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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.