I hope in particular that any retailers or ordering-folks out there reading this might consider taking a chance on Sally's work, or, if they're already interested, consider maybe investing in a few more copies or making a point to remember that it's out there for folks to order through them. Sammy The Mouse is not only an intriguing comics work, Sally has controlled every aspect of this particular iteration right down to the printing. It's a key book for his company's survival. As commercial entertainment gets more and more crass and manipulative, or even just more precisely done, and, as a result, I'd argue more eminently replaceable (whether by the consumers or by the makers), the role that can be played by works that are utterly, idiosyncratically and lovingly expressive of comics as an art form may be able to play an increasingly vital role in forging connections with devoted readers looking for the experience that only great comics provide. A few extra copies here and there, maybe even one pressed into the hands of a certain subscriber, can have an impact medium-wide.
I'm grateful Sally made some time on a late Friday afternoon to have a brief chat. I hope to return periodically to Sammy to see how it's doing. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I haven't been so blunt as to just ask someone this: how was your 2011?
ZAK SALLY: It was all right. From a publishing viewpoint, it was same as it ever was. I got some beautiful books done and it was laughing in the face of death, constantly.
SPURGEON: Now, how long has it been since you refocused your energies on La Mano 21? I remember speaking to you at a MoCCA Festival pretty early on after you decided to emphasize your publishing efforts in the constellation of things that you do. Was that four or five years now?
SALLY: I think it's more. I should check. I just made new La Mano shirts, because I'm re-starting the La Mano site and setting up ZakSally.com. The new shirts have this awesome tagline I came up with. "La Mano," and underneath it, it says, "Invisible Since 1992." [Spurgeon laughs] It's been 20 years since I've been putting stuff out on this little thing called La Mano. But like you said, the focus, when I got the printing press and all that, that was for John P.'s book. It looks like 2005.
SPURGEON: Wow. Okay. Has it been like you just described, laughing in the face of death ever since? Has there been an arc to your publishing experiences at all? Have things gotten better, gotten worse? Have you been able to track it?
SALLY: I think it's just changed. We talked about this before, and I've spoken about this in interviews elsewhere. When I sort of went over the top with La Mano, I had some ideas about what I wanted to do and how I wanted it to go. That whole idea bit the dust pretty quickly. That idea being that I was going to be -- not a real comics publisher necessarily, but I was going to enter this world and engage this world on a certain level in a way that speaks to validity, trying to make a full time thing of it.
I'm kind of glad that it didn't work out. At first it was really demoralizing, and really depressing. Sales have been fine. My books move. [laughs] It's just slowly been a process of me figuring out where my real interests lie -- what I'm capable of doing, and what I actually want to do. The short version is me trying to swim in the same rivers as what other people are doing, that was a total... I just wasn't enjoying it, and I wasn't very good at it. And which one comes first?
SPURGEON: So the misapprehension was the kind of work you were taking on? I'm a little lost. It wasn't as you hoped for in terms of the work itself?
SALLY: I read your interview with Barry and Leon from Secret Acres. And as well with Dylan Williams, he kind of turned Sparkplug into a more valid proposition at the same time as La Mano was. We were doing very different things. Reading your interview with Barry and Leon, and being friends with Dylan while Sparkplug was going through these changes, it just made me realize where my strengths lay. [laughs] And it wasn't in necessarily going out and doing the things you should do in terms of moving books: selling them and getting them to people. I took a long, hard look in the mirror and realized after seeing a book through, whether it's my own book or working with Nate Denver or Kim Deitch or whomever, I just sort of move onto the next thing. That's only 30 percent of the work you need to do. The other 70 percent is letting people know that it's out there, and getting it to people, and working with distribution chains. And I do all that. But it's not my strong suit.
SPURGEON: It sounds like a pretty joyless process for you.
SALLY: I wouldn't even say that. There's nothing I want more after I make these things than to get them into people's hands. It's not a hermetic thing. I spend so much time getting these things made, I want people to have them and see them and enjoy them. But there's a lot of work in doing that. There's a number of different ways to go at that. You can do the Dylan Williams thing. He just did shows. He did tons of tons of shows, and his raw enthusiasm in talking about the books... Dylan was a really good businessman. He was a good, ethical businessman. He ran a tight ship. He had control. He knew who he wanted to deal with, and why he wanted to deal with them, and kind of operated from that perspective.
