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CR Sunday Interview: Zack Soto
posted April 6, 2014
 

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imageZack Soto is a widely well-liked cartoonist, publisher and now convention organzier -- with the inaugural edition of his and François Vigneault's Linework NW taking place this week in that beautiful comics city of Portland, Oregon. Linework NW was announced in the wake of a decision by the longtime, mostly small-press show the Stumptown Comics Fest to fold its programming and mission into the Rose City Comic Con starting this Fall. I suspect, however, from visiting Portland and talking to its cartoonists that a split was coming no matter what Stumptown did, and purely from a difference of opinion as to how to put together such a show and which cartoonists on which to focus and where to take the whole thing rather than anything ugly or personal.

I've come to know Soto a little bit through on-line avenues and from seeing him at various shows, particularly those held in the Northwest. I enjoy his Study Group offerings whenever I see them: the on-line comics, the infrquently updated blog, the print comics that come from the on-line comics, and the magazine. I also enjoy his work as a cartoonist. I was happy he was able to give me some time as his convention launches in just a few days. I tweaked one or two things for flow and one or two things for the delay between our doing the interview and its intended publication one week out from the festival. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Tell me where you are in the ramp up to Linework NW. How much work have you been doing in a typical week?

ZACK SOTO: As you and I are talking, we're less than a month away, so it's pretty hectic now! We're having meetings every week at this point with all the main organizational volunteers, lining up sponsors, designing the materials for the show, distributing fliers, doing table layout, posting interviews with exhibitors on the tumblr, and putting out a call to volunteers. Among other stuff. Luckily, it's a small show and we have some awesome people involved on the back end.

SPURGEON: Are there specific challenges to doing a show in Portland that aren't obvious from the outside? What little I know about Portland suggests, for example, it's harder to find a lot suitable spaces the way that these seem to be all over other towns, but I could be totally wrong about that.

SOTO: It wasn't... easy finding a space that could both host a decent amount of tables but also still have character and still say "Portland" to us. But it wasn't impossible. We settled on the Norse Hall because it's a handsome old building with natural light and a central location. We probably erred on the side of keeping it a little too small, based on the amount of applications we wished we could have accepted.

SPURGEON: Is there something you believe is key for the show to work? Something you think "If this works out, the whole show is going to work"? Conversely, are there one or two things you're worried about, with a first show?

SOTO: Really, there's just two or three things I'm worried about: are the exhibitors happy and did they hopefully make some money? And did we get a broad spectrum of people in the door, and were they excited about the show, did they find some cool stuff to check out, and are they excited for next year? I guess that's more than two or three things.

I'm not so much worried about any one thing not going off, I'm sure there will be some problems here and there, but just overall vibes are important to me. Stuff will always go wrong, but hopefully we'll be able to deal with whatever does.

imageSPURGEON: When did you guys know that there was eventually going to be a show that was not Stumptown? Because I have the sense that a split was brewing for a very long time. I don't want you to revisit that in a spiteful way, but I think with so many shows going now it's fascinating to see how things develop? What, in the end, was the nature of that split, Zack?

SOTO: I can't really say what happened with Stumptown, because I wasn't involved. But as far as "why did we aim to start another show," I can tell you that Linework NW came from many, many conversations between myself & François where we talked about what our ideal type of show for Portland would be, especially considering the over saturation of "mainstream" type shows in the area. There were a few key points: First and foremost, we wanted it to be free. Paying money to get in and spend money limits the target audience to people who have already "bought in" to comics in a way that we want to avoid.

Another consideration was that the area is sort of over saturated with straight "comics shows," which is why we foregrounded Illustration in the subtitle. We're reaching out to hopefully not just get comics lifers, but also civilian types that just like nice things to look at. People with money to burn, I hope? Shows like Crafty Wonderland are as much an inspiration for Linework NW as shows like BCGF & Short Run.

We also felt like maybe the other Portland comics shows didn't really feel that "Portland-y" to us, and we felt like it was important to us to feel like a regional show in the best possible way. You know, it's hard to highlight local flavor when you're in the same Convention Center setting as every other mid-to-large show across the country. That's why we ended up choosing the Norse Hall as our venue.

