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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The biggest bastard in pop: how Allen Klein changed the game for music revenue

Fred Goodman's new biography shows the man who made the Rolling Stones and wrenched open the door for today's superstars.

A reputation for toughness goes a long way in the music business. Allen Klein’s Christmas card came with the inscription: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, ’cause I’m the biggest bastard in the valley.” Seven years after his death at the age of 77 and fifty since he came to prominence as the business manager of first the Stones and then the Beatles, his reputation reverberates. Even the Stones’ first manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who sold his stake in the band to Klein in the late Sixties when he thought they were past their peak, still refers to him as “Allen Crime”, and Oldham was on good enough terms to turn up to Klein’s memorial service in 2009.

Fred Goodman’s biography was written with the co-operation but not the approval of Klein’s family and his company ABKCO. Although the book neither glosses over his run-ins with the law – one of which led to Klein spending two months inside in 1979 for failing to report income from selling promotional records – nor averts its eyes from the many cases where his sleight of hand was a bit too sleight for the artists he was supposed to be representing, it also recognises the services he performed for them, which were significant.

Klein didn’t know anything about music but as a bookkeeper he was familiar with the smell of cooking. He had the forensic skills to detect where record companies were short-changing their detail-dyslexic artists; he supplemented these skills with the kind of heavy manners that made firms’ lives uncomfortable unless they paid up. For Klein, a contract was merely a starting point, a royalty statement just an opening offer. He drilled down to the detail, demanding sight of invoices, delivery notes, lists of breakages, all the little tricks that the companies used to chisel performers out of pieces of their already small slice of the pie.

One of his early clients was Sam Cooke, for whom he won a very lucrative record deal. Less than a year later, in 1964, Cooke was dead and Klein was unexpectedly in control of copyright in the likes of “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Wonderful World”, which ultimately proved a licence to print money. When Klein saw a rough cut of the Harrison Ford movie Witness in 1984 and realised the barn dance sequence would have to be reshot if the producers couldn’t get “Wonderful World”, he demanded and got $200,000 for the use of that one song, thereby triggering the sync-rights gold rush that rages to this day. He was, as Goodman puts it, “the first hardball player in a slow-pitch league”.

Hired by the Rolling Stones in the mid-Sixties, he secured sums for them which the more successful Beatles, managed by the painfully naive Brian Epstein, could only dream about. Because this was the era of 90 per cent taxation on royalty income in the UK, he invested the Stones’ money in US companies so that they could reduce their tax liability by drawing income over a longer period of time.

The bands did not fully grasp that these companies were in fact controlled by Klein, an oversight they rued for the next fifty years. “Don’t take 20 per cent of an artist’s income,” he told an associate. “Give them 80 per cent of yours.”

The Stones ceased to be represented by Klein in 1970 but ABKCO controls their Sixties material to this day. This has turned out to be the bit worth having. When the Verve made the mistake of sampling a violin part from an orchestral cover of a Stones song on their 1997 hit “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, they had to settle with Klein. The deal was that the band’s frontman and songwriter, Richard Ashcroft, sign over all his rights in the song for a mere thousand dollars. ABKCO took the rest of the revenue away. “I was very bad today,” Klein said blushingly to a friend, after the deed was done.

Klein represented only three of the four Beatles. This was the great sadness of his career. It was Paul McCartney’s refusal to have any truck with him that made the band’s split so bitter. When Klein took over, after Epstein’s death, he couldn’t believe how little money they had made. He’d hoped they would remain together. “He had a contract to manage the affairs of the Beatles. Unfortunately, there were no longer any Beatles to manage,” Goodman writes. Nonetheless they prospered as solo artists and in 1971 George Harrison’s single “My Sweet Lord” became a worldwide hit. After a court decided that the song had been plagiarised from an old Chiffons tune, “He’s So Fine”, Harrison had to pay damages in the region of $2m to the publisher, Bright Tunes. Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ, as people in the business never tire of saying. But the Harrison case had a further twist. By the time of this settlement, in 1981, the three Beatles had ditched their manager and Bright Tunes had a new owner: Allen Klein, always more far-sighted than the acts he managed.

Klein went to school in Newark, New Jersey, with Philip Roth – and through Goodman’s book you can imagine him as a character in one of Roth’s novels, returning to its mean streets in limos with his illustrious clients, still driven by having been rejected by his father as a boy, winning in business by dint of an extraordinary capacity for hard work, prevailing on the tennis court simply by refusing to be beaten, and delighting in walking out of the most expensive restaurants without paying. (His driver would come in to settle the bill.)

Goodman has worked this ground before, in his book The Mansion on the Hill, which describes how the ragged-trousered troubadours of folk rock became rich beyond dreams of avarice during the CD boom. Unlike most people who write about the music business, he is not naive when it comes to the numbers. It’s difficult to know who are the winners and the losers in music. Artists are either poorer than you’d think, or richer than you could possibly imagine. Klein may not quite have shaped rock’n’roll as the book’s subtitle boasts, but he raised the expectations of the tiny handful of performers lucky enough to get to the very top. Every time a star uses a moment in the sun to move on to a better deal than anybody else – from Sam Cooke to Taylor Swift, it’s all the same – they get there through a door first wrenched open by Klein, the biggest bastard in the valley.

David Hepworth’s “1971: Never a Dull Moment” will be published in April by Bantam Press

Allen Klein: the Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock and Roll by Fred Goodman is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (302pp, $27)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war