Over 2008 I wrote weekly for ComicsVillage.com, during a very exciting time in the UK comix scene..
My columns are concerned with four aspects surrounding comics – social community, economic factors, festival and exhibition coverage and modes of distribution.
The UK comics scene has invoked dilligent workers including journalist publishers and promoters such as Paul Gravett, Dez Skinn and Phil Hall. In between the collapse of the weekly newsagent offerings the adult British comics industry rises from the underground into the emerging new virtual digital age. Shane Chebsey has been one of those pivotal figures of the previous decade in Brit comics. A major distributor in getting comics to people in the days were mail order was an only avenue, to the spotlight he’s walking into in organising the Birmingham International Comics Show. It’s my great pleasure to be able to present a two-part interview with Smallzone man Shane ‘Chebbo’ Chebsey.
Andrew: Tell us about your secret identity ? Who are you when you’re not Shane Chebsey, Comics Networker Extraordinaire?
Shane: Ha ha… if I told you I’d have to kill you.
Andrew: Smallzone Distribution set up in 1999 and I’d see you at many of the comics festivals I’d attend. There’d be mad stories going around about you also selling small press comics at those rack-only marts, and out of car boots. At one point I began to see your future as touring around the country in a van with an open-hatch at the side. In terms of numbers how many events had a Smallzone table and are there any wild anecdotes from your time on the road?
Shane Chebsey: Hi Andy.
Well it’s not really that much of a wild life lugging comics around on trains and buses, so I’m afraid I don’t really have any crazy anecdotes for you, well not any that won’t result in my being sued for all I’m worth (which aint much) anyway.
At one point Smallzone was at an event every Saturday, including Marts, conventions, markets, car boot sales – you name it, and I was there selling little photocopied comics.
That slowed down really when a) I got a job that meant I had to work Saturdays, and b) I got a PC in 2000 and started to build the first Smallzone Website.
Now I just tend to do major events, with a few marts as and when I have Saturday’s off.
Andrew: Its true then about the car boot sales ? Was fun had ? How many comics would you have shifted ?
Shane: Fun was has indeed, especially when the rain came as you can imagine. Comics and rain don’t mix!
Andrew: I had this problem with the market stall in Oxford. Rain built up the night before giving us a canopy of doom. Five or more mini comics shoppers were soaked.
Shane: It ended up being a waste of time, and that’s why I no longer do them… also, I no longer have a friend with a car.
Andrew: Though there were other zines and comics mail dealers, Smallzone was seen, I think by many, to be the main game in town. Am I right to understand this was (asides from the help of your family), a solo endeavour in terms of the physical movement of boxes and main administrative duties?
How many comics were/are you dealing with distributing at the height of Smallzone’s business?
Shane: Help from family? You must be joking mate!
I’m afraid it’s always been a solo effort really. I started with just 8 publishers, and now I guess it must be around 300 and I still make no money!
I do tend to carry lighter boxes these days though, my back wouldn’t manage as much as it did back in the day.
Andrew: Obviously theres a few ways in which folk can help ‘feed’ Smallzone? My own TRS2 micro-reviews used to run in Smallzone’s CAOF and Imagineers publications, for example. Or to go and do something independent as Oli Smith has done in Camden. Do you have a need for, and are you accepting, volunteer workers ? And how could folk help?
Shane: There’s no workplace for smallzone really other than the shop/ storage space at Infinity & Beyond and my spare room at home, so the best way folks can help the cause is to do distro themselves or set up stalls like Oli has done. I don’t often get to London, so Oli’s work at Camden is invaluable.
Another way folks can help is to link to the site, and publishers can help by listing smallzone as their distributor instead of not bothering.
Andrew: It’s long been held by myself and a few others that the Smallzone website is…well…fairly naff and ill-suited to looking at in terms of design. I think a superior volunteer web programmer might be welcome. On the other hand, the new Smallzone network for creators on Ning looks marvellous, really. Hats off, the design there is very refreshing. Inspired by a different approach to feeding distribution?
Shane: Well, I’m not a web designer, so I guess it is naff … yes. (You should have seen my first attempt when I was learning html, it was even worse).
However, no volunteer could possibly keep up with the work of updating the site the way I have to and I would not expect them to.
I am looking at buying a template with a full cart system, but as yet I’ve not found anything flexible enough to do what the current site does and not look like a template.
The Smallzone Ning community is not really a small press thing, more a comics industry meeting place without fans. I just thought it would be nice to include the small press in that and stay true to the original aims of smallzone… including giving small press the exposure and respect it deserves. No design involved on my part… it’s just a template network, but does the job very well.
However, something similar with a flexible shop template would be cool.
Andrew: Travelling Man was a comic shop in your local vicinity which you managed to turn part of into a Smallzone shop, presumably with aspects of the Page 45 model in mind, is that right? How did this come about? What were the arrangements involved, and what gestures in space are available for someone to replicate what you had there, elsewhere?
Shane: I think the shop you are referring to is Infinity & Beyond in Shrewsbury near where I live.
I’d known the owners for many years, so when the space was available for rent I thought I’d give it a shot. The aim was to move more stock for publishers and to introduce Indy comics to more people.
It’s worked out very well on both counts. The rent means I still don’t make a penny, but it does shift stock, and gives me something to do with my weekends other than drink beer.
I think it could be replicated elsewhere very easily and I have talked with another small press mover and shaker about branding the idea and moving it into other shops, but that thing called money makes it very difficult. I think in a city shop it would be profitable, but it would have to be a franchise to work properly.
Andrew: Travelling Man closed and I’m not fully aware of the circumstances. How much of this can be blamed on small press and mainstream obsessions with male power fantasies? And in relation to replicating the successes, what lessons were learnt for the hypothetical next time?
Shane: Don’t really know much about this, sorry.
I think it was just a case of… Oh I really don’t know, sorry.
Andrew: I understand a number of Smallzone distributed comics went missing, among the headaches for all concerned, in the closure of Travelling Man?
Shane: Yes, but only my own Scar Comics stuff, luckily the last batch of smallzone stuff had been paid for.
Andrew: Did anybody bother to accidentally or otherwise disappear my comics and how will I know? Have these issues been resolved?
Shane: Don’t worry Andy, none of your stuff was there.
Andrew: Seriously though, Bed sit Star Wars porn is immensely popular. Someone must have bought my comics, when was the last time you sold any?
Andrew: Have you any desire to return to editing/publishing anthologies, and what’s interesting to you about the actual process of doing this or not doing this ?
Shane: I will – from time to time- do some more anthologies, although Andy Richmond is the half of Scar Comics that tends to do more of those.
My interest has turned to Graphic Novels. We have some great books in the pipeline that I hope will build on the success of Falling Sky, which –by the way – has now been optioned as a movie.
The Birmingham International Comics Show is a proper big grand UK comics festival managed by Shane, James Hodgkins and Andy Baker. It features such luminaries as Dave Gibbons and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, and from what I heard the grand return of Hunt Emerson and his band to the Friday night stage. By clicking on the image you can view more details of the events, order tickets and find places to stay. The event has a new e-forum too which I expect to be filling up any time now. And to find out more about buying comics online and through the post, theres another below. I’ll be back with Shane next week were we talk more about the future plans and inner workings of Smallzone and BICS, in a very read-able piece including the words ‘boycott’ and ‘pay’.