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

Home > CR Interviews

CR Sunday Interview: Box Brown
posted January 1, 2012


Box Brown is one of the talented, young creators who exhibited at this weekend's Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival. He's also a young publisher, making alt-comics of the lower-price, less-imposing entry point variety with his Retrofit, an experiment to put out several months in a row of those kinds of comics that we discuss in greater detail below. His initial webcomic Bellen and the well-conceived follow-up Everything Dies -- which also ran in a concurrent print series -- are among the more popular of his own serial efforts. Brown's work is in many ways quiet and unassuming. Where some young cartoonists get baroque and more detail oriented before stripping down their styles at a much-later date, Brown seems focused on simplification and narrative clarity from the near-beginning of his career. It's an orientation that could play big dividends down the line. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Box, all I know about you from early on is that you just sort of turned up with a LiveJournal comic, and that you had been inspired to do so by American Elf. Did you have a relationship with comics before that? What were some of the comics important to you before you encountered James' work?

BOX BROWN: I really liked Calvin and Hobbes as a kid but I couldn't cite it as an influence. I think the first comic that I could say inspired me to do something myself was Matt Groening's Life in Hell comics. I read a lot of those books in high school, and was always a big fan of the cartoons in The New Yorker. But, yeah American Elf was the comic that got me off my ass to start making a go of this comic thing.


SPURGEON: When you say "a go of this comic thing," what exactly do you mean? How much of your time -- your living, even -- is actually tied up in making comics, Box? Are you a full-time cartoonist?

BROWN: Well, I moved to Philadelphia in August of 2008 with plans to take a month or two off and work on comics, but eventually get a job. Sadly, the economic meltdown in October of 2008 crushed those dreams, mostly. Since then, I basically just made comics a full-time job even though it wasn't paying like one. I worked for a few months at porn distribution company writing short summaries of the movies, and then delivered pizza. I was also on unemployment for a while. So I've been basically working freelance for the last few years. I make what money I can from comics and pad it with local design and illustration jobs. It wasn't until recently that I started feeling somewhat comfortable. I got a regular comics job doing comics for Engadget's Distro app -- thanks Brian Heater! -- and that helps.

Of course, this lavish lifestyle would never be possible without the support of my lovely wife, Sarah, who is the real breadwinner. I'm proud to say that I never missed rent or any bills ever. Sure, I haven't been able to buck up for much more (food, fun, etc) but sometimes I feel like I'm pulling my own weight. It wasn't until very very recently that I realized that I'll eventually get paid, at least something, for almost everything I draw. I did a story for an upcoming issue of the Latvian comic anthology kuš! that didn't pay, but I don't care 'cause I love kuš!.

SPURGEON: How much of Retrofit is informed by your experienced working with your Xeric prize-winning work through the Direct Market comics shops? How do you look back on that experience overall?

BROWN: The Xeric prize was interesting. I was really wet behind the ears. I had only done about 40 pages of what would become Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing when I applied, so when the work was accepted I was really shocked. Also, I thought to myself, "Shit, now I have to finish this thing." Then I knew I'd have to print 1000 copies and everyone told me Diamond was the way to go to get them out to shops. So, I solicited made a ton of promotional postcards and sold about 400 copies.

I have to say that I learned a lot more about the Direct Market for alternative comics from working with Tony Shenton in the distribution of Everything Dies. Distributing those materials directly through shops is how I got to know a lot of shop owners and how invoicing works. Selling through Diamond gets your work out there, maybe, but also maybe to a lot of shops where the books are likely to sit on the shelves behind back issues of X-men comics, or whatever the kids are reading nowadays.

imageSPURGEON: I agree with something that you've said publicly that serial comic books are a potent form for readers looking to enjoy comics without a high, starting investment point and for creator to build a readership. Why do you think, then, that they faded from view? You mentioned that this is the reality, but why did the market move in that direction?

BROWN: The graphic novel has a higher profit margin. That's essentially what killed the short, serialized comic. And, I have to admit, now that I see this from a publisher's standpoint I don't blame them for moving to the graphic novel. It's extremely difficult to make a big profit on smaller works. You'd need to release tons and tons of material all the time. The graphic novel got comics into bookshops and raised comics' profile with the general public. It's a much much more profitable venture.

SPURGEON: The fact that you're sidestepping Diamond for direct to the store distribution with the Retrofit comics might seem curious to some people, based on the perception that part of the defining characteristic of a comic book-format comic over a mini-comic is that the former tends to participate fully in the Direct Market system. Can you talk as explicitly as possible about that decision, and how the Retrofit comics are more than just a group of mini-comics being distributed by another mini-comics artist? Can you really bring back the alt-comic by avoiding the systems that facilitated alt-comics?

