366 days until the Olympics. Huh.

This is a statue of Sir Steve Redgrave in the town where I grew up. This is also my friend’s arm. This is BECAUSE IT’S ONE YEAR UNTIL THE OLYMPICS.

A unifying sporting event that champions excellence and participation for people of all abilities is fantastic. However, issues with mega-events, a short-sighted attitude to the role of the arts in documenting and maintaining the process of change, the commercialisation and devastation of exisiting communities and a generally narrow view of the true benefit you could unlock from having this event in this country can’t be ignored. In particular, concerns about gentrification and the privatisation of apparently public spaces (already a huge, often hidden, issue) and the displacement of the people whose history and legacy is being undermined, potentially for the celebration of a short-lived event, pose deep concerns. People are resisting.

I don’t think it’s cynical to flag these things up: and seeing as the games are yet to arrive, and the ‘legacy’ yet to emerge, there is still time to tackle at least SOME of these issues.

In other words Olympics: YES, the London 2012 Olympics Logo: NO, because it really does look like Lisa Simpson fellating Bart.

Take the power back

When talking in a recent interview about the challenges of corporate publishing and distribution practices (in particular, the decision of chief comic distro Diamond to change their policy on how it evaluated what comics it would distribute), John Porcellino of King Cat fame had the following to say about those stuck within an apparently unfair system:

…if they’re in the hands of a monopolized distribution stream, maybe they felt there was no other way to go.  As someone who comes from a DIY background, the answer is clear though – you create a new system.

He also had this to say:

"Despite all the upheaval in the comics world, and publishing in general, I have nothing but high hopes for the future.  I think the underground got kind of confused for awhile in the 2000′s.  Things were changing so fast.  Now we’re seeing creators and publishers digging in and getting to work.  We’ve seen our options, and we’re making choices.  Comics are more alive now than at any other point in history, and they’re going to survive.  That’s for certain."

Now, Diamond doesn’t register anywhere in my world of distribution - I am but comics plankton. But what DOES register with me is the importance of going out there and DOING IT FOR YOURSELF, and the beauty of working hard and finding others to work with along the way: just look at what plankton does for the whole bloody planet when it gets together*

Anyway; enough overwrought metaphors. You can read the full interview here.

* I mean that it sustains whole ecosystems and supports life on earth and other awesome stuff - my poorly thought out metaphor thoroughly ignores the bit where we all get eaten alive.

How can I make something now that will last long enough to mean something to you?

Kevin Hurley of Solar Coaster (photographer unknown, image scanned from KERRANG! and taken from Solar Coaster’s MySpace page)

The other day, and for no apparent reason, a name popped into my head for the first time in 11 years: Solar Coaster. Now, Solar Coaster were a three-piece band from Winston-Salem in North Carolina that I had read about in KERRANG! magazine, back in the misty history of my teenage years. (Internet tells me the article was from issue 784, published on 15th January 2000 – ed.). The thing is, I couldn’t remember much – in fact, up until last week, all I could recall was a vague recollection of the article – discussing warehouse gigs with Oneida and Solar Coaster in New York in the late 1990s and early 2000s – and a very, very vivid image of the photo above. That picture was everything I wanted to be, everything I wanted to look and sound like, and yet, I had never even heard their music. So, feeling twitchy fingered and somewhat under-motivated at work, I turned to Google to shed light on my question - who were Solar Coaster, and what did they actually sound like?

I found out pretty quickly: within two minutes of remembering their name, I had already listened to some material on Solar Coaster’s MySpace page (although the band are apparently defunct, it appears they still maintain an online presence) and had started listening to their only record, 1998’s eponymous ‘Solar Coaster’ on Spotify. Within two hours of hitting Google, I had listened to the album twice, back-to-back, found a copy on Amazon and purchased it. As I write this, about a week later, I’m finally listening to the CD. It sounds pretty fucking awesome.

But let’s backtrack to that image for a moment. In early 2000, I was 16 years old. Music was for me, as it is for many teenagers, both a way to create a shared identity and a way to distinguish myself from other people; a life-line; a way of making sense of the world and a way of being; a means of self-expression; and a way of having FUN - all that stuff. Now, this photograph encapsulated everything that I wanted at that time – to play in a band, to play fast and loud music and (of course) to look the part. It sat along side other images torn from magazines and posters, of Hendrix, Cobain, Smashing Pumpkins and the rest, a sort of canon of musical virtue – of visceral music, played with passion both out of necessity and for sheer kicks. Suffice it to say, Solar Coaster needed to be my new favourite band.

