Indie publisher brings foreign language comics to UK readers
Five Leaves bookshop and publishing house launches a graphic imprint specialising in comics in translation.
Many of the new trends we see in graphic storytelling originate in the communities of small and indie press. Less constrained by cycles of supply and demand, as well as the larger financial risks of untested content, smaller publishers - which are often set up by writers, artists and fans of comics - have a lot more room for experimentation with form and ideas than their more corporate counterparts.
Attracted by the inherent possibilities of collaboration and community in the UK comics scene, Five Leaves Publishing, based in Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham’s city centre, has announced the launch of a new graphic imprint. The publication of their first title, East of Aleppo by local artist Brick (Depresso) is now available, just in time for the second annual Small Press Day this weekend.
"It’s a new departure for us," assistant publisher Pippa Hennessy tells me as we drink tea in the office area at the back of the shop. "Our raison d’être is to put things into print which ought to be in print, so we publish a huge range of things: poetry, fiction, reprints of great books that have gone out of print. And a lot of new authors - quite a few first novels - to encourage writers to develop their creative careers.
"And with Five Leaves Graphic the possibilities are amazing because… graphic writing can represent the ideas we’re interested in - political and radical ideas - in a much more immediate and powerful way."
Tucked down one of Nottingham’s many alleyways with only a betting shop for company, Five Leaves specialises in fringe material. The full bookcases displayed in the floor-to-ceiling windows are decorated with anarchic postcards, political aphorisms and campaigns like the ‘Let June be the end of May’ slogan for last month’s general election.
Inside, the traditional division of genres includes subsets devoted to radical politics, countercultures and religious heritage that are evidence of careful curation. Ross "the boss" Bradshaw, owner and proprietor of the shop and publisher, explains that, for him, publishing graphic narrative is the next logical step.
"I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at the way that comics and graphic novels are so much a part of alternative culture, Western culture, and literary culture," he says. "So when we started talking about it, it felt like we should catch up as a publisher. We already sell graphic novels.
"I’d also like to see the left using graphic material more in its day-to-day campaigning. I think we’d catch people’s attention a lot more if they were better designed and had more cartoons in them."
Even with its aims of promoting radical content with its books, perhaps one of the most innovative plans for the new imprint, and the idea that kicked off the project, is the intention to find the most incredible foreign language comics around the world and translate them into English for UK readers. One wall of the bookshop is currently taken up by prose fiction, 25 percent of which is in translation and ordered by country of origin, suggesting that crossing language barriers is a priority for the team, despite not having confirmed the acquisition of any international books so far.
"The academic and cultural side of comics is growing exponentially," says instigator of this project and creator of the imprint’s first publication, Brick. "[But] it’s sad that some of the quality work that you see coming from the continent is almost never seen in this country in translation.
"The starting point was fired by some of the works that have got through, for instance, Sandcastle, The Hartlepool Monkey, and Road to America, which is a wonderful boxing story by Baru.
"We will look for work like this, that is - I’m reluctant to say alternative - but, lets say, has spunk. Coming from the hands of people who can write beautifully and create beautiful pages while they inflict punches on the reader."
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Small Press Day
Now, more than ever, seems to be the golden age for independent comics publishing in the UK, and its growth will be celebrated in bookshops around the country on Saturday 8th July, at various events for Small Press Day.
Here's Broken Frontier's Andy Oliver and Sam and Paddy from small press publisher Good Comics to tell us why it's such an important occasion:
"Over the last several years we’ve seen a UK small press explosion that has been remarkable to behold. A whole new generation of artists have embraced the democracy of grassroots publishing, and the communicative power of comics as a medium, to bring a dizzying array of genres and approaches to the page to a whole new crossover audience.
"That breadth of subject matter and diversity of work would be inspiring enough on its own terms but it’s made all the more exciting by the fact that the small press scene is no longer its own self-contained bubble. The rise of the micropublisher and the willingness of bigger publishers to look to the self-publishing arena for potential projects means that small press comics in the UK have never been more vital or important.
"There’s no hyperbole in saying that when we support self-published artists we’re also supporting the future of UK indie comics. Jade Sarson, Gareth Brookes, Donya Todd, Jessica Martin, EdieOP, Tim Bird, Ellice Weaver, Simon Moreton, Ian Williams and Grace Wilson are just a few of the acclaimed (and now published) creators who initially started in the small press who prove that point.
"But, most importantly, small press comics give a voice to artists who may never have had the opportunity otherwise. That’s worth championing and celebrating in and of itself. Visit your local comic shop’s small press section, go to one of the many dedicated fairs and festivals, and check out the many websites writing about small press comics for more details of this burgeoning world!"
Samuel C. Williams and Paddy Johnston:
"We think small press comics publishing in the UK is in a good place right now. That isn’t to say there aren’t challenges – it’s still very much a niche area, and trying to grow the size of the audience for non-mainstream comics to reach people who have pre-conceived notions of what comics are remains a huge challenge.
