Friday, 25 June 2010

'Solipsistic Pop' and the Art of Anthology: an Interview with Tom Humberstone

Completing our trilogy of Solipsistic Pop 2 coverage, we invited the book's curator/ editor, Tom Humberstone to talk with us about the UK-centric anthology. An award-winning creator in his own right (winning an Eagle award for How to Date a Girl in 10 Days in 2008), he offers his insight into the creation and process that occurs behind the publication of the collection.

Read on to find out more about the theme of the book, along with his opinions on the anthology format in general, overturning people's age-old negative preconceptions about comics and exciting information on the upcoming third volume.

The latest volume of Solipsistic Pop is loosely themed by the prefacing word “middle”. Please tell us a little about the theme and how it applies to the contributions. 

Each volume of Solipsistic Pop has a one word brief that informs the design, content and shape of the overall book. The brief is provided to each contributor with a set of printing specifications which hopefully give some guidance to the artist without being too constricting.

This is particularly true of the one word brief - it's there as a starting point for the artists involved - they are free to pay no attention to it but it's there in case a helping hand is needed to kickstart a story idea. I suppose I see it as a prompt much like Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. But it also allows the book to come together as some sort of coherent, cohesive whole and makes it easier for me to curate throughout the three months it takes to put together. Hopefully that comes across in the finished product.

I'm reluctant to go into too much detail about how the theme applies to each contribution. Some are more obvious than others and I've been enjoying the various interpretations and responses people have had to the material. It's been heartening reading reviews in which people attempt to connect the title to the contents - it demonstrates people are paying attention and understand we're trying something a little different to most anthologies.

I chose "middle" as the title for the second volume for various reasons. When I first had the idea of SP, I envisioned publishing three volumes before sitting back, evaluating its success and deciding whether to continue or not. That's something I still plan on doing, although the response to the book has been so enthusiastic and supportive that I think I'll find it hard not to keep going. So the title is a very literal nod towards being halfway and the idea that I'm still addressing the agenda set out by the first volume.

The first volume was very bombastic in stating its purpose, accompanied by a manifesto from yourself and Matthew Sheret, and bookended by pieces from Sheret and Kieron Gillen, all worthy of comic book guerrilla revolutionaries. In comparison, Solipsistic Pop 2 focuses exclusively on the comics themselves. Was this a specific decision you made when editing?

Absolutely. While I'm very happy with the first volume and the balance it struck, I wanted the follow-up to focus entirely on superb, original content. The first book had to address several things: what SP is, what it intends to do, and why it is absolutely necessary in the current UK comics scene. It was a very polarising book in that sense. Rubbed a few people up the wrong way. It laid out an agenda for comics in the UK and comics in general which I'll continue, be it through SP or my own work, to address and draw motivation from for years to come. But once such a strong declaration of intent has been made - it has to met. The first book did as much as it could to do that and the second volume is continuing that process. As will the future volumes of SP. SP2 was very much a case of "walking the walk".

At some stage, I'd like a future edition of SP to directly address the manifesto - take a moment to reflect on the successes and the failures and work towards building on what we have already done while creating new challenges to move toward. For now though, I'm happy to be getting on with tackling all those incredibly broad and exciting statements with fresh new work.

Taken from the Humberstone-illustrated "Xena the Warrior Cat", as seen in SP2

For those who might not have been fortunate enough to come across the anthology yet, what do you consider the key aims of the series to be?

Solipsistic Pop is an anthology featuring alternative comic artists living and working in the UK. It was created to provide a high-quality, beautifully produced platform through which people can discover some of the best UK talent. A physical object that embraces print design and publishing in a way that really makes a statement about why comics work so well as tactile objects of art.

We don't have a particularly strong alternative comics infrastructure here in the UK so SP is trying to build that by making something that doesn't look out of place alongside a McSweeneys, Mome or Raw on your bookshelf. The UK seems to be the last place where people don't take comics seriously, and that's not entirely the fault of the mainstream. We need to make people sit up and take notice of us. And that will only happen if we start making the kind of books the mainstream simply can't ignore. Ones that stand up to close scrutiny. There's no point telling people that comics are an art-form. As the old scriptwriting rule goes - show, don't tell.

Plus, any comic scene I've come across in Canada or America is incredibly strong, supportive and motivating. I think that has a lot to do with having fantastic publishers like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics around - putting out great material and thus urging the wider community to produce something of similar quality. Having something like Solipsistic Pop around is meant to be something to aspire towards while pushing the scene to embrace similarly high standards. It's not like we don't have the talent here.

We're in the middle of a wonderfully exciting information revolution right now that means we don't have to accept the standard paradigms anymore. There's a lot of scope to try new things, create new and successful business models and - most importantly - to make great art and get it seen.

This time around your input as contributor has been diminished a little, with your only work as contributor being the illustration of the two-page story “Xena The Warrior Cat”. Was this a conscious decision, in order to focus on your role as editor? 

