Thoughts on the Small Press industry in the UK

It has been a good while since I last posted on here, various distractions and other occupations meant that I didn’t have time (or the energy) to devote to keeping this blog updated. I have also been working on some digital art – for some GPS-based games I have been writing and coding, nothing much more serious than that. It isn’t much fun for me to try drawing anything with a stylus on a computer, but I can see how it has its attractions for those people who are more practised and skilful at digital art. Nothing like smearing ink over a page or knocking over a bottle of India ink over your last finished panel…! But I did manage to produce some acceptable graphics that won’t be too closely scrutinised by the players. Anyhow, not wishing to digress any further, I came across this blog on Broken Frontier which resonated with me particularly over the last few months, since the last Comiket fest at the British Library.

I self-publish all my own books on a rather small scale and also don’t do much about marketing them – I sell them at Foyles (but they rarely grab attention since they are stored sideways in cramped shelves, and my books do not have any lettering on their spines). A lot of the observations in Andy Oliver’s articles above coincide exactly with my own, and it is a concern that we are not reaching the wider public, and for sure, the lack of curation doesn’t help (although I cannot propose any fairer alternative). Like articles and other stuff on the web, there’s a lot of white noise out there and filtering out the wheat from the chaff is getting increasingly difficult with time. Moreover, some of the chaff out there know how to market themselves extremely well. Perhaps I’d never properly understood or appreciated how crucial marketing really is to selling a product. It is something that I am also astoundingly bad at, and it is no good pretending it doesn’t truly matter.

It doesn’t help that I suspect that I don’t write or draw comics for people who usually read and enjoy graphic novels. I don’t have a target audience in mind or if I do, they’re most likely the sort of people who spend their time browsing in the Fiction or Poetry sections of a bookstore, steering clear of anything to do with comics, god forbid!

I haven’t spent much time pondering over my next issue of Cabaret Voltaire, because I have so many issues of The Street Dancer’s Romance to sell and with only one comics festival under my belt this year, it looks like I have to be a bit more organised about attending these festivals and fairs in 2015 to sell more of my stock. Thought Bubble in Leeds 2015? Have wheels, will travel!


An Easter surprise

It has been a long time since I updated this blog; drawing and plotting stories have been low on my list of priorities of late. I had expected some comics festival (like Comica Comiket) to be announced in April so I could go publicise and peddle my new comics there but nothing has appeared on the horizon before the summer, so there doesn’t seem to be much incentive for me to plot a third issue of Cabaret Voltaire before the first two issues have mostly sold out.

Anyway I was browsing in Foyles just before Easter and to my surprise, found my book in the Staff Picks section.


So I hope this will help in selling the remaining stock I have in Foyles.

Wordless comics may not be terribly de rigueur right now but I drew the book mostly for myself as an experiment in conveying a slightly more complex story without words, using mere expressions as well as the composition of each frame to tell the story. I suppose if I succeed in doing that, readers would not necessarily even notice. Again I’ve been using my favourite noir-ish, woodblock printing style of drawing to complement the story’s anachronistic feel.

However, since the street dancer’s actions in the end are unexplained and possibly inexplicable to some, the readers is free to impose his/her own interpretations on the story and the street dancer’s motivations for his seemingly irrational choice.

Don’t we all make irrational choices from time to time? He has chosen a fantasy, an ideal – or has he?

I will be away and abroad for the summer and so may not attend many comics festivals until the late summer or autumn. Am seriously considering the Thought Bubble this year in Leeds, if time permits.


A new year and fresh opportunities on the horizon

Happy New Year to anyone who reads my blog! It has been a little while and so I might post some updates about my new book here. I’ve succeeded in stocking my books in Foyles – the Cabaret Voltaire II is on sale there for £6.50. If you happen to be in Foyles on Charing Cross Road, look in the graphic novels – Indie section on the ground floor by the information desk, you can find them under J, along with my older books. The books are also displayed in another indie comic shelf for better publicity. So far, I suspect it might take a review or two to shift the books, but we will see. I will be taking some of these books to Gosh Comics as well, so stay posted.

