The A1 Annuals first launched in 1989, a collection of new and old material featuring creators from all across the world of comics – from Alan Moore and Grant Morrison to Joe Kubert and Dave McKean. The A1 Annuals established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, a curation of intelligent and challenging comics which strayed to the sides and offered readers ideas and experiments that suggested a new approach to how comics should be read and enjoyed.
Decades after that first launch, the A1 Annual returns this year with an new edition published by Titan. Conducted as ever by creator and editor Dave Elliott, the new A1 Annual features creators like Bill Sienkiewicz, Alan Moore, D’Israeli, Joe Simon and Jim Steranko [and come back on Thursday for our interview with Steranko himself]. To celebrate the launch, I spoke to Elliott about what inspired him to bring back the Annual, why he feels it’s lasted for so long, and where he sees the comic industry as a whole.
Steve: What made you decide to return to the concept of the A1 Annual? What was your goal in editing new volumes?
Dave: To answer that you have to go back to why Garry (Leach) and myself started the title in the first place.
In the mid 1980s there were no venues for creator owned comics, certainly not in the UK and not to the extent we were looking for ourselves. Any that always carried the clause that while you owned it, the publisher controlled the publishing and you couldn’t take it anywhere else.
We had low page rates so we didn’t think it right for us to control other creators’ material as we wouldn’t want that for ourselves. “Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.”
We stopped putting the book together when we realized there were other companies starting to offer more creator owned opportunities and it seemed like it wasn’t relevant any more.
Today there is a wonderful selection of material being offered to the public, but for the creator, the revenue model is still skewed in favor of the publisher. Your options are doing a mini-series or on-going title for little or no money with little or no royalties. If you’re a new creator, or even an established one who hasn’t done two years of Batman or Spider-Man, you can be looking at just breaking even on print costs for a title (or worse). Most publishers won’t promote something that isn’t at least partially owned/controlled by them.
So if you’re willing to do 140 pages of material for no money, why not do a series of short stories that can build eventually into your own mini-collection, and where you don’t have to take a break from paying work to do them?
Both A1 and its black sheep relative Monster Massacre give creators a chance to establish an idea, experiment with it a little, before throwing it out to the world. It also opens plenty of possibilities to have some fun.
Steve: What have Titan brought to the relaunch? Why publish the new edition through them?
Dave: Because I don’t know a publisher that has opened more pathways and avenues to sell comics and graphic novels than Titan. I’ve known Nick [Landau] for 20 something years, when you have that long a relationship it makes it easier to work together.
Steve: How do you select the stories which appear in each edition? There’s a span of time in the selections here, offering work from people like Alan Moore, Joe Simon, Jim Steranko and many others – are you looking for common motifs or ideas, when choosing work to include?
Dave: We chose the title “A1” because it says nothing about its content other than the quality we are striving for. It’s all things to all people. Anything goes. I do want to know what they’re doing just so I know they’re not doing something too similar to someone else. It’s less of an issue with Monster Massacre.
Maybe if I had the money to pay reasonable rates I’d do a book or two that had a specific theme or genre… But, nah, why take the surprise away.
Tales of Old Fennario, by Sandy Plunkett
With this series of A1 I have been able to open it to include classic material from the likes of Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Steve Ditko and Jim Steranko. I think it is very important to keep showcasing the work of creators like this and present it to new generations as examples of what can be done with the medium when given just 5-8 pages. These creators made a living producing short stories, and many of those stories still hold up today.
Steve: Having edited A1 and other titles since the 1980s, how do you think comics storytelling has changed, evolved, or shifted over the years?
Dave: There have been some wonderful examples of storytelling over the last 30-40 years that continue to elevate the medium. From Los Bros Hernandez entire output to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight to Charles Burns’ Black Hole to Daniel Clowes’ Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron to Warren Ellis to John Bryne’s run on X-Men and Fantastic Four to Chris Claremont’s amazing X-Men run to Walter Simonson’s Thor to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira to Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s Tank Girl to Jeff Smith’s Bone to Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet to David Petersen’s Mouse Guard, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… (yeah, a ton of great shit, but can’t list them all).
