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

March 31, 2015

CR Newsmaker Interview: Jen Vaughn, On Leaving Fantagraphics



imageI was told by a mutual friend that Jen Vaughn had given notice at Fantagraphics to pursue freelance opportunities and her own comics. I was surprised: not by the fact that she wanted to do her own comics but I and many others had come to think of Vaughn as a fixture at the venerable alt-publisher. I thought she might be there for another decade or more.

The funny thing is, the other hats I've seen Vaughn wear I can imagine her having done those things for an adult lifetime: her time in Vermont in and around the Center For Cartoon Studies, her freelance work in Seattle where she'll be spending time now, even the brief stopover at Top Shelf... Vaughn is the kind of person that seems right at home wherever she ends up, which is an enviable skill in an industry of devoted outsiders and commitment-phobes.

My biggest impression of Jen Vaughn at Fantagraphics is as a frequent show representative as cons and festivals exploded and as someone who worked directly to execute details of the publishing season Kickstarter that followed Kim Thompson's passing.

I reached out to Vaughn for an exit interview. She agreed, and somehow got it done within close proximity to Emerald City Comicon. I edited a tiny bit for preferred style and flow. I've enjoyed working with Jen during her time at the House That Groth And Thompson Built, and look forward to seeing what she does next. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Jen, I'm not clear how you ended up at Fantagraphics in the first place. How did you get the job you just left?

JEN VAUGHN: A combination of luck, building relationships and hard work! I spent three years at the Schulz Library at the Center for Cartoon Studies and set up some PR precedents for the blog concerning new student work, cons, etc. In addition, I interned at Top Shelf with Brett Warnock, working on books by James Kochalka and Brecht Evens. During my time at the Center for Cartoon Studies, Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds came by for Industry Day and I met him there first. Editor Kristy Valenti recognized my name when Jacq suggested me for a newly created position. Jacq Cohen and I had done some sweet sweet karaoke together -- I even made a comic about it -- and she knew that I would be a great addition to the team.

SPURGEON: What were the factors involved in your making that decision to commit to them -- was that always part of the plan, that you'd go to work for a publisher like that?

VAUGHN: The plan was to stay in comics. Period. I've worked with comics and graphics novels at almost every level: handselling Y: the Last Man and Jeffrey Brown at a bookstore (Bookstop in Austin), comic book library, teaching comics to people from age seven to seventy, teaching teachers how to integrate comics in their curriculum, interned a company (Top Shelf), gone to comic book school, drawn -- and printed -- my own comics, wrote for a comics news site (The Beat), had a webcomic for a year and half, organized a small comic con, hosted indie comics -- ye old Nerdlingers -- worked at a comics non-profit, worked at a comics publisher. Basically, the only things left for me are to work at a printer in Asia and be a full-time freelancer. And maybe become a font...


SPURGEON: [laughs] Do you remember now your first impressions of Fantagraphics? What did you have right? Did you make a snap judgment that turned out not to be true? Like I remember I took an instant disliking to the people on staff that would be my closest pals, and vice-versa.

VAUGHN: My first impression was the cozy atmosphere of the office, casual clothing and terrible shag carpet in one of the hallways. For those who don't know, the office is a punk house so Gary Groth's office is a bedroom, the kitchen is also part mailroom, etc. I pretty much knew I would like everyone there. Designer Tony Ong actually went to the same high school as me so we have some very faint fuzzy memories of me renting Blockbuster vids from him. The staff hangs out a lot together, some people go to trivia night together, some drink together, we watch Game of Thrones together. It's pretty dreamy.


SPURGEON: Did you end up doing what you were hired to do? Sometimes at a small company like that there can be a lot of people with overlapping responsibilities or people that volunteer to do stuff and end doing that thing full time. For that matter, what did you like and dislike about the small company aspects of it.

VAUGHN: Fanta went from publishing about 50-60 comics/graphic novels a year to over 100 a year and created my job to help handle the overflow of marketing needed to be done. At first I only managed social media, collected review blurbs and made Flog posts, allowing Mike Baehr at the time -- he's now the print buyer -- to do more book page creation and spend more time on e-mail campaigns, etc. From that, I started to do more events planning and working with the cartoonists on how to promote their books locally or around shows they were attending. Plus, I create inventory list and do all the scheduling for all the trade shows whether it was a one day curated show or the monster that is San Diego Comic-Con. And back in 2012, so basically since I started, I've been the digital comics liaison, making sure metadata for books gets to ComiXology, Sequential and more recently, Google Play. I've always enjoyed the work, it often depends on the book or the cartoonist themselves who make it challenging or easy. At the end of the day, I'm helping get a beautiful book into someone's hands -- maybe someone who didn't know they wanted it -- and that's the best feeling.

