Sunday, 13 February 2011

Who's laughing now? - The Bound & Gagged interview

'Bound & Gagged' is a self published comics anthology with a rare sense of purpose. Bucking the trend of merely collecting together a number of short pieces by comics' latest and greatest, editor Tom Neely has instead chosen to explore the artistic potential of that most classic of comics forms; the one page gag strip.

'Bound & Gagged' brings together artists who, despite their varying backgrounds and styles, seem to operate on a strikingly similar wavelength. With no unifying theme beyond that of the one page gag, it's surprising to observe that, from this simple exercise in form, there emerges an artistic kinship that verges on the telepathic. It is this surprising sense of continuity, both in tone and theme, that lends 'Bound & Gagged' a unique coherence that many bigger name anthologies have struggled to achieve.

The book has all the trappings of some long lost alt. comix gem found at the bottom of a long neglected bargain bin, stumbled upon only after many painful hours of rummaging through back issues of 'Marvel Apes' and 'Tarot'. Luckily for us, Bound & Gagged is very much in the here and now, and is a very welcome addition to the canon of contemporary comics anthologies.

Exquisite Things hooked up with editor and publisher Tom Neely and contributors Anders Nilsen, Chris Wright, Chris C Cilla, Dylan Williams and Michael Deforge to discuss Bound & Gagged and the wider world of comics anthologies.

Exquisite Things: Tom, before we dive into specifics about ‘Bound & Gagged’, I wanted to start by asking about the artists you approached to contribute to the anthology. There's lots of great folks from the Sparkplug Comics stable, right through to cartoonists like John Porcellino and Anders Nilsen. How did you go about assembling such a diverse range of creators?

Tom: This book stemmed from an art show that I was asked to curate for Secret Headquarters Comic Shop in Los Angeles. SHQ is one of my favorite comic shops in LA, but it’s normal clientele has little interest in underground and art comics. I took this as an opportunity to try to introduce some of my favorite contemporary artists to the people who normally shop there, and hopefully get the store interested in carrying some of their books. I don’t know if I achieved that goal with the art show, but I ended up with a book that I’m extremely proud of that will eventually reach a larger audience than an art show is capable of reaching.

As for who was included, I just started making a list of my favorite contemporary cartoonists. I didn’t really have an agenda of saying “These are the most important cartoonists” or anything like that. Actually, I kinda did the opposite and cut out some of the bigger names that SHQ wanted me to include in the show. I just went with the simple idea that these are all artists who I think are amazing and I think everyone else should appreciate them as much as I do. And those who I thought would do a good job with the single image format.

Exquisite Things: As much as I love anthologies, I sometimes come away feeling a little cheated, as a lot of content tends to be culled from larger pre-existing works. When part of a longer piece is removed from it's original context, I sometimes find it hard to get a real feel for a particular creator.

Your choice of format for ‘Bound & Gagged’ does much to avoid this pitfall, forcing a more concentrated, self contained approach to each page. What motivated you to opt for the gag strip format for this anthology?

Tom: It comes from my love of painting and fine art rather than from a love of one panel gag cartoons. I do love one panel comics, though. Especially artists like Charles Addams, Hank Ketchum, Gary Larsen… But I’ve always been interested in telling stories with a single image. So, I used the idea of the one panel gag to force the artists to think in just one image. Almost like asking them to do a painting. I could have asked them all to do paintings, but that’s a different thing than a one panel comic.

Exquisite Things: What first sparked your own personal love of gag strips, and what kind of lineage do you trace from the past to your own work? When I think of gag strips, my mind jumps to people like Herriman, Schulz and Watterson... How about you?

Dylan: I’m a descendant of all those comics, so yep, I like Herriman, Schulz and Watterson.

I’m a giant fan of Bud Blake, Hank Ketcham, David Low, Fougasse, Pont, Phil May, Charles Aadams and on and on. I don’t think I had any of that stuff in mind besides maybe Pont when I was making the stuff for B&G but he's a big influence on everything I do. I think the music brought those pictures out.