As far as Stumptown goes, probably the biggest complaint I'd hear on a regular basis was that, as it got bigger and further from its original mission it sometimes seemed like Stumptown didn't always know what kind of show it wanted to be. They had been moving to be more of a general comics show with an indy leaning, which is fine, but there's been a lot of growth in that area in the last few years. Comics civilians can't always tell the difference between Stumptown, Rose City Comic Con, and the Wizard show, even though people like you and I can see obvious differences.

We'd heard there were issues over there, but that they were more past-tense than present, and proceeded with our plans under the assumption that Stumptown as a show was still an ongoing concern. We hoped to be a compliment to Stumptown, really. For the people who felt ill-served by a more general approach to art & comics, we would offer a highly curated vision of the same. I had envisioned people bopping between the two shows, kind of like Trickster & SDCC. Unfortunately, Stumptown seems to have -- temporarily? -- tabled its festival, so now a lot of the people who counted on that April tabling experience are looking to us as the only game in town, and we haven't even had our first show yet!

SPURGEON: What have you learned about the Portland comics community doing the show you didn't know before, Zack?

SOTO: There's a lot of cartoonists here! Actually, I already knew that. [Spurgeon laughs] I just didn't quite know what a wide variety of people and comics there were here until we got deluged with applications for Linework. It's been really illuminating! There's a lot of talent in this area.

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SPURGEON: How did you settle on Michael DeForge as a first announced special guest? How did you settle on Jim Woodring as the second?

SOTO: I think Michael is one of the most obvious picks in a lot of ways. For the last five years, he's been one of the best and brightest new talents around, to the point that now that he's no longer a "new" talent, he's taken a place in a lot of peoples' pantheons of "greats." He's constantly trying to up his game and get better with every project, and it shows. He's also never really been to this corner of the US and we thought that was just plain silly.

Jim Woodring is someone who we thought made a nice counterpoint to Michael, in that he's from a generation or so previous, but he's currently at the height of his powers as a cartoonist, and he's a local great as well as one of the all-time great cartoonists. I like that he and Michael both have their own, slightly disturbing takes on the grotesque, both in their writing and drawing. It's been a while since Jim was down here too, which we are happy to fix.

Both are also accomplished in both the comics and illustration worlds, which we thought was a nice through-line with the stated focus of Linework.

SPURGEON: You named a small board of comics folks to help you curate. Why did you think that was necessary? What was that experience like? Was there any fear of bringing in more people given how Stumptown became fractious near the end?

SOTO: François and I are pretty plugged in to a lot of what's going on in comics and to a lesser extent in the illustration world, but we felt that it was important to have other voices and viewpoints on the many, many applicants whose work we considered (we had about three times as many applicants as we did final exhibitors)... In addition to François and myself, we brought in Justin "Scrappers" Morrison, Meg Hunt, and Kinoko. All three are accomplished illustrators, and are important to the local scene as well. Scrappers is the Art Director at the Portland Mercury, Meg and Kinoko both teach illustration at PNCA, and Kinoko also teaches cartooning at the IPRC Certificate program.

It helped to have other aesthetic sensibilities in the mix when looking at everything. The judging itself was done in a couple sessions, we all went through every applicant and made notes, mostly reaching a friendly consensus. Occasionally there were splits of opinion, in which case François and I acted as tie-breakers.

SPURGEON: It's a very charged time in terms of people having very strong opinions about what they expect in terms of a festival convention be a safe space. How do you approach those issues? What is your harassment policy?

SOTO: In many ways, we've somewhat been of the opinion that a common sense understanding of social decorum goes a long way. But the comics industry has a track record of violating that simple dictum, and the stories of harassment at comics conventions have only become more shameful as they have become more and more frequently reported, and we agree that having a clearly articulated anti-harassment policy is needed for any festival. With that in mind, for the record:
Linework NW will not tolerate verbal or physical abuse, derogatory or discriminatory language, sexual harassment, and disruptive or inappropriate behavior. Anyone who feels they have witnessed or have been subjected to inappropriate or abusive behavior at the festival is encouraged to report it to a Linework NW volunteer immediately. Linework NW organizers will be available to mediate conflicts at the festival, and we reserve the right to ask anyone we determine to be violating our policies to adhere to our community standards, up to and including excluding them from the event.
SPURGEON: Here's something that's come up when I've talked to artists recently. What would you do if someone complained about some of the work being sold at Linework NW as offensive or oppressive? What if someone objected to a Johnny Ryan comic, or one of Michael's?

