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British Comics:

New Brits On The Block - Part 1

In 2003, I was heavily involved in the 2nd biennial Berlin Comics Festival, as Great Britain was the Gastland or guest country. The German branch of The British Council, an organisation with a mission to promote British culture abroad, showed a refreshingly enlightened attitude towards comics by providing some welcome financial support to bring over a number of publishers, experts, and creators, including Hunt Emerson, Lorna Miller, Ilya and Steven Appleby. The BC also invited everyone to a party with the promise of a slap-up buffet, drinks and sound system, always a good way to draw a crowd. Deputy Director Andrew Glass kept the speeches short, and I followed with a ‘brief introduction to the British comics publishing scene’.

Gloom-and-doom merchants among you might suggest that any introduction to current British comics is bound to be pretty brief, on the basis that these days there’s precious little origination at least on the newsstands outside of the children’s titles, the 2000AD and Viz camps and of course Striker. I’d almost agree, except that I detect encouraging signs elsewhere of new home-grown publishers setting up and renewed interest from a couple of the major general publishers too. Call me an eternal optimist, but I do think the comics and graphic novel scene here has started stoking up again for the better, so I wanted to alert you to some of them.

Of the four young publishers I met at the Berlin Festival, the longest running and probably best known is Julie Burchill’s favourites Metaphrog  from Glasgow. A few years ago, Sandra and John boldly ventured into full-colour albums, three so far, which entice you into the perturbing daily struggles of little Louis to maintain his individuality in a state-controlled dystopia. Don’t be fooled by Sandra’s gentle wash illustrations - like all the best ‘children’s books’ this trilogy operates on a variety of thought-provoking levels.

It was a surprise after a good few years to catch up with Dominic Regan. I first knew him through his Eighties small press comic Captain Britain (no relation). Dom was representing Rough Cut Comics, also from Glasgow. As the Festival was being held within a sprawling former baking factory in East Berlin, it seemed an appropriate ex-Communist setting to promote his pinko Avengers satire The Freedom Collective. This inspired comic book parody, complete down to the Rasputin model kit advert and censored lettercol are apparently too cheeky for Bush’s America. Based on the other mock Marvel covers Comrade Dom was showing around, I’d love to see more.

Don’t ask publisher-editor Sylvia Farago what Sturgeon White Moss means; it came to her husband Alex Tucker in a dream and wound up being the title of their dark, eclectic comics anthology, published twice or thrice yearly. In the three 52-page issues to date, emerging British or British-based talents, including South African team John Dunning and Nikhil Singh on the Beardsley-esque mystic Salem Brownstone, rub shoulders with international names like Zograf, Cooper, Burns, Jason and Brinkman. For personal and challenging comics experiments, SWM is the UK’s sparkling, much-needed spacelab.

Tom Gauld and Simone Lia are among SWM‘s contributors as well as publishing their own smartly-produced titles at Cabanon Press. Their understated, elegant First and Second were spotted by Bloomsbury Press, who are compiling them both into a book called Both. You might have spotted Tom’s high-profile spots recently in Time Out and The Guardian, while Simone is starting her ambitious 4-part graphic novel series Fluffy. Bloomsbury’s children’s department meanwhile have put out Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean‘s latest collaboration, The Wolves in the Walls.

Bloomsbury aren’t the only mainstream publisher pursuing graphic novels. Jonathan Cape are quietly building an impressive list, adding this Christmas UK editions of Chris Ware’s Quimby the Mouse and Joe Sacco’s Notes From A Defeatist as well as a compendium of Posy Simmonds’ wry Literary Life vignettes from The Guardian and a massive Raymond Briggs retrospective. Now if only Cape would commission a few more British cartoonists…

For those, you should check new Glasgow publishing house Kingly Books. Absent from comics for far too long, John Bagnall and Ed Pinsent return with mature and distinctively English solo compilations. In Don’t Tread On My Rosaries John infuses his short stories with unpredictable wit and evocations of vanished history. Where else are you going to read comics about the life-changing Catholic conversion of a Heinz food-colour chemist or David Bowie grocery-shopping in West Berlin? John’s gifts as a raconteur have never been more engaging.

A blustery, beleaguered, ever-curious linguist and thinker, Windy Wilberforce is the character to whom Ed Pinsent seems most attached, chronicling him across more than 20 years. Six of Windy’s unpublished or little seen tales from the last ten years are gathered in Voice Of The Wilberforce. These are visionary comics, not linear or plotbound, but rich with dreams, signs, languages, alchemical symbols; they fascinate like parables open to endless interpretation.

Still more publishers are entering the fray. Recent news revealed the publishing plans of Nabiel Kanan and Brett Ewins. Steve Robson has launched Ponentmon/Fanfare‘s line of sophisticated manga with the exquisitely erotic Yukiko’s Spinach by Parisian-in-Tokyo Fr& eacute;déric Boilet, while in the US, British font maestro Rich Starking’s Active Images is finally putting into book form lost gems like David Hine’s troubling shocker Strange Embrace and Ilya’s lycra-fest Skidmarks. Somehow, good work is getting into print, getting out there. Could the tide be turning?

Posted: March 26, 2006

The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.

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BRITISH PUBLISHERS
Cabanon Press
Kingly Books
Metaphrog
Rough Cut Comics
Sturgeon White Moss

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Both
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Sturgeon White Moss #6
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by Ed Pinsent