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CR Sunday Interview: Ryan Sands
posted May 12, 2013



imageI first became aware of Ryan Sands through his blogging about a variety of subjects, primarily manga. I started paying greater attention to him when a cross-sections of people whose opinion I trust talked of Sands in terms of his being a nexus point for and emerging generation of young creators and comics-maker -- someone whose opinion mattered. I greatly enjoyed Thickness, the comics anthology he co-edited with Michael DeForge. He worked as a translator and editor on the new Suehiro Maruo book, The Strange Tales Panorama Island, newly arrived from Last Gasp after years of publishing delays.

Sands latest project made its public debut over the weekend: a full-fledged publishing imprint called Youth In Decline. Its first offering is Frontier #1, featuring the work of Uno Moralez. Sands sees the title as a rotating showcase for younger and international talent maybe a step or two removed from the more traditional hardcover showcase. I don't think I've ever had the chance to talk to a publisher this new and this deliberate in their thinking. I enjoying watching Sands carve out space for himself, and look forward to what he does with his publishing house.

If you're at TCAF today, please consider going by Sands' table so he can get out there and shop. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: A classic way to begin an interview like this, one that gets turned around really quickly, would be to talk about what you're doing right now in preparation for TCAF. You and I are talking on the Monday evening preceding that show. This is a big weekend for you. How's it going?

RYAN SANDS: My living room looks like a warehouse. There are stacks of print-outs, stacks of books. A paper-cutter. Duct tape. I'm sort of assembling everything and flying out to Toronto on Wednesday.

I will say this is the first time I haven't felt totally stressed out before a major show. I'm benefiting from actually planning ahead for the first time, which is pretty exciting for me. There's a way to do it without having to pull all-nighters and tearing your hair out, or at least not more than usual. I printed the first issue of our debut book, Frontier #1 with Uno Moralez -- I printed all of it myself at a little print office I have in the neighborhood.

I find myself figuring out these publisher 101 things that everybody else already knows. Like not collating it and trimming it and stapling it all myself. [Spurgeon laughs] Some really important layout and printing tricks: like not having every single page in a signature be a different color. [laughs] It really feels like the least stressful show for me in a while, which is strange because it feels kind of like my debutante ball coming-out party. [laughs]

SPURGEON: So what constitutes the perfect ball for you? If this weekend has worked, what has gone right for Youth In Decline?

SANDS: I think the ideal thing would be get rid of all the books by mid-day Sunday so I can walk around and actually pick up all the awesome stuff that's debuting this year.

I've been tabling and attending cons, usually with my San Francisco/Bay Area friends like Hellen Jo, Calvin Wong and Derek Yu. We've been doing this as a grasp, but literally our approach has been to stuff a backpack full of stuff, toss everything on a table, and then fall asleep behind the table and hope that some people that already know about the work will come by.

imageThis time I'm really just bringing a couple of things. I'm bringing the first issue of Frontier as well as an animated print set. It so happens that this is the same month that The Strange Tales Of Panorama Island, by Suehiro Maruo, which is a book I worked on over the last few years for Last Gasp as an editor and translator, is also coming out this same weekend. So I'm really just bringing a few things to the show, and I hope that people walk away very excited about Uno Moralez work specifically but also excited about the few releases -- I have a modest release schedule for the rest of the year, but I'm hoping this will be a first shot across the bow in terms of the direction I want this micro-publishing company to go.

SPURGEON: So it seems like you want to generate buzz, move some books, and see if your conception of what might sell at a show works. Is that a fair way to put it?

SANDS: Yeah, I think that sounds right. The show schedule that's rolled out over the last few years, it feels very packed month-to-month as a creator or a publisher or a fan. There are a few major shows every quarter, it feels like. They serve very well as deadlines. So in one sense this is the end of three or four months of works, and it will be exciting to sit behind the table and see if other people think this work is as interesting as I do. Is this type of book, are these types of objects... are my tastes validated? [laughter]

I think TCAF in particular brings in a very interesting mix of international creators, and art school kids, and the general public. A pretty broad scope of people in terms of their interests and what brought them into the library that day. So if a book does well at TCAF, you've hit something, a zeitgeist or whatever, in terms of sensibility or whatever.

SPURGEON: I mentioned I was interviewing you to a friend, and that you were publishing now, and this person's response was, "Wait, wasn't he publishing before?" This is a more ambitious ramp-up, and you've drawn a line between what you were doing before and this major project. I wonder about the distinctions you're making. Do you see what came before as a preface? Was that you goofing around, and this is the more serious work now? Do you even call what you were doing before publishing?

SANDS: I definitely was publishing books. I would have thought of myself as editing, editing anthologies, mostly, or editing 'zines. The production side of it was always an afterthought. We self-published and printed the Thickness anthology by hand, mostly to save money.

There's not really a change in terms of my taste and the kinds of things that interest me. Comics for me was and remains a hobby. I have a full-time dayjob -- like a lot of folks. That said, I was doing a lot of projects in order to collaborate with my friends and artists I was excited about. Use whatever value I add to get these things done and completed and out into the world. It sort of wasn't accumulating or adding up to anything in a sense.

This is very mundane, but I found people that would like one thing I did would ask me about other projects, because I always had about two or three different things up in the air. I literally didn't have one name or one URL to tell them to google afterwards. I found myself in the position, which is really flattering but strange, when one person that liked one thing I put out had no idea I was writing the blog Same Hat! Or was doing translating work on the side. It really is the idea if I only have 20 hours a week after work to put into these projects, at night, I really want to give it a little more direction and really have a go at it. Both in terms of the scope of the projects, but also really just pick a few projects and a few artists to start with, and see how well they can do if I put my effort into a few things instead of being so scattered.

SPURGEON: What is the nature of the publishing impulse, then, for you? Certainly you could have done something like Ryan Holmberg, who has carved himself out a space as an editor and project organizer at PictureBox. You come from that kind of background, you have those skills, you could certainly find a publishing to partner with. So what is important to you that you become a publisher?

SANDS: I've been wrestling a little bit with that myself. Just trying to figure out what does a publisher do, and especially what a micro-publisher does. There's probably 30 different people with risograph printers in the United States. There are a lot of people that are self-publishing.

I guess the main distinction for me is that I don't need capital or the financial support of a publisher, only because I've been able to take my own savings from my dayjob work and make a short, modest list of projects come to life. I think for me, I have a lot of connections, friends of friends, through the Bay Area, through the manga side, and I'm hoping that as a publisher I'll be able to build upon that goodwill and those connections to make interesting projects happen.

SPURGEON: It seems like you've thought about this, and that you feel there are certain things a publisher should do. I was wondering if there were negative examples you saw out there, publishers where you were like, "I don't want to be that kind of publisher." Or is it just building towards what works for you? How much of an outside-in study did you make of what's out there?

SANDS: I'm definitely familiar with a lot of the other publishers. Especially outside of comics. I worked on Google books for most of my formative, post-college 20s. So I saw a lot of the changes in the publishing industry, the fiction and non-fiction, trade book side of things. When I call myself a publisher, it's using vocabulary that's clear to other people, rather than saying something like, "printer/curator/all these other semi-self aggrandizing and strange words."

I will say that having some friends that are comic book artists, and writers, you do get a sense of just how vastly undervalued the work can be. A lot of that is a reflection of how hard publishing and print media can be -- especially in the last decade. I've had conversations with friends, and I've garnered an amount of good will, even when just self-publishing by paying a small honorarium or page rate to folks. It's interesting how many people will want to work with you, or get excited and pat you on the back, for being one of the "good guys," when the bar is so painfully low.

SPURGEON: Simply by paying people, this puts you in a percentile of publishers that would probably not reflect well on the overall publishing landscape. Is that a way to put it?

SANDS: Sure. That sounds right. It's an interesting question to ask what exactly a publisher does, when the barrier to self-publishing something that looks good, even if the story and art aren't, but just the production values... is very attainable. If you're not just paying for the printing costs up front, especially when somebody could just do a kickstarter, I guess the question is what does a publisher do?

I hope for me it's modestly just connecting people into collaboration and a world of being next to other interesting work. The main goals for I have for the first publication -- I can talk about that...?

SPURGEON: Please do.


