The lovely mafia of British comics

Hannah Berry is happy to be a British comics creator, even if she's not Respectable just yet…

I’ve never trusted articles that are written with any authority about entire communities. People are far too unpredictable to be generalising their behaviour into a thousand-odd words.

But that’s by-the-by. Now, let me tell you how the independent comics scene in the UK works.

I’ve had two graphic novels published by Jonathan Cape, which made my mother happy because in the literary world twice published is Respectable. In the UK comics arena, however, twice published – either by a publisher or by self-publishing or by publishing online – is not necessarily the mark of success. Being published is the provisional drivers licence of the comics world: it entitles you to get out there with the other road users, but until you’ve proven your worthiness, proven that you’re not about to turn your car into a twisted metal inferno on a roundabout, you are not Respectable.

A few years ago when I first went to Thought Bubble, the biggest indie comics festival in the UK, it was as a wide-eyed, newly-published author, whose travel costs were suddenly covered. I knew no one (at least not to talk to) and no one really knew me, although a few had read my newly-published book Britten & Brülightly. I was sat at a table with a signing pen, next to another guy with another signing pen. This guy spent the entire weekend stoically and pointedly ignoring me. In spite of my many attempts at conversation (and, for the record, I am pretty fucking charming) I simply did not exist to him.

Now, most people in comics are nowhere near as rude as this pendejo was – most people in comics are actually interested in what other people in comics do – but it was a valuable early lesson in how little being published really means and where I stood in the grand scheme of things. If I was a forgiving person I would look back now with the gift of hindsight and thank him for his twattitidue. If.

Being published is not the endgame in comics. It’s very nice, but there’s much more to being a respected member of the community: essentially, it’s down to what you do for the community.

This is important for two main reasons, the first one being that the community is still quite a small one, relatively speaking. It’s possible to know – or know of – most individuals involved in it one way or another. You meet a lot of people at festivals and other comic events, the same friendly faces a few times a year, or you get to know them through working on certain collective projects together. Often you get to know people via social media first – making 140-character chit-chat or sharing links to new projects. Everyone is connected to everyone else through a complex mesh of friendships and collaborations, and so we are one, big, tightly-knit, faintly incestuous group.

The second reason is that there is no real money in comics. Funding is woefully scarce and the majority of work is done gratis, which guarantees that everyone who works in the field does so because they love the medium. There is literally not one single person who is involved with indie comics just to pay the bills: that is certifiable behaviour.

On top of this, there are no businesses looking to exploit the industry for a fast buck, because the bucks are not fast, my friend, not fast at all. So everyone concerned wants to be here, and wants it enough that they’ll sacrifice pension plans and financial security to do it. The enthusiasm is deafening, you can barely hear yourself think over all that zeal. Everyone believes in the cause of comics, and almost everything that happens in the comics world is driven internally.

Because of this lack of money and external opportunities, creators and comics-related businesses have to be rigorously entrepreneurial. It's a "Who Dares Wins" scenario, and all avenues are explored and exploited. Every conceivable thing that can be done will be done to get the word and the work out there, and often this means relying on your colleagues in the industry.

And the wonderful, fabulous, horrifically Disney-esqe truth of it is that most people in the comics world are very willing to help each other out for the good of comics. We all know how tough things are, how many obstacles are in the way, and how much of an uphill struggle it is to gain recognition inside and outside of the immediate comics circle, but when one of us does exceptionally well we see it as an individual triumph and a group triumph. Any doors kicked down by one trailblazer will stay open for all of us. It’s the system of mutual advancement favoured by organised crime syndicates, but used in a nicer way. Like a lovely mafia.

Not that everything is gumdrops on kittens, of course. From time to time this protective attitude has been known to backfire into full on defensiveness in response to any criticism (which I suspect is why the recent question of sexism in the British Comic Awards exploded the way it did), and there are almost certainly some long-running feuds lurking under the surface, scowling away. It’s understandable, really. We’re passionate about what we do, and we need to stand up for these things that our lives revolve around: so help me I will push a man under a bus if he bad-mouths my beloved medium.

Perhaps that’s how it is with prose literature? I couldn’t say, but I think having something to prove tends to give you a certain fire, and we know collectively we still have some way to go before the independent UK comics scene is taken as seriously as it should be.

So in the UK comics world, kudos is given to comics creators and professionals who are ambassadors for the medium: the ones who have created things so amazing that they have raised the bar and brought the limelight to the scene, inspiring others; or those who rally us and support us by finding new and ingenious ways to bring us together or showcase our work, organising events or festivals or anthologies that allow people to meet, share ideas and create extraordinary things. Basically, the creators and curators and organisers and comic shops and publishers etc who go above and beyond. They have earned Respectability.

Ask not what comics can do for you – ask what you can do for comics. And then do it. A lot.

Panels from Berry's second book, Adamtine. Image: Jonathan Cape

Hannah Berry is a British comics creator, author of Britten & Brülightly and Adamtine, both published by Jonathan Cape. She tweets as @streakofpith, and owns a tortoise called Rooster.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism