Paul Stapleton interview: Britain's king of self-published comics
CJ talks to self-publishing comics guru Paul Stapleton about a brand new series, surviving zombies with The Doctor and just why Bejeweled is so addictive...
If you're fond of social satire, the walking dead and browser games then the comics of Paul Stapleton will definitely interest you.
Paul's world is one of manic desktop gladiators furiously battling through high scores to put off paying the bills, sudden zombie apocalypses confusing ambitious low-budget horror movie makers, and the purgatory of daytime TV. It’s a recognisable place and all the funnier and unnerving for it, plucked from the imagination of a homegrown comics creator.
If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead’s take on long-form storytelling then Paul’s latest work and first American-style ongoing, The Undisputed King of Nothing, is your kind of comic book. Set after a pandemic has seemingly wiped out the human race save for a lone survivor, The Undisputed King of Nothing shows a skillful use of panel-work and narrative structure that sets it apart.
Paul kindly sat with Den of Geek at Dave’s Comics in Brighton & Hove to talk about the new project, his experience of self-publishing comics and the sorts of influences that help drive comics creation.
What's your comics background?
All sorts. I enjoy Ed Brubaker's Lowlife series, Bryan Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Preacher. Generally, I tend to like stuff about day-to-day people and everyday situations. The majority of superhero stuff leaves me cold, except for probablyWatchmen.
My favourite of all time is Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. If I’d come across that in the last few years though it might not have struck such a chord, being one of the first strips I’d read.
Your comics cover themes that apply to anyone but reference UK phenomena like chavs, discount pound shops, Trisha andJudge John Deed. The British have always been a caricature-prone bunch - do you feel you're carrying on a tradition?
*laughs* I think a tradition – it’s finding something that’s either menacing or threatening and turning it into a little joke. The whole thing with my book Chav was designed to do that, I suppose in the way of things like Vicky Pollard and Goldie Lookin’ Chain, that tradition of turning something into a bit of a joke figure. British life is so absurd and in lots of little ways. There are always things you can pick out and make fun of. That’s good, because you're not ever likely to run out of material!
Do you follow the output of the big publishers and are you picking up anything at the moment?
To a degree – I tend to get things from car-boot sales and charity shops because I like finding stuff unexpectedly. The only ongoing series I follow is The Walking Dead. It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday, as I spend so much time drawing that I don’t have the time or inclination to read a great deal.
What I do enjoy is picking stuff up to look at different styles of writing and drawing. You find some gems like that. I come in here [to Dave’s Comics] a lot to browse and read.
What's your high point and what's your low point so far?
I think the high point is the realisation that you can do it yourself: the empowerment of self-publishing. It’s breaking that sort of barrier that’s not really there anyway.
There are little lows in anything where you put yourself on the line to some degree - such as a bad review or even some forum trolling - but they're tiny compared to the thrill of say, finishing off a book or an idea just falling into your lap.
You've published two volumes of a satirical look at Facebook. Is Farmville your kryptonite?
*laughs* You know, I’ve never played it! I’d get really into it. Anything that involves levelling-up, farming and cultivating stuff is a bit of a weak spot for me.
The Undisputed King of Nothing
With comics about zombies, plagues, life after the apocalypse - and about social networking as life during the apocalypse - we're reminded of the phrase "Hell is other people". Is that something you'd agree with?
Yeah – that’s the main thing that attracted me to post-apocalyptic fiction. No matter how bad things have got and whatever nightmares have occurred, the biggest problem is always going to be the other people who’re still around you. That’s what I really like, the human reaction to impossible situations. It’s like with The Walking Dead TV series at the moment: you can almost forget it’s about zombies because there can be half an episode without any at all, and it’s just about the interaction between people that are left who have nothing in common except the fact they’ve survived.
As sudden pestilence is responsible for the end of the world inThe Undisputed King of Nothing instead of cannibalistic corpses, is it more of a realistic take?