SANDS: The first flagship book for Youth In Decline is pretty simple. It's called Frontier. It's a monograph anthology. It'll be one artist per book, and coming out quarterly. My projects, particularly the ones I was editing with Michael DeForge, moving from anthologies where it was one artist per page on some theme and to, in Thickness, short stories, but a little bit longer than I think is common in these Indy anthologies -- 10 to 20 pages rather than four to eight.

I'm really excited about the opportunity to give one artist 32 pages and see what sort of monograph or collection of work we can come together that will work very well as a narrative object. Specifically I want to use it as a venue for up and coming artists that aren't at that point in their career, either in terms of exposure or their work, where they aren't ready to tackle a full hardcover graphic novel. International artists -- Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. And small sorts of asides, uncommon projects from more established creators.

SPURGEON: How much are you working with the artists? Or is that up to the artists. On Frontier #1, is that work that you just got as is, or was there an editorial process -- might you even use an outside editor? Are you even interested in there being a developmental process for the work you publish?

SANDS: If there's no editorial input, whether it's directly edited or telling a creator yes or no about certain choices they want to make, or framing a project and sort of putting it in a creative context... I think if you're not doing that sort of editorial, curatorial work, then you're really just paying the printing costs and then doing marketing.

The role I see for editorial with Frontier is both choosing artists that cover a lot of different thematic elements... different voice. [laughs] Specific to this book I worked with a translator and had a lot of long exchanges with Uno Moralez, the artist. He's a full-time illustrator in addition to the mysterio gifs work that he does. He didn't want to be completely hands-on in terms of the page to page flow of the book. But we had discussions about the scope of the book. I did the layout and pacing of it, and then worked with him to choose which works to feature, which to leave out.

imageSPURGEON: Give me an example of a specific choice that you made in that issue. Was the sequencing of stories yours?

SANDS: Generally speaking, for this book we wanted to show the variety of work he has up through his livejournal and tumblr sites. It was a combination of narrative works that we wanted to highlight, some of his splash images and illustrated pieces, and also some of... one challenge was how to work the feel of his animated gifs into the pages. So there are a few pages where we used a couple of stock colors or actual layout to show off the gif-work as well.

He hasn't been in print except for a short piece in Chameleon 2, the book that Jonny Negron and Jeremy Baum put out. In one sense, really, it is a print collection, bringing this strange phantom of the Internet -- I think a lot of that is literally he doesn't speak English. Many people I talk to don't know who's doing this work but they've seen it on tumblr. He's not that hard to get a hold of if you're willing to find someone that speaks Russian. I like the idea of capturing a ghoul. [laughter] And then being like Ghostbusters and putting into an ecto-containment unit. You can hold it and look at it for the first time.

It definitely was a bit of a challenge to wonder if this is something that works off-line. Hopefully the people will like the printing and the way we present the work.

SPURGEON: Is there something you're specifically passionate about with print? You just explained why in this book's case that print works, why it's an interesting effect applied here, but in general it seems to me you have a background with a certain kind of publishing most print comics publisher would love to do well. You seem comfortable on-line, even. And now you're not only working with print, you're being very hands-on, very do-it-yourself, assemble-it-yourself. Why that kind of publishing endeavor?

SANDS: I think one piece of it is that I want to really learn this process and this business from the ground up. I started off making copies in a Kinko's and now I have a Risograph printer where I'm learning sort of how to disassemble and clean and control the production myself. I think that a lot of this, in particular having this not be my primary source of income, like many people I spend all of my day on-line. I think that's true of everyone, but I work at a tech company and have been in the belly of the beast of first digital books and now on-line video working at YouTube. So for me personally, it's very cathartic and interesting to work in the realm of physical objects.

I'm not wedded to Risograph printing in the long term. For future books, using off-set and other ways, whatever is most suitable for the artist and their project. But there is something very satisfying about being a publisher that can do layout, printing and sort of understand the process from top to bottom. [laughs] I'm sure I'll get tired of it very soon. But now I find it very interesting.

SPURGEON: That's not an uncommon impulse. The underground publishers I think had printing operations. A lot of the first alternative guys, like Gary Groth, some of them even studied printing. Certainly a lot of people get into publishing through design, which has a hands-on element. It's not like what you're doing is unheard-of, but the extent to which you and someone like, say, Zak Sally, wants to reclaim that part of the production seems interesting to me.

