Ten years ago today at Broken Frontier when we launched a new feature called ‘Small Pressganged‘ – a column dedicated to “unearthing the gems of the small press” – we could never have anticipated how it would forever change the face of BF and how we were perceived by the wider comics readership. In actuality this weekly spotlight piece on the worlds of self-publishing and alt comics was simply building on Broken Frontier’s already established and much-mentioned ethos of placing equal weight on hand-stapled zines with print runs of 20 copies as it did big super-hero blockbusters. But somehow those early modest efforts began to refocus the site’s mission and direction without us even realising. So much so that when site founder Frederik Hautain decided to relaunch Broken Frontier in 2013 it was decided that we would move away from the “mainstream” (a nebulous and contradictory concept in comics in itself) and re-establish ourselves as a destination for truly indie and boundary-pushing work.
I don’t want to spend too much time today on celebrating Small Pressganged’s tenth birthday (although I probably will almost certainly outstay my welcome…). We have a certain 20th anniversary of the site to think about in 2022 and if I’m going to pull in the favours for a spot of profile-raising across the board then I think that’s a far more important event to be considering. However it would seem amiss not to at least briefly look back on the last decade of my own small press coverage at BF today and reflect on the comparative small press landscapes of 2011 and 2021 in the UK.
‘Small Pressganged’ began with an interview with Tom Humberstone on Solipsistic Pop, the pivotal anthology series he edited and a major inspiration for this column ten years ago at a time when I was weary of writing about super-heroes and their ilk and desperate to think anew about what I was looking to achieve with my comics commentary. Tom wasn’t the only early influence. Back in 2011, and in the next couple of years, there were a number of figures who were major inspirations in what I was trying to do with the feature, including Paul Gravett, Roger Sabin, Annie Koyama, Corinne Pearlman, Kenny Penman and almost certainly others I will regret not mentioning when this article goes live.
As the months went on and I started (nervously!) attending small press fairs and events, so too did the following for ‘Small Pressganged’ grow and evolve. At the time we were on the brink of what was being called a New Golden Age of UK Self-Publishing, as access to home publishing opportunities became prevalent and small press sections in shops slowly became more prominent (special shout-outs to Steve at Gosh! and Camila at Orbital there!). With few other major venues for small press reviews existing (outside of the excellent work being done on the Forbidden Planet International Blog) word began spreading, and a conversation I had with Frederik when I first pitched the idea to him (“Do you think anyone will actually send us small press comics for review though?”) seemed oddly fateful in hindsight. I was lucky enough to be riding the crest of the wave of this new era of British comics self-publishing and it quickly became my sole focus.
A year or so into ‘Small Pressganged’ I realised we could do so much more than simply provide commentary on comics. My first meeting with artist Rebecca Bagley (now doing great things in children’s book publishing) at one of the much missed Comica Comikets introduced me to her comic Tick (above), a remarkable piece of work about isolation and finding one’s place in the world again. Some subsequent e-mail chats about steps she could take in getting the comic to wider audiences in turn led to a moment of comics coverage epiphany. I had a respected platform, I had an ever-expanding audience, and I had so much cool work I wanted greater readerships to discover. Instead of just reviewing comics I could actively champion the best work and the deserving creators that produced it. And from there everything changed forever…
In the years since, small press coverage has become a given with so many excellent sites emerging and doing their bit to promote the scene. One of our signature events with ‘Small Pressganged’ since 2015 has been our ‘Six Small Press Creators to Watch‘ programme, with selected artists offered key coverage on the site each year, mentorship opportunities if they choose to take them up, and the chance to take part in Broken Frontier events like panels at festivals/cons, presentations at meet-ups, drink and draw guest artist spots and so much more.
