We’re a little later than usual this year with my annual ‘Ten UK Small Press Comics You Need to Own!’ round-up; a yearly feature celebrating the diversity and rude health of the British self and micropublishing world over the previous twelve months. But it seems only right that, as has become tradition over the last few years, it’s the first ‘Small Pressganged’ column of the new year. Given that 2015 was one of the most exciting years for grassroots and boutique publishing in all the time that I’ve been covering small press comics for Broken Frontier, I’m certain you’ll agree it was worth the wait.
This is the fourth of these lookbacks we’ve run since 2012. As ever, I have selected ten comics that I feel are indicative of the breadth of talent covered in ‘Small Pressganged’ over the preceding twelve months. It has never been intended to be a “best of” list but rather a representative sampling of some of the excellent work that I’ve reviewed at BF in that time. You can read previous editions by following the links here for 2012, 2013 and 2014.
This year, more than any other, I found it incredibly difficult to whittle down my shortlist to just ten comics. The quality of work on offer in 2015 was outstanding and I would urge you all to check out the full ‘Small Pressganged‘ output in that time to find many other gems of self and micropublishing. As has become standard operating procedure in this yearly feature, I’ve tried to concentrate on individual creators rather than group efforts. But this time around there were two anthologies that just had to make the final list…
As ever, links to my original reviews (and relevant interviews with mentioned creators) are included along with those all-important online shop links to allow you to obtain copies of the chosen comics yourselves.
Let’s start with an incredibly gifted cartoonist who was certainly no stranger to the environs of ‘Small Pressganged’ in 2015…
Was it… Too Much for You?
Danny Noble (writer/artist)
After a hiatus of a few years the utterly inimitable Danny Noble returned to comics self-publishing in the most triumphant style in 2015. One of my ‘Six UK Small Press Creators to Watch’, Noble’s work has that enviable ability to appeal as much to non-comics readers as it does to a traditional sequential art-loving audience.
Throughout the last twelve months Noble has consistently delighted us with the deliciously debauched misadventures of the perpetually naked Ollie and Alan, her alternative universe versions of actors Oliver Reed and Alan Bates who retired to a small suburban flat after being overcome by the frisson of their nude wrestling scene in Ken Russell’s film Women in Love in the late ’60s.
Bitingly witty, boundlessly inventive, perfectly paced and demonstrating the most profound fluency in the pure language of comics, the two collections of Ollie and Alan’s recklessly drunken, bizarre exploits – Was it… Too Much for You? and Ollie and Alan’s Big Move – have been the absolute highlight of my reviewing year at Broken Frontier. Noble was also nominated by the Broken Frontier staff in the Breakout Talent category in our annual awards. Due recognition for a creator whose profile positively exploded across the UK small press scene in 2015.
If you’re a comics fan and you haven’t picked up on Noble’s books before then you owe it to yourself to do so. But more importantly if you’re a publisher looking for an artist with both a truly unique voice and an established crossover readership then this is work you absolutely need to investigate further.
Small Pressganged soundbite: Danny Noble’s comic genius is surpassed only by her comics genius. In a decade of Broken Frontier reviewing I have never encountered an artist with a more naturally instinctive command of the unique storytelling possibilities of the comic page.
Smoo Comics #8
Simon Moreton (writer/artist)
This was the year that Simon Moreton announced that his long-running autobiographical Smoo Comics was coming to an end. Three issues of the zine-style series were published in 2015 with Smoo #8 being the first issue for around 18 months.
Detailing a year of change in Moreton’s life, Smoo #8 showcases both his oft-mentioned but deeply resonant trademark minimalist style and a willingness to experiment with the presentation of his work that would continue to evolve in 2015. Five thematically interlinked short stories tell the story of a period of personal transition in the artist’s life after the breakdown of a long-term relationship.
It’s an offering that deftly exploits the physicality of the form and, as ever with an issue of Smoo, forges a powerful emotional connection between reader and creator; one that is formed on the foundations of recognisably shared experiences between the two. Slice-of-life comics at their most subtly sophisticated.
Small Pressganged soundbite: Smoo #8 is one of Moreton’s most formidable offerings yet – a year of turbulence potently and unforgettably encapsulated in sequential shorthand.
Brigid Deacon (writer/artist)
Brigid Deacon’s work has been spotlighted in a number of anthologies over the last year or two including Off Life, Bimba, Identity and Eyeball Comix. Indeed Coma Deep was originally published by the latter and was one of the first comics I reviewed in this column last year.
