By Alasdair Stuart
The Ghosts are a collection of some of the very best comic writers and artists working on the UK Indie scene. They'll introduce themselves to you below and to London on April 14th. That's when CULT, their week long underground comics exhibition will launch. It's based at Orbital Comics and the plan is to 'fuse comics and music together for an occult-inspired comics showcase.' There are prints available exclusively at the exhibition and a signing and lock-in party from 2pm on Saturday the 19th. I talked to the Ghosts about their work, the event and what their plans are.
Alasdair Stuart: So, first off, introduce yourselves. Ghosts Assemble! Or something.
Owen Michael Johnson – a writer and artist from The Lake District. Writer of Raygun Roads, which dropped last year.
Mark D Penman– Disgruntled comic maker from Yorkshire. Co-creator of The Waste anthology and Owen's art monkey on our upcoming book Matinee.
James Lawrence – Comic artist from the Isle of Man, now exiled to Manchester. Creator of Dangerine, co-creator of The Waste Anthology.
P M Buchan – Originally from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, a writer in love with the macabre and misanthropic. Co-creator of obscene horror comedy anthology, BLACKOUT (banned by two separate printers, two years in a row!), and feminist Gothic-horror series, La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
Andrew Tunney – Artist and writer from Manchester. I'm one third of the post-apocalyptic anthology The Waste and creator of Girl & Boy (British Comic Awards – Best Comic Nomination 2012).
Jon Lock – My name is Jon Lock and I'm the writer and creator of Afterlife Inc., The Six and numerous other adventures in comics. I'm also a writer for the Harvey Award nominated Uniques Tales. In 2013 I co-founded Big Punch Studios with Nich Angell. Together we develop games and stories featuring our shared worlds and characters.
Nich Angell – Creator of the kickass musical comic 7String and the daily webcomic Cat and Meringue as well as co-founder of Big Punch Studios with Jon Lock.
Alasdair Stuart: How did you meet?
JL: The UK convention circuit, despite its sprawling, diverse nature, is a remarkably close-knit group. Travelling and exhibiting together, sharing the love for your comics, it's hard not to connect with the people around you. I think we'd all crossed paths at one point or another, first on the convention floor discovering each others' books, and then again in the bar afterwards.
OMJ: I think every artist here I was drawn to one another because they recognized a kindred mind. These guys have bags of ambition. And no fear.
James L: Fear is for the enemy. I made my way to Manchester in search of a comics scene, and met Andrew and Mark at the now defunct Manchester Drink 'n' Draw. They took me under their sooty northern wings and it was through them that I met Owen and Bucky. Jon I met through Nich, who I believe I first encountered on Deviantart.
MPD: What Owen said, though I think of myself more as his idol than a friend. Tunney and me go way back, we met at one of the Manchester Comics Collective's (RIP) drink and draws and found we had more in common than the guys arguing over who would win in a fight between Blue Beetle and Deathstroke. Come to think of it the MCC drink and draw was the first place I met James, I think he'd gotten a hold of one of my Greasy Joe comics and we started chatting about our craft and haven't looked back since.
PMB: I'm in a unique position. When I wanted to find artists to illustrate my scripts, I found that most artists aren't interested in collaborating with unproven writers, so I set up as a critic for magazines like SCREAM and Starburst. By reviewing creators from across the UK, I got a great overview of the different work that people were doing. Later I extended that to writing one-page strips that were serialised in a couple of national magazines, with a different artist for each strip, and I used that as a way to sound out new artists. Between the reviews and the one-page strips I've had the privilege of meeting and working with a massive cross section of creators from the UK, and GHOSTS are some of the best that I met.
AT: I met Mark years ago at Adam Cadwell's MCC drink'n'draws. Now we work together, do shows together, we party together. One time at a convention a guy made a bad joke to his friend about us being like buddy cops; the guy's delivery was douchey but factually he was pretty on point. We're like the comics-game Crocket and Tubbs. Or Seth Cohen and Ryan Atwood. Or Killer Mike and EL-P, if you want a rap reference (you do).
