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Five Minutes With: Tom Smith, Author & Editor, Frisson Comics

With its serialised horror zines, Frisson Comics perpetuates the British publishing tradition of comics anthologies that began in the 1930s. Tom Smith, author and editor, speaks to us about the Liverpool horror collectives, his approach to author-artist collaboration and the logic in using a pseudonym.

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Apart from your own titles, Frisson Comics also publishes anthologies of horror stories by different authors in zine format. How did this come about? Are anthologies still effective in getting artists and authors published?

 

Knock Knock Issue 8. The horror comics projects coming out of Liverpool inspired Frisson Comics to publish the anthology series. © Frisson Comics. Subscription: www.patreon.com/frissoncomics.

The idea for our Knock Knock zine came about while were crowdfunding our first graphic novel on Kickstarter. We saw that there were quite a few horror comics projects coming out of Liverpool and our initial idea was to try and get some of these creators talking and working together through the zine. Over the last couple of years that we’ve been running it we’ve had a fair few local artists and writers working in the genre such as Clare Thompson, Joey Oliveira, Kevin Rogers, Lee Killeen, Katie Pinch and even Lloyd Davies who is better known for his Eatmypaint strip. As we’ve gone on we’ve really been able to extend our reach in terms of contributors and take submissions from all over the world.

I’m not sure I could say whether or not our anthologies, or any anthologies for that matter, help artists and authors get published by anyone except us, but we’ve only been doing this for a couple of years. Maybe you could ask in a couple more years and I’d be able to give a better answer! What I would say is that it definitely helps people’s work get into the public consciousness and we try our best to get the best both out of the online and the physical medium. So not only can people get a nicely printed zine but we put all of our back issues onto our website for anyone to read for free. We also offer our contributors the chance to print any issue they are featured in, in order that they can have an equal opportunity to us to distribute the zine and make money from their work.

How do you begin your story? With visuals or with words? What did the inspiration for the style or story come from?

 

Each one of my stories seems to have a different genesis but it almost always begins with words. The first graphic novel I wrote, Take Only Photographs, Leave Only Footprints (pictured), began life after a trip to the beach where Katie and I had inadvertently brought live barnacles home that were attached to a rock we had picked up. They were kind of grotesque looking and made a weird crackling noise, but Katie felt so guilty that she had taken these creatures out of their environment and felt awful that they might die because of what she had done, even going so far as to return them to the water. I was really touched by her concern for them and decided to write a short story about someone who had a much more callous attitude towards them causing nature to wreak its revenge on him and everyone else in the town! Shortly after, I showed the story to Katie who seemed to really like it and thought that the theme of the story really fit well with her own interests and also would work well with her own inky, organic illustration style.

With our second graphic novel, The Trade, it simply took off from a conversation we were having about how a vampire would survive if they had previously been vegan or vegetarian and from that one central idea I built the character of Serena and from there a series of obstacles for her to overcome until it became what I felt was a fully fleshed out script.

Who has more creative freedom or ownership in a comic book? The writer or the illustrator?

 

I’m not sure I can speak for other creators, but when I work with an artist I very much try and maintain that the ownership at least is 50/50. As for creative freedom, that is a much more tricky question. I want the artists I work with to have as much creative freedom as possible but at the end of the day they are still working within the framework I have given them in the form of the script and storyboard.

When I have worked with Katie, or more recently with Clare Thompson on Blue Collars, I have tried to get them involved as early on in the writing process as I could. This way it didn’t feel like I was just passing over a project for them to complete for me. Both Katie and Clare have provided me with some really great input during the writing stage of our books and in their own way acted as authors, too. Similarly, I try to give assistance to them by creating storyboards which provide them with a jumping off point visually. I encourage them to make it their own as much as possible though!

Comics and graphic novels are highly collaborative in their nature. Stan Lee the writer couldn’t exist without Jack Kirby the artist. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was made material by the brush strokes of Dave McKean and other Vertigo artists. Understandably, the work is more laborious. What can journalists, authors and playwrights learn from the excellent teamwork of the comics team?

 

I wouldn’t like to say, I really know very little about those other professions or what they could learn from a comics team. I think that whatever kind of creative collaboration you are in, it’s really important to share a vision on the project or at least be on the same page about it.