Anyway, while we’re on the topic of wordless graphic novels, there’s a new show touring NYC that looks very interesting.

Do check out the video preview!

I would most definitely go if I were in NYC. I don’t have any more details about the show but anything that showcases artists like Nuckel, Ward and Masereel can’t go far wrong in my books!

As far as stocking my books in the Far East, I have approached a Singaporean independent bookseller and am hoping we can work out a deal to stock my books there as well. It certainly can’t hurt to spread one’s wings… although none of my books have any particularly “Asian” flavour to them at all, which might confound people who pick up my book, expecting something a little different from an author with my name.

As for working on a new story for CV III, that’s still up in the air somewhere. While I have a couple of ideas brewing, I’d also like to see how well CV II does in sales before I embark on yet another project and fill my spare room with boxes of unsold books…

A long break

I have been dreadfully remiss about updating this blog! The main reason is that I don’t tend to update this blog when I haven’t done any drawing or planning what I am going to draw or write next. 2013 has been a very strange year, to say the least… hopelessly unproductive in some ways and a very long holiday in the far East also meant that my work was entirely put on the backburner and almost forgotten.

I had intended to work on two short stories for Cabaret Voltaire issue two – “Signal Failure” was one that had been rattling about in my brain for a while, but somehow the words wouldn’t come and I didn’t want to force them. I had storyboarded the entire sorry tale but only in my mind, and fleshing out the actual frames took more work than I could muster in the enervating tropical heat. I honestly don’t know how anyone does any useful work in that kind of weather. All I wanted to do was to move as little as possible and I suspect even my brain plodded along more sluggishly than usual. At the time, it was only capable of pondering on food and trivial amusements.

Anyway I am back in familiar environs and ready to get on with some work this autumn and winter, and my next new story will be word-less like “The Snack Bar”, except this time it will be about a street performer who dances with a dummy and lives a solitary existence. The preliminary title is “The Street Dancer’s Romance” and I have already pencilled a few pages on A3 Bristol board. It will be a tricky story to pull off right, however, and I’m still wondering whether it will be successful. I am doing it in the woodcut style, one picture per page — recently influenced by my favourite woodcut artist, Otto Nuckel, and a recent book I had bought by Lynd Ward called “Vertigo”, which was far more complex in style and plot than any other woodcut novel I’d seen so far. I wasn’t sure it was a complete success as far as elucidating the plot went, but the stark black-and-white compositions were gorgeous masterpieces. I cannot say my ink drawings will be anything like those woodcuts, but at least I can make an attempt to tell a story in my own way. I won’t give an estimated time for completion as this will depend on so many other things going on, but I do hope to get this story completed by the end of the year. And sent to the publishers. Cabaret Voltaire issue two is likely to contain only this one story instead of two as originally planned.


The Dream

The Dream - cover image

I am already feeling the pressure of having to produce a small comic booklet in time for the Comica Comiket comics festival in November. After the deflating and disappointing sales performance at the Alternative Press Festival, I have realised that to pull some more people in, it is sometimes necessary to have more than one book for sale, especially if that sole book is by an unknown artist (me) and not extremely cheap. So I thought a cheap (2 or 3 quid) mini comic might be in order, and drew ‘Ash Wednesday’ for Emanata as well as for this comic, but that story was hastily written and drawn, and I didn’t feel it was up to my usual standards. Still, the Emanata staff sent me very positive comments about it and I felt encouraged by the reception.

