‘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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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)?
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).
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Steven Appleby did great things with ‘Be yourself’ which played into some of his self-identified obsessions of identity and public perception:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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) .
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.
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.
Apologies for the grandiose title: I’m not really envisioning this becoming a Netflix miniseries.
However, there is quite a bit to say about the Draw The Line project.
Here we are with a gorgeous book, lots of good reviews, demand for a second print run, and having made a decent donation to a charity that we believe in. Any comic artist would be delighted with all that, and if you make comics yourself, you might be thinking you’d like to do something similar.
But those benefits were quite hard won. It’s been a long and sometimes challenging journey, and I suspect that we could save other people time and effort by sharing what we learned along the way.
What was Draw The Line?
With apologies to longtime readers who know full well what it was, here’s a catch-up for those who don’t: Draw The Line brought together 100+ comic artists, each of whom depicted an action you can take if you are feeling powerless in the current political landscape.
It began life as a website, and we have just now produced a print book containing all the illustrations and actions. Together, as our carefully-honed strapline proclaims, they make up a toolkit for activism.
A long timeline
To give you some idea of the timescale, the idea for Draw The Line emerged in late 2016. It was a response to Trump coming to power, the Brexit vote, the rise of ‘fake news’ and all the other worrying aspects of that year.
The printed book finally arrived through people’s letterboxes just after the Biden win, so to give you a timeline that we can all relate to, the project basically spanned the entire exhausting Trump administration.
While it’s fresh in my mind
I’m going to blog everything I can about the entire process, and it’s probably going to end up being a series of several posts, because there’s a lot to cover.
And so, these posts are for you if you:
are considering creating an anthology comic or any other group creative endeavour;
would like to do so without actually meeting the contributors (on which, let’s face it, we were somewhat ahead of the lockdown curve);
would benefit from answers to questions like, “what’s the cheapest book packaging and can I still be environmentally friendly if I pick it?”, or “what’s the difference between ‘Click and Drop’ and ‘Drop and Go’?”;
are curious about running a collaborative, not for profit project where everyone has a say;
would like to know all the nitpicky annoying things that make even the simplest project more complicated than you’d have anticipated;
or, you hadn’t actually considered any of those things but hey, now you think about it, that all sounds pretty interesting.
Start at the end
I must say that the four-year incubation period was not something that any of us expected. Before I dive into the reasons for that, though, let’s begin at the end. After all, this is the reason we did anything at all.
Draw The Line is now a beautiful, full colour A4 hardback book, containing the work of 113 comic artists from 16 different countries, each depicting a positive action anyone can take if they don’t like the current political landscape.
We saved lives through comics
From the start, we knew that all profits would be going to our chosen charity, Choose Love (originally known as Help Refugees); it was a great moment when we were able to transfer the final sum of £3,106.27 to them (more – much more – about numbers and costs in a subsequent post).
Choose Love messaged us to say:
Thank you so much for your support. This is the sixth winter since our organisation began and the needs on the ground have never been so great. The emergency context, compounded with COVID-19, lack of global funding awareness and the ever-increasing hostile environment for displaced people means your donation will literally save lives.
Literally save lives? I mean, I can’t deny that that feels pretty good.
To put that sum into context, here’s a graphic from the charity about how they spend donations:
So with our donation, modest though it might seem to some, we’re looking at 621 weeks of fruit and veg, or 310 sleeping bags, or 31 phones, or 8 days at sea.
As someone who longs to help but can’t really spare large amounts of money, to be able to make a donation like this was really gratifying. (And if this inspires you to donate, you can do so here.)
An actual book
It’s not just that, though: there is the pleasure of a job well done. The book has been well-received by those who have it in their hands. Thanks to interior design and layout by Simon Russell, and a cover design by Woodrow Phoenix, it looks professional; and thanks to many rounds of proofing by me and Michi Mathias, the copy is error-free. It’s basically a better physical product than I had ever imagined.
