Running around

A real hit-and-run post this week, as I’m busy packing. Actually my suitcase was already half packed, because last week I went down to sort a few things out for my elderly parents in Devon; having come home to briefly touch base, I’m off to Somerset for a three day work retreat, and from there will travel immediately up to Kendal for the Lakes International Comics Art Festival.

I don’t know, you spend lockdown barely leaving the house, and then everything comes at once.

I’ll be at LICAF a day early, as I’m speaking at the academic conference that takes place on the Friday. Comics Up Close, it’s called, although somehow I don’t seem to be able to remember whether it’s that, or Comics Close Up, for more than a few minutes at a time.

If you’re around, do come – it’s open to anyone with a ticket for the main LICAF festival. I’ll be on at 12:20, right after one of my personal comics heroes, Olivier Kugler (whose work, as it happens, I often cite as an influence when I’m presenting about Draw The Line).

I believe it’s also going to be accessible remotely – but don’t quote me on that; I can’t find any details.

Progress report

In all of this, I’ve made zero progress on Satin and Tat, nor do I expect to next week, the first half of which will be packed with work meetings and the second with comics activities. I did take my portable hard drive and photos of my thumbnails down to Devon with me, but even while doing so I knew it was very unlikely I’d have either the mental space or the energy to work on it.

One thing I did do is pick up a biography of David Bowie from the Oxfam Bookshop in Exeter, which at least felt like background research material (what do you mean I’ve already written the script for Satin and Tat and drawn half of it? I’m sure I can shoehorn some more detail in…)

However I did manage to churn out my Inktober pics each day. Tonight I’m going to try to get ahead a bit, so I have some in hand while I’m otherwise occupied.

Inktober: protest placards

I’m enjoying drawing these.

Today it occurred to me that they might be useful for groups campaigning against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently going through parliament and aims to restrict the right to protest in the UK. After all, they show a variety of people protesting for important causes, in a peaceful and often witty and intelligent way.

I’m happy to share high res versions with such groups if they get in touch, and I’ve also decided to make them all into a zine/comic book once October is over.

So yep, probably won’t be blogging next week, but the week after I’ll presumably have things to say about the artists I’ve seen, and maybe the comics I’ve bought, at LICAF.

Comics thoughts, tweets and links

Tweet life

I lived on Twitter quite a bit this week.

First, while waiting at the opticians for an eye test, I happened to see playwright Molly Naylor tweeting about the new book she authored for Lizzy Stewart to illustrate.

I love Lizzy’s style: she came and talked at our local comics meetup Cartoon County once, and I bought her book Walking Distance.

On an impulse, I ordered Lights, Planets, People right from the opticians. Apple Pay makes it so easy. Too easy perhaps?

Well, the book arrived a few days later and it turned out to be a very good decision. I love the style of drawing, and overall I found it a more satisfying book than Walking Distance, as the addition of a playwright as author has resulted in a clever narrative structure with subtle interplays of plotting.

Second, I pored over this thread about tracking down the original cost of Kurt Cobain’s cardigan. It’s from 2019, and I can’t remember how it was redelivered into my Twitter feed; perhaps by its author who seems to be promoting a followup book.

A satisfying thread, though, anyway, for people interested in pop culture and recent fashion history.

Third, this lovely and surprising picture by Hien Pham which uses light to make an oft-ignored body type look attractive, lovable, heroic even. Also worth nothing that, unusually, the face is entirely in shade, with the light highlighting the hands’ action. Masterful!

Cover reveal

Draw The Line comes out with Street Noise Books in November, and I guess the publicity machine starts revving up just about now. They posted on Instagram and Twitter (please feel free to give those an extra share or RT, thanks!) with the big cover reveal, which riffs on Karrie Fransman’s original logo for the project.

Graphic memoir progress

Well, that was a lot of stuff about comics with no mention of how far I’ve progressed with Satin and Tat.

I haven’t really progressed this week; I’ve had one of my frequent crises of confidence and stepped back for a little bit. The problem with working on a longform comic work like this (or perhaps I should say one of the many problems) is that when you’ve worked on it for ages, it’s very hard to see it with fresh eyes.

My worries about it are seemingly endless. Is it too vacuous, the topic too inconsequential? Do I actually have things to say that are worth hearing? Has the drawing style noticeably changed as I progress (yes)? Is my drawing even good enough?

I’ve written before about how half of the art of drawing a longform comic is the ability to ignore concerns and plough on regardless, but where does that line begin? If one ignored all concerns, the risk of putting out something completely rubbish would be high.

Anyway, my attempted solution is to print pages out on my home printer and glue them together into a dummy volume, which I hope will help me see it with new eyes. I’m never going to be able to experience it as someone completely new to it (unless I follow my dad’s recent rapid decline into dementia, I guess), but this feels like it might help.

And then the fear is… what if I see it with newish eyes, and it’s crap? :)

The shark hits the West End

Currently more exciting than my own artistic endeavours are my husband’s. A play he cowrote has been picked up by Sonia Friedman productions — actually, was picked up a couple of years ago, given a green light and then of course suffered the same fate as all entertainment ventures during lockdowns 1 & 2. But it’s now back and will be opening in a West End theatre a week tomorrow.

As the opening date becomes nearer, thrilling things have begun to happen – like posters springing up in the London Underground, appearances in broadsheet newspapers’ lists of the ‘plays not to miss’, and the theatre displaying his name in big letters.

For the purposes of this blog, which of course is all about my currently far less exciting and successful creative journey, I will say that it is a welcome reminder that success comes when the right pieces fall into place, in this case after decades of less heralded ventures.

And of course, I’m very glad for Joe as well.

Inktober’s been cancelled

We all know that, don’t we?

All the same, it can be useful to give yourself a challenge and so I am drawing every day this month. Not in actual ink. I should, and would like to, return to ‘real’ media for a bit, but this month I am travelling a lot and even keeping up with the daily drawing digitally is going to be a stretch, without trying not to spill a pot of ink all over the train.

Anyway, I’ve chosen my own theme: I’m drawing some of my favourite protest banners.

So far I’ve remembered exactly what happens every time I try Inktober: the first few pictures are rubbish (and a few subsequent ones are too) but you don’t have time to redraw them because it’s just supposed to be a quick exercise, not take up your entire drawing time for the day.

But at the same time it is a good discipline to share them anyway and try not to care. And then, once the whole thing is done, all the drawings together always look so much better than they each do singly.

Having completed only two pics, what I’ve enjoyed so far is looking at (and replicating) the impassioned wording on the signs.

Usually these are just made out of flattened cardboard boxes and marker pen. People have a sense of what lettering and fonts do, even if they don’t always have the expertise to apply it, so you see the words needing emphasis are slightly bigger, or italic, or a different colour, even while the spacing is misjudged or the letterforms are squished. Replicating these is as much fun as drawing the people holding them.

Anyway, as you might have guessed, I’m not overly proud of my first two drawings but if you want to see them and follow along with the rest of the month, maybe give me a follow on Insta.

Artquest and fashion drawing history

It was the Artquest ‘Social and political change’ salon on Thursday night – three hours of online meetup, which is quite a task for someone who tends to get up at 6:30, draw on a tablet for two hours and then do a full day’s work in front of a screen like I do.

The session featured enthusiastic speakers from Artquest itself, a presentation from Elizabeth Gleave of the Land Art Agency, and then two group feedback sessions.

Artquest is an Arts Council funded charity that forges connections between artists, and in this case there were around 15 of us, working across various practices, all self-identified as working on art for social or political change.

I hadn’t known exactly what to expect, but it turns out to be a peer mentoring set-up. Artquest is very keen on the benefits for artists of regular meetups, to discuss problems, share ideas and opportunities and feed back on one another’s progress.

I’m in two minds on whether or not I should continue. The first thing I noticed was that I was the only illustrator – everyone else’s artwork seems to either be heavily conceptual, either in visual, performance or plastic arts. They also seem to all be full time career artists, though of course it’s hard to know that for sure just from how they present themselves on their websites etc.

That’s not necessarily a reason not to carry on, but it did make me feel a bit out of place. I mean, I can make a strong argument that it’s my day job that feeds into the political and social change aspects of my work; and hey, I went to art school and have an MA to prove it, but still, I’m just not 100% sure this is for me.

The other thing is that it’s clearly a difficult task to put 15 people on a Zoom call together and immediately ask them to start sharing intimacies and insecurities. Artquest did really well at keeping energy high throughout, but who knows whether the group will cohere and grow any further.

Long story short – I joined with the hope it might encourage me to see new ways of weaving political and social activism into my work. I suppose it might achieve that aim. I wasn’t particularly looking for the support of a peer mentoring group, though I do believe the Artquest facilitators when they point out the various benefits. As always time is an issue. But I’ll stick with it for now and see where it goes.

Work on Satin and Tat (decidedly not a political work) is going well – I’m two thirds through page 78 and enjoying it greatly. Last week I was just finishing off page 76. Page 77 went smoothly too, so it feels like I’m on a roll, which makes a nice change from angsting over every detail.

I saw notice of this exhibition this week: Drawing on Style at the Gray MCA gallery in London. I’d never heard of this place, but apparently it is “the leading international art gallery in the specialist art field of original fashion illustration focusing on the original artworks by the 20th century masters and a small select field of contemporary masters.”

The show is only running until 26 Sept, however, so sadly I doubt I’m going to be able to make it up there. You can enjoy some of the pictures on the Guardian website, though.

Antonio Lopez, 1966
Robert Melendez, 1969.

Inspirations and Comics up Close

Podcasts are a great accompaniment to drawing – you can enjoy them without having to look away from the page – and sometimes they can even inform your work.

This week I listened to a long chat with Wayne Hussey, who as a member of Sisters of Mercy, The Mission and Dead or Alive was one of the pillars of the 80s goth scene, on Post Punk podcast.

He seems like a nice guy, and anecdotes about the various musical figures of the era are surely good research material; but mainly the whole thing reminded me that despite my rather lazily describing Satin and Tat as being about my time as ‘a teen goth’ I was never deep into all the proper goth music as represented by The Mission, with its grandiose swirling synths, themes of death and passion, and a surfeit of crushed velvet.

The Cure and Siouxsie were more my scene, and, as my book attempts to explain, there were a variety of other musical influences, from the Smiths to the Velvet Underground to Bowie, that I found just as exciting.

For me, half of the allure of the goth scene was about wanting to look different. The big hair was something I definitely did have in common with them (Wayne Hussey’s anecdote about a band mate being sick into his backcombed barnet was rather entertaining), but when it came to clothes, I certainly wasn’t sticking to strictly black lace and velveteen.

We were pretty inventive, before the age of mail order goth outfits, and drawing the clothes I remember is one of the great joys of the project.

So it’s fitting that I’m also enjoying some fashion history podcasts, most recently Dressed: the history of fashion. This morning while mopping the floors, I was listening to an episode on clothing for protest, ticking off two of my interests with one fell swoop.

Similarly, I loved this video in which one woman (Morgan Donner) recreates a haircut from every decade since the 1500s. She does eventually reach the 80s, and it was a useful reminder to see the shape of the ‘big perm that was so popular amongst my sixth form classmates.

Fashion history, sigh! If I ever get Arts Council funding and want to tie in some outreach events, or if I ever finish Satin and Tat and can think about a launch event, the UK’s fashion museums would be ideal.

Lastly, inspiration came in a rather tangential form from Nick Cave’s musical collaborator Warren Ellis, who has produced one of the most surprising books I’ve ever read.

In it, he describes pocketing a piece of chewing gum that Nina Simone took from her mouth and stuck to the piano before a concert, and goes on to explore the terrible weight of being a custodian of something at once so insignificant but with such immense personal meaning. He refuses to consider it as anything less than monumentally important, taking his duties to a laborious extreme.

I suppose what I took from this book is that if you pursue an idea – no matter how ludicrous – to its end, others are compelled to come along with you. And that meaning can be found anywhere. These are both useful beliefs in the face of trying to complete a lengthy graphic novel about a period of one’s own life.

Comics Up Close

This week I learned that my submission for the Comics Up Close conference was successful, so I’ll be traveling up to the Lakes Comics festival a day early to take part in this academic conference.

The theme is ‘Comics Can Change The World – how comics are delivering positive change in education and society’ and I will be focusing on the tangible impacts that the Draw The Line project engendered.

