One Issue – Six Questions For Scotland

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On the evening of Monday 17 March 2014 Glasgow’s Centre For Contemporary Arts (CCA) held the Issue One symposium on the future of the comics industry in Scotland. With a panel of industry professionals, creatives and academics, this was not a closed affair but rather a free event open to all who wanted to attend. Colin Noble reports on Issue One for downthetubes.

This is not a report I ever thought that I would write – not just about comics being taken seriously by publishers, but being discussed intelligently by academia and government financed bodies too. For me, this is the respect that I always thought comics were due.

The aim of the symposium was to discuss two aims: developing a sustainable industry, and the aspiration of creating a National Comics Academy and Art Gallery in the unused McLellan Galleries in the centre of Glasgow. For this it presented a panel that drew on the academic, retail and publishing world of comics as well as from Creative Scotland (the public body of the Scottish Government that funds and supports the development of Scotland’s arts, screen and creative industries), in front of a mixed audience of all ages from 16 to 60 plus.

Chaired ably by Gareth K Vile, the Theatre Editor of The List magazine, the event was in a Question Time format with the panel drawn from many different fields –

Dr Laurence Grove: Director of the Stirling Maxwell Centre for the Study of Text/Image Cultures, Glasgow University
Dr Chris Murray: Senior Lecturer in English & Learning and Teaching Co-ordinator (English), University of Dundee
Sha Nazir: Art Director and Publisher, Black Hearted Press Ltd
Jenny Niven: Portfolio Manager for Literature, Publishing and Languages, Creative Scotland
Phillip Vaughan: Course Director MSc Animation & Visualisation‬, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design
Peter Watson: Glasgow Store, Forbidden Planet International
Maria Welch: Publisher (Children’s Entertainment), DC Thomson Ltd

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The six questions Issue One considered were fairly weighty and yet easily translated to any comics panel globally, so if you want to remove the word Scotland and insert the country or region of your choice, you will find an idea or three to consider. Each question could have taken most of the evening to discuss but our worthy panel gave us plenty to consider as each one was posed.

1: What can we do to bring the industry in Scotland together and work collaboratively to everyone’s benefit?

Sha Nazir opened the discussion by using Black Hearted Press (yes, I know it’s a shameless plug but we’ll let him off for it) as an example where the artists are already bouncing ideas and methods off each other and this can be considered an open source way of working. Peter Watson highlighted the fact that the local publications export our current mores and values as they sell well to visitors. A worthy idea proposed by Maria Welch was that we could consider a professional event where publishers, artists and writers get together in the same way that MagFest is run for the magazine industry. Laurence Grove emphasised the fact that Scotland has the traditional support for comics with the first comic The Looking Glass being published in Glasgow in 1825.

2: The role of comics in Education – is it still seen as dumbing down or can we dream of an A-Level or Scottish Higher Grade in Comics Studies?

Obviously the panel enthusiastically denied the charge that comics were seen as dumbing down. Instead it was noted that it was an evolving and innovative method of engaging with society around us and was actually a useful tool in putting forward strong ideas to those in need. In academia, there has been no consideration that comics are any less worthy than any other subject. However, it was noted that certain corners of the press would rather use a lazy headline than actually investigate a comics story. The only other resistance to comics could be seen in Secondary Education, but as teenagers will oppose anything that may be considered babyish or beneath them, then perhaps that resistance could be understood.

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3: How can publishers (especially Small Press) communicate with retailers to promote and sell goods in Scotland and across the UK ensuring creators/publishers are able to make a profit?

From the start, it was obvious that the panel was willing to engage with all Small Press publishers. The clear message came through that ensuring your comic has a strong brand that you could build on was important and if you could communicate that in a positive manner through social media, press releases and word of mouth, then there was more chance of your comic being a success and increase the chances of clearing a profit. Even the simple act of walking into your local comic shop and engaging there would help creators get their product into the public eye.

4: How important are digital comics in exporting Scottish produced works to the world?

Philip Vaughan pointed out that many digital comics are struggling to find their “voice” in mixing web comics with animation and ending up as neither fish nor fowl and this is at a time when the tablet seems to be the ideal format to display comics as we currently enjoy them. Again the idea that marketing a strong brand was emphasised as a key point in making a success of current and new comics.

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5: How do comics get the type of support that theatre, film, performance and visual arts get in Scotland? Why are comics creators not considered a valuable creative asset and what needs to be done to get support?

This was possibly the most contentious question of the night but was ably fielded by Jenny Niven and Chris Murray. It was made clear that support is there but, as the resources are finite, they seem to go to the more resource-heavy arts such as theatre. Yet this was not to exclude or denigrate the contribution that comics make as they seem to be a victim of their own success with a very high bar for expectations. A potential focus on the professional skills, not just the creative skills, could be an avenue of gaining more resource support while a more outward-looking view could pay dividends as too often comics fans and professionals can feel ghettoised with non-fans looking in dismissively.

6: How can we help new creators break into the industry and what advice and guidance can we show them? Should there be a central body such as a National Comics Academy and Gallery?

Here the focus shifted back to the idea of a National Comics Academy. With a remit that could cover Scotland, the potential was that this body could be a focal point for emerging talents and could guide and assist them in reaching their full potential. With this in mind, the comic community would need to form a coherent strategy and engage at all levels from grass roots up to and including the First Minister of Scotland so that comics stories were not just “Biff! Pow! Kapow!” but something that Scottish society as a whole could feel proud of.

In short, this is a good start to potentially having a Scottish Comics Society that engages at all levels of the wider community. A sound strategy now needs to be built by the comics community with input from academia with which to engage all the professional bodies, from Creative Scotland to the many publishing companies such as DC Thomson.

Hopefully it will not be too long before we hear of positive steps in this direction at an Issue Two symposium.

Issue One covered by Scottish Television’s Nicola Love.

Issue One covered by Laura Sneddon on comicbookGRRRL.

Issue One covered by Joe Gordon on the Forbidden Planet International blog.

Photos courtesy of Alasdair Watson of AlasdairWatsonPhotography.com

Colin Noble

Colin Noble

A life-long comic fan specialising mainly in UK adventure comics. I do my best to support my passion for the comics of my youth, Commandos (still going!) and any small press that interest me.

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