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June 3, 2012


CR Sunday Interview: Zack Soto

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imageZack Soto has quietly developed from a well-connected, well-liked, young cartoonist and anthology editor into an even greater-multiple-hat-wearing, still well-connected, still well-liked, slightly older, regional cartooning fixture. He is the driving force behind the Study Group comics site, its companion blog and the print magazine. He also works in not one but two of the Portland area's fine retail outlets: Floating World Comics and Cosmic Monkey Comics. Soto's Secret Voice serial is part of the first of those efforts, and is one of the more intriguing reworks of adventure comics -- a genre crucial to defining the contributions of cartoonists Soto's age and younger.

Because I was so taken with the initial print iteration of Secret Voice, Soto was one of the featured interviews during this site's first year. I was happy to talk with the Soto again, if only to catch up and to get some sense of what connects the wide variety of comics projects on which he is busy. I'm grateful for his time. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: One of the things you talked about in 2005 was how when you were younger you put aside comics making for time. I know that you're married now... does a cartoonist's personal life ever really stop having an impact on how they create, do you think? Are you in a place now where you can be productive?

SOTO: It never stops. I'm in a pretty great place, emotionally. Happily married, a very small bit of success in my professional life, etc., etc. But I'm pretty much never making the amount of work I want to be, for various reasons. Money is awful. I get easily distracted. Day jobs can be draining. The internet is a creativity supervillain. I'm also prone to pretty crippling anxiety attacks and deal with constantly fluctuating levels of depression, same as most artists I know. And being happy is its own distraction from being productive, sometimes. But I've been trying to fight that stuff and make more work.

Part of the impetus for the Study Group Comics web site is to make sure that I have a base level of productivity that I can't get around: every week, I need to post at least one page of comics. That's a modest fucking goal, and if I can't make that work, then I need to make some serious changes in my life. Another thing that should help is that Francois Vigneault and I just got a studio together in the new IPRC building, and I can tell already that that's going to be a good place for us to both be productive. Having a space to go away from my house that is dedicated to comics production is going to be a game-changer.

imageSPURGEON: We have this flurry of projects from you... but I wanted to ask about 2010's StudyGroup12 #4 first. The description of that book on your site seems to indicate it came out of your involvement with something called Pony Club Gallery. I also wondered if it wasn't based in a lot of the interactions you were having on your invite-only message board, and just generally what distinguished that one from the previous issues.

SOTO: Both of those things were factors, sure. I was part of the Pony Club for three years, from 2007 to 2010. It's a collective of artists started by cartoonists David Youngblood and Theo Ellsworth that fluctuates as membership shifts, and they're still going strong. It was a pretty great force in my life, and I had a lot of fun curating art shows and settling in to the Portland art scene as a gallerist there. I also got to hang out with and collaborate with some really inspiring people, like former members Dylan Williams, Chris Cilla, Dave Nuss, and others, as well as Jason Fischer and Jennifer Parks who are still with the gallery.

About six months or so after I left the gallery, I realized I sort of missed putting those shows together and curating work like that. It took a while, but I realized that I used to scratch that itch by making anthologies! I hadn't done a Studygroup12 since 2005's #3, so I had really sort of forgotten about that option. Once I was on that path, it morphed from being another xeroxed, handmade thing into a slightly more professional, partially handmade offset printed thing. My friend Jason Leivian of Floating World Comics co-published it with me, and my friend Matt Davison of Dueltone Printing helped me print the covers in a massive back-breaking silkscreen orgy. Milo George helped out with some InDesign assist and kibbitzing. I asked a lot of Portland people to be in it as well as some of my friends from around the world, many of whom I knew in part because of the message board. The secret to editing anthologies is to have a lot of talented friends.

