Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

January 4, 2008

CR Holiday Interview #8: Chris Pitzer



It was surprising to me while researching this interview that in 2007 Chris Pitzer's AdHouse Books celebrated its fifth anniversary. It feels like they'd been around for twice as long a time, a testimony to how quickly and efficiently Pitzer has assembled cartoonists that feel like a cohesive publishing group, and how many of them have progressed in significant fashion since publishing under his banner. For many comics-reading people, AdHouse is the publisher of fine indy-comic driven anthologies like Project: Superior For others, they're primarily a force behind the specialty art books like this year's Pulphope and the beautiful James Jean collections Process Recess. I like them as a devoted publisher of high-end alt-comix like Skyscrapers of the Midwest. No matter your access point, at the company's center is Chris Pitzer, a skilled designer and editor in addition to his formal publishing duties. He's one of my favorite people to see around at cons: he always looks so pleased to be around the AdHouse cartoonists and otherwise provides a smart, affable presence. Let hope that the next five years for AdHouse feel just as momentous as the first five.


TOM SPURGEON: So how was your year, overall? When people talk about 2007, what's going to be the first comics-related thing to pop into your head?

CHRIS PITZER: My year was good. With AdHouse, this was our busiest, most productive year to date. I'm very happy with what we accomplished this year. Our biggest moment had to be having James Jean and Paul Pope signing at the same time at San Diego. Our trying to "crack the universe" in half, if you will. So, I guess that is the first thing that popped into my head. To have their two books make it to the show, and have them there to meet people was pretty cool.

SPURGEON: What about not comics-related?

PITZER In the "not comics" part of life, I'm happy to say that our oldest child-girl-dog has made a pretty big recovery. She's getting up there in years, and right after SDCC and before TCAF, she came down with what we think is a fungal infection of her sinus. It was pretty bad. I won't go into the gory details, but we were pretty scared. Because of her condition, we had to cancel our TCAF trip, which I felt bad about on many levels. I love that show. But the upside is that our girl is doing much better... which is fantastic.

SPURGEON: You know, Chris, I'm trying to think of what I know about you and I'm coming up with a blank. Were you a comics reader growing up? A creator of comics? How did you make the transition into publishing?

PITZER: Yeah, I read comics as a youngster growing up in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Picking them up from Drug Fair or the local news stands. Once, while sick, I recall trying to explain a Fantastic Four cover to my Dad so that he could pick it up for me. It was the one where the team was walking over a newspaper headline. Like most, I'd fall into and out of love with them. Right before I move to California to work at Eclipse, I sold off most of my collection to friends. I think it was 10-13 long boxes at the time. I forgot to mention: one year my Dad had a T-shirt made that said "President of the John Byrne Fan Club" in brown felt lettering on the back. Oh to still have that thing.

So, I went to work at Eclipse for around a year. It was then that I had my first story published in the PETA benefit book Born To Be Wild that Val Jones had put together. It was about how pigeons can drive you crazy. I made friends at Eclipse that I still have to this day. So, when I tried to get Pulpatoon Pilgrimage published by others, and they all passed, I took the sparse knowledge I had gathered and jumped into the fun world of publishing.

SPURGEON: You've put together a group of talented artists pretty quickly, and while your group is a distinct one, I'm not sure how I'd describe it. How would you describe your overall pool of talent, the artists with whom you're working? What makes a project of interest to you that might not be of interest to another publisher?

PITZER: I forget who came up with "whimsy" to describe AdHouse. It was probably Joel Priddy. He's good at that type of stuff. So, while we publish what some consider one of the most depressing comics created -- Skyscrapers -- I think there are still elements of whimsy to be found within its pages. When people ask me to describe why I publish certain books, I usually fall back to what Jeff Mason said to me once: "Publish what you love." So, first I have to love the book, since it will take time, money, stress, etc. to make it all happen. That said, I like bringing new voices to the people when possible. Other buttons of mine that can be pressed: smart, funny, designy, original. The sad part is that I'm interested in many more books than I can publish. At some points, I've had to pass on certain things that I'll see published elsewhere, which is one of those sad/happy moments. It's probably in their best interest, though.

SPURGEON: Your books are also generally well-designed. However, I'm unsure as to how you work. Are your artists doing their designs themselves? How much input do you have? Is there someone, maybe one of the artists, that you lean on for design decisions? How important is quality design to what you're trying to do?

PITZER: Well, one of the reasons I got into this in the first place was a chance to stretch my design wings. As the years went on, and more artists started working with AdHouse, there were a few that came in who were capable of bringing their own skills and visions to the table. For instance, J Chris Campbell pretty much just hands over a complete Zigzag package. I like what he does, so I'm cool with that. The hardest I've worked on a book had to be Pulphope. To start from the ground up with so much information and to turn it into what I feel is a very accomplished publication is very pleasing. There was a good bit of back and forth with Paul, but certain ideas I had made the cut. The spreads that essentially show the Napoleon serigraph being "screened" onto the pages was one of those proud ideas.

