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Mapping the Small Press: Humberstone Talks Solipsistic Pop

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Small Pressganged is Broken Frontier’s new weekly column designed to shine a spotlight on the often overlooked world of small press and self-published comics. As the column's less than subtle title implies, this is our open attempt to gently coerce you, our ever receptive Broken Frontier audience, into picking up some wonderful comic strip storytelling that may have otherwise passed you by. Over the coming weeks our coverage will alternate between review round-ups of the best of current small press comics alongside spot interviews with some of the movers and shakers of the scene.

We open this week with a bumper-sized interview with Tom Humberstone, editor of the critically-acclaimed small press anthology Solipsistic Pop, which launches its fourth, eagerly anticipated issue this month. Featuring a plethora of highly-regarded creative talent - including the likes of Luke Pearson, Stephen Collins, Lizz Lunney, Adam Cadwell, Joe Decie, Darryl Cunningham, Francesca Cassavetti and many more - Solipsistic Pop’s compellingly diverse mix of styles and content has gained it much deserved rave reviews.Tom Humberstone spoke to Broken Frontier in the midst of the hectic run-up to the launch of Solipsistic Pop’s fourth issue...

BROKEN FRONTIER: Solipsistic Pop is approaching its fourth issue [see image right for a taster of the diversity of content included], due this month. How would you summarise the comic, its origins and aims to someone who hasn’t, as yet, been fortunate enough to pick up an issue?

TOM HUMBERSTONE: Solipsistic Pop is an anthology of the finest alternative comic creators living and working in the UK at the moment. Each issue is uniquely themed and designed around a specific word that acts as a brief for the artists. The books have a larger print-run than most small-press output and are printed as high quality book-as-art objects that act as the best platform for the artist's work to be seen in. The idea of Solipsistic Pop has always been to push brilliant alternative UK comics into the hands of a wider, broader readership than before and to help promote and nurture a burgeoning UK comic scene.

BF: You began the first issue with an admirably defiant charter for what you felt comics should be. Could you elaborate a little on what you were setting out there? And looking back now, nearly three issues and a couple of years later, to what degree do you feel you’ve achieved your aims?

HUMBERSTONE: The manifesto [the manifesto can be read here] that opened Solipsistic Pop 1 was more of a general roadmap for what Matt Sheret and I saw UK comics achieving over the next few years. The majority of what we said was probably nothing new to a lot of people in the comics world but we felt it was worthwhile solidifying our thoughts and ideas for what we wanted to achieve (individually or as a group) with comics in the UK. Almost so we could look back and chart our own progress.

I think it possibly rubbed some people up the wrong way at the time, but that's what manifestos are meant to do. They're created to provoke discussion and disagreements and to get a thoughtful dialogue going. Not that anything was in there that I didn't agree with.

By and large I think Solipsistic Pop has stuck closely to those initial aims. Most of the points have been tackled in some way or are at least in an ongoing process of being met. Solipsistic Pop 4 is attempting to deal with some of the failures of the first three volumes - getting a larger print-run and including barcodes for instance, is all part of establishing a much larger readership and exposing these comics to more people by getting the book into more shops, libraries and universities.

I continue to sell Solipsistic Pop at music festivals, comedy shows, art galleries and wherever else that might find a new audience who would be interested in the artform. The trick is to continue to do this in new places and keep pushing to find interesting ways to distribute the book and the amazing content in there.

Solipsistic Pop 4 (above) launches this month

BF: Diversity of approach, content and style is a key factor in Solipsistic Pop’s appeal. Could you give us a flavour of some of the creators involved in the book and their differing comics backgrounds? And to what degree do you think SP has been a success in introducing a larger audience to some of the very best of talent from the British small press scene?

HUMBERSTONE: Part of the remit for what I wanted Solipsistic Pop to do was give equal amounts of exposure to established names within the UK comic scene, new up-and-comers, and those who wanted to approach comics from an entirely different artistic practise. I have a lot of friends from various artistic backgrounds and I always thought it would be interesting to see what they would bring to the comics medium without knowing much more beyond the idea that they are words and pictures.

At the same time I was looking at the amazing work of Steve Collins and many other comic artists in the UK and I worried that the lack of exposure, money and interest in comics here would eventually lead to many giving it up and going to find other work. Solipsistic Pop was sort of a way of trying to get these names out there a little more and encourage everyone who contributes to up their game and spur each other on.

In a way that's worked - Steve has landed a very exciting regular cartooning gig with [British broadsheet newspaper] The Guardian Weekend and is currently working on a comic for Jonathan Cape. Similarly, Luke Pearson has gone from strength to strength and is producing some amazing work for Nobrow.

