Originally written for SYP Scotland | For our June event, we delved wholeheartedly into the world of comics as part of the Glasgow Comic Festival with writer John Lees, illustrator Clare Forrest, Sha Nazir and Kirsty Hunter of BHP Comics, and Nicola Love chairing proceedings.
The seed of an idea.
Given our topic was from concept to cons, we start with an idea: what do you do with it? John says that as he can draw stick men, it’s about working with people. He writes a whole script out; often he’ll think “Oh, I know X, I’ll write something for X to draw”. It’s very fluid. He works towards something, keeping one eye on it being a product and where you could take it and market it.
Clare’s Mighty Women of Science started life as a zine and gradually grew. She started an A-Z and printed it herself. She already had the seed of an idea, and a house filled with shelves full of sketchbooks with potential. With this project, she felt it was worth taking further, and BHP helped.
From the publishing side, it’s nice to see things at an early stage, notes Kirsty. It’s special to see a project evolve to its finished product. This was created in a vacuum, Clare adds, but it came alive when others got involved.
Don’t wait around for permission to publish.
So when you’ve got your idea – do you go the self-publishing route, or try a proper publisher? When John first did The Standard , he was doing print on demand, and the price to ship it was killing him. Then ComixTribe came along and helped him distribute it all over. There are lots of things to do: editors can do free script reviews if you catch them at the right time, for one.
For BHP, did it help that Clare’s idea was a zine to start? Sha notes that regardless of the zine, he just really liked the idea. How it looked at the point he first saw it allowed him to visualise what it could look like. It’s the first book he’s released where he feels like a proper publisher.
Both ways can work. People say that “if you’re serious about your work then you should self-publish” but that can be vanity publishing. It can be a bit like saying “your band should record an album” when you’re just starting out – it isn’t right for everyone. But, John notes, don’t wait around for permission to publish.
Now you’re published. Is the pressure off if a publisher is backing you? There are different concerns. You don’t need to worry about the personal costs, but now you keep an eye on sales and retailers – you’re always worried about something no matter what you’re doing. Self-publishing can be nice where you have complete control and there’s no concessions, but the support network and marketing costs that come with being published are an obvious benefit.
A lot of layers of possible rejection.
You’ve got your graphic novel. What next? Well thanks to the likes of Glasgow Comic Con, there’s a pool of opportunities for creators. For Sha, Glasgow Comic Con fulfilled his vision – it’s magic. It focuses on the creators. BHP were still banging on the door of a number of retailers and distributors, but in the 3-4 months since London Book Fair, that’s all changed, but it shows how tough retail can be to crack.
Comic stores are conservative retailers, they note. They have the no return policy, which means that unless you’re DC or Marvel, you can struggle to get in – even Image, the leading creator-owned publisher, struggles in some places.
There are a lot of layers of possible rejection before someone gets to read your book. You make a comic, it’s like your baby – trying to get to readers is like putting it in a gerbil ball and throwing it across a motorway hoping it comes out safe on the other end.
Get people interested.
You bang down the door – so how do you now market yourself? There’s events. For Clare, her book launch has been a turning point in confidence for being on panels like this. People are just interested to hear you talk.
Cons can be a different ballpark. Depending on where your table is, you may need to hustle to get people’s attention. John describes himself as aggressively cheerful on that front. People might not want to engage with stalls, but it’s nice to just chat with them, and it’s an easier way to get them interested in what you’re doing. You just want them to touch paper, which isn’t as creepy as it sounds!
Social media is another way to boost what you’re doing, but there is a risk of just posting “BACK MY KICKSTARTER!” a million times into the void. It’s used more for chatting and to stop you working in that vacuum. It’s for people to get to you know. Companies have more leeway on selling, as that’s what you expect; when you follow a creator, it’s more for the person. Or to poke around and see what’s going on in the industry.
As part of what the SYP does is help those looking for their first job, and Kirsty started as an intern with BHP and now works for them, what did she do to stay on? She did a placement and then basically refused to leave. At the end of the year she heard about all the exciting things going on and asked if they’d let her come back.
And they did. Sha notes that they’re tiny, so an individual feeling invested makes a massive difference. If you’re keen to learn the ropes and hone your skills – not just being a jobsworth – and you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves and sweep venues and all the work, then a can do attitude will get you a long way.
He notes Kirsty is great, and turned up at just the right time. She adds that Sha asked if she could use Photoshop – she lied, went home, and started learning how. It’s all a mix of timing, dedication and a can do attitude.
To close the event, John Lees unveiled an exciting new project #SINK. It’s his twisted love letter to Glasgow. We’re delighted that he chose to share this exclusive with us, and you can see more about it here: