The other day I gave a talk in Oxford about self publishing, and why it might be a really good creative practice for someone. Here's a summary of some of it, if you're interested. Thanks to Cath Watson at The Old Fire Station for asking me to come down and present it - I really enjoyed the day, in particular the other fascinating talks by Lisa Busby and Sunil Shah.
This talk will be talking the creative process of self publishing, how it can be a really valid choice to make for your work. I want to explore the position of self-publishing as a conscious and liberating choice, and a satisfying medium for creative expression - it doesn't need to be seen as a last resort for your work, or some kind of self-indulgent and vacuous vanity publishing.
It will be split into 3 sections:
1) Self Publishing and Book Production
2) Self Publishing and Storytelling
3) 'The Elder' as a case study
This month's program at The Old Fire Station has really interesting with its emphasis on the 2D - exploring the physical page, the flat plane of the object, and the 2D space. It allows us to ponder on ways of playing with this space, and the form of the page or the book.
Personally, as a printmaker, I have a desire to produce physical objects which explore the limits of the processes that I use, as well as investigating what can be expressed with the book form. Naturally the physical form of a thing is really important to me, and I find pleasure and intrigue in the making of an object or artefact - the process of its design, and the physical problems and challenges of making it. I find it rewarding to work with the specific materials - the paper and inks, and their respective physical properties (and limits that they will set to a project).
The methods of production will present new challenges, and decisions are constantly having to be made - the use of appropriate methods of printing, the learning of new skills in binding or setting up a book to print. To me, these decisions and the outcomes that they influence are not completely separate from the final content of the book, and the experience of reading it.
If you are trying to tell a story, the method of its telling is really important. If you're trying to tell the story of Star Wars then a flipbook is probably not the best way to do it. It's an epic spectacle, full of striking imagery of space, action and sound - it is not intimate or small in scale. Star Wars would perhaps not be great as a small A5 pamphlet, printed on textured handmade paper. It probably shouldn't be stab stitched with wool or natural twine. They wouldn't be appropriate decisions for the content. The scale, the feel of the paper, the kind of binding will all contribute to the message that you are conveying.
So books and printed matter give someone the opportunity to be immersed in your project - they are highly interactive. Without someone actively reading and turning the pages, the story does not unfold. You need to generate the right atmosphere, the right introduction to your story, and you can do that with book design - through the process of touch, the scale and other elements that will make someone want to spend time with the object and engage with its content. I think that this is something interesting to learn and explore for yourself - does the design of the book and the decisions you have made in its production aid the overall storytelling? How do they contribute to each other?
As I have said, the making of a book is important to me, but I feel its important to recognise that they have the potential to be objects that have a purpose. I like to see (and produce) work where the content and form of the are created side by side, as perfect expressions of each other - and where the BOOK is the best way to express them.
With Star Wars, cinema is undeniably a great medium to express the story. It has the grandeur of large spectacle and loud soundtrack to convey its message. It can present actual movement to display the action, and the fast pace of editing to heighten the excitement. Cinema's essential characteristics are perfect for Star Wars. And that's also the charm of the book - you have some fundamental properties to work with. Like The Hungry Caterpilar, which works so cleverly with the essential book form. It uses the turning of the page (something quite unique yet essential to books) to reveal information.
When I consider the content and the form of a book, each helps me understand the other better, and allows me to see how they can function together in a single object. They are also both areas that you might not want to compromise on in your own projects - things that you want to work out for yourself, and your very personal vision that you have.
Potentially, the story or content of the book might be something very personal to you - the message you are trying to convey, the characters or the kind of narrative that you want to express. Self publishing can be a very effective avenue for being able to explore story writing that doesn't fit squarely into mainstream target audiences or the output of a commercial publisher. Where a publisher will have to consider the commercial viability of a project, which will have to suit the tastes of a lot of people, your work can be more exploratory, or have certain aims that are personal to you. It might be that you want to explore certain kinds of characters that are often marginalised in mainstream cultural products (like this unusual character from Up - a wonderful counter-example)
And personally, I feel it's rather important to explore stories and characters that can encourage people to question their preconceptions of certain character types, or demographics within society. I'm sure that instinctively many young children might not empathise with the plight of this lonely old man, but he is given a platform so that they can better understand and appreciate him. It is valuable to encourage others to see the world from a different (and perhaps marginal) perspective, and it can be a lot easier to have that kind of agenda with self publishing.
