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FIRST GRAPHIC NOVEL: Meet the Winner! (And a Q&A)

12 December 2023

A coming-of-age queer thriller, following Ash, a young transmasculine queer person, starting his first job in a ramen shop. As he begins to learn the process of making bone broth ramen, he suddenly finds himself caught up in how to cover up the death of his boss after a staff party.

Yesterday in Waterstones Piccadilly, from 170 total entries, a longlist of 30, and a final shortlist of 7 creators, the winner of the 2023 First Graphic Novel Award was announced: Alexander Taylor with Bone Broth!
As the winner, Taylor has secured a publication contract from SelfMadeHero and a £500 cash prize (sponsored by The bks Agency).

Over the last month, we presented the shortlisted creators with a few questions. Here are Alexander's answers.

SelfMadeHero: What's a key experience with the comics medium that led you to where you are now?

Alexander Taylor: When I was around eleven years old, for my mum’s birthday I wrote her a comic called Bill. I remember working really hard on it, staying up late, wracking my brain for good ideas with no real experience or understanding of how to write a comic. I remember just the tidal wave of pride I felt wash over me when I finished it and could hold this thing I’d made in my hands, it wasn’t something I was used to experiencing much. I remember how happy my mum was to receive and read it, and how happy that made me, and it solidified in my mind a theory that had been building for a while up to that point – comics are the coolest things ever.

SMH: How did you learn about the First Graphic Novel Award? Were you aware of it before submissions opened this year?

I learned about the First Graphic Novel Award while tabling at South London Comic and Zine Fair earlier this year. I got to meet so many talented and creative artists, who all had a profound impact on how I view the breadth and diversity of the comic scene in the UK, and discovered the work of Ed Firth a Myriad competition 2020 finalist, and in looking for more of his work online I stumbled upon the First Graphic Novel Award.

SMH: Has entering this competition helped you learn anything about the comics world that you didn’t know before? Could be something about the scene, the behind-the-scenes, or even your own creative process.

Alexander: I grew up in France for the first half of my childhood, where the accessibility of Franco-Belgian comics was truly a blessing. Bandes dessinées are completely mainstream, and being a cartoonist seemed like a legit career. When we moved back to England, I completely lost sight of the possibility of creating comics for a long time. But through this competition, seeing the skill in the shortlisted and longlisted entries, the overwhelming energy at Thought Bubble Festival, seeing the generously positive response people have shown my work, I feel like my eyes have been properly opened to the comics scene we have here and it is dazzling. The calibre and range of the work that exists is enough to feed the ever-hungry fire in the belly of any storyteller.

SMH: In a nutshell, what aspect of your work are you most excited for people to experience? This could be anything – visual, narrative, thematic?

Alexander: I hope people can just have fun reading Bone Broth. Of course, I want people to enjoy the ingredients like the whimsical storytelling and style, or all of my characters with their ridiculous names, or the spookier moments in the story and the framing around them. But more than anything the story was born from many tedious hours spent daydreaming at the restaurant I chef in, counting down the minutes till I could run home and weave some fun and friendship into it all. I hope people can feel the same way reading Bone Broth as they would enjoying a delicious balmy bowl of it, and put it down feeling warmer and full, at least for a little while.
SMH: The comics scene is always evolving, but are there any current changes or developments that you find interesting or encouraging? If so, what are they, and what do they mean to you?

Alexander: Transgender Comics!

SMH: Winner or not, where would you like your experience with the First Graphic Novel Award to take you in the future?

Alexander: I think the First Graphic Novel Award has just built up so much momentum in me. Before, I felt very unsure about whether there was any room for my comics out there, and about my own abilities. I didn’t know how to even begin navigating the world of comics. Plus, comics are a real labour of love. I wasn't sure I could invest all the time I knew this story needed to be great with no promise of return. And all of these arguments are still to a smaller extent true.
But here’s the thing, I learned to draw in the first place because my two older sisters were awesome at it. That injustice filled me with a glorious rage, propelling me into drawing in every second of free time I had for years. In my experience with the First Graphic Novel Award, seeing the quality of the work of both longlisted and the other shortlisted applicants, I am once again filled with a rage that will push me to create comics for the rest of my life. This is a gift greater than any award, and I am incredibly grateful to everyone involved, artists and organisers alike, for this whole experience.