Feeling somewhat pessimistic about successfully plotting another short story in time for press by mid-October, I became vaguely inspired by a telephone call with my mother where she detailed a recent disquieting dream she’d recently had. Various acquaintances and contemporaries of hers had fallen ill or passed away this year and so the content of the dream didn’t surprise me too much. I thought I had the germ of an idea for a dream story, which I found easier than others to construct and write, since dreams were usually surreal. I took the gist of my mother’s dream, incorporated a few “horror” elements of my own, not outright cliched-horror but a rather more personally disturbing horror, such as a disembodied wailing voice echoing around a dark hospital corridor. It might have been one of the recurring nightmares I’d had when I was younger.  I didn’t have any problems building the tension in the story nor in whisking the reader from page to page, but I was completely stumped for an ending. Dreams always end with the dreamer waking up, but a possible (but cliched) twist might be for the dreamer to realise he/she isn’t really dreaming. But that ‘twist’ has been done to death, I thought, so my dreamer had to wake up with a lingering, unsettling feeling that the dream might cross over into reality at some point soon. The dreamer was insecure about his life, about his wife in particular, and her relationship with his best friend. I was insomniac one night, and at about 2 or 3am while my restless but exhausted mind ran the gauntlet of mysterious dream endings, I thought I had an appropriate final panel, one that didn’t end with reassurance but had a sort of portentous doom about it. I didn’t question this ending but instead, felt delighted about my early-morning epiphany, and then set about diligently drawing and inking the comic, 2 pages per day, in a sort of inspired frenzy. Hardly ever since ‘The Card Players’ have I worked almost daily on a comics project!

But upon rereading it after finishing the final page, it feels like it might fall a bit flat after all. A bit of a high school story, perhaps, with too little of the disquiet I’d intended to leave behind in the mind of the reader. I am undecided whether to submit this story and ‘Ash Wednesday’ to press because I am not sure of its true merit. It doesn’t quite stand together with some of my stronger stories in ‘Painting Stories’ and I’m afraid it’s not necessarily the best advertisement for my work, although I am quite satisfied with the artwork and feel that I have improved in that area. Anyway this story has also been submitted to Emanata for online publication in its next push – maybe then I’ll find out if readers will connect with it. I haven’t shown it to very many people at all and so other people might think differently, I’m often the harshest critic of my own work!

At Fourteen Past The Hour on Smackjeeves

I’ve started on a new short story. This will eventually feature in a collection of short stories around a loose railway/trains theme. This one is provisionally titled “At Fourteen Minutes Past The Hour” for now and I have finished pencilling and inking the first page, if only to work out the general style of the rest of the pages. I haven’t quite finished writing it yet so I’ve got to be careful not to pencil any more pages until I am more certain of the overall structure this is going to take. I have learned from my past mistakes, when I meandered for far too long in some past short stories. In fact, I lost the plot structure completely in my story “The Cafe Terrace” and that is my least favourite story of the last collection and it took the longest to finish drawing as I struggled to tie all the strands together. This time, I intend to finish writing the story from start to finish before doing the pencilling, only refining the narrative as I ink the pages. I am taking a lot more care about my drawing as well as the panel borders this time, so it will hopefully, look like a more polished product than my past comics.

Anyway without further ado, here’s the link to the story on Smackjeeves, it will be updated at regular, if rather long intervals, as I have to squeeze in other work, etc. in between.

Smackjeeves is a real timesaver and I will be using it from now on as a dumping ground for my unfinished short stories, instead of putting them in hidden links on my website. It will definitely free up some time that would otherwise be spent building temporary pages to hold the images.

The fonts I am using were downloaded free from an excellent new site for retro fonts called as well as and they are:

  • Font-On-A-Stick for the narrative
  • Kraash Black for the sound effects
  • Rumpelstiltskin for the sound effects



Staff review of ‘Painting Stories’ at Foyles

After wandering into Foyles about once a week to check whether my books had sold (and always finding the copies tucked away, hidden from view, behind another similar sized book in the Nobrow small press shelf), I had an email from of the staff at Foyles, incidentally the person I first spoke to when I approached them about stocking a few of my books for sale. He had read through my book and thought it deserved to have some commercial success, most importantly, he enjoyed it and it was one of the very rare nuggets of feedback I’d ever received from someone I didn’t actually know as a friend. He said he’d write a staff review for my book and this is what it said:

“Painting Stories takes paintings by well known artists and
constructs short graphic stories around them. The stories
are beautifully written, stylish, dialogue-based tales drawn
in an elegant noir style. Like the paintings they are inspired
by, these stories have a kind of magic to them that makes
one want to return to them again. A highly accomplished
debut graphic novel.”

