SLCZF 2023 – some impressions

Three days later I am still in a very buoyant mood after the day tabling and selling comics at the South London Comic and Zine Fair 2023. Everyone was so helpful. Tom Murphy had put in a word for me in the first place – that was back in November 2022 when I first made enquiries about getting a place at the fair. “We’re only young pups but know of you from Tom and Jane at Colossive, and from gleaning histories of the UK Small Press scene from various folk here and there,” came the response. “We would absolutely like to have you with us in 2023, and I bet there’s plenty of creators who’d get a bit starstruck tabling next to you.”

What a warm welcome – and this welcome continued the moment I set foot in the doors of Stanley Hall on the day, with helpful signage and friendly volunteers pointing this old duffer in the right direction, instantly attaining WiFi password at my request, and generally being extremely pleasant. A family-friendly atmosphere had been cultivated, with cafe, reading room, and a particpatory drawing wall. Somehow I knew things were going to go well in spite of my earlier apprehensions, not having stood behind a table of my comics since 2006. Even the disaster of my new Square payment reader not connecting was averted, thanks to kindly intervention of Jack Brougham, ceramicist and print-maker.

There followed six hours of intense buzz and chat when the doors were opened to a crowd of lovely and enthused readers. I saw some old friends of mine who appeared as if from nowhere. There was genuine interest. I soon felt encouraged enough to give short explanatory speeches on my books to anyone who rolled up – not to try and make a sale (ahem), but I do like the discipline of remembering why I wrote stories, and how to sum them up in 60 seconds. “This is my only comic that doesn’t use word balloons,” I said to one reader who turned out to be doing his thesis on Chinese comic books, which likewise print captions underneath the pictures. “This is based on real life? You mean you changed into a flying monster because you couldn’t get a smartphone?” – “Not literally, but…don’t we all have hidden monsters inside ourselves?” “Did you cut up old Superman comics to make this?” – “No, Mark Robinson drew that way as an intentional homage to Curt Swan and Wayne Boring.” “What makes your Batman different?” – “Well, he’s eccentric, mysterious, and he doesn’t really do anything…” “Why not do Illegal Robin?” remarked an astute young person of nine or ten years. That question, I admit, flummoxed me.

What variety surrounded us. While I didn’t have time to visit every single table, by osmosis I could perceive small press comics are now better produced and presented (colour covers, perfect binding) than they ever have been, and all manner of original home-made craft on display – printmaking, box making, binding, unusual packaging, hand-colouring. That’s to say nothing of the diversity of the content. Again using osmosis, I’m going to record my impression of a wide range of experimentation, art production and storytelling that doesn’t owe a huge debt to superhero comics, or mainstream publishing…zines about very personal and diaristic subjects, works of genuine imagination, strong visual statements…it all comes from a more personal place, reflecting the ideas and enthusiasms of each individual creator.

Individual creators expressing themselves…isn’t that what we all want? More to the point, I whispered to myself at some point in the day, isn’t that just what I wanted all along when I first went to the Westminster Comic fair in Autumn 1982 (over forty years ago)? And for years afterwards as I self-published my books, I always thought to myself “my comics, and those of my friends such as Carol Swain, Chris Reynolds, John Bagnall, Chris Flewitt, Glenn Dakin, Denny Derbyshire, Mark Robinson and many others…surely they could appeal to a much wider readership than we’re currently getting.” I was alluding, I suppose, to my abiding sense that by tabling at a comic fair and the UKCAC convention, we were a very small island of indie publishing and small press ideas in the middle of a gigantic ocean of Marvel-DC oriented (and science fiction, and sword-and-sorcery) fandom. Yes, we had a lot of interest in the 1980s and 1990s (Escape magazine, step forward), and I’m grateful for it. But where’s that elusive wider audience?

Well, at Stanley Hall on Sunday, I think I may have found it. Passing through the door were families, parents, children, and dare I say it a much healthier gender balance than you’ll see at some mainstream comics events. Inclusivity too ranks high on the agenda of SLCZF and its network of supporters, and that’s reflected in the work being done and the audience of readers attending. Of course it’s not down to just this one great event – this culture must have evolved over time, and there’s been a lot of excellent work done to achieve this freedom by the authors, artists, publishers, and other creators, Andy Oliver’s tireless efforts including the Broken Frontier platform, and forward-looking shops like Gosh Comics too. These are all signs of a change, a change which I welcome.

I tried to breathlessly recap some of these sentiments to Peter Morey at the very end of the day. I hoped the main message I got across to him was that he, and all you others supporting small press comics, can feel very proud of your achievements. We’ve gone from one small island to over 60 tables of creators, an explosion of activity…fellow small-pressers, all the signs indicate we’re winning. After 40 years of searching, I have had a glimpse of the small press Nirvana I’ve been looking for.

Photos from the slczf Twitter stream and Tom Murphy.