With comics having taken over pop culture, there's no shortage of toys, posters, magnets, mugs and shirts on store shelves. But one thing that remains out of sight, in the shadows? Comics themselves. Which is where ShortBox comes in.
Created by comics critic Zainab Akhtar (Comics & Cola) and co-run with Clark Burscough (Leeds Thought Bubble Festival), ShortBox is a quarterly selection of new independent print comics from creators working round the world, featuring projects and art from people like Michael DeForge, Lisa Hanawalt, Lucie Bryon and Isaac Lenkiewicz. With four new boxes released every year, the idea is that you can head over and pre-order each box just before the release date -- but when the ShortBox sells out, that's it. These are legitimately exclusive items.
It's a heady project for Akhtar, who honed her curation skills as a writer about comics at various outlets including The Guardian, AV Club, and The Comics Journal. To learn more about how this whole thing came about, CBR News spoke to her about ShortBox -- and gained an early look at what'll be released in the second edition this fall.
CBR News: Zainab, what is ShortBox, for those new to the concept?
Zainab Akhtar: ShortBox is a new independent comics box. We release a box every three months containing five comics, an exclusive A4 print, and an additional item -- sticker sheet, zine, pin, etc., (and some sweets!). It's not a subscription, and it's not blind: everything that's inside the box is detailed in the sale listing so you can see what you're buying. Being able to show people what's in the box is important to us because we work hard -- and directly with artists -- to curate and assemble an excellent selection of comics and art.
There's so much contemporary, fantastic work being done by artists around the world, and we want to harness and showcase that in our own way. The emphasis of the box is on new and little-known work.
The second one is coming up shortly -- so who will be providing comics and work for the next edition?
Yes -- the second box will ship in September, when it will also go on general sale, but we're running pre-orders for it right now. It's always exciting to finally be able to share something you've been plugging away at, and we're especially pumped for this box as all the comics contained within are brand new: never been published elsewhere, and won't be available anywhere else for a while.
We've got a 70-page book from Carolyn Novak (US) which will have a ShortBox-exclusive cover. Carolyn's been on such a tear lately with "Radishes" and "Girl Town" -- she creates these really smart and empathetic stories, and we're so chuffed to have a new book from her. "Food Baby" is a 50-page, full-color compilation of comics about food, illustrated recipes, and tips about cooking, from someone who once made a potato catch on fire, Lucie Bryon (Belgium). Lucie's lovely-looking comics never fail to make me laugh, as she has this relatable humor which comes across as effortless, but is actually very difficult to achieve.
"Your Black Friend" by Ben Passmore (US) is excellent -- sharp, informed social commentary. It went on general release in June and quickly sold out, and we're delighted to bring this new printing to our readers. "T" from Bailey Sharp (Australia) sees a high school girl's lunch period ruined by an ambiguous text message she receives. I've been following Lizzy Stewart's (UK) beautiful, elegant illustrations and comics for years and she's gotten better and better; "Heavy Air" is a new book from her, which takes places at the end of summer on an estate, with a storm drawing near.
In addition to all that awesomeness, the box will also include an exclusive A4 print by the ace Lisa Hanawalt. I love Lisa's strange animal creatures and her humor -- and especially her clothing line, which has the best prints, so it's amazing to be able to work with her. She's so singular.
And finally, we'll also have a limited edition, felt pak choi pin by Honey Parast. Honey makes these wonderful felt models and sculptures which I've been following and drooling over and hoping to one day afford. Each of these badges are handmade, and incredibly lovely: you can feel the craft.
How do you curate the ShortBox? What kind of stories do you want most to showcase, to spotlight?
As simplistic as it may sound, our aim is honestly just to put together a bunch of great comics and art. That's as specific as the remit gets. I want people to get this box in the post, open it, and be thrilled by everything in it. You know that feeling of pleased satisfaction you get when you've bought something good? That's what I want people to feel: contentment, pleasure.
As far as curation goes, we have a very long list of artists we want to work with, so it's essentially about approaching people and seeing if they're interested. We want ShortBox to be a destination for quality work and discovery.
What first made you want to curate and create the ShortBox? When did you start feeling there was a real space for something like this?
I'd been thinking about it for a couple of years, switching between what form the idea would take -- at one point I considered a dedicated distro store, before settling on a comics box. An online store collecting independent comics (however great the selection) isn't really offering anything new, and I'm not sure how viable it would be. And as much as ShortBox is borne from creative passion and a love for the medium, I want it to be successful, or have the chance to be.
