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

August 27, 2008

CR Newsmaker: Sammy Harkham

imageThere's no publishing project this Fall as talked-about as Sammy Harkham's Kramers Ergot Vol. 7. The well-regarded anthology series has been one of the more restless titles of this decade in terms of its-always ambitious presentation and an expanding contributors list that strikes a body between older, sometimes-neglected masters and younger talent. Its growth has mirrored the career path of Editor Sammy Harkham, a talented cartoonist and bookstore retailer based in Los Angeles recently termed a genius by scholar Paul Buhle in Jewcy.

The latest volume of Kramers, due in November, is an over-sized edition with deluxe printing that will cost $125 retail. That price point apparently set off alarms for a lot of people, as much more virtual ink than usual was spilled in discussing its cost and aims, not all of it flattering to Harkham or publisher Alvin Buenaventura. As the anthology heads into its pre-publicity phase, I wanted to talk to Harkham about the project and get him on the record about the contributor list and its price point and the impetus for the book. Happily, he agreed, and a flurry of e-mails became the conversation piece printed below. My thanks to Buenaventura for his help in putting us together.


Note About The Art: Okay, what I did was use imagery from a PDF; credited below. The PDF isn't the final product. Also I had to use bits of imagery or shrink things down, so that can have an effect on quality, too. At least click through Sammy's cover to see how changing the size on imagery can have an effect on the images being manipulated even at a low-rez level. The PDF of this thing is certainly stunning -- the Kevin Huizenga panel is like one panel one-third width on the page. Anyway, I wanted to give you a sense of how a couple of the artists were going off on their pages, and a sense of some of the art inside, and I hope this does it with the huge caveat that the final product is likely to be 100 times as attractive.


TOM SPURGEON: Now, am I to understand that some of the information that's out there on Kramers Ergot Vol. 7, including the information, is incorrect?

SAMMY HARKHAM: Besides the cover on Amazon, the contributor list there is not correct. That is due to having to give our book distributor the contributor list and cover image before it was ready, and of course since then people are out of the book for various reasons. They are working it to update the Amazon listing and contributor list.


SPURGEON: So with that in mind, let me ask you a bunch of questions about the project to get you on the record. First, we know that the book is big; exactly how big is it?

HARKHAM: It's a 16" x 21" book.

SPURGEON: And why that size?

HARKHAM: It's the size of old tear sheets.

SPURGEON: Who's in the book?

HARKHAM: The complete contributor list is: Rick Altergott, Gabrielle Bell, Jonathan Bennett, Blanquet, Blex Bolex, Conrad Botes, Shary Boyle, Mat Brinkman, John Brodowski, Ivan Brunetti, C.F., Chris Cilla, Jacob Ciocci, Dan Clowes, Martin Cendreda, Joe Daly, Kim Deitch, Matt Furie, Tom Gauld, Leif Goldberg, Matt Groening, John Hankiewicz, Sammy Harkham, Eric Haven, David Heatley, Tim Hensley, Jaime Hernandez, Walt Holcombe, Kevin Huizenga, J. Bradley Johnson, Ben Jones, Ben Katchor, Ted May, Geoff McFetridge, Jesse McManus, James McShane, Jerry Moriarty, Anders Nilsen, John Pham, Pshaw, Aapo Rapi, Ron Rege Jr., Xavier Robel, Helge Reumann, Ruppert & Mulot, Johnny Ryan, Richard Sala, Souther Salazar, Frank Santoro, Seth, Shoboshobo, Josh Simmons, Anna Sommer, Will Sweeney, Matthew Thurber, Adrian Tomine, C. Tyler, Chris Ware, and Dan Zettwoch.

SPURGEON: At one point I heard everyone was going to be doing the same length strip, but there's actually a lot of variety in storylength in the PDF you sent me. No one has a ton of pages, but some definitely have more than others.

HARKHAM: Most strips are between one to thee pages, though there are a couple instances of four-pagers.

imageSPURGEON: Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

HARKHAM: In 2005, I think, both the Masters of American Comics show came to L.A -- which displayed many newspaper pages -- and Peter Maresca's awesome book Little Nemo In Slumberland arrived in a huge box at my house. The double whammy of that flipped me out.

What was interesting about the incredibly large format was that it was a lovely size for really immersing yourself in a strip, regardless of how dense the comics are, the size really affects the reading in a nice way. It was a new experience for me. I thought it would be amazing to see modern comics at that size, that it would be like nothing we had ever read before. a very special, exciting book. I also liked the idea of connecting the lineage from Winsor McCay to artists like Leif Goldberg. That's also why its an "all-comics" issue, to make that connection more obvious.

