Wednesday, 23 April 2008

A chat with...Kenny Penman

This year sees the first releases from new indie publishers Blank Slate. I caught up with Blank Slate's Kenny Penman to ask him about the company and its plans for the future.

Who are Blank Slate?

Blank Slate is basically myself and my original business partner James Hamilton. We've owned Sci Fi Bookshop in Edinburgh since around 1986 (it started in 1975) and later tied up with Mike Lake and Nick Landau to open Forbidden Planet stores in a joint project. Those are now the Forbidden Planet International stores around the country as well as in Dublin.

Alongside us we have Isobel Rips who is doing much of the editing and translated the Mawil book and my friend Duncan Bullimore who is a graphic designer by trade and is handling the look of the books. That's all of us.

What made you decide that there was a need for Blank Slate?

In truth, I'm not sure there is. I think the small press has shown it is capable of getting a lot of good material to consumers on its own - look at the likes of Dave Sim, Sam Hiti, Eleanor Davis in the US - Bob Byrne, David Hitchcock, Simone Lia and many more in the UK. They are all producing excellent comics and producing their own books through self-publishing. I think if you want to do it and can find the financial wherewithal to print it, you can produce great work without a publisher.

I guess Blank Slate is here for those who don't want to go down that route and for some foreign comics unlikely to be translated otherwise. Ultimately though it is really because both James and myself have been comics fans since we were about five, have spent a lot of our adult life around comics, are still big comics readers and fancied having a go at publishing stuff we liked which we hoped others would as well.

What is Blank Slate's objective?

You know, I don't think we really have one as such - except to try and get our books to the widest possible market. We hope to put out as many comics as the company can afford from the revenues each release brings in (the start-up capital has come from our own individual pockets), to print some interesting material, to try and nurture some home grown UK talent into finding a readership.

Of course we'll hope for a 'big' hit amongst it but as we all have other jobs we aren't looking for the publishing initially to pay wages. Any profits will be going back in to print the next project. Hopefully we will be able to establish a big enough titles list to allow us to be seen by book stores and comics stores alike as someone whose books you should be carrying.

I think the slight advantage we have is that we have a lot of connections in the business having both worked in it for over 20 years now and we'd hope to be able to pull some of those strings to get the books a chance they might not get coming from a start-up business where the owners were new to the comics world.

Please tell us about Blank Slate's first two releases.

Slate 1 is a collection of the first three issues of Oliver East's comic Trains are...Mint. Oliver has self-published the first three issues. Both Jim and I were taken by it right away and wanted to collect it. It's being done as a nice-looking hardcover and we think it has a chance of finding an audience outside the comics market.

(Above: art by Oli East)

It should appeal to the local Manchester and surrounding areas market, being it is essentially a travel diary about Oliver's walks in those areas. But I think it has a much greater appeal being both an assured and unusual piece of comic art and a piece of social commentary also. Oliver has become a bit in-demand since we agreed to do the collection, having just provided all the artwork for the latest Elbow album The Seldom Seen Kid. It won't appeal to everyone, but leave your preconceptions of what a comic should be and read it and I'm sure you'll love it. It's 100 pages with a new cover, endpapers and chapter sheets.

Slate 2 is a translation of German cartoonist Mawil's second book, We Can Still Be Friends. He has six books in print in Germany and seems to win their independent comics creator award practically every year. Isobel who did the translation is one of Forbidden Planet's buyers and a huge comics fan. Her normal taste is Spider-Man and superheroes mostly, but she LOVES Mawil. She translated it for us and I thought it was fantastic also, and I was delighted to find a book that appealed to Superhero and non-superhero comics fan alike.

(Above: art by Mawil)

He's a fantastic cartoonist, one of those guys who just looks like he could always draw without having to learn. His comics are funny and charming. We sent a few proof copies out for review and got some great responses from people like Joe Matt and Jeffrey Brown - Isobel met Scott Mcloud at the Frankfurt book fair and he's a big fan - so we know the book has appeal if we can get it to people. Mawil did have a previous book, Beach Safari, published by Top Shelf, many years back, but we think this is a better book with much wider appeal.

If you ever fancied someone who didn't fancy you back then you'll love this. It's a 64 page softcover and if successful we'd hope to do more Mawil in future.

What is the Blank Slate ethos when it comes to new work? Are you open for submissions?

I think we hope that we truly are a 'blank slate' - we'll consider anything, with the possible exception of Superheroes or really out-there avant garde work the likes of which people like Le Dernier Cri might publish (not because we don't like those ourselves - in many cases we do - we just think there are a lot of publishers who can do those sorts of books better justice than we'd be able to).

We are always open to submissions and we have had quite a few already, one of which, from UK artist Richard Cowdry, already has us talking to him about a possible future collection. I can't promise we are the great hope for ignored comics creators but we are certainly interested in new work. I'll reply to every submission though some of those might take me a little while - I owe a couple of people replies right now.

How many titles do you plan to release a year?

I'd like to say, with some certainty, about 12, but it has taken us a fair while to finally get the first two to the printers. Whilst we had printed magazines before printing books was a whole new learning experience; doing a translation was an interesting but quite demanding task and just liasing with the artists to try and get the books as close to their vision as possible all took time. So it might be less, but lets say we hope for 12, probably two books every two months or so. If we fall short it will be due to inexperience or the fact no-one likes or buys the books. If we find we can do more we gradually will.

Do you think that the comics industry in this country is in a better or worse state than it was 10 years ago, and why?

I think in terms of it's finances - comic industry UK PLC if you like - probably a little better. Manga has obviously reached into the wider bookstore market and increased the potential for a widened comics readership. Comics are taken more seriously by 'real' book publishers than before (although I personally have some reservations about some of the stuff they are choosing to print) comics-based movies have supported sales of Superhero comics through the traditional comics shop network.

Tesco seems to have more comics on its racks than ever. Some of them, like Shaun the Sheep and Cartoon Network, providing good new outlets for UK-based cartoonists, which must be a good thing. Most comics fans learnt to read comics as kids, so it's nice to see a new audience being built [through all-ages comics]. I do think where things have suffered is in the adventure/adult market. 2000 AD is still a hot bed for new creators and is still producing some exceptional material but it's power has certainly waned. I see it as showing only 20K in sales these days when at its height it was five or six times that.

There are no major magazine publishers willing to take a risk with older age comics. Certainly no-one looking to produce the next Crisis or Deadline. I don't think this is unique to the UK though. The comics mag has pretty much died out in countries like France and Spain as well. I'm quite excited about things like Self Made Hero and their Manga Shakespeare as a great attempt at building new readership and the new David Fickling comic has some talented creators like Kate Brown working for it and looks like it might be very good.

On the other hand the small press scene seems to me more healthy than it has ever been since the days of Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury's Escape. I think there will be many new stars emerge from what is a revitalised do-it-yourself ethos. All in all I'm personally seeing more stuff I want to read year on year (as a guidepost I'd probably rate Love & Rockets as my favourite all-time comic) in both the UK and US markets, in comics generally.

Kenny, thanks for your time.


Jim Medway said...

Great interview - I look forward to seeing what else they release.

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