Abs Bailey, aka Barbawk, is one of this year’s Broken Frontier ‘Six Small Press Creators to Watch‘ and also a contributor to Comic Book Slumber Party’s anarchic fantasy anthology Escape from Bitch Mountain, I’ve spoken before at BF about her inventive subversion of page structure and sequential pacing, and her accessible cartooning style which has an instant appeal to the reader.
We’ve covered a number of her self-published comics this year including the touching Swim and the raw and honest Beyond Death. Ahead of her appearance at this year’s ELCAF I chatted with Abs about
ANDY OLIVER: As one of this year’s Broken Frontier ‘Six to Watch’ creators let’s start the proceedings by introducing you properly to the BF audience. Can you fill us in on your artistic background and your wider practice to date?
BARBAWK: Well, the earliest thing I can remember ever remember doing was making these weird little characters from milk bottle tops with my Gran when I was super young, we’d put them into little stories and it’s probably safe to say that everything since has been some form of that spiralling out of control.
In terms of actual formal stuff though, I studied art at school and then went on to do a BA in Illustration at the University of South Wales (who I’m super super thankful for, for putting up with me spinning literally every project into something to do with comics). Just before I started uni I was making really terrible Runescape and Animal Crossing comics and posting them on Tumblr- I didn’t really know anything about small press comics until a few years ago, so after I learned about that I was hooked and started taking my work in that direction much more seriously.
BARBAWK: My proper entry point into comics was really only about three years ago – I’d messed around with making them a little but but I’d not really read anything but the odd Marvel paperback here and there. We did a zine-making project at uni and I absolutely loved making these little tangible books. After the project one of my lecturers got me into a tiny zine fair in Cardiff, and showed me a few creators like Lisa Hannawalt and Simon Hanselmann. Then the week after Jon McNaught did a talk to my year, and that really sealed the deal for me in terms of falling head over heals for the medium. I feel like I was kind of dipping my toe into indie comics and DIY zine culture but then accidentally went head first into the deep end in the space of seven days, and it’s the best accident I’ve ever had.
There’s just something about how tangible and nice to look at comics are that really gets me – I find it really satisfying to have a medium that’s so visual and accessable in terms of being able to just sit there holding a book and processing everything at your own pace. Even though I didn’t read many comics growing up I watched a TON of old cartoons like Tom and Jerry and Scooby Doo, and I think the very unrestrained and fluid presence of the characters in those shows is something that’s really stuck with me when I make stuff. Playing with the page structure to bring these qualities to a still (and usually printed in my case) medium is one of my favourite things about actually creating comics.
AO: You were published by Avery Hill Publishing in the Comic Book Slumber Party anthology Escape from Bitch Mountain (below) last year. How did you become involved with that project and how did your story fit into the wider narrative of the book?
BARBAWK: It was a cold, dark night in 2017 (I think). I was scrolling through Twitter and noticed a tweet calling for submissions for the new book. I’d read all of CBSP’s previous stuff and thought that maybe one day I’d be able to be a part of it too. When I saw the tweet I decided there was nothing to loose so I submitted an idea, and ended up getting the good news a few weeks later. In terms of fitting in with the wider narrative, I just did my section of the book and really didn’t know anything else other than there was a dungeon theme until I read the book after the launch. I did know how Greasy would act so keeping the characterisation up was really important to keep things consistent, but the flow of the book and getting all of the parts to fit together so well was definitely due to [CBSP’s] Korinna and Hannah’s amazingly hard work.
AO: As a newer face on the indie comics scene how important has it been to be involved in anthologies like Sweaty Palms and the HGRC (below) collection in terms of building up your profile, interacting with your peers and getting your work to wider audiences?
BARBAWK: It’s been SO important! Being in anthologies and collective projects has done so many great things for me in terms of opening the door into getting published and giving me a bigger platform for my self-published work, but it’s also been fantastic in terms of meeting some incredible (and extremely talented) people. I really struggle with the more ‘public’ side of doing comics, and whilst I adore doing them I’m generally quite nervous about public events like fairs and with things like having an online presence. Doing these sorts of projects and going to the events that come with them kind of gives me an ‘icebreaker’ when it comes to meeting people, so these kind of things have been really important on a pretty personal level. The kindness of everyone I’ve met through/at these things has also been a massive part of this too, no matter how nervous I feel at events it’s only ever a matter of time until it turns into something great and that’s absolutely due to the comics community.