BROWN: I just think that a lot of the stores the Diamond catalog caters to are not necessarily going to get the books into the hands of people that want them. But, when I'm in control I can solicit to comic shops that do want the material and in some cases I've had shops come to me looking to get these works in their stores.

I think if we were just in the Diamond catalog, we'd easily get lost in the shuffle. I think Fanta and Top Shelf too would say that they sell the majority of their books to a relatively small amount of shops -- shops that I can work with directly without Diamond skimming off the top of very little profit to begin with. It also requires quite a bit of preplanning and gatekeeping that I just didn't want to deal with. You have to send them a .pdf of the material months in advance. Retrofit still wouldn't be off the ground if we had to wait for Diamond. What are they saving me? How are they helping me? I have to send one enormous box to them or send 20 small boxes? It saves me about five hours of work and it costs a decent percentage of our tiny tiny profit. I'd rather do the shipping and soliciting myself.

Can I save the small alt-comic on my own? Probably not. I'm certainly not getting rich doing it this way, either. I'm helping to get material out there to as many interested readers as I can and somehow -- barely -- staying afloat. Without selling through Diamond, I basically reduce the waste of unsold books.

SPURGEON: Is there an overriding aesthetic, do you think, with the books and artists you've selected for Retrofit? Is there something connects these works in a creative sense? Are there cartoonists you weren't or wouldn't be interested in including, and have you rejected any work yet? What do you think makes a satisfying alt-comic, and what are ones from the past you'd like these books to closely resemble?

BROWN: I'm not sure if their is an overriding aesthetic to Retrofit beyond just being artists that I like. All of the artists on our roster are people who make comics that I like. So, I'm really just trusting my own taste. Further, a lot of these artists are my friends and people I thought would actually like to join me on this weird and possibly ill-fated venture. I think it might have been you who said about Retrofit that it's nice to see a publisher who knows when they're going to go out of business.

I think that the most satisfying alt-comics are by those artists who have a passion for comic storytelling. Artists who draw inspiration from literature and other arts and culture and not just from other comic books. I mean it's funny to me that the word comics has come to mean "superheroes." That's like the word movies only meaning "romantic comedies." It's such a rich art form and it can do so many things, it seems preposterous to me that the medium is so heavily weighted with one type of story.

SPURGEON: What's the optimal result out of the Retrofit first phase, the first sequence of monthly comics? What sales point do you have to reach in order to continue on with doing the comics? Are there going to be other factors?

BROWN: Retrofit generally pays for itself. We raised about 9k in the Kickstarter. What I've found is that $9k doesn't go very far when you factor in shipping costs. Shipping is expensive. The first chunk of four-issue subscribers' subscriptions are about to run out and if we retain even 50% of them it'll help cover costs for a few more months. Also, I applied for an arts grant here in Philadelphia that will match what we've raised. From looking at the awards they gave out last year, $9k for a Philly small business that supports local artists is chump change! They have something like 1 million to give away! The ballet can't get it all. It burns me up that high brow arts get so much money.

Anyway, it's rocky, sure. I'm going mostly on instinct, but the people I know in comics are very willing to help. It's an adventure, but ultimately if anything is going to kill Retrofit it's the grueling monthly schedule. So, once the initial bunch of books are out I think I'd continue to publish but with a drastically reduced schedule.

imageSPURGEON: I've seen you at a couple of shows, now. You're in your early thirties; we're not direct peers. My assumption is that the shows are very important in terms of any young cartoonist hoping to get their work out there, and with on-line exposure may be just about the only ways available to them. Is that a fair assessment? How important are shows to your bottom line, and how important are they to way you approach comics generally? Say with something like the just-past Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Fest, what do you hope to get out of that weekend?

BROWN: Shows are incredibly important! Though I wouldn't say that I make a ton of money on shows. There is a lot of overhead. You end up with a couple hundred bucks, not getting rich. I mean sure, that'll help out for the month but not pay the rent. But, there are a million other reasons to do every show you can. One thing for me, if nothing else, it's incredibly inspiring to talk with other artists. I don't mean in a networking way, either, though that's a huge benefit as well. It just recharges my chi to be around other people living the comics life.

Networking is huge as well. I've never been to BCGF, but my friends Ian Harker and Pat Aulisio have gone the last two years and just say it's the greatest show ever. Judging by the exhibitor list, I'd have to agree. This is a huge show. It's Christmas shopping season, the show is filled with the best of the best and it's in fucking Brooklyn. I can't imagine not selling a decent amount of books. Josh Bayer's Retrofit release Raw Power and Pat Aulisio's book Bowman are somewhat geared to the art comix audience. I scheduled their releases to coincide with BCGF for that reason. From what I can tell, the big issue at BCGF is being able to get out of the building with your profits in cash and not in amazing comics. It'll be a test of will.