SPURGEON: Josh Cotter revealed in his interview here at CR that Skyscrapers of the Midwest has only just now sold 1500 copies, which I think based on what they were saying in the correspondence that followed depressed a lot of people, considering the quality of Cotter's work and the overall, appealing package. Is that pretty typical of the performance of comics in your line? Why do you think there's resistance to some of the obviously high-quality comic books like this one? Are you going to continue doing comic book comics? What if anything in the market has you hopeful?

PITZER: If I recall, we've never broken a quantity of 1000 on initial orders for a comic. Just lately we've had some "floppie" success with Johnny Hiro. We've received initial orders of close to 900. So, in my mind, there are many factors at work. I've struggled with this for years, trying to find the right formula to sell more and more comics. The big question... Who is your customer? The retailer or the person who asks the retailer to order the comic? I think the retailer is the customer since they place the orders. So, I've tried to listen to them in regards to making comics in standard sizes, trying to keep a price point as low as possible, keeping them on schedule.

But it's a tough battle. For us to eventually turn a profit on a comic, we need to be able to overprint and then warehouse, which isn't as easy as it sounds. Another part of the equation is the AdHouse "brand." While some love us and swear by us, we fly below the radar of many. I've tried to fix that by advertising, attending the shows, keeping a blog/flickr/forum going with information. But sometimes I feel that I've let the creators down when their books haven't turned a profit yet. I'm sorry to ramble. It's just not an easy question to answer. Or I don't have the right thoughts and words. Back on track: I'll continue to publish comics, but on a very limited basis. For me, I don't think anything in the market has me hopeful, other than some people really digging what comics we've published.


SPURGEON: Are you done with the anthologies now? How important were the anthologies in terms of things like of your being able to work with variety of artists, and getting your company's name out there, and moving some units? Would you return to them in the future?

PITZER: Well, I'm done with the big book anthologies. I'm so happy with all of them. I have at least one more special issue of Superior Showcase -- our floppie overflow anthology from Project: Superior -- that will come out next summer. There's a very cool twist in regards to that issue. I think the anthologies were very important for AdHouse. It enabled me to work with a good many of my favorite creators of all time. The Project books also garnered us some industry award nominations and wins.

The sad part is that some of the times we couldn't really take advantage of that, since the books would be out of print by the time of the nominations. And yeah, I can hear Rory Root saying "Reprint Superior!" but that would entail a lot of work & money, which I'd rather focus into new things. I'm 99% certain I'm done with publishing big anthologies. Remember that I helped Jeff Mason with one, and then worked on a few of the SPX ones. That, combined with what seems to be a market that is full of them -- Flight, MOME -- and I don't see my need to work on another.

SPURGEON: Did that Paul Pope art book [Pulphope] come out as you'd hoped?

PITZER: Yeah, I think it did. Better than I hoped, really. I mean, I knew it was going to be a pretty book, but the essays really knock it out of the park.

SPURGEON: What's it like working with Paul?

PITZER: Paul is a very interesting individual. Layers and layers. I think he'd give me the shirt off his back if I needed it. He's a rockstar, though. He's got the image, the entourage, the vibe. I think he and James Jean are stepping into the next levels of their careers. Working with DKNY & Prada, attending world design or art conferences... It will be interesting to see where they are a few years from now.


SPURGEON: Am I right in that that book changed a bit from conception to final publication? How much of a working progress do you have with the cartoonists on most of your books?

PITZER: I guess certain details changed. At first, it was a hardcover and then changed to a softcover, since Paul wanted it to have more of a "textbook" feel. We edited a few of the pornographic images, and discarded a lot of art. If we didn't have a chance to sit down at SPX in 2006 and go through what we had, the book would have been even later in release! I consider Pulphope the exception when it comes to working progress. Since it's more of a monograph, there was a lot of work to be done on that book. I have almost no work involved within the creator driven narratives, except on the production end.

When it comes to collections, I tend to have more input. Process Recess 2 was interesting in [terms of] format. Originally, I think we were planning a limited type of book that would have Chicago-post style binding. Then, while talking it over, we decided it should be a mass release, so we flipped it to a Half-Canadian spiral binding. So, while the size pretty much stayed the same from the beginning, we had some fun and headaches trying to come up with binding that we thought worked.

SPURGEON: How did you end up in Richmond?

PITZER: After leaving Eclipse back in 91 I had decided I wanted to go back to school to obtain a Masters degree in graphic design. I had narrowed it down to either SCAD in Savannah, or VCU in Richmond. The timing was such that I had to pick a place to live before hearing from the schools as to whether or not I got accepted. So, we picked Richmond. Ended up I was accepted to SCAD but not VCU! I really should have seen it coming, though. VCU is a very formal type of school that stresses the theoretical and strong typographic skills, neither of which was my forte. So, I freelanced for a bit, and then ended up doing the job thing.

