Panels Publishing - The Power of the Group
Comic books are one of the most influential art forms of the last century, with its impact felt on film, television, video games, libraries and more. Superheroes tune into the part of our psyche which believes (or wants to believe) that we can overcome adversity, that it’s possible to be effective in the world, that we can be a positive force and that being different is a good thing.
So it’s little wonder why artists and writers are drawn to working in the comics industry, but, it’s a tough industry to get started in and having creative talent and drive doesn’t necessarily mean your work will be going up on the shelves. The big comic publishers like DC and Marvel, are businesses and are mostly interested in publishing work that they believe will return the most profit. It makes sense from a business point of view, but it lacks variety and it makes it harder for new talent and new ideas to get into the world.
Panels Publishing are different. They are a team of 6 creative, talented individuals who, on graduating from the MLitt course at University of Dundee, joined forces and set themselves up as a comic publisher which is interested in the variety, new talent and new ideas.
Although spread out across the UK and America, the Panels team got together virtually, for a video call interview with Redbird.
Starting your own artist run comic publishing label is a big project, but it has precedence in companies like Image. Was the story of Image an inspiration to you?
Cale: Oh definitely, our aim is to help new comic writers and artists get started in the comics industry. Selling and publishing independent comics is at the core of what we do and it’s why we set up Panels. Image was a huge inspiration because it was founded by artists and writers, who wanted to own the copyright on their work and escape the restrictions of more commercially driven publishers.
Jessica: We were inspired by the concept of setting something up that was for everyone, something that would help emerging talent get published. We want to bridge the gap between finding your feet when you’re just starting out and having something solid, something published and available for other people to enjoy.
What do you find are the benefits of working together online in a creative group?
Jessica: We had been working together on the comics course in Dundee and found that working with so many different creative people to be really productive. So it’s that creative environment we wanted to establish with Panels. Initially we had thought about making it a pub or a coffee shop, because we wanted a space that provided a good atmosphere for creative interaction, but it just wasn’t feasible. The beauty of Panels being online, is that we can pull together talent from all over the world as well as locally. It gives us access to a much bigger creative group.
Nathan: And being a combination of writers and artists we all bring something different to the table. For example, when we were working on Sosmanaut, we were trying to figure out how best to show what was going on simultaneously throughout the ship. I’m a writer, not an artist, but I came up with the idea of showing a cross section of the ship.
What are some of the challenges you face as an independent publisher?
Cale: The main challenge is making sure our work gets out there, it’s a lot of work getting established and we are getting a really positive response, but we’re not on ComiXology (owned by Amazon) and that makes it harder. That said, having independent comics out there is really important, to us and the wider comic community, so it’s worth striving for.
ComiXology is a bit of a beast, do you think that the future of comics is going to be purely digital?
Faye: There are a lot of advantages to digital comics. You can do things with animation in digital comics that you just can’t do with print, but equally you lose the collectors if you do everything in digital.
Cale: Yeah, there’s room for both. There is an experience element to holding a comic or going into a comic book store that is lost in digital. I think you’ll continue to see a combination of comics in print and digital and some years one will be more popular than the other, but it’ll balance out.
Jessica: One benefit of digital, is that we can put new work up very quickly. For example, for Free Comic Day, we got together online and said, right, what should we do? Within the hour we had decided to use a comic Nathan and Letty had worked on as a submission piece, up and ready to download for Free Comics Day. It’s great to be able to be reactive like that.
Faye has recently joined the Panels team as an artist, how did you find her?
Letty: Faye actually joined our flat before she joined Panels! She came in as a new flatmate and then joined the team. Faye is a brilliant comic book artist as well so it’s great to have her on board!
Letty, you have been doing most of the artwork in Panels comics and you’re work is really beautiful. There are some lovely colour choices in Cosmic, which Erin Keepers wrote. How does it work when one of the team approach you and Faye with a new comic script they want illustrated?
Letty: They normally will email me something and I’ll say, I’m too busy leave me alone! We’re working on a series of comics called From the Deep, which includes The Stoorworm. We did two and then Cale came to me with the third one and I was like: No Way!
(group laughs) I enjoy the character development side of things, working out what people would look like, what their wardrobe is etc. And it takes time, there was a character for one piece I didn't get quite right the first few times. I made him too handsome. I had to make him fatter, add more stubble.
Cale: A lot of my inspiration comes from TV shows, so I write them in as references in the script.
Faye: Yeah, having good references like that is really helpful when we’re drawing out parts of the script!
Letty and Faye, what are your art tools of choice?
Letty: I pencil and ink everything by hand, onto old fashioned bristol board, then scan it into the computer to clean up and colour digitally. I use Photoshop CS6 and a bamboo tablet for colouring - it's old and cheap but I haven't managed to break it yet.
Faye: The materials I use depend heavily on the project; but the ones I use most frequently are nib and ink on paper, or Paint Tool SAI on the computer.
Panels comic books feature a lot of good strong female characters, which is something that’s been lacking in the genre for a long time (The Ballad of Halo Jones being a major exception.) With that in mind, what’s important to you about portrayal of female characters and what did you think about the latest Avengers movie?
