A rising tide lifts all boats. I love that saying, partly because it’s such a visual image. And it’s true. And it’s also true metaphorically.
In comics – or I guess, any art practice – it’s a reminder that the success of one is good for us all. Take, for example, the reception to Kate Beaton’s recent publication Ducks: stellar reviews across mainstream press, topped off with an appearance in Barack Obama’s books of the year. A comic artist can only dream of such things!
But should we gnash our teeth and choke on our envy as we scribble away on our less-celebrated works? No, and here’s why: the breakout of a book like Ducks puts a graphic novel in front of people who wouldn’t normally consider one. It expands our audience, it clears the way for those same people to look around and, having enjoyed one graphic novel, ask what’s next.
Presumably it also does a tiny bit towards opening the eyes of agents, publishers, newspaper reviewers, and all the related industries around books, to the potential of comics.
So that’s one example – as little rowing boats, we’re all bobbing that bit higher on the estuary. Thanks Kate.
But, at the risk of overstretching the idiom, I try to be the water as well as the boat. I try to do a small part to lift up my fellow creators, knowing that their success will benefit us all (plus, it’s nice to do so in its own right!).
This translates into small things. If I go to a comics festival, I’ll buy comics and if I think they’re good, I’ll make sure I say so on my blog and on social media, tagging the artist in.
If I’m speaking at an event, perhaps one with the risk of low attendance, I’ll make sure I go to other people’s sessions as well, increasing their audience and potentially sharing a few photos afterwards.
As a side note, even if you’re not a creator yourself, a mention on social media when you’ve read someone’s comic or heard them speak goes a really long way.
This benefits the festival itself, as well. It’s easy to think of events as something that “just happen” but they’re often only possible through the endeavours of very overworked people working to tight margins. If you help out, even in a small way, with publicity, they’re more likely to be there next year and the year after, supporting comics makers like you.
Plus, the more you can support them by sharing that the event is happening on social media, the more people will know about it, the more potential customers you’ll have coming by your table.
Day to day, retweeting artists’ messages and sharing opportunities all helps to make our community more welcoming and more successful.
You might think “well I’m not going to share this competition because then lots of other people will enter and I’ll have less chance”.
But wouldn’t you rather the best comic won, rather than knowing you won but only because no-one with better work knew about it? Wouldn’t you rather improve your skill until you are good enough to win against an open field?
Anyway, some contests may not be for me – I’m not going to enter a horror category or whatever – but could be just the fit for someone else. Let them know!
In the same spirit, share what you learn, and you’ll save someone else having to go through the same long process. When I was applying for an ACE grant, I benefited so much both from friends and from online resources, all people who took the time to explain what had taken them a while to get to grips with. Knowing I had benefitted, I wanted to pass that on.
By practicing all of this day to day, you also begin to find that you have a great network of comics friends and acquaintances, who are happy to see you when you fetch up in the same events, who think of you when they need someone to fill a space in a panel or contribute work to a project, and who will extend the same favours to you as you did to them.
And that’s my philosophy. *Steps down from lectern*
The train journey. I was staying in Exeter so took the train to Newton Abbot both days. This meant enjoying one of the most beautiful stretches of track in England, with the windows full of water and sky as the train first skirts the shoreline past Dawlish and then turns to trace the banks of the estuary at Teignmouth/Shaldon (coincidentally the setting for Satin and Tat, my abandoned-for-now graphic memoir).
If you are a fan of Studio Ghibli you will only be able to think of this:
The enthusiasm. The whole thing had been arranged by two keen and hard-working comic-loving library staff, with enthusiastic buy-in from local comics shop Gnash, and creators such as myself who were keen to speak about and sell our work. Considering they’d never done anything like this before, those two staff members really pulled off something massive!
The building. It turns out that Newton Abbot library is a huge, attractive building, historic-looking on the outside and clean and fresh on the inside. With a café, several large meeting rooms and a massive digital screen, it has the capacity to run an even more ambitious festival in the future. There’s space for 5 or 6 concurrent events all under one roof – and that’s without spreading out to venues across the town, which would also be brilliant.
The potential. I really really hope they carry on and do this annually, for two reasons. First, there’s no major comics festival at this end of the year and this end of the country. The comics community would be really glad to have those gaps filled.
Second, I could see it becoming a massive boost for the local area, in the way that LICAF is for the Lake District.
The discovery of a Totnes comics massive. I already knew that some LDComics pals were close by, in Totnes and Bristol, but it was only when I attended the convention’s kick-off panel that I found out that there are several more comic artists in the area, including Plymouth, and there is even a 2000AD artist in Totnes. (If I’d listened more closely to Panel Borders, of course, I would already have known this).
Contributing a talk. A couple of things here: First, the audience were so engaged and enthusiastic, and a lot of them came back the next day to talk to me at my table and buy the books I’d been mentioning. It felt like the session had been really worthwhile and… dare I say meaningful to some of them?
The other thing is that I now have a decent 45 minute talk that doesn’t just describe how I created my last few projects, but has a strong theme of ‘anyone can do this – if you want to make comics you don’t have to wait for someone to ask you, and here’s how’. So if anyone else would like to hear that talk, let me know, I’m up for it.
Meeting and re-meeting people. It’s always such a pleasure to meet new comics people and expand or re-establish my network of friends and acquaintances.
Buying new comics! You’ve got to do this at comics, events, it’s the law.
Fortunately I chose really well, picking up two of Emma Burleigh‘s thoughtful works on adoption, Wallis Eates‘ retelling of local people’s stories (which has some real parallels with my own current project) and Wendy Howarth‘s beautiful little pamphlet giving tips on how to make natural inks (with stunning examples of work she’s painted with them too).
A zine library. Creators donated their zines by post and in person. I believe this is now a permanent feature of the library, so perhaps will inspire a new generation of comic makers to spring up in Devon. Spot any by people you know?
Bonus! New street art in Exeter. I only took a couple of snaps of this passageway in Sidwell Street, but I really like its style. And that’s inspired me to Google who the artist is: Scott Gillespie.
I’ve got a luxurious 45 minutes to speak, which seemed like a long time until I realised I could break it down into 10 minutes about each of my last three projects – Draw the Line, Sorry for the Inconvenience and The Noisy Valley, and then have 15 mins for a Q&A.
And once I started getting my slides and notes together, I realised that as well as the theme advertised in the programme – “Changing the world with comics” – there’s a definite sub-theme emerging, which is around the idea that if you want to make comics, you don’t need to wait until someone asks you to.
In fact, each of my recent comics uses a different method to get around the fact that no-one has ever asked me to make one – from self-publishing to crowdfunding.
I hope to get across the idea that absolutely anyone can do the same. There’s no entry test for making comics!
I’ve put my Arts Council funding in! Done. Even if it’s unsuccessful, that feels like an achievement. (And even if it is unsuccessful, Karrie‘s been telling me that it’s imperative to take on board their feedback, tweak and try again).
I thought I’d start a list of all the cultural input I’m getting this year so far, in the light of my new year’s resolution to see more art, and expanding that out to other visual inspirations.
Ten Years With Hayao Miyazaki: a newsletter about artists’ working habits alerted me to this free documentary, a four partner, about the founder of Studio Ghibli. Things that stood out: he works really, really hard – basically does nothing else but devise and draw. His drawing skill is amazing – no reference pictures in sight and he can seemingly just draw figures in any position and from any angle like *that*. His process is loopy: he doesn’t write a script, but begins with diving straight into the storyboards. I was thinking ‘well no wonder he’s in such creative anguish’ – but then I’ve always been a ‘words first’ person. And he chain smokes; that’s a bit disconcerting. Overall a recommend, though.
