James Walsh: The two brains behind Dirty Rotten Comics reveal the secret of their success in creating compendiums that allow the disenfranchised to have their say
A MAN in a bar has antlers grow unexpectedly from his forehead. While you’re digesting that, a woman’s mind wanders as she’s subjected to terrible rock music while taking an MRI scan.
A kid can move mountains with his mind but would rather play Playstation, while a cheery piece of marshmallow goes for a doomed walk along the beach.
All these, and more, can be found in Dirty Rotten Comics, a compendium of contemporary small-press gems.
Its latest issue combines offerings by well-known cartoonists — if you’re a Private Eye or Viz regular, you’ll recognise some styles on display — to the much less well established.
The strips veer from the heartfelt, silly and surreal, or — as is the case with James Gifford’s Soup — the uncomfortably brutal.
Sometimes a submission simply concerns a mysterious cube playing the banjo — always funny — while a few pages further back there’s a beautifully drawn story of waiting and reunion.
Anxiety, foodbanks, middle-class guilt, the mania of 24-hour news — there’s a lot going on here, even if it sometimes appears in the form of, say, a psychotic Punch and Judy show.
If clipboard-wielding aliens from the future stumbled upon this compendium amid assorted space detritus, they would conclude that non-Establishment comics in 2015 were in rude health.
Kirk Campbell and Gary Clap, co-editors of Dirty Rotten Comics, wouldn’t disagree: “Shelf space in independent book shops around the country is being given over to more and more work from independent publishers.
“Flagship stores such as Page 45 in Nottingham and Gosh! Comics in Soho have entire walls dedicated to their small-press sections and give whole window displays over to the work of independents such as SelfMadeHero and NoBrow Press.
“The demand from the paying public for more home-grown comickers is indicative of a revival that is taking place largely away from the media spotlight.
“If you stepped into a comic convention seven years ago, it would have been in some dingy hall of a red-brick university. The bulk of exhibitors would have been mostly male, many of whom were producing longer-form sci-fi narratives or fantasy works. The quality was high, but the audience was small.
“The landscape today really is shifting further and further away from the stereotype of superhero nerds in ill-fitting trousers to more worldly young professionals or illustration graduates.”
My feeling, based partly on the experience of a cartoonist friend who started out making web comics, was that the internet and social media had actually helped the rise of DIY comics, in the way it’s helped the feminist zine scene I wrote about a few weeks ago.
But Campbell and Clap, whose opinions have fused together into single co-authored quotes like some kind of genetic experiment gone wrong, aren’t so sure.
“It seems that people are reaching saturation point with the always-online modern culture, and there’s something of a shift back toward traditional means of self-expression.
“People’s interaction with the world has become so devalued by social media, where thoughts and feelings are restricted by word limits and validated by a ‘like’ button.”
It’s not a world I’m particularly familiar with, save popping along to the odd convention in support of my friend. But they seem a friendly and supportive bunch.
“The British comics community is very inclusive and accepting and there’s a strong solidarity between artists and audience,” they tell me.
“The disenfranchised can find their voice in comics because so many people are willing to pay attention. Those with no other way of getting their voice heard can sketch a strip or staple a zine, head down to a comics convention or alternative press fair and get that human-to-human validation and connection.
“It’s a social movement without a top-down structure. You don’t need someone to grant you the space to perform or give you access to the means of production. It all starts in the bedroom, with an idea and a printer.”