Steve Tanner (Time Bomb Comics)

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Interview by David Jenkins

MM: Hi Steve, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. You set up Time Bomb Comics back in 2007 and unlike many indie comic creators you publish work by other creators. Was that always the aim?

Steve: Yes. The core idea of Time Bomb was to use as a means to share some of my creative work with the wider world but as a means to showcase other creators too. I was aware (and still am!) that there’s a huge amount of comics talent out there and the thinking was that if I wanted to build Time Bomb into a credible publisher then it would need to have some of that talent as part of the Time Bomb catalogue.

 The first three one-shots Time Bomb released were written by me – thereafter it became very much focused on finding other creators to publish, to the point where everything put out between 2012 and 2015 was by creators other than me – I was the editor and publisher.  In recent years it’s swung back the other way a bit, mainly down to the success of Flintlock and the related books, but the publishing strategy from 2020 is to move to an output that is at least two thirds other creators work, maybe more.

An integral part to that development has been the move, over the last four years, to a business model that pays its creators for the work they do, including a guaranteed return. That’s been a gradual shift – Time Bomb is still small scale so it had to be – but from 2020 that’s fully in place across all our releases. Now, don’t get me wrong; we’re not talking life-changing amounts here but I think it’s something that needed to be in place and rise above that “back-end, maybe” set-up that’s still a huge part of indie comics publishing for creator owned work.

MM: The comic book scene has changed dramatically since 2007 with the success of the Marvel movies and the birth of comic cons in the UK. I don’t I’d even heard of a comic con in the UK until 2010.  What was the industry like back in 2007?

Steve: Things were much smaller then in terms of comic cons – there were only two! The MCM multi-media events had been going for a couple of years I believe, and very manga/anime focused, but in terms of the traditional comic con there was just the annual jamboree in Bristol – the established Comics Expo organised by Mike Allwood and the Birmingham International Comics Show which started in 2006 and was then held annually for a couple of years. Both of those are long gone of course, but fondly remembered. Oh yes! Towards the end of 2007 a brand comic con took place in the basement of a town hall in Leeds. It was really small, maybe twenty tables at most. It was called Thought Bubble – whatever happened to that one??

Now because there were so few comic cons, the few that were tended to be real must-do events for any creators at the time – especially the Bristol one. So everyone would work their socks off to have their new comic ready for the annual Bristol show as that was really the only opportunity they had all year to sell it direct to comics fans. It meant that Bristol would always have dozens of brand new indie comics to choose from, of course, which would either be a blessing or a curse depending on how deep your pockets were for everything that caught your eye.

MM: What do you think of the current state of the industry?

Steve: The industry is constantly evolving, which is always a good thing. For decades there’s been a handful of delusional commentators claiming comics have died a death, particularly in the UK, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Moving forward from one or two comic cons a year to one or two a month, and then the dozens of multi-media shows that are now taking place as well – that’s brought comics back into the wider awareness, and reminded a lot of people that comics exist.  As a creator, it’s brought much more opportunity to share the work you do with your potential readership. As a fan, it’s meant that attending a show is much more logistically viable as there’s probably one practically on your doorstep – or at least a short journey away.

What is terrific to see is that the abundance of events, coupled with the embracing of social media platforms by creators and fans alike, has meant much easier to read and create comics than it ever has been.  In turn, that’s led to a real explosion of creativity  and a breaking down of the expectations of not just what comics are, but who creates and reads them.  In particular, the higher profiles and awareness of female and diverse creators is exactly what needed to happen, and it’s been great to witness that over recent years.

But here’s the thing: evolution never stops. So what’s going to come along over the next couple of decades is bound to be just as exciting, if not more so.

MM: Bomb Scares is one of Time Bomb’s anthologies and it features some great short strips with ‘Shadow’ and ‘The Orakh’ being my favourites. How does the process differ with publishing an anthology compared to a one shot or a graphic novel?

Steve: A good anthology book is much more difficult to put together, because it’s a bit like herding cats. The more people you have involved in something, no matter what it is, increases the potential for some issue to come up that needs fixing. With an anthology you’d likely have multiple creators with differing levels of work rate, and the different stories themselves have different editing needs.  It’s why, for Bomb Scares, I brought in Paul H Birch to edit the series, as I knew I wouldn’t have the time, skills, resilience or patience to do each volume justice myself.

As an editor, Paul is meticulous. His own experience at the sharp end of publishing back in the nineties is also invaluable. He ensures that each story in Bomb Scares is not just the best it can be but also complements the stories around it as will as the overall theme of the books. I think that’s what differs a good anthology from a bad – that it’s not just a random collection of stories that are gathered together but a selection of tales that make up a thematic whole.

MM: Most of the stories you write fit into the Steampunk genre. What is it about this genre you find so fascinating?

Steve: Well, I’d argue that most of my recent work is historical adventure with an occasional steampunk twist but I guess at the end of the day it always comes down to the hats. I do have a huge amount of affection for the Steampunk community though, as I find them a very splendid bunch. Of all the events I attend (and I attend a fair few) the one I always find the most enjoyable is the Steampunk Asylum that takes place every August in Lincoln. It’s an abundance of creativity and a overwhelming atmosphere of mutual enjoyment; as a consequence it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding four days.

