Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 19, 2013

CR Holiday Interview #02 -- Sean T. Collins and Joe McCulloch



We rarely talk about the alternative and art comics portion of comics as an industry with its own set of concerns. I thought this year might be a good year to do that in the holiday interview series. I chose to have this conversation with Joe McCulloch and Sean Collins, both of whom wrote compellingly of the latest important story in that world, the closing of PictureBox, Inc. I've known both critics -- and Collins is now a writer of comics -- for years. I respect their observations and insights. I hope that the following has something in here you'll find of interest. I tweaked a bit for flow. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: I guess a first question would be how frequently does your conception of alt-/art- comics include an industry component? We seem to maybe blend the business and art in mainstream comics and even in newspaper strips more than we ever conceive of art- and alt- comics that way, and I wonder if you had any thought as to why that is.

JOE McCULLOCH: Well, since you're talking to a pair of critics, my first thought is that there's a big difference between writing about art and writing about industry. Put simply, the former is much easier to do, because in the end it's just you and a book and whatever perspective and experience and theory and wisdom you're gonna bring to the table, and while disagreements are obviously gonna happen -- and I absolutely do think it's possible to write bad criticism -- there's much more in the way of intellectual wiggle room. Writing about industry, though -- you need a very solid grounding in practice, economics, distribution; it's more like math, because you can very easily get a lot of shit obviously, factually wrong, and nobody likes getting shit wrong, especially when they're not being paid for the pleasure.

imageSEAN T. COLLINS: Good Lord, imagine if Frank [Santoro] and I had talked about the dearth of alternative-comics reporters instead of alternative-comics critics. The list would have been, what, two people long tops? "Follow the money" is a solid rule of thumb for this discussion. There's very little money to be made in alternative comics, still less to be made in alternative comics criticism, and, as best as I can tell, zero to be made in alternative comics business journalism. So those habits of thought don't get cultivated, for practical, financial reasons.

McCULLOCH: And, as a result, I think a lot of writers-on-comics today are reluctant to address industry concerns in areas where "industry concerns" aren't already a broad pool of knowledge from which to draw, like with the big superhero publishers. The legwork on them was done years ago, to the point where any random Bleeding Cool message board poster might find the guts to hold forth on the hard truths of the biz, and not immediately look like a clown. Plus, I think the nature of reading superhero comics -- or reading newspaper comics -- is affected by the fact that they're pretty far removed from the locus of original creation: it's usually hired hands providing maintenance for valuable properties, and while there's obviously an artistic component to that, the observer is nonetheless placed at a certain distance, encouraging speculation as to business practice. That goes triple when superhero movies are involved, because there's just so much fucking money involved -- unreal money! It's like following sports.

With "alternative" comics -- I mean, Jesus! What fucking toad wants to drop science on "the industry" of what's been whispered into our cradles as the very marrow of the creative urge? Wasn't the whole struggle for comics-as-art about promulgating a theory of 'alternative' or 'art' or 'underground' or [your favorite oppositional term here] comics as separate from readily monetized company craftwork? Let me answer my own question -- it wasn't, not strictly, but this romantic conceptualization probably turned out to be the most immediately appealing of the various arguments for a genus of comics against a status quo, which, 35 years ago, was legally disinclined in the majority of circumstances to even recognize artists as the creators of their own work, per the fictions of authorship that lie at the basis of work-made-for-hire.

COLLINS: This is also true. Though in my experience a lot of makers of, and thinkers about, alternative comics enjoy pulling apart the business practices of any and all industries with which they come in contact, that's only very rarely true of alternative comics as an industry itself. When it comes right down to it I think a lot of people are just kinda bored by the practicalities of funding these things, until a crisis makes it newsworthy.

McCULLOCH: [laughs] Sure -- nobody likes to shit where they eat! But wasn't it David Foster Wallace who prophesied that the locus of power would reside within "boring" data? Because in the media rush -- we gravitate towards what's the most fun, the tastiest, the most stimulating. So anything that happens in a boring way; you're wearing the One Ring, my friend.

Plus, criticism itself is a field pregnant with theory and ideals, and I think there's a perception that it's anti-intellectual, in some way, to divert one's focus from the object of art itself. I mean, the movement in popular criticism for the last few years has been very much toward a sort of quasi-academic analysis of artistic works as social actors, which reflect or promulgate or repel or inspire resistance to prejudices and inequities in the daily life. In this way, the industrial component, if acknowledged, is often cast in the role of systemic compulsions resulting from some financial interest in maintaining the status quo; declarations tend to go broad. If you mention business too much, I mean -- you feel like one of those movie bloggers who won't shut up about box office. Don't you even like movies, Tom?! Sean and I liked Only God Forgives.

COLLINS: I even bumped into Nicholas "The Long and" Winding Refn on the street afterwards and told him so. Sensational cinema!

McCULLOCH: But, you know, eventually, if you stick around in comics for long enough: you see people disappear. And not a few people -- enough so that it really hits you in the face with how difficult it is to make a living at this thing. Like, you see one or two or three people vanish, and you think, "Okay, it's like gallery art, it's like screenwriting, it's like music, or anything; few do it forever." But after a while, even if you lack the responsible and/or messianic impulse to want to improve or perfect this scene from which you derive enjoyment and love, you begin to examine your own assumptions about how the field operates, and that pushes you to develop some of the expertise I've mentioned. And, you know, you're growing older, worrying about money, trying to figure yourself out -- it becomes part of the interrogation of your own life. So, yes, I do think about industry, but I imagine really any practicing artist would have developed these opinions long ago; you know this already, but I can assure your readers that every one of these topics are discussed at length, in private, by almost everyone, incessantly.

COLLINS: Ah, there's the other component of it, a phenomenon encapsulated by the cantankerous music and music-industry critic Chris Ott on twitter the other day with the phrase "Let's take this to e-mail so I can tell you you're right." With the exception of figures who for better or worse, rightly or wrongly, find themselves becoming lightning rods about whom it's okay to opine in public, what you see in print online in terms of discussion regarding the mechanics of publishing alternative comics, or even run-of-the-mill "I don't actually think that book is very good and here's why" criticism, is the tip of an enormous offline, off-the-record iceberg of speculation and shit-talking. For pete's sake Ryan Cecil Smith saying "I don't much care for Adrian Tomine's comics" in a series of tweets was forwarded to me by a breathless friend in full "man bites dog" mode. Imagine starting to hold forth publicly about which micropublishers don't pay their contributors, or spilling the open secret that PictureBox was closing down before Dan [Nadel, PictureBox publisher] was ready to reveal it himself.