SOTO: While we can understand that works of art can have powerful and even detrimental emotional effects on viewers, Linework NW is at its heart a celebration of free expression and creative freedom. With that in mind, we're not willing to censor any creator, regardless of the nature of their work. With a show as diverse as Linework NW, it is almost inevitable that there will be work which will be found distasteful by someone. We ask that attendees and exhibitors keep an open mind and exercise their right to not engage with work they find troubling.

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SPURGEON: Through your retail work you probably have a pretty good idea of the Portland comics-reading community, as opposed to the professional community -- although certainly there's crossover. But is that a strong community of readers? Are there ways that community is atypical to some others, do you think? What kind of people do you expect to see attending Linework NW?

SOTO: Oh man, it's crazy. Portland has what may be the most comics-literate public of any US city. The variety of people that come through either of the stores I've worked at is really impressive. I'm not exaggerating to say that pretty much every demographic comes through those doors at one point or another. I'm hoping we can get even a fraction of that crowd to come to Linework NW. I think it's fair to say that we expect a cross-section of both "the youngs" and "the olds" to come see what's happening, as well as what we hope is a healthy mix of both comics lifers and initiates.

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SPURGEON: How much work have you done in the last three years? Do you consider yourself a prolific cartoonist? Would you like to make more work, all other things taking care of themselves? Is the attempt to find Patreon support about that, or is it just about maximizing revenue streams? Zack, I couldn't actually tell how much your heart was into that.

SOTO: I've done a "fair amount" of work in the last three years, I guess? I'd like to have done more, for sure. I did an issue of the Secret Voice and a handful of short stories that people have seen, but there's a lot of stuff that's still in progress or abandoned that no one's seen yet. I spend a lot of time in the writing and self-editing stage, and sometimes that's where things also end. It may or may not show through in the finished product, but I'm fairly hard on myself because I know what "Good Art" is and I want my comics to be Good Art. Half the trick for me sometimes is just letting go and seeing if something will find it's audience.

All things taking care of themselves, taking money out of the equation, I'd really like to just be a cartoonist full time. I think most of us would! I am always trying to maximize my potential and time and energy in order to be more productive. It's a struggle. I like my day job doing comics retail, but if I was actually able to just be an artist and writer full time I would happily throw myself into that situation. I'm also writing things for other artists to draw in the hopes that that will increase the amount of comics I can help make happen in the world. If I were to lay out a dream situation for myself, it'd be to be able to keep making more Secret Voice and other comics as both writer and artist, while also writing both creator-owned and even work for hire books in collaboration with other artists. I'm also interested in drawing more scripts written by other people. I just did that for the first time -- I drew a short written by Chris Sebela for that In The Dark anthology that's coming out, and that was fun, a totally different experience.

The Patreon thing is definitely about both maximizing revenue streams and enabling me to spend time on Secret Voice -- and comics in general -- so that I'm not having to hustle quite as hard to get jobs doing, like, flyers or whatever for chump change. I'll happily take the chump change for my comics instead! Actually, "maximizing revenue streams" is sort of misleading, since other than sales of the recent Secret Voice #1 I make basically an average of zero dollars from comics. So for me, the fact that I can suddenly make $33 a page -- before Patreon takes their cut -- on Secret Voice, that's huge. Seriously huge. It's not just an influx of money, it's also nice to know that 15 people care enough about my goofy comic to pledge anywhere from one to ten dollars per update. Do I hope those numbers get bigger? Definitely. But am I happy, proud and humbled that they are what they are a month after launching the Patreon account? Very much so.

