Caught In The Nexus: Baz Renshaw

Baz Renshaw is one the foremost creators on the British Independent scene, being editor-in-chief of British indie powerhouse Engine comics and until recently editor-in-chief of the British comic collective Accent UK. He has been responsible for some of the best British independent titles, including the universally praised quarterly magazine Red Eye. Recently he spoke to The Nexus’ Will Cooling about the current success of Engine Comics and Accent UK and what his future plans are.

The Nexus: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with us Barry. Could you just tell the readers a little bit about yourself?

BAZ: No probs. I’m originally from Liverpool but have lived in Stockport for the last six years, with a very patient girlfriend. After escaping the corporate slavery I’m now developing my illustration career. At the moment I’m listening to Beth Orton, smoking too many cigars and fighting off the invasion of moths coming through my window with a copy of SFX magazine. Goddamn dirty moths.

The Nexus: What first motivated you to go into the comic industry?

BAZ: I can’t think of a time of when I didn’t want to be involved in comics. My dad used to bring the adventure weeklies home every week, the likes of Battle, Eagle, Victor, Roy of the Rovers and 2000AD. I had an epiphany looking at a Star Wars comic one day and decided that was the job for me. I discovered I could draw sometime after, which was something of a relief. My interest has grown with me over the years.

The Nexus: You’re the editor-in-chief of Engine Comics, one of the biggest British independent comic publishers. How was Engine Comics formed?

BAZ: I started thinking about comics as a career properly when I was in secondary school and gathered that before I could even hope to approach a publish I needed to develop my skills, so I sent samples to small press anthologies advertised in the back of Comics International. Nothing came of that so I started advertising for my own anthology under the name of Infinity, then later Invictus Comics. That fell apart as well, as my friends who had got drawn into the comics boom of the nearly 90’s soon realised as cool as comics were, they were also hard work. So instead I concentrated on college, attending the Ian Hering Cartoon Workshop which was a massive encouragement and eye opener to the world of comics beyond 2000AD, then Uni and so on. After I settled down in Stockport I started looking at setting up an anthology properly, getting other creators to submit work alongside mine so we could all develop together. I’m happy to say I was extremely lucky to get the great talent contributing I have now.

The Nexus: Engine Comics is currently going from strength to strength, having launched the new regular sci-fi mature readers title Seven Sentinels. What can we expect from Seven Sentinels in forthcoming issues?

BAZ: Seven Sentinels is something of an experiment actually. For the comic itself, Marc came to me with what would become the first issue nearly three years ago now, and it was his passion for the project that ignited mine, and we realised we could do something special. What you said in your review was quite right, that we’re using sci-fi staples, but that is the starting point to a story we’ve mapped out far beyond the printed page. Without ruining anything, Seven Sentinels is set three hundred years in the future after an invasion by the alien Vorman-Geth, who have reduced Earth to a techno-medieval society. Earth’s last line of defence, The Questers, a genetically enhanced UN Peacekeeper force were decimated, and hunted down until the last member, Daler, is found leading the resistance movement. By the end of issue one though it’s clear not everything will be straightforward, and the first story arc will introduce the characters who will become the eponymous Sentinels and introduce a larger plot.

I’m something of a hardcore geek when it comes to science fiction and I’m very critical, so what we have both come with has been hammered out over the last three years, the result of which I think will surprise people. We’re launching two websites with issue 2 in November: the first will be a Sentilverse site, which means a site that exists within the narrative of the comic, split into two: the human computer network and the Vorman-Geth computer network. They will have narrative strands that over future issues which readers can influence, the results of which will be played out within the comic. Visiting these sites won’t be essential but will certainly add to the overall enjoyment of the story. What we’re also doing, to an extent not seen before I don’t think at least with comics, is having kept a record of all the sketches, story notes, alternate scripts, commentaries and annotations, test animations, and interviews like these on a production website, a “making of” similar to that seen on DVD’s. There will of course be Easter eggs as well. My reason behind this is because, firstly I love that kind of stuff myself, and secondly I think few people stop and realise just how much work goes into creating a fictional universe, and that effort is no less for a independent comic. At the end of this I truly believe Marc will have a fantastic body of work and be snapped up by publishers for bigger things.

The Nexus: In addition to being the editor of Seven Sentinels you are also writing the ‘back-up story’ Secret Gods. What are you trying to achieve with this story?

BAZ: Marc was adamant when we were developing Seven Sentinels that he didn’t want the book to be full of just his art but to have another story as a contrast to his. I pitched him an idea and Marc was happy for me to run with it, to write and draw it. I had wanted to do a Philip K Dick influenced story about perceptions of reality, applying a dark, gritty action based element to it. So it became the story of FBI agent Sebastian Finn in 2066 initially tracking down cult members and the after effects of a global EMP throwing the world into chaos; the cost to him personally and what he would uncover in the meantime. Again it’s a sci-fi staple familiar to fans of X-Files and Millennium, but it is really just the starting point for the character’s journey. As I’ve been researching it’s also thrown up a number of other story ideas which I touch upon in this arc but I’m aiming to develop further in future projects.