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SPURGEON: I was surprised by what a professional-seeming effort StudyGroup Magazine #1 was. I know that sounds like I'm damning with faint praise! What struck me is that we're in an era removed from magazines a bit, and yet it seems like you nailed what would have been an attractive effort very much at home in a more magazine-centric era. Are you a fan of comics magazines, or that kind of organizing effort to do something with and about comics at the same time? Why that kind of magazine instead of, say, another issue of the comics anthology you do?

SOTO: Well thanks. Yeah I'm actually a big fan of comics magazines. From a very young age I was super interested in how comics were made and what the people who made them were like. I devoured every type of trade magazine I could find: Comics Interview, Amazing Heroes, Comics Scene, Marvel Age, Comics Comics, Nemo, Crash, Comic Art, whatever. When I was 14 I came across The Comics Journal #134 and it blew my mind, no foolin'. It had it all! [Gary] Groth tearing apart Barry Blair's Ripper, Newswatch, a bunch of in depth reviews, and of course a massive interview with Jack Kirby where he talked so much shit about Stan Lee and Marvel that I had never even considered before. I was hooked from then on, and have collected TCJ since then, semi-religiously, except for the last few years of its life. I still check out the back issue bins of any new shop I stop into for old TCJs I might be missing or weird old fanzines from the periphery of the comics press.

So when I was thinking about trade mags a few years ago, and TCJ was done publishing on any regular basis, Comic Art had disappeared, etc. It just seemed that the landscape of print comics journalism was pretty much dried up, and anthologies were sort of dried up too. I also couldn't think of anything that had a mix of comic art and comics journalism in the way that I wanted to mix them. Of course, between initiating the project and actually publishing the first issue, there's been a ton of awesome new anthologies and even a couple hybrids like Black Eye popped up. That's ok, though, since we all seem to have our own areas of interest that we cover.

SPURGEON: What was it like working with Milo George on that issue? He's an interesting guy: he had a pretty distinctive run on The Comics Journal and before that had a proto-Abhay Khosla acerbic Internet presence. Did you learn about anything about magazine production for Milo's contributions?

SOTO: Milo did a lot of the heavy lifting on the magazine. He did 99% of the inDesign stuff and obviously part of the benefit of having an ex-Journal editor is being able to learn from his experience running a magazine, doing interviews, etc. That Craig Thompson interview often gets mistaken for a Craig article, people think he wrote it himself but it's a masterfully edited, hours-long conversation between Craig and Milo that Milo boiled down to 20 pages or less. That it reads so fluidly speaks to Milo's experience. Basically, Milo is a great collaborator even if (and maybe because) we're very different people - he's a handy sounding board and we are both able to point out each other's lapses in logic etc without much ego, so that's cool.

imageSPURGEON: How long had you been thinking about doing a major comics-driven web site like the new Study Group Comic Books? How did that develop as a project?

SOTO: That's actually been a long road. About 10 years ago, I was sort of helping Tom Hart with the brainstorming part of setting up his old Serializer site, which was part of this webcomics ring called Modern Tales. I think I was sort of supposed to be his assistant? I didn't do much aside from a couple of site graphics, though. That was interesting to be on the periphery of something like the early days of MT, but it seems like a million years ago, which it sort of is in Internet time. For a long while, I really sort of ignored webcomics, other than reading the occasional Achewood or what have you. It wasn't until the one-two punch of Dash Shaw's Body World webcomic and Jordan Crane's What Things Do site that I sort of "got it," or more precisely, that the content of webcomics sort of hit my particular interest zone. Both of those efforts really seemed to get at what the medium could be in a way that spoke to me.

SPURGEON: Do you feel like you're meeting a specific publishing need that wasn't being met by other sites or comics publishing opportunities? What particulars do you think the site adds to what's available out there?

