Evolving from the monthly Process Comics group at London’s Gosh! Comics, the First World War anthology To Arms! brings together a number of established players on the self-publishing scene – including Mike Medaglia, Owen D. Pomery and Jessica Martin – alongside some exciting new talents to the world of small press comics. Commemorating the centennial anniversary of the conflict’s beginning the book will debut this August and is currently looking for backers via an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.
Promising an alternative approach to its subject matter, quite unlike anything you have ever seen on the subject in comics before, To Arms! draws from a pool of distinctly international creative voices. In another of our ongoing ‘Small Press Spotlight on…‘ interviews at Broken Frontier I spoke to the anthology’s editorial team of Matt Duncan and Karim Iskander Flint about the intricacies of putting together a project like this, depicting the Great War from a deliberately different perspective, and the influence of Pat Mills and Charley’s War on any graphic narrative that tackles World War I…
MATT DUNCAN: I’ve been doing comics for a few years now, and the most recent project I was involved with was Mike Medaglia’s fantastic Wu Wei anthology.
Before that I edited Ye Olde Axe, another comic book anthology. That particular title came out of the WIP Comics Meetup group, which was my first introduction to the small press scene here in the UK.
KARIM ISKANDER FLINT: Unlike Matt I’m a relative noob when it comes to actually making comics, despite being a fanboy pretty much since birth. Up until now most of my efforts have been in film and TV development, which as a screenwriter have always seemed like more accessible creative mediums for me.
However over the last couple of years I’ve been rubbing shoulders with a lot of comic book artists and creators, and it finally dawned on me that I could be doing this as well.
BF: How did To Arms! come into being? What was the project’s genesis?
DUNCAN: The genesis of To Arms! came from a conversation I had with Tim Hassan (our cover artist), who I’d worked with before on Wu Wei. We were discussing the possibility of doing another anthology, and I thought it could be really interesting to do something that coincided with the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1.
This all took place in the pub after Process, a monthly discussion group hosted by the Gosh! comic book store. It was here that I also met Karim – and when he got involved with the project it really started to gain momentum. Karim already knew loads of artists and writers, and was able to help me get them onboard.
I’d also like to emphasise the importance that Wu Wei played in shaping this project, because it showed us that creating a high quality anthology was a real possibility. And throughout this project we’ve often looked to it for inspiration whenever we got stuck!
Work from Karim Iskander Flint & Daniel De Sosa, Karim Iskander Flint & James Hickman, and Milo Shore
FLINT: Like all the best creative projects in history To Arms! was conceived over a few pints down the pub. At the time it had completely slipped my mind that 2014 was the centenary of WW1, but when Matt started talking about doing a book to coincide with the anniversary it suddenly seemed so jarringly obvious.
I also want to give a big shout out to Steve Walsh, who as well as collaborating with Tim Hassan on an amazing story for our book, is also the founder of Process. Putting that much talent in one room was bound to produce something awesome, and I’m proud that we’re the first to publish something off the back of this group.
BF: What was the process involved in putting the book together? Were there particular creators you wanted to work with?
DUNCAN: As we’ve mentioned, being part of the Process group meant we were already in touch with a lot of comic book creators. That’s the value of a group like that – you’ve got a ready-made network you can access when starting a new project. People who have published comics before, and who can help you access the resources you need.
I love Tim Hassan’s work a lot, so his cover was pretty much the first thing we commissioned. The strength of that image really attracted people to the project, and convinced them that it was something that was actually going to happen.
FLINT: I’d already been throwing around some ideas for comics with the team over at Backwards Burd. These guys had started a small publishing collective whilst studying at UEL, and have gone on to produce some amazing work since graduating.
Matt Duncan’s entry to To Arms! pictured right…
I knew I wanted them involved in some way, so when Daniel de Sosa and Sajan Rai came over it was a real steal for us. Another obvious choices was the very talented Francesca Dare, whose brilliant web comic Penny Blackfeather has already won her a loyal following.
BF: What were you looking for in To Arms! submissions?
DUNCAN: What we were looking for was (a) quality and (b) diversity. We want every page to be a pleasant surprise. All our contributors were told, “do something different, something we haven’t seen before in the context of WW1.”
FLINT: For me it was about moving away from the instantly recognizable face of WW1. Poppies, barbed wire and mud. Images like that, whilst iconic, seem to saturate every depiction of this conflict to the point of losing all meaning. And with that gauntlet thrown down our creative teams really rose to the challenge.
From Nick Jobbings’s Contribution to the anthology
BF: Interest in the First World War is obviously huge this year with the 100th anniversary of the conflict imminent. In that regard there are a number of comics projects that have been announced to commemorate the occasion. What marks To Arms! out as being different in its approach to the subject?
DUNCAN: From the very beginning, we wanted To Arms! to be an ‘alternative’ anthology. And I think you only have to take a look at our cover art to get a sense of what we’re trying to do. We wanted a new vision of WW1, which meant contributors from a wide range of backgrounds, working with different styles, approaches and perspectives.
And just as important as all that was making sure this wasn’t a boys only club. We’re proud to have some great female talent working on this project; something that I’m sure we can all agree this industry needs more of.
FLINT: WW1 is a conflict that is quickly slipping from all living memory, and whilst working on the book I read some pretty grim statistics about the public’s general lack of knowledge about the basic facts surrounding the war. So I like the idea of us being able to redress this in some small way.
But I never saw To Arms! as being straight up history, it’s much too out there for that. I think it’s more like some type of deadly Amazonian plant, sweet smelling and colourful. Before they know it your average comic book reader, like some poor unsuspecting insect, will find themselves caught in the trap we’ve set for them. And heaven help them, they might actually learn something!
