Mapping Velocity

“Velocity, depth, breadth. These are the dimensions we can add to books, that are the gifts of a digital age, not gimmicks, glossy presentation and media-catching stunts” – James Bridle

About this time two years ago I wrote about the reasons Solipsistic Pop existed in print and my thoughts on the digital age of publishing. A lot has happened in those two years… The iPad has successfully been launched, Amazon have announced the , Comixology and Graphicly are fast becoming the go-to applications for comics on smart-phones and e-readers, and most of the big comic companies are subscribing to day-and-date digital/print releases. Opinions on whether the comic industry (be they creators, publishers or retailers) are meeting the challenges and opportunities of this digital age with the correct speed and attitude are mixed – but one thing is clear, things are changing.

Digital comics aren’t going away. But neither are printed comics. As I mentioned in my post two years ago, it just means we – as creators and publishers – have to be clear about why something needs to exist in print and rise to the challenge that digital comics can present. Because digital comics are a good thing. The more ways people can read comics and the easier they are to get hold of – the more people there are reading them.

There needs to be a reason for comics to exist in print. Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to maps…

Maps share a lot of qualities with comics. They are words and pictures. Working side by side to tell a story and convey information in a succinct and accessible way. They deal with time and space while being two dimensional and static. And their scope can be as grand or as small as you wish.

This was the idea behind Solipsistic Pop 4. To create a book that enthusiastically embraced the idea of cartography and infuse the anthology with depth, breadth and scope large enough that the idea of reading it on a computer screen would be unimaginable. These comics have been created to be re-read, the piece before last adding context to the next. Reading this comic panel by panel or zooming into sections of the screen would not do these comics justice – these comics must be absorbed. The bigger picture observed.

The additional material for this volume was also crucial to this idea. Keeping with the theme of maps, there are three postcard sized comics which encourage the reader to travel. One postcard is printed with glow-in-the-dark ink – giving the comic a new, unexpected context when you find a dark place to read it in. One postcard is printed on seeded paper, encouraging the reader to find an ideal place to plant it once it has been read. The final postcard is a bingo checklist of specific things to find in your area – again, encouraging an interaction with your environment that feels appropriate to the theme of the comic and the tactile nature of print.

The entire package comes in a folder with a blueprint, diagram-based design and accompanying key – that add extra depth and understanding to an interior piece in the book. It’s also intent on giving the volume a quality that reminds me of geography lessons at school. Folders are extremely satisfying and useful objects.

Katie Green has designed a Solipsistic Pop 4 stamp that will accompany every copy of the book when it is sent out. Every effort being taken to ensure that the journey of this anthology is carefully considered.

Additionally, Katie Green has also provided a dustjacket to the book that folds out into a large poster. One final element that once more encourages the reader to appreciate and view the comic in a different context. This comic can be used as decoration. It would look and read best adorned on a wall. It can be personalised. When digital delivery systems head towards universal, standardised designs – this comic actively embraces a bit of chaos and randomness in the way in which it is consumed.

It wants you to dog-ear a corner, make notes in the margin and tear a page out.

It wants you to make it yours.

Click here to pre-order Solipsistic Pop 4.

Details for the launch party are here.


Now is the time for experiments

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 […] There is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as CraigsList did, as Wikipedia did, as Octavo volumes did […] No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

– Clay Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

With boxes of Solipsistic Pop 1 disappearing before my eyes with each passing week, now seems like a good time to talk about reprints and how I see future editions of Solipsistic Pop surviving beyond their limited printruns of 500. It’s a question I get asked often and, inevitably, it leads to a discussion about internet/digital publishing models – which is something I’d like to address here…

Solipsistic Pop was always conceived as something that makes sense to print as a beautiful, physical artefact. I’ve written about the reasoning behind this before, but never referenced a very important factor of the production. The one, oft-overlooked advantage of digital publishing that had to be addressed was the issue of environmental sustainability – a problem that was solved by using Calverts, FSC paper and bio inks. Every insert, mini-comic and free gift that comes with an edition of Solipsistic Pop has been carefully sourced to ensure it is an environmentally responsible venture.