With that in mind, if you’re reading this and were actually inspired by Draw The Line to take a specific action or even to set up your own project – please do let me know. I’d love some more examples to include!

Progress

Last week I was finishing up page 75 and this week I am on the final frame of page 76.

To do list: Now that I’m blogging every week, the website really needs rearranging so that it’s not just a mass of posts on the homepage. I know what to do but do I have the time to do it? Sigh.

I suspect that ‘time’ is the most used word across this entire blog. And with that in mind, I’d better go and do some more drawing.

Perfection is the enemy of progress

What you take from any piece of writing is probably an indication of where your head is at when you’re reading it, and when I saw a review of Guy Delisle’s new graphic novel in the Comics Journal this week, it’s telling that the phrase to jump out at me was:

there’s not a page or a panel that you would likely see pulled out of context as a work of beauty.

I’ve enjoyed Delisle’s work, and always thought of him as an adept professional, I’m sure not least because of Pyongyang. This was the first of his books that I read, and it focuses on his job in animation – he talks a bit about how to make characters expressive and so on, which definitely makes it sound like he knows what he’s doing.

I just enjoyed his books; I never really stopped to think about whether or not the work was beautiful, although there are graphic novels that I definitely treasure for that quality. If a book can be beautiful and carry a meaningful story, that’s the holy grail for me, like The Nao of Brown, for example, or Just So Happens, or This One Summerthe trio of books I always trot out as my top three. They not be perfect, but they’re closer to perfect than many.

One of the reasons that Satin and Tat is taking so long is that I want it to be as visually appealing as I can make it. Or maybe I mean visually adept. I want it to convey as much through imagery as it does through the action.

I’m sure there’s also a part of me that wants it to show that I ‘can draw’, and I wonder if that part will ever go away.

Anyway, this week, although I had to take a couple of days off both from my day job and from drawing, thanks to a nasty cold, I finally managed to finish page 74 on Friday.

I’d come to think of it as the page that would never end, so it is a relief to see the back of it and move on to some pages which bring different/new challenges. No page is without a challenge. Is that what keeps this pursuit interesting?

As I moved on to page 75, I was partly working from an exploratory reference sketch I made right at the beginning of this process, and partly from the mock-up book I made when I thumbnailed the whole story.

Here’s a photo of my desk:

And here’s more of a closeup of those sketches:

Sketch by Myfanwy Tristram

I worked away on the page, and when I was almost finished, I looked at my drawing of Alex and thought that I had definitely lost something between the sketches and the finished piece. To be exact, there is something in the way the bloke is holding his head in the sketch that conveys pain and weariness, that somehow went missing between the two. (It’s also just a better picture, but that often seems to happen when I go from paper based sketch to digital version).

The question was, how much did I care about it? Enough to erase the figure of Alex and draw him again?

Eh… probably not.

Sometimes, during this whole process of drawing, I have decided that a picture just isn’t as good as it could be, and when I redraw it, it’s always tons better.

Sometimes I say to myself that it will do for now, and tell myself I’ll revisit it when I’ve finished all the other pages, as presumably by then I’ll be able to see whether it’s standing out as screamingly appalling or whether I barely notice whatever I was disliking about it.

Does every frame need to be perfect?

This train of thought made me look up the phrase ‘perfect is the enemy of good’. I was unsure whether the last word was in fact ‘done’ rather than ‘good’, which I’ve often heard bandied about in work contexts. I’ve always taken the meaning to be that if you worry too much about things being perfect, you’ll never get them finished.

Apparently that thought is better conveyed by a Winston Churchill quote: Perfection is the enemy of progress.

The Wikipedia page on the phrase muses on a few more manifestations of the same concept, like the 80:20 rule: it commonly takes 20% of the full time to complete 80% of a task while to complete the last 20% of a task takes 80% of the effort. Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible and so, as increasing effort results in diminishing returns, further activity becomes increasingly inefficient.

It also quotes from King Lear: striving to better, oft we mar what’s well. This is definitely true of artwork.

And then, finally: economist George Stigler says that “If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time at the airport.

I am definitely spending too much time at the airport. The airport… of drawing.

Something that gives me rather guilty encouragement is the number of published graphic novels where the drawing is awful. That’s not to even say the actual novels themselves are awful: it’s definitely true that crude drawings can still carry an excellent story.

Meanwhile, Satin and Tat is taking so long that my drawing skills are improving while I go along. Like many, I suspect, I didn’t even know what I couldn’t do until I got better at doing it.

In other comics news, my daughter brought home a second hand copy of a Peanuts paperback, in the same vintage Coronet edition I used to have as a kid.

“I’m going to start saying ‘rats‘ when I’m annoyed”, she told me. To my mind, this is an entirely positive development.

I’ve been accepted on the Artquest Activism and Social Change Salon. Since I know little more about it than what I’m hoping it will be, it’s a bit of a leap in the dark. Each of the 3 hour sessions is in the evening, and involves being online after I’ll already have done a full working day of just that, so it’d better be worthwhile! I’ll report back after the 16th.

I do know that the first session features a talk from these people, which is certainly promising.

And I pitched three ideas to the Nib‘s food issue. Two of my pitches relate to stories I’ve heard through work. It’s a bit of an ambition to make artwork around the more human interest side of my job, so I kind of hope one of them will be accepted. The third is good too though!

I should definitely draw all the idea I pitch that don’t get picked up and turn them into a zine. One day.

Roughs to pencils to inks to colour

Page 74 of Satin and Tat is the page that will never be finished, clearly – I’m still part way through it. You can see why this project is taking a while. This week the delay was mainly because I got the word through about my commissioned piece: they were happy with the inks and I could progress to the final step, the colours.

Accordingly, I spent most of last week on that, then had my usual tizz around colour profiles (will this ever not happen), and sent it off last night.

Having fretted over the whole script-to-roughs-to-pencils-to-inks-to-colours process (see recent blog posts in which I moan that this isn’t quite how I work) I have to admit that of course, the whole thing has ended up looking far more polished and professional than my usual work.

That feels nice, but I would also say it’s less ‘me’ – which rather unfortunately implies that the essential ‘me’ factor is untidiness and a chaotic working process. But never mind that, I shall take a moment to be pleased with myself for following instructions and getting it in two days before deadline.

I can’t share it until it’s published, under the terms of my contract, so I will have to dig out an old picture to accompany this blog post.

Having had so much time to ponder this approach, which is clearly the ‘industry’ way that has been honed through the years for maximum efficiency (and, for the big publishers, to allow teams to work on a strip, with one person doing line and another the colour, a third the lettering, etc) I realise that one advantage is, there’s very little room for everything to be derailed at the last moment.

One thing I always hated about commissions is that period of time between sending off your artwork and hearing back about it: it made me really anxious, probably something that was also born of my own inexperience and the fact that, at that time, my artwork wasn’t actually accomplished enough.

But there’s no room for that here: every step is approved, or requests for corrections are sent through, and you don’t feel silly or like you’ve wasted a load of time going down the wrong route, because adjusting a single step is so much more trivial than if you had sent in the entire finished strip.


I’ve also now been informed that the next call-out for the Nib is live, and as per my plan to keep pitching, I will put in for it. Of course, if I’m successful that will steal still more time from Satin and Tat. Time is always the issue. Thought it’s worth my remembering that they pay, and so there would be some laxity for me to take time off the day job and still be no worse off financially.

I listened to Eleri Harris talking to Dan Berry while colouring this week: Eleri is Deputy Editor at The Nib and was full of good insights. She also made the good point that you can subscribe to the Inkwell, the comic’s subscription program, both to support her and presumably also to provide the funds that pay a whole cohort of comic artists from around the world that they feature in every issue. I’ve been a member for a while and it’s nice to get that chunky magazine through the letterbox every quarter.

The only other piece of comics news I have this week is that through said day job, I found out about an organisation called Artcry, who offer rapid funds to artists responding to events in politics and society. That is, of course, right up my street and my mind did start racing.

The work has to be public and free, and open up dialogue with the audience. I am still pondering.

Telling someone else’s story

Last week I’d started drafting page 74 of Satin and Tat, and this week I’m about four fifths of the way through finishing it.

Not very fast progress, but my excuse is that we’ve got a new kitten – kitten! – and my time has been spent fishing her out of plant pots and saving her from jumping on the cooker. And the teen daughter is starting college, requiring a bit of admin and a bit of moral support. So there’s lots going on, and moreover page 74 is a boring one with lots of tiny details.

I need to figure out a better way of drawing small things: in this case, a specific panel (not the one I’m showing here, but even more crowded) set in a school corridor, seen from quite a distance and full of small figures. I know it’s a matter of elegantly placing blocks of colour and not worrying too much about the detail, but apparently that doesn’t mean I actually do that.

Still, it’s just one page and when I’ve got through this I can move back onto the scenes featuring Alex, thrilling and slightly-older punk rocker, and much more fun to draw than a bunch of girls in school uniforms.

As a side note – it’s interesting/terrifying to see how much the colours differ when I view this page in Affinity Photo on my laptop and in Photoshop Elements on my desktop. Really hope it doesn’t look too lurid on your machine.

An interesting question came up in the chat side bar at the Graphic Medicine conference: not just for me, but for all the artists whose work is based on true stories about other people. How do you reconcile the fact that you’re telling someone else’s story with their right to privacy?

It’s certainly true that Satin and Tat revolves around the suicide of a character based on a real person, and that person still has surviving family and friends in the real world. Of course, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot: should I contact those people before the book is finished, to let them at least know about it? That’s always assuming I could find them: we haven’t kept in touch.

My main thought here is that although real life events were the seed of the story, it has become something else, something at least half fictional. The main character is based on my own experiences, thoughts and feelings, and like me, she was a goth in the 80s and she lived in Devon; like me, she rode a bike and dressed in jumble sale clothes, and then she grew up and got married and had one child and worried too much about what people thought of her.

But she’s also a theatre director, with shorter hair and a much better jawline than me. She lives in a posh converted house in London, with a swanky kitchen (the sort I’d like, but can’t afford); and her husband wears sweatpants, something that’s definitively not true, and will never be true, of my own spouse. He’s obsessively into an obscure band (that doesn’t exist in the real world), called Marshall’s Trousers.

Ella’s teenage friends are based on a conglomeration of people I knew back then, plus a bit of the essence of being an eighties Devonshire goth. Alex’s housemates are generic art school kids. A crucial part of the story is made more dramatic by an event that didn’t really happen.

I guess this is true of most fiction or semi-fictionalised work. It comes down to the fact that you’re attempting to convey your experiences and feelings rather than any truths about specific individuals. It’s not a particularly new train of thought, but it feels like one that it was worth working through.

Tove Jansson, graphic medicine and some small progress

I have finished page 73 of Satin and Tat and have started drafting page 74; halle-flippin’-lujah.

As per my recent posts: I’m drawing on a new platform and it’s been a slight learning curve to get to grips with the various menus and tools; plus despite my high hopes at being able to import them over from Photoshop, the brushes aren’t quite the same. But I’ve got to the point where I’m just like, oh, who cares? Either the change will be small enough that it’s only something I notice, or it’ll have to be a built-in feature of the book that it takes on a whole new aesthetic 70 pages in.

Er, only joking. Sort of.

Basically, I’ve come to the conclusion that any longform art project requires you to be able to look at certain impediments, shrug, and then carry on. Like, none of the panels is perfect – every single one has required me to look at it and think ‘that’ll do’ (some more than others). When seen as a whole I hope they build up to make something that’s more than the sum of their parts.

My font isn’t anywhere near perfect, but I’m sticking with it for now, and anyway it’s on its own layer, so will be easy(ish) to swap out in the future if needs be. The panel sizes aren’t always exactly the same on the page: well, it’s a look. And so on.

I do worry sometimes, though, that some of the decisions I’ve made will compromise the entire book. This week I read a comment on a Facebook comics forum from someone saying their publisher refuses to accept images that are less than 600 dpi, and I’ve been saving all mine as 300. Should I worry?

Yesterday was day one of the Graphic Medicine online conference, and my one-minute video about my work in progress was shown, along with many others from people working either closely or loosely around the topic of mental health (Satin and Tat isn’t just about goths and the 80s; it deals with a bipolar character and the longterm effects of his suicide).