Deacon’s Burns-esque visuals in Coma Deep present the reader with a progression of stark and often alarming imagery in an oblique narrative that invites the audience to discover their own meaning from its mesmerisingly ambiguous pages.
A stream-of-consciousness meta experience, Coma Deep is an organically metamorphosing journey through a dark and abstract dreamscape of ever shifting scenarios; one that remains bizarrely captivating from start to finish.
Small Pressganged review here
Small Pressganged soundbite: For the more adventurous reader there’s something inescapably entrancing about the experimental approach of these 32 pages and the reactions they elicit in their audience.
The Red Road
Rozi Hathaway (writer/artist)
Another of my ‘Six UK Small Press Creators to Watch in 2015’ Rozi Hathaway had already made an impressive debut when her first comics work was published as part of Ravi Thornton’s graphic memoir HOAX Psychosis Blues alongside such luminaries as Bryan Talbot, Karrie Fransman, Rian Hughes, Hannah Berry and Mark Stafford.
The Red Road was Hathaway’s debut self-published work chronicling a young Native American girl’s spiritual quest for enlightenment alongside her animal guides in the wake of harrowing loss and violence. The sparing use of text means that Hathaway largely communicates The Red Road’s emotional intensity through pure imagery, ensuring that we become fully and intimately invested in her protagonist in just 22 short pages.
The Red Road is a powerful offering from one of the most exciting new prospects in UK self-publishing. You can also check out Hathaway’s work in a number of anthologies and zines reviewed at BF this year including A Bit of Undigested Potato, Dirty Rotten Comics, Home, Sneaky Business and Down to Your Skivvies.
Small Pressganged soundbite: Stunningly rendered, and painfully beautiful in its own way, The Red Road is an outstanding debut print offering.
A Bit of Undigested Potato
Anthology – various creators (edited by Keara Stewart)
Keara Stewart’s “dreams and nightmares” book was one of a number of small press anthologies this year like Dirty Rotten Comics and Tempo Lush Tales of the Tanoox that positively oozed community spirit. It may sound overly saccharine but there has been a true sense within the UK small press scene over the last few years of a nurturing network of creators willing to come together to support worthwhile projects.
Stewart compiled this collection of largely one-page strips, illustrations and even a text piece in an anthology that straddles the comics and zine worlds. It’s a healthy and impressive mix of contributors from all “strata” of sequential art including established graphic novelists like Karrie Fransman (below left), Rachael Ball (below right), Matilda Tristram, SJ Harris and Gareth Brookes (cover artist, right); established small pressers and rising stars of the scene including Mike Medaglia, EdieOP, Alex Potts, Danny Noble, Wallis Eates and Rozi Hathaway; and fresh new voices of the ilk of Kim Clements, Ruth Collingwood (below centre) and Mary Blomley.
A dark and often disturbing dream diary from some of the most exciting names in current UK indie comics.
Small Pressganged soundbite: The niggling night terrors of 40 creators bubble balefully to the surface in Keara Stewart’s unsettling anthology collection mixing comic strips and single illustrations to bring to disturbing life the dreams and nightmares of an astonishing assortment of artistic voices. Not just a testament to the strength of UK small press comics A Bit of Undigested Potato is also a celebration of UK small press comics community.
Katriona Chapman (writer/artist)
In premise Katriona Chapman’s autobiographical zine sounded like a project that could easily have slipped into the realms of the twee or ended up embodying those oft noted excesses of the slice-of-life genre. In practice, though, these reflections on her everyday life – ranging from the minutiae of her favourite shops to more serious writing on social anxiety and how it affects her day-to-day existence – proved to be one of the most engaging reads of the year. Primarily because of the way in which Chapman formed such an immediate and vital rapport with her readership.
Gorgeously illustrated in her signature shaded style, the four issues to date have continued to deliver a combination of comic strip, illustrated prose pieces, mini-essays and photography, and have covered her love of travel, the dry soundbites of her partner, favourite plants and anecdotal episodes from her past.
Yes, superficially, it may sound like just another exercise in autobio indulgence but Katzine is far, far more nuanced than that. Chapman never ever forgets her relationship with her audience and that, without a doubt, is one of the greatest strengths of this most charming of books.
Small Pressganged review here
Small Pressganged soundbite: I’m a little loathe to use the term “endearing” about Katzine in case it comes across as inadvertently patronising but there is something very appealing about the intimate tone – the sense of connection between creator and reader – that Chapman fosters here with her self-deprecating and modest on-page voice.