But this was relatively early in the days of file-sharing and Napster; I had downloaded some things I think by this point, but on a 56k modem on a scratchy analogue phone-line, large files (such as they were) would take hours to download. Online purchasing was present and improving, but my knowledge of it scant. The fact was if I didn’t get lucky in a record shop, I would be unlikely to ever hear this band. This had been the case for a lot of the music I wanted to hear throughout the late 1990s – obscuro-grunge side-projects, small-print-run indie records and even bigger names – Sebadoh, Pavement, bands I’d heard of but couldn’t get my hands on. So although this was improving with my new weekend job, the Internet getting better, and being able to go further a field in search of better record shops, I never did hear Solar Coaster. I promptly forgot about the band, but not the image, for the next decade.

I found it interesting that the image stuck with me for so long, and as I was hunting the band down again this week, I was given cause to reflect on our compulsion to consume, process and rework a million images, a thousand more bands and artists than we ever could when we were younger. I had also been thinking about the ongoing debates in creative circles about the way images hit the internet and then get lost, without attribution, appearing as memes, on t-shirts, on walls and in public, long-divorced from any attribution to the image’s original maker. Creators loose out as fashions form, coalesce and collapse upon themselves, faster than we can grasp them: microcosms of meaning flare up and fall back as the next tweet, link, reblog, email – whatever – compels us to consume the next thing, the next thing and the next. Blink, and you’ll miss it. I mean, how do you even form a relationship with material like that? Can you even imagine loving an image that passed your screen today in 10 years time? Do you see yourself tearing it from your screen and putting it on your wall and into your being for all time?

I’m not saying this is all bad – I’m not interested in being a Luddite, or a technophobe, or a hairy old rock-crusty who remembers ‘back in the day when…’. In fact, I don’t particularly believe in objective truths or any of that, so I’m not thinking about this in terms of good vs. bad – I use tumblr, I use twitter: I want to promote my work. Also, I know it’s not always easy, either. Look at the dog’s dinner I’ve made of the attribution for the Internet scavenged image I’ve included above, for example: I was so desperate to find and see it again, that I poached it from elsewhere. It’s a confusing mess.

But to come back to Solar Coaster, their music is fast, and loud, and sort of melancholy. It’s angular in places, driving, swirling and fuzzy. Hazy. All those adjectives. It sounds a bit Sonic Youth, a bit like early Foos in some of the high-speed drum pummelling; there’s Husker Du in there, college rock, Sunny Day Real Estate. There are also bits of British bands in the mix, too – Swervedriver, Ride, My Bloody Valentine and other early 1990s indie from these shores – the sort of scruffy psychedelia that eventually became refigured, diluted or misappropriated into the needless swagger of ‘Britpop’. Like I say, it’s pretty fucking awesome. But these examples are all just touchstones for reference (RIYL or what have you) because I’m not sure if I need to tell you about what they sound like – nowadays, you can go listen for yourself online. What I do know, though, is that Solar Coaster are now my new favourite band, and it’s thanks to that photo for planting a seed.

So the question I have is this: given how fast music and sound and pictures and stimuli travel, often so far-removed from their point of origin, how can we understand a present that is stable enough to even produce something, no matter how ephemeral, that will last long enough in a future that is so rapid? How can I make something now that will last long enough to mean something to you, so that you don’t forget it?

Thought Bubble 2010 Report

As many of you folks may be aware, we here at the comics publishing powerhouse that is Things in Panels (well, me and Nick) are relatively new to the world of distributing comics and going to conventions. Our first adventure was back in May, at the Bristol Comics and Small Press Expo, which turned out to be a highly exciting and addictive experience. With this in mind, we booked ourselves a table for Thought Bubble in Leeds, and hoped for the best… Here is what happened:

Friday

After leaving behind Bristol’s bright blue skies, we plunged the car into thick fog, rain and darkness somewhere in the Midlands and took the edge off the bad driving conditions and grey monotony by listening to Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. This was a good thing. We hit Leeds and found the hotel with only minimal turning-missing one-way-system-cursing. Eschewing dinner, we immediately scuttled to the drinks reception around the corner. Overwhelmed by the variety of characters on display in the hotel bar, we opted to hide out in a corner, sharing a sofa and table with a gent called Karl. Karl, other than being a very interesting chap, also was at the TB with none other than Suzy Varty. For my sins, I didn’t know about Suzy’s role in the development of the British small press scene, but I know do and can report that she was a lovely, inspiring lady and a good laugh. Suzy also introduced us to Graham Manning, who was also a very nice man.

We then met local comic stalwart Dr Simpo, who took under his eccentric wing and took us out to some awesome little pubs. The night ended with a lock-in, a slice of someone else’s pizza, a conversation about what was (and what was not) a crane fly, some kebab-shop chips and a cup of tea. Good time, late night.


