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December 20, 2011


CR Holiday Interview #2 -- Tom Neely, Emily Nilsson And Virginia Paine Of Sparkplug Comic Books

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There was no news story more powerful and touching in 2011 than the passing of publisher, cartoonist and distributor Dylan Williams. Williams was a potent force within small-press comics publishing, and a valued and trusted friend to many in the comics community. In October, Williams' widow Emily Nilsson, his closest hands-on working partner Virginia Paine, and his close friend the cartoonist and artist Tom Neely announced that Sparkplug Comic Books would continue on under their collective auspices, both honoring and continuing Dylan Williams' legacy. The trio fills in some of the details as to what's ahead and updates a bit of what's been going on since their announcement in the following discussion, one for which I'm extremely grateful. I can't wait to see what they do and encourage you to take whatever steps necessary to follow their progress, both on this site and more directly on their own. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: Is it possible to get a progress report about how things are going from a practical, planning standpoint for Sparkplug's future? The announcement you were going to continue with Sparkplug came in I believe mid-October, and I wonder how things have progressed since then.

TOM NEELY: Right now we are looking to the future. We are in good shape to maintain things at the moment, and are looking to begin publishing some new work in 2012. Beginning with Katie Skelly's Nurse Nurse graphic novel. Her Nurse Nurse mini comics were a big hit at BCGF and we're really excited to bring her work to a larger audience. We are also working on a comic book for Free Comic Book Day, reprinting some of Dylan's Reporter comics, and continuing the Reich series, which still has four issues to go.

VIRGINIA PAINE: In terms of day-to-day operations, I think we are as back to normal as possible. We're still filling orders and adding new books to the online store. We're getting started on publishing new books as well -- their release dates have been pushed back, understandably, but they are in the works.

EMILY NILSSON: A lot of what's been going on is organizing business paperwork and deciding what form this business is going to take. Now that there are three of us running things, we are figuring out as we go along how to divide up the work. Virginia has had the most in-depth experience working side by side with Dylan in the publishing matters, so she is teaching me a lot. We have conventions lined up to and we've already been to a few in the past couple months, so we've been very busy.

SPURGEON: I was also wondering if you could talk a bit -- just to characterize it -- the support received this Fall. Are efforts still ongoing? Did they help Sparkplug make the transition to this new stage? Did the comics themselves emerge on the other side of any estate dealing safely in your hands? How did you feel about the community support in general?

PAINE: The community support has been wonderful! People have been doing everything in their power to help us; we've received support in so many ways. It's been really encouraging. I'm going to let Emily field the estate dealing questions, though, as I'm not really sure what is going on with that.

NILSSON: Without the support we received from friends and members of the community, Sparkplug wouldn't be able to plan and move forward as we have been. I can't express the gratitude I feel about the art auctions and donations and other kinds of fundraising that our friends have helped us with, and the moral support has been fantastic. Knowing people are so excited to see Sparkplug moving on and ready to do new things really helps. As far as estate matters are concerned, they take months to resolve, and that's all I can discuss right now.

NEELY: We've received such an enormous amount of support, both emotionally and financially, from the comics community at large. It's overwhelming and humbling and we are very grateful to everyone for that. Our immediate plans were to stabilize the company, keep Virginia employed, and make it through the Fall schedule of comic festivals. Those were all a success and also a great catharsis for us to be able to spend time with so many people that were touched by Dylan and Sparkplug. Again, thank you to everyone along the way.

We hope that the efforts are ongoing. We do still need help keeping things going. Virginia is our only employee, but she's also a partner. The partners aren't taking anything out of the company. Every sale that we make of our current line of books goes directly towards publishing new work by new artists and continues to help us travel to festivals to promote these works to new audiences. So, the support we want to continue, is we want people to continue buying Sparkplug books. If you want us to keep putting out new books, keep spreading the word about the old books. Keep them in stock at all the stores.

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SPURGEON: Will the new Sparkplug be as supportive of the comic book format as it had been in recent years? Is that form important for the future of the company as you see it moving forward.

NILSSON: Dylan had always liked the pamphlet format of comics, but he also realized that the market seemed to be favoring the square-bound format. Sparkplug's had pretty good luck selling pamphlets, even though there's some prejudice about them.

