comicbookGRRRL Do not offend the chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible.

20Mar/140

Issue #One, Scotland’s First Comic Book Symposium

For such a small country, Scotland has long maintained a great influence over the comics industry - at least that part that reads in English at least - from the long-running Beano to modern day maestros Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, not to mention every Judge Dredd and Electric Soup in between.

Scottish comics are thriving, with sold out conventions in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, the first Masters in Comic Studies at Dundee University, and small press success for many.

Yet despite Scotland's illustrious history and a reputation for funding national endeavours, the country lags far behind our European cousins in taking comics 'seriously'. While comics are now winning Costa Awards and elbowing review space in the UK newspapers, the popularity of "wham! pow!" headlines is still high, and negative publicity the more frequent outcome.

This Monday, the Scottish Independent Comic Book Alliance (SICBA) introduced Scotland's first comic symposium, Issue #One, drawing together speakers from academia, the comics industry, and beyond to discuss - with a willing audience - "the future of Scotland’s comic book industry".

issueoneFew attendees at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow knew quite what to expect - whether this was an industry event or an academic conference - but panellist and SICBA co-founder Sha Nazir was keen that this be the first in a series of forums to discuss the various important questions that arise from such conversations. Nazir and fellow comics creator John Farman set SICBA up in 2011, "in response to the growing wealth of output from comic creators in Scotland."

The open forum symposium brought together over 100 creators, retailers, publishers and reviewers, and was labelled as being in partnership with Black Hearted Press (of which Nazir and Farman are co-founders) and The Stirling Maxwell Centre, University of Glasgow.

One night then, and six key questions shaped the discussion with host, Gareth K Vile, Theatre Editor of The List, and the seven panelists:

- Dr Laurence Grove - Director, Stirling Maxwell Centre, University of Glasgow
- Dr Chris Murray - Senior Lecturer and founder of the first MLitt in Comic Studies, University of Dundee
- Sha Nazir - Art Director & Publisher, Black Hearted Press Ltd
- Jenny Niven - Portfolio Manager for Literature, Publishing and Languages, Creative Scotland
- Phillip Vaughn - Course Director, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art
- Peter Watson - Forbidden Planet International, Glasgow
- Maria Welch - Publisher (Children’s Entertainment), DC Thomson Ltd

Question 1: What can we do to bring the industry in Scotland together and work collaboratively to everyone's benefit?

Vile asked the panel to address what they already did to help the industry, and invited Sha Nazir to speak first, who pointed out that the event itself was a product of collaboration with the CCA giving the discussion space for free. Peter Watson of the Glasgow branch of Forbidden Planet International was keen to point out that FPI is very keen to support the small press, with the branch having a (sizeable) small press section that was particularly popular with tourists who would ask for "Scottish comics".

Glasgow Looking Glass

Glasgow Looking Glass

Maria Welch added that DC Thomson have been working with the university and art college in Dundee, and that the industry as a whole could learn a lot from the world of magazines and the industry networking opportunities (eg Magfest) that that medium exploits. Dr Grove claimed that Scottish creators "dominated" the world of comics, and mentioned the Glasgow Looking Glass, an 1825 caricature magazine that is said - by some - to be the world's first comic.

Dr Murray spoke about how the MLitt in Comic Studies at Dundee University encompasses both studying the history and theoretical side of comics and the making of comics themselves. He talked about embedding a knowledge of the industry throughout the course, and mentioned that the assessment includes the Creating Comics module, where students endeavour to bring their own creation to the page. This relationship between the academic and creative approaches was key, with noted creators providing workshops for the students.

Phil Vaughn added that there was a lot of crossover between the university and Duncan of Jordanstone, with his own modules having a more practical focus. The Comic Art and Graphic Novels module available for Level 3 students is, he said, the most popular expansive module within the school.

Jenny Niven of Creative Scotland stated that the funding and development organisation needed to be led by the sector, and that CS wanted to be completely open to comic creators. She gave a brief overview of the funding opportunities, and underlined that the organisation is about supporting the creator at different stages in their career rather than just specific projects.

Question 2: The role of comics in education. Is it still seen as dumbing down? Can we dream of a Higher in Comic Studies?