SPURGEON: Very few people that work below an executive position in comics make very much money. It's not like a company like Fanta makes money and keeps it from you as much as it doesn't have a lot of money to begin with -- in general, I'd say. It's part of the job, but it makes it tough. Was it tough for you to adapt?

VAUGHN: Not really, I wanted to be on a team for awhile to make things happen. But I've been offered jobs for the last year, and turning them down, because at the time Fanta was right. Things are changing there, hopefully for the better but I've gone to fewer and fewer shows and I have some pretty incredible opportunities that I cannot pass up.

Also, Kristy Valenti and I have a pretty good system of interns -- based on her Q&A set and my no-bullshit here -- that have kept the editorial, PR/Marketing and Design departments going. I could not have done all my work over the past almost three years without the competent, hard-working and sometimes mouthy help of my hand-picked interns: Nomi Kane, Elaine Lin, Lillian Beatty, Emma X, Ryan Brewer, Josie Olney, Vicki Lo, Will Rhodes and Rosie Lockie. I've even lined up a few more choice interns for my replacement.


SPURGEON: How has Seattle been different comics community-wise than Vermont?

VAUGHN: In Vermont, people point at you in the grocery store and say "Aren't you a cartoonist?" It's so small that you have to pretend to be on your phone to get from home to work or the store -- if on foot -- to avoid talking to everyone you. There is a lack of anonymity there, especially if you stay for a few years, and [this] is one of my favorite things about Seattle. I can get through almost any coffee shop drawing day without seeing someone I know -- I did run into Corey Lewis the other day at Elliott Bay Book Company, though. There's some cool drawing nights like Dune -- run by Intruder's Max Clotfelter -- and the Ballard Sketch Group -- run by Seth Goodkind -- both I've tried out but I think the group aspect brings out a braggadocio quality in some people, not all, and often myself included, so being in a huge group of people with poor lighting is not my bag.

I've been spending the last year at a studio in the International District with Brian Thies, Stefano Gaudiano and Moritat, who are mainstream cartoonists/artists. While I came from the mainstream reading world and transitioned to the indie one more or less for school purposes, I find the deadlines and work ethic of mainstream artists more appealing. These guys work hard all day and then go out to dinner together. Stefano's been inking The Walking Dead the whole time, Thies was finishing Star Wars Legacy and is now doing a creator-owned series. Moritat was on Jonah Hex when I met him and is now almost done with his creator-owned book, a hot noir number. They have all be supportive and helpful as I've made my transition.


SPURGEON: How much time have you already carved out for yourself as a freelancer and an artist while working at Fantagraphics? I'm told that you're going to do that work full-time, but I'm interest how you balanced that work with your Fanta work up until now. Have you turned down gigs? How many hours a week could you commit? How tough was it?

VAUGHN: The work-life balance is interesting, I had a good thing going 2012-2013 and then the Kickstarter took over last year and a lot of my free time dried up. Now that that is basically over, I've gotten back to my freelance like Cartozia Tales, an anthology series edited by Isaac Cates with a focus on cartography.

Hours-wise, I'd say I was spending only 6-10 the last six months and it is honestly not enough. I have had to turn down some gigs often because they wanted a fast turnaround -- for good pay -- but knowing I had to be cogent for Fantagraphics the next day meant not staying up until 5 AM to crack out a pin-up or fill-in for someone.


SPURGEON: One thing I think of when I think of you working there is how you were one of the more prominent public faces of the company, repping them on the road at several events. I think you and Jacq were the first people I'd heard of described as "Fantagraphics" that weren't Eric or Gary or Kim. You are that company to a lot of your peers and those even a little a bit younger than you. Did you have that sense as well? Did you feel invested in a way that leaving is that much harder?

VAUGHN: That's what you call "good marketing" then, Tom. [grins wickedly] I'm not sure how to answer this question other than I dearly love the people I worked with in the office, low-res (Jacob Covey), and the cartoonists. The joke is that we spend more time with Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez than our own moms, so it is like a dream come true. The company is small and I've put my say in for a few projects which -- fingers crossed -- might get published so it will be sad not to work with those friends/cartoonists in a professional setting of publisher rep & talent. Ed Luce and I were talking this weekend and he totally understands where I'm coming from since he teaches part-time at CCA. Rachel Edidin -- formerly of Dark Horse -- was one of the first people I met in comics and collaborated with. We had a Sophie Campbell cover for our zine. She's freelancing now too. As much as I'd like to think I helped Fanta, anyone is replaceable. Except for maybe my terrible punning and loud laugh. My only regret is that I still haven't met Richard Sala in person, but he is a man of mystery.


SPURGEON: How did you and Jacq Cohen come to work so well together? Is there something about her people don't know that you think maybe they should?