I buy a lot of comics, and like how mail subscriptions feed into the anticipation and excitement of receiving packages in the post. I'm basically the perfect sales patsy for a comics box, and yet there was nothing out there that I wanted to get on board with. A lot of comic boxes are either very generic or tilted towards buying into a geek-identity, so you only receive one comic, a t-shirt, a keyring, a mug and a plastic figure. I want a comics box to be comics focused. I actually want comics, you know?
Something that pulls together books from various countries and scenes. So it was a case of the old, "make what you want to see." I'm lucky in that I have a very supportive following from my blog/writing, who have encouraged me not only to expand and do more, but the few times I have put anything out there, they've put their money where their mouth is. It's really a special feeling to have that kind of backing, and it makes you want to do better and deliver better. I floated the idea of an independent comics box on Twitter early this year, and people seemed very enthusiastic about it.
I'm not as naive as to think Twitter likes are going to translate into something concrete, but it was a matter of, "You should stop thinking about this and being scared it won't work, or that it's beyond you, and just do it," which solidified when I realised I was actually going to end Comics & Cola. We took it from there. I'd been feeling increasingly inspired by comics people doing their own thing: Spike Trotman, Peow! Studio, Ines Estrada, Ryan Sands, Annie Koyama; so when my friend Clark (Burscough, festival director for Thought Bubble) got in touch with me after seeing that tweet and said he'd like to be involved, that was another boost.
I think the more specific an idea is, the stronger it can be. What makes ShortBox unique is its curation: that we've done all the looking through/homework and specifically picked out, or commissioned, each item within the box and it's this selection that we're presenting to people.
Are there deliberate goals you have with each edition? For example, is it important to you that your choice of comics actually be international and range round the world, rather than all be, say, American?
Our goal is to make it the best we can: Are these books that we'd be interested in? Are these artists we'd buy? You have to consider your audience to some degree, but fundamentally it's important to trust yourself. Siphoning off that trust is siphoning off your belief in what you're doing. If you don't believe in what you're doing then that comes across.
I trust my taste/eye/whatever you want to call it. I'm not averse to taking chances, but again there has to be something that's convincing me about that chance -- I'm not going to include something that's considered en vogue, or popular, or worthy, if I don't get it on some level. Somebody who fully understands that is going to be able to better get behind it, so there's no point in me pretending -- it's not something I'm good at!
Having an international range of comics is important on a basic level in that the best comics work comes from all around the globe and not America alone. The stumbling block to that can be finding work that's in English. One of my dreams is to grow big enough to start translating smaller works from around the world. Clark and I are British, and we see our audience as an English-reading one (via a practical necessity if nothing else), but absolutely global. One of the aspects I was proudest about with regards to Comics & Cola was that the people who followed it were dotted all around the globe, and I'd love for us to replicate that with ShortBox. In the online age, and from a basic commercial perspective, it seems deeply foolish to limit yourself to an American audience.
If we have any kind of deliberate goal, it's to work with people who do terrific work; people like Tiffany Ford, Joy Ang, Richie Pope, Hellen Jo, Polly Guo, Sloane Leong, Kris Mukai, Chris Kindred, Vaughn Pinpin, Shivana Sookdeo, Manjit Thapp, Nico Delort, Hwei Lim -- and on and on. I was so pleased to get Aatmaja Pandya's "Phantom" for our first box, because her work's excellent and getting better all the time, and that book saw her broach an area perhaps different to what people expect.
The box is heavily comics focused, but we'll be doing art zines, too. Something along the lines of Pascal Girard's "Des Adolescents" that Mille Putois put out: this tiny, square, french-flapped collection of drawings. We have one coming up in January that I'm excited for. Doing something like that, a little concept booklet from Toby Cypress, Milsae, or Calum Alexander Watt would be perfect. Then there are people like Daryl Seitchik, Lala Albert, Becca Tobin... I'm basically just listing people in the hope that they see this now! [Laughs]
Do you also view this as an opportunity to take your work as a critic and translate it into actual forward action within the industry? To go from saying, "You should read this" to actually handing books to people and saying, "Here - read this!"