The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House I almost gave up on this series, as it seemed slow and, I guess, unlike anything else I was used to, but I gave it a second go and I’m glad I did. It’s like a gentle soap opera. A lot of small things aren’t really explained, though it’s hard for me to know if that’s just stuff that hasn’t been translated, or if the storytelling style is to leave the viewer slightly befuddled. Visually it’s very soothing and overall it’s just wholesome. I wonder if it is an attempt to bring tourism back to Japan.
Brighton Museum I popped by last weekend to look at three exhibitions: a small one about Aubrey Beardsley, who spent much of his short life in Brighton; ‘Down From London‘ (great title) displaying paintings that were displayed in Brighton 100 years ago; and a collection of memorabilia from the group The Jam.
The main thing I took away from the exhibition of Edwardian paintings was their frequent pairing of greens and violets, which I liked a lot.
Also, a caption about how the original show had been received with some outrage (what? It’s just oil paintings of scenes!) reminded me of how often in my Art History A’Level the tutor would say ‘this exhibition caused a riot’. Like, so often, people were so incensed by, I don’t know, impressionism, or a new use of colour, that they’d literally be breaking chairs over each other’s heads. You just don’t get that sort of passion over the arts any more.
On the way to the museum I took a slight detour to see the newest developments in Brighton. These replaced some old college and market buildings, including the redbrick block where my MA lectures were held and of which I was rather fond – but I must say I was surprisingly taken with their replacements, which actually have character.
Julia Rothman’s Patreon I splashed out on this for a year, and I’m so glad I did. I couldn’t tell you specifically what tips and advice I’ve picked up or will act on – I mean, she lays them out and they’re there for the taking, and it’s clearly invaluable stuff for a anyone launching a career in illustration or pattern design – but that’s not me. I will say that I’m absorbing her entire approach to sharing work, putting a very real self out there, which is just A++.
I am greedy and I want more more more! I’ve been eyeing up the Fashion and Textile Museum. I mean, if I want colour and pattern, Kaffe Fassett has to be it. I’m in London for work next month, so I might see if I can squeeze a visit in or if that’s too optimistic in two long days of meetings.
It’s going to be a year of travel, so that should also help. Nothing wildly ambitious, but it makes me happy to see new places, or revisit old ones.
Over the Xmas break I booked our summer holiday, Eurostarring to Lille, Brussels and Dordrecht. Brussels is a comics paradise. Museums, murals, even a comics hotel (that I didn’t book because it was tons more expensive to go for a flexible rate, annoyingly).
I’m accompanying my daughter to a university interview in Liverpool soon; I’m down in Devon next month for the Pen and Ink convention. If my funding applications hit the mark, I’ll be returning to Rhondda for some more interviews and research. In June, it’s our 20th wedding anniversary and I’ve been trying to think of somewhere special (but achievable with sustainable travel). I thought maybe Portmeirion.
There’s a possibility of my being selected to speak at a conference in Oxford; at work, there’s another potential conference in Gothenburg that we’re trying to shape a business travel policy around (ie, is a staff member taking 21 hours by train, each way, an acceptable outcome of our environmental commitments). That last one probably won’t be me, but I will say that I’m willing to try out the train travel and see if it works for us! Oh and we’re definitely presenting at another event in Sheffield in May.
Comics pals have been discussing the possibility of going to Angouleme in January 2024 for the comics festival. Yay for travel.
I’m nearly ready to submit my Arts Council England (ACE) grant application.
I keep saying that, but this time it’s true. I think. Every time I say it, I learn a bit more and start again, but I’m definitely further along the path than I’ve ever been before.
This is the key thing I’ve learned so far (thanks to Dan): ACE doesn’t care (as much) about the making of your work, or even – and this was the real surprise to me – the form and quality of your work. What they want to know is how many people will see the work and be enriched by it, and who those people will be.
I suppose this makes sense if you go back to their first principles. They can’t really take a view on the quality of the art being produced, because that’s always going to be subjective. But they can write policies describing what they want the Arts in England to do: that they want it to inspire a new generation of people to make their own art; they want it to reach communities who might not otherwise have access to it; and they want it to contribute to a vibrant, cultural country.
As Dan pointed out, until you get your head round this, it’s quite hard for a comic artist to approach the application form. You’re coming at it as someone who wants money to fund the time it takes to sit at your desk for weeks or months on end, and as far as you’re concerned, the end product is the comic.
But the ACE funding doesn’t just support comics: it gives grants to musicians, theatres, acrobats, and all sorts of creators, and those people will be using the same form. At first, the questions being asked make far more sense to performers, who will be used to budgeting their project in terms of a little bit of rehearsal followed by a tour, ticket sales, bums on seats.
And so, as a comic artist, as you put the full stop into your final speech bubble of the last page and send your work merrily off to the printers, you can’t call it ‘job done’. No, you have to think: how will this work reach the maximum number of people, and how will I make sure those are the right people to receive it so that it inspires them and enriches England culturally?
No pressure, then.
In my case I’m approaching this from two angles. First, yes, I will produce a self-printed book, and I’ll be sending this to grassroots and radical libraries across England. This is good, because such libraries tend to be in areas where austerity cuts have closed down public libraries and communities have stepped up – in other words they are in some of the most deprived areas of the country, but where there’s still an interest in culture. It also ensures a built-in longevity for the books: by their very nature, libraries maximise the number of people who can access each volume.
The other side is again sparked from something Dan said: the book is not the only possible end product of a comic. The artwork can be exhibited large scale; or it can be talked about and the topics it deals with can be debated to spark new ideas. With this in mind, my second proposition is a small series of talks (and hopefully in a couple of them, exhibits) in a variety of towns across the country. Approaching the libraries in the first part of the plan has, delightfully, opened up new potential collaborations in this second part.
As a bonus, every venue that offers its space and time for free can be counted as ‘support in kind’ and can be part of the 10% match funding that you need to prove you have access to.
In other words, by making you jump through all these hoops, the ACE application process actually forces you to not just make the work, but become an expert in how to disseminate it to the places where it will do the most good. That’s good, right? I think so, much as I hate the new trend of artists having to be their own PR and marketing agencies.
Another thing ACE is keen on is that the funding supports as many people in the arts industry as possible. So, you can ringfence part of it for paying a mentor, or, as I am doing, inviting other artists to join your events.
The slightly disconcerting thing about all this, though, is that effectively you are encouraged to have a detailed daydream about your plan. You throw yourself forward to a date when the work is all finished and you imagine yourself on the road, talking about it.
It’s a beautiful daydream, and one that you then have to fully cost up to the last budget line.
And once you believe in it enough, you have to then approach other people to buy into your daydream: you have to email venues and say ‘IN PRINCIPLE would you be interested in hosting an event about a comic I HAVEN’T DRAWN YET but which I hope, if all goes to plan, may be finished by Spring 2024?” and you email artists to ask if they’d like to take part in these as-yet-imaginary events.
The pleasing thing about all this is that, having taken the plunge, I’ve found venues to be very welcoming. I guess they’re all a lot more familiar with this process than I am. And the artists? Of course, the artists are all lovely too.
So, I’m waiting to hear back from two more key venues (but it won’t be the end of the world if they opt out) and I will then be polishing my day dream and pressing the submit button on the Grantium platform.
I am blinkin’ well determined to get my Arts Council grant application in this year, and ideally before the end of January. Look, I am an educated woman and I enjoy filling in forms. I know what I want to make and how to disseminate it – and still, the process is daunting.
