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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I Went to SPX 2014 and Lived to Tell the Tale

I attended SPX this past weekend. As usual, I had an excellent time. Despite it not being a successful trip from a financial point of view (although I covered my biggest expense, I'm still somewhat out of pocket at the end of it) I'm really glad I went. I find I need SPX in my life every so often as a kind of course corrective; a reminder of the kind of comics I ought to be doing.

I have a really strong attachment to this show. SPX was the first show I ever attended in the USA, back in 2000. I was just there as a visitor, not even as an exhibitor; it was the year Will Eisner was there, I remember. I bought minicomics from Craig Thompson. I met Dean Haspiel for the first time, who went out of his way to make me feel like a part of the community, which I will always be grateful for. Attending that show energised me to turn my Fred the Clown webcomic into a self-published comic book, which in turn has led to every opportunity I've had in comics since then. Without SPX, it's probably fair to say that my subsequent career wouldn't have happened.

So I keep coming back. Not every year, but I try to do at least every other year. And each time, I feel like it's a timely reminder that these are the kinds of comics I ought to be doing: comics straight from the cartoonist's brain to the reader's hands, without compromises.

I know I am very lucky to have the career I have. I am currently earning my living by making comics originated by me and owned by me, and that's a rare privilege in this business. But even these comics are... compromised is far too strong a word, but maybe "calculated" serves the case better. Calculated to appeal to a specific audience, to a specific publisher, to specific expectations that an audience now brings to any book with my name on it. And that's fine; when all is said and done, if that's what I have to do to earn a living making comics with my own characters and my own stories, I will calculate like an accountant suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But... making those comics is now, for better or worse, my day job. It's time I got back to setting aside one day a week to make comics that come straight from the heart as well, like I was doing in 2000 with Fred the Clown. Comics produced with no financial motive whatsoever. Comics I make just because I think they ought to exist.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this year's SPX was a welcome bucket of cold water in the face, a timely reminder of the fact that there are other kinds of comics I could be doing – not necessarily instead of, but at least at the same time as, the ones I'm currently making. So, starting immediately, I will be taking steps to do that very thing. More importantly, to do it regularly, one day a week, and not just when I have an idea for a minicomic once in a blue moon. Doing my own, uncalculated, straight-from-the-gut comics needs to be a central part of my life again. This is something that I have known for a while on an intellectual level; the difference between this time last week and right now is that now I feel it right down to my bones. I feel now that it is less a matter of "wouldn't it be nice" and more a matter of creative survival, artistic necessity. Of being the cartoonist that I could be. I can't promise you'll see the fruits of this immediately, but I'm quietly confident it'll happen sooner rather than later.

I will close by saying hello and thanks to the people who made the weekend what it was for me, from the organisers and my fellow exhibitors to everyone who came by my table and bought something or just said hello, to every kid half my age who was there showing me how it's done. You know who you are. Until next time.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Abigail and the Snowman

Announced a day or two ago: I'm currently working on a new four-issue series for Boom! Studios, Abigail and the Snowman, about a girl and her Yeti. There's some blather about it here.

And here's the cover to #1, coloured by Fred Stresing.

 There's also a variant cover by the fabulous Sonny Liew.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Digital Cogitation

So I recently checked out a bunch of Thrillbent titles after Mark Waid kindly offered me a look at the archives over at and asked me if I'd mind making some noise about it in return. There are some interesting people doing stuff over there: apart from Waid himself, who's responsible for a few series on the site, the Aw Yeah Comics title and Tom Scioli's stuff particularly caught my eye. So I loaded a bunch of these titles as .cbz files on my clunky 1st-generation iPad a few nights ago.

To be completely up-front about it, I've been eyeing these new digital comics with a certain amount of "eh" for a while now. Not that I have a problem with digital comics per se – I started a weekly web strip in 1999 which I did for five years, and I've done a few things on the web since then – but I remain unconvinced that what I can only think of as the "Thrillbent tricks", the panels popping up on a page one by one and balloons appearing gradually and all that kind of thing, add anything of value to the reading experience. I blasted through Insufferable Volume 1 and all the Scioli stuff on that first night and I enjoyed them both – Waid's never less than a solid genre writer, and frequently excellent as these things go, and Scioli's a stylist whose work I like quite a bit – but I never really felt that I was getting anything from what David Lloyd calls the "tricksy" digital stuff that I wouldn't have got just as much out of in print. On some level I still don't really get the point of it.

