators per table. After that it got really exciting. Hundreds and hundreds of people came and we got tons of feedback from them. Some were offering us venues, others wanted us to organise events with them, but mostly people telling us they had a great time and loved the atmosphere.
We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible and involve as many people as we can, so that makes for a friendly atmosphere.
After that we thought we’d put together an anthology, then we had some ideas for events and so decided to do a festival as well. By this time, more and more people wanted to be involved and naturally certain people became part of what we’re doing. Now it’s myself, Peter Lally, Gareth Brookes and Saban Kazim (He designed the anthology. He’s a really talented graphic designer as well as a comic artist and stand-up comedian). Ceri May and Chris Bateson also became involved to help organise the poetry aspect of our events and helped us to select the poetry for the book.
Matt: How is the Alternative Press Fair funded, by ticket sales, the exhibitors, a grant, some other means or a combination of these?
Jimi: We are totally self-funding at the moment. At the APF events the exhibitors pay for their table space and this covers the hire of the venue and some other costs. For the other events we did as part of the Festival we really relied on the goodwill of venues to keep costs down. The Collaborama! for example took place in The Miller pub in London bridge. I’d never heard of this place before, but after the first APF the owner got in touch. He’d been to our event, enjoyed it and basically gave us the run of his pub for the whole day and night, for free! He doesn’t even usually open on a Saturday, but he paid his staff to cover the event and even gave free beer to the musicians! All because he believed in what we were doing.
Matt: The APF host zine exhibitors as well as comics types. Please tell us about the mix and how that works out in terms of the type of material that punters can expect at your events.
Jimi: We’re trying to represent the whole of the small press community and want as many parts of it to be involved as possible. We believe that we can learn a lot from each other. At our events people can expect to see a real mix of comix, zines, art books, illustration, poetry zines, radical literature and printmaking. The good thing, I think, about this mix is it keeps people fresh and brings new ideas to each of the scenes. For example, I’ve got a renewed interest in poetry, which is making me think about my writing. I’m also writing more, which is great. To add to that I think zinesters are thinking more about comix and illustration. Everyone understands each other a bit more, which is great.
Matt: What are the APF’s overall aims?
Jimi: To encourage people to be creative and put their own ideas in print. This is really important as we feel being creative can be a really great thing for people, to be in control of their creativity. Another thing which is really important to us is developing an audience, getting people to understand what self-publishing is and why it’s so important. A lot of people don’t read comics, why? Is it because most comics don’t speak to most people? Can people really relate to a lot of stuff out there? I think generally the public haven’t really been exposed to the format. All they see is oversized, glossy mags full of adverts. When they see something A5 and photocopied, I don’t think they know what to make of it at first. One of our aims is to get the work out there as much as possible so that people can start to understand it.
Matt: Who is the APF aimed at? What sort of punters do you hope to attract? Are you family-friendly?
Jimi: Self-publishing is for everyone, so we want to include anyone who wants to be involved. As for punters, we’re trying to get in people who might not normally attend these kinds of events. Trying to put on events that might be interesting to families, or people who may have never heard of a zine before.
Matt: How effective have you been in getting those kinds of people to attend?
Jimi: At the recent events we’ve had a real mixed bag of people coming along. At the first APF we had a write-up in the Guardian Guide. This brought a lot of people who were just interested in seeing what it was all about. People who had never been to a small press event before. At the recent Alternative Press Festival, we ran five days of events, including the launch of our anthology book, Publish You. We varied the events and their venues so that they would be interesting to different groups. I think that worked out well.
Matt: What lessons have you learned during your time running APF, in terms of its marketing and advertising?
Jimi: Everything I know about this I have learnt in the last year organising these events. I don’t have a background in such things. But I’m persistent, and I believe in what we’re doing. But it’s a lot of work. I didn’t realise it would happen, but the festival and the book pretty much took over my life for five months!
Matt: Do you use emerging technologies to spread the word about APF? Do you have a website or blog, or use email mailing lists?
Jimi: We have a FaceBook group and we always post up events there. Also a group on wemakezines.ning.com, so, yeah, we’re involved in that aspect of it. Mailing lists drive me nuts! Anyone got any tips for emailing 700+ people in one go?
Matt: What about print? Do you use print advertising, have a newsletter, anything like that?
