UK comic creator and journalist P M Buchan gives Bleeding Cool the lowdown on what it was like exhibiting at Thought Bubble in Leeds, covering the breadth of exhibitors, the highs of the parties and the lows of the morning afters. This is the second and final report:
[Comic created purely from tears & self-loathing award goes to Axolotl]
There were some sore heads in Leeds on Sunday morning, and a lot more comics to be sold. As close as Raygun Roads came to stealing the show in my estimation, probably the most exciting new release at Thought Bubble 2013 was Jack Fallows' collection of autobiographical strips, Axolotl. I've been making comics with Jack for over a decade, watching him imitate Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine, striving to find his own voice, and Axolotl is definitely it. Based on all of his romantic humiliations since breaking up with the girl that he had previously dedicated ALL artistic creations to, (in print, in every comic!), he sold Axolotl to strangers as "This is a comic about all the girls I've disappointed in the past year, and it comes with a free CD of songs about all the girls I've disappointed in the past seven years." I have NEVER seen a comic sell faster. Women were queuing at our table to buy comics from this wet-dog-smelling, lumberjack-looking fool, and I just stood back dumfounded as he sold almost the entire first print run, while our previously successful BLACKOUT comics gathered dust on the table! Fans of Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and Robert Crumb need look no further than Axolotl, a cringe-worthy collection that stands up there like the mutant offspring of Joe Matt and Dan Clowes, from the perspective of an ungainly Geordie fool.
Early on Sunday, for one of the brief periods that I was behind the table selling comics instead of wandering the hallways, I finally had the opportunity to meet comics journalist Laura Sneddon in person. Sneddon is pretty much the leading journalist for the medium in the UK, in terms of visibility, reputation and ability to initiate serious discourse. As a woman, she seems to get a lot of shit for daring to raise questions of sexism and privilege in the industry, which makes me sick to the pit of my stomach, because it doesn't matter whether she's right or wrong, these are conversations that we SHOULD be having, and so what if it makes people uncomfortable? We need journalists that can start discussions like this, and we need to stop shutting them down with abuse on the internet. As someone with the ability to write for specialist comic news sites like The Beat or for national newspapers, we need people like Laura Sneddon desperately in the UK, and every time that comic fans interact with her negatively to pick apart the coverage that she gives the industry, we're discouraging her from giving us the good press that we need. Check out her writing and I guarantee that it won't disappoint. Or just go to her Thought Bubble reviews, including a review of BLACKOUT.
[A rare photo of Cy Dethan]
On the aisle behind me and Jack Fallows, separated only by a banner and tribal tattoos, were Cy Dethan and Nic Wilko, darlings of Markosia comics and a couple of blackhearted individuals to boot. Dethan is the writer of all kinds of Markosia graphic novels, like Slaughterman's Creed, The Indifference Engine and White Knuckle. From serial killers to human traffickers, chaos magicians to swamp monsters, Dethan is fiercely inventive and aggressive in his offensive wordplay. At this point, if you haven't heard of him, the only reason is probably that he launches the careers of so many artists that have never worked on a full-length graphic novel before, almost all of whom go onto more mainstream work. Every day I'm waiting for the e-mail telling me that Dethan has made the jump to a mainstream publisher that will turn him into a household name. His latest graphic novel is The Case Files of Harlan Falk, about a negotiator that brokers deals with devils.
Also on our aisle in New Dock Hall, Monty Nero and Mike Dowling, creators of the blackly comic post-modern superhero strip, Death Sentence, were signing comics at the Titan table, enjoying the popularity that comes when you create an original take on superhero comics and put Herculean efforts into promoting it. They were both a pleasure to meet, and had some great advice to give out to fledgling creators. There really hasn't been a better superhero comic than Death Sentence since the glory days of The Authority.
[Drawn by Caspar Wijngaard at Thought Bubble]
A couple of tables down from them were T Pubs, vehicle for Neil Gibson and his Twisted Dark series of comics and graphic novels. Gibson is infamous at conventions across the world for the bell that he rings whenever he makes a sale, but luckily the bell was absent this year. I spoke to Gibson only in passing, but his team were one of the friendliest groups that I met at Thought Bubble, and artist Caspar Wijngaard showed a level of talent in his live drawing that marked him out as one to watch. Criminally, Wijngaard is rarely credited on the front cover of the T Pubs comics, but he's clearly a great talent that will explode when one of the big publishers notices the quality and consistency of his dynamic art.