But the anthology was also created to provide a high quality platform for new and established comic artists based in the UK. With only 500 copies in existence, this may limit their exposure which would be a huge shame and defeat one of Solipsistic Pop’s main objectives. So I intend to – when a volume reaches the end of its printrun – offer potential new readers three options:

  • The main book through a POD service
    I tend to agree with The Beguiling retailer Chris Butcher that POD digital printing offers sub-standard printing when it comes to image-reliant material such as comics. But, like him, I’ll accept it’s a useful and economically viable way to keep back issues in print. The quality of the printing won’t be as good as the original, and it will come without the extra gifts and inserts which give the book such a tactile experience, but the price will obviously reflect this.
  • A PDF emailed or posted on a CD
    Again, this would be the main book only, and come at a very reduced price.
  • An iApplication
    I’m currently looking at the best way to get Solipsistic Pop onto an iPad. I’ll look into other eBook readers when they start offering colour screens to view the work. I can’t envision an iPhone version as the comics were designed to be read in print and iPhone comics need an entirely different – and very specific – approach.

All of which satisfies my desire to keep Solipsistic Pop green. This is not to say I can’t see other delivery systems working at some point in the future but these, to my mind, are the more sustainable and workable right now.

I’d also like to offer up some free, exclusive internet content at some point – but I’m currently concentrating on a couple of extra books that will be released – if all goes to plan – next year alongside the main anthology: Solipsistic Pop Solo will offer up 16 pages of original material from some of the best Solipsistic Pop alumni. A chance to showcase individual artists and spend a little longer in their world. I’ll announce more information about this nearer the time.

That Clay Shirky quote at the top of this blog continues to echo around in my head these days. It did so when I saw Matthew Sheret’s idea for an organic, constantly tweaked “Unzine” last week, or when I first discovered Newspaper Club, or when We Are Words + Pictures organise another comic event, or when Bookleteer launched, or when meta-data gets used to make physical Christmas decorations, or… well, I could go on and on and on

It’s incredibly exciting being in the middle of a revolution. With old systems crumbling and thousands of interesting and inventive ideas rushing to take their place, why would you want to be in any other industry?

Getting The Smell Right

Solipsistic Pop on the shelves of Toronto's The Beguling

Trying to describe, in as succinct a manner as possible, the reasons I wanted to publish something like Solipsistic Pop has been difficult. Discussing the state of the British alternative comics scene, the comic industry in general, the joy of anthologies, and the slow decline of print is not a simple task. These are all complex issues and everyone has their own varying but entirely viable, entirely reasonable opinions on each. Well, perhaps not everyone. But everyone to whom these things matter.

On the day Solipsistic Pop launched, amidst the crowded, hot, cramped but exciting confines of the ICA theatre, people were walking up to offer their support and feedback for the book. The most popular phrase being:

“You got the smell right!”

This was heartening to hear. Believe it or not, I’d gone to a lot of trouble to make sure the book had that just printed aroma. It was part of the reason the anthology existed. Which – I grant you – sounds a bit odd. But it offers me a perfect springboard to address what I wanted to do with Solipsistic Pop as a physical object.

Now, a lot has been said about digital versus traditional print. A lot of important and intelligent people have written about this issue at far more length than I have the time or inclination to do here. I’m sure you have your own opinions about the subject and I’m sure you’re more informed than I on it. That said, my own feelings are that I welcome digital print.

I don’t own a kindle or e-book reader yet. I’m biding my time until the technology has improved. Until those little design kinks have been ironed out and the choice of books available to download (in the UK) has increased. Regardless, I’m excited by the opportunities this technology presents. Not just for the consumer, but for publishers and creators.

You can download books whenever and wherever you need them. They will all fit on a tiny tablet in your pocket. They cost less. They take up less room on your shelves. They make environmental sense. Sample chapters can be downloaded. Most people who own kindles admit to reading more and taking the chance on new books more frequently than they might have before. And as long as one doesn’t mind formatting their story, creators have a far more immediate way of getting their work out there with a workable business model in place. Essentially, read screenwriter John August’s thoughts about his digital-only short story The Variant and Richard Herring’s delightful acceptance of the Kindle – they will articulate these things better than I.

Now, the arguments most people make against the rise of digital print can be boiled down to the following:

1. The glare of the computer screen makes it hard to concentrate and can give one a headache.
2. They like to be able to turn the pages of a book. To hold it in their hands.
3. The smell
4. “But… I like books! I like them on my shelf! Please don’t take my books away from me!”

