December 31, 2012
CR Holiday Interview #13 -- Jason Grimmer
is the manager of Librairie Drawn And Quarterly
, the bookstore run under the wider Drawn And Quarterly
umbrella. That a few publishers are running retail establishments is an intriguing story of the last several years in comics. There are all sorts of reasons why this might be a good idea for a publisher, not all of them vague buzzwords like "branding," and we get into a few of those below. I'm also generally happy to talk to members of the D+Q team because that's an important comics publisher with only a few, vital cogs.
Grimmer I don't know at all except as a presence in the comments threads of Facebook threads fostered by various other D+Q employees, alt-comics' go-to source for cheap, barely-penetrable, on-line entertainment. Google revealed very little other than he was once a prominent employee at Vancouver's Zulu Records
, a model indie music store. I got a bunch more information from fellow Drawn and Quarterly people, but I'm still unclear how much of what they told me is true. I tweaked the following a tiny bit for flow. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Jason, I know very little about your background. I'm told that you went to school for broadcasting, were one of the prominent employees at Zulu in Vancouver and that you even once called stock car races, but I'm not sure how much I'm being messed with. Can you talk about your background, how you ended up in retail? Was comics a part of your background?
Once I'd graduated from high school I figured I should go to school for something and so I chose radio broadcasting. I realized pretty soon it wasn't for me. I liked the news-gathering, copy-writing, and voice-over aspects of it but not the cultivating of a wacky on-air personality aspect -- which was encouraged. [Spurgeon laughs]
Though I barely remember finishing the two-year course -- indeed, I only discovered I'd actually graduated two years ago -- I did get to do my practicum at a radio station in Calais, Maine
and loved it. I was given free-reign to write copy, produce and voice commercials for local businesses, and it was a blast because I could create characters and use their library of sound-effect records anyway I wanted with absolutely no one over my head judging my work. When that ended and they couldn't hire me because of my Canadian citizenship, so did my broadcasting career. I knew it would never be better than that. After that, yes, I accepted a job as stock-car race announcer but I quit after one shift when I realized they weren't joking when they told me the pay was "all the hot dogs you can eat during your shift."
SPURGEON: Yeah, that's... [laughs]
After a succession of short-lived bad jobs in various blue-collar towns: a bartender and DJ at a scummy biker/ dive bar (which I quit mid-shift one night after one particularly terrifying patron asked me "are you gonna play 'Witchy Woman
' or do I have to take you out back and beat the shit out of you?"), at a car wash run by an ex-NHL player, and the overnight shift at a 24-hour video store, I picked up and moved across-country to Vancouver, B.C. where I eventually got a job as a manager at Zulu Records.
As far as comics go, yes, they were a very important part of my youth -- as important as movies and music were, anyway. I spent grades one through through as the sole Anglophone
in an Acadia
n village and the Peyo
and Hergé I found in the tiny library at my school taught me how to read French. Also, my mother would bring me to used bookstores on a regular basis and I would stock up on whatever comics were there.
I remember liking Conan the Barbarian
, Justice League
, Heroes for Hire
, horror comics and MAD
was definitely a huge thing for me and I loved the weirdness of the humour and art -- which I found pretty subversive (Dave Berg creeped me out particularly). I kept thinking "I shouldn't be reading this," but was happy my mom let me. Loved Don Martin. I also read the comics in the Playboy
and National Lampoon
magazines my dad kept around. Dirty Duck
kind of blew my mind and it was also where I first noticed [Harvey] Kurtzman
(I was happy to discover of his stuff through MAD
A couple years later I got into the Spider-Man [Steve] Ditko
-era reprints but, even though I found The Inhumans
fascinating as a concept, I found Kirby's art to be too impenetrable for me, at the time. Later I discovered the difference between DC
and chose to make mine the latter (except Legion of Super Heroes
, which I found fascinatingly bad). I kept up with Marvel until John Byrne
's Alpha Flight
and then lost interest in super-hero comics completely.
I was always pretty aware of first-generation underground artists -- knew their names and some of their work -- but I didn't pay much attention to owning anything. Mostly read some stuff that my friends' pot-head, older siblings had laying around. Much later, a friend lent me some issues of Eightball
and I started to pay more attention to comics again. A couple of years before I started at the bookstore, I started reading all the D&Q books I could find at my local library and the two that stuck with me -- and remain two of my favourites -- were Seth
's It's A Good Life
and Gabrielle Bell
's Cecil and Jordan
. Those, along with Chester Brown
's Louis Riel
(which I read much earlier) were my real entry points into D&Q.
SPURGEON: The Zulu experience seems like it would directly relate. Do you still use anything you learned in those days in the management of the bookstore? How do you look back on those experiences now?
I worked at Zulu for around seven years. It was there that I discovered that, even though I believed my taste to be discerning, that I also loved researching and immersing myself in stuff that I thought I should at least find some appreciation for, in the hope that it would take. You know indie-records stores (and I would imagine this goes for comic book shops as well) are not always considered places that hire open-minded people, but that's how it really is and should be. The people who work there and the patrons that support them have invested themselves in knowing what's good about everything. These types of shops are, in many ways, the most important places in any city and can help shape the cultural life of the city or town they are in, if handled correctly. You can spend days searching for things on the internet but if there's a place in town that narrows it down just enough so you can get a foothold, it can change your life.
We stock things we love and can get behind but we also bring in things that our clients consider important. Generally, if it's in the store, there's a reason for it and we should be able to explain why it's there. We have a chance to alter the cultural landscape of our city and we should recognize and embrace that responsibility. We need money to stay open, sure, so we need to sell books, but in that regard we are also incredibly fortunate. Our clientele likes and buys the books we bring in so we don't have to worry too much about stocking huge amounts of million-selling books that we don't care about. This is the difference between Amazon
and a Zulu, between Amazon and a Librairie D&Q. When I was a kid with hardly any cash, I depended on the clerks at certain record and book stores to steer me in the right direction. Not necessarily tell me, "You have to have this or you're not cool," but if they could explain to me what something was about, where it fit in and why it was crucial for me to at least know about it, I was sold. If you can do that, you can consider what you do is important, in my opinion anyway. A knowledgeable, interested and approachable staff is integral to the success of this kind of business.
SPURGEON: I know the store celebrated its five-year this Fall, and I understand what they were thinking when they started it, but I'm not sure when you became involved. In fact, I'm not even certain how you went from Vancouver to Montreal. How did you end up with the gig?
My girlfriend, Kathy, and I played in a succession of bands in Vancouver and none of them were really satisfying experiences for us -- besides the obvious camaraderie and drinking. I knew that I liked being creative and liked -- to an extent -- the business of music, but we just didn't find the hard work it took for such small returns to be worth our while -- especially now that we were in our thirties. We figured that if we stayed there, we would be stuck in the same rut forever -- forming a band, gigging, recording, and then suffering through yet another band break-up.
Once our daughter was born, it gave us a reason to look eastward, partially because we kind of disliked Vancouver and partially because all our family was back-east and our parents would have better access to their grand-child. A lot of our friends were talking about buying apartments and flipping them and, since we had no interest in that, we decided to visit our family for vacation and not return. A month later we were living in Montreal. We had neither jobs, nor substantial savings, but I was fortunate enough to, right-away, find a part-time job at a record and used bookstore that barely supported us while Kathy went to school for Early Childhood Education. It was a tough couple of years, I knew some French and Kathy none.
Our daughter, Addie, became friends with Tom
's daughter, Gigi, at pre-kindergarten (Chris
and Marina's son, Charles, also attended) and our resulting friendship with her parents led them to offer me the management job at the bookstore when the position presented itself a year or so later. Tom, Peg, Chris and Marina are amazing people and have been very good to my family. Gigi and Addie still hang out almost every weekend, Tom and I drink together at our monthly comic book club meetings, Peggy and Kathy are in book club together, and we have a lot of shared friends, so we're pretty close. I'm the only person in this city that Tom seems to know who he can have really deep discussions about the Velvet Underground
with, so I have a huge responsibility in that regard.
SPURGEON: You're in a comic book club with Tom Devlin? I think I need to know as much about this as you're willing to tell me. Is there anyone else in this club? How does it work?
Yeah, it's me, Tom, Joe Ollmann
, Pascal Girard
, D&Q managing editor Tracy "Hamcups" Hurren, store staffer, Marie-Jade Menni (who, incidentally, did her thesis on the Hernandez Bros.), and our good friend Howard Mitnick. Matt Forsythe
used to be in the club as well, but recently moved to Hollywood, I believe. We meet in the store after it closes. We all get a chance to choose a book for each meeting. We've done Death Ray
, Acme Novelty #19
, My Friend Dahmer
, Dungeon Quest
, The Voyeurs
and maybe a few more that escape me right now. We don't all always like all the books but there's always someone in the group who does and so we end up reading stuff we never would usually. We try to keep the conversation focused on comics but that can be tough sometimes as there tends to be a lot of beer involved.
SPURGEON: You know, I'm not even sure I know the size and scope of the store. Can you break it down in terms of things like the size of the space, the size of any and all storage you might have, how many people work there, how many hours the store's open and what that means in terms of employee hours, how many events you run, that kind of thing?
The bookstore is somewhere around 800 square feet. There are two shelves near the back and by our stage where we store overstock and there's some space under the shelves for overstock as well. Honestly, everything we have is pretty much all on display, which is to say a lot. Right now, we have tons of boxes filled with Building Stories
all stacked neatly at the back waiting to be opened and shelved as the ones on the floor sell. The store is packed, but organized. It's a lot like my apartment in that way. As I mentioned there is a stage at the back and whenever we have an event we move all the tables to the side and put out chairs. This year we re-shelved the entire store so now we have wooden shelves that reach the ceiling and are better able to showcase some of our more beautiful and interesting books, whereas before they were all mostly spine out on black metal shelves. It's a beautiful space, really.
There are six staff members currently on the payroll. Myself and five others, but I'm the only full-time employee. The staff share most responsibilities but also has distinct duties as well -- French book buying, graphic novels etc. -- and I hire people based on their particular strengths. I'm fortunate because a lot of my hires come from a pool of the best former D&Q interns. If someone worked especially well in the office, Peggy will let me know and I interview them. The final decision is mine but if Peg and Tom and Chris have spent time with someone and suggest them, a lot of my work is done already. During regular season (that is, non-holiday season where we're open everyday from 10 AM until 9 PM) we open at 11 AM and close at 6 PM Sundays to Wednesdays and 11 until 9 the rest of the week. I'm there for two hours before we open so I can get ordering and other work done before we open. I don't have an office and am at the cash all day, so that time is necessary for me. I do a lot of researching books and booking events while having a coffee.
Events-wise, I'd say seven or eight events a month. More during the fall. One of my mandates when I took the job was to open the space up more for the Montreal literary community's use. We are constantly hosting launches by Concordia and McGill professors and students and I think this was the reason we were the only bookstore featured in Time magazine's article on the Montreal Literary scene
... Next fall I plan on starting the Librarie Drawn & Quarterly Reading Series where we'll host a few big-name authors off-site and then readings with other, lesser-known or emerging authors throughout two weeks in the store. I have a wish-list of big authors I'm always trying to get and I start really working on it in February so we'll see how it goes.
SPURGEON: How much of the store is D+Q-related material, how much is from other, similar publishers. How much is comics vs. prose?
One wall and shelf of the store is dedicated to D&Q, so -- and I'm really guessing here -- maybe 15%? People come from all over to see the "D&Q" store so we carry everything, of course. Besides that, the store is -- and please excuse the word, but it actually applies here -- curated, so we really only carry what we consider the best in almost all genres of literature. While we have lots of comics and graphic novels we also have a nicely maintained literature section. We have a small, but growing, poetry section, a theory section, art books, our favourite magazines, and probably the best English childrens' book section in town. We focus a lot on publishing houses that we consider to be D&Q kindred spirits: McSweeney's
, La Pastèque
, Toon Books
, New Directions
, Melville House
, and more I'm forgetting right now. It all meshes pretty well with the D&Q aesthetic, so it works well.
SPURGEON: The anniversary article I read made a big deal about the exquisite way the store is curated. How much of the store's feel is you, do you think, maybe independently of a broader D+Q aesthetic?
I inherited the shop so a lot of it was in place beforehand, and Tom and Peg and Chris' aesthetic is close to mine. I mean, I believe that was a big reason why the hired me and entrusted me with their store. What I've done is take what they started and kept moving in the right direction without having them feel like they always have to worry about it. They knew I had the right kind of buying experience and they knew what I liked, personally. We use Book Manager as our POS
and that's a massive help. They've been great and I do around 85% of my buying through that. I can track what sells and where and source out things from different suppliers pretty easily.
The office still plays a big part in the stocking of the store. They suggest stuff and the store staff does some buying as well… they all have great taste so if they consider something worthy, someone else is going to appreciate it as well. I don't question a lot of their choices, I learn from them. I could probably stock a whole store myself based on what I like and know about but you could also stock one based on what I don't know, so it's hugely advantageous to have this resource. There's also Peter Birkmoe from The Beguiling
whose brain I'll pick on a fairly regular basis. Besides buying, if any really big decisions are being made, we figure it out together and make things work. This is what makes the store as good as it is and the job so satisfying. I get to do what I like and enjoy a huge support system while I do it. I think it's working well.
SPURGEON: I will understand if you want avoid details, or maybe avoid the question entirely, but I hope you'll bear me out. Is the store profitable? You guys were quite up front in the anniversary article about grant money making it possible, and people in North America sometimes think everything in Canada is supported by the government forever.
Oh yes, the great Canadian myth that everything here is funded by grants! Here's how I understand it: the office was able to secure a grant for the opening five years ago so they could fulfill the mission of providing comics, art and literary workshops and events to the public, which we still do. Tom does a graphic novel course and Pascal Girard does them in French. The amazing Leyla Majeri
does screenprinting workshops… I know this much: the store hasn't received any funding ever since, we are even unable to quality for library & institutional sales due to some bureaucratic red-tape. We are pretty much following the trajectory of any small business. I was told we were in the red for the first four years, and now, finally, we're in the black in our 5th year. Are we profitable? Well, it's an independent bookstore, so I think we all know the answer to that one. It's always a break-even affair. When you don't make any money the first four years, it's hard in the 5th when you come out a bit you hesitate to throw the word "profitable" around, as you can well imagine.
SPURGEON: I was wondering if you could talk about a couple of D+Q books, maybe a non-D+Q comics-related book, and a prose book with which you've done well. What are some of the distinguishing factors in terms of something that sells pretty well in the shop. How many would your best-seller for a year sell in a year?
Since I've been there I'd say the best-selling newer D&Q titles by a pretty wide margin were Hark! A Vagrant
, The Death-Ray
, Paying For It
. As far as non-D&Q goes, the [Chris] Ware
, [Alison] Bechdel
, [Art] Spiegelman
and Clowes back-catalogues in general are pretty huge and never stay on the shelves too long.