Chris C: As a kid I read the New Yorker gag collections at the library, and my dad’s B. Kliban books, those gave me an interest in the single panel gag form. I like some gag strips, like Nancy (Bushmiller) & Gordo in particular, of course Peanuts. Paul Kirchner’s 'The Bus' in Heavy Metal. I really enjoy William Steig, Abner Dean, Robert Osborn, Tomi Ungerer and others in that vein (I think Sam Henderson called them the 'Id Cartoonists').

National Lampoon was a formative influence also, Gahan Wilson, Randall Enos & M.K. Brown all did great gag stuff in there, and Mark Newgarden & Raymond Pettibon in Weirdo and the Raw Gagz section of Raw magazine (the big ones) were mind expanding as well (exploring the definitions & nuts & bolts of the single panel). There are so many great little tributaries of gag cartooning, many good cartoonists working the panels. Jonathan Winters’ book of single panel cartoons, George Booth’s cluttered scenes, Reg Manning’s cactus cartoons, I could go on & on (& have...)!

Chris W: In terms of single panel stuff, the old New Yorker guys were always the most interesting to me... Or at least the prettiest. I don’t draw anything like Peter Arno, but I always liked his juicy, confident line work. I still envy the fact that a guy like that could make a living off of a few quickly done cartoons. Aside from him, I can really only claim my support for most of the cartoonists that Dylan and Chris C mentioned. Herriman did a single panel strip for a while called 'Embarrassing Moments', which, in terms of its content, could have been thrown on the bonfire with so many other semi topical strips of the age, but oh the drawings. That may have been passed around actually, that strip. I seem to recall a few by DeBeck as well.

Oh! for God’s sake, also guys like A.B. Frost and T.S. Sullivant, and for that matter Charles Dana Gibson. Nobody draws like that anymore. And most of the humor is so out of time that it’s hard to comprehend, but again, what gorgeous drawings. Sullivant in particular makes me want to open a vein.

Michael: Growing up, Peanuts, Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes were the big ones for me, since those were the collections my parents would have around. I sort of learned to read with those books. Something like Bloom County would be weird because I wasn’t old enough to get some of the topical humor in the strips, but I’d still recognize that there was a joke there - like, I wouldn’t get some Kitty Dukakis punchline, but reading all those things would teach me the “rhythm” of those three-panel gags. Later on, I really dug George Booth and Gahan Wilson. Mark Newgarden’s work with the single panel comic was really huge for me too.

Exquisite Things: Tom, there's a wonderfully realised sense of association running through the anthology, to the point where what should be a collection of stand alone pieces, begins to form a larger, if slightly unconventional, extended narrative. I picked up on a lot of common themes, like the way J.T. Dockery and Michael Deforge's darkly comic accounts of sexual frustration segue so seamlessly into Dylan William's pitch black assessment of the opposite sex. This kind of melding of ideas crops up again and again as the anthology progresses.

How much time did you spend on sequencing the book, and did contributors have any prior knowledge of each other's pages?

Tom: It’s kinda like making a mix tape actually. You wanna have a flow throughout and have ups and downs and surprises throughout. I spent a couple of weeks figuring out the sequence of the book. Then I had to rethink it once I started talking to the printer and had to group the color and black & white sections to save money on printing. I think there was a bit more of a logic to the original sequence, but it still works the way it was rearranged for print. I didn’t really have any particular idea of a narrative through the book, but I like that you can read it that way.

Dylan W: I just want to say that I noticed that too and I really appreciate the way Tom did that. It is hard to layout an anthology so it works as a whole. Also my view of both genders is pitch black! "Humanity is the devil", to quote a band I shouldn’t like.

Exquisite Things: Tom, did you lay down any specific guidelines for the anthology beyond the 'one page gag' remit?It seems very coherent given the diversity of the people involved. Were you looking for work along any particular lines or did you just give everyone free reign to do what they wanted?

Tom: No there were no other guidelines. Just to use the idea of a one panel gag as a tabula rasa for whatever you wanted to express as an artist. I didn’t want to impose any other ideas on the artists. I selected artists who I think could do interesting work in that context, and left them to do whatever they wanted.