Saturday

We ate breakfast of debatable ethical origin sourced in Tescos, and hit the venue only marginally behind schedule. Our table was up and running by 10.04am. Good times. The day was good – lots of energy, lots of interest, some good sales. I think my high point of the selling side was meeting a couple of people who had bought my comics elsewhere, and wanted to get the latest stuff. It was really nice to know that both Nick and I had folks getting hold of our stuff, unbeknownst to us, but still wanting to get more. So thanks everyone who bought something, and especially those who made such nice comments about Smoo #3 – I’m looking at you, Jordan!

One of the best bits of the day was getting meet some good folks whose work and names I knew, but faces I did not. These included Rob Jackson, the non pseudonym version of Thom Ferrier, Howard Hardiman, Shug Raine, Steve Tillotson, Kenny Penman, the WAWaP folk, Adam Cadwell, and Kayla Hillier. It was especially good to meet Richard Bruton, of the Forbidden Planet International blog. Richard has been so supportive of Smoo in his reviews, and to meet him and find him as lovely as I hoped he would be was fantastic. It was also good to see other folk we had met before, such as Matthew Murray, the Dirty Rotten Comics boys and Lando of Decadence fame.

All in all, though, it was a good experience – hectic, full of energy, too busy to get nearly as many trades or purchases into my grubby mitts as I’d like, but what are you going to do? Get drunk in a casino. What else?

Final thoughts

I’ve been thinking a little about John Allison’s ‘Manifesto for UK Indie Comics’, which emerged in a recent post on John’s blog. The manifesto contained his thoughts and advice on making a living in the UK comics scene. He sounds a bit bummed, a bit bugged and a bit angry. He also sounds like his tongue might be in his cheek a little: I’m not entirely sure. Now, the post has received some coverage, and some thoughtful responses, such as here, and this is understandable: slap the phrase manifesto on something and you’re going to put people’s backs up.

So I’ve thought on this, and I’m trying not to set John up as a straw person, representative of all the things that are challenging and negative about our experiences in the webcomics/small press world: he’s a guy who shared his opinion, not the living embodiment of the ravages of late-capitalism in the digital world. Rather, I want to use his comments as a launchpad for something positive. I think Thought Bubble was a testament to the vibrancy and diversity of the small press scene in Britain and beyond. There is plenty of energy, passion and enthusiasm for the medium, which is a fantastic thing. 

However, we do, perhaps, need to find alternate forms of production, distribution and networks through which to operate. That new solution will look different, support us differently, provide for us as artists and as people differently, from what we imagine now. This will make something that looks like neither the print dominated, inward looking ‘1994’ scene that John describes, nor the mark-let, internet only revolution that John has come into contact with. Personally: I like print: print is the thing. I don’t believe necessarily in its primacy, but I do believe in its tactility, its versatility, its value and its accessibility.

What we need will only come into being if we continue to work at our craft, talk to one another and imagine an alternative future for British Small Press Comics. It doesn’t have to recourse to models of production and audiences we don’t want to write for (there is, of course, something to be said to distributing outside of your ‘scene’: I agree totally. It just doesn’t have to compromise the work you make). Solipstisitc Pop, Blank Slate WaWAP are all trying to do this, and succeeding. We need, and have, a critical mass. The more we have events like Thought Bubble, the more we meet and talk, the more chance we have of producing alternative funding models, distribution networks, vehicles for web and print comics and so on. John’s post suggests that complacency in the small press scene is negative: I agree. Nothing happening you like in your area? No audience? No fellow creators? Do something about it. Get stuck in.

Finally, I do comics in and around the rest of my life because comics help me make sense of who I am and what I do. They might be quotidian; they might be introspective; but don’t believe for a minute that I believe those characteristics make my contribution invalid. Small press comics can very much be art, can very much be part of a literary canon and above are NOT a hobby, at least not for me. That I make no money from it is a challenge to face, not one to lie down upon and say ‘print is dead, long live the internet’. Lying down like that isn’t how change starts, it isn’t how change is sustained, and it isn’t how something new and worthwhile comes into being. What I want to ask for is a different future for art, comics, zines, books and the small press in ALL its colours. But the responsibility for that lies with us: if, like me, you don’t like the world John describes, let’s get off our arses and change it.

EDIT: John wrote a clarification of one of his points here. He also points out that his advice wasn’t aimed at those who do comics as ‘art for art’s sake’. My rant is an age old-one directed against a system that distinguishes between art-for-art’s sake and ‘commercial art’, not at John for pointing out that distinction.