Thankfully I have some excellent support around me – at least four people who have fought the (terrible, glitchy) online system and won, and it’s coming together. It is.
Other than that don’t have anything radical to resolve for 2023: rather, I’m refreshing my commitment to the aspirations I always hope to keep in mind.
Many years ago I resolved to do something toward my comics practice every day: if not drawing, that might be something as simple as reading or rereading a graphic novel, or joining in a comics discussion online.
For a long time I’ve been drawing before I start work at 09:00. When that slips, as it has been doing recently, it feels like a sign that my mental health is taking a bit of a battering. I’m trying to be kind to myself and pursue less demanding schedules, while still sticking to that ‘something every day’ edict.
Secondly, for pictures to come out of the fingers, pictures need to pour into the eyes. Does that sound like a proverb? I just made it up.
What I mean is, I’m making a conscious decision to submerge myself in art, taking every opportunity to visit inspiring exhibitions and watch lush films.
To that end I’ve resubscribed to all the London galleries, despite having a general intolerance to email newsletters.
I’ve already booked to see this exhibition at the Barbican – Alice Neel is an artist I know nothing about, but the images on that page and the accompanying blurb make it clear that it’s right up my street.
In November, the Tate is going to be staging Women in Revolt, on Art, Activism and the Women’s movement in the UK 1970–1990, so that’s firmly on my calendar too.
The other recommitment is to try to say ‘yes’ to opportunities. Talks, conferences and festivals don’t always translate into sales, or even into many more people having heard of my work, but they do always result in new connections, new friends, and sometimes surprising new avenues.
First of these is the brand new comics convention down in Newton Abbot, near my home town and very much home turf for Satin and Tat. To be honest, this was an easy one to say yes to, as it’s near my parents and I need to be down there quite a bit at the moment.
The Lakes festival sent out their invitations to exhibit this week, and I’m currently thinking over whether I want to table or to attend as a visitor.
My publisher, Liz at Street Noise Books might be surprised to see this commitment to saying ‘yes’, given that we had a Zoom call last night when I was a) keen to promote Draw the Line further but b) trying to be highly realistic about how many hours I can spare beyond the day job.
Not to mention that actual drawing I want to do. It’s been a couple of weeks now since I actually drew anything; instead it’s been all about planning and emailing around the ACE grant.
Of course I’m going to chip away at Draw the Line marketing, but I’ll say one thing – years of trying to do something significant in comics while working full time has taught me that it’s nigh on impossible to do both properly – something I always bear in mind when the debate about MPs taking second jobs comes up.
Let’s not end on a negative note though! I am certainly going to explore the ideas we discussed and eventually say yes, yes and yes to the ones that seem right.
I haven’t left Twitter yet. To be honest, I found it too interesting, watching the seemingly bad moves Elon Musk was making at every turn. I wanted to see every twist and turn of its demise – which, er, appears to be taking a bit longer than predicted.
Others, with higher morals than me, have already closed their accounts, disgusted at Musk’s tweets and at who he’s let back onto the platform. I suppose I’m waiting to see if the community reaches some sort of equilibrium – will its long arc bend toward justice?
When you put the bad actors and extreme right wingers and stupid culture wars aside, Twitter does actually do something for people like me. I think in his big ideas about platforming free speech (for which read, hate speech) and blue ticks and all, Musk has forgotten the ordinary people who just want to have a chat or a laugh, or who find Twitter useful for making connections in their own niche.
When I think about what I value on Twitter, it’s being able to ask and give small pieces of advice; socialise with people I might just see once a year at comic festivals; find out about opportunities for submitting artwork, and so on. The shouty politics and bad faith arguing? I can get that anywhere.
Incidentally, for those also still on Twitter, the best thing I did this year, prompted by advice from a colleague, was to create a List that only contains comics people. It means you can swipe right on the app and see only their tweets – and it totally cured the fact that my main timeline was full of politics (plus now weeks later, my main timeline seems a lot less political as well; I suppose all the likes I made on the comics list re-educated my algorithm).
But. During that time when it seemed like Twitter might implode and collapse on itself overnight, I did explore the other platforms that people were migrating to – Post, Hive, er, something else that I can’t remember the name of but which I patiently waited in a queue to join.
And Mastodon. Mastodon has stuck. It was moderately painful learning the ropes of how to join – specifically, I joined a server that then went offline, and sat there for a couple of weeks waiting to see if it was going to come back to life. But then I tried another one, specifically for artists, and that was fine.
More than fine, actually. It’s taken a few weeks but I’m actively enjoying it. One smart thing I did, more by accident than design, was to follow the #comics hashtag, which means that I get a constant flow of posts in my feed, even from people I’m not actively following. OK, I’d prefer to be able to whittle this down further to ‘my kind’ of comics – indie, self-made, etc – but for now there is a really good hit rate of interesting stuff.
There’s a lot of visual art. Posts are longer, and so far people seem kinder, more engaged. What has really blown my mind is that every time I make a post (using hashtags) I get a flurry of new followers, ‘boosts’ (like a retweet) and comments. It feels like, because the community is new, everyone’s actively looking for quality content and people to follow.
One acid test for me came yesterday when I asked a quick question – not comics related; travel tips this time – and got a useful set of responses. So that’s definitely one thing I got out of Twitter and can now find on Mastodon.
You know what it reminds me of? Live Journal. Only, a bit shorter form and more immediate. I like it.
I haven’t seen a way to auto-post from WordPress to Mastodon yet – someone kindly pointed me towards a plug-in, but I’m on a cheap tier and it doesn’t allow for plug-ins so I’ll just wait ’til it’s added to the standard WP suite, I guess.
Talking WordPress. I saw this – a project to make a directory of bloggers that aims to revive the old habit of reading via RSS. If you want to be included, the first step is to fill in their form and then pledge to blog a minimum of three times in January.
I always blog a lot in the Christmas holidays, so I’m sure I won’t be keeping up this level of posting, but I’m still going to go for it. Maybe you will, too!
Broken Frontier have made it very easy: you don’t even have to register to vote, and you can skip any categories you’re not interested in. Here’s my category (and I’ve just realised, mine is the only self-published one, which feels kind of good!).
This time last year, I was using my Christmas holiday to frantically draw some of the most complex crowd scenes I’ve ever depicted, true to my absolutely typical habit of thinking ‘Oh, this single picture won’t take long’ – before finding I’m chained to my desk for two days straight.
It was worth it, though – I’m still pleased with this picture, and proud of the book as a whole.
What’s been gratifying this year is that other people seem to feel just as enthusiastic about the book as I did when making it.
The award nom is a case in point: it’s particularly meaningful because Broken Frontier are the UK’s champion of indie comics and one of the few hubs that the community coalesces around. Andy, who runs BF, and his team of volunteers, are genuinely passionate about self-published comics and encouraging creativity in the scene; without their efforts we’d be less likely to even recognise ourselves as a community, let alone make connections and gain new inspirations. And just to be recognised as a nominee is a stamp of approval from people who know!
That aside, it’s been a real pleasure this year to have chatted to so many buyers of the book, in person and online. I’m not used to having a popular comic! Popular in my terms, of course, which only means that I sold out of the first print run and am reaching the end of the second – compared to my other offerings, that’s a runaway success.
I guess it hit the zeitgeist: I was so cross about what was happening to our rights around protest that I grumbled about it the only way I know how – with furious drawings. Turns out, others were angry too.