I don't know. It could have also corresponded with me having kids. [laughs] All of a sudden, I had x-amount of time in the day to work on something. I didn't have limitless time anymore. It became -- and it still is -- a decision of, "I have four hours here. What am I going to spend my time doing?" If you're a good book publisher, you spend that time on promotion. On talking to retailers. Establishing those things. When I had that four hours, it was always like, "Shit, I haven't done a new issue of Sammy The Mouse in six months." You know? Or I told Kim [Deitch] that I would have this thing out a year ago. I kind of cursed myself for that for a long time. But I think we've both seen small publishers come and go, and me getting out one book a year and not going out of business... it's... each year I'm less and less in that world. I think each year, with each La Mano release, it honestly gets a little bit different. To my mind. I feel like I'm doing something different than just about anyone else, anyway, in ways that I can define for myself. I'm not sure if that's making it out into the world.
SPURGEON: [slight pause] I'm not even sure what to ask next. I'm imagining people are weeping now at their monitors. We went dark pretty quickly there.
SALLY: I remember the last interview, where you went, "Jesus Christ. Is he okay?" I gotta say, I'm happy.
SPURGEON: What changes do you make in order to better facilitate doing what you enjoy doing and what you're good at, then? Is it concentrating on your own books? Is it taking more control over the projects? Is it letting go of those expectations that you'll be doing certain things?
SALLY: It's the last thing. And maybe the earlier interview we did was a little bit more of that. I think I had expectations as to how I would like this to go, how it went for other people, and compared my expectations to that. This new Sammy book was one of the most frustrating things I've ever done in my life. Period. And I've never been so proud in my life.
SPURGEON: Can you break the Sammy project down for me in practical, how-it-happened terms? I'm sort of fundamentally unsure how you ended up doing this project, and what it encompasses. This is basically a republication of the Ignatz line material to date. Are you taking this on because it's completed material? Is publishing Sammy something you'd always wanted to do? Is it something that you have to do to continue the project? I'm a little bit confused as to the nuts-and-bolts aspects as to how you ended up with this on your plate.
SALLY: It was kind of a Hail Mary, and when I look back it was a progression I wouldn't have chosen, but it's a natural one for me and La Mano. I got this printing press when I started La Mano, and it's been this crazy, slow process of learning to use it and being in any way comfortable with it.
I was doing the Sammy book -- now people may weep. The sales on the Ignatz line as a whole were... dropping. I'm really proud to have been part of that whole thing. I think you described it as the last, most beautiful gasp of the floppy, or whatever the fuck they call it.
SPURGEON: That's a really pretty part of my bookshelf. It really is.
SALLY: Some amazing, overlooked work happened in those. But it was sort of a beautiful failure. A lot of work got done. Some beautiful books happened. But as a whole, the project didn't have legs. And I think it didn't have legs because people who buy comic books are getting fewer and fewer -- people who buy art comic books, that pool is getting even smaller. So to ask people to buy not only a floppy comic book instead of a trade, they have to pay eight bucks for it...? And in my case, where it's a serialized book where you get one episode every year and a half or something, it's not sustainable.
So the writing for the Ignatz line was one the wall -- whatever that analogy is [laughter]. The writing was on the wall for the Ignatz line, and it certainly was for Sammy The Mouse. I called up Kim [Thompson] and I said, "I don't know if I can get all the business I want to get into 32 pages for the next Sammy The Mouse. Can we make it 40?" And Kim said, "We can probably do one more issue, but this thing is basically dying." We started talking about options: format options and all that sort of thing. Fantagraphics was open to it. We were in the midst of those discussions.