"Comics retailers are often overstocked, especially with small press titles, so getting into shops can be a struggle in itself. But this is a reminder of the importance of finding other outlets and other places to attract non-comics readers. For the most part, small press comics is full of brilliant creators and publishers doing great and diverse work, and it’s a very supportive scene.
"The investment from creators and fans makes for work that is passionate and personal, and we think this shines through in small press publishing. We try to make it shine through in the books we choose to publish, anyway!
"Financially it still feels as difficult now as it was when we started publishing back in 2015, but we’d still encourage anyone who has the inclination to set up a small press. It’s a great way to champion the work of creators you love and put great things into the world.
"The most important things is just to keep the stakes as low as you can and work out the risks you can afford to take and the risks you can’t, and to be patient with the things you put out and the rate at which you grow. There will always be room for new publishers if they’re publishing great comics that tell great stories. None of us are in this for the money. We’re in this because we want to share great comics with people."
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Best of small press
We pick three of our favourite releases from the last year that show why small press is so vital to the comics industry.
Human Garbage by Josh Hicks
Human Garbage is a short anthology from Cardiff-based artist Josh Hicks, published by Good Comics. Comprised of both new and older comics from previous collections, this is Hicks refined, recoloured and unbound. Each of the strips feels distinctive from the other, but Hicks establishes and maintains a recognisable style across the entire collection.
Genres range from slice-of-life pieces to sci-fi and detective noir. In “Club”, Hicks relates an awkward night out with some friends. For anyone who abhors nightclubs, Hicks’ phone-checking and discomfort over the idea of dancing is a familiar sight. The refrain of “I can’t hear you” is the sole response he receives among the plaid shirts, flashing lights and loud music.
“Escape From Madoka”, written by Mikael Lopez, is a fast-paced sci-fi strip that sets up a puzzle-themed dystopia well worth exploring in further stories, should Hicks and Lopez decide to collaborate again.
Human Garbage’s standout strip is “The Case of the Black Cat”, a parody of film noir that sees an unnamed protagonist in way over his head trying to solve a crime while grieving for the loss of his dead cat. Drawn in solid, sharp contrasts of black and yellow, it’s a showcase for Hicks’ versatility as both a writer and artist, and for his love of pop culture. The violence and deep shadows typical of the genre are given an unexpected twist of humour when shown side-by-side with that pesky cat.
In the seven diverse strips that make up Human Garbage, Hicks asserts himself as a new and exciting creator. His love for genre, his self-deprecating sense of humour and his talent for satire are an excellent combination. Their brevity is never once to their detriment; they’re satisfying and self-contained.
Dogs Disco by Joe Decie
The best trickster in British comics is in fine, mischievous form in his most recent self-published collection of cartoons. When he’s not riding a jetpack or glamping with his family, Joe Decie’s telling brief stories of everyday life by the sea in Hove, near Brighton. And all of them are true. Honest.
Named after one of Brighton’s many esoteric and now-defunct festivals that Decie used to attend - and they definitely existed - Dogs Disco bears all the hallmarks of what makes his work so entertaining. His angular lettering and mix of black, white, and grey watercolours lend his “observations from home and around town” an instantly identifiable quality, as though Decie’s telling these stories to you in person, over a drink or two, of course.
The best cartoons in Dogs Disco poke fun at the growing hipster culture of Brighton, commenting on the influx of beards of whimsical length, or how Decie likes to dedicate time to “having a good worry”, usually at 4am. Even the most mundane parts of being an adult with children and other responsibilities are effective material for his wicked sense of humour.
Wired Up Wrong by Rachael Smith
And finally, some bitesized graphic memoir from illustrator Rachael Smith, as part of her run of “autobio comics”. In this collection of non-linear comics her main focus is mental health, specifically her experiences of anxiety and depression.
Graphic memoir has often been home to the exploration of mental health issues. It allows creators to be open about how they might have struggled and communicate those feelings and experiences in their own voice. Smith’s particular brand of honesty in Wired Up Wrong is refreshing; her comics show how anxiety and depression can affect the minutiae of existence, how they can paralyse, how they can colour and distort other emotions.
And with her candour comes a disarming, almost bittersweet sense of humour. The recurring image of a roulette “Wheel of Feels” inside her head that determines how she might react to a situation is an astute manifestation of the unpredictable nature of mental illness, but it’s funny too.
Smith lives with her boyfriend, cartoonist Adam Cadwell, her cat Rufus, and Barky, her “big black dog”. The association of depression with the image of a black dog is a storied one, but her approach to it in Wired Up Wrong is far more nuanced. A visualisation of her mental health problems, Barky changes shape and size, becoming softer and more cuddly as he grows.
