With his fragile little stories, Simon Moreton follows in the steps of John Porcellino, sharing his attachement to self-publishing. After releasing the tenth and final issue of his 'zine SMOO last year, it seemed a good opportunity to discuss his evolution so far, as well as his new project, Minor Leagues.
Xavier Guilbert : I guess my first questions will deal with my trying to retrace the chronology of your evolution. There’s not much detail you provide (something we probably will get back to later on), but from what I gather, you started doing ‘zines around 2007 when you were about 22. Which seems to be kind of late — so I wonder what might have triggered that, and what kind of exposure you had had to comics in general previously.
Simon Moreton : I started drawing the first issue of SMOO in the Spring of 2007, which would have made me 23, turning 24 that summer. It took me a long time because I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it didn’t come out until May 2008. I then carried on drawing, but didn’t really release anything until 2010.
I started making comics mostly to have a creative output of some kind. Since being a teenager I had been terrified of living a life devoid of making art. A boring life. I had thought that music would be my outlet when I was in my late teens and early twenties, but the truth is I wasn’t very good, never finished anything and was too shy to share anything with anyone. I didn’t go to art school, and didn’t work in the arts, so if I was going to do something I had to do it myself.
So I started visiting a comic shop here in Bristol, though the timeline is a bit muddy here. I think I had already been drawing SMOO when Tom, the chap at the comic shop, introduced me to things like Jeffrey Brown, King Cat, and similar American indie comics.
As for the decision to start out with comics, I think that felt natural. I drew a lot when I was young, and wrote stories, too. Comics and comic strips were present — Peanuts, Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes in particular. When we moved from the countryside to the suburbs in 1994, I dabbled in a bit of Marvel and 2000AD which I could get from my local newsagents, but that didn’t last.
Later, my friend worked in a bookshop that sold secondhand or slightly damaged books, and it was there I started buying graphic novels when I was about 16 — things like Sandman, Ghost World, that sort of thing. I didn’t understand the world they came from, their context, but I was intrigued. In actual fact, I started trying to make a comic while still in secondary school in 2000. In fact, I was still trying well into 2001 as well, but it faded as I left home and went to University.
Was it a bit late ? Probably. Much like with the music thing, I had procrastinated and been nervous about trying to put art ‘out there’. I had supportive friends but very few were interested in what I was with the same intensity. I remember reading about music collectives or scenes, like K Records in Olympia, or Elephant 6 in Athens Georgia, and really wanting to be part of something.
This idea — of community, of the power of zines to connect and empower — has become much more important to me over recent years. At first, I wanted to be a cartoonist, I think. Now, I don’t. I’m a zine-maker.
Xavier Guilbert : Obviously, that question also leads to the main one : what happened in 2010, between SMOO #3 and #4 ? There’s a radical change in your style, moving from a rather busy approach with panels and balloons, to the style you’re using today : a definite economy of means, with just a few lines and a narrative that’s often bordering on poetry in terms of rhythm.
Simon Moreton : After SMOO #3, which was November 2010, I totally burned out. That comic was the one where I was really struggling with my abilities as an artist. When I talk about this period, I tend to say I was making the comics I thought I should make. I thought there were rules that could bend, but not break. I wasn’t able to imagine a different kind of visual language other than the one I had been exposed to.
The subject matter of SMOO #3 — anxiety, depression — lent itself to comics but not the kind I was making. I was almost ready to give up.
I tried a couple of different things in 2011 to remedy this. I made a two-issue zine series called The Escapologist which was a series of landscapes and a minimal narrative. That helped split out of the ‘comics’ rulebook thing, but I was still drawing in a very meticulous way, using photo references, and that really took it out of me. I’d finished my PhD at this point, but was struggling to find work. Making comics in this way was not rewarding.
As for SMOO #4, the story was prompted by my parents retiring and moving away from the town I had spent my teenage years. I went back and wrote down some thoughts and made some drawings. I even hand wrote this essay over 40 pages of Bristol Board paper, with these awful photo-realistic drawings, before ditching it all, and in a moment of frustration just started scribbling. And that’s how that happened.