McCULLOCH: Ah, but people don't want to say it! Because they don't know enough about the business to be certain they won't wind up fucking over someone's book release! There's like 35 people total in alternative comics, and if someone has to go back to working at Panera Bread because of you, don't even go in the goddamned Our Lady of Mt. Carmel gymnasium at CAB -- head straight to the altar and pray to whichever god you're about to meet."

imageSPURGEON: Let me put it another way: when you think of someone entering into comics, say Tom Kaczynski with Uncivilized, do you think in terms of how he might operate as a business person?

COLLINS: Personally, I try not to, beyond "behave ethically, don't overextend, if anyone's gonna make money off this stuff then your artists should be making it too, hopefully find a distribution method that works well for you." I wish there were some kind of Alt-comix Humane Association that could certify "no cartoonists were harmed in the making of this comic," albeit one not so easily bought off as the one that ensures Ang Lee isn't drowning tigers.

McCULLOCH: I do think that way, personally, because I've seen too many Uncivilizations rise and fall.

But as I inferred earlier -- there's a difference between a private bull session and serving up writing for public consumption. I mean, if you're a critic, there's this eternal suspicion that your writing-for-publication time could be better spent on being attentive to artists, whether your interest is in a diarist's account of the works in front of you, or promotion of young, new, hungry art, or proffering commentary on the means by which works operate in the social climate, or wielding the sword against the hydra of mediocrity bedeviling culture.

COLLINS: That about nails it, though now that I think of it I don't see why accounting for the business practices of alternative comics as an industry can't be seen as a valuable component of all of those things.

McCULLOCH: Well, I think it comes down to expertise, again, because all of us recognize that a non-publisher's perspective on business can be valuable, or even revolutionary, but few of us have the means and guts to really go for it in an authoritative manner -- God knows we've seen people try and fail! Moreover, we probably know a lot of people who've insisted in private that they has all the answers, and then demonstrably did not -- so there's an element of personality too. Not that you need answers to have a discussion, of course!

COLLINS: Right. "What's your solution?" Do I have to have one?

McCULLOCH: Honestly, if what's been said about social media is true, we may be evolving beyond all of this. Because where are the distinctions on twitter, or tumblr, or whatever the hell the next compelling platform will be? Blogging provided a handy means of replicating the experience of "good" print writing without the trouble of gatekeepers; character limits and an emphasis on visual appeal have broken down those classical expectations so that everybody sort of exists in a gob of rapid give-and-take, feinting from long-form writing to instantaneous commentary, and the only expectations about content there, I think, are driven by personal interest, so that it's like private communication in character, transubstantiated into public writing. Granted, there's also little in the way of permanence -- but there's more permanence than just talking!

COLLINS: It's always striking to me to come across exchanges on tumblr or twitter that feel like back=channel chit-chat suddenly got itself reified. Almost any industry topic that truly strikes a nerve is gonna feel that way -- just look at Tess Fowler taking her experiences with Brian Wood public, for example. A lot of talking that had been going on offline suddenly went online. Perhaps as we all settle in to the post-blog world, this will happen with alt-comix industry issues as well.

SPURGEON: Is it fair to say that a lot of alt-culture, and maybe particularly the comics version of same, resists this kind of business role, or kind of fundamentally distrusts it? Do you think this has an effect on these publishers and stores? How much of that is generational, do you think?

COLLINS: I don't think that's true anymore. Speaking broadly, hustle and virtue are largely conflated at this point, and I think many if not most alternative comics-makers believe printing, production, distribution, promotion, and so on fall under that "makers" rubric. I wish there were more distrust of comics-as-business as far as alternative comics were concerned, not less, insofar as it shouldn't fall to artists to be businesses, necessarily.

imageBut if you're going to be A Publisher? Know your role. And I think most do. Even the ones that fudge aspects of what you or I might consider the necessary and sufficient tasks for declaring oneself a publisher, I can't think of anyone who's doing so out of ignorance or defining those tasks out of existence. They've looked at their capabilities and made a decision or series of decisions based on what they see. Moreover, as Joe points out, the growing preeminence and predominance of social-justice considerations has forefronted ethics in pretty much every discussion of business involving the kinds of people you'd expect to be interested enough in alternative comics to make and sell them; to have that conversation seriously requires, again, following the proverbial money. If there's distrust in play, a desire to educate oneself and act trustworthily seems to follow in its footsteps, however successful that may wind up being.

McCULLOCH: Right. But, at the same time -- we're talking a sustenance culture here. Like, getting by with one book, or one grip of books, enough to keep yourself alive and healthy as both a publisher and a biological entity. As Dan Nadel told you, though, Tom -- there's a potentially wide gap between that and the kind of life security you might eventually come to desire.

COLLINS: Uh-huh. I'll tell you what: It's hard for me to imagine another 30-year anniversary of an alt-comix publisher after Drawn & Quarterly has theirs, maybe ever again. Looking around right now it's difficult to see anyone pulling themselves out of sustenance mode enough to make that kind of long-term prospect anything but exhausting.

SPURGEON: My hunch is that the primary defining characteristic of the alt-comics culture as a set of businesses is a significant, ongoing lack of capital. We still, in fact, encourage people to enter comics as businesspeople without having two dimes to rub together. I think this is loaded with potential harm, particularly for exploitation -- a publisher without capital or without the ability to promote a book, tends to take the same percentage of sales as one that doesn't. Do you agree with this general assessment? Where might you disagree, or where might you places emphasis in terms of the overall landscape?

