COMIC BOOK YETI: John, Mario, Mark, and Martin – thank you for joining us on behalf of Soaring Penguin Press to represent the range of the roster. I've got a few questions aimed squarely at John around the business, but everyone feel free to chime in with contributions wherever they come to mind.
John, can you share with our readers a brief, definitive summary on the origins of Soaring Penguin Press? Established in 2010, from what I've read, there's more to the backstory of how things got started? Mario, Mark, and Martin - can you all let us know how your journey with Soaring Penguin began?
JOHN ANDERSON: Prior to 2010, I’d published 4 issues of Meanwhile..., and several issues of Peter Normanton’s magazine, From The Tomb, as well as a few other titles. In 2010, I decided to make a more concerted effort to actually be a publisher and set out to create a list. I published Undertow, Ellen Lindner’s coming-of-age story and a collection of poetry by Chrissy Williams, the writer on Golden Rage*. I joined the IPG (Independent Publishers Guild) and focussed more of my attention on learning how to be a publisher. In 2013, I secured the rights to publish Loisel’s Peter Pan in English and in 2014, I published To End All Wars, an anthology of stories about the First World War that was nominated for two Eisner Awards.
MARIO CESAR: Well, I wanted to publish Blessed Cure in English-spoken markets and then I looked up for publishers that were receiving submissions and I found Soaring Penguin Press. When I saw their catalogue I knew they would do a great job with my book, and gladly they loved it and decided to publish. I’m very excited to see the message of my comic book reaching new audiences outside Brazil, especially because I know there are many places where sex conversion therapies still are legal and how hard things are at this moment for the LGBTQIA+ community facing all these horrifying bills conservatives are trying to approve.
MARK STAFFORD: I knew John through being in the Comics Creators Guild, which used to meet once a month in various venues around London. Details are fuzzy, because this was the 90's, but he was involved in a fair bit of CCG business, including putting out their magazine Comics Forum, which my stuff appeared in a bit, and on the cover of, once. (He bought that art off me, which was nice.) He also put out the earlier version of his Meanwhile... anthology, and I got a couple of strips in that. We'd meet occasionally at events over the years and he'd ask what it would take to put out a regular book by me and I would have no idea what to say. Then it's 2014 or thereabouts, and David Hine's calling me to ask if we want to create a ten chapter serial for an anthology called Meanwhile..., and that's how The Bad Bad Place happened and John's publishing my stuff again...
MARTIN SIMPSON: I was (and still am) a big fan of their Meanwhile… anthology so I got in touch with Soaring Penguin Press about doing something for it. That ‘something’ ended up being a short story called ‘The Needleman’ which ran in issues 8 and 9. It was some of the first comics work I ever did… so I was very much flattered and encouraged that John liked it enough to publish. Later (around 2021) I pitched a book called NORD to SPP which (happily) they also accepted.
CBY: Upon getting this assignment, I immediately spent the day after Easter reading all of Blessed Cure by Mario, Salmonella Smorgasbord by Mark, and NORD by Martin. This made for well over 600 pages between the three titles, with each displaying a superb amount of textual depth and visual detail. John, I know your Meanwhile… anthology series has been a mainstay of Soaring Penguin, but since when have publications of such scope and scale been the intent for individual creators? Mario, Mark, and Martin - these are each largely/entirely solo creations, so how do they represent turning points in your own approach to publication of your work?
JOHN: Soaring Penguin Press has always sought out impressive storytelling and singular voices. We’ve strived to find stories that we felt needed to be published in order to find their audience. Loisel’s Peter Pan, mentioned earlier, was originally a six volume bande dessinee that Regis Loisel wrote, drew, coloured and lettered over a 14-year period. It was his reaction to the more populist Disney Peter Pan which Loisel felt was entirely too anodyne. An orphan growing up in Victorian London would live a considerably more desperate life than was presented in the film. Blessed Cure, Salmonella Smorgasbord and NORD simply represent the latest in our drive to publish compelling comics.
MARIO: Blessed Cure is my biggest book so far and it took me about four years of production to finish it while I was doing the others things I do to pay my bills. It was my first graphic novel that I started publishing online as a web comic before I printed the book as well. And I really liked that experience. To keep the rhythm of publishing new pages every week helped me being more organized and to have more discipline. Also it was really cool to have feedback from the audience while I was producing the story. When I read the comments of people connecting to the story and understanding the message it gave me strength to keep going.
MARK: Well. Salmonella Smorgasbord is a pretty comprehensive selection of all the work I've done so far, outside of the graphic novels. The funny, the weird, the frankly horrible, the hopefully moving, all of it. It ended up largely being assembled during the COVID pandemic years, which was a pretty grim time to be trawling through your archives and weighing up what gets in, what's been lost, what doesn't work, and what will work with a little effort. As creators we're often consumed with the latest gig and thinking of the gig after that, SS kind of forced me to take stock and look at what I've done, where I've come from and where I'm going. Damn, there's a lot of work in there! It's hard not to think of it as the closing of a chapter, of some kind. A big 'THIS IS ME!' statement before moving on to whatever I'm going to be next...