What with my day job and life getting complicated (elderly parents, basically), it’s not like I’ve put full effort into promotion, either – rather, I’ve taken opportunities where they arose. Of course, the major opportunity was the exhibition at the Workers; and the other significant outlet in terms of sales and exposure was the Cartoon Museum in London. I’m grateful to have been stocked by Gosh comics, the Jam bookshop and Blunt Knife in Edinburgh – these were some of the opportunities that came about unasked (well, in one case, asked by my friend Dave, who was passing – thanks Dave!); which becomes all the clearer when I say I haven’t even offered them to Dave’s Comics or the Feminist bookshop in my own town. I feel like I haven’t currently got the headspace to deal with that (although, in the spirit of marketing, I should say that my books are available at wholesale prices for shops – enter the code WHOLESALE when purchasing three or more volumes).
This year I also shared a table at the Lakes festival with friends, and sold at a small ad hoc comics fair with the Cartoon County crew here in Brighton. Again, on both occasions I sold much better than I’m used to (ahhh I begin to see why people do these tables, beyond it just being fun!), and it was lovely chatting to customers.
Once people started talking, they always wanted to tell me about great banner slogans they’d seen themselves, and marches they’d been on, but the most surprising encounter for me came in Brighton, when a lady looked at the cover and said, “Oh, that’s my banner!”.
I told her that the title had been taken from one of the pictures inside, and showed it to her.
All the pictures in the book of people holding banners were based on reference photos I found online (though I often changed who was holding them) – and this one, it turned out, was from the local Lewes Extinction Rebellion group. Of course she had to buy a copy once she knew she was in it!
Anyway, it’s been lovely to have given this book its wings and see it fly out into various pockets of the world, even if I haven’t given it as much support as I could have.
I still have a few copies left and it’s available online here (but I can’t speak for how quickly it’ll reach you, given the postal strikes…).
At work, colleagues were having fun with the new AI chatbot chat GPT .
They fed it little tasks related to what we do, like “write an explanation of how Freedom of Information works in the UK” or “create a strapline for our new website where people can look up councils’ climate action plans”.
As Communications Manager and head copywriter for the organisation, this made me feel more than a little uneasy. At the same time I’m as curious and entertained as everyone else by this tool, which seems to have come on in leaps and bounds since it was last in the public consciousness.
In my own time, I even enjoyed a surreal conversation in which it described me a comic book artist and invented (as far as I can tell) two graphic novels out of thin air.
Click the images to see them at a larger scale
Does… does AI lie?
Fun and intriguing, right? But my day job pays my mortgage, and while colleagues are kidding around with this stuff, it feels like the writing is on the wall – for them as well as for me: coders, designers, moderators are all at risk.
Now that we’ve created this potential, I don’t think there’s any going back. Who needs a brain, a person that gets tired? We’re not quite there yet, but the way the quality has leapt forward in just a few months makes me believe it will soon be pretty flawless.
There is one thing I’ve noticed lacking in text-based AI and I’m interested to know if it can ever be realised. One of our websites makes it simple for people to email their elected representatives, and the chatbot was invited to compose a letter to their MP (something that might, I guess, actually be useful for our users that have lower literacy). In this case it was about black mould on the walls of the supposed correspondent’s flat; AI turned out a well-written and factual message but… something was missing. There was no emotion behind it. Having seen thousands of the types of emails people send to their MP, I know that they often begin with the human experience of their problems: “it’s heartbreaking to see my little boy cough himself to sleep” or “The flat looks so awful I don’t feel like I can have visitors round”, etc.
Spam. That’s going to be the other massive problem as well. At the moment I clear out our email daily at work, having to open up the ones with titles that look borderline convincing because they’re in the same sort of language that our genuine correspondents might use. Moderators of the near future might find themselves wasting time writing back to bots.
So that’s the day job up the swanee – but at least I can find respite in my hobbies, eh? Or maybe not.
During a recent work webinar with other charities, another attendee happily mentioned that she’d asked AI to design a logo – she seemed surprised when I mentioned how artists and designers are feeling about that sort of usage.
Artists are scared and angry, as the same escalation happens before our eyes with AI like DALL-E and Midjourney. This technology pulls from a massive archive of work by real artists, dead and alive, to conjure up a fully realised image in a matter of seconds.
Professional illustrators are, understandably, terrified that they’ll be out of a job. For me? It’s not my livelihood: I’m more scared that there will be no reason for me to draw any more.
But then when I think more about it, I use my comics as a way of communicating, from what is inside me out into the world. Just as an AI currently seems incapable of replicating human feelings about black mould, it certainly can’t replicate me.
My artwork isn’t about trying to make a technically proficient picture (though obviously the better I become at drawing the more pleased I am with my work); it’s the communication of an idea or ideas.
Here’s an AI generated comic:
This does not spark joy. Admittedly, I didn’t spend much time refining my prompt.
AI also, at this point in time, can’t reliably draw hands. It seems to ‘know’ they have fingers, just not when to stop adding them or how they might be used. The sausage fingers are a particularly amusing feature of this stage of AI and I would be delighted if it just kept getting better and better but was never able to overcome that one flaw – how perfect would that be?
I see artists trying to fight back against the AI generators with a legal argument that they did not consent for their work to be fed into the big soup pot from which they take the elements of their outputs.
It must be especially galling if you’re an artist with a distinct aesthetic which anyone can summon up by typing “in the style of”, but I suspect this argument, which plays to people’s sympathies, is not going to work – it’s too technical, too small an objection in the face of the enormous juggernaut of progress, and money.
Some, enterprisingly, have been feeding in images from Disney – that most litigious of companies – to see if they’ll bring the might of their legal team to the table. It will be interesting to see if this causes any blip in the AI’s progress – but overall I doubt it. This is a Pandora’s box that once opened cannot be shut. If it can be done it will – and now here we are.
Of course artists are quick to carp, and it’s understandable that they’d point out errors – but are they just educating the next generation of AI, providing user feedback that will inform future development?
For me, I’m reaching a conclusion that AI is going to transform my paid work – who would employ someone to spin out a blog post about their work when it can be done by a machine so easily? – and the work of practically anyone who works in the creative industries, including web design, development, copywriting, book writing, illustration. We will be getting a taste of what blacksmiths had to endure when the motor car took over from horse driven travel, or skilled typists experienced when the word processor became common. One would love to think the result might be liberation from the current structures of a five day work week but weary experience tells us it’s unlikely. Perhaps it’s time to be retraining in something that machines will never be able to do – once I’ve figured out what that is.
But as I say, when it comes to artwork, there’s no AI that can express my feelings. OK, it can produce a great script. I bet if I said ‘give me a script for a comic about the feelings and concerns of a 54 year old woman in Brighton UK’ it would come out with something uncannily convincing. But they wouldn’t be the thoughts and concerns that come out of the unique set of synapses and chemical compounds that make up Myf. Only my synapses and chemical compounds can do that.
I could say ‘give me a set of stories of protest from the Rhondda Valley’ and it might be able to come up with true life examples – but they wouldn’t be the ones I discovered when visiting the Rhondda, talking to whichever real people I happened to meet, through chance, about their lived experiences. Truth has to count for something, right?
Of course, the script is only half the work of making a comic, and once one has generated the text you could imagine feeding it into an image generator to make much quicker or more adept work in whatever style one desired, than the sad old method of being hunched over a desk for hours, honing one’s craft over a period of decades.
I’m less sure about this. It’ll never do quite what I do. In some ways I feel a bit like an unpredictable black box of a machine myself – I tell myself what I want to draw and am always slightly surprised by what emerges. My drawing is a set of habits, shapes – faces often look alike (and surprisingly similar to ones I was doodling in my teens) if I’m not putting effort in; I like certain types of line, etc.
