The Heckler #1
(UK Fanzine) March 1999
Self Publishing: a Haven for the Strange?
Interview feature by Ben Graham
Gary Spencer Millidge, 30-something indie-publisher of Strangehaven, a comic about a strange little village and its even stranger inhabitants, invited me to his house for bagels and a quiet chat.
When I first met Gary Spencer Millidge at the UK Comic Art Convention 97, he scared the shit out of me. I was there interviewing Paul Grist and, being the shameless hack that I am, I took the opportunity that had been presented. Gary was on the next table to Paul and so I decided to introduce myself in a casual way that I thought might win me an interview with him. My rather feeble attempts at conversation were met with blank stares and drawn out sighs. I made a bit of an idiot of myself. So when he phoned up many months later in response to the letter Id sent him asking for an interview, I was surprised to find that the thoroughly decent bloke on the end of the phone was in fact the same rather scary guy as Id met back at UKCAC. It seems that our first meeting had been marred by convention-induced migraine on his part and by star-struck tongue tripping on mine.
This time round, its in far more agreeable circumstances. Gary opens his front door to me and I step inside his house. Its a semi-detached right next to the railway station in South-End-On-Sea. Lovely day isnt it? I say conversationally, wiping the sweat from my brow and pinching the bridge of my nose. Ive already removed my jacket and am starting to wish Id gone for shorts rather than the navy-blue combats. It isnt really a nice day, its really far too hot for me, but Lovely day, is just the sort of thing you say to people in that little bit of air-space as they let you into their house. Ahh, no. Too hot for me, mate, replies Gary. And there it is. Even before we have sat down with the Dictaphone he has succinctly expressed one of the defining features of a self-publisher. A characteristic that was certainly displayed by Paul Grist when I interviewed him. They say what they think. Theyve got an almost argumentative habit of speaking their mind, even if their opinion is in direct contradiction to what youve just said. If they dont agree with you, they say so. And this, as you might imagine, makes for interesting interviews.
On the subject of 50s American sci-fi classic The Invaders Me: Top series! Gary: Well... I watched some re-runs and to be honest I was completely bored by it.
But this trait is essential for the purposes of self-publishing. Its what keeps you going - why the hell would anyone put up with all the difficulties involved with independent press if they didnt have something they really wanted to say? Looking around Garys house, he seems to have made an astonishing amount of sacrifices in the name of his personal vision. It soon becomes clear that his whole life is arranged around Strangehaven. He has a single floor apartment (he rents his second floor out for the much needed cash) with a kitchen, a work room/sitting room and a stock room, filled floor to ceiling with surplus stock of Strangehaven as well as his own comics collection. The question of where he actually sleeps is answered by an upward glance, which reveals a mattress on top of a large set of cupboards and shelves. Despite this arrangement, Gary has the relaxed, slightly crumpled look of a man who sleeps well, and he speaks with the soft tones of a man not easily stressed.
You only have to look at the size of his collection to see that comics were an early passion for Gary. In the introduction to the first issue of Strangehaven, he describes how as a child he spent many hours happily scrawling his own Batman comics in exercise books with yellow wax crayons, but there was a serious gap between that time and the eventual publication of Strangehaven. How come it took him so long to get round to it?
When I was at college, when I was 17/18 years old I was self-publishing a zine called Amon*Spek. It was an anthology Id set up with a friend of mine, but it ended up with me doing all the donkey-work. Once I reached a certain stage, selling over 100 copies, I started getting all sorts of contributions flooding in - I had a strip from Alan Davis and one from DIsraeli - and it started to piss me off that all my time was spent getting in contact with writers and artists. The fifth issue was the last one I did and I had a one-page illustration in it, all the rest was other peoples stuff. And that just wasnt why I was doing it. After that I put all the comics stuff aside and I started playing in bands.
He retains his long, wild hair as a testament to his earlier (perhaps not quite forgotten) days of rock and roll. But today he has forsaken his leathers for shorts and a shirt, padding about his apartment in his socks. He persisted at his career in the music biz for a number of years until it became clear that it just wasnt going to pay the bills. And so he set up in self-publishing?! Anybody else see the slightly skewed reasoning here? Well ok, so he didnt go into self-publishing straight away. But it was the weird world of comics into which he soon strayed again.
It was about five years later that I opened up a comic shop. And thats how I met Warren Ellis [author of recent DC Vertigo hit, Transmetropolitan]. We were both living in South End at the time, but I was amazed to find out we came from the same little village called Thundersley, which only has a population of about 500 people.