Talking about this reminds me of when I had to take a “creativity test” in high school to get placed in the advanced classes. The test was a page full of squares. The only guideline was you could do anything with these squares and they would judge your level of creativity based on what you drew in the boxes. Once I used them as panels to make a comic strip. Once I made a very surrealistic labyrinth with all kinds of monsters and details lurking about... But I failed the test all four times because I wasn’t being “creative” by their standards.

I think that moment in my life probably explains a lot about the way I chose to curate this.

Exquisite Things: Following on from that, were you surprised to see common themes emerging?

Tom: Yeah, it was interesting. I was surprised that there were more dark gags than funny gags, and even most of the funny ones are on the dark side of humor. I could be all lofty and talk about how it’s a reflection of the troubled times we live in, but I think it just says something about my own taste in darker art.

Exquisite Things
: It's funny to note how Anders Nilsen’s little non-sequiturs seem to mirror the feel of the anthology itself, at once seemingly random yet interconnected. Happy coincidence?

Tom: Probably a coincidence, but his pieces were some of the first I received from the artists, and he sent 8 or 9 total, so it might have had some influence on the overall feel. We had a private blog set up so the contributors could see what everyone was submitting, so maybe seeing what everyone else is doing had some influence on some of the contributors.

Exquisite Things: Anders, that brings me nearly to your pages, which follow a recurring pattern/motif; using a silhouetted figure delivering monologues against varying backgrounds. The written elements seems to draw on techniques like automatic writing and free association.

How did you decide on the images and what’s the relationship between the visual and narrative elements?

Anders: I’m sort of generally on the look out for old books and magazines with imagery that I can use for this stuff. My favorite at the moment is books of semi-generic painting from the 1800s. I think there were some of those in the strips that ended up in Bound and Gagged. I look for... I don’t know, landscapes that aren’t too cluttered, so the figure and the content won’t be overwhelmed. Something that’s evocative in some way, and seems to lend an interesting ground for the content to work with (or against). The relationships aren’t thought out or planned, I just look to pair imagery with subject matter that will be jarring or evocative in some way.

Exquisite Things: Was it challenging having to produce single page gags as opposed to working with a more extended narrative?

Anders: Calling the stuff I contributed “gags” is probably a stretch, I guess. But they’re single panels. I work that way regularly. I think that, in a way, the single panel gag is the highest or the most pure form of the medium. When it works, when the text and the visuals are all cranking together it can be kind of sublime. But it’s really hard to do. Which is why I generally take the experimental way out.

Exquisite Things: And everyone else?

Dylan: It was pretty freakin’ easy! I felt really lucky that Tom asked me (I don’t get asked a lot) to do stuff for his anthology and he was super supportive so I think that positive vibe really made me want to do the best work I could for him.

Chris C: I have done my share of single panel gags, and I drew a weekly strip for a few years (Swonk, written by Greg Petix), so I am fairly comfortable drawing short scenarios/jokes. I keep a sketchbook of stuff & sometimes the drawings grow into longer comics, sometimes they are fine as a single image. I sent Tom a bunch of sketchbook scans, and he picked a few, some got redrawn & some were printed as is. Some didn’t make the cut for the book, but were included in the exhibit.

Chris W: I’ve been doing drawings that are unrelated to my comics for years, it’s how I blow off steam. Working on comics can be really frustrating, and crazy making so it was nice to have a reason to just make a bunch of pictures. With the exception of Woman Sized Pipe (which didn’t make it into the book or the show, probably because it made people feel bad) the images always came first and a usable caption would leap to mind as I worked.

Michael: It’s obviously much more labor intensive to draw an extended narrative, but I like that when I’m working on shorter strips or one-panel gags I have to be a much more concise cartoonist. It’s always challenging for me that way.

Exquisite Things: In terms of other anthologies out there, ‘Kramer's Ergot’ always stood out for me as a real ground breaking anthology, especially the way in which they experimented with format and form. I've also been very impressed with Raighne & Megan Hogan's 'Good Minnesotan' anthology. Do you guys have a favourite comics anthology?

Tom: It’s hard for me to name an anthology I love all the way through. I love the idea of anthologies more than I love any anthologies out there. I like getting a book because you like one artist but then you discover someone new that you'd never heard of. That’s part of what I hope will happen with B&G- someone will buy it because they’re a fan of Anders Nilsen or Kim Deitch, but then they fall in love with Levon Jihanian and Ryan Standfest.