SelfMadeHero New Season Autumn 2023

1 September 2023

Dear SelfMadeHero readers,

We are thrilled to announce two new titles that will make you run (literally) to your local bookshop this autumn: Middle Distance by Mylo Choy and Sophie’s World: A Graphic Novel About the History of Philosophy, Vol. II: From Descartes to the Present Day by Vincent Zabus and Nicoby, based on the acclaimed book by Jostein Gaarder. 📚

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A charming, heartwarming, and poignant story of running and self-acceptance, Mylo Choy’s Middle Distance combines exertion and introspection in an exploration of the physical body’s connection to the human experience. An exciting graphic addition to a growing field, this sports memoir recounts Mylo’s history with running, and how their love for that famously solitary sport pushed them to grow over time. As Middle Distance grapples with themes of resilience, identity, and self-care, Mylo leads us along the middle way between motion and rest, hurt and healing, fear and joy. The result is an honest, nuanced work of subtle power that will appeal to all runners, especially those who are transgender or nonbinary. OUT THURSDAY 14th SEPTEMBER! 

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Sophie’s come a long way since the day she received that cryptic letter with its intriguing question: “Who are you?”. The mysterious correspondence sweeps our curious young heroine off on a tour of Western philosophy from its ancient foundations through the Renaissance. But it also prompts more personal reflection: What is my place in the world, my purpose in life? And just who is that girl, a stranger and yet so familiar, I glimpse in the mirror? In this second volume, Sophie’s quest for answers will see her explore major schools of modern thought from Descartes and Locke to Freud and Marx. She and her quizzical philosophy teacher Alberto, now unmasked, struggles with the possibility that they are characters in a book. As ever, our intrepid heroine remains as forthright and open-hearted. In this witty comics adaptation, ZABUS and NICOBY reinvent JOSTEIN GAARDER’s novel of ideas – a beloved bestseller that has already won the hearts of over 50 million readers around the world – to bring Sophie’s charming quest for meaning to a whole new medium and a new generation. OUT THIS NOVEMBER! 

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We also want to remind you that we are only 15 days away from the application deadline of our First Graphic Novel Award. This is a unique opportunity for aspiring graphic novelists to get their work published by us! The award is open to UK residents aged 18 or over who have not previously published a full-length graphic work. The deadline for submissions is September 14th, 2023.

Don’t miss this chance to showcase your talent and creativity. We are looking forward to reading your stories and discovering new voices in the graphic novel medium! READ HOW TO APPLY HERE! 🎨

The SelfMadeHero team

Martin Dean In Conversation With Oscar Zarate

8 June 2023

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Oscar Zarate’s latest graphic novel – Thomas Girtin: The Forgotten Painter – leads the reader through the story of a 19th-century artistic prodigy, born into a London charged with the passionate exhortations of Romanticism, and soon to be rocked by the incendiary influence of the French Revolution. He grew up as a close acquaintance of J.M.W. Turner, and Turner himself conceded that Girtin possessed a talent that surpassed even his own. But this is no conventional biography, since Zarate interweaves the story of Girtin’s short life with that of a group of friends in the modern day, who attend the same art class and themselves come to learn about this “forgotten painter”. Zarate suggests the many ways in which art and the sublime touch our everyday lives and by doing so, bring about various kinds of resolution. I began my conversation with Oscar by asking about the many connections and resolutions his book traces, between past and present, across time and among friends. 

Oscar Zarate: The artist is the one who tries to make connections. The language you use to express yourself has the possibility to make a connection. When you get involved in a piece of fiction, it is always about someone trying to resolve something, and as the writer you can connect with them on that journey, and engage with how that character is going to find resolution. You can get involved with the character, and find they have something to tell you. It’s a conversation with somebody else. When this occurs the connection between the artist and the viewer occurs.
 When I would go to the museum’s prints department and ask for an appointment to see Girtin’s watercolours, they would put the work in front of me, then leave me alone in the room. That’s a unique experience. Being there, by yourself with the work, you really feel that you can get involved, get engaged, and have that conversation with the artist.