I’m not saying that my own style is one that people would necessarily want to replicate but they certainly could. The big question for me then is: with AI at my fingertips, would I be asking it to make work that looks like mine, or work that looks like mine would be if I’d studied drawing harder and spent more of my life practising?
I suppose the future will come, and then I’ll know.
PS: of course I couldn’t resist giving those prompts to ChatGPT. The results are almost the opposite of what I expected – the first is unsophisticated and without much value (but could probably be improved greatly with better prompts) and the second would actually provide new avenues of research to follow up on.
Prompt: Give me a script for a comic about the feelings and concerns of a 54 year old woman in Brighton UK’
Response: Sure, here is a script for a comic about the feelings and concerns of a 54 year old woman in Brighton, UK:
Panel 1: 54 year old woman sitting at her kitchen table, staring at her computer with a worried expression on her face.
Caption: “I can’t believe I’m turning 55 next week. Where did the time go?”
Panel 2: Flashback to the woman in her 20s, standing on a beach with a group of friends, laughing and having a great time.
Caption: “I remember when I was young and carefree. Life was so easy back then.”
Panel 3: Back to the present, the woman is now standing in front of a mirror, frowning at her reflection.
Caption: “Now I’ve got wrinkles, grey hair, and my metabolism has slowed down. I don’t feel like myself anymore.”
Panel 4: The woman is now sitting on a couch, talking to a friend on the phone.
Caption: “I’m so worried about the future. What if I can’t afford to retire? What if I get sick and can’t afford medical bills?”
Panel 5: The woman is now outside, walking through a park.
Caption: “But then I remind myself that I’ve still got a lot of life left to live. I can’t let my fears hold me back.”
Panel 6: The woman is now back at her kitchen table, smiling and looking at the computer with determination.
Caption: “I may be 54, but I’ve still got a lot to offer. I’m going to make the most of every day and not let my age hold me back.”
Prompt: Give me a set of stories of protest from the Rhondda Valley
Here are five stories of protest from the Rhondda Valley:
The Rhondda Uprising of 1910: This was a series of strikes and protests that took place in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales, in response to poor working conditions and low wages in the coal mines. The protests were led by the South Wales Miners’ Federation, and resulted in several concessions being made by the coal owners.
The Tonypandy Riots of 1910: These riots were sparked by a dispute between coal miners and the mine owners in the Rhondda Valley, and resulted in a series of violent clashes between miners and the police. The riots were eventually quelled, but not before several people were injured and much property was damaged.
The Rhondda Valleys Hunger Marches of the 1930s: During the Great Depression, many people in the Rhondda Valley were struggling to make ends meet. In response, a series of hunger marches were organized, with protestors walking from the Rhondda Valley to London to demand better working conditions and higher wages.
The 1984-85 UK miners’ strike: This was a nationwide strike by coal miners in protest of the closure of many coal mines in the UK. The strike had a particularly strong impact in the Rhondda Valley, where many miners were involved in the protests.
The anti-war protests of 2003: In the lead-up to the Iraq War, a series of anti-war protests took place in the Rhondda Valley, with people demonstrating against the planned invasion. Many of these protests were organized by local peace groups and trade unions.
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.
What really helped me get through 2022? My comics friends and communities, online and in real life. I am grateful for all of you.
There are the monthly Cartoon County pub meetups here in Brighton, in which Alex Fitch interviews a comic artist (you can also hear the recordings he makes on his Panel Borders podcast). It’s nice to be part of the gang who help put this together, even if only a small way – there’s a very well-organised division of tasks and I handle a bit of the admin.
I’m excited about some plans to step up our activities next year and become more formalised as an organisation. I should say ‘become more formalised again’, as Cartoon County has been running for more than 30 years and originally had a constitution, a Treasurer and a Secretary etc. Can’t wait ’til we revive those boring Board Meetings exhibitions, get to work on an improved website, and can offer increased support for artists.
Out of Cartoon County, I’ve also gained a solid gang of pals who have loosely become Bungaroosh, a comics collective that shared tables and an AirBnB at the Lakes Festival; came out en masse to meet Liz from my publishers Street Noise Books when she was over here in the UK; and even (thanks largely to Simon) organised a whole Christmas fair in Brighton where I sold more comics than I’ve ever sold in a single day before. Big love to all of you.
Allied to Cartoon County – in that it’s also an Alex Fitch enterprise – is the conference Graphic Brighton. This year I offered my sofa to a visiting speaker, Cole Henley, and made a new friend. Not only that, but later in the summer, I looked after his house, fed his cat and walked his dog – both a bargain holiday and a chance to get started on my comic project The Noisy Valley.
The first half of the year was punctuated by fortnightly online meetups, hosted by the ever-inspiring Rachael House. They were a great chance to connect and chat about everything, comics or not, while drawing, or not. Thank you, Rachael, for organising these.
Then LDComics, having taken their meetups online, keep offering a seemingly unending global parade of comic artists with so many different styles, subjects and processes. Often their evening meetings were after a long day at work, when I’d had quite enough of staring at a screen, but it’s always worth it. I reckon all those thoughts and pictures sink into my brain and must surely come out in my work somewhere.
And finally, I feel like I gained a whole new community, and certainly a couple of new firm friends, when I visited the Rhondda Valley for my exhibition Word on the Street at the incredible (and I am not using that word lightly) Workers Gallery But that deserves a post of its own, and I’ll be writing one soon.
Thank you and a very happy Christmas to everyone who’s been there for comics chat, celebration and commiseration this year: Hannah Berry, Joe Decie, Hannah Eaton, Karrie Fransman, Alex Fitch, Liz Frances, Cole Henley, Rachael House, Dan Locke, Michi Mathias, Danny Noble, Corinne Pearlman, Woodrow Phoenix, Gayle Rogers, Simon Russell, Zara Slattery, Nicola Streeten, Chris Williams, Ian Williams, and all the people I’ve no doubt left off this list out of pure forgetfulness. xxx
This is the year I discovered Swedish comic maker Anneli Furmark. I picked up ‘Red Winter’ in January, attracted by the loose style.
Now and again I just fall for a book, and this was this year’s grand passion. It’s difficult to say exactly what hit me so hard – certainly not a satisfyingly wrapped up story arc or a breathtakingly realistic drawing style.
Quite the opposite in fact: it’s the very lack of care about such things, the letting go, splashes of ink and colour shaping a world into which the reader is comprehensively immersed, that really beguiled me.
Soon after, I bought Walk Me To The Corner which is similarly impressive, but it’s Red Winter that will stay with me.
I’ll squeeze in a mention of Jayde Perkin whose I’m Not Ready is also an object lesson in conveying feeling and meaning into very loose drawing.
As the tweet above says, my 2021 Inktober project – where I drew a different protester ever day of the month – led to me putting out my self-published bookSorry For The Inconvenience We Are Trying To Save The World.
This sold faster than any comic I’ve ever made before – I guess it hit the zeitgeist, what with the government clamping down on our right to protest, at the same time as giving us all more to protest about.
It seems this book was what caught the attention of the Workers Gallery in the Rhondda Valleys, South Wales. At the start of this year, they emailed to ask if I would exhibit my protester pictures in August. I was delighted to say yes.
A new comic
And I suggested that, alongside the exhibition, I made a comic. I invited local residents to share their memories and photos of protests, marches, boycotts, strikes and activism.
I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t get any.
This was the wrong thing to worry about.
In fact it soon became apparent that my main issue was going to be politely declining the slightly less interesting stories (which I would have been quite happy drawing) in favour of the very, very many extremely interesting ones.