The original printing press I had was an AB Dick 360. As far as we can tell, it was from maybe the '40s, the '50s. It was a one-color press. Around that time, I went to a guy I buy ink from, and he had a newer version of that press sitting in the back of his shop. It was the same as the AB Dick 360, but about 40 years later. It's from around the '80s. It's a 9810. It has a second color head on it. The printing industry is tanking as well, so he had bought this thing for 2500 bucks or whatever. I asked him, "Are you getting rid of that thing?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "What are you asking for it?" He said, "500 bucks." I thought, "Well... if I put this kind of sweat equity into learning to be a printer, here's this thing." At the same time, this stuff was happening with Sammy. Everybody's trying to figure out what the fuck to do with comics right now. I was pitching a sort of printed-style serialization thing, and Eric was into that. Some other folks were kind of like, "Why don't we just wait and do a big collection?" And I was like, "I can't do that." So I thought," I have this two-color press, this is previous material, if I'm ever going to try doing this, it's now. If I'm ever going to try and print Sammy The Mouse, I just got a two-color press for $500." I'm putting out other people's stuff and printing it, I need to try this once and I need to put my money where my mouth is.
To belabor the point, with each La Mano release it's become more of something I do here in this space. When I started out, I was producing bigger numbers, because I thought I was going to be living in the world where you sell 5000 books or 2500 books or whatever. Each project gets more hands-on and handmade and just the idea of doing this Sammy The Mouse collection, and every single part of it occurring here, with me doing it, I think turned into an idea that I just am totally in love with.
SPURGEON: When you talk about choosing to print this yourself, it seems very logical that you'd want to do this project, but... those books were beautiful. Those Ignatz books were beautiful. It doesn't seem like a low-level-of-complexity printing job in terms of matching the quality of those previous ones.
SALLY: Well, I gave you one, right?
SALLY: It's not! [laughs] It's not that level of elegance!
SPURGEON: No, no. It looks really good. But the degree of difficulty you chose... was that daunting to you at all, to try and match that previous level of print quality? Or did that matter as much that this would be your printing job?
SALLY: A little of both. For any guy who's worked in a print shop for any length of time, this job would be a gimme. This job would be a nothing. The complexity there isn't huge. It's not like I’m running a four-color job with spot colors in there or anything. It should be eminently doable. I have a very good friend who's helping me, he was a press man for years and years and years. He said, "Nah, you'll be able to do that easy. There's going to be a learning curve with this new machine that you're going to have to figure out, but you can get it." And I did, but the nightmare happened in that this $500 machine I bought? There's a reason it's a $500 machine. For me learning how to do this, and at the same time learning a new machine so every time something goes wrong -- and things went wrong consistently every day for three months -- it was always like, "Am I doing something wrong? Is it something wrong with the machine?" There was quite a bit wrong with the machine, just because it had been sitting for so long. The people that had owned it before me had done some dodgy shit when they were running it. I thought I could get it close, get it passable. And I think the book is... there are pages where I can see, there are page in the book where it's everything I want out of them, I think they look great. And there's other pages where I was just fighting it the whole time and I can definitely see some printing weirdness.
SPURGEON: I think it's a very handsome book. I was just struck by the audacity of you in looking for a project to publish on your own choosing such an ambitious one to do. Maybe there wasn't a huge range of projects available to you, but the thought of reproducing one of those books makes me want to crawl into bed and hide under the covers.
SALLY: Yeah. I thought I had more press time than I had going in. The amount I learned doing this book was huge.
SPURGEON: Can you give me an example of something you learned during the hands-on process of printing it?
SALLY: The whole two-color thing... On my old machine, to do a second color, you'd have to run all your sheets through printing once, you'd have to sit, let that dry, get a new plate, put a new plate, and run those all again and try and set the registration again for each color. There's an element of jog for each sheet that goes through, so you're never going to get a precise registration on the machine I had. This new machine lays down two colors at the same time, so you can dial it in pretty well.
I literally took apart half of the machine and put it back together physically -- something would go wrong and I'd take this part and figure it what was wrong, and then figure out how to put it back on. By the time I had taken apart half of the machine and put it back together, it was the end of the project. But I knew my machine. I knew if this thing goes wrong, I could follow this chain here, and this was doing this. My friend Clint, who ran the press, told me that's the deal. [laughs] You just gotta put in a certain amount of time screaming and crying.
SPURGEON: You kickstarted this project.
SPURGEON: How was that experience for you? That was a big issue this year. You don't sound like you were particularly satisfied.