And, most importantly, it does what it promised to do. It is a toolkit for activism. It depicts actions, large and small, that you, or anyone, could take right now if you want to change the world. It labels them so you know what you can do if you’re a kid, or if you can’t spend money, or if you’re an artist, or if you particularly want to help homeless people or disabled people, or women, or minorities (and lots more).
We sold out within days of taking delivery of the print run, and we’ve had congratulatory tweets, photos, emails and DMs from readers, many of whom have been asking whether there are more copies to buy. There aren’t, but we’re keeping a list of those who are interested, in case we go for a second print run (if that’s of interest, you can add your name here).
And who could want for more than that? I can’t deny it feels pretty good.
So, that’s the reason we created Draw The Line in the first place; in the next post I’ll go right back to the beginning, with a bit more about why we started it, how we got so many artists involved, and how we were able to shape the project collaboratively.
I’m also planning to cover the various tools we used; the decision to license all the images under Creative Commons; what did and didn’t work for us in terms of crowdfunding; and logistics and costs of the print run and shipping. If you have any questions about these or any other areas, please do comment below and it’ll help me to include the most useful details. Thanks!
My work in progress, Satin and Tat, has been shortlisted for the Myriad First Graphic Novel prize. Surprised? Not as surprised as me. You should have seen me squawk when I got the email.
It means a lot, and here’s why:
Since lockdown began, I haven’t been able to draw any comics at all. I know I’m not alone in this phenomenon; I’ve seen others mention that their creativity has been blocked or stifled in various ways by these unusual times, too.
When lockdown began, I had just started a new, small project. Satin and Tat was taking so long, and I was beginning to feel so unsure of its worth, that I thought I would stop for a bit and consider. Apart from anything else, I was afraid that everyone would forget who I was if I took several years to complete such a big piece of work!
My plan was to turn to getting something else quick and dirty out, so I’d have a comic to sell at this year’s festivals.
But then there weren’t any physical comics festivals, and also, the new comic was predicated on a way of living that wasn’t actually possible any more. The pandemic was such an unknown and lots of people were saying we might never return to normal, and it seemed foolish to be drawing a piece that might turn out to be a quaint historical artifact rather than the truthful look at modern life it was designed to be.
Lockdown has not been particularly easy in this household, for a number of reasons. I can’t say that we’ve suffered as much as those who have lost a loved one to covid-19 — not even nearly as much, it would be sacrilege to suggest as much — but there have been significant stresses, shall we say. Much of what I took for granted about myself: an ability to get up early, put some work in on comics, go for a run at lunch time, do some more drawing after dinner, has disappeared in the face of a number of physical and mental challenges.
Any energy I’ve had has needed to go into my parenting, my health, my job, and, it seems, a colossal amount of DIY around the house and garden (hence the mural in my last post). Painting the floor and doing up the garden has been my only creative outlet for the last several weeks (one that my great friend Zara Slattery very kindly described as ‘a bit like drawing, just on a much bigger scale’).
As of now, I haven’t looked at or drawn anything for Satin and Tat since I submitted 30 pages of it, in black and white, to Myriad. Doesn’t matter what happens next. Knowing that a panel of judges have assessed it and taken it through to the shortlist is exactly the confidence boost I need right now.
Thank you, judges and Myriad!
My fellow shortlistees are all really interesting as well, so go and check them out:
Somewhere near the beginning of the lockdown, I had ten days off work.
We were supposed to be going down to Devon to see my parents, but of course the travel restrictions put paid to that.
Which was a shame, because for the first time in living memory, I’d actually picked a week for the family holiday where the weather was absolutely blissful. Well, it can’t be helped. Instead, stuck at home, I decided to paint a mural on the blank wall just outside our kitchen window.
I have to admit that we haven’t paid our tiny little back yard much attention since we moved into the house a good seven years ago. It barely gets any sun; it’s completely paved over apart from a single flower bed, which was home to an ageing buddleia when we first moved in. The buddleia eventually collapsed with age, and the flower bed, well, it’s more the cats’ toilet than anything else.
