All Comics Are Created Equal

PrintE-mail Written by P.M. Buchan Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Adventures on Alternative Earths - by P.M Buchan


All comics are created equal. Hollywood blockbusters might live or die according to how much money was spent on pyrotechnics and your independent film might tank because wooden actors made a mockery of your script but ANYBODY can make a great comic in the comfort of their bedroom. I might have spent the last two months discussing Marvel and DC but Adventures On Alternate Earths is a showcase for every level of the comic industry from top to bottom, so come with me now on a journey to the beating heart of UK comics, on the floor of the conventions where new ideas are bought and sold and creators get a chance to interact with their fans and detractors alike. Come with me from MCM to Thought Bubble in my most personal column to date and meet some comic creators that you’re going to be hearing a lot more about in the years to come.

On Saturday July 30th I visited Manchester’s first MCM Expo, the North West equivalent of one of London’s biggest conventions. I’ve never visited the original, but from what I can gather MCM in London is the biggest cosplay gathering in the country each year and it also features film and game distributors from around the world pimping their newest offerings, parading the casts of the biggest TV shows alongside previews of everything cool in the world. According to my Twitter feed EVERY comic creator within a million mile radius of the UK attends MCM in London, so you can see why this might appeal to me. Manchester’s version didn’t attract a fraction as many comic creators as London and was a much smaller affair on all levels, but attendance was through-the-roof and the day was a roaring success as far as I could tell, so I’m hopeful that they’ll come back and scale up the proceedings next year.

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Starting with a strong contender for the best independent comic creator in the UK, the first smiling face that I saw at the Comic Village was Lizz Lunney aka Lizz Lizz. Utilising a simple art style that echoes contemporaries like Liz Prince and Jeffrey Brown, Lizz’s comics are an absolute joy to read, indulging in none of the introspective moping that characterises so many independent comics. Lizz creates worlds populated by memorable characters like Hairy Midget Elf and Leaning Cat, placing magical creations into mundane situations that see lovelorn bison trying to woo picnic-eating rabbits and hapless magicians watching Stars In Their Eyes reruns with his pack of unicorns. There’s something innocent and refreshing about Lizz’s world that still contains just enough mischief to have me laughing out loud on the bus reading about the adventures of Sweary Cat. Sometimes it feels like 99% of the women working in comics are the creators of self-referential manga-influenced strips featuring pretty characters in fantasy settings , so it’s wonderful to have a prominent figure like Lizz in the UK making comics that you can recommend to everybody and anybody. Her strips are all lovingly assembled and reasonably priced, she updates her website regularly with a mountain of free strips to read and you can always count on Lizz to man a table stocked with colourful badges, tote bags, handmade greeting cards and the occasional stuffed Hairy Midget Elf. Her work is playful, funny and widely available, so I recommend that you try her out as soon as you’re finished reading this column. If that endorsement isn’t enough I can tell you that despite the ungodly mountain of comics that are always freely available in my house I still make a point of ordering a package of Lizz’s comics for my wife every Christmas and they always go down well.