SALLY: No, I was. I didn't have the funds in the La Mano coffers to do it. Again, I read that interview with Leon and Barry from Secret Acres. I think Secret Acres is amazing. I read that and I... when I first hard about Kickstarter, I also thought it was like, "Wait, people are going out and begging for money to do their creative project?" But I wouldn't be able to do this without raising some money. I became okay with Kickstarter when I started thinking, "This is a pre-sale." You know? All I'm asking is, "Do you want this thing when it's done?" It's no different than Diamond except there's no distro cut. I know the model can be misused, and is misused all of the time, but that's a currency I can be okay with. I'm making this book, you want it, and I'm going to send it to you. You saying you wanted it helped me get this thing done.
SPURGEON: Here's a standard question. Going back and over and working the material directly, did anything reveal itself about Sammy that you hadn't seen before? Do you look at it with new eyes for having this experience?
SALLY: No. Going back and looking at all the pages, there are a couple of things I changed, and there was perhaps a tone to the first issue that popped out at me a little bit. I don't know if that answers your question.
SPURGEON: What was something that popped for you?
SALLY: I still have three or four hundred more pages to go. The longest thing I had ever done was 20 pages. I can see myself in the first issue doing some, "Holy shit this is big" sort of stuff, and we'll see when I get further down the line -- that might even be too specific to say out loud. This is a long-haul thing, and I have to keep trying to assess it on those ground rather than individual things that stick out at me.
SPURGEON: One thing that struck me on re-reading it is how dense it is just in terms how the pages are constructed. It's not like it's dense in terms of the amount of visuals conveyed, but the panels are crowded together and there are multiple tiers on most pages. I wonder if that was intentional, to structurally support the experience of the characters in the way you present the pages.
SALLY: I think in a serialization I was very conscious of the fact that it was taking me a year to finish each issue. I wanted to give the reader some bang for their buck. We all know of alt-comics where you wait a year and a half for it and you read it in ten minutes. I don't know how long it takes to read an issue of Sammy, but I want it to be dense. I want it to have content. It's like with a Deitch story, you sometimes feel like you're drowning in content because there's so much to those stories, so much going on. Maybe a mixture of that. Also with those old Lee/Kirby comics: they certainly don't have that pacing and that tone or anything, but I'm not trying to draw a comparison there other than I want it to be a thick, immersive reading experience.
SPURGEON:I talked to Jeff Smith earlier in the series, and he talked about in doing his science fiction serial RASL that because of some basic creative choices he made, he can only communicate to the reader the things his lead character knows. Sammy plays around with that notion a bit, because you make it clear that there are things your lead doesn't know and doesn't understand, and he's constantly frustrated by that. There's a tradition of that in storytelling, movies and books where someone is beset by several incidents they can't quite process. Is that dilemma in which he finds himself a key to the overall work, or is that just maybe something you find funny?
SALLY: Yes. [laughter] All of the above. I do know what's going to happen. I've always know what's going to happen, but the problem with comics is that it takes... I now what's going to happen but doing comics without leaving space for things to happen and allowing for things to change somehow I think is sort of a miserable experience. I've gotten out three issues of Sammy in five years, and in that five years I've had two kids, I've been married. My life has changed extraordinarily. That's just the way art works, you know. I was doing issue #2 -- maybe #3, I can't remember -- and there was stuff going on in my life. Six months later I look at that issue and I was like, "Oh my sweet God." It was absolutely reflective of what had been going on at the time, and I was completely unaware of it. I just think that's part of it, and that's the way it works.
SPURGEON: Does Sammy's recurring confusion evince some sort of worldview of yours? Do you feel similarly befuddled by the people that float in and out of your life?
SALLY: Kind of. Yeah. But I also believe that there's a point and structure. An indefinable point and a structure to what happens. You can massage that, and try your best to move towards those things, but there's a certain element of that you just can't control. The whole thing with Sammy The Mouse is that I'm trying not to think too hard, and just be a cartoonist and make myself laugh and tell a good story and not get myself into corners I can't get out of storytelling-wise. Be a good cartoonist and get this story across. So I'm comfortable with the fact that shit's going to happen. I know what's going to happen, but the process of getting there a lot of stuff is going to happen, too.
