BROKEN FRONTIER AWARDS – BEST ONGOING SERIES WINNER!
From her early, beautifully tactile forays into self-publishing with books like Brockley Foxtrot and Five, to her role in co-founding artzine Tiny Pencil with Amber Hsu, through to her place as part of the game-changing UK indie publisher Avery Hill Publishing, Katriona Chapman has been a regularly featured artist here at Broken Frontier over the last six years.
Three years ago, Chapman launched her own collection of autobiographical musings within the pages of her well-received slice-of-life anthology Katzine. Combining short comics stories and articles with her gorgeously shaded illustrative style it’s become a much-loved staple of UK small press publishing for its honesty, likeability and warmth.
With Katzine seeing off some incredibly strong competition (including Marvel and DC comics) to win the Best Ongoing Series category in our recent 2017 Broken Frontier Awards it seemed an appropriate time to catch up with Kat and talk about the ethos of the zine, her inspirations and her first full-length graphic novel Follow Me In coming from Avery Hill Publishing later this year. Look out for some preview pages from Follow Me In exclusive to BF below!
ANDY OLIVER: We’ve been following your work at Broken Frontier since 2012, way back when we reviewed one of your earliest comics Brockley Foxtrot. Before we talk about Katzine can you give us some background on both your wider self-published comics and anthology involvement over the years?
KATRIONA CHAPMAN: My first self-published book was Five – I illustrated a story my friend wrote and we made 300 hand-bound copies which are now sold out. I also made two other hand-bound small press books Brockley Foxtrot and The Garden, before deciding that as much as I liked bookbinding it wasn’t leaving me enough time to do much else!
In 2013 I co-created the all-graphite anthology Tiny Pencil alongside Amber Hsu. That was an amazing project and if you like weird and fascinating pencil art you should definitely check it out! I’ve also contributed to anthologies like INK + Paper, Kripa Joshi’s Home anthology, Save our Souls and Comic Book Slumber Party’s Deep Space Canine.
What were the inspirations for your autobio series Katzine and how would you describe its basic premise?
I’ve always enjoyed art/entertainment that focuses on the everyday rather than the fantastical… I’m just drawn to stories with real-life settings. One of the first comics I really loved was Peter Bagge’s Hate, and I really enjoy work by creators like Julia Wertz, Eleanor Davis or Joe Decie who do autobiographical work really well. But my biggest inspiration for Katzine was Katie Green’s Green Bean Zine where she mixed regular features with autobio stories and I really wanted to do something along those lines!
Its premise was that it would be an ongoing series of zines that people could subscribe to… it would be mostly autobiographical stories but I also wanted to do bits of fiction and non-fiction as well. From my point of view it was a chance to practise storytelling and experiment with comics formats while also creating a product that I could sell, and a schedule that I could work to. From the readers’ point of view I hoped to create something that was an intimate and engaging reading experience but also had the option of a subscription where you could have the fun of a new issue arriving in the post every few months.
What are some of the regular features that have been a staple of Katzine over the last few years?
The most regular feature is Sergio Talk, where I illustrate short snippets of things that my boyfriend Sergio has said. I collect quotes from him that I think capture his particular character, humour and style of interaction, and cumulatively they build a portrait. I also have Featured Plant, (indulging my love of plants,) and Local Business where I feature shops in my area that are interesting or where I’ve had memorable interactions with the people who work there. And there’s Fears & Loves where I illustrate one fear that I have and one thing I love each time… the more odd and specific the better.
I enjoyed doing the regular features but ended up phasing them out somewhat as time went on in favour of longer stories. I always heard from different readers that they liked the regular features, but I found I was squeezing the other stories into fewer pages so I could fit everything in, and I wanted the room to explore longer pieces which I think can be more satisfying to read (and to write) in many ways. The other option would’ve been to up the page count but I couldn’t fit the time for that into my schedule!
Has there been a sense of freedom in the self-publishing aspect of Katzine? And, conversely, what have been some of the challenges of getting an ongoing series out there on a regular basis? Are there any lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
I always love the sense of freedom of self-publishing in general! As someone who’s worked as a freelancer and spent time making work to order, it’s great being able to do exactly what you want. In terms of learning lessons about the world of comics and publishing, I would always recommend comics creators to try self-publishing because you learn so much about what goes into printing, selling and marketing work. Do go into it with a realistic idea of time and money commitments though!
In terms of an ongoing series in particular… to be honest I did find it tricky maintaining the same level of readership long-term… at one point I started to work on my graphic novel and so Katzine had to take a back seat in terms of how much time I could give to promoting it. I dropped to 2 issues a year instead of 4, stopped the subscription option and just focused on selling individual issues or bundles, and I sold less issues over time. I’ve also not been attending festivals or cons while I work on my book so obviously that’s had a big impact too!
In general I hear from other creators and publishers that ongoing series can be hard to sell… not always but often. I wonder if readers are often just drawn to what’s new… I know that even if I like work by one creator, I might not necessarily buy everything they do. If I have a limited budget I might be more inclined to buy something from a new creator I’ve come across rather than keep buying work by someone I already know.
‘Moving Parts’ from Katzine: The Factory Issue
One aspect of Katzine that makes it such an empathetic reading experience is the balance between the breezy and engaging accounts of the minutiae of life and those deeper and almost confessional parts. It’s a question I often ask creators working in autobiographical material but does it ever feel difficult sharing your life with an audience on the comics pages?