McCULLOCH: Some publishers do have adequate or more-than-adequate capitalization to start with; they're the ones that drop out of space and seem impossibly certain of themselves from the get-go. But if you look to the history of the types of comics we're talking about -- a lot of it comes from the internet, or DIY zine culture, or punk rock, or self-publishing as a means of personal expression. And when one artist builds up a little money to throw around, to help facilitate the expression of others, nobody's gonna turn the garden hose on that kind of community-minded engagement. I think the excitement that follows something like Oily comes from their ability to produce appealing works in a format that appears to demand comparatively little in terms of investment.

imagePlus, even the seeming untouchables -- sticking with PictureBox, Dan didn't even start publishing comics-qua-comics until after the Wilco Book. He was doing not-quite-annual issues of The Ganzfeld before that. And, as the origin story goes, the money he made off Wilco went into comics, but even those first releases in 2005 were short, newspaper broadsheet-style comics, and Paper Rad, BJ, and da Dogz. That was it. And all of those, I think, were produced through a non-profit corporation, with an NEA grant. And then the next year they put out some more stuff, the website opened, Comics Comics happened, Dan had Art Out of Time placed with a mainstream book publisher -- there was a plan, a big, rapid-fire expansion, and it did very well, but even then, you wind up smashing your face against, maybe, the limits of the an audience acclimated to comics like this. Obviously, Dan had a foot in the gallery world too, but I have no idea how much that benefited him as a publisher of books.

PictureBox did amazing things in reorienting the conversation among certain committed comic book maniacs, or 'art' people interested in comics, but it never pulled off the a trick, like, say, flipping a November release onto the desks of certain harried, busy, non-specialist mainstream publication editors as a means of getting a sudden Best of 20XX list run out of a book only devotees even knew about prior to the coronation, and then wringing the buzz for all it's worth. That's money, there. But I suspect there's only certain kinds of comics, in rather specific formats, which would have a chance of breaking through like that; and you've got to decide what kind of things you want to publish, you know? Regardless of capital, from there, to an extent, you're playing the hand you're dealt. Maybe you'll have a Michael DeForge, his buzz solemnized by a job on a TV show, but it's not likely.

COLLINS: Speaking of DeForge, in a roundabout way: Capital doesn't guarantee that a publisher will take a traditional shape, either. Annie Koyama's superhero-origin-story of an initial business plan -- use money acquired by playing the stock market following a dire medical diagnosis to bankroll your favorite artists -- never wound up including, like, making it so you can buy the books directly from the Koyama website or what have you. That's unusual compared to most publishers, but at the same time, have you ever heard a single person in comics complain about Annie Koyama as either a publisher or a person? She's been an ideal facilitator for DeForge just for example.

Are people getting taken advantage of? Well, yeah, probably, though not maliciously, not like the predators who stalk the sick animals around the edge of the mainstream-comics herd do it. Mostly it's a matter of off-the-record conversations about how such-and-such popular anthology with high production values ought to pay their contributors, and if they can't they need to reconsider how they're doing what they're doing. But in general, Team Comix helps prevent exploitation rather than shush people about it, which is good.

SPURGEON: So snapshot: how are things different right now in that segment of the industry generally, do you think, than maybe they were five or ten years ago? Is it a healthy segment? Can it ever be healthy? What leaps out to you a defining elements of this year over previous ones in terms of the broader issues involved?

McCULLOCH: It looked healthy two months ago. [Spurgeon laughs]

COLLINS: I'll go with the newsy angle: Although I'm not convinced any one outlet is ready to step up to PictureBox's plate at PictureBox's level, there are certainly enough micro-publishers and boutique publishers out there at this very moment to make me a lot less concerned than I might have been five or ten years ago over PictureBox's closing, and enough small-press conventions of both the continent-wide magnet and local-hotspot varieties to overcome, at least in part, the dearth of distribution options. There are redundant fail-safes that didn't used to be there.

But that's not health, I don't think. Dan Nadel decides he needs to take a full-time job and PictureBox liquidates its inventory; Kim Thompson dies and Fantagraphics -- Fantafuckingraphics! -- needs to crowd-fund its continued existence. What would happen to alt-comix distribution if Tony Shenton got hit by a bus? What would happen to the publishers' revenue streams without Warren Bernard, Gabe Fowler, Tucker Stone, Tom and Amy Adams, Christopher Butcher, Jason Leivian -- these multi-talented, dedicated people whose jobs encompass retail, publishing, convention organizing, promotion, and god knows what else, often simultaneously? What about the cartoonists who rely on the regular micro-publishing opportunities provided them by fellow cartoonists, like Charles Forsman or Box Brown or Leah Wishnia in print, or Zack Soto online, or via distribution by John Porcellino -- if those folks close up shop, who weathers those thousand cuts? I think that's the scarred side of the 2013 coin.

McCULLOCH: Also on the five- & ten-year comparison, I think the globs of community that are these comics have sort of split away from one larger entity and gummed onto another. Specifically, I'm no longer seeing quite so much interaction between dedicated small press comics people and the larger book world; it used to be that scoring a mainstream book publishing contract was comparable to getting a nice gallery show in terms of temporarily transforming your life from drawing with a day job to drawing as a day job. There's much less of those opportunities now -- though you can still theoretically get a nice gallery show, if you've got a foot in that world.

COLLINS: Yeah, I never hear about that at all anymore from young or young-ish cartoonists. The days of David Heatley's Pantheon advance are over.

McCULLOCH: I tend to associate a lot of the new, young small press artists with tumblr, which implicates the old webcomics question of how you can make a living. I'm expecting to see more illustration world crossovers, fortuitous television series hookups -- whatever it takes. I genuinely don't know how much money anyone expects to make from the comics-specialist publishers anymore, which probably feeds into the lack of public discussion of industry; maybe it's all just the small town you'll hold dear to your heart forever after that move to the big city, i.e. Cartoon Network.

I'm also pretty sure that last sentence has recurred with a different i.e. joke for every decade in comics subsequent to the Korean Armistice, so maybe everything is also the same. It's a Christmas miracle!

COLLINS: Some coal in your stocking then: My understanding is that the much-ballyhooed -- by myself and a lot of other people; first time I remember seeing someone point it out was Frank Santoro, I believe -- Cartoon Network gravy train is a bit closer to those little handcarts where you pump the handle up and down and roll down the track behind the gravy train. It's a cool replacement for a lame dayjob, but from what I've been told the pay's about the same. All things considered, I'd rather be back in the David Heatley days than wait for Adventure Time/Regular Show/Steven Universe to save us all.


SPURGEON: Fantagraphics lost Kim Thompson this year, certainly a gigantic figure within Fantagraphics and thus alt-comics, and also one of most important men and women of that post-World War 2 generation of comics industry people, the fans that remade and transformed an empire of junk literature. What was your perception of Kim as an industry figure, as a person that operates within that business landscape and at that specific company? How should he be seen by someone writing a history of this part of comics in 25 years?

