Garen Ewing works as both a freelance illustrator and web designer. He made his start in the Small Press with Realm of the Sorceress and Cosmorama and has most recently contributed to the anthology Twelve. He is probably best known for Rainbow Orchid, published by his own King Rat Press, which was the Fool Britannia Small Press Comic of the Year in 2003 and a UK National Comic Awards nominee finalist in 2004.
How did you first become aware of the 'Small Press' or 'Indie' scene?
My introduction to self-publishing was with role-playing game fanzines, specifically one called Dragonlords, in the early to mid-eighties which I saw advertised in the classifieds of White Dwarf magazine. I got into quite a few of these as there was a great community atmosphere among them, and in March 1985 I published my own when I was 15 years old. I think it was just a case of 'hey, I can do that!'. At this time I wasn't really aware of a comics indie scene, apart from most RPG fanzines also included a comic strip or two (Dragonlords published Red Fox which went on to be printed by Harrier Comics).
What led you to try and make a comic book of your own?
In the late 1980's my interest in comics became stronger again, and as I was already self-publishing I just stopped doing gaming zines and shifted over to comics. I dove into it in a fairly big way with an anthology called Cosmorama, getting funding from the Enterprise Allowance Scheme and getting contributions from the likes of David Wyatt, Steve Pugh and Warren Ellis amongst others. At first I even paid the contributors (Warren got £5 for his 4-page script).
If you're talking about what actually drove me to self-publish I think I've always wanted to do my own thing and be in control of it. Even now, I work self-employed, so I think it's just the way I am. I have never submitted my comic strips or artwork to a publisher, it's just not what I'm interested in - leaving aside whether they'd actually want to publish me or not!
How did you land upon the idea of Rainbow Orchid?
The concept has several origins that came together a few years ago. On a creative level I wanted to do a comic strip that I would enjoy, that would get me excited if I saw it in a bookshop. I didn't want to push artistic boundaries or try and be commercial, I just wanted to tell a good story. I also wanted to simplify my artwork and try something in the school of the European ligne-clair style, very much fathered by Hergé, but also the likes of Edgar Jacobs and Yves Chaland. I didn't want to do a new Tintin, but it is an influence as I love the atmosphere evoked by the European album-format.
The story is coloured by my love of the lost world genre of novels that flourished in the 1890s through to the 1920s, by such authors as Rider Haggard, Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Do you ever find that producing your own comics can be something of a thankless task?
It depends. Self-publishing is often seen as a relative of the vanity press (though I think that's generally an unfair comparison) and therefore ego comes into it. If that's your reason for self- publishing then it will be a thankless task, as the kudos involved are very small indeed. Of course it is nice to get feedback, but this is a rarity - it's simply human nature that most people do not write to praise or comment, which I think is fine. There's lots of stuff I like that I don't comment on... sometimes I do, just to be supportive because I know how nice it is and it is important, but mostly I don't. This isn't because I don't like something. I sometimes think some self-publishers imagine that everyone who doesn't write in praise of their efforts is either indifferent or hates what they've done, which just isn't true.
Every copy of The Rainbow Orchid that I've sold is a bonus, a vote of confidence in what I'm doing. If I then get a follow up comment in praise of what I've done then that's wonderful - I know I must have done something good to stir someone to write to me, and it's a great feeling, but I don't rely on it. Since doing Orchid as a web comic I've been able to see through my web stats how many people come to read the strip, how many pages they read and how many people return, and that is great 'invisible' feedback.
What do you enjoy most about producing your own comics?
There's nothing like the feeling of finishing a page of script or artwork, it can really set you up for a couple of days and create lots of energy, especially when you're pleased with what you've done. When you're the artist, it's difficult to see past all the bad drawing, but usually that fades as the days go by. I like being in control of the whole process of creating my own comic, everything from plotting, scripting and drawing to the 'packaging' - designing, layout and all that. If I had my own printing press I'd be even happier... I always worry when it goes out of my hands and I have to rely on someone else who might not share my total vision!
How did you go about selling your comic, and how do you get people to notice it now?
The internet has changed everything. Back when I did Cosmorama, the worst aspect of self-publishing was hawking my comic round comic shops who displayed varying amounts of enthusiasm, and then having to go out again a few months later to collect the measly amount of money, which would mostly be spent on my train fare anyway.
Now, thanks to PayPal and a website, I can sell worldwide from my own house. It's amazing. I sold most of my Rainbow Orchids this way, they've gone to the USA, Australia, Norway, Japan, France... all over. Telling people about your website or comic is easy, just find the right forums and email lists, send out a few email press releases. I combined this with the more traditional methods; my next best selling method was getting a table at a comic convention which has the added bonus of instant reader reaction, face to face.
I also tend to play the local angle, in this case sending a press release to the local free paper while getting a few copies stocked in my town's Ottakar's. I have never found advertsiing to be great for self- publishers, but a good review in the right place can garner quite a few sales.
How do you see the comics scene in general today, both nationally and internationally?
I hardly read any comics now, and haven't for a number of years, so I'm really not very aware of the current comics scene. If I wanted to change tack and try and get a job as a comic artist in the industry, I would think it would be almost impossible due to the lack of serious publishers in this country, never mind whether I'm good enough or not. This is why, I imagine, there has been such a boom in self-publishing. With all the technology available, and digital printing, one person can produce as professional a publication as a big publisher, such a change from when I'd lug my reams of A3 to the photocopier at my mum's work and then spend the next few evenings folding and stapling on the living-room floor.
I think webcomics are an emerging force, but they require a lot of marketing if you really want to make an impact with them (and they have to be good too, of course - that's one aspect of having a successful comic never goes away). Just like films, television and novels, 80% of what's put out there is bad, you have to find the gems, and I mostly can't be bothered, which is a terrible thing to say, I know.
I don't actually read that many self-published comics either unless they really catch my eye or I know someone involved. It's interesting... I don't know where comics will go next, but I do feel as though something's turning a corner thanks to self-publishing and the web.
What's next for you (and when can we hope to see #2 of Rainbow Orchid)?
At the moment it's just to continue with Rainbow Orchid. It's difficult at the moment as I have so much work on, but I don't think this will change so it's a matter of being more disciplined with my time. I have the Rainbow Orchid webcomic to keep me at it, and I am looking forward to publishing the compendium edition of all three parts of Orchid as a single volume, hopefully within the next year to eighteen months.
Beyond that I have several projects which are already looking like too much on my plate... I want to adapt a short story my mum wrote shortly before she died about a chap and his robot, and I also want to do a small one-off comic based on three or four stories from my own family history research. I also have another Julius Chancer adventure planned, but I need to get Rainbow Orchid finished first.