Kramer’s is definitely a book I admire but it doesn’t entirely work for me either. I think the brilliance of Kramer's is how Sammy Harkham has changed the world of comics and elevating them to the level of “fine art” by exposing the world to cartoonists that most people would otherwise never see. But the failure of the giant KE7 is that it’s so expensive that the audience you reach is too limited. There are so many over-produced fancy books coming out in recent years that I purposely wanted Bound & Gagged to be a small, cheap and unpretentious collection of art comics. If i could have priced it as a $2 book I would have.

With Bound & Gagged I wanted an anthology that would introduce you to new art, but I also wanted it to feel like a fun and weird little book of comics- more like those old cheap paperback collections of Peanuts, or a beat up old funny animal comic from the ‘40s that you found at a garage sale. Now that I think of it, I love the idea of someone discovering Bound & Gagged for 50¢ at a garage sale in 20 years.

Dylan W: Oh man that is a good one. I love Raw, Hyena, Zero Zero, Class of Skookum’ High, Slow Death, Skull, Escape, Fox, Garo, Ax, Paper Rodeo, Nome, Tante Lenny, Weirdo, Zap and so on. I think Hotwire is one of my favorites going now. I basically love the old underground style anthology. I love Good Minnesotan too. I liked the fourth Kramer’s a lot.

I feel like when anthologies go too fancy, or too all over the place they loose focus and just become like channel surfing on a high end TV. Mome suffers from that (for me). I’d say that Skull may be the best anthology ever created. Slow Death being a close second. It is all about the caliber of people and the way they work together. Then theme and packaging.

Undergrounds had a feel that really worked with anthologies where as modern indy anthologies tend to be focused on name-recognition, middlemen and imaginary sales. None of which I care about as a reader. It all comes down to designing comics to be read in the bathroom and floor of you apartment vs. sitting on a coffee table or bookshelf. I want a comic that I want to read. Not one that feels like a product. Part of that is the intangible vitality that comes from good editorial direction and part of it is just luck.

Chris C: I like anthologies in theory, and wish there was an American Garo, a cheap fat monthly freaky anthology. Weirdo & Zap are very important to me, in my early understanding of comics possibilities. I also enjoyed Raw, Buzzard, Arcade, Dirty Stories, Drawn & Quarterly (magazine format), Zero Zero, lots of the underground comix anthologies (Bijou, Skull, Insect Fear, Snarf, etc). Kramers Ergot, Studygroup12, Class of Skookum High, Hotwire, & Stripburger are some of the best contemporary anthologies I’ve seen.

Tom: That’s interesting because I love all of the underground anthologies Dylan and Chris mention, but they didn’t even enter my mind because I see those anthologies as a completely different animal from something like Kramer’s Ergot or Mome. I think of Slow Death or Death Rattle or Zero Zero as really exciting comic books with different artists that you read over and over and, but I think of Kramers or Mome as something else entirely.

Chris W: I like anthologies that have texture. The work doesn’t have to stand on it’s own necessarily, it just has to fit into the particular crevice that has been vacuumed out for it. On the other hand I also like seeing great work that doesn’t fit into its allotted space. Great work is one thing, a great anthology is another.

Raw was obviously the big revolution, if anything else comes close it’s Kramer’s. I think Jordan Cranes 'NON' arguably paved the way for Kramer’s, especially that last volume. There is a lot of stuff in the Kramer’s books that doesn’t do that much for me personally on an aesthetic level, yet if any of it were taken out it, the book would somehow be diminished... if that makes sense. Maybe that’s the brilliance of those books.

Anders: Am I allowed to say I like Kramers if I’m in most of them? Raw is in a category of amazingness all by itself... I was super into World War III as a kid...The original Drawn and Quarterly had a lot of great stuff in it. Gotta give a shout out to Paper Rodeo too.

Michael: I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been mentioned, but finding the Gary Panter edited “Go Naked” for two bucks at a used bookstore introduced me to a ton of different artists at a very formative age for me. Mark Beyer, Kaz, a bunch of others. Seeing Paper Rodeo a few years later was also very inspiring for me.