It was a combination of a number of things. I'd always planned on dedicating more space within SP to new contributors so was already decided on reducing my page count. But I was also knocked for six by glandular fever for two months which led to a protracted period of taking it easy and prioritising what I was capable of achieving in time for the April launch. It was frustrating. But on the plus side, taking a bit of a backseat with content allowed me more time to focus on the production and curation of the book.

As with the first volume, my contribution was another first for me and something I'm very proud of. My piece for book one was my first real attempt at a long-form colour comic - something I've always shied away from - and my first entirely fictional narrative. This time round, it was the first time I'd worked with a writer and collaborated on a story. Producing both works has been an incredibly informative and enjoyable experience and I'm hoping to work with Anne Holiday again on a slightly longer comic for book three.

In past interviews, you’ve stated that, as a creator, you spend a lot of time on your layouts. Does this kind of construction and pacing inform the process of constructing and ordering the anthology?

I think panel composition and page structures are an incredibly important and oft-overlooked part of making a comic that is integral to making them work. This is where you get to control time and the rate at which the reader will experience your story. It's also where all the magic happens in terms of the reader interacting with the piece and constructing something else entirely in their head which you can't control. That, to me, is the really exciting part of comics.

There's definitely a link between that and curating an anthology like this, but ultimately, my job as the editor of SP is to make sure everyone's contributions read as well as they possibly could by placing them in a deliberate sequence that makes sense to the reader. The nature of anthologies will inevitably mean that everyone will have their favourites or stories that they're not so keen on, so it falls on me to try and make sure that the experience of reading the book as a whole feels cohesive and satisfying despite people's reactions to individual pieces.

To be honest, given the amount of wonderful comic artists I get to work with, this isn't as tough a challenge as I'm obviously trying to make it sound!

Approximately one half of Solipsistic Pop 2's stunning gate-fold cover (designed by Luke Pearson)

In your opinion, what makes a good anthology? 

I think, by and large, whenever I pick up an anthology I'm always looking for a new discovery and being exposed to something fresh and original that I might not have come across before.

But I've always been attracted to short stories and used to read far too much Raymond Carver in my formative years which has possibly skewed my tastes in a peculiar way. I also think a comic anthology can be particularly effective because comics are - as Seth described them once - tone poems. In a way, a tight, perfectly composed comic can be so much more affecting than a laboured 500 page epic. You can create and destroy the universe in the space between two panels. Not many other mediums have a narrative language that allows you to be so succinct. Comics are perfect for anthologies and collections. As long as there's some sort of editorial direction and quality control in place, I'll always have a lot of time for anthologies.

A tough question: can you name your favourite single edition of an anthology?

This will probably surprise no-one and be something of a cliche, but McSweeneys Quarterly Concern has always been a huge inspiration. Issue 13 being probably the biggest influence on SP and an eye-opener in terms of the way Ware talks about the medium of comics in his introduction. Everything about that book was outstanding. The dustjacket that unfurled into a huge poster detailing the history of comics, the beautiful Chris Ware design, the to-die-for roster of comic artists on show, and the fascinating essays dotted throughout... It was just perfect.

In a more broad and general sense: Sturgeon White Moss always impressed me, and picking up issue one of that probably sparked my own desire to do something similar somewhere down the line. Raw, Drawn & Quarterly, Karmer's Ergot and Mome have all left a huge impression on me too.

Regarding selecting submissions: as is obvious from past statements you've made, as well as the anthology itself, you’re a great believer in the boundless potential of the medium of comics. With such a wide scope of different styles and approaches included, it seems more appropriate to ask what kind of comics won’t appear in future volumes.

Heh. Crikey. I don't know. Superhero comics? Possibly because I think that market's catered for and I find alternative comic artists doing superhero parodies quite boring at best, infantile and meritricous at worst. Having said that, something could come along and change my mind completely on this! That's the fun and bracing thing about comics. I find I have such strong opinions one day that get completely reversed the next.

Anything that's good gets in really. The themes of volumes 3 and 4 are already planned out and I'm becoming increasingly specific with my briefs and what I want to see from the artists. We'll see how that goes and then mix it all up again!

The only thing I can say for certain is that future volumes of SP will continue to be constructed and curated in a way that I find challenging and I'll continue to try and do something new and original with each book. I don't think I'll ever get bored of editing SP and coming up with new ideas (I already have concepts for volume 6 ready and waiting) but as I've mentioned, I may have to evaluate and reconsider the funding and distribution success of the anthology at some stage.

The additional inserts from Solipsistic Pop 1 and 2, side by side (both featuring Stephen Collins).

Thanks to the Internet and social networking, self-published projects have become slightly more viable an outlet for creators, as well as anthologists such as yourself and the HIVE gang. Do you think that that we’ll ever get to a place where comic artists and creators may be able to bypass publishers altogether whilst simultaneously avoiding starvation?