Otherwise, this year Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her
was big for us, which is a pretty cool for a hardcover fiction title as they can be hard to move in great quantities. It usually has to be a title that both the staff and our clientele embraces that makes a hard cover break out. Of course, we've had great success with local authors as well. Rawi Hage
, Jonathan Goldstein
… and this past year, mostly due to out very successful launch events with them, both David Byrne's How Music Works
and Miranda July's It Chooses You
were huge and we sold through hundreds of the books. What are great quantities in a year? I'd say a hundred or two, more in some cases. Quality of the title and the staff's love of the book definitely play a huge part in driving our sales.
SPURGEON: Does geography play a role in your store? I don't know where you are or anything about Montreal, but I know that bookstores can sometimes anchor a neighborhood. Are you a neighborhood store, too? Which neighborhood?
We're located in the Mile End
, which has been a pretty hip area for the last decade. I guess the Arcade Fire hitting it big played a part in that. So did the cheap rent. The rent's gotten steeper now and as the younger students, artists, writers, and musicians all move north to the even-cheaper environs of Parc Ex
and Petit Patrie
, families are king. These families are mostly made up of McGill
professors and writers and artists and their children who are very invested in books and art (and mostly Anglophone) and so the store has become a kind of hub for them. The literature and children's section expansion is testament to that.
SPURGEON: Is there anything you wish you hadn't done, a step that maybe wasn't so fruitful, in the years you've been there? How do you feel you're still learning? Do you have room to try things and fail?
Honestly, I've only been at the store for something like 18 months and I've been busy the entire time so I haven't had a lot of time to look back on anything I've done wrong. I don't think there's anything we've done yet that I would consider a failure. I put a lot of time into the store and I definitely have an amazing support system here so I have faith that any problem that may come up could be figured out. I'm a pretty careful person, generally, and everything I do with the store is worked out and thought through but I'm also aware that great things can't happen if you don't take chances. We would never let a great idea die on the vine.
SPURGEON: With the events, is there something that's key to making sure the events drive business to the store, as opposed to just being awesome events? I worked in a gallery once that threw amazing parties, but did so in a way that never led to people buying stuff off of the walls.
Obviously, you can't sell 50 books at every event, but we always look at every event we book as potentially successful or we don't book it. There are a lot of considerations to take into account. A few months back, store staffer Julien Cecceldi did an amazing job when he decided he wanted to bring author Chris Kraus
to Montreal. Her books sell well enough for us and she's a store favourite, but we needed the resources to bring her here and book sales were not going to cover it so we partnered with Concordia University and did two events with her. One in the store and one at the school and they both did great. It was important to show people that we were willing to bring someone we thought was worthy. Sure it cost us a little but we knew it was culturally important. She had a great time and did two wonderful readings so that was, to me, as great a success as our 600-people sold out Byrne and Miranda July events. Yes, book sales at events are important, but future book sales are just as important and if you work hard and are trustworthy, people will support you.
SPURGEON: You mentioned people making a destination of the "D+Q store" -- do you get tourism attention? I know that was a factor in Subpop doing retail, that it's the kind of thing that gets listed as a city attraction and you get some business that way.
Sure, especially in the summer. A lot of people think -- and hope -- that the publishing house is in the same building, but it's not. Soon after Paying For It
came out I had a young lady from California who told me she was a sex worker and that she just wanted someone at D&Q to know that she and her colleagues thought that Chester's book was tremendously important and that they really appreciated him for it. She knew we were a bookstore but she knew I'd pass it along. When authors are in town they generally always come by, and recently we had a customer get pretty excited when Peggy brought Guy Delisle
in. And Tom Devlin's usually by a couple times a week to drop off books or borrow my tape measure, so that can be a bit of a thrill. Kind of like if Eddie Vedder
stopped by the Sub Pop
shop to visit Mark Arm
and maybe borrow his guitar tuner while he was there.
SPURGEON: Is there a customer you think you should have more of you don't yet?
I think we could probably reach out more to the other Anglophone communities in Montreal as well. We've started to do that a bit and I think its working. I see more people from Westmount
and the West Island
than I did last year. We need to beef up our French content as well. There's a lot of great stuff out there and it would be nice to be able to showcase it. We've had more requests for French childrens' book recently as well. I think that would be nice. I hate to turn people away when they are looking for beautiful books we could carry.
SPURGEON: How do you fold in children's material into a wider-range bookstore? Is there any key to attracting that kind of business, or at least being able to serve that kind of customer?
The children's books fit perfectly. It's seamless, really. We do a lot of research with them and I'm confident that we are on top of getting in the best of the best. Aesthetics and content guide us and the quality of the illustrations is as important as with our comics and graphic novels. Matt Forsythe, Lilli Carré
, John Stanley
, Isabelle Arsenault
, Frank Viva
, Alain Grée
, Julie Morstad
, their work adorns our walls and we love it. Like I mentioned before, the Mile End is home to a lot of families and so our kids section is well-perused. My daughter comes to work with me once in awhile if my girlfriend and my schedules don't work out and she just sits in one of the little chairs in amongst all those gorgeous books with a pile of books and reads for hours. Lots of kids from the neighbourhood drop by and just sit and read. I pay attention to what they like or what their parents like and I stock accordingly. Childrens' books are great fun to research and stock.
SPURGEON: Are you settled in, do you think? Do you imagine what the shop might be like in five, ten years? How ambitious are you, and what might happen that we might read about that tells us you're on your way to making those goals?
I'd say, yes, we're settled in. Our significance is felt, I believe and my job is to make sure that continues. We're more able to get authors to Montreal then we were when we first started because we're not Toronto and I think that will only get easier. I'm working on it anyway and I feel positive about it. As far as the future, yeah that's hard to predict. On one hand I think the need for thirst for great, beautiful books you can hold in your and shelve in your home will never abate but who knows how the E Book biz will affect graphically driven literature? I mean, maybe someone knows, but not me. I worked in record stores for so many years, I saw when MP3s changed everything but yet, there a so many great little record stores still around, and them seem to be doing OK. I mean, they have my business, anyway, for what it's worth. I still buy books and records on a weekly basis and my daughter is growing up in an apartment surrounded by them, but how many of her friends have the same thing? A significant number of them probably won't feel a need to cultivate that kind of environment in their homes when they get older. Maybe my daughter won't either. In cases like that then our store and stores like ours are even more crucial as we represent something that people know in their hearts is important but may not think about all the time. I can tell you this, I deal with people on a daily basis who tell me how relieved they are we exist. It's symbiotic: they exist so we do too. Buy a kid a book, will you?
* Jason Grimmer on Twitter
* Jason Grimmer on Tumblr
* Librairie D+Q
* photo of Grimmer and the store by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR
by Drawn and Quarterly
* Bobby London's Dirty Duck
* from Cecil and Jordan
* photo of anniversary event by David Smith; rights secured for CR
by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of store interior by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR
by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of books racked by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR
by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of David Byrne appearance by Richmond Lam; rights secured for CR
by Drawn and Quarterly
* a best-seller when it comes to prose at the store
* photo of window of store by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR
by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of Matt Forsythe's bookstore postcard by David Smith; rights secured for CR
by Drawn and Quarterly (below)
posted 2:00 pm PST
If I Were In Tokyo, I'd Go To This
posted 1:30 pm PST
Go, Look: Tommy Couldn't See The Joy
posted 12:00 pm PST
Random Comics News Story Round-Up
* the writer Peter David apparently had a stroke while on vacation
. I wish him a full and speedy recovery, and further hope that he and his family have as much comfort and support as is possible during this trying time. Update:
Kathleen David has a lengthy update and fuller description of events here
* Rob Liefeld begins his year in review
* linking to Jordan Crane's tumblr initiative
isn't a new thing, but I sure like the look of some of the individual panels he puts up that way.
* you can catch up with a bunch of Dan Berry interviews here
* Scott Marshall on Last Days Of An Immortal
. Cory Doctorow on Rise Of The Graphic Novel
* cartoonist/musician Nate Powell matches comics to albums
* Michael Cavna communicated birthday wishes to Stan Lee from various other august personalities
* these Christmas Day strip postings at the Library Of American Comics blog were a lot of fun
* here's a look at an image from a forthcoming Craig Thompson kids effort
. Here it is bigger
. That should be fun.
* Jen Vaughn reports
on an Esther Pearl Watson show in Texas.
* I'm never quite sure how to cover news of these juggernaut webcomics-culture based kickstarter campaigns
, because mostly I just sit there with the Little Rascals shocked face, staring at them.
* hey, look at that CAKE ad
. Lot of pressure on that show this year, lot of anticipation for it. Also found over there was this Michael DeForge tribute to Leslie Stein
* finally, here
are ten UK small-press comics you should own.
posted 11:00 am PST
Happy 45th Birthday, Joe Gordon!
posted 10:00 am PST
Happy 47th Birthday, Julie Doucet!
posted 10:00 am PST
Happy 50th Birthday, Fabian Nicieza!
posted 10:00 am PST
Happy 56th Birthday, Lela Dowling!
posted 10:00 am PST
Happy 56th Birthday, Steve Rude!
posted 10:00 am PST
December 30, 2012
CR Holiday Interview #12 -- Tom Kaczynski
had a very good 2012, escorting his line of Uncivilized Books to the trade and collections portion of the ongoing micro-publishing cotillion while seeing a fine book of his own out from Fantagraphics
. Beta Testing The Apocalypse
collects a number of Kaczynski's fine short stories from the late MOME antholog
y and adds at least one major short story never published. His work reveals an inherent understanding of structures, of both the societal and formal/comics variety, which makes sense given his background in architecture. He is the only new publisher I've ever encountered in the alternative comics realm where people seem enthusiastically in his corner from the get-go, just sort of grateful he's arrived. Despite Kaczynski making comics for several years now, I have never been well-acquainted with him personally and as late as last year's BCGF
was openly mistaking his work for someone else's despite very much enjoying the individual comics as I came across them. I'm glad for this opportunity to have a better grasp on his significant presence in the world of comics, seeing as we should all benefit for years to come. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I want to apologize for the broad nature of some of these questions, but until I sat down and started looking at your work for this interview I'm not sure how familiar I am with your story. Let's talk about the publishing first. The initial impulse to publish: I know it's not unheard-of for a cartoonist that self-publishes and works with minis to go in that direction, but to make such a deliberate move the way you have with Uncivilized indicates there was some significant planning involved. Can you talk about the move into publishing?
Like you've said, I've self-published for a long time. Once I started working with Gabrielle [Bell]
, working with her in mini-comics, we started getting a lot of good feedback in terms of what I was doing with her in designing her books, the quality of the little mini-comics being published. At some point, Gabrielle just sort of said, "Hey, do you want to do my next book?" [laughs] I wasn't a publisher at that point, really, I was just someone making mini-comics -- deliberately, but on a very small scale. So it took me a while to think about it. But once we sort of agreed I was going to do this, and I agreed to do it, I realized that for someone like Gabrielle, if that book was going to succeed, I needed to do something serious.
SPURGEON: How did the arrangement with Gabrielle come about with the mini-comics? I don't think I know that story, either.
That was pretty simple. I'd known Gabrielle for a while. We were in the same drawing group in New York. We've known each other for years at this point. I started doing Uncivilized Books as a mini-comics imprint. She ended up coming to Minneapolis for a Rain Taxi
festival. We had talked about collaborating. Whether that was sort of a writer/artist collaboration, or something, we had talked about collaborating on some
level in the past. When she came for this Rain Taxi
festival in Minneapolis, I was like, "You ought to do something for the festival," because she was promoting -- I think it was the Cecil and Jordan book
. It would have been nice to make something for the festival.
So we talked about it and put together LA Diary
. The mini-comic. The collaboration was that she just gave me the comics, essentially, and I came up with the way I thought it should look, and designed it and everything. We got a lot of really good feedback on that, so we just kind of kept doing that. Part of this was also just -- Drawn And Quarterly
had at that point canceled most of their pamphlet comics, and she was looking for another outlet in that vein: something small she could put out more frequently. It just kind of worked out. We kept working together, and at some point it seemed like it was a good idea to do the book, too.
SPURGEON: So you have this realization that you're going to do this book and that it's different than this other thing you've been doing. So what do you do then? Do you do research? Do you sit down and make a plan?
All of those things. [laughs] I've always been a fan of publishing. I've admired what Drawn And Quarterly has been doing, what Fantagraphics has been doing, what AdHouse
has been doing, Koyama Press
... all of those people. You're always going to think -- well, not everyone, but I do -- I think, "Oh, that would make a good book." Or "I wish that book had been done a little bit differently." I have these little, nagging thoughts now and then about certain things.
When the opportunity came up to do this book with Gabrielle, once the decision was made, I was like, "I need to become a publisher, I need to research this thing, I need to find out what I do for distribution, I need to find out how to do this thing." I didn't want to be a publisher that stacks up a lot of books in their house. I wanted to have distribution from the get-go... I just wanted to. One of the things I looked at were a lot of smaller, literary presses, who seem to have a lot less harder time finding distribution than a comics press. It seems like the comics market is really still bound up with, although maybe not so much anymore, the Diamond Direct Market
. If you can't get into that, it's hard to get anywhere else. A lot of the larger distributors weren't, at least for a long time, interested in comics to distribute. Drawn And Quarterly and Fantagraphics and Top Shelf
and other publishers have sort of opened that door. I think there's a lot more interest in the smaller press.
SPURGEON: So who carries you? IPG or someone like that?
I'm with Consortium
: Perseus, I think, owns them. They also do Nobrow. When I showed this stuff to them, they were basically interested in comics publishers, I think. I was also lucky in that they're based in Minneapolis. Maybe I had an easier time having access to them. [laughs]
SPURGEON: I remember one thing that was surprising to me when Fantagraphics and D+Q started teaming up with established distributors is how good a match they were for those companies -- they're oriented towards producing a lot of books, they have an established design aesthetic, they can do a catalog. Has that been a good relationship for you so far?
I think so. They're very much focused on indie, literary presses. Some of the people they distribute are Coffee House Press
, people like that. The comics I'm interested in publishing tend to be on the literary spectrum of the comics world, and so I think we definitely fit in. So far, so good. I've only been there for one season so far. I can't speak to a longer relationship at this point. [laughter] But I've been very happy with it so far and I hope it continues that way.
SPURGEON: How has that first season gone, then? What's your learning curve been like in terms of getting a book out there? Where do you feel you've learned the most in terms of Gabrielle's book that you can now apply to this new wave of publications you're doing?
