While I’m writing these 2022 roundup posts, there’s one topic that can’t be ignored, The year brought something really special: it introduced me to the Workers Gallery and the people behind it, Chris and Gayle.
When I first read the email asking if I’d be interested in exhibiting, I had no idea that it would set me on the path to making a significant new piece of work, still less taking me into unexplored (by me) areas of the country where I would discover new friendships and new stories. Gayle and Chris opened the doors not just of the gallery but of their own home, putting me up for the night, and introducing me to local residents who had stories to tell.
Apart from anything else, it was an education in what you can do with a bit of determination and vision. The Workers, once Ynyshir’s public library – closed down in austerity – subsists on a mixture of grants, shop income, events space rental and (as far as I can tell) an awful lot of goodwill, and somehow manages to bring a programme of arts and culture not just to its own village, but also to extend these to surrounding areas with the help of their electric cargo bike.
Now, I am an outsider, coming in and finding out what I can, obviously without the benefit of lived experience and relying on what I’m told, so bear that in mind as I continue to pronounce on what I saw: but in an area where public services have been cut, there’s poverty and unemployment and other social issues, the Workers is a bright light. It’s talking a language of culture and arts, with an undercurrent of acceptance that pushes boundaries in what has long been a region with ‘traditional values’. In other words, the gallery is challenging long-held beliefs in the region, modelling acceptance of more progressive world views, just by speaking them out loud.
And they are big supporters of indie comics makers!
Like so many small concerns across the country, the Workers, which already survives on something of a shoestring, will be facing increases in costs that will cause them serious problems, not least an electricity bill that has multiplied beyond all imagining. I’ve said it before but if you’re in a position to support their Patreon or buy something from their shop you’d be doing a very good thing.
So what has all this meant for my own practice? At the start of the year I had picked up Satin and Tat again, having taken time out to make Sorry for the Inconvenience. As documented in this blog, though, I was beginning to have real doubts about the sanity of carrying on with a detailed full colour graphic memoir. It had already taken years and it was going to take years more, especially while I am working full time in the day job.
Part of me is glad that I have worked on it so intensively even if it remains unfinished – I got better not just at drawing, but at the nuts and bolts of making a comic, of lettering, layout, panels and all the rest of it. And it still exists! I could go back to it at any time if I wanted to.
But last year, along came the Workers Gallery and their invitation to display my protest pictures from Sorry for the Inconvenience, and this set in action a series of events that have started me on a different project.
My way of making myself do anything slightly daunting, whether it’s convincing myself to go on a run or starting a new project, is always ‘well let’s just do it, it doesn’t have to be the best ever’.
It was in this spirit that I suggested to the gallery that I would make a little comic to go alongside the exhibition. I even remember having conversations with my Brighton comics friends, saying ‘stop me if I get too intricate’ – I wanted to make something small and quick with all the qualities of a zine.
But the other thing about me is that once I get started I often do have to put the effort in and make it the best I can. And actually, once I visited the Rhondda Valleys there was so much to try to convey – not just the stories I heard but the astonishing landscape and the people who were doing amazing things and who so kindly took me into their community. In retrospect, this was almost inevitable – anyone who remembers my holiday sketch diaries will recall me going through much the same arc with each of these: “But there’s so much to record!”. Plus, I’ve always wanted to emulate artists like Olivier Kugler and Julia Rothman with their reportage comics.
And so, as usual, I’ve come away with a more time consuming project than I originally intended. In all I want to draw twelve stories. Once bookended with an introduction and a conclusion, there’s a good 100+ pages there – still less than Satin and Tat, and I’ve deliberately chosen to do it in (mostly) a single colour which has made things quicker – plus, thanks to all the learning the ropes on Satin and Tat, I’m not spending so much time making decisions about things like panel borders or fonts.
I have to thank Gayle and Chris at the Workers for their patience as I worked through all this, from ‘oh it’s a quick zine’ to ‘hmm there’s enough here for a book’ which might sound like an easy transition but has actually been through a few twists and turns.
I visited in August, and wanted to have something to show at the Lakes Festival in October, so I printed up what I had at that stage, which was the intro and one story (as it happens I want to redraw elements of the intro now, as it was rather rushed and I hadn’t got into my stride yet). This was useful, if nothing else, as a tangible model of what a finished book could look and feel like.
So that was a waypost really.
In 2023, I want to go back to Rhondda to explore three more stories I’ve been told about. By meeting people face to face I know I’ll get richer detail. I’ll be able to see photographs, make sketches and walk down the streets where the stories happened – having now conducted a couple of interviews via email and Zoom as well as face to face during my previous visits, I can see the difference it makes to the amount of detail you can capture when you do it in person.
When I’ve finished this collection of stories about protest and activism (each of which is really quite compelling) they will present a snapshot social history of protest in the Rhondda valley – one of the most deprived areas in the UK and often overlooked by central government – which could inspire current and future generations to have their voices heard.
Slowly, I’ve built up a plan that I hope I’ll be able to put in action this year. I want to apply for funding – in fact, I have already applied for some (it will be March before I hear back) and plan to spend my Xmas break applying for the big one, the Arts Council England National Lottery fund. The astute among you may spot the issue there – Arts Council England fund work that is intended for an audience in England (Arts Council Wales on the other hand, fund Welsh people or those that live in Wales, and despite my name, I am neither).
But to my mind, the stories I’m telling are universal. I would like to share them across the UK, and one economical way to do this would be to donate a couple of copies to radical libraries around the country. It turns out there are many of these – grassroots, people-run libraries, sometimes with themes like feminism or socialism, sometimes just there because the ‘official’ library was closed down (incidentally the reason the Workers exists) and the community realised they’d have to make their own.
Ideally I’ll also be able to secure some further funding to allow me to donate to Rhondda schools and libraries. Basically I’ll be looking to find a way to do three things:
- Travel back to the Rhondda for more research
- Take some time off work to finish the comic
- Fund its printing and dissemination
In all of this is also the hope that a publisher or agent might find it interesting enough to consider – again, the emails have been sent off, again, a reply generally takes weeks and months, during which time one begins to wonder whether the topic is too niche, or whether one has simply failed to convey its universal appeal!
Anyway – if none of these approaches work, I will go on trying other avenues. It’s not like I haven’t self-published before, and crowdfunding exists. It’s a matter of seeing what works and keeping on trying.