Jessica: Its important to have female characters who are in charge of their own destiny. The Avengers films were starting to do that, which was great, but in this latest film they turned the Black Widow into the Hulk’s love interest. It completely diminished the character. I mean she is supposed to be a super spy! They had a great strong female character and they just didn’t know what to do with it.
Cale: Yeah that was really disappointing. We need more strong female characters in comics and films. The Female Thor comic saw an increase in sales of something like 30% over male Thor comics, so it’s something people want, there’s a definite market for it. Marvel are better than DC at female character development, but there’s still a long way to go.
Panels are responding to that demand with the female characters featured in comics like Meteor and Cosmic. Is accurate female representation important to you?
Jessica: Yes. We want to present female characters who do their own thing, who have freedom and aren’t just there to support someone else’s role.
What are the best things and the worst things about Comicons?
Letty: Best thing about cons is going round seeing loads of new works and stealing ideas / getting inspired for new projects. Worst thing is probably getting home too tired to make anything of all those ideas.
Nathan: (Best things) 1. When people pick up your book, read a bit, then smile or laugh, or compliment it verbally. Double points if they buy it too. 2. Buying someone else's stuff and realising there are other people with the same sense of humour or similar ideas. That you aren't alone in the universe. (Worst things) 1. Not having enough time to leave the table and look at everything properly. 2. Spending a long time travelling and lugging suitcases around. Super tiring. 3. Sometimes Jess doesn't allow us to eat at the table.
Jessica: Utterly untrue!
Faye: Best thing about cons is meeting all the new people and finding out all their individual reasons for coming. Worst thing is the lack of proper breaks - they're so tiring.
Cale: Best Con stuff is meeting other creators. We're all always so crazy excited to meet each other. Everyone is so nice. Worst thing is food truck lines.
Jessica: Best thing about cons is meeting other people and getting to see what they've made. Worst is probably the travelling and the cost can sometimes be pretty high.
Tell us who your top 5 major influences are.
Noelle Stevenson is amazing and funny and clever and is also a really positive example of the trend of big publishers picking people up based on webcomics/ self published work.
Evan Dahm is vastly underrated, and I think everyone should read Rice Boy - it's online for free and it's got an amazing blend of simple, stylized artwork with epic storyline and engaging characters.
Adam Warren's art style is great, and I'm always looking at it when I feel like my own is straying away from what I want.
Tove Jansson, who created the Moomins. Its always worth returning to both from a writing and artistic perspective, plus her other illustrative work is fantastic - she did illustrations for The Hobbit which I think are unequalled.
Zoological/ scientific illustrators like Audubon and Archibald Thorburn were a huge influence when I was growing up. I was massively into wildlife and wanted to be able to draw creatures with the accuracy and dedication of zoological artists.
- In terms of comic writers, Scott Snyder. He's had an absolutely incredible run on Batman. 40 issues of near perfection. He writes very big, over the top action, but there's always good character arcs and dialogue, meaningful themes running through.
- Probably Grant Morrison as well, lots of crazy stuff, always pushing boundaries even in the mainstream.
- Daniel Clowes writes a lot about loneliness and depression, but with a dark cynical sense of humour, which I really appreciate and try to replicate.
Kurt Vonnegut for surreal sci-fi. One of my favourite authors. Slaughterhouse-Five is one of my favourite novels.
Isaac Asimov for more classic sci-fi. My uncle bought me his Robot Series (The Caves of Steel etc.) for my 13th birthday. Hugely influential on modern sci-fi, and definitely shaped me personally. Ooh and Jeff Lemire! Ooh and Jason Aaron! Ooh and Brian K. Vaughan! Ooh and Matt Fraction! Ooh and Rob Williams! Ok, I'm done.
Faye: Influences aaaah so many!
- Leyendecker - flawless anatomy just omg so wonderful (also, fun fact, his art was used as the main base for TF2).
- Aubrey Beardsley - amazing ink work.
- Arthur Rackham – again, inks, holy cow!
- Herge - some of the panelling in Tintin is amazing, especially Tintin in Tibet.
- Emily Osborne - Emily is my best friend and she has a really unique style, it's hard not to be influenced by someone you've spent so much time with (http://rabbiting.tumblr.com/)
Brian Michael Bendis
Ben Acker and Ben Blacker (Thrilling Adventure Hour)
- Kelly Sue DeConnick
- J.K Rowling. First author that made me think, man, I wanna do that! Also Harry Potter were the books I'll never stop reading.
- Jacques Tardi, amazing French comics writer+ artist, creator of Adele Blanc-Sec, and It Was the War of the Trenches.
- Russell T. Davies, writer and producer who brought Dr Who back to life in 2005.
- Honestly, I'm with Faye on this one, these guys influence and inspire me every day.
Will Panels Publishing become the new Superheroes of independent comic books? They’re creating beautiful work and bringing new talent into the light. They’re showing us that being different is good thing, they’re being a positive force and overcoming obstacles to bring us fresh characters. They are providing us with a glimpse of what the future of comics could be.