Ten years on: Autobio comics and MINOR LEAGUES 3

Originally published as on of my newsletters

Did you know I’m a ten year old now? It’s true. I started drawing my first comic, SMOO #1, in February 2007, meaning that my tenth anniversary has just come and gone. A whole decade making comics. Woah. Imagine how many staples I’ve fucked up, pencils I’ve ground down and hours I’ve lost to self-doubt and anxiety, huh?!

Honestly, though, it doesn’t seem like ten years. It always seems like now is the most involved, stuck-in time to be making comics. Except, now keeps changing. Now is now. 2013 was now. 2007 was now. I’ve learned so much, made so many friends, seen things, been places, done stuff I couldn’t have done otherwise. It’s not an easy pursuit – what is? – but it’s part of who I have become and who I will be.

I’ve flip-flopped a bit in terms of how I describe what I’ve done over the years. Sometimes I call it comics and sometimes zines and those sorts of things. Labels are tough, and carry lots of weight, and sometimes they can give you an identity, and sometimes they can make you feel a bit pigeonholed. But I tend to make art about my life in the form of comics and publish them in zines.

I think I’ve always wanted to be an artist of some kind. I think it was Lynda Barry who pointed out that children draw comics or ‘narrative drawings’ from a very young age, and I was no different. Then, in my teens in the suburbs,  I really wanted to do something that would get me out of where I was. I wanted to be a musician, but I wasn’t very confident and didn’t really know you could just make a racket and have fun and call it music. But I had been drawing for a long time, and I’d always been introspective, and kept appropriately hideously blush-inducing diaries up until the start of my 20s. So when I finally started trying to pull some of those threads together a few years later, it made sense that I’d end up making art that was kinda diaristic, and, because I’d always been drawn to drawing and visual story-telling, that the art form that chose me would be comics.

I tend to come from the ‘show don’t tell’ school of comics making, so over the years that has largely allowed me to avoid (a few un-notable excursions aside) making work that is straight-up ‘here’s what happened to me’  (I know I did a book called ‘What Happened’ but shhh). That’s partly because I’ve always felt uncomfortable about sharing too much detail, ‘cause how much does anyone really need to know? How could I tell you all of everything anyway?

In this regard, autobio comics as a genre can divide opinion. How much is appropriate to share? Who are you sharing things about? Whose voices get missed out? This recent blog post by Inés Estrada about her ten years of comics-making touches on some of these concerns (also worth reading for her thoughts about social media/internet/the world, which resonate). She writes:

“ [making autobio comics] is so subjective you inevitably end up offending someone, exagerating something or forgetting something else. It can also get too self-aggrandazing or too pitiful. As easy as it seemed for me to do it at first, now I think it’s one of the hardest genres, just because of how boring it can get.”
I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot lately, particularly in light of what’s happened to my family this year, and (partly) how I’ve responded to it, in the new issue of Minor Leagues.

At the end of January this year, my Dad was diagnosed with cancer and everything was turned upside-down. About a month after his diagnosis, he died. He was 63. I loved my Dad very deeply, and admired him very much. During that time, I was drawing, and writing Minor Leagues 3. I think I felt (sometimes rightly, often wrongly) that I needed to keep my commitment to the zine going during this time. I guess it was a bit of a crutch, or a rubber ring, or something to hold on to.

But making art about death is weird. After artist, cartoonist and musician Geneviève Castrée died last year, her husband (musician and  artist Phil Elverum) recorded an album of songs he wrote in the aftermath of her passing. He’s spoken about that in a number of interviews. He talks about calling death *death*, not hiding it behind metaphor or platitude, how that’s hard, how it reveals – when you come to share that art – the contours of the market and business of making art. Are you making this art for sympathy? For dramatic effect? Does it seem futile? Does it help?

I feel like death is private and it is isolating. But it is also an experience that can lead you to reach out. After all this Dad stuff happened, there were suddenly people everywhere with similar stories to tell. Suddenly, although our experience of life is unique and personal and private, it also becomes not public (although it kinda does) but rather… communal? Collective? Where does art fit in that context?

I’m still working that stuff out. So this zine is about what happened to my family, but not because the stories directly relate to those events in any expansive sense. Rather, I think it’s more like a bunch of stuff about what it felt like for it to happen. So there is bewilderment and there is sadness, but I was thinking about my past a lot too – so there comics about teenage indiscretions, childhood dreams, as well. There’s writing and diary comics about what happened to us, and drawings of Spring, too, and going to work, and living. There are funny bits too (I hope).

At the end of the day, I know this is just a zine. I’d be naive in the face of everything that has happened (and is happening) to think about it as anything else. But I do believe in the power of small bits of personal honesty, however codified, to connect with people, and if only for a moment, like a dream that is remembered then *poof* gone, and allow us to say ‘life, amirite?’ to one another, and then go back to our busy lives. I think that’s what I try and do with this stuff.

Whether it works is anyone’s guess, but here’s to another 10 years of trying.

Minor Leagues 3 is available here for £2 or £3 (you choose) + P&P.

New book soon on Kilgore Comics! Pre-order now!

I’ve got a new comic book coming out called What Happened. It’s a 44 page comic about the summer of 1995, the first blushes of attraction, confusion and being 12.

Kilgore Comics are publishing it as part of their Autumn line-up and are running a Kickstarter to fund the pre-orders. I’m appearing alongside releases by Noah Van Sciver, Emi Gennis and Tom Van Deusen! It’s very exciting.

Do take a look if you’re interested. There’s a $2 shipping deal on UK orders if you order the whole line-up

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New zines // speaking at East London Comic Arts Festival

I’ve made two new zines which will be debuting at ELCAF next week.

Garden is about our garden and is part of the new Lydstep Library series. Rain is a collection of comics and stories based on prompts given to me by some of my regular readers.

Pre-order here: Garden // Rain

I’ll also be appearing on a panel at ELCAF about Championing Comics on Friday10th June at 5pm. Full info here

SMOO MEGA DEAL – 3 issues for £5

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Get the final three issues of SMOO for ONLY £5 + P&P

Between 2007 and 2015, I made a zine called SMOO. It was full of comics about my life, trying to make sense of who I was, who I might be. The series ended at issue 10 and early issues are long out of print, while 4, 5, and 6 were collected in a book called Days from Avery Hill Publishing.

Now to mark the end of SMOO you can get the final three issues all together for only £5 + P&P.

Over 100 pages of comics and stories across 3 A6 zines: bird-watching, a breakup; struggles with alcohol; sadness and anxiety, happiness; trips to the seaside, trips to the countryside; people passing, new lives, literal and metaphorical; quietness;  a recipe for fruit salad.

The zines come with a little drawing.

Buy copies here!

Minor Leagues #1 available now

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The first issue of my new zine, Minor Leagues is available now

Contains 100 pages of comics, drawings, stories and writing about how days go by, a video rental shop, walking, travelling in Mississippi, a snowball fight from 1995 and more. Thinking a lot about how things and people come and go.

It picks up where my last series SMOO left off, detailing things that happened to me, but expands it to bring in bigger questions and other thoughts, as well as lots more words. I hope this series will run and run. Four issue subscriptions are available here.

Like most of my zines, this is printed and assembled at home.

  • A5 (148x210mm)
  • 100 pages, on off-white recycled paper stock
  • faded blue card cover
  • side staple binding
  • b&w throughout

£4 + P&P – order a copy here

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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.