Saturday, 13 September 2008

To Infinity and... er, Japan! An interview with Russell Willis

Simon Mackie and Russell Willis, Tokyo, 2008

Russell Willis produced and published a number on important underground cartoon magazines in the 1980s. He moved to Tokyo in the early 1990's where he now runs a web based publishing company in Tokyo.

UK underground cartoonist, Simon Mackie, who also lived in Tokyo in the early to mid 1990's, recently met up with Russell in Tokyo where they talked about Russell's involvement with the UK comics underground two and a half decades ago...

Simon Mackie: Russell, I first met you back in 1985 at the Portobello Projects Cartoon Workshop in West London. You'd come down for the evening to meet us all but I can't remember what for exactly?

Russell Willis: At that time, I was hoping to expand Infinity to include features and news on all sorts of cool comics-related projects -- so this was most likely a news gathering operation! At the same time I was publishing The Alternative Headmaster's Bulletin with [Mad Dog editor] Smuzz and had put out No Frills Funnies, an underground comic that later attracted the interest of Rip Off Press -- so I was probably looking for contributors too.

Simon: I remember that evening that you had brought with you a copy of the truly excellent INFINITY magazine. For the unenlightened what was Infinity and what was your involvement?

Russell: INFINITY was different from most comics fanzines at the time in that it was dedicated to non-superhero comics. It was inspired by the work of Eddie Campbell and the Fast Fiction table [run by Paul Gravett and Pete Stanbury], along with things such as Raymond Briggs' When the Wind Blows. The idea was that there was a whole world of comics outside of the X-Men and Infinity would use a bit of "positive discrimination" to explore that world.

Infinity #5, featuring the first part
of an extensive interview with
David Lloyd
Simon: How long did INFINITY run for and what was the print run?

Russell: Eight issues were published along with a couple of "mini-Infinitys" between December 1983 and sometime in the first half of 1985 -- I forget exactly and have no records! The first issue was 40 copies, photocopied then stapled on the steps of Central Hall where the Westminster Comic Marts took place. I met a brash, young Warren Ellis stapling on those steps. Copies went on the Fast Fiction table, but I sold most of them accosting people in the hall and badgering them into buying a copy.

The second issue had a 200 print run. By the third issue, Virgin Megastores were selling them (I would trudge around London with a huge suitcase and go to every comic, record and "alternative" shop I could find and get them to stock copies). The last issue had a print-run of 800, which wasn't bad for a small fanzine that didn't cover superheroes.

Simon: For a small press publication INFINITY had high production values. The covers were glossy, the last issue had a two colour cover and the inside pages were properly printed, not photocopied. You also had a high print run. How could you afford this?

Russell: High production values? Perhaps relative to some of the really badly photocopied stuff back then! At the time, I was publishing a tourist guide twice a year for Broadstairs where I lived. This (and the DHSS) provided enough cash to publish Infinity -- though by the last issue, I was breaking even. I started Infinity when I was 15 and was still living at home -- by issue 8, I was 17 and was living with bunch of hippies and anarchists.

Simon: Were you involved in any other small press projects at this time?

Infinity #7, featuring an interview
with Posy Simmonds - an interview
so memorable Paul Gravett
quoted from it (and credited
it) in a feature for
Comics Journal
23 years later!
Russell: Just TAHB and NFF. These had strips from the likes of [the late] Mike Matthews, Dixie, David Hine, Smuzz, Chris Brasted, Eddie Campbell, Chris Webster, Martin Hand and more.

Simon: You had some pretty important contributors and interviewees. Remind me who they were and how you managed this.

Russell: Alan Moore, David Lloyd, Posy Simmonds, Eddie Campbell, Hunt Emerson, Myra Hancock and more... a great list.

A chap called Dixie, who helped me with the layout of issues 2-5, was a member of the Society of Strip Illustration and helped me secure an interview with David Lloyd. Paul Gravett got me the interview with Posy Simmonds. I would solicit articles (such as an early one on underground comics from someone who hated them -- I knew that would generate controversy) and give editorial direction as to the angle I wanted, which I don't think was common for fanzines at the time. I was a pest and badgered people whose talents I respected for contributions. All of this led to quite a high quality for the time -- and because of the "no superheroes" policy I think people wanted to be associated with something that was a bit forward-looking.

