Etchings on a Blank Slate: Chatting with Kenny Penman - Part 2

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In the second part of our interview with Blank Slate Books publisher Kenny Penman we focus on Nelson, the ambitious collaborative project that sees over 50 UK comics creators working on the story of Nel Baker; each getting to provide a snapshot of one day of her life. We also chat about Oliver East's unique Trains are... Mint series of books and Darryl Cunningham's Psychiatric Tales, a graphic novel that seeks to dispel the myths and bigotry surrounding mental health issues.

Read Part 1 here

BROKEN FRONTIER: Coming in November, you’re bringing us Nelson - a hugely ambitious project that sounds an incredible logistical feat. Can you give us some background on Nelson and the intricate co-ordination that has gone into its creation?

KENNY PENMAN: Nelson is the original brainchild of Rob Davis and he was joined quickly on the project by Woodrow Phoenix. Both Rob and Woodrow have long term pedigrees as comics creators and they have been the driving force behind Nelson. To be honest, I have almost no part to play in the book barring pushing the button with the printer and writing the cheque to pay his bills. It is an incredible feat to try and bring it all together in what will have been less than 6 months from conception to print ready PDFs and all the credit should go to Rob and Woodrow.

As it stands it will run around 260, sub-A4 colour pages and the work will have been produced by around 55 creators. The story it tells is coherent over the years of the main character Nel’s life. Unlike previous comics of this nature, the story can be read as a whole - it's a coherent narrative. Things that happen in 2007 may well come from an incident in 1978, just as a real life would progress. As you can imagine that has been a pretty onerous task for the creators, especially as they get later in the book. They have to read all the previous parts done by other artists and make sure that their part won't contradict anything that has gone before.

Most artists have produced 5 pages and there is everyone from top pros like Duncan Fegredo, Rian Hughes, Jamie Smart and Sean Phillips through small press/web comic stalwarts like Jeremy Day and John Allison, through to new up and comers like Harvey James, Jon McNaught and Will Morris. Helping with the co-ordination of all this, and trying to allow Rob and Woods to make a living have been BSB employees Kayla Marie Hillier who did the first four months and Martin Steenton who has done the last two.

Some of the different artistic approaches to Blank Slate's Nelson project

The hope is the book will be a huge showcase for the depth of British cartooning talent, a statement of a sort by a newly confident, loosely affiliated, British comics collective. Because so many people are involved from so many backgrounds and publishers it was decided we would also try and make it a project where all the work was done for a greater good and to that end we are partnering with SHELTER who will see all the profits.

It's a project I hope everyone will support, go buy a copy for people as Christmas presents etc, not only because of the scary cost of the print bill I'm looking at but because there will be 50+ opportunities to fall in love with someone's comics style, which will hopefully lead to new openings for all those involved. It's a crazy project in truth - and the work put into it by the editors and others has been phenomenal - but one I hope gets the recognition it deserves as both a charity outreach and a launchpad for many UK comic talents; as well as a terrific comic story in its own right.

BF: Focusing specifically on some of the British creators you’ve showcased, could you describe the very individual style of Oliver East’s Trains Are… Mint books to the BF audience and tell us a little about what makes his exceptional approach to comics so distinctive?

PENMAN: I think Oli's work divides comics readers as much as anyone I've seen. He was the spark for me creating BSB in the first place as I thought then, and still do, that he had a unique comics voice that was worth trying to get out to others. I think the first impression is that it's a work of near avant-garde cartooning. Stand back and look at the wash of colours and you might think you've fallen into a book by Fremok or Picturebox. On closer examination you can see it's a very disciplined sort of psycho-geography, all ambient colour and feelings, bordering on situationist but strongly grounded in the real world by Oli's commentary and what he chooses to show as he conducts his walks.

Coming from an art school background his influences are often different from many comics artists and that results in a comic iconography which is based around different ideas than those that come from a love of Kirby or Bolland, etc. I'm not saying better here, just different. Having said that, basically that it's a comic of ideas, you wouldn't have to go too far to find someone who'll say that Oli simply can't draw. He himself admits that drawing isn't his strong suit and that the comics are about more than that. Like the work of people like John Porcellino there is more going on than the eye might at first notice.

I still think they are deeply felt, experiential comics on a level beyond storytelling. I hope the audience for Oli's work will continue to grow even as he experiments with more minimalist styles. Of course outside of comics Oli is very well known as the illustrator for the sleeve and booklets of the last two Elbow albums and the artist for their last video. I'm hoping the comics world will catch up and see the beauty and importance of his work that's already been acknowledged by these other fields of visual arts.


A selection of pages from Proper Go Well High, Oliver East's second Trains Are... Mint book

BROKEN FRONTIER: Another of your UK offerings is Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales; a book that excels in using the opportunities the comics medium provides to dispel the stigma and myths surrounding mental illness. It’s a very brave, honest and important offering that details Darryl’s experiences of mental health issues from both a professional and personal perspective. How did you first come across Darryl’s work, and was bringing Psychiatric Tales’ message to a greater audience a primary factor in publishing it?

PENMAN: I go back quite a while with Darryl, having originally commissioned him to do a strip weekly for the FPI blog a few years back (Super-Sam). When he started doing his Psychiatric Tales online I jumped at the chance to publish it. I thought it was very strong work from the start and Darryl's pared down artwork is perfect for communicating difficult topics in a way that doesn't allow much ambiguity. He's also, I think, a fantastically good writer and he has a very good grip of pacing which also makes the work very readable for most people.

Getting the message out wasn't a primary motivator, I simply thought it was an exceptional piece of cartooning covering a difficult subject. It's also the only time I've thought 'now that has a potential commercial appeal' although that was very much secondary to the work itself. It proved to be the case with Bloomsbury taking US rights from us and publishing it there, and some interest from other media such as TV which may or may not come to anything.

I think Darryl's own story was crucial to the impact of the work and was a bold and brave piece of self-revelation. With a second volume coming next year it will be interesting to see which personal aspects Darryl brings to the new book to bind it together - I have complete faith he will find something fascinating. Speaking of fascinating, he is also doing a science-myth book with Myriad at the tail end of this year - again his crisp writing does a great job of making difficult subjects easily understood - everyone should look out for it. It's another step forward in Darryl becoming a major cartoonist, I think.



Pages from Darryl's Cunningham's Psychiatric Tales

Join us tomorrow for the final part of our chat with Kenny when we'll be talking about Nigel Auchterlounie's Spleenal, Blank Slate's translated European material and what we can expect from the publisher going into 2012. For more on Nelson click here and check out the respective creators' sites for more on the work of Oliver East and Darryl Cunningham. If you're interested in finding out more about Shelter, or make a donation to the charity, full details are on the Shelter website.

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