SPURGEON: In your attempt to play the role of classic cartoonist, is that why classic cartoon iconography is used? I'm used to in a lot of popular art seeing a befuddled actor moving through life as things happen to them, but I'm not as used to seeing this through specific imagery like what exists in Sammy. Is there anything you can explain about your decision to use that particular trope? It's such an accepted way of doing comics, I don't think anyone would question it, but why the cartoon characters?
SALLY: I don't know. I think a lot people question that, actually. I've had people come up to me and say that it's obviously an ironic take on the Disney characters. I feel almost stupid saying it, but I honest-to-God feel like they're not. You know? The cartoon mouse... it's certainly not in any way a post-modern take on those characters.
SPURGEON: And I don't suspect that, which is a reason for my confusion. That would be one strong, traditional way of interpreting those characters' use, and as I so very much don't suspect that I'm left without an answer of any kind as to why you made that choice.
SALLY: I'm going to sound stupid saying this, but I think that was a direct result of me trying not to think about it. All of the stuff I'd done up to that point were thinly-veiled attempts to try and craft a narrative, trying to make sense of certain things that were real.
I don't know why I made that decision specifically, other than I wanted to make comic books. I wanted to get at that thing that comic books are. To tell the story I'm trying to tell with real people would have been... just thinking that makes me want to throw up. [laughter] I needed them to be imaginary, and when I think of comic books and imaginary, that's what I coughed up.
SPURGEON: One thing that's interesting to me about what you're saying... when we first started talking about your publishing skills, you said there was a realization about what you do well and what you don't do very well and there's a process towards orienting yourself towards what you do well. There's almost an inversion of that when you talk about the printing responsibilities. That expands the number of things you're doing when you make these comics. Does that make any sense?
SALLY: Yes. Yeah. And I think that may be a good explanation for what I was trying to say earlier. I don't want to sound like too much of a jackass [Spurgeon laughs] but... I think John P. wrote me about this. I sent John P. Jason Miles' Dead Ringer. Who knows what the hell that book is? [laughs] It's a 'zine and it's not a 'zine, and it's just like none of the above of anything you can think of. It's this weird, strange object, not classifiable as any of those things. That's very much to do with Jason's work -- we went back and forth on the format of it. That one happened, and I was like, "This is it." [laughs] It's like a new... again, I don't want to sound like a jackass, but it's a new thing. It's part 'zine and it's part comic and it's part art comic and it's part printmaker's thing. It's all of those things, but also none of the above.
SPURGEON: I think if you contrast Dead Ringer with something like the Nate Denver book you did, that one seemed to me something that could have come out from a number of different publishers. That's a handsome book, and a good book, but it's something we're used to seeing. That book that Jason did, that thing is like something that crawled out of primordial goo. It's not something someone else could have done, really, if that makes sense.
SALLY: Yeah. It does. And that's actually how I feel about the Sammy book. To the degree that me doing it -- and this is bizarre -- me printing it is part of the story of what you're reading. It's part of the physical experience of you reading this thing. Not in the same way as Jason's, but... when you were asking earlier about if it matters to me or not if it's of a certain quality, I mean, I don't want the thing to look like garbage.
SPURGEON: And I certainly, certainly didn't want to suggest it does.
SALLY: And you weren't. You weren't. But it's a weird book. Any other publisher, they would have sent that shit to China. [Spurgeon laughs] Every fucking book that you get is like... you can't tell anyone made it. With this Sammy book, you can. Whether you consciously... it feels like somebody made it. And that's what I want out of the world now. You know?
SPURGEON: When more people started baking their own bread, you'd get artisanal bread, and it might be weird and lumpy -- and it seems stupid to talk about this now because of its ubiquity -- but the first time you encountered something like that there was a lot that was remarkable about engaging this handmade food when you were used to precision and craft on a level that without trying to kind of homogenizes that experience.
Now, someone reading this might think that the principles you're espousing is similar to what they hear from a devoted mini-comics maker. When James Kochalka and I initially talked in the mid-'90s, I was struck by the way he enthused about cranking out copies of his comics at a photocopier, and how that was part of the joy of making the books in a lines on paper fashion. With Sammy is there a reconnection with a kind of comics-making you once did? Or is this new project a different beast altogether?
