British Comics Week: Small press, big talent

For British comics week, we'll be looking at a pair of creators from a different tradition each day. Today: Michael Leader introduces Philippa Rice and Luke Pearson.

The British comics community offers up such an embarrassment of riches that, when December comes around, the preceding year stands staring back at you in the form of a fearsome, beautiful pile. A pile of personal stories and imaginative fantasies from a wonderful array of artists – and with every week, every convention, every trip to your favourite comic shop, it grows.

Somewhere near the top of that fearsome pile – a recent addition – is Soppy, an unassuming little minicomic that collects a series of autobiographical doodles by Philippa Rice. It’s a real winter warmer of a comic, right down to the red ‘n black colour scheme that captures the cosy scenes depicted within - sketches of a young couple cohabiting, co-existing and both creating in their shared space.

But the book becomes all the more poignant once you realise just who these two characters are. For Philippa, Soppy is a mere side project, a bunch of sketchbook extracts originally destined for Tumblr; her primary project, ongoing now for four years, is My Cardboard Life, the webcomic that ranks among the UK’s most popular online strips. Her flatmate is Luke Pearson, who has in the last three years taken the comics biz by storm with books such as Everything We Miss and, most popularly, the series of all-ages graphical albums starring the inquisitive, adventurous heroine Hilda.

Between them they cover the full span of what comics and comic artists have to offer. Their work has appeared both online and in print, whether it be self-published or under the banner of publishers such as Blank Slate and NoBrow. They’ve provided design and illustration work for video games, festivals, magazines and Penguin Classics, and they have contributed to anthologies such as Solipsistic Pop, Paper Science and the award-winning Nelson. And there's nary a comic market or convention that doesn't see one of them in attendance - Luke often shyly smiling behind his stall, Philippa always beaming behind her immaculate spread of comics and hand-crafted curiosities.

Yet in many ways My Cardboard Life and the Hilda books couldn’t be further apart. Pearson - once called "sickeningly young and talented", now merely "sickeningly talented" as he approaches his (gasp) mid-20s - is one of the country’s top illustrators, and rocketed out of the art-school gates with tremendous confidence and ambition. His books with NoBrow, as well as his cover designs for Solipsistic Pop and a recent edition of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, are beautiful art objects, individual testaments to the printed form.

Rice’s webcomics, meanwhile, are cheeky, crafty creations cobbled together from bits of scrap. Each installment of My Cardboard Life is a stationery cupboard brought to digital life, featuring colourful characters such as Cardboard Colin, Paper Pauline, Doctor Band-Aid and Sylvia Foil. Don’t be fooled, though, their cute demeanour covers up some remarkably caustic humour, especially as Pauline indulges in her favourite pastime of hazing Colin, delivering passive-aggressive jibes and put-downs with the sort of smile that could give you a nasty paper-cut.

While Rice proves to be an incredibly resourceful (in the literal sense) artist when it comes to characterisation, the most distinctive, and endlessly surprising aspect of her comics is her sense of humour, her ability to feint in the direction of twee simplicity, before suckerpunching the reader right in the funny bone.

After over 700 My Cardboard Life comics, Rice still keeps things interesting for herself and her readers by throwing stylistic curveballs, incorporating skills learned from her degree in animation to insert GIF-powered movement into her strips, or sometimes using the Internet to its fullest to stage round-the-web treasure hunts, following characters as they bounce from website to website, taking in social media networks like Flickr, Youtube and MySpace, before returning to the comic’s home. Meanwhile, longer, standalone narrative pieces - the fantasy story St. Colin and the Dragon and the sci-fi saga Recyclost - have edged out the gag strip formula to periodically take over the My Cardboard Life site.

In stark contrast to Rice's cross-platform, multimedia eclecticism, the majority of Pearson's work appears in sumptuous, hardcover print. His much-acclaimed, and now British Comic Award-winning Hilda series, which kicked off in 2010 with Hildafolk, celebrates the childlike ideals of freedom, adventure and imagination, and has earned Pearson comparisons to Moomins creator Tove Jansson and Hayao Miyazaki, the director behind anime classics like My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away.

Rendered with pleasant, earthy colours and the inviting, detailed patterning of a familiar jumper, the first two Hilda books tell tales of its lead character exploring the forests surrounding her house and encountering various mythical beings and fantastical creatures. The recently-released third volume, Hilda and the Bird Parade, moves Hilda to a bustling city, and makes much of the rural/urban dichotomy - highlighting how adventure in the countryside is more dangerous in a built-up town - and finds Hilda struggling to adjust to her new home.

But Pearson is wary of being known just for all-ages whimsy. His graphic novel Everything We Miss and his more recent, shorter pieces for anthologies and publications betray a melancholy streak and an altogether darker worldview. Everything We Miss is full of surreal, magical flourishes that seek to explore inexplicable social situations: mysterious forces possess lovers, making them mutter catty comments to each other, while life itself seems to conspire against people’s happiness.

In a recent strip for the Guardian, Are You Going To Do Something?, Pearson’s outlook is even more damning, as external forces are replaced by our own apathy. A young couple are so wrapped up in their own problems that they ignore the real issues on their doorstep. "Oh god," one of them says, as his inability to sleep in the comfort of their own bed is juxtaposed with a tramp wrapped up in a nearby alleyway for the night, "I forgot to put the bins out".

The bait-and-switch at the heart of Are You Going To Do Something? is not dissimilar to Rice’s twist-laden sense of humour, but while Pearson’s comics can be disarming in their sentiments, Rice’s are rarely sentimental - even the undermining title of Soppy suggests a reluctance to embrace the simple cuteness of it all.

This lack of sentiment is best seen in Rice’s Longboy, a terrifying comic that is also one of her best. A longboy is a cuddly creature, a sort of cross between a dolphin and a draught excluder, that Rice initially crocheted in her spare time, then turned into a fictional animal prized for its skin. In the comic, two men go searching for longboys in the wild, but before long their playful banter and easy manner start to darken as their hunt turns into a harvest. This rug pull is not only a macabre, nightmarish twist, it serves up a grim sermon on hypocrisy, animal cruelty and the fur trade. Once again, Rice’s humour wins out - only this time, the consequences are much more horrific.

Such is the prolific output of the UK comics community that, in just a few short years, both Rice and Pearson have already produced masses of unique, distinctive and ambitious work. With Pearson’s pursuit of physical formats and Rice’s fondness for collage, their styles couldn’t be more distinct - but in books like Hildafolk, Everything We Miss, Longboy and Soppy, they take pride of place, sitting side by side in my comics pile.

The cover to Philippa Rice's "Looking Out" (L) and a Luke Pearson self-portrait (R).

Michael Leader is a chocolate digestive-powered writer living in South London. He regularly gets excited about films, comics and video games, sometimes writes about them for Den of Geek, Little White Lies, IdeasTap and GrolschFilmWorks, and sometimes tweets about them as @nevskyp.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times