Graphic Medicine must be the friendliest and most supportive community in comics, and that is saying something, given how lovely most comics people are. Everyone showed great interest and put lovely comments in the chat. My favourite was something like “Bowie always makes a great organising principle” – gah, why didn’t I note down the exact wording?! This was in response to my explanation that Bowie is also a theme through the book, which nods to the mental health issues and eventual suicide of his own half brother, as well as bringing the characters together under their mutual admiration for his music.

As confirmation that it’s always worth going out and sharing comics work, I’ve now followed (and been followed by) a flood of new people on Instagram. Making connections that might lead to future conversations, collaborations or just interesting visuals in my Instagram stream has to be a bonus.

I finally watched the movie Tove, which has been on my radar for a few months: I was sorry it didn’t get shown at any of our local cinemas, even the arthouse ones (why?! Brighton would have gobbled it up).

**Mild spoilers ahead.**

It depicts one period in the life of Tove Jansson, the Finnish creator of the Moomins, focusing on her burgeoning sexuality, the development of her career as a cartoonist (against her — and her family’s — assumptions and initial desire to be a fine artist), and some implausibly attractive knitwear.

As with most filmic depictions of artists, of course there’s much lingering on a pencil lead drawing seductively across coarse-grained paper; days in the sunlit studio wrapped in a smock and cocking one’s head at an oil painting in progress; and parties at which the arrival of ‘the artists’ in silly homemade hats ramps up the raucousness level.

As with the Paula Rego exhibition, this sort of thing plays to some deep held desires in me, and if nothing else I did find myself missing ‘real’ art materials rather than the laptop screen. I must find time to pull out my paints again.

I wondered on Facebook whether the studio depicted was in fact Tove’s real one in Helsinki; my friend Johanna Rojola (whom I met via the Feminist Comics Residence, which she organises, along with many other valuable comics initiatives in Helsinki and beyond) confirms that it is indeed, and that apparently although it can be visited, this is by invitation only and currently reserved for the top brass of the arts world.

I was very pleased to have visited the frescoes that are also featured in the movie, and which are given extra meaning by her relationship with the daughter of the commissioning mayor (a detail which I can only assume is also true rather than artistic licence).

But the most affecting part is in the last minute. I will say no more. View it yourself if you haven’t already.

Four comics things

Four main things to talk about this week; so let’s see if I can fit them all into my self-imposed half hour of blogging, and still do them justice.

First: inspiration. This came in the form of a visit to Tate Britain to see the Paula Rego retrospective.

‘Paula Rego’ has long been my answer to ‘who is your favourite fine artist?’, and all the more so after I saw Secrets and Stories, the documentary her son made about her life (it looks like the BBC is just about to reshow it on Monday; I really do recommend it if you can access it).

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to travel to Lisbon with work, to run a conference. I booked an extra night specifically so that I could take the train out to Cascais (a small town just 20 miles away) and visit the Paula Rego museum; but disastrously, or so it felt at the time, I had misunderstood a message on their website and it was closed. All I was able to do was sit in their (very nice) garden cafe and eat a cake and then return to the city.

So when I saw that this show was coming to the Tate, I jumped at the chance. We would be in London anyway, delivering my daughter to her cosplay convention in Hammersmith, from which it’s a lengthy but doable tube journey eastwards to Pimlico.

Under such circumstances: tired, doubting whether I had brought the right shoes for two days’ walking around the city; bickering with my husband over whether he had been listening when I told him our itinerary, I had some doubt over whether the exhibition would have the required inspirational effect. After all, it had been such a build-up, what with the Cascais disaster and all.

It was ok. I swam in the pictures, submerged myself in the colours, came out refreshed and determined. Recognised that half of what makes an artist my favourite is a wistful longing to inhabit their lifestyle: a life dedicated to making art on big canvases in a huge studio, stacking up more and more work until the world recognises the significance of your industrious creation.

On reflection, I wonder whether the aspects of Rego’s art that I like are the ‘easy’ facets: the vibrant colours, the fact that they are figurative. I think it’s fine to feel ambivalent about the early work (as I do) because artists build up their practice, acquire skills and refine their self-knowledge about what they really want to say.

As with favourite musicians who might put out an album you find difficult, perhaps it’s also fine not to connect with other pieces of their oeuvre, too – I can’t say Rego’s puppets do anything for me particularly. But it is quite possible that I’m guilty, just as I like an easily-accessible song with a pretty melody and clever lyrics, of liking her most straightforward artworks the most.

I like her facility with life drawing, I like that the women she portrays are every shape and size, with no judgement, and I like the fashion details: sandals with buckles, dresses with bodices and pleats, clearly drawn from real garments. I love the light violet against bright green and the highlights on gold dresses and the gold psychiatrist’s couch, effected with pale chalk pastels juxtaposed with more saturated coloured ones.

I can’t believe that the Guardian ran its review with a headline about how crass the painted walls behind the works are (while recognising this was probably the copy editor’s choice, pulling out one aspect of a longer review). The walls were a perfectly acceptable set of blues, and I would never have even noticed them if I hadn’t read this review beforehand.

Also unforgivable is the reviewer’s assertion that Rego is not political. You cannot brush off a room full of pictures of women after they have had an abortion as ‘not political’, especially when they were drawn in response to Portugal’s abortion law not being overturned in a referendum. Maybe you can if you’re a bloke? I don’t know this reviewer but he really hasn’t done himself any favours with ‘[It is hard] to avoid the unhelpful wall texts that keep trying to batter her subtle strangeness into crude political messages. You are told repeatedly to see the art as protest. It is not. It is art.

It is both.

The personal is political, and while it may not make for the visually beautiful pictures I find it so easy to like, the boldness she has displayed through her life is definitely one of the factors that makes me admire Rego more.

On the way into the exhibition we saw Peter Blake’s ‘Self Portrait with Badges’ and I was reminded that my love of figurative artwork is probably also to do with how much I love comics. An exhibition of the Japanese woodcut artist Utagawa Hiroshige’s work at the Royal Academy similarly reminded me of comics: flat, coloured, surrounded by black lines (and led to me basing my MA dissertation on his ‘Tokkaido Road’ series).

Image by Alex Thomas

The Graphic Medicine conference is open for registration. As far as I know, anyone with an interest can attend (it’s online).

The Graphic Medicine movement brings together the medical and comics communities, examining how each may inform the other. For example: when patients put their experiences into comics, can those comics also be used to help medical staff better understand the emotional or physical repercussions of their interventions? When medical procedures are explained in graphic form, are they friendlier and easier for patients to follow?

It’s really quite a large community now, it seems. This year’s ‘call for papers’ was actually a call for one-minute videos and it seems at least 60 people, me included, submitted them. It’s going to be a diverse, fascinating and lengthy process to watch them all — fortunately, it seems they’ll be releasing them beforehand and they’ll also be available for some time after, with the actual conference timings allowing for synchronous discussion.

My video is part of the Saturday afternoon bloc (1pm Eastern Time and 6pm UK time).

On Tuesday after work, I joined yet another Zoom call, this time to be interviewed for the Creating Women project. They’d sent through the questions beforehand so I had a chance to think about what to say in return: I think this was for the better, as it meant I had time to think and write a few notes, but of course the risk is that by the

time you’re talking, none of it seems like a very fresh idea as you’ve turned it over so many times in your own mind. Well, I hope that something useful or thought-provoking came out of it.

I was so busy talking about community and fellowship (in comics) that when a question came up about how I work, I think I rather brushed it off: ‘Oh I used to work in watercolour and inks but I’ve changed to digital now’. Obviously there’s far more to say about that — everyone who works digitally seems to do so in their own way, apart from anything else — and perhaps I’ll dedicate a future blog post to it.

Talking of ways of working, my current commission has been interesting on that front. They have a very set process: first you provide a script, then roughs, then pencils, then inks and finally colours. There’s a deadline for each of these, and then feedback might be given for the changes required at each stage. They also have templates and a distinct set of house rules over fonts, placement and so on.

Argh! My half hour is up. I’ll just finish this one thought, though.

On the one hand, I can really see the benefits of this method: for example, you, the artist won’t go too far down the wrong route because it’d be spotted at the script or roughs stage before you dedicate too much time to your beautiful piece of artwork. It obviously allows for a cohesive final set of work within the publication, even while it’s from a diverse set of artists. I don’t mind an editorial hand, partly because I don’t consider myself to be a seasoned professional and partly because I’m used to working collaboratively in my day job.

On the other hand, this method is definitely based on how traditional comic artists have always worked within the comics industry, predating digital. Since I switched to working on a tablet, my ‘pencils’ stage has pretty much been subsumed into my ‘inks’ stage and I often do the colouring at the same time. So I’m having to very deliberately organise my work differently; and I’m also being careful to keep everything on distinct layers which is often something that gets a bit chaotic when I’m doing work for myself.

Ultimately though I think this will be for the better. The editor’s comments might end up making my strip less like ‘my’ strip, but it will be slicker. And I figure this one’s the learning curve: hopefully it will get quicker and easier each time.

Time’s very much up! Progress on Satin and Tat is still zero. I’m kind of missing it.

Mostly gripes, some comics news at the end

Last week, progress on Satin and Tat was unchanged, and this week it is still the same, stalled on page 73. This is partly because of the comission I’ve been working on (which I can’t share, due to the terms of the agreement I signed), and partly down to the technical problems I blogged about last week.

I am really missing working on it!

Things have moved on a little bit from last week, but the situation is far from perfect. I’ve had more dealings with both Adobe and Microsoft’s customer services, both of which wasted time and left me more frustrated than before. Adobe first pointed me towards my own thread on their support forum (why? There weren’t any answers!) and then at another thread where others were expressing similar issues, and at least one comment had been ‘removed by the moderator for profanity’, showing the level of irritation the problem has been causing, and clearly not just for me.

Adobe then came up with the absurd suggestion that, as Elements 13 is no longer supported, I could purchase Elements 2021 in order to be eligible for support – but this was after I’d informed them that I’d downloaded the trial version of 2021 and encountered exactly the same issue. Gah, what a waste of time.

Meanwhile Microsoft contacted me on Twitter to thank me for finding a ‘workaround’, to which the only answer is the :| emoticon.

There was no workaround. “We’ll take note of this and forward it to the designated support as Microsoft continuously strives to improve its products and to provide a better experience to its consumers”, they DMd.

Those are certainly… some words. But they don’t help me.

Last week I wondered whether Photoshop brushes can be imported into Affinity Photo, and the good news in all of this is that yes they can. So, with that and being able to recreate my Photoshop palettes, I believe (although I haven’t yet tried) that I can continue with Satin and Tat without the look and feel changing.

It’s not all good, though. One thing that I do a lot during my drawing process is to remove and replace the keyboard from the Surfacebook screen: I remove it so that it can sit on my angled desktop while I draw, and I replace it to do things like type the lettering in. But there’s something about Affinity that means the machine asks you to close it before you detach the keyboard. Not impossible, but pretty annoying when you might be wanting to do this several times in quick succession.

Back to the forums, and I thought I’d found a solution, but it only worked for a short while. Opening Affinity back up today, the issue recurred.

It’s very annoying to have all this bother when you would expect a new laptop to have solved issues rather than creating new ones!

But, so that this post isn’t all about my gripes, I’ll also mention that last week I applied for the Artquest Salon on Activism and Social Change – despite not knowing much about the organisation or exactly what to expect.

Also, Street Noise have been back in touch with a revised cover for Draw The Line, and say that the inner pages have been sent to print! It’s weird, life feels too busy and there are too many other concerns for this to feel like a big deal, but… I guess it’s a big deal?

I’m posting this early because we’re off to London for the weekend, where my daughter will go to an anime con, and I will go and immerse myself in the Paula Rego exhibition at Tate Britain. I fully expect to come home with new ideas about colour and composition. And after that, we’re all off to Camden market, where no doubt some Satin and Tat-relevant memories will be jogged into place when I see the fashions on offer. Hooray – it’s the closest thing to a holiday we’ve had for a while.

Technical woes

Last week I’d just started on Page 73 of Satin and Tat; this week I am in exactly the same place. I did say I was going to take some time off the graphic memoir to work on a commission, but I haven’t done that either, because I have technical woes.

I’ve been using Photoshop Elements 13 on my Surface Book quite happily for all the work I’ve done on Satin and Tat so far. Elements is a cut down version of Photoshop and crucially, it’s available as a one-purchase download, so you don’t have to subscribe to Creative Cloud to use it. As a hobbyist who doesn’t make money from her artwork, I just can’t justify the CC subscription cost. Elements 13 is creaky and old: there have been many new versions since, but you know what? It was working for me.