It will be. That’s one of the key things – post-apocalyptic fiction is my favourite form of fiction but in comics there’s very little of it that isn’t either zombies, has science fiction elements in or is basically Mad Max. There was a strip in Eagle years ago [Survival] that was about post-plague, and it was all very naturalistic but ended at short notice. They put in a sudden, reset-switch ending with aliens landing and it was all a dream, or something. With Undisputed King I wanted to make a comic about that sort of situation – no zombies, vampires or laser guns, and no testosterone-fuelled guys covered in leather and spikes. Something quite English I suppose.
Your art style has changed for the book - did you feel that was necessary to suit the tone? Did you feel like a change?
The idea for Undisputed King had been rattling around my head for several years, and I did originally consider doing it in my usual manner, perhaps more as a satire on post-apocalyptic fiction. What I really wanted to do was a proper 'hard' comic, with a story that wouldn't be undermined by the style it was drawn in.
Although it sounds like a bleak concept, there's some subtle humour to The Undisputed King of Nothing's narrator's anecdotal recount of the fall of civilisation. Your work to date is very comical and based on wry observations and recurring characters. Has comedy influenced you?
I suppose it has: for years many of the comics I read were gag strips and newspaper pieces. I think that put in my mind the idea that comics had to be funny to a degree, even if they were just bleakly amusing. You have things that are particular to comic strips like the timing element - a blank panel can suggest a few seconds passing - and just those conventions you can play with to tell a joke in a unique sort of way. Dilbert didn't work as well as animation, to my mind, because the pacing of that is specific to just a few shots. Of course, having access to peoples’ thoughts as well is something that’s special about comics’ humour.
Is The Undisputed King of Nothing planned as an ongoing and will this be your main focus for the time being?
I want to wrap up some loose ends. I started a strip called BN1 for The Source [a local culture and events magazine] and that’s monthly. That’s about overheard conversations in Brighton. The Undisputed King will be the focus for the next two or three years, and it’s pretty much written in a first draft. I want to finish it or it’ll bug me forever! *laughs*
Do you do all of the production for your comics?
The writing, lettering and drawing I do myself, and if it’s anything staplebound I tend to do it by hand. Anything perfect-bound I get printed in Brighton at a a place called One Digital. They’re really good and they’ve got a long-standing tradition of being associated with small-press comics – like Slab-O-Concrete publishers, who were around in the ‘90s [and published The Worm: The Longest Comic Strip in the World, which featured 125 creators including Alan Moore]. They’re really patient and understanding, which is great because I always forget stuff like bleed.
Your comics are available on Kindle, Digital Rights Media-free. How are you finding the days of digital comics?
These kind of things become used by everybody before you realise. I like the idea of Kindle and that within minutes of putting a book up it can be bought by someone on the other side of the world: the portability, that it’s environmentally-friendly and there’s no outlay. It’s funny that such a DIY form of publishing is available on a corporate device, it’s a strange marriage – but it does seem to work well.
If you could have a career like anyone else who would it be? Is the creator-owned multimedia success of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead the dream?
I remember when I used to read Preacher with my friend Richard. His criticism was that it was like [Ennis was] storyboarding a film in comic form, that he could see it was already coming from the director’s chair. What I like about Alan Moore’s comics is that you have to really bash them about to fit the constraints of a film – they couldn’t really be put into another media as effectively. Obviously, if it happened it would be amazing. Chav almost got taken on by Aardman about seven years ago to be a 3D short.
It’d be nice to keep Undisputed King ongoing, as what I like about The Walking Dead is the open-endedness of it and that there’s no sign of a conclusion coming. The only thing is there’s only so far you can take that scenario.
The ultimate question
If you were trapped in a zombie apocalypse with one famous person from any period in history who would it be?
You’d want someone really practical wouldn’t you? I’d say Tom Baker's Doctor, given that he's incredibly resourceful, intelligent and entertaining company. If he did get bitten he'd presumably regenerate, and I'm hoping that along with The Doctor would come his TARDIS so if things did get tricky we could hit the randomiser and see if the apocalypse had crossed time and space.
Undisputed King of Nothing #1 is out now at comics stores in London and the South East coast, and is available from Paul's website.