Art from Alex Potts, Matt Boyer and Tim Hassan
BF: There are some notable names from the UK small press in the list of contributors to the anthology. Can you give us an overview of the talent involved?
DUNCAN: Many of the names in the book will be familiar to small press aficionados. Alex Potts, Jessica Martin of It Girl fame, Richard Worth and Jordan Collver of The Water Closet Press. These are names that obviously lend a great deal of legitimacy to the book.
FLINT: Readers who know their comic books will recognise people like Mike Medaglia and Owen Pomery. These are the type of creators who are synonymous with producing excellent work. I think it says something about the strength of this book that we were able to convince so many amazing artists to sign up with us.
BF: One of the selling points of To Arms! is not only those established creators, however, but also some new artists whose first pro work will be published in the book. Which new rising stars can we expect to see included?
DUNCAN: I think Jess Milton (right) will be a name that’s new to a lot of people, but one that they’ll be looking out for in future. She’s really got a great eye for page design for someone so young, and a style that’s fully formed. I love Keith McDougall’s contribution which is about the artistic avant-garde during the war years.
FLINT: That’s a loaded question when dealing with an anthology. Is it the height of hubris to pick myself as rising star? I’d rather our artists are angry at me for picking myself, than angry at being left out of my list.
I should mention Matt Boyer, whose contribution to the book I’ve just seen tonight. It’s pretty special, as Matt manages to do more with one panel than most can do with an entire page.
BF: There’s also a very international feel to the list of creators. Was that something you were consciously looking to cultivate?
DUNCAN: That was definitely a deliberate thing, as we wanted to reflect the global impact of the war, and bring in different perspectives from as far afield as possible.
So we have artists like Keith McDougall from Australia, Lorenzo Fiorini from Italy, Daniel de Sosa from America, Anna Dowsland from Finland and Susan McLeod from Canada. The list goes on.
The fact that this was a tragedy on an international scale can often be lost amidst a national sense of patriotism. In To Arms! we try to redress this, bringing people together from all over the world to make great art, not war.
FLINT: SNIFF-SNIFF… forgive me for moment whilst I regain my composure after reading Matt’s lovely words, because I too couldn’t imagine putting this book together without our globe-spanning contingent of creatives.
They say that “history is written by the victors”, but there were really no “victors” in WW1. So it falls to us to collectively come to terms with this conflict, and how we remember it.
BF: Obviously in the UK the work of Pat Mills on Charley’s War remains, for many, not just the greatest First World War comic of all time but the greatest war comic full stop. Were there any creators who were a particular inspiration to you in that regard?
DUNCAN: Pat Mills is a legend in comics. Full stop. And of course Charley’s War is a touchstone for people doing war comics of any kind. But another inspiration for me has to be the great Jaques Tardi. His WW1 stuff has been reprinted in English in the last year or so, and people should check that out.
Harvey Kurtzman is personal hero of mine. An amazing artist, and an amazing storyteller. I also really like David B; whose La Lecture Des Ruines is a really brilliant war comic.
Left – a stunning image from Sajan Rai
FLINT: Well thanks to Matt we do have an interview with Pat Mills in the book, so I do think we doff the proverbial cap to the epic tome that is Charley’s War. This little insight into his creative process was pretty humbling, as the guy has clearly forgotten more about making comic book than most will ever know.
Maybe it’s because I don’t originally come from a comic book background creatively, but my approach to this project has been very much influenced by other mediums. For me the final season of Blackadder is always going to stand out as one of the greatest depictions of WW1, encapsulating its tragedy, futility and black humor.
BF: The book is currently looking for backing on Indiegogo here. What To Arms! rewards can backers look to receive for their support?
FLINT: As well as digital and hard copies of the finished book, we’re also giving away signed bookplates and artwork. Higher-level backers will also get the opportunity to have their name included in a special thank you page featured in the book.
But if you really want to push the boat out and give generously, then we’ll see that your actual likeness will be included as part of a special story written for our Indiegogo backers. You’re quite literally getting to be part of this book.
BF: And, if To Arms! reaches its goal, can we expect to see more anthology projects from the same team in the future?
DUNCAN: We’d certainly love to do more. I think that if there’s a gap in the British comics scene, it’s for high quality anthologies that allow creators to flex their creative muscles in a shorter format. I can’t believe that the big publishers aren’t already doing this.
Unlike big publishers however we have finite resources, so being able to raise funds for these projects is vitally important.
What I think people don’t realise is that running an Indiegogo campaign isn’t just about sticking up a video and a few rewards, then sitting back and watching the cash roll in. It’s a big commitment of time and effort, without any guarantee you’ll make the money you need.
Right – a sneak peek at Michael Lightfoot’s work in To Arms!
So if we were to do a regular anthology of this quality, it would maybe need a different financial model than just relying on crowd funding. Though we of course wouldn’t rule out Indiegogo again, especially as we’re on the verge of hitting our target.
FLINT: To Arms! is the comic book equivalent of a gateway drug, now I’ve started I just can’t stop. Seriously guys, this is the crack cocaine of WW1 anthologies.
And now that I’m hooked I’m totally up for taking on our next project. In fact I’ve actually already tapped a couple of the To Arms! team to work on a few upcoming projects.
What we’re building here is an ever-growing network of talented comic book creators, an international cartel some might say, of people who really want to see their work published and are willing to do what it takes to make this happen.
Hopefully when some, if not all of them, become super successful, they’ll remember Matt and I and want to work with us again.
To back To Arms! visit its crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo here. And check out the work of the creators involved via the links above.