Jimi: Listings, Time Out etc. Trying each time to get things written about us in the mainstream media, newspapers etc, to get some coverage of the events. No newsletter or anything but maybe some kind of monthly AP news zine in the future? We did quite a lot of really nice flyers for the festival, but I’m not sure how effective flyers are…
Matt: What are your thoughts on the small press comics scene in this country?
Jimi: I’m still quite new to it really, still learning. I only put my first comic out in April 2008. It’s very exciting, as there’s a lot of really cool stuff out there. What really excites me are the books that aren’t afraid to try something a bit different. I love Gareth Brookes’ work, it’s so funny, and makes you think. Maartje Schallx, I think is a very talented artist and tells a story in a really unique way. I love Mark Oliver’s stuff, really dream-like, with great artwork. You might not recognise these as comics, and I think that’s great, people playing with the format.
There are some really amazing comics out there as well: the Bedsit Journal, Scott Jason Smith’s comics, Sina Shamsavari, Doctor Simpo, Paper Tiger, Banal Pig and Steve Tillotson’s work. I could go on! I think the small press scene in general is something for everyone and it’s a scene that is hard to define as everyone owns their little bit of it. I’d say the main thing we need to do here in the UK is to raise awareness of the scene and make comics and small press books more credible in the minds of the public at large. Make it more accessible.
Matt: How much are the tickets for the APF? How did you arrive at that price? Please tell us about any concessions.
Jimi: It has always been a free event for visitors and we aim to keep it that way in order to attract as many people as possible.
Matt: How much are exhibitor tables for the APF? Again, how did you arrive at that figure?
Jimi: Artists pay £5 for a part of a table. This amount covers the hire of the space and any other costs for that event, i.e. flyer printing etc.
Matt: Do you run workshops/events/panels at the APF? Please tell us about those and how they are organised.
Jimi: As part of the Alternative Press Festival recently we did lots of different things. At the book launch we did a short discussion about the small press/self-publishing scene, we also talked about our aims. The zine-friendly night was lots of communal stuff going on and we had a ‘zine wall’. Gareth Brookes made these giant books out of primed canvas, and we stuck them to the wall with pens hanging for people to take part.
The Collaborama! was a whole day where we put together an 80-page zine! All the work for this zine was created by the people at the event, the visitors, children, musicians who were playing a gig upstairs and the exhibitors. The zine was then printed on the premises by the Footprinters workers co-operative who came all the way down from Leeds with their risograph and it was collated by teams of people willing to help. It was finished in time to be able to sell it to the public who started coming to the pub just for a drink!!
During the day Mark Pavey ran a screen-printing workshop upstairs and produced some cool Collaborama! posters, and Zarina Liew ran a 4koma comics workshop. We also showed some animations that people had sent us. As part of the Festival we had a spoken word night and during the evening people took part in a collaborative poetry project, which was lots of fun!
Matt: As you’ve been kind enough to answer these questions, please fell free to big the APF up a bit. Tell us what you do well, what the APF’s main attractions are and why our readers should attend the next one.
Jimi: Well…it’s the scene I really want to ‘big up’, as well as all the amazing talent that’s out there, so please check out some of the links below or the names mentioned in this piece. The main attractions are those, again, of the scene that we are trying to represent, that has some great new artists, writers and creators. If somebody wants to see what’s going on, or they want to have a go themselves but are not sure how, then a good place to start is an event such as APF (there are lots of others!) as they can be so inspiring. Also, it’s about being part of something that is really exciting and which you yourself can be actively involved in and indeed are encouraged to be involved in. That’s what attracted me to the scene in the first place…
NB: The Alternative Press anthology book, Publish You is available now. It’s an 80-page full-colour book with illustrations, comics, poetry and much, much more, from more than 40 artists active on the small press scene. The book can be obtained from Foyles bookshop, Gosh! Comics, Orbital comics, Lik & Neon, samu.co.uk, corndog.co.uk and Gareth Brookes’ website. It will set you back a measly £8.
FPI would like to thank Jimi and Matt for their time and thoughts; you can read the previous Q&As with other British comics con organisers here on the blog: Matt talks with Bristol’s Mike Allwood, Hi-Ex’s Vicky Stonebridge, BICS’ Shane Chebsey, Caption’s Jay Eales and LUC’s Oli Smith. There is another Alternative Press event, Are You Zine Friendly? coming up on November 12th which promises to add cakes to the comics mix. Mmm. Details on the Alternative Press blog.