(For a brief period, I was the "official blogger" of SPACE, the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo, and in that capacity I was allowed to break the news of the winner of the first annual SPACE Prize. In conjunction with that, I conducted an e-mail interview with winner Bill Knapp. Since I've been re-posting some of my old stuff this month, I thought I'd dig this one up because A Thorn In The Side, Bill's prize winning book, is a darn good graphic novel and I want to do whatever I can to make more people aware of it and maybe even convince them to read it.)
Bob Corby, organizer of SPACE, the Small Press And Alternative Comics Expo, is pleased to announce that the winner of the first annual SPACE Prize is Bill Knapp, who is honored for his graphic novel A Thorn In The Side: The Story of Johnny Hopper. The SPACE Prize, established to honor excellence in self-published small press comics, consists of a plaque and a check for $300 to be presented during an awards ceremony to be held at the 2009 SPACE show.
The SPACE Prize is the successor to the Howard Eugene Day Memorial Prize, popularly known as the Day Prize, which was awarded by Cerebus and Glamourpuss creator Dave Sim in honor of his late friend and mentor Gene Day, at SPACE annually from 2003 to 2008. Shortly after the 2008 SPACE show, Sim announced that he was curtailing all future convention appearances to concentrate on his new series Glamourpuss, thus ending the Day Prize. Shortly thereafter, Bob Corby announced the creation of the SPACE Prize to fill the void.
Entries for the SPACE Prize are submitted by the exhibitors at SPACE, then read by Bob Corby, who selects a short list of finalists. These were then voted on by the exhibitors at SPACE 2008, with 5 points awarded to the highest vote getter, 3 points for second and 1 point to the third place finisher. Next, a panel of judges selected their picks for first second and third place, with point values assigned in the same manner as the exhibitor vote.
Sixty-one entries were received from the artists and self-publishers exhibiting at SPACE 2008, which Bob Corby whittled down to a slate of nine finalists. This years judges were Matt & Carol Dembicki (acting as one judge) the winners of the 2007 Day Prize and Tim Corrigan, publisher of the pioneering Small Press review zine Small Press Comics Explosion and a past recipient of the SPACE Lifetime Achievement Award. Between the judges and the exhibitor vote, A Thorn In The Side received 10 points to become the first SPACE Prize winner.
A Thorn in The Side tells the story of Ian “Johnny” Hopper, a British born resident of France at the time of the German occupation during WWII. When the Nazis march into his village, he and his wife, Paulette become involved in the resistance efforts, which ultimately lead to his capture and detention in a German prison camp.
In the following interview, Bill discusses A Thorn In the Side, as well as his past work, which includes the Day Prize winner Faith: A Fable, and his philosophy of comics.
1) Tell us a bit about yourself: Where and when you were born, where you went to school, your family--that kind of stuff.
BK: I was born in 1962 in Cleveland, Ohio and grew up in rural Hinckley, Ohio. I am pretty much a self-taught artist. I’ve always believed that you become an artist by doing and observing, not by sitting in a classroom listening to someone else tell you what art is or is not. I’ve taken some live model drawing classes but that’s about it. I’ve been married since 1992 and have lived in Lafayette, Indiana since 2002.
2) Your bio in "A Thorn In The Side" says you've worked in comics for over 20 years. Other than "Thorn" and "Faith: A Fable", what have you done?
BK: My first professional work was working on stories for Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor back when he was self-publishing it. I drew a number of stories for him in the early/mid-80’s. I was involved in DC Comics New Talent Program in the late-80’s drawing a Flash-related story and production-type work for a few other projects. In the 90’s I did work for Now Comics on their Green Hornet title, art for a small, defunct publisher I’d rather not legitimize by naming, and a Firearm story and Hardcase story for Malibu Comics. In 1995 I first started self-publishing my take on a superhero comic called The Furies, publishing eight issues of that. From people I know in the self-publishing side of comics I’ve done a couple stories for Michael Cohen’s Mythography book, a short story for a Scott Mills book and a story for an anthology released by Brian Clopper.
3) How, and why, did you get into comics?
BK: Friends of mine in grade school were into comics which got me interested in them at a time when my interest in art was developing. So for me, comics were pretty much all I wanted to do. I love the combination of story and picture. Naturally for the late-70’s, the only real options for comics work was Marvel or DC and so for many years my goal was to work for one or the other. Today, I don’t see the material they are putting out to be good comics and what I’ve seen of comics editors these days is that they are more interested in office politics and promoting themselves as the ones responsible for the success of the books, than in knowing how to tell a good comics story, so my interest in being yet another X-book artist is non-existent.
4) Do you have a "day job" or are you lucky enough to support yourself doing this?