VAUGHN: Ha! Well, we both don't take shit from people and that includes each other. We are ambitious and motivated. We both like whiskey. We both like dressing like professionals in a work setting like a con -- not necessarily every day at the office -- and had known a lot of different people in the industry so working together was an actual partnership. Jacq likes whiskey, Buffalo Trace or Bulleit bourbon, neat while I prefer one ice cube to open it up. Does that answer the question?

SPURGEON: No, but I like that better. [pause] What comes to mind when I ask about working in the same office as the late Kim Thompson? Do you have a go-to story?

VAUGHN: For awhile, Kim, Eric and I were the early birds to the office. I would come early to leave before it got insufferably hot since neither my work nor home had A/C. As far as stories go... No, honestly, and I wouldn't want to blow any regular office dealings out of proportion in light of his passing. Although... during my "let's clean six years of submissions off the unused staircase" tirade I found quite a bit of Eros submissions. After winnowing them out, I showed two to Eric Reynolds who did his signature shrug and said they looked like they could pass muster, but Kim was the final say. Kim took one look at them, like a nano-second, looked me dead in the eye and said "Not violent enough" and went back to banging on the keyboard. [laughs] I do think despite Kim's more aloof demeanor, he added an essential spice to Fantagraphics, financially, morale-wise, that is missed.

SPURGEON: Another thing I think of when I think of you working there is the big Kickstarter, which I and everyone I know felt had your fingerprints all over it. Can you talk a bit about the work you did on that, how you structured it, if you based it on anything?

VAUGHN: The Kickstarter was both a crazy blessing and the bane of my existence. Like any fundraiser, people are happy to be involved when the money-meter is still ticking. But over the course of 2014 -- since the books didn't even start coming out until six months later -- it became the trigger word for eye-rolling in the office. So I went from a growing social media/events/digital comics position to adding the entire Kickstarter campaign to my day job. Details may bore people but I spent most of my time outside of work clocking some overtime and answering emails, working on the incentives, occasionally answering an irate email sent directly to Eric or Gary instead of working on my comics. There had been a better spread of duties, even though I admittedly took a lot on, but a few other people left Fanta in early 2014 who had sworn their craft hands to me. I had some plans drawn up for Fantagraphics that any fool could have figured out are much much easier to handle should -- Satan Help Us -- Fanta ever have to do another Kickstarter.


SPURGEON: [laughs] You're a desirable publishing/industry employee, but I know you also want to pursue your art. Has that been tough just in general, beyond the practicalities of it, asserting your identity as a cartoonist? Because that's not as high-profile as your work through Fantagraphics.

VAUGHN: Hmm, I don't know about the assert part of the question. You just do it and you either get money for it or something else. Anytime I'm asked to speak, the moderators will make sure to line-item if they want me as either one Jen or the other Jen. People always ask if I sell my comics on the Fantagraphics table which is completely absurd to me. Those are mine, have nothing to do with my day job and that idea seems slimy. But I have signed comics people bring up to me while at the table because I'm not not going to please them.

SPURGEON: Right. So what's first with the extra time? Where are you six months from now?

VAUGHN: Probably working in the aforementioned studio with Gaudiano, Moritat, and Thies. I'm inking two mainstream books and that news will be out soon. They are rad as hell and I'm working with great creative teams, I adore the pencillers especially. Anyone who follows me on Twitter (@thejenya) can hazard a guess. Meanwhile, Ryan K. Lindsay is writing a one-shot comic for me about power struggles, teens and more; can't wait to sink my teeth in his script. Kevin Church promised me a space epic. My own ideas have been bubbling up for a bit so I may throw a thing or two out in the world.

Oh oh oh... also, I have the pleasure of working on a menstruation comic with the Menstrupedia people, who helped raise awareness and break the taboo about speaking about menstruation in India. Rajat Mittal hired me and I got to pick my creative team so Fanta editor Kristy Valenti is helping with rewrites and Fanta designer Keeli McCarthy is helping with some coloring/lettering and design. I'm all about getting paid and passing on some work to other people. And some my first mini-comics were menstruation-related. It is basically the perfect convergence of projects to start out with. My email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) if someone is dying to have me do something. My dance card is a bit full now but I have a list of people I want to collaborate with.


* all photos supplied by Vaughn
* I don't know the provenance of the first two, they're just nice photos featuring Vaughn
* the Fantagraphics crew during a portion of her itme there
* Jacq Cohen, Jen Vaughn, Kristy Valenti
* panorama shot of the studio in which Vaughn now works
* example of her art, at least I think so -- someone correct me if I'm wrong
* Vaughn with Eric Reynolds and Jaime Hernandez
* Jacq Cohen, Jen Vaughn
* Vaughn at a signing at Arcane Comics
* Moritat, Vaughn's new studiomate and a longtime Seattle comics presence
* toast time at the 2014 Eisners Afterparty (below)



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