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Highwater Books—An Appreciation
posted November 21, 2004

imageThe news last week that Tom Devlin's tiny but influential art comics publisher Highwater Books was going to cease operations didn't come as a major surprise to anyone paying close attention. The company had a sizeable list of books that were long overdue to the printer, and then the mini-comics cartoonist John Porcellino announced he was going to move a second edition of his Perfect Example collection to Drawn and Quarterly. Not going back to press on a book is generally a bad sign when it comes to basic publishing vitality. It had been a while since Highwater had released anything of significant size, since 2003, and 2003 had been an island in a much longer stretch of essential inactivity. That the company had produced a Free Comic Book Day effort but not Crum Bums or Maggots or any of its scheduled big books indicated a lack of capital and resources rather than willpower or desire. Because their market presence was so intermittently felt and never more than modest at any time, reacting to Highwater's loss probably indicates a greater than average involvement with art comics, an empty SPX booth or maybe even simply the idea of a company that does the stuff you like, or in which you're invested even further than that, going away.

I enjoyed Highwater as a business entity because it embraced so many of my criticisms of small comics publishers one would think it was their checklist of "Things to Do." The brazen, sometimes even loopy quality of its business choices offered a counter-argument to every rational thought I've ever had about the business of comics through its romantic, not-the boss-of-me independence, the overall faith in the comics themselves such firm choices ultimately indicate. Highwater danced to the beat of its own drummer in ways that made me cringe while fervently wishing I could get up and do the same damn thing.

I've often expressed my belief that comics publishers are criminally under-capitalized. This may be a function of collectibles culture, where one hardly ever leaves one's store of choice with extra cash, or maybe partly because comics publishers work within a framework where the big companies often function as if they have no money, either -- and sometimes they don't, as monetary rewards fly out the door to various investors and high-level corporate functionaries. There seems at times that publishers at all levels share a lunatic compulsion to produce work. Money that might smooth operations or provide a resource for a rainy day caused by out-of-one's-hands business reversals almost always seem to go to publishing more books.

Highwater Books wasn't just under-capitalized and took on a full slate of books; it was barely capitalized at all and promised books that would have been difficult for anyone to deliver. They published like a sole proprietorship in a small town that would only open its doors for business whenever and wherever its narcoleptic shopowner could stay awake long enough to flip the sign. When people put their heads together to figure out how best to work with Diamond distribution in the wake of the distributor fiascoes of the mid to late 1990s, Highwater made the interesting and unsurprising choice to walk away from Diamond altogether. Tom Devlin was always his own man.

I loved Highwater as a backer of art as much as it is possible and healthy to feel affection for somebody else's business. Highwater gets credit for the exceptionally difficult achievement of finding enough post-alternative cartooning talent around which to build a book publishing line, no matter how small or haphazardly scheduled that line would turn out to be. An extraordinary percentage of the really good books done by cartoonists younger than Jaime Hernandez can be found in Devlin's warehouse. Devlin's poorly executed editorial about the deficiencies he saw in the EC Comics of the 1950s, which saw print in The Comics Journal #238, indicated one of his primary strengths as a publisher. Devlin came at comics with values removed from the literary standards most noteworthy comics publishers had previously brought to bear. He didn't see the comics he wanted to publish as a corrective to or a rejection of years of largely terrible North American comic books. He saw comics, I think, as a very specific kind of art book, a way of expressing ideas that didn't need to be complete statements and that could have as much value from the idiosyncrasy of vision, the first impression, as they could for the impact of a story or their cumulative narrative effect.

This had ramifications throughout his line. Devlin wasn't the first innovative designer of his type to work in comics for a sustained period -- Chris Oliveros and Michel Vrana both did wonderful thing as publishers, while Chris Ware and Paul Pope did really nicely by their own work, before Devlin started publishing full-time, I think -- but he was the first one where the design elements seemed an extension of a way of approaching comics rather than a beautiful, innovative bonus or a sign of added class. Devlin's more significant achievements in terms of content reflected a really good eye for visual achievement and a mental divorce from old battles. No one else could have published the goofball masterpiece Coober Skeber #2 - The Marvel Benefit Issue without dragging in several dead carcasses worth of self-loathing and introspection about the Superhero Question. No one else could have forced readers to reconsider Megan Kelso and Brian Ralph simply by presenting each cartoonist's work in a longer book format that revealed new and previously hidden strengths with matters of tone and subtleties of gesture. No one else would likely have looked at all those Mat Brinkman mini-comics and seen a spooky, one-of-a-kind, and largely unforgettable book.