But quarantine has given us time, if nothing else. And if not now, then when?
Don’t be like me, though! It’s obvious that it would have been much better to:
measure the wall first and work out its exact proportions before starting to draw. In fact, in this digital age, one method would be to take a photo of the wall, and import it into a drawing app as the base layer to draw on top of.
check which colour paints were available and design the palette around that (all the more so in this time when every online shop seems to have a lot of stock unavailable).
Still, me being me, and hindsight being 20:20, I didn’t do either of those things. Here’s the drawing I came up with:
– which is narrower and taller than the actual wall, and uses digital colours that aren’t necessarily replicable in physical media.
In the end it didn’t matter too much: after all, the only client here was myself, and I am pretty lenient. And also, pretty used to fudging things. Probably because of a result of always being like this.
My friend Karen Rubins had mentioned on a Facebook thread that she recommended Lascaux paints for murals. They’re weather resistant, they flow and mix nicely, and they come in a range of beautiful deep colours. They are a bit pricey, but they’re far more suitable than cheaper acrylics that might work fine on paper but are just the wrong texture and thickness for a wall painting.
So, once I had attempted to match the colours from my sketch to the colours available (or what I optimistically thought I could mix those colours into), I put in an online order and started getting the canvas ready.
Prepping the wall
Lots of the house and garden walls here in Brighton are made of ‘bungaroosh’, one of those weird local words you won’t hear anywhere else, but which you’ll hear a lot once you move here. It basically translates as ‘lumps of flint and brick held together with straw, mortar, and whatever random materials the builder could chuck in’ and it’s the bane of Brightonians’ lives.
If you try to put a nail in the wall, you’ll either make a massive hole in the mortar, Daddy Pig-style, or you’ll hit a hard lump of flint that even a diamond-tipped drill wouldn’t make a dent in.
Tellingly, there’s a quote on the Wikipedia page for bungaroosh:
A common maxim states that much of Brighton “could be demolished with a well-aimed hose”; the supposed extent of this destruction varies between “a third” and “half” depending on the source.
So bear in mind that I think that’s what is behind the render of this piece of wall.
Anyway, while I was waiting for my acrylics to arrive, I first swabbed down the render with a bleach solution. At one point it had been painted white, but over time it had acquired some black marks and general muckiness.
While I was doing this, I noticed that there were quite a few dents and uneven parts, so I braved the socially-distanced queue at Screwfix (which is handily just down the road) and came home with some filler, as well as some primer.
At the foot of the wall, the render was bubbling up a bit and it was clear that there was some damp. The other side of it is the neighbours’ outhouse, so it’s not something I could do much about. As it happened, I found some ‘damp stop’ paint in the shed which warned several times in its small print that it couldn’t prevent damp, just try to cover it up. Call it lockdown recklessness if you will, but I chose the ‘la la la can’t hear you’ path and painted it onto the bottom quarter of the wall anyway, figuring it couldn’t really hurt.
Tracing the lines
A tip I’d picked up from one of those Pinterest links was to project the design onto the wall, and then use chalk to draw in the lines (another way, that would rely much more on skill and concentration, is to divide your image into a grid and then copy it across by eye).
I’d somehow imagined this would be fairly easy: in fact I had visions of the whole family coming out to the yard after dark and having fun helping me trace the projected image. But real life ain’t like that: my loved ones weren’t interested, and it was hard to position the projector properly, balanced as it was on a sloping shed roof. Turns out that if you just nudge it a fraction of a centimetre, the image veers wildly, over the wall and onto the neighbours’ facades.
And then, because the yard is so small, I couldn’t get far back enough to get the whole image on the wall at once. I had to do half at a time, and then try to match them up.
In the light of day it turned out it wasn’t too bad, but I did have to resketch the middle portion somewhat. As I’ve already mentioned, fudging is a way of life to me, though, so it could’ve been worse.