The Nexus: One of the biggest stories in the British independent comic scene at the moment is Rebellion’s decision to offer independent comic creators the chance to have their work published in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine. However controversially the creators won’t be paid for the work. Do you agree with those who condemn this as ‘exploitation’?

BAZ: I thought a lot about this when it was first announced, and it can be read from all different sides. From the established creators view, its six pages that a profit making publisher is getting for free, which means its six pages that an established creator can’t be potentially paid for. It can be seen as a desperate cost cutting exercise for a magazine trying to keep its head above water. Part of the problem is that you can never get accurate figures for sales on UK titles anyway so there’s always the nagging rumour they’re in trouble. The Megazine has had that since day one and they’re still here seventeen years later, so I think the rumours are just typical negative tabloid mentality. We seem to like to see things fail rather than succeed.

I see it as an opportunity for small press and indie creators to get their work seen by an audience they would normally not reach. It’s a six page free advert which people should take advantage of, and Matt Smith should be applauded for shaking things up and supporting the small press. I’d like to see more of it.

The Nexus: Do you think the ‘mainstream’ British comic book industry (2000AD group, conventions, etc) does enough to support and nurture independent comics?

BAZ: This is a question that leads onto a bigger issue, as the small number of UK mainstream titles are just a symptom of a larger problem.

I think the 2000AD group are busy running a business, and keeping that business going is their only responsibility. The way things are structured at the moment in UK distribution makes it difficult to try new things and take risks. It would be great to see not just a line of reprint graphic novels but original graphic novels from Rebellion, mixing old and new talent together on new and old characters, or a miniseries.

Many conventions have a massive indie presence anyway, so I don’t think much more could be done in that area other than better advertising and marketing to get the mainstream public in, and more investment in attracting bigger names.

The Nexus: In addition to your role with Engine Comics, you are also Editor-in-Chief of Accent UK, the British comics collective. How important do you think Accent UK is to the British comics industry?

BAZ: I’ve actually passed the torch of editorialshipness to Dave West, to carry on while I continue with REDEYE and Engine, though the support network we developed together is still in place and remains strong. In terms of importance, I wouldn’t say we’re important but maybe we have shown a model of how creators can work together and support each others projects, whether creatively and or financially.

The Nexus: Accent UK is best known for producing the acclaimed quarterly magazine Red Eye. How pleased are you with the success of Red Eye?

BAZ: Critically, I’m very happy, as we’ve never had a bad review. There may have been issues with the early design but I’ve learnt by doing and accepting feedback, and that’s worked itself out. I’ve also been fortunate to have built up a team of regular contributors who share the same ethos about comics I do and submit great material. Literally without them the magazine would be empty, and often I have too much material to put in each issue. Financially is another forest of dolphins, however. With previous issues we’ve been limited by our own budgets as to how many copies we could print, and of course the lower the print number, the higher the print cost, the lower the potential profit. Over the last 6 months I’ve been focusing on establishing alternative distribution for REDEYE outside of the likes of Diamond, creating downloadable versions of our titles from the site, supporting initiatives like Shane Chebsey’s Frontline Catalogue, Forbidden Planets Brit Comic Month, and looking into Arts Council funding, My aim is to get REDEYE into schools, libraries and galleries as well as comic shops and Borders. Newsagents and the wholesale distribution routes are so expensive and unpredictable it doesn’t bear going into. I may not have the cash or the power to force a change in the way comics are made available in this country but I hope by proving it can be done in a way that won’t bankrupt you but might actually make a profit, it can be a blue print for everyone else to follow us. Ask me in another six months!

The Nexus: Accent UK also organises and publishes themed anthologies such as Pirates and Twelve that utilizes talent from across the British independent scene. How successful do you think these books have been?

BAZ: Again critically I think they’ve been very successful and are good examples of what can be found in the indie scene. In terms of financial success that’d have to be answered by Dave. The idea originally behind themed anthologies was to enable them to have a long shelf life and be more accessible a concept for the mainstream readers. I’d like to see AUK expand though to be producing not just the anthologies but more substantial pieces of work like Dave West’s own Wolfmen oneshot about London gangsters, or Colin Mathieson’s Napoleonic ghost-hunter Cornelius Macbeth. My experiences with AUK have shaped the way I want to grow Engine, which is more towards the Top Shelf level of diversity, investing in work like Voodoo Macbeth, giving it good production values and finding the creators a bigger audience.

The Nexus: What advice would you give to someone who was considering self-publishing?

BAZ: Honestly I would say read the Guide to Self Publishing because everything I’d advise would be in there, but that won’t be available until November so in the meantime…

Forget about making any money. Work out if you can afford the time, money and effort in doing comics. If you want to print up your comic then work out what money you can comfortably waste. This is called disposable income in financial terms, money that you won’t mind losing, then go ahead accordingly. I wouldn’t advise anything about the creative process, because everyone’s process is different and to go into the finer points of finding collaborators, resources for writing and drawing can be found on our links page at the engine site. I would say definitely join the communities online and at conventions, get to know what’s been done before and ask questions. There are pitfalls you can avoid. You need not fall down them. We have a torch you can use.