Adam Cadwell at MCM                      Marc Ellerby at MCM

The next table that I visited was that of Adam Cadwell, founder of Manchester’s regular Drink and Draw social event and also creator of The Everyday. During the three years that I worked for Travelling Man I read a LOT of autobiographical comics, they’re something of a rite-of-passage for aspiring comic creators, but Adam’s The Everyday ranks among the best that I’ve ever read and is far from being a juvenile attempt at comics. This much was clear from the recommendation on the cover from leading British comic expert Paul Gravett, an endorsement that any savvy British comic reader would take heed of. For me the measure of Adam’s success lies in the fact that The Everyday made me feel interested in his life despite the great differences between us. If a stranger tried to tell me in conversation about how it felt watching Blur at Glastonbury I wouldn’t even bother to stifle my yawn, the anecdote would be so far-removed from my fields of interest, but the honesty and high quality of The Everyday made me feel not just an interest in this particular comic but an investment in watching Adam’s career unfold. It also helped that I never felt like the focus of The Everyday was too closely on Adam, so rather than voyeuristically intruding in his personal space it reads more like a recollection of life as observed by the author.  In conversation I found Adam to be considered in his responses and generally personable, an apt ambassador for the medium. He was clearly unprepared for the scale of MCM in Manchester, which he admits in his subsequent blog, but I’d attribute that more to the overstretched nature of the convention’s organisers than to anything else. Antony Johnston, creator of Wasteland and sometime Daredevil writer (among many other things!) made a similar confession, selling out of most of his books halfway through the day. While I’m talking about him I’d like to mention that Antony’s DJ set the next week at the Travelling Man 20th Anniversary Party was the highlight of a particularly debauched night. Clearly a man of many talents.

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Alongside Adam Cadwell’s table was the brilliant Marc Ellerby, a man preceded by his reputation among UK comic creators. Telling you that he illustrated the Oni Press series Love The Way You Love and contributed to Phonogram alongside Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie should give you an indication that Ellerby’s work was a cut above most of the exhibitors at MCM. Issue 1 of Ellerby’s new series Chloe Noonan: Monster Hunter was reviewed by Starburst’s own Ian Matt so I plumped for buying a copy of issue 3, wanting to see his most recent work. Comparisons to Scott Pilgrim are unavoidable, but only because Bryan Lee O’Malley so effortlessly captured the essence of how it feels to grow up in the modern age. A lazy critic might also make comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that’s referenced within the pages of the comic itself and in fairness I can’t think of anything created by my generation that wasn’t influenced by the existence of Buffy, consciously or not. There’s something timeless about the banality of teen rebellion that writers like Joss Whedon and O’Malley tap into regardless of their own experiences; the affectation of world-weariness from characters that haven’t seen the world, rotating casts of band members that barely know how to play their instruments…these are common tropes in stories about young people, but for good reason, because this is how it feels growing up. Ellerby harnesses all of these tropes masterfully, with well realised characters placed into an absurd monster-hunting situation. The natural cadence of the characters’ speech and the well-realised art must surely have been refined during his 200-strip stint on the online autobiographical Ellerbisms comic, but I’m glad that I’ve come to the party now that Ellerby’s style is established and his grasp of comics confident and smooth. I have a lot of fun reading comics that were made for the love of the art, but I’m more interested in discovering the next generation of creators that are ready to become household names. Marc Ellerby clearly has the work ethic and the talent to become a headline name in comics in the next decade, whether he continues to publish Chloe Noonan independently or teams up with a publisher that can take his vision to a wider audience. Just as importantly, through watching him interact with passers-by at MCM and by reading his tumblr it’s clear that Marc has an awareness of the factors that are limiting comics from appealing to the general public and he consciously eschews unnecessary divides between audiences. Too many conventional comic creators seek to ghettoise manga and anime fans as if there’s something embarrassing about people with the passion to dress up as their favourite characters, but Marc is astute enough to know that with such a dwindling readership comics need every reader that they can get. Chloe Noonan issue 3 was my favourite purchase at MCM and I’d say that it represented the potential of independent comics in the UK better than anything else on sale that day.