When pulling together a contributor list, I realized I could ask a wider spectrum of artists than in the past, because every cartoonist becomes a new reading experience at that size. So I could ask someone like Jaime Hernandez, an artist I have respected and liked a long time but had no reason to get them in anthology what with his own regular comic book and everything else. There were many artists like that I could finally include in the overall mix. Which is nice -- I like a book where Blex Bolex is in the same book with Matt Groening.


SPURGEON: The Groening inclusion made my eyes pop a bit. How did you get Matt Groening?

HARKHAM: Matt is known as a huge alt comics fan, totally still engaging with new work coming out, and he is someone who I have seen around at different conventions and local places a lot. I knew he would like the ideas behind the book. I found it out odd that despite doing a great weekly strip for years and years, he never comes up much in alt comics conversation, and never seems to be asked to be in anthologies much. I told him about the book, and he happened to have an idea for a very dense single panel cartoon that he was unsure how he was going to run in the paper at the usual space they give him. So it was perfect timing.

SPURGEON: It's my understanding you'll be doing a tour in support of the book?

HARKHAM: When I finished Kramers Ergot Vol. 4 it seemed like a good idea to do a tour, because, mainly, it forced forced people to see it, which they may not have otherwise. So we are going to do that again, and hopefully help retailers who have supported us in the past sell some of these. That will happen throughout November.

SPURGEON: When will you have the details ironed out?

HARKHAM: In about a month we should have it worked out.

SPURGEON: Approximately how many shops and how much of North America will this encompass? Will there be different artists at different stops according to where they live or will some of you travel with this book?

HARKHAM: I am thinking about eight to ten stores on either coast and in Canada. I am approaching the comic stores that have done well by us in the past, and have reputations as good stores for the kind of books I make. And if other stores contact us and want to do something, we will try to make it happen. Some cartoonists will show up at events in their cities, others will travel and do multiple events.

SPURGEON: Will future issues of Kramers be the same size? Are there going to be more issues like this?

HARKHAM: It's a one-off. Even if the book is a huge success and sells out quickly, the amount of work involved, the logistics of the project are way beyond a workload we can handle. So there wont be another issue of Kramers like this probably ever.

Dealing with 60 cartoonists at one time is incredibly hard. The demands a book like this present are hard on every level: for the cartoonist working in a specific format, for the editor who is trying to get specific things from each person, for the production staff who need to prepare everything to be super immaculate for press on a level they are not used to, to the printer who doesn't have a binder big enough, to shipping when only three books fit in a box, to stocking on a shelf that doesn't fit-on every level its a whole new set of problems.

SPURGEON: Will you be able to move copies overseas?

HARKHAM: Yes. Kramers Ergot has always sold pretty well overseas.

SPURGEON: Did all artists work at size?

HARKHAM: No, some worked larger. Nothing has been blown up to fit the format (as far as I know!).

imageSPURGEON: What have you heard back from the artists while they were working on their pages? How has that been different than the experience of working with artists on past issues?

HARKHAM: From those I spoke to about it, many found it liberating, having always wanted to work in this format, others took it as an interesting challenge. It seemed like many of the artists spent a lot of time trying to make the most of their contributions. For previous issues, I gave rough page counts to different people depending on what I was envisioning. For this, I kept harping on the same things. Usually when you talk about one to three pagers, you think of simple throwaway gags or non-sequiturs. I didn't want strips where it's 11 panels of set up, and the last panel is the punchline. On the other end of the spectrum, I didn't think it necessary for each strip to be jammed with a million panels or be insanely inventive with page design. I think there is just as much beauty in reading a wordless 12-panel-gridded comic at this size as there is in reading a super dense epic. It's more of trying to get work that merits revisiting for the reader.

So ideally there is a range of stuff that runs the gamut in approach, but all really satisfying. I can say without a doubt, I have never been more severe as an editor in only including stuff I really could stand behind. A lot of artists redid their strips, or completely started over from scratch. There could be no "filler." Each page had to really count. I didn't have a set page count to fill, so that could have meant publishing a 40-page book or if everyone I approached came through, a 120-pager.


SPURGEON: Have you heard anything in advance from your retailing contacts as to how they're going to sell it -- has anyone been working with you in advance of sales, say asking about shelving or trying to arrange a tour stop? Or is that something you look forward to doing?

HARKHAM: I have not heard from any retailers yet. I hope to. I want the book to do well by the retailers who have supported us in the past.

SPURGEON: What percentage of copies do you think will be put into the comics system vs. the bookstore distribution system vs. left to you to hand-sell? Do you expect difficulties in warehousing the book?

HARKHAM: I think the ratio of comic shops vs. bookstore vs hand-selling will probably be the same as last issue: 30-40 percent through comic shops, 40-50 percent through bookstores, and the rest direct. Maybe the huge Amazon discount will make it sell better through the book trade, but I am hoping the tour will balance things out.

