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

September 20, 2019

My Other Job/CR Saturday Interview: Ken Eppstein



I've known Ken Eppstein since shortly before I moved to Columbus in 2015. He was very nice in welcoming me to town and educating me about local cartoonists, for whom he has a vast and abiding love.

Ken publishes Nix Comics, a small press imprint with a strong reputation in terms of paying its artists. He runs a number of small shows around town, in bars and libraries and other semi-public spaces, and has been exhibiting with CXC since its inaugural show in 2015.

Ken and I disagree about a lot of things, so I wanted to reserve part of this interview for Ken to make some of his points about the nature of small press scenes and non-profit shows without immediate, rigorous and probably way too sarcastic challenge. Those debates I'm sure will continue.

I appreciate Ken's time and encourage you to visit his booth at this weekend's CXC Expo. His is the only one I expect to have vinyl. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Ken, I know less about you than about many of the equally prominent core members of the Columbus comics community. You've been remarkably consistent in terms of your output. At what point did you find this groove of other folks' work in anthology form, by theme, consistently done?

KEN EPPSTEIN: The groove pretty much found me as opposed to vice versa. Once I decided to make comics it all came naturally to me. I actually got out four issues of a "quarterly" comic that that first year I started Nix. If the money had been there, I am confident that I could have continued at that rate. I guess this is a little unhumble to say, but I'm not nearly at the capacity of what I could do as an artist or as a publisher.

Having worked at a lot of small business start-ups and non-profits with budget issues over the years I know how to hang a project together. I think doing restaurant work as a kid helped, too, in that it's high stress/high touch without a lot of money involved category. Organizing a bunch of artists to put a comic together is actually pretty easy by itself. Doing it multiple times in the face of a treacherous marketplace is when it gets hard.

imageSPURGEON: If we talked to you 15-20 years ago, would you be surprised to find you were making comics?

EPPSTEIN: Definitely 20 years ago it wasn't on my radar. I was content to be a guy selling comics. There were also some serious self-confidence issues in regards to my artistic talent. I had given up drawing and painting at that time. I wrote the occasional essay or fiction for some zines when people asked me too, but they weren't even comics-related.

15 years ago, I probably would've believed you. By that point I had started writing more regularly in the form of a newsletter for my mail order records site and had started drawing some again. That's also around when I was really into the things Warren Ellis was sharing on-line. I remember a couple of scripts he shared in particular… Not the content so much as I suddenly understood the narrative elements of a script. That's definitely part of how things started clicking.

I'm glad you didn't ask me about 25 years ago. I was drunk that whole year.

SPURGEON: Were you a maker as kid? Do you remember how you moved from reading comics to wanting to make some? What were your easier comics like?

EPPSTEIN: I wasn't a comic maker as a pre-teen, but I wrote a lot of stories and did a lot of drawing.

I think maybe my love of roleplaying games was slightly greater than my love of comics, because what I did resembled a game module more than it did a comic.

There were a lot of fantasy stories based on my D&D characters. I loved the superhero RPGs like Champions and Villains and Vigilantes best of all, and so I did a lot of riffs on superheroes that were very X-Men and Legion of Superheroes derivative. I included lots of maps and pictures of weapons. I went into a lot of detail about how stuff worked. I also created a chart of how my characters felt about each other based on the weird "interracial relations" table in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. (The one where you could cross reference races like Orcs with Goblins to see if they liked, tolerated. hated or felt antipathy to one another. I specifically remember having to look up antipathy in the dictionary.) [Spurgeon laughs]

As a teenager I wanted to be a comic artist. I don't remember exactly when or how that desire manifested. I never quite put the pieces together, though. I was one of those kids who basically does the same set of characters in the same set of poses over and over in a sketchbook. No one ever gave me direction on making a strip or framing out a comic page. It was even actively discouraged by a couple of art teachers in high school and college.

SPURGEON: How do you conceive of a new issue of the anthology? How does something go from idea to printed comics, and generally how long does that process take?

EPPSTEIN: I wish that ideas came to me in such a way that I could answer this question in some sort of succinct manner. So, I'm sorry about that. New stories and publications usually come to me as visitations from the astral plane or something.

I daydream -- a lot -- and sometimes those daydreams are strong enough to manifest into full-fledged stories or ideas. The trick is to get the pen moving or a google doc open while the image is strong in my head. The whole thing doesn't have to happen all at once, I just need to get the gist down somewhere/somehow so it will stick around instead of evaporating back into the mist. Sadly, I think that means that some of the best ideas are lost, the ones that come from yukking it up with pals where I have no way to stop and write it down. Or the ones that come in the middle of the night when I want to sleep more than I want to click on a light and scribble.

Once I have that idea started, though, how long it takes to come to fruition has more to do with money and free time than anything else.