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While we’re on the subject of comic creators in the UK I was always going to come to my favourite subject sooner-or-later: ME! I’m not too proud to hijack this column and inject a little bit about myself alongside creators that have much higher profiles than I do. Since 2002 I’ve dabbled in making my own comics, beginning with Everything Is Going To Be Alright, an attempt to transpose my spiralling depression into fiction at a time in my life when I couldn’t get out of bed without somehow drinking myself into a stupor and passing out in the gutter after offending everybody that I ever met. I’m still pretty proud of that first comic but sadly I draw like a 3 year old, a factor which inhibited my comic creation for most of a decade. Over the years I collaborated frequently with the staggeringly talented Jack Fallows (founder of Newcastle’s Paper Jam Comics Collective and creator of The Big Bang) and Phillip Marsden (creator of 2010’s NME weekly strip Seven Inch Stories) on the aptly titled Blackout anthology, and even finished another full-length comic myself called What’s Inside A Girl?, featuring unrequited love, death-by-misadventure, necrophilia, cannibalism and suicide. None of these ever sold more than a couple of hundred copies and I never made efforts to hire tables at conventions because my art was criminally bad. Comics fell by the wayside when I went off-grid for 6 years to write my first novel, but since I finished it became apparent that in that time I had learned how to write and might actually have something to offer the world. Since September 2010 I’ve written comics that have been illustrated by D W Frydendall (SLG’s Haunted Mansion), Kate Holden (Manga Jiman competition winner) and Karen Yumi Lusted (ITCH: Leek & Sushi Waves), I also contribute a one-page strip to each issue of SCREAM horror magazine and am entering every international comic competition that I can find! I’m also preparing a pitch for a brutal period horror comic with artist Alwyn Talbot and it was previewed by Bleeding Cool recently, but all of these strips have been parts of bigger projects that either haven’t been published yet or were one small part of a bigger magazine. This means that I STILL haven’t manned tables at any conventions in the UK and NOBODY knows who I am. Nobody but you.

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At MCM I finally got the opportunity to meet artist Stephen Downey and wasn’t at all disappointed by the result. He seemed to be doing a great trade in sketches and selling copies of Slaughterman’s Creed, featuring a cover quote by David Hine that I secured for them when I was interviewing DH for SCREAM. It was gratifying to meet in person one of the creators that I’ve been writing about and he gave me a free copy of Absence, his comic about epilepsy written by Andy Luke. Absence can be read for free at the website http://www.absencecomic.com/ and I thoroughly recommend that you do so, not just to see the evolution of Downey as an artist but for a unique insight into a condition that I really knew very little about. Too often comics are derided as a juvenile medium but the power of Absence to educate and reveal the personal consequences of epilepsy should be applauded and I hope you’ll share this link with anybody that has been affected by the condition.

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Although I didn’t pick up a copy of his novel due to vast array of review material that has been stacking up on my bedside cabinet, I was also impressed by Scott Stanford’s table selling Dorothy: The Darker Side Of Oz. Stacked high with menacing art-prints, t-shirts and banners, Scott’s table had a theatrical element that made him stand out from his peers. Both Scott and his table-mate did a great job of selling Oz without ever coming across as pushy and I respected the way that they’d assembled some fantastic art to help sell the novel. This is the difference between aspiring artists and authors and the real deal, the ability to put yourself out there at any cost.

I spent some time talking to Steve Tanner from Time Bomb Comics and GM Jordan from Markosia and the Comic Book Alliance and I liked their set-up very much. I watched both gents giving advice to aspiring comic creators at different times and they seemed very strongly invested in the UK comics community. Time Bomb Comics only publish graphic novels and one-shots, which is a brilliant move from an independent publisher because anything that you buy from them will always tell a complete story. IDW used to have a similar policy, albeit with miniseries, and they’re some of the most savvy businesspeople in comics today. I bought a copy of Dick Turpin and the Restless Dead, written by Time Bomb founder Steve Tanner, and found a lot to like. The title tells you everything that you need to know about the story, but it was the banter between Dick Turpin and The Gentleman Thief that worked best for me, selling the narrative with strong dialogue and some very British wit. My biggest regret of the day was not picking up a copy of the Spirit of Hope graphic novel published by the Comic Book Alliance to raise money for disaster victims, featuring a fantastic assortment of creators that all came together for a worthy cause.

Overall MCM was a fantastic success due to the enthusiasm of the attendees, but the run-up was chaos, with a website that didn’t go live until only a month before the event and general confusion among every comic creator and publisher that I spoke to beforehand. I know several high-profile artists and publishers that wanted to exhibit at MCM in Manchester but the lack of forward planning made it impossible for them to attend. Hopefully in future any problems like this will be resolved, because I would LOVE to get something resembling the full MCM experience without travelling down to London.