Exquisite Things: Moving on to some of the content in ‘Bound & Gagged’... Dylan, I wanted to ask about your contributions, as they really stood out for me, and I found myself drawn in by the stark nature of your humour.

There's a real sense of dread to your illustrations, which gives rise to a strong contrast between image and text. I noted that in each piece you've quoted lyrics from different pop bands/artists; Adam Ant, the Lightning Seeds and the Beach Boys. You turn saccharine pop into something altogether more unnerving.

What inspired this particular slant?

Dylan W: You can’t give away my sources like that, I want people to think I’m a total sappy genius! And there was a Kinghorse song in that series too... It wasn’t so much saccharine as songs with intense lyrics that I was working from.

I’m really into the idea of translating energy through art and thought; learning about manifesting that energy. I like the idea of text underneath a picture affecting the image and vice-versa. These themes are inevitably what I make work about. I’m an extremely morbid person so I enjoy creating work that has a “weird” (in the old sense of the word) aspect to it. I’m so glad you liked it, thank you. I felt like I dragged the book down by not being funny or super well done.

Exquisite Things
: Michael, your 'Note for Note' one pagers also elicited a similar response to Dylan's work, and I get that same sense of immediacy and emotional rawness from it; they seem like very personal gut reactions to strong emotions. Where were you coming from when creating these pieces, and how do you see them as fitting into the wider gag strip tradition?

Michael: I like writing from that annoying, entitled, young adult voice. I feel like it comes up a lot in my humor. It’s mostly autobiographical - I mine a ton of material from those restless, bratty, angst-filled years, since they were completely ridiculous.

I’m not sure how these ones might fit in a wider tradition. I’ve done one panel pieces that are much “straighter” gags than the ones I did for Bound and Gagged, and maybe these ones wound up being a bit darker.

Exquisite Things: Chris (Wright), I’ve spoken to you before about your striking character designs, more of which are present in ‘Bound & Gagged’. You mentioned that many of them frequently start out life as a doodle whilst sketching out ideas. Your contributions struck me as very spur of the moment, like sudden flashes of creative energy. Much like Anders’ pages I felt they shared a common interest in automatic writing/drawing.

Would it be fair to make that connection?

Chris W: I drew most of them in a bar across from The Center For Cartoon Studies in Vermont, so they are pretty well lubricated. I don’t know whether there is a common link between Anders and myself specifically, because I don’t know him, but I certainly approached the cartoons in my typical kamikaze kind of style. I’ve been second guessing that approach more lately though... Third guessing it really.

Exquisite Things: I wondered if you might be familiar with the English artist Austin Osman Spare? I recently stumbled upon his work, which draws heavily on automatic drawing. All in all, many strange parallels seem to have emerged from this anthology!

Chris W: I'd not heard of him, but that's some great stuff. It’s sort of like if Dali got inside of Rackham’s pen box. Magnificent. Thanks for turning me on to him.

Exquisite Things: Chris C, you designed the cover for ‘Bound & Gagged’, which looks like the fall out from some sort of anthropomorphic drugs and drink binge. Did this seem like a fitting image to bookend the work of your fellow cartoonists, and did the cover go through various iterations before you came up with the finished product?

Chris C: I like the world that cartoon characters live in, and this scene is sort of like the scene on a gag comic cover, but shortly before or after the actual gag scenario happens. Cartoon folks are waiting, freaking out or ignoring whatever is happening. I wanted something that looked funny, and suggestive of plenty of future laughs.

I sent Tom a sketch of the front cover & he liked it & suggested I make it a wraparound. I drew it a couple of times before I was satisfied, and then Tom & I went back & forth on the coloring; I provided a color guide, which Tom chewed on & improved, & he did the actual computer coloring work. I enjoyed the collaborative effort with Tom, he has a good eye and is meticulous. He also assembled the title logo from my roughs.

Tom: Yeah, it was fun collaborating on the cover. I didn’t intend to at first, but Chris sent me all these ideas and I started working on the layout, I started having my own ideas about some of the coloring and design. I messed around with it and I felt kinda like I was violating Chris in a way, but he seemed okay with it and we worked back and forth and I think it all came together really nicely. It’s a crazy cover! I originally imagined something more like an old issue of a ‘40s Funny Animal comic or something, but filter that through Chris’ brain and you get something completely different and amazing.

