Hot on the heels of this week’s Broken Frontier Awards announcements comes our sixth annual ‘Ten UK Small Press Comics You Need to Own!’ round-up here in ‘Small Pressganged’. Despite this edition of the column becoming something of a New Year tradition at BF I have to confess I thought long and hard this year about whether it still served a purpose. After all, as our coverage as a site has shifted towards the alt and self-published over the years our Awards have begun to see more and more small press books nominated and there’s now significant crossover between our award nominees and this list.
That said, I think there’s still a validity to this feature given that it provides me with an opportunity to talk a little about just why the books included were so memorable. So, once again, a reminder – this was never meant to be interpreted as a ‘Best of’ list but rather an overview of just some of the essential UK small press or micropublished books of the year. You can read previous editions here for 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Links to the original reviews are included along with those all-important online shop links to allow you to buy copies of the selected comics yourselves. Read, enjoy, consider and, as I always say, make sure to use any spare Christmas gift money on some of these amazing small press comics. It’s an investment you won’t regret…
Sean Azzopardi (writer/artist)
When I say Sean Azzopardi has been a mainstay of this column over the years it’s not idle hyperbole. Azzopardi’s work featured in the second ever ‘Small Pressganged’ back in 2011 and I’ve regularly reviewed his comics ever since, including some fine slice-of-life books like Rain on Glass and Tracks.
It remains a source of great puzzlement and frustration to me that this veteran purveyor of some of the most finely crafted autobio offerings in UK small press comics gets far less press attention than he deserves. With his first full-length graphic novel The Voice of the Hall a work-in-progress from Soaring Penguin Press that will hopefully change in the not too distant future.
50 was published this year to (belatedly) mark a rather significant birthday for the creator and is another engaging collection of autobiographical vignettes and short stories that jump through the decades and are steeped in the artist’s trademark bleak honesty and self-deprecating wit. From a brutally frank account of his strained relationship with his father to throwaway humour surrounding a discarded sex toy this is Azzopardi’s most impressive collection to date.
Over the last few years Sean Azzopardi’s comics have become notable for the sense of invention and playfulness to their layouts and his ability to exploit the possibilities of the page to enrich the emotional nuance of his work. 50 is published in an A4 format that really allows his art to breathe and these narrative techniques to shine. This is a comic that deserves a far, far wider readership.
Small Pressganged soundbite: The symbolism of 50 weaves itself in and out of panels, echoing the past, underlining that we are all subject to life’s caprices, exposing the illusion of control and the dual myths of direction and purpose… this is prime Azzopardi at the absolute top of his game.
Cosmos & Other Stories
Rozi Hathaway (writer/artist)
In the late summer she self-published the comics zine Self-Care and Vegetables detailing the psychological ramifications a relationship break-up; a comic that reflected the thematic core of her other 2017 offering earlier in the year.
Cosmos & Other Stories was published by micropublisher Good Comics in the first part of 2017 and contains a collection of deeply resonant shorts exploring loneliness, solitude, separation and loss.
Its contents ranged from visual metaphor to Hathaway’s familiar focus on childhood isolation and the power of the imagination. A multi-facted examination of its subject matter it includes ‘Sørgedag’, one of Hathaway’s strongest comics to date, dealing with parental grief.
A required primer for the haunting fragility of Hathaway’s evocatively coloured work. Watch out for a new printing of this book from Good Comics in 2017.
Small Pressganged soundbite: Cosmos & Other Stories isn’t a comic you read. It’s a comic you feel. A simple statement, perhaps, but one that fully embodies the empathetic power of Rozi Hathaway’s storytelling.
For more on Rozi Hathaway’s work visit her site here and follow her on Twitter here. You can find her online store here. A second printing of Cosmos & Other Stories will be available from Good Comics soon.
Dirty Rotten Comics #10
Anthology – Various creators
So many creators have jump-started their comics journeys with an appearance in the pages of anthology comic Dirty Rotten Comics over the last few years. Indeed it was the venue where I first spotted a number of our Broken Frontier ‘Six to Watch‘ creators including Emily Rose Lambert, Olivia Sullivan, Peony Gent (below centre) and Jey Levang (below left).
Last summer DRC published a tenth issue special, their strongest of 2017, that saw the addition of colour stories and higher production values – not to mention a stunning Lucie Ebrey cover (above). Artists contributing to this issue included Rozi Hathaway, Danny Noble (below right), Josh Hicks, Alex Potts and Tim Bird. Alongside, of course, the usual newer names on the small press scene.
Because that’s what Dirty Rotten Comics does and that’s what makes it such a vital entity. This is an anthology with an ethos of inclusion that showcases burgeoning talent alongside established names in UK comics. If you’re a reader it’s a fantastic taster of the strength of UK indie comics. If you’re a creator starting out then it’s something to aspire to.
Small Pressganged soundbite: What Throwaway Press have put together here is a beautiful encapsulation of the diversity, experimentation, eccentricity and brilliance of our ever inspiring small press scene. Their contribution to that world over the last two years should never, ever be underestimated.
Time May Change Me
Jayde Perkin (writer/artist)
As part of ELCAF Week at Broken Frontier this year I took a look at the work of a newer talent in UK small press comics when I reviewed Jayde Perkin’s poignant autobiographical tale of grief and the bonds of family in Time May Change Me.
Perkin’s delicately constructed comic is an account of coming to terms with the loss of her mother and interweaves flashbacks to her childhood with thematic references to the music of David Bowie.
Perkin’s highly stylised art embodies a most expressive humanity and her use of visual metaphor adds an extra layer to its pages, ensuring a greater connectivity with her readership. Switching from traditional panel-to-panel storytelling to longer prose sections it’s a heartfelt and candidly honest piece of work.
In the months since its publication it’s been obvious from social media posts that Perkin’s illustration work has continued to grow and develop. If you didn’t grab a copy of this at ELCAF then I’d urge you to rectify that oversight now. Because Jayde Perkin is undoubtedly one of the most exciting new prospects on the small press scene.
Small Pressganged review here
Small Pressganged soundbite: This is a comic where, strangely enough, what isn’t said speaks as eloquently as what is. Perkin brings us directly into that experience of feeling so trapped and imprisoned by our sorrow that time itself becomes an indistinguishable morass of pain and hopelessness. A heartfelt and tender account of coming to terms with bereavement with an almost cyclical structure.
The most rewarding element of being involved with something like Broken Frontier – and our ‘Six to Watch’ programmes in particular – is seeing the artists we champion early in their comics journeys going on to wider recognition and acclaim.
Ellice Weaver has one of the most individual styles it’s been my pleasure to bring to our audience in all the years I’ve been writing this column, as underlined by the positive buzz around her debut graphic novel Something City published by Avery Hill this year. The book is a series of tangentially interlinked short stories set in the city of the title – a locale made up of a vast array of different communities that include everything from a nudist colony and a prison through to a scientifically advanced society and a retirement village.
Replete with social commentary, the book’s neat premise also allows Weaver an opportunity to play within the boundaries of a number of different genres. But it’s her striking, dream-like art and intuitive use of colour that will immediately captivate the reader. Weaver’s remarkable year in comics was marked by her nomination in three separate categories in this year’s Broken Frontier Awards and her win in the 2017 Breakout Talent category.
Small Pressganged soundbite: With its haunting evanescence, entrancing hues and Weaver’s unique and charmingly idiosyncratic approach to the page, Something City is a stunning first offering from one of Avery Hill’s finest debutants to date.
Minor Leagues #3
Simon Moreton (writer/artist)
Simon Moreton’s Minor Leagues has been twice-nominated for a Broken Frontier Award, placing his minimalist graphic narratives, zine-style presentation and experimental cross-medium storytelling delivery up against Big Two super-heroes and serial genre comics. An established face on the UK small press circuit and, as I’ve said on many occasions one of the most important artists in the self-publishing renaissance of recent years, Moreton’s presentational approach to his work continues to evolve and develop.
Minor Leagues, the successor to his long-running Smoo Comics, mixes comics, illustration, prose, poetry and photography to present interlinked moments from his life in a manner that seems strangely understated and yet profoundly affecting at the same time. This third issue of Minor Leagues – focusing on Moreton’s life and feelings after the sudden loss of his father last year – is undoubtedly his most memorable work to date. Deeply personal in content but universally recognisable in tone it’s a vital introduction for the unintiated to an artist who I consider to be one of the true greats of British indie comics.
Small Pressganged review here
Small Pressganged soundbite: I can think of few creators whose work has meant as much to me in the years I’ve been writing ‘Small Pressganged’ at Broken Frontier. Minor Leagues #3 may just be Simon Moreton’s most important work to date. It’s certainly his finest.
Katzine: The Factory Issue
Yet another artist on this list to have been Broken Frontier Award-nominated this year – and not only nominated… Katriona Chapman’s Katzine also won our Best Ongoing Series category!
