Plant Radical Roots by Zara Slattery

Draw The Line: the beginning

Yesterday I started blogging the story of Draw The Line by describing the end product: our beautiful book. Now let’s go right back to the beginning, and look at how the project came about in the first place.

This is a story I’ve told a lot over the past four years, in various blog posts and in talks I’ve given, but I’m going to note it all down here just so that the whole account can be found in one place.

In the dark and lonely hours

So, I always begin by saying that drawing comics can be a lonely business, especially if you do it the way I do. I have to fit my comics in around a full time job, as well as parenting, and for me that’s meant getting up before anyone else in the house, to squeeze in 90 minutes of uninterrupted drawing time before I start work.

In the winter time, it’s dark and quiet, and I usually have the radio on to keep me company. Only trouble was, at the end of 2016 Radio 4 was no comfort, especially first thing in the morning when the day’s headlines were rolling out.

There was Ebola in Africa. Trump was on his way to being elected, and the term ‘fake news’ (plus the worrying global shift in what counted as a trusted source) was beginning to catch on. Here in the UK, the country was divided almost 50/50 over whether we should leave the European Union, and our Parliament was engaging in even more barefaced chicanery than usual.

Image: ‘Question the Narrative’ by Landis Blair

It didn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you were on, it was indisputable that the world was becoming polarised, and that small people like me – a mere cartoonist! — were feeling powerless to do anything about it.

A germ of an idea

Well, two days after Trump won the 2016 US election, I went out for a run, and an idea came to me. What if, I thought, I gathered together a few of my comic-drawing friends, and we each drew something that ordinary people can do if they want to make political change.

I should mention that this idea didn’t just come out of nowhere. That job I mentioned, the one that I switch to at 9:00 each morning after my early drawing session? It’s with the NGO mySociety, a charity that provides the digital tools to help people be active citizens.

I do their communications and marketing, so all day long in one form or another I’m banging on about how everyone can contact their MP, or follow the daily activity in Parliament, or put in an FOI request to a public authority.

Image: Know What’s On The Agenda by Sarah Mirk

Now, at this stage, I was thinking very small. I reckoned I could find maybe five or six friends, and we could draw a few illustrations each, make a comic to sell at festivals and maybe crowdfund it. I went onto Facebook and posted to see if anyone fancied joining in.

Facebook does Facebook

Much as I dislike many aspects of Facebook, this is where I have to admit it did something only Facebook can do. Someone mentioned that they’d also seen another friend, Karrie Fransman, posting to say she felt as if comic artists should be doing something, but she didn’t know what. Could they tag her in?

Karrie is an established graphic novelist and this turned out to be a huge gamechanger, as not only did she want to take part, but she offered to dip into her bulging address book of contacts to see if anyone else would like to, as well. Karrie’s published books, spoken at events around the world, collaborated with many artists, and seemed to know everyone.

So she put the word out among her grapevine. And then those people invited their friends, and in no time more than 100 artists had provisionally agreed to join in. I remember opening up my email each morning during this period and being astonished at some of the big names who had signed up, some of them my own comics heroes, along with many many less-known but equally willing artists from the worldwide small press comics scene.

My modest idea had taken on a life of its own.

Image: Give mindfully by Dave McKean

Gather your team

Facebook came through for us again when I set up a private group where all we artists could discuss the project. And here, methods I’d learned from work came in handy.

First, I took note of the most enthusiastic group members: the ones answering other people’s questions before I got to them, the ones generating posts of their own, throwing out new ideas. At work, this is historically the way we’ve identified potential volunteers that help us administer our FOI site, and the same method worked equally well here. I asked Karrie, along with Kristen Nyberg, Zara Slattery and Graeme McGregor to join the admin team.

That’s my first tip, for anyone following along and hoping to learn how to manage a big anthology project: even if you think you can do it all yourself, having others on your team gives you invaluable moral support; and you’ll always have someone to sense-check decisions and help hone your messaging and project guidelines.

Image: Sign, Seal, Deliver by Nicholas Sputnik Miller

It’s probably also worth noting that I did also ask a few other people, who declined — and that even a couple of these people who were keen at the beginning quite understandably dropped out later to be replaced by others. I mention this because it speaks of a wider truth about any project: not everything will go to plan; and sometimes you will need to be flexible.

How to collaborate

The second thing I took from my work was the entire ethos of the project, which was that we — all 100+ of us — would make decisions together.

This wasn’t as daunting as it might sound. Tools I am very familiar with from my day job — Google Docs and Sheets, allowed us to work together across timezones and with everyone having an equal chance to chip in.