I don’t actually know where to even find the little review in the shop, but he told me that a copy went almost immediately after the review went up. So, thank you so much, Patrick, for a really invaluable helping hand! Seeing how slowly these books go, and how rarely they even attract attention, is discouraging me from working wholeheartedly on my second book. I think a big problem may be that people have preconceptions about the book when they read the blurb on the back cover, and unless they give it a chance and actually read a story or two, they will just find numerous reasons to dismiss it – I know the cover isn’t attractive and the production quality is amateurish at best; I’m still a bit disappointed with the glossy pages.

So.. on to book sales. My copies at Orbital Comics still haven’t shifted and the staff member I spoke to there was the least enthusiastic about my book, suggesting that I should move it on if it didn’t sell within 3 months. Well, I returned a week or so later and discovered my book had been put in a really inconspicuous bottom shelf, it took me more than 10 minutes to actually spot it in the little room even though I was actively looking out for it. No one would ever find it in there – it didn’t even look like the small press section was well-patronised anyway because the room was usually empty whenever I was there. So I expect to be collecting my books at the end of summer. Gosh Comics on the other hand, gave it a fairly prominent position on their small press shelf near the window. I sold my first copies there fairly quickly, possibly after the publicity of Comiket, but subsequently, sales have stalled there too… And Foyles, dear Foyles, in which I had placed so much hope… well, we will see if the review succeeds in shifting any books!

Graphic novels I’ve been reading

While I mull over my next work, and struggle to gain any new exposure at all for my ‘Painting Stories’ book (social networking is not my forte), I might blog about the graphic novels I have read in the past few months that have been worthy of mention.

The first is the much-awaited ‘Habibi‘ by Craig Thompson, a cool seven years in the making and a gorgeous (and hefty) tome. I got a signed copy from Foyles and settled down to read it last Sept, it wasn’t an easy book to devour in one sitting, so I think it took two or three, but this one wasn’t as compelling as ‘Blankets’, although the artwork was classic Craig Thompson, stunningly beautiful, expressive and awe-inspiring. I won’t give anything away here but it follows the lives of a slave girl and a little boy she ‘adopted’ through their childhood in what resembled a medieval Arabia through to the present day. This made the story seem allegorical rather than realistic. It was really an ambitious epic full of twists and turns in the plot, very readable and beautiful to behold, but the story itself failed to resonate with me. But this is very much a subjective view, as I tend to be very eccentrically choosy about the graphic novels I read, and I am sure it will be hugely popular with the rest of the graphic novel crowd.

The other book worthy of mention is Seth’s ‘George Sprott‘ which I read much earlier, and it is much in the style of his other books, following Sprott, an imaginary character, through his life as an Alaskan explorer and later, a Canadian radio commentator who slowly loses his audience as well as his cultural relevance in the modern world. Another typical Seth-nostalgic look back at what we’ve lost as we move forward into the 21st century. Naturally, this one struck a chord in me and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as well as the painstaking detail that went into the construction of the fictitious town where Sprott did his broadcasting and the lives of a rich and wholly believable array of characters on the periphery. This book will certainly appeal to anyone with a strong, nostalgic bent.

Moving on to a much more recent offering, and the most recent graphic novels I’ve read, are two books that I picked up at Comiket! I know I resolved not to buy any books at the fest but at least, I did not end up buying more books than I sold myself…! They were Simone Lia’s “Fluffy” and her latest book, “Please God, Find Me a Husband“. The first is a charming, albeit mostly inconsequential little book about a bunny (who denies he is a bunny) and a man whom the bunny recognises as his daddy. It was a sweet and amusing read but the bunny did get a little cloying towards the end, and I wasn’t so sure about having a ‘dust mote’ narrate the story at parts, to fill in for any gaps in the story. However, it was still a good effort for a first book.