Exquisite Things: Tom, I wanted to ask... you're little riff on ‘Asterios Polyp’; that one definitely elicited a few sniggers. Personally, I enjoyed Mazzucchelli's latest effort, but I can see why some people found it a bit too technically showy. Do you really dislike the book that much?

Tom: Wait... What? I don’t know which one you’re talking about. I didn’t do anything as a riff on Asterios Polyp, but I’m interested in how you may have interpreted something that way.

Exquisite Things: Your page that uses of the three “printer’s primaries”, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. I think I just instantly assumed it was a riff on the layouts used by Mazzucchelli.

: Oh... yeah, I could see that... maybe... I’ve been playing around with using different colors to represent different ideas for a while, and that piece is part of a larger series I’m working on. I like to use different colors to represent different ideas, which I guess is similar to the way Mazucchelli uses color in Asterios Polyp, but the way he does it feels so sterile to me.

Unfortunately I guess anyone who uses multi colored characters is gonna be compared to Mazzuchelli after the critical success of Asterios Polyp. But for me I think it stems more from my interest in painting and the use of repeated imagery. I was thinking more about Rauschenberg than Mazzucchelli.

To be honest, I still haven’t finished Asterios Polyp. I love Mazzucchelli’s previous work, but this book just really irritated me with it’s overly clever use of comics gimics and I can’t find any motivation to finish it. It’s like listening to an Yngwie Malmsteen record; you can be impressed by all the technical ability and respect him as a guitarist, but the end result is empty and unlistenable.

Exquisite Things: Staying on that topic for a moment, not Yngwie obviously... what do you all feel good comics should be? What’s the most important quality to you in terms of truly good work?

Dylan W: Honesty, and not being boring. I think that the best art is based on variety and that comes from/creates honesty and not being boring. This is all, of course, highly subjective.

Chris C: I think it’s pretty much impossible to boil it down to a simple answer, the qualities that make one comic great would damage a different comic. It’s like comparing miso soup with menudo, or split pea; they are all great soups, and require the blending of different ingredients to varying effect.

This is why it’s often hard to separate out the element that makes a comic successful, or the opposite. My favorite comics create their own standards of quality, through the work itself, the decisions made during the work, and the artist’s blending of all elements to their own understanding of what this soup should taste like.

Anders: I think comics that are like Miso soup or Menudo are bad. Split pea is fine, but what I’m trying to make in my work is a really good Pozole.

I remember hearing the playwright Tony Kushner talking once about how a great play should be like a great lasagna. It should be completely stuffed with all kinds of different ingredients, to the point that it is almost going to collapse and fall apart under its own weight. But not quite. It should have just enough structure (that would be the pasta and the cheese) to hold it together.

Sometimes I think about it like that.

Exquisite Things: Coming back to you Tom, you've been self publishing your work since day one, starting with the rather sublime graphic novel 'The Blot', through to a number of mini comics and more recently this anthology. How have you found the experience of doing everything yourself, and what have the main challenges been along the way?

Tom: Actually it goes back further than 'The Blot'. I’ve been self-publishing my comics for a little over 10 years now. The Blot was just the first thing that got any acclaim (and thankfully because the first 7 years of comics are embarrassing now). When I started doing it ten years ago with some crappy xeroxed mini-comics, I always figured I’d eventually get a publisher and then I could leave self-publishing behind.

But by the time publishers started getting interested in me, I’d pretty much decided that I’d rather keep doing it myself. Now the whole process has become a part of my art. I’m getting close to the end of my next book now, and I’m already excited about the printing process and promotion and conventions and all that. The challenges are in getting the work out there. There are still so many roadblocks and stigmas attached to the idea of “self publishing”, and that impacts on everything from press to distribution. I’m always learning and trying to figure out a better way to do things. Dylan and I spend a lot of time talking about this stuff. I think we have very similar ideals, although his ambitions are a bit more humble than mine.