Ah ha! He lived in a village as a child. I spy a connection! Strangehaven is a tiny village in the south of England. It has a pub, a grocery shop, a tea shop and a church. Now this may sound like a really dull premise, but just wait a second till I can explain a bit further. Have some patience will you? What defines Strangehaven is not its buildings, but the people who live in them. You see, Strangehaven is a sort of magnet for interesting people. People with pasts, and secrets and stories to tell. In other words, real people. So, as well as having the usual stock of village inhabitants (i.e.: shop keepers, bar tenders, kids, grannies and village idiots), Strangehaven also has a few bonus characters. Such as the goatee bearded x-ray spec wearing Adam who claims to be a being from another planet. Or Megaron, a half Amazonian-Indian who, it seems, lived the first part of his life deep in the South-American jungle as a witch doctor for his tribe. Or Alberto, the Italian mechanic who has an almost supernatural touch with damaged cars. And then theres the secret order of Masonic Knights of the Golden Light who meet at night to discuss the affairs of the village and spout peculiar chants in their white robes and silly hats. Oh yes, Strangehaven is truly what its name suggests - a haven for the strange. In many ways, this fictional village reminds me of my home-town, Glastonbury, where people who simply couldnt fit in anywhere else are free to go about their lives in their own odd little ways. But dont get the idea that this comic is just a kind of freak show, to describe all the characters as weird would be misleading. Just like in Glastonbury, most of the people are perfectly normal and balanced. Or at least as normal and balanced as people ever get. That is to say that no one is without a story to tell.
The story begins with the arrival of a newcomer to the village. Late one night, while driving south from London, Alex Hunter suddenly sees a girl step out in front of his headlights. He swerves and crashes his car just outside the village. He awakes to find himself bandaged and bed-bound in the local B&B. Having recovered, he sets off once more on his journey, but quickly finds himself lost in the winding country lanes that surround Strangehaven and around the next bend the village appears. His further attempts to escape all result similarly and so he accepts his fate and agrees to take a job as a local school teacher. Have all of the inhabitants had similar experiences? What is keeping them here? Just who is the lady in the fish tank?!? The questions mount as the story unfolds.
Gary says the main source for his work is reality - observation of how people relate to each other and to the world around them, but that he also wanted to make a story that was slightly magical.
I wanted some sort of concept where I could change direction if I wanted to. I wanted to have a blanket title to tell any story I wanted to tell in any way I wanted to tell it, in the same way as Dan Clowes has with Eight Ball... Its become more about the community than anything. It wasnt planned that way; it was actually planned to be a lot more loose than that - like an anthology with three different continuing stories. Basically I wanted my own little universe where there were different characters living in the same village and things happening at the same time with little cross-overs. But the cross-overs became the dominant part very soon and it was very difficult to prise all these story lines apart from each other and they became more and more entangled till eventually it was just like a big bowl of sticky spaghetti. Its already become something that I hadnt intended - its become a convoluted mystery series.
It seems that what he describes as the cliché of a village you cant leave is really a device to allow him to have a collection of interesting characters to play with that wouldnt normally come together in more ordinary circumstances. Very much like a soap-opera, the story revolves around the characters and their interactions with each other. Its like a sort of stuck-in-a-lift-with-a-gang-of-strangers scenario, and establishing believable characters to put into this situation was a priority.
Another central idea was that everyone would have a secret. Something in their past - some reason why they were in Strangehaven.
And this element of mystery is a strong theme. Gary leaves much of the story up to the interpretation of the reader. Unlike many other comics, there are no thought bubbles, no narrator, and you only see and hear what the characters see and hear... When Adam the Alien uses his x-ray vision to see through a womans shirt, thats what you see as well. Whether this is actually happening or if Adam is just a delusional nut case is up to you to decide.
One reviewer got it wrong when he said that in issue five you saw the first true supernatural happening - I think he was referring to when the Bag Lady talks to her pets and hears them talking back... but that can be interpreted in more than one way... What Im trying to explore in Strangehaven is the way different people perceive reality differently...
Although most reviews have so far been positive, there are those that complain of Strangehavens apparent lack of pace. Too much sub-plot and not enough plot, being a common line taken by those who wish to pick holes. So how does Gary respond to this criticism?
Its interesting that most people can follow it except people who read Superhero comics - who seem to think theres not enough happening in it. Its too subtle... Some people are anxious for answers and some people arent. In Dave Sims introduction for the Trade Paperback, he stresses that thats the part of it - the mystery - that he enjoys. There are answers but they may not be clear-cut. Just like in real life, you dont know what goes on behind closed doors. Youll see behind some closed doors in Strangehaven, but not all of them.