[The mighty Storm Dogs]
In the far corner of New Dock Hall were a couple of comic creators with slightly larger reputations in the industry, Doug Braithwaite and David Hine. Both were doing a roaring trade in their new Image Storm Dogs graphic novel. Superficially Storm Dogs reads like an isolated Western set in space or a sci-fi detective story set on some wild frontier, but when you break through the imaginative dressing that brings to mind universes like Dune and Avatar in equal measure, there's more at play, tackling issues of gender, race and belonging. In short, it's probably the best thing that either of the two have worked on, and that's saying something. Hine was also nominated for a British Comic Award for his SelfMadeHero adaptation with Mark Stafford of Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs, a grotesque and poignant narrative that served as the inspiration for the Joker.
[Ilya INJ Culbard and Rob Davis]
SelfMadeHero were well represented by creators at Thought Bubble, as they always are. INJ Culbard, artist of the Vertigo series The New Deadwardians, was in good spirits, currently working on an original graphic novel due out from SelfMadeHero last year. This seems to be part of SelfMadeHero founder Emma Hayley's master plan, allowing talented cartoonists to adapt literary classics until they build enough of a readership to carry their own original works. Rob Davis, who last created two spellbindingly good adaptations of Don Quixote for SelfMadeHero, is currently creating an original graphic novel, The Motherless Oven. Given the staggering success of the last big original project that he worked on, Blank Slate Books' Nelson, I'd say that The Motherless Oven is going to be a big deal in 2014.
[Colin Bell and Neil Slorance, (not taken at Thought Bubble)]
One of the comics that everybody passing by my table seemed to be carrying was Dungeon Fun, created by Colin Bell and Neil Slorance, an all-ages adventure of trolls, swords, sorcery and knights. Everybody seemed so excited by Dungeon Fun that I bought a copy for my 4-year-old son, and although we haven't sat down to read it together yet, he spent about 30 minutes poring over it as soon as I got home. I can't think of higher praise than that. Bell and Slorance had traveled down from Scotland for Thought Bubble, and another Scottish creator that I was happy to finally meet in person was Craig Collins, whose Metrodome and Roachwell comics with Iain Laurie read like Glaswegian grotesquery filtered through a death-metal sensibility. Craig was, like all offensive comic creators, very softly spoken and gentle when we met. Earlier in the year he took part in a literary death match at Stripped in Edinburgh, where Neil Gaiman was one of the judges. With such a strikingly original voice, I hope that a mainstream publisher will pick up on Craig Collins' potential soon.
Not everybody had traveled from so far away. The Manchester contingent were represented by Girl and Boy creator Andrew Tunney, SLG's Peabody & D'Gorath creator M D Penman and Dangerine creator James Lawrence. The three recently combined forces on post-apocalyptic anthology The Waste, a fantastic snapshot of the breadth of independent comics being created in the UK right now, and I recently collaborated with Lawrence on our second one-page strip for Starburst Magazine. For my money, Tunney represents a fantastic future talent for Image, Penman for Dark Horse, and Lawrence for children's strips like The Phoenix. I can't wait to see them make the jump to the next level.
[More incredible art by Anna Fitzpatrick]
Another creator ready to take her work to the next level is Between Worlds creator, Anna Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick was showing off her most recent graphic novel, KORE, created as an exploration of the pathway through depression, which was recently the subject of a successful Kickstarter to fund printing. KORE is one of the best graphic novels of 2013, with a range of artwork that reminded me of the likes of Becky Cloonan, David Choe and Paul Pope, incredibly dark and dense with symbols of death, rebirth and addiction. If I could choose only one artist to highlight at Thought Bubble to visiting publishers, it would be Anna Fitzpatrick. One day soon somebody is going to take notice and you'll see her covers popping up at Vertigo or somewhere similar, and you'll wonder how we managed to keep her a secret for so long.