The approach I adopted here — pencils, drawing quickly, on printer paper — is pretty much what I do now, but it took me a further 3 years or so to return to that method, as I continued to introduce pencil instead of pen to my comics, and pare back narratives. I was trying to unlearn the stuff I had made myself try out in the first few years of making comics. This is the stuff that was republished by Avery Hill in the book Days in 2014.
Xavier Guilbert : Since we’ve touched a little on the question of style, I’m curious — reading the first issues of SMOO, I felt there was something very British in the way you approached the page. When you look at US productions, be they mainstream or indy, there’s often a neat structure — rectangular panels, everything is kind of clearly delimited and organized. While thinking back on the pages of, say, 2000AD, things are definitely busier. ?And yet, you seem to mention a lot of US influences… I don’t know how much of a specific British culture of comics exists in Britain. I’ve visited only a handful of comic stores over the past years (namely Forbidden Planet), and the image I got was that it was first and foremost dominated by US comics, both in the mainstream and alternative sections.
Simon Moreton : The UK comics community has changed a lot over the last eight or so years that I’ve been involved. There has been a history of making and self-publishing comics for a very long time, and I think that has contracted and grown over the years at different moments, but when I started it was still fairly limited to genre stuff and fan cultures. We’re definitely in a growth phase at the moment. We have seen a big upswing in the number of shows, and a definite rise of, for want of a better word, art comics, too. There’s a moment here happening, with people like NoBrow and Breakdown Press and a bunch of art school kids who’ve taken comics into their work, where the possibilities of comics are really being made more visible. So the audience is growing, the variety of work is growing and that’s good.
Xavier Guilbert : I definitely share the impression of a rising comic scene in the UK — at least from what I’ve seen strolling around in Angoulême. And I guess the move away from conventional formats (and acceptations of the medium) is rather global, since we’ve had similar trends in France with the blossoming of the « graphic novel » (which, eventually, becomes another format itself).
To remain on that topic (more or less), you mention John P. and Jeffrey Brown, and in the Days ‘zine (a collection of daily drawings) you say you were trying to emulate James Kochalka in American Elf. I also note that you seem to interact a lot with US-based cartoonists. Does that mean it’s difficult to find something of a comics community in the UK ?
Simon Moreton : I think my attraction to the US DIY culture, over perhaps the one on my doorstep, is to do with how it has found its way into comics already. I didn’t really connect with conventional comics, and the weird stuff was already coming out of America, and that was inspiring. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s a surprise that I have an American publisher for Plans We Made, or that I make a large number of online sales to the US. At comics shows here in the past people haven’t really known what to make of these minimal black and white zines — like it doesn’t fit their vision of what a comic might look like. Whilst as in America, even if people weren’t that into it, it wasn’t an unusual thing to see, this format, this kind of work. I think that’s changing a bit over here, and that’s great, but I do sometimes feel a bit at the margins. That’s cool though.
As for my influences, I’ve always been aware of my interest in North American culture. As a child of the 80s watching kids’ films, and cartoons, and a teenager in the mid to late nineties excited by American alternative culture, it’s been ingrained in me. My teenage rebellion, such as it was, was reading Douglas Coupland and listening to DIY and alternative music and being wistful about running away.
When I discovered King Cat, it had a big impact on me two ways. Artistically it reported a way of seeing the world that I could relate to, and that I shared. The simple, thoughtful framing of events and the desire to live a particular kind of life through art. But also politically, the stuff John P reflects on making art, the punk approach to that, that resonated. And probably a certain amount of romantic idealisation on my part of this vision of America in the 90s that permeates some of the stories.
So I think I’ve always been aware since starting to make comics that I had American reference points, but I also knew that if I was going to draw a landscape, it needed to reflect this place, these streets. That preoccupation has come to the fore more over the years.
These days there are a whole bunch of non-comics influences that are also by and large non-American informing the stuff I’m working on. From John Betjeman, the English beat poets, folk art, through to the other stuff I’ve read — I trained as a geographer. I have a PhD in Human Geography. And while my research focuses on cultural policy and stuff like that, I learned a lot and read a lot about how we think about place, space, identity, how those things are made. More recently, my girlfriend recently introduced me to the films of Patrick Keeler and Chris Marker, and I’ve been exploring writers like WG Sebald. This stuff is really exciting for me.
