Wednesday 29 September 2010

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

With the demise of my weekly Must Be Thursday posts – which, for the latecomers among us, consisted of my ill-considered and, as it turned out, increasingly boring thoughts on the American comic books I was planning on buying each week – it strikes me the comics content of this blog has declined considerably. This is probably of little concern to anyone but me, but it is a concern to me. I still like comics; I just don't read as many 'mainstream' (i.e. superhero, mostly) comics as I used to. But I do still want to have a certain amount of comics content on this blog, so as well as the occasional review or think piece, I thought I'd institute a new, probably irregular series of posts on a subject that's little-covered on the interweb: small press comics.

For the uninitiated, small press – or mini – comics are exactly what the phrase suggests they are: comics produced on a small scale, whether that be fifty copies or a couple of hundred. On top of that, many of them are also quite small. In both the US and the UK, small press comics blossomed in the 1980s, growing out of the 1960s underground comics in the States and '60s and '70s fanzines in the UK. Like the underground comics of, say, Robert Crumb, small press comics were – and still are – highly personal, for the most part eschewing genre (in particular superheroes). But unlike the undergrounds they're generally more contemplative and thoughtful than hyperbolic or frantic. More often than not they're created, written, drawn, printed (or photocopied) and even distributed by one person.

I was lucky in that I stumbled upon the UK small press scene in the mid-1980s, during its initial explosion, and I've kept up with it, on and off, ever since. And while many other aspects of comics get plenty of coverage on the internet, small press comics kind of get short shrift. There's things like Bugpowder and Smallzone, but little in the way of wider or historical analysis. So I figured I'd fill that gap. In Notes from the Small Press I'll be rummaging in the longbox of yesteryear (eyethangyew) for memorable, interesting, funny, or just plain strange comics or creators (mostly British, but some Yanks too), from the eighties to the noughties. Hopefully it'll be of interest to some of you.

And we begin with a comic that also handily acts as a primer for the UK small press scene of the '80s:

Fast Fiction Presents: The Elephant of Surprise was an A5-sized 'jam' – or more accurately 'relay' – comic published in 1986. The Fast Fiction in the title refers to the anthology comic The Elephant span out of (edited by Phil Elliott and then Ed Pinsent), but Fast Fiction was also the name of the '80s scene's mail order distributor (again with Elliott and Pinsent in command, as well as Paul Gravett, who came up with The Elephant's title), not to mention the name of the table the outfit had at the regular London Westminster Comic Marts. Essentially, Fast Fiction was the hub around which countless small press comics creators twirled, and the means by which I bought small press comics back then. The way it worked was, you either bought comics off the Fast Fiction table at the Westminster Mart, or picked up one of their four-page flyers, chose the titles you liked the look of, and sent in your order form and money.

Which must seem to some in the internet age a charmingly old-fashioned way of doing things. Ed Pinsent has loads of great cover galleries on his website, both of the Fast Fiction anthology and other small press titles from that period – many of which I own, and some of which I'll doubtless be featuring on here at some point. It's a brilliant resource, so go have a look.

Anyway, for The Elephant of Surprise, twelve cartoonists were each assigned two pages in which to advance an overall story, using a character from the segment immediately preceding theirs and a character from the first two-page segment. They also had to reference elephants somehow. What's fascinating about the exercise is the creator cast list reads like a who's who of the '80s small press: the aforementioned Phil Elliott (who provided the first two pages) and Ed Pinsent, Rian Hughes, John Bagnall, Eddie Campbell, Glenn Dakin and more besides. These were the main movers and shakers in the scene, many of whom have gone on to enjoy much wider acclaim.

In the post-game analysis at the back of the comic, Ed Pinsent is amusingly frank about the setbacks encountered during the making of The Elephant and the relative shortcomings of the finished article, calling it "only slightly disappointing" and reasoning the best bits are those where logic breaks down entirely, particularly towards the end. In fact it's a gloriously barking enterprise from start to finish. As is his wont, Phil Elliott decides to kick off the story with a pub garden discussion about worms and the sanctity of nature set in an idyllic postwar England. To readers familiar at the time with Elliott's Tales from Gimbley this wouldn't have seemed out of the ordinary, but at a twenty-five year remove it's a choice that's as striking as it is oddball.

From there the story develops around an elephant statue and a religious sect with an anthropomorphic figurehead, adding in a killer robot for good measure. There are some sublime moments of slapstick, particularly around Phil Laskey and Eddie Campbell's segments (see below), but the real joy of the thing is in witnessing a group of artists and friends simultaneously reaching an early peak in their creative lives as they attempt to make some kind of sense out of whatever daft scribblings the cartoonist in front of them has committed to paper.

As Pinsent's outro notes, the final four pages from Steve Way and Glenn Dakin completely debunk everything that's gone before, with Dakin in particular doing his level best to rationalise the preceding madness. It's an entertaining end to a comic that's not only an intriguing and historically important snapshot of a particular time and place, but a fun read to boot, even today.

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Girst

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch   

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon

Notes from the Small Press 12: The Sky in Stereo by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 13: First by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia

Notes from the Small Press 14: Planet 4, a Monitor Story by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 15: Spandex by Martin Eden


  1. Nick, many thanks for the link and this very good appraisal of The Elephant of Surprise. I had almost forgotten how much fun it was to put together. Unlike the Zap! Comix artists who produced their jams sitting around the same kitchen table at a party, we never actually met up to produce The Elephant and it was created entirely thanks to Royal Mail - I co-ordinated the exercise from my home in Liverpool, sending out photocopies to the participants, much like a chain letter. It took weeks. As I recall each artist only saw the two preceding pages, with the final story being revealed upon publication.

    Another thing I liked about Glenn's contribution was the way he collaged everyone's drawings from the rest of the comic, adding new speech balloons. You've never seen so many drawing styles crammed into two pages.

  2. Ed, thanks for the update! Yep, Glenn's final two pages are great – as is the rest of The Elephant. I think the artists must have seen more than the previous two pages though, or at least some of them must've: Eddie's bit references a character from your section, with Crispin Green, John Bagnall, Frank Martin, Trevs Phoenix and Phil Laskey between you. Plus, your editorial at the back reckons they did too!

  3. D'oh! You're right of course, Nick. Just goes to show that while an Elephant Never Forgets, aging cartoonists like me have huge holes in their memory...Ed

  4. Speaking of Fast Fiction, I ran into an ad for a comic book by a P. Owen called "Boys." It suppose to be characters with arrows in their bodies. I think single page illustrations so it might not be a comic book per se, but it is advertised in the format. Any idea of what this book looks like? I can't find anything online or who this P. Owen artist is. I have the ad if you'd like to see it.