Martin Dean: What was it about Girtin that first captivated you, and motivated you to write about him?

OZ: I just think he’s incredible, all the different stages he goes through as an artist in such a short time. As a young person he was very interesting because he enlisted as a republican, supported the French revolution, and even had his hair cut short like the Jacobins. He lived in Covent Garden when it was London’s first bohemian district. It would have been very stimulating to be there at that particular time. He began working as a draughtsman in his teens, working on what his patrons told him to, but gradually he began to be interested in nature.
 One of the things about Girtin for me is the attentiveness he had towards nature, to the sensuality of it. So he moved from being a draughtsman to being an artist, and he became one of the early Romantic painters. I think his painting of Bamburgh Castle is one of the best Romantic paintings ever made. (The painting of Bamburgh Castle is depicted on p155 of the graphic novel.)

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MD: In both Girtin’s day, and the modern day, in your book, art frequently comes into contact with politics. What do you think about the relationship of art to politics?

OZ: Everything is connected. I think whatever you do, you are telling the story of where you are, and that will also be the story of your political position. We’re shaped by our surroundings – by the geography, the culture, the social, political and economic situation. For the first ten years, maybe, it’s your parents that shape you, but then it’s what’s happening around you. You make certain decisions, and choices, and it shows in your work. Then you can choose to be active in politics or not, but everything you do is political. I don’t think there are explicit political messages in Girtin’s work. I think mostly he paints what is in front of him and I wonder what’s behind what he paints. For the Romantic writers, too, the political impulse is implicit, not explicit.
 One of the things that really interested me about Girtin was his relationship with his patrons. All the artists had patrons, and the buyers were the extremely wealthy, and the extremely wealthy were often horrendous human beings. They could be quite demanding and abusive. Artists would be paid to depict these people’s castles, their houses, the land they owned. Girtin was getting very fed up with his patrons, and gradually he started using a go-between to deal with them, so he didn’t have to talk to them.

In the last year of his life, he stopped accepting commissions entirely, and said, “I’m going to paint what I want!” I thought that was an admirable position to take because it was a pact with poverty. But he wanted to paint his England, after having to paint a vision of power, how the wealthy lived. I think the first painting that showed his new path, was The White House at Chelsea. (The painting of The White House at Chelsea is depicted on p312 of the graphic novel.)

MD: In the graphic novel, there’s a very memorable conversation in the prints department of the Tate Britain between an ageing Turner and his memory of Girtin, long after Girtin’s death. Where Girtin asks Turner, “Do you remember saying if I’d lived you’d have starved to death?” Tell me more about that.

OZ: I’m glad you mention that part. When this imagined encounter came to me, I was so happy. In some ways that conversation was one I imagined when I would sit alone with Girtin’s work. I think that Girtin was one of the few people Turner acknowledged as a talent that rivalled his own. He didn’t acknowledge anybody else. He wasn’t generally worried about competition. But he knew how good Girtin was, since they were both young draughtsmen together. Girtin was someone who knew what he wanted from his work.
 While I don’t think they ever really cultivated a friendship, I think Turner knew he owed Girtin, and that if Girtin had lived, Turner might not have achieved the success that he did, and would have had a rival for patronage.

MD: One scene sees Sarah, one of your modern characters, remembering a conversation with her friend, who tells her that her art requires 100 per cent commitment, complete sacrifice of oneself to the cause. Do you think that self-doubt, fear around authenticity, fear around one’s own dedication, can destroy one’s artistic potential, or feed it?

OZ: I think that situation happens when you start losing the conversation with what you are doing. You start listening to other things. When you do the work, you have to have a conversation, a relationship with the work. After you think you’ve finished, you have to stay with it because the work is going to say something back. At that point, something new that might surprise you happens. And with Sarah, she forgot to have a conversation with her work. She made a fatal mistake as an artist and she compared her work to her friend’s. When you compare like that you lose yourself. There’s a quote from Van Gogh in the book. It says, “If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
 When you work with your own material, every day is difficult. You have a lot of history behind you, other writers and painters. It’s a battle. Sometimes the battles paralyse you, you think it’s better to quit, or do something else. You want the work you are doing to tell you things that you can’t answer yourself. Sometimes when you’re creating fiction, the characters can tell you things about yourself and the things you were going through in the story that were hidden. It’s as if the characters speak to you. 

