Our second interview in this indie publisher series is with longtime champion of the industry – Knockabout.
We were lucky to catch up with its founder Tony Bennett to chat longevity in the comics industry, what makes a publisher indie and how major publishers affect everyone else. Here’s what the man had to say…
Could you introduce Knockabout and the people behind it?
In the late 60s and early 70s I was working with a publisher and distributor called Unicorn Bookshop, originally in Brighton we moved to a farm in West Wales where we were growing our own food and had a printing press in the barn. Unicorn, as well as publishing books on self-sufficiency, cannabis and poetry was importing Underground comics from the USA.
This really sparked my interest in comics, partly for the wide and weird content and partly because they were creator owned. It even encouraged me and a friend to draw and print our own self-indulgent heavily derivative comic, Trip Strip, which we distributed at Festivals. With the demise of Unicorn in 1975, due to bad debts, I took over some of the distribution and started publishing the Freak Brothers under the name Hassle Free Press – which changed to Knockabout around 1980.
Then I spent some years driving around Britain, delivering underground comics to Head shops and Radical bookshops and some high street shops, as well as selling at lots of festivals. Knockabout continued to publish “underground” or “alternative” comics, take your pick of the description including work by Robert Crumb, Bryan Talbot and early comics from Neil Gaiman, who I worked with editing Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament and Seven Deadly Sins.
What did you set out to achieve with Knockabout?
I wanted to produce comic books that were aimed at an adult readership, where the creator is allowed to produce whatever work they wish and retain all rights to their own work. We pay creators a royalty on every copy sold. There is a perception in Britain and the rest of the English speaking world that comics are for kids. I don’t see this attitude changing any time soon, however many Pulitzer Prizes or Guardian Book Awards are given to graphic novels.
Comics may be ephemeral and ‘low art’ but every newspaper carries comic strips, many of which are aimed solely at an adult readership although I suspect that quite a lot of those adult readers might be shocked at what is inside the covers of many modern comic books. It is obviously in the financial interest of the large periodical comic publishers, Marvel, DC etc. to attract young teenagers to their product and so they quite rightly operate some kind of self-censorship. Because there exists also a large adult readership for superhero and SF/Fantasy material conflict often occurs between creators and publishers.
This is not a problem that we have at Knockabout as our books are only sold to adults. The ‘comics are for children’ attitude does not seem to exist in the rest of Europe or elsewhere in the world. If for example you are a Belgian reader you just know that comics are a medium of their own, just like novels and that different ones are aimed at different ages; a concept that seems to be continually resisted by the British (and the Americans).
The idea of what constitutes an independent publisher is pretty blurred. What is it – or is it not – to you?
I’m not sure. I suppose it is not a large corporation whose aim is to exploit properties and their readers for as much profit as they can. We are independent in the sense that we can publish anything we wish without having to consider any age-labelling, censorship or only making decisions on what title might make the most money. We want to publish work that is original and stimulating and hopefully gives a reader an idea of the wide potential of the comic strip medium.
Knockabout has been going since 1975. How have you managed to stay independent that whole time?
Because I value that independence and being able to make my own decisions.
What have been the keys to your success as an indie?
Working with some of the most talented creators in the world – Gilbert Shelton, Hunt Emerson, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Robert Crumb, Eddie Campbell, Kevin O’Neill, Winshluss and many more.
Both independents and majors are publishing fairly left field work at the moment. Who has the edge, the little guys or the big guys?
The major publishers copy what the smaller ones put out. The large US companies cannot afford to experiment but are good at spotting trends and new ideas coming from the Independents. Let’s not forget that 95% of the comics sold in the UK and US are still today superhero or SF/Fantasy work.
This doesn’t leave a lot of room for other genres but the situation is improving. In the countries with a “mature” comics readership, France, Japan, Finland, Spain and pretty much anywhere except the English speaking world comics are a medium for telling any kind of story to a whole population, not a geek ghetto.
What’s next for Knockabout?
This month we have Beatles Within An A by Finnish author Mauri Kunnas, telling the story of the Beatles from their formation up to their first hot record. Also the collected hardcover League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol III Century.
In the Autumn we have Hunt Emerson’s Calculus Cat, Dylan Horrocks Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen and the bound-to-upset-some-people In God We Trust by Winshluss (Pinocchio author) a retelling of the Bible story. Also this year will be a book about Alzheimer’s Wrinkles by Paco Roca.