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

September 15, 2011

Zak Sally Remembers Dylan Williams


By Zak Sally

As I write this, the passing of Dylan Williams is less than a week old. It's fresh and it hurts; for me, for everyone that knew him, for the comics and small press community as a whole.

You try and think of this person; how you've known them. When you've known them. What the size and shape of the hole they will leave in your world will be, and the world outside your own.

The hole Dylan Williams leaves will be Dylan-shaped.

As I'm sure many, many people will attest in the coming days and weeks (and, I hope, years) there was no one like Dylan Williams; and I think that was his fight in this life, as an artist, a cartoonist, and a publisher. To be his own man, to try to run his business in the way he felt was right, to define his own relationship to his own art and the art he loved. He won that fight, no question.

Some would say that describing a fellow human being's life on this planet in relation to something as trivial and ephemeral as "comics" would be a gross disservice to that human, but I think Dylan would be proud to have his life viewed that way. People leave marks in different ways, and the mark Dylan made in the comics world was as honest, sincere, and hard won as any individual in the history of the medium. Maybe the freshness of his loss is driving me to hyperbole, but I doubt it. In the past few months many have mentioned the fact that Dylan is (god damn it, was) a private individual, and I guess that's true. But more accurately, he just wasn't about to make any sort of big stink about himself. I think he mistrusted that whole impulse, very deeply -- even, at times, to the degree of not taking credit that was duly his.

I'm going to take some time and make a big stink about him. Because he's not here to tell me not to anymore. And because writing about him alive feels a lot better than facing the fact that he's gone.

I first met Dylan in Berkeley CA, over 20 years ago. I was a mess of a 20-year-old kid, and landing in the east bay I tried selling my messed up little comic book 'zines. I can't remember if Dylan was working at Comic Relief, or if I just met him thru the 'zine circle, but he was, as always, immediately the most supportive guy I'd ever run into. In fact, as I write this, I'm realizing that Dylan was the first person to actually like my comics, ever, period. Up until that point friends, family and such knew I did it and that it was a big deal for me, but had no idea what to make of my scribbly bullshit. Just having someone like my comics at all was a new and crazy experience for me, but having it come from someone who not only loved comics as much as I did, but who (I soon found out) knew about 20 times more about comics than I did was... something else. Dylan invited me to some Puppy-Toss (a 'zine and comic distro collective Dylan started with some other east bay comic types) stuff, and I think I went to a meeting once but... like I said, I was kind of a mess. But I got to know Dylan.


Here's my apocryphal Dylan Williams story.

In those early days, Dylan ended up as the 'zine buyer for Comic Relief. One day I went in there and at the 'zine counter was this collection of Kurtzman stuff photocopied in a big thick 'zine (but pretty beautifully designed, I've still got them...), 64 pages or something, for some ridiculous price: $2 or something. Now, this was back in the days when this stuff was really hard to find... there were the big expensive EC hardcover collections that were $70 apiece or the original comics, which were collectors items, even more ridiculously priced. As a young cartoonist, Kurtzman and Krigstein and all those guys were constantly referenced but actually being able to read a bunch of the stuff was a difficult and expensive thing. So a ton of that stuff in a 'zine for $2 was just amazing. I picked it up and said to Dylan, "What the hell is this!! Who put this out, there's no info on it" and he did this sort of, jeez be quiet thing. And I can't remember if it was then or later that he explained it to me: he'd "put it out." They loved him at comic relief. So on one of his lunch breaks he'd gone into the CR "Vault" where they kept all the expensive, collectible stuff (such as old EC comics), walked out of the front door to the copy shop two doors down from Comic Relief, made copies of the stuff he needed (I swear he said he even took out the staples then replaced them to get cleaner copies), made a 'zine out of them, the walked two doors down back to work, snuck the comics back into the vault, and sold those 'zines at the 'zine counter.