At this juncture, I follow Gary into his kitchen, Dictaphone in tow, to get some lunch. The menu consists of toasted bagels with cream cheese, tomato and red peppers and cups of tea. He begins to tell me of how he was introduced to bagels during a recent promotional trip to the states, but not wanting to be diverted from more important issues I quickly ask him if he believes in aliens*.
[*OK, so it didnt happen quite like this, but clever links are hard to find in an interview that lasted all morning.]
It would be nice to think that people dont know what I believe... Im naturally a cynic, which goes back to my college days when I was really into horoscopes, and the more books I bought about it and the more I looked into it, the less I believed it. And its been the same way with UFOs and magic and all the rest of it - things that seem interesting on the outside, when you get down to it, theres absolutely no substance to them what-so-ever.
This scepticism extends to his view of the supernatural as a story-telling device. As I become more and more cynical about these things, it calls for me to justify them existing in any form in Strangehaven. And concerning the current trend toward magic and the supernatural in mainstream comics, his standpoint is fairly clear. If a story is based around some large element of magic or supernatural power, (e.g. the central plot of many of the DC/Vertigo titles) the author can get away with just about anything without having to think of a realistic justification for it. Its a cop-out, as Gary puts it. And this is perhaps why Gary has approached Strangehaven in the way he has: I just wanted to do something as mature as I could.
Between mouthfuls, I ask Gary for his opinions on the state of the industry. Is there any hope that indie-press comics will ever find their rightful place on every kitchen table?
Self publishing is a niche market within a niche market. But I think Strangehaven, like KANE and like many other things, has got the potential to move out of that niche market into the mainstream. Independent comics, particularly self-publishers have got the potential to be much, much bigger than Superheroes. Bigger than Superheroes? What, even the Incredible Hulk? Oh, yes. Superheroes are a fairly small part of any other medium. But the problem self-publishers have is in being able to by-pass the Superhero-orientated comic shops. He has a point - poke your nose into most comic shops and what do you see? Shelves stacked with bulging muscles, primary colours, diminutive story lines - squeezing the grownups out the door. Anybody would be forgiven for thinking it was just kids who bought comics these days!
To date, the royalties from a few songs he wrote and sold back in his musician days are still bringing in a better profit than Strangehaven. But Gary is positive - the sales are increasing all the time and critical acclaim for his work is just about unanimous. In 1997 he won the National Comic Award for Best Self-Published/Independent comic, was nominated for the Comics Creators Guild Best Ongoing Title for the second time, for the Ignatz Outstanding Series Award and for two Eisner Awards. And anyway, as we all know - if youre looking for profit, you dont go into self-publishing.
Like you say, theres no money in it. The reason we [self-publishers] do it is that were creatively driven. Im doing something the way I see it - its a totally personal vision, nobody edits it. What youre doing when you read a self-published book is youre looking into that persons mind in a way that you cant do with anything thats editorially controlled... The point is that it is my vision and Im only limited by my own skills.
Lunch over, tea finished, interview drawing to a close, one thing remains to be asked: what of the future?
Some days I wonder why I am doing it - some days it is very hard - but if I stopped doing it, Id want to start doing something very similar again... In ten years time, hopefully Ill still be doing Strangehaven, and hopefully it will be nothing like I imagined it.
As I sit on the train back to London, Southend disappearing into the horizon behind me, I cant help hoping that in ten years time Ill still be reading Strangehaven, and hopefully itll be nothing like I imagined it either.
All 10 issues of Strangehaven as well as the new compilation, Arcadia, are available from all comic and book shops worth their salt and direct from Gary at Abiogenesis Press, PO Box 448, Southend-On-Sea, Essex SS1 2FN.
You can order The Heckler direct from Ben Graham, issue #1 @ £2.00
including postage & packing at 13/2 Robertsons Close, Edinburgh, Scotland EH1 1LY. e-mail; firstname.lastname@example.org. Overseas orders please add £1.00 extra for airmail postage ("printed papers" rate) and send only UK funds.
Reproduced by kind permission of Ben Graham
©1999 Ben Graham
If you've read any notable pieces concerning Strangehaven that may have escaped our attention and does not appear here, we'd like to hear about them! E-mail us at email@example.com
All text and images (c) copyright Gary Spencer Millidge/Abiogenesis Press All rights reserved.