COLLINS: Kim's a titan. I wrote recently that alt-comix is very good at rising from the ashes, and that while the loss of PictureBox is woeful, so too was the loss of Highwater, and plenty of worthy efforts came long in its wake -- PBox, Bodega, Secret Acres, Buenaventura/Pigeon, Tom Devlin's role at Drawn & Quarterly, and so on. But the loss of Kim at the same time that the actor James Gandolfini and the journalist Michael Hastings also died made me think of him as a practical loss, a loss of a certain capacity that will go unfulfilled, the way there were basically no other journalists with Hastings's tenacity and access, the way there were no other actors with Gandolfini's monstrousness and tenderness. Simply put, we don't have any other foundational alt-comix publishers who spoke eight languages. No one else combines his near-total command of North American alternative and mainstream visual and narrative culture with his mastery of worldwide cartooning traditions and his innate ability to translate, literally, the latter into the idioms of the former. I mean, just a colossus of a figure. If his death had any kind of silver lining at all it's ensuring he's spoken about with the same appreciation for his importance to the art form as [Gary] Groth, [Francoise] Mouly, and [Art] Spiegelman. I think he should be. I don't know that we'll fill his shoes ever.

McCULLOCH: Plus, if you care about European comics being published in English, surveying the field post-Kim was like watching a capsule dinosaur sponge falling out of the sink and onto the radiator. I'm pretty terrified at the potential loss of pure knowledge. Like, we still don't even have a basic book on the history of Franco-Belgian comics available in English; we have shit scattered far and wide, hidden in tomes and whispered person-to-person; real oral tradition stuff, and now we've gotta re-learn it. And that was a life, Tom! That was a fucking life's worth of information, and because it never entirely coincided with a public demand for that information, it departed and left only a scattered record. A wonderful record, but a product of happenstance. His history could be written from an assessment of the holes he left.

SPURGEON: I think it's been fascinating to see Fantagraphics kind of reform in a slightly different way in Kim's absence -- with Kim's influence, for sure, and still with Gary [Groth], but it's a different company now. Is there any downside to this lack of institutional continuity, do you think? Or do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? Do any of the companies that make up this productive and admirable part of the comics industry exist in 40 years, and is that a bad thing?

McCULLOCH: I, for one, was very amused by the hierarchy of interest established by their Kickstarter campaign: (1) the main line of releases, identified in full in support of the primary goal; (2) a few Eurocomics titles, sort of tossed out there for the first stretch goal; and (3) poor ol' manga, bringing up the rear with nary a prospective license named. How tsundere.

imageBut as much as I'd love it if Fantagraphics kept publishing stuff like Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus -- the entire readership of which I think I'm currently following on twitter -- I can't imagine books like that were very good for the bottom line. Looking at that Spring 2014 lineup -- it's pretty focused, heavy on long-term relationships, recognizable reprints, and cherry items from already-prominent new-to-Fanta artists. I'm not saying all of these choices are safe -- I mean, they're publishing Inio Asano and Carol Swain, for heaven's sake, and the only safety to the likes of Tim Lane and Olivier Schrauwen is that Fanta has kept flogging their stuff to the point where they're familiar -- but there's a distinct lack of abrupt personal fascination to the selections, which is definitely something that the super-obvious 'Kim projects' sometimes displayed.

And, the problem with that is -- my idea of the "institutional continuity" of Fantagraphics is its enthusiasm for taking weird chances and publishing books in an almost capricious manner. A continuity which will inevitably be disrupted by one of the principals dying, because the institution was only even an expression of certain individual aesthetics. The trick with aesthetics is that you can find safe, familiar expressions of such to practice as a means of cultivating security, and this sort of shock to the system might inspire just that reaction in Fanta, which -- I mean, more serious-minded critics than I tend to feel Fantagraphics folded up the flag for serious, experimental, boundary-pushing art a decade or more ago, but there was always still the chance you'd see something like Abstract Comics: The Anthology.

Maybe that's not responsible business. Like, who wants to play the Mom and Dad role in art? Traditionally, I guess that's establishment galleries, curators. Gatekeepers. Publishers -- the kind that will still exist in 40 years, alive enough to see young radicals issue manifestos against their vampiric impositions on cultural capital. Very lean publishers can survive too, though; modestly, with very few releases per year, more a name on a door than a bustling office, and not anyone's day job. Probably we shouldn't fear death either, even in a fragile ecosystem.

COLLINS: I'm glad you took point on this one, Joe, because I wasn't exactly sure I understood the question, because the jury's still out. The kickstarter was funding previously announced books, after all. How can we tell how Fanta has changed without Kim, aside from the obvious consideration of the books he was working on, translating, championing? Seems like it'll be a few more months before that becomes apparent. What I'm most curious about is whether Groth/Thompson/[Eric] Reynolds will now become Groth/Reynolds/Someone Else in terms of that company's major editorial voices. Or am I missing someone obvious already?


SPURGEON: Sean, it's a not an accusatory or critical statement I'm making; it's one I just see as a fact: these small companies are different for the make-up of their people. This is true when they add a significant person or two; so I'm assuming this would hold true when they subtract one. Now, is there one or are there a couple of the newer companies you think are poised to make an impact over the next few years? Are there any you find particularly admirable or promising? Why?

COLLINS: Ryan Sands and Youth in Decline are worth watching. Ryan has almost impeccable taste, his ambitions are reasonable in that he makes sure he can deliver before he makes promises but also expansive in that he's making some gutsy choices without regards to content and presentation, he's well-connected all over the world, he has a foot in non-comics visual culture, he's friendly and together, and he makes sure his artists get paid. Exemplary. He seems to be the closest in spirit and execution to PictureBox, though his output is less tied to the fine-art world, obviously, and I think he's got an interest in and eye for lush crowdpleasers that wasn't where Dan's emphasis fell.

One thing I'm quite curious to discover is the future of Oily and Retrofit. The comic-book-based subscription-based model is a smart and strong one, and they've both put out work that benefits from that format; do they take things bigger, do they stay where they are, what? And how do these publishing concerns square with Charles Forsman and Box Brown's increasing prominence as cartoonists in their own right? Do The End of the Fucking World and Andre The Giant change their priorities?