MD: Do you find your characters live on in your mind? Are you thinking about them when you’re not writing about them?

OZ: I wonder now what will happen with them! When I work I never put an ending, I think endings are Hollywood stuff. For me, endings are irrelevant. A piece of art brings the way a dilemma is going to be resolved. But by the time it is resolved, another dilemma comes along. This is what is interesting about life: it is about resolving dilemmas, and the quality of how you do it. But there are no endings.

MD: What is it about the graphic novel form that appeals to you?

OZ: It’s the concentration of different forces in small frames, the pictures, the words, the background, and the question of how you resolve each frame. Does this picture need this word? Do the words need this picture? There’s something about the language of it, the sequence of frames, and what is going to happen on the next page. I just love it. I can say whatever I want to say within that language. 

MD: Tell us about what it’s like to work in watercolour. What attracts you to it?

OZ: That you walk on a tightrope, it all depends how much water you use, how much colour. Then when you have an idea, the way the water runs might not let you execute it, but it creates something else that’s interesting. Sometimes you’re very surprised, sometimes you’re very frustrated, because it’s not what you intended. But that’s what I like. You’re walking on eggshells to concentrate.

MD: Did you learn anything from Girtin in the process of writing the book?

OZ: Sometimes, looking at his work, it made me feel a little bit… It’s the attentiveness, the way he looks. That’s what I do, as an artist: I look. But when I look at his work, he didn’t miss anything. As an observer, he is just incredible.

Thomas Girtin: The Forgotten Painter is available here 🎨

JOIN US to celebrate THOMAS GIRTIN: The Forgotten Painter

19 May 2023

💥 JOIN US to celebrate the launch of our graphic novel THOMAS GIRTIN: The Forgotten Painter by Oscar Zarate at Camden Image Gallery (174 Royal College Street, NW1 0SP, London) FRIDAY 2nd JUNE, 6-8pm! Please RSVP via email [email protected]by MAY 26th. See you there!

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Part historical narrative, part modern fiction, the book consists of two interlinked stories: the first focuses on the 18th-century painter Thomas Girtin and his relationship with his friend and rival J.M.W. Turner; the second tells the tale of three amateur artists in the present day, united by a shared interest in Girtin’s art.

Using this dual narrative to draw parallels between two eras of rapid technological advancement and socio-political turbulence, Oscar Zarate’s long-awaited new graphic novel restores to modern eyes this unjustly forgotten figure, whose work has been almost entirely ignored despite his huge influence in British painting.

At the time of death, aged just 27, Girtin had already established himself as a pioneer and a master: his expressionist approach was a significant turning point in the British watercolour tradition. But the brevity of his career, coupled with his chosen medium (compared to oils, watercolours were a humbler and less easily exhibited form) meant that his work came to be overshadowed by that of Turner. As Turner himself famously remarked, “If Tom had lived, I should have starved.”


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The SelfMadeHero team


5 May 2023

We planned THREE different events for the month of May. Two events to celebrate our latest book Armed with Madness: The Surreal Leonora Carrington, and a third event to discuss our Spring 2020 release Siberian Haiku.

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Join Mary & Bryan Talbot at the Cartoon Museum (63 Wells St, London W1A 3AE) as they discuss their latest graphic novel looking at the life of Surrealist Leonora Carrington! Make sure to purchase the tickets for the event here! 💬💬

SATURDAY 13TH MAY - 1PM to 2PM @ GOSH Comics
Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot will be at GOSH comics (1 Berwick St, London W1F 0DR) signing copies of our new book Armed with Madness: The Surreal Leonora Carrington! But don't worry, If you can't make the event, you can pick up a signed copy of the book from this link!

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Join Jurga Vilé in conversation with Rachael Ball from LDComics at the Cartoon Museum (63 Wells St, London W1A 3AE) as they talk about Siberian Haiku! Get the tix for the event here!