MM: The aspect that always gets me when reading or writing historical stories is the language. Some words sound completely different to their modern counterparts and I find if you put too many Ye Olde English words in a sentence it can baffle the reader. How do you try to avoid that?

Steve: Personally, I’ve never been a fan of cod-medieval dialogue, and the abundance of troths, yonders, thees and thous that can be found in hundreds of bad fantasy trilogies and Thor comics. At the same time, if you’re creating something in a recognisable historical setting the colloquial spoken vocabulary is just as important to get right as the clothing and architecture. Not to a scholarly level by any stretch, but certainly to where it seems right in the context that’s being presented.

The majority of the stories I write are in an 18th Century setting, so I’m regularly checking that words and phrases that the characters speak are appropriate to the 1700s, and even the decade within the 1700s that a particular story is in.  The phrase “By Jingo!” is a good example, as it originated in the 1780s – I can’t use that in a 1760 setting but I can in a 1790 one.  I have dozens of reference books about the 18th Century, and those that detail the words and phrases used at the time are especially well-thumbed.

My approach is to use the archaic language appropriately, that would fit the circumstances it’s being used in. More often than not, those words will reference items that are also period-exclusive so there’s no modern equivalent. But they’re also useful for insults – some of the language spoken in the Flintlock and Clockwork Cavalier books are incredibly rude and vulgar, but who these days knows what “boxing the Jesuit” means? This means that characters can speak how they would have spoken, to an extent, and not offend our modern sensibilities along with it. A useful trade off, I think. 

At the same time I don’t try and beat the reader over the head with it, or use period vernacular so liberally that it becomes impenetrable – I want people to be able to read and enjoy the stories, first and foremost. From the feedback I’ve received I think I’m getting the balance right.

MM: In the Clockwork Cavalier your robot is an old fashioned hero with no dubious morals.  In contrast the human characters are flawed and selfish. Did you always plan to make the Cavalier so perfect?

Steve: First of all, let me stress that the Clockwork Cavalier isn’t a robot, he’s a clockwork automaton who, somehow, appears to have a sentience. Also, he’s been around a little bit longer than the rest of the characters, pre-dating the 18th Century at least. Flintlock is a series that centres on strong female leads, so having the emotionless, cold, emasculated Cavalier as the only “male” lead within the timeline seemed a fun thing to play with.

Certainly if you take the stance that selfishness and flaws come from morality then he seems at odds with the rest, and his actions may seem more heroic than those about him. But then, he’s been recruited into the Bow Street Runners, who were formed to be fighting crime in 18th Century London, so he’s really only doing what he was tasked to do. As far as the Cavalier is concerned, he’s just doing his job. And let’s not overlook the Cavalier’s fatal flaw: he’s a clockwork man. He needs to be wound up, with a key, and then his movements wind him down. If he winds completely down, he stops and becomes completely inert.

MM: Like in Scott Pilgrim there is no explanation for how the world in Clockwork Cavalier which is quite similar to ours changed with robots accepted as commonplace. Do you plan to delve into the background of this world more in future comics?

Steve: I think “perhaps” is the most honest answer. For the most part, I avoid doing origin stories as such, preferring to introduce my characters fully formed and letting them get on with it. That’s not to say I’m working from ignorance, though. I know where the Cavalier came from and I know the impact he will ultimately have upon the Flintlock timelime, which will ultimately extend into the more traditional steampunk setting that my Foxglove stories are set in. That knowledge extends to my other Flintlock characters too, in that I know where they came from and where they’re going.

However, how much of that will be shared I really don’t know, and to be honest I’m reticent about laying all the cards on the table in that regard anyway. Some things will be revealed – for example I’m just finishing off the script to chapter five of Lady Flintlock, where we finally find out why Sarah Flintlock decided to become a highwayman. But we won’t be seeing the Secret Origin of Shanti the Pirate Queen soon, or Peg Sparrowhawk, or the Mollies – at least not on my watch.

In terms of the wider world all these characters co-exist in, then I’m happy to do more stories in it as long as there are people interested in reading about them. The 18th Century setting of Flintlock provides a whole world of adventure, and the world’s a big place.

MM: Lastly, what projects are coming soon from Time Bomb comics?

Steve: 2020 is shaping up to quite a year, Time Bomb’s biggest year yet.  Let’s see:

The Tale of Norton the Dragon by David Morris is coming out in February, which is a collection of little seen comic strips set in medieval times.

Then we dive back into the world of Flintlock in April for Dick Turpin and the Vengeful Shade, a highwayman horror romp that both brings the notorious highwayman back to comics and begins a series of yearly specials. This one’s written by me with artwork from Roland Bird and Brett Burbage.

Brawler #2 should be making an appearance all being well, along with a third Bomb Scares volume and Flintlock Book Five.

This year should also see the first book of the Foxglove graphic novel series and, hopefully, two more launches that I can’t announce just yet.

All of these will be available to pre-order through Kickstarter, with the Dick Turpin and the Vengeful Shade campaign going live at the end of January.

Find out more about Time Bomb Comics here

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