I've also had cartoonists in the know come right out and tell me "Space Face is the new PictureBox." I don't know what that means but these are people I'm inclined to trust.


McCULLOCH: Pay close attention to the UK publishers. Nobrow already feels like a fully-formed aesthetic, and SelfMadeHero has made prominent inroads to North America via Abrams, which is a relationship many U.S. publishers of the same size distinctly lack. There's big, interesting mini-comics and self/micro-publishing scene out there too; the Mould Map 3 campaign felt like a focusing event, an art comics project around which the American community seemed to gather in solidarity. I certainly hope as much attention is paid to the results as the funding, because if that's not a Kramers Ergot, it might at least be a NON.

COLLINS: That's certainly how it was pitched to me by figures whose historical relationships with crowd-funding have been...stormy, let's say: that anthologies like this are how the art form learns about itself. I think there's an awful lot to be said for having the work of so many prominent mini-comics/tumblr cartoonists all in one place with production values that are obviously going to be through the roof, that's for sure. That's why I funded it to the tune of whatever it cost to buy the book, $50 or something -- I want the thing! But I don't know that an alt-comix anthology that costs $40K to produce, with well north of $21K just for printing, is going to wind up being the wave of the future any more than Kramers 7 was. Also, I think it's probably priced out of the range of the casual-ish shoppers who might not have seen the work of the contributors; indeed, crowd-funding it dictated that primarily preexisting devotees would be precisely the ones buying this. It's not like Kramers 4 arriving at MoCCA down the aisle from Blankets and suddenly the cream of Paper Radio and Monster is airdropped into New York City like the Hulk in that first Ultimates arc.

imageSPURGEON: We're several years in to the idea of book publishers having a graphic novels imprint: First Second, Pantheon, Abrams ComicsArts, the various efforts like the Will Eisner library at WW Norton. How have they changed the business of comics? Is there a relationship between a Paul Pope book at First Second and a Michael DeForge book at Space Face?

McCULLOCH: There's a relationship to the extent that individual artists might move from one publisher to the other, doubtlessly seeing better pay from the bigger houses. Beyond that, however, these comics divisions of huge publishers tend to be very beholden to marketing strategies, and their books are designed to appeal to very specific audiences. Parents are a huge one, maybe the reliable consumer audience for books right now, so you see a lot of YA-type books from First Second.

I think dubious manga-style adaptations of prose works aimed at the same audience are still a thing, but not so much as a few years ago; my suspicion is that "manga" is now considered a mostly-autonomous nation of readers in its reduced state. Pantheon, of course, is the Fanta/D&Q that exists inside a multinational publisher, and the occasional heat is used to take for snatching big projects from top artists may provide a maximal variant on Fanta/D&Q's own reputation should they survive another half a decade, albeit with way less money. I said "used to" because nobody made those complaints about Building Stories; probably nobody could fucking afford to do that thing without a Knopf Doubleday behind it.

And then there's prestige reprints, as you've mentioned, and the all-important personal memoir and/or political reportage sub-genres. It's still pretty hilarious to me how autobio -- the most widely mocked style of 'indie' comics by action/fantasy partisans for as long as I can remember -- is now ensconced as reliable money by vastly-more-mainstream publishers, but then: we've been forced to evolve our definition of "mainstream," which is the key legacy of these efforts, I think.

It's mostly a separate audience, though. The "casual" audience, to use a gaming term, although I'd caution that "casual" games and big-time "AAA" releases are different things over there, with the latter ostensibly appealing to the "hardcore"; in comics, they're sort of the same thing. The "hardcore" comics audience tends to encompass folks who read comic books every Wednesday, or who follow artists through tiny print runs and a myriad of websites, or both, which is more of a marginal pursuit. Yet by virtue of being "hardcore," those readers will probably have some relationship with the big publishers anyway, when certain favorites take work on a high-profile book project.

SPURGEON: We're talking pretty soon after the public announcement by Dan Nadel that he was closing shop at PictureBox. What are you thoughts on this as an industry story? Dan is pretty insistent he could continue, so is that a positive aspect to this story? Is there anything to the notion that publishers that last 10 years are going to be what should be expected from now on?

McCULLOCH: Yeah, PictureBox totally could still live on as an occasional entity; as I said before, that's arguably the best way to do it once you've surrendered the possibility of this being the fulcrum of your economic situation, although I guess that raises questions of how critical such publishers are to "comics" as an "industry."

COLLINS: I do think it's positive that he wasn't forced out of business, that he closed down of his own volition on his own terms and his own time frame, yes. I think it's negative that the publishing entity had nowhere to go without him, but Dan had always spent his time and money on publishing rather than staffing up to continue publishing, so that stands to reason. I think Dan's model could provide a lot of comics publishers with valuable pointers: Situate your comics work within the wider array of visual culture; pay your artists; present a certain totality of vision that goes beyond, "Here are books my friends made."

One thing I'm going to bring up here because I don't know where else to do it is that amid all the encomiums you did see a few notes of "haha serves you right" from people whom Dan had rubbed the wrong way in his fourfold-gatekeeper role: publisher, Comics Journal editor, BCGF organizer/curator, and fine-art/comics interface curator. The serves-you-right thing misses the point for a whole lot of reasons in my view, not least that again, this was a choice he made not something his fuck-ups forced upon him. But one of the drawbacks to having any one person do so much stuff in so evidently prominent and weighted away is that people will come to resent that person's role and only so many countermeasures can be taken. It's the same thing I was getting at when I spoke to Frank Santoro about how the dearth of alt-comix critics makes the foibles of all of us who remain -- and I can barely count myself in that number at this point 0--stand out in starker relief.

imageSPURGEON: Jog, you wrote about PictureBox as this kind of loose assemblage of books, ideas, and attitudes -- and I think that's something we recognize in a lot of the publishers, right? If these companies don't have magazines, I think we can all pretty easily conceive of what each of the top dozen art-comics publishers comics magazines would look like. They all have a bit of culture to them, the ones that have been around. What is the unique loss, then, when that broader conception of PictureBox goes away. How does the industry culture change for their absence?

