No laughing matter

It might have escaped the notice of most in the bookselling business but last Saturday night marked a significant moment for the British comics scene.

At the Thought Bubble convention in Leeds, itself a part of the Leeds International Film Festival, the first British Comics Awards were handed out.

The awards are a mark of the new confidence of British comics creators who are increasingly producing graphic novels for an growing number of UK-based publishers, rather than exporting their talent abroad.

We have all seen square-spine comics invading bookshop shelves, be it the avalanche of Manga titles or comics with a more literary bent such as Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan or Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, both published by Cape.

How many of us though have been aware of the quiet revolution behind the scenes, which is attempting to grow the market for the works of UK cartoonists?

The British Comics Awards are intended to rank alongside those from major comics festivals around the world, such as the Eisners given by the huge San Diego Comic Convention, Max und Moritz prize from Erlangen in Germany and the Prix de Festival awarded by the massive French convention in Angouleme every January.

The inaugural awards picked winners in the categories of Best Book, Best Comic, Best Children's Comic and Emerging Talent. There was also a Hall of Fame award that went to veteran illustration legend Raymond Briggs who, it could be argued, is the very source of the UK literary comics tradition.

Over the last four or five years established publishers such as Cape and Walker have been originating literary and children's comics and they have been joined by many smaller, boutique UK publishers such as Blank Slate Books, Fanfare, Knockabout, Myriad, NoBrow Press and Self Made Hero.

UK creators such as Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and others became some of the biggest names in comics through working for US publishers but with uncertainty in the viable future of the US comics industry, more and more young UK cartoonists are taking their lead from talent like Briggs and Posy Simmonds and choosing to create new literary comics here in the UK—or to go with UK publishers.

Comics have long been thought of as something for children or adolescent boys but with the ambition of these new works that perception is gradually shifting.

Forbidden Planet International notes that the traffic to their comics blog has now reached a 60/40 (male/female) gender split, but in the under-24 demographic it is now straight 50/50. Foyles is now a heavy supporter of graphic novel and comics material and has recently had 24 hoardings done by UK comics artists telling the story of the bookshop erected outside the store. While last night's Costas gave shortlist places to two graphic novels for the first time.

The new British Comics Awards should provide a starting point for booksellers looking to make stock choices - but it would be good to know further information booksellers need, and we are open to suggestions.

I think it's time to give even more support to these new literary comic works which, outside of erotica, have been one of the few growing categories in the last few years.

Kenny Penman is the co-owner of Forbidden Planet International and publisher at Blank Slate Books.