Xavier Guilbert : Let me got back to one aspect of your work I evoked earlier, about the way you approach autobiography. A lot of the major authors in North America (Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, to name a few) have dealt with autobiography by « baring it all », and by never being shy about sharing the most intimate or grisly details. Your approach is the exact opposite : even when you’re talking about things that represent an important part of your life (places you lived for some time, for instance), you remain pretty vague about the details. There’s no real self-portrait or names or precise indications — I guess that someone familiar with you and the place you live in would be able to get the cues. But in a way, I get the impression you end up focusing on things that are more universal, if fragile…
Simon Moreton : I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of straightforward autobiography — although I’m not a fan of the self-loathing male trope at all — but I’m not really interested in making that kind of stuff for myself. I guess I’m more interested in themes, like change, memory, history, a sense of place, the passing of time, nostalgia. I once described the thing that underpins my work as being that moment of bewilderment in Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads, were David Byrne sings « How did I get here ? ». That sense of wooziness, of fear and defiance, of joy and opportunity, of difficulty and of calm and of energy and of just asking the question out loud. I really like that. And there’s something universal in that, and I feel like I’m sort of asking through my work — in my own small way — ‘did you feel like this too ?’
So in that sense, I’m not really interested in describing objective events in my stories, but subjective experiences. And in terms of the art, to overload the drawings with information, or detail, seems disingenuous, because I’m not trying to draw an event, I’m trying to draw what it feels like to remember an event, because those feelings are the things we have in common. In that sense, everything becomes a sort of impressionistic thing, an interplay between gestural drawings, abstract moments and figurative stuff. Some bits are clear, other are hazy, sometimes there are blank panels, and sometimes there are clear moments. But then memory is like that, you know ? You try and recall an event and there’s these snapshots, and this feeling, a sensation, bits of motion. But it’s not like watching a film.
There’s also a strong link for me between the conceptual stuff about what my work explores, and how I then share that work. For me, the reader is deeply embedded in my work. It’s partly why I draw in scruffy pencils, and it’s why I like zines because the communication is personal, and direct. I printed something on my printer at home and stapled it, and posted it to you, and you forgive it its flaws or its idiosyncrasies not only because what is in the zine, but also because of the other stuff that surrounds it, the personal context of its production and how it has arrived in your hands, and knowing we could have a chat about that stuff online or in person. But really, just through reading the zine, we’re having a conversation of sorts.
Xavier Guilbert : The advantage of having discovered your work kind of backwards (getting used to your most recent productions before going back to read the first issues of SMOO) lead me to try and find some indications of what was going to happen in these earlier works. There’s this page, in SMOO #2, that positively looks prophetic : « perhaps it’s more comforting to see the future as a blank page / just waiting to be written on. » That stayed with me, especially since a few pages later you have the story « a case in point » that plays a lot with blank space.
Simon Moreton : As for that old work, I hadn’t looked back at some of those stories in ages. It’s funny to think that stuff was there, even in a small way. Making art is such a journey : you’ve no idea where you’re going, pretty much like that old comic says. Actually, that particular comic, with me walking into the blank page, is hanging on my parent’s wall, so I actually do see that one quite often.
Xavier Guilbert : You say you’re « trying to draw what it feels like to remember an event, » and indeed that seems to be a staple of your output, right from the first issue of SMOO. You also expressed earlier on being « terrified of living a life devoid of making art » — but I have the impression that you more or less had an idea of what you wanted to do, and that most of the evolution has been about finding something of a language of your own. Would that resonate with you in any way ?
Simon Moreton : I think this might be an example of the benefit of hindsight ! While I always wanted to make something, be involved with people who made things, I genuinely wasn’t really conscious of my aims until I started to think about it a couple of years ago. I certainly wasn’t aware of them, or confident enough in them, to be able to say it out loud until recently. Until you’d pointed out, I don’t think I’d noticed how far back the ideas go !