Then suddenly last week, my Surface Book failed. At first I thought it was the charger – I’ve been through three of them, they’re a terrible design and they do have a habit of suddenly not working – but no, it turned out to be the machine as a whole.

THANK GOODNESS I’ve been saving all my work. Can you imagine if I hadn’t? Over two years’ worth of pages, more hours’ work than I can even begin to quantify, gone in a flash. Fortunately I am a worrier, so each time I finished a page I would save it to an external hard drive, both as a jpg and as the Photoshop file with all the layers intact; and for the sake of belt and braces I also upload the jpg to Google Drive.

Quite a few of the early pages are also in my Gmail somewhere, as for a while I was emailing them to myself from my laptop to add the lettering on my desktop PC, but although this is a further safety net I wouldn’t really fancy the job of going through all my attachments to work out which ones were the finished versions. Let’s leave that to the Myfanwy Tristram archivists that I like to fondly, if misguidedly, imagine will be studying my work over the next few millenia.

Now, I really am super lucky in that my workplace shoulder most of the cost of a new laptop when the old one dies. I use it for my day job, and it was a real lightbulb moment four and a bit years ago when I realised I could combine the workplace stipend with a bit of extra money from my own funds and end up with a high performance but affordable drawing device. For those who don’t know – the Surface is a touchscreen laptop, but the screen can be detached and then it becomes a tablet that you can use with a Surface pen, a bit like the Apple iPad.

So far so good: the lush new Surfacebook 3 arrived in my mitts and I started transferring over as much as I could; redownloading Elements from my Adobe profile and scouting out the fonts and brushes I’ve purchased to reinstall them as well.

And then, here’s where the problem became apparent. The Surface Pen just doesn’t work in Elements on the Surface Book 3. You can use it to access all the menus, etc, but if you try to draw with it. the line either shoots out erratically, or it draws somewhere approximately two inches to the right of where the nib is touching the screen.

Ehhh, I will save you all the details, but it’s been the usual modern dystopian scenario of scouring support forums, trying different remedies while worrying about their validity and whether running scripts or disabling various drivers will destroy your brand new machine, chatting to robots and sometimes real people from Adobe and Microsoft, and getting no further.

I did find one tip though. If you’re talking to a chatbot and they say something like ‘That product is no longer supported’, and you answer “aaaaaaaarrrraagaahhhhhh” – they put you through to a human being.

“You seem upset,” says the harried little bot. “Let me pass you off to a sentient being who understands emotion”. OK, it’s a little embarrassing to then sit there while the operator says “I’m just going to scan the conversation so far” but a price worth paying, I think.

So… I’m trying to stay calm. The commission is not at risk: I can use Affinity Photo for that. The Surface Pen is working in every other program, and a couple of months ago Dan Berry recommended Affinity as a cheap way of getting a Photoshop-like program that can export in CMYK, ready for print. I’ve used it for one previous piece of work and I like it; it’s intuitive for anyone who’s already used Photoshop.

Why not switch Satin and Tat over to Affinity too? Well, I might have to, but I’m a bit nervous about the look and feel of my artwork suddenly changing half way through, since I’d be using different brushes (I….think? As I write this I suddenly find myself wondering whether you can actually import PS brushes into Affinity, given they are so alike). I can import my colour palette swatches and fonts, with a small amount of faff, I think. I might just have to try it and see what happens.

So it’s not the end of the world, but it is blinkin’ annoying and has prevented me from doing any artwork at all this week. I mean, yes, I did consider going back to paper for a while there, but paper doesn’t have the undo function, does it?

Graphic memoir as social history

Last week I had just finished page 70.

This week I’ve made a good start on page 73, so I’m making progress but am shortly going to put Satin and Tat aside for a short while as I’ve had a commission elsewhere. (Yay!)


I’ve been listening to a really excellent podcast recently, as recommended by a colleague: The Log Books looks back at log notes made by volunteers at Switchboard during the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Switchboard is a helpline which, when it started, was largely for gay men, expanded to include that to gay women, and these days is ‘for anyone who wants to talk about gender identity and sexuality’ (their episode on just how the language has changed around how we describe sexuality, and how narrow the original remit of Switchboard was, is really worth a listen – I think it’s Season 1, episode 7).

After each call, the volunteer would note down the general content and any messages that needed to be shared with the team and these books have survived, giving an incredibly rich insight into the lives of the callers, and indeed the staff.

I was a primary school child in the 70s. In the 80s I was a teenager. In 1986 I was 18, and Section 28 was passed into law. I was outraged but not really politically active or knowledgeable about how to enact political change – I guess I might have gone on some marches.

I had gay friends; some of them were out, others were not. The landscape was entirely different to how it is today: it’s certainly not all roses in the current climate, but as a middle aged person, you certainly begin to see the arc of time and the fact that laws which seem so permanent at the time of passing aren’t necessarily forever: it’s 35 years later and gay people can now get married in the UK; language is changing so that kids (indeed, everyone) can express their gender and sexuality in a whole range of ways, and the idea that homosexuality is some sort of perverse evil does, at least, seem to have if not disappeared then at least have become a very minority view.

For the time being, at least. I add that because, as I say, it’s clear that everything changes. Politics swing to the left, and back to the right. Society, which I might have previously perceived as taking a slow path towards improvement, actually takes a few steps forward and several steps back, changed by technical innovation, natural events and political discourse.

I had very little interest in history at school: we were presented with the kings and queens of England who all seemed very far back in time and very far removed from the things that excited me in the 80s. I gave the subject up before O’Level, so I didn’t even get as far as learning anything about the Second World War. Now I’m an adult, of course, everything seems more interesting and I wonder if it was the teacher, the curriculum, or my youthful inattention that’s to blame.

And, to come back to the Log Books, I now see the value of social history. All the more so when it’s a period you’ve lived through.

This is a very roundabout way of saying that I believe graphic memoirs can be a form of social history, and a unique one: visual and interpretative at the same time.

Satin and Tat is set in two time periods: 1984/5, and what was ‘now’ when I began drawing it, but which is fast becoming recent history itself! I’m fond of speaking explicitly about how much fun it is to explore the clothes, hair, makeup and music of the times, but there are other ways in which it records history less explicitly, too.

Here’s a scene in a poster shop: you can only see glimpses of the posters available, but I know they are of Ghostbusters, The Breakfast Club, Footloose, The Cure, etc.

“The things that excited me in the 80s” were which hairspray gave you the most solid barnet; the new issue of Smash Hits coming onto the newsstand; albums by bands that I loved. Little did I know that these would all become part of history themselves.

Even small details count; walking home, Ella and Penny pass a house adorned with Sky satellite dishes.

It’s fun making sure these details are historically accurate. And then there’s the ‘modern day’ storyline, in which Ella’s daughter speaks in a very current vernacular.

That’s my half hour of thinking about comics for this week.

Pacing and jumble sales

Last week: I’d just pencilled page 68 of an estimated 170. This week: I’ve just finished page 70.

Why an ‘estimated’ 170 pages? Because although I’m working from my own dummy copy of the whole book in thumbnail form, printed out and stuck together, now and again I come across a sequence where I haven’t really given myself enough space to properly convey what’s happening, or for the action to breathe.

Since there’s no-one else in charge of this project but me, in such circumstances I’m at complete liberty to increase the page count. The other week it was an estimated 168 pages and by the end of this process, who knows, it could be more like 180.

Which is good, as it’s divisible by 4. You know, as that’s how books are made, by piecing together double page spreads with content on both sides.

I can’t call myself an expert in the graphic novel, but there’s definitely a skill to the pacing. Cramming lots of words and action into several tiny panels on a single page might cause the reader to linger longer on that page, which is ironic really, because the impulse as an artist, when you want to insert a pause, is to throw in a lovely big frame, maybe a wordless one.

The irony is that the reader probably then flips quickly over to carry on with the actual action of the story.

Satin and Tat has a few double page spreads, which makes for an extra consideration. Where I decide I need more space, I can’t just add a random extra page.

This addition would have a knock-on effect that’s fine until you hit the next double page spread, because this would then be split over a page turn.

So this type of decision always involves inserting an extra two pages of content. Which is fine. It’s just something to remember to do.

(I hope I managed to explain that properly! It seemed to take a lot of words to describe something really quite simple.)

I think that Satin and Tat is fairly slow-paced. Conversations drift over a few pages, sometimes several. I hope the reader won’t dash through: I may not be a brilliant artist, but I have tried my best on every page to make pictures that are attractive as well as descriptive, and a lot of the book depends on a sense of place so there’s a ton of background detail to anchor it in a small Devonshire estuaryside village in the 80s and the present day (action is set in both eras).

Er, anyway, that’s not what I was intending to write about today. Page 68 is set in a jumble sale, as I mentioned in a previous post. I was going to pontificate more about these, and why they’re such an important background detail for Satin and Tat.

Ella, the main character, who is basically me (Satin and Tat is a memoir with some fictional aspects to make it more readable), was a goth in the 80s, just like I was.

As the adult Ella says early on in the book, while meditating on her daughter’s cosplay outfits, you couldn’t just buy the goth look from a shop in those days. It was a carefully curated and very personal collection of clothes and accessories, gleaned from wherever you could find them. You might nick your dad’s coat, buy crucifix necklaces from a church charity shop, dye boring mainstream clothes black or purple, sew up the side seams of trousers to make them extra narrow, or conversely split the seams and lace them up with ribbon.

Almost nothing went uncustomised; we’d paint our DM boots and change the laces for ribbon as well; paint band names or sew a fabric panel on the back of a jacket, and when I returned to my parents’ house not long ago, I found a pair of jeans I’d spray painted with a stencil to put the outlines of lizards all over them in blue and red.

‘Proper’ goth stuff, like the pointy-toed boots with buckles all over them, might have to be obtained via a print ad in something like the Melody Maker, and – crazy to think about – you’d be ordering from a hand drawn illustration rather than a photo. If you had a mum that was good at knitting, you might coerce her into making you a striped mohair jumper or a looseknit cobweb one. Batwing sleeves, of course.

My favourite detail is that we’d sometimes take an old pair of fishnet or stripy tights and use them as little bolero jackets, putting arms down the legs and cutting the toes off so the fingers could poke through.

All of this is why the fashion back then was so personal and non-uniform. When I say I was ‘a goth’ I don’t really mean that I only wore black lace and velvet. The eighties was also the time when New Romantic and the New Wave were fairly mainstream. It was fairly normal for boys to have their hair long and bouffed up with hairspray; perhaps even some eyeliner or blusher, and Adam Ant, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet were all top of the charts, bringing exotic clothing into the high street so that it was quite normal for the average ‘Sharon’ or ‘Tracey’ to have enormous puff sleeves, pussy bows, harem trousers, and flouncy rah rah skirts. I mean, these middle of the road people might have sneered at the backcombed goth hair, but the huge perms of the time weren’t exactly ordinary when you start looking at them out of context.

When I thumbnailed what ended up as the jumble sale scene for Satin and Tat, I set it in a charity shop, but I changed my mind when it came to drawing it. We undoubtedly did have charity shops back then, but jumble sales were far more common, and they were our Saturday entertainment – a treasure hunt in which you never knew what you were going to find. I wanted to draw that feeling of throwing the entire top half of your body over a mountain of clothes on a tabletop to retrieve a promising-looking garment, often while being elbowed out of the way by a ferocious old lady.

It barely mattered whether the items you bought fit or not, because they cost 5p and you’d be customising them anyway. Kimonos, grannies’ polyester suits, tablecloths and fake flowers were all great prizes.

I started wondering whether there is a cycle of vintage clothing: we were jumble saling in the mid eighties, and we found a lot of sixties minidresses and twinsets, often in psychedelic Pucci polyester – contrary to the goth stereotype, a garish psychedelic splash of colour could look amazing with a black leather jacket and the big backcombed barnet.

Is there a point, say, when 40 year old women realise they are never going to get into that shift dress from their 20s again and, with a sigh, add it to the jumble sale donation heap, creating a rich seam for the next bunch of youngsters?

Were we especially lucky with our finds because of this timing, and do such goods go through a number of different generations’ teenagers’ hands before they ultimately wear out completely (or indeed, if they are unlucky enough to hit a creative period like the eighties, are customised beyond repair)?