Firstly, screens are getting better all the time. Anyone who has seen an e-book will admit that the screens do a very impressive job of cutting the glare down and mimicking the look of a printed page. This will only improve.

The rest of the points can be addressed with one simple sentence: Physical books are not going away.

I know a lot of people who make the connection to CDs and vinyl. But I think it’s more complicated and nuanced than that. To embrace a new way of delivering information and reading does not mean that one must divorce the other. No, all this does is increase our options and force us to make some important decisions as publishers and consumers.

Lucy Knisely makes a good point that there are some books you wouldn’t actually want to own or have on your shelf but might want to read. Smell matters sure, Knisely concedes in the comments to her latest comic about digital print, but does the smell of a guilty pleasure genuinely matter to you? Would you want the tactile quality of thumbing through Twilight? Wouldn’t it be preferable to hide the fact that you’re reading Harry Potter and the Sarcastically Huge Book from fellow commuters on your train into work?

Meanwhile, those books that you may well want to buy as a physical object have a wonderfully exciting challenge presented to them: there has to be a reason for you to print. This is why Solipsistic Pop had to be a little bit different.

The first book had to do a lot of things. It had to establish itself as a perfect venue to view and discover the leading alternative comic artists based in the UK. This book had to look like it would be at home on a shelf in Waterstones and Art/Design book stores. These comics needed to be printed properly. On good paperstock. Exposed to lithographic plates for maximum quality. The colours needed to be just right. Everything needed to be just right. Going through Lulu or any other POD company wouldn’t be enough. I knew we needed to find a reliable, reasonable, and respected printers who could offer their own thoughts and feedback on the production. Someone we could a build a strong relationship with for future volumes.

Additionally, I wanted to give a nod towards the humble but similarly beautiful origins of small press comics by featuring two hand stapled mini-comics. There’s something to be cherished about photocopy roller marks and misaligned crop markers. I didn’t want this book to suggest otherwise. Solipsistic Pop is about trying to look forward to the future of British alternative comics, but by doing so, the past and present also needed to be acknowledged.

On top of all this, I’d been having a lot of thoughts about newspapers. I knew I wanted to have a pull out newspaper section that mimicked the American Sunday Funnies format. It was a nod towards our other major influence – the already well established American alternative comics industry that owes a lot to the widely accepted newspaper Sunday Funnies tradition. I also wanted to suggest that – while even the larger newspaper companies are facing a huge structural and financial crisis – the tactile quality and format of the paperstock and printing process is something that will, I feel, always remain. I soon found out about Newspaper Club while planning the first volume of Solipsistic Pop – but they wouldn’t be ready for public consumption until the new year. So we improvised and used 80 gsm (slightly thicker than traditional newsprint) and uncoated, recycled paperstock. It gave the insert a quality similar enough to a high-quality newspaper while managing to withstand a little wear and tear.

The book came out exactly how I imagined. Slightly better even. With many contributors commenting on how much better the comics (be it the colour or the subtlety and quality of line) look when printed as opposed to the early pdf preview everyone was emailed. And this is the point. Comics look good in print. They look good on the screen too but you’d be surprised how much difference it makes if these intelligent, inventive and highly original comics are given a high quality platform from which they can work their twisted, perverse magic. It’s why, as mentioned above, Solipsistic Pop exists.

I look forward to Longbox and the way that (or something else like it) could potentially revolutionise the way we consume monthly comics. I look forward to seeing what happens with Artist’s E-Books. I look forward to Apple tablets and comics on incredible digital screens.

But I also look forward to publishing the next Solipsistic Pop in May.

It will smell great.

Tom Humberstone is the editor and publisher of Solipsistic Pop

Do Everything

“Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures” – Harvey Pekar

If you read comics, or even read about comics, I imagine you’ll find that quote enchanting. It conjures images of children buried in notebooks building impossible landscapes in crayon and of wonderful conceptual essays that spill across pages, illustrated with monk-like endurance by people who cannot help but see terrible things.

Pekar’s statement is wonderful, but it falls a little short of what I want to see.

I have written here as placeholders some reminders, three little words: Future; Optimism; Ambition. I am supposed to be writing about comics. Bear with me.

