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.

Show Hide image

Young and Promising is the next best new TV comedy about “struggling millennials”

It’s Norwegian, subtitled, gently funny and very honest.

You know things are bleak when every mainstream comedy derives its humour from just how fucked up it is to be young today. Girls, Broad City, Search Party, Insecure, Fleabag, Love, This Country, You’re The Worst... the list of on-screen women in their 20s “just doing their best to figure it all out” is endless.

Over on Channel 4 tonight, a new overgrown child of the genre debuts, albeit one with a slight difference. Young and Promising (or Unge Lovende) makes its way to mainstream UK TV from Norway’s NRK (the channel that brought us Skam, the best teen drama of the decade) as part of All 4’s Walter Presents programme, which offers a chance to experience shows from around the globe. It’s Norwegian, subtitled, gently funny and very honest.

Young and Promising is written by its lead actress, Siri Seljeseth, who plays Elise, an aspiring comedian based in LA who returns home to Oslo to renew her tourist visa. The show also follows her two best friends (played by Seljeseth’s real friends from the Nordic Institute of Stage and Studio): Nenne (Gine Cornelia Pedersen), a waitress and unpublished fiction writer, and Alex (Alexandra Gjerpen), who is at the crucial stages of auditions for the Norwegian National Academy of Theatre for the fourth year in a row. 

It’s Elise whom we see the most of in tonight’s opening double-bill, which follows her from LA to the US Embassy in Oslo as she tries to get back to California. In Norway, it watches her struggle to handle a relationship she had left hanging, with her ruggedly handsome best friend Anders, whom she slept with the night before she first left for LA. It’s her home life, however, that’s most intriguing: her domineering father has cheated on her nervous, psychoanalytic mother and is having a baby with another woman. Who? “I don’t think that is relevant in this situation,” he insists. “This won’t affect you in a greater extent.” 

Meanwhile, Nenne is rejecting male publishers who fetishise her work as a new cool feminist voice. She uses her waitressing job to her advantage, assisting a senior publisher suffering from alcohol-induced vomiting and diarrhea in order to call in a favour later. But it’s Alex who has the stand out plotline, with some of the most complex and moving scenes of the show. She is simultaneously the most ambitious and most disillusioned character, played at breaking point by Gjerpen. When, in a key audition, her male scene partner suddenly forces his hand between her thighs, she snaps, and spends the rest of the episode lurching between hot tears of guilt over losing the scene, and painful conversations with peers about “being in character”.

Young and Promising has drawn countless comparisons to Girls, as any new show about mid-20s creative women does, but it’s friendlier, less cinematic and more down to earth than much of that series. The laughs don’t hit as hard, but its lead characters are fundamentally much more likeable. If you’re a struggling millennial comedy addict, or searching for something to fill the Norwegian hole Skam left in your life, Young and Promising is for you.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.