Promotion is hard. Although Gabrielle did a lot of heavy lifting on this. She has a lot of experience promoting her books in the past, and she was able to bring that over to this book. It helped a lot in getting the book out there. Learning about the whole... pre-publication stuff. Publishers Weekly
, Kirkus Reviews
and others, where you have to send them stuff early to get reviewed or even considered. Just sort of seeing the cycle. Where you start and how far ahead you need to be.
Before it was always, "Hey, we've got this thing. Let's put it out there. We'll worry about what happens to it later." Now it's sort of there's this book, and it's going to come out at a certain time, this is what we're going to do for it, this is how many copies we'll print, this is where we're going to print them, and here's the budget. Just making sure all that stuff happens was a pretty big learning curve. At least initially. Now I'm sort of settled into it, but Gabrielle's book was the test case. We did have a lot of extra time on that book, because we were working on it for more than a year before it hit the stores.
SPURGEON: You toured with her on it.
We did a west coast tour. It was supposed to include my book from Fantagraphics, but I was late with the book [laughter] so my book didn't really make it until the very, very end where we did an event at the Fantagraphics store
and we had a copy to show -- not even sell. It was pretty fun. Gabrielle did a lot of heavy lifting in terms of organizing the tour, because she's done it before. She had some relationships with some of the stores that we did. Having Consortium back the book up helped a lot. There was a lot less stress about getting books to these places.
SPURGEON: It sounds like it naturally developed, but Gabrielle strikes me as a good choice for a first book, because she's not only talented but she's settled into what she does. Can you talk a bit about Gabrielle as a cartoonist? I think she's still a hard sell for certain comics readers. I know it took me a while to come around to what she does.
Well, why is that? [laughs]
SPURGEON: I don't know. I'm not sure why. I needed to be immersed in her comics before I picked up on a lot of what she did. Her facility and talent is obvious right away, but the entirety of what she expresses took me some time. What do
you think makes her a special cartoonist? Can I ask you that broad of a question?
[laughs] Sure. First of all, she's getting better and better, I think. I think she's very much, she has a very literary voice. Part of why there's been some resistance to her work in the comics world is the autobiographical thing. For a while there was a major backlash. I feel like there was a lot of that kind of work coming out in the '90s, and then in the early 2000s there was like, "We have to do something else. No more of this kind of work." I think she approaches it from a very different place than the 1990s autobiographical work. It's a lot more literary, more of a memoir. Her books do a lot better for me in bookstores than in comic book stores. Her voice is a lot broader in a way that may not latch on with comics fans -- that's not to say she isn't popular there, because she is to a certain extent. Just maybe not as much as she is in the general book world.
SPURGEON: The design work that you do... do you have a formal background in design?
It's kind of a formal background. I went to architecture school, which is sort of a design discipline, I guess. Not books, it's not graphic design, but it's a design discipline. I also spent a lot of time working... in college I worked for the college newspaper as a designer/art director. I never went into architecture professionally, but I went into design professionally after school. I've designed countless things. Web sites. Brochures. Anything you can think of. I hadn't done that much book design, because I wasn't in that world. It's something I always admired, and had friends that worked in that.
SPURGEON: Are there comics designers that you admire?
KACZYNSKI: Jonathan Bennett
is an amazing designer. He's a great cartoonist and an amazing designer as well. I also like... he's not a cartoonist, but Joel Speasmaker
, he used to publish The Drama
. I admire his work. He has one eye on the comics world. He designed a bunch of stuff for the Brooklyn Festival this year, the Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival. I think Jacob Covey
at Fantagraphics really picked up the game for Fantagraphics' design.
SPURGEON: Enormously so.
I feel like over the last decade or so the design of comics, graphic novels, has really taken a step forward.
SPURGEON: I'm pretty unsophisticated when it comes to design, but I like the overall look of your books. I like that you don't seem scared of type, working the titles into the overall visual effect. What do you think your strengths are as a designer?
I don't know how exactly how to answer that. One thing that's frustrated me in the past about seeing certain books, like Gabrielle's work, is I've never really liked the way her books looked, to be honest. This isn't a big slam on anybody. We had a conversation where Gabrielle decided she wasn't a good typographer, essentially, so that was one of things we worked on together for her book. She's an amazing cartoonist, but there are a lot of amazing cartoonists that aren't good designers. There is this ethic in the comics world now that you have to do your own cover, do your own type. That's great if you're really good at that. But it doesn't serve everybody really well. That's something I wanted to address with what I was doing.
SPURGEON: Was bringing Aaron in to do the introduction your idea? I thought that was a great choice. Ed Brubaker wrote something for Jon [Lewis' book], and Charles was in there as well.
Charles Hatfield. For Gabrielle's book, Aaron Cometbus, Gabrielle brought him -- it seemed like a no-brainer once I heard it. For Jon Lewis' book, Ed Brubaker -- I don't know if you read the actual foreword, he was basically the first reader for True Swamp
. It was kind of amazing to be able to loop that and have this book be introduced by him. Charles, I loved his book on Jack Kirby
, and he was a fan of True Swamp
. I feel like True Swamp
has been a bit of a lost book of the '90s. I wanted to have someone who was a fan of the book that could position it critically in terms of the recent history of the medium. He seemed like the perfect choice.
SPURGEON: Both Jon and James Romberger are kind of lost talents in a way. I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, but more that they haven't quite connected with a readership to match their talent.
I agree with you. I think James was a little bit... it seems like he was maybe in the wrong place. He's done some amazing work, but he's not very well known to the sort of audience that companies like Drawn And Quarterly or Fantagraphics or myself cultivate. He's been essentially a DC/Vertigo
kind of guy. He comes from that background a little bit. He has a pulp sensibility. But again, he's been recently converted to this, getting away from doing work for DC/Vertigo and trying out this stuff. I'm looking forward to the Fantagraphics edition of 7 Miles A Second
, which looks amazing. I just started talking to James last year at the Brooklyn Festival. He showed me this Post York
thing and it just kind of went from there. I loved 7 Miles A Second
when it originally came out, and it's mystifying to me why some of these people aren't better known, or still published.
SPURGEON: Do you see a corrective impulse for your publishing, or is it fair to say that's something you like, that you can go find someone and present their work in a way that should be presented, to show their work to an audience you feel they deserve? Is that something that interests you?
I guess that's part of the impulse. When I think back, I've always had a chip on my shoulder about comics generally. In high school I would write all sorts of essays for my English classes about comics, and trying to convince my teachers that comics are a legitimate literary medium. [laughs] There's always an impulse to redress a wrong, because they tended to dismiss this kind of work. I guess that's part of the impulse here. I'm definitely publishing other people that aren't forgotten or lost. [Spurgeon laughs] It's going to be a mix of things.
SPURGEON: Could you broadly outline your ambitions in terms of the structure of Uncivilized? Is there a certain number of books you want to do a year, a pattern you want to fall into?
I don't want to over-extend, at least initially. There's no ambition to be a huge company. I would like to be a relatively successful small publisher -- maybe 8 to 10 books a year, maximum. Maybe some small things in between, pamphlet comics or minis. I still want to continue doing mini-comics. I feel like if I was going to sound corporate, that they're my R&D, research and development. You get to try out different techniques and different artists. It's a nice way to try out a specific aesthetic or a different artist without spending a lot of money.
SPURGEON: You mentioned talking to James at one of the Brooklyn shows; the 2012 version is where you and I talked to set up this interview. Certainly there's a lot of conventional wisdom out there that the shows and festivals have become increasingly important, that this year may be the best year of shows ever. From a publishing perspective -- or a cartoonist's perspective -- have the shows become more important, are they locking into a circuit?
It feels that way to me. I feel like I have to be at a certain number of shows a year: to launch a book, to have something noticed or whatever. This is my first year as a publisher doing shows -- I think I did most of the shows this year.
SPURGEON: How many would that be?
It's mostly from Fall onwards. From CAKE
, the Chicago show. Then SPX
, Brooklyn, APE
-- that's four shows for that half of the year. The first half of the year I didn't have any books. I was hunkered down, preparing for the rest of the year. I don't know. It's definitely been adding to the bottom line. The Brooklyn show was amazing. I had a really good SPX like a lot of people. Brooklyn basically matched the SPX numbers in one day for me. It was kind of amazing.
SPURGEON: What makes a good show for you, from a publishing perspective? Have you been able to figure out what the difference is now having done a few shows? Is it bottom-line sales, getting the word out, having a certain kind of book there, is there a formula for what works?
It's still going to be a bit of trial and error with these shows. As I have more and more books, I'm going to have to figure out if I need two tables, how to bring people to shows, etc., etc. For the most part, the shows I enjoy the most, they make money at the very minimum. When the artists are around, and they're having a good time, and the show is vibrant in that I can walk around and see a lot of interesting stuff. I've been doing these shows for a very long time as a cartoonist, so all of those things you want in a show as an attendee works also for the publisher. If there's a lot of good work all around, everybody benefits. If there are a lot of new debuts, it brings in more people, and everyone benefits. Shows where it's a little bit thin on that, it's not so good.
SPURGEON: Going into 2012 there was talk that business on the alternative and arts end of comics was slowing down a bit, that we were entering solidly into a down period after a slightly crazy period of book contracts with major publishers and festival hits and the established publishers in that world -- Fantagraphics, D+Q, Top Shelf -- finding their stride in terms of exactly what it is they want to do. And now we're in a down period where it's going to be a bit more of a struggle. There's a real optimism to this wave of micro-publishing we're seeing with Uncivilized and some others. It's like you're collectively voting to stick by comics. Eight to ten books a year for a literary imprint is an ambitious plan. I assume you're optimistic about the way things are going to be three, five, ten years from now, although maybe not -- maybe you're throwing stuff against the wall. Are you optimistic generally?
Yeah, I think so. [laughs] It's a mixed bag. Always. But yeah, I'm optimistic. The boom you talked about, it was a different kind of boom. Maybe Fantagraphics and Drawn And Quarterly locked into what they were doing, but it was also a boom for the big guys to get in on graphic novels. It was a weird time, because that was kind of the first time graphic novels made it into the book market and they seemed to be performing very well and everybody was like, "I need to have one" without knowing what they were doing with it. I think what's happening now is that a lot of those books didn't do well for those publishers. They did good numbers, like if you sell 20,000 of something and you're Random House
, that's peanuts, right? That's a book that's probably not making money back for them. But for a publisher like me, that's an amazing number.
So I think that space is being abandoned by the big guys, a little bit. I think there's a mid-level list of material that's good that's being abandoned on the high end of thing. I think that's why there's this surge of smaller publishers that are realizing that there are these artists that are good and are selling but there's no interest from the big guys because they kind of got burned. I think there's a little bit of an opening for the micro-publishers here. And also there is so much more good work out there. There's a lot more new talent that's actively producing work and trying to make it work for them. I don't know. There's something
going on. [laughter]
SPURGEON: One of the ways you described what you were doing was in terms of it being sustainable; it seems like there is a built-in modesty to your plans that emphasizes something achievable as opposed to shooting a rocket at the moon and seeing what happens. It sounds like you feel that what you're doing may have a longer life than tossing $140,000 advances at random books, that that probably wasn't a sustainable model.
There is a certain amount of modesty about that. At the same time, I make sure that every project I do at least makes its money back. So there are no losses. I'm not the kind of organization where I can lose money on things. I try to design everything and promote everything that there's enough to do the next project. Maybe do something more ambitious next time. I'm trying to create a sustainable model for this thing. It's still a work in progress.
SPURGEON: I greatly enjoyed your new book. A lot of it was
MOME stuff -- did everything appear in
Beta-Testing appear in
Pretty much all MOME
stuff except for the last story, which was brand new.
SPURGEON: I haven't talked to a lot of the cartoonists that worked for
MOME about that experience. I get the impression from people that for those cartoonists that published there,
MOME was really valuable in terms of keeping people productive and making comics and focused on producing work at a time when there wasn't a whole lot of structure out there.
I agree with that. MOME
showed up kind of at a moment where both Drawn And Quarterly and Fantagraphics were abandoning the pamphlet model. This was the only place where a shorter piece could be published and seen by an audience, relatively quickly. There was no lag time for two or three years and working in complete obscurity for a long time. For me personally, it was amazingly valuable. I had a kick in the ass every four months to complete something. I didn't always succeed. The first four or five issues I tried to contribute something every time, and then it kind of slowed down for me a little bit.
SPURGEON: How were you drawn into that orbit? Were you recruited? Did Eric [Reynolds] track you down and talk to you? Do you know how you came to their attention?
I'd been going to comics shows for a long time. My comics had been out there. Eric had seen my Trans
minis and liked them enough to e-mail me and say, "Hey, I like this. Whatever you do next, show them to me." I showed him a few things I did after that and at some point, he said, "Let's put that in MOME
." It kind of went from there. It wasn't like, "Do something for me." It was more like, "I like your stuff, keep sending me stuff and we'll see what happens."
SPURGEON: You said once in an interview that you got to a point where you returned to comics after being away for a while and a big chance is that you spent more time on every page, on the comics themselves, than maybe you had before. Was
MOME good for you in that you had some leeway in terms of what you could send in?
Absolutely. You always knew you couldn't do more than 10-15 pages max, because it's an anthology. It was nice to think about comics in smaller chunks. You could focus on telling stories with a beginning and an end in 10 pages, 12 pages, and focus as much as you could on that story. You could spend a little more time with it because it was only 10 pages, or only 12 pages. It was a very valuable thing to have.
It helped me get more serious about everything, too. I was serious, but when you don't have a venue like MOME
, for whatever reason you don't think about getting better -- or it's a slower process. When you're offered that venue, you're suddenly like "People are going to see this, I need to do something more serious." I feel like for me at least that was an important motivator. I'd been doing comics for 10 years before that -- publishing mini-comics for 10 years before that, I'd been doing comics since I was eight years old. It was always a little bit like, "Yeah, I'm just self-publishing this." Race to the end so you could have a new mini-comics, cut corners a bit. For whatever reason you're not doing yourself a lot of good -- MOME
gave me an opportunity to not
SPURGEON: Was appearing beside certain peers also a motivating factor, that you didn't want to be shown up?
That was part of it. I was also in this drawing group in New York, Jon Bennett was in it and Gabrielle, Jon Lewis was in it. A few other people. That was the first time I'd seen other artists do work. That was very motivating. How much work goes into a page, how much work they did, showed me that maybe I wasn't spending enough time on my pages. You know? It kind of went from there. The first few issues of MOME
I tried to do the best pages I can, I wanted to be the most interesting story in this issue. There was a little bit of competitive impulse.
SPURGEON: A lot of the work in here is connected by the fact that they're societal critiques. You mentioned studying architecture, and the architects I know are very sensitive to the shapes of cities, city planning, infrastructure issues and the way things function and relate to one another. That's a lot of what your comics get at in terms of the quandaries they portray, this kind of fraying of societal structures. Is that an explicit interest of yours, this critique of society -- I know that you're well read, but I don't know how much of your reading is in that direction.