Also, at the time, you could meet comics creators at the comic marts. I drank beers with Alan Moore and David Lloyd et al in the Westminster Arms (although I don't think they knew I was 17). I'd later tell them they'd promised me stuff over beers... Just kidding!

Simon: In the early to mid 1980's there seemed to be a lot of creativity and hope in the underground comics scene and also a New Wave of underground cartoonists. Would you agree and if so what do you think was the catalyst for this change?

Russell: Absolutely. It was an amazingly creative time. In the UK you had Fast Fiction and Escape -- Paul Gravett, Eddie Campbell, Phil Elliott et al --, with Warrior really showcasing Moore and Lloyd and Davis. In the US you had RAW and Maus (being serialized at the time) and a whole bunch of mainstream stuff which wasn't superheroes.

Fast Fiction especially gave a real outlet to photocopied and small print-run stuff, and I this must have been inspiring to a lot of artists and writers who are well-known today. Warren Ellis talks about it often.

Catalyst? I don't know, but the above kept the flame burning.

Simon: You suddenly stopped producing INFINITY in 1985 and other projects came to an end. Why, so suddenly, when you seemed to be riding the crest of the wave?

Russell: I was ripped off by a guy with whom I'd set up a studio and a bank account to publish Infinity and other projects. Ironically, I found out the day I received a cheque from Rip Off Press for an order of hundreds of copies of No Frills Funnies. I went to deposit the cheque and found out that all the money had gone, a big overdraft had been run up and that the guy had done a runner and disappeared with nearly all the artwork and contact addresses for the comics projects we were planning.

I still remember the stunning Dan Maniac cover to No Frills Funnies #2 by the late Mike Matthews. I'll never see it again.

All of this just made me so depressed that I just froze and dropped out of the scene. Fortunately, I kept most of the contributions for Infinity #9 at my home. I'll tell you about those later.

Simon: In the late 1980's/ early 90's there seemed be a kind of implosion in underground comics. Knockabout Comics stopped producing their anthology, Escape and the Fast Fiction distribution came to an end and several new titles folded after just a few issues. Do you have any thoughts on why this may have happened?

Russell: I'd reluctantly quit the comics scene by this time, so I don't know. I can only guess that the wave of creativity hit a stony shore still bereft of commercial opportunity -- that would come though.

Simon: You're living and working in Tokyo now. What is it exactly that you do now? Has what you have learnt from your small press ventures helped you in your present career?

Russell: Well, I'm very careful about business partners! I own and run a web-based publishing company here. We run a very large portal site for learners of English in Japan which is advertising funded and provided lots of information about learning English, studying abroad, why Americans are strange, etc.

We also publish books, audio books, magazines, podcasts etc. For example we were doing the TIME magazine podcast for Japan here (it's on sabbatical right now), which was fun, we have a book out in October with Macmillan which interviews foreign CEOs of multinationals in Japan, this kind of stuff.

INFINITY and the other zines taught me about editing, writing, design, working with creative people. I was rubbish at it when I started (I didn't even know how to order the pages properly so they'd print right), but learnt on the job and it was very natural for me to feel that I could take on professional projects later on, with that experience behind me. Though I shudder when I look at the wonky, scratched Letraset, bad paste-up and acres of IBM Golfball-generated typos in every issue of Infinity!

Infinity #9, available to
fans of the original 'zine.
Simon: Would you ever consider working on an underground comics project again?

Russell Willis: Funny you should mention that! I've just put together INFINITY #9 -- with all the articles and letters and some of the artwork that should have been published 23 years ago. It includes front and back covers by the late Steve Whitaker, to whom I've dedicated the issue. I've created it as a private gift for people who read Infinity back then -- "friends of Infinity."

If you were a reader, contributor or just knew me back in the day, then drop me an e-mail at russjapan (at) mac (dot) com and I'll send you a copy.

Simon Mackie: Living and working so far away from home, and for so many years now, do you often think back to your days working with underground comics in the early 80s?

Russell Willis: I do. It was a wonderful period. I feel so lucky to have been even a small part of it. In the last few years I've been confronted with so many things that remind me of those days -- whether it be picking up an Eddie Campbell book and seeing references to Infinity in it or watching the American Splendor film on DVD or just seeing names of people that contributed to Infinity or who I knew from back then as I browse the book section of Tower Records in Tokyo. Great stuff!