NEELY: Yes, I'd like to keep doing comic books! Reich #9 and our Free Comic Book Day books are on the slate. Dylan believed, and I think we all believe, in spreading art through a well produced, affordable format. Comic books are still the best way to do this regardless of what the fickle market is trying to predict. We still want to work with new and young artists, and it's a much more feasible way to start out. Producing a graphic novel is a huge project for anyone to undertake for both artist and publisher. But with shorter comics, artists can put their best foot forward in a shorter format. But we still intend to work on graphic novels, too. Really it's up to the artist what kind of book they want to make, but we encourage the comic book as a good first step.

PAINE: We haven't really talked about this; right now we are just focusing on finished the publishing projects Dylan had in the works. I think that the next year will be the time for us to examine Sparkplug's goals in regards to format.

SPURGEON: In terms of new, potential work, do you see the company concentrating on continuing its existing relationships with certain cartoonists, or will there be more of a clean break as you figure out what's to come?

NILSSON: Dylan envisioned Sparkplug as a place for unpublished comic artists to have a place to get their work in print and distributed, before they move on. Some of our artists have naturally just progressed onto other publishers just as Dylan foresaw they would, but some have published multiple works with us. We want to continue all of our relationships with the artists we've represented, we might not be publishing all of them but they are all friends.

PAINE: We have great ongoing relationships with a lot of our artists and plan to continue honoring them. I think our emphasis for right now is going to be continuing Dylan's work with them.

NEELY: We decided we had to remain committed to projects that were already contracted -- Nurse Nurse, Reich -- After that, we wrote to our artists and told them that we hoped to continue working with them, but the future is uncertain and they are free to look elsewhere if they wish. Dylan often felt that many of his artists deserved to be picked up by bigger publishers after he'd put out their first books. Many have gone on to great success at some of the larger publishers. It will kind of work on a case by case scenario. We also want to continue looking for new work by new artists.

SPURGEON: Particularly in that that this year's tragic circumstances built on an earlier set of health problems, did Dylan ever talk about or plan for the future of Sparkplug with any of you? Do you know what he thought about the company moving on after he passed?

PAINE: Not really, and no.

NEELY: He was always a little vague about any definite plans and health concerns, I think because it was so uncertain. A couple of years ago, he was beginning to look for a partner. We talked for six months or more about different possibilities. A few times we talked about merging Sparkplug and I Will Destroy You, but with me in LA and not able to help with the day-to-day stuff, it didn't seem to make sense. He eventually found Virginia and hired her as a part time employee, but immediately made her his co-publisher, because he's awesome like that. He searched extensively to find the right person to be his co-publisher. I think he wanted and needed a partner. I don't think he was planning on any of this happening, and he didn't leave any instructions for us. But I think he always wanted to remain loyal to his artists and keep their books in circulation. So, we're really just going with our own instincts of wanting to keep Sparkplug alive. Wanting to keep Dylan's legacy alive.

NILSSON: All I want to say about this is that Dylan and I firmly believed he would still be around to do his work.

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SPURGEON: Tom, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your own DIY efforts this year, particularly your aggressive touring in support of your latest book. Are those experiences something that you think will be helpful in helping Sparkplug go forward? Are there things you think you learned this year about how to get work into people's hands that you think can benefit other cartoonists?

NEELY: I think I've learned a lot in the last six months. I've aged a lot, too. My beard is getting a lot greyer. One of the things I've experienced, and I think it was something Dylan always loved about going to new places, is at several stops on my tour, and a couple of the new shows I did this year, probably 80 percent of the people that came to my table had never seen my work before or heard of me at all. Sometimes I feel like the usual comics circuit of regular festivals is too insular, and you see the same people every year, which is nice, but here I was reaching a whole new audience at almost every stop. And that's a great thing for spreading the word about my own work as well as Sparkplug. I'm already planning an East Coast tour for the end of Spring, and I hope to take some Sparkplug with me along the way.

I think the thing for most cartoonists to consider is just getting out there however it's possible. As for touring, I am trying to do it as cheaply as possible: I took my own car, I carried all my own books, I slept on floors and couches at friend's places along the way. My only expense was gas, food and the time away from freelance work. If you don't have the means to travel all over the place, then do as many local shows as you can. I just did a local DIY craft fair last weekend and it was a total bust for sales, but I met some awesome people and I made a couple of new fans, so that's worth it to me. That's something Dylan and I always talked about, and tried to do. Just make the best of it if you can. So you only sell two books at one stop? But that's two new people looking at some art that you brought into the world. That's worth something.