Do you understand me? Dylan did not do this because everyone would say, "Wow, how ballsy." It's because he thought it was bullshit that no one got to see this work. Because it was great work, important work. He didn't want credit for it, didn't want to be seen as the guy who did that, he just did it because it needed doing. For me, that was always what Dylan was, from the moment I met him. Maybe Dylan couldn't see it, but this was some character stuff from the word go, and it's what he did

Later, in one of those (incredibly, now that I think about it) strange confluences, in the late 90's I went to visit my friend Mr. Mike, who had uprooted to Olympia, WA, and ended up staying on his floor off and on for a number of months; Dylan and his girlfriend (later to be wife) Emily lived in the very same weird '70s apartment complex. I got to spend some more time with Dylan; we'd just hang out and talk comics -- I'd never really had friends that I could just utterly nerd out with; where you're speaking that language that only the dyed in the wool comics freaks can understand. You know, where you can talk Yves Chland and then Herb Trimpe in the next sentence and the other person knows exactly what you're talking about. Dylan had always gone further with that stuff than i'd ever dreamed of doing; he corresponded with "forgotten" cartoonists, he wrote articles and did 'zines and magazines about these guys. I didn't last all that long in Olympia, but I think Dylan moved first. He and Emily moved to Portland, and I think that's about when he started Sparkplug in earnest.

Dylan and I are almost exactly the same age, and I know that we shared some generational things in common. We grew up the real kind of comics nerd/ obsessive, then loved it so much that we kept loving it past the point where normal folks stopped. Where "being published" by a "real" publisher was still something that was deeply ingrained as something to aspire to, something defining your work as real and worthwhile. Getting involved in 'zines and self-publishing changed all that, for both of us; but I also think both of us had that residual nagging voice for a long time, wondering if that outside validation was important, even as we were learning the ways in which it wasn't.

Sparkplug was where Dylan put it into practice, where he said -- you don't have to do that: you can do this. I can, you can, we all can. You don't even need to make a big deal out of it -- you can just do it.

In some conversations with him, I know he said he felt like he'd wasted precious years of his life trying to fit into those molds; what other cartoonists did, what other publishers did. And that over time, with Sparkplug, he felt he'd finally completely sloughed all that stuff, and was doing what felt right and made sense to him and the way he wanted to do business, rather than what you were supposed to do, what "real" publishers did.

He truly, truly loved comics.

Not just one flavor, one stripe, but all of it. The whole thing. He loved 'zines and comics and people making stuff; the whole deal.

I am a deep down to the core of me nerd for the medium: its history, its lore. The comics trivia I've accumulated over the course of my life would be embarrassing if it was something I had any interest in being embarrassed about. But Dylan, man... the guy was encyclopedic. Whatever I knew, Dylan knew about 10 years before me. His eye for comics was as attuned as any I've ever known; way the fuck back when, he was showing me stuff that, at the time, I thought, "Huh. I don't get it." But invariably it's stuff I come around to like "Holy shit, how could I not see how amazing this is." Again, 15 years later. Jesse Marsh. Mort Meskin. Hell, Dylan was the first person who showed me Dick Briefer (okay, that one I got right away). Anybody read that great strip he did in Windy Corner about being a longtime correspondent of Alex Toth?

No? Now would be a good time.


Dylan and Sparkplug was never anything anyone made a big deal about. There was never a huge splash, a giant push. He found work he loved and believed in deeply, then he published it and believed in it, pure and simple. Then he went and showed it to people, sold it to them, told them how great it was. Dylan was an inexhaustible fountain of support. And if you look at the books he put out (and you should) there's very little common thread between what he published in conventional aesthetic terms other than that he believed in it, and that he thought other people should see this amazing work. Olga Volozova to David King? Austin English's The Destroyed Room to Tales To Demolish? Asthma? Hellen Jo and The Heavy Hand? Many, many others. He loved them all (go to the Sparkplug site and just scroll down on the store page... it's beautiful and heartbreaking. then buy all of it). Even if what it was wasn't "your thing," you were glad it was out there... Christ, we've lost something enormous with his passing. That comic history he knew so much about -- for me, he's part of that now.

