I spent the entire Easter break working on an essay about copyright for my MA (more interesting than it sounds. Really. No, really.) The links between copyright and publishing led me to think of Paddy Brown, a local comic book creator that I met briefly at Belfast Book Festival last year. He kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about self publishing and the Belfast comic scene.
Paddy, as someone who doesn’t know much about Belfast’s comic writing scene could you tell me a bit about it and where you fit within it?
I was accused of being the “ringleader” of it recently, but if I am that’s a position I’ve stumbled backwards into without ever intending to. Basically, I send out the emails about the monthly pub meet that a bunch of us have at the Cloth Ear, something I took over doing “temporarily” from Stephen Downey when he went on holiday a couple of years ago. It’s a small scene with a lot of talented people dropping in and out of it. Stephen and PJ Holden are working pros, there are a decent number of small-scale self publishers and quite a lot of people who do short pieces here and there – some of them on Stephen Downey’s website Tales of The…. The Black Market, which was a monthly handmade arts market held at The Black Box, used to be a great outlet for this kind of work, but for a variety of reasons that doesn’t happen regularly anymore.
The internet is a big part of it. Sean Doran, who used to make comics in Belfast back in the 90s and now lives in London, told me that back in his day the only people he knew who made comics were the people he was actually working with, but the internet makes it so much easier for people with common interests – particularly interests that would once have been derided as “nerdy” – to find each other. Thanks to that I’m at least as involved in a wider Irish comics scene as I am in the local Belfast one – people I see maybe three or four times a year at comics events but who I’m in touch with online. Dublin writer Gar Shanley has recently corralled a bunch of us into making a satirical romance comic called Romantic Mayhem that’ll be out soon. Myself and Davy Francis are keeping up the Belfast end, and there are contributions from Kildare and Meath and elsewhere. I’m also gradually becoming known outside of Ireland.
Lots to check out then! Thanks. Is self publishing a big part of what goes on in Belfast and do you know if that’s typical of comic writing communities?
I think so. I’ve been at it on and off since the late 90’s, so has Andy Luke and there’s Debbie McCormack and Gareth McKnight doing Don’t Panic! Comics – I’d say those are the regulars. There are people like Stephen Maurice Graham and Miguel Martin who’ve done a bit of self-publishing, Ann Harrison, who has a background in animation and Malachy Coney who has done some pro work but self-publishes occasionally. From what I can tell that’s pretty typical – there are a few pros work in commercial comics and a bunch of others do stuff that’s either too personal, too left field, too formative, or some combination thereof, for commercial publication, and they’ll self publish.
Do you also seek publishing in more mainstream publications?
From time to time – no real success so far I’m afraid. I got a very nice rejection letter from the DFC when that was still going. I’ve done a small amount of illustration work and I’m looking to expand into that a bit more. But I’m driven to make comics, so I need that creative outlet.
Your passion is obvious and I look forward to the Facebook updates when you’ve put up a new part of The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Do you publish all your work online? Is there anything you don’t/won’t put out there, and if so, why?
At the moment, it’s pretty much anything I want people to be able to see. If something’s due to be published in print by somebody else (and I have a small number of such pieces upcoming) I won’t put it online because I don’t want to do the publisher out of sales, maybe just a snippet as advertising, but otherwise I don’t see any downside to putting my work online at this stage of my artistic career. I serialise my work online because I’ve found that knowing people are waiting for me is a very good way of motivating myself to get the work done, and the more work I do, the better I get.
That’s very interesting and something I had briefly considered myself with my novel. Always a bit too scared to do it though!
It’s also a form of networking – it gets my work in front of a potentially enormous number of people, builds an audience, gets my name and my work more widely known. It doesn’t, as yet, make me any money – the only money I make at the moment comes from selling the printed copies – but if there was no internet I wouldn’t be making much money anyway, because who would know my books were there? Once I’m a best-selling published author I can worry about what goes online and what doesn’t.
When I began to look into this kind of thing on the internet Google threw up lots and lots of results from writing forums where people were getting very anxious about putting their work online. It seemed like there were a couple of issues. Firstly, people were concerned that they should be getting paid for their work (and how could they sell it, even as self published, if they were putting it up for free?), and secondly the fear that their ideas were going to get snapped up by someone bigger and stronger than them and they’d never be able to get the credit for their work. Are there similar debates in the comic writing community? Is there a lot of anxiety about (1) making money and (2) intellectual property?