I met James at an MCC event too and we bonded via 90s rap and super-sentai, Bucky I met because he reached out after GIRL&BOY debuted, OMJ I know through Bucky and Mark and so on and so on. Basically, they all do work that makes me want to do work. Also they're the people I want to be with till the early hours at the Thought Bubble after-party when Mark head-butts Owen in the face (true story).
OMJ: That was unfortunate. He's not really a dancer so perhaps there was jealousy. Regardless, you always hurt the one you love.
NA: Its all mostly thanks to the amazing UK indie comics scene and the convention circuit, though I have known Owen and James from longer ago. James through deviantArt and Owen as a friend from a while back. I formed Big Punch with Jon after our successful crossover between our two major titles and met everyone else thanks to cons and awesome after-con drinking seshes.
AS: What led to the decision to form a group?
OMJ: I suppose I suggested that everyone work together because I knew that we were all ferociously passionate about creator-owned comics. Also, it seemed like a lot of fun to pool together and work outside our comfort zones! We formed the group to vocally support each other's ventures and promote a special one-off event being held at Orbital Comics between 14th-20th April. Each of us has an audience for our work, but it seemed natural to broaden each creator's fan-base and share the comics that we dig.
James L.: I agree. It grew from recognition of the common root of our diverse approaches to storytelling. We all eschew the current vogue for diarized self-examination, in favour of building fictional universes to tell our own stories in. Wanting to tell entertaining, original stories is a goal that we all share.
PMB: The idea just made sense. We each bring our own following, but the style that's predominantly popular in the UK right now is pretty far away from what we're doing. It's difficult to compare, but comics that are most celebrated here seem to want the validation of broadsheet endorsements, whereas we're more arthouse (or grindhouse in my case), underground & focused on storytelling. There's no point in posing and looking cool if you have nothing to say.
AT: Owen was batting the idea around to me at the Lakes Festival about doing a group show, so we kicked some ideas that weekend and ended up on CULT. I think deep down we're both showmen and we recognised that in each other early on, so we bonded over wild ideas and theatrical productions. I'd done a piece for his RAYGUN ROADS, we were hyped off of the success of that and Lakes Festival so y'know, when it's good it's good and you do it again.
JL: Separately, we were all fans of each other's work, but as a group we could pool resources, supporting and promoting our individual projects while coming together to produce truly unique and exciting collaborations.
NA: For me, coming together as a group was an opportunity for us to take our inspiration to a whole new level, to feed off our shared creativity and make something new, working outside our comfort zones whilst maintaining what makes us unique and special. I truly believe that if we team up we're likely to cut the planet in half with outstanding comics.
AS: How are you functioning here? As a studio?
OMJ: I'd say that in this instance it's easiest to think of us as the hosts of CULT. Individual artists, working collectively to present an experience that would be impossible to achieve alone. Due to the nature of our schedules (any comic creators schedule is hectic at best), not every member of GHOSTS will be represented at every event that we stage. We're keeping things spontaneous and fluid. This is our first event together as a group, so it's very much a test of what we can accomplish. . We want to provide, and be a part of, something immediate, and joyful.
AT: Owen had me on board pretty quickly with branding and designing this thing, really just figuring out what it would look like. He was hoping I'd do it and I was hoping he'd ask me to do it, so that worked out.
JL: Between us we run the gamut of genres and styles, covering everything from sci-fi to psychedelia, comedy to horror. The goal was never to merge our creations under one unified theme, but to embrace our differences while operating under the shared goal of making unique and adventurous comics.
AS: What are you finding the benefits are?
James L.: Each one of us has his own perspective and priorities aesthetically, and it's that contrast that will ultimately help us grow as artists, be that through collaboration on new projects, or offering advice and opinions on existing ones. We might be presenting GHOSTS as a creative juggernaut, but on a personal level it's also a support network.
PMB: We each bring a unique specialism to the table. You just need to look at the way the brochure for the exhibition was created; we had marketing professionals writing the copy, graphic designers working on the layouts, professional illustrators contributing artwork… Not one of us could have created something that strong alone, but by pooling our talents we made something that could represent our work well at any gallery around the world.
And that's just the logistics. When it comes to creative endeavours, the sky is the limit. We're helping each other to tighten up plotlines and revise character designs. You're going to be reading the results of this collective in our individual works for years to come.