The paints arrived!
Cut to several days later when a small box arrived, packed with little bottles of colour. Too little in some cases: the bigger bottles weren’t in stock.
It soon became obvious that:
I was going to run out of white really quickly
I hadn’t quite got the right colours to mix and make the shade I wanted for the background
The fact that the wall is in shadow 100% of the time meant everything had to be lightened up
But apart from that, everything was fine!
I sent off for some more paint from a couple of other suppliers, hoping at least one of them would come through, and meanwhile started on the bits I could do.
I had these lovely big brushes (also from Screwfix) because I’d been painting our stairs indoors:
Sidenote – they may be the most beautiful objects I’ve held in my hand for some time, and they’re just sold as cheap(ish) decorators’ brushes. They were excellent for making big bold lines, and for filling in large areas of colour.
The other type of brush I found invaluable was a flat-edged one, so I could get the lines really precise.
Here are the first strokes:
You can see my progress in reverse chronological order on my Instagram, including the wrong background colour I was trying out at first.
And there it is. One thing I hadn’t quite anticipated is quite how much it ‘comes in’ to the kitchen: that is, from certain spots, your view through the window is taken up with a huge bird’s head peeping in. Which I quite like, just hadn’t foreseen.
Now we’ll just have to wait and see how long it is before the damp breaks through, and whether it does much damage. It doesn’t really matter – I’ve achieved a long time ambition of painting a mural at least, and I have these photos to prove it.
And I still had a holiday of sorts, because:
I spent each day doing something totally new
I went somewhere I don’t usually spend much time (my own back yard)
I was out in the sunshine, letting conversations (of my neighbours) and new scents (of my neighbours’ cooking) and birdsong (well, the local seagulls) wash over me, often with a nice strong coffee in hand and a good new podcast playing.
And although it took a bit longer than I’d anticipated, there was something very pleasing about making big brush marks on the wall outside, while through the window my husband pottered about in the kitchen, cooking inside. There was even a point at which my daughter joined me and started painting an old bench. The cats came out to explore. Everyone was happily occupied. And that’s kind of the most you ever hope for from a holiday, wherever it is.
I did say I would report back from the Panel Show exhibition at Sunnybank Mills in Farsley, and here it is!
Thanks so much to Beth Dawson (whose work is also in the show, and whose comic is available to buy in the gallery shop) for taking me there. It’s a beautiful place — as you’d guess from the name, an old mill, so a huge space with vast windows and tons of light — and the exhibition is spot on. Kudos to Si Smith for all his hard work in curating and managing it.
(Click to see any of the images at a larger size)
The best thing about the show was its focus on ‘process’. Most artists had provided not just a finished piece of work, but one, two or three steps within the process of making it: sketches, inks, and then the final page, for example.
Joe Decie: three steps for each strip
As a comic artist myself I found it very interesting to see how different people work (and especially those working to ‘proper’ methods for the big comic publishers); I think even those who don’t draw themselves would also find it elucidating to understand what goes into a final page.
Dean Ormston Age of Doom for Dark Horse. Apologies for the terrible picture, but it’s interesting to see the paper this was drawn on with the printed lines to show the bleed area and the placement of the more important central content. In other words, no-one cares if a few snowflakes get cut off the edge of the page, but you don’t want to lose the actual cityscape.
I was thrilled to see this page from Sara Varon’s Bake Sale, not just because the book was a favourite when my daughter was small, but because this very image of the strip of bacon getting over-excited at a parade was a long-running source of mirth in our household. Well, you try reading a book out loud and then getting to that part, without at least cracking a smile.
You can buy prints of some of the artwork and I must say I was tempted by this one (but then remembered the limited amount of wallspace back home…)
Oops, nearly forgot! Here’s my work, hung beside Zara Slattery’s images from her work in progress, Coma Comic.
