A world where a conman rules the underworld and has an impossibly long tie; a world where music governs the laws of physics; a world where stories about inter-dimensional travel, an all-powerful orb and 100 swords can all be found in one magazine; a world were battles are won by the best sandwich; and a world where a cat and a meringue rule all. These are the worlds of Big Punch Studios.
On the final day of MCM London the Big Punch crew come to the MyM’s press room for a chat. Nich Angel, the star artist, has the look of the good-natured hero found in any good anime. Jon Lock, the wordsmith is a modernised Mario Brother with moustache and braces. Producer Alice White (she prefers Ali) is that girl you meet in freshers’ week who actually likes videogames and knows what Shaman King is. And Lucy Brown, their editor, is all the best parts of Lois Lane and Holtzman from the new Ghostbusters. You only have to look at these guys to see, they know their nerd culture.
The four creators from Cheltenham have been coming to MCM since 2013, and they’ve put in two years at the convention as Big Punch Studios. This convention seems to be the ideal place for Big Punch as Nich Angel explains:
“The stuff that we make are love letters to the stuff that we consume and we’ll make no bones about the fact that Jon is a really really big Marvel, western comics fan and I like Marvel but I’m a very big Manga and eastern comics fan, and so both of our comics channel that. Afterlife Inc has the feel of a high-end Image book and 7STRING has the feel of a half-superhero, half-manga book. MCM is a home for both those things.”
Nich is referring to the studio’s flagship titles. Afterlife Inc is a metaphysical drama about a con man (insert Jack’s full name) who suddenly finds himself running the underworld and7STRING tells the story of the world of Symphonia, where the laws of physics are governed by musical theory and warriors use it to fight epic battles in glorious technicolour. These are arguably the best kind of titles to show off at MCM, a technicolour convention itself, and the Big Punch guys have clocked this as Lucy explains:
“MCM is very visual. The people who come to MCM, they shop with their eyes first. They’re not looking necessarily for stuff; they’ll look at the pretty pictures and they’ll aim for that and I think that’s something our comics do quite well because they’re bright and colourful and very visual. Then they can come and discover the awesome stories behind it.”
Normally, the place to be for indie comics folk is the con’s Comics Village, a comic lover’s dream marketplace to find something new and interesting. However, this year the Big Punch gang found themselves in the dealer section due to spaces in the Comics Village selling out under massive demand. Luckily they’ve released Big Punch’s first competitive card game: Sandwich Masters – think Munchkin by way of Cards Against Humanity, but with sandwiches.
“We’re lucky that we happen to have a product outside of our comics work that’s doing very well in the dealer area,” says Lucy. “I think, whilst the aim of MCM was always going to be to big up the new print of Cat And Meringue, when we realised we had to have a dealer table we were like: ‘Well, let’s go with the card game,’ because that’s more like something you would find in the dealer section and we’ve kind of let the other comics, apart from Cat And Meringue, take a side line. And actually they’ve been selling okay.”
“We’ve seen people who may have never ventured into the comics village, people who don’t really consider themselves comics fans and I know they’ve been very surprised to see us in the dealer area, [but they] look at our stuff and go: ‘Oh it’s a card game. Cool, I like it.’ And we go, ‘We made it’ and they go, ‘Oh, you made it!?’”
At two years, the guys are still learning what Big Punch is and there’s still a lot to try but if they have learned anything, like any good league of super heroes, the Big Punch crew feel they’re stronger together. But for Nich, if not the entire studio, this is the Big Punch’s strength and indeed, its purpose:
“It is one big experiment really. It’s been one project after the next. The whole point of Big Punch always was, to bring us all together so that we have the man power as it were to do bigger things.”
Lucy concurs with this: “We very quickly discovered, particularly after doing The Heavenly Chord, together we could achieve a hell of a lot more than we even could do separately. Four together creates more two lots of two.”
The Heavenly Chord is something never seen before in indie comics but almost synonymous with mainstream comics: a crossover event. Yes, these guys were ambitious enough to merge the worlds of Afterlife Inc and 7STRING in a two-part special.
Together Big Punch has accomplished much; they publish a quarterly print comic with four unique stories and other goodness, which is no mean feat for an indie studio. Of course, it goes without saying that producing a physical card game that is not only coherent but also fun to play, is nothing short of remarkable especially when you consider these guys have no experience in game design whatsoever. However, they’re very modest about it. Well Ali is:
“We never envisaged doing a game and now we’ve got other games in the pipeline.”
John interjects: “Sandwich Masters is probably our crowning achievement.”
Ali continues: “That kind of took us by surprise. We didn’t set out to make a game. We were all stuck in a traffic jam and came up with an idea together.”
Even when they’re stuck in traffic these guys are working and based on the amount of work they produce, while holding down day jobs, it must take an extraordinary work ethic to get all this stuff out the door? Jon explains the Big Punch work ethic:
“I’ve said this tons of times – this one life lesson I got from comic professionals: there’s nothing more overrated than a good idea and I’ve always carried that very close to my heart because you can talk about something forever but actually doing it is a thing. I think if we had a company mantra – we don’t – but it’s basically: ‘Shit gets done.’ We just do stuff and we work really hard on that, not to blow our own trumpet.”
One other factor that ensures ‘shit gets done’, is that Big Punch is on Patreon, something that is common for online content creators but not so much for a group that’s married to the physical production of comics, like Big Punch. Jon has observed this:
“It‘s interesting to see this wave of Patreon-funded creators now and I think primarily they work best with online content generators. I think initially we found our comic book model, transferring that to Patreon, initially wasn’t the best fit and it’s like trying to say to someone at a show, ‘Hey we have a Patreon!’ And they’re like, ‘Hmm, what’s the point? Because I see you once every year and I buy your book when I see you.”’