McCULLOCH: [laughs] I just realized I identified all those major book publishers up above by the marketing strategies they'd adopted, so yeah: it's a shared trait. But none of them had such an effect on a particular scene -- again, the "hardcore" comics scene -- as PictureBox did. Like, the way people approached the comics canon was modified by Dan and Frank and Tim [Hodler] and company; maybe it was all a lucky parallel to the internet basically ashing the last vestiges of mono-cultural consensus anyway, but they were the crew. Much like Gary and Kim were the crew years ago -- we can imagine the magazines everyone would publish, but not many of them were published, you know? I mean publication in a rather wooly sense here, both in terms of physical writing and a sort of phantom self that exists when the conversation swirls around a particular entity and draws from its inspiration so as to effectively become a carrier for its persona, like a virus imposing itself upon cells. Except here the virus too is modified by the cells it touches.

So, basically I don't think the broader conception of PictureBox will go away, because it's now something that can survive without PictureBox itself. Now, inevitably, the phantom too will fade; even by 2013, PictureBox itself wasn't quite the noise comics-y force of confrontation it was in '06, '07, so change is inevitable. But I think how you behave and survive as a tangible being is different from how your accomplishments and legacy 'survive' in the wider culture. So I don't think the departure of PictureBox-the-publisher denotes the vanishing of "PictureBox" -- if anything, it prevents the publisher from operating as a modifier for its own phantom self.

But infrastructure is a different thing. That's dollars and cents. Related, but different.

COLLINS: I'll be honest with you: I can't picture magazines from most of the alt-comix publishers. PictureBox had enough vision to publish two, The Ganzfeld and Comics Comics -- three, if you count; four, if you count Art Out of Time/Art In Time. Youth in Decline stems from Electric Ant and Same Hat! Same Hat!, which come to think of it is probably why I listed them first when hashing out publishers to watch -- you know Ryan has a vision, because he's articulated it. Which is not to say that the absence of some kind of flagship publication means you don't have a vision. I may not know what kind of magazine Barry [Matthews] & Leon [Avelino] at Secret Acres would publish, but that's a company that knows what it wants to do and does it. My point, I guess, is that that element of PictureBox makes them an even bigger loss. What Dan -- and Tim and Frank -- did is rare, having that kind of full-spectrum ability to create a world of its own.

Another component of PBox that it seems like we'll be losing: Its anchor presence at conventions. The artists they were able to put at a single table, the art books they brought with them, Frank and his longboxes all side by side? That's a loss. And that vibe was basically enough to give rise to an entire convention model in the form of BCGF/CAB, which still remained "PictureBox: The Con" even after Dan's departure from the organization.

SPURGEON: One thing that links the Kim Thompson passing and PictureBox closure stories, at least for me, is this idea that specific agents of culture and specific institutions matter, that certain comics Kim Thompson enabled to be published will not be seen now, that the exact set-up that some artists enjoyed at PictureBox slipping away means that works from those artists will not be seen now. I know that there is conventional wisdom that they don't. I was on a panel at SDCC in the mid-1990s when Image signed with Diamond and some folks thought that this might be an extinction event and one pundit suggested that things would be okay because the Hernandez Brothers could do mini-comics. Where do you stand on that notion? Is it healthy that the infrastructure is so drastically changed by individuals moving on, in whatever way they do so? Or is that actually healthy, the idea that work falls in and out of favor according to public taste or the presence/absence of certain gatekeepers? How confident are you that we have a business infrastructure to match and maximize the wide expression of work we have out there?

McCULLOCH: Pity Sibyl-Anne, is what I think. Actually, I'm sympathetic to that mini-comics notion -- artists make art, right? Steve Ditko is 86 years old, and a someone who worked for that span of a life in comics had to be a businessperson to an extent; they had to manage clients and accounts and produce work made for order to please the demands of their editors, to close their eyes and do less-personal work to pay the bills. But all those editors and companies went away, and Ditko still makes comics, and that's because he's a fucking artist, and artists make art.

SPURGEON: Well... [laughs] Yeah, I don't know how much it helps this interview for me to unpack that statement.

McCULLOCH: Mini-comics aren't gonna feed the family, though, and there's hardly any middle class of comics anymore where you even can accept less-personal work in many circumstances -- that's maybe what the big book publishers' comics divisions are to some artists -- and if you've gotta take a day job -- in the admittedly unlikely circumstance that you're not already a cartoonist with a day job -- your art's gonna develop in a very different way, under circumstances harsh enough that you might just fuck off for good.

That's a pretty workable analogy to PictureBox ceasing publication too. Because while the cartoonists they published will probably find new venues, there's no guarantee they'll be paid in the same manner, given the smaller state of most alternatives. And there's a very real chance that'll knock some people back enough that their continued work could suffer. But you're asking a lot of questions here, like -- is healthy that works fall in and out of favor by curatorial presence? I'm trying to imagine the alternative to that, and at the moment it involves a much heavier presence of governmental support for the arts than this country is ever likely to produce -- and, significant Canadian participation notwithstanding, I think we're basically talking the U.S. here -- because I don't think what you're describing is so different from any major player in a buying market withdrawing; it's just the comics market is so small that almost anything seems to imperil its biodiversity. Granted, you can also simply imagine a bigger market, which is what the internet represents, I think, but -- is it a buying market? And who is paying?

Old, old, old, old questions I'm asking. Ask anyone into gallery art and I'm betting they'll grow misty over prior incarnations of this discussion dating back years. Comics is so heavy on salable reproductions for its corpus, it's more readily compared to book publishing, which is a perpetually wider terrain that has always carried an aspirational value for comics publishers. If only we could get into bookstores! If only! But there's a lot of very specific demographic targeting going on in there, which is often anathema to very much talk of "agents of culture," save for the inadvertence that follows the agency of any cultural participant. Ditko got into Kickstarter, for the record.

COLLINS: We don't have a business infrastructure to match and maximize the wide expression of work we have out there. No way, no how. Major, major under-40 cartoonists in the prime of their popularity and creative power barely squeak by. I make more in a handful of Homeland recaps than people make in book advances. Fantagraphics needed to crowd-fund its continued existence. A few years back at SPX Frank Santoro was on a panel and the idea of cartoonists "making it" came up and he just started hollering "It's over! It's over!" I think that's basically true. You're doing it because you must, not because you have any hope of adequate recompense whatsoever.

