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A Short Interview With Alvin Buenaventura
posted January 9, 2005
 

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TOM SPURGEON: I never heard of you until I saw your catalog. Can you describe your background, particularly vis-a-vis comics?

ALVIN BUENAVENTURA: I've been reading comics since I was kid. I grew up in San Diego where they've had this massive annual convention for years. I've been to that thing just about every year since the 5th grade. I'd putz around getting free drawings from all these people -- sadly I still do this -- and I guess that developed into collecting originals early on... I've always loved seeing the original drawings that are usually quite a bit larger than their published forms. It's fascinating to see all of the pencils, whiteout, and notes in the margins, etc... It's really interesting discovering how differently everyone works. I got hooked on buying all of this art from cartoonists because, relative to fine art prices, the work is insanely cheap.

imageAll that artwork added up pretty quickly -- In the summer of 2003 I got inspired to put together this gallery show, Original Comic Art, and letter-pressed a catalog for it. I did this mainly as a collector wanting to see all that work together in one room, to make a comics gallery show like I had not seen before -- Anyway, I've just been an enthusiastic fan of good comics and a collector. The Original Comic Art show and the printing of its catalog led to working with cartoonists on projects and starting a business.

SPURGEON: Am I right in that you're a trained printmaker?

BUENAVENTURA: Yeah, I put that show together in San Diego at Brighton Press, a few blocks away from the new convention center where they now have the annual Comic Convention. I've worked with the press since I was in high school, over ten years ago now. Brighton Press publishes small edition handcrafted artist's books by fine artists and poets. The books are made with original prints, the type is handset and printed letterpress, and the editions are very small, usually around 30 copies. The production for each project takes a couple of years which leads to these incredibly beautiful books. Since there are so few due to the intense labor involved, most of the books go straight to museums, universities, and libraries. Those artists' books are a strange little niche in the art world. I learned a lot about fine press letterpress, intaglio and relief printmaking from working with Brighton Press. I also learned a lot about materials, quality craftsmanship, and working with artists to help them realize their ideas with these mediums.

SPURGEON: You told me in San Diego in 2004 that people had to see your work before they figured out that what you were offering was worth the price you were asking. Can you talk a little bit about entering the market and some of the barriers you've overcome?

imageBUENAVENTURA: Well it's an odd mix, comics and fine press printing. If I was working within the fine arts world, $40-$300 for a fine press print would be very reasonable. Unfortunately comics has this stigma of being inherently trashy or lowbrow no matter what the quality of the work is. That's why comics originals are so undervalued. Of course, there's the exceptions of cartoonists like Robert Crumb and more recently Chris Ware and Dan Clowes who have gained a wider recognition and appreciation for their work. They have started to break out of the small world of the comics bubble. It's great to see books like McSweeney's 13 and Kramer's Ergot reaching a wider audience. But for the most part, comics readers seem to be unusually frugal and appalled at the idea of a single image being priced in the $40-$300 range.

imageIt's tough to hear people's knee jerk reactions like "$125 for newsprint!" I guess it's sort of understandable since there has not been much fine press printmaking being done in the comics community. A lot of people don't appreciate that newsprint was used for a project because it was the artist's first choice of paper because of its qualities. It's not like I used it because it's cheap and I wanted a higher profit margin. It was actually absurd using a low quality paper to do this incredibly expensive and labor intensive 10 color letterpress run on, but in the end the print came out nicely.

It's very rewarding going to a show and having people see the work in person as opposed to online. It's great to meet people and hear them say "Oh wow, that's a really beautiful print" and see them feel the qualities of the paper and the impression of the printing, and to watch them enjoy the quality and richness of the inks. The prints are not just reproductions of images, like on a poster for some kid's bedroom. They exist as prints, as art objects, and it's easier to understand this when holding the print. The plates are created, the papers and inks are chosen, and the print doesn't exist until it all comes together. The print is the art. It's not a reproduction of something else.

SPURGEON: Were you always interested in publishing?

BUENAVENTURA: Well, yes and no... I've wanted to be involved with publishing prints and artist's books for a while now, though the original idea had not been to work with only cartoonists. I had no intention of getting into offset comics trade book publishing until very recently.

SPURGEON: Then what brought on the decision to publish?

BUENAVENTURA: There's a lot of really exciting young cartoonists out there. With only a couple of comics publishers that consistently put out quality books, I felt there was room for another.

SPURGEON: Tell me about your first few books, and how you decided on these projects as your launch projects.

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BUENAVENTURA: The first book will be Spaniel Rage by Vanessa Davis. I'm shocked that hardly anyone is familiar with her work. She's published a few mini comics and has been in a couple of comics anthologies. The work so far is diary comics. The layout of the pages is in this loose sketchbook style and boy can she draw. The first issue collects her self-published work and should be out in March. The next issue will be all new work and will follow a few months after. The second project will be a series called Redbird by Dan Zettwoch. He's another relatively newish cartoonist. I am really surprised his book not been picked up to be published yet. He's also been doing great mini comics and he had an awesome strip in Kramer's Ergot 5.