SANDS: I'm still trying to figure out... I'm using the word "publisher" especially now because it's a thing that people understand. I'm just now starting to understand what it means. It's so easy to set up a web site. I don't see the barriers other than minor technical ones, to creating e-pub files, or creating a decently well thought out web portal with good user experience. At that point, what value are you exactly adding as a publisher? Because that stuff is very learnable.

I think that there are a lot of artists that don't want to bother with any of that, but I guess I'm placing myself directly where I can do interesting work and add value. Creating like a new... there's a lot of technology and there are starting to be some interesting sites for on-line web content. It doesn't really feel like a place... I don't feel the excitement there for me. [laughter]

SPURGEON: I want to revisit something. We talked earlier on about the money thing, where you find a place for yourself, but you come from this culture, the culture of comics. There has to be some worry that you have -- and I think we may have some common ground here -- just in terms of participating in the culture of exploitation, the casual exploitation which comics has imbedded in its DNA. Is that a way we can get at what you're doing? You have to know artists that are not only pleased you're paying money but are also angry that others aren't.

SANDS: This is my scene and my world. I came into comics through Marvel and then later through manga and then self-publishing and 'zines at Bay Area festivals. I'm trying to think of a way to put it... I'm very familiar with the complaints of artists. But I don't have any aspirations to be an artist myself. So I've sort of taken in a lot of complaints from those that just want to do creative work. And a lot of them don't want to have to deal with this part of the process.

Hearing those impulses from friends who do amazing works but don't really know or aren't concerned with how to get it to people, and then also simultaneously hearing -- it's a small scene, you know, and some of the worst offenders are actually putting out interesting work. But it is sort of shocking when you hear how big a venue -- in the illustration world and in comics itself -- how many of them get away with paying through exposure or through free copies of books. When they do pay, they don't pay on time.

imageMy ambition is pretty small for the first year or two. And I'm interested to kind of put my money where my mouth is. It's easy to talk about this stuff on Twitter [laughs] and complain, "Oh, this publication doesn't pay its contributors" or whatever. I've been tangentially familiar with the economics of it through my day job. And through my friends. I'm exciting about the challenge of figuring out how you make it work.

I will say that when I first started self-publishing anthologies and 'zines I found myself sort of wandering around asking how you finance it. It was not a very popular topic. [Spurgeon laughs] I was looking for repeatable case studies and business models I could actually follow. The ones that I heard were not super-motivating. [laughter] Specifically like -- and god bless these folks for doing good work -- but having a trust fund or other money you didn't earn yourself and using it for vanity projects. God bless people like that for using the money to promote friends. The other is to sort of get lucky -- or being smart -- and having one book that blows the roof off in terms of sales and then using that money to fund... that's a classic publishing model. Like Viz, for example, what Viz did in the late '90s, take the money from Pokemon and put out Uzumaki. Or just applying for grants and looking for fundraising that way. It's something that I'm really interested in learning about. I have a naivete about how all of this works, especially around marketing and promotion. But I do think putting my head out and planting a flag in the ground -- unless you're actually doing it you don't have legitimacy to criticize and complain about the way things go. So I'm hoping to learn how this really works and be as ethical and helpful as possible to my creators and artists.

SPURGEON: You've talked a lot about process, if only indirectly. I saw you speak at MoCCA Festival -- you were interviewing Jillian Tamaki -- and you talked about one thing you liked about your on-line efforts is that you could kind of run things past people and see how people reacted to them and see how your taste intersected with other people. You've sort of described some of your publishing impulses in the same way. Where does that come from, this desire where it's not a monolithic creative impulse that you'll force down people's throats?

SANDS: That's interesting. I hadn't thought about projects in that sense. Working on-line and kind of living on-line, especially Tumblr -- and Twitter -- allows you to get a feeling of what people are interested in. I'm not interested in a lot of things a lot of people are. [laughter]

SPURGEON: I would think that the fact you notice this might make you different than a lot of other publishers. I can't imagine a lot of the other publishers paying attention to which of their Tumblr posts hit with people and which ones don't.