On the issue of local events, I also agreed to be on the planning team for Doki Doki – The Manchester Japanese Festival -  but haven’t actually lifted a finger to help them yet, so consider this to be your official warning that this year on Sunday 13th November Manchester will be hosting its first festival celebrating not only manga and anime but also Japanese culture in general. There are going to be some fantastic artists in attendance, including Sonia Leong and Emma Vieceli, plus Japanese music, martial artists, cosplay, anime screenings, Japanese culture talks from Akemi Solloway and just about anything else you can imagine. This is their first year and judging by the success of MCM I’d say that Manchester is really ready for an event like this, so hopefully I’ll see some Starburst readers there.

The week following on from Doki Doki will be Thought Bubble festival in Leeds, another event that you can definitely find me at. Organised in part by my good friend Lisa Wood, since its inception in 2007 Thought Bubble has become one of the UK’s best-loved festivals, earning rave reviews particularly from the creators that have attended. The best part about a con' being spoken of affectionately among writers and artists is that each year the guests become more exciting than the last. This year’s selection includes Becky Cloonan, Ben Templesmith and Tim Sale alongside British creators like Kieron Gillen, Cy Dethan and Bryan Talbot, a massive array of people that I can’t wait to meet and hopefully interview for Starburst. If any Starburst readers are going to be in attendance on either Saturday 19th or Sunday 20th November then be sure to contact me on Twitter @FrancisSobriety or e-mail me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and you can set the record straight about any of your favourite comics that I’ve besmirched.

It’s my duty to point out that should Starburst readers find me anywhere near the bar at Thought Bubble it is your solemn duty to physically restrain me and keep me under supervision for the rest of the night. At the recent Travelling Man 20th Anniversary Party held at Fab Café in Leeds I found myself drinking unsupervised for the first time since my son was born and somehow wound up abusing Travelling Man’s free drink tokens AND the hospitality of Fab Café’s owner. I managed to introduce myself to Kieron Gillen before degenerating into a babbling idiot and will hopefully be interviewing him for Starburst soon, but then the night spiralled into a blur of shots, downed bottles and so much Guinness that I woke the next morning looking like I’d been tarred and feathered. There’s a lesson in there somewhere but I haven’t quite figured it out yet.

Moving away from the half-hearted Gonzo journalism, a lot of amazing people have contacted me this year to help spread the word about the comics that they’re working on, and though it sometimes takes me a hundred years to reply I’m always more than happy to help. The always-awesome Marsha Cooke put me in touch with writer Rachel Pandich about her creator-owned comic Aspire, illustrated by Ashley Lanni. Issues 1 and 2 of Aspire have been out for a while already but in light of recent comic news I’d say that they really tap into the zeitgeist of our community at the moment, featuring a female, non-white superhero. At a time when DC are getting more press coverage for their treatment of female characters than their relaunch of an entire universe and Marvel are making headlines with the introduction of Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man credit should be given to Pandich and Lanni for anticipating the desires of the comic-reading community. For anybody that has been making noise online about subjects of sex or race in comics you could do a lot worse than supporting an all-female creative team tackling both issues in their first professional comic together. The strip itself reminded me of Daniel Clifford and Gary Bainbridge’s Sugar Glider, focussing on the intimate world of a teenager trying to establish a heroic identity in the face of familial tension and general discouragement. The great thing about catching this team at the start of their careers is that you can literally see Lanni’s art grow from page to page, and Pandich got my vote the second that she referenced Fishbone. Rachel Pandich will also be contributing to the upcoming Womanthology, so hopefully in a market where women reading comics grow more vocal everyday this will equate to the support needed to complete the planned eight issues of Aspire.