I’ve just taken a look at our Google Drive to refresh my memory and found this – the first version of our game plan. Looking at it now, I think what you can see is that even a collaborative project needs someone leading it, albeit gently. That person needs to have a clear vision and to keep reiterating it. They can set deadlines, sketch out milestones, and still let the group have a voice or make all the big decisions.

Either way, the first step, as detailed on that document, was to list the political actions we’d be illustrating. I could easily have reeled off a number of obvious ones on my own (and indeed I had done, in that original Facebook post): write to your MP, go on a march, sign a petition… but by harnessing the ideas of everyone on the group, we ended up with a far more extensive and imaginative list of actions than I would have compiled by myself; we easily got to 100, whereupon we stopped updating that particular document, though I think we kept adding more to a subsequent spreadsheet as they became required.

Resolutely neutral

One other approach I borrowed from my job, and the reason we had to abandon some of the ideas people added to the list, was the idea of non-partisanship. At mySociety, our charitable status dictates that the tools we provide must be available for everyone. Draw The Line would adhere to the same principle.

We may have been a bunch of lefty comic artists, impotent and furious at the rise of the extreme right — but every action we depicted would be neutral.

In other words, each action would be a tool that anyone could use if they were unhappy with the status quo, no matter what that status quo was. Right now, they could be used to rail against the prevailing right wing parliaments most of us were living under; but I wanted to be able to imagine a future where governments might have changed hands, and the book would still be just as useful.

As an example: writing to the paper; putting up posters; questioning the news agenda or speaking to someone from outside your bubble… these are actions that are available to us all, no matter what our beliefs.

But ‘hide your local newsagent’s copies of The Daily Mail‘ (a right wing tabloid in the UK) is an action that defined a leftist stance. We would include any of the former, but not the latter.

Image: Go Large by Hunt Emerson

Hand-wringing leftie SJW snowflakes

Before I finish for today, I’ll note two criticisms that came up at this point.

One was generated from within our own ranks, and again, you can see mention of it in that early document: no matter how non-partisan we claimed to be, we were acutely aware of being a mostly white, mostly middle class, majority cis bunch of left wing do-gooders telling the rest of the world how to act to be more like us, or to adhere more to our view of how the world should be. In fact, one artist declined to take part for exactly this reason.

I mean, you can be as non-partisan as you like, but actions like ‘start a community garden’ or ‘welcome migrants’ encapsulate a certain world view that you can’t imagine the hard right embracing (prove me wrong; I’d be happy to see a jackbooted allotmenteer if you know of one) .

Image: Plant Radical Roots by Zara Slattery

If I’m absolutely honest, this is still something I worry about a bit even now, though we did what we could to mitigate it.

And then, who were we to tell others how to treat minority ethnic folk or refugees?

Well firstly, though they were not the majority, there were several people of colour; LGBTQ people, and disabled people amongst the Draw The Line artists.

Then, rather than making any assumptions, we were careful to research each action that we included to ensure that it was approved by the very people we assumed it was helping. If we were suggesting an action to help homeless people, we looked at the websites of charities that worked directly with them; if we were suggesting something to lower one’s carbon footprint, we checked that our assumptions were true (and if something wasn’t clear, we got in touch with relevant organisations by Twitter or email to ask for clarification).

All of this turned out to be useful further down the line, as well: it helped us to compile the ‘Next Steps’ page we’d eventually include on the website, where we link out to sites that give people more information if they’re keen to pursue one of the actions.

Pay the artists

The second criticism came from just one person, but it did make me think quite hard. It was that I should have been paying the artists.

I think this came from a good place: of course I agree with the principle that artists should be paid for their time and skills in general. But when you looked at our project, it simply wouldn’t have been viable if we’d had to pay 100+ artists.

Image: Pay Well by Beth Dawson

The plan was always that any profits from sales (if there even were any) would go to charity, so no-one was making money out of Draw The Line.

If we’d decided to pay all the artists before donating anything at all — well, now we have the final figures we can see. With 113 artists, after the print and shipping costs, each would have received £27.48, and the charity would have received nothing.

(We did promise each artist their own copy of the book, about which more in a future post).

So, if we are resolute that artists must always be paid for their work, I think we’re basically saying that projects like this can’t happen.

I personally wouldn’t have been able to afford to pay the artists before we crowdfunded; and as things turned out they would have been waiting a very long time for that £27.48.

If I’d wanted to pay them a reasonable sum for their images… well, I wouldn’t have been able to without going into debt myself.

The artists all knew the deal from the start, and they participated because they wanted to. In some cases, they more than wanted to: they were desperate to take part, to do something about the political climate. As artists we were doing the thing we knew best.

Plus everyone kept the copyright of their work, of course. But nothing I could say at the time would convince this person that I was acting reasonably. C’est la vie.