SALLY: I think it's a direct line. It's a totally direct line from when I was making comics that way. It's a direct line from John P.
SALLY: It is. There was a part of me that didn't know about the underground era, and that book was great in explaining all that. I didn't know that those guys had their own presses. It made me realize that this wasn't the first time anyone had done this. [laughs] It was the same situation, except this was the '60s.
I remember when Donahue died, Dan Nadel wrote this nice thing about how back in the day he got his own press and learned that stuff and none of us do that now. And I remember reading that and being like, "I'm doing that right fucking now." [laughter]
It is a natural progression of my interests and the things I love, but it's also a natural progression of the world. Why do you want, in this day and age, a physical object? I'm not one of those old crusties that says, "Books are the best." There are a lot of books where I don't want to waste a tree. I'll read those books on a Kindle. It's information, and if you don't need to kill a tree to get that information... we're entering a world where if there's going to be a physical object there, there should be a damn good reason for there to be that physical object. And this is mine. I'm a printmaker [laughs], I'm doing 36,000 sheets, you know?
SPURGEON: I've seen photos and videos of you at your press. You had some cartoonists over during the MIX show, and some of those cartoonists wrote about how much they enjoyed seeing you work this press and -- this is going to sound totally asinine -- it's sort of like it awakened something in some of these artists, that this could be a part of their comics-making experience. And I also wonder if there isn't a similar effect that takes a hold with comics readers. There's an unspoken sentiment when you talk to comics people about getting comics digitally, where for many it just sort of comes down to not owning an actual comic. There's a need to own the comic. And people make fun of that: "Okay, Grandpa. Have fun with your longboxes." But I wonder if there isn't something to this relationship to a physical object that may make comics readers an ideal audience for what you're trying. Have you seen people react to this notion of handmade comics? Do you hope people respond?
SALLY: I hope people respond. And to what we were talking about earlier, there's two ends to that. There's one that me and you and our people know, which is we grew up with this sort of fetishistic relationship with comics.
SPURGEON: And how.
SALLY: I still have that. There's great things about that, and there are also weird, "What's wrong with me?" problems. [laughs] I like both of them. In the next ten years -- next three years -- I think those things are only going to become clearer and clearer. Or more and more distinctive.
Let's put it this way. I just got Spotify, and I'm having a really tough time with my conscience with Spotify. I love it. I totally love it. I found this like crazy Bitch Magnet song from 1989, and it turns out this guy I know had re-issued it. He has a record label. I wrote him and I said, "Oh my God, you reissued the Bitch Magnet catalog. Please tell me that Spotify isn't the worst thing in the world." And he wrote me back, "No, it's the worst thing. It's going to destroy independent music. The artist gets .3 of a penny per stream." I don't know how to square it with that idea of... "independent" music -- I hate all this stupid terminology! But that's the world that's had the most influence over what I do and how I do it. Those ideas, whether they're found in 'zines or records or bands or whatever. Art. Whatever. And I can't square that with my conscience.
At the same time, I look at this model and I'm like, "It's coming." You know? This model is coming. It's here for music. But music doesn't have a physical property. It's intrinsic to that experience because historically it's intrinsic to that experience. You separated your weed on a gatefolded Yes record. You know? So if this is happening, what parts are important to you and what are you going to do with that model? It's only going to destroy things if you let it. You're going to have to pick out the pieces of things that you value, that you care about, and try and move forward with those. There are a bunch of comics I don't care to have forever. And for those a Kindle is okay. There's books I'm going to be fine with reading on one of those things. But there are books where it existing is important, where it existing in physical space is important. It existing with physical properties is part of what makes it that thing for me. The part of that that's important is that somebody made it. And for me this is it, you know? I made it. [laughs]
* photo of Sally at the 2011 TCAF
* from La Mano's Kim Deitch project, The Kim Deitch Files
* cover to the new La Mano Sammy The Mouse collection
* from Sammy
* another from Sammy
* the cover image to Dead Ringer
* Nate Denver's book
* video of Zak Sally and his printer
* another image from Sammy (below)