King of Comics (Jan 27, 2008)

Over 2008 I wrote weekly for  ComicsVillage.com, during a very exciting time in the UK comix scene. Since then, I’ve seen new ways of approaching things, changed opinions.

My columns are concerned with four aspects surrounding comics – social community, economic factors, festival and exhibition coverage and modes of distribution.

Grave Graham Bettany had been warned if he was drinking with Bisley he’d end up in a hotel in Amsterdam dressed in girls clothes and unable to feel his legs. The next morning he sat on the steps outside the Birmingham International Comics Show (BICS) with me – a cigarette in his hand, and Simon Bisley’s guest badge subtly rested on his jacket. “It must be an awesome responsibility to be the King of Comics”, his statement a moment floating smoke. “Still everyone gets their shot here. Everyone’s the King of Comics for a day.”

The BBC’s Brilliant Comics Britannia series propagated this publicly held myth of a dead UK comics industry. Bar the Dandy, Beano, 2000 AD and Viz, UK cartoonists only work for Stateside publishers. In fact, the UK comics industry has been booming for many years. Currently several hundred publishers are contributing and the financial health…um….this calculator worked fine when I was looking analyzing the profits of the UK defense employees.

The cracks in the system are most noticeable at big events. Case study fair – Birmingham (BICS). The average event in recent years is about £40 per table per day. (BICS gave special priority for to Indy publishers – allocating at least 30 tables and selling them at a £70 lower rate [for two days]). Split between three creators this is manageable. Equivalent to a print run of well over a hundred copies of a base 28 page black and white booklet. These publishers rarely break even on profit, as generally this means raising cover prices, and selling nearly all their product. Then there are costs of beer, sandwiches, travel, beer, accommodation, beer, meals, and time off their jobs. These contributions help to pay appearance fees for already financially capable A-listers hotel rooms, flights, manilas, coronas, and sometimes, damn selfish egos. Oddly enough, the money rarely barely stays in the hands of those who organize these events. Shane Chebsey, front man of BICS, and the main distributor for UK self-published comics over the last eight years was a little out of pocket after the previous event. As Shane told me, “You live and learn”. Organizers of previous large gigs, such as Kev F Sutherland (Comics99, 2000), and Dez Skinn (Brighton Comics Expo 2005), have also faced similar problems with being out of pocket at their events. The Thing is an exception to the festival management earner rule, were the management income is an executive wage conservatively estimated from different soures at between £1,500-£3,000. Sources close to organiser Finlay state that the paid team under him are kept to a minimum, and at a minimum wage. This figure includes outgoings, though a post-profit outgoing of hall rent (between £1,000-£2,000) and payment for the website in the year ahead maybe where this profit is going. That, and any plasma screen that’s given to him.

I’ve not the figures for the 2008 Bristol Expo to hand, but exhibitors costs have risen. For The Thing 2008 is costing between £60-£70 a table and BICS 2008 has risen to £90 for the weekend for small pressers.

There is a serious concern among commentators that the UK comics scene unwittingly slides to a vanity press situation. One example: the Judge Dredd Megazine work-for-free controversy, where editor Matt Smith offered a six-page platform to small pressers to “show off their wares and plug their titles/websites.” It’s been interpreted as exploitative, encouraging, as opportunity for advertising, as sponsorship-with-a-catch, as good CV material, and as a destructive in-road to a long-term reduction of wages for all creators. A worrying signifier that The Megazine, owned by one of the country’s top gaming companies, Rebellion, can’t even pay some of their cartoonists minimum wage.