I love how the American audience has adapted the visual asthetics of manga, anime and European art and storytelling. Although I feel that as an approach to storytelling across a company, Archie Comics is the only company that has consistently kept an eye on making individual issues accessible to a larger market. Everyone else, myself included, is aiming for the book/trade market. Write and produce for the collection.
Sometimes it looks like the comics ‘industry’ has never had any real plan, but has just kept reacting to external pressures like availability of shelf space and market, and the storytelling often reflects that. About ten years ago, some of the big superhero publishers tried pushing some of their artists early on to adapt to the manga style of art, as though that was all it would take to get that audience.
Steve: Do you feel there is a visible difference in the craft of 1960s comics in comparison to work in the 80s, 90s, or today?
Dave: Clearly the craft has changed, with the advent of new technologies for print, art production and more recently delivery of content. The craft has changed to adapt to these changes. I miss more the approach to storytelling in the 60s. I really enjoy the done-in-one approach of those comics. Where a continued story was something truly important. I still think we have room for both, but publishers feel the audience would reject that approach.
I would like to see more comics have a lighter approach to some of the themes in the stories. Less grim and gritty. I read comics for escapism so reading a comic where the characters never get to feel happiness just feels so wrong. I guess I’m out of touch.
Doctor Arachnid by Dom Regan
Steve: The annual features several photo spreads of coffee, as well a written history of coffee production. Where did this idea come from, and how do you feel it relates to the overall tone of the annual?
Dave: Over the last few years I have spent more and more time on DeviantART rather than other social media platforms. It reminded me of the interconnectivity of art to other mediums. Many comic writers and artists have gone to other sources for inspiration for their own ideas and brought them into their comics. Where else could the diverse work styles of Klimt, Salvador Dali, Barron Storey, Bob Peak and Syd Mead, find themselves in comics? When you appreciate that you can start to see the art in everything. Logos, furniture design, car design, architecture, tattooing, jewelry, photography (which plays an ever increasing role in comics) and yes, coffee art.
Every morning I would head down to my local coffeehouse (Coffeelabs Roasters) in Tarrytown, NY, to plan my day, paginate a book or write the notes up for my own stories. As I got to know the owners and the baristas I realized that for a truly great cup of coffee you actually needed to know a lot about coffee. Where it was grown, what soil, how it is dried, roasted and ground. Even ideal temperatures for the water and the milk.
Most creators I know can’t start their day without a cup of coffee or tea, so why not use this art as a beat between the stories? Like you’re taking a sip of coffee between reads. A mental break or breather. I plan to do this in future books with other forms of art such as graffiti and tattooing.
Steve: Will there be future volumes of A1 in the future?
Dave: Yes. While Monster Massacre will be twice a year, A1 will stay as an annual and build into what I hope will be a nice dip into comics for both lapsed and new readers. There are a lot of people who have stopped reading comics over the years that might just like a book they can skim through over a cup of coffee once in a while.
Mr Monster by Alan Moore and Michael T Gilbert
Steve: What are you planning next, as a writer and as an editor?
Dave: As a writer I have several projects lining up. Three that I’ll be co-writing with others and four that I’ll be writing by myself. That sounds a lot but they’re all series of mini-series or graphic novels. I’ll have the A1 Presents series of books next year that will collect the CarpeDIEm, Odyssey and Weirding Willows stories from the A1 mini-series, each as its own book with new material in all of them. The plan after that is to have the three be a series of graphic novels coming out once a year.
As an editor, outside of A1 and Monster Massacre I’ll continue to guest edit here and there on Heavy Metal and I have a DeviantART anthology I am putting together for later in 2014 or early 2015.
Many thanks to Dave for his time. The new A1 Annual is out now through Titan, and you can find him online, on Twitter, right here. Thanks also to Owen Johnson, for arranging the interview!