Right now I'm also working on expanding my own I Will Destroy You publishing efforts beginning with co-publishing (with Teenage Dinosaur) Levon Jihanian's Danger Country series and the new Henry & Glenn Forever & Ever comic book mini-series (co-publishing with Cantankerous Titles). As well as some other stuff. If I've learned anything from Dylan or all of my DIY experience it's just to keep following your dreams and obsessions and finding a way to make it work. The main thing I took away from this year is this all I wanna do with my life -- make art and spread art to the world.

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SPURGEON: Do you have a rough division of labor in mind at all? Are there certain things some of you will be doing that others won't as much?

PAINE: Right now, Emily is mostly handling the financial/logistical aspects of the business and I am doing most of the basic operational tasks -- maintaining the website, blogging and packing orders. Tom is our advice guru and is tabling shows for us.

NILSSON: My part right now is largely financial and administrative-oriented, I'm getting that all sorted. I'm getting our workspace organized. I've helped out Dylan a lot over the years but I have a lot to learn, especially from Virginia who has had such an important role in the publishing work with Dylan. I'm figuring out how my past experience with small press, retail, admin and DIY can integrate here and be useful.

NEELY: Since I'm in LA, I'm mainly a consultant on projects right now. And part of the traveling arm of Sparkplug. But I'm beginning to do some distroing and will be taking a more active in making sure Sparkplug has a presence in all the LA stores.

SPURGEON: Now that you're moving forward, does each of you have an idea about what Sparkplug's unique contribution to the publishing landscape is? You must think there's something valuable there because you plan to continue it. What are your individual conceptions about what the company does well and any ways in which it can remain vital and necessary?

NILSSON: We have ties simultaneously with the small press, comics, and DIY communities so I think that will help us as we pick new projects to take on. We've been involved in our immediate community, with local events and non-profit organizations.

NEELY: To me Sparkplug has always represented a different voice. Dylan never followed trends. He wasn't interested in the big name rock star talents. He wasn't even that interested in whether a book would sell or not. He was, and we are, interested in putting out new work by interesting artists and giving their art a chance to be seen in the world. I also feel like that Sparkplug represents a different way of doing things based on art and ethics above any other goal.

But I was thinking about this a lot lately -- look at how many of the top players in the indie comics scene got their start through Sparkplug in some way. Look at who is in Orchid, Sparkplug's first non-Dylan book. Sparkplug contributed a lot to the landscape as it is. I don't know if we can live up to that, but I know that we want to try.

SPURGEON: How do you strike a balance between honoring Dylan's legacy and contributions and moving the company into the future? Is there a fine line between keeping Dylan's memory and not moving forward the way the company might need to?

PAINE: I think this is one of the things we are going to have to examine a lot in the next year. Dylan and I had very different taste than I do but I think that together the three of us can achieve the balance of art and entertainment that he did when he chose who we publish and distribute.

There is a fine line, but I feel like Dylan would want us to do things the way we think is best. Not to say that we will abandon Dylan's vision entirely; just that it will take some restructuring to make it work now that there is not a crazy genius at the helm, haha.

NILSSON: We'll probably look at that question a lot as we go into the future. Dylan cared a great deal about emerging artists and writers, because he had acute memories of what it was like to struggle and get come recognition and respect. I don't think that will ever change for us, because Virginia and Tom and I have been in those shoes. We know we can't do everything the way he would have, but we're doing everything with genuine love and sensitivity for the artists and the projects they bring to us.

NEELY: I think we all want to honor his legacy, but we are different people and we need to find our own way to make this work. Which, I think is in the spirit of Dylan because he always encouraged me and many others to carve their own path. Some things may change or evolve as we take control and move forward, but we all learned a great deal from Dylan and will always have him in mind as we move forward.

imageSPURGEON: Are you keeping the distributorship part of the business going? Will that part of the business be expanded or changed? How does that part of the business fit into your general conception of what it is Sparkplug does? Is it a sizable effort in terms of mini-comics sold, or the labor involved in keeping that going?