It's a big interest. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Can you talk about how that developed? Did it come out of the interest in architecture?
Architecture was something I got into mostly as a pragmatic major for somebody interested in art. I fell in love with the discipline, and as I got more into it I fell in love with all of the issues surrounding urban planning, infrastructure and how these things come about. Whenever you did a project of any kind, you had to do an archeology of a site. How did this site come about? Here's the original grid plan. Here's how it changed. Here's how this highway affected this area. Here's why this weird wedge of land exists. This and that. It kind of sucks you in, digging all of this stuff up about it. How there are very deliberate choices made at some point to create the situation on the ground. You just walk by it, you don't know it's something very deliberately created.
I've taken that to broader, philosophical kinds of things. The political systems that we have, the economic systems we have, someone at some point made decisions about policies that created the world we live. I want people to be aware they didn't happen willy-nilly, that a lot of these choices are deliberate and a lot of these choices can be changed. That gets reflected in the comics. With the Trans
books, they're more like philosophical tracts, whereas the MOME
stuff it's more fiction steeped in those ideas.
SPURGEON: There's an anxiety present in a lot of your stories. It seems like the kind of deliberate planning you talk about would be a comfort to a lot of people, that these things are planned. So I find the anxiousness curious. The fact that these thoughts are more arbitrary, or might reflect not-friendly impulses, is that maybe the source of the anxiety?
I think the knowledge is comforting, but the anxiety... it's not even my anxiety but a general anxiety that in the US has been palpable since at least 9/11. There was an apocalyptic mindset. Things are falling apart. Things are coming to a head. There's a clash of civilizations going on. With the financial crisis, capitalism is cracking, and what does that all mean? I feel like I'm tapping into a little bit of that general anxiety.
Personally I'm interested in utopias as well. That's something I'm going to be more visible in my other book, the Trans Terra
book that's going to be coming out next year. There's all this anxiety, and it's very apocalyptic, and it feels like most people would prefer to see it all crumble as opposed to doing a few small things here and there to make things better. It's more of a frustration for me more than anxiety. It does come out in the comics as an anxiety. I think it's difficult to talk about. In the comics, especially the MOME
stuff, they're more literary in that I'm trying to get into the mindset of certain characters and people and how they would react to things where they don't know there's an underlying structure.
SPURGEON: Your comics are more focused on the mindset than the breakaway from the structured norm. There is a false apocalypse -- you're not as interested in seeing things fall down as exploring the mindset that believe that things are about to.
Yeah, that's partly why the book is called Beta-Testing The Apocalypse
. [laughter] It's not the actual apocalypse. We're feeling it out. It's hard to say exactly. It's more like the anxiety of the apocalypse than the apocalypse itself. There's a whole post-apocalyptic genre, and that's something I used to be into, but I feel it's more interesting to find out how it came about. What happens before the apocalypse? Right before it. What needs to happen to society for that to happen. I don't know if you've read Jared Diamond
's work -- the scientist that wrote Guns, Germs and Steel
. He also wrote a book about collapses of civilizations
. That's another interest of mine -- ancient civilizations, and trying to imagine ourselves as a civilization that could end. How that could come about, and what mind set we'd need to get into to release and let go and let the whole thing crumble.
SPURGEON: Your work seems very rigidly structured for the most part. You stick to grids pretty strongly, two-across and three-across, and your work is rigorously captioned. What is it about the standard grid that appeals to you?
I've been kind of getting away from it -- especially in the last story. But yes, I do like the grid, I think it's one of the things, one of these sort of grammatical rules of comic that just works. Kirby
used the grid religiously, occasionally breaking out into big splash pages. The grid is the sentence. Each page has a certain amount of panels, and that's how you tell a chunk of that story, in those panels. It's this invisible thing. Sometimes you can question it, but for the most part it's just the next sentence. This modular thing that follows the other. I think it's important to break out of it every now and then. The kind of thing I do doesn't question the medium of comics so much; it's more about trying to create certain rhythms in a story, and I think the grid does that well. You can switch from three to two across, sometimes you just have a two-page spread or you break out of it altogether. Sometimes you have complicated grids like in the "Cozy Apocalypse" story. It's almost the default you go back to so that all the weird stuff you do stands out. You can't be that way all the time, otherwise it becomes incoherent. It creates a rhythm and it creates a structure. It creates a flow.
SPURGEON: Are you a confident creator? Are you still feeling your way through your stories, or are you empowered when you see a blank page?
I'm still feeling it out a little bit. There's a lot of convoluted work that goes into these things. Occasionally, like the condo building story, that came together very smoothly. It was scripted, I drew it and and I inked it and it was done. "Wow, I'm getting this." Since then it's been a lot of back and forth. I rewrite whole chunks, and rearrange pages. It gets more difficult. Now that this book is done and I'm almost done with the Trans
book, my next project is to work with process more, and come up with a way of working that a little bit more comfortable. It's more like the grid -- a structure that moves me along more efficiently.
SPURGEON: As you said, you do use formal effects, but you employ them very judiciously: a visual element that goes from panel to panel, or a sound effect that crosses a page. Are you
consciously judicious in their employment?
Yeah. I think the formal tricks are nice, but they almost work better when there are less of them. That's kind of my take on them. I tend to be deliberate with them. If something crosses a panel border, I want you to notice it and think about it. I've done more comics that explore the medium, that play more with formal tricks, in the past. It's more part of the repertoire now than something I'm deliberately going for.
SPURGEON: You've been making comics for a long time now. You've talked here and some other places about moments that were key in your development, like getting to be around other comics-makers and see how they approach a page. The idea of being more deliberate with individual pages -- eye-opening moments you've had along the way. Are you settled in now, or are you still sensitive to these experiences? Are you the cartoonist you're going to be for a while now? How important is it for you to consider new ways of doing things?
I think I'm still pretty open. I just mentioned I'm looking for a new process. I really like Dash Shaw
's work. I've had a chance to peak at his process and it's really different from what I'm doing. We collaborated once on a story, and seeing how he works... it's very different than how Jon Bennett works. He's slower, he takes longer to put a page together, whereas Dash lunges forward and produces work more quickly, and he's able to come back in and rework certain things. There's an editing process that he has that I really admire. It's something that's difficult to do in comics. I'd like to work on that for myself, a process where I can able to produce work at a constant clip and also be able to edit.
When I was doing a lot of the MOME
work, what was great about it was being able to do these things, and they were so short I was able to wing it. If I had to redraw something, it was just one page. With more pages, you might not be able to do that. Having a process where you can edit is important, and I feel like that's something I've neglected. With longer pieces you need a process that will leave you alone, and feel like you're not falling backwards several steps.
* Tom Kaczynski
* Uncivilized Books
* Beta Testing The Apocalypse
* cover to the new work from Fantagraphics
* photo by me at some show or another
* the LA Diary
* covers to the current works, showing off Kaczynski's praised art direction on those books
* a future book from Uncivilized
* a page from the current collection, showing society fraying if only needlessly
* a page from the more utopian-centered future work, provided by the artist, encompassing some of the themes discussed
* the Trans Terra
* a page with a rigid grid
* a panel that uses some formal trickery
* a snippet I liked (bottom)
posted 2:00 pm PST
If I Were In Tokyo, I'd Go To This
posted 1:30 pm PST
If I Were In Seattle, I'd Go To This
posted 1:30 pm PST
Go, Look: Saturday With The Seals
posted 12:00 pm PST
Random Comics News Story Round-Up
* somehow I totally missed that a Staten Island comics shop closed in the wake of that Sandy storm
from late October/early November. I know that a lot of businesses suffer this kind of thing, but I think it's a reminder that small businesses like comics shops are sort of uniquely fragile in terms of taking on too many blows like that storm caused.
* Filip Kolek talks to Baru
* I always appreciate that some comics entities take some time off from the incessant hype and content production at this time of year, like D+Q
. I think that kind of downtime can be important. I know that I launched the holiday interview series against a much more grand backdrop of the comics industry and the culture that surrounds it taking a break from serious discussions of Spider-Man
story content or whatever. It's something I'll consider in future years.
* not comics: another one
for the "we're old now and will be dead soon" files.
* I also missed news of new owners for JHU
, and, from even longer ago, closure of a second location for St. Mark's
* not comics: kiss your bookseller
* not comics: Jason has been running scans of pulp covers recently
* not comics: an atypical image for this artist
* finally, Natalie Nourigat went there and back again
posted 11:00 am PST
Happy 31st Birthday, TJ Kirsch!
posted 10:00 am PST
December 29, 2012
CR Holiday Interview #11 -- Rob Clough
is the most prolific of the current writer about alternative and art comics, and may be one of the most active and engaged writers to ever tackle that family of comics expression. He has become an increasingly valuable member of that community for that constant interaction; if you're an artist making non-genre comics, or even comics in an unpopular genre, you can come as close to counting on hearing from Clough as you can on just about any other reaction available to you. As Clough describes below, he's also employed full-time and
has another area of intense, writerly interest. His output shames the rest of us into being more productive, but the general quality of his writing makes that way more difficult than just sitting down and letting it fly. There's no other writer with whom I'd want to discuss the year in art comics, 2012. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Rob, can you snapshot your current involvement with comics, what you're doing and where? I have a sense that you're super-involved, but I know that it comes in the context of you having a full-time job. How much time do you spend with comics and why that level of devotion?
I'm pretty busy. I work full-time, I'm married and have a toddler, and I also write pretty intensively about women's college basketball. At the same time, there's a part of my brain that needs to think about, process and write about comics fairly regularly. At the moment, I'm writing a few reviews a month for TCJ
and write a couple more a week for my High-Low blog
. I have things appearing in the upcoming issues of Studygroup Magazine
. I'm also doing a big interview with Ariel Bordeaux
, who's getting her early Deep Girl minis collected by Robyn Chapman's Paper Rocket books
. Some portion of that will appear in the book itself. I have a TCJ
column where I write a bit more extensively about the small press scene; right now, I'm doing an interview with Chuck Forsman about Oily Comics
. Finally, I'm in the initial stages of working on an article for TCJ
I've learned to become quite disciplined and focused. In a given week, I get maybe 10 hours to work on comics writing -- more in the offseason. I try to make those hours count. I'm devoted in part because I find myself ever more fascinated by the things people send me, and I feel a duty to work hard to offer them my thoughts. Some comics earn more verbiage on my part than others, but everything is considered equally.
SPURGEON: So given your current relationship, can you kind of reverse-engineer how you got there? I don't have any sense of how your interests developed except that you seemed to show up pretty fully formed. Was this level of engagement with comics certainly foreseeable if I knew you a dozen years ago? Is there anything that surprises you about how engaged you are right now just from the vantage point of three or five years ago?
I started dabbling in it about a decade ago, for the old Savant
web site. Matt Fraction
was the editor at the time. My interests and theirs didn't precisely match up, but I think that's what drew their interest. If you knew me a dozen years ago, you wouldn't be surprised that I'd be immersed in the comics scene somehow, because I started going to SPX
in 1997 and that accelerated my fascination with the small press scene. At the time, I spent most of my free time writing about basketball, in part because I wasn't aware of many outlets for writing about alt-comics, but also because I didn't have the focus to really start thinking about comics in a critical manner.
I guess I'm surprised that I'm able to make a little bit of money doing this, but I started to get serious about it in 2006 -- thanks, in part, to some advice you gave me that I had solicited. My level of involvement has been steady ever since; I'm simply getting more opportunities to do some interesting things than I used to. That's especially true of my involvement with SPX, which I find to be enormously fulfilling.
SPURGEON: Is there an ultimate goal to the writing you do about comics? Do you see yourself writing books, settling in for a long run writing about these works? Do you have ambitions in that area?
Books are definitely in my future. Books featuring edited and revised versions of certain of my reviews, curated and organized by me, will hopefully start appearing next year. As far as totally original content goes, I have some back-pocket ideas that I want to get to someday. That will take a lot of time, however, and I don't want to take away from doing reviews on a regular basis. We'll see. I plan to write about comics for a long, long time.
SPURGEON: Let's talk about 2012 in the alt-/art- realm. I want to talk about Building Stories as kind of its own thing, but what do you think the year would look like, how would we view 2012, if that book didn't exist at all? Would there be an obvious Big Name/Big Book contender in alt-/art- circles? Not to say that multiple cases won't be made that other books are better, but I think that's the one that people have to negotiate. So without it, would we all be talking about Carol Tyler's work as that "big" book, for example? In general, do you think this current cycle where we get these major works from major alt-talents is a positive for that realm of comics as a whole, or is there an argument to be made that certain big books might suck a lot of the oxygen from the room?
Sometimes I feel like the more I see, the less I know. Given just the output of Fanta
, I could build a top 20 list of new and reissued comics that could stack up against most any year. Carol Tyler's book would be way up there, although no one seems to be talking about it for some reason. Of course, we're now in an environment where even micro-publishers are releasing beautifully-designed hardcovers by top-rank artists, like Gabrielle Bell's The Voyeurs from Tom Kaczynski's Uncivilized Books
. Bigger publishers seem to be getting smarter about their comics releases now, rather than simply snapping up the first five people they spot at MoCCA
. The Frank Young/David Lasky book
is absolutely stunning. Then there's the new devotion to the comic book/periodical format, as well as my belief that there are more good mini-comics being made now than at any time in comics history. I could argue that the artist of the year was Michael DeForge
or Josh Bayer
based on their comics/mini-comics output.
That said, I think back to what Gilbert
-- I think -- Hernandez
said at the Ignatz Awards when they were cleaning up: "I'd like to thank Chris Ware
, Dan Clowes
and Art Spiegelman
for not publishing any books last year." Those guys get significant attention from the mainstream press, the comics press and fans and dominate the discourse even if their releases might be lightweight compared to other books from their career. I enjoyed Mister Wonderful
, for example, but that's a minor Clowes work compared to Ice Haven
. I think it's great that this happens in the mainstream press, as it's the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats, but I know lots of artists get frustrated that their work doesn't receive wider recognition from the comics press.
To actually answer your initial question, there are just too many good comics now to easily anchor a year. Better to go publisher by publisher, especially since the expansion of small press comics publishing has meant that more cartoonists are working and finding places for their work. Unlike even two years ago, virtually any good cartoonist is going to find someone to publish their work, or failing that, help to distribute it. I also can't emphasize enough how big an impact the Canadian and British publishers have now on the comics scene. Koyama Press
had excellent publishing years. Blank Slate
are maturing into top-notch publishers.