It can be frustrating to run both the business end and the artistic end of the same project. I’m my own PR guy, and I almost have to become a different person when promoting my work or going to conventions, because the artist me just wants to stay in a cave and draw all the time. I try to stay positive and always moving forward and maybe if I keep doing it long enough it’ll keep improving. I’m happy to say that every year has been an improvement and I am still dedicated to self-publishing my work for now. Bound & Gagged was my first real attempt at publishing other artists. I enjoyed it a lot and I’m very happy with the way it came out and I may do something like this again, but I think for the most part I much prefer to just deal with just one crazy artist (myself).

Exquisite Things: Dylan, have your experiences running Sparkplug Comics been similar?

Dylan: I think Tom and I have a ton in common. Both of us are big fans of other people’s art as well as doing our own work. We talk a lot about making comics and it helps me a lot. Even though I think about comics 24/7 I sometimes forget the importance of self-publishing. It's through Tom that I’ve really rediscovered my total support of self-publishing as the most effective way to make comics as art. That's why I decided to make Sparkplug the distro focus on self-publishers.

Of course, this is at odds with Sparkplug as publisher but I hope we’re being useful and publishing work that is important. The biggest hurdles I’ve encountered begin with my own laziness. I could be working on things 24 hours a day. But I guess you could say that about anything. I think, outside of that, the biggest problems are misconceptions. Sparkplug never set out to be a publisher in the way that Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly were publishers. This has created a lot of logjams or roadblocks where it becomes hard to explain that our chief goals aren’t to turn a profit, make fancy books or lock artists into lifelong contracts.

Also, it's incredibly hard to convince people that honest self-expression is more important to me than being taken seriously as a real publisher. I know that a lot of people see legitimacy as the most default goal for anyone involved in comics. For me, it's mutual respect and support. It is almost impossible for me to explain that well enough to jump over the hurdles that have been created in comics (or maybe life).

We’ve been incredibly lucky and in spite of my crazy punk rock ethics we’ve managed to generate a lot of interest in a lot of good books. Dealing with stores has been a breeze for the most part. Art comic friendly stores have received the Sparkplug books well. Distros are also really good. We’ve had some books turned down by Diamond as part of their dumping of the pamphlet comic form but often those books have all been really well received outside of their catalog.

Again, a big hurdle is just that same thing about finding enough time to stay on top of things and maintain sanity. We aren’t intent on being a big comic company so I haven’t been going to every comic convention but we’ve still gone to a ton this past year. Maybe a little more focus on doing ones we like doing in places we like going to. People have responded really well to the work too, I mean I wish we could help make every artist we publish rich, but hopefully we can at least get their stuff to a wider audience and help them explore ideas they want to explore.

I do realize I sound as much like a hippie as a punk.

Exquisite Things: Well, that's all good... Thanks so much to you all for taking the time to talk to me. Any final comments? Grand declarations? Advice for the world weary?

Dylan W: Just a big thank you to you for doing this interview, to Tom for putting together the book and show and to the Secret Headquarters guys for hosting the show.

Chris C: Thanks for investigating this book, maybe we can get the ball rolling on more funky gag comic collections.

Anders: If anyone is ever in Chicago they should go to this place called Pozoleria San Juan at North and Pulaski. The best soup on earth.

Chris W: I wish I could play the guitar.

Michael: All the cartoonists in this interview are amazing. Also, thank you to Tom for putting the show and book together, it was an honor to contribute.

Tom: I feel very lucky to be able to call up a bunch of my favorite artists and get them all to contribute to a little book I wanted to put out there. I’m extremely grateful to all of them for being a part of this.

Interview by Matthew Dick.

Quick Links:

Tom Neely / I Will Destroy You

Anders Nilsen
Chris Wright
Chris C Cilla
Sparkplug Comics / Dylan Williams


Rob Clough said...


Wonderful interview! I enjoyed this book quite a bit. Tom and Dylan are both really good comics talkers, so getting both of them in an interview was fun to see.

--Rob Clough

Matt @ Exquisite Things said...

Rob, so glad you enjoyed it. This has been in the works for a while! I suspect you'll be seeing more of Tom around these parts when 'The Wolf' drops.