The second book is more of a bravely autobiographical story about the artist’s bad luck with finding a suitable partner and how this led to her having an ‘adventure with God’. I didn’t think I’d ever read a graphic novel featuring a cartoon Blessed Sacrament… It was lighthearted and humorous and I found myself laughing out loud at a few of the pages, so it was an enjoyable read and more profound than its title might initially lead one to expect. It ended with her finding contentment with abandonment to the will of God. I think it is a tremendously important book and one that we desperately need in the world of graphic novels for it to be truly mature and diverse – indeed it may perplex, bemuse and even annoy the non-believer, but that is perhaps the purpose of a true artist, to be an agent provocateur and open eyes to life’s overlooked mysteries. I hope she will be successful in accomplishing that.

L’empire des Lumieres

It has been well over a year since my last blog post, as I haven’t really got accustomed to putting my thoughts in such a public sphere (assuming of course, that anyone is reading this spiel). I temporarily abandoned Winter 1946 last year after I could not quite gel the story and the narrative together, for it was to be another ‘maximum impact’ comic like The Card Players and needed a very tight composition without superfluous imagery, and so I decided to move on to another painting to see if I could feel more inspired. This has always been a painting that resonated with me because at first glance, the scene seems appealing and yet also very ordinary. An ordinary street at night with a lone glowing streetlamp – already, that itself is loaded with psychoanalytical significance for me and it is an image I return to time and time again in my daydreaming. And that Magritte should make a Surrealist painting of it! But wait… the sky is also bright, it is clearly daytime, but the street is darkened, as if it is night, and the streetlamp is lit. This incongruity perhaps, makes it Surrealist? It is much more subtle than most Surrealist paintings and that may be why I like it so much. I do not know what Magritte intended to make of this picture nor do I know anything about psychoanalysis, but the intrigue and mystery of this painting made me select it for my final story in the set that I intend to publish in a little ‘novella’ sometime this year.

The Empire of Light

L'empire des Lumieres by Rene Magritte

There are no people in this scene, so it is difficult to see at first glance what story one can weave this image into. A Surrealistic story springs to mind, but having things that make no sense in a nonsensical plot is not necessarily a pleasing thing to read. I started working on this story very late in the year 2011, and although I still lacked my early discipline of daily work, I managed to finish more than half by Christmas. I took a break for Christmas and the new year, and then came back, feeling that I had lost direction in my work. But I still had to finish this, so I pushed on and managed to draw the final page just yesterday. 11 pages in total and yet it has felt like an arduous journey.

SPOILER ALERT for what is to follow. The entire story takes place in only a few hours, on a cold and rainy autumnal evening somewhere in Anytown, USA. Carole Bell, our protagonist, leaves work late and goes home much like any other single young woman, choosing to walk in the drizzle instead of riding in a crowded bus. Very early on, we get surreal glimpses and wonder – is this happening in her own mind? On her way home, she encounters gratuitious rudeness from a stranger as well as the desolation of a beggar, inner-city phenomena that we are rather inured to. The steak at the butcher’s seems to speak to her (echoes of another Magritte painting there). She passes a religious billboard several times (the significance of this is to come later). She goes home, where we get the first hint of her real emotional life, waiting for a letter from a lover perhaps? The letter never arrives, and she goes back to her apartment, disappointed. On the way, she meets her neighbour who is wheeling a scarecrow around in a wheelbarrow, like children used to do with effigies of Guy Fawkes. We get the impression that her neighbour is curiously whacked.

