Monday 27 October 2008

after writing about the British small press comics scene of the early '80s in my previous post, a few thoughts have been lingering in my noodle. Firstly the Wikipedia page titled 'British small press comics' is full of problems (duh!), for one: "A "small press comic" is essentially a zine predominantly comprised of comic strips. The origin of the term is uncertain but probably emerged in the late 1970s and serves to distinguish them from zines about comics." (bold mine). Origin uncertain? I have on more than one occasion written that I told the Fast Fiction guys to stop calling all that stuff 'fanzines' if they wanted to make headway outside of comic book circles. I then suggested 'small press' as I had been to the Cambridge poetry festival in 1981 and found myself interested in the 'small press' tables with the photocopied books of poetry, more interested in the idea of it than the things themselves. I thought, when I later saw it, that it It looked just like wee Paul Gravett and his Fast Fiction table. My suggestion was taken up and survives.

Further down the Wiki page it says: "A number of people and creators have been associated with the small press comics scene over the years. Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell and Dave Gibbons were regular attendees at the Westminster Comic Mart in London originally organised by Paul Gravett in 1981." Apparently these events are too lost in the past to be accurately reconstructed. Paul never organised the marts. They were a bi-monthly mini-convention, lasting one Saturday's daytime trading hours, at which he quietly and inconspicuously just happened to hire one of the many tables. The rest of the mart was about the usual comic book and collectibles baloney and it regularly attracted large crowds. I hated that part then and I still hate it. The people named are just three of those who happened to have mentioned a transaction or two that took place there. Those marts attracted anybody and everybody who was interested in comics and the gathering together of writers and artists in the pub next door encouraged a tight-knit community and made a fertile ground for the cultivation of ideas and styles. If you asked me who was there, it would take the rest of the day to draw up a list.

A thing about the small press scene that is not usually mentioned is that there was something of a split around 1987. A few of us, I, Phil Elliott and Glenn Dakin mainly, didn't like the way Escape magazine was going. We felt that Escape was trying to be too slick and cosmopolitan and had lost sight of its founding goals. We didn't appear in any of the issues after #11 (it ran to #19 and while it was always smartly designed, it looked particularly flash at the end) and had already set up a separate operation within Martin Lock's Harrier Comics, who had otherwise been running since May '84 doing an old fashioned sci-fi type of US-format comic book in black and white. There, in assorted combinations of ourselves and others, we turned out 37 comic books under the rubric 'Harrier New Wave,' with our own separate banner on the covers, though we had been cuckoos in Mr Lock's nest for a few months before we thus declared our 'difference.' However, our own efforts were in the main no closer to anybody's founding goals either, since we were compromising a great deal to attract the attention of the American market. The last couple of issues of !GAG! (edited by Phil Elliott) did succeed to some extent in keeping that spirit alive, and a couple of the later issues of Australia's Fox were in the running too, with me, Elliott, Dakin and New Zealander Dylan Horrocks showing new work (Dylan talks about those years in an interview at Comics Reporter- word-search to the section beginning 'The English Small Press'). Fox serialized my material that was later collected as Little Italy. They even managed to front me a little bit of money for it, and asked me to not tell anybody. I guess it's all right after twenty years.

Our Harrier operation ground to a halt at the beginning of '89 and Escape, attached now to UK distributor Titan making inroads into publishing, made it to the autumn (fall). They also had planned a number of American-format comic books, which may have gotten as far as mock-up stage. Fox attached themselves to US publisher Fantagraphics and made it all the way through the following year, 1990. I believe Fast Fiction the table, trading in dozens of new photocopied comic productions as well as screen prints, postcards and other novelties, every two months, and the comic, presenting the cream of the artists that were around, also every two months, in a booklet format of twenty or more pages, may have dribbled into 1990 too, but I wasn't watching.

Some piccies from my files. This was my back cover of !GAG! #5, but think about it for a minute:

I drew it in black for one of Ed Hillyer's failed productions. I think Ed found it in his files late in the day and Phil Elliott coloured it. Here are a few covers of books that had been planned but never appeared:

With some additional details the above drawing appeared in that jokey annual event, the Amazing Heroes swimsuit special. Nothing ever went to waste. You can see that version here

Lucifer did appear two years later in 1990 from Trident, a UK publisher following on the heels of Harrier during the boom for black and white US-format comic-books. It was a three issue mini-series but without the cover above (note how the photocopy has been roughly folded for cramming into an envelope). Everybody was happy with Paul Grist's drawing on it, but he drew a lovely new one with a big close-up. There was also a book collecting the three at the end of that year, which is very hard to find as the publisher ran into money problems and Canadian printer Preney held the book to ransom. The publisher folded and the printer tried to sell the stock themselves, by representing themselves as the publisher, through Diamond Distributors, but this plan ran aground when I faxed them an irate letter after seeing the solicitation in the Previews catalogue. Dave Sim (Preney was the printer he used, and later me too) later told me I was an idiot and I could have worked something out with them, which is what I would tell some hotheaded artist if they came to me with the same story. I can no longer remember how I obtained my one copy; Paul once told me he'd never ever seen one.

The above drawing fails to capture all the charm of the photo on which it was based. It had earlier appeared as a cover on an issue of Speakeasy but I relished the thought of a colour version. The Speakeasy guys, Acme Press, were another regular in the London small press scene. Speakeasy was a news and interviews mag and didn't show much in the way of new cartoons at first except when Phil Elliott and I gave them our strip samples that we had failed to sell to regular magazines, but Acme were the ones who published my big Alec book in 1990 in collaboration with US publisher Eclipse just after Escape (who had already published three of the four parts) faded out and just before Eclipse went bust too. Acme pulled a few other neat tricks out of the hat in the late '80s, like publishing all of Alan Moore's Maxwell the Magic Cat newspaper strips in four neat volumes ('86-'87), and getting the rights to adapt a James Bond film in time for the movie's appearance ('89). Richard Ashford wasn't allowed to take away a copy of the shooting script but was left in a locked room with it for an afternoon and adapted it on the spot in longhand. There's no Wiki entry for Acme so I'm not sure when they went kaput, but it was perhaps around '95, as I see their imprint that late, as co-publisher on the extended series of James Bond books put out with US publisher Dark Horse. Hey, surviving in this business is a real art.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fix it when you get home.

28 October 2008 at 02:39:00 GMT-5  

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