Dr Lawrence spoke about how education is about evolving and innovating, reminding the audience that Glasgow University had been considered an early innovator for teaching in English rather than Latin - that had not been dumbing down but rather opening the knowledge to a greater audience. The current buzzword in academia, "impact", was noted - the idea that research should have wider use and not created purely in a vacuum for an academic only audience. He stated that comics should be used as a learning tool for all levels of education.

Skint!

Skint!

Niven talked about the educational projects Creative Scotland have worked on previously, including Skint!, "a free graphic novel resource to help people develop good money skills and prevent them from sinking into debt" produced via the Scottish Book Trust and created by playwright Gowan Calder and comics duo Metaphrog. There was also, she said, an upcoming graphic novel about famous naturalist John Muir, John Muir, Earth - Planet, Universe, being published in April that was to be distributed for free to every school child in Scotland.

Dr Murray said that he had encountered no sneering over his own PhD in Comic Studies in academic circles, and that there had been no backlash to his comics modules within academia. "I don't want to demonise the press," he said, explaining that the idea of "dumbing down" came mostly from misleading headlines that were perhaps the fault of editorial pressure. The battle is one of perception, as increasingly comics in university are not unheard of. The focus should be on moving into schools and providing workshops for younger people.

Comics are an important "route to literacy".

Welch was very keen to stress the importance of comics in schools for improving literacy, reminding the audience that "comics, in a very unique way, connect words and pictures," which is fantastic for struggling young readers. Comics were such an important "route to literacy" that DC Thomson are working with the National Literary Trust to try and get comics on the Scottish schools curriculum.

Vaughn added that while he had experienced very little resistance in bringing comics to the art college, he did feel as if secondary schools were slightly more hesitant over comics than primary schools. Describing a "slightly sneering attitude", he said there was a feeling that comics were not worthy enough.

Asked by Vile whether Forbidden Planet had educational comics, Watson replied that there were biographies, historical graphic novels, and books about comic creation - highlighting the Comic Book History of Comics (by Fred Van Lente) as particularly noteworthy and How to Draw Comics the "Marvel" Way (by Stan Lee and John Buscema) as the single best book on comics anyone could buy.

beanoNazir jokingly rebutted this with a mention of Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art, before discussing his own work with schools, particularly with younger children. He believes that the focus should be on primary schools, and showing the use of comics as an educational tool, name-checking half-comic/half-book series Horrible Histories and comics The Beano and The Phoenix amongst others.

An audience member added that it would be a good idea for comics to similarly be used as tools in high schools, with the example given of how comics like Lucky Luke could help in French classes. Niven questioned whether Maus was on the schools curriculum here (it is not), explaining that she had recently come from Australia where Spiegelman's classic was used in schools. She said that teachers would need support on how to use comics in their classes, and that Creative Scotland were inundated with requests for artists and comic creators to give talks and workshops at schools, but only had two comic writers signed up on their list. She pleaded for more creators to sign up for this kind of work.

Question 3: How can publishers (especially small press) communicate with retailers to promote and sell goods in Scotland and across the UK ensuring creators and publishers are able to make a profit?

Watson instructed small press creators to talk to the retailers, hand in samples of their work and have a clear - and realistic - idea of their pricing. "We want more!" exclaimed the Forbidden Planet retailer, saying that small press titles were very popular and the chain liked having lots of local comics on display. He also advised that having a good web presence and attending conventions were important steps.

Small Press display in Glasgow's Forbidden Planet (1/4 of!)

Small Press display in Glasgow's Forbidden Planet (one quarter of the whole!)

Welch added that people needed to be creative about their comic brand, and to have firm ideas of their tone of voice and target market in order to sell their brand concisely. She advised that mosaic circulation worked best, targeting specific shops that appealed to their chosen market. More contentiously the publisher said that while creating comics that you and your friends like is one way to produce work, "that's great if you have 10,000 mates" - otherwise you have to be more commercial and mainstream to appeal to the widest audience. This is perhaps something that applies more to the larger indie publishers as there was some dismay over this advice amongst the more diverse creators in the audience.

Vaughn stated that he believed creators and publishers needed to make better use of press releases, and incorporating images and good design into those, and that social media should be used in a positive manner. He also advised looking beyond Scotland.

Kickstarter is "bad for business".

Nazir talked about how small press titles were now far more appealing to high street stores like Waterstones because of the high quality of the actual physical product. He said to look beyond your comic circles to others who know more about branding and promotion - "tap your friends who know what they're doing!". He added that he was vehemently against Kickstarter, labelling it "bad for business".