EPPSTEIN: I'm a publisher and artist on top of being back at school to get a public affairs degree, holding down two part-time jobs and needing to occasionally check in on my wife and dog. So, you know, a lot of time being spent and not a lot of income coming in. Even with the help of crowdfunding, money is a significant restraint on productivity. Small cheap projects, like my record collecting zine, get done fairly often. More involved and grander scale things wait until the money and time are right.

SPURGEON: Do you have a favorite thing you do of all the various things? Do you feel you have a particular gift?

EPPSTEIN: I have a weird relationship with picking favorites. One day I told my wife, Kate, that I couldn't pick a favorite actor and she just rolled her eyes and said "Vincent Price is your favorite actor, honey." She was right, of course. Now I usually just defer to her about what my favorites are whenever it comes up. That's a long way of saying I asked Kate and she doesn't know which of my own comics is my favorite. [Spurgeon laughs] That makes me think I don't have one.

I think I'm good at writing weird little shorts. It's a by product of punk-brain... If a song is longer than three minutes, I get bored. If a comic story goes much longer than eight pages, I get a little bored, too. Give me three cords and three characters. It's a real shame that massive epics and brick-thick graphic novels are the rage these days: my skills don't match. I'm a Little Richard comic writer in a Pink Floyd comics world.

SPURGEON: You seem to be a very ethical publisher. How did it become important to you to not just be a representative of this artistic community, but to do so in a way that involved paying people and showing them off and getting the best work out of them?

EPPSTEIN: I think part of it is being a recovering Stan Lee enthusiast. I bit hard on the Stan Lee mythos as a kid and that carried over into the 2000s -- until I started reading more about him and the early days of Marvel Comics. I look back on all of that work now with sadness... There was so much credit -- and money -- to go around, but the corrupt nature of the business sucked everything upwards through the ranks. It's sad because so many artists worked so hard for so little, but it's also because I can't help but wonder what would have come next those artists had been allowed to grow in a nurturing environment. The artists were cheated for their work and we were cheated as fans.

Another part of it comes from my background as a music fan. For instance, when I started Nix, it wasn't that long after the Dead Kennedys all sued each other over money and publishing rights. I guess it was about a decade, but the band members continued to snark at each other, trying the case in an ongoing court of public appeals. To me, the fact that these ultra-lefty punk rockers couldn't keep their shit together over money was a real cautionary tale. Have your act together early on and keep straight along the way or you'll end up fighting with your best friends.

So, here's a thing I didn't expect. I got a little queasy answering this question. It's the second time in recent months I've been asked essentially the same thing in the context of an interview. I appreciate that you and some other folks have noticed that I'm trying to do right by my artists, but I don't want to fall into the trap of calling myself ethical. You ever see that Leslie Stahl interview with Jack Abramoff where he says that before getting caught, he thought of himself as one of the more ethical lobbyists on K Street? I want to be ethical, but I don't want to present myself as an exemplar of ethical behavior.

There's real danger there. It's a complex thing and there's lots of room for me to fuck it all up without even realizing.

SPURGEON: Nix is an anchor of a strong comics scene. How would you describe Columbus cartooning generally, from your perspective? What do people not know about the cartoonists here?


EPPSTEIN: Anchor? That explains that constant sinking feeling... Har dee har har.

I can't put any single label on the comics community in Columbus. There's not a predominate genre or style or even demographic. It's diverse in terms of level of experience and professionalism, running the spectrum from super-successful artists like Jeff Smith and Rafael Rosado and down to kids just entering Columbus College of Art & Design just now finding their way into the cartooning world. We have decent participation in the way of cultural diversity, though I'd like to see more. I think there's always room for growth in those areas.

As far as what people don't know... I think that I want to put locals on the spot a little. The average Columbusonian should be more aware of how much of a "thing" comics art is in Columbus. It should be a source of pride same as Buckeye football or Jeni's Ice Cream. That's grandiose thinking, I know. I just remember the early '90s music scene in Columbus when the local press was eager to sell us as "the next Seattle" in the face of the grunge explosion. It never really took. Where's the love now for Comics Town?

SPURGEON: What don't national shows and regional shows understand about any local festival or con? What is something of value that bigger shows could adopt to make for a more meaningful experience in general?

EPPSTEIN: I'm going to pivot and deflect on this a little. Don't hate me.

Tussling with questions like this is why I want to get into non-profit program evaluation as a career. I honestly don't know what a national/regional show does and doesn't understand about local or regional show. I'm also not sure anyone knows what a generally meaningful experience looks like. I think there's a lot work to be done before anybody can answer questions like this with making some, quite possibly dubious or even damaging, assumptions.

The key work to answering your question would be a stakeholder analysis of cartoon art festivals. I can guess what showrunners of national or regional shows know and don't know about their smaller local counterparts, but it would be better to ask.