Another comic that’s been preying on my mind for some time has been Glaswegian scribe Craig Collins’ Roachwell, a surreal insight into the mind of a man that thinks it’s ok to photoshop cut-outs of Alan Titchmarsh in B & Q threatening to fuck your garden up if you don’t buy his comics. Roachwell reminded me of Richard McAuliffe and Mark Chilcott’s Damaged Goods, another darkly deviant comic that shines a light on topics that more mainstream publishers would censor into submission. Ranging from ultimate world warriors that get Kate Bush tattooed on their knuckles to a dentist’s trip where Freddie Mercury endorses violent mouth-defence these are some bizarre comic strips, some that I found impenetrable and some outright hilarious. One thing that nobody will ever accuse Collins of is playing it safe and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll find something in this book to offend you, which in my book can only be a good thing. Johnny Ryan might be funny as hell and a leader in this field but he also has a very American lack of subtext or nuance to the way that he offends, so there’s definitely room for a more acerbic Scottish wit in comics. Maybe it’s because I’m from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Geordies are reviled by everyone in England, but I always felt more at home in Scotland than anywhere else in the world, a feeling that was completely validated by the cannibal punks in the film Doomsday! Anybody with a sense of humour as black as mine or a desire to discover what Monty Python might have been like if the lads had smoked crack and obsessed over Pennywise the clown should definitely check out Roachwell. More comics from Craig Collins in future and more Scottish comics showcased internationally please.

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On a completely different note, I’ve been talking to artist Carolyn Belefski about her webcomic Curls recently and she could seriously teach you a thing or two about self-promotion! Given my fondness for Maakies and Hubert Selby Jr novels it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I found Curls too innocent and lighthearted for my taste, but damn that lady can draw! With an art style reminiscent of Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows Carolyn has an accomplished pen that was made to draw nationally syndicated newspaper strips. Working on the assumption that not all of my readers can be black-hearted cynics like me then some of you are going to LOVE Curls because it’s an adorable strip featuring a character shaped like a piece of toast and if there’s any justice in the world Carolyn will get the chance to keep on making comics like this for the rest of her life and have them collated into massive telephone-directory sized books.

Finally, as I was finishing this column Andi Ewington sent me a review copy of BlueSpear, the first in a planned trilogy of books to be published by Com.x expanding on the story told in their 45 graphic novel.  I didn’t have time to read through 45 today so I plunged straight into BlueSpear and it was a breathtaking comic that brought to mind Kill Bill by-way-of Aquaman.  Created by Andi Ewington and Eddie Deighton, BlueSpear relishes in its position as a mature readers superhero title, with some glorious moments of bloodshed rendered beautifully by Cosmo White in a style similar to Joshua Middleton’s work on NYX.  From the neon colours to the gratuitous panty-shots BlueSpear brings everything to the table that you’d expect from a groundbreaking publisher like Com.x and I’d thoroughly recommend it to any of my peers that like to walk on the darker side of entertainment but still indulge in super-powered violence occasionally.

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There you have it folks, shameless self-promotion, a plethora of new comics for you to seek out and irrefutable proof that NOBODY is stopping you from making comics. Go out into the world with a pen, paper and a photocopier and see where it gets you. Get in touch if you have a comic that you’d like to see featured in Adventures On Alternate Earths, pick me up and dust me down if you spot me at a convention this year and I’ll see you again next month where it’s pretty likely I’ll have read more DC #1s then I could possibly justify paying for. This column has been fuelled by Atari Teenage Riot’s first album in a decade Is This Hyperreal?, recommended listening for you children of the digital revolution.


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Other articles in Adventures on Alternative Earths - by P.M Buchan

A Love Letter To Japan 14 November 2011

Antidotes to DC Comics 14 October 2011

X-Men: Road to Schism 14 August 2011

52 First Issues?!? 14 July 2011

Teen Angst, Talking Corpses & Pompous Frogs 14 June 2011

What makes a great comic? 04 May 2011

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