Comics are perhaps the most democratic medium of expression - bar none. All you need is an idea, a sheet of paper and a pencil and you too can be a comics creator.
Of course, it's not quite as simple as that. It's true that literally anyone can make a comic, but if you want people to actually pay money to read your work you need to be genuinely good. In fact, you need to be better than the folks published by the mainstream companies because you don't have the economies of scale, so your work is likely to be more expensive, and you don't have brand recognition - everyone knows who Batman or Captain Marvel are, your really cool Ninja Ferret? Not so much. Nobody's looking for that, if folk are going to notice it, let alone buy it, it needs to be something very special.
So, over the next few weeks we're going to take a look at some of the amazing work from people who just sat down, made their thing and made it very special indeed...
First up, the wonderful Rachael Smith, creator of Flimsy Kitten, I am Fire, House Party, The Rabbit, Artificial Flowers and the unutterably brilliant Wired Up Wrong. When I took over Destination Venus in 2016 I put out a call on social media for small press creators to get in touch and sell me their stuff. Rachael was the first person hit me up.
Based in the surprisingly bohemian West Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge (which so far as I'm concerned makes her a local author), Smith has a real talent for depicting emotion with breathtaking honesty - there's a humanity in all of her work that sets it apart, whether she's telling the story of a young pyromaniac in I am Fire or a chaotic party thrown by disillusioned twenty somethings in House Party, her characters live and breathe - the realities that she creates in her work are, well, real - there's an emotional energy that almost audibly crackles as you read.
The pinnacle of her creative achievement (so far, at least...) has to be Wired up Wrong. We're very big on mental health here at Desties, but we're all too painfully aware that an awful lot of books that describe the experience of people with mental ill-health are, how shall we put this? "Astonishingly disheartening" is probably the best description.
Which is why Wired up Wrong is so good - and so important.
It's a genuine feat of genius - an autobiographical book about living with anxiety and depression which is funny and engaging, does not belittle the issues and leaves the reader feeling good.
If I hadn't read it, I wouldn't believe it could be done.
But that's Rachael Smith for you - it really shouldn't be possible to make a book about anxiety and depression funny and uplifting while also avoiding cliche and cheap stereotypes and getting across some serious and uncomfortable truths about conditions people don't really like to talk about. But when you're as good as she is, you can do the impossible, and she has.
In all seriousness, if you have experienced anxiety or depression you should read this book because you'll recognise so much and know that you're not the only person going through it. If you know somebody with anxiety or depression you should read this book because it will help you understand how they feel and why they react to things in the way that they do. And if you're lucky enough to not be living with anxiety and depression, and don't know anyone who is, you should definitely read this book because frankly, you're wrong, and you need to know what the signs are.
Speaking as somebody who has lived with a depressive, and so though he knew what it was all about, and who later experienced depression at first hand and realised he didn't understand at all, I really wish I'd read this book twenty years ago. If I had I'd have been better prepared for both sets of circumstances. Wired up Wrong helped me understand things about myself that I hadn't fully processed.
Yep. It's that good.
But don't just take my word for it - GOSH! Comics, one of the country's finest comics emporiums (we'd quite like to be them when we grow up...) praised Smith's "balance of clean line, sharp wit and expressive cartooning" going on to suggest that she is "shaping up to be a major talent in British comics.” We reckon they're right.
Another young woman* who is moving and shaking in the small press scene is Cardiff based Sarah Millman. Her first book The Heart of Time is a ridiculous high octane romp featuring a crazy time travelling heroine on a scooter and her slightly apprehensive pug. The whole thing is sheer, relentless joy from start to finish.
Her latest work, NPC Tea is rather more meditative. Set in a tea shop in Cardiff, the whole thing could seem pedestrian - except this is a tea shop in a world Elves, Orcs and Humans once united to defeat the magicians, and its run by elves and fire spirits. Oh, and a token human called Hannah who has no magic and is seriously put upon...
NPC Tea is a hugely impressive comic. The concept is interesting and the story is brilliantly paced - just enough backstory and exposition to flesh out the world but never slipping into the trap of having a talking head dump a metric shedload of exposition on you.
The story is beautifully crafted - there are witty little bantering exchanges between the central characters with many humorous little moments by the main characters, some of which seem like straightforward sarcasm on your first read, but which can be interpreted entirely differently on a second or third read.
This is important - firstly because it's a mark of both quality and talent. That kind of multi-layered dialogue is hard to do, and even harder to do well. Millman nails it. But it's also a mark of value. Comics - especially small press and self published comics - are expensive. One of the comments I get a lot in the shop from interested people who don't quite get it yet is "that's a lot of money for something I'll have read in five minutes."
Now, the actual response to that observation is a whole other blog post that you'll doubtless get to read some day. But part of the answer to it is that if the comic is good you'll want to read it more than once, and every time you do you'll find something else in it that you missed. That's what makes a comic worth spending the money on, and this series has that in bucketloads - there's just so much in there! What begins as a slice of live comedy grows into a high fantasy epic that twists RPG tropes and fantasy staples into something truly original.
With NPC Tea, Sarah Millman has shown an incredible level of artistic and storytelling chops. A story full of wonder and intrigue as well as some of the most striking visuals I've seen in comics of late, because there's more to this comic than just the storytelling - however good that is (and it's really, really flipping good...) the art is also something special.
Millman's art style is wonderfully expressive, the emotions of the characters are clearly on display for all to see - the visual element of the emotional storytelling here is a fabulous example of what comics can do that other media cannot.
And yet the art has more to offer. Millman uses colour to enhance her storytelling, each issue is, for want of a better expression, "colour coded", with the palettes being employed to signal changes in scene, or perspective. It's subtle, and it's sublime. I mean, I've read a lot of comics in my time, and I've seen this technique before - but I don't think I've ever seen it used so well.
As the story has progressed (we're on issue #5 now) relationships between characters have progressed, and we've learned more about the world they live in. As I said, there's a patient and gentle build up in the narrative, never giving you too much background information to take in at once. We've also begun to understand that something big is coming. Beyond that your'e getting no spoilers from me because I want you to read the comics!
Look at that - we're out of time and we've only looked at two creators! Next time we'll delve a little deeper into the world of the independent comics creator and meet another couple of incredibly talented people. All the comics discussed here are available from Destination Venus, and will soon also be available from the Independent Territory section of this very website. Stay tuned for more info!
*OK, that sounds patronising. Can't think of another way of saying it, so it's staying in, but yes, I'm acknowledging that it's a bit awkward.