SPURGEON: You said something very interesting in a recent interview about hoping to improve as a cartoonist. If I understood you correctly, you suggested there's a trap in simply accepting a rougher, undeveloped look as one's approach, because that way there's no improvement. Wearing the bad of "that's my style" as a cop-out, almost.

BROWN: That sounds like something I would say.

SPURGEON: How do you mark your own improvement as a cartoonist? Where do you think you've become a better cartoonist and what would be an example of an area where you feel you could improve?

BROWN: I think that it's important to work a lot. That's what I've done, and I think it's helped. I haven't drawn less than a page a day since mid 2005 -- barring brief vacations. Since 2008, I've averaged two pages a day minimum. You also have to be willing to look hard at your work and figure out where you can improve. I have to wait a few months after I draw stuff before I can look at it objectively. I think I've come around in some ways, but I still have a long way to go. Every time I get one of my own books back from the printer I can barely even look at them. The only comics I ever feel good about are the ones I just drew. I think that's why webcomics appealed to me when I started.

I read that interview with Crumb in The Comics Journal #301. Crumb talks about just finally really learning how to draw when he was working on Genesis and it really struck a chord with me. If Crumb (!) still enjoys learning and building his craft and feels that there is still room to grow, then comics will never get boring for me! Learning about comics, building craft and storytelling is really what it's all about for me. I think my comics have steadily gotten better but there is plenty of room to grow! I think I've gotten better with a brush and ink over the last year. But, sure, there a million ways I could improve: I tend to be sloppy, I have poor copy editing skills, I suck at drawing circles and backgrounds and faces and everything -- but I love working at it.

SPURGEON: Is it fair to say that you're hoping for a sort of vital cartoon simplicity out of your finished artwork? It seems like some of your later work more subtly engages these kind of outsized expressions that are purely comics -- there's more of a bounce to the images, for example.

BROWN: Yes, for sure. I'm currently working on a comic about Andre the Giant talking with Hulk Hogan and I've grown to love drawing Hogan's hair. He's blonde so I can draw all of his hair with a few ink lines, less is more type of thing. Some of the simplicity definitely comes out of my inability to draw things accurately. But something I learned a long time ago is that you have to draw just well enough that the person reading it can quickly tell what the thing in the panel is. It doesn't have to be completely accurate. You just have to get the idea across.

I think when I was younger I'd let my fear of drawing difficult things dictate how the story ended up on the page. I never let that stuff stop me anymore. If I have an idea that has to get on the page I just draw it and usually I can draw it well enough that the reader can tell what it is. Keeping things simple and clean is really helpful when drawing a car or something like that.

imageSPURGEON: How do you pace your short stories? You have a nice, measured sense of pacing that doesn't seemed tied into a static page format. Do you break down a page into beats? Do you feel page construction is a strength right now?

BROWN: After my first book, Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing, came out, Joe Lambert was the first one to say to me that he thought the pacing was well done. I wasn't particularly going for "pacing" or anything special. I never do. It's just the way I tell a story I guess. Usually when I'm writing I'm just trying to slow down the story. I'm incredibly impatient and I always want to get to the end. So when I'm writing/thumbnailing I'm very conscious of trying to make sure I'm getting everything I can out of the story and not quickly moving on to the next thing.

My process usually goes like this: I have an idea for a story then I thumbnail the story, writing as I go. Usually the layouts in my thumbnails are six-panel grids. Then when I sit down to draw the comic for real, I finalize the layouts considering how the story will look on the page. I've been fascinated lately with Yoshihiro Tatsumi's layouts. They're never equal-sized panels and he fits so much on the page. I love it! I was also really inspired by Asterios Polyp when that came out. I did a failed project called Bad High School Poetry where I tried to do my own version of Mazzuchelli's style where he just puts the panels on the page wherever they need to go. But, all this being said, I think it would be a great exercise for me to work in a rigid grid system. Then you're working only on story, but if page layouts are one of my strengths I like to play up to that.

SPURGEON: How has it been working with Blank Slate? I don't know that I've ever spoken to anyone that has, at least not yet. Is there firm editorial direction? What is their specific appeal to you?

