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Eerie Influences: John-Paul Kamath Talks London Horror Comic

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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 Thursday we provide 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.

This week I’m chatting with John-Paul Kamath, the gent behind the very slickly produced anthology London Horror Comic. Originating as a webcomic in 2006, the first printed issue of LHC debuted back in 2008. After a hiatus between the third and fourth issues, the book returned this year with more of its inventive spin on the horror genre…

BROKEN FRONTIER: London Horror Comic has been around for a few years now. Can you tell us a little about its origins and your route into self-publishing?

JOHN-PAUL KAMATH: I’d been a regular writer on a US horror anthology which covered the usual tropes of zombies, werewolves and the like. When I submitted a story about an old man dying in his flat alone that was all-silent, the editor said it was creepy but not for them. I thought there was merit in the piece so I got an artist friend to draw it and stuck it up on my website.

We got some praise including a nice e-mail from Jamie Delano who liked the story. The positive reception did not make me a success but it did convince me that writing horror in my own way was something that could work. At around the same time I was reading Warren Ellis’ series of Come in Alone articles, which got me thinking differently about comics in general. As far as self-publishing goes, if you want better comics, make ‘em yourself, bring something new to the table and be bloody minded about doing it. Viewed this way, producing comics isn’t this dark art; it becomes a series of practical tasks you complete to get your book out there and which anyone can do.

BF: One of the aims of Broken Frontier’s ‘Small Pressganged’ column is to introduce new potential readers to small press or self-published work. With that in mind, can you give our readers a quick rundown of the contents of an average issue and the type of audience demographic you’re pitching the book at?

KAMATH: London Horror Comic is a horror film festival that you can roll up and put in your pocket. Just like a film festival, the audience gets a broad range of stories with a connection to the main theme of horror. A single issue blends social horror, gore, comedy and general weirdness. The book’s for anyone who wants to kill a long train journey home or pass their lunch hour with a dark chuckle and a few shivers without having to fork out for a graphic novel.

BF: You’ve worked with a number of artists over the four issues. Do you write certain stories with specific illustrators in mind? How did the individual artists become involved with the project and what do you feel they have added to your vision for London Horror Comic?

KAMATH: I make contact with artists over the web if I like their work, or use artists I’ve worked with before on other projects.

Rather than writing a story with the artist in mind though, I always aim to communicate what I’m trying to achieve with a particular panel or story when I work with the artist. If you’re able to get across what you’re trying to achieve first, then the illustrator’s interpretation usually matches your intention.

The artists themselves have added a kinetic energy to the stories that generally take place between one or two people in a confined place. They’ve found ways of keeping the stories visually interesting and the characters expressive. Spreading information quickly and concisely over each panel is key when you’re producing short stories.

BF: In terms of horror comics forebears your storytelling seems more Warren than EC to me; you’re not afraid to eschew dialogue/captions when necessary and embrace an entirely visual approach to your narratives. What are your horror influences both inside and outside comics?

KAMATH: Definitely more Warren than EC. In a copy of Eerie you could get a mix of westerns, sci-fi, horror and more. It’s that variety that I’m trying to re-create in each issue. Another big influence is the 1980s horror anthology Wasteland, by Del Close and John Ostrander, with its themes of alienation, psychological dread and black humour.

         

The Warren horror books Eerie and Creepy and DC's 1980s anthology series Wasteland - all titles that have influenced John-Paul's approach...

Outside of comics, The Twilight Zone is a benchmark I set myself. They’re a reminder that however steeped in fantasy your stories are, at some point, they have to touch on some aspect of living. The late great horror author Richard Laymon serves as a reminder that some pretty horrific stuff can happen in your own neighbourhood. And of course, John Carpenter’s sense of pacing and minimalism inform me visually.

BF: While you use a lot of traditional staples of the field like werewolves and cannibalistic families, for example, you do so with a very self-aware, contemporary slant – vampires with a fear of social rejection in a networking world or super-villains on hard times working in franchised coffee shops.  How important is that to your work in connecting with a 21st century audience and presenting new twists to a much-exploited genre?

