Comic Act

Joe Kessler is a cartoonist and founding member of the London comic book company Breakdown Press. Finnian Kidd sat down with Joe to chat DIY publishing, Safari Festival and a world view of comics culture. 

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The Artist, by Anna Haifisch

Finnian Kidd: Joe, how did you get into publishing comics?

Joe Kessler:
I was working for NoBrow, and my friends Simon [Hacking] and Tom [Oldham] were trying to put together a magazine of comics criticism. We got together and said, ‘it’s not like anyone else is gonna publish it, so why don’t we do it?’

FK: That’s the thing with independent publishing – it comes out of the necessity to put something out yourself because it’s the only option. You also get more interesting content because it’s not stuff that everyone else would publish.

JK: Yeah, there were all these people who we’d see online and people we were friends with, but and they just weren’t having books made, so it was kind of out of frustration with that.

FK: Do you feel there is a good independent comic and DIY publishing scene in London at the moment?

JK: Yeah, I think just having Breakdown makes it good, and there’s some others like the Silica Burn guys. I think there’s a weird lack of history with UK independent comic book publishing, and comic book artists. A lot of the big mainstream artists in American comics are actually British.

FK: That’s what happened with 2000AD, with Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, then Vertigo came over and took them all…

JK: In terms of comics history in England or in London specifically, it’s pretty sparse, especially considering how influential artists from London have been in all other fields. When you go to Paris or New York there are older cartoonists who you can have a drink with, who are your heroes. I was just in New York and Gary Panter was sitting around a table with a bunch of the younger cartoonists. In Paris we had similar experiences. There was this other generation, which is great, and we don’t really have that.

FK: I guess it’s nice though that it’s something new here, and you’ll be those [older generation] people…

JK: Yeah, god, that’s a thought!

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Joe Kessler, Escape to The Unfinished

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Joe Kessler, Windowpane 3

FK: Do you have a manifesto?

JK: There are no rules, no. We all have quite different tastes, Simon, Tom and me. It’s interesting because the books that maybe I wouldn’t have done, I really like and they make the whole thing seem more interesting and richer than it otherwise would if it was just a reflection of my own taste.

FK: How did Safari Festival happen? it’s been doing pretty well…

JK: We’ve been going to comic book shops and festivals for a long time. I always feel slightly tawdry about comics when I think about them like this, but festivals are the place to go for comics; they are the gallery. The real pure experience of reading comics is normally lying alone in bed, but the closest outside place where you can go and find new stuff is festivals and shops. we have Gosh! comics in Soho, which is a good shop, but it has all these financial demands on it, which means it has to be broad and have everything, so it doesn’t offer a weird perspective of comics that maybe I would like.

FK: It has to be more mainstream…

JK: It has to have everything. It has to be a better comic book shop than my ideal would be, which would be piles of stuff that I could rifle through. Shops like the Beguiling in Toronto, or various shops in Paris. We wanted to create a venue where people could come and work out what comics were, and what our broader vision of comics was. It comes back to wanting to make something happen in London. There are all these artists around who are really good, and we can only publish a fraction of the stuff we want to.

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Stathis Tsemberlidi, Picno

FK: What are your feelings toward print? do you think it’s important in this digital age?

JK: I think it’s great, I love it, it’s self-evidently not dead. Comics can be experienced on the screen but a lot of them are drawn for print reproduction. They’re graphic work that is designed to be seen in a book, and if that’s the way it’s designed, it’s the way it should be experienced.

FK: There’s also the physical object angle as well, which is something you can’t detract from…

JK: That experience is quite unique. I’m sure it’s not the only way to experience comics but it’s a completely valid one. There’s something with comics like Robert Crumb’s, or Connor Willumsen’s – particularly Treasure Island – which feels like reading someone’s personal journal. Comics are inherently a very personal medium – every time you make them, you have to invent your own language entirely. That’s something that some artists consciously engage with, even if the process of making them is as far removed from making a personal journal as it can be. But that feeling might be lost if you were looking at them on screen.

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The Fever Closing, by Liam Cobb

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FK: What’s coming up for Breakdown?

JK: We have the launch of The Artist and The Fever Closing by Anna Haifisch and Liam Cobb, and then there’s Anti Nuclear Manga, which is enormous, and will be coming out sometime in the next ten years or so. The more we work on it, the further we get from finishing it, but I’m just doing the cover, so that’s cool, hopefully we’re almost there.

FK: Have you got anything of your own coming out?

JK: I have a bunch of projects that I’m doing – I’m working on a long story which is the counterpart to Windowpane 3…I’m also working on a large-format book, which will be Windowpane 4, and it’s slightly looser drawings and small stories. It will be quite short but quite large, and printed in CMYK.

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Joe Kessler, Windowpane 3

Find out more about Joe Kessler and The Breakdown Press