There’s not an awful lot of money in comics, even in commercially published ones, and most of us are doing it because it’s a compulsion. I remember PJ Holden saying when he got his first commission for 2000AD, he was so chuffed just to be working for them he forgot to ask how much they were paying. He’s very professional about it now but it took him the best part of a decade before he was earning enough to give up the day job. As for copyright, in commercial comics, despite the campaigns for creators rights in the 80s and 90s, it’s still more of less a given that everything you create belongs to the publisher, and they can give your characters to other writers and artists to continue.
*Gasp* Somehow I knew this but hadn’t ever considered it from the artist’s point of view.
You get the occasional debate online whenever there’s a copyright issue in the news – DC not paying Siegel and Schuster’s heirs what they’re legally due for Superman and forcing them to sue for it, or producing Watchmen spin-offs against the wishes of Alan Moore and the spirit of the original contract – but the fans follow publishers and characters like they follow football teams and don’t really care about the business ethics, and for a freelancer, working on company-owned characters pays better than creator-owned ones, so that’s what most do.
Over on the non-commercial side people do their own thing but they don’t expect to make much money at it. Ideally, yes, we should be getting paid for our work, but unfortunately there’s no neutral arbiter deciding what the value of a piece of work is and making sure we’re recompensed – it’s only worth what someone’s prepared to pay for it, it’s up to us to convince them, and we’ll never convince them if they don’t know it’s there.
Clearly you’re not concerned about people just lifting your work from your website and either printing it out themselves for free. Or are you? I ask because, apart from you, the only people I’ve heard of who put their writing online for free tend to be quite well known. As far as I know Cory Doctorow had already been published by a mainstream publisher before negotiating that his work would also be available for free online, and Neil Gaiman’s experiment in putting stuff online for free proved lucrative for him and his publisher, but he is Neil Gaiman- I’m thinking he could probably sell his breath on ebay if he wanted to! I’m just wondering if publishing online for free, for someone like me who is just starting out, serves as a useful PR tool in your opinion?
Gaiman does talk a lot of sense, particularly about not dithering but sitting down, doing the work, finishing it and learning from it, but when it comes to money he’s in a very different position to most of us. Putting your work online is a very good way of getting your name and work known, but there’s a difference between putting artwork online and putting text online. Art on the web is only 72dpi, which isn’t print quality, and while I’m putting low-resolution images online, I still have the high resolution images to exploit. Text isn’t quite the same – I can copy and paste text from the web into a word processor and make a print quality document.
You get the occasional fine art chancer doing the Lichtenstein thing with less wit and skill, lifting other people’s work out of comics and claiming it’s some kind of “found object”, or people who do single panel funny cartoons might find their stuff reposted without credit on ICanHazCheezburger. But I think we can get a bit too paranoid about copyright – the world works on trust more than some might think, and generally, copyright is respected.
That’s something I had started to suspect and it’s great to hear from an independent artist who has had good experiences with trust.
Do you have any particular license that you use for your work? I heard about the Creative Commons licenses because of Cory Doctorow and I’ve seen Lawrence Lessig’s brilliant TED talk on how copyright law can choke creativity, but again, I don’t know many local writers who use Creative Commons licenses (where permission may be implicitly granted for another artist or writer to use your ideas to create something new as long as they acknowledge your work). I would love to know how that kind of sharing works in practice and I’m wondering what it’s like among self published comic book creators- are you all very protective of your work or is there a certain amount of sharing and building on one another’s ideas? It seems like there are stories online all the time about people stealing one another’s stories, I wonder how someone unknown (like me) gets around this, or do we just accept it as part of life? (like, if I’m creative enough maybe I can find a creative solution to this?)
As far as I’m concerned, copyright means what I create is mine unless I sell it to someone else. I put a little copyright notice on my work and trust that people will respect that, which so far they have. The Cattle Raid of Cooley is based on a very old story that nobody owns, so I can’t complain about anybody else doing their own adaptations, but I’d prefer them to do it their own way rather than sharing or building on mine, so the Creative Commons thing doesn’t really appeal to me. I can imagine contexts in comics where it might work, but I can’t think of anywhere it’s been tried.
As far as having your work stolen is concerned, like I said, I think that’s a lot less likely than some might think. Thinking about it, I have several safeguards – (a) the low resolution of web images, (b) a copyright notice on every image, (c) a long-form story that would take a fair amount of effort to rip off, (d) a distinctive drawing style that would be difficult to imitate, and (e) a personal presence, including a recognisable face, on the web – hopefully if people are aware there’s a person behind the work, that’ll discourage them from taking my work lightly.
Thanks so much Paddy. I’d encourage comic book fans (and indeed fans of Celtic mythology) to check out your work. It’s been lovely to talk to you and encouraging to hear about your experiences of self publishing. I wish you lots of luck in the future.