This week, I’ve:

  • Proofread the latest Draw The Line manuscript for Street Noise
  • Submitted an abstract to the Comics Up Close conference (er, how could I not? It’s the day before the Lakes festival, which I’m planning to attend, and the theme is ‘Comics can Change the World’, which Draw The Line demonstrably has done).
  • Enjoyed Karrie Fransman’s amazing animation for Positive Negatives


And I should mention Zara Slattery on Dan Berry’s Make It Then Tell Everybody podcast, which was not this week but which is definitely worth a listen.

I’ve known Zara for decades, and still didn’t know what she revealed in this interview about her own insecurities in drawing (which is astonishing to me, as I always think she makes it look so easy!). It’s a great episode for listening to if you feel discouraged by your own pictures not coming out quite as you want them to – what’s that saying? That the good drawings are there, but buried under several thousand bad ones that you have to get through to find them.

By the way, Dan Berry is such a valuable contributor to the comics scene. Through ten years of podcasts he’s pretty much helped to define what that scene is here in the UK. We should all support him on his Patreon, or at least by listening to every single one of his podcasts (not really a chore).

Draw the Line in the USA and other comics stuff

So tempted to title this post ‘Drawn in the USA’ and especially as I just watched Blinded By the Light, but that wouldn’t be strictly accurate.

All the same! Draw The Line is to come out in the US, with Street Noise Books. Yes, that’s a proper publishing house, bringing out a new and different edition of the volume we self-published at the end of last year.

Way back in 2017, when Draw The Line first launched as a website, I approached several UK publishers to see if any of them might be interested in putting it out as a print book. Reactions were not all entirely negative, but even those who showed a little interest didn’t come through in the end.

So it was a real surprise to contact Street Noise and hear an enthusiastic ‘yes’ from them almost immediately: I thought,’Oh, so this is what it feels like!’ The big difference? Draw The Line was a perfect fit for their ethos, as summed up in their strapline ‘Real books for people who give a damn’. The lesson there seems almost too obvious to state: find a publisher that fits your project – but as it had taken us that long to find such a publisher, perhaps it is worth saying.

Ironically, given the book’s anti-capitalism pro-shop-local bent, the only place I can link to it right now is Amazon (but at least that’s a ‘Smile’ link which donates a small amount of sales to charity). I’ve been telling people to take the ISBN from there and then take it to your local independent bookshop.

I heard about Street Noise when LDComics interviewed fellow Brightonian Danny Noble, creator of Shame Pudding, also on Street Noise (which I haven’t read, but have been meaning to for ages: everyone says it is really very good). Out of interest I went an had a glance at their website – and the rest is, of course, history.

It’s been an interesting process. First of all Street Noise sent me a contract, which, as a member of the Society of Authors I was able to have checked by experts (who found nothing untoward but suggested a couple of amendments which Street Noise were happy to make) and I then received a small advance. This sum will go, as with all profits I make from this publication, to the refugees charity Choose Love, though at the moment it’s still sitting in my bank account. This is because I was a tiny bit paranoid that if publication didn’t go ahead for whatever reason, I’d have to pay it back – but as time has passed the project is certainly progressing, so I probably ought to just bite the bullet soon and transfer it over.

Street Noise made it clear from the start that they’d want to make some changes to the book in order to shape it to an American audience. I sent Liz, their Director, a copy of our own book so that she could see what the actual physical item looked and felt like. She liked it a lot, but their version will be very different. These days I’m thinking of ours as the coffee table version, while theirs will be a smaller, chunkier handbook that you might stuff into your backpack on your way out to change the world.

This new volume won’t include all the artwork that’s in the original: as editor, it’s been my job to keep in touch with the artists and let them know whose work will or won’t be included: obviously a pleasant task where it’s good news, but more delicate where it isn’t, especially as I’ve built up a personal relationship with many of the artists and have a fondness for all of the pieces and their themes.

One thing that made it easier was that decisions about what to exclude definitely weren’t made on the quality of the artwork, but whether it was felt that they fitted well into the book as a whole; or whether they would be understood within the US context. Several of the images are strongly UK-focused and perhaps more difficult to fully understand if you don’t live here.

Street Noise employed their own editor, which has also been interesting – and useful. In my day job I am very used to having colleagues pile into my writing to offer opinions on copy, make suggestions and edits. This process pretty much always means we end up with a better piece, so it’s no hardship at all to have a professional run their eye over the Draw The Line copy.

Also I don’t feel that much personal ownership of the words, since they were mostly created in a group effort: the Draw The Line artists put ideas onto a collaborative Google document early on in the project, much of which I later polished up a little bit to create the final copy and ensure it had a consistent voice. This approach definitely resulted in some repetition throughout the book, with similar ideas cropping up quite a lot: volunteering skills and time to charities; helping refugees learn your language, and signing petitions being some of the themes that recur.

So it’s been a welcome eye opener to have a clear-headed editor come in and assess all the text with an oversight that’s never really been there before, pointing out where messaging might not be as clear as it could be. And changing all the British –ise endings to –izes, of course.

Once I received the edits, I spent some time going through and either accepting or countering them: I’m keen for Draw The Line not to lose its original essence and there were nuances I would be sad to lose. Ultimately though, the project is Street Noise’s now, so there will be some points conceded and some where my view is taken on board. I’m weirdly comfortable with all of that – it feels like it has flown the nest, taken on its own life, but that Street Noise do know what they’re doing and they have a good vision for it. Ultimately the important things are that it inspires its new audiences to take action, and that it brings in some more proceeds for Choose Love.

In other comics news this week:

My video has been accepted for the Graphic Medicine conference, hooray. I don’t have any particular endgame in mind here, other than that it is good to spread my work to as many people as possible, and here is a large (and friendly) new audience to put it in front of.

I’ve pitched to the Nib. That was unexpected! But actually I’ve been thinking about this for a while: and as I’ve recently been giving a lot of thought to what exactly it is I want to do with comics, it’s clear that one direction I’m really desperate to take is to draw more political comics that go some way towards making a difference in the world. The Nib do an open call for their quarterly print comics and I figure I’ll just keep pitching until something sticks. I put in three ideas this time, for their ‘Nature’ themed issue. I’m not sure if I’m quite the right fit for them – their comics seem to be a bit more ‘nasty’ (for want of a better word) than I tend to make. But we’ll see.

An ex-colleague retweeted this: a preformatted spreadsheet to help you estimate how much time it’ll take you to complete your work. Well, I could fill it in to be certain, but I think I’m doing about a page a week on Satin and Tat (that is, sketching from the thumbnails, lettering, drawing and colouring).

I’ve just pencilled page 68. For all I might have inched forward by a page this week, I also added two pages to my plans, as I decided to give myself a bit more space for this particular sequence. So it is the very essence of one step forward and two steps back.

I joined in Rachael House‘s friendly Zoom draw and chat on Thursday. Rachael has just self published a chunky book of her comics created over the pandemic – it’s great. I told her that when I had read it, I had a strong sense of having been speaking to her for the last hour: it has that strong a voice and it really does bring her presence into the room. For clarity, that’s a good thing!

And finally, also on Twitter, Soaring Penguin laid out the difficulties that Brexit has brought to small publishers.

Half hour is UP! Let’s draw some comics.

30 minutes on comics

I realise that I haven’t blogged for quite some time. That’s because I tend to wait until there’s some concrete news to share, and then I write a carefully-crafted post that takes a bit of time to put together, and while that’s nice, it does mean that I tend not to bother with the small stuff.

But let’s try a different approach. I think about comics and comic art so much: I don’t capture most of those thoughts anywhere, except in the ears of my long-suffering comics friends, either in person over a pint, or – more likely during these long lockdowns – within an infinitely scrolling months-long conversation held across Facebook Messenger and a WhatsApp group.

(Side note: if you create comics, I really recommend gathering a small cohort of supportive comics pals around you).

I’m going to try this: blogging at least once a week; caring less about perfect prose and more about pinning down some of those thoughts.

Right, so here goes. I think the hard thing is going to be resisting the temptation to blog everything in one big splurge that takes hours to put together, so I might set myself a time limit of thirty minutes, and then I stop.

OK – I’m setting a timer now.

Where am I?

I’m still drawing, practically every day, usually early in the morning before work and sometimes a bit in the evenings too.

I’ve got a big, seemingly insurmountable problem, that I keep turning over, poking at, and carrying on regardless: that problem is time.

As you may recall, I set off some time ago on drawing a graphic memoir, Satin and Tat, detailing the suicide of my boyfriend when I was a teen, and set in the 80s so I can really enjoy all the background detail of music, fashion, hair and politics.

I have written a script, thumbnailed the entire thing, and drawn 66 pages (redrawn quite a few of those pages, too). I reckon it is going to be around 168 pages in total.

It has already taken literally years. Part of that is because, although I thought I was ready to begin, actually I was not – my drawing wasn’t good or consistent enough; my storytelling was too clunky; I hadn’t pinned down my tools or the font I was going to use.

As I say, I made a start and then I reworked lots of pages and threw some out and rearranged others and now, although I feel like I’m well on my way with a clear path ahead, I’m also aware that at this rate it will take at least two more years. (I foolishly landed on a full colour, labour intensive style).

I find myself asking whether the story is important enough and whether the result will be good enough to take such a large chunk out of my life. There are other comics projects I want to do; and I often feel like I am unnoticed in the small press comics world, because I haven’t got anything to share (apart from work in progress). I am 52 years old and going through the classic middle age trial of seeing how short life is, and how little it makes sense to dedicate so many years to one piece of work.

On the plus side, my drawing has improved from all this daily practice. And there are details I really do enjoy drawing. I’m currently doing a scene set in a jumble sale – remember those? Just looking at reference photos on Google images drowned me in nostalgia. Jumble sales barely exist any more; it’s all car boots now, for some reason.

But. No comic book is worth the number of hours I am putting into this, and especially not a comic book by me. Famously, graphic novels don’t match the hours spent on them with their financial return (unless you are very, very lucky); and I have definitely spent more manhours on this than it can ever hope to earn.

No-one has asked me to draw this book. Yes, it was shortlisted for the Myriad first graphic novel prize (on the back of a 30 page sample) but I’m at a bit of an impasse.

Do I give up and start on other smaller projects instead? Do I take some time off my day job and dedicate it to trying to finish a bit faster?

My job is actually really flexible – I’m very fortunate in that regard – but I worry about earning less, about not fitting in the work that needs doing, and about looking to colleagues like I don’t care about it.

Some things I’ve been thinking about recently are: talking all this through with a mentor via the excellent LDC; applying for an Arts Council grant that might fund me to spend a day a week drawing; and setting up a Patreon which might bring in money that allowed me to do the same.

I’m not sure I have enough supporters to fund a Patreon at this time, but maybe if I start blogging there instead of here, and allow people to follow me at no cost, eventually I could charge when there’s something tangible to offer.

Maybe instead of aiming to publish Satin and Tat in book form, I do it digitally. Or in printed installments, to Patreon subscribers? This involves maths, doesn’t it. I am not great at maths.

Enough moaning – what else?

So that’s that – but there are other things going on in my comics world:

Draw The Line is coming out in the US, as a published book, with Street Noise (linking to the dread Amazon for now, until it appears on other platforms).

Street Noise is a publishing house with the strapline ‘Real books for people who give a damn’ – so very well suited to the project. I’ll dedicate a whole post to that soon, as it’s been an interesting process.

My very good friend Zara Slattery has published her book, Coma.

Coma is excellent. I am not just saying that because Zara’s a friend. It really is a supremely executed piece of work. It’s been exciting seeing Zara get coverage on the BBC in the Telegraph and Newsweek, and nice to see her getting the excellent reviews it deserves.

Another close friend, Michi, has a collection of ‘graphic vegan recipes‘ coming out soon as well, with Liminal11. These are fab: they barely need words because she’s figured out a means of conveying recipes through pictures alone. I believe they’re going to be put out as a set of wipe-clean cards (like you used to be able to send off for through magazines like Good Housekeeping!) and just around the time that lots of parents will be waving kids off to university, so an excellent gift to sneak into their luggage.

My local comics meetup Cartoon County has finally and (and somewhat reluctantly) gone online at least for the meanwhile while lockdown and rules about gatherings are still in place, so we’re enjoying a string of interviews via Zoom, and LDC continue to do their own regular events with three comic makers each time (they’ve just gone on summer hiatus but they’ll be back). So much inspiration to be had.