I don’t necessarily deal with as difficult subjects as some writers do, but yes there are always considerations when writing about your life. My graphic novel has been the most difficult as it depicts a relationship and it felt very awkward to address that at first… in fact it took me a while to realise that that was probably the main focus of the book rather than a subplot! But it helped that my ex knows that it’s happening and he’s a writer so he’s understanding of the process.
It also helped that over time I started to really think about the book from a reader’s point of view – what they might engage with the most – that created some distance where I could just look at it in a detached way. Working with my editor Ricky [Miller – Avery Hill Publishing] also really helped me look at the project objectively and in overview as well. I’ve never worked on anything so long, and at times it was hard to keep tabs on the whole thing so he’s been invaluable in helping me edit and structure it all.
But yes in writing autobiographical stuff you always have to be aware that you’re putting real people in your work – there has to be a balance between your desire and your right to tell your story, and considerations of other people’s feelings.
Pages from Katzine: The Guatemala Issue
Can you tell us about your graphite-based artistic process? How time-intensive are those detailed pages? Is there any digital input into your pages?
These days there’s a lot of digital input… I create panels and speech bubbles digitally then I treat the pencil stuff mostly as line art, scan and add it to the panels and then add some digital shading. For my black and white work this is pretty quick and easy – I have a background tone and then I add highlights and shadows. For colour work it’s a lot more involved and time-consuming! I do all my colouring digitally these days, and there are a lot of layers involved.
If I have panels already roughed out (like I did for my graphic novel,) I can draw 3 pages a day in terms of the final pencil line art (lightboxing over the rough art.) But since Katzine was an attempt to get quicker at making comics, I often go straight to final art and what ends up on the page is usually my first go at drawing each panel.
‘The Eagle’ from Katzine: The Eagle Issue
There are recurring motifs of nature and travel in your work which you’ve returned to regularly over the years. What is it about those themes that inspire you so much?
Nature and travel are just two things that make me feel particularly alive! The more I’ve written about travel the more I’ve started to think about why I like it. In issue #2 of Katzine I wrote about how as I got older I became more and more drawn to the outdoors and to wilderness. I love hiking, and I wrote in that comic about how going out into nature makes you feel small and insignificant which I really like. With travel it can be a similar thing… I think there’s great value in putting yourself into situations where at the least you’re not in your comfort zone and at the most extreme you’re not entirely safe. I’m not saying people should put themselves in danger, just that it can be good for people to push themselves and be open to new or uncomfortable experiences.
With travel, I think it can be good for people to go where they feel out of place, where people will look at you as an outsider. I think it’s important for people to experience what life is like in places other than where they grow up. It can be uncomfortable but I would hope it’s something that can give you an insight into what life can be like for people with different backgrounds from you. I think that’s what I like about travel… and with nature it’s a similar thing – trying to appreciate what’s outside your immediate area and see things from a different perspective.
New art from Kat’s graphic memoir Follow Me In coming from Avery Hill Publishing this year
You stopped numbering Katzine after the fourth issue and started subtitling it by subject. What was the thinking behind that?
The only reason behind that was that I wanted people to see Katzine as a series where the issues are standalone (rather than an ongoing story where they would have to buy the issues in the right order to appreciate them.) I would sometimes hear people say “I need to buy issue one first” which was frustrating as there’s no need for a reader to start with any particular issue!
You’ve obviously worked mainly in autobio over the years. Have you any yearning to produce a longer-form fictional narrative in the future?
Definitely! It’s scary as it doesn’t come as naturally to me, but I definitely want to!
Follow Me In debuts this September
You’ve been a part of the Avery Hill Publishing team since 2015 as Head of Marketing. What are the responsibilities of that role and how has it developed over the last couple of years?
My role can be summarised as mostly to do with getting our books in front of people who might enjoy them… and anything that will help with that! So I deal with press coverage for the creators, reviews, press releases. I do social media and I also work with our newest member Steve Walsh (Head of Sales) in producing marketing material on each book for our distributors’ sales teams to use to get the books into shops. I also do several newsletters every month to different mailing lists, and I do quite a bit of liaison with printers on costs and technical stuff for the printing too. The biggest change has been Steve joining the team to take over most of the sales/retailer stuff from me.
More previously unseen art from Follow Me In
Your new graphic memoir Follow Me In from Avery Hill is your first long-form work coming later this year. As we’ve mentioned, it’s your most personal work to date. How would you describe the book?
It’s a travelogue with a very personal story running through it. It’s about one of those transformative experiences you can have where everything changes for you. It tells the story of a trip I took around Mexico when I was 25… I spent nine months travelling and exploring a place and culture that was totally different to anything I knew before, and I wanted to convey the intensity of that. It’s also about being in a place when you’re young where you don’t have a clue what you want or how you should be. It’s about my ex-partner’s issues with alcohol and the difficulties of negotiating a relationship where there are addiction problems. I wanted to create a story that was equal parts travelogue and a study of a person trying to find their way in life.
Finally Kat, what can we watch out for from you in the future post-Follow Me In. And can we look forward to new Katzine this year?
For now I’m just focusing on getting the book finished… I have to get that out of the way before I can even think about what to do next!
For more on Katriona Chapman’s work visit her site here and follow her on Twitter here. You can visit the Tomatito Press online store here to buy her books including Katzine.
For regular updates on all things small press follow Andy Oliver on Twitter here.