When I was beginning to put Blue Collars together I knew that I wanted Clare to illustrate the series after seeing a number of her industrial landscape paintings. When I met with her to pitch the idea of the future society, I was delighted that she was almost immediately on board and bouncing ideas of her own back at me, and whether it’s us or anyone creating anything, it always ends with a better product when you all share a vision of something.

“…Whatever kind of creative collaboration you are in, it’s really important to share a vision on the project or at least be on the same page about it.”

You’re from Yorkshire via Liverpool. Yorkshire produces some of our literary greats, for example, the Bronte sisters and Margaret Drabble. Of course, there were also Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes! What is it about this region that could shape such driven, unconventional minds? Is it the climate? Is it the people?

 

Tom Smith (pictured) grew up in Pontefract, Yorkshire. He is now based in Liverpool, where he writes and edits for Frisson Comics. Pic: © Frisson Comics.

Again I don’t think that I can speak for anyone else. I doubt the Yorkshire I grew up in was comparable to that of the Bronte sisters or even Ted Hughes for that matter. For me, my upbringing there was extremely conventional. I grew up in a market town called Pontefract in West Yorkshire. In a lot of ways, I was probably really lucky to grow up there, but it seemed that nothing exciting or important ever happened there.

I fell in love with films and books and generally was an escapist and fantasist, sometimes to the annoyance of other people. I still feel guilty for really upsetting my mum once after she had met with one of my teachers from school. We had been assigned to write an autobiographical piece for an English assignment and the school had expressed concern as I had written about a particularly savage beating that my mum had given me and my siblings. It was all rubbish though! I just made it up because I thought my real home life was too boring to write about.

The Residents by Mike Apnea. What did you have to consider when editing this story? Did you have a hand in the development of the story? How does an artist react to an edit?

 

I’m afraid you’ve caught me in a bit of dishonesty here. Mike Apnea was actually a pseudonym of mine. So I guess, yes, I did have a hand in the writing of the story!

Basically, it was a story I really wanted to tell and draws upon experiences that I and other members of my family have had with other family members suffering from dementia. It was a really personal story to me and one which I knew I wanted to tell alone. The thing was I had never drawn much to show other people and was really self-conscious and worried that people would really dislike or be insulting about my illustration. But all the same, I felt I needed to put the story out there and so decided to self-publish under a pseudonym, my thinking being that if anyone was critical of the work I could hold my hands up and claim it wasn’t me.

The thinking in this is totally flawed, of course, as people have been critical of the art and it hurt just as much because I know it’s me. But much more people have loved the book and loved the art style which also made me feel kind of bad because I felt as if I couldn’t take the praise of this persona I had invented. The whole experience has taught me to take ownership of my work even if I feel it can be flawed at times and when I eventually reprint The Residents, the author will be Tom Smith.

Which of the stories that you wrote for Frisson Comics is your favourite? Can you tell us about it?

 

The Trade grew from a conversation Smith and Whittle were having about how a vampire would survive if they had previously been vegan or vegetarian. Author: Tom Smith. Illustrator: Katie Whittle. © Frisson Comics. Subscription: www.patreon.com/frissoncomics.

It’s really hard to choose, but I would have to say that I feel that my most accomplished work is The Trade. It’s the second graphic novel I did with Katie and it follows the character of Serena who we learn early on in the book is a vampire who has been trying to live her life as ethically as she possibly can having been a vegetarian before being turned. Midway through her story, she is presented with a moral choice that ends up having dire consequences and focuses on how Serena goes about putting things right.

As I said before this just came out of a throwaway conversation about how a vegan vampire would live and just snowballed into a story that dealt with so much more. It was a real pleasure working with Katie on this who brought loads of ideas to the table while we worked on the story and characters for this, not to mention that her artwork for this one was really beautiful when it needed to be and grotesque when it needed to be. We were really lucky to have a few reviewers pick it up and say nice things about it. The highlight of this year for me was The Trade being featured in Bleeding Cool’s Top 5 Indie Comics of 2017.

What is the most recent book you have read?

The Book Of English Folk Tales by Sybil Marshal.

Print, PDF or ebook?

Print.

About Tom Smith

Tom Smith is a writer, editor, occasional illustrator and co-founder of Frisson Comics with his partner and collaborator Katie Whittle.

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