Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Food for Thought: the UK's "Soft Power" and the small press

Monday 19th’s edition of Andrew Marr’s Start the Week began with the premise that, whilst the UK continues to labour under a harsh economic climate, we are now the world leader in “Soft Power”, a term coined by Harvard scholar Joseph Nye to describe a country’s global influence through politics, diplomacy, business, sport, education … and the arts.

This last measure struck a particular chord with me, having just spent the proceeding weekend at Leeds’ Thought Bubble comic art festival. Now established as one of the country’s leading festivals of sequential art, Thought Bubble encompasses indy film screenings, exhibitions and seminars delivered by some of the leading lights of the industry. And at the festival’s core lays the Thought Bubble convention, which fills two sizable halls at the Royal Armouries. And how it fills them. Everywhere you look there are—amongst artists sketching and stalls selling various toys and comic/TV related memorabilia and merchandise—tables crammed with a dizzying host of comics and graphic novels. But we’re not just talking the big franchises like the Avengers, Batman and 2000AD here, because at Thought Bubble the UK’s indy press was out in force.

For the past few years I’ve been stunned by the increasingly impressive output of the UK’s indy publishers, and this year was no different. From ongoing series and one-shots to graphic novels and anthologies, the array of titles is astonishing. Equally astonishing is the quality. Gone are the days of A5 photocopied black and white comics stapled together in someone’s bedroom. As Thought Bubble demonstrated, modern indy publications can boast full-colour covers and glossy pages, hardback covers, pull-out and pop-up sections, and DVD ROMS. And it’s not just the production values that are so impressive. The artwork, concepts and writing bless us with imaginative stories and beautiful artwork. Leading indy publishers like Accent UK, Murky Depths and Time Bomb Comics offer fabulous titles like Who on Earth Was Thaddeus Mist?, Dead Girls, and Dick Turpin and the Crimson Plague. Add the likes of Brian Talbot’s incredible Grandville series and Paul Scott’s consistently inventive Omnivistascope—any one of which boasts more innovation than most of Marvel and DC’s uninspiring cross-overs and movie tie-ins that drown the shelves at your local comic shop—and the UK’s Soft Power ascendency is very much in evidence.

But Andrew Marr’s radio program made me wonder if this invention and craft were enough in the face of these austere times. As rewarding as it is to read these beautiful examples of small-press publishing, do they offer the same fiscal rewards to their creators? And how badly had the UK’s economic downturn effected our indy scene?

“Well […] to even think about starting a business you need optimism in gargantuan proportions, and a bottomless wallet,” says Terry Martin of The House of Murky Depths, award-winning publishers of such titles as I Dream of Ants, Going to the Moon and Probably Maybe Perhaps. “You hear tales of small press publishers mortgaging their houses, and I could have saved up and been able to buy a brand new BMW with what The House of Murky Depths has cost me, but we struggle on with our dreams. Marketing is the downfall of the small press—we just don’t have the budgets—and social media isn’t all it’s cracked up to be for the majority who try to use it for promotional purposes, unless you just hit lucky. High quality limited editions still seem the best bet for small press, but then production costs are higher and margins lower. The downturn has certainly a lot to answer for but I think it’s always going to be difficult for small press publishers. We still struggle on with paper too, when online content is beating us down. Bottom line? If there hadn’t been a recession there’d be a lot more comics around but we probably wouldn’t be that much better off.”

So it could be easy to dismiss the effects of the downturn as—for the small press at least—as something of a culling process, an economic filter that shields conventions like Thought Bubble from a greater glut of indy titles. Could it even be said to aid the average publisher by the simple process of eliminating some of the competition? This would certainly seem to be the case with FutureQuake Press, an indy publisher which continues to enjoy success with titles such as Something Wicked, FutureQuake and 2000AD fanzines Dogbreath and Zarjaz.

“This year is a little down on previous,” says editor Dave Evans, “so the economic situation may well be a factor there, but before this year sales have been on a steady growth since we first started publishing back in 2005. Granted, the actual turnover is low, but until this year we experienced growth, and for all I know this year may well just show the start of the sales reaching a rough balancing point.”

Dave West, editor and co-founder of Accent UK also offers this insight: “The downturn has effected sales in stores more than anything else. Retailers seem to buy fewer of our titles these days and I think this is due to the huge number of Watchmen Prequels, 52s and AvX or whatever Marvel are coming up with at the moment. At Cons we are getting more and more customers, new and repeat, and sales are usually better than the same Con the previous year.”

So, whilst it appears that conventions like Thought Bubble are vital to indy sales, Terry Martin maintains it isn’t quite that clear cut. “It’s very difficult for those of us who have tables at conventions to fully appreciate their success or otherwise,” he states, “particularly if you’re the only bod manning the tables. We tend to gauge success purely by our sales, and one dealer can do well while the next dealer has a bummer.”

As real as the effects on the recession on the indy scene are, therefore, they do not appear to be insurmountable. Yes, economic reality dictates that retailers like Travelling Man and Forbidden Planet must dedicate the majority of the shelf space to big selling titles featuring the likes of Batman and the Avengers, but this does not spell the end for the indy scene. Conventions like Thought Bubble, Hi-Ex and Kapow! give the small press a priceless shop window to display their wares and attract new readers … and the small press seizes this opportunity with both hands. As I saw at Thought Bubble, indy publishers are stepping up their game and transforming the small press beyond all recognition, and that can only be good for not only the consumer, but the creators also. Anybody who harbours any ambition of breaking into the comics industry at the grass roots level now knows the bar is set very high indeed, with a level of professionalism undreamt of by the likes of Eastman and Laird. And that can only be a good thing for publishers and punters alike. And whilst the small press, by definition, may make only the tiniest contribution to the UK’s Soft Power, it is a microcosm of the greater imagination and passion that has propelled our country to the top of the pile. And as a writer and contributor to the indy scene, that makes me feel very proud.

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