Two-thirds of the 2019 BF ‘Six to Watch’ Abs Bailey, Laurel Pettit, Olivia Sualdea and Joe Stone with Andy Oliver (centre) at ELCAF
It’s been so exciting over the years to have been able to spotlight creators we knew early in their practice would go on to far greater things. I’ll list a few and the publishers they went on to be picked up by (for the sake of brevity I’ll define publishers as those with book shop distribution/ISBNs here but there are also lots of top micropublishers, distros and smaller imprints to have given opportunities to our ‘Six to Watch’-ers). So here we go, in order of “induction” – Danny Noble (Street Noise Books), Jem Milton (Unbound Books), Ellice Weaver (Avery Hill Publishing), Oliver Levang (BOOM! Studios), Emily Rose Lambert (Image Comics), Peony Gent (Image Comics, kuš! comics), Josh Hicks (Lerner/Graphic Universe), Sabba Khan (Myriad Editions), Andy Barron (Huber Editions), Jayde Perkin (Book Island), Cat Sims (SelfMadeHero), Anna Readman (Rebellion/2000 AD), Abs Bailey (Avery Hill Publishing), Dominique Duong (SelfMadeHero), Mollie Ray (Faber & Faber) and Norm Konyu (Titan Comics).
We did tell you…
In the past decade I’ve witnessed Avery Hill Publishing go from three chaps with a table, winning smiles, and a collection of bizarrely eclectic zines to one of the most important and forward-looking publishers on the circuit. I’ve seen regular events come and go like the much-missed Safari Festival, CECAF and Comica Comiket, and watched as others came in to fill the void like Cardiff Comics Carnival, Ghost Festival, ELCAF, HCZF and Catford Comic and Zine Fair. I’ve watched as self-publishing became a viable route to being picked up by bigger publishers, and seen more anthology series wax and wane than I could possibly count. I’ve been lucky enough to co-organise the UK and Ireland’s Small Press Day for several years. And I’ve had the thrill of picking up some wonderfully experimental and eclectic work from those publishers who have triumphantly risen from the scene’s foundations like Breakdown Press and Shortbox.
At the 2017 Gosh! Comics Broken Frontier Small Press Yearbook launch with ‘Six to Watch’ artists Emma Raby and Rebecca Bagley
And that’s not even mentioning all the panels I’ve chaired and sat on at shops, cons and festivals, the books we’ve published, the awards and competitions I’ve judged, the recommendations I’ve been able to make to publishers, the communal tables we’ve agreed to supervise at small press fairs, and all the other events that we’ve been a part of simply because one small shift in coverage back in 2011 blossomed into something so fruitful.
Hmmm… we’re at nearly 1200 words so maybe I have spent a little longer than I’d meant to reminiscing! But I hope you’ll forgive the indulgence. The UK small press comics world is an incredibly supportive and welcoming community and it’s been a privilege to have been a small part of this wonderful scene since 2011. I hope we’ve brought some deserving talents to wider readerships in that time and promoted their work to the best of our abilities. I’m not sure if ‘Small Pressganged’ really changed anyone’s else’s lives (no matter what featured artists say to me!) but it certainly changed mine.
So on one final note if you do want help us celebrate today why not use the hashtag #BFSmallPressFaves and shout out about just one creator whose comics you discovered through ‘Small Pressganged’ with a link to their online store. Plenty of talents to choose from here! That would seem a most appropriate way of commemorating the last decade by acknowledging some very talented folk and maybe getting them a few sales. And if you do pick up some comics based on that hashtag then tweet out and let us know. I’d appreciate that if you have the time.
Thanks for all your help in pushing what we try and do here at BF since 2011, and special thanks to Frederik for greenlighting a hastily considered pitch with a terrible title all those years ago. The biggest thanks to all the boundary-pushing creators we’ve covered like Peony Gent, Olivia Sullivan, EdieOP, Sabba Khan, Simon Moreton, Danny Noble, Jayde Perkin, Aleesha Nandhra and oh so many others for being so inspirational! Well over 1,000 small press reviews and hundreds of interviews later and I still feel like I’m only just getting started in championing all the truly amazing small press artists out there, and that remains the greatest joy of writing ‘Small Pressganged’.
See you all in 2031 when hopefully we’ll have unearthed another 1,000 or so gems of the small press…
Article by Andy Oliver