SPURGEON: I know that a lot of people my age that are interested in these kinds of books are having a harder time than we thought orienting ourselves to younger artists because the way they publish seems slightly scattershot if not outright ephemeral. Do you have any difficulties simply engaging the works that you feel you should be to keep up on this area of expression? If we plop you down at an SPX or, perhaps even more to the point, a BCGF, do you work that room pretty well, are you comfortable with comics you may only be seeing on Tumblr?
The short answer is yes, I am quite comfortable at SPX or a similar comics event. But that's in part because I do a lot of work before the show. First, I figure out where all of the artists I know will be based on the floor plan. Then I look at the guest list and check out every artist's website. If I'm not immediately intrigued or it's obvious that their style is not something I'm interested in, I just cross it off. That usually leaves about 10-15 artists that I don't know that I want to approach. I also leave plenty of room for serendipitous discoveries and word of mouth, because there are always surprises at these shows. I was happy, however, to be able to direct people to interesting and lesser-known work at SPX when they wanted to know what they should check out. Kevin Huizenga
and Aaron Cockle
saw my annotated SPX map and wanted me to scan it!
I have no problem managing the works of younger artists because they send it to me, and my tastes are catholic enough to handle pretty much anything thrown my way. That said, if you read my column, you have a pretty good idea of what comics I tend to read, so it's a fairly self-selecting process.
I do think it's easier to get good mini-comics now than ever before. Chuck Forsman's Muster List
is an astounding resource, an idea so good that I'm stunned that no one else ever thought of it before. John Porcellino
and Secret Acres
provide an amazing range of minis for sale at the touch of a button. And of course, the micro-publishers all tend to have well-operated websites. You just have to figure out what you want to read and what level of commitment you want to give in the course of that experience, because some of the more "immersive" comics published by Austin English and the like are challenging reads.
SPURGEON: So being 15 years into small press festivals of some sort, do you agree with the conventional wisdom that they're more important now than ever? Do you believe that they're particularly valuable to the artists, or valuable in terms of getting these works in front of an audience given the slow dissolve of mail-order culture from what it was in the 1990s?
I absolutely agree that these shows are now crucial for the comics small press. I compare it to the indy rock circuit. An indie band makes almost no money from its recordings, just like an indy comics artist doesn't usually make a lot of money from publishing. But there are regional circuits of clubs open to indy bands all over the countries, frequently in small cities and college towns, and those tours allow the bands to make money from performing and selling merchandise. It's also allowed boutique record stores to stay afloat while big chain stores go under. You see where I'm going with this -- small but smart comics stores can stay in business by carefully cultivating their customer base and shows can help pay the bills for a dedicated micro-publisher. Those shows also help grow their audience, one reader at a time. If those shows are done on an regular basis, those readers will come back to see them or even find them online. The nice thing about the increasing regionalization of the shows means that more artists have a chance of attending at least one show, and doing so at a greatly reduced cost. Especially since the newer shows tend to have very affordable table rates. I think there's also an increased understanding by the artists that these are working shows, not just a chance to hang out.
SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about the curating work you did at this year's SPX? Did that make for a different experience? You and I talked briefly while you were there and doing it, and you seemed to have had a very specific, focused time in terms of what you were seeing and what you seeking out.
CLOUGH: Warren Bernard
bowled me over with that offer. We had met at SPX 2011, and I found him to be a forthright, funny guy who clearly had a long-range vision for the show. He's someone who pays a lot of attention to details, and he invited me to curate because he knew I'd be able to uncover some worthwhile mini-comics that others might have missed. It did make for a different experience, though the show this year was so intense in its own right that I feel like I still would have been going a million miles an hour. As always, I did a lot of prep before the show to identify a number of artists and publishers that I wanted to hit up as potential donors to the Library of Congress
. I contacted several of them ahead of time, and I'm glad I did. The LOC really wanted a complete run of Michael DeForge's Lose
, for example, and #1 and #2 are almost out of print. Thankfully, the ever-amazing Annie Koyama
enthusiastically made sure to bring some of the last remaining copies and had them ready for me. Several other cartoonists also had their packages ready for me as well.
I stayed in touch with the very nice LOC people and met up with them early on Sunday to give them what I had, plus the release forms from the cartoonists. On Saturday, I improvised here and there to give out forms to some other artists -- not one person said no -- and was still collecting forms until the show ended. I felt a responsibility to create a diverse and interesting list, one that the LOC collectors might not have noticed when combing the floor but was entirely worthy of being part of the collection. I was going after work that I knew had limited runs, certain key anthologies, beautiful handmade comics, representative works from key micro-publishers and some personal favorites. I'd be fascinated to see what kind of list someone else comes up with next year, assuming that they keep the guest curator program going.
SPURGEON: You're not afraid of a summary statement or two, given the breadth of your reading. Are you seeing anything from the handmade comics that you weren't seeing before? I'm always a little lost in terms of what constitutes an actual trend in what cartoonists are making and what we might simply expect from young cartoonists working in that specific area.
There are a small handful of innovators and a lot of others who are following older trends. In the latter group, however, I see a real commitment to getting better through hard work. The people who send me their comics seem really committed to the art as a lifelong thing that they're going to fervently pursue regardless of whether or not they will ever make money from it. A certain set of younger cartoonists send me all of their work and continue to send me new work, and it's interesting to see how much better they get in a short period of time. There are still lots of gag minis, slice-of-life minis, journal or diary comics, etc. One can see the hand of several generations' worth of cartoonists in some of these comics as the young artists try to worth through their influences.
I consider the newest innovators to be Michael DeForge and Josh Bayer, first and foremost. They have a total command over comics' historical length and breadth and simply pick and choose as they see fit, making few judgments regarding the original source material. There are a lot of people doing intelligent genre comics that dip into other categories, with horror -- and body horror in particular -- being dominant themes. Julia Gfrorer
is aces at depicting the intersection between horror, sexuality and gender, for example. Noel Friebert
has a distinct handle on the sort of horror story where the reader sort of becomes infected by the madness of the narrative, a la Lovecraft
In general, the balance between form and narrative seems to be better. Some people used to complain about pretty, silkscreened comics that were too ephemeral for their tastes. Someone like Ryan Cecil Smith
, for example, uses his Risograph to create these incredible-looking art objects that are packed with exciting and funny sci-fi stories. On balance, there seem to be more creators creating genre stories that have the sort of Trondheim
attitude where you make fun of genre but treat the actual plot with deadly seriousness.
Finally, there's that small handful of what I call the "Immersive" artists who demand that the reader engages each page on the artist's terms There's a unity between word and image, where text has a visual or decorative impact and is fully integrated as part of the art, for example. Narrative can be stream of consciousness or fractured. It's art-as-handwriting, a highly personal approach that people like Austin English
, and many in his Domino Books
stable, Dunja Jankovic
, etc., use. Related to that is the burgeoning sub-field of comics-as-poetry. Warren Craghead
is still the king, but artists like Aidan Koch
-- whose work is also pretty immersive -- Simon Moreton
, Derik Badman
, Allen Haverholm
and -- to an extent -- John Porcellino
are making this a thriving group.
SPURGEON: Let's talk about the micro-publishers a bit: Tom Kaczynski, Rina Ayuyang, Bill Kartalopoulos, Gabe Fowler all spring to mind. Marc Arsenault is back as well, although he's purchased a more traditional arts-comics publisher and it's unclear what his output and direction will be. Do you have any thoughts on what exactly this trend means for artists, or even where this came from? I'm curious that so many people are jumping directly to publishing as opposed to editing or doing an anthology. Is this simply a case of there being so much talent out there that those that wish to publish through someone else are simply sitting there, waiting to work with someone?
I'd say the trend is overdetermined. On the one hand, I think it's part of a natural boom-and-bust cycle for publishers. Plenty of publishers, large and small, have come and gone in the last 15 years. However, I think there's also a critical mass of cartoonists piling up work and looking for an outlet paired with ambitious would-be publisher. That said, I'd like to think that the last year's worth of micro-publishers springing up like mushrooms owes something to the legacy of Dylan Williams
. Dylan was a guy who spent the last decade of his life making no creative compromises for the art he believed in, because he didn't know how much time he had left. He also worked his ass off to do so, rather than procrastinating. I can't help but think that his example inspired a lot of people. I know Austin English credits Dylan for giving him the confidence and impetus to start Domino Books, but I can't speak for anyone else.
There are other factors. The greater number of festivals means there are more venues to sell books. There is a small but thriving network of comics stores willing to take a chance on these books, an initiative driven in part by Tony Shenton
. Kickstarter has been a boon for many, though most of the micro-publishers tend to prefer to invest their own money. The micro-publishers aren't in it to get rich, but rather to expand the point of view readers get to see just a bit. Rina wanted everyone to see Tim Hensley's obscure work
. Bill K wanted to translate a provocative work and add it to the discourse of the English-speaking comics community. Marc is a proven retailer who knows all about the economics of comics, and he has his own set of plans. Matt Moses of Hic & Hoc
wanted to give humorists a greater spotlight.
What I find interesting about the whole thing is the way that some publishers are reaching back into comics' recent history -- the past 20-30 years -- and trying to revitalize work that's fallen out of print, like Robyn Chapman at Paper Rocket
or Tom K reprinting Jon Lewis' True Swamp
. Given that we're in the Golden Age of Reprints, I think it's important to make sure that recent history -- pre-Internet stuff in particular -- isn't forgotten, especially among forty-something cartoonists.
What it all means is that a young artist can almost certainly find an outlet if they get good enough and that a veteran can get back in the game if they quit out of frustration years ago. Neither will make a million dollars, but they might make some money and will get their work seen by a small but appreciative audience and in a format that will flatter their work.
SPURGEON: What is it that struck you about
Voyeurs that in our pre-interview you named that of all the boutique publishing works you could have named? This is a book that's come up a bunch in my conversations with people in terms of it being a top-line effort perhaps ideally suited from what Tom is doing. What would you have people know about what Gabrielle Bell is doing, particularly in terms of what she's put out to date as compared to this latest work?
CLOUGH: The Voyeurs
stuck out because it's the first time I've seen a true micro-publisher, one that primarily publishes mini-comics or pamphlets, stretch its legs in such an astonishing fashion. The Voyeurs
looks as good as any book not produced by Fantagraphics this year. The quality of paper that's designed to make the color look just right is a tell-tale sign that Tom K was paying attention to details. It's obvious that Tom K and Gabrielle carefully curated and arranged its contents so it wasn't just simply dumping old strips in between two covers and calling it a day. Bell creates a kind of narrative that on the surface level is chronological but at a deeper level is emotional and philosophical. She plays some chapters off against other chapters, giving later events greater resonance -- like with her ex-boyfriend Michel -- and depth. The book also allows her to return to certain themes like presentness and expand on them later. Bell is also still really funny, but this is a work by a cartoonist who thinks. I believe this is why she and Tom K have excellent synergy as a publisher-artist duo. Tom's comics are cerebral in a different way but are still very much the product of an artist who lives inside his own head as much as Bell does, while still thinking constantly about others and the ways in which they behave.
As a side note, I don't want to discount how great Annie Koyama's books look, but she started off doing art books that looked beautiful. Expanding her roster into comics actually meant publishing mini-comics and pamphlets after she had already produced more lavishly-designed art books -- and later comics.
SPURGEON: This may be an uncomfortable place to bring up this topic, but how do you feel about this kind of art
vis-a-vis the financial prospects for this kind of art? I mean, a lot of what we're seeing is comics made for the love of making comics, but I wonder in the long-term how many people can continue and to what extent they can continue without a system coming into being with broader rewards. Are you optimistic this will happen? Is this something you think about at all?
I'm pretty firmly convinced that unless you're one of those webcartoonists with a fervent following that will give you a million dollars for a kickstarter, or do comics for the burgeoning children's book market, you cannot make real money just doing comics. You have to take commercial jobs, mainstream work, illustration work or jobs outside comics. This is not to say that comics are a money sink now, however; thanks to kickstarter grants and the work of micro-publishers, artists can make modest amounts of money -- the equivalent of having a part-time job. The question to me is not so much if alt-cartoonists will ever be able to make a living wage based on the fruits of their artistic endeavors alone, it's whether or not they understand that this is the case when they enter into the field. Things get trickier when artists want to get married, buy a house or have kids. Some artists quit or take breaks as a result.
The one ray of hope is that I see an infrastructure slowly being built between from the ground up, one linking communities from town to town and country to country. That's different than 2005 or so, when cartoonists thought they'd get rich in the book industry, only to see that go up in smoke when the book market collapsed. No one's going to get rich quick, but if that network of publishers, retailers and artists work to slowly build audiences through constant outreach -- not just conventions, but book signings, workshops and tours -- then they could build something whose existence is not dependent on the health of the publishing industry -- something sustainable because it's a part of the local culture.
SPURGEON: In our initial exchange you're the one that brought up this explosion in British comics that we're seeing now, and I thought I'd let you have the floor a bit before I narrow the focus. What is it that strikes you about what you're seeing about comics from that part of the world that makes you feel it's important to note in 2012?
There are three things I've noticed. First, there's a small but vibrant self-publishing/mini-comics community in the UK that's quite varied in terms of content and skill level. The festival circuit seems very important there, in part because the UK is small enough to go to most any show as a day trip. Second, there are an increasing number of mid-size to micro-publishers putting out work from interesting British artists, many of whom were part of a lost generation of cartoonists when there was an implosion in the UK art-comics scene in the late 90s. The anthology Nelson
is kind of a Rosetta stone for these artists, as it's a nice intro for dozens of artists. What's more interesting is that there's a newer generation of cartoonists in their early 20s who have no memory or knowledge of that earlier scene but who bought art comics published by Fantagraphics and D&Q; because those books penetrated the UK book market, they cultivated a fan base that was inspired by those artists. Luke Pearson, an astonishingly talented young artist who publishes through NoBrow, is a great example of this. Another factor is the golden age of reprints; those books are penetrating UK markets and so they get to read Frank King, EC Segar, George Herriman and Charles Schulz in copious quantities if they want. Maybe they're a few years behind the American artists, but they're catching up. Third, the tastemaking publishers have absorbed something else from their US counterparts: translating and publishing work from other countries. The Big Three UK alt-publishers -- NoBrow, Blank Slate and SelfMadeHero -- have all published work from non-UK cartoonists; at least half their catalogs comes from France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Each company has their own aesthetic mark: NoBrow is the most design-heavy, which makes sense because they print art books as well; SelfMadeHero has very specific lines that straddles genre and general interest topics; Blank Slate tends to publish more personal and autobio comics.
There are other UK publishers and micro-publishers, and they all tend to be small operations: frequently one or two people running the whole show. The slightly bigger publishers have a staff of maybe 5-10 people. They are all smart and seem to have thought hard about getting their books into the hands of paying customers. There is ambition at work here but not greed, if that makes any sense -- they want to print the best possible books and get it into stores. At SPX, the UK publishers absolutely killed -- that's a show with smart customers looking for something new and eye-catching, and the publishers worked that hard. Much like with the other micro-publishers, select US retailers are slowly trying to push these books. As trust builds between the publishers, who work hard to figure out what retailers can push what books, and the retailers, always looking to sell something new, you will see more and more of these books in US stores.