SPURGEON: Is there a rich, local comics scene in Richmond?

PITZER: Given the size of the city, I think there's a huge comics scene. I've always been surprised at the amount of strong comic stores we have in the area. Then you have people like Tom DeHaven and Thomas Inge, who give lectures or gallery shows that blow my mind. Richmond really does have what it takes to put on some type of national comic festival. The resources at VCU alone have almost brought Schulz, Spiegelman and Gaiman to town. Disclaimer: I think they haven't come to town. I'm famous for missing stuff that happens right under my nose. Granted, we're no Portland, Brooklyn or Seattle, but the flip side is that I can also afford to purchase a home instead of rent. It's also close to the beach, which is usually a factor in my life. I love the beach.

imageSPURGEON: We talked earlier this year about your statement than just realistically, you might start doing fewer shows... Has your opinion changed on this at all? What makes a show work for you, and why do you think you've had difficult reaching that plateau at a lot of shows in the recent past?

PITZER: Well, by fewer, I think you mean SDCC. It's really just my hesitation to invest in a west coast show to that extent. With APE or Stumptown, I could probably get in and out for little damages. SDCC is a major investment in time, money and work. Sure, it can be worth it, but as I said in the past, I'm kind of stuck in the middle. Not small enough to get in easy, and not big enough to afford the help I would need. I think I've reached most all the plateaus I wanted in the shows I've attended. Y'know... To be honest, every show gives me those few minutes of doubt. What am I doing there. Why am I doing this. I think SDCC just takes it to the extreme, and with my turning 40 this year, I voiced those doubts. I still want to attend SDCC, but even that has become a challenge of late. Due to workplace seniority, I don't know if my wife will ever get that week off from her employment ever again. And the trip just isn't fun without her there.

SPURGEON: What's coming up for 2008?

PITZER: Johnny Hiro #3 looks like it will be coming out in January, which is a month late. After that, we have the collected Skyscrapers of the Midwest in May, which I'm hoping will do gangbuster's for Josh. Then Superior Showcase #3 in June, just in time for HeroesCon. At some point during the year I hope to help my old college pal Dave Plunkert get his new book out to a few stores. Currently, we're planning for it to be an "off the grid" type of project. Nothing's in concrete, but I think Scott Morse will have a new Southpaw book out this year, as well as a second edition of the Ancient series. After that, I'd like to do at least one more Process Recess with James... Since three is the magic number. And, more than likely, we'll collect Johnny Hiro into a trade paperback. But that's really all I got planned at the moment. Well, actually, there's always more stuff planned, but those projects only get serious when I get the goods from the creators.

imageSPURGEON: Five years from now, where would you ideally be with your AdHouse projects? Bigger sales... more artists... same artists, more books... do you think that far ahead?

PITZER: Unh.. Well, my joke with Josh Cotter is that once we get the collection out I'd be fine with turning the lights out. Sometimes I mean it, and obviously, sometimes I don't. So, yeah, I'd love bigger sales. Probably less books. It's that ol' warehousing issue!

SPURGEON: Have you ever thought about the company's overall legacy, or is that just ridiculous at this point?

PITZER: I'm not sure about the endgame either... I heard rumors that companies have talked about purchasing AdHouse, but I don't think that's real. A while back, the wife said she thought I could be doing AdHouse once we retire, and I just laughed. If our legacy is a blip of quality books within the history of comics, I'll be happy. I think you might have compared us to Black Eye a while back, and that is the only legacy I could hope for. I love Black Eye.

SPURGEON: Is the interpersonal part of being a publisher important to you? When we meet up in person and we talk about the cartoonists with whom you're working, there seems to be a certain amount of affection in your voice. Has working with these artists become an appealing part of it to you?

PITZER: Oh yeah. I consider most of the creators real friends. I wish I could see them more than the few times I do throughout the year. Also, I wish I could do more for them.

SPURGEON: You've celebrated a fifth anniversary this year. How has your perspective changed from year one to now?

PITZER: Probably my belief that anything is possible. If someone would have told me back in 2002 that I'd have the year I just had, I'd have a tough time believing them. That, and I'm a bit more conservative with my print runs now days. Warehousing!


* photo of Chris Pitzer by Whit Spurgeon
* early company definer Pulpatoon Pilgrimage
* J. Chris Campbell's Zigzag
* cover to the limited edition of Project: Romantic
* Process Recess cover
* photo of an AdHouse booth set-up at SDCC; Doug Fraser on the left
* Skyscrapers of the Midwest cover
* image from Paul Pope


AdHouse Books




the CR Holiday interview series continues through Monday with two interviews scheduled for each day. Tuesday, January 8 marks a return to this blog's full array of regular features. We thank you for your patience.
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