SOTO: I think so. I mean, the closest thing to SG is obviously What Things Do, but I'd say the differences are pretty obvious. There's a tonal difference of what the creators do, and the curatorial focus is different. There's been a couple times where I'd asked someone to do something for SG or if I could reprint a particular work and the creator said, "Oh, I just told Jordan he could have that," but I think generally our sites are like a venn diagram for comics -- mostly separate styles of stuff but with plenty of overlap. One of the cool things about both our sites is that WTD is very "LA" and SG is more or less a "Pacific Northwest" thing, because we both started out asking the people around us. Most of the other webcomics sites I've seen feel very different in scope or focus.

SPURGEON: What are the parameters of what you're willing to publish there? For instance, are you set with the number of cartoonists you'll be interested in using, or do you want submissions? Do you consider all of these people your friends or is there something else that unites them? How ambitious and how complete are your plans for the site?

SOTO: My initial concept was that the site would focus on "genre based" work by talented cartoonists of all kinds, but as things move on, the genre thing is less important to me than just publishing good stuff by people who make work I love. I am looking for new work by new people but I'm not really "looking for submissions" either, you know? My method has been more about asking people who's work I like if they'd be into doing stuff online. I tend to know most of them at least a bit, and it's been great to have a lot of pals respond positively to the idea. It seems like a lot of people have been thinking about how webcomics can work for them, and happily I asked them at a time when they were considering it in some way or another anyhow. I've actually just started introducing the next "wave" of cartoonists who are doing serialized strips this week. There's a few more coming up in the next month, but I am reluctant to grow the site too quickly. I'm trying to keep it manageable I guess. It's only been live since January!

imageSPURGEON: How are your own comics different now than that Secret Voice issue in 2005? Do you think of yourself as a reflective, self-aware cartoonist that way that you notice how your work changes and develops? How self-critical are you?

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SOTO: have changed a lot as an artist since then, which sometimes makes working on this old comic again a strange experience. One of the bigger differences drawing-wise is that I have made a conscious effort to draw the way I actually want to more instead of trying to be more representation/traditional just because I'm working on what's basically an action comic. I naturally draw in a pretty cartoony manner, and allowing myself to do so, or to approach my drawings in a looser manner despite the bloody action I am drawing... that's been liberating. Of course, I say all this and most people probably won't even notice the difference, but it's apparent to me.

As far as writing goes, I'm just a much better writer than I was six years ago. I had a bunch of hazy ideas for the main story in Secret Voice back then, and I'm almost glad I dropped out of comics for a while because during that time I ended up doing a massive re-write on the thing and figured out a lot about the plot and shifted my goals for the story around completely. The Secret Voice might still end up being a failure now, but it almost definitely would have been a complete mess if I'd kept at it without a solid game plan back then.

SPURGEON: You said back in 2005 that the format you choose really determines a lot of what you do with the comic. How has that come to play with these new on-line comics you're doing? For instance, I noted some lengthy panels/moments in the work you've posted that seems to take care of the notion of scrolling down a page. How comfortable has it been so far for you, working for the screen?

SOTO: The funny thing is that up until the last month or so, none of the comics I've been posting were intended to be seen online. They were all drawn for the printed page, and I've been formatting them to scroll down the page by breaking the panels apart and stacking them. The last several updates were all composed and drawn more recently, but other than making more of an effort to keep my panel tiers more or less consistently sized so that they break apart more conveniently, I haven't drawn anything I think of as especially suited to the web. Yet.

SPURGEON: Is the print anthology something you think you'll continue, or does the new site replace it? Are they similar experiences for you? How are they different?

SOTO: Definitely. Milo and I are working on #2 right now, actually. Our goal is to get two issues a year out eventually, but that's obviously not going to happen in 2012. I feel like the site is its own thing. The site and the magazine have their own weird differences as far as the type of work I'm looking to publish. I'm not sure if I can even verbalize it. The easiest distinction is that the site is doing a lot of serialized work and the magazine isn't suited for that, with the limited page count and relatively infrequent schedule. MOME could do that but we can't. We have a lot of plans for the magazine, like playing with themed issues and inserts and stuff, that work better with the printed issue-based delivery system.

