Book review – F(r)iction, issue 4

Friction-4-cover

F(r)iction (4)  is the latest anthology from literary publisher Tethered by Letters. This is an important point to make because neither F(r)iction, nor Tethered by Letters, are quite like any anthology or literary publisher you’re likely to come across. The publisher doesn’t just print books – it is also an excellent resource for writers of all stripes, offering invaluable insight into the trade of authorship, as well as into the fascinating world of literature and the publishing scene in general. It’s no surprise that an organisation clearly unafraid to push the boundaries of literature and explore new possibilities of the written word have produced such an interesting book.

Simply put, F(r)iction is a stunning, visually and intellectually inspiring book to pick up. The illustrations that run throughout its pages are truly brilliant works of art – and all of these complement the pieces of writing they sit among, while also telling their own tales, in a wide variety of artistic styles.

As with all anthologies, there will be pieces of writing that one is drawn to more than others. It is therefore fortunate that the standard of writing throughout the anthology is so high; and that any preference between pieces comes down to a matter of taste, rather than negative criticism of one story or other.

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s On the 100th Anniversary of Mary’s death is certainly one story that deserves special mention. While the fact that the story is cut out into shards and pieces runs the risk that some may see it as a simple formatting gimmick, the writing itself is so tight and crisp that evidence of a very real writerly talent is clearly on show. Intriguing and captivating throughout, with subtle shifts in emphasis and tone keep the reader entrapped in an quasi-mystical relationship with the words on the page. Certain extracts, also, leap out at you:

“Instead, we ate cheese on crackers and drank Australian Shiraz from clear plastic cups in the foyer. Instead, we made visors of our hands to shield the glare of fluorescents reflected in Mary’s blown-up stills: snapshots of stairs cut into the stone of a mountain, Nepalese children beaming and bedraggled before a straw hut, a shaman naked in dreads on a wheel of stone. No, She did not strain her eyes at us from her portraits. No, the hallway fluorescents did not shiver and blink. Her sisters stood awkwardly by the exit door. Strangers shuffled past with their refreshments. No one paused to question the light.”

And the cumulative effect of the scattered narrative is of having spent the day watching a combination of Adam Curtis documentaries and Alfred Hitchcock movies (which can only ever be seen as a good thing).

Follow the leader, a comic-book styled narrative from Jonas McCluggage, is another arresting piece from this overwhelmingly enjoyable collection. Aside from the graphic illustration, which is superb, the story the words and images combine to tell is both disturbing and compelling, as we are drawn into a hunt not only trying to discover the reality behind the mysterious opening section, and the so-called ‘cult’ that has taken over the otherwise peaceful American town of Larranceville, but also into an exploration of mortality – and of the human condition. Quite a feat for a short comic.

But it is not for us to review and comment on every piece in this anthology. The marriage between narrative forms – including fiction, comic book and poetry – as well as between new writers and voices, throws (as all marriages tend to do) curve balls at the reader as we move from one piece to the next. But it never feels jarring, and it never feels forced. Indeed, as is perhaps the ideal for all marriages; F(r)iction has a remarkable habit for only ever throwing up pleasant surprises. And, underneath it all, it burns with a true passion for literature, for the written word, and, most importantly of all: for new ideas – which are so often lacking in contemporary publishing. A must read.

To purchase a copy of F(r)iction, please click here.

 

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Comics: Storytelling with integrity, and the vampirism of other media

 

I love you this much josh spiller

An extract from my own ‘I Love You Thi$ Much’, a comic that no one has yet compared to ‘Watchmen’ or ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. You can check out more of my stories at joshspillercomics.tumblr.com 

It’s an undeniable fact – comics have never saturated culture more.

From the endless plethora of superhero blockbusters, to TV hits like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, to the slew of related videogames and cartoon series, it feels like the vast bulk of modern entertainment is either superhero-dominated, or at least superhero-inflected.

But within this boom, there is a surprising paradox: monthly comic-book sales – you know, the ones with all the superheroes in – are at pretty much their lowest ebb of all time.

For instance, according to these figures, the third highest-selling comic book of February 2016, in North America, was Batman, which shifted 102,689 copies. So what percentage of Americans bought this comic? Well, according to Google, the population of America is roughly 318.9 million.

