Although it may not quite be the contemporary equivalent of the British Invasion, the UK graphic novel publisher SelfMadeHero is certainly proof that the global comics market is growing in both size and range. That the company has established a strong international presence in just a few years is further evidence of that market’s hunger for original and unique content, and of SelfMadeHero’s own strategic perspicacity. Along with NoBrow and Blank Slate, and smaller publishers like Great Beast, SelfMadeHero is putting the UK indie scene on the map.
Launched by Managing Director and Publisher Emma Hayley in 2007, SelfMadeHero answered a demand for more literary graphic novels and comics in the British publishing market. But that demand has led to broader consequences for the company, which, as of last fall, struck a North American distribution deal with Abrams that has begun bringing SelfMadeHero titles to US readers, an arrangement that leverages Abrams’ significant reach into the North American consumer marketplace.
In a recent phone conversation with PW, Hayley said that, responding to UK need for “high-quality graphic novels and manga for adults,” SelfMadeHero was initially launched with two series: Manga Shakespeare and Crime Classics; both reinterpreted classic literature in graphic novel form. Elaborating on the rapid growth of SelfMadeHero since its inception, Hayley explains, “We went on to expand that list to encompass original fiction, biography, sci-fi—we’re the UK publishers of Moebius’s The Incal, for example.”
Although the company itself remains a small operation—three full-time staff, two part-time, plus an intern and several freelancers—SelfMadeHero’s list has grown even more diverse, with the company licensing a number of foreign titles and publishing them in English for the first time. These include two books by acclaimed French creator David B. (Best of Enemies and Black Paths), When David Lost His Voice by Belgian Judith Vanistendael, and a pair by Swiss artist Frederik Peeters: Sandcastle, and Pachyderme (which includes an introduction by Moebius).
The connection with Abrams was established back when SelfMadeHero was making inroads into the North American market by selling rights to publishers. “One of the first deals I ever did with a US publisher was to sell the rights to the Manga Shakespeare series to Abrams,” Hayley explains. In 2011, SelfMadeHero entered talks with Abrams about a potential acquisition by the latter, but ultimately the relationship evolved in another direction. “Last year, we formed a strategic partnership with Abrams, who now sell and distribute our books in North America. That was always my plan—to publish under the SelfMadeHero banner in the States. It’s great to be working with [Abrams] in this closer relationship. We’re in very close touch with Charlie [Kochman, executive editor] from Abrams Comic Arts. I’m delighted it’s been such a good fit. Long may it continue.”
The wider exposure of SelfMadeHero has a few additional antecedents, including participation at conventions outside of the UK. “Last year, we brought over two creators to MoCCA in New York and to TCAF in Toronto, which was the first time SelfMadeHero ever visited North America,” Hayley says. “We’ll be over in New York again in April, for MoCCA. We’re bringing JAKe and Robert Sellers, who did Hellraisers [a group biography of actors Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, and Oliver Reed]. We’re also bringing Glyn Dillon, who did The Nao of Brown.”
The latter title has been spectacularly well-received, here in the US and around the world. At the Angouleme International Comics Festival in France this January, The Nao of Brown won the Jury’s Special Prize, the first major award for a book that originated with SelfMadeHero. Hayley emphasizes the importance of such prizes in driving media attention and sales, but also reiterates the importance of timing in all of this.
“You in the US have had a long tradition of comic books. In the UK, it’s experiencing a real golden age,” she says. “There’s a real excitement over here about it. Earlier this year, two graphic novels got shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards—which usually don’t include comics. And one of them won in the biography section [Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot]. So, the press got really excited about this. There have a lot of articles about the fact that people are taking graphic novels more seriously now than they ever did before – which is great for us and for other publishers over here.”