MARTIN: NORD is my first full length work. I had only created a few short stories before this book, so this was a pretty big turning point for me. It took me over four and a half years to complete (not full time of course… I had to earn a living too!) So it became a real labour of love by the end… and I learned a lot about the discipline and work ethic required to make a graphic novel completely on my own. It’s not always/ever easy… but it can be very rewarding.
CBY: From its current site features, Soaring Penguin Press is open to submissions. John, are you seeking creations from the world over (as I know Mario is from Brazil)? Is there a standard arrangement with creators when publishing, or can you all speak to the different scenarios that worked best for bringing each of these books to the public (giving their differences in content, length, and format)?
JOHN: Every creator or creative team is offered the same terms of royalties against sales. With our move to a crowdfunding business model, we’re able to advance the payment of the royalties before the book is printed, rather than waiting for sales to come in. As well, as the crowdfunding campaigns, when successful, pay some or all of the printing costs, we can pay a larger royalty on subsequent sales.
As regards the format, each book is evaluated on its own merits and the format - dimension, cover type, et al - is decided based on what we think will best appeal to the readership. That having been said, all our books, even the paperbacks, are section-sewn so that the book can open wider and the binding will last longer. We’re always exploring new printing and binding techniques to improve the look and feel of every book.
MARK: Salmonella Smorgasbord exists because John said 'we'd like to put out a collection of your stuff.' for which i can only be grateful. After that the books shape and size was dictated by the amount of work I could muster, I did wonder, late in the day, whether it would work better as two volumes, but I think John would have strangled me if I'd mentioned it at that point. I mean, strangled me through transatlantic media, it would have been difficult, but he would have found a way...
CBY: On a related note, John, can you speak to what drew you to Blessed Cure, Salmonella Smorgasbord, and NORD for publication, as opposed to any number of other submissions you may have passed on? As creators, have you all had the opportunity to review each other's titles, and what impressions can you all share about your peers' work?
JOHN: Blessed Cure was the only book of the three titles that came as a complete surprise. It was an unsolicited submission. The story drew me in, page after page. I felt I was with : the decisions he made, the consequences of those decisions. It was an uncomfortable read but I knew it was something we needed to see in print.
We’ve published Martin before but NORD is a step beyond what he’d previously done; it’s world-building on an enormous scale, epic storytelling we had absolutely no doubt we wanted to publish.
Mark has been a mate and source of brilliance as far back as I’ve been in the UK. I felt he deserved a book to celebrate his inventiveness and his enormous talent.
MARK: I am ashamed to say I have only skimmed through Martin's NORD at last year's Thought Bubble, where he had a printed version at his table. It looks epic, though, a feast of his luminous rendering, and I look forward to properly digesting it later this year. I haven't encountered Mario's Blessed Cure yet, but bloody want to. It sounds timely, to say the least.
MARTIN: At time of writing, these books are still on their way back from the printers, so I haven’t read either of them yet… but I look forward to getting my eyeballs on them soon!
CBY: None of these publications are run-of-the-mill monthly 22-page issues, and none of them were cobbled together by a creative team assembled by a studio. They are all products of individual vision, and to that end, can you each speak a bit to the time commitments required of each to compile and prepare for publication?
JOHN: It took Martin four years to create NORD. It took Mario six years to create Blessed Cure. And Mark’s work in Salmonella Smorgasbord has been accumulated over more than two decades. They, in each of them, demonstrate a dedication to craft that deserves to be celebrated.
MARIO: I got the idea for Blessed Cure in 2013 when a congressman tried to make sex conversion therapies legal in Brazil. These treatments are forbidden here since 1999 and the bill was not approved in the congress, but still many churches try to turn gays and lesbians into straight and claim that it’s just freedom of speech and a religious practice. That was the first time I heard about it and when I read more about it I was horrified with what I found. I was doing some other projects and only started drawing the pages and publishing the story on-line in 2017 when these subjects got back to the news here again with a decision of a judge trying to make them legal. And then it took me about four years to finish it.
MARK: Years and years. With the help of friends, I had put out a little collection of strips in 2004 called Botulism Banquet, and joked that the next collection would be called Salmonella Smorgasbord. I figure that means I have 19 years to think of another disease/feast title. The book had been, in concept, a thing that was going to happen, with Soaring Penguin, for ages, but I signed the actual contract in 2021 - a different world - and started assembling it in whatever time I had between other work, which as the pandemic progressed, turned out to be quite a lot more time than anybody had bargained on. Hard drives crash, paper gets lost, and files get filed where they shouldn't be filed. It just tooks ages to put together the best versions of these stories that I could, and then organise them into some kind of shape. We finally had something that we could send around and let people look at and raise funds on in the autumn of 2022. Which was its own stressful thing, but the success of the Crowdfundr campaign and the great reaction from the likes of Mike Mignola and Shelly Bond made it all worthwhile. I'm happy now. Within reason...