Niven said that Creative Scotland offered lots of formal opportunities to skill up, and underlined that comics were not excluded by the organisation. She also reminded people that they could join the various bodies available, including the Professional Publishers Association and Publishing Scotland, noting that fees were scaled to annual earnings and membership provided cheaper training opportunities as well as access to seminars and tables at book fairs.

Dr Murray pointed to the support of the Edinburgh Book Festival last year which held the Stripped programme of events for comics and graphic novels, as well as the various events that take place in Glasgow and Dundee every year. But looking at Thought Bubble in Leeds, he said, showed that we could be doing so much more - "we should have that!"

"We've got the history, we've got the current day, we've got the future."

Nazir added that the spend per head at the Glasgow Comic Con (run by Black Hearted Press) last year was £45, and that bigger conventions had bigger competition.

Dr Lawrence invoked the spirit of The Angoulême International Comics Festival, saying that Scotland had the infrastructure to have a similar festival and even to do it better. "We've got the history, we've got the current day, we've got the future."

An audience member queried the advice on branding and maintaining a cohesive voice, wondering whether this would limit diversity. Welch answered that it is important to brand the project rather than the creator or publisher, and that she was not talking about corporate branding but a strategy for your product/brand that puts forward its unique selling points.

Question 4: How important are digital comics in exporting Scottish produced works to the world?

With his background in animation, Vaughn said it was important for digital delivery to maintain the unique aspects of reading a comic, such as timing and transitions, as otherwise it ceases to be a comic and becomes animation. A variety of delivery methods was important he stated, and the monopoly of Comixology stagnated creativity. Digital comics are struggling with these issues.

Nazir said that 5-10 years ago he wasn't sure how digital comics would work out, but that the popularity of iPads and smart devices had changed that by providing the exact right form for comics to be really well presented and enjoyable. A British Comixology was needed, he said, and mentioned Sequential.

Niven spoke about how she is not a big mainstream comics reader but that seeing Saga on an iPad had been "so beautiful" she was completely won over - adding that she would never have thought to read it in print.

Vaughn reminded the panel that there were issues with monetising digital comics, with the price point being a real barrier - particularly when compared to the cost of apps and games. Watson added that it was a good way to get your name out there, and that creators need to contact podcasts to spread their name as well.

Train ourselves to think as "comic content providers".

Dr Lawrence said that the two forms of comics were not mutually exclusive, "video did not kill the radio star". Welch stated that it was important for creators and publishers to train themselves to think as "comic content providers", and that younger readers in particular did not care in which form they read their comics. As comic lovers, those present have a real passion for print, she explained, and we need to lose that possession while keeping the passion for all comics.

Watson asked for a raise of hands from those who read The Private Eye (by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martín and Muntsa Vicente), a DRM-free digital-only comic available on a pay-what-you-want model - there was a sizeable response.

Dr Murray mentioned the recent media story about Marvel transitioning to digital only, a false story that nonetheless had Facebook whipped into a frenzy. It's an "emotive issue", he said, but forms don't supplant each other in that way.

The Private Eye

An audience member noted that Marvel and DC single issues now come with a digital code included so that readers can enjoy the comic in either format. Vaughn spoke a little about Marvel's augmented reality app, saying that he found the icons within the comic to be detracting from the story and that it was mixing the two mediums too much and breaking up the narrative.

Vile finished up this question by referencing the collecting (speculation) explosion of the '90s, and saying that while digital comics were easily available on the iPad, the price of that technology was not affordable for all.

Question 5: How do comics get the type of support that theatre, performance, visual arts, and film get in Scotland? Why are we not considered a valuable creative asset? (What do we need to do to get Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government to support comics in the same way?)

Niven stepped up to answer this one first saying that she did not think the first half of the question was accurate, with Creative Scotland providing support for a small number of projects. She said that the standard and quality was very important, with the bar for trail blazers being understandably high. Citing the fact that children's authors were previously not supported, Niven revealed that one of the earliest to benefit from the change had been JK Rowling, who had been awarded £1,000 towards the creation of her first manuscript. With Creative Scotland not being as familiar with the comics form and material it was important, she said, that the comics industry professionalises and has articulate voices speaking for it. She stated that people were putting a lot of effort into the creative side of their work but not enough on the industry itself and the business elements.