She goes home and listens to a voicemail telephone message from her mother, who breezily tells Carole that she and her father have booked tickets for a cruise, “unless Carole wants to go home for Christmas”. We get a further sign of rejection there. Carole is alone in this world, her parents are kind but indifferent and possibly, distant. She faces the prospect of spending a lonely Christmas alone in the city. While cooking her steak for dinner, we are given more context about Carole and her upbringing. Nothing too much is revealed apart from her desire to be alone, preferring the company of imaginary friends to real people who used to mock her throughout a difficult adolescence. We see her with glasses of wine, toasting an imaginary friend in the privacy of her living room, talking to herself and trying to pretend she isn’t as alone as she really is. She falls asleep and wakes up to the smell of burning meat. She chucks the meat in the bin, and ends up eating baked beans while listening to late night radio. I imagine this is an experience we can all relate to…

As she is washing up, suddenly the doorbell rings and she is jarred from her own fantasy existence. This intrusion proves almost too much to bear. She opens the door (another reference to a Magritte, ‘The Son of Man’) and sees her colleague standing there. He is clearly interested in her and uses a limp excuse to come by her place in the evening after work. Their conversation is forced and awkward and he mentions that her ‘weirdo neighbour’ had given him a religious pamphlet on his way in. He then sees two glasses on the coffee table and thinks Carole has company. She lies, in order to make him leave. She wants to be left alone, and yet after she closes the door on him, the silence descends and she feels desperately alone again. She has been rejected, and rejects others herself, to be alone with her ideal fantasy. We start to get the idea that she is… not mad, perhaps,  but maybe a little unhinged. How many of us have not preferred imaginary company to some real people? Jesting aside, she goes to clear away the wine glasses and looks at the pamphlet. Again, there is a quote from the Gospel of John, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And the story is called, The Empire of Light. But there isn’t a lot of light in the imagery, instead there are lots of bright lights and shadows, a lot of contrasts. We see Carole in the shadows much of the time. As she begins clearing up the glasses, she starts to speak to her imaginary lover again, but this time rather more beseechingly. The shock of the little interlude with her colleague has clearly unsettled her fantasy. Her lover has not written, they have not shown themselves ever since “that first time”. As she washes the glasses, she has a sinking realisation that her true love is beyond her reach, that she has rejected reality in favour of a chimera. And yet as she readies herself for bedtime, she reminisces, and longs to be back home on the wintry farm, where she woke up one morning and saw a figure of someone wandering across the snow. Man or woman, we do not even know. It was this quotidian image that struck her, and she promised to herself that she would “remember it forever”. That person was her true love, or at least, represented her notion of her true love. Perhaps that extent of fantasising is scarcely believeable, particularly because we do not know if Carole had even seen its face, or had any other reason for developing a sudden romantic fixation. Does this stretch credibility too far?

At any rate, she goes to her bedroom, sets her digital alarm clock (which hasn’t melted) and the reality of her loneliness hits her full in the face. She must bear the burden of her isolation and loneliness (which in a way, she has chosen for herself), and she breaks down and cries… but then her windows seem to give off light, she goes to the window to see what is going on, and there the Magritte painting of the title is introduced. Suddenly there is daylight, despite it being late at night. She stands there watching for a long time and feels she has seen a vision. There is no human accessory to Carole’s epiphany-of-sorts, it is entirely supernatural. It may be linked to John 9:5 “I am the light of the world”. She may have come away with a religious experience, or nothing at all, it is up to the reader to interpret. One might think that she is quite completely mad. It is open to interpretation but I do not know if I have left the reader with enough cues to make up their mind. Carole clearly feels re-enervated by what she has seen.

In this story I wanted to explore the nature of paradoxes, and how we sometimes act in a way that goes against our own wants and needs – in Carole’s quest for intimacy, she repudiates the only person (her colleague) who offers her some attention and kindness. Instead she turns towards imaginary figures to fulfil her deepest desires. Have I succeeded in conveying this? The ending and composition of the story is not as tight as in some of the earlier ones, it is a difficult theme to explore in comic form and I do not feel comfortable composing a narrative in the third person, and linking it with the imagery. I did enjoy drawing the frames though, much more than in previous stories. I think this is a style I shall stick to.

So the story is done. I would be interested to know your thoughts, as always, dear Reader.