Other upcoming projects include a children's book by Souther Salazar called Destined for Dizzyness, a book/record collaboration between artist Sammy Harkham and musician Will Oldham, a reprinting of Elvis Road by two Swiss artists H. Reumann and X. Robel who were in Kramer's 5, a collection of various past work by Ron Rege, and an art book tentatively titled Bloo Chip by Marc Bell that collects a lot of work from his show at the Adam Baumgold Gallery in New York.

SPURGEON: What will distinguish your books from those put out by other publishers of your type?

BUENAVENTURA: I don't have a set plan or aesthetic in mind. I think good books or any creative projects develop organically, so I guess we'll see... I'd like to work with the artists to direct the format, design and production of their project as much as possible. One distinguishing trait of the line of projects chosen so far is that they are not necessarily comics; it's just work with cartoonists. There's going to be art books, prints, 3-D objects, and music, etc...

SPURGEON: Have you made any decisions about price point and distribution? I'm interested to your answer for the former, because there's some doubt out there as to how much people will pay for comics trades.

BUENAVENTURA: That's a tough question... At this stage, before I actually have the first book done, my thoughts are to price them relative to other good books that are comparable in terms of production costs -- page count, paper stock, binding etc. -- and I mean comparing them to books in a wider sense -- art, design, photographic, and children's etc -- not just the comics market. Drawn and Quarterly has been releasing some excellent work recently and because of the quality, I expect their books to be a buck or two more. But actually, when I'm the customer I don't think I pay much attention to the price if I want it. The price is usually only an issue if I'm not sure if I want it. I just hope the projects that I'm publishing are the kinds of books where others aren't thinking, "if this was $1.25 cheaper then maybe I'd buy it," and if they do think that, then maybe its not for them anyway.

One of my main concerns as far as dollars and cents is to not undervalue the work by underpricing it just to get it out there, nor do I want to compromise any of the production values just to make it a bit cheaper. I also want to make sure that the artist gets paid and the business moves forward. I realize that this is all idealistic, but it's what I have in mind and plan to try and see it through. As far as distribution, I'm still shopping around. I would like to focus on direct sales through my website and at conventions and dealing with shops myself. I don't mind sitting on books for awhile if it means getting them to places where they will be enjoyed. I don't want them rotting in the discount bins of superhero comics shops across america. I'd like to take the approach I have with the marketing of the prints and not limit the target audience to what I perceive is the typical comics crowd. I want to get these books to a more general audience, such as people reading things like McSweeney's and shopping in regular book stores, as well as those who are going to their local comics shop every Wednesday ... But who knows... I'm new to all of this, so I guess I'll just see how it goes.

As for the pricing of the prints, I have considered that these mediums that I work with -- etchings, woodcuts, etc. -- are somewhat foreign to the comics world. Because of this I try to price the prints more affordable as compared to the fine arts market. I have not described this on the website, but I try to price the print as low as possible when it's first available, and as the edition sells the price increases. So regular buyers who are paying attention can get a great deal at first, though the prices are very reasonable throughout the edition's availability. It's been a nice surprise that many of the people buying the prints are not really into comics at all and that they just appreciate the print for what it is. I really enjoy offering the cartoonists more mediums to work with. People are getting more familiar with the work and the reaction has been strong so far. I plan on producing these prints for awhile.

SPURGEON: Am I right in assuming that the print side of your business will continue unabated?

BUENAVENTURA: Ideally, yeah. I think the prints might slow down initially just because I have a lot to learn about trade publishing but it should all even out I think.

SPURGEON: Is there a publishing plan in place, or are you taking it more project by project?

BUENAVENTURA: Definitely project by project. I've set up a lot for this year so I just want to get through it and see how it is all received.

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SPURGEON: How will you know if it's working?

BUENAVENTURA: Well, if my wife leaves me because the house is crammed with unsold books at the end of the year then I'll know something is wrong. That and I'll be constantly gauging this endeavor by the artists' satisfaction with the projects and of course the response of the readers... I think I have some sense from the preliminary work on the books that this should be very rewarding in terms of helping to create something worthwhile. But again, I'm new to this and a lot of the excitement and drive comes from not really knowing if it will work. It'll be an adventure, I'm sure.

SPURGEON: Since this is the end of our chat, when exactly should people look for your stuff, and is there anything they can do in the meantime as far as catalogs or mailing lists or anything like that?

BUENAVENTURA: Vanessa's and Souther's books should be out for APE in April and there will be updates on all of these projects at the website www.buenaventurapress.com. Anyone who wants updates, send us your e-mail and/or street address to

I think, in order top to bottom: a print from Souther Salazar, the catalog described in that graph, a print from Marc Bell, a print from Dan Clowes, an advertisement for Vanessa Davis' book, and a page of art from same.