The writer at the top of his genre on the Kindle chart lives and breathes comics although he came to them late in life. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who thinks we should all give them a try
“Darling, your sword.” The couple seem to be in their 30s, though it’s hard to be sure since they’re in costume – presumably heading for the Cosplay (i.e. dressing-up) show, which begins in half an hour. His outfit has a touch of the pantomime dame, though of course it could never be anything so uncool. “I’m a neon cat,” seems to be the reply when I ask what he’s dressed as, and I’m too embarrassed to ask what that means; “It’s from the deepest, darkest corners of the internet,” explains his partner, noting my bewilderment. She, meanwhile, is in some kind of faux-mediaeval fantasy outfit, with tunic and sword. And yes, she’s just dropped her sword.
We’re in the parking lot opposite the Filoxenia Conference Centre in Nicosia, where the second annual Cyprus Comic Con is underway. The parking lot is a huge empty field, big enough for half a dozen houses – yet it’s utterly swarming with parked cars, visitors having spilled beyond the designated parking and left their cars on surrounding pavements and side-streets. It later emerges that 8,000 people attended (and that’s just those who bought tickets), vastly more than last year. “That always happens with Comic Cons,” shrugs Neil Gibson when I mention the scrum around us. They’ve become “a pop-culture event,” he adds as we make our way outside from his booth – actually named after T-Pub, the comic-book publishing company he runs in the UK, and stacked with copies of Twisted Dark, the comic-book series he writes himself – looking for a quiet place to talk.
“First of all, shame on you for not reading comics!” he chides me a little later, when we finally find a shady bench outside the Centre. (I’ve already admitted that I’m no great fan of the medium.) Neil is 37, and mad about comics – not just writing them and reading them but (especially) talking about them. He gives lectures at schools and universities (he gave one this morning at Comic Con), lauding comics as a gateway to reading and a boon to learning in general; studies have shown that US students who read comics do better at written exams than those who don’t. “Don’t get me talking about comics. I’ll talk forever about them, I love them!”. He talks fluently, articulately – as you might expect from a former management consultant – and very fast. I’m worried we won’t have enough time (he has to get back to the booth soon), but I probably end up with more verbiage from our breathless half-hour than from interviews three times as long.
Neil is unusual, maybe even unique. After all, the standard rap against comics is that they’re a form of infantilisation, a medium for overgrown kids who need pictures to go with the words. Comic-book creators, it’s assumed, must still have a foot (albeit unconsciously) in childhood – yet Neil’s childhood was conspicuously comics-free. “I did actually read a bit of Spider-Man as a teenager, but I grew bored of it. I felt I grew out of comics”. Instead he did a Masters in Engineering, then an MBA at the London Business School, had a lucrative career as a management consultant – then one evening in 2011, alone on a job in Qatar, feeling bored in his air-conditioned hotel room, he decided to write a comic-book story. “I was never a creative type until four years ago. Twisted Dark, Vol. 1 was the first thing I ever wrote in my life. I –” he hesitates slightly – “just didn’t think I could do it. It never occurred to me.”
What kind of type was he, if not a creative? The answer seems to be a doer, a go-getter, a high achiever. “I want to try everything,” he says, talking fast as if trying to cram every possible word into a limited span. “I just think you’ve got one shot at life, try everything and find what you enjoy the most”. He’s a martial-arts aficionado, his favourite being hapkido (because it’s “no-energy”, he adds, ironically for such a high-energy person). “I have a lot of hobbies. I used to compete at ballroom dancing, I used to do debating, I played frisbee [he means the team sport known as ultimate frisbee] for Indonesia. I’ve done a lot of things”. He’s travelled to over 50 countries, and lived in five. He cooks every day, unless he’s too busy selling books or giving lectures. His personal hero is Richard Branson.
He’s also an entrepreneur, having personally shepherded that story he wrote in Qatar – along with other short stories – into comic-book form, watched Twisted Dark, Vol. 1 rise to the top of the UK Kindle chart, and founded T-Pub to publish his own and others’ work. (The company has 10 titles currently out, with more to come pending plans for expansion; you can read free comics on their website, http://www.tpub.co.uk/.) Having written the words, he turned to the internet, putting out feelers to illustrators all over the world (some of them he still hasn’t met in the flesh) – then, having crafted a comic, he went out and promoted it himself. “I actually cut my honeymoon short by two days, to go to my first-ever Comic Con,” he recalls. “The first print run was oversized, some of the art was terrible, some of the lettering was bad. I look back now, it’s cringe-worthy – but, on a side-note, those original copies now sell for £50 on Ebay.”
Needless to say, he didn’t go straight from shunning comics to actually creating them. The road-to-Damascus moment came in his mid-20s, when “someone gave me a good one – it was Watchmen by Alan Moore, and I couldn’t believe how much it made me think, and how great it was”. The man who thought he’d outgrown comics suddenly became an ardent fan – but after all, everyone who makes comics is a fan, and most of them have been fans since childhood. How did Neil manage to make a dent in the vast, amorphous comic-book community with his late-blooming creativity? “That’s a good question,” he admits, hesitating for once. “It’s actually kind of lucky, in a way, because a lot of comic-book creators are quite introverted, so when they go to conventions they’re quite shy about things. Whereas I’m – not so shy. So it’s easier to stand out.”