I’m to be interviewed on video for the Creating Women project (more about it here). I hate being on camera and cannot look at myself on video, but I believe this is a really valuable project which will help fix the vibrant women’s comics scene of our time in history, so I’m going to do it and I’ll just have to live with my stupid face being available online for all time.

I’ve submitted a short video to the Graphic Medicine conference, 1 minute on what I’m doing with Satin and Tat (fitting the medical theme as it deals with both manic depression and suicide) and will hear soon whether that’s been accepted as part of their online event. I do not appear in this video but I discover that I can also be paranoid about my voice being weird as well as my looks!

There we are – that was 30 minutes, including a brief interlude of helping the teen daughter locate a boot on her way out of the house. I’m going to find some pictures to add, tidy up some grammar/spelling and then unleash it to the world.

See you soon for another comics braindump. Thanks for reading; I’m off to chip away some more at my self-inflicted sisyphean task.

Draw The Line: seize the means of production

This is going to be the last in the series of posts, at least for now. It’s turned into a massive epic — sorry! But I’ll try to divide it into short sections so you can skim to the parts you find useful.

If I’ve missed anything, please do comment below and I’ll be happy to answer any questions.

Be Someone’s Voice by Kate Moon

Previously in the Draw The Line story

If you’ve read thus far, you’ll know that we’d been crowdfunding on the Unbound platform with the aim of getting the book into print and distributed to bookshops — but that, for various reasons, it wasn’t working for us. We were stuck at around 50% funded and the dial was only moving upwards very, very slowly. So many people had pledged and I was getting anxious about the fact that they’d paid for a product that hadn’t yet materialised.

(If you haven’t been following along, start here and keep clicking the ‘next’ link at the foot of each post).

What finally gave me the impetus to leave Unbound was that their graphic novels editor left the company. This person had been the champion of graphic novels within the publishing house and to the best of my knowledge, when they left, their experience and advocacy went with them — there was no-one left with the same degree of passion for the artform and knowledge of the market.

By this time, my friends Simon, Michi and Zara had offered both the practical and emotional support I needed to decide that we could go it alone. Clearly, by going down this route, we’d lose the main reason I’d been so keen to sign up with Unbound: the mainstream distribution that, we’d believed, would have seen our book available in high street bookstores. Instead, we’d be printing a very limited run: just enough copies to make sure that everyone who’d ordered one would get it.

Make a Noise by Una

We did the maths and worked out that we could easily cover costs with the sum already raised: of course, we wouldn’t need to factor in Unbound’s contributions of design, printing, distribution etc, as we’d be doing all that ourselves. This was what would have been covered by the remaining sum of money that — had we stuck with them — would still need to be raised.

So, in this post I’ll detail the expenses and logistical considerations involved in producing and shipping out a few hundred books.

The details so far might be unique to us, but I think that everything from this point on in the post will be of use to any self-publishing venture.

A last push

In arranging our departure from Unbound, we agreed that we’d keep the crowdfunding page up for a final month. This proved beneficial: remember when I mentioned that I didn’t know whether the lack of a hard deadline prevents people from pledging?

Well, more pledges certainly did come in these last few weeks, as people realised that it was their last chance to get the book (especially with the new circumstances where we only planned to make a single print run).

Another factor really boosted our numbers at this point, as well: the charity we’d chosen to be the beneficiary of our profits began to mention us in their social media.

Choose Love (or Help Refugees at the time we picked them) had previously said that they could only promote fundraising efforts where 100% of the money raised would be going to them. Of course, that wasn’t previously the case, since Unbound would have been taking a proportion of profits.

But now it seemed Choose Love could promote us with a clear conscience, and just a few mentions from them meant our list of pledgers grew in leaps and bounds. It was amazing to see, for a couple of hours each time they posted, how the total raised leapt up every time I refreshed the page.

It was the crowdfunding experience we’d been longing for all this time!

Support A Family: Karen Rubins

Finances

Scroll right to the end of this post if you’d like to see the final breakdown of costs and profit.

But here’s the top line: in all, we raised £7,887.35 (this includes the money we collected through Unbound, and subsequent direct sales), and as I’ve already mentioned, we ended up with £3,106.27 to donate to charity. So our total costs were £4,781.08.

I was really keen to ensure that we donate the maximum possible to Choose Love, so wanted to do everything as economically as we could. I was equally anxious to keep an accurate record of every outgoing and incoming sum — not that anyone has questioned me about this, but I was acutely aware that the money was sitting in my own current account, and I wanted to be able to show everything transparently!

Request Truth: I Fluke

Numbers

Once it became clear we were going to be printing the book ourselves, of course, our promise to provide every artist with a copy began to seem quite ambitious, especially given that many of them are scattered around the globe.

So, just to be sure, we asked the artists to confirm whether they actually wanted the physical book, or would be happy with the digital version; we also stressed that they did of course have the option of paying for their book and that sum would be added to our charitable donation.

Approximately half the artists did still want their free copy. Fair enough, and we’d managed to cut our costs a little.

So, from Unbound we had 228 pledgers, buying 241 physical books between them, plus an additional 26 who had pledged only for the digital version.

Once we added in artists, and a few late direct sales, we needed 304 printed books to send out.

We decided to print a few extra copies as we reckoned that once people saw it in the real world, we might be able to sell a few more; but on the other hand, I didn’t want to cut into our charitable donation too much and then be stuck with a load of books we couldn’t shift!

We ended up settling on getting 375 copies printed. It turns out we were way too cautious here. I’m used to selling my own self-published stuff, slowly and to a limited audience: it’s a whole new feeling for me to have under-ordered.

As it turns out, within the next few weeks, enquiries coming in from all directions made it clear that we could have easily sold another 50 copies on top of what we ordered, and presumably we could have shifted many times that in the coming months, if comics festivals had still been running.

I hadn’t grasped quite how desirable our finished product was going to be until I held it in my own hands (and until people started asking where they could buy more copies). And that’s a shame, because of course although there would have been an initial outlay in getting more printed, we would have made way more profit for the charity.

Printing

First it’s worth mentioning that we made the decision to make a larger book than originally planned: as some of the artwork is quite intricate, it benefits from an A4 page where it can be seen clearly along with the accompanying text.

From our previous forays into self-publishing our own comics, we were all familiar with Rich Hardiman at Comic Printing UK and knew that he’d do a good and well-priced job. He charged us £2,918, or just about £7.78 per hardback A4 volume.

We were slightly racing against time at this stage, because I wanted people to have their books before Christmas, and getting the details of pledgers and the money transferred from Unbound had taken longer than expected, as these things always seem to do.

Refuse To Shut Up: Richard Tingley

I was updating all the pledgers as we first made the decision to go solo, and then as we went through the various stages of production, and had thought I’d left loads of slack in my predicted timings of “going to print in October, shipping in November”. Apparently not!

At the last minute, Rich emailed to say his case binder (the machine which constructs the hard covers) had broken, and there was going to be a delay. Fortunately it didn’t set things back too far, and we still took delivery of the books and got them sent out in the first week of December.

Rewards

We also needed to remember that some people had pledged extra for a set of rewards, including original artwork, comics, prints and bookplates.

  • For the original artwork it was just a matter of emailing the artist and hoping they hadn’t sold or disposed of the piece in the intervening years (phew, they hadn’t).
  • The popular choice of a bundle of comics from David Blumenstein had to make its way to us all the way from Australia, so we hurriedly asked David to put them in a packet to us and reimbursed him for shipping costs (£55.25).
    The comics arrived a little later than would have been ideal, so one thing we could have done better would have been to arrange this earlier. While we were waiting for them to arrive, we held back the relevant orders for a week, and then finally made the decision to ship them out and send the comics along later.
    Of course, the box of comics arrived on my doorstep at the exact moment Simon was queuing up in the post office. Fortunately he saw my frantic message telling him to turn around. As you may have noticed if you were one of the recipients, we then had to unstick all those parcels and carefully slide the comics in before re-taping them up.
  • Simon designed the bookplates and Michi got them printed at a local printers’, which I was so grateful for because at that point I was swamped in spreadsheets about postage costs and felt incapable of making any artistic decisions. Michi also arranged for the artwork prints to be made on good quality archive paper. In total, bookplates and prints came to £87.77.
Check Facts by David Blumenstein

Design

We were super lucky to have the services of two top designers. Simon, who also helped so much with all the other practicalities, is a graphic designer by trade and offered to do the entire layout for us.

He did such a good job, patiently dealing with the back and forth conversations when I thought something hadn’t quite worked or could be refined; in particular he came up with the eventual labelling system that allows you to thumb through the book and see which actions are in a specific category, from the page edges.

He also gave the book its signature look with bouncy fonts throughout, AND set up the digital versions.

Simon gave his services for free, which was great of course, but if you don’t have a designer on your team and you’re wondering how much you’d have to raise to allow for one, here’s how he breaks down his costs:

“For a corporate client I’d have said £3,500 to £4,000 (plus VAT). If it was for a charity or educational organisation I’d have given a 50% discount on that.

“If I’d just worked at my hourly rate (something I rarely do but some clients have insisted in the past) it would have been nearer £5,500 I think.”

So as you can see, we’d have already bitten very deep into our reserves if we hadn’t had his services for free. Simon had time on his hands because of lockdown meaning he was being sent less paid work, which was rubbish for him but great for us in terms of his having spare time.

Walk The Streets: Simon Russell

Meanwhile, Woodrow Phoenix, who you may remember was — like Simon — also one of the artists in the book, messaged to say he’d be happy to lend his design skills too. And so it was Woodrow that came up with our superbly memorable front and back covers.

Woodrow has also kindly laid out how much his services would normally cost:

“The usual fee for a front cover is £500-800. For a front and back cover £1k.”

He also helped us fill an empty space by providing the image on the last page of the book, but had we paid for it this would have cost “anywhere from £250 to £500 depending on the publication.” This cost is variable, he notes, according to size and whether the work is for the UK or the US.

Either way we were extremely fortunate to have both these superb designers donating their time and skills. If you need a designer, hire Simon or Woodrow!

Looking for typos

Proofing was time-consuming, but thanks again to the generosity of my friends, it didn’t dent our bottom line. Michi and I did it ourselves, and Simon pitched in too.

We really needed every single pair of eyes and every pass of the several we did. It felt like every time we did another proofread, we’d find another typo.

I’m pretty sure we got them all in the end though, and here’s how: I sent my Dad a copy and he had nothing to say about misspellings or grammar. And he always has something to say on those subjects.

Broadcast by Michi Mathias

Shipping

After some research, we plumped for these cardboard mailers, the cheapest we could find. I’d been on the verge of buying some more expensive ones which were advertised as particularly eco-friendly, when I noticed that these were equally sustainable, but the shop just wasn’t shouting about it quite so loudly.

We paid £105.23 for 250 mailers.

As we were using online postage I also bought these labels to print addresses out onto – again, the cheapest I found at £6.99 for 400.

Getting to grips with postage was quite a learning curve. I learned about Click And Drop online and Drop And Go from our local post office, but couldn’t find any comparison, especially the one thing I wanted to know: was one cheaper than the other?

Essentially, as I finally discovered, unless you set up as a business with a certain quantity of shipments per year, the costs are the same. With Click and Drop, you upload your spreadsheet of names, addresses and weights, then pay for the postage online. It sounds easy but it took me a good couple of days to learn the ropes and tweak the variables for each recipient (and then remember that I should take myself off the list as I wouldn’t be paying to deliver a book to myself).

After I’d put all this time in, I learned the real difference between the two services from my local post office. “Click and Drop is killing local post offices” they told me, because with everyone doing the work at home, it is putting staff out of a job.

With Drop and Go, you just print out your list and dump the whole consignment at the post office for them to weigh and stamp in their own time, keeping them in work. Unfortunately, by this time I’d invested so many hours setting up everything that it was too late to switch — but I will remember this next time.

Postage costs were… high. There just wasn’t any getting around it. OK, we could have made a smaller book, but even so, as soon as you send a parcel out of the country, the costs are breathtaking. So, other than the actual printing, shipping costs were our biggest expense.

We sent all the UK post and some international post through Royal Mail, but anything above 2kg (ie more than two books) had to go by courier; we chose Hermes, but prices seem much of a muchness.

Local delivery

Simon is a keen cyclist, but that’s nothing compared his partner who is a really keen cyclist. Between them, they promised they’d deliver all the orders that were within the bounds of Brighton and Hove. This not only cut our carbon footprint, but it saved us a bunch in postage costs.