I think that's already happening. A lot of web comic artists like John Allison (Bad Machinary), Meredith Gran (Octopus Pie), Erika Moen (DAR), and Kate Beaton make a comfortable living out of their comics and self-publishing. You've also got people like Raina Telgemeier and Lucy Knisely building up strong audiences and serialising their work online before taking the material to publishers - another new way of going about things and getting your work to a wider audience.

The issue of working in comics is no longer about being accessible - it's about being noticed. As Clay Shirkey says: "It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem"

We're in the middle of discovering which of the various new delivery methods available to us work well and are going to stick around. I could talk forever about this and still have a vague "eh, we'll see..." conclusion. It's definitely something I think a lot about. Even something like SP - which costs a comparatively huge amount compared to most self-published works - still manages to make its costs back. The demand is there. People want great comics. And the more of them we put out there, the more attention and acceptance the medium as a whole is given.

Solipsistic Pop 3 is on the horizon and planned for release in November. What can we expect to see in the upcoming edition?

The first two volumes of Solipsistic Pop wear the influence of North American alternative comics very prominently on their sleeve. I think that was necessary to set out a clear idea of what Solipsistic Pop is trying to achieve and to build a steady momentum. Now that I feel that's established, I want to try new things - the first of which is to look towards our own heritage for inspiration. To pay homage to the old DC Thompson comics that the majority of us grew up reading and gave us our first taste of comic art.

Similarly, I wanted to approach a couple of points of the manifesto from book one that I haven't had a suitable opportunity to address properly. Specifically - I wanted to get a new readership altogether interested in alternative comics from the UK. Children.

Solipsistic Pop 3 is being built as a kind of alternative comics primer for kids and young adults. I wanted to publish something I could hand to my godson or younger brother and make them immediately want to start drawing and find more comics to read. It's not like there aren't comics that are accessible for kids (although it certainly seems that the major publishers aren't too interested in attracting younger readers quite as much as I believe they should be) but more that I want an alternative comic that they can pick up and thus be exposed to the delightfully weird and diverse art styles/approaches to storytelling. Getting hold of those things at an early age are really important I think. It shapes your view of a medium and what can achieved through it. One of the key ways of keeping things interesting is to have a constant flow of new voices and visionaries embracing comics as an art form. So why not make sure people find them from an early age?

As such I've asked the artists involved to make sure they don't dumb down their pieces or try to make conscious efforts to draw a kids comic. I still want their very specific voices to come through and there's nothing worse than something aimed at children that talks down to them. Aim everything above and over their head and they tend to rise to meet it.

Of course, there are going to be a couple of extra free gifts which fit with the theme of all this but I'll wait to announce that properly nearer the time (and when I can be sure it's all coming together!). I hope to also have a launch party that reflects the idea of attracting a new, younger readership but again, nothing is ready to announce right now.

We wish to thank Tom for taking the time in order to give us such a detailed and informative interview. Both volumes of Solipsistic Pop are available over at the anthology's website now (linked below), costing £14 (roughly $20 US including international shipping) each. Coming with all kinds of awesome free stuff (Tote bags! Mini-comic inserts!), you should at the very least look lovingly at the many previews hosted there. Alternatively please feel free to check out our review and in-depth "best of" articles. Alternative comics Beano, here we come! 



  1. I think Tom is doing an admirable thing producing this anthology and that SP2 fairly reflected a pretty good cross section of the best of UK talent - although I have a number of reservations which I've discussed with Tom directly.

    However, I'm not sure it's true to reflect the UK small press and indy scene as being as bereft as Tom seems to make out. Clearly SP can find a place amongst the other publishers here such as Self Made Hero, Fanfare (admittedly no UK material there yet), Jonathan Cape (not much production but a number of small pressers already doing books), my own company Blank Slate and the coming up fast on the rails guys at No-Brow (who are producing stuff at a blistering speed). All in all these companies are still bringing more artists to market between them than SP and some like Self Made are doing it with very good numbers. The market is growing quickly now - although breaking even on a published book is still a challenge for the most of us. I'm not sure it's Tom's nature to gild the lily somewhat, or not - but the stridency of his argument shouldn't preclude his acknowledgment of others efforts. Unless he thinks of course we are all producing rubbish.

  2. Great interview this guy is mah hero :D

  3. Well, shucks! Thank you.

    Just to clarify: I think there a lot of great small publishers in the UK - I adore NoBrow's stuff, look forward to Gravett bringing Escape back, and even wait with interest to see what Millar's Clint will be like. Having said that, there are no titles that exclusively focus on nurturing UK alternative comic talent, which is the gap SP was designed to fill and what I was asked to talk about.

    There's a whole host of interesting publishers out there and it wasn't my intention to suggest there aren't. I was discussing the reasons for starting SP and why I felt it needed to exist. It didn't seem appropriate to offer retrospective caveats given the context.