I think this would have all happened with or without Solipsistic Pop (Luke was already working with Nobrow when he started working on Solipsistic Pop 2) but I've been told that editors have been using the book as an aperture on the UK comic scene and has led to illustration work and other paying gigs for some of the artists.

             

A selection of pages by Warwick Johnson Cadwell, Rob Davis and Joe Decie from SP 3

Similarly, comedy and music fans with no previous interest in the medium have been picking up Solipsistic Pop and taking a chance on comics - which is extremely heartening to see. But it's only the start. Eventually, I want to increase Solipsistic Pop's print-run beyond a thousand copies and get it into as many hands as possible - but these things take time.

Another part of Solipsistic Pop's appeal that just occurred to me, is that it is an anthology unlike most other anthologies. It has a specific brief and is curated in such a way that it encourages, supports, and in some cases demands, the artists play around and do something different. It's always a delight to open my inbox and find a comic sitting there from someone who has completely changed style and pushed themselves to do something totally different to their normal work.

BF: What does the process of compiling an issue of Solipsistic Pop comprise of? Do you have a gameplan to ensure as eclectic a mix of contributions as possible or does each issue come together more organically than that?

HUMBERSTONE: I learn a lot about the process of editing and publishing with each issue I put out. A lot of it has been trial and error. But I've tried to stick very closely to the idea that Solipsistic Pop must be a cohesive, curated anthology with a strong editorial voice pulling the disparate elements together in a satisfying way.

It feels like I'm constantly refining how I put the book together. Very generally, I'll start with a rough idea of what I want the issue to address. For instance, I knew that I wanted Solipsistic Pop 3 to look towards the heritage of UK comics - the comics we would have all read when growing up - and produce an alternative comics homage to those comics of our youth. The first two volumes of Solipsistic Pop were looking at North American comics for inspiration and so I wanted to look closer to home this time. The DC Thomson influence led me to think about making alternative comics accessible to readers of all ages and about getting kids to pick up small press/self-published work. Before long the one word brief of "wonder" had taken root and a million ideas about the presentation of the book formed.

               

A selection of pages by Kristyna BaczynskiLizz Lunney and Stephen Collins from SP 2

Then it was a question of looking at the submissions of work I'd been sent, and my own list of people I'd wanted to contribute to Solipsistic Pop, and figuring out who would work best (or be pushed out of their comfort zone in an interesting way) in this specific volume.

I have a strong idea about how the book will look and be put together and what elements will be added to enhance the theme and concept - but all this slowly changes or gets added to as the work comes in and the content starts leading me down previously overlooked paths.

BF: One of the elements of Solipsistic Pop that I wanted to talk about, beyond its content, was its existence as a tactile, physical object. There’s a Nobrow Press or McSweeney’s design sensibility to its look that ensures SP is a project that could never have had the same vibe as a digital enterprise. From the accompanying stickers, bags and pencils, to the minicomics within the comic and the “Sunday supplements”, would it be fair to say its form is as intrinsic a part of its identity as the material within its pages?

HUMBERSTONE: Completely. I always intended Solipsistic Pop to be a print artefact and the nature of its design and the accompanying elements have always been a part of the tactile, interactive feel that I wanted.

I took inspiration from Raw and McSweeney's - I knew that in the digital age I had to have a reason for the book to exist in print and so have always taken very seriously the idea that this anthology has to justify its existence. I've written a lot about this on the Solipsistic Pop website and will generally bore anyone to tears if they ask me about print/digital comics in a pub.

Nobrow actually use the same printers as Solipsistic Pop which may have something to do with the similarities there. They are extremely good at creating beautiful, sumptuous books.

           

Underlining its emphasis on the physicality of the reading experience, Solipsistic Pop 3 came with such extras as stickers, a pencil and, for a limited time, a bag of penny sweets (or candy for our U.S. readers)

BF: As a creator yourself, how difficult is it to maintain that balance between editing and writing/drawing on a project that, by its very nature,must be staggeringly time-consuming to oversee?

HUMBERSTONE: It's extremely difficult. With each volume, Solipsistic Pop becomes an ever increasing drain on my time - one that I enjoy of course, but it is hard to fit my freelance work and comic work in there when printing deadlines approach. I made sure there was a one year break between volumes 3 and 4 of Solipsistic Pop so that I could focus on establishing myself as a fulltime freelance illustrator and also make progress on my own comic work. It helped, but has also led to Solipsistic Pop becoming an even bigger and more ambitious project as time went by.

Trying to find the time to contribute to the book myself has always been a struggle - the editing and organisation involves a different side of my brain and I find it increasingly difficult to produce something creative in the middle of all the logistics. This has led to me reducing the amount of pages I do in the book and generally collaborating with writers like Anne Holiday or Matt Sheret. It eases the burden a little to work with someone else.