SPURGEON: So play critic-as-enabler for a moment. If I'm an alt-comics fan and I'm intrigued by the new British comics, what practical steps should I take in order to better immerse myself in that arena? Do I start with
Nelson, say, and write down names? Where do you buy those comics? How do I follow that scene?
Starting with Nelson
makes sense, especially with someone who has fairly wide-ranging tastes. There are a lot of old-school British cartoonists, many of whom will be familiar to Vertigo readers from the 1990s. However, there's enough of the new school to give a reader a taste. From there, I'd recommend the Solipsistic Pop
anthology, which has some of the very best young British cartoonists as well as some intriguing veterans like Stephen Collins. Each issue is themed and the most recent one, #4, revolves around maps. Given the close connection between comics and maps -- as articulated by Dylan Horrocks -- it should serve as no surprise that there's a wide range of clever takes on this idea. The most recent NoBrow anthologies, #s 6 and 7, are half illustration and half comics, and the comics halves are outstanding. Beyond that, every alt-comics fan should get to know the work of Luke Pearson. Hilda and the Midnight Giant
is a great place to start. He's immensely talented and still quite young, so he has a bright future.
As to how to get them, SelfMadeHero is an outstanding publisher and they've managed to secure a deal with Abrams in the US. They're the publishers of The Nao of Brown
, among other things. They remind me a little of NBM in that they have these very focused lines: a manga Shakespeare line, a horror line, a non-fiction line, etc. Blank Slate Books publishes Nelson
and an eclectic variety of comics by UK, European and American cartoonists. Nick Abadzis' collected Hugo Tate
is being published by Blank Slate as well. Then there's NoBrow, which favors design-heavy comics and has a very specific aesthetic. It's somewhere between Drawn & Quarterly and comics in the Franco-Belgian tradition. All of their comics are visually striking, and like NoBrow, they make sure to publish comics in a variety of formats -- including variations on pamphlets and short-form work. I'm also fond of The Strumpet
, a UK/US anthology that's all women, as well as smaller publishers like Records Records Records.
As you intimate, it can be tough finding some of these comics. That's a big reason why NoBrow and SelfMadeHero absolutely killed it at SPX despite almost exclusively selling fairly high-priced items. NoBrow works very closely with US shops and is slowly creeping into the US market, a bit at a time. One can always order things from their websites, of course. Of course, there's also a thriving mini-comics scene in the UK -- as well as an exciting, burgeoning one in Ireland -- but I don't think there's a single source that one can turn to in order to get them. I would recommend going to the Secret Acres shop and picking up some of Rob Jackson's bizarre, hilarious comics, however.
Nao Of Brown strikes me as a potentially significant work for that scene. Can you talk a bit about what struck you with that one, and where it fits into that wider continuum you describe?
Well, it was staggeringly beautiful, for one thing. Every single page was a joy to look at, be it the primary narrative or the Miyazaki/Moebius-inspired sub-narrative. At the same time, the beauty of the book was totally organic and fluid. Its pages breathed and flowed and weren't just pretty but static images. I thought the medium of comics was well-suited for the depiction of OCD/pure obsession because of the way Dillon was able to steer audiences back and forth between reality and fantasy. I wasn't crazy about the ending, though aspects of it are growing on me. Beyond the text itself, the story behind the making of the book sort of recapitulates the rise of the alt-comics scene in the UK. Dillon was a successful cartoonists in the '90s before the bottom dropped out of the publishing market. He left comics in order to make money doing TV and movies. He returned to comics when he had an idea that he simply had to work out on the page and saw that he'd have someone to publish it. I'm seeing a trend of forty-something cartoonists who dropped out starting to return to comics, both in the US and elsewhere. For a lot of these cartoonists, they simply needed a publishing opportunity.
SPURGEON: A book that I liked very much this year was the Annie Sullivan/Helen Keller effort crafted by Joseph Lambert, who has kind of become the star CCS graduate thus far, at least in terms of what the people I know think of when they think of that school. I don't know if that work gives you a way to talk about the school more generally, but I wondered both about your opinion of that specific work and if you're seeing anything from the current generation of school graduates.
I've taken a special interest in CCS, as I think you may know. I wrote an article on the mentor-cartoonist relationship in TCJ
#301 and have reviewed the work of about a hundred of the 150 or so students who've graduated from there. I think it was obvious to anyone who saw his work that Lambert's chops were second to none. He can draw anything and do it with both skill and a sense of humor. He's especially adept at drawing kids and has a strong understanding of how they behave and what their body language is like. What he seemingly lacked was an idea that would challenge him and stretch him as a writer. Right before and during taking on the Annie Sullivan
project, his writing started to get sharper and more focused as he started to flesh out things like complex characterization. The visual problem-solving choices he made in Annie Sullivan
were justifiably praised, but I thought the choices he made in how he depicted his protagonist were even more interesting. In his hands (and thanks to a great deal of research), Sullivan was always clawing her way out of poverty and lacked patience for anyone who stood in her way, even as she was ashamed of her past. Ending the book on an ambiguous note and exposing the ways in which Helen Keller was exploited by Annie's old school gave what could have been a straightforward bio comic an unexpected level of depth.
As for CCS, one can see how some of the people from the earlier classes have continued to evolve and strive to get better and are being rewarded with publishing opportunities. The class of 2008 in particular is ridiculously deep: along with Lambert, there's Chuck Forsman, Sean Ford, Alex Kim, Jeff Lok, Dane Martin, Denis St. John and more. What I like about the school is that they're prepared to teach anyone how to do comics, whether they draw in a clear-line style and write straightforward narratives or they work in the Fort Thunder mark-making style. I admire the work of dozens of its graduates, but let me name just a few who represent the expanse of styles and who I think will shortly be gaining wider notice:
Colleen Frakes was from the first class and is one of the few from that group who stayed in comics. Her comics are both whimsical and sad, and her brush strokes are beautiful. Annie Koyama published her Island Brat
. Aaron Cockle -- a graduate of the one-year program -- does these oblique comics influenced by Roberto Bolano that act as both genre comics and metacommentary on writing itself. Annie Murphy -- another one-year grad -- is an ambitious editor -- she was behind the excellent Gay Genius
anthology -- and excellent artist who tackles material related to both gender and interesting belief systems in ways that no one else does. Dakota McFadzean is the other CCS grad whose chops are in Lambert territory; he seems to like depicting the line between reality and fantasy as well as families in small town situations. Jose-Luis Oliveros uses this seemingly crude and primitive swash of color that seeks to explore primordial questions about sexuality and identity. Laura Terry is another artist with major-league chops -- hard-won, at that -- whose use of color and clear-line design make her another Next Big Thing. Dane Martin combines a crude, intuitive style with rock-solid storytelling chops in his stories; he's sort of a cross between Mark Beyer and Tony Millionaire. Cole Closser and Sasha Steinberg, both graduating this year, appropriate older cartooning styles to tell new kinds of stories. Melissa Mendes tells stories about children with an astonishing level of verisimilitude, while her line is perfect for illustrating children's books. I could easily rattle off a couple of dozen more names.
What's interesting about the school is that there are plenty of graduates who aren't very good illustrators or draftsmen. What they get at CCS is enough training and relentless work in that area to improve, as well as a rock-solid understanding of how to be a cartoonist, as opposed to illustrator. What I also find impressive about the school is its culture of critique. The students critique each other's work as much as the instructors do. It doesn't seem to be so much a competitive environment -- though that's there too, to some extent -- as one that demands the best of everyone. It's the main reason why I'm committed to seeing as much work from its graduates as possible, because even some of the cruder student work has something at stake for them.
SPURGEON: You've mentioned Chuck Forsman a couple of times; his Oily Comics is intriguing to me both for the range of work, the very specific format and even the subscription business model. There are so few new ideas in terms of how to get work out there and into people's hands, and this strikes me as at least a novel effort. What do you think of that work?
Chuck may be my favorite of all the CCS artists. His line, storytelling, and weird sense of humor have always hit the right notes for me as a reader. He's also an artist with a great work ethic and a commitment to getting better. I think his The End Of The Fucking World
comic is his first truly mature work; it's a signal that he's found his voice and is using it with increasing confidence and skill. His Snake Oil series has always been very good as well, with #6 and #7 being especially noteworthy And of course, he was one of the primary agents behind the best of the CCS anthologies, Sundays
. That anthology doesn't just publish CCS grads -- though a thorough representation of the most interesting CCS cartoonists is usually prominently represented -- and is the rare anthology that publishes work from poetic, oblique cartoonists like Warren Craghead and Lydia Conklin.
Chuck's aesthetic is very much at work in pursuing artists for Oily. I just finished a profile on him and Oily for TCJ.com that goes into all the financial particulars of being a micro-publisher. Chuck noted that he considers Oily to be an extended, periodical form of an anthology, and there's an extent to which some of the cartoonists are fellow editors. For example, Dane Martin recommended a couple of cartoonists for the Oily line. The fact that Chuck has the guts to publish difficult work by cartoonists like Aaron Cockle and Andy Burkholder is certainly to his credit. I like everything about these comics: the content, the format, their hand-made nature. What's remarkable is that every artist manages to pack a lot into just a few pages on a consistent basis. It's an interesting outlet for some artists, I'd imagine. For example, Josh Simmons did this highly unsettling comic for Oily called Flayed Corpse
. It's a gruesome meditation on the nature of life and death, short and to the point.
What will be interesting to me is to see how long Chuck keeps this going. He described Oily as a great part-time job, one that helps pay the bills. He has great taste, and artists actually make a small royalty in publishing their minis with them. He's in about 20 comics shops and is slowly reaching others, thanks in part to Tony Shenton. He does great at shows and has that innovative subscription service. I don't doubt that he could continue to draw in new artists and convince established Oily artists to do new series. Since it's a one-man operation, for the most part, it will only last as long as he has fun doing it. I think it's valuable in that it provides a curated, eclectic cross-section of talented small press cartoonists. Pointing a reader to Oily, John Porcellino's Spit and a Half distro and the Secret Acres mini-comics page would give an even wider cross-section of comics from around the world.
SPURGEON: Before we shut this down, Rob, I wanted your opinion on
Building Stories. Additionally, that was the first book this cycle of year-end awards and lists to get a major nod just for being a book as opposed to being an exemplar for comics -- making PW's fiction list. There have been a bunch of others. I have to say, as much as I adore comics and know that this is a big deal for those authors, there's something about so many of these honors that smacks of stunt-work on the part of list-makers. So what do you think is going on there?
I guess there's always a search for something new and novel on the part of listmakers, and Ware's project certainly qualifies. At the same time, Ware has been pretty safe ground for the past 12 years for mainstream critics. It's OK for academics and critics from the New York Review of Books
to focus in on his literary qualities and the ways he pushes the format in innovative ways. Ware made comics hip for a certain kind of critic and reader of literary fiction, by dint of his sheer ambition. At the same time, I've never sensed that Ware was deliberately trying to draw in that crowd, especially since most of Jimmy Corrigan
was completed in serialized form with an audience that was almost entirely comprised of alt-comics fans. I guess it is disappointing that so many critics start at Ware and stop there when examining comics, though this is probably a little less true now than before.
As to the work itself -- Ware has always been the sort of artist who could never sit still and work on just one thing at a time. He seems to have a constant need to stimulate different parts of his brain, be it through comics, model-making, music, etc. He's also as knowledgable about art and literature in general as any artist I've ever met, and he has always seemed hungry to integrate his wide-ranging influences with his comics work.
As such, two things come to mind when initially thinking about Building Stories
. I don't know the chronology for sure, but it seems like a project that is radically different from Rusty Brown -- which is still in progress, of course. Rusty Brown
is also about memory, of course, and the ways in which people's lives overlap and connect in ways both small and large. Each chapter of Rusty Brown
is a chapter devoted to one of the seven primary characters, and we've only gotten to Woody Brown and Jordan Lint so far. The last two chapters have been dazzling achievements in their own right, but the course of each book was rigorously planned and predetermined by Ware. Ware is obsessed with the idea of comic-as-map or comic-as-diagram, and while there's plenty in both stories that's left for the reader to slowly discover -- Ware never tips his hand when disclosing important story information -- it's very much a fixed story. All that's left for the reader to do is connect the dots and take the ride.
Ware talks about architects and architecture throughout the course of the book while subtly commenting on and viciously critiquing his own work throughout the book. When the protagonist dreams of finding a book at a bookstore that she wrote, it's essentially the contents of Building Stories
, as though built by an architect. The critiquing sessions in the book are both a parody of such things and harsh truths Ware is exploring about his own work. There are a lot of sly touches like this throughout the book.
leaves the entire trajectory of the narrative up to the reader. It's a 3D model of one of Ware's complicated diagrams that branches off in a number of different directions over time; there's even one of those diagrams in the big hardcover book. Instead of following a diagram, we can follow any one of the fourteen different documents found in the box. It's a scale model of a narrative, one that the reader literally pulls out of its box and puts together as they see fit. At the same time, one can see lines and connections between each of the parts. Some of the comics collapse the narrative, some expand on particular characters. Some are about certain emotional experiences and memory. There's a framework, but it's a fragile one and much depends on the reader to make it come alive for them in terms of reader commitment. This is as active a reading experience as I've ever had, even with the random approach I took to reading it.
I also found it to be tremendously moving. A lot of people call Ware a miserablist, but I see him as someone who directly confronts all of the negative feelings he has about himself as well as the negative feelings he has about other types of people, and confronts both on the page in a way that attempts to reach the humanity of every single character. At the same time, he seems fascinated by the ways in which an unreliable memory can directly influence one's feelings, and he gets at that in looking at certain events from different angles at different points in time. There are subtle differences that Ware doesn't linger on for very long, but it's clear that the effect of the passage of time has a ravaging effect on memory in unpredictable ways, especially as people tend to view their own personal narrative as both linear and internally consistent.
What I found moving was the unnamed protagonist and her relationship with her daughter. Ware gets at the heart of being a parent in such a powerful and complex way, invoking the heartbreak, the small joys, the self-hatred, the forbidden feelings of frustration. Approaching that silently, through the voice of the protagonist or the voice of her child gave the reader several ways to understand something that is obviously of great importance to Ware.
Ware's work may not be for everyone, but there's no doubt that he's still the most important and influential cartoonist in the world right now. He finds new ways to explore the language of comics while making stories that are humane and express his own vulnerability.
SPURGEON: Is this new era sustainable? What's the best thing that can happen to comics of this type in the next 36 months?
