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Off Life: Taking Comics to the Masses

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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, self-published and altcomics. Every week 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 taking a look at Off Life, the new anthology comics paper distributed for free in hard copy form in Bristol and London in the U.K. but also available without charge to download or read on the Off Life website. Remember, if you’re a small press comics creator looking for review coverage at Broken Frontier then my contact details are at the bottom of the column each and every week.

Off Life #1
Anthology – Various Creators

When editor Daniel Humphry alerted me a few months back to his plans for Off Life – the U.K.’s first “street press anthology” comic – I was immediately struck by what an elegantly simple, yet clever, concept it was and also the obvious question of why it hadn’t been put into practice before. The idea behind the project is to spread the gospel of comics via a newspaper style publication that showcases some of the top new British creators and is distributed for free in bars, galleries, retail outlets and the like. The first issue was published a couple of weeks back and circulated in London and Bristol. But if you’re unable to pick up a physical copy then despair not! Off Life is also available for free to read or download from the official website here.

An ambitious and admirable intention then, and one that both posed its own challenges but also offered opportunities in bringing the medium to a new audience of readers. A new audience who may just be tempted to investigate comics further after picking up the paper and realising there’s a touch more to them than men in tights hitting each other. Off Life’s initial publicity stated that it would feature “the best new, undiscovered and underground comics artists taking aim on modern life with adult humour, slice of life storytelling and harsh realities” – a mission statement of sorts that would certainly give it its own professed identity in amongst the plethora of excellent small press and Indie anthology books we’ve been so blessed with in the U.K. over the last few years (cue plugs for Solipsistic Pop, The Comix Reader, ink + PAPER, Paper Science and so on).

This opening issue does, understandably, draw on a number of bigger name creators to pull in initial interest: Rob Davis of Blank Slate’s Nelson and SelfMadeHero’s Don Quixote fame, and Goliath and The Guardian’s Tom Gauld are featured heavily for example. Davis’s ‘How I Built My Father (And Where I Went Wrong)’ dates back from circa 2009, and will be familiar to existing comics fans I’m sure, but its lyrically surreal narrative is an excellent example of a strip that will challenge the preconceptions of what comics can be to the newbies that Off Life seeks to bring into the fold. Tom Gauld provides the issue’s interview – which includes his ‘A Robot Folktale’ comic from a couple of years back – and I found myself nodding along to his view that we’re in a “golden age” for alternative comics; a sentiment I have expressed here at BF on a number of occasions in the last year or so.

Silent Paige's strip 'Slow to Heal' examines the subject of domestic abuse

While a number of this first issue’s stories don’t entirely fall under that broad “modern life” theme that Off Life has loosely set for itself (as regular ‘Small Pressganged’ readers know I positively adore Lizz Lunney’s work but her wonderful ‘Lemon Parade’ comic, re-presented in this opener, is about as far from the realities of the modern world as one can get; indeed that’s the obvious escapist appeal of Lizz’s work) there are still a number of strips that do more consciously reflect that original remit.

I was very impressed with Silent Paige’s ‘Slow to Heal’, for example, which was the standout story of Off Life #1 for me. Paige uses her work to explore her experience as a child witness to domestic abuse. It’s one of those perceptive pieces of sequential art that makes able and intelligent use of the unique narrative possibilities of the comics page to convey its message. Powerful and memorable storytelling. One of my favourite British small press writer-artists Sean Azzopardi also provides one of those slice-of-life moments in ‘N8 Doppelganger’ that are so beautifully realised in the body of his self-published work; a tale of a resonant chance encounter with a stranger that leads to a moment of self-contemplative clarity.

More slice-of-life storytelling from the ever excellent Sean Azzopardi

Along similar lines Simon Moreton of the acclaimed Smoo Comics fame paints an evocative picture, in ‘Life in Impossible Places’, of a brief meeting with an elderly drunk that incorporates elements of that expressive minimalism that has become his signature style. And Tim Bird, whose contributions to small press anthology Reads I enjoyed so much a few weeks back, provides us with ‘Do You Remember Paris?’ a haunting two-pager dealing with feelings of nostalgia and reminiscence.

There’s also a wry piece of comic timing from The Phoenix and Mo-Bot High’s Neill Cameron originally  presented as part of his ‘#Hashtagfunnies’ webcomics series a few years back, and Phillip Marsden’s perfectly constructed ‘Zen for Beginners’ has introduced me to a new creative name to investigate further. Sari Hodirker’s focus on our five-minute fame-obsessed culture in ‘Aspirations’ also brought a smile to my face.

Simon Moreton's minimalist mastery of the comics page is on show in Off Life #1

As ever, when dealing with a multi-creator anthology book, space forbids me from doing much more than touching on the contributors involved. This first issue, though, is a vibrant mix of established names and up-and-comers. What I would personally hope to see in future issues is more of a focus on that “modern life” vibe that would help to give Off Life a distinctive voice to separate itself from all the other excellent British SP anthologies out there that make up its illustrious contemporaries.  

However, that said, I can’t stress how much of a positive initiative I believe Off Life is in disseminating comics culture to a potentially wider audience. It’s a cracking idea and it’s been splendid indeed these last few weeks to see so many within the British comics community promoting and pushing it on Twitter and its like. Daniel Humphry and company can be rightly proud of this opening salvo. Read it, promote it on social networking sites and, most importantly, give a non-comics reading chum a copy, or send them the link to the free online edition. Bemoaning the lack of mainstream acceptance of the comics form is something we all do from time to time – in Off Life we have a project that actively seeks to change those perceptions. It deserves your support.  

For more on Off Life check out the website here. You can read the first issue for free 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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Comments

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Oct 18, 2012 at 3:37am

    just looked through the free edition, really accomplished anthology I must say

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Oct 24, 2012 at 4:52pm

    Some top stuff in there for sure.

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