And if I understand correctly, Buenaventura Press has organized a whole warehouse space for storage!

SPURGEON: To be clear, you won't be doing an issue like this again, but will you be able to reprint this issue?

HARKHAM: I guess so, but its such a risk doing a book like this.


SPURGEON: Did you enjoy doing the cover? How did you approach that kind of a canvas for the cover?

HARKHAM: Ha! It was a nightmare. Seriously, I don't feel very confident in my skills as a cover artist, but two other people fell through late in production. Because of the size, I didn't do the usual thing of pencil first and then inking the whole thing. For me, inking is drawing and I couldn't stand to pencil for a week when that is such a hazy way of seeing how things are looking. I worked out the composition on a couple small sketches, and then on the final piece of paper would pencil and ink parts, working all over the page, and ideas would be added and changed throughout the whole process, with the hardest parts being held out till the end. It took two solid weeks to get the line art done.

I had no idea how to color it without ruining it. Usually, I like to color by hand. and to get your line art printed in 1200 dpi, you need to color on a separate piece of paper and layer them when printed. But I could never figure out a way of printing it out large enough. So I colored on the computer, which I am not adept at at all, and with scanned-in black overlays. It was daunting; I didn't even know where to start. That took about two to three solid weeks working full days on it. I can't even look at it anymore. I hope it works and doesn't ruin the book.

SPURGEON: Sammy, I know that you're aware of some complaints about the price here and there. While I don't want to turn this into a platform for those complaints, mostly because I don't understand them, I don't want to ignore the issue, either. So I was wondering if you could maybe simply list some of the factors that led to your pricing the book at $125, the way you might explain it to someone that's interested in the price but not accusatory.

HARKHAM: Scanning. We paid for many artists to get their work professionally scanned, since the fidelity of cheap scanners doesn't hold up when you look at the pages at print size.

* A low print run. If this was a book that had a larger print run, our price per copy would have gone down, but our readership is not big enough to warrant that. If Chris Ware ever decides to do a solo book in this format, with a print run similar to the Pantheon ACME book, I would think the cover price would be close to half of ours.

* We are using a very expensive paper, this stuff called NEW AGE. I am excited about it because it gives you the vibrancy of color you find on glossy paper, but doesn't "feel" like magazine stock. It should make everything look really, really fantastic. We also have foil stamping on the cover, a sticker with quotes and bar code, and the books are shrink-wrapped to guard them from shipping damage. Those are not mega costs, but they add up.

* The book has to be bound by hand, since no binder at that size exists.

* Since only three books will be in a box when shipped from the printer, it's a lot of boxes and it's a larger shipping bill.

* The process of looking over proofs were extremely expensive due to a) the size, and b) we needed to see more proofs than usual because we couldn't let any pages we had any doubts about -- usually those pages colored by hand, where matching color can be tricky -- possibly getting printed wrong. Let's say on average you see 10 pages of proofs, with this we had to see over half the book in proof form.

* Due to the nature of this book -- the size of reproduction, the unlikelihood of a reprint -- it was essential we go over to Singapore for a press check, and flying is expensive.

* Storage has to be rented specifically for this book.

* Shipping direct orders requires Buenaventura Press to special order custom size boxes.

* Paying all 60 artists.

* There's probably more, but those come to mind first.


SPURGEON: What's the print run?

HARKHAM: I knew the book was obviously going to be more expensive than past issues, and we would lose the more casual buyers -- this one is for the real comics nerds who love the same stuff I love. So the print run is half of the last issue's. 3500.

SPURGEON: That all I have... it's going to debut at APE, right? How many of the artists will be there? Will there be any sort of special event to go along with the release?

HARKHAM: We are hoping to debut the book at APE. It may not happen. If it does, we will have over 15 contributors on hand for a signing at the show, among them: Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez, Kevin Huizenga, John Pham, Ted May, Dan Zettwoch, Dan Clowes, Souther Salazar, and myself.


* Kramers Ergot Vol. 7, edited by Sammy Harkham, Buenaventura Press, hardcover, 96 pages, 9780980003956, November 2008, $125


* photo of Harkham from HeroesCon 2008 by Whit Spurgeon
* "tiny" panel from Adrian Tomine's story plucked and run here, looking humongous
* a Dan Clowes page; it will look like this if you open it on the ground and stand on a rooftop
* a tiny snippet from a Matt Groening page
* Kim Deitch's explosion of color and go-for-it design as if seen from across a football field
* a random panel from Kevin Huizenga's contribution
* cover of Kramers Ergot Vol. 7 by Sammy Harkham. On this one, PLEASE click through the image for a sharper-resolution look
* image plucked from a beautiful Shary Boyle page
* photo of Alvin Buenaventura and Sammy Harkham at HeroesCon 2008 by Whit Spurgeon



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