The Publishers Inc team interviewed award-winning comic creators and publishers, Metaphrog to learn about their experiences of the Scottish comics industry and opinions on comics as an art form. Comprising of Scottish writer John Chalmers and French illustrator Sandra Marr, Metaphrog have been creating their own comics since 1996 as well as promoting comics as a medium through a variety of panels and talks. Their latest graphic novel, The Red Shoes and Other Tales, published by Papercutz premiered at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2015 and they are currently working on an upcoming graphic novel funded by Creative Scotland.
Metaphrog will be appearing at Glasgow’s Aye Con – the comics strand of Glasgow’s Book Festival – on the 19th of March to present new graphic novel The Red Shoes and Tales and to discuss the changing face of Scottish comics alongside Alan Grant and Frank Quitely.
In France – compared to Scotland – there seems to be a more widespread understanding of comics as a medium (rather than as being synonymous to the superhero genre). Why do you think this is and what needs to happen for the Scottish comics industry to expand its reach beyond the current comics audience?
In France, comics – or Bande Dessinée – are known as the 9th art. The medium took time to evolve, over decades, and by the 60s and 70s French readers were exposed to outstanding comic creators including: Hugo Pratt, Enki Bilal, Jacques Tardi and Moebius to name a few.
The superhero genre is however not a major part of the French comic world, not in the way they have been in Britain. This is perhaps down to language. American comics have been reprinted and made available in Scotland for decades now. Since the 60s they appeared in black and white form in newsagent shops, and home grown comics, newsstand comics for children, have always been extremely popular. So, it is understandable that people here still think of comics as something for kids. More recently, because of the film industry, people also associate comics with superheroes.
That seems to be changing in Scottish culture, and indeed throughout the world, as we enter a period where our cultures are more visual, and more people want to create their own art. People are increasingly aware that there is more to comics than just kid’s comics or superhero comic books. Bodies like Creative Scotland, Education Scotland, ASLS and the SQA are recognising comics as an art form and accepting that they can combine literature with visual art and can be suitable for study or deeper readings. Maybe one day Leo Baxendale, Dudley D Watkins and Denis McLaughlin will be household names.
To have a healthy industry you need diversity. Comics require a lot of work and a massive investment of time and a degree of dedication. It’s great that you can make them on a low budget – with just a paper and pencil if you like and this in a way will naturally lead to an expansion beyond the current audience, but audience development and maturity of an artform takes time. The current increased popularity of comics is, in our opinion, largely due to the independents – creators and publishers who have pushed the boundaries of the medium.
At the moment it is a very exciting time for comics with lots of high quality books being created in very diverse genres.
How did you both find the transition from self-publishing your books to having The Red Shoes and Other Tales published by Papercutz in the US?
Well, the transition has been more gradual than it appears. When we met in 1994 we immediately started working together. After a few years, we self-published the black and white comic Strange Weather Lately and managed to secure worldwide distribution – you always have to work with other people, create networks and build up contacts.
In 1999 we dreamt of creating a full colour book that would appeal to children and adults alike, something that would make people laugh and cry. It was pretty nerve-racking thinking
then about it. Black and white comics can be made on a photocopier but colour was a big step.
We were fortunate that people read Louis – Red Letter Day and took the time to review it. The graphic novel was nominated for several prestigious industry awards, including two Eisner Awards, and reached a pretty wide audience across America and the Anglophonic world in general. With each successive Louis book we created we seemed to attract more and more positive interest. Louis – Dreams Never Die was a co-publication with the FatCat record label –so that was a very different experience to self-publishing. Because the release had a music track by the Berlin based Hey and a remix by the Icelandic group Múm: it reached a lot of people who wouldn’t normally read a comic or a graphic novel.
When we produced the hardback books Louis – Night Salad and a new edition, re-drawn and re-painted, of Louis – Red Letter Day, we both felt that we had taken self-publishing as far as two people could. The response to the releases was incredible and there was more interest than ever from the literary world, from bookshops and festivals. Louis – Night Salad was also Highly Commended for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards 2011.
In recent years we also took on quite a few commissioned works, so really since 2011 we haven’t self-published.
Self-publishing was great but we wanted to focus on the creative side of things rather than on logistics. Terry Nantier at Papercutz contacted us saying how much he had like our minicomic Winter’s Tales and asked if we would like to work with him on a book which became The Red Shoes and Other Tales.
For us, being able to work with Papercutz has been fantastic – they had special preview copies of The Red Shoes and Other Tales in New York and Miami, and at all the big library shows. Now we can solely focus on being artist and writer, rather than having a do a publisher’s job, which is far too time-consuming. There is no way a self-publisher can do the job in the same way a publisher can.
What are your experiences of being distributed through Diamond Comics and what impact do you think their monolithic presence has on independent publishers?
It was fantastic to have distribution with Diamond Comic Distributors from the start – a very positive experience. We built a good relationship with the people there over time and even visited them a couple of times when we were in Timonium – we still have friends from working with them for so many years.
It is always difficult to get your art out into the world – even with an online presence – and when we first released comics and could send them out to fanzines for review or sell them by hand to individuals or shops, the process was labour-intensive and time-consuming, as anyone can imagine, so having a nexus or distributors is always better but it still isn’t easy for a small publisher or self-publisher to make people aware of their books and get the shops to carry them.
With a lot of the other comic distributors (like Capital City, Cold Cut, FM International, Hobbies Hawaii for example) no longer in business then obviously that has an impact on smaller independent publishers.
Even if a comic appears in the distributor’s catalogue it doesn’t guarantee any sales. Shops only order comics if they feel the risk is worth taking. The comic retailers are the ones making the financial outlay ultimately.
It has never really been easy to make people aware of your work or, indeed, to get it out there and in some ways having fewer options means people have to work harder and be more creative in the way they promote and produce art.
How important are comic conventions and festivals for building up a fan base as an independent comics creator?
Essentially, the more promotion a comic creator does the better. And, if that includes going to all the shows and actually meeting people and building relationships with them then there is more chance of attracting readers. It just takes time. And writing and drawing comics also takes time.
There are shows all round Britain every week now and it’s similar in other countries.
Really, it’s virtually impossible for creators to go to a convention or show every week.
For the independent creators it does provide a platform for communication: networking, meeting other creators, learning about the state of the art and absorbing inspiration and so forth. With the small press shows quite often there are more people behind stalls than there are visitors so in a way it is naturally limiting.
Regularly releasing a comic book or graphic novel and showing one’s reliability is probably more important. Possibly because we met a bimonthly schedule, releasing comics every two months for two years, we attracted readers and slowly built a fan-base.
How would you assess the health of the Scottish small-press scene and what changes would you like in the industry over the next 5 years?
The comic world is very healthy at the moment, including in Scotland. There are more and more comic creators, small presses and publishers producing interesting work and also more comic conventions around the country.
The comic industry continues to attract favourable attention and the comic medium is gaining greater acceptance from the art and literary world.
Over the next five years we hope to see more and more indications that comics, and graphic novels, are being taken seriously and enjoyed by new readers, and that in a way is only possible if people create great quality work.