In some ways, what's happened this year feels like a bunch of local networks joining up and starting to form a coherent whole. It's grassroots, bottom-up structuring. In order to sustain this and grow this, it's important that no one over-reaches. Over-reaching is what torpedoed the mass market book publishers and the original graphic novels they produced that didn't make enough money for them.
I haven't talked about webcomics, but there's no question that the web has provided a publishing platform for many artists and a place to get better in public. To me, the focus must be on getting better, not getting published. The community of comics that's being built mustn't have the clichéd Team Comics approach of supporting everything; instead, it must encourage excellence or every artist's best effort at minimum. That's one reason why I'm excited about the micro-publisher trend; it's a way of curating material because it means that a publisher believes in your work enough to put their time and money behind it.
The best thing that can happen is if cartoonists who are given a publishing outlet respond with the best work of their careers. That goes double for cartoonists graduating from schools where they were taught cartooning like CCS or SVA
. Cartoonists also need to be aware of how to play to their strengths in terms of format. . Not every cartoonist has a book-length graphic novel in them, but up until recently this was being privileged above short-form work. Some cartoonists simply work better doing short stories and need that kind of outlet; look at Gabrielle Bell, for example. I'm hoping that more micro-publishers pop up on a regional basis, or represent underrepresented genres or aesthetic approaches -- like Matt Moses' Hic & Hoc publishing a number of humorists. I think it's important to continue to respect the history of the medium, and I'm hoping that the next three years will see a wave of reprints from the '90s, especially mini-comics. That's going to happen next year with the Fantagraphics mini-comics reprint project, the Deep Girl
reprint project, True Swamp
being reprinted as a single hardcover, etc. There's plenty of other interesting material that deserves to be brought back, however.
Lastly, while aesthetics should ideally be the basis for publishing alt-comics, I'd like to continue to see publishers be better business people. I want them to find ways to reach audiences with their work, be it social media, conventions or personal appearances. I'd like to see publishers work more closely with retailers as both try to figure out what kind of books will sell to their customers. Micro-publishers and comic book stores can both profit when the other does well, especially since the content of alt-comics is not dependent upon bringing in a geek-culture fanbase and means getting a different customer base into stores. In turn, having a place to go on tours benefits both artist and retailer. Alt-comics have built a nice foundation; now it's time to slowly build up and out while maintaining the stability of that foundation.
SPURGEON: To take us out, can you point towards a few books that you think were under-appreciated this year? I liked the Toon Books work Shark King, for example, as one that maybe the hardcore alt-comics community didn't appreciate as much as the boldness of the cartooning might suggest it was due. Are we at a point where maybe even entire categories are under-appreciated. I mean, I use to roll my eyes when humor guys would claim they weren't taken seriously, but I honestly wonder if they are right at this moment.
Think about this: Dal Tokyo
, a book that had been anticipated by many for a couple of decades, made barely a critical ripple this year. I haven't seen it on any book of the year lists, and it's a barely-seen collection of work from one of our greatest cartoonists. A couple of more examples from veteran cartoonists: Ellen Forney's Marbles
is a career-topping achievements that would have received a ton of hype ten years ago. Now? They're just good books. Same with Joe Sacco's Journalism
. Another career-topping book was Leela Corman's Unterzakhn
, which is jam-packed with excellent cartooning and complex, surprising characterizations Julia Wertz's The Infinite Wait
was her first truly mature work; if you hadn't followed her comics in a while, then this is a book that will be surprising in its depth and subtlety that go hand-in-hand with hilariously crude humor.
I'll rattle off a few more things that I think deserve recognition. An artist named Lance Ward
first self-published, then got a small publisher to release a book of autobio strips called K-Mart Shoes
. They detail the most painful parts of a thoroughly awful childhood in a raw, powerful manner. Ward's voice is distinctive and brutally honest and his work has a visceral quality rare in autobio If you can get the self-published version done in his sublime color scheme, I'd recommend it. Ward has serious chops; even these very-hastily constructed strips have a rock-solid frame that supports his scribbly stories.
I thought Jason's Athos in America
was one of his best-ever efforts. I wasn't as thrilled by Low Moon
, but he really rebounded and mastered the short story format in an affective, funny and frequently disturbing manner.
Both of Harvey Pekar
's last books -- Cleveland, with Joseph Remnant
, and Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, with JT Waldman
, were quite good. At some point, I think Pekar's work after his initial run of American Splendor
needs to be reexamined. There's a lot of great material there that kind of got ignored at the time. With his last two books, it helped that he got paired with two young artists with serious chops. Remnant in particular is a rising star, and his own Blindspot
comic book was excellent -- there was a noticeable leap from the first issue to the second. The book with Waldman is heavy on history -- like Macedonia
, a book he did with another rising star in Ed Piskor
-- but is grounded in personal relationships. I'll miss Pekar's status as a working-class intellectual and historian almost as much as his status as Everyman.
Something that gets almost totally ignored in most comics circles is the way that the queer comics scene is breaking through into the mainstream without compromising its core aesthetics. The Justin Hall-edited No Straight Lines
is essential reading; not every piece holds up as a great comic, but it's all part of relating this entire other, hidden history of comics over the past 40 years. In more contemporary terms, Rob Kirby's anthology Three
has the cream of the crop of queer cartoonists in every issue. The third issue -- featuring Ed Luce
and Carrie McNinch
-- in particular is excellent. Also, keep an eye on an young artist named Eric Kostiuk Williams
. He's a Canadian with a style similar to Phoebe Gloeckner
. He's got serious chops, is funny and whip-smart. His Hungry Bottom Comics
was one of my favorite minis of last year.
My "emerging artist of the year" award has to go to Josh Bayer. I've enjoyed all of his comics, but Raw Power
takes things to another level. The energy he creates on the page is Kirbyesque
, filtered through Panter
and any number of other influences. He's only going to get better as he refines his technique.
* Rob Clough
* Rob Cough At TCJ
* from Josh Bayer
* photo of Clough at SPX 2012
* from the Lasky/Young Carter Family book
* treasure unearthed and asked for at SPX 2012 -- the first issue of Lose
, now hard to find
* Ruppert and Mulot
* The Voyeurs
* a panel from Nao of Brown
* a sequence from the Joseph Lambert Sullivan/Keller book
* from Chuck Forsman
* from Chris Ware
* from Josh Simmons
* from Leela Corman
* from the Pekar Remnant Cleveland
* Lance Ward (below)
posted 2:00 pm PST
If I Were In Tokyo, I'd Go To This
posted 1:30 pm PST
Go, Look: More Billy Bounce
posted 12:00 pm PST
Random Comics News Story Round-Up
* David Brothers remembers Barefoot Gen
* so I guess this
is the last issue of Moose
, with extra pages and everything.
* Michael Dirda on A Duckburg Holiday
. John Kane on a whole bunch of comics
. Rob Clough on Elfworld
. Bob Temuka on Footrot Flats
. Johanna Draper Carlson on A Wrinkle In Time
. Sean Gaffney on Blood Lad Vol. 1
. J. Caleb Mozzocco on Demon Knights Vol. 1
. Paul O'Brien on a bunch of different X-Men comics
* Johanna Draper Carlson picks her best of 2012
* it's been a long time since I've seen a post on Scott McCloud and terminology
* Pamela Polston talks to James Kochalka
* here's a list of books and comics read in 2012
: always fun to see how comics folds into someone's wider reading life.
* finally, Darryl Cunningham provides excerpts
from a piece on Ayn Rand.
posted 11:00 am PST
Happy 52nd Birthday, Jay Geldhof!
posted 10:00 am PST
Happy 49th Birthday, Dave McKean!
posted 10:00 am PST
Happy 30th Birthday, Julia Wertz!
posted 10:00 am PST
December 28, 2012
CR Holiday Interview #10 -- Mark Siegel
is the editorial director of First Second Books
, the graphic novel imprint of Roaring Brook Press
. He is also an author and illustrator whose most ambitious work to date, Sailor Twain
, came out in October of this year following an ambitious, two-year, on-line serialization. First Second creators have included Eddie Campbell
, Lewis Trondheim
, Gene Luen Yang
and a significant number of authors oriented towards all-ages graphic novels, many of whom, as we discuss below, confuse me. I always enjoy talking to Siegel at the various funnybook shows we both attend, and this year at San Diego's Comic-Con International
he seemed almost blissful about the direction of his company. I also always wanted to talk to someone who works both side of the creator/editor divide in the same calendar year. Mark indulged my curiosity about all of this and more mid-December. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I have a question for you, a potential first question, that I wanted to put up front because if it sucks I could easily fast-forward past it. [Siegel laughs] You just came off of an author's tour, an extensive one, and I have to imagine that can be a pretty strenuous thing. You also have a ton of professional responsibilities at First Second. One of the things I'm fascinated by in comics right now is how people our age -- we're near the same age -- stay in shape. Comics people aren't always known for taking care of themselves.
SPURGEON: It seems there's a mini-trend of people reinvesting in that kind of healthy living. And I wondered if that's ever been important to you, the physical fitness thing, or at least finding a way to do everything you do and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
I had my own health scare about 10-12 years ago. It forced me to really devote some time to setting up a lifestyle as opposed to just wining it on whatever. As you know, that's a tough time in your life, but it's also a blessing. You basically pay some bills on how you've been living. I do try to have some sense of that. A big part of it for me, a big part of the balance of health, is having certain patterns and routines. Including creatively. I think your creative health is kind of inseparable from your physical health. For that, being able to set routines, my early morning studio stuff, and my work time, and then of course when you hit the road and do the author thing that's definitely a source of imbalance and I'm feeling, I'm definitely feeling some burnout from having scrambled some finely-tuned patterns in my life. [laughs] I'm hoping to find my way back to a certain kind of balance.
SPURGEON: Just getting the amount of work done that you get done seems to me it would take a considerable amount of thought. It's not unprecedented in comics, your kind of split responsibilities. A lot of publishing figures have also been creators. A lot of folks have found their own way into that kind of balance. Was it more difficult for you when you first started?
Not really, because in a way it predated First Second. First Second came along, before that I had jobs in publishing that really were more like day jobs. First Second came along, and it's more... there's a part of it that's really dayjob in terms of the admin work, the managing side of it all. But First Second is also a baby in a creative sense? It's a project. It's a project, so it has a different kind of nourishment than just clocking in for a paycheck.
Before First Second started, I knew... when I was just a designer at Simon & Schuster
before that, I knew that I had to safeguard my project time, and fight for it fiercely. There are so many people that put off that novel they dream of writing, and it eventually becomes the regret of their life. I knew I never wanted that. It's true I think that you pay the price of what you want to do. If I wake up... I found for me that carving up some time that wasn't yet claimed by everyone and everything else had to be really early morning. Most of my life I've been a night owl, but I've reprogrammed myself. So early mornings became that time. As I expanded that time, I had to push further earlier and earlier into the morning. The price of that is I'm not going to have much of a social life, because I'm useless after 10. That's a price I was happy to pay.
SPURGEON: Do you find that that has an effect on the way you create, though? I know that when I talk to artists with a demanding day job, maybe even a few of whom are in that early phase of having a family, they find they make stronger and quicker choices out of necessity.
Yeah, I think it's true. I think it's true. I know it's a total cliche, but they say if you want something done you give it to a busy person. I think there's something about... when I think back on my twenties, and when I look back, I think in a way I had so much time on my hands and I have so little to show for that time. Those years. And of course, there are different things that you're going to be drawn towards in your teens or your twenties or your thirties or your forties... it changes, definitely. But I feel that as I've grown older and busier, that the time being more precious tends to be invested rather than spent. You can't really have a life without downtime, without empty, vacant time. That's also important.
It's basically become a set-up for me of a life that's like many little lives, where I know that 15 minutes can count, half an hour can count, especially if I know it's every day. At the end of a month, there's a lot to show for that. As opposed to always waiting to have that good marathon session in the studio. I know this from working with comics people, some very talented comics people, that some people have more of a struggle with their productivity than others. And oftentimes I hear they're kind of like, "This weekend, I'm going to give it a good, six-hour run and that should be great." And of course those six hours never come. As opposed to those people that never let themselves grow cold and they stay warm on a daily basis and it's maybe less spectacular and in the end it kind of wins the day.
SPURGEON: Let me turn that around. Something that's come through with talking to people on the road this year, people that have a teaching or a publishing gig, a lot of people approach those jobs as their being artistic projects as well. You talked a little bit about First Second being a creative project. Do you think First Second is different for having an artist in your position with the imprint, that you can develop it in terms of its own creative life?
I hope so. And I know I'm not alone. There are some really talented authors and artists running... Chris Oliveros
has his own comics. It's a funny thing. There's this impossible dance between commerce and art. It never quite works. One of the two is getting their toes stepped on. But there's a need for that. There's a need for something to hold that space, where there's some structure that can support careers out of creative projects. I see people like the people I work with, there's some incredibly inspiring people. There are people that have paid their dues, some of them, and can make a living doing what their passion is. Creating a home for that is partly a creative projects. It needs the business to be sound and to be healthy. To sustain. I know I'm less idealistic than when we started First Second, but also there's some idealism I'm fighting to never lose. And I think the part that might be different, other publishing companies in some cases that the business part is a means to that end, as opposed to the sole criterion for success.
SPURGEON: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you isn't just that you have this considerable book out, but also when we spoke this summer, I think of all the publishing people I spoke to, and I think of all the conversations you and I have had in the past at these things, that general, ongoing conversation, you seemed more serene than usual. You seemed happy, like you were in a good place about where things are right now. I wonder if that's a fair assessment, and I also wonder how it feels to get there, to get to a place where you feel locked in, where you feel comfortable with where things are. Are you in a good place with the company?
Yeah, we are in a good place. I feel happy with our current lot, but there's always a side of me that's striving to get it better. I'm aware of certain milestones that are hard to reach in terms of not just First Second, but First Second's place in the creative community of comics. So broadly speaking, in the sense that anybody's success is a good thing for all. I feel that there are certain things that are... America can be a hard nut to crack, there are still certain prejudices about comics to overcome. You think by now that battle has been won, but a lot of people haven't caught up to that fact. That's an interesting part of my job, traveling around the country and meeting thousands of librarians and educators. That side of things is also where I get some of my optimism from.
I do feel I see a lot of change. I see a lot of support. I see a lot of enthusiasm. There is this incredible renaissance that we're in. With First Second, part of what -- not so much satisfaction, I wouldn't say I'm satisfied, but I'm pleased. I'm pleased to feel we're playing a part in this thing. Right now we're around seven years in existence. We're sticking. We're sticking. We've earned a certain space of our own. And if we can keep sticking, I think we're going to offer the medium itself, and the creators -- some of them not yet born -- are going to have an avenue that can help them sustain, really push the form into some interesting places. Year by year, I would say there was an anxiety. We definitely had -- there's been some ups and downs and some things -- some experiments that went thump. But all in all, the progression is towards greater stability, greater establishment for First Second.