From the local mayor who ran a pirate radio station and drove a lorry with a smoke-breathing dragon on the back of it; to the Maerdy miner who can never look another Fray Bentos pie in the face; to the septugenarian willing to chain herself to a gate and be arrested in the name of preserving an ancient meadow; to the camp set up at the road to a toxic landfill site that succeeded in getting it closed down… it is clear that the people of the Rhondda protest just as they live and breathe.
When I discovered on Wikipedia that one theory for the meaning of Rhondda is ‘noisy’, I had my book title:
Now to get this book finished
As regular readers of my blog will know, I fit my comics work around a full time job, getting up very early to put in a couple of hours before everyone else is awake.
I will finish it either way, but I will finish it more quickly if I can take some time off work to complete what I reckon is at least another 50 pages and could easily be extended to 100.
If you are a publisher or an agent, please come and talk to me – I’ll be at the Lakes International Comic Arts Festival (LICAF) as part of the Bungaroosh comics collective (tables 7 & 8) – but if you’re not planning on being there this year, I’m also always up for a Zoom call.
I’d like to give you my work-in-progress comic, the first 24 pages of The Noisy Valley, so you can see the potential of this work for yourself.
What’s the plan?
I would like to apply for Arts Council funding under their ‘literature projects‘ category. This requires me to find an agent or publisher interested in being my partner. Funding can cover production and marketing costs, as well as my time in creating the work.
If you think you might be interested – let’s talk.
Buy one, and not only will you have an inspiring furious woman on your wall – you’ll also be helping the gallery.
A sustainable gallery on wheels
The Workers is located in the village of Ynyshir, deep in the Rhondda valleys. As I discovered when I visited, those valleys are divided by stunning, but extremely steep and high hills, meaning that just popping down to the gallery is not an option for everyone, especially if they have mobility issues.
The Workers has a great, sustainable answer though – an electric cargo bike. Once an exhibition has finished its run, they pack the pictures in the back and pedal off to anyone who wants to see it!
Do some good
If you’d like to help support this kind of activity, or indeed, more widely just support a gallery that is providing a much-needed cultural hub to its community, you can purchase the prints here.
And if you’re feeling you’d like to do more for them, the Workers also have a Patreon. You can support their work on an ongoing basis (but stop whenever you like) from just £3.00 a month.
I had such an unforgettable time visiting my exhibition Word on the Street (which still runs until Sept 11) and seeing the gallery for myself. No small part of the pleasure was in finally meeting gallery-runners Gayle and Chris with whom I’d been exchanging emails for months beforehand, getting all the details in place for the exhibition and accompanying activities.
Visting the gallery meant I could see for myself what a cultural hub it is for the local community, and what a friendly atmosphere they’ve fostered there in what used to be the town’s small library.
I won’t go into all the details of what I saw and discovered during my trip, because most of it will go into the comic I’m going to make. Suffice to say that there was much to be inspired by, from the tall green tree-covered heights of the surrounding hills, to the trusting willingness with which both adults and children threw themselves into making a zine.
To some extent, it was a case of having parachuted in to a new place which has its own stories, struggles and ongoing campaigns – such as Save the Northern Meadows which I learned all about from my co-speaker on Thursday night, Cat Lewis – but also that the underlying themes are universal: people wanting to protect what is dear to them; people fighting what threatens their way of life; or calling for a better functioning society.
It feels like protest is everywhere at the moment, from disruptions in the Tory leadership hustings, to massive banner drops from Extinction Rebellion, to people signing up to say they won’t stand for massive hikes in our energy bills. Gotta say, it’s not like me to hit a zeitgeist but I do seem to have accidentally done just that!
I have been so excited about the comic I’ll be making next that I’ve started some trial drawings. I told myself early on that I must not plump for my usual time-consuming style, or this could be another project that takes months if not years to actually see the light.
That said, it’s been very hard to resist falling into old ways. I’ve had to deliberately restrain myself from fiddly detail, and am thinking about ink or pencil crayon line drawings overlaid with digital washes to save time. Initially I thought I might just do line drawings without colour, or try patch areas of flat colour, but those monumental green hills everywhere put paid to that. If I can’t convey that lushness, I have failed to represent a massive part of the experience of being in Ynyshir.
So I might just do some pages of more sketchy line drawings, but let myself go wild with colour for the landscapes. In some ways it is quicker to fall back on what I know – digital drawing – but with a concerted effort to stay away from the small fiddly details. Anyway here are some of my initial experiments.
If you’re local to the area (interpret that widely – anywhere in Wales and across the border, around Bristol etc and beyond…) – and you’d like me to include your memories of protest in my comic, you can either pop into the gallery and share them there, or fill in this form, thanks!
After months of emails going back and forth, poster designing, conversations about printing, plotting and planning the accompanying activities… Word on the Street opens at the Workers Gallery next week.
And here’s the poster translated into Welsh. As the events are part funded by the local council (for which I am very grateful), the Welsh language version is a requirement – just one of the ways in which legislation is keeping the language alive, I guess.
Here are details of the talk, workshop and my plans for a comic based on memories and stories from visitors:
The talk also features Cardiff artist Cat Lewis who has been instrumental in a campaign to save Cardiff’s Northern Meadows. Between us, I hope that we’ll have some really interesting things to say about using art practice for change.
I can’t wait to hear more about her work – and I can’t wait to meet Gayle and Chris, the driving forces behind the Workers Gallery, after all this time planning by email! It does sound like a remarkable place and I’m keen to learn all about it.
Anyway. If you’re anywhere near Rhondda Valley from 4 Aug to 11 Sept, I hope you’ll drop in!
I’ll be talking about comics and protest, no doubt looping in Draw the Line, my Protest book, and some of the many other brilliant artists doing protest comics;
I’ll be collecting local people’s stories and photos of times they protested, and turning them into a comic;
And I’ll be running a couple of zine-making workshops.
I thought I’d better put in a bit of practice for the last of those, as it’s a long time since I’ve made anything that can accurately be described as a zine. By their very nature zines are meant to be quick, immediate and more about the message than the aesthetic.
I’ve now made three little practice zines, two on A4 paper, which end up being really teeny tiny A7 size; and one starting with A3, which comes out as A6.
(Short digression: the really small ones took me right back to my childhood, reminding me of some tiny treasured storybooks my mum and her schoolmates made back in her childhood in the ’40s. She kept them in a shallow box, of the type you might get a shirt packaged in, and only let me handle them under strict parental supervision – and rightly so, they were exquisite and would have been easily damaged by grubby mitts.
She told me back then that they ran a little lending library from their school desks. I recall being enchanted at this idea – it might even have been one of the ingredients that got me so hooked on comics making? – and also being very impressed with the drawings which, to my young eye, looked extremely professional. I’ll have to ask if I can see them again next time I visit, and see whether the drawings still look so polished now I’m an adult.)
For all I understand the zine/punk aesthetic, I have to put my hands up and admit that I found it very hard to resist polishing even my trial runs up a bit: basically, habits are hard to break.
I drew them in pencil, then inked, then scanned in and added fake-o letratone. I also used my knowledge of image editing programmes to move each page around a bit so it was central when printed – mostly things that aren’t necessarily available to the complete newbie. So I probably ought to at least try making one without any of this, since I’ll be asking people to do the same!
But anyway, I now have a few examples that I can take to Wales with me, and I might also print out a few to take to comic and zine festivals. It’ll be nice to have something that I can sell for a few pence, for people who don’t necessarily want to shell out for a whole book.