OMJ: Bucky's absolutely right. Each person brings something of value to the table. Jon, Nich and James bring an energy and enthusiasm, whereas me, Tunney and Mark tend to be very intense. There's a nice balance there. Bucky's in a category of one [laughs] he brings an important edge. If you met him in person you wouldn't believe the darkness in the things he creates! In terms of collaboration, we've been working together in splinter cells since before this group was announced.
Nich advised me on logo design for [my imprint] Changeling Studios. Bucky is part of my writing 'brain trust' that I always get opinions from. He helped me with a short I completed for Disconnected Press. James, I produced a short for his new all-ages comic. Myself and Tunney talk about comics distribution methods, business contracts, and the practical aspects of the industry often. To me this is so important. The sharing of advice, inspiration, information. We aren't getting together as a cheap ploy, these are functional creative relationships. We have a lot of fun working with each other, and it shows in the work that we're putting together for CULT.
JL: People are really starting to take notice. It's not every day that something like GHOSTS comes along. We've each built a reputation for ourselves in our chosen fields. We each have something of a following. When we get together and shout in unison, people want to see what we can come up with.
NA: We all have our own fan-bases who come to us for what we do independently. As a collective those fan-bases join and we can get word out about our work to so many more people. We are bigger than the sum of our parts now. We have created a comics megaphone and not by rolling up a copy of Batman.
AS: Tell us a little about the launch event at Cult, what's the plan and who's going to be there?
OMJ: The evening of 19th April is an open invitation for a mad lock-in at Orbital Comics. Art prints, live-painting and a crazy live punk set by The Kittelbach Pirates (the fictional cosmic band from Raygun Roads)! It will be theatrical. Projection. Costumes. There will be perforated eardrums. We recommend people arrive before 6:30 to avoid missing the magic.
It's a chance for everyone to get together to celebrate the exhibition. All of us will be together putting on a party to say thank you to Orbital for being such great hosts. We will be launching comics exclusive to this exhibition – that will never be available anywhere else – and bringing along our previous work for those who come along to buy and get signed.
PMB: For me it's important that I put myself out there to meet the people that are buying my work. I'm not exactly a wallflower, the chances are that if you like what I write then we're going to get on in person. I'm a storyteller first and foremost, on paper and in conversation. I don't think anybody that's read BLACKOUT is going to leave the CULT party disappointed.
AS: And you have an exhibition running as well, yes?
James L: Yes, we'll be taking over Orbital's excellent gallery space from the 14th to the 20th to hold an exhibition featuring brand-new, never-before-seen artwork, with each piece drawing from the central theme of CULT. Each one of us has an aesthetic and style that varies wildly from the next, so you can expect to see that theme attacked from every angle in a riot of colour, form and enthusiasm.
OMJ: It's intended as a real celebration, for family and friends, but also for anyone curious. It's going to be a mixed-media showcase with filmmakers, podcasters, musicians and comic folk in attendance. With all our various styles at play there should be something for everyone.
PMB: I should mention that for the exhibition I'm working with an outside artist, John Pearson from Leeds, on my contribution. He's a real kindred spirit, when I asked him how his collaborations normally go, he told me that for one reason or another he always encourages people to reach for forbidden fruit and go a little further than they expect to. When we decided on the theme of CULT, I knew that I'd have to find a way to make something special. There's a theme running through my work, I don't believe that monsters are born, I believe that they're created. That was the starting point for our section of CULT, looking at what kind of circumstances would drive a person to join a cult and give up their freedom willingly.
AS: One of the things that struck me when I talked to you at Thought Bubble last year was how incredibly strong the indie press scene seems to be in the UK right now. Why do you think that is?
PMB: This isn't something that happened overnight. Ten years ago I worked as a comic retailer and the quality of material being published felt like it had hit an all-time low, but gradually that has been changing. I'd say that in the UK right now the quality of independently published comics is on a par with the output of professional publishers anywhere in the world. And that's not a phenomenon that's restricted to the UK. You only have to look at the self-published comics of Becky Cloonan or art collectives like 44FLOOD to see comics bolder and more exciting than most major publishers would be willing to take a chance on.