The nature of the fourth volume has also led to worries about finding the money to do it - an issue that always involves more time and stress than I expect. Once an issue is out the door and ready, part of my brain blocks out all the sleepless nights worrying about how I'm ever going to pay that printing bill. I have tried to circumvent this a little for the new issue by setting up an IndieGoGo fundraising campaign to help crowd-fund the print-run but that has obviously involved a huge amount of work too.

I suppose, if anything, producing Solipsistic Pop has made me a lot better at organising my time and my other commitments. Work expands to fill whatever time you allocate it, so having less ability to procrastinate and allow the internal police-system of my brain to talk me out of work has encouraged me to be more productive.

BF: As mentioned, each issue of SP has had its own theme as a starting point for contributors. What can you tell us about “Maps” - the fourth issue’s topic of choice - and how the creators have approached it? From the pre-publicity it sounds like it’s your most ambitious project yet…

HUMBERSTONE: After the extremely accessible nature of Solipsistic Pop 3 I wanted the follow-up to be a little more abstract and challenging for creators and readers alike. I'd also been thinking a lot about maps and cartography and about info-graphics. There seemed, to me, to be a lot of similarities there with comics and I wanted to push the contributors for the fourth volume - asking them to produce comics that used the visual language of maps, circuit diagrams and flowcharts. The brief was open enough to allow the artists to create a traditional comic that discussed cartography rather than use the visual signs and signifiers though so it's been interesting to see the varying responses from everyone.

The additional material all ties into the theme and encourages the reader to travel and interact with the book in a way that couldn't easily be replicated via an e-reader or computer screen. It's been a challenging project - sourcing glow-in-the-dark ink and seeded paper (one postcard comic can be planted after reading it) - but it's been extremely satisfying pulling it all together.

The fourth issue looks set to be Solipsistic Pop's most ambitious yet in terms of presentation

BF: As a consumer it’s a hugely exciting time to be reading small press/self-published comics. There’s a much greater opportunity to enjoy the work of unique small press voices, thanks to the increased accessibility that both the internet and better visibility in more proactive comics shops is bringing. From the other side of the fence, are you similarly optimistic about the future for the small press scene?

HUMBERSTONE: Oh absolutely. When Solipsistic Pop started out it was created out of frustration that such a book didn't already exist. It was a modest attempt at creating a supportive infrastructure in the small press scene. Since then SelfMadeHero, Blank Slate, and Nobrow have all made enormous progress as unique, successful UK comics publishers and lots of creators are getting the sort of exposure and attention they deserve.

We're still in the early stages though and there's a lot more work to be done to ensure this is a lasting and self-sustaining time for UK comics. I'm incredibly optimistic about it, and seeing so many creators up their game and produce such exciting work is a joy to see and a joy to a part of.

BF: Outside of Solipsistic Pop what other Tom Humberstone projects should we be looking out for in the immediate future?

HUMBERSTONE: I have a chapter in Blank Slate's upcoming Nelson anthology which will be launched at Thought Bubble in late November, plus a short one page comic with Anne Holiday in the forthcoming sixth issue of Paper Science. After Solipsistic Pop 4 has launched I'll be settling into a new comic I'm doing with Edward Ross and getting on with my own comic Ellipsis - the first issue of which I'm hoping to have finished and released in late January/early February. I'm also hoping to find time to do short comics that I'll upload directly onto my blog as and when I get the chance. Keep an eye on http://www.tomhumberstone.com.

The launch trailer for the fourth issue of Solipsistic Pop

BF: And, finally, the important information for those intrigued enough to investigate further: how can Broken Frontier readers go about ensuring they get their hands on the upcoming fourth edition of Solipsistic Pop?

HUMBERSTONE: There's a launch party on Tuesday 8th November at Concrete (E1 6JJ) in London which should hopefully be a lot of fun. There will be live bands performing, a bit of comedy and DJs (plus a chance to get the artists to sign the book) - more details are here: http://solipsisticpop.com/2011/10/07/solipsistic-pop-4-launch-party.

After the launch, Solipsistic Pop will on sale at the Comica Comiket and having a larger nationwide launch at Thought Bubble in Leeds. Copies will also be available from comic shops across the UK and from the website: http://www.solipsisticpop.com.

If you'd like your library, comic shop, college, university or local book shop to stock Solipsistic Pop you can always quote this ISBN number to them: 978-0-9570519-0-4.

For a further taste of just how unique a presentation the fourth issue of Solipsistic Pop is check out the website here.

###

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

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Nov 4, 2011 at 3:39am

    That is one awesome launch trailer!

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Nov 4, 2011 at 8:44am

    It's one fabulous package Bart. You should definitely pick it up.

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