People have different ideas about the function of a critic, but when I decided to start a blog about comics, it was because I was coming into the industry as a new, older reader, and found a lot of the comics sites impenetrable. I never read serialised comics, and wasn't interested in coverage of that format, but I wanted things recommended to me, what's interesting to read. My aim was always to be accessible: that if anyone --whether they read comics or not -- came across something I wrote about a comic book, it would still make a basic sense to them.
In that sense, ShortBox is very much an extension of Comics & Cola: if you like the work featured on there, chances are you'll like the books in the box. But it is also for anyone. If you're curious about comics, it's a fab option because there's no signing up involved. You can buy a box and get a range of very good work.
What do you think the industry needs to do to help cultivate and develop these comics-makers, and their projects? Do you feel there's a need for these books to get "elevated" via conceits like ShortBox?
Money. And someone with a fresh and relevant eye. If I had money, I'd approach a few different cartoonists, sign them up for books, and then hire and work with a smart marketing person to push them as best as possible. I look at someone like Jonathan Cape, who have money and connections, and wonder what would happen if they hired an editor who took on a few new, fresh cartoonists, with the platform and resources they have to push books. It wouldn't mean they have to abandon what appears to be their remit, but maybe a dedicated contemporary line...
And I think what makes it sadder is that it's such a ripe time for it: audiences are more receptive to new things than ever. But, yeah, the number one reason we can't seem to retain incredibly talented people within the field is that there's no financial infrastructure for them to maintain a career. You see a lot of younger artists working "regular" jobs and doing comics on the side, and stretching yourself that way is unsustainable if you want a basic quality of life: with a roof over your head and food and time to see people and do thing -- and once family enters the equation it's another story entirely. The returns aren't worth it. Comics is still a full-time job for only a few people.
What's encouraging is that, to a degree, you can do your own thing now. There's no middle man required for publishing, or entry, who's going to stamp "legitimate" on your work. There's a lot of dismissiveness around that notion, because a) the autonomy of the internet factors into it, and b) the people who use that autonomy are largely marginalised folk: people of colour, LGBTQ folk, women.
At the same time, it feels there's a concerted movement taking place further every month for readers to move from the obvious mass-market comics to small-press, self-published works. Would you agree that we're seeing a shift in the sorts of comics that readers want to see?
I don't know what readers want to see, or whether that is actually happening. On a personal level, the problem with mass-market comics (and here I'm referring to the big 5: DC, Marvel, Image, IDW, Dark Horse) is that there's not enough innovation and differentiation. When I started reading comics, I started with "Batman," "Superman," the "X-Men," but you can only read the same story over and over so many times. Especially when that story's not particularly well executed in terms of art and narrative. It's not even about risk-taking in as much as it is about delivering something good, and consistently so.
On top of that, there's only a degree of crossover and reset jiggery pokery one can take. People aren't dumb, and comics aren't cheap. Who wants to read only one type of book? It's a natural growth to look elsewhere. For different stories, different perspectives, different styles. That was my journey, anyhow: follow the good work, wherever that may be. I don't know to what extent that shift is taking place, though. The quality level of comics in Canada/North American over the past years has gotten better and better, and the internet has meant people can access so much more: there's a wealth of good to very, very good material to choose from, so the bar's been lifted in that sense. People have more choice and can afford to be pickier.
What do you want to see from ShortBox over the next few editions -- over the next few years -- as it develops forwards? What are your ongoing hopes for the project?
I get anxious thinking too far ahead, never mind discussing it!
We'll have boxes out in February, May, August, and November next year, and we have our lineups for the first two of those almost finalized. Right now I want us to establish ourselves and build an audience -- that's the aim for 2017. To get the ShortBox name out there, get people aware of and into what we're doing, and build ourselves into something strong. We'd love to collaborate with publishers to offer new books early to our readers -- that's something we're looking into, but it would have to be the right book. To be in a position where we can approach a publisher and say, "Our last box sold this much, if you debut your book with us that's how much you'll be selling, plus a marketing boost" would be great.
Some immediate goals are for us to be able to make things nicer: french flaps, deboss cover details, nicer paper, screen-printed covers, do different things with the prints: foils, etc. Another of the reasons ShortBox is so fulfilling to me is that I love print as an object, and bringing the comic and aesthetic aspects together is something we're keen to do moving forward.
The latest ShortBox is currently available for pre-order on the service's website through July 28.