But these guys were some of the first to use crowd-funding to get their projects off the ground. Nich points out an interesting fact:
“I certainly feel like we have been at the very beginning of it and ridden it all the way up until now. When Kickstarter launched in UK Jon’s Afterlife Inc was one of the first projects, if not the first.”
“Joint first, which was insane,” says Jon, and Nich wasn’t far behind in making use of these digital platforms:
“7STRING Volume 2 was only a couple of weeks after that so we were right at the beginning of the Kickstarter revolution in the UK. And since then we have ridden Kickstarter and it has helped us. There have been ups and downs, but across the board. I don’t know where indie studios like us would be without things like Kickstarter and Patreon. Whether we’re using them right or whether we’ve had a perfect career on them is debatable but they are just the best.”
As it turns out another part of Big Punch’s success is the fact that these crazy cats (and meringues) all live together. Not only that but Ali and Nich are engaged as are Jon and Lucy, but doesn’t being a cross between some kind of tree house club and a ’90s pop band put a strain on them? Nich doesn’t seem to think so:
“We’ve been asked this before a few times and I can quite happily say that there aren’t any issues. I suppose what’s quite funny, maybe from an outsider’s perspective, is that we can go from sitting around having a laugh in the lounge, watching some crappy anime on the telly, to having a business meeting. The dynamics can shift and we can suddenly be talking by shop. It’s kind of awesome as well.”
“It’s the best because,” says Ali. “You don’t have to bank an idea and go, ‘I must bring that up when we next see Jon and Lucy.’ Let’s talk about it now; we’re inspired, we’re ready to go.”
Jon adds: “We have the office, which is amazing. All four of us have our desks up there and the walls are just littered with pictures and we have a white board. I was very insistent on that – we get a white board.”
It’s obvious from talking to them and by how they finish each other’s thoughts that these four are a great fit for each other. They talk about how within a short time of meeting each other they all went on holiday together. When asked what they’re hoping to do next amongst more comics and card games, the guys would like to turn their creations into videogames. They even joke there are enough characters in their stable to form a pretty sizeable fighting game roster with their whimsical mascots Cat and Meringue as end-game bosses.
That’s one of the interesting things about Big Punch; they seem to have a knack for creating original, yet completely approachable IP. Take Cat and Meringue – a newspaper-style comic strip featuring a globular cat and an anthropomorphic meringue going on various adventures, which sprung out of Nich Angel’s mind:
“Cat and Meringue ended up being like a casserole of everything that I love,” says Nich as the rest of the gang groan. Apparently, Nich has been using that word all weekend. Of all Big Punch’s properties Cat and Meringue is particularly ubiquitous in its appeal. Ali demonstrates this with a good example:
“My dad is one of the biggest Cat and Meringue fans. He’s in his mid-sixties and then yesterday an eight-year-old girl fell in love with them at the table.”
Nich remembers this with a huge grin on his face:
“I think she said something to the effect as she was being dragged away: ‘Can it be my Christmas present?’ I didn’t ever mean to do this, I didn’t mean to create the most demographically consumed comic of all time. I never said that.”
Jon mocks that he allowed Cat and Meringue to permeate Big Punch Magazine to humour Nich but it’s clear he’s as big a fan as anyone. He recalls some of the random humour that defines these bizarre characters:
“He’s got a spot the difference in the back of the book and he’s drawn a dinosaur driving a car and the other picture is a photo of a donkey.”
The interview descends into raucous laughter. It’s a good thing these guys do podcast because they have great chemistry and it shows in their work. But with thousands of teenagers pouring their work online like milk on cereal, are the guys too late to build on their success? Jon thinks it’s experience that counts:
“It’s very interesting the difference between creators and content generators and how life is taking us in this roundabout way. And it has been hard and we’ve struggled but everything we love and everything we’ve done has made it onto the page. When I was 18 I was like, ‘I want to write comics,’ and I had this idea that it would just happen and then everything would be plain sailing. But instead it’s been this really circuitous, random… and I think I would have been worse for it if it had all worked out at 18 – I’d be a lot less inspired.”
Lucy lends some social context to this quandary:
“We were talking about this fairly recently and we realised of course, we’re all getting old and it’s like the next generation is actually coming up behind us and they are growing up in such a different world to us than what we grew up in. We’re the lost little bubble in the middle. We came of age right as the financial crisis hit and everything we had done up to that point suddenly didn’t matter so much anymore. The group behind us has grown up knowing there’s nothing for them for them at the end so they can do whatever the hell they want.”
It’s this kind of thoughtfulness and understanding that defines Big Punch. They are better because they’re a little bit older than your average indie creators and their stories are richer because they weren’t rambling into a web cam in their teens. They have day jobs, three of them have degrees in science and they’ve made experiences for themselves, as Nich puts it:
“We have picked up skills and experience on the way. One of those is a respect for the medium that we work in and the way that we tell our stories. And a lot of that has come from wanting a book that is presented well and looks good. And a lot of people say that our stuff looks very professional and I’m really glad that we’ve come to web comics from print comics rather than the other way round.
“Because you see a lot of web comics get collected into books and they’re really successful, really popular but the books don’t look that great because they’ve never been built or thought of like a book. They’ve been thought of as this ethereal web thing and we will always be book centric really at our heart.”
Ultimately, in a world where there are dozens of people trying to be the next YouTube star or Kickstarter king every year, it’s heartening that Big Punch are just trying to share their worlds with as many people as possible. Jon sums it up best:
“You almost want the fame and the fortune without having the content. But because we didn’t have that online community, the only thing we had to stand on, was the quality of our books and the strength of our stories and we live and die by that and if it’s not a good story then what’s the point?”