Similarly, I can make assumptions about what a meaningful experience is for exhibitors and attendees of festivals, but again, better to ask. I've gone looking for any published analyses of art festival stakeholders by academics or non-profit organizations, but have come up mostly dry so far. I get that... It's time consuming, complex and potentially expensive work. Thing is, somebody is going to have to do it if we want to answer the hard questions about the efficacy of festivals and conventions for artists, attendees, the broader community and all of the other stakeholders involved.

Right now, I'm planning to initiate some of this kind of research myself as part of my coursework... so let me cop out for now and maybe come back to ask me again next year?

SPURGEON: Sure. Hey, is there an artist or two -- either one of yours or from the region more generally -- about whom you'd like for people to know more than they do already?


EPPSTEIN: Geez. That's tough, to just pick one or two. I could do an A to Z book about regional artists I think people should know. But, I passed on answering the question about small versus big shows... so... Two artists I'd like to see more comic work from personally are Rich Trask and Renkorama.

Rich is "one of my guys" and has done a lot of work with me for Nix Comics. Like me, he's come to doing comics later in life and we were introduced by a mutual friend. I scroll his feed sometimes and shake my head at all of the funny, twisted ideas he lays out on a daily basis. It's a tip of the iceberg type thing where I'd like to see him have the time and money to follow through on just a couple of them!

Renkorama is a youngster... A student at CCAD who I actually met while tabling at CXC. I think she's an animation major now, but her comics are excellent and I hope she turns to the dark side and goes full in on those. Cool rock and roll stuff that I didn't think a 20 something would necessarily be interested in. She's on my "top five" list of people to figure out a project with for Nix Comics.

SPURGEON: You curated comics for a local newspaper section for a while. What do you learn about the audience for comics providing a different reading experience every few weeks?

EPPSTEIN: Oh man... I miss that job.

I heard a lot from comics folks, but I didn't get a lot of feedback from the broader Columbus Alive readership. There weren't a lot of responses in the comments section or on facebook or anything. There was at least one "I'm so proud of you -- Love Mom!" in the comments section, so that was nice and embarrassing for the artist that week. In casual conversation with non-comics people, I got some feedback, mostly positive but often tinged with things I found frustrating... People telling that they were amazed that I could draw in so many different styles or other asking me when Jeff Smith was going to do a strip. I guess it illustrated to me how difficult it is to get people talking about comics. Even more difficult to get them talking about comics artists.

SPURGEON: Music connections aren't totally rare in comics, but how do you see those two interests interacting for you?

EPPSTEIN: Yeah, I wish I could say Nix "owned" music comics but clearly, I don't. There's been a great surge in music themed comics over the past few years! I loved Summer Pierre's All The Sad Songs and M. Dean's I Am Young last year, in particular.

Anyways I think what it comes down to is my favorite thing to do is read comics while I'm listening to records. There's nothing I like better, except maybe now making comics while I listen to records. Comics and records are just flipsides to the same coin for me. I can't look at an album cover without thinking of it as a one panel cartoon. I can't look at a comic cast without thinking of them as a band. A good song makes single point in time images pop up into your brain, telling a story. A good comic has rhythm, melody and harmony. A comic shop and a record shop are essentially the same in terms business models and community-building.

You're right that music themed comics aren't a rare thing, but It's weird to me that they aren't more of a common thing since there seems to be a natural connection.

SPURGEON: Is there anything -- a shop, a cartoonist, a way of thinking about comics -- that you miss about the Columbus scene of the past. Is there anything you'd like to see back?

EPPSTEIN: Hah. I want to say "Yeah, my store" but that would be letting my bitter and self-centered side show.

imageI'm a sentimental fool and there are a lot of things I miss… but hands down, I miss Monkey's Retreat more than any other. That store, with all of its weird comics and magazines and the Lou Reed-esque charms of its owners, was a deciding factor in me making Columbus my home 30 years ago. It was a bit of east-coast cool that made me feel at ease in the cornfed-crew-cut midwest.

It was really sad to watch Monkey's die by degrees. First, they stopped stocking a lot of comics, I suspect in response to how hard it is to navigate Diamond discounts when you don't fit the standard LCS mold. The downside, I think, was it cut out some of their foot traffic. I'm just guessing on that, but I think it's a good guess.

Next they were forced to move from their North Campus location when developers bought their spot. Monkey's Retreat ended up in a stretch of the Short North neighborhood in Columbus that is notoriously hard on retailers, too far from OSU campus to regularly pull in students and too rough edged to pull in the art gallery and high end boutique crowd regulars from the part of the Short North closer to downtown.

As a last ditch effort to stick around, the owners tried to focus more on holistic health than literature. This let them hang on to the store a little longer, but eventually they had to close up.


(c) their respective (c) holders... I'll take down anything that makes anyone upset!



posted 11:00 pm PST | Permalink

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