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.

Interview with BCA founder, Adam Cadwell

Post 1:Comics, positionality and responsibility

Post 2: Transparency and the British Comic Awards

This post is an interview I carried out with BCA founder, Adam Cadwell.  I had initially contacted Adam only to ask him a few questions as research for my previous two posts. Adam has since indicated that he thought I intended to publish the conversation – and that he had answered accordingly – so that’s what we’ve decided to do.

So without further ado, and with the caveat that this conversation was conducted before my two previous pieces were written, here is my email exchange with Adam. It has been edited only for errors in spelling and grammar.

SM: How were the committee and the panel chosen?

AC: After speaking with [Thought Bubble directors] Lisa [Wood] and Clark [Burscough] about setting up the awards in May 2011, I started to ask people I thought were well qualified and up for the task. Both Lisa and Clark wanted to be involved and we all suggested numerous people. When Matt [Sheret] and Dan [Berry] joined they suggested people too. Back when it was all just an idea in my head it was hard to convince people to spend a lot of their free time on it. I would have liked an equal gender split on the Committee but it didn’t work out that way. Hopefully next year we can achieve that.

SM: How many nominations did you have and can you give me a sense of their diversity in terms of format, theme, approach, style etc?

AC: We had 245 emails from the public via the form on the BCA website with anywhere between 1 and a dozen suggestions. We made a long-list of 178 eligible titles and creators. The diversity in styles and formats was really, really varied, something which I believe is well represented in the shortlists. We have a good mix of genres, styles, formats and publishers. The reading groups of young people who judged the Young People’s Comic Award said that they were excited by the variety in formats (web-comic, serialised comic, a volume 1, and 2 self contained stories) as well as encountering great stories they’d never seen before.

SM: What are your thoughts on how you represent a small scene?

AC: In regards to how we represent the work of a small scene, I’ve think we’ve done a good job in displaying the diverse talent producing great stories which could be enjoyed by a much wider audience. In regards to how we represent the scene as a whole, well there’s only so much we can include with 20 nominations, so some are guaranteed to feel left out. ‘Nelson’ helped in that regard as it included 54 British artists but it was a tough decision to include it, which I’ll get to in a moment. Next year we’ll try not to have as many double nominations so we can include more creators.

There were so many great books which almost made the shortlist but missed out by one vote. It’s unfair to the nominees and winners if we reveal how many votes each book got as it’s the same as saying “You were nominated, or you won, but only just.” This was just our first year, with a rotating committee and new judges each year, they’ll be lots of new names nominated next year, and the year after, and over time we will paint a fuller picture of the whole scene.

Regarding Nelson, it was a tricky one to choose. Both myself and fellow committee member Dan Berry both had chapters in the book. None of our own work was eligible for nomination of course but we all agreed that because we each only contributed 1/54th of the book, it was unfair to the other 52 artists and the impressive work they did on it to disallow the whole book. There has been some finger pointing about this which we perhaps should have expected but I believe it would have won regardless of our involvement because it’s such a unique project and an engrossing story.

SM: How did all the committee ensure they got hold of all comics that were nominated by people so they could assess them?

AC: This was perhaps the most difficult part of the whole process. We asked for a lot of pdfs from creators whose work was suggested. A lot of work was on-line which made it easier. We took a long time to familiarise ourselves with creators we hadn’t heard of and were wary of not judging their work by first impressions. I even visited my local comic shop and just sat there for hours reading books. There are things we can do to improve this stage of the process, again it was out first time doing this and figuring it out as we went, but more contact from publishers during this stage would help.

SM: How are the Thought Bubble Artists in Residence chosen?

AC: You would have to ask Lisa Wood to comment on this as I don’t know. I can tell you that the place on the Committee isn’t a necessary part of the Residency, it is completely optional.

SM: Do you have any thoughts on having artists on the panel?

AC: Yes. While I can see that some people may think being an artist involved in the close and not huge British comics scene could make them biased to their friends who are also artists or towards publishers they’ve worked for, but at the same time I think it is very insulting to assume that all creators can’t be impartial. I think it is important to have people who understand the craft and the art form, who think about these things everyday, to be included in the selection of the shortlists. Pretty much every Awards for an industry includes people directly involved in that industry.

SM: Do you have plans to add categories?

AC: No, not at the moment. We designed a very simple, streamlined awards and we intend to keep it that way. If there was a huge amount of quality archive reprints and anthologies next year we may consider having a separate category for those, rather than pitting them against original graphic novels, but unless that happens, then no, no plans. But who knows, the next Awards are a full year away.

SM: Do you have any specific plans around getting publishers involved in submitting work for the long list?

AC: Nothing specific at the moment, no. Publishers were very keen and kind with supplying us with books for the judges and for the many schools and libraries involved in the Young People’s Comic Awards. With our first Awards done, we hope more publishers will be involved earlier on in the process.

SM: Are you concerned that smaller, self-published works might slip through the net with an emphasis on publishers/distributed comics?