But it makes sense : the things I’m driven by, these questions, predate my making art. They’re part of who I am and how I try and live as a person. So to see them coming out and finding structure through not just what I make, but how I make, is reassuring.
Xavier Guilbert : You mostly put out short stories — a few pages in the first issues of SMOO, now in the form of individual ‘zines of 16 pages or so. How different (or challenging) was working on Plans we made ? This is also your first book that has a publisher besides yourself (well, technically that would be Days, but I guess that was very different), how did that impact (or not) your creative process ?
Simon Moreton : Making a long book was a bit daunting at first. It took me about a year of preparation, trying things out, before I was really ready to start drawing it. Once I start drawing, things change anyway, so the look, feel, pace and tone are set to some extent by what happens once I put pencil to paper. The book itself was actually drawn in about one week, in December 2014, but I’d done a lot of the preparatory work before then.
I ended up being Uncivilized via a bit of a circuitous route. I had originally signed-on to work with Jordan Shiveley’s Grimalkin Press imprint, but while we were working on the book, he became Associate Publisher at Unciv and took me and the book with him. I was really excited — the rest of their books are great, and they put out a favourite of mine, Sophie Yanow’s War of Streets and Houses. So I was really lucky to end up working with them, and I’m really proud of the book, for all of its strengths and weaknesses.
In terms of working with a publisher, Uncivilized have been grand — they offered artistic freedom and taught me lots about how book design is important, right down to the paper-stock. But one thing you do realise is how different their timescales are — how long things take to emerge, what their revenue cycles are, industry cycles, that sort of stuff. Self-publishing, I tend to know the rough whereabouts of most things I make, give or take — like I know who I’ve sold to online, in person, which shops carry my work. But with a book, there’s none of that — it’s operating at a different scale and that’s bewildering. Letting go of that has been very weird.
The experience with Days was different again. I’d known Avery Hill Publishing for a couple of years from the British comics circuit, and the process felt more informal. They’re smaller than Uncivilized, but are growing and have put out some really varied and high quality work. It was nice of them to take a punt on a bunch of zines by me.
At the end of the day, I think there’s an important balance to be struck. Publishers can do things that you can’t do on your own, raise profiles and put your work in new places. But self-publishing lets you create stuff unrestrained by other pressures, helps you navigate your own ideas, processes and ambitions. It teaches you a lot.
For me, self-publishing is a destination, not a point along the way that will get me to something else. There’s still this cultural idea floating around that a publisher will come in, scoop you from obscurity, and set you on a path to stardom. Frankly, that’s bullshit. How many amazing writers and cartoonists wouldn’t be here if they’d waited to be discovered rather than getting on and doing it for themselves ?
I hope to have things published by other people in the future, but I hope always to be self-publishing, too.
Xavier Guilbert : I noticed today you’re starting a new ‘zines with Minor Leagues, which is significantly different from your previous works : the format (100 pages !) and the subscription model that more or less involves something of a commitment on your part… What are your objectives with this new project ?
Simon Moreton : Minor Leagues is a conscious effort to return to first principles for my zine making. Homemade, affordable, full of things I’m interested in — comics, drawing, words, photographs — it even has a letters page !
Artistically it is about giving myself permission to make a container with changeable rules, that contain whatever I like. I love writing, both prose and poetry, and the opportunity to explore how the mix with comics, drawing and sequential art, illustration, photography, is really exciting to me.
This permission to experiment means that the format might change according to the content, something I’ve been interested in for a long time. Sometimes I can imagine an issue might be small, sometimes large format, sometimes long, sometimes short. I want to print and assemble them as home as much as is possible because that connection to the materials is really important to me, too.
The zine will still thematically preoccupied with the same things as we’ve talked about, but just opening up ways to explore them. The first issue was written and drawn between January and March 2016, and its themes are, broadly, around mortality I guess, but also how many things come and go in different ways and different scales. During that time, a number of our relatives were falling ill, friends falling ill, a family member passed away, and a lot of high profile celebrity deaths, not to mention the various other tragedies played out in the news during this time, that give a backdrop to that. But it’s also about the quiet relativity of everything, how we make our way in the world.
