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

December 29, 2016

CR Holiday Interview #5—RJ Casey



I knew nothing about RJ Casey before he became a presence at Fantagraphics for his foreboding size, good-natured jollity and hard work. He was vital to completing some of the supplementary material for the oral history book We Told You So, and it shows you how times have changed that I was constantly surprised how attentive he was with his individual assignments and how quick he was in turning them around. If you believe like the last frontier the industry part of the comics industry needs to cross involves raising the standard of non-creatives until they're in the same neighborhood as the comics-maker across the board, RJ Casey is a positive move in that general direction.

Turns out Mr. Casey was one of the co-founders of Yeti Press, one of those admirable small publishers that finds a niche for the yawning need in the scene but soon slips from effectiveness as [arguably] better, [almost certainly] bigger gigs are found by all involved. Those kinds of publishers will be more common than the 40-year kind or the ones that are drummed out of the industry by not making enough money. Think of them as labors of love followed by labors elsewhere. Still, going from a smaller publisher of one's own to a small but bigger publisher of someone else's is a move that's not to be taken likely, and I appreciated RJ's patience in my asking after it. -- Tom Spurgeon


imageTOM SPURGEON: Let me build your history in reverse. You're shutting down your imprint, Yeti Press. Can you talk as explicitly as possible about the factors that led to this decision. Is there something that could happen that would encourage you to call a reprieve?

RJ CASEY: The decision has been made for a while, I think both consciously and unconsciously. When I was teaching, making and publishing comics was what I looked forward to after a long day. Now that I do that full-time, I’d rather spend that precious free time with my wife. Or actually reading comics! After six years of running a micropress, you become especially attuned to very minor wins and losses and I think Yeti Press has a lot more check marks in the "w" column and that’s the way I want to go out.

The artists that formed the backbone of Yeti Press early on like Kat Leyh, Kevin Budnik, and David Alvarado don’t need me anymore. There’s no sadness in that statement at all, either. I wanted Yeti Press to be a stepping-stone or serve as a farm team, and it has fulfilled its purpose for nearly all the artists and myself too, in a way. I started to feel like I wanted to end it early this year and talked with Eric Roesner, the co-founder, about it at TCAF on the balcony of our hotel. We were on the same page. So, I think we've got one or two books left in us to publish, then we're going to call it quits at CAKE in 2017. Bring it back to Chicago to form a nice, full circle. I'm happy about the decision. I don’t regret it yet.

SPURGEON: Since you've at least seen an end for your line, how do you appraise your publishing efforts overall? What do you think your place has been? Is there a proudest moment? Are there regrets?

CASEY: We did well. We could have done better, but we did well. We've published several women, queer, and Latinx artists. We've had a book featured in the Best American Comics. We put out over 30 books that ranged from one-sheet foldouts to 360-page collections. That feels pretty great, especially for a company that has literally been running out my closet. We've pushed so hard to get these books, which are full of heart and humor, out into the world, whether the world wanted them or not. I think our total tabling count is over 70 shows in six years. That includes art fairs in Aurora, Illinois and zine fests in Tacoma, Washington. We canvased Indiana for years! I'm proud of that "Get in the Van" mentality we started with -- willing to go anywhere and everywhere that would have us to spread the good word. But it wears you out.

I'm not sure about our place. I hope people will remember us fondly. A few regrets would only be a handful of books that slipped beneath the cracks. Half of that is on me for being too editorially loosey-goosey with deadlines and stuff. The other half is because many of the artists we've started projects with have gotten more consistent or higher-paying gigs during that time they were working on a book for us. Can't blame them for that, but there are a few coulda-been books that would have been fun to see to fruition.


SPURGEON: I think of Yeti in an inextricably linked way with Chicago, this quietly massive city for cartoonists. Can you talk a bit about your impressions of Chicago as a comics city, what maybe make it distinctive from other places, say Seattle?

CASEY: I miss the Chicago comics scene, as weird and as full of cognitive dissonance as it is. There's people from all genres and facets of comics in Chicago. I used to semi-regularly try to squeeze any advice I could out of Ivan Brunetti, Chris "Elio" Eliopoulous, Paul Hornschemeier, and Mike Norton. Those four supported Yeti Press from the get-go and I am forever grateful, but talk about varying realms of the medium!

