Short Run comics fest a global draw for indie artists

In the United States, comics were once seen as a low-brow section of the art world. They were something for children to read and eventually outgrow. They were the “funnies” section of your local newspaper, which eventually ended up in the recycling bin.

But in the last decade, there’s been an upswing of alternative comics — memoirs, social commentary and counter culture movements discussed through comics art have elevated the medium beyond superheroes in spandex and family-friendly three panel humor. And lately those subjects are becoming more widespread in other parts of the world as well.

That’s why the Seattle Globalist joined Short Run in bringing together Finnish comic artist Anna Sailamaa, Alex Spiro of Nobrow Press in London, and South African comic artist Jean de Wet for panel about international comics at the Seattle Public Library’s downtown branch on Monday. The three international visitors were in town for the Short Run Comix and Arts Festival coming up this Saturday, November 15.

“For my experience in American comics… it was a lot of underground comics [when I started reading]. For me, they didn’t differ so much from the comics or the stories we tell in Finland or in Europe,” said Sailamaa. Her work is often deeply personal or plays with dreamy or fairy tale-like stories. Those types of stories are just as common as superhero narratives in Finland, she said.

In South Africa, de Wet refers to Bitterkomix, a collection of what he describes as more “hardcore” subject matter, as characterizing South African comics for a long time. The comic books are controversial in their discussions of sexuality, racism and violence, among other topics. Now, he stresses the importance of the country’s diversifying comics scene, which has been generating more interest with younger generations and drawing in more female comic artists.

During his visit to Seattle, South African comics artist Jean de Wet (front, with local collaborator James Stanton) is painting a mural on the Cappy's Boxing Gym building in the Central District. (Photo by Ana Sofia Knauf)
During his visit to Seattle, South African comics artist Jean de Wet (front, with local collaborator James Stanton) is painting a mural on the Cappy’s Boxing Gym building in the Central District. (Photo by Ana Sofia Knauf)

“There’s a much stronger tradition of seeing comics as art in Europe [and abroad] … There’s this emphasis on artwork in [these artists’] storytelling,” said Abby Bass, an arts librarian for the Seattle Public Library. “For me, I don’t think we put as much value on art as a society. It’s seen as this frivolous thing and that we need to put out funding for other things first.”

Funding (or lack thereof) is an issue with which artists of all walks have to confront. However, for comic artists outside of the U.S., finding monetary support might come a bit easier.

In Finland, a government grant was recently created specifically for artists making comics so they wouldn’t have to compete with creators working with different media for smaller funds, Sailamaa said. However, the grant is prestigious and only given to one or two artists per year.

Still, artists have more options to apply for smaller government grants to cover anything from publishing fees and work-related travel. Sailamaa was able to fly out to Seattle thanks to grant funding.

For all comic artists, tapping into the artistic community through events like Short Run is vital to showcasing their work and meeting fellow comic artists.

“I think [community] is central, really… Wherever we’re from, whatever language we speak…when we meet each other and see each other at festivals, it’s like we’re friends and like we know each other. It sounds a bit corny, but it’s the truth,” said Alex Spiro, who is co-founder and creative director for Nobrow Press.

Selected titles from London's Nobrow Press. (Courtesy Photo)
Selected titles from London’s Nobrow Press. (Courtesy Photo)

After Nobrow was founded in 2008, Spiro said it was crucial to be out in the community and attend conventions and art shows to spread the word about his company’s comic and illustration work. Today, Nobrow is renowned for it’s beautifully illustrated books by fledgling artists and veterans of the comic world. The small press even hosts its own comics festival: the East London Comics and Arts Festival (ELCAF), which drew in more than 4,000 visitors in 2013.

But creating comics outside of the U.S. and Europe comes with its own challenges.

Jean De Wet, who hails from Cape Town, South Africa, jokes that he’s more of a lone wolf in terms of his work. He said finding and maintaining a thriving comics community is difficult. Across the country, de Wet said he knows only five other artists actively producing comics.

“You need people to be very active. It’s hard in a small community to keep things going,” he said. “There’s not enough of an industry [in South Africa] to get people excited about it and make things.”

As a result, de Wet said a lot of South African comics and art is more editorial. Still, de Wet and several other South African comic artists band together to create community projects such as Graf/Lit, which produces a collaborative anthology based upon a theme. (This year’s book is called Urban Interiors.)

“Here [in Seattle] it’s a big city, there’s lots of people, so naturally, the comics community would be a lot bigger and you’d have more people able or wanting to contribute to various things,” de Wet said.

Washington Hall was packed for Short Run 2013. The festival returns this weekend. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Washington Hall was packed for Short Run 2013. The festival returns this weekend. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

De Wet is one of the few non-European international artists in town for Short Run. Although his community is small, he doesn’t necessarily see living in South Africa as a hindrance to his career as a comic artist, but he does admit it can be isolating.

“It’s a lot easier if you’re able to tap into what’s happening globally,” he said.

Today in the U.S., comics are less disposable and more respected than ever. Comic books, including those with superheroes, are covering more challenging subject matter and, more importantly, people are finally seeing comics as pieces of art – things that connect people globally and that need to be valued.

Young people never needed to grow out of reading comics. They just needed to keep turning the pages to expand their horizons.  

Short Run Comix and Arts Festival is on Saturday, November 15 at Washington Hall in the Central District. Festivities will run from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.