So, if we do 102,689 ÷ 318,900,000 x 100, we should get the percentage we’re looking for. Which is… a paltry 0.03%.

To put that into context: in the 1940s, many individual comics sold over a million copies apiece. And even by the 1980s, a title on the verge of cancellation, like the pre-Alan Moore Swamp Thing, could still sell 20,000 copies per month, enough to almost be included in February 2016’s top 100-selling comics.

(For a far more detailed, accurate, and all-round better analysis of the trajectory of comic book sales over the past seventy years than I can provide, click here.)

So what’s going on? Why does there seem to be an inverse relationship between comics’ cultural profile, and their physical sales? Why aren’t individual titles selling anywhere near as well as, presumably, they should be?

Firstly, I don’t think it’s the fault of readers. You have to earn your readership. So instead, let’s consider the storytelling – and the mindset behind that storytelling – that they’re being offered.

Let’s talk revisionism

If one thing characterises modern, mainstream superhero comics, it’s revisionism. Continuities are constantly being rewritten. Titles relaunched, with a brand-spanking new ‘Issue 1’, and the promise that things will be radically different, more exciting, and better than ever.

The problem with these revisions is everything they wipe away. For all the readers that might be freshly drawn to the title, all of those who have loyally followed it for years are suddenly told: “Umm, you know all that stuff you’ve spent your time and money on? Well, none of that counts anymore. Enjoy!”

Such revisionism is applied, as you would expect, almost solely to titles with a lot of historical baggage – a.k.a the top-selling superhero books. It’s a narrative quirk, so far as I can think of, which is pretty much unique to comics. Here, a single series – such as Batman or Superman – can run continually for seventy years, with creators constantly needing to find new ways to keep readers hooked. No wonder they sometimes resort to drastic extremes.

But the moment you invalidate the history of a continuing series, you begin stripping the joy or meaning out of any long-term commitment to it; chipping away at your own edifice, and, frequently, sliding towards a regurgitation your own mythology. I mean, has any story ever justified the pressing of a reset button?

Do this, and your storytelling loses some of its integrity. The readers’ trust wanes. That’s basically inevitable.

The fact that this failing besets the very comics that  once ruled the sales charts, may help explain why the top-selling comics now only sell tens of thousands of copies, as opposed to hundreds of thousands.

The problem with “big event” storylines

Alongside revisionism, mainstream superhero comics also suffer from, in my opinion, one other major deficiency: a feverish obsession with big-event storylines. Every summer, both Marvel (Spider-Man, Hulk, Avengers, etc.) and DC (Superman, Batman, Aquaman, etc.) deliver massive, cataclysmic storylines that embroil the vast bulk of their titles, and which basically declare, year after year after year, that Nothing Will Be The Same Again.

As you can imagine, it all gets a bit wearing and pointless. If the status quo is always being shaken up, is there really a status quo to shake up? (Welcome to Zen Comic Teachings 101.) Or is it an unavoidable case of diminishing returns, where each “ground-breaking” event means less and less than the one before?

Pointing this stuff out is nothing new. Countless comic readers, afflicted with “big-event fatigue”, complain about it all the time.

What’s worth mentioning is that the stories which have actually changed these comic characters, their universes, and the very medium itself, haven’t been crossovers or needed a ton of hype. Instead, when Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns got the wider world paying attention to,  and enthusing over,  comics, it was mainly through sheer critical acclaim and word-of-mouth buzz. Thirty years later, these stories are still selling phenomenally well.

These weren’t grand-event narratives screaming for your time and money. They were self-contained, experimental stories, told with passion and integrity. They weren’t built to change the medium; and yet, perhaps even to the surprise of their creators, they were the ones that did.

So forget the short-term sales spikes that big-event narratives can bring. Just focus on telling a dope story. Or, to put it another way: ply crisis upon crisis to your books, and your sales could soon be in one.

To be clear: this is not to say that no good or great work is done in mainstream comics. It’s simply highlighting a broad phenomenology that seems to be leading to their decline.

The issues we’ve looked at so far – revisionism and big-event storylines – are both matters regarding storytelling integrity. They are problems internal to the medium, and thus are (relatively easily) fixable.

What’s much trickier are the external factors.