The future is a process. Time is not made of fixed instants, it is not binary, it is not a thing that leaps to dates or tipping points. The future is a long now, a time that moves towards all time, in which we change and are changed by what we do and what we encounter. You are taking part in this process, allowing your ideas and techniques to be shaped by this movement through time. When you become aware of this you start to see the effect you have on other things, people and places, and on the lives you never really know. You can do anything to the world around you: some you will never want to do again, but a lot more you’ll be happy to put your name to in that long, constant tomorrow.

Tomorrow is worth seeing. Since people began to think about the unknown ahead of them a prevailing sense of doom has crept into thought and discourse, but I’m becoming a lot more optimistic than that allows. People can and repeatedly do accomplish brilliant things, in the face of impossible odds, on a global and personal level. I work knowing that what I put out now I will better, knowing that I learn from my mistakes and will try to avoid repeating them.

I have the ambition to affect an audience, to change them in some way, if even a barely tangible one. You have to put yourself on the line to do that, but the rewards can be magnificent. We spend most of our lives going through experiences wrapped solely inside ourselves, and it would be beautiful if those rare moments of cultural or emotional specificity – when somebody reaches out to us and says “You are not alone” – happened more often.

You see I want you to think about the images you have seen of doomed worlds. Of nuclear death. Of solitude. Of rot, entropy and carnage. Of the flash-burst obliteration projected behind a thousand artists. These pictures, all around you, that say “What comes next is the end.”

Reject this; I will. My grandparents saw Europe break out in peace, my parents saw men walking on the moon and I have seen the world collaborate to pool its knowledge in the space between servers and source code. And before that begins to seem big and impossible I want you to remember that you are moments away from combining words and pictures to share a story, shape an idea, perhaps affect someone for years to come. You have an opportunity to fail a thousand times without judgement and you should take advantage of that.

So if we can do anything, what means we shouldn’t aim to do everything?

Do Everything is an essay from the first volume of Solipsistic Pop written by Matthew Sheret.

Declaration of The New Vague

Comic comes from the dictionary. In Greek it means “pertaining to comedy”, to “revel”. In English it means “funny”, “amusing”, “you read them? aren’t they for kids?”, “spandex superheroes”, “juvenile”, “self-indulgent autobiography”, “artistically bankrupt” and “the lowest artform next to mime”.

We believe different. Except when we don’t.

It is time for a new paradigm. A new wave of Comics. A new, vague blueprint for Comics to take up. This is a map that lets you fill in the locations and plot your own course. Away from something definitely, without knowing for sure what we’re moving towards.

We do not create Graphic Novels, Sequential Art, Pictorial Narratives or whichever self-hating label is in vogue

We create Comics. We acknowledge such distinctions were once necessary but reject the notion that they still are. As with novels, films, and video-games, Comics shall remain a clumsy description of the medium but one that we embrace.

Comics is Comics

We will not create Comics as pitches for tv shows, movies or other media. We create Comics because the content demands to be expressed in this medium. Comics are not storyboards. Comics are not stepping stones to other media. Comics is Comics is Comics.

We reject the straight-jacket of live art space, bleed margins, script formatting, bristol board and other rules of Comic creation

The Comic chooses the format. Not the other way around. It is understood that rules must be mastered before breaking them but we counter that rules must be broken to be mastered.

We reject the notion that print is dead

True, the screen promises endless possibilities but we vow to create beautiful work you can hold and beautiful work you cannot. We are committed to producing gorgeous, tactile Comics that readers will cherish.

We don’t like superheroes, auto-biography, crime, war, horror, science fiction, comedy, confessionals, fantasy, romance, vitriolic polemic, meta, politics, manga, westerns, or zines

We like Comics, and that’s all that should matter.

We trust the Comic to speak for itself

We do not care what brush you use or what nib size you choose. We do not need to know your brand of notebook or your favourite drink. We just ask that you show us what you make and let it live or die on its own strengths and weaknesses.

We will not settle for specialist shelves and longbox storage

We want Comics to fight for space with design bibles, coffee table dead-weights, podcasts and posters. We want comics to be handed to you on your journey home from work and we want them framed in well-lit store-fronts. We want your children to learn how to read with them, and we want you to unlearn how to read with them.

We will create

We will write. We will draw. We will paint. We will print. We will sew. We will publish. We will bind. You will know us by the trail of Comics.