And when Rufus calls her out on this ostensible discrepancy, her explanation is perhaps all too familiar for some: there can be something comforting about wallowing in depression. It’s a dangerous space that masks itself as something safe and secure. With wallowing comes a routine based entirely around wallowing, and the “big black dog” of depression can be relied upon to validate our own arguments against self-worth.
With humour and a creative visual flair, Wired Up Wrong is Smith’s strongest work of graphic memoir to date. It’s a prime example of how effectively comics can be used communicate and promote openness about mental health.
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Herman by Trade
A visually eloquent exploration of personal identity that makes the reader work for a conclusion.
Creator: Chris W. Kim
Canadian illustrator and cartoonist Chris W. Kim created Herman by Trade to discover his capabilities within the medium of comics. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the finished book asks a lot of questions that settle into the gap between art and artistry.
The character of Herman has a lot of potential and undistributed energy that he spends the story trying to shape and organise into what he wants to do. In the world he has to share with others, he works as a street cleaner, overlooked by the general public who take his job for granted.
As readers, we are almost pushed into snobbery about this career by a blurb that teases Herman to be much more than meets the eye. When he returns home after work and sheds his day job, we are primed to be excited by all the ways he expresses his creativity. He cooks, reads, plays the drums. He can shape shift.
Herman is an Artist. He is more than what he gets paid to do for 40 hours a week.
Artist, in the broad sense, is the worst kind of label, because it screws tight the pressure to be something without any clear indication of how that status can be achieved. Technically a painter is someone who paints, a writer - arbitrary in itself - should probably mean someone who writes. But what do we paint, or write, or make? How do we emerge from someone who practices art to the heights of Artist?
When he hears about the upcoming screening of the work of cult film maker Mio, Herman is compelled buy a ticket, lying to his coworkers about what he has planned for the evening for no reason that is immediately apparent. Slipping his skin from Herman-self to a more bulky figure he calls Bruce, Herman goes downtown to join the long queue of fans quivering in their cosplay.
In several scenes throughout the book, this crowd is built up by Kim to resemble a single entity, while still retaining the striking individuality of its component people. The costumes and gestures of each character show that they are creative types, like Herman. They might be Artists too, and he feels confident among them while somehow separate.
Inside the sold out theatre, the excitable fans completely lose their shit when Mio herself turns up to introduce the film and announces an open audition for background artists to appear in its sequel. Buoyed by the arrogance of the guy sitting next to him, Herman decides that this is something he wants to take part in, and this plot causes tension for him later when the realities of the audition clash with his other world as a street cleaner. However, the thematic conflict really gets going in the minutes Mio is on stage.
The director is aware of the effect she has on the people around her. As a successful cult icon she has reached the point where her fan’s fixation on this one project is frustrating and bizarre. Having done the act of creation and sent it out into the wild, she is forced to re-visit the experience again and again and assign retroactive meaning, rather than focusing on new ideas that fit her creativity’s current shape.
The contrast between Herman and Mio is the keystone of the story, forcing us to evaluate art and artists from both sides of the divide that is commercial success. Mio says that people don’t pay attention to her other projects and so she is planning a “spiritual successor” to her cult circus spectacle ‘Gare’. This seems like an inauthentic motive for creation, and the decision places Herman in a situation where he is attempting to understand himself as an individual and an artist within an environment that is inherently not artistic.
To say more would be to spoil a narrative that delivers far more than we might expect from a book of this length. Herman’s quest for identity by experimenting with his shape changing powers may point us from beginning to end, but there are hundreds of other stories in the finely pencilled shadows of these 120 pages. Minor characters bring their own issues but the majority of the heavy thinking Herman by Trade inspires is what isn’t spoken or shown but for the blur of the crowd and the questions it represents about the value of art when it can be replicated, and the shared ownership of a beloved work.
Kim’s visual representation of the book’s carnival atmosphere is detailed and sharp, with precise attention paid to the minutiae of public spaces and the people that fill them. The majority of his panels are completely full, giving a presence to the story and grounding the reader within a world that we don’t actually know much about.
There is something of the grotesque in Kim’s characterisation that brings to mind the illustrations of Edward Gorey, and is a huge benefit to the individuation of faces in immense crowd scenes. In a book about identity - particularly, in some ways, identity of the body - there is perhaps endless space for rumination about why characters appear a certain way.p
Some details speak volumes about a person, such as the constant passivity in Mio’s closed eyes and straight mouth, but others give the impression that no amount of answers could match the questions. If Herman can be anyone, and look like anything, which is the real him? Why does he choose to look like Herman, or Bruce and not Jennifer Lawrence?
Whatever his original intentions, Kim has perhaps proved his capabilities twofold with this project. The book itself is beautiful, with a subtle narrative that mostly takes place inside the images and lets the words add flavour rather than structure. But the story - the lessons the characters and readers take from the plot - allows for endless interpretation and discussion, which in itself is a kind of art.
Support us on Patreon and you can read our interview with Herman By Trade creator Chris W. Kim in our first Patreon-exclusive issue.
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