Let me open autobiographically: if you surrounded yourself with comics more than any other medium for your whole life, worked in a comic shop for half a decade and wrote about comics when you got home, filled your world with sad cartoonists and went to the pub with people who like comics, make comics, publish comics and read comics – you will get fucking sick of comics.
So when a bunch of comics turn up that pull you out of this boredom, it's your duty to tell people about it, and London-based publisher Breakdown Press put out the kind of comics that you need to read. With their slightly off-register wild, trippy colours, surreal stories and experimental art, these are proper comics. These are comics that need to be comics, not just storyboards for a Hollywood film that will never happen.
I sat down with the guys from Breakdown Press, Simon Hacking and Tom Oldham, to talk about their 2012 debut book – Windowpane by Joe Kessler – and everything that's happened since.
Tom Oldham, Joe Kessler, Simon Hacking.
VICE: Let's have a quick history of you two as humans. Who are you and how did you get into comics?
Simon Hacking: I mostly got interested in comics in my late teens when I moved to London. I somehow convinced myself that pursuing a sideline in comics journalism was a good idea and wrote Daredevil reviews for a bunch of student newspapers. Later in my degree I started writing academically about comics, and did a masters in Cultural Studies where I shoehorned them in wherever I could, covering the obvious like Harvey Pekar, Dan Clowes, Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, etc. At some point my "project" shifted from trying to convince people that comics are great to trying to make great comics available to people.
Tom Oldham: I read a lot of comics as a kid, I was really into 2000 AD and Heavy Metal, then more genre and superhero stuff, plus manga like Akira, and some of the usual indie comics names Simon's just mentioned. After university I was running a small record label, working as Feargal Sharkey's P.A and feeling fucking miserable. I had a Falling Down moment and I quit to go work in a comic shop. That's where I met Simon. British self-publishing was starting to grow into a few interesting spaces with publishers like Decadence and Landfill Editions.
A page of Shaky Kane artwork.
When did you start Breakdown Press and what's it all about? Why did you want to do it?
Simon: It kind of came about in a perfect storm of Joe Kessler having Windowpane ready to go just after we decided that publishing brought together all the things we wanted to do in comics. We knew Kessler, Richard Short and Antoine Cossé (among others) were amazing cartoonists who weren't getting the attention we thought they deserved. They were up for working with us, and that got us started putting out the work we wanted to see coming out of the UK ourselves. We were disappointed that there wasn't a Koyama Press or a [now defunct] PictureBox in the UK.
Your books smell better than any other books out there. I spent 10 minutes smelling Mutiny Bay at the launch party and I'd do it again. What are you doing differently?
Simon: [Laughs] That came as a surprise to us too. That's down to Elliott at Victory Press. He, along with Joe Kessler, sorts out all the paper stock, colour and design issues. Finding the right paper stock and printer for each of the books was a real challenge that we simply wouldn't have been able to pull off without Elliott's help. In the end we had them printed in Belgium at DeckersSnoeck, who did an incredible job, apparently not only on the look of the books but also the smell.
Tom: For the two new books, Gardens of Glass and Mutiny Bay, we got Joe Hales involved because these books were much longer than what we'd previously put out and weren't coloured in a way that would work on the Risograph, so we opted to print them using offset lithography.
Simon Hacking and Tom Oldham from Breakdown Press with artist Connor Willumsen in the middle, at Safari.
You're clearly not aping anyone's style, but what comics do you see as ancestors to Breakdown Press? It feels like the kind of stuff we used to have to import from weird places and wait for weeks to arrive.
Simon: Well, PictureBox have been a big influence on us, which I think is fairly clear. That attitude of publishing comics that you think are good and paying little attention to what anyone else is doing is very inspiring.
Tom: Deadline magazine was an inspiration for me. It was quite on the nose with the whole late eighties/early nineties, "hey comics ain't just for kids" schtick, and managed to present comics alongside a wider, contemporary popular culture. It would introduce me to Dave Allen, Julian Cope, Shaky Kane and Love & Rockets in the same issue. I think that this cross-pollination of culture can be useful for comics, both in helping to expose good work to a wider audience and informing the medium itself.
Raw is also an influence on us – Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman's comics anthology magazine from the late eighties. I don't know if we, as publishers, will be able have the same cultural impact as Raw did, or if it's even possible to, but I think the cartoonists we work with are producing work as progressive and vitally relevant to now as the artists of Raw were then.