Kim Clements (writer/artist)
From its inception in 2011 ‘Small Pressganged’ has had a remit to introduce Broken Frontier’s audience to exciting new comics practitioners and, in turn, provide a stepping stone to greater exposure for those selfsame deserving creators. I first briefly covered Kim Clements when I took a look at her online webcomic The Great Cat Mystery in 2014 and, since then, she’s gone on to contribute short comics to anthologies A Bit of Undigested Potato, Dirty Rotten Comics and Tempo Lush Tales of the Tanoox.
Rabbit Thoughts was the first full-length self-published comic by Clements and one that also made its way onto the Best One-Shot category in this year’s BF Awards. It’s an autobio account of one young woman (in rabbit form) and her struggle finding her place in the world, with all the stress, anxieties and self-doubt that entails. Drawn with a deceptively child-like naivety it’s a visual triumph in terms of securing reader empathy. A comic that memorably underlines the astonishing power of the medium in communicating personal experience.
Small Pressganged review here
Small Pressganged soundbite: There’s an emotional intelligence and empathic quality to these pages that means that you experience Rabbit Thoughts rather than simply read it. With its poignant fragility and haunting beauty this is a truly unforgettable debut comic.
The End of Summer
What can I say about the phenomenon that is Tillie Walden that I haven’t said countless times before in this column? For many she’s been the creative find of 2015; a sentiment echoed by the BF readership and staff in our recent Broken Frontier Awards where she won the Breakout Talent category in a fiercely strong line-up of nominees.
While Walden is a US creator her first graphic novel was published by similarly Broken Frontier Award-nominated publisher Avery Hill which qualifies it for inclusion in this list. A taut and claustrophobic dark fantasy The End of Summer centres on the secrets, intrigue and inter-relationships of a dysfunctional family as they hole up in their huge mansion home for the three-year winter.
Stunningly illustrated and showing a maturity well beyond its author’s teenage years The End of Summer is the debut book from someone destined for undoubtedly great things in the medium over the next few years.
Small Pressganged soundbite: You’re unlikely to read anything else this year that so fully manipulates the pure mechanics of the comics form to the degree that The End of Summer does. It really is that remarkable a piece of work and Tillie Walden really is that remarkable a prospect.
Anthology – various creators (edited by Sarah Broadhurst and Julia Scheele)
Julia Scheele (below left and cover right) and Sarah Broadhurst’s One Beat Zines have been one of the UK small press’s most under-rated publishing ventures in 2015, combining the distribution of DIY culture-style zines with the publication of slickly produced anthology offerings. Their aim is to showcase strong feminist voices and give spotlight time to women creators new to the comics and zine worlds.
Identity is yet another title in this round-up to have been nominated for a Broken Frontier Award this year (for Best One-Shot). Over 30 women artists and writers – including Amneet Johal (below right), Sabba Khan, EdieOP, Jess Milton, Lizz Lunney, Brigid Deacon and Sarah Burgess – contributed to this examination of what the concept of identity means to them, whether that be in the form of religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, culture, or location… to highlight just a few of the thematic takes in the book.
Embracing a true zine dynamic that crosses back and forth between comics, pure illustration and prose, Identity is as diverse in approaches to its subject matter as it is in the interpretations of it. Profits from the book go to the Albert Kennedy Trust and the Feminist Library.
Small Pressganged review here
Small Pressganged soundbite: This isn’t an anthology that’s asking you to sympathise with perceived vulnerability. Rather it’s an anthology that – through the life experiences that its participants convey – invites us to think about the way we define ourselves and others, challenging us to question our preconceptions and to confront our presumptions.
Rachael Smith (writer/artist)
Rachael Smith’s second full-length graphic novel was her first work to be published by the now ubiquitous Avery Hill Publishing. The Rabbit is the story of two runaway sisters – 14-year-old Eleanor and 9-year-old Kathy – who “adopt” an injured baby rabbit that they discover on their journey through the countryside. As time progresses their endearing new friend becomes more and more menacing and grotesque as his demands and physical presence grow in equal measure…
A metaphorical coming-of-age tale about facing up to our fears and confronting reality rather than fleeing from it, The Rabbit was recognised earlier this year with a British Comic Awards-nomination in the Best Book category. Employing Smith’s familiar snappy dialogue and identifiable and engaging protagonists, it’s a most worthy follow-up to 2014’s House Party – another Rachael Smith offering to make this list last year!
Small Pressganged soundbite: Smith’s strongest work to date, this is a deliciously dark, endearingly whimsical and tenderly observed tale of childhood rites of passage. Such is the depth of Rachael Smith’s character-led storytelling that when you enter the world of The Rabbit you stop being a passive observer and immediately become an active participant instead.
For regular updates on all things small press follow Andy Oliver on Twitter here.