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Small Pressganged is Broken Frontier’s weekly column designed to shine a spotlight on the often overlooked world of small press and self-published comics. Every seven days we’ll be providing a mix of review round-ups of the best of current small press comics and spot interviews with some of the movers and shakers of the scene.

Last Saturday the latest Comiket, the semi-regular London independent comics fair, took place at the Bishopsgate Institute as part of the Comica Festival. I was there in an unofficial Broken Frontier capacity, hunting down some gems of small press books for potential future coverage in this very column and taking the opportunity to say hello to faces both familiar and unfamiliar amongst the attendees.

On Twitter on Saturday I described Comiket as “an Aladdin’s cave of small press and Indie treasures” and, despite the forced economy of articulacy of that particular social networking environment, that soundbite does rather effectively encompass the variety of independent comics wares on sale. Comica master of ceremonies Paul Gravett was there working his usual magic on the stage behind the main fair, introducing a succession of creators drawing live on a projected big screen as part of “Artists Parade”. While I did stand still for a short period of time to watch Brecht Evens (the gent behind the remarkable The Wrong Place, published in translation by Drawn and Quarterly), I must admit my greedy, rapt, wallet-draining attention was largely elsewhere. But  the likes of Posy Simmonds, Luke Pearson, Sarah McIntyre, Warren Pleece and Roger Langridge, amongst many others, were all scheduled to appear as part of the parade throughout the day.

It’s the egalitarian feel of an event like Comiket that reignites that feeling of joy about comics for me that the cynical shenanigans of the bigger commercial publishers have done their best to erase. There’s something quite splendid indeed about buying a copy of ten-year-old school boy Zoom Rockman’s lively and enthusiastic comic The Zoom (current issue including a voucher for free chips at George’s Fish n’ Chips in Crouch End doncha know) and then walking a few short feet away to see Tom Humberstone selling copies of the polished and innovative Solipsistic Pop. It was that tangible lack of cynicism, and an all-pervading sense of diversity, that were the admirable hallmarks of an event where everyone attending was focused primarily on the same shared goal: selling their personal vision of the very best of what comics can be. A tiptop day on every level and an experience I look forward to replicating at the next Comiket in 2012.

As for my own acquisitions, well from picking up Sally-Anne Hickman’s beautifully handmade diary comics and discovering with glee a Lizz Lunney minicomic I didn’t already have, to grabbing pro publishers Blank Slate’s Nelson and Nobrow Press’s Nobrow #6, my Comiket stash was a many-splendoured haul indeed. It’s interesting, to be sure, to note how the lines between what we nebulously define as “the small press” and “professional” publishers continue to blur and redefine themselves. Consider, for example, the 9,000 copies printed of the first issue of small press anthology paper The Comix Reader in 2010 and compare that to the far inferior print runs that DC/WildStorm’s WildCats - that one-time sales phenomenon of the 1990s - was achieving in its final months of existence last year and then draw your own conclusions…

And that leads me to ask an obvious parting question: just how would you define small press comics? Is that definition dependent on format? On print run and audience size? On the construction and make-up of the books themselves? What about webcomics and digital books that embrace the spirit of self-publishing; where do they fit in the equation?  Is it none of these things; is the term more a philosophy or a sensibility now? Does a small press comic stop being a small press comic when a professional publisher picks it up? Or is even asking these questions a pointless exercise in limitation and utterly self-defeating?

While I would love to hear (and openly encourage) your thoughts in the comments section below, I won’t even begin to pretend I have any answers myself. For my coverage in 'Small Pressganged' that definition will continue to be elastic; like the continuity of a good super-hero universe it will be, simply, whatever suits my purpose on any given week.

Only without the No-Prizes if I contradict myself.

###

Before I jump into a short review of Caryn Tate’s Red Plains to finish up this week, a quick thank you to all of you creators who either responded to my Twitter shout-out for potential coverage a short while back or have been in touch since the column started. Response has been, in a word, overwhelming. I will get round to all the small press books, minicomics and PDFs I have been sent so far in due course, but please bear with me in the short-term!

Red Plains: The Ballad of Double Ott
Caryn A. Tate (writer) Mike D. Kim (art)

When I interviewed Caryn A. Tate about her Western series Red Plains for Broken Frontier last year, I was impressed not just by the scope of the book - a sprawling Old West soap opera following the lives and relationships of a diverse cast of compelling characters - but by her absolute commitment to providing an utterly realistic depiction of the social make-up and time period the book is set in.

Now, having grown up in the suburbs of East London I’m in no position, obviously, to  attest to what makes a truly bona fide Western or not; if no one had told me any differently I could have spent my whole life believing Sid James’s Rumpo Kid in Carry on Cowboy was a paragon of authenticity on that front. What is abundantly clear, though, even from my position of ignorance, is that Red Plains is a cracking historical saga completely shorn of the usual tiresome clichés that plague this genre. And, coming from a writer who grew up on cattle ranches, the genuineness of its approach to the subject matter comes across as both heartfelt and earnest.

The Ballad of Double Ott sees the much anticipated return of a mad, bad face from Red Plains’ history in the shape of “No-Nose” Velasquez, with huge ramifications for established regulars the Escovido family, especially the smitten Lupe. It also brings the black bounty hunter Double Ott to the foreground as he and Sherriff Doles stake out the wanted man and Doles, in particular, is forced to face the ghosts of the past…

This arc is illustrated by Mike D. Kim who displays no problems whatsoever in giving the story the strong period feel it requires. Red Plains has been blessed with a number of artists in the past who have brought that necessary gritty feel to the proceedings and Kim is no exception. His action scenes and fight sequences are of particular note; the latter feeling almost choreographed in presentation. And watch for his line in terrifying central villains… he’s most assuredly got an eye for providing strikingly menacing bad guys.

          

One of this arc’s great strengths is that it advances ongoing subplots and brings dangling story threads to the forefront, but always maintains that fine balance between rewarding long-time readers and remaining entirely accessible to a first time audience. That much bandied phrase “jumping on point” is entirely justified here and I can only hope that those of you who try out The Ballad of Double Ott on the strength of this review will then fully investigate the rest of the RP back catalogue. Caryn has created an incredibly rich fictional locale in this comic and, as exciting and involving as the more action-oriented arcs like this one are, the true strength of Red Plains is, just like any community, in the multi-faceted characters that live there. At a whopping great 66 pages for just $2.99 no one can exactly complain they’re not getting value for money either…

For more on the work of Caryn A. Tate and Red Plains check out her website here. Red Plains: The Ballad of Double Ott is available on Graphicly here, including added extras like audio commentary from the writer and original script pages.

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Andy Oliver is Broken Frontier’s Managing Editor and a contributor to Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.

If you are a small press comics creator, or self-publisher, and would like your work to be reviewed in a future edition of Small Pressganged then e-mail Andy at andyoliver@brokenfrontier.com for further details.

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Comments

  • JasonClyma

    JasonClyma Nov 18, 2011 at 10:38am

    Awesome article, Andy. Red Plains looks pretty great, I'm going to check it out this weekend.

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Nov 20, 2011 at 10:42am

    Thanks Jason! RED PLAINS is a top book. Over Christmas I think it needs a full re-read from the very beginning.

  • Kstewart

    Kstewart Nov 28, 2011 at 9:32am

    I like the humour in your writing!

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Nov 30, 2011 at 10:01am

    Thanks! One does one's best to amuse.

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