SPURGEON: Where do you see the blog fitting in in terms of the constellation of work that's available to comics fans out there, or do you even think of those terms. Because that work has been of a high quality, and I'm not certain that a lot of people are paying close attention to it.

SOTO: Thanks, man... The blog has been fun to do but unfortunately has taken a bit of a backseat to getting the comics out there on a regular basis. Milo is the main contributor lately, he's doing these "Old Comics Weds" posts that I always mean to contribute to but I only occasionally make the deadline. I have a backlog of things that I want to write about for "OCW," and now that my day-job schedule has changed I'm looking forward to being able to write on tuesdays again.

Part of the reason why we're doing those posts is that when we were first talking about the blog and content, we very quickly decided that we didn't want to have another blog that talks about the current week of modern comics, because it would be tiring, and it'd probably just end up being similar in tone to Tucker Stone's "Comics of the Weak." He's already writing that and doing it well. So while we don't shy away from writing about things critically, a lot of that writing ends up being appreciations of work instead of tearing it down or even anything you might call a "close reading." I am going to start up my interview series with talented cartoonists and illustrators again, that was very rewarding and people seemed to like them, but I will probably take up a less grueling bi-weekly schedule when I do.

SPURGEON: In general, do you think of your view of comics as something you have to offer the wider world of comics -- do you take any pride or personal pleasure in getting your distinct voice out there, as a cartoonist and as an editor?

SOTO: I guess I do. I feel like I'm pretty decent at the curating aspect of it all. I definitely have a lot of strong opinions about what makes "good comics" and wish more people had a bit broader taste in media. I like putting together what I think of as a killer team of awesome creators, who a lot of people might not have heard of, and then see people freaking out about how rad these people are. It's gratifying to help spread the word about my talented friends. The response has been super encouraging, I know I felt like I was just toiling away in obscurity for the last few years, but I went to ECCC and even some of the mainstream dudes I chatted with knew the site. Having Warren Ellis championing someone like Ian MacEwan or Farel Dalrymple and their SG work doesn't hurt either.

SPURGEON: Come to think of it, Zack, are there plans for what is to be done with this material over the long-term? Will the cartoonists be seeking out publishing deals of their own project to project, for example?

SOTO: I wish I could afford to publish everything on the site that isn't already a reprint, but I'm basically broke and the publishing/money thing is a slog right now. So I have some modest plans for publishing beyond the magazine, like a mini-comics version of Farel's It Will All Hurt in the near future. I think Aidan has a publisher for Blonde Woman. Malachi Ward just started a new series with Revival House. Whenever Kaz finishes Mourning Star 3 I'm going to publish that, and I have a pretty ambitious idea for a multi-creator project that I might go the crowd-funding pre-order route of kickstarting for, but I'm not sure.

SPURGEON: Barring the work of the cartoonists on your site, what's the last work you read from a cartoonist that really made an impact on you?

SOTO: Ryan Cecil Smith's comics are great. That guy is crazy-talented, and the level of craft in his drawings and storytelling is phenomenal. I got that same feeling of excitement that I got the first time I read Dungeon when I read his SF & SFSF comics. Michel Fiffe just put out this Suicide Squad tribute comic that actually really impressed me. That guy went from being talented to being like "watch out for this motherfucker." His drawing chops are nuts and his use of color is really interesting. Ted May just put out a new issue of Injury and it might be the best thing he's done. The observational stuff with the details of what it's like to exist in the quiet early morning moments, and meatheads just being meatheads is killer.

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* Zack Soto
* Study Group Comic Books
* The Study Group Blog
* The Secret Voice

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* cover image to second bunch of Secret Voice pages
* photo of Soto from BCGF 2011 by Tom Spurgeon
* the cover to the last StudyGroup 12 anthology
* the cover for the latest StudyGroup 12 magazine
* Levon Jihanian's Danger Country
* from Soto's own Secret Voice
* illustration for Portland Mercury by Soto

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