Daniel Merlin-Goodbrey is the most exciting UK comics creator since Grant Morrison. He makes brilliant web and print comics, and at the ‘Big Futures ?’ panel at Birmingham he outlined the differences between Small Press creators supporting ‘convention’ festivals. The mini-comics crowd, involved with photocopiers and self-assembly, people who really shouldn’t be paying £40 per table per day. The second group of self-publishers adhere more closely to a business model, including monetary returns, and have better harnessed their skill. These are useful classifiers and the trend amongst festival organisers is to take account of this, though it’s not always a divisive behaviour. The panel makes some talk about comics printed by book publishers like Jonathan Cape, after higher profile serialisation in broad-sheet newspapers. These trends must surely encourage the cartoonist seeking to trade their art for cash. However my comics don’t sell that well and spurred on by the Guinness fuelled proclamations of the night before, I ask the panel why I might subsidise Mike Mignola and why I should stand for it? 2000 AD group columnist and self-publisher David Baillie answers in front of the Birmingham audience in his diplomatic way, “If the small press were to decide they wanted to boycott, or withdraw from these festivals then they simply wouldn’t happen. End of story.”

Sleazy Dan Lester at London Underground Comics - Andy Luke

UK Comics Expo 2008 : Small Pressers on Strike. The line of skinny indy kids requiring entrance via ex-Climate Camp tables loaded up with Favourite Crayon Stories. The coats and backpacks that usually hide under convention tables are strewn all along the front of the hotel, a nearby patch of green provides anchor for one of the protestor’s tents. Star guest can’t get near the entrance, a ‘Fair Trade Comix’ placard is thrust in his face, sets off his panic alarm. Hotel security can’t get past the six xerox machines blocking the door. A few of the pettier arguments of yore resurface- resurrected as horrible, bloody, punch-ups. There are small boys crying. A pensioner drops his groceries ! For those of you with faint constituents, some of these people are faking. Three minutes later, police mini-bus day trip. Fathers For Justice at the hotel windows. Familiar slacker and punk-art students, and the Scottish accent ! Handcuffs behind backs. Oh, there are a few screamers and howlers, folk raised in the land of exclamation after all. In the end though, copies of Summer Ball and Banal Pig are confiscated, creators Oli Smith, Gareth Brookes and Grave Graham loaded into the back of a van. I’m in there too – charged with very poorly impersonating Mark Thomas. A Diamond representative goads on Judge Dredd and his baton. Ironic weapon of choice too, considering the 2012 London Olympics seriously detract opportunities for Arts Council funding away from many comics festival events.

Let’s skip that relay.

Rubins at UK Web and Mini Comix Thing - Andy LukeCaption 2006 - Andy Luke

One of the main reasons for these cons is the joy that is of rich friendships, met and making. Through cons I’ve met people who have offered me a bed and tea, demanded I make myself at home while I was out on the street, and comforted me when loved ones passed away,  I’ve danced and tattooed with these people, dissected pop culture and been a listening ear after breakups. Loads of times I’ve accidentally modestly smiled at legends in human form, and discovered that the isolation of my time in Ulster was just an illusion. These and the chance to share productive talents with our friends and new faces and the outside spaces – it’s wrapped in the why we bother with ‘maybe-make-a-few-quid-ulp’. While the UK comic community is no angel, the social factor is one of its greatest strengths in this trade and club, outside the power of the medium. Placards fit right in at comics festivals. Think; you ever see one without a banner ?

Who has the time for a picket line about comics, really ? Or 197 other methods of non-violent action ?

Over the next few columns I aim to re-present varying business models creators and exhibitors should and do utilise to face the difficult and interesting years ahead. We’re towards go for a scene with air conditioning, coat hangers, and cloakrooms, gigs that positively rock, exhibitions were the cartoonist is queen, or king, or both, or their chosen states in between. Creator respect, fun, money, and rights.

There’s a Paypal button below here for myself. Please contribute as you exit if it is within your means.

  – Andrew Luke

“I’m king for a day, I’m a beautiful lay,
I’m gorgeously brave, Won’t you take me home to bed ?
I’m back in my job, I’m back in my job, every Monday morning
I’m back in my job, I’m back in my job, I’m back in my job, I was King for a day”

I’ll be using WayBack Machine to re-introduce the Sheridan Cottage series here weekly over the next few months.