Notes on 2015, thoughts for 2016

This blog post is a little slow, a little late. Sorry about that.

In 2015, I released something like 400 pages worth of comics and drawings and writing*.

Plans We Made, my first graphic novel, was published by Uncivilized Books after a successful Kickstarter in the Spring. I was staggered that so many people would be interested in taking a chance on my work. I’m really proud of the book, and it’s been getting some nice reviews.

I released three more issues of SMOO after an 18 month gap. I also started a zine subscription service, making all my zines at home, printing, folding, stapling and trimming them myself. I released three more zines of stories and drawings, and a split zine of comics by Jason Martin and by me.

I sold my work at Toronto Comic Arts Festival, Crouch End Comic Arts Festival, Safari, the Lakes International Comic Arts Festival and Thought Bubble. I also co-organised the Bristol Comic and Zine Fair.

Then, in December I drew my ongoing series, SMOO, to a close with the release of issue ten and set about thinking of new ways to make and share my comics.

Oh, and we got a cat.

It was a productive and fun year, artistically. But it has also felt like a funny year.

On the one hand, I’ve seen lots of innovative work that stretches the boundaries of what we call comics, and explores new artistic territory. It’s deeply inspiring and challenging, compelling me to dig deeper into my art and be more ambitious in what I do – which is in part why I ended SMOO, to give me a blank canvas to do just that.

On the other hand, I feel like this innovation and expansion has strained the boundaries of the comics infrastructure even further. I think the ‘market saturation’ we’ve been predicting has started to become more acute: lots of comics events, more and more creators, a relatively static volume of attendees at events, and a small number of review** and sales outlets. Money is hard to find in comics at the best of times, and fairs and shows seem to be yielding lower returns.

Audience building is still a challenge, despite the promise of the Internet the way we use social media is constantly evolving. Platforms come and go. User numbers go up. Attention is hard to come by. Moreover, how we understand what art is, how it is transmitted or experienced are all even more different than ever ***.

So while I strongly believe that the work we are making has purchase ‘out there’ in the world, it feels a bit like the comics infrastructure hasn’t got room for all of us, and we don’t know where else to go.

A few of my friends and peers have expressed similar concerns, and not just people who make weirdo art comics like me. Jamie Smart – whose work is quite different from my own – wrote a piece about this at the end of last year. In it, he describes himself as having ‘reached the edge of his bubble’;

“There’s so much chatter online already, so many other great talents, a wonderfully supportive community but again, one which is in danger of selling to itself. What if your grand idea, your character, your brand, reaches its limit and you just can’t reach any more people than you already have?”

You’ve made some things, and you don’t want to be limited only to an immediate community of makers and fans, but would like to see if those ideas could find a life outside that community.

Perhaps this is just growing pains – in continuing to grow and develop as an artist, you want to seek new ways of doing things, new modes of expression and new places to say stuff, without the constraint of ‘institutional’ boundaries. Jamie reflects that this is both a practical challenge, and a creative one. To be open to the possibility of making new things, or seeing yourself differently is daunting but essential.

I’m grateful to be part of a community of peers that is by and large supportive, self-critical and artistically ambitious, and I think that this is a huge asset for the art form as a whole. I guess I’m just a bit worried about its ability to support its growth, without collapsing under its own weight.

I’m going to be carrying on making things. I’m going part time in my day job later in the year to commit more time to art.

I’ve also stepped down as co-organiser of the Bristol Comic and Zine Fair, too – it’s been fun, lots of hard work, and I’ve learned a great deal, but after five years it’s time to move on and explore other ways to help build capacity in our community ****.

I’m hoping with this extra time to commit more fully to making art I believe in, and experimenting with different ways to share it.

The cat also keeps playing with my pencils while I’m using them, so that’s something to think about.

*Here’s a full list of what I released in 2015:

  • SMOO #10 (self-published zine, available here)
  • Plans We Made (Book: Uncivilized Books, USA order here, UK order here)
  • Bright Nights (self-published split zine with Jason Martin, UK edition available here)
  • Decorating (self-published zine, available here)
  • Monument Road (self-published zine, redrawn second edition w/ new epilogue, available here)
  • A Day Out (self-published zine, illustrated prose, available here)
  • SMOO #9 (self-published zine, available here)
  • SMOO #8 (self-published zine, available here)

** Those reviewers we have are by and large dedicated, passionate individuals, who work hard to support makers and readers, offer critique and reflection, as well as a marketing channel for many of us. They usually do this for free. I am grateful they exist, and I think to take them for granted would be a very bad thing, as would assuming that we are entitled to their attention; we aren’t.

*** There’s a host of issues that intersect here that are bigger picture things; how to value arts and culture, fair pay in the face of universally precarious labour, balancing expectation and reality of work in the creative sector, the extent to which we can create or exploit opportunities, and, very importantly, under-representation and discrimination that cuts across all these scales.

**** There are instances of capacity and community building happening  (zine groups, fairs, residencies, comics schools etc), and I’d like to look and write more about these in the future. But I think, as a counterpoint to my worries, these are a valuable starting point. It might be worth noting that my concern with only the immediately visible infrastructures might precisely the problem we have in trying to imagine ourselves outside of comics. Can’t see the wood for the trees.