AC: No, I don’t think we did have an emphasis on comics from publishers. 4 of the 5 comics in the Best Comic category were self published. I self publish and am very interested in whoever else is doing the same. I attend numerous comic shows every year (I’ll attend my 9th of the year next weekend) and try my best to keep up with new creators. The Committee as a whole was very aware of almost everyone who is putting out their own, new work. That’s a huge part of why we chose who we did for the Committee, there were 3 con organisers, a University tutor on a graphic arts course, a reviewer with an interest in self published work and a publisher of an anthology. Together I feel we pretty much had it covered.

SM: I’m concerned that non-standard narratives or comics forms are implicitly being excluded here by questions of accessibility, and not, let’s say, considered in terms of experimentation in the form. Do you have any thoughts on that?

AC: Yes. The Doug Wright Awards on which the BCAs are mostly based, have 3 categories excluding their Hall of Fame and one of them is for experimental comics. I chose not to have a category like this because while 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. 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.

That was all Adam and I had time to talk about. Had I conceived of the conversation as more of an interview, I think I would’ve pushed a bit harder on some issues, but nonetheless, I’d like to extend Adam my thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll offer some closing thoughts.

Transparency and the British Comic Awards

This piece of writing is the second of two concerned with the UK comic scene. The first reflected on the need to be reflexive where questions of diversity are raised; this piece reflects on the challenges facing the British Comics Awards. I share these thoughts in the spirit of intervention and discussion, not in the spirit of antagonism. That said, I don’t expect everyone will agree with what I have to say.

NB: this tumblr blog doesn’t support comments, but feel free to engage via twitter @smoo_comics or via email smoo.comics@gmail.com

In the first of these two posts, I reflected on the fallout from a recent exchange between British comic artists about the issue of gender representation in the shortlist of the inaugural British Comics Awards (BCAs), which included an article on the New Statesman blog by Laura Sneddon. I argued that although problematic, the article was important because it asked us to think carefully about how we react to accusations of prejudice. Being aware of our position and privileges is key to recognising when and where others might feel marginalised.

Reflexivity of this kind, looking carefully at ourselves to identify what good and what harm we do to others around us should be a key ethical principal for anyone, including organisations that have the difficult task of representing a diverse public, such as the BCAs.

I believe that one of the key ways to ensure this reflexivity is via transparency in organisational processes, because it engages debate, engenders trust, and compels vigilance. Transparency should be for any organisation an absolute component of all processes. It needs to be a first principle, showing inner workings, engaging public debate, supporting dissent and offering a platform for criticism – not just allowing it to happen, but also giving it voice with which to speak.  Enabling this kind of process requires constant self-vigilance and isn’t always easy.  

I think this kind of transparency was lacking in the BCAs this year. Consequently, I think that the questions that arose around representation and diversity – both stylistically and in terms of creators – did so because we couldn’t see the systems in place to select and choose from such a varied scene: it wasn’t necessarily that the BCAs were unfair, or biased, it was that we didn’t know how the committee had been chosen and how they were arriving at their decisions.

This lack of transparency also extended to the notion of merit. I strongly feel we need a more carefully articulated understanding of merit if the awards are to be successful. Merit is a highly sensitive term, operating in a contested political terrain: is merit artistic experimentation? Commercial appeal? Innovation in the form? Overcoming obstacles to produce great art? All of the above? Transparency in decision making-processes will show how these questions are tackled. This will provide the committee with some protection from accusations of favouritism or bias or at least open up the conversation.  

I’d like to emphasise that I think these problems are systemic, and not personal – I’m explicitly NOT accusing the committee of any impropriety, and I believe in their sincerity, passion and integrity. However, I do think a lack of transparency around the selection of the committee and the shortlisting process has made things far worse for the BCAs than it needed to be. If next year we can see that the ethic of transparency is more deeply embedded in how the awards are run, that the selection process for both the committee and the comics are more public, and there is an invitation for public critical commentary from people in the scene in the interim, for instance via the BCA blog, I think the scene and the awards will benefit.

That’s all I’d like to say for now. We have an opportunity here to build a fair, resilient awards scheme, and that is only going to take time, patience and conversation. In a scene as small and passionate and ours, it is going to be hard for anyone (myself definitely included) to untangle our own intertwined tastes, friendships, beliefs, values, hang-ups and ambitions for the UK comics scene long enough to offer praise and engage in constructive critique, especially when embroiled in messy Internet debate. It’s easy to soapbox, but harder to listen to one another. 

Consequently, I think further commentary would be unconstructive since the BCA organisers have not yet had time to reconvene and respond to the criticisms already voiced. I believe they intend to do this in the New Year. I’d like to make it clear that although I believe the organisers need to go further in facilitating debate if the awards are going to grow and flourish, I also believe they are willing to do so; I also recognise that as this is the first year of the awards, it was unlikely that such an undertaking would be met without criticism. Finally, I think the organisers should be commended for the hard work already put in - it must seem like a pretty thankless task given some of the public reaction, and I hope my intervention here doesn’t add to that feeling.  I just believe that in order to do things right, we shouldn’t shy away from rigorous public debate.

EDIT: Later this week I’ll be running an interview I conducted BCA founder Adam Cadwell. It was carried out before these pieces were written.