Art comics, accessibility and the British Comic Awards

Post 1: Comics, positionality and responsibility

Post 2: Transparency and the British Comic Awards

Post 3: Interview with BCA founder, Adam Cadwell

This is my final piece on the British Comic Awards. A great deal has already been written and said about the topic of diversity in the UK comics scene with regards to gender and identity, and I don’t want to say more than I already have on that topic. There are some contrasting opinions across some follow-up posts from Laura Sneddon, Rob Davis, Howard Hardiman and Paul Duffield that give a good sense of how other people have been responding to this issue. Furthermore, I’ve said my piece on what I thought were some of the procedural shortcomings of the inaugural awards, largely around transparency in the committee and shortlist selection. I’m confident that the committee will speak to concerns like this when they reconvene in the New Year.

This post is far more personal, and concerned with stylistic diversity and the extent to which it is recognised in the scene and represented in the BCAs. Specifically, I’m interested in whether or not there is a space for explicitly ‘experimental’ comics. My worry is that a growing discourse of  ‘comics suitable for a wider audience’ in the scene threatens to exclude the kind of work that hopes to push the boundaries of what comics can be. I’m not going to argue here about the merits of art comics versus ‘conventional’ comics per se. Rather, I’m going to focus on what I see as a subtle tension within the awards’ stated aims that bears further scrutiny.

Before we begin, I’m going to nail my colours to the mast. I make autobiographical comics, but I do so from what has been described (both positively and pejoratively) as an ‘art comics’ perspective. It’s true that I don’t really come from a background that interested in ‘mainstream’ comics, though my abiding love for Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes and Raymond Briggs is a big part of the way I see the world.  However, the way I express myself draws inspiration from elsewhere: Oliver East, Warren Craghead, Derik Badman, Julie Doucet, John Porcellino, Allan Haverholm and Aidan Koch to name a few. The content of my work is informed by what I see and how I feel. Also, because my approach is underpinned by a belief in DIY punk/zine culture and values, my reflects those production values and personal politics. I thus have a vested interested in the argument I am making here.

I’m part of a diverse set of people making a varied set of work in the UK small press scene.  Even in the two and a half years I’ve been attending conventions and distributing my work, I’ve seen, I think, a growth in the breadth of comics work being undertaken. Not everybody ‘gets’ my work (and nor would I expect them to), but I do see audiences developing in a way that a more broad sense of what is possible is being recognised. Those audiences are inside the UK comics circuit, but also outside of it – in zine events in particular – where people might not consider themselves to be comics fans but recognise stories with which they can engage.

This diversity – of styles, of makers and of readers – was defended by UK comic artists in their responses to a Spectator article by Giles Coren. In the piece, Coren, attempts to use the example of comics do some trolling (though who is trolling is rather unclear – the literary establishment? Comic readers?) with (I think) the aim of saying a) comics are for kids and men b) that superhero comics are all that the medium produces and c) that comics are great but they’re not a respectable art form. The responses pointed out, pretty fairly, that comics were a) not only for children and men, but for everyone b) that they are a medium, not reducible to genre and therefore c) a form of art in their own right and finally, d) that, frankly, Coren was being a bit of a dick about it all.

So given this ability to ‘pull together’ and argue for the validity of comics as a medium in their own right and to popularise them outside ‘the comics world’, why do I still feel uncomfortable about how this diversity of output is recognised in the scene, and most recently, the BCAs?

The fact is I do not think that it is clear what constitutes merit in the BCAs. I think that the ambition to promote publicly accessible work is in competition with other forms of evaluation. There is after all a difference between recognising comics on their own merit, and supporting comics of merit that can engage a wider non-comics audience, and how the BCAs understand the relationship between the two is not made clear.

I feel there is agenda creep, where two laudable but conflicting ambitions for the scene are being conflated in one award scheme. For example, the criteria that underpin merit in the awards are pretty open, and seem to suggest that experimentation, and innovation are recognised. For instance, according to the BCA website:

“Our awards recognise the finest examples of creativity, ingenuity, skill and originality in sequential storytelling (otherwise known as good old comics). We don’t distinguish between printed work and digital, or between published and self-published work; our only criteria is that the creator(s) be based in the UK”

In Adam’s interview, however, he makes a distinction, conscious or otherwise, between comics suitable for a ‘wider public audience’ and comics whose approach is more experimental, avant-garde, or less straightforward. He says:

“[although] there are great avant-garde comics being made in this country I think one would agree it’s a particular niche. I think it’s hard to get even the most accessible stories to a wider audience so our main aim was to promote books that anyone outside of the comics world could enjoy.”

It is worth noting that Adam does not rule out ‘experimental’ comics from being shortlisted, but he explicitly states that their accessibility is a key component of the selection process:

“That’s not to say that a really weird, non-traditional narrative comic couldn’t get nominated, but it would have to be accessible to a wider audience too. That may sound like a contradiction but I believe it’s a possible thing to achieve.”

I agree that an aim to promote comics is positive. But to me that also involves celebrating experimental pieces that contribute to the form, function and diversity of the medium itself but do so in challenging ways and I feel Adam is here being dismissive of this kind of work. Diversity and experimentation of this kind drives changes in the medium more broadly. Not only is it important for the health of an art form to encourage liminal art forms, it is also important for the audience to be asked to consider such work. We should take pride in the diversity of our scene, and not be swayed by some imagined audience that might resist ‘weird’ work.

I fear, however, that a concern about accessibility is taking precedent. I think the decision made by Adam not to emulate the full spectrum of the Canadian Doug Wright Awards – specifically a UK version of the Pigskin Peters Award that “recognizes the experimental and non-narrative efforts of Canadian cartoonists, including sketchbook material and single-panel works” is indicative of this fact. It worries me that this might reflect a  disinterest in helping ‘avant-garde’ comics grow out of their ‘niche’ for a new audience.

I’m not accusing the BCA committee of objective bias in their selections – and I recognise it can’t be easy for the BCA organisers to reconcile these agendas. But without attention, this unclear ideological underpinning threatens to impinge on the BCAs’ claim to represent the whole UK scene. There is a risk that non-standard comics will be overlooked in favour of those that are perceived to more readily engage a broader, non-comics audience. That said, there is nothing arguing that the BCAs should showcase experimental work – it’s just that if merit hinges also on accessibility, then the remit and aims of the awards are different to those currently stated.

So in short, while I recognise that not everyone will be able to win an award, it’d be nice to know if we all have a stake in the game in the first place.

My thanks to Douglas Noble for his constructive comments and input on an earlier draft of this piece.