So, self publishing can be a good home for the non-standard kind of story, and it can also allow you to experiment with the mode of storytelling - in particular, a more visual narrative. With a visual narrative you have the opportunity to create a story that might be quite ambiguous, powerful, and have the potential to cross language barriers. You can see in the work of Decadence Comics that there is great potential for economy is a visual narrative - very quickly we can understand and relate to imaginary worlds and alien characters. We don't need to know that much about them or their world to start to empathise with them - we can be dropped right in there.
With a visual narrative you can create atmosphere and characters quite economically - an image is quite easy to understand and empathise with, and makes you perhaps more comfortable to engage with the topics that are being discussed - possibly challenging things like loss, isolation, and confusion, which can be quite abstract and tricky to define.
Visual narrative can allow the atmosphere to become central - the feel of the world, and the feelings of the characters can be expressed more easily than individual thoughts. I think it is this potential for empathy, ambiguity and challenging traditional kinds of characters that lead me to develop my recent graphic novel The Elder. So, using that as a case study, I'm going to talk about how self-publishing has been really instrumental and important to the creation of my own work, and my development as both a printmaker and a creator of images and comics.
In my own work, I feel the urge to tell stories is pretty strong. I have always been drawn to working with literary sources, or trying to tell my own stories. I'm consistently impressed by the power of storytelling and its ability to make us think about human experience. The Elder is hardly a great literary work, and the form of the story is very simple - it's childlike or fable-like in its simplicity. It deals less with character studies and more with wider themes of misunderstanding, isolation and fear. There's not much to it, to be honest, to express as a literary work, but it functions OK as a visual narrative which explores feelings, dreams and atmosphere.
It's intended as a short piece which highlights the fears we experience on an almost daily level about social interaction, isolation, misunderstandings and errors of judgement. The characters make honest mistakes, not driven by malice. Even though the story is very simple, it was always important to me that the bare bones of it explored something more than standard tropes that might be found in mainstream comics, children's stories or popular fiction. Being freed somewhat for the need to think about the constraints of such target audiences and their preferences, I felt able to create characters that challenge standard gender roles - in particular, my isolated female protagonist. She's self-reliant, independent, anxious, ancient, wise and timid. She is scared of the unknown, like all of us.
With the central character of The Elder, I have used a very familiar motif - a witch who lives in the woods, using spells and has familiars - but I invite people to explore her moral compass and reassess the presumptions they might make about her character. The reader can see the ways in which this familiar character might be vulnerable or lonely, anxious and socially inept. In this more visual narrative, by using a witch (who looks like a very iconic idea of a witch) you can present them in a less one-dimensional way.
As I say, the story is rather scant, and most of the actual time spent in the production of this book was spent on the image making, and making the world seem coherent and the narrative flow. Without the useful tool of language it can be quite hard to tell if you're making any sense at all, and I wanted to make sure that elements of the plot were coherent and understandable. The last thing I wanted was for people to leave the book feeling that the witch was evil, and making sure that people could empathise with her was really important to me.
I really valued the freedom that I had to explore these things, as well as the independence, exploration and learning that came from the process. I had complete control over my personal aims and goals for the project, and didn't have to compromise on what I thought is important. That's the joy of self publishing - if you think something is important you can make it happen. Over the course of the project, I began to feel that screenprinting the whole book wasn't that important. But there were many other elements that I did not feel that I wanted to compromise, and which I felt would diminish the integrity of the whole project.
With self-publishing you can set your limits and intention for the project and make it your personal journey, and at the end you will have a book that hopefully you can be satisfied with. You have seen it from start to finish, you have made all the most appropriate decisions, and now you have something that expresses your creative vision.
In many ways, my knowledge of the print process is a central theme of The Elder - I was able to test so many coloured inks and papers, and use the medium in the fullest way, which not many people would be lucky enough to do. I have great access to the print techniques, and I think my work reflects and expresses that - my enthusiasm for risography. In many ways it's as much an exercise in riso as drawing or telling stories. It's hard for me to pin down what my main intention was, as it has always been as much an exercise in printing as it has comics - it has always been a small press venture, from it's initial conception. And for me, that is why self-publishing makes so much sense to me - it's a complete experience, creating a complete object. Content and form, printing and drawing, start to finish.