AO: Your longest-form work to date was Swim which we reviewed earlier this year at Broken Frontier. What’s the premise of the book and, given its themes of facing our own fears, is it rooted in either the autobiographical or allegorical?
BARBAWK: I found a Yahoo answers page that asked ‘can a fish be afraid of water?’, and the answer was ‘it would be a pretty rubbish fish if it was’, so the comic is largely inspired by that. There are definitely autobiographical aspects of it though, the main one being that I think swimming pools are literally the grossest places on the planet, but the theme of Fish feeling like she’s destined to do something but having that thing feel terrifying and like something she isn’t great at is definitely a feeling I can relate to, and even more so at the time I wrote Swim. Facing fears head on is something I really try to live by, too.
AO: You often depict your characters as anthropomorphic animals/creatures, including yourself in Beyond Death. Given the autobiographical nature of that minicomic did that visual approach help in tackling its very personal themes of heartbreak and recovery?
BARBAWK: It definitely did help, having a way to disconnect from the situation that made it more objective helped a ton to get it onto paper. I made most of that comic right in the middle of things going tits up, and it was some of how I was venting my emotions; sort of just dumping them all onto this poor hairy blob that I knew was me but also kind of wasn’t.
AO: What will you have new at ELCAF this year? Will there be any debut comics from you there?
BARBAWK: I will be having some new stuff yeah! I’ve actually ended up scrapping my original plans for what I’ll be bringing twice (for good reason though) and just going totally full on with some of the Seasme Street parody stuff I’ve been messing around with recently. I’ll have an ABC with Elmo zine, where he does a crime for each letter, and a new comic as well. It’s called Bert and Ernie: Serial Killers and is probably going to be just as awful as it sounds. Sorry in advance, ELCAF <3
AO: Moving away from strictly comics and more towards your illustration work tell us about your dark zine take on the world of a certain group of popular puppets?
BARBAWK: My only goal in life is to be sued by Sesame Street, that’s it. Just kidding, there’s a load of videos on Youtube where Elmo and Kermit rob some guys to steal their coke and do lots of other very illegal things, and it started off with a couple of drawings based on those videos. I also really enjoy the Sesame Street meme accounts on Instagram, and drawing the characters but with the personalities they’re given in these memes has ended up being my go-to between bigger projects. It’s such a simple thing but it makes me have a little chuckle to myself, and really that’s all I want my work to do for others. I’m happy to run the risk of looking totally Muppet-obsessed if I can share it and have other people enjoy it too.
AO: When it comes to your creative process how much do you work in traditional mediums and how much is digital in approach?
BARBAWK: A massive amount of what I do is digital – usually any illustration work and all of my inking and colouring for comics is digital (with the exception of Swim cause my tablet was getting fixed whilst I had to be inking it, so that’s done in biro but still coloured digitally). However I do try to use traditional methods too if I can in my comics, especially 3D models and collage elements. I love the look of really lowbrow stop motion stuff and have used paper mache figures in a few comics I’ve made, including Swim and Sweaty Palms. Right now I’m working on a big comic project that’s gonna involve a lot of flyers and posters throughout the story, and I’m making each one out of newspaper clippings and then photoshopping them into the comic, which is turning out to be really fun. I also write and thumbnail comics traditonally in a weirdly specific way – I’ve gotta do it on cheap printer paper and draw with a certain kind of biro, with exactly 10 thumbnails per sheet. If I try and do that digitally it always turns out really bad, maybe it’s a curse.
AO: As a creator making a splash in the small press and indie world what advice would you have for people just starting out on their self-publishing journey?
BARBAWK: I’d definitely say apply for everything that interests you, send your stuff off even if you’re really scared of how it’ll be recieved. Even if you don’t think your work is good enough for something you’re applying/submitting to doesn’t mean the person on the other end will feel the same way.
AO: What can we expect to see from you next? Are there any more upcoming projects this year that you can tell us about?
BARBAWK: My next goal is to do some long-form comics. I’m working on something in that direction which is really exciting, but I can’t talk about it just yet. Hopefully the cat will be out of the bag in the next few months though! It’s the longest project I’ve ever worked on by far which is honestly terrifying, but it’s been amazing so far. I’m hoping to be able to bash something small out for Thought Bubble as well, as it’ll likely be my last event before a little art fair hiatus, but I’ve not even started thinking about that yet.