Not as any one thing, but as all of it -- 'zine guy, comics historian, publisher, educator, and let's none of us forget for a moment -- a cartoonist himself. He was all of those things because it was all of one piece with Dylan.

I'm almost done printing the first book collection of Sammy the Mouse. I had to have plates made for the title and dedication page. A month ago I knew it would be dedicated to Dylan, no matter what happened with the cancer. In the past week or so, I had convinced myself that he would see it, and that maybe it'd make one of his chemo days just a little better, or something. Because it would have. Because Dylan loved to see his friends do shit, make comics. He loved and believed in the good shit, and I'm honored to say that, just like 20 years ago, Dylan was still a vocal supporter of my stuff. I know that because when he did those things he did it quietly, but all the way. He carried my stuff through Sparkplug, as he did with many, many other artists whose work he liked. He also told me. Like he did with a hundred other artists. He knew what that sort of support had meant to him over the years and that's what he wanted to do with Sparkplug: to be that for other people, and beyond that -- be honest, be ethical. Avoid bullshit and hype as best you can, it just drags everything down in the end. Make your own hole in the wall. Fuck being the biggest fish in the pond, Dylan had no interest in that: he wanted to just make a totally different pond, one that people would feel good about swimming in. and it wasn't "everybody else is doing it wrong, and I'm doing it right." It wasn't that at all.

It was just, "There's different ways of doing this. Here's what I'm doing because it makes sense to me." the small press wasn't something he did, it was his home.

What I wanted to write in my book was something from one of our last conversations -- this was right before the new cancer prognosis had come in. We were talking about life and (since he'd so narrowly just avoided it) death and, of course, comics. And he just said, in an offhand way while we were talking about some comics "business" thing -- someone who'd (probably innocuously) inferred that Sparkplug being a "small" publisher somehow translates to being a "hobby" publisher (where actually, Dylan very much believed in keeping things small as a business model), and Dylan was kind of in an uproar: "You know, you say what you want, but comics are what I am -- man, you cut me and I bleed comics." It's something he'd only say in confidence but anyone who ever met Dylan and would disagree with that statement is either lying or blind.

I wanted to make that the dedication "To Dylan Williams, and everyone else that bleeds comics." Because that's me, and those are my people.

But I didn't because I think that would have made Dylan uncomfortable, or possibly mad. I think he would've worried that he would've sounded pretentious.

So I didn't.

But it was true; the guy bled comics, pure and simple.

And this, I know is not hyperbole -- I've never met anyone who lived, breathed, and bled comics more than Dylan Williams.

And if someone made a list of all the shit he's done -- be it Puppy-Toss, the bootleg 'zines, his comics, interviews, correspondences, articles he wrote, magazines he published -- all the stuff from before Sparkplug, I think it'd be jaw dropping. Add Sparkplug and the books he helped bring into the world through that, then add all the 'zines and comics he distro'd, the artists he supported in all kinds of ways, and things get even more distinctive; you could see a pattern. And that pattern charted a real particular kind of enthusiasm and inspiration -- not the kind of inspiration that comes in a flash, makes a big noise and then slowly fades from view; it's the kind that is so deeply felt and consistent that it's almost invisible. But it carries a huge heft.

He just loved this shit, and wanted to spread around how much he loved it. And really, what I think the key to Dylan, and to Sparkplug, was that Sparkplug wasn't a Publishing Company who Published Comics. It was a human who did something that meant the world to him; that thing happened to be comics. He didn't talk about it, or wave some flag; he just did it.

And, over time and in a thousand small, quiet ways, it inspired a lot of other people.

I'm not sure Dylan saw himself in that way. Until very recently.


I don't think it's any coincidence that Dylan and Bill Blackbeard spent a lot of time together, and were kind of kindred spirits in a lot of ways. Dylan was, of course, a different guy, a different generation. What they did was different, as well. It was, sadly, weeks (months?) before the world of comics learned about Blackbeard's death. But unlike Blackbeard, Dylan's health troubles went public.