Dr Murray explained that he did not want to get in a position of "poor us", the comics sector. The other examples listed in the question were very resource heavy which leads to a perceived sense of worth, while comics being cheaper to produce would need to know what exactly they were asking for equal funding for? What big project or plan would require that support? He said that comics shouldn't feel inferior but maybe the industry is not asking for the right things.

Dr Lawrence added that there is always the question of high and low art evolving, and subjective value judgements to be made but that looking out at the audience at the symposium he could see a huge age range and diverse gender mix. Comics should continue to reach out to different sectors.

bash

Welch asked why the immediate jump to involving the government rather than embracing grass roots action, starting at a local rather than national level. She cited the recently renamed Bash Street in Dundee (so named for the ongoing The Bash Street Kids strip in The Beano) that was organised in partnership with Dundee City Council. Local politicians are interested, she said, as they want to be re-elected and comics are popular with many.

Question 6: How can we help new creators break into the industry and what advice and guidance can we show them? Should there be a central body (The National Comics Academy and Gallery)?

The final panel question of the evening revealed one of the apparent goals of the symposium - to discuss the idea of opening a National Comics Academy and Gallery in the currently unused McLellan Galleries in Glasgow city centre, with Dr Lawrence pinpointing the "Victorian building round the corner". Nazir added that if this kind of discussion was going to be had then they had to identify their aspirations. With other bodies such as the National Theatre and National Ballet existing, and Scotland producing talent and titles like Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, The Beano, and Glasgow Looking Glass, how many more potential creators were sitting in this room, he wondered.

Vaughn cautioned against centralising too narrowly, saying it was important to build on existing projects. Dr Murray, who together with Vaughn runs many of the comics events in Dundee, agreed saying that the industry needed to draw on its strengths and that while an academy was useful as a focus, it could subsume everything else. He stressed the importance of creating a network of communication and discussion, and that the ambition was a good one but needed shared across Scotland.

Vile asked the panel how the industry could engage new creators. Welch said DC Thomson were always looking for new talent, and that every champion of the industry needs to tell not only their own stories, but the big story of comics itself as well. She stated that the industry needs to be more outward looking, and that magazines are much better at shouting about themselves. More events, she said, and workshops were key.

Niven advised people to get together a strategy on how to move forward at a grass roots level, to get lobbying and gather people round a table to swap key ideas. This would make it easier, she said, for Creative Scotland to get involved.

Vile asked the panel to share any advice for new creators wanting to break into the industry. "Just do it," said Watson, and practise. Vaughn explained that while a lot of people have ideas and aspirations you have to physically do it to get anywhere - whether creating comics or championing them.

Audience Q&A

Moving on to questions from the audience for the last half hour, the first question asked how digital opens up space for female fans. The panel were maybe a wee bit quick to jump to the defensive on the issue of women readers here rather than addressing the question itself. Vaughn stated that his comics course is female dominated, usually 70/30, which was in no way an issue but was encouraging. Dr Murray agreed, revealing that in his developing comics course at least 50-70% of students were female. Vaughn reminded the panel that problems however were indeed reported by women with comics retailers.

No one less intimidating than geeks.

"We welcome women," declared Watson, saying that there was no one less intimidating than geeks.

Niven advised women creators to use their perspective to their advantage, and to make comics about it, citing the work of Alison Bechdel.

Nazir revealed that 46% of Glasgow Comic Con attendees last year were female and that he thought the digital community could only help as by it's very nature it is gender non-specific. He did point to some people as being "a bit mean" and acting as "keyboard hard-men".

The next question from the audience was one taking issue with the previous answers, pointing to the recent experience and comic from Noelle Stevenson and even more so to the horrendous sexist backlash from speaking out. The audience member also stated that she herself had been made to feel incredibly uncomfortable in the local Forbidden Planet shop by both staff and fellow customers - a finger-point that had many in the audience squirming but understandable perhaps given the previous, fairly flippant, reply about geeks not being intimidating.

by Noelle Stevenson

by Noelle Stevenson

Watson immediately apologised profusely, and the audience member asked what the panel thought could be done to make comic shops, and the community, more welcoming. Watson stated that the Forbidden Planet runs events and book clubs, and that if anyone is unhappy they should ask to speak to the manager. He again apologised.