SANDS: I hadn't thought about this too much, but it's less that I am looking for validation or finding where to go based on what people respond to in a very linear, one to one way. I posted this picture of Doraemon playing baseball with Bart Simpson and everyone loved it and that's where my next project will live. [Spurgeon laughs]

I think it's more that if you're talking about stuff that everybody likes, knows about and agrees is cool, you're not really adding much to the dialogue. Alongside all of this stuff I've been writing a lot about horror and independent manga -- less lately, but especially a couple of years ago. A lot of that came from living in Japan. I had a Japanese studies major... and an econ minor, although I never use that. Although maybe I'll have to now that I'm forecasting sales. [laughs] Thank you, Mom. She's an accountant, so she'll be proud of me for that. [laughter]

I think the most satisfying posts and blogs and writing are not the ones where everyone is "we already know and love that all of the time" and not the ones where I'm talking to an empty room because I'm the only that's interested in this one really weird inside joke. The most exciting work of any kind is when you strike a chord with someone and you also can sort of teach and learn. Writing a post about this '70s Japanese theater journal that was the first ever English-language publication of manga, predating Barefoot Gen by a few years. Sort of seeing a comments thread spiral out of control with excitement. People start posting stuff I get to read and learn about. I think in that sense, a lot of our shared cultural history and contemporary world is very diagrammed, covered and mummified as we're speaking. Finding the areas where people sort of don't quite know what they're looking at or haven't quite gone down that path, that's very exciting. And I think that's the main thing that's about living and working on-line.

SPURGEON: How do you negotiate the fact that in comics the publishers have personalities? In one way, that's another way exploitation can happen. You can accuse the publishers of using artists to get themselves over, or to make themselves look good, or to simply find a place for themselves in a social fabric that has meaning for them. Are you comfortable with putting yourself out there, with people having your personality in mind when they negotiate these books?

SANDS: I don't think my personality needs to be in mind.

SPURGEON: Your taste, then?

SANDS: I worry that a lot of the things we're talking about sound a lot grander than my actual ambitions. [laughter]

The projects that I'm planning aren't radically different than other micro-publishers are working on these days. It's an extremely exciting -- everyone says this, but it's a super-exiting time to be around narrative art and comics. I see myself stepping up out of self-publishing half-assery [laughs], picking a few projects and really pushing them out there into the world in the same way that Koyama Press or Oily Comics and many other folks are doing with their artists. In that sense, when you're not a giant company or even a medium-sized company, you really are sort of selling... what you have to offer is only your taste.

Even on the small scale I'm publishing, it's quite the investment -- of time, but also money -- to really pick a few books, or pitch a few books to creators directly and say, "This is a project I think is valuable, and I think is wroth x-thousand dollars and x-weeks to put out in the world." The thing that is sort of exhausting about print anything is that by the time you get the thing done -- even if you work quickly and print it yourself -- it's many months after the work was completed. You have to believe in the work you're putting out because you have to live with it and talk about it and sell it for many months.

I'm super-excited about the small handful of things that are coming for this year. I don't have a grand plan, and the scope is very small for now. I'm excited to see how the economic realities of promotion and product work, and I'm very curious as to where my tastes go. Maybe it will turn into a t-shirt company and get rid of these goddamn comics. [laughter]

SPURGEON: Has your taste developed? Is this a different company than it would have been three years ago?

SANDS: Definitely.

SPURGEON: What's the latest thing you've latched onto that we'll actually see developed through the company. What's the latest change in your own taste?

SANDS: My primary inputs are manga, body horror and science fiction. But I'm mostly excited and influenced by the potential of this generation -- you were kidding me on your site about talking about "the youth," but I really do see a generational change in the speed and fluency with which creators are now incorporating and assimilating influences.

I remember a time if someone had the same interests on livejournal that was very indicative of them doing the same amount of longbox hunting or digging through the VHS bins at their local video store. Now you can completely familiarize yourself with most forms of comics but also art, video, games and it's really more about how the speed with which upcoming artists sort of turn over influences.

I also think that there are a lot of weird, arbitrary barriers between the European comics scene and the extended [laughs] on-line indy comics world.

SPURGEON: Am I right in thinking that your entry point into the European comics scenes is the Latvians? Why do I connect you to them?

SANDS: I guest-edited an issue of kus!