MARTIN: As I mentioned earlier, this was a long term commitment for me. I worked on NORD whenever possible over quite a few years. After working alone on a single project for so long, you can start to go a little crazy. Self doubt can start to creep in… you have to be pretty stubborn and single-minded to bring it all to a finish. Because for me, you have to finish! Finishing is everything… you might learn a lot from a half completed project… but it will be a fraction of what you could have learned from taking a project all the way to completion.
CBY: Given these books were all individual creations, perhaps you can all share the legacy of influence that you drew upon as you put these titles together? (And John, what business models or other publishers have you looked to in modeling your approach with building Soaring Penguin Press?)
JOHN: I’m friends with many other UK publishers. They’ve all been very supportive of the efforts of Soaring Penguin Press, and I’ve tried to be supportive of them. In some ways, though, Soaring Penguin is unique in that I don’t write any of the titles I publish. This gives me a different perspective to the books we publish. I can’t tell you if this is a good thing or not.
MARIO: My biggest influences are Will Eisner, Gilbert Hernandez, Alison Bechdel and Brazilian cartoonist Laerte. I learned with them the potential the comic books have as an art form and how it can be a powerful portrayal of the times and the world that we live in.
MARK: Influences are too many to list. Suffice it to say that I read a lot of British comics as a kid, read a lot of undergrounds and European comics and the more interesting US stuff in my teens, read a lot of art comics in my 20's and only really started to catch up with manga, past the obvious, in the last ten years or so. Working at the Cartoon Museum reawakened my love of Ronald Searle and Giles and a whole, slightly lost, world of UK cartooning. I like anybody with a characterful, recognisable drawing line, so Gary Panter and Jose Munoz and Lynda Barry are up there, but I'm all over the place, really.
MARTIN: I love Moebius, Dave McKean, Darwyn Cooke, and Brian Bolland (to name but a few). But I think my work is as much influenced by illustration, cinema and animation as it is comics. But I love the power of combining words and pictures… that’s why I love to do comics.
CBY: I'm also keen to know about the promotional process of Soaring Penguin. John how might books get marketed depending on their subject matter or format? To Mario, Mark, and Martin - how do each of you find you best engage with, and expand your readership and fan base? What social media, conventions, and other networking activities do you all prefer to undertake?
JOHN: The general process for marketing each book is the same: we offer PDFs to reviewers and offer the creators to be interviewed. We will try to find specific reviewers or podcasts that cater to the genre or subject matter of the individual title. As well, we ask each creator to help with the marketing. In many cases, the creator has a better understanding of their audience than we would. Ultimately, we work as a team on this.
MARIO: I try to be active on social media to engage my audience and also attend as many comic book conventions I can. I’m more active on Twitter and Instagram and I attend conventions like CCXP Experience, POC CON, FIQ-BH, Perifacon and other ones here in Brazil.
MARK: I find the whole social media promotion thing a bit of a pain. It's simple enough to put art on Instagram (@marxtafford) and say, 'Hey! This is coming out!', but getting that message beyond a certain circle of friends and familiar names is one of those arcane sciences that eludes me. I use Facebook and Twitter, god help me, but am keenly aware that half the stuff I post just seems to disappear into some algorithmic hole somewhere. Right now, a show of comics art I've co-curated is on at the Bookery Gallerie in central London, and I feel I've been yelling about it through a megaphone for a month or more, but you can be pretty sure that I'll bump into people I know later this year who will have no bloody clue that it existed. Still, stuff does get through on occasion. And connections are made. It often feels, though, that getting out there and putting things into peoples hands at The Lakes, or Thought Bubble or any of the London small press fairs is the only way to reach the elusive readers you don't know and actually know about it.
MARTIN: I try my very best to be as active on social media as my workload allows. I’m probably most active on Twitter (SIMO_paints). I attend conventions whenever possible too, I especially love ‘The Thought Bubble’ (I’ve been named as a special guest this year!) and ‘LICAF’ (The Lakes International Comics Art Festival).
CBY: In a crowded landscape of both creators and publishers, how consciously do you, John, cultivate a distinct brand for Soaring Penguin in choosing titles with a certain thematic or aesthetic character? As creators, Mario, Mark, and Martin, how do you present your work to publishers like John and help provide a "unique selling proposition" with your books that fits in line with a publisher's needs, as you perceive them?