• Since this interview was first published in 2008 on downthetubes, Russell Willis has launched Panel Nine, a dedicated digital comics publishing company, which launched SEQUENTIAL, a digital platform for quality graphic novels in 2013. More info at:

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Creating WebComics: A Brief Guide

In 2007, I was part of a panel at the Birmingham International Comic Show and there was plenty of advice offered on web comics creation, and I figured it was high time I shared some of it on downthetubes. Many comics creators are now creating strips for the web raqther than print, but are there dos and don'ts? Is it worth all the time and trouble? And, most importantly, how do I get people to read it?

First things first. Don't be under any illusion that a web comic is going to make money immediately!

"A webcomic costs next to nothing, a print anthology costs a bomb," feels Smallzone publisher and distributor Shane Chebsey, tallking about web comics on a thread for the Smalzone forum.

"A web comic is on a screen (and it sometimes hurts my head to read them), however, they can reach lots of people, a print comic is an object to treasure, but will only reach a few folks. Neither are likely to make you any money," he added cynically, "so unless you love comics don't do it!

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, a comic creator and new media lecturer based out of St Albans, England and one of the real web comic experts on the panel reckoned you needed about 10,000 unique users before you could start to make money from associated merchandise (t-shirts, print comic sales collecting the strip etc.) That doesn't, of course, mean you shouldn't start making merchandise available from Day One. If you want to see samples of his work, check out the impressive web site

"Brand Awareness"

The most important thing about web and mobile comic formats is that you are raising the profile of your creation, what companies call "raising brand awareness". Several good strips have been picked up for print collection as a result of web publication.

Cost wise, the only real expense to creating a webcomic is your time and materials. There are several places you could run a web comic. Most of these do not charge for storage space.

You can also run comics on blogs and in other places for free without the expense of setting up and paying for web space.

When it comes to promotion, there's nothing more effective initially than telling your friends about your strip by good old e-mail. Consider including a sample of the strip in your email (just make sure the file size isn't too large) as well as links to where your webcomic can be found online. Michael Jantze, who publishes The Norm, mails out his strip daily to subscribers, as do many other webcomic creators.

If you're clever with HTML and stuff, one way of promoting your strip is to create a way for people to add an 'embed' to their own sites which displays the latest episode of the strip and links through to your site(just how Amazon ads work). That way, other web site owners get 'free content' on their site they don't have to worry about updating and you get a higher profile and, hopefully, trackback for your creation.

There are several people out there who have got promotion down to a fine art. Thomas Cochrane, who creates the strip Fat Man, tells me he has a slew of places he regularly updates to push the strip, including a Flickr account. All of this helps to raise the strip in terms of search engine profile, which, for Thomas, should pay off in terms of PR when the book is launched.

There are also several comic aggregator sites such as Online Comics where you can also promote your strip, as well as via a MySpace page, a Facebook page -- the possibilities are pretty endless and growing all the time. Just bear in mind that the more you set up, the more you have to work on when it comes to keeping them updated!

And keeping them updated is VERY important, the most important thing being the strip itself. I don't know how often most creators update their strips but Nick Miller over at Team Sputnik manages to add an image or cartoon every day to that site's associated blog but I think that as long as you can add something once a week, possibly more (and the big web comic sites manage a daily or bi-weekly publication schedule!) then that will ensure more 'hits' and a bigger audience... providing the strip is a good one in the first place of course!

Making Money

As mentioned above, there's no guarantee that creating a webcomic will make you any money but if you get an audience, the chances of just that increase. Most web comic creators will tell you, however, that they make money from related merchandise (t-shirts, for example) rather than the strip itself. That said, if someone likes your work it can bring you work in terms of commissions, as I've found with editing downthetubes for almsot ten years. The tipping point, as mentioned, would seem to be around 10,000 unique readers.

Other ways to make money would be to include affiliate ads on your site - check out Commission Junction for a range of these, or just sign up for an online book stroe's referral scheme. You can also make money selling banner ads, using services such as Project Wonderful or Google AdSense.

And Finally...

While making some money from creating a web comic is a bonus, the main thing about making web comics is, surely, to never lose sight of why you are doing it - to express yourself, to have fun and be creative! Be it in print, web or mobile, there's nothing more satisfying.

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