I believe the way Highwater Books has had a small but noticeable impact on the art form as a whole is revealed in the fact you don't see those questions about the limits of comics nearly as much as you used to. I think that's because Highwater helped give back to comics that exquisite first shudder, the value of simply letting the strangeness of a world assembled from broken parts of purer media wash over you, the visual equivalent of the way we judge the comfort of a room upon our first few seconds of waking up. There aren't many art comics publishers, or publishers of any kind, whose existence can help you appreciate silk-screen mini-comics cartoonists and Jack Kirby. Highwater will be missed for its unexpected contributions to the ongoing discussion of why comics matter, its intuitive support of cartoonists interested in the art form's fundament.

When Fantagraphics Books was suffering through financial difficulties in early 2003, as an ex-employee I pondered the question of how I might feel were it to go out of business. Other than not being able to stomach a few on-line Muntz-style ha-has, I decided that in actuality, the 25 years Fantagraphics would have had to its final credit is as good and as unlikely a run as any quality business dedicated to the arts could hope for. It's only some odd quirk of consumer culture of the last 40 years that we feel invested in companies in a way we wish them to continue forever. I also don't believe that companies really step in and take previous companies' place. There's nothing like EC Comics, nothing like 1960s Marvel, nothing like RAW Books in its magazine years, nothing like Black Eye. Like the best comics that end too soon, there is so much unexplored in comics that relatively little from new efforts is likely to overlap into what has been done before.

I look forward to seeing what Tom Devlin does on his own, and the books the Highwater cartoonists publish elsewhere, just as I look forward to what Sammy Harkham and Avodah Books are going do in the coming years, or Buenaventura Press, or AdHouse Books. Hopefully these entities and others like them will do the only thing that Highwater did that makes it worth remembering: find something to publish and a way to publish that they can call their own. If they happen to amuse me along the way like Tom Devlin and Highwater did, well, I'll consider myself very lucky. Goodbye, Highwater.

Some Favorite Highwater Books

It occurs to me that if Tom Devlin is going to go out of business, there are likely additional business expenses that this brings on (such as returning art, or maybe giving unsold books to creators) even if all accounts have been settled up until now (which one doubts). Unlike most of is peers, Highwater Books never made a plea to the comics community on behalf of its financial difficulties. Let me make such a request on their behalf now. This would be a great time for fans of the art form to buy Highwater product, and retailers to maybe stock up for long-term bookshelf needs.

Forget doing it for reasons of charity or noble heart. As rosy as things look right now for unfettered access to multiple editions of every book ever published, that can always change. In fact, that's likely to change at some point. Don't get caught short. Highwater has a web site and the shop is open through at least the end of 2004.

Highwater has also long been a mini-comics retailer of note, carrying books from many cartoonists including some they don't publish. Good mini-comics are hard to find even in the best of times, and I can't imagine some extra cash flow in that department would hurt, either.

So trust those of us who are still looking for a few Nick Craine and Jay Stephens books from Black Eye: today's easy market access is tomorrow's visit to a comic book store in a church basement, hoping for a lucky score.

Five Books I'd Recommend

imageCatch as Catch Can, Greg Cook
Cave-In, Brian Ralph
Queen of the Black Black, Megan Kelso
Shrimpy and Paul and Friends, Marc Bell
Teratoid Heights, Mat Brinkman

I thought Teratoid Heights and Shrimpy and Paul were among the top five books from a very good 2003. Queen of the Black Black was a revelation for Kelso's very specific ear for dialogue. Cave-In is a lovely, fun kid's book with absorbing and affecting art. Catch as Can Can is the kind of project that may be lost to comics without Highwater around to encourage it.

Twelve Minis I'd Recommend

imageAngry Criminal, Tom Hart
Dave K's Greatest Hits, Dave Kiersh
Horace, Ben Jones
King-Cat #62, John Porcellino
Paper Rodeo #16
Reggie-12 FCBD, Brian Ralph
Substitute Life, John Pham
The Artichoke Books, Megan Kelso
The Most Powerful Gate, Tom Hart
The Weight, Greg Cook
Trazo de Tina, Jessica Abel
Tux Dog, Various

Angry Crimnal and The Most Powerful Gate are wonderful Tom Hart mini-comics from his prolific early- to mid-1990s phase, as good a sustained output in minis for anyone not named John Porcellino. If you can only buy one mini-comic, or just aren't familiar with them, try Porcellino's work in King-Cat #62. Horace, Tux Dog, and Paper Radio are prime examples of comics done in the silk-screened, unpretentious style made popular by the arts collective Fort Thunder. Substitute Life and Dave K's Greatest Hits are early works of note from the post-post alternative comics talents, almost completely unconcerned with commercial presentation. The works from Jessica Abel, Greg Cook and Megan Kelso are simply nice mini-comics between more widely published comics from the trio, books that nonetheless read very well on their own