It’s an interesting point. I think back to the scrum inside the Conference Centre – Cosplay antics and a carnival atmosphere, certainly, an excitable announcer yelling “Keep having FUN!” and “Are you ENJOYING yourselves?”, but also a constant parade of lost-looking young people, the pale and the geeky. I have some trouble finding Neil, so the DJ pages him – and his booth is soon surrounded by a shuffling mass of curious youngsters, drawn by the commotion. “I just heard that Mel Gibson is here,” says one boy (joking? who knows?). A couple of Goth-looking teens peruse Neil’s comics. The boy has a diffident manner, delicate features, and wears a black ‘Misfits’ T-shirt; the girl has green hair and green lipstick. She’d like to be a comic-book artist, but doesn’t seem to have a portfolio or at least she hasn’t brought one.
These are his people – or are they? I’m struck by the thought that these teens probably wouldn’t have found much in common with Neil, had they met him when he was their age. He was born in Kuwait and grew up in Dhahran, the hub of the Saudi oil industry, an “ideal” expat childhood of tennis courts and swimming pools; his Northern Irish dad was the general manager for a Saudi family with many business interests, basically “the top guy running the company for them” (he also has a sister, now a “high-powered investment banker”). His background is high-flying and business-minded – and of course, as he says, he’s no introvert. I don’t know, of course, but I wonder: was he ever the type to wear a black ‘Misfits’ T-shirt?
There’s a larger point here – because Comic Cons themselves seem to be changing. They started as conventions for comics fans, and “you still get some hardcore people who say ‘That’s a stormtrooper, that’s not [from] a comic’, whatever” – but let’s be honest, there probably aren’t 8,000 comic-book fans in the whole of Cyprus, let alone assembled in one place on an August weekend. The crowd at the Conference Centre goes beyond comics to gamers, Game of Thrones fans and, above all, internet geeks (a Cosplayer who I thought was the Invisible Man turns out to be Slenderman, an internet ‘meme’), thousands of youngsters who essentially grew up online. This is not just a sub-culture, it’s mainstream youth culture – and well-organised entrepreneurs like Neil are able to take advantage in ways that eluded the previous generation of comic-book authors.
Does he ever feel resentment from other creators who are jealous of his rapid success? “Oh, god yeah!” he replies with surprising vehemence. “But I’m doing this because I have to make a profit,” he goes on. “I have to make money so I can employ people to do more, and make more and grow more. I have to do this. Whereas some of them are content not to make money, this is their hobby”. Neil Gibson doesn’t have his head in the clouds: he gave himself two years to succeed when he made the move from management consulting (fortunately, Twisted Dark hit No. 1 in less than a year), markets his work assiduously – after Cyprus, he’s heading straight to another Comic Con in Toronto – and has now sealed a deal for international distribution, meaning his comics can be sold in stores as well as websites and fan conventions. “I look at it from a logical outcome,” he says at one point, and later mentions that he doesn’t like illogical stories in comic books: “I don’t like it in stories when someone abandons the rules and just goes crazy, with no explanation for it”.
He’s the logical type. His work is quite extreme, with shocking plots and often a twist in the tail – yet Neil as a person seems fairly conservative. He doesn’t shirk from difficult subjects: one story is about modern-day slavery (that’s the one inspired by Indian workers in Qatar), another is about a woman whose obsession with losing weight leaves her grotesquely anorexic, yet another – in the latest volume of Twisted Dark, which I skim through at his booth – is about a gay man coming out. Yet he himself lives quietly in London with his wife and baby daughter, and mentions that he once walked away from a well-paid career in the drilling industry (this was before his MBA) because “everyone was on their third or fourth wife, [and] I didn’t want that future for myself”. He also surprises me by noting that he used to be quite religious in his teens, and even now – though he’s practically an atheist – “I genuinely believe that people who are religious tend to be better people and, crucially, happier. It’s like with marriage.”
Then again, religious feeling shouldn’t be a surprise when it comes to Neil Gibson. After all, his passion for comics comes very close to religious fervour – and having discovered them relatively late in life only makes him more passionate. It’s no secret that born-again Christians are more evangelical than those who were born into the faith.
“Some people are very snobbish about comic books – like I was – and think it’s just kids’ stuff,” he reports gravely – and recalls a “fancy party” in his management consultant days, and a doubtless very elegant woman who was shocked to hear that he loved anything so vulgar as comics. “I think I prefer normal books,” sniffed this snobbish woman – “and I went nuts,” recalls Neil. “How can you say that when you’ve never even read one? That’s like my grandmother, in her life she never ate Chinese food or Indian food, because it was made of cats and dogs and she had no interest in trying it. Now, I think that’s short-sighted – but she wouldn’t touch it.
“It’s the same for people who won’t try a comic. You’re being,” he splutters, too angry to get the word out, “bigoted! But you can’t tell people that because they get offended, you have to be gentle and try and convince them. But ultimately I think you’re just small-minded if you don’t try”. He sighs, thinking of all the petty and unreasonable people. Then I follow him back into Comic Con, through the merry crowd of Jokers and zombies and women with swords.
NEIL GIBSON’S TOP 10 COMICS
- SWAMP THING (Alan Moore)
- Y: THE LAST MAN
- THE ULTIMATES
- THE WALKING DEAD