BK: Art is what I do. If I’m not doing comics-related work, I’m painting or writing.
5) What was behind the decision to self-publish "Faith" and "Thorn"?
BK: I decided back in the mid-90’s to self-publish. At that time, the industry was imploding and I figured that if an editor was looking for an artist and had a choice between me and someone who had worked for the company before, he would take the safe choice and choose the guy with a track record of work and Image-style artwork he could comprehend. Today if I could find someone to publish a book for me, I would go that route but publishers are antsy about material. What I do isn’t superheroes, it isn’t slice-of-life autobiography and it isn’t Fantagraphics-style “art” comics so the possible publishers are few.
6) You were also the first winner of the previous incarnation of this award, The Day Prize. How did winning the Day Prize affect your life and/or art?
BK: It was very nice to win it, but I can’t say it changed the way I live or work. Unfortunately, when that first Day Prize was announced, September 11 happened a few days later. SPX was cancelled and thus a great opportunity to promote the Prize. We take internet promotion for granted now, but even in 2001, it was harder to get press about something like the Day Prize than it is now. The instantaneousness of blogging wasn’t really being done and the old models for promotion were still being used. On the plus side, my wife and I had a terrific dinner with Dave and Gerhard before the 2002 SPACE show, I have a nice plaque and I received $500.
7)Besides winning the SP, how has "Thorn" been received critically and commercially?
BK: How is any self-published book being received these days? I have received some good reviews that really seem to understand what I’m trying to do with this story. It seems to me though, that my take on comics is difficult for some people to get a hold of. By that, I mean that the material I do doesn’t fit the catagories of what people now expect comics to be. As I noted in Question 5, it isn’t superheroes, it isn’t autobio, it isn’t expanding the boundaries of comics art. What interests me is telling a good story, regardless of genre, in a way that anyone reading the book could understand. My influences in comics are very old school with an emphasis on storytelling and clarity. Batton Lash, of Wolff & Byrd fame, has talked extensively about the true mainstream of comics, which are works that don’t fit the narrow ideas of the comics industry’s interpretation of mainstream. If A Thorn In the Side was a prose book, no one would question its theme or style. The only thing that would matter would be “Is it a good story”. In the comics field though, people seem to want material to fit the narrow definitions of what they define comics to be. Take people out of their comfort zone and there is a lot of resistance.
8)What exactly drew you to the story of Johnny Hopper?
BK: Quite simply, it’s a fascinating story. There isn’t much that has been written about Hopper and I wanted to try to do something that would keep his memory alive.
9) You say in the introduction that you first encountered Hopper's story in 1993, but didn't begin work on "Thorn" until 1999. Why, after the better part of a decade, did you feel that the time was right then to tell this story?
BK: At the time, it just wasn’t a story I was ready to do. I was still trying to get on the freelance merry-go-round. When I began self-publishing I had other stories I was trying to tell. After I finished Faith: A Fable I felt it was time to give it a go. I think it turned out to be a good thing I had to wait on it as it gave me experience writing and working on other types of stories before trying to tackle a true-to-life story.
10) A friend of mine is illustrating a Graphic Novel set during WWII, and another friend of ours asked him if he was afraid of comparisons to "Maus" Now, especially, given that approximately the entire second half of "Thorn" takes place in concentration camps, I put that same question to you.
BK: This isn’t a story about the Holocaust and concentration camps and Jewish persecution during the war. It’s a story of one man’s experiences during the war, part of which took place in a prison camp. I think if someone tries to compare the two stories, it’s really an apples and oranges thing. So many really fascinating stories came out of World War II, amazing experiences of survival, courage and fighting for what you believe, and many of them involve some stretch of time in a prison camp. If they didn’t shoot you outright, it was pretty much the Nazi response to problem individuals. You can tell your friend that on a historical accuracy level, there is also quite a difference between the extermination camps the Jews and Russians were dumped into purely so they could be killed out of sight and the prison camps people like Hopper and the group he was with went through. The end result was expected to be the same but the events leading to it were very different.
11) What's your next project, and when can we expect to see it?
BK: Since I finished A Thorn In the Side I’ve been doing a lot of painting and having a lot of fun with it. Working in color on single-image pictures isn’t something I’ve done much of over the years, so I want to see what I can do with it. I’m scheduled to have my first solo show at a gallery in Lafayette later this year, so I guess that would be my next project. I’ve been looking at a lot of work over the last few years by the great illustration artists of the 20th Century and like the idea of telling a story with one image. There are a couple comics-type projects I’ve been working on too, but I work so slowly and they are in such early stages that it’ll be some time before they would be finished.