I keep saying ‘we were lucky’ but what it boils down to is that Simon is a really useful friend to have, and as you can see from this post, he saved the project a lot of money. I haven’t calculated what we saved on local deliveries exactly, but with 30 addresses on the cycle delivery list, it was at least £100.

Go Cross Country: Myfanwy Tristram

Time

No matter how much money you can save by doing everything yourself, you can’t escape the other cost, which is time.

And it’s always more than you’d think. Michi, Zara and Simon all helped when it came to the big, obvious task of stuffing the cardboard mailers and slapping the labels on; then driving them all down to the sorting office so that our local Post Office wouldn’t know that we were killing them…

We’d always planned to do this as a sort of party (if you have fairly dull ideas of what constitutes a party): when Brighton was put into a tier two lockdown, we were a bit concerned about whether we could go ahead, but in the end we decided it counted as work; and kept all the doors open while we packed.

Michi with some of our packages, outside the sorting office

The actual packing only took a few hours, but remember I’d also spent a couple of days setting up all the labels, Michi and Simon had prepped the rewards, etc.

There was also fiddly stuff to deal with during this period, with messages coming in via a variety of channels from people asking if they could make an order; or update the address they’d given; or change the quantity; or pick up their book rather than have it delivered.

What went wrong

We were so glad to have got the bulk of the books into the post before Christmas, but then the UK went into a sudden and even stricter lockdown, meaning that millions of people had to cancel their Christmas plans at the last moment.

Many of those people then had to send their presents by post instead of handing them over in person; while at the same time, post offices were understaffed because of COVID cases and quarantines. Thank goodness Brexit hadn’t quite hit yet at this point.

So, several of the books took longer than they should have to get to their destinations (and some still haven’t arrived, so we’re assuming they’re lost, and sending out some of our very few reserves).

Add to this the people who thought they’d ordered a book but had actually only ordered the eBook; or the people who had moved house but we’d sent books to their old address, etc etc, and – well, there were a lot of messages to investigate and respond to.

Disappointingly, as well, our cardboard wrappers didn’t stand up very well to the rigours of the postal system. At least one parcel arrived with no book inside, to our dismay. So if I were to do this again, I’d look for something a bit more robust.

Finally, one mystery: we never got a reply from the pledger who had paid for a piece of bespoke artwork from the artist of her choice, despite multiple emails and a message written on her parcel telling her to get in touch. If it was you, do let us know.

What went right

Everything else! Can’t complain there. In all, I reckon it was a job well done. There was so much to think about, execute, and follow up on, but our little team managed it all as best we could.

I’ve thanked them multiple times, but I’ll continue to do so at every opportunity – and to everyone else who offered help along the way. I think I’ve namechecked most of them in this series of posts.

Finally: if you’re really wishing you’d ordered a copy now, don’t forget you can add your name to our list and we’ll let you know if we’re ever crazy enough to do it all over again.

Michi and Zara with a celebratory coffee after we’d posted all the parcels

Costs breakdown

Incoming

  • Pledges; direct sales of book, etc: £7,887.35

Outgoing

  • Printing costs: £2,918.00
  • Bookplates and prints: £87.77
  • Shipping Blumenstein comics: £55.25
  • 250 cardboard mailers: £105.23
  • 400 A6 labels: £6.99
  • Postage costs (Royal Mail) £1,389.36
  • International courier costs (Hermes): £218.48

    TOTAL OUTGOINGS: £4,781.08

PROFIT

£3,106.27 – donated to Choose Love.

Want to thank me for this ultra long series of blog posts? Boost our contribution to Choose Love with a donation here.

Draw the Line: the Unbound years

This is a series of blog posts documenting Draw The Line, a project that brought together over 100 cartoonists from around the world, each depicting a positive political action. This is part five.

  • You can find part one, documenting the final product, here
  • then part two, which explains how the project was born
  • part three describes how we wrangled such a big group of artists
  • and part four talks about the launch of our website.

Now comes a more difficult section to write: this covers a move that resulted in a much longer delay than we’d intended in getting the book out into the world, and which was ultimately the wrong decision for this project.

The pitch

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’d spoken to another artist who’d just signed up with Unbound, to ask her whether she thought it would be a good fit for us, and she was broadly positive.

By coincidence, shortly after that, Unbound’s graphic novels specialist came down to talk to our local comics group, Cartoon County, about how the whole set-up worked.

Unbound describes itself as a unique hybrid between crowdfunders like Kickstarter, and traditional publishing houses, giving authors the benefits of both.

In subsequent years I’ve seen several more small publishers switch to the same model, and in fact this specialist has now left to set up their own (smaller and graphic novels-only) publishing house, which also works by crowdfunding.

But at this point, the whole concept was pretty new. It had been conceived and funded by one of the people behind the TV show QI, who had invested in good developers to make a web platform with all the functionality needed to promote and sell books in this innovative way.

What really appealed to me was that once the book was funded, Unbound would be doing all the heavy lifting of getting the printing organised, marketing it at comics fairs and into bookshops (“our titles go into the catalogues that shops like Waterstones pick their stock from”, they told me), and shipping it out.

All this would have required a steep learning curve and a completely new set of skills for me, and I’d been worrying about how we’d manage these logistics, so having the professionals take over that side was a weight off my mind.

Signing on the dotted line

Shop Local by Lucy Knisley
Shop Local by Lucy Knisley

Unbound’s Graphic Novels editor and I met up in a coffee shop the day after their talk in Brighton, to discuss their taking on Draw The Line. They were enthusiastic and it felt like a great fit: they’d do some maths and then get me the contract to sign.

Unbound works to an algorithm to figure out how much needs to be raised before your book is published: as you’d imagine, this takes into account the size of the book, the number of pages, and the number of copies to be produced. I asked that we also allow for a free copy for every participating artist, which may have been an error in terms of pushing the target higher, but which reflected a promise which we’d made to the artists from the beginning.

Of course, Unbound also make their own profit from each book, as any publishing house would – this, too is factored into the algorithm and is added to the target.

In return for their slice of the profits, they provided a page on their website (again, much like a Kickstarter page) with all the rewards laid out on it and a full description of the project, the ability to send out updates to all pledgers, and a backend where authors could see useful stats like the sum still to be raised, who had pledged how much, and where (down to the level of the precise tweet) people had arrived at the page from before making a pledge.

And so, we agreed the tier levels and the target needing to be raised, and our page went live.

During that initial chat, I was told the average sum that customers pledged on Unbound, based on a spread between those that pledge the lowest and those that go all out for the big tier rewards. It was a reassuring figure that allowed me to do some quick calculations to figure out our feasibility.

Because, remember that we had over 100 artists involved in the project. With every artist acting as a promoter for the book, we worked out that if each could bring just 2 or 3 pledges from their friends and family, not to mention the pledgers I assumed we’d gain from general marketing activities, those browsing the Unbound site, etc – well, we’d meet our target in no time.

Rewards all round

The price for the basic hardback first edition book was set at £20, with an eBook thrown in and the chance to have your name included in the back, as one of the people who helped bring it into being.

We were in a great position of being able to ask artists to provide extras, like comics, bespoke or original artwork, workshops and talks that you could add a few quid to your pledge for. There were bundles of multiple volumes for bookclubs and schools, etc, and comedian Joanna Neary even offered to perform a stand-up gig at the occasion of your choice.

Draw The Line artwork

We also added cheaper tiers, with add-ons such as bookplates and prints; and there was always the option of the eBook for a tenner, as well. So in theory, there was something for pretty much every purse.

Telling the world

Our rudimentary marketing machine went into action. We pushed the project on social media, wrote blog posts, and I gave talks anywhere that would have me, including podcasts, comic blogs, our local Sunday Assembly, LDComics, and a sprinkling of salons across the south coast.

We printed out hundreds of flyers and sent them to any of our artists who were willing to distribute them in their local area; at one point I even made badges for anyone brave enough to wear the message ‘ask me about Draw The Line‘ across their chest.

Ask me about Draw The Line

As with most crowdfunding campaigns, we went off to a strong start. Some extraordinarily generous pledges were made (we honoured these prime donors by printing their names more prominently in the back of the eventual book); and ingenious ways were found of adding to the coffers.

For example, Nye Wright made his own comic and donated proceeds; Rachael House ran a workshop in Helsinki and her fees came to us; and a wonderful lady in Hastings, upon hearing about the Raging Grannies, promptly set up her own chapter of this loose but outrageous affiliation of wayward women, then invited friends to a series of seven-course rainbow dinners (each course was a different colour of the spectrum) with a pledge being the entry fee.

Rachael Ball - Raging Grannies
Raging Grannies by Rachael Ball

But unfortunately, when it came to my own talks and interviews, they all had one thing in common: they would always be well received; people would always come up afterwards to say how much they liked the project; they would take a flyer… and it would result in, on average, somewhere between 0 and 1 pledges.

For anyone reading this and hoping to learn how to do it better: of course, the better route would have been to collect all these people’s email addresses so that we could have sent out regular updates to them, and we did start doing this eventually (but to only small effect).

Still – I was undaunted, because, as I say, we had this enormous network of artists to help share the crowdfunder.

Join The Party by Freya Harrison

Tumbleweed

That’s when I learned another important truth, though. Artists (in the main) like to make artwork, but they don’t necessarily want to be involved with a long, long marketing campaign.

As with every other aspect of the project, there were artists who were very keen and went above and beyond in their efforts to help spread the word; and continued to do so doggedly. And there were others who, quite understandably, having submitted their artwork and shared it on social media, moved on to their next project. Let me stress again that this is entirely reasonable and I am not criticising them for having other priorities!

One aspect of Unbound that differs from Kickstarter or any of the other crowdfunding platforms is that it does not set an end date on its fundraising. I don’t know what would have happened if we’d had a much shorter, much more intense, defined period – it is, after all, well known that lots of people make pledges only when the end is in sight. Psychologically this makes sense: it’s now or never, and you could miss out if you don’t pledge then and there; plus, when the end date is on the horizon, the book is going to be in your hands in a defined amount of time.

Anyway, once the first burst of pledges was over, that was it. Silence. Months went by when we’d see only a single pledge, or none at all.

It began to weigh heavy on my mind that we’d accepted payment from those early pledgers – in some cases, really quite substantial sums of money – and we hadn’t delivered them anything in return. I kept trying, kept giving talks, kept tweeting and Instagramming, but it was an uphill struggle when there was so little payback.

Each Monday, I’d get an automated email from Unbound to tell me how much we’d raised that week. Often, it was £0.

Clearly, I’m not a decisive person. This state of affairs ran on for two years before I finally thought, ‘that’s enough’. About which, more in the next post.

Footnote

I want to be clear that I’m not criticising Unbound or their model in this post: I am saying that it didn’t work for Draw The Line, and setting out the reasons why.

Draw the Line: online launch

This is part 4 of the Draw The Line story: you can find part one here, then part two and part three.

So, at the end of the last post, we were just getting artwork in from the 100+ artists who had each illustrated whichever political action they had been allocated. My inbox was bulging and everything was looking great.

During this period, Karrie Fransman had suggested that we concentrate on a digital launch before thinking about a physical printed book: that way, she reasoned, the project could have more impact more immediately, as images and links could be shared quickly and easily through social media, etc. This seemed sensible, so that’s what we agreed to do.

Around this time, Karrie also designed the Draw The Line logo of a fist clutching a pencil, which we were able to use for our site banner and as an avatar across social media.

Incidentally, Karrie’s own artwork contribution, on the theme of welcoming refugees, was one of the ones which got a lot of admiration all round:

Put Out A Welcome Mat by Karrie Fransman

Building the website

Copywriting came as no problem to me, as that’s what I do all day long at work; and we’d already crafted all the action titles and descriptions when sending out the artists’ briefs, so in fact there was very little writing left still to do.

Thanks to my day job, I also have just enough experience to set up a WordPress site and apply templates, etc, but unfortunately that’s really as far as it goes. You could say it was a case of ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.

This is an area where we definitely could have ended up with a better result by calling in a developer or designer – I did ask my colleague Martin Wright for help at this point, and he did what he could, but by then we’d made a few decisions in terms of hosting and design that made it difficult for him to do more that tweak.