SPURGEON: Your language is very interesting there, Mark, because you talk in terms of roles and parts and space... can you describe what you think that role is? What is that space you're describing, is it advocating for the medium's viability, is it providing stability to a certain kind of artist, is it being a good citizen within the overall community?
Partly. Partly. I think we do try... I think part of the mission of First Second is to help win a place in both highbrow culture and popular culture for comics that is long overdue in America. We're certainly not the only ones trying to do that. I do think we put special effort in terms of speaking different languages for different audiences and putting books out that are aimed to reach across many different kinds of audiences. I'm always interested in books that are really legit and have real cred for people who love and know comics, but can also speak to people that don't know comics. We're always looking for ways... I love it, like I've heard that Anya's Ghost
was one book that somebody told me what was great about it is that it doesn't need a secret handshake. It lets you in right away. It's not necessarily a measure for every book, but for that one I think that's a real success.
SPURGEON: Something I've always wondered: how much are you able to curate a season? You just announced your books for a specific season. How much of that is crafted with a specific, cumulative effect in mind and how much is that beholden to the realities of publishing, what you have ready to go?
[laughs] There's a bit of both. It's funny, because I do believe anything you set up, collective or solo, at first you govern it and you establish the rules. Later it governs you with whatever you've put into it, for better or for worse. First Second has gotten to a point where there's a kind of an organic life to it, so magic things happen. For example, at one point I was really pushing to see how we get a balance of really talented women cartoonists. Because they're out there. And now there are more and more and more of them. I remember having conversations about this years ago. We started signing people up. I was presenting to some librarians, there were a hundred New York librarians that came here to the Flatiron Building
last week. I was presenting -- which list was it? -- I guess it was the coming Fall list, one of the upcoming lists. Five of the six projects were by women. I hadn't even noticed it. Sometimes you set things in motion and the season is that kind of season. We do have a bit of a curatorial look, and then there projects that fall off or that come in early. But each season has its character.
SPURGEON: Is it a change at all now that you're dealing with repeat authors? You kind of have your people now.
Yeah. Yeah. And I love that. I try. I try. I feel like we have, there is a stable of authors in a sense -- some of them do projects with other houses -- but there's a sense we can build certain bodies of work? And that's also kind of organic. There are sometimes when the timing just does gibe for something with someone. I like that. I think part of the long view mission of an editor is to be seen in the course of an author's first five, six, seven books. I think some agents and some editors and some publishers aren't good at that kind of long-term support. I think some people are signed up. I think their first book may be flawed, but they have a masterpiece in them and I want to be there for that day.
SPURGEON: I've taken a step back as a critic this year, and one thing I've concluded is that I don't have a refined aesthetic when it comes to comics for younger readers.
Yeah, you've slammed a couple of ours.
SPURGEON: We've had a couple of exchanges.
That's the one time I feel I disagree with you.
SPURGEON: What usually happens is some friend of mine with kids will talk me down, in that they just seem to have a more natural eye for what might work for that audience or what might not. "My kid really likes that book. It's not
that bad." But here's what I'm interested in: how far along are
you in developing that kind of taste? Because it seems you publish a lot of that kind of material now.
I'm working on that. From the beginning there was a third for children, a third for teens and a third for adults -- roughly speaking for First Second.
It's a funny thing. I now have kids. One is seven and one is five. Over the years I've gotten to see and test things on them. The first thing that happened is when we were first reading picture books. I had done some picture books, and I had worked in picture books. The second I started bringing home picture books and started reading with them, my ideas of what made a good picture book completely turned on their head. They just completely were turned inside out and upside down. Then it got me thinking, "Well, what is it?" What is it about some of these books that really works for them and for me, too. But other times there are book where I think, "Oh my God, they're going to love this." And I bring it home and we never read it again.
I've come to respect certain authors. Like Peggy Rathmann
, who did Good Night, Gorilla
. There must be 12 words in that book. It's a perfect book. I've read it probably a hundred times and on three or four occasions along the way of those 100 readings the bottom dropped out and I had a revelation of like, "Oh my God, I see what she's doing. She's a genius." It's not unlike comics. Picture books are dismissed by people as easy stuff. If you've done a novel, you can bang out a couple of those. It's really hard to do a picture book that is actually for children. One of our experiments is Nursery Rhyme Comics
; the next one will be Fairy Tale Comics
. We have these amazing cartoonists working the classic nursery rhymes. Part of what we're trying to do is make it not just winking at adults, but really make it for that three or four year old at bed time. It's a different reading, and it's surprising sometimes to us grownups that the world really does look different when you're four.
SPURGEON: Your own work... I avoided reading a bunch of your interviews. A lot of
CR readers, I'm guessing, may not have caught up to
Sailor Twain yet. When I started reading the online version, your milieu, the place where you put this, is not something we see a lot of, or that we hear a lot of, that part of the country, that part of the world, that very important river and valley. You live north of the city in one of those towns. Is that a fair assessment, that this isn't an area that we see processed a lot through art?
There's definitely a rich tradition. There's literature and there's art centered around here. Washington Irving and Rip Van Winkle
-- he was trying to create a new American myth. There's writing. Pete Hamill
I think is a great New York novelist. It's funny. The Hudson is the Mighty Hudson, you hear a lot about the history and the commerce, but the romance you don't hear about. I find it very romantic.
SPURGEON: Is it that element, then, that spurred you on to make art about that place? Or was there a connection to the other works of art?
There was some of the art stuff, but some of it was that I commute, on a train going down the Hudson every day. Where I live, the Hudson is about three miles wide, and it's in this bed of granite. If you go up you pass West Point Academy
and you go up towards Rhinebeck
and then towards Albany
. And it's like there are so many different landscapes. It's incredibly, incredibly beautiful country. Around New Paltz
and Poughkeepsie there's the wine country, the Hudson wine country, which you don't hear about so much. There's definitely a lot of charm and a lot of appeal. There's history. Edith Wharton
and the gilded age of New York
. A lot of that is Manhattan, but a lot of is up the river. You get the Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts and the great New York 400
families. There's amazing history, amazing stuff there.
SPURGEON: I want to ask you about two formal aspects of it that struck me. Your character design is interesting to me. The figures are very... they're very arch, they have a very cartoony aspect to them.
Twain in particular.
SPURGEON: For sure. Can you talk about how you settled on designs for the project?
That was definitely an exploration. The beauty for me with this project was giving it time. I started it before First Second. I've been working on this thing for about nine years. I had done a set of page that were entirely in ink, ink washes, about 30 pages of that, I did 15 pages in another attempt. They had to be scrapped as they weren't quite right. As I worked the story, and the historical research and some of the background of the characters over four and a half years, I ended up coming back to the character designs several times. There was a point where I thought I knew the characters, and I thought, "There's no way he'd look like that." Or, "There's no way she would wear something like that." So I went back.
In terms of the formal properties of the, what I finally figured it out is that it had to be done in charcoal for the mood and the steam and the smoke and the fog. The thing with charcoal is that in ways it's hard, because it's messy. But it's also forgiving in that you can shade everything in a way that's homogenous, but then within that you can have a character like Twain that's very geometric but almost manga kind of iconic, and a character like Lafayette that's more naturalistic. The thing with Twain and Lafayette, they're this American captain and this French ship owner, and they're the two central men in the story. And they're a little bit like the two strands in my genetics, basically. That's how it started, anyway. The French and the American thing. The American was always intended to be in this more geometric, this more black and white stylization. That's a bit like his moral world. That's his anglo-saxon moral world. Whereas Lafayette is all in shades of gray, and he's more loose and more organic. A little bit caricatured, but not geometric. I felt like they were playing against each other, and the way they transform is that Twain ends up more conflicted whereas Lafayette, who starts off amoral, ends up discovering a certain kind of honor in a way.
SPURGEON: That extends to their physicality as well. Twain will often act in this outsized, cartoony way.
Yeah. Like the Crumb "Keep On Truckin
SPURGEON: This struck me as an interesting choice, because a standard, create-a-work-in-five-minutes version of this, an easy way to do this is to distinguish between the fantasy elements and those that are decidedly less so in terms of how you draw them. But Twain is as out there as the mermaid... the spirit character.
She's more realistic than he is, in a way. That's right. That's exactly right. Again, this is something that gets a chance to ripen and layer over time. They grow over time. I don't even feel I can take credit for them personally. It was more like discovering them as I went. With Twain, he's... there's times when he's less cartoony and more anchored in reality, but there's something about... there are certain things about this story I took very seriously and certain things I deliberately did not want to take too seriously. I love it when there are certain books and certain works and movies when I feel you can subvert the seriousness of a moment. You have these five chapters before you meet the mermaid, before you know for sure there's going to be a mermaid in the story. He finally finds this wounded mermaid, and there's a tragic weight to that moment. Suddenly he's thinking about selling her to PT Barnum
. [Spurgeon laughs] When that moment happened... there's also a moment, a potentially romantic moment of carrying this naked fish-woman in his arms, and she's all slippery like a fish. She's bonking her head on the deck, and he can't figure out how to hold her. I love being able to switch. I feel in comics there's a way to have a range of feelings for a character that's unique to comics. I was playing with that.
It worked with Lafayette in a different way. He's a cad, and a libertine, and almost a buffoon at first. Then in a way the story of redemption is his story.
SPURGEON: The other formal thing that jumped out at me is that the structure of your pages is all over the place. There's no set grid, no set of standard solutions, except maybe that you tend to do big story moments as full pages. I think that's a consistent structural element. But your page design is very... all over the place.
I knew where I didn't want it to go. I didn't want it to break... it's still a very conventional window. I tried not to bring the reader out of the story and into the formal design of the page. Exploded shards of panels... I tried to keep it pretty simple. The main thing I kept checking it for was the clarity. I didn't want to have any doubt as to how to follow the story.
SPURGEON: The clarity isn't in question, but the wide variation in terms of page structure does seem to lend a nervous energy to it, in that you're never able to settle into a specific pattern. It's jumpy in a way that I'm not sure a lot of books are. Even pages that face each other than look the same, perhaps the same number of tiers, you end up varying the size of the tiers, so the reading experience shifts again.
That's definitely stuff I was playing with. There's a bit of the euro influence in that. Each story beat has its own treatment.
SPURGEON: You had a very high profile, very elaborate publicity tour -- we mentioned this up top. You went out and did a lot of events related to the book's launch. That's
not typical to someone in your position. You have some things to do. You said it did disrupt some of what you had going on. I wondered about your decision to be fully present for the book in that way.
The book itself, I feel like it was born from a personal journey. In some way, putting this stuff out there in a project and then fashioning a story to its ripeness, in a sense, it felt like I was shedding something. It's a little bit like letting it go -- giving it that push and getting it out in the world is a way to shed it and be free of it and move on. There's another side of me that's been treating all of this as an experiment and taking a lot of notes along the way. The webcomic and the serializing, some of that we're applying to other serial projects at First Second. Getting a taste of being out there and flogging your book, that's something we've asked our authors to do. I got a taste of that, to see what is that really like and how does that work and where does it work and where does it need improvement. I felt it was part of an experiment.
SPURGEON: I've been dying to ask you this, Mark. How sensitive were you to the fact that you're the boss, the editorial director, and you're getting author time? You're getting a certain kind of tour and certain press opportunities -- considering the fact that you have these other authors, was that a concern at all?
It's definitely a delicate balance. Definitely. A lot of thought, a lot of conversation went into that here. [Spurgeon laughs] I did do my best to make sure I wasn't giving myself any special deals. Like there was a lot of stuff -- the webcomic was all on my own dime. I was basically doing my best to be as impeccable as possible with it. There was also that I did need to fulfill my duties as a First Second author with a book out. If it holds its own, if it doesn't lose money, it's part of the viability of the whole thing. And to be fair, there's always been some incestuousness to our relationships. Colleen [AF Venable]
is our designer but she's also an incredible author. She's doing a new project for us. There's a part of it where I feel that's clear. There was no secret for all of the authors. I was always doing my picturebook projects and things. In this case, doing it in house, it has problems. It's not the easiest thing to do at times.
SPURGEON: You're kind of in a unique position, then. Having just said goodbye to this project, saying goodbye to this part of the journey and now looking at it with a cold eye as a publishing project, something this big -- I'm always curious when an author makes something this big and personal if the work itself has revealed anything to you for your getting a chance to look at it in this different way? Do you look at the book differently now?
Yeah, I do. When you put something out, you get to discover it through other eyes. There are certain things that people resonate with. Some people mention mid-life crisis, they're reading it through the eyes of a mid-life crisis. Or looking at mermaids in terms of their lives. For some people, mermaids resonate with addictions or with obsessions -- it's in there, but people have fresh insight about that. I do love books where there are mysteries. I like most things to be wrapped up pretty tidy, but I like a few things that are open-ended that might send you back into the work again. I've heard some interesting takes that people have on some things that are not my own take. There are messages in bottles that Lafayette is throwing overboard, I've heard some interesting theories about that. I'm keeping my mouth shut, I don't want to give anything away.
SPURGEON: Those are some pretty potent, broad metaphors you're tossing around there. Mermaids may be somewhat neglected, but people have been foisting significance onto them since olden times. There's a river, just the fact of the river. River travel. Your characters mirror one another, those life and love issues that are explore that way. I have to think that was on purpose -- that you wanted to use these metaphors to specific ends, but you also wanted them to keep their mystery.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. That was definitely the meditation running through it. What I tried to do with all of that -- the metaphors, but also the characters, their psychologies, and some of the historical issues -- there are currents about feminism, and black history in the 19th Century. I pushed them down a little bit -- in earlier drafts they're more prominent but now they're mostly undercurrents. I always tried to bring them back to what's real to me today. I didn't want to do an abstract thing. It's more about you govern your characters at first and later they govern you. It was a matter of spending the right amount of time with them. I wanted to play with these things, but not so much a literary conceit but because I was wrestling with stuff as we all do. We're up against ourselves and we're up against life's struggles. There are times you feel that you're really up against it and that your life is in the process of derailing or you're about to break through to a new development for yourself. So I was bringing in these big things, but out of that need as opposed to some kind of a magnum opus.
* Mark Siegel
* First Second
* Sailor Twain
* image from opening scene of Sailor Twain
* image from Vera's Ghost
* cover to Nursery Rhyme Comics
* Peggy Rathmann's picture books
* that strange Twain character design
* page design -- standard but rarely repeats
* two with Twain and the mermaid (one below)
posted 2:00 pm PST
Go, Look: Thirteen Going On Eighteen #10
posted 1:30 pm PST
Not Comics: A Visit To Brian Chippendale's Studio
posted 12:00 pm PST
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