Independent comics publisher Breakdown Press grew out of common interests, shop floor flirtations and conversations about the potential of a magazine that would champion young artists and provide a space for critical comics discourse. With the realisation that the best way to achieve its aims would be to publish comics that felt important, rather than writing critically around the subject, Breakdown Press sidelined producing a magazine in favour of publishing the work of artists who deserve to be recognised.
Breakdown Press is run by directors Tom Oldham and Simon Hacking, and art director Joe Kessler – who also authored Breakdown Press’ first comic Windowpane. They met when Tom and Simon were working in a London comic shop, and Joe went in with a portfolio of drawings, “because, I inevitably carried them around some of the time, not with the express intention of showing them to those losers but I ended up doing that… And they liked them, and before we knew it we were friends.”
"In terms of a Breakdown aesthetic, as well as quality of craft and vision... It's artists who have the idea of the whole book in their heads"Joe Kessler
Is there anything in particular, aesthetic or narrative style for example, that you consider when looking for and working with comics artists?
No, it’s really simple I think, we aren’t looking for a particular aesthetic; its more work that we think is great, really, and different. Without meaning to sound grandiose, it’s just stuff that we think is important.
So artists that have a unique, defined voice who are formally pushing stuff, and a personal vision that is eloquent, accessible, engaging and just good. People like Antoine Cosse, Connor Willumsen, Inés Estrada, Conor Stechschulte, Richard Short; I can’t imagine people not enjoying that work. And then there’s Lala Albert, or myself, who are making comics that are maybe more challenging formally and not necessarily so accessible but, I can’t speak for my own work here, I think Lala’s work is really rewarding. Comics are an inherently personal medium and so, hopefully, the work we champion is difficult to categorise. I find it difficult. In terms of a Breakdown aesthetic, as well as quality of craft and vision and everything, it’s artists who have the idea of the whole book in their heads. You can feel that they’re thinking about everything, not just the surface of the drawing or the story but the whole shebang.
Do you ever give a brief, or is it a case of finding people you want to work with and refining ideas as part of a conversation?
Occasionally we publish work that already exists. There’s the Manga range which is all down to editor Ryan Holmberg, he is an expert on 50s and 60s alternative Manga which is often not widely available even in Japan, but somehow he gets his hands on it. It isn’t something that’s known here at all, so that’s about getting it to a wider audience. There’s also Gardens of Glass by Lando which is a collection of his work over the last few years that appeared in his Decadence comics and elsewhere. We felt it deserved to be seen all together, within its own context. Finally we’ve got a book coming out by Shaky Kane, a Deadline artist, which is a re-print volume. Apart from that it’s all original content, and it’s mostly not commissioned by us. We just ask the artists to pitch, or if there’s something they want to do, and they say yes… or no.
We’re lucky to be working with great artists who make the process very easy. As long as we can afford to, we want to keep on working with the people we really like.
"I discuss the design of the books with the artists but mostly they are good designers and do all the work. I just offer opinions which they ignore"Joe Kessler
Could you tell us a bit about your role as art director?
Tom and Simon are the directors of the company, but I’m more opinionated when it comes to the visuals, and maybe more knowledgable in terms of production stuff. I discuss the design of the books with the artists but mostly the artists are good designers and do all the work. I just offer opinions which they ignore. For the Manga series I designed the books with help from Alex Johns, a freelance graphic designer.
A lot of the books are hand-made and produced with risograph press Victory, so that involves me and Elliott, who runs the press, working out how the books should feel and look and how we can make them. For the offset lithography books we work with Joe Hales, who is a graphic designer and bookmaking expert. He’ll work with the printers, working out what is possible. It’s all pretty loose. Lots of messages flying back and forth and slowly the books seem to get produced, always taking much longer than predicted. We’re lucky to have good relationships with people like Elliot, Joe H, and Alex who give us their vast expertise and knowledge at low low prices. I guess because they like the books. Or they’re our friends. Or they feel sorry for us. Or they fancy Tom.
Who are you influenced by, and who else would you say is doing interesting work right now?
Our influences are broad and way outside of comics a lot of the time. I mean, we’re influenced by the usual huge number of comics, because we’ve all been engaged with them for a long time. But in terms of other publishers working today I really love the Archive of Modern Conflict. Picturebox was a huge influence but it closed down around a year ago.
In relation to Breakdown I’m interested in areas outside of comics where the book is the art. Photo books, artists’ books. At the moment we’re focussed on comics, but it would be nice, when we’ve done some of the many comics we want to, to work more broadly. I’d be interested in arts publishing more generally, design publishing and doing some photography books. I know Tom is interested in and has done a lot of music publishing and I think Simon would want to do some more academic stuff, but he might hate me for saying that. I don’t know, I’d have to ask them. It’s all kind of the same thing to me. I think whatever we were doing I’d approach it in the same way. That might be stupid though. Who knows… Perhaps Simon might like to open the vole sanctuary he’s been dreaming of for so long.
"At the moment we're focussed on comics, but it would be nice, when we’ve done some of the many comics we want to, to work more broadly"Joe Kessler
Could you tell us about Safari Festival, the comics fair you run?
Tom and Simon curated it, there wasn’t unlimited space and we wanted it to be consistent in terms of quality. I find some of these shows can be totally inconsistent and we wanted to buck that trend. There’s really quite a vibrant scene in the UK at the moment with lots of different strange people making comics and we wanted to bring them all together and get an idea of what contemporary British comics could be. It’s so disparate and mixed up that it’s not exactly clear. Which is healthy I think.
What have you got coming up?
Errr… the Shaky Kane book, more from Antoine Cosse. We have this Sasaki Maki book coming up which is another edited by Ryan Holmberg. It’s going to be printed using offset lithography and it’s going to be long, a couple of hundred pages. He’s a very far-out Garo artist, which is a publication that was at the forefront of alternative Manga for a long time. Maki is one of the most experimental Garo artists, it’s going to be a really interesting book. Haruki Murakami has written an afterword for it too, which is exciting.
We’ve got a bunch of books that are unconfirmed and I’m working on a third Windowpane. I’ve written a bunch of stories for it but I’ve been busy doing other stuff that I have to do first, before I can get stuck into it. Working on a pitch for some comics about antibiotic resistance in bacteria (haha), and obviously Breakdown takes up a lot of time too.
About the Author
Billie studied illustration at Camberwell College of Art before completing an MA in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art. She joined It’s Nice That as a Freelance Editorial Assistant back in January 2015 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis.