Sunday, 23 March 2014

Comics, Kickstarter and Unfinished City: An interview with novelist Ben Dickson

As a kid I read any number of comics from the Beano to Misty.  No preparation for a holiday in Cornwall was complete without the pre-requisite trip to the newsagent to stock up on comic books and magazines – doubtless a desperate parental attempt at keeping things quiet and peaceful between my sister and me for the eight-hour (traffic-gods willing...) journey down to the West Country.

Last week I found myself chatting to Bristol based graphic novelist Benjamin Dickson (@beniswriting) about his latest project, Unfinished City.  The conversation has decidedly rekindled my interest in the comic medium, not least because of his decision to fund the completion of the novel through Kickstarter.

Unfinished City is a crime drama set in former Yugoslavia co-written with Sylvjia Martinovic.  Dickson and Martinovic met whilst working at Studio Upstairs in 2007.

“We were both already writers and after a couple of weeks of getting to know each other we thought ‘Shall we do something together?’  Sylvjia said ‘Let’s do a crime drama’.  She had lived in Montenegro, in a town that, rightly or wrongly, has a reputation for crime.  I was up for it because the Eastern European setting was exciting and had an exotic edge.”

After two years of working on drafts and a further two years searching to find exactly ‘the right’ artist for the book Dickson and Martinovic teamed up with Croatian illustrator Robert Solanovic.

“We both really wanted an artist from the Balkans because they would be able to give a level of visual reality to the project that other artists couldn’t – they would know what plug sockets and street signs should look like.”

Despite commercial success (Dickson has already published four graphic novels and has a fifth coming out later this year - Santa Claus vs the Nazis) the team wanted to ensure they maintained autonomy in the production of this particular book.

Dickson says: “Unfinished City is unusual because it is a crime drama, told from a female point of view, in Eastern Europe, as a graphic novel.  To the best of my knowledge, that’s never been done before.”

Dickson has been interested in exploring the Kickstarter funding model and decided this could be an interesting route for Unfinished City.

Kickstarter, for the uninitiated, is a crowdfunding platform that enables you to set a financial target that you reach through investment from people on the net who are interested in seeing your project happen.  If the goal is reached within the time set then investors will receive a copy of the item – with larger backers receiving more ornate, specialised and bespoke copies.  If the goal is not met, investments are returned and, very sadly, the project isn’t funded.

For Unfinished City the Kickstarter funding will pay for the illustration of the book and pay for hardback and paperback copies that the backers will receive.

“Kickstarter is simply a means of completing the book and getting it out there to a first audience.  Once we’re there hopefully we can do more fun things with it.”

Dickinson says: “I won’t personally see a penny of the funding!  I’ll only make money of it if we exceed the goal and/or hopefully get a foreign language edition developed – this is very much a labour of love for me!”

It will take nearly a year to produce the whole book, however it has been written as a trilogy and will be released in three 48-page instalments (as per the French ‘Bande dessinee’ model).  Dickson and the team anticipate sending out PDFs of the book to backers every time an instalment is completed which they expect will be every four months.

Despite the drop off in comic sales and interest in the nineties Dickson feels there’s been a real resurgence in interest in the past 10 – 15 years. Dickson believe we’re now living in a second golden age of comics – but this is happening in bookshops and comic shops rather than on the newsstands as it did previously.

Historically the US and UK market have been pretty different – the US literally have the market on Superheroes.  Dickson explains that UK comics have tended to be more Action-Adventure for boys and drama and romance for girls but that what is happening now in UK comic development is pushing the boundaries of the medium even further.  Whilst you still won’t find many British superheroes, Action-Adventure is joined by more arty and socio-political work in comics today.

Reading the free 20-page sample of Unfinished City there is something decidedly European about this story which promises to progress into an increasingly challenging and tough crime drama.  Dickson warns readers not to be too quick to judge the fact that hero Nadja Djurkovic is a girl.

“It makes it a far more interesting story actually.  The fact she’s a she changes they dynamics but that’s not exactly a bad thing. There’s a particular moment at the end of the first part when I asked Sylvjia what she thought would’ve happened at that particular moment if Nadja had been a man.  She said, ‘They definitely would’ve killed him’. It’s a simple as that.”

Dark indeed...

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