The subscription service is both a commitment to carry it on as long as I can, but also, most importantly, a statement about wanting to build a connection with its readership. I’ve been trialling out a couple of different subscription models over the last couple of years, and while I’ve got various things wrong, the one thing I’ve enjoyed most is getting to know, in person and online, many of my subscribers. In a time where everything is ‘content’ to actually have a tangible relationship with something and someone who makes that thing, is really nice. I treasure that in relation to the zines I buy, and the correspondence I can have with their makers.
Xavier Guilbert : Speaking of this (the connection with zine-makers), I’d like to get back to this idea of a « community of sorts ». In one post on your blog, you talk of « people who make weirdo art comics like [you] ». I know you’ve been collaborating in various ways with Derik Badman, if only with the #30DaysOfComics projects. True, you’ve also done off-line collaborations (I’m thinking of The Sorry Entertainer anthology)…
Simon Moreton : I probably use the term ‘community’ way too much and way too idealistically, but I think what I’m interested in is how you connect people together to support one another, online or offline. Be that in terms of skills and ideas sharing, mutual support and encouragement, or just the knowledge you’re not on your own is all really important. The art is definitely a currency in that community, but not the only one.
The Sorry Entertainer was a newspaper anthology Nick Soucek and I put out back in 2011, and the whole idea was to draw together people who by-and-large weren’t appearing in some of the more high-profile UK anthologies at the time. It was a way of connecting with people, and it did, and the process taught me lots about making comics and made me some friendships along the way. You learn through doing, and make a difference that way, and I think that’s core to the DIY principles.
Around the same time Nick and I, along with Lando of Decadence Comics, started a zine called Bear Pit in Bristol, which was basically an anthology designed to bring local creators, many of whom were just starting out, to build a shared platform to learn about self-publishing. Then we, along with another friend Esme Betamax, started the Bristol Comic and Zine Fair to try and create a new audience for this group of people that was starting to come together. The fair has grown and grown, although I stepped down from the organising committee after last year’s event to focus on other stuff. So that was important, and coincided with a bit of a boom in UK shows no-longer catering only for conventional comics. It’s now in its sixth year.
I feel what we need for this ‘community’ is to think of it as a living thing that needs certain conditions to grow and thrive — shops, spaces, markets, meet-ups, education spaces, infrastructure, events, people, relationships, resources. Sadly, we’re lacking lots of those things at the moment but people are really trying hard to address that which is inspiring. I’m really excited by places like SAW, Centre for Cartoon Studies, Frank Santoro’s Rowhouse project and comics salons, zine libraries, all these spaces that I know must be out there but I just don’t know about. I want to find out more and see how different people imagine that connection between making art and helping other people make, share, and communicate their experiences.
Xavier Guilbert : It seems to me you navigate among a loose, online community of like-minded artists. I’d throw in people like Oliver East or Warren Craghead (whose work I’m more familiar with). Is this connection important for you ? How do you balance between the connections through printed zines you were mentioning, with the kind of proximity the Internet brings ?
Simon Moreton : In terms of artistic or stylistic connections, a group of us did find ourselves drawn together and named ourselves, somewhat whimsically, ‘Team Weird‘, which was always a bit of a joke. That was, nominally, Derik [Badman], Warren [Craghead], Oliver [East], Allan Haverholm and me. Oliver particularly, with his landscape work, and Warren in terms of his approach to drawing, are definitely close. But there’s loads of amazing artists out there who would easily fit that category, and really we’re just friends who make art — other people like Sophie Yanow, Gareth Brookes, Jenn Lisa and Juan Fernandez are all other people I know who inspire me in different ways, too. But that list could go on and on.
So yes, the Internet has facilitated a lot of those relationships, especially the international ones, but I’ve also had the opportunity to travel around a bit and spend some time with many of those people in the real world. Those connections have also led to me being published, by Retrofit, by Uncivilized, so that’s been great.
[Interview conducted through email during March 2016.]