Also, a short note about my ‘car culture sucks’ zine: I’ve always disliked the way cars have taken over our cities and make life difficult for pedestrians and cyclists, not to mention the way they pollute the air, and their carbon emissions contribute to the climate crisis.
However, while you can get the basics across in an 8-page zine, there’s not much space for detail or nuance (I guess, look to Woodrow Phoenix’s Crash Course for that), and even at the time of producing it I thought ‘well, I’m just trying things out, it doesn’t have to be wonderful’.
This week, I got the news that my best friend from university days was run over and has lost the use of her legs. All she was doing was walking to her local corner shop. My zine feels all the less adequate now (and I’m all the more infuriated and disgusted by car culture).
Another friend posted “Hopefully one day people will stop shrugging their shoulders about car ‘accidents’ – 1,800 people are killed on the roads each year – amazing that this is acceptable and more people aren’t angry about it”, and I couldn’t agree more.
Anyway. If this, or anything else, gives you the impetus to make zines, here, have my worksheets. Feel free to copy these and use them in any non-commercial way you see fit.
Onto cheerier things. This year I will be selling comics at the Lakes Festival again. I’ll be sharing not just with my usual tablemate Zara Slattery, but with a whole bunch of Brighton artists. Yes, we’ve gotten organised. We’re a collective now.
If you’re a comics artist, I can’t recommend this enough: the power of a group is so much more than the sum of its parts. Not least, someone else to look after the table while I go and see the talks I want to!
It’s at a brand new location this year, which should be interesting, and will enable me to actually see a lake when travelling up to the Lake District, something that’s not been a given in previous years.
We’ve got our own website – seemed sensible now that we’re applying for stuff . Perhaps you’d like to follow the blog there as well? It won’t be updated as often as my own, but hey, what is there to lose?
I’ve been meaning to blog about this for ages – but fortunately the Queen of England realised how behind with blogging all her subjects were, and decreed that we should all have a four day weekend to catch up.
Here’s the exciting news: my first ever solo exhibition, and it’s at a remarkable place called the Workers Gallery in Rhondda Valley, Wales.
As if this wasn’t enough to look forward to, I’ll be visiting the gallery in the first couple of days of the exhibition to:
1. Talk about the book and the Draw the Line project, with a wider theme of how to bring about change through comics;
2. Run a zine workshop, showing how you can easily make ‘quick and dirty’ comics that get a point across
3. Most excitingly of all, from my point of view anyway — gather memories, photos and thoughts about protest from local residents, which I’ll make into a comic after my visit.
I’m so thrilled by this last one for a few reasons: it’s exactly the kind of comic I want to be making, wrapping together as it does a bit of social history and first-person stories which I’ll put into a sketch diary type format. It’s also an opportunity to draw more around protest, which is a well that definitely hasn’t run dry for me.
That said, it’s a bit of a leap into the unknown, which in itself is thrilling, if nervewracking: what if no-one has any stories to share? I think I’ll be ok no matter what, and am always happy making a comic about a trip, the people I meet and everything I learn about the area.
I was so pleased to be approached by the Workers, and over the past few months, co-owner Gayle and I have been emailing back and forth with ideas that have gradually become more concrete. Every email seems to bring more evidence of what a remarkable institution it is in the small community of Ynyshir, with talk of an electric cargo bike taking books and comics round to rural residents who might not easily be able to pop in, an inspiring roster of past exhibitions and a feel that it’s a real hive of activity in a place that very much benefits from having such a lively cultural centre.
Right now there’s a comics exhibition on, ‘All Is Not Well‘ – experiemental comics about care, with Cardiff University. This picture from the Workers’ Twitter makes me wish I could go and have a look around right now!
So that’s my big news, and something I’m massively looking forward to. Today I have been playing around making zines, because if I’m going to be showing other people how to make them I’d darn well better know what I’m doing!
No doubt I’ll have more to share on the subject soon, not to mention lots more to say about the exhibition as it gets ever nearer.
I took the day off work yesterday, dropped our elderly cat off at the vet for a dental operation, and scooted off to jump on a train to London, arriving only slightly late for a very interesting appointment at the Cartoon Museum.
A few weeks ago, I’d heard that a researcher was looking for comic artists to take part in an unusual project. Intrigued, I answered that call, and as it turns out, so did Zara Slattery, Woodrow Phoenix and Gareth Brookes, all of whom were sitting round a table with tea and biscuits when I apologetically stepped into the room and took my seat.
Also in the room were the researcher Dimitris Asimakoulas from the University of Surrey’s Centre for Translation Studies, Cartoon Museum curator Emma Stirling-Middleton, and ‘audio description expert’ Veronika Hyks. What would follow was a couple of hours of intensive discussion, and it was an absolute joy.
Dimitris is trying to discover whether the visual artform of comics can be made more accessible to blind and partially sighted audiences. As he put it in his original callout, “this will be a small project investigating the hypothesis that comic books have the capacity to affect the lives of diverse, non-elite audiences; taking this a bit further, I believe it is high time museums included descriptions for comic art that help blind or visually impaired audiences appreciate it (thus bringing them closer to museums and the art itself)”.
He’d sent us examples of audio descriptions of TV programmes as a starting point, and I’d arrived assuming that this was the idea we’d also be exploring for comics: could our work be made more accessible if there was a soundtrack describing it, frame by frame, in a gallery? In fact, the discussion, and the potential approaches we considered, were much broader in the end.
We answered some practical questions, like: what do we think people notice in our work when they are reading it? I had taken in this page as my example:
The question made me realise that as an artist, you might spend a long time drawing background details like pots and pans and plates; but some details are slightly more important to the piece than others. Like, some details are just there to make it clear it’s a kitchen – and an audio description could convey your hours of detailed drawing with the single word “kitchen” or perhaps slightly more detail (a well worn kitchen, a messy kitchen, a cluttered kitchen…); other details dotted through the book are trying to anchor it in a distinct time and place (in this case, Devon in the eighties). How much of this a reader would consciously take in depends, of course, on the individual: their knowledge of the world, their attention to detail; their willingness to stop and ponder.
And so the audio descriptor has a fine tuned task ahead of them: they can’t describe everything, because that would end up being very tedious for the person receiving their ‘aid’. The descriptor must attempt to convey the important details and perhaps somehow also get across the general atmosphere; the essence of what makes one strip different from another.
I think we ended up agreeing that while a blind or partially-sighted person can’t fully see a comic strip, they can be given an experience of it. This experience, however, might be something quite different or separate from the original strip. But given that every reader takes something different from a comic, that need not be a problem. Maybe it’s just a new piece of art in the world, related to the original, but something else in itself.
My own work was probably the most straightforward of that of the four artists taking part; and there was still plenty to discuss, from the changes in colour palettes in Satin and Tat‘s two timelines, to the sound effects, speech and thought bubbles, to the style of drawing, the characters’ expressions, and so on.
The others’ work opened up even more discussion. Zara deliberately chose to use different media for the different points of view in Coma – she spoke about a broken charcoal line talking of a certain fragility, for example, and the contrast of a bright white page after a spell of darker ones. She was also quite thoughtful about how one experiences leafing through a book, leaping in to the story, and how it is usually a private experience that you pace for yourself – it could be gobbled up in a day or consumed at a slow pace over a month or two.
Woodrow’s work is complex and graphic, but the page he brought in, from Rumblestrip, almost had a route mapped out on it and we wondered about that being made into a traceable road for a finger. He also mentioned that some of Schultz’s Peanuts books were manufactured with raised images and braille text for blind readers.