This year saw the autobiographical book move away to a degree from its line-up of established regular features and articles – focusing on both the minutiae of Chapman’s existence and its more challenging moments or affecting events – to longer-form storytelling.
The Factory Issue‘s main story details the 18 months or so that Chapman spent working in a conveyor belt factory in Amsterdam and the people she met during that time. Told in her usual beautifully rendered grey shaded tones ‘Moving Parts’ is a genuinely touching piece of autobio both for its evocation of the politics and the relationships of the workplace but also – in its depiction of an enriching multicultural, international workforce – for its timing in the months after the Brexit referendum.
Every issue of Katzine is a gem but this one was a particularly strong one this year. Beautifully told and tinged with more than a hint of sadness it’s an excellent self-contained entry point to her work.
Small Pressganged review here
Small Pressganged soundbite: Katzine: The Factory Issue is a love letter to a place and period of Chapman’s life now lost to all but memory, a eulogy to relationships and people now dispersed and scattered, and a reminder of the vital importance of those lives that touch our own, however briefly.
Nominated for the Best One-Shot Award in this year’s Broken Frontier Awards SID is the second book on this list published by Good Comics and is the first longer-form work by one of our 2017 ‘Six to Watch‘ artists Olivia Sullivan. Sullivan’s autobiographical I Drank Holy Water also made this list last year.
SID follows the troubled life of its titular protagonist, a young man whose own personal reality is an uncertain one. Illusion and actuality shift and merge as we are taken on a tour of his skewed perspective on the world – one that takes in the surreal and the comedic, a malevolent ghostly goat and classical metaphysical allegory in the process.
Sullivan’s resonant use of colour, the often oblique nature of her narratives and her willingness to make her readers work a little harder to piece together theme and meaning in her work made this one of the standout small press books of 2017. Sullivan’s comics are often challenging and always distinctive. In terms of the alt side of the UK scene she’s a voice to keep the closest of eyes on in the next few years because Olivia Sullivan is that most exciting of things in comics – an artist unafraid to both interrogate the medium and to continually push its narrative boundaries.
Small Pressganged soundbite: SID is her finest offering to date – an intense, sprawling, psychological journey through a fractured mindscape from a truly unique new voice on the UK indie scene. The remarkable Olivia Sullivan speaks the language of comics with a dialect that is all her own.
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays
Dan White’s long-running series of comics and one-shots about a fierce little girl and her trusty canine chum and the bizarre supernatural, cryptozoological and extraterrestrial threats they see off on a regular basis is a long-time favourite here at Broken Frontier.
The genius of White’s twice British Comic Award-nominated books is that to a large degree the bizarre menaces that Cindy and her dog pal Biscuit encounter are really only a colouring for a comic about childhood imagination, loneliness and friendship. This really is a genuinely all-ages comic that can be enjoyed on different levels by both children and adults.
This latest one-shot (yes another BF Award-nominated entry this year) traces the misadventures of the pair over various Sundays across the year with White’s energetic cartooning a focal point. You’ll meet Lovecraftian horrors in the local swimming baths and encounter an alien artefact in the woods, and if you don’t at least feel like shedding a small tear at the issue’s conclusion then you have no heart.
A consistently wonderful piece of comics.
Small Pressganged review here
Small Pressganged soundbite: If you’ve yet to plunge into Dan White’s small press masterpiece this self-contained collection of short tales is an excellent and highly recommended starting point. Standard final Broken Frontier Cindy and Biscuit review plea to publishers: Please someone out there pick up this genius all-ages offering, collect it and bring it to the far wider audience it’s owed!
This fantasy mystery centres on the character Edward Goodwill, a sculptor struggling with a governmental commission and at the same time dealing with the intrusive haunting singing coming from a nearby home and the odd disappearances of pieces of his work. At the same time in Ismyre citizens are vanishing and a group of eco anarchists are responsible for magical attacks on the city. With the aid of magic-using friend Faustine can Edward discover the truth behind events?
B. Mure’s ostensibly genre piece also explores themes of loneliness in a big city and creative self-doubt. Their work is beautifully paced with scratchy, expressive visuals that give the location of Ismyre a sense of both wonder and danger.
Exquisitely coloured and with a premise ripe for future investigation, we can only hope that Mure returns to the world of Ismyre sooner rather than later. If you want to check out more of their work their The Boys webcomic has just launched on a new site here.
Small Pressganged soundbite: Undoubtedly the breakout work of a small press creator who has long been due far greater recognition, Ismyre is also the latest entry in what has been a truly banner year for Avery Hill Publishing.
For regular updates on all things small press follow Andy Oliver on Twitter here.