Thursday, October 29, 2015
A few days ago my good friend Noah Van Sciver posted his advice for young cartoonists, and it hit a nerve with a lot of people. You can find his post here. My name was mentioned in the essay, so I thought I would add a few thoughts of my own, in addition to what Noah said (which I'm in agreement with).
One thing I would say is that comics is still a small enough world that if you have talent, and cultivate that talent seriously, and find a unique voice and style, people will notice. There's no secret handshake or special gimmick you need to come up with. Just do good work, keep doing good work, and keep trying to improve. And be patient.
Don't let some imaginary perfect genius idea, that will take years to develop, keep you from doing hard, consistent work on what you have at hand right now. Just start somewhere and keep going.
Also, for the record, not ALL professional cartoonists have some "secret" means of supporting themselves. Many do it by working in illustration, web design, animation, making sandwiches at Panera Bread. But the number of cartoonists in the US that survive purely off "comics" is very very small. (I'm talking about people making personal, idiosyncratic art-comics, not genre stuff for big publishers.)
And: There is no shame and should be no sneering towards those with underlying financial support. Artists have had patrons and underlying support since forever. The larger problem is that on the surface comics seems like a "real" industry: there are well-attended comics festivals all over the country, awards given, NY Times Bestseller lists, and on and on. Looking at it from the outside it seems like "Yeah, this is something to get involved in!" The trick is that despite all that, the vast majority of people making their living solely from art-comics in this country work their asses off and still live in poverty.
For me personally, I didn't have a secret safety net, I just learned over time how to be comfortable surviving on $8000 a year. But when I got into comics I had no illusions about what I was facing. And I made that choice. And I wouldn't trade it for anything else.
Friday, October 9, 2015
Photo of John P. at SPX, by Phoebe Gloeckner
First of all, don't get me wrong. SPX was a weird show for many of us, but it was also, at least for me, a great show. I had my best SPX ever this year, narrowly edging out 2012 in terms of sales. This is especially exciting because at a show like SPX, where many of my distribution clients are exhibiting (I don't overlap by selling their work at my table), I'm often down to bringing the more obscure items in my stock list. This year I focused on a bunch of French and Belgian imports, recent publications from the Latvian publisher KUŠ, Conundrum and Pow Pow titles from Canada, and so on. And people responded. I even sold an untranslated copy of Nylso's Jérôme et la Route!
From a personal angle, I sold plenty of copies of my newest zine, King-Cat #75, and met a lot of wonderful readers and artists. I had great conversations with buddies Noah Van Sciver, Melissa Mendes, Rob Kirby, and even Dylan Horrocks, who I finally got to meet in person!!!
So what did I mean when I said last week, "SPX is no longer the show we once knew"? I don't even know exactly, I'm still trying to put it all together. I was talking to Bill Kartalopoulos when he was at my table, and was trying to explain how I choose what books to bring to what show. Having done enough shows I do have a feel for the crowds at each one. Some crowds are looking for the weirdest, most out there stuff; others are more middle of the road. (I don't do the shows where people are looking for superheroes, or digital prints of Star Trek characters anymore.) Some crowds are looking for nicely produced book editions, some are looking for low-budget zines. With SPX, I really was at a loss for what to expect. What's clear is that it's no longer strictly what you would call an "Art Comics Show". (Was it ever? My memory fails me, but it did feel more like that in the past.) There are tons of webcomics artists exhibiting now, with their own set of aesthetics and creative goals. There are lots of very young artists exhibiting, who also have different sets of goals and approaches. The politics are different (in approach, if not in essence). But us traditional (?) (!) Art Comics creators were still there in force, we're just more diluted, spread out more in the sea of banners and comics.
Again, as I took pains to say in my last post, this isn't a bad thing. It's good! Comics has grown so much, so quickly, that now there are a zillion different people coming at it from a zillion different angles. But it does make it kind of hard for old-timers to keep up. I say old-timers with my tongue in cheek a little, but damn, let's face it, a lot of us are pushing 50 now, not to mention those fogies like the Hernandezes and Cloweses.
As many have pointed out, comics are in a real Golden Age. Many of the greatest comics ever made are being made right now. There's no shortage of amazing work available, from photocopied zines to lush hardcover books (to, I am told, webcomics, though I admit almost complete ignorance of that scene) and beyond. I've been in comics since the number of good, challenging, literary cartoonists could be counted on two hands, through the rise of the self-published revolution, the emergence of the Graphic Novel ™, the internet, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and whatever's next. Some of us are in it for the long haul, and I guess what we need to keep in mind is that above it all, it comes down to the work. Platforms, festivals, methods come and go. We ride those things out, keep our heads down, and try to create the best work we can; put it out into the world however we choose, and continue to hope for that human connection.
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PS: The latest Comics Books Are Burning in Hell podcast discusses many of these points better than I can, and is well worth the listen for those interested.
Friday, October 2, 2015
Jim Rugg's cat Kirby helps staple zines for SPX.
Well, I had promised myself I would only do one long-distance comics convention this year, and gave that slot to TCAF, but it turned out King-Cat #75 was nominated for an Ignatz Award, and Noah Van Sciver was a Special Guest at this year's SPX. So I decided to go at the last minute. I made plans to get to Pittsburgh Thursday night and stay with my old pal Jim Rugg and his family.
Aw! This is moments after he slashed me so hard I still have a gash.
Friday we got up and drove to Denny's so I could get my free Grand Slam (It was my 47th birthday). Then we headed over to Ed Piskor's to pick him up for the drive to the show. I got to not only pee in his bathroom, but managed to check out his ink-encrusted studio. Inspiring!
Where the Magic™