Simon: Eventually we dream of being classed alongside the alt-comics greats. The US has Fantagraphics, Canada has Drawn & Quarterly and if we can represent that kind of publishing for the UK in years to come we'll absolutely have achieved our goals with Breakdown.
What comic in all of comics history do you wish you'd published?
Simon: It would be pretty amazing to be the guys that published [massive, raft-sized, now highly out-of-print and expensive on eBay anthology] Kramers Ergot 4. I'd love to do a book with its publisher Sammy Harkham at some point.
Tom: We actually are getting to publish some of the things we would have loved to have published from the past. Our upcoming Shaky Kane book Good News Bible is collecting his old Deadline strips and I'm really looking forward to getting them out there. These strips are amazing, social commentary via pure cosmic punk Kirby krackle.
Simon: Working with Seiichi Hayashi [on the reprint of Flowering Harbour, a story he wrote and illustrated in the late 1960s] was kind of an incredible, improbable thing. Thanks to Ryan Holmberg (who organised that book) it looks like we'll have the opportunity to publish some of the most exciting Japanese cartoonists of the twentieth century in the future. That's a pretty big deal.
The crowd at the Safari Festival.
Excuse me for making you sound like a bunch of old hippies here, but you're not only discovering new, young avant-garde talent, you're also helping to build and strengthen a community – STAY WITH ME – tell me about last month's Safari Festival.
Tom: We wanted to run a curated event that showcased work from forward-thinking comics publishers and cartoonists. The aim was to further expose their work, sell some of their comics and basically have some fun. This year we teamed up with Negative Space Recordings for the after party, which was a total blast.
Is there more of a UK comics community now than in recent years? Is it more or less bitchy than it used to be?Tom: All scenes have their drama and bitchiness, the comics internet is a like a tray of perpetually rattling storm- filled teacups. On the whole though, we've received nothing but support from other publishers, websites and cartoonists in the UK. We try to avoid drama – getting these comics out on time can be drama enough.
Breakdown Press artists taken as a given, what other underrated, lesser-known people should we check out?
Tom: In the UK, Famicon Express, Landfill Editions and Decadence Comics are the definitive publishers to follow – did you see Mould Map 3? Holy Shit! I really enjoyed the latest Famicon book from Britain's most isolated cartoonist, Jonathan Chandler, called 5 Against the Spike. That man can draw a leaping frog.
Simon: In the US, Mack from Space Face Books is our main guy. Happiness Comix, Closed Caption Comics, Uncivilized Books, Rebus Books, Youth in Decline and of course Koyama Press are all required reading.
Tom: Check out the list of exhibitors from the last Safari Festival as well, publishers like Museum Press, Jazz Dad and great UK artists like ZoëTaylor and JMKE.
Originals for Antoine Cosse's Mutiny Bay on sale at Safari.
What have guys got coming up?
Tom: We just released Mutiny Bay by Antoine Cossé and Gardens of Glass by Lando and then we have three new books due in time for Comic Arts Brooklyn in November from Lala Albert, Inés Estrada and Conor Stechschulte.
Simon: Those books will be pretty special. And there'll be more titles in our manga line, specifically a Sasaki Maki collection for early next year.
Tom: Plus the Shaky Kane collection I mentioned earlier.
What's your endgame? If someone gave you a million quid right now, what would you do with it?
Simon: I think really we'd just keep doing what we're already doing but worry about it less. We dream about having an office/studio so that'd be pretty high on the agenda.
Tom: Amen to the lack of worry. Our game is to publish exceptional comics and provide a solid home for cartoonists to develop their work. To do that, and make a living out of it, for us, and the cartoonists we work with, is our endgame.
The immediate future will involve us looking at different distribution and promotion methods, digital publishing, art and children's books and growing Safari Festival. Fuck knows where physical, even digital, publishing will be in ten years, so a million quid could really help us out. Someone should give us a million quid. Rich people are shit at being rich, we'd make much better rich people. Think of all the incredible comic books we'd publish and the opulent surroundings from which we would publish them in.
You can buy Breakdown Press comics at Gosh!, Ti Pi Tin and Orbital Comics (London), Dave's Comics (Brighton), Good Press (Glasgow), Desert Island >and Bergen Street( Brooklyn, NYC), Drawn & Quarterly Store( Montreal) and online.
Previously: A Nice Magazine Does Exactly What It Says on the Cover