Finally, Gareth’s work was possibly the most pertinent out of all of ours: he’s known as an experimenter with form and over the years has produced comics that, while ending up as smooth images on the printed page, begin as very tactile media such as embroidery, scraped back wax crayon and pyrography. Plus, his book A Thousand Coloured Castles actually deals with macular degeneration. But, lovely though it is to trace a finger over embroidery thread to discover a figure, would the artist want their original artwork made grubby in this way? And would the reader even be able to follow a story just from touch?
Were we to create work knowing from the very start that it was for a blind or partially-sighted audience, I think we would all have made something very different, but it was fascinating to discuss ways we could make our existing stuff more accessible – and perhaps slightly shameful that we’d never even thought of doing so before.
In the next phases of the research, Veronika will be writing up descriptions of our exceprts and running them by us to see if we think they convey everything necessary; Emma will be looking into the practicalities of mounting accessible exhibitions; and Dimitris will be connecting with blind and partially-sighted people to find out more about how they would like to experience comics.
Anyway, the time flew: it was a real treat to be chewing over comics and how they are both created and consumed, and it cheered me up no end. I almost wished we could have talked for another couple of hours… but I had a disgruntled cat, minus three or four teeth, waiting for me at home.
It’s two months since I posted anything, and I’m feeling a bit like I’ve lost my thread.
It’s been a funny old time. I wouldn’t say that motivation has entirely left me, just that I haven’t had the energy to keep up with my art practice on top of everything else. For ages there, I was quite happily filling every spare moment, busy as a bee, drawing and working and reading and watching films and exercising and eating sensibly – and then, I wasn’t. I am like a passive observer, watching these things slip one by one, rather than someone who knows what activities makes her happy and pursues them. It’s all very odd.
On examination, there are some quite understandable reasons for this state of ennui – for starters, it took a bit of effort to launch the Street Noise version of Draw the Line (thank you Cartoon Museum, and thank you LD Comics (you can watch that one on YouTube), and thanks so much, all the wonderful artists who joined me).
Then, soon after, I and my family, like much of the nation apparently came down with covid. It was, thankfully, mild – but that was definitely at least a week in which I didn’t do anything, let alone artwork.
Plus, we had our kitchen ripped out and a new one put in, and then a new floor (if this makes us sound immensely rich and privileged – well, I will hold my hands up to privileged, a bit, but we’re not exactly rolling in it; we inherited a small amount of money after a death in the family, and we’re using it to attend to some long-needed renovations).
While the work was going on, we packed up everything that used to be in the lower ground floor and stuffed it into the small room I use as an office, where I usually draw, write and do my day job. There were pieces of furniture, hundreds of books, billions of pots and pans, the contents of our kitchen cabinets and years’ worth of accumlated cruft, all in towers of plastic boxes.
We left a narrow path to my desk, but I ended up doing my dayjob mainly from the bedroom upstairs, where it was also quieter.
A more tenacious artist might have carried on from this soft perch, but I found it hard enough putting in a nine to five thirty from bed (it is surprisingly hard on the hips).
I’ve also been down to Devon to continue the long and frustrating process of working out how best to support my elderly parents. I’m back now, the office is empty again, and the lower ground floor is much improved… all I need to do is get my routines back.
It feels like this is going to take a bit more mental work than I would have expected – for a good long while there I was happily (maybe a bit smugly?) entrenched in my regular comics-making sessions before work each day – but that now seems less achievable. Perhaps it was the break in routine, perhaps it’s that I’m increasingly old, menopausal, tired, worrying about aching joints and with a lot on my plate elsewhere.
At the same time, I really miss drawing and everything that goes with it.
We are beasts, and in returning our books to the shelves, have done that obnoxious thing of arranging them by colour.
Packing up practically every book we own and then unpacking them again at least gave me a good oversight of what comics and graphic novels I own (and allowed me to chuck out a few that don’t deserve my longterm affection).
Deep in the archives were my own comics and anthologies I’d contributed to, from the early 90s. This will at least help me fill in a few dates and holes in my CV.
One of them was Holly Girl in Sapling Town, I think the first full length comic I ever drew, for a Candian imprint called Oh…Her Comic Quarterly. Looking back, I can’t remember how I landed the gig, given that this was pre-internet, or at least pre- me having any idea of what the internet was or how to access it. I assume it was something to do with Erica Smith’s Girlfrenzy, which was – unthinkably for someone with my own narrow horizons – distributed to various outlets in N America.
Holly Girl has surfaced in various house tidying sessions over the years and I’ve always shoved it embarrasedly back onto the shelf, remembering the slapdash way in which I’d worked, and how I’d been working out the plot as I’d gone along – I was expecting to be thoroughly ashamed of it.
In fact I was quite pleasantly surprised. I mean, I’m not saying it’s brilliant (it isn’t), but parts of it made me laugh, and I’m quite taken aback by my own drawing style at that time – complex, with lots of detail, with my still-persisting but misguided belief that if people can see you’ve put the work in, surely they must see more value in it.
It kind of reminded me of Zoe Thorogood’s Impending Blindness of Billie Scott – made by a young artist, tussling with plots and line drawing, taking a world view despite not having been in the world for terribly long, and coming up with something a bit unique. So I can be kinder to my younger self.
Also in the pile were old Sofa comics, put together by a collective of Brighton comic artists who had a couple of joint exhibitions in the 90s, again largely thanks to the organisational skills and energy of Erica Smith.
I suppose it’s good to have these things and remind myself of how long I’ve been identifying as a comics artist. and that I was fairly confident in what my style was back then (maybe more than I am now?)
Echoes and pre-echoes
One thing that took me aback about Holly Girl was that it utilises the same plot point that I used nearly thirty years later in Satin and Tat, where an older person (albeit a gay woman in this case) realises they’ve been dallying with someone underage.
Being in Devon was similarly instructive about how much less original my work is than I’d thought. I took my 17 year old daughter to my parents’ house and she had a root around in my old bedroom. I had thought that my belongings were long disposed of, but deep within all the boxes of my parent’s own book collection (yes, we seemingly have a genetic predisposition) my daughter discovered a stack of posters from the 80s, and I found an old essay I had written for a competition.
In Satin and Tat, Ella buys Alex a big poster: it’s a chunk of the plot (because apparently, these days, I do actually work out the entire plot before putting stylus to screen).
When I was scripting, I thought, well, as Bowie is a recurring theme, let’s make it a Bowie poster; then I looked up which album would have been current to the time and I settled on a Modern Love era poster. I depicted Ella carrying it along this one street.
Well, among the tear-out Smash Hits centrefolds of the Human League, David Slyvian, Roxy Music, and the Cure (now asynchronously on my daughter’s own bedroom walls) was, in fact, a giant Bowie poster. And it was a Modern Love one, and we rolled it up to take it back with us and then we had to carry it along that same street.
I don’t actually remember owning this poster (unlike the equally giant Iggy Pop one which was, and still is, pinned to my bedroom’s ceiling) and while it’s not exactly a coincidence – Satin and Tat is set in that era and based on my own interests – it did feel a bit correlative.
Then the essay – well, I don’t think it distinguished me with any awards at the time. But there were more echoes: it had an awful lot in common with my 2019 Longreads piece, Cut From the Same Cloth.
(Today I would have put the word ‘made’ on the end of that final sentence.)
Basically I’ve come to realise that one doesn’t have new ideas, you just rehash the same basic components of your psyche, again and again.
Anyway, in summary: I haven’t been drawing, but I have been back in Devon, immersed in the Satin and Tat era. And I have been feeling sorry for myself.
But enough self-indulgence. All this aside, I have actually got an exciting event on the horizon: my first ever solo exhibition. And that deserves a post of its own.