Dr Lawrence added that there has been a great turnaround for women in comics in recent years, noting the great work that the successful Team Girl Comic collective produce, and the recent Laydeez Do Comics meetings that have started in Glasgow.

"It can turn quite nasty quite quickly."

The next audience question asked whether it would be possible to create some kind of online forum for Scottish creators. Vaughn said that while there had been such endeavours in the past, they often descended into online "bun fights", even with the best of intentions. "It can turn quite nasty quite quickly," he said and he didn't know how the industry could get past that.

Nazir added that there were lots of groups out there already, but that internet nastiness was a problem. He recommended that creators plug into things that already exist such as the Creative Scotland opportunities board.

Welch stressed the need for those in the industry to check and challenge themselves and others, and that everyone should be able to feel welcome. She said there had been a positive sea-change during her career, and that it had not been uncommon early in her career for editors to talk to her like she had a "uterus in place of a brain!"

The next audience member had a bit of anger to unleash, opening with the fact that the average visual artist makes little more than £4,000 per year. While the funding process had been in development in the last two years at Creative Scotland, he said, "it's not our job to educate you." Creators don't have the time or money to do all this, he explained, as they were too busy creating. Perhaps that's why they needed an academy, he ended.

"It's not our job to educate you."

Niven was keen to address these issues, saying he was "absolutely right" on the unneeded complexity of the funding process, and that while transition funds will be available until October, the whole process will then be totally simplified. She talked about how there would be one fund with three streams, and that they absolutely had to be transparent and free creators to get on with their work. The massive budget was very complex, she said, with a huge number of art forms to represent, but they were very optimistic about getting things right. Creative Scotland has a finite resource of people however, she added, and while in the ideal world staff would not need educated on the comics medium, that isn't practical at this stage.

Another audience member pointed back to the previous brief mention of Kickstarter, wondering if there weren't a lot of misconceptions about the crowdfunding platform due to the horror stories of projects gone wrong, and that actually it was quite a big avenue of income that provided a 30 day publicity blitz.

Nazir maintained that these avenues exist already, and that "if someone wants it, they'll buy it" when it is complete. The Veronica Mars project, he said, was "mental" for making that kind of money. Watson pointed out that Fantagraphics, who also use Kickstarter, don't make a lot of money.

Vaughn said he wasn't entirely convinced by Kickstarter, saying he liked the idea behind it but that it wasn't controlled enough, and that it didn't have enough accountability. Nazir added that that is the difference between Kickstarter and funding from a body like Creative Scotland - accountability and a clear paper trail.

The next audience question asked whether the comics industry had an age barrier, querying whether "new creators" referred to only young people.

Nazir revealed that he still counts himself as a new creator, not having drawn his first comic until he was 35. There is an age barrier, he said, but not as much as in previous years. Vaughn stated there was no barrier at all, while Dr Murray agreed that there was no barrier in academia. Vile added that with lots of funding aimed at those under the age of 26, it was a very good question.

The final question was a tad unclear, but asked whether the panel thought there was a prospect of a comics equivalent of the Silicon Valley (in Scotland?). Watson spoke a little about CrossGen which tried to relive those big studio bullpen days but ultimately didn't work. Dr Lawrence pointed to the idea of the academy, creating a triangle between Glasgow School of Art, the CCA, and the academy.

Nazir pointed out that Scotland is really tiny, and spoke of the strong links between Glasgow and Dundee that already existed.

Vile thanked the panellists and the audience, advising everyone that it would no doubt continue in the bar!

The general conversation afterward focused on a few key points - the idea of the academy that seemed to divide Glaswegians and those who had travelled from further afield, the idea of commercialising creative output in order to succeed, and the issues that women face both as creators and potential customers. A few folk noted the lack of questions referencing the upcoming Scottish referendum, and that the talk of digital had not included webcomics. I realised it was a little strange there was no press person (bar the host) on the panel.

It was nice to have such a positive discussion on such a variety of issues - and it certainly revitalised my interest in comics! - though I think it's important not to gloss over real concerns in the wider (and local) comics community when doing so, and I'm very glad those were addressed as well. Overall it was a friendly and welcoming atmosphere with a real buzz of energy.

Most importantly, this was Issue #One, the first in a proposed series of symposiums with the next, hopefully, to take place in Dundee. See you there?