NILSSON: Distribution will probably expand slowly -- we're currently not taking new titles in order to simplify things, but that's only a temporary change. We're distributing mostly self-published work (outside of distributing the comics we publish), so it's a huge part of our relationship to the small press community. The labor, expenses and paperwork involved are small compared with what we do on the publishing side.

PAINE: Yes, we are. I would like to expand it! I think it fits well with the Sparkplug goal of giving relatively unknown artists an audience. While we get back on stable financial ground we have stopped ordering minis, but our distro stock sells well and requires relatively little effort. We pick stuff based on submissions and browsing at conventions, so that's pretty easy too.

NEELY: Dylan was always a huge supporter of self-publishing and that was what he focused his distribution on. He wanted to only carry works that were published by the artist. He always encourages artists to self publish their work. So many people have submitted their works to him and he turned them down because he believed they'd do better self-publishing. I'm sure many artists have had the same conversation with him that I had when I pitched The Blot to him. That I didn't need a publisher. I can do it myself. I'm not sure how the distro will work out as we continue. I hope we continue to do that. I've begun distributing some of my friends at shows in recent months and it's been a great side-project for I Will Destroy You. I've begun with some of my LA friends who don't make it to as many shows around the country as I do. I love getting to promote my friends' work that I believe in, and it helps pay for part of my table at the shows. I think it's a good way to help make ends meet, and the mutual benefit of spreading the works of other artists is rewarding in its own way.

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SPURGEON: One of the nice things that happened in the wake of the tragedy is that there seemed to be a renewed interest in the comics that Dylan himself did over the years. Are there any plans for his work as a cartoonist? Are there plans to keep his existing work in print?

PAINE: Tom and Emily have plans. We still have plenty of stock of the entire Reporter series except #2, which is going to be reprinted soon. So, yes.

NILSSON: We want to keep his work in print, in fact we have to re-print Reporter #2 because we're out of it and there are orders that keep coming in for it. He was working on Reporter #7 in the last year of his life, but it only was about halfway finished. There are plans to create an archive of his past work too.

NEELY: As for his other works, we plan on building an archive and having many of his friends contribute to it. We are asking several of his close friends and partners throughout the years to collect everything Dylan has done over the years from comics, minis, zines, articles, interviews, pictures, memories… everything.

SPURGEON: A year from now, and, say five years from now, what would you like to have accomplished with the Sparkplug? What is something -- a book, a presence at shows -- we can look forward to seeing that might indicate you're getting to the place you want to be?

NILSSON: We do have plans to publish specific books in 2012. We have other graphic novels planned and I'd personally like to publish other printed work such as art and novels. We have to take things very slowly. I'm reluctant to say what I think will happen five years from now. Last summer I would never have predicted this outcome to Dylan's life and mine. I'm optimistic, but cautious, and I'd prefer to leave some surprises for people to discover later.

PAINE: I'd like to have four new books out in the next year, and continue to add to our distro stock. We're doing a bunch of shows in 2012 and continuing Dylan's tradition of going to smaller or new conventions, including Staple!, CAKE and Derby City Comic Con.

Five years from now, I'd like this to be a full time job for both Emily and I. In five years Reich will be finished!

That's nuts. I want to continue publishing 4-6 books a year, continue doing conventions. I'd like to see us doing more promotional stuff -- signings, tours, etc.

As for indications, I'd say me getting a new laptop would be a pretty good indicator that Sparkplug is doing well.

NEELY: Hopefully we'll be in a position that Emily and Virginia can make this their full time job. But I think if we're still doing this five years from now, then we're where we want to be.

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* Sparkplug Comic Books
* Sparkplug Comic Books Blog
* Dylan Williams Reporter

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* an image from the Dylan Williams Reporter blog. I really want you to follow that blog.
* one of the Katie Skelly Nurse Nurse minis
* an image from Elijah Brubaker's Reich series, an early commitment for the reshaped Sparkplug
* an image from Tom Neely's own work; he brings the experience of promoting it to Sparkplug
* Neely manning the Sparkplug/I Will Destroy You table at the just-past BCGF
* one of the many comics distributed by Sparkplug, Amy Kuttab's How Dry I Am
* an image from one of Dylan Williams' non-Reporter comic books
* the friendly Sparkplug web site opening image (below)

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