The Nexus: What British independent comics would you recommend?

BAZ: Loads! Personally I’ve enjoyed Malcolm Magic by Bob and Lorenzo Etherington, Spring Heeled Jack by Dave Hitchcock, Bulldog: Empire by Jason Cobley and Neill Cameron, Dark by the Anna and Karen Rubins, Twelve Hour Shift by Sean Azzopardi, No Time Like the Present by Paul Rainey, Pest Control by Grant Springford… I could go on for ages, there’s so much good stuff being done.

The Nexus: What do you think is the state of the British independent scene, and the British comic industry in general?

BAZ: In terms of the mainstream UK industry as a whole, and you’re really only looking at Rebellion, Marvel UK and DC Thompson, I would like to see more experimentation, more willingness to invest in new talent, but a number of things need to be addressed first: distribution, image and confidence.

I don’t think that the hey-day of weekly anthologies can ever return as tastes and expectations have moved on. People need and want something more substantial. They want value for money, and that’s not paying the same amount for a TPB as you would a DVD but get a fraction of the times worth of entertainment. What we need is to look at the lessons manga is teaching us, with ever increasing sales in graphic novels from a demographic who rarely venture near a comic shop. It would be great to see Rebellion for example producing original graphic novels mixing old and new creators on old and new characters. Comics need to move out of the dirty back street mentality it’s been trapped in the last 20 years and realise just how far behind we are from the rest of the world.

Distribution, as mentioned before, is screwed, so alternatives need to be developed. UK comic shops are a major problem, because they are often small, out of the way, alienating to newcomers and dominated by superheroes. We take it for granted that comic shops are organised by publisher rather than by genre or author, a system you wouldn’t expect to find in HMV or Waterstones, so anyone having seen Sin City looking for similar fare won’t be able to find 100 Bullets or Queen or Country. They may have heard of Alan Moore via V For Vendetta but will they find Watchmen, Promethea or Voice of the Fire? Only if the retailer has taken the time to do promotional displays organised by popular authors, and since many comic shops miss out on new customers that could be acquired from the summer block buster movies by not doing promotions, it’s unlikely. So that requires an image change, away from the dungeon grotto.

What I mean by confidence is that publishers need to be looking beyond just the established areas of comic book promotion, beyond the pages of CI and Previews and CBR, and advertise in the mainstream press, and yes that takes cash. You need to spend money to make money. Finally comics are starting to be covered in the Guardian and the Metro. Comic book films are on the cover of every entertainment magazine. Yet you won’t see any witty or inventive TV ads or full page ads in the broadsheets selling the latest graphic novel. If publishers continue to preach to the choir, they won’t get any new members of the congregation. It’s about getting over the medium and selling the concept. It just happens to be on paper rather than a shiny disc. If publishers have no conviction then the customer won’t have any in the product.

For a while this was also the case with the indie press, I noticed the almost apologetic attitude some people had with trying to sell their work at conventions. That’s mostly dissipated now I think. It’s obvious that the main contribution to the rise of the indie scene is the lack of real opportunities in the mainstream. There aren’t enough titles to sustain the current lot of creators, never mind the new talent. Creators are proving though that they can have the high production qualities the mainstream has regardless, which is why the indie scene is the UK comics industry by default. That industry would thrive if only given proper investment rather than another kick in the bollocks.

The Nexus: What are you currently working on?

BAZ: The odd thing with doing REDEYE is that people have forgot I actually draw! Comic wise I’m scripting part two of Secret Gods (though I really should be drawing it by now!); doing designs for a kid’s comic for my nephew’s birthday, currently untitled, which has robots in ancient Egypt beating the crap out of each other. There are not nearly enough robots beating the crap out of each other in ancient Egypt for my liking in today’s comics. Illustration wise I’m working on storyboards and concept art for a horror film for possible production this autumn; submitting samples to various book publishers; and I’m compiling material for RE6, out in September. I like to keep busy.

The Nexus: Finally, you’re a writer, an artist, a letterer, a designer, an editor, a publisher and a commentator. Out of all these jobs within comics you do, which one do you think your best at? Which one do you enjoy the most?

BAZ: God… I’ve no idea. Whatever I’m best at is probably best for someone else to answer. I’m very critical of my own work, especially my artwork. I redid two pages of Secret Gods, even though they worked fine but I couldn’t bear to let them go in. I usually give finished pages way or bin them, I can’t bear to look at them again, because all I see are the faults. I know most artists have that feeling to varying degrees. Despite that I enjoy the experience of writing and drawing probably most. I’m a crap letterer. As for commentating… You could say I get easily frustrated with things when they’re wrong. In terms of the comic industry in the UK there’s so much that’s archaic and negative that unless the problems highlighted above are tackled by everyone, nothing will change. So I’ll keep banging on about it until they are changed.

The Nexus: Is there anything else you would like to say before we finish?

BAZ: I’d like to invite everyone back to my website for refreshments and 24/7 top quality comic book entertainment. Don’t spill anything on the carpet. Do try out our stuff and tell us about it.

The Nexus: Thank you for sharing your time with us Barry.

BAZ: No worries, cheers for having us.