I think, in these last few months as things got very dire, Dylan got to actually hear about the mark he'd made. He never ever would have asked for it, and under other circumstances I think he might've viewed it with some skepticism, but I am incredibly happy that he had to hear it, had to take it in. there can be some snipe and pettiness in our little world of comics (as there is in any community), but I was so happy to see the unilateral support and kindness for Dylan, from all quarters. artists, publishers, indie, art, mainstream, the entire continuum of comics: they all said I know what you did here, and how you tried to do it, and what it is is awesome. You backed me up, or you liked my work when no one else did, or that you just plain inspired me. Wasn't some bullshit hagiography, either. All this typing I did isn't just me, it's something you can hear echoing all over the place right now; but in the last month of his life he heard it in a way he'd never, ever heard it before.

I think it meant the world to him.

And this has given me a lot of solace in the past month. Even though I thought he was going to make it.

I thought: he got to hear what he's done in this world he loved, this world he lived in. what people thought of how he tried to be a part of that -- and what they thought was honest and overwhelming. As is the response to his death. Look what people are saying about this guy. Look how they are saying it. Nobody's making up stuff about Dylan; they are just saying what kind of person he was, what he meant to them.

It was never the point of what Dylan was trying to be, and do. He didn't seek out that attention, and he didn't like it.

But for him to hear that resounding chorus before he died... it makes me very, very happy. I was able to tell him how awesome Sparkplug was, how much it had inspired me while he was alive, and a lot of other people were able to do the same.

Dylan being taken now is terrible.

For him not to have heard those things -- now that would be sad and unfair.

And all this is just aside from the fact that Dylan was just a real, real good guy, period. What he was in comics was what he was outside of comics (as if there's really a line that can be drawn there). He was thoughtful and funny and humane.

I saw Dylan at the few cons I'm able to get to, and we'd be able to talk on the phone now and again. The fact that this will never happen again is incredibly sad. I am far, far from alone in this. That I can't call him up and get his take on something comics-related, or anything-related, really.


Someone said recently "You could do far worse than to build a lifetime of friendships with the people you meet in comics." I think about that a lot.

If you're lucky, you make a couple families in this life. There's the one you came from, and the ones you make. Dylan was one of the oldest and most cherished of my comics family; one that made an indelible mark on my life, from real early on 'til the moment he died, and will continue to. God damn am I going to miss Dylan Williams. I could go on and on. I already have.

That Dylan Williams-shaped hole looks jagged and terrible right now.

No one else can walk through it, because it follows the exact shape of him and the life he painstakingly carved out; he's gone, far too soon. That's painfully sad and true.

But if Dylan's got a legacy (and he damn well does) it is that no one else will ever fit through that hole, he would welcome anyone that tried, and he'd cheer for them if they busted up the wall while they did it. In fact, I think he'd just tell them to take what they liked about his hole and make their own -- that was the whole point for him. Do whatever you do with passion and honesty, and it's not only worthwhile, it makes the world a slightly better place. Be what you are.

It's the highest compliment I can pay to the man, and there's many many things about Dylan I don't know, but I do know that this sentiment would make him happy.

That, and that I loved the guy.

To his friends, his family, and his wife Emily; its hard to know what to write. But we all agree that we're better for knowing him.

He wasn't one in a million, he was one in quite a few millions.

He didn't talk it, he lived it.


Dylan Williams' memorial service and wake/get together following is today in Portland; Sparkplug is here; an auction site to defray hospital expenses is here; you can learn more about Mr. Sally here

photo at top of Dylan Williams by Gabby Gamboa, and used with her permission. other art by Harvey Kurtzman, Chris Cilla, Hellen Jo, Billy De Beck, and Dylan Williams; video of Williams and Sally below


posted 4:40 am PST | Permalink

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