KAMATH: Most of the emails I receive from readers go along the lines of: “I don’t like horror but I enjoyed your comic” or “I don’t normally read comics, but I enjoyed yours.” Making things contemporary is vital in keeping your work fresh and the horror genre relevant and accessible to new readers. The definition of what horrifies us also changes with the times. Confronting vampires, werewolves and zombies almost seem a charming alternative when compared against confronting the reasons about what makes a city of youngsters spontaneously loot and burn their local high street. Horror is also one of those genres where it’s easy to be cheap with storytelling. That doesn’t interest me. I get more excited by presenting these concepts in ways people haven’t seen them before or using them as a contrasting effect to highlight something more relevant to people today.

John-Paul at this year's Cardiff International Comic Expo

BF: How gratifying is it to have received such positive recommendations for the book from comic royalty like Garth Ennis and celebrity readers like comedian/Jerry Springer: The Opera writer Stewart Lee?

KAMATH: It’s incredibly humbling and thrilling when people whose work you’ve admired and collected give you a pat on the back. It’s one of the great things about the comic book medium that you can produce a piece of work for a few pennies and have it recognised by top talent. Moreover, a great thing about the small press scene here in the UK is co-operation amongst creators to support each other. When I first started doing conventions, I was heartened over how willing people were to give me advice about how to host a table and which conventions to attend. So when I’m at conventions and people ask how they can go about making their comics, I make it a point to play it forwards.

BF: Self-publishing has moved onto an entirely new level of possibilities in a very small space of time. This is very apparent when looking at the production values of London Horror Comic which are actually slicker than most Marvel/DC monthlies. How far do you feel the small press scene has come on in recent years in terms of what can be accomplished in terms of both print and electronic delivery? And what are the challenges that creators still face in getting their work out to a larger audience?

KAMATH: Digital will be a greater leveller for readers being able to discover small press. At the moment London Horror Comic is in the iTunes top ten chart with Marvel’s Avengers in the number 1 spot. That’s something a small press publisher could have never achieved with print. Digital also removes the stigma about a comic having to be sized a certain way or having to use a certain stock of paper in order to be considered a “real comic”. The net effect of both these trends is that they’ll help redefine the notion of what a comic is and what subjects it can cover far quicker and to a wider audience than the occasional milestone pieces of work which make it into the reviews section of The Guardian, which are only ever preaching to the converted.

Producing work of quality is still the biggest challenge and opportunity the small press scene faces. It’s an opportunity because the small press scene can produce their comics as boutique items and beautiful objects with an inventiveness frequency that exceeds the constraints of a bog-standard monthly US pamphlet. I recently picked up the latest copy of ink+PAPER which is a joy to hold and thumb through.

As with film-making and music production, the means to make your own print comic is within reach of any would-be publisher via the web and on your desktop. However, just because you make a comic in your bedroom doesn’t excuse it from not having to be as good or better than what’s on the shelf from other publishers. That’s still a challenge. Recognise that if you put a cover price on your work, that’s money a reader could be spending elsewhere. If you want to self-publish, set your creative standards high and make sure you follow through.

BF: With an anthology of “done-in-one” tales, of course, you have the comfort zone of knowing you can publish on an irregular basis without necessarily losing momentum in terms of either story pacing or readership. Have you ever considered, however, a longer-form narrative, or are you happy at the moment with the opportunities that the anthology format offers?

KAMATH: Creatively, yes, I’m keen to produce an original graphic novel as a longer form piece of work. Practically, it’s a lot riskier when you’re self-publishing. I wouldn’t rule out a co-production, though. Judging from the feedback I’ve had at conventions, the done-in-one tales do work well, with a reader being able to jump on board with any given issue. Although London Horror Comic has been going six years, I’m keen to keep the series accessible to new readers by maintaining an easy-entry format.

Above right - another discerning customer with a selection of recent issues...

BF: Finally, going forward, have you given any thoughts to London Horror Comic #5 and the longer-term future of the comic? Are there any other projects from the Kamath camp we should be looking out for?

KAMATH: I’m currently writing issue 5 as one of two possible versions: one as a series of shorts and one as a longer single story. I’m then going to make a decision about which to publish as issue 5, so that should be interesting. Or I’ll just be completely mad and publish both. You do need to be a bit mental to self-publish. Other than that I’m doing my first US con in April when I attend MoCCA in April, which I’m looking forward to.

You can find out more about John-Paul Kamath’s work with London Horror Comic at the official site here. All four issues to date are available to buy online here.

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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. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.

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