The wider worldview

Comics, in their physical monthly format, seem to have been hit hard by almost every other medium. Want your superhero fix? Movies, TV and videogames can take care of that. Fancy reading this month’s latest comics? Don’t go down to the shops. Simply download them from Comixology (owned by Amazon) to your computer.

Even graphic novels – simply monthly comics collected into a book-like form – have eaten up some of comics’ old market share. For instance, while February 2016’s comic book sales were down 7% on February 2015’s, graphic novel sales were up 12% over the same period. This isn’t surprising. Graphic novels tend to be cheaper than the individual comics they collect; have no adverts; and can be binge read (Netflix-style).

Plus, unlike monthly comics (which you can read for years, only to have much of what you enjoyed eliminated from continuity) graphic novels essentially have a beginning, middle, and end. You’re not likely to have your story undermined partway through reading it. Therefore, there’s an integrity to their form, and this perhaps gives them an advantage over monthly comics.

All of this, I hope, helps to explain why, in the age of the superhero boom, the medium that birthed them is going through something of a superhero bust.

Nevertheless, within this flux that the industry is experiencing, there are fascinating shoots of green growth – growth wholly contingent upon 21st-century culture.

The crowdfunding community (on websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo) seems to be remarkably generous, enabling numerous independent, company-less creators to realise their projects.

In fact, it’s been such a success that established comic companies are now also beginning to utilise these platforms. In February this year, for instance, comic company Avatar posted a campaign on Kickstarter to raise money for a new black-and-white anthology that would feature some of the best talent, scriptorial and artistic, in the business. In 14 days, it was ridiculously over-crowdfunded to the tune of 1,000%+ its initial target, drumming up a total of $110,333.

Clearly, there’s a lot of good will out there for backing new comics, both from obscure, amateur creators, as well as from the industry’s hoary heavyweights. None of this would have been possible even a decade ago.

Moreover, on a general level, spending is like voting. Whatever you spend your money on, you’ve voted for there to be more of that thing in the world, whether it’s vegetarian food in the supermarket, action films, or electric cars. And broadly speaking (although there are many caveats), in a capitalist society, you get the world you spend/vote for. So perhaps these crowdfunded comics signal the way things are going.

Personally, I’d hate to guess. Look at Marvel – they filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Flash-forward twenty years, and they’re a corporate juggernaut. Who would’ve predicted that?

But whatever happens, hopefully this article offers a snapshot of where comics are at today… where they might be heading… and spotlights a couple of key flaws that, to bring readers back into the fold, the monthly medium urgently needs to address.

(N.B. I’m not a comic retailer, and this article is largely based upon anecdotal evidence and online research. So if there are any false facts, glaring gaps of knowledge, or cack-handed misprisions on my part, then, as ever, corrections are welcome. Well, not welcome exactly – they’ll really undermine my authority – but I’ll be happy to post them below.)

About the author

FullSizeRenderJosh Spiller is a published writer of comics, short stories, and scripts, and is currently looking for representation for his first novel. He’s also interacted with the “real world” by reviewing restaurants and theatre pieces for Flux Magazine and The London Word, and is worried that this bio is too self-centred. You can judge his work here, joshspillercomics.tumblr.com; and his very soul here – @JoshSpiller.

Getting into comics: the British scene today, and where you can submit your stuff

 

Josh Spiller 1 - Copy

Opening to the 5-page story, Dude, what the hell happened to your…? Read it in full here.

Like any medium you want to break into, with comics, it’s important to know where the opportunities for aspiring creatives are. So, what’s the state of British comics today?

Go into a comic-book store, and an overwhelming number of the comics on offer will be American: Printed in America, and overseen by editors based in America.  In terms of easy contact and accessibility, this is not ideal for anyone living on a tiny, remote island somewhere in the far reaches of the North Atlantic Ocean.

So, instead, you might visit a homegrown store like WHSmiths. Again, many of the comics found here are American reprints, with 2000 AD being the main exception. This was the comic where, in the 1980s, most – if not all – of the brightest stars in UK comic-book history got their first big break. Today, as pretty much the lone survivor of the once-healthy British comics scene, it still represents the quickest route to a professional comic-book career. Unfortunately, however, it seems to rarely publish new writers; its time-honoured vehicle for doing so, the short twist-ending stories known as Future Shocks, having apparently largely disappeared from the magazine’s repertoire.

