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Saddle-stitching beats superheroes

At the East London Comics Festival, there are lessons for the publishing world

Nicholas Barber | June 24th 2015

The first thing that struck me about last weekend’s East London Comics & Arts Festival, or ELCAF, is that there were women there. Lots of women. Everywhere you looked, studenty women were laughing, hugging, leafing through books, chatting enthusiastically in various languages, and sitting at tables signing their sketches. That might not seem remarkable for an arts festival, but I spent many of my teenage weekends at comics conventions, and most of the people there were just like I was: male, pasty and dressed in extra-baggy Judge Death T-shirts. That went for the comics creators as well as the fans. With a few exceptions, the only women at those conventions were life-sized cardboard cut-outs of Wonder Woman.

Clearly, times have changed. ELCAF was set up in 2012 by Nobrow, an independent East London publishing company which specialises in lovingly packaged, illustration-led, superhero-free graphic novels—although “novels” is too narrow a pigeonhole for their output. The company views its books as beautiful objects: rather than racing through quirky stories, the reader is invited to luxuriate in the thickness of the paper and the boldness of the colours. It’s a publishing approach which is common enough in continental Europe, but it’s still radical in Britain, where mainstream comics tend to be printed on paper too flimsy to wrap a portion of chips.

Judging by how busy ELCAF was, the Nobrow approach is catching on. This year’s festival, the fourth so far, was the first to run across two days in two separate Hackney venues. East London being East London, one venue was called Space and the other was called The Laundry. (It’s not a laundry.) Both buildings were so committed to their stripped-back, industrial aesthetic that pigeons perched on the ventilation ducts. Every time you opened a door, it took a moment to ascertain whether you were in a character-design workshop or a multi-storey carpark. But both Space and The Laundry were buzzing with people all weekend, as 3,000 guests bustled from hall to hall, perusing the wares of 60 exhibitors from France, Spain, Italy, Canada, America and Japan. And Britain, too.

The common theme was how different all the books were. Some resembled broadsheet newspapers, some folded out like concertinas, some were roughly the same size and weight as breezeblocks. Counting books for toddlers were stacked next to slacker autobiographies, funny-animal escapades next to fiscal treatises. If there were any pictures of superheroes, they were buried beneath so many layers of hipster irony that they were barely recognisable. I spotted one print of the Incredible Hulk, drinking tea and reading Goethe in a park.

The other, related common theme was the emphasis on books as physical artefacts. At one panel I attended, four publishers talked about how they left careers in advertising, documentary-making and music videos because they were so in love with ink and paper. The founder of Hato Press, another East London company, mentioned that the small print run of a particular title meant that he made a loss of 20p on every copy sold. All four publishers rhapsodised about screen-printing and saddle-stitching. And all of them winced when they were asked about putting their work online. There was a grudging acceptance that some people want to read comics digitally, but, to the panellists, that was akin to glancing at photographs of a meal, instead of sitting down to eat one. They don’t just produce books to look at, but also to touch and even to smell.

It’s fair to say that they would all be richer if they were flogging Spider-Man comics. But, at a time when commuters bury their heads in Kindles rather than paperbacks, the wider publishing world could learn a lesson from ELCAF. Instead of being a mere prose-delivery system, a book can be something to treasure.

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