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There was a time, not too long ago, when comics were written off as the preserve of pre-adolescent fan boys. Ask any self-respecting adult whether they read them, and you were probably going to get a muttered response something along the lines of “used to read the Beano”. But the world has changed. Comics, and their more serious counterpart, the graphic novel, have become a bit, well, cool. Over the past thirty years or so, adults have slowly reclaimed the medium, realizing its potential beyond the PG restrictions that had previously seen comics languish in the long-forgotten realms of childhood.
The work of auteurs like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman and Dave Gibbons (the latter of whom was recently made the UK’s first comics laureate) showed that, far from specialising in light, child-friendly material, the graphic novel form could be every bit as complex, rewarding and challenging as a printed novel. They laid the groundwork for future generations in an industry that has blossomed into one of the most creative in the UK, as well as in America. At the centre of the independent creator movement in the UK are TPub, a London-based company whose darkly humourous take on modern life is presided over by self-confessed comics latecomer and now bonafide spokesman, Neil Gibson.
Gibson’s first foray into the world of graphic novels struck a real chord with readers. Twisted Dark quickly made its way to the top of the Amazon bestsellers list, and in the process set the benchmark for the black humour that would litter TPub’s future publications. It’s a short story collection whose tone ranges from wry social commentary to outright psychopathy, all with a vein of amused detachment that instantly brings the adult fiction of Roald Dahl to mind.
The first story written for that first volume, ‘A Lighter Note…’, wasn’t inspired by any particular works, however, but rather by Gibson’s time working as a Management Consultant in the Middle East. “You’re there in your suit, and you can press a button and someone brings you tea, but you look out of the window, and it’s 50 degrees Celsius, and down there are these Indian labourers working in slave-like conditions,” Neil explains. “I thought it was so unfair that the place where I was born had made the difference, so I decided to write a story about that.” It’s not exactly the hi-jinks and exploits that might immediately spring to mind when the word ‘comic’ is mentioned, but it’s a typical example of the cynicism with which Gibson, and many of his peers, now confront the world we live in.
The comics industry is booming. In 2013, US comic sales came in at over half a billion dollars, with the top-selling release of that year not coming from the usual Marvel/DC roster, but issue 115 of Robert Kirkman’s zombie-apocalypse saga The Walking Dead. Hardly Beano material. In the UK, meanwhile, the comics industry is also flourishing. There’s the Thought Bubble convention (lovingly referred to by TPub as the ‘Comics’ Christmas Party’), and back in the halcyon days of summer, there was the fantastic British Library exhibition, ‘Comics: Unmasked’, where fans could see rare archive materials from some of their favourite graphic novels. With UK readers now buying over 2 million units (to use a bit of corporate speak) each year, they are a force to be reckoned with, and their tastes are maturing.
Dan Watters, writer of TPub’s Tortured Life series, thinks this maturity is one of the best things about graphic novels as a medium. “It ties into the fact that people tend to think comics are for kids. It means that when people do get into them as an adult, it goes underground. So you’ll always get this snide, underground feel to it. Everything reflects the age it’s made in.” For Neil, it’s the accessibility of graphic novels that makes them such a fantastic platform for raising more difficult questions, and pushing the boundaries. “In terms of social commentary, if it was in a documentary, it might be too depressing, and people wouldn’t actually watch it. With comics, you get more of the overall direction of the social commentary, but it’s still left for you to finish in your own head. You can take as much as you want from it, so it doesn’t have to be too intense, or too dull.”
There’s certainly plenty of darkness to draw on in TPub’s increasingly extensive back catalogue. As well as their forays into the explicitly twisted and tortured, their self-contained graphic novel Tabatha takes a deranged serial-killer as its focal point, in a narrative whose deceptively light-hearted opening quickly escalates into something far more sinister. “It’s always about taking things to the extreme,” Neil explains, “whether it’s addiction, or how you choose to consume something or enjoy it, it’s about taking it further than other people. Everyone has these dark thoughts occasionally.”
For Casper Wijngaard, one of TPub’s most prominent artists, the real difficulty came in capturing the normalcy of these situations. “Twisted Dark was set in the real world, so it wasn’t something I was used to drawing. I wasn’t used to drawing people having conversations, sitting down in a room, or walking through the forest. If I had the chance to draw something, I’d draw this gargantuan beast coming out of a teleportal and tearing someone’s head off. So it helped me to find the direction I want to go in.”
This sense of direction is becoming more and more important as the comic industry attempts to find an even keel amongst the choppier waters of digital production. TPub’s own graphic novels have cut through the mass of competitors on Kindle to become some of the best-selling digital comics on Amazon. Yet, despite this online success, the creators still see themselves as physical fans first. “It is the future. It’s cheaper. It doesn’t take up as much space. But there’s still a market for print, and there always will be, especially for comics” predicts Neil. “I personally like print copies. I like my library, and seeing the books there, but young people might prefer digital. So do both!”
To see the first episode of our full three-part interview with Neil, Casper and Dan, hit play on the video below!
For the chance to win a limited edition physical copy of Twisted Dark Volume 1, follow @86thFloor and @TPublications on Twitter, and let rip with your best ‘Twisted Dark’ story using the hashtag #MyTwistedDark!
How twisted can you get in less than 140 characters?
We’ll be retweeting our favourites, and the final winner will be announced on the 16th December!