In that sense individual losses can have a hugely deleterious effect. Who would have published [Yuichi] Yokoyama when Dan started to? Shit, who'd publish Maggots now, let alone then -- Tom Devlin excepted. Who'd have had the idea to publish Ninja first to fertilize the soil? Who'd find and translate Jason, who'd do the hard work to build a line of releases that would succeed in getting Jason over with North American audiences? Who'd do it all over again with the notoriously un-get-overable [Jacques] Tardi?

imageI'd imagine that some cartoonists have found ways to do okay without getting that big book deal. I'm not privy to any details but I think Jonny Negron's cross-quadrant strengths as both a genuinely avant-garde cartoonist and a maker of stand-alone, printworthy images that are appealing yet still uncompromising are remarkable. I'll bet you his prints keep him afloat. And I guess someone like Gabrielle Bell doing a comic a day for a month and then selling the originals can keep herself fed that way. But Gabrielle Fucking Bell shouldn't have to squeak by. I mean, look, this is alternative culture and that means something, whatever we '90s teens grew up believing, and whatever turn-of-the-century comics-journo rhetoric led us to believe about the relationship between diversity of style, quality, and popularity. Some of this stuff just has a limited audience. But I'd have liked to believe it wasn't so limited that you couldn't make a lower-middle-class living off of it. From what I've seen it's not even close. DeForge made something like 250 pages of comics in 2013 -- do you think he cleared minimum wage, in terms of man hours?

SPURGEON: No. No, I don't. Not from the comics.

Jog, one of the ideas that came into focus as PictureBox left the market was that they published a lot of non-genre, non-formulaic manga, work from that tradition of comics that engages with a variety of expressive forms and themes. At the same time, they weren't the only people working that corner of the market. So is that it? Is it over? What are the best case and worst case scenarios?

McCULLOCH: Well, there might be some irony at work here, because 'art' manga releases even at the height of things are so utterly meager, I can pretty easily imagine everything PictureBox was doing absorbed into other publishers. D&Q for the Ryan Holmberg stuff -- at a reduced rate -- Fanta for Yuichi Yokoyama's annual-plus release -- since they were the first NA publisher to work with him, though I'm really just picking names out of a hat -- and really anyone for that upcoming bara anthology, up to and including LGBT specialty houses without a comics focus; I notice Bruno Gmunder is releasing a new Gengoroh Tagame book in English, for instance. That's the best case scenario.

The worst case scenario is that Ryan Holmberg is discovered picking back issues of Archie out of a dumpster behind SLB Films in Mumbai, and next thing we know I'm seeing him at the movies getting punched across the screen by Ranveer Singh. This is because I'm not a fan of Ranveer Singh.

COLLINS: Thing is, I got the sense that readers tended to prefer PBox's handling of manga cartoonists who'd previously been published by other outlets. Will they follow them back outward again?

SPURGEON: Why hasn't that kind of manga found a firmer foothold just generally, across a broader range of companies and encompassing more artists? Are there structural impediments? Jog mentioned in one of his new comics reports that Vertical has a pretty quick trigger in terms of allowing certain kinds of work to find a market toehold.

McCULLOCH: You see, this is what I'm talking about when I talk about markets. Manga used to be a subset of comic books for much of the '80s and '90s, but the revolution set off by Tokyopop and the like reestablished the identity of manga as a youth sensation in bookstores which were already seeing good returns off the YA market.

The problem is, when publishers reorient themselves around that market, it becomes difficult to break out, because you build a set of expectations from both existing readers and succeeding generations. And you can't continue to exist at the level you've reached -- or, potentially, at all -- by going back to comic book stores, which by and large didn't derive very much benefit from the wave.

imageAlternative comics publishers, meanwhile, while generally very receptive to reading manga -- at least among under-30 artists -- often lack the connections necessary to wrench licenses out of the grip of Japanese companies, which tend to favor long-term relationships with publishers. Plus, they typically lack translators, and all the same basic here's-how-we-set-up-a-deal know-how that bedevils French-language comics too. Plus, the "art" comics scene in Japan is pretty small, at least coming out of big-ish publishers, and it's gonna be hard hours searching through webcomics and dojinshi to locate new experimental work; like, you'd best be on the ground in Tokyo for that, and most enthusiasts don't even know Japanese, let alone possess the ability to get somebody to pay them for that. They'd need a teaching job or something that would place them in Japan, which I think is what Bill Randall had when he first wrote about Yuichi Yokoyama in '04, around the same time Editions Matière was publishing Yokoyama in French.

I guess those are the structural impediments. Much of the 'art' manga that's printed -- and not a little of the standard-issue "mature audience" manga a la Taiyo Matsumoto, who is hardly an obscure or marginal presence in Japan -- is now adopting formats that look a bit more like mainstream bookstore fare, which is to say they also look like something Fantagraphics or D&Q might release. I don't think this represents a zero confidence decision re: the manga market's acceptance of such fare, but there's an eye now toward alternate audiences. And a good deal of caution; Viz still releases tons of youth-targeted fare, and my understanding is that Vertical basically can't afford to pursue too much in the way of anything that won't prove itself financially, they're just too small. On the other hand, if Gundam fans comes out in force to pre-order enough fancy hardcovers: oh my god, it's salad days for Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. He's not an "art" comics guy by any means, but manga is so fucking big, Tom, and so much of what we see in English is just a local phenomena that hardened into a definition of the form -- everything else is precious to see.

I'm really interested in Kodansha's experiments with subscription-based digital-only comics, by the way; sorting out the licensing situations of various titles has always been the hurdle, but if one of the Big 3 publishers in Japan can get shit done in English on its own, it can re-write a lot of expectations.

COLLINS: See, my answer was just going to be similar to my thing about alt-comix criticism: Alternative comics are a small pond filled mostly by devotees. No matter how popular manga is, I don't really know anyone who got into alternative manga first and alternative "comics" second, though maybe I'm just looking in the wrong place; it's mostly alternative comics fans looking to branch out. With rare exceptions like Joe, it's never going to take on a life of its own. But I'll leave it to Joe to talk about the, you know, facts and shit.

SPURGEON: Sean, you've been doing comics this year, and even have a devoted tumblr that hosts them now. I think the idea of self-publishing that way has obvious advantages in terms of the low threshold involved for participation -- no one's going to stop you from publishing what you want to publish -- and the possibility of placing something in front of a bunch of eyeballs in a way that seems wholly impossible for a printed work or even a digital work from which you have to pay. Are there advantages that aren't obvious, something about the kind of audience that reads work that way, or the way in which a real audience can be built?