That’s not to say it was a complete disaster: the Draw The Line website is functional. It’s still live at www.drawthelinecomics.com so you can see it for yourself. I use WordPress every day at work, so the big benefit for me was that I know its interface well, and there was no learning curve required for me in terms of building and editing the site.

The template we chose allowed me to arrange the actions within categories, all of which can be seen on the homepage – the set-up I’d always envisioned. The images within each category act like a slideshow, and the banner is different on each page load.

But there are some obvious flaws as a result of such choices: each page, and especially that homepage, is slow to load; and that template also had the effect that it’s hard to link to any one specific image within the category pages.

Draw The Line homepage
Draw The Line homepage

As with so many aspects of the Draw The Line project, I was happy to spend a bit of time on it, but didn’t want it to become an enormous time-sink on top of my other responsibilities, so we’ve never gone in to try and fix those flaws.

Telling everyone about it

Despite all I say above, it was (and is!) a functioning website, allowing us to show off all the illustrations in one place, and have an official launch.

The collaborative nature of the project came into play again, as different group members helped write and translate a press release, and crowdsource a list of journalists to send it to – journalists from every country represented among our cohort of artists.

We set up accounts on Instagram, Twitter and a public-facing Facebook page (in addition to the private group for participating artists) and let everyone know the project was open for business.

Don’t forget the book!

Meanwhile, what had happened to the plan of a kickstarted book? Well, our ambitions had grown rather, once we began to see the quality of the work we’d gathered together. We wondered whether it might be better to try and have the book published professionally: this would mean that it would travel further, be available more widely, and ultimately empower more people to take action.

And around this time, we heard about a publishing set-up called Unbound. One of our artists, Wallis Eates, had recently signed with them for one of her books, and it sounded good. They were a hybrid between a kickstarter, and a traditional publishing house: books were crowdfunded by people pledging for copies ahead of printing, but after the target sum had been reached, Unbound would do all the things a standard publishing house does: it’d arrange printing, distribution and marketing, and the book would be offered on Amazon as well as available for sale in bricks and mortar bookshops.

This sounded like a great option for us: after all, we’d already been planning the kickstarter part; but now we’d also have all the benefits that came from a professional publisher.

Well, that’s what we thought, but it didn’t go entirely to plan, and I’ll be writing a bit more about that in the next post.

Draw The Line: the brief

This is the third post in a series of – oh, I don’t know, maybe five or six?

We’ve already looked at the end product of the Draw The Line project and how the idea began. In this post I’ll try to cover the practicalities involved in managing a remote art project with more than 100 participants.

Attend meetings by Emily Haworth-Booth

An international list of artists

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that, thanks to Karrie and the power of social media, we now had a long list of artists who were willing to get involved.

We’d invited them to join a dedicated Facebook group and I also asked everyone to add their name, email address and a link to any web presence to a Google spreadsheet, so I could easily communicate with everyone en masse. Eventually I would import this to Mailchimp, which is free to use if your list of recipients is low enough, and use that to send out mass email updates.

During this stage, I occasionally had to pinch myself as I looked at who was coming on board: many were artists I really looked up to and had never imagined I would be working with. Among them were some pretty big names of the comics world, like Dave McKean, Steven Appleby, Kate Charlesworth, Lucy Knisley, Fumio Obata and Hunt Emerson.

There were also many people I knew well, both from the closeknit Brighton comics scene (Zara Slattery, Michi Mathias, Simon Russell, Daniel Locke, Joe Decie, Hannah Berry, Nye Wright, to name but a few) and the wider but equally networked UK small press community (Katriona Chapman, Una, Rachael Ball, Rachael House, Dave Crane, Karen Rubins, Woodrow Phoenix and more).

Then, thanks to my contacts with the Finnish Femicomix organisation (which itself had come about from the fortuitous friendship with Siiri Viljakka) there was a good representation from Finland (where, in case you didn’t know, small press comics are thriving); this was by far the biggest country represented but we also had artists in Australia, USA, France, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Canada and beyond. At this stage I don’t think I knew how many nationalities we spanned: one side-effect of working online in this way is that people didn’t necessarily mention where they were located, and it took a Facebook post explicitly asking the question to discover that we were spread across 16 different countries.

Then of course there were also plenty of artists I’d not heard of before, and it was a pleasure to discover all their work and various styles.

An inclusive project

Everyone was welcome to take part. We weren’t going to invite artists to submit a piece and then decide whether or not to include their work: the project was inclusive, and if an artist was going to give up their time, we would accept their submission.

As you’ll remember from yesterday’s post, we already had the list of actions that the artists were going to depict. The next step was to allocate them.

We could have done this randomly, but it seemed more sensible to look at each artist’s website or social media, and try to match them to the action we thought was best suited to their style or subject matter.

Some of these pairings worked so well that I now understand how proud casting directors must be when they feel they’ve chosen just the right actors for each role in a production.

For example, Katriona Chapman, who had just published her first book Follow Me In about travelling around Mexico, was given the action about the ‘Border Angels’ who leave water and supplies for migrants crossing into the States.

Carry Water by Katriona Chapman

Steven Appleby did great things with ‘Be yourself’ which played into some of his self-identified obsessions of identity and public perception:

Be Yourself by Steven Appleby

Lengthy instructions

Once we’d made these pairings, we sent each artist a long and detailed brief by email.

This took a little time: while 95% of each mail could be copy and pasted, we also had to include the details specific to each recipient.

In retrospect there was perhaps a bit too much information in these mails, but they did at least cover all bases! Here’s what we included:

  • The title of the action the artist had been allocated (eg, Plant Radical Roots or Question Sources)
  • The text that would accompany their illustration (usually a couple of sentences that explained what the action was, and why it was a good one to do — you can see them all in situ on the Draw The Line website)
  • A reference number that would help us keep track of the action, what the caption was and where it fitted in to the project — we asked artists to name their image with this number, plus their name
  • Specifications for the format, size and dimensions — and Simon made a graphic to show where the bleed margins needed to be
  • A deadline (that, top tip, was a week or two before the actual deadline)
  • A request that people provide their work in both CMYK and RGB versions (because we were foreseeing using them on both a website and the print book)
  • A suggestion that any text was added as a separate layer (so if we ever translated the project for future foreign versions, it would be easier)
  • Links to any reference sources we had identified during our research phase, where relevant (for example, if the action was about signing a petition, we’d link to articles about petitions which had actually brought about change, or a piece about how to ensure your petiton got wider take-up)
  • Some links to inspiring examples, which we listed like this:

If your action is suitable, ie it has several steps or dimensions, you may choose to create a ‘how to’ strip. Here’s a good example by the comic artist Cordelia.

Or you may wish to make a humorous illustration/strip based on the action, like this one by Jorge Cham.

Maybe you’ll use the theme to make a political comment. Here are some examples by female cartoonists from North Africa and here’s another by Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle.

If your action includes a case study, you could use that to make a reportage strip (and we’d then remove it from the accompanying text). You may want to research it a little more before you begin. Fumio Obata is a great example of a comic artist working in this tradition.

You could make an infographic if that’s your bag, like this one by Falara.

Or perhaps you’d like to create a single, meaningful illustration, like this one by Jeannie Phan on the benefits of mentoring or this by Veronica Lawlor depicting a demonstration.

Some other details

A few other things it may be worth mentioning:

  • We asked everyone to confirm they’d received the brief, which turned out to be a useful way of keeping track of how many firmly committed artists we actually had.
  • We told artists to add their name to their work, so that even if it was copied and shared outside the context of Draw The Line, their attribution would never be lost.
  • We requested that all artwork be suitable for kids, because many of the actions were child-friendly (in fact, we had a whole category that was labelled as such), and besides, it would be nice not to exclude that audience. Children were likely to be as worried as we adults about the state of the world, we reasoned!
  • At this stage we also reiterated the need for non-partisan pieces of work.
  • I kept track of absolutely everything on one giant spreadsheet that listed the actions, the artists, whether or not they’d received the brief, submitted their artwork, etc.

The collaborative nature of the project continued: I think some artists were surprised to be asked their opinions about key points, while others found it a natural way to work.

The set-up was loose enough to include a whole range of approaches, though: some artists just wanted to be told what to do, submit their work and be done, while others were quite passionate about the whole idea and keen to join in every discussion point. Both attitudes were absolutely fine and caused no problem to our progress.

The briefing email suggested that artists could discuss their action in the Facebook group if they weren’t sure how to illustrate it and needed inspiration. People could also ask for help if they were unsure how to meet the formatting requirements. And while we didn’t really want the extra work of artists asking us if they could pick a different action instead of the one they’d been allocated, we said it was fine if people wanted to arrange a swap between themselves.

Dig Deeper by Rakel Stammer

What to expect

Here are some of the things we learned during this phase, which, if you’re planning something similar, you might benefit from knowing in advance:

  • Even if they say they will, people don’t always come through (because people are human, and have other commitments, or things crop up, or… in some cases, people are just flaky). Some who said they’d like to take part initially, replied when they saw the brief to say they were dropping out. Others didn’t reply at all, or did confirm but then never submitted work.
    As noted in the last post, we weren’t paying anyone, so we couldn’t really complain about this.
    I’m not sure what the advice is here, other than, perhaps, to accept more artists than you want to eventually get work from?
  • People don’t always read long lists of instructions (some people do! I guess it depends on one’s character). This meant that we received some images that were the wrong dimensions, loads without the artists’ names included, and lots of questions we’d already answered in the original brief.
    One way to try and avoid this would be to send a short email instead. This could list the various points as titles which then linked to fuller instructions on a web page.
  • Even if people do read your instructions, you have to be super clear. For example, I knew what I was envisioning for each page: there would be text below the image to describe an action, with the illustration or comic strip accompanying it — but I can’t have described it as clearly as I might have, because lots of artists replied to ask whether they were expected to integrate the writing into their artwork.
  • Not everyone uses Facebook (in fact, the sanest people probably don’t), and even if everyone did, there’s no guarantee that everyone will see an important message you post there. But email wasn’t infallible either: it could go into spam or just get lost in people’s overswamped inboxes. I used to use a mixture of methods to get attention: for example I’d sometimes tag artists in Facebook posts if they hadn’t replied to an important email.

Creative Commons licenses

We decided early on that, by participating, the artists would be agreeing to make their work available under a non-commercial Creative Commons license. This means that:

  • the artist would retain the copyright, so they owned and could reuse the image in any way they liked in the future;
  • but at the same time, the image was free for anyone else to use in any way, so long as they weren’t going to be making money out of it.
    This means, for example, that any campaign or charity, or indeed individual, could pick up the images and use them in leaflets or posters without payment, boosting the positive effect that the project could have and providing quality artwork to often cash-strapped causes.
    After the website went live, we did indeed hear from campaigns large and small (notably, among them, the Fawcett Society) who asked for permission to use them. No permission was required, but it was nice to know where they were being shared. And this was a good vindication of our decision to have artists sign their work, so that their names were carried through to these other contexts.

Deadline day

As the deadline approached, each morning I’d open up my email and find one or more illustrations submitted by the artists. This part was pure joy!

It was the first point at which I could see the whole nebulous idea really beginning to take shape. Each time a picture arrived, I’d reply to let the artist know we’d received it safely, and then save it in Google Drive, since they tended to be quite large and would use up a lot of space on my hard drive.

Build A Wall of Kindness by Jaime Huxtable

That’s it for today

So, in summary: everything we did at this stage was fairly straightforward, and while it was a bit time-consuming, that was to be expected. There was, however, some extra work I hadn’t foreseen here, which was:

  • When people dropped out, responding to them, removing them from the central spreadsheet and perhaps allocating their action to someone else;
  • Replying to artists to clarify points they were unsure about, or to ask them to alter their submission to adhere to the guidelines;
  • Chasing people who didn’t reply to the initial brief, to check whether they still wanted to be involved.

Draw The Line: the beginning

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

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

In the dark and lonely hours

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

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

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

Image: ‘Question the Narrative’ by Landis Blair

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

A germ of an idea

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook does Facebook

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

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

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

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

Image: Give mindfully by Dave McKean

Gather your team

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

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

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

Image: Sign, Seal, Deliver by Nicholas Sputnik Miller

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

How to collaborate

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

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

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

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

Resolutely neutral

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Go Large by Hunt Emerson

Hand-wringing leftie SJW snowflakes

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

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

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

Image: Plant Radical Roots by Zara Slattery

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

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

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

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

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

Pay the artists

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

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

Image: Pay Well by Beth Dawson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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