I think that's what makes Chicago so great in terms of comics -- it's all over the place. Seattle is so encouraging, but seems more homogeneous. Everyone's making a similar kind of comic, and many of them are first-rate, but you don't have that wild Venn diagram at parties where children's book illustrators are hanging out with 'zinesters who are hanging out with seasoned corporate comic pros. I'm just idealizing Chicago, but that's what it felt like sometimes.

SPURGEON: It's a great place to be an artists; there's an audience for art that isn't just other artists. Let me ask one more question about the press from an outsider's perspective. Is there any support infrastructure for a micro-press in comics at all? You mention your pride in the reach-out you did, but did you do that because you had no choice and was that the entirety of your ability to get books into reader's hands -- direct outreach?

I mean, where were your books available? How much of the country were you able to penetrate that didn't involve you being in the room?

CASEY: Direct outreach was a choice because it’s what I’m good at. Going to shows and the online store served as the scaffolding the entire time. Some distributors have popped up, like Radiator Comics in Chicago that have sold a lot of our books. I also have always worked pretty demanding full-time jobs alongside Yeti Press and have always been realistic about its size and scope, and my own limitations. We have stores in Chicago, Seattle, Portland, and Toronto that regularly stock up on our books, but that’s about it. The East Coast doesn’t know we exist. Kickstarter seems to be the new infrastructure, but that makes me a little nervous.

SPURGEON: What would you wish that's different for someone who is starting out on their own publishing journey that you never had?

CASEY: I think there are a lot more people to direct questions to, or at least learn from, than there were nearly six years ago. If I was someone who wanted to get into micropress publishing right now and took it very seriously, I would try to learn from the various models and examples set by Koyama, Retrofit, 2dcloud, Czap, Youth in Decline, Perfectly Acceptable, ect. There are a lot more great publishers that have found a winning formula right now than ever before in that realm. When Yeti Press started, those people seemed like peers who were also getting their sea legs. If I were opening up a small press now though, I’d look at them as success stories and stalwarts of this tiny industry.

"Success story" is all relative here, but it takes a lot of heart and drive to put out books. People who have published consistently for a long time are my heroes. Chris Pitzer is my hero! For someone starting out, I would say contact these people and absorb and learn from their unique rides that got them here.


SPURGEON: Maybe take me a bit and tell me about your orientation towards this kind of comics in general. People in my generation were kind of slowly immersed in alternative comics, but at 30, these very specific kinds of works have been an option in a major way since you've been old enough to read and understand them? Talk to me about your comics reading before you wanted to do something professional in that space, how it developed.

CASEY: It all started with Bone, then Marvel superheroes, then teenage sensitive boy comics like stuff from Craig Thompson and Jeffrey Brown. My comic intake floodgates have been constantly expanding since then. I’ve probably read at least one comic, or a portion of a larger work, nearly every day for the last decade or so. I’m always wanting to go back and discover something that’s been overlooked or find artists that have influenced my favorites or just be wowed. I think I’m becoming a better reader. Little details in panels get me more excited now than a 400 page hardcover. You mention my age -- I'm lucky enough now that everything is reasonably easy to track down. There are all the reprints, the big conventions with backlist boxes, online dealers. I just bought a 1980 copy of Young Lust online for like $7 last week because it had a few Melinda Gebbie and M.K. Brown pages in it. I don’t think people older than me had this luxury. My reading has probably slowed down a little bit since I’ve started working professionally in comics. I’ve gotten to be much more critical, for better or for worse, that’s for sure.

SPURGEON: What's an average day like for you at Fantagraphics? What is that office like now other than much, much calmer than it might have been 10 and 20 years ago?

CASEY: I get in really early and catch up on emails and anything left over from the day before. After that, it’s always something new. There’s really no average day. I help with editing, I pitch our books to foreign publishers, I manage our digital sales with comiXology, Google Play, etc., I assist in many of the FU Press books, answer permissions requests. I’ve done a little invoicing and accounting work. My business card says “Rights & Operations,” but I’m really like Gary’s assistant and a spreadsheet Renaissance man! The office is great. Kristy Valenti and Jacq Cohen are the best at what they do in the whole world. Keeli Mccarthy has some kind of next level designer samurai skills going right now. I’m confident in all my co- workers and the books we put out.