There’s a big range of different types of comic at Panel Show, from self-published zines, to indie graphic novels, to the Beano and Tank Girl. Basically, you get to read comics for about an hour, and then buy comics in the gift shop, and you really can’t ask for much more than that.
While I was in the Leeds area, I also visited their amazing art gallery. It’s free to get in, it has a great collection, contains several panels of a big a tapestry made by the community, and even has an art library in it. People of Leeds, I hope you know how lucky you are!
While poking around to find the tapestry, I also came across the best thing of all — their zine library.
I left some Draw The Line postcards there, which (of course) I hope will inspire zine-lovers to pledge for the book.
Well done Leeds, you were a very good city to visit.
I still feel slightly odd to have been invited to give a lecture at an actual university: I mean, that’s for legitimate artists, surely?
Aha! Get thee behind me, imposter syndrome! In fact, this was pretty much the subject of my talk. That is to say, at what point in a non-traditional route to a regular creative practice was I comfortable to call myself ‘an artist’… and what does that actually mean?
For a long time, I felt that unless illustration was a full time job, I was a bit of a fraud referring to myself that way. But as time has gone on and I’ve drawn practically every day, I am beginning to realise that there are many other factors that allow you to wear the label of ‘artist’.
Turns out this is a subject that has been on the minds of a few of my Instagram followers too, who requested I record the talk so they could hear it. We did try to, but unfortunately the laptop I was using went a bit odd half way through, so we switched machines and lost the recording at that point.
Not to worry: I’m happy to share the slides and my notes. Getting this talk together resulted in a more coherent understanding of my own path, but with plenty of wider universal truths in the mix as well, which is my favourite recipe for a comic. So I’d also like to draw that some time soon – perhaps just a very rough and quick one so it doesn’t take up too much time – and that way everyone who wants to can see it for themselves.
Wondering how to cope in an increasingly depressing world? Well, one thing you could do is come and see some people discussing comics which are all about that depressing world.
I’ll be talking about Draw The Line at an event in Brighton on November 3, run by Myriad. But I’m just the support act: top of the bill is Darryl Cunningham, in conversation with Robin Ince about his newest book Billionaires.
In a nice contrast, once Darryl has thoroughly depressed everyone with his exposé of the super rich elite and the neoliberal capitalist/consumerist system, I’ll be explaining how you can fix things with the positive political actions outlined in the Draw The Line project.
Or, ok, fix things a bit. No guarantees that Draw The Line can make everything better.
An assurance we can make, though, is that this will be a pleasant way to spend a November Sunday afternoon, so book now – tickets are here.
Just a quick note to say that a page from my graphic memoir-in-progress, Satin and Tat, is on display in the Panel Show exhibition at Sunnybank Mills, Farsley, Leeds.
The show runs until November 10 and also includes work from Darryl Cunningham, Joe Decie, Kate Charlesworth, Katriona Chapman, Luke Pearson, Zara Slattery and many many others worth seeing.
There’s an emphasis on how comic art is created, so along with the other exhibitors, I’ve contributed both a finished page and the pencil drawing that was the first step in the process (click to see these at a larger size).
The gallery space looks wonderful, and there’s also a shop selling work from everyone. This includes several of my own comics, prints and cut-out dolls. If you’re at all local, Sunnybank Mills is probably the best place to get these at the moment, as I’ve sent them most of my stock.
If you’re the world’s biggest Myfanwy Tristram fan, you can even buy prints of the artwork. I am not sure this particular page is the most desirable thing to have on a wall though!
I’m planning to see the show myself soon, as I am traveling up that way, and I’ll be sure to take some photos and report back.
I am really pleased to have had my first illustrated essay published on Longreads – see it in situ here.
Illustrations for this were created in the same way as the drawings I’ve been doing for my graphic memoir-in-progress, Satin and Tat – a pencil crayon sketch, scanned in and then coloured digitally. Still really loving my Surfacebook laptop and the option to draw directly onto the screen in this way.