SANDS: I've only been to Europe twice ever in my life. When I was there in 2006 I went and attended the Frankfurt Book Fair. I kind of have the propensity to latch onto people. [laughs] I had heard about and seen work that Reprodukt was doing. I literally on my lunch break, in my suit, wearing a dorky trade show badge introduced myself to the Reprodukt guys and bought a handful of their books. The easiest way to learn about these things and meet people is to shell out five bucks for their mini-comics. It's the easiest way to make friends and the best way to earn their goodwill. At that show I met Christian who works for Reprodukt and --

SPURGEON: That's Maiwald?

SANDS: Yeah, that's right. Christian Maiwald. He's a friend of mine. By the end of the night I was drunk at an Indian restaurant with Max. [laughter] Listening to them talking about Donjon and Picasso. I was able to go back to Berlin on vacation and met up with Christian again. He took me to an indy-comics drawing night. It was very similar... I should probably say not dissimilar [Spurgeon laughs] to the kind of hangouts that we do here.

I think there's that thing that happens where you don't know about a manga until it becomes popular enough for Viz or maybe if you're lucky Vertical or PictureBox to license it. But there's a whole world unseen, an ecosystem that exists below that level. Not being able to speak Japanese, not being able to speak German, that's a very real barrier. But it's pretty flimsy, in my opinion. It's really that hard to connect with those folks. With my resources, there's no way I could publish the new Otomo manga myself. Or do it justice in terms of distribution or promotion. But there's no reason that I can't publish the Lamar Abrams of Japan. Or, maybe if I'm lucky, the Michael DeForge of Thailand. [laughs] You know what I mean?

In the same way we were able to, mostly through friends of friends, and specifically through Anne [Ishii], we were able to license a Tagame short story for Thickness. We just barely beat them out the door in terms of being one of the first places to publish them in English. There are very real barriers, and you have to be careful about stepping on people's toes. Not interfering with ongoing relationships that people have developed. It's kind of shockingly easy if you're willing to find someone that speaks the language, treat them well, and offer them something that's not insulting in terms of compensation. A project worth biting into.

Other than the generational, the up-and-coming cartoonists I mentioned, that's the other thing taste-wise that's a more recent development. I try to read as widely as possible, but the stuff next to my bed isn't big hardcover books from the known names in the comics scene. It's a shitty Xeroxed collection of Thai comics, a French edition of Little Thunder, who is a Hong Kong illustrator. A bunch of mini-comics from names I pulled out of different issues of kus!

I used to talk about everything I was into all the time. That's how I existed on social media. I said this on Twitter, but you have to be like the deejay that doesn't tell you about the awesome song they're going to play until they drop it at 1 AM. You have to sit on your best tracks so that people don't steal them. I think that's one thing that's strange in terms of publishing. If these barriers are as flimsy as I think they are in terms of raising capital and connecting with folks, then what differentiates you other than your taste?

SPURGEON: Before I let you go: why the hell did Panorama Island take 1000 years to come out?

SANDS: [laughs] That's a good question.

SPURGEON: I hope you have a good answer.

SANDS: It was a very challenging translation project. I got in over my head. I had a lot of other projects and life stuff going on. It wasn't... there were some challenges with the work itself and some of it was just scheduling and time issues. It took a hell of a long time, and there were a lot of fits and starts with it.

SPURGEON: It's a very attractive book. I was astonished it had come out, finally.

SANDS: I was hoping we went through enough cycles in terms of anticipation and sadness that it would be off of people's minds to be a very nice, welcome surprise.

SPURGEON: I think you may get exactly that reaction.

SANDS: It would have been a bummer to have waited this long for the book, the diehard fans, and have it be a normal-sized tankubon softcover manga. That was part of the planning that Colin and the Last Gasp folks had in mind. Let's give folks something exciting to see, that's really an all-out object in terms of beautiful production. I hope this doesn't encourage people to start checking, but I think it's literally the first thing I've ever seen where there are no production gaffes, typos or surprises.

SPURGEON: Gauntlet thrown!

SANDS: It's always a bummer. I'm sure there's stuff in there I would have worded differently, in the touch-up and adaptation. But it's nice to hold something and be really pleased with it as a tactile experience.


* Youth In Decline
* Same Hat! Tumblr
* Ryan Sands On Twitter
* Electric Ant Zine
* Thickness