BROWN: I love Blank Slate. It was really first time I worked with a serious comics publisher. Kenny Penman, who runs the shop, has about a billion years of experience in the business and is very knowledgeable about the form. I mostly worked though with Martin Steenton, who does marketing, editing, etc for Blank Slate. He's a utility man I guess over there. I loved a lot of their works over the last year or two. I'm a big fan of Darryl Cunningham and I really loved Psychiatric Tales. After I got that, I sent out a submission to them. They didn't necessarily want the work I sent them, but asked if I wanted to pitch a new story for their Chalk Marks line -- just like the Ignatz line Fantagraphics put out. I had to write a script and send it to them. I tried, but I couldn't do it. I couldn't write a comics story as words on a page. I had to thumbnail out the whole book and send them those. Luckily, they enjoyed it!

They edited mostly for clarity but left all final changes up to me. They were really great that way. I drew The Survivalist enormous. Each page is double the size of all of my other comics. I actually only drew half-pages at time and fused them together in photoshop. So, working on this 44-page book was actually like drawing 88 pages for me. It took me all summer to complete. It's really my biggest work ever. It's also one of my only true fictional works.

SPURGEON: What about the cover that's going to be used for The Survivalist do you feel works better than the covers that were rejected? It's very different, very much about an assemblage of smaller image, and the rejected covers seemed bolder and perhaps more striking to me in one or two cases.

BROWN: This was probably where I got the most editorial feedback. Creating a cover is always a total slog for me. I always need to do at least three. Covers are extremely important, especially in comics. So, I had a bunch of ideas for covers. I wanted to emulate these old pulp sci-fi covers. So I did a few that weren't clicking with Kenny and he gave me some feedback. Then I did another one that felt really strongly about, if I was self-publishing I would have definitely went with the third cover (show at left). I was happy with it; I really liked the colors. Kenny thought it was a good drawing and everything, but still thought it needed more.

This is what was great. Kenny sent me a really long email about his ideas on the story and on comic covers in general and ultimately left it at that. He said we'll run whatever you want, but think about this, you know? After that I think I really figured out what he wanted. Part of the story is that this guy has a ton of equipment to aid in his own survival and it would be interesting to focus on those items. It exposes right away what type of guy the main character is. The final cover was inspired by really old patent illustrations. The red, black and white (besides being my favorite color combo) also highlights the sense of emergency. I wanted it to look like a manual on survival and I think that comes across.

SPURGEON: I know that a lot of cartoonists make a break with some of their older work at some point; are you still happy to direct people to the entirety of what you've done? Is there work you've done with which you no longer connect?

BROWN: I read through the a lot of Bellen!, my old webcomic. To me it just reads like a cartoonist working through the form and had a lot to do with style. It was really my sandbox. But, generally, I don't really like it anymore. It's loosely auto-bio and I don't really connect with who that person is in that comic anymore. But, that said, people still connect with it. I still get emails from first time readers who seem to be at that place in their lives. It's hard to disconnect from your older work. I mean, mostly I can't even stand to look at it, but it was really important in my development.

Drawing a daily webcomic is an incredibly cheap comic education. I think for people that do connect with your older work too it can be alienating for the artist to talk down about it. But, I can barely look at the older issues of Everything Dies at this point. Sure, I'm still angry about religion -- as well as fascinated by it -- but I'm so engulfed in Andre the Giant stuff at this point religion is on the back burner. I mean, I love Maus and I think it is genius, but I wonder if Spiegelman feels disconnected to it at this point too? I think that's just the nature of the working artist. If you don't have some feeling of your older work being crappy, then are you really growing? Maybe not.

SPURGEON: Finally, one of the odder things related to the comics Internet I saw this was someone taking the time to criticize your wedding theme. What did you think about that?

BROWN: I thought it was amazingly hilarious at first. But that quickly devolved into being really really painful. I think the blog that it was on -- which I won't name here -- is really dedicated to making fun of the Etsy community and since our photos were on their blog we became a flash point. It really wasn't fun. It made my wife cry and it made me feel badly about my own wedding, which was actually incredible and the best day of my life. It wasn't fun blocking and spamming thirty people a day on twitter. I wasn't fun reading a bunch of comments saying they wanted to "kick (my wife) in the C*NT!!" It really made me question the general idea of "internet outrage." Every time I feel myself falling into it -- about anything -- there is part of me that takes a step back and tries to give people the benefit of the doubt now.

The comics community really rallied around us and made us a feel a lot better. James Kochalka called me and share a similar story about what happened to him. Kate Beaton e-mailed me about something similar. All my twitter friends came to our defense, etc. So, in that sense it really made me feel great about my chosen career and really really bad about the Internet in general.


* Box Brown
* Retrofit
* The Survivalist


* image by Box Brown
* cover for Everything Dies collection
* two covers of Retrofit comics
* a page of pacing
* rejected Survivalist cover discussed
* sequence from Bellen (below)