It's actually kind of a bummer that you say you couldn't tell if my heart was in it to win it, because I thought I did a decent job of laying out the reasoning for the Patreon and what's going on in my life -- trying to make more comics, having a baby soon, etc. -- but I think that's partly because it's not really my desire to give people a hard sell on this stuff. People will either want to support my work or they won't, and that's OK. My comics aren't for everyone, and me begging for help from someone who isn't interested in them isn't doing either of us any good. If someone gets enjoyment from my comics and they want to help me out or otherwise show their enjoyment by making my life a little easier, there are options. They can buy my comics, they can buy some prints or original art, or they can buy a toy I made with my hands, and now they can choose to be a patron of my work in progress, in whatever amount makes sense to them.

imageSPURGEON: How easily does the Secret Voice work come to you at this point? I get the sense early on you really struggle in terms of just getting work down on the page. The work now also seems reasonably idiosyncratic in terms of how it's structured: it's hard to figure out any specific source material at this point, it seems to flow pretty easily in terms of how the story moves. How do you feel you've developed on that work, specifically?

SOTO: I'm actually at the point with Secret Voice that it's moving along nicely. Again, a lot of the most time-consuming work is done in the writing stage, and narrative structure. I've got the whole thing pretty much mapped out. I've got the next issue about 90% drawn and inked. Right now, I'm mostly coloring stuff from #2 to post on the web. I need to finish up the remaining pages of #2 and start laying out #3, which will be a decent amount of work, but hopefully not anything that slows me down too much. The bulk of the time between the Adhouse issue #1 and the remastered, re-written & drawn parts of the Study Group issue #1 was spent rewriting the whole story and trying to fill in all the gaps and make sure it made sense and has a satisfying ending.

I've also been sort of evolving the way I approach the pages visually, which takes a while sometimes. But right now I'm in a groove and feel pretty settled in to an approach that I like and isn't very time-consuming. I feel like I've done most of the heavy lifting, I guess. I'll probably slow down and get confused again right near the end, because I really want to get that part right.

SPURGEON: Has making toys and figures had any effect on your comics-making?

SOTO: [laughs] Other than being an alluring and seductively satisfying way to spend time making art? Probably not, though I have been making a little mini comic to go with each of the toys so as to build a little mythology for the characters and so on. It's really fun. When I was first doing it, I basically just wanted to disappear into a toy making world, but I realized that that's just as much because it's less precious to me, as a medium. It's relaxing and gratifying to make a 3D object, and I had forgotten I felt that way. I'd like to do more, and I'd really like to make a vinyl toy. I have an idea for a project that involves both comics and toys equally, I hope to get that going in the next year or so.

SPURGEON: Where do you feel that Study Group has settled in in terms of the wide array of choices for comics on the Internet. I was interested to read you talk about it, because you gave a lot of credit for your hit count to a few projects rather than the strength of the site more generally? How do you feel the development of that site has gone? Is there a way you'd rather have it work at this point?

SOTO: Actually, I have no idea where we are in terms of the other options. I honestly don't really look at a ton of webcomics sites, or even many comics sites any more. I logged in to the Google Analytics dashboard a month ago for the first time in over a year and I was pleased by what I saw, numbers-wise... But that's really it.

I think it's a good site, and I am very proud of it. Especially being able to put the work of talented but relatively unknown creators out there for lots and lots of eyeballs to see. The Idea that people might have just become familiar with, say Samuel Hayes or Tyler Landry because of the site, that makes me happy.

We have what I think is a lot of readers by any metric I can think of. Definitely more than zacksoto.com ever got. Hit count is honestly whatever, but when I do bother to look at that stuff, I do notice things like: i09 linked to Simon Roy's gorilla comic (which I recently took down since his collection is coming out soon), and like a trillion people showed up to check it out. Or when Warren Ellis links to IWAH or something, there's nice big bumps. But there's also something to the fact that yeah, some strips are going to be more popular than others. That's just the nature of things. Farel's comic or Sam Alden's comic might have a broader appeal than my comic or whatever.

I wouldn't know how to develop the site away from that even if I thought it was important to do so. I think we already present all the works as equally important, they're all there for people to see, the archives are relatively easy to check out.. Some people are into weird underground trippy shit and some people are into more reality based stuff, and some are into interesting genre comics. I like having all those things under one roof, because I'm the type of comics reader that likes all that and more.

SPURGEON: Is there one work on there you think people don't appreciate the way they should?