[The showstopping Improper Books]
One new publisher doing a great job at publicizing their work is Improper Books, a collective of comic creators focused on stories with a touch of the fairy tale, Gothic or macabre. Formed in 2009 by Benjamin Read, Laura Trinder and Chris Wildgoose, Improper Books are currently the UK's finest export when it comes to comics. Look them up. There's no other way to describe the impact that Improper Books have had on UK comics than to tell you that they appeared to come out of nowhere, sidestepped the usual in-crowd bullshit that plagues SO MANY creators here, and started putting out graphic novels good enough to garner international acclaim. While the rest of us struggled to get an issue of our self-published zines out once a year, Improper Books were handing out free samples at shows and demonstrating how far ahead of the curve they are. I can't decide which I love most, that their fondness for the macabre colors all of their strips, or that they didn't have to be serialized in Solipsistic Pop to earn our respect. Briar is their newest teased release, and it looked so good that everybody at Thought Bubble wanted to sign up for a copy.
An individual creator that's also finding her way towards a wider audience is the excellent Lizz Lunney, whose latest collection of absurd and heartwarming comics, Take Away, has just launched from Blank Slate Books. I met Lunney at the very first Thought Bubble, where she spent most of the convention trying to steal my volunteer's Jeffrey Brown t-shirt, and we've remained friends since. She creates characters like Hairy Midget Elf, Depressed Cat and a gloomy bison that intrudes on everybody's hot dates. With deceptively simple linework, minimalist illustrations and more heart and humor than most creators could ever strive for, Lizz Lunney is an absolute legend, popular simply for making dazzlingly funny comics about either the mundane impinging on the magical or the wondrous being dragged down by everyday worries. These are the kind of comics that I give out to friends EVERY Christmas.
With a greater emphasis on illustration and design as fine art, another New Dock Hall creator that's making a name for herself internationally is Kristyna Baczynski, who was Thought Bubble's first artist in residence a couple of years ago, and seems to be defining the graphic identity of the UK's boldest comic-book stores. It would be easier to list the respectable anthologies that her work hasn't been published in than the ones that it has, with a style that reflects classic underground comix whilst looking to the future. Every time I read a strip by Baczynski I feel like I have her figured out, then every time she releases something new it plays on a different emotion, a different type of narrative or something completely unexpected. That she hasn't been picked up by Drawn and Quarterly is incomprehensible.
[Robin Furth and The Dark Tower]
This con report is already pretty colossal, but I'd be remiss not to also mention the fact that I got the chance to catch up with Robin Furth again this year, probably the only person I've met at a comic convention with a sense of humor as macabre as mine. She might be best known for her Marvel adaptations of The Dark Tower, but to me she'll always be the only person that laughed at my hypothetical serialized newspaper strip about serial killer Albert Fish' attempts to find gainful employment. I was introduced to Furth at the Thought Bubble 2012 party and we've been in touch ever since. We traded comics this year, and I definitely got the better deal, taking home The Dark Tower: Last Shots collection, filled with all kinds of great character moments from the gunslinger and his companions. We had planned to talk about a new project that we're collaborating on, but I'd hit the vodkas by this point and the dance floor distracted me, so I guess we'll have to talk by e-mail.
The last exhibitors that I want to talk about are visionary writer Mike Garley and the VS Comics team, which included digital editor and graphic designer, Mike Stock, who does design on my Gothic-horror series La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and artist Martin Simmonds, who works with Garley on the hyper-realistic post-superhero thriller Eponymous, a comic that keeps going from strength to strength. I worked with Simmonds last year on a short story for Disconnected Press, and we really clicked. So well, in fact, that I'm going to begin taking a step back from writing about British comics, to start concentrating on our next project together. Simmonds' art has increased in quality exponentially since we worked on All Roads Lead To Hell together, and I'm certain that he's destined for big things. In the past decade, horror cinema has become so visceral and intense that I think it has been difficult for horror comics to keep pace, but our ultimate goal is to create a series so dark, harrowing and atmospheric that it couldn't be achieved in any medium but comics. Wish us luck, and look out for some of the creators that I've mentioned in these Thought Bubble posts.
In the past, every writer and artist that I met in the UK used to feel desperate to kickstart another British invasion, where all of our best talent could migrate to American publishers and inherit mainstream superhero comics. These days, I think we're all coming to the realization that we don't need to hijack anybody else's scene. Maybe British comics are good enough to reach acclaim on their own merits.
[Page 4 from All Roads Lead To Hell by P M Buchan and Martin Simmonds]