Within the UK groups like Improper Books and Great Beast are getting organised, fighting against the conservatism of the modern publishing industry. That's the movement that we identify with. The other members of GHOSTS probably have more mainstream appeal than me, but I've got a real passion for dark art, and I'm through trying to be heard on other people's terms. If we want to see change in the publishing industry then we're going to have to build it ourselves, and that's where CULT comes from.
AT: I see a lot of books being published, a lot of new shows springing up and a lot of press talking about UK comics right now and it's exciting. But I don't feel the need to be proving to the Guardian readership that comics are "Real Art" or whatever because that battle's been won for decades. We shouldn't be bashful about our place as a comics nation because if you name a mainstream US success story in the last 30 years it probably has a UK creator attached to it somewhere. We can afford to dream bigger.
At the same time though, I'm 100% down for comics and 100% not down for a lot of the culture, and I don't think I necessarily fit in. But I'm looking at what Ron Wimberly or Brandon Graham are doing in the US, or what Will Kirkby and Chris Wildgoose are doing here and they don't really fit in either… yet they all make work that dares to not compromise and dares to be the protruding nail. I think that's why I work with the people I do now; we all understand that if we're going to bet on ourselves we may as well go all in.
JL: There's been an explosion of creativity and passion on the indie scene in recent years. Thanks to the internet, digital comics and the greater availability and quality of creative and production tools, there's never been a better time to make a comic. While once high concepts and production values would have been the sole reserve of larger companies, now, rather than waiting for the hand of fate to notice them, creators are seizing the day, taking it upon themselves to make the kind of comics they've always dreamed of. For all the exposure of big name brands, this is the future of comics, and it's in the hands of the creators.
James L: You can't understate the effect that the internet has had on independent comics. It's allowed us to surpass previous limitations of locale and resources. You can now establish an online platform that can reach the entire world, and with the advent of tools like Kickstarter and Patreon, independent efforts can achieve a level of success and quality previously unheard of. It's never been easier to put your own work out there into people's hands than it is right now.
NA: From a personal perspective, I've been on the convention circuit for nearly 9 years and in that time its grown from something that had a couple of events a year that stayed under the radar, to a scene that has over 20 large events a year that shout from the rooftops. Part of that is the emulation of the huge American cons but a bigger part is due to the growth in ambition of the indie creator. This is thanks to better technology, accessible quality printing, self-promotion through the web and the realization that as a result of all of that; you can make a high concept, big budget-style entertainment product and be director, scriptwriter, cast and crew with comics. Thinking big in smallpress… that's my motto.
OMJ: Excitement for me lies in bleeding the boundaries of mediums. Will the execution incorporate the forms it's been inspired by? God, that's exciting. The technology is still there, but there remains a lack of imagination in how that is communicated. Let the piece dictate what it needs. Work with it instead of bashing it into an elevator pitch. We're seeing printing techniques and the infinite potential of the internet change how we can tell stories but we're still shackled to old models, old page-counts, old ideas.
When he was in the dark heart of puberty, a younger version of me was pretty despairing about UK comics and his place in them. I wish I could have told him two things. 1) Everything's going to be okay. You're going to get paid for making comics (15 year old me would have crapped his pants with happiness) and 2) *You* are the only engine you will ever need, so stop wasting time and get going.
Playing in punk bands taught me something that is translatable into any creative field – in any aspect of life – is that you can do something purely by doing it. Three chords and ideas with substance will make a song. If you don't know what you're doing now, you will by the finish line.
Thanks chaps, for taking the time to talk to me. And special thanks to Owen who put this interview together. CULT starts on April 14th at Orbital Comics in London. Do go along and say hello especially on the 19th when there'll be a signing from 2-5 and a lock in featuring a one off music performance by cosmic punk band Raygun & The Kittelbach Priates. Entry is free with a purchase of GHOSTS exhibition material and space is limited so make sure to arrive no later than 6.30.
Alasdair Stuart is the host of Pseudopod (www.pseudopod.org), the co-host of Escape Pod (www.escapepod.org) and is currently writing RPG books Cubicle 7 Games. He's read comics by all the members of Ghosts and they're great. I'd recommend the lot.