COLLINS: The less obvious answer is -- well, maybe it's an obvious one, I don't know. But when I launched my comics tumblr, the first post was a comic I wrote for a popular alternative-comics cartoonist who wound up passing after first agreeing to do it; it was instead drawn by M. Crow, whose twitter account @mean_crow is part of "Weird Twitter"; he cold DM'd me. We pitched the resulting collaboration to a popular alternative-comics website that wound up passing for complicated personal reasons. So I threw it up on tumblr, where its initial posting got approximately zero traction from M. Crow's weird-twitter following or my own following in alternative comics. Instead, an acquaintance of mine whom I know exclusively because of our mutual fascination with David Bowie and Beyoncé on tumblr posted it to a couple of her tumblrs, which essentially never post anything like this; today the comic has over 30,000 notes, meaning over 30,000 people saw it and thought enough of it to hit "like" or reblog it. Who knows how many more people than that saw it? This is likely many orders of magnitude more people than would have seen it had it gone out through the usual alt-comix channels, and probably 99% of those people aren't alt-comix readers, they're just people on tumblr who've had experiences with depression and for whom the comic's imagery and tone resonated. So if you've ever suspected in your long dark nights of the soul that alt-comix exists in part just for people interested in it to be impressed by one another at afterparties, putting them on a platform like tumblr can launch you free and clear of that insularity. Which is wonderful. Not the be-all and end-all of artistic expression, certainly, but very nice. It's not the tumblr notes themselves that matter, it's the idea that the thing connected with a bunch of people who aren't already friends or colleagues.

SPURGEON: What is the state of the free-to-pay model as we understand it more generally? We've seen some book collection of essayists that use cartoons, and certainly Dark Horse and Drawn and Quarterly have published work that's built an audience that way; Fantagraphics will have a Simon Hanselmann book out next year. Is the way that model works set in stone now? For whom does that best work?

COLLINS: The breakout artists get books. I don't know that it's any more complicated than that. It's a way for the publishers to talent-scout. Nick Gurewitch, Kate Beaton, Simon Hanselmann -- you can see why these cats got attention. Appealing style that contains a multifariously interesting set of ideas. Doing an old thing in a genuinely new way seems to help, too.

SPURGEON: Do either one of you entertain the notion that was advanced pretty early on with the rise of digital access to comics, that those models are anti-industry, or at least best utilized that way? Is there a future in this way of doing comics that might directly compete or work against traditional forms?

McCULLOCH: I've always felt that sort of talk came from less a distaste for industry-in-general than Diamond's distribution to comic book stores. Ha, remember the time Diamond refused to carry Paper Rad, B.J. and da Dogz -- written in significant part by future Fox ADHD creative director Ben Jones -- because "[t]he writing is not up to comic industry standards"? I think these days you can probably go to SPX or CAB witness a generational divide between publishers that derive a certain amount of money from Diamond, and younger types who don't even think about meeting those order minimums. Which, effectively, means a lot of comics will never see the insides of any but the most aggressively arts-focused comic book stores, an alarmingly large portion of the key personnel from which Sean listed above.

From a wider perspective, I suspect a lot of internet-savvy artists will continue to mix their own monetization efforts with traditional publishing, because it's still a semi-reliable source of income, and I expect most of them realize that the insane levels of choice inherent to online consumption places a lot of money-making power in the hands of people fortunate enough to ride a wider trend to celebrity, after which they become arbitrators of what is worth the time of users by virtue of that very success. I'm not denying that you can make a life for yourself posting webcomics and handling commissions and merchandise and stuff, but you're generally gonna keep one eye on traditional publishing -- maybe even if only to secure your place as a reliable, upworthy quality online.

COLLINS: Joe's smart to pin this industry divide on Diamond's minimum order cutoff. I never hear anyone in... oh god, am I going to say it? I think I am... I never hear anyone in Generation Tumblr [Spurgeon groans] talk about Diamond. It went from "Goddammit" to "oh well" to "who?" in very rapid succession. Which has absolutely crushed alt-comix and self-publishing penetration into the Direct Market, even by the Direct Market's abysmal standards, but there's basically a thriving Dark Market out there instead, an ad hoc assemblage of distro and sales opportunities centered, as Joe points out, on that list of people I mentioned earlier. Creating a sustainable distribution alternative to tie together or abrogate the need for all those individual actors is where the real work of making alternative comics sustainable in North America could be done now. I think that code is crackable.

SPURGEON: What's the most surprising thing about the alt-comics industry in five years time?

COLLINS: Am I crazy to think it will weather a wholesale transition to digital very well? Chris Ware and Tom Devlin and Jordan Crane are true heroes in terms of setting up alt-comix readers to appreciate books as art objects in and of themselves. With that as a backbone I think publishers will be able to take a variety of approaches to the coming death of print and still survive.

McCULLOCH: I don't think print will be dead in five years; I think "the death of print" will continue to stand as a useful metaphor for market contractions, some -- as with newspapers -- probably more severe than others. That said, concerns about the money available in comics will intensify as Generation Tumblr approaches their 30s; I'd expect a new PictureBox-like focusing presence to appear on the scene by then. It'd pretty much have to, given how much material there's gonna be from all the talented young artists I'm seeing all the time. Maybe it'll be an institutional presence, by which a major book publisher or a cool media empire will decide their market is gonna be people interested in young cartoonists. Hell, maybe Ben Jones' tenure at Fox will collide with Cartoon Network's continued development to foster a new interest in crazy cartooning, and the rain shall verily be made. That would be a surprise!

The bottom line is, you've gotta believe something's gonna happen. Because if you set aside industry, as we do most of the time, you can't deny we're in a period of extravagant plenty. People all over the world who understand comics, immediately. It's part of the language, part of the idiom online. And if people don't believe it's all for naught, it won't be. But how will we live upon such lovely terrain?


* Joe McCulloch
* Sean T. Collins


* Collins in a photo I took at CAB 2013
* McCulloch in a photo I took at CAB 2013
* work discussed in context
* Collins' Destructor character (below)



posted 2:00 am PST | Permalink

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