However. All that having been said, I do get that these are necessary experiments. Just because I don't get something out of the current batch of gimmicks – and I definitely do still think of them as gimmicks – doesn't mean that they're not making somebody excited, and maybe one of those somebodies will come up with something building on these techniques that will blow us all away in a few years, something that could not have existed without these comics we have right now. I don't know. I do think it's worth exploring, but I'm kind of glad I'm not the one doing it.

Things about Thrillbent that do impress me, that I do like and that I think are worth making a bit of noise about:

  • The fact that there are entities like Thrillbent and Monkeybrain and others who are taking seriously the idea of being a digital publisher, finding new markets, creating original content that can completely bypass the current print distributon models, basically standing up and doing something – and putting their money where their mouths are, too. A lot of people, and I'm definitely among them, despair at Diamond's stranglehold on the comics industry, seeing the constant relaunches of long-running titles and the variant covers and all that destructive bullshit killing the industry by degrees, because those approaches are the only ones that Diamond's market responds to in the short-term – and I think Thrillbent and Monkeybrain and the rest are examples of people thinking long-term, thinking in terms of sustainable publishing models and broader markets, and that this kind of thinking is absolutely necessary. Alternative comics have largely moved to bookstores and graphic novels (and the convention circuit) these days, but more populist genre stuff, still dependent on Diamond to a far larger degree, needs a liferaft like this if it's going to survive.
  • Regardless of what I think of the actual tricks themselves, the Thrillbent tricks are pioneering a new way of thinking about comics storytelling that Marvel and DC have both picked up on and will no doubt make a great deal more of in the months and years to come as the industry moves inexorably towards a digital-first, print-later model. I genuinely think – and Mark did not ask me to say any of this! – that Mark Waid will be remembered as the inventor of, or facilitator of, many of the storytelling techniques that are likely to dominate mainstream digital comics for the next generation or so. 
  • Some of these comics are actually really good! I have been genuinely excited by a number of digital-only serial comics in the past couple of years – not just those from Thrillbent, but Monkeybrain's Bandette and Top Shelf's Double Barrel among them as well. There are individuals out there doing digital alternatives to serial print comics too: Andy Hirsch's Varmints is an excellent title of this type, and there's my very own The Fez (cough cough). And there's the inbetween ground like Charles Forsman's Oily Comics, which has a webstore where you can get digital versions of their print minicomics. I was one of the many people who once lamented the demise of the serial alternative comic-book-format comic, but I think digital publishing of this kind is a viable alternative to that. The economics of a serial comic book are once again achievable because now all it costs you is your time. Not everything works best as a web strip; there is a lot to be said for reading things in a satisfying chunk, for having some more control over your page design than the internet typically allows, for putting a variety of material between two covers to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In short, it's nice to have other ways to get your work out there.
Aces Weekly gets a paragraph here because I'm on it. Frustratingly, because of the age of my iPad, I can only read the thing directly on the web rather than in a dedicated app. Consequently, I've looked at it much less than I probably should have. But, again, full marks to David Lloyd for trying to do something different, to reach a new audience. The more people do this, the more likely one of them will hit a model that clearly, unequivocally works. Until then, everyone's a pioneer. Everyone who tries runs the risk of being the one with the arrow in his back. They all deserve some credit for taking a chance at all.

So there you go. I don't know if this is what Mark wanted when he asked me to take a look at the Thrillbent site, but this is where my brain went, I'm afraid. Conclusion being, I guess, that all of this stuff is worth keeping an eye on, particularly if you're a working comic professional (or an aspiring one) and you want to know what you're likely to be called upon to do over the next twenty or thirty years. Because these kinds of comics aren't going away. They're only going to become more prevalent and more... well, more normal. More the default way to produce genre comic books. We're all going to need to get our heads around them eventually.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

New Digital Books for Sale!

I've added a couple of new items to my store. There's The Fez #2 (which has been in print for a while but which I've just got around to making a digital version of) and Sketch Show 2014, which is a brand-new PDF sketchbook: 20 pages of sketches for £1 (cheap!). I'll have print editions of both of these at SPX in a couple of weeks and at Thought Bubble later in the year, if you'd rather hang out for those – but if you're happy with digital versions and/or you won't be in either of those places, this might be the way to go.

My digital bookstore is HERE, if you're looking for everything in one place. Thanks for looking.

About Me

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London, United Kingdom
Eisner and Harvey Award-winning cartoonist responsible for The Muppet Show Comic Book, Thor the Mighty Avenger, Snarked! and Fred the Clown. Would like to save the world through comics.