SPURGEON: Talk to me about the reviewing you've been doing... what makes you want to write about comics, and what role do you think that kind of writing has? Not everyone thinks that writing about art, let alone writing about art for the Journal, is a valuable way to spend your time.

CASEY: Oh, it isn’t. But writing about comics and art in general -- I had a blog last year where I wrote about a different artist and why their work spoke to me each week for a year -- has made me a better person. Or at least a more pretentious one. But for real, I think since I started writing more seriously about a year or two ago, the way I view art, literature, and the world around me has changed. I think it’s made me more empathetic and emotional. I get enthusiastic and stirred up about little things almost daily. Universally, I don’t know what role my interviews and reviews, or anyone else’s, have. You, the basketball blog FreeDarko, and comics bloggers like Tucker Stone, Joe McCulloch, David Brothers, Chris Mautner, and Abhay Khosla made me want to be a writer way back when. You’re partly to blame for this! I love seeing my name on the TCJ site though. I take a lot of pride in that.

SPURGEON: Is it true you commute in from Tacoma? Do you live near the Bagges? That's not something we would have considered back in the day, and I wondered after that decision upon hearing that's how you were were set up. There's something that's so normal about commuting that we don't think of a lot of alt-comics job where that'ss a possibility, if you understand me.

CASEY: I do commute from Tacoma everyday and live pretty close to the Bagges. I used to commute everyday when I was teaching, so it’s nothing new to me. It’s all worth it when I get to go back to my house in a city where I enjoy living. I didn’t really get along well with Seattle. I used to live a 10-minute- walk away from the office, but me and my wife, who’s a physical therapist with a doctorate degree, couldn’t afford to live in anything more than a studio apartment in Seattle. It takes an hour to drive to work now, but Tacoma feels more like home than Seattle ever did. Feels more like Chicago, that’s for sure. Tacoma’s a bit more blue collar and rough around the edges, and Seattle is now embedded with tech people who have social skills ranging from zero to Reddit. I could keep ranting about Seattle and I’ve only lived here a few years. I hope
I answered your question.


SPURGEON: Tell me about the best comic you worked on this year and the best comic you read that has nothing to do with Fantagraphics.

CASEY: I did a lot of behind-the- scenes stuff on The Complete Wimmen's Comix. I had never read any of those comics before and a lot of them blew me away. It’s just a treasure trove. What Am I Doing Here? by Abner Dean was my favorite comic of the year, but of course that's a reprint. New stuff? I couldn't just pick one... Beverly by Nick Drnaso, Unwell by Tara Booth, She's Done it All! by Benjamin Urkowitz, How to Make Comics by Caitlin Skaalrud, Blammo #9 by Noah Van Sciver, Frontier by Richie Pope. I've got a list.

imageSPURGEON: From your perspective, what's going on right now in alternative comics that we don't pay enough attention to?

CASEY: The past. The Underground era has been pretty well covered in terms of the artists, but there were publishers and distributors risking real jail time to put out boundary-pushing books. I'd really like to interview George DiCaprio sometime. Even alternative comics and artists from the '80s and '90s are being forgotten. I have some issues with that obsession to always find the newest, youngest, hottest thing. That’s in comics and in all media. I’ve written more pointedly about this in the past, but we can’t just forget about artists with impressive bodies of work or unique styles just because it doesn’t fit the narrative of the day. An appreciation and discovery of the artists and writers that came before us -- that’s something alternative comics doesn’t pay enough attention to.

SPURGEON: So without the press where are you five years from now in terms of working in comics? Do you still have ambitions for working in this space? How much of this is just you turning 30, RJ?

CASEY: In five years, I'm hopefully still with Fantagraphics. My long-term goal is to never leave comics at this point. I'd like to continue to get better at the many facets of my job and establish myself more in the company. I'd like to eventually be lead editor on a book. I'd like to continue to write about comics and interview artists. I'd like to see my name in a print version of The Comics Journal. I have a lot of ambitions and goals, but they basically boil down to supporting artists any way I can for the rest of my life. I'm 30 now. I'm in my prime! Let's do it!


* RJ Casey
* Yeti Press
* Fantagraphics Books


* photo of Casey provided by Casey; photo taken by Chris Anthony Diaz.
* Yeti Press logo
* original Chicago cartoonist great John McCutcheon
* Blankets
* snapshot of recent work for TCJ
* George DiCaprio's Greaser Comics
* Yeti Press poster [below]



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