(For anyone who does want to get a story into 2000 AD, though, check out the ‘Thought Bubble’ convention in Leeds later this year. The magazine’s editors will be there running an X-Factor-style talent show, where, within a given limit, writers get to pitch a Future Shock story. The winning entry will be published in the magazine.)

 

Josh Spiller 3

It’s superheroes, but not as we know them. From the story I Love You Thi$ Much – read it in full here.

But fear not! Despite this surface veneer of doom and gloom, there are opportunities and excitements to be found in surprising places.

For starters, while genuine British comics are in short supply, a part of the WHSmith’s magazine-panoply that does seem to be thriving is the children’s section. And in several of these children’s magazines, comics are printed as a regular feature, with their creative talent sourced in the UK. These magazines have a good circulation – some in the region of 50,000 per month – and would make an excellent port of call for any comic scribes looking to break into the business via the automatic cachet of having worked on an established franchise. More than that, if you’re story did address certain issues, you would at least be talking to readers who haven’t already made up their minds (obviously, their infantile brains won’t be able to even notice the sophisticated political, theological, nay, ontological points you’ll be making, but the illusion of making a difference could give you a real warm glow). At the last time of checking, those children’s magazines open to comic script submissions included: Adventure Time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dr Who Adventures (although I believe this is fully booked up until the end of the year) and The Phoenix Magazine.

But more than that, what’s staggering is how easy it is to have a chat, even grab a drink, with some of the top figures in the medium. For instance, David Lloyd, artist of the world-famous V for Vendetta, attends a monthly open-to-the-public meeting in Brighton called ‘Cartoon County‘ – a superb series of live interviews with comic book creators – and is down-to-earth, approachable, and generous with his time. In fact, he’s also the mastermind behind new digital comic anthology Aces Weekly, another potential place for new writers to get published.

Then there’s pre-eminent comic critic Paul Gravett, author of 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die. He seems lovely – nowhere near as aggressive as that title suggests – and often comes to an informal, monthly meeting at the Southbank Centre (details here).

Then there’s John Totleben, my favourite comic artist of all time, who just happened to be at a local comic convention, where anyone could go up to his table and talk to him.

And then there’s Kieron Gillen, writer of Marvel’s flagship comic Darth Vader, who recently did a free event on his creative process in Peckham Library.

You get the picture. The point is, the British comics scene seems to have an amazing, supportive network, where it’s not hard to meet and learn from some of the creators positioned near the top of the industry pyramid. Whether this is because they’re good souls, or because maltreatment from the industry they’ve devoted their lives to has left them with insufficient funds to distance themselves from the great unwashed masses, is something every aspiring creator will have to judge for themselves. Whatever the case, it’s good news, so I’d earnestly recommend taking advantage of these, and similar, social groups and events.

Finally, beyond getting published and meeting other creatives, it’s now easier than ever to build a portfolio by making your own comics. Artists looking for assignments are only ever an email address away. As for where to find them, the anthologies FutureQuake and Psychedelic Journal of Time Travel are great places to start, with all of the artists’ contact details at the back of the publications.

Josh Spiller 2

Sci-fi love, memory transplants, and murder. And the clock is ticking…from Before Tomorrow Comes. Read it in full here.

(Personally, I offer £40 a page, as it’s what I can afford. This puts some artists out of my price range, but it’s still enough to get some fantastic work.)

And of course, as a side note, conventions are always a useful spot to meet editors in person, and perhaps get a gig or at least open up the possibility of that happening in the future. The full list of UK & Ireland comic conventions for 2016 is here.

Well that, my faceless and anonymous friends, is pretty much that. There you have it: the bulk of the info I’ve amassed over the past three months of trying to progress in this wayward bastard medium, distilled into one ten-minute article. Hopefully useful for you; vaguely depressing for me.

Good luck with all of your creative endeavours. And if there are any artists reading this who would like to collaborate, just drop me a message on the link below. See you in the funny pages.

About the author

FullSizeRenderJosh Spiller is a published writer of comics, short stories, and scripts, and is currently looking for representation for his first novel. He’s also interacted with the “real world” by reviewing restaurants and theatre pieces for Flux Magazine and The London Word, and is worried that this bio is too self-centred. You can judge his work here, joshspillercomics.tumblr.com; and his very soul here – @JoshSpiller.