JOHN: I recognise that our list can be seen as a bit eclectic. There’s no doubt that we would benefit from being able to link a few titles together, in an, “if you like that book, you’ll like this book” sort of way. That having been said, we’re always open to new voices and new stories. Necessarily, this means considering stories that maybe don’t slot easily into a category. We hope that the diversity of our stories will bring readers back to see what we bring out next, and take a chance given that they enjoyed what we’ve published previously.
MARK: I think I have some ideas that are pictures, some ideas that are short comics stories, and only a few ideas that could evolve into books. All I can do with the latter is to make sure that they would actually work, and consider what kind of size and format would suit them. Do they make sense, both as stories and as viable propositions? Woodrow Phoenix has pointed out that very few artists seem to trouble themselves with the idea of whether anybody actually needs or wants what they do. Lord knows, I wouldn't want to be the one to say 'nobody wants to read your life story' to a would-be Bechdel, but somebody has to. Comics especially seems to be plagued with the nostalgic desire to recreate what has been done before millions of times over. We should all look at the shelves in stores and think about all the books that aren't there that need to be. That's all you can do. Or all I can do, anyway.
MARTIN: I’m a big believer in following your instincts and only doing the projects that you are most passionate about… that mean the most to you personally. I try not to worry about what anyone else is doing or what happens to be ‘in’ or ‘cool’ at the moment. Perhaps in the end, all you can really do is put your stuff out there and see if anyone cares. The readers will decide if it’s worth something to them.
CBY: Looking forward, John, what titles does Soaring Penguin have coming out next? To Mario, Mark, and Martin, what projects are on the horizon which you may want to share some details about to capture our readers' imaginations?
JOHN: We have a non-fiction marriage and relationship guide coming out later this year. That’s something you won’t see anywhere else. I Do I Don’t: How to build a better marriage by Chandrama Anderson MA LMFT, with artwork from Nur Latip will provide in a series of chapters a means of improving one-to-one relationships, not only in a marriage but between any two people.
MARIO: Currently, I’m working on the production of an LGBTQIA+ comic book convention that I organize here in Brazil and that took place during São Paulo’s Pride Parade in June. After that I’ll continue with the writing of the script of my next graphic novel. It’s too soon to give more details about it now.
MARK: Well, myself and mister David Hine have another book in the offing, which is a pretty ambitious prospect, but which we need to secure funding for. If that happens you won't see me for a couple of years. I'm doing another Pocket Chiller with Douglas Noble, and like the idea of doing other bits and pieces in that vein. I've got some pages in Shelly Bond's upcoming Fast Times book, which is exciting. Other than that, it's all a bit nebulous. A portfolio of disreputable prints called Afterparty? A short book about a dying sailor? Some paintings? Maybe another show for the Bookery Gallerie? Let me know if you need these things.
MARTIN: I primarily work as a freelance illustrator… so I have a lot of work to do in that area at the moment. I’m deep into planning a new book though… but it will be a while before I’m ready to announce anything. I will also continue to contribute towards (and help organise) the ongoing SKRAWL Comix Magazine too.
CBY: Our call to creators to share with our readers media you're enjoying benefits from having so many responses today. What have you each been getting into you'd recommend people check out?
MARIO: I’ll recommend a graphic novel by another Brazilian author that’s going to be published in English as well. It’s called Listen, beautiful Márcia by Marcelo Quintanilha and it won the Fauve D’Or, the main prize at the Angoulême Festival. It’s an amazing work by one of the best authors from Brazil right now.
MARK: Lately I've been loving those collections of Sergio Toppi's work that Magnetic Press have been putting out, likewise Fantagraphics Alberto Breccia books. Just utter inky splendour. I'm looking forward to Tsuge Yoshiharu's Nejishiki coming out through Drawn and Quaterly, the first time that hisextraoerdinary Screw Style work is getting the proper book treatment in translation in the west. Umezz's Orochi stories are a giddy blast. I'm having fun catching up with Gilbert Hernandez's work, which I'd rather fallen behind on. I've only got a couple of chapters of Sammy Harkham's Blood of the Virgin and need to get the rest. Of recent UK stuff I like Lord Hurk, Anna Readman and Sarah Gordon's comics, but I'm sure there's a lot of work out there I'm missing. I like everybody I've put into the All about The Ink! Show I co-curated. Other than that, it's all just movies about giant killer pigs, and the Luis Bunuel box set I'm inching my way through.
MARTIN: There are some amazing comics artists currently working on the UK scene right now… check out anything from Russell Mark Olson, Gustaffo Vargas, Lucy Sullivan, Fraser Campbell, Zé Burnay, Norm Konyu and Anna Readman. To name just a few!
CBY: Thank you all for sharing your time over the latest offerings from Soaring Penguin Press. Please keep Comic Book Yeti in the loop as you bring new comics to the public!
*Editor's note: Golden Rage is great and everyone should read it. - Jimmy