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SOTO: Jezebel, by Elijah Brubaker. It's just so consistently funny to me, and the cartooning is spot on, and he's a beast, just updating all the time. I feel like more people should appreciate the work he's doing on that strip.

SPURGEON: You are very, very active on social media. That might just be how you're personally oriented, but I wonder how that has an effect, if any on how you work. Do you feel a connection to an on-line group of peers? Do you feel obligated to keep these connections going? Do you give any thought to your on-line presence at all?

SOTO: [laughs] Yeah, it totally has an effect on how I work. Usually not for the best. Part of it is a function of my day job, though. I'm basically at or around a computer all day when I'm at work, so I tend to end up dicking around online between helping customers plenty. But I really am on too much for my own tastes even beyond that. To some extent, I also don't feel like I could cut it out completely because of the site and needing to be updating it, tweeting or tumbling in it's interest, etc. I'm working on figuring out how to disconnect a little from the internet because it's just starting to bum me out more than anything else.

I think a little about my online presence, for sure. I try not to present just a constant unfiltered stream of consciousness ramble. I try to treat people well on the wild web, just like I'd like to be treated. It's all about the golden rule, right? Lately I've just been exhausted by all the negativity constantly oozing out of not just the internet, but comics people on the internet.

Right now I'm way less interested in winning arguments than having a good time, getting things done, and trying to be a better person, both in real life and online. I definitely don't succeed in either place all the time, but I'd say my ratio is better today than it might have been 10 years ago, or five even. So maybe 24 year old Zack getting into arguments on the TCJ boards would think 38-year-old Zack had lost all his fighting spirit. Maybe I have? Basically, I'm old and tired, Tom!

Speaking aspirationally, I'd actually like to be mostly off the internet but if I can't I'd at least like to spend that time being absurd and laughing instead of getting worked up about garbage.

What am I even talking about? I sort of went on a tangent, I guess. I blame the internet for this tangent, too.

SPURGEON: Where does the Study Group magazine stand? Because you guys are certainly not blogging in support of it with any regularity... how closely has that matched your initial impulse for doing it?

SOTO: Study Group Magazine #3D is going to be awesome, and it'll be out for TCAF unless something goes horribly wrong. It's really pretty. Comics from Sophie Franz, Connor Willumsen, Trevor Alixopulos, Mia Schwartz, Kim Deitch, Chris Cilla, Malachi Ward and more. Articles by Sarah Horrocks, Sean Witzke, Jason Little and more. There's a section of 3D comics and a big thing on the recently departed Ray Zone with testimonials from various talented and important people. It should be very cool, hopefully worth the wait. It's a mixture of full and partial color, whereas the first couple were all two tone. I'm launching pre-orders for that, a collection of Sam's Haunter strip and the new It Will All Hurt later this week.

The magazine is shifting a bit, we're still dialing it in. I'd like the ratio of articles to comics to be closer to 50/50, actually. I was aiming for that this time, but it's more like 70/30 again. My problem is I keep asking more people do do comics than we have space, or people turning in more pages than I asked for and me liking the comics so much I don't care. So that's a thing, and I'm sure Milo looks forward to me figuring out how to avoid that. The next couple issues will be themed issues, and I'm excited about that. I think there will be a guest comics editor for issue #5. The blogging is definitely non-existent, I just don't personally have time to do it. I'm actually working on bringing in some other people to help with that a little, and some other areas like shipping and marketing. People I'm working with on Linework NW, actually, so that won't really take effect until after the show since we're all busy.

SPURGEON: What does the show look like in five years if everything goes successfully?

SOTO: Gosh, I dunno? A little bigger, obviously -- but hopefully we can walk that fine line of growing and still keeping to our original spirit, and not losing the local flavor. Right now, I'm mainly worried about this first show going well, we're not quite ready to start looking that far ahead.

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* Linework NW
* Zack Soto
* Study Group

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* poster to the forthcoming event by Michael DeForge
* photo of Soto by me, SPX 2013
* photo of Stumptown 2013 floor by me
* art from Mr. DeForge and Mr. Woodring
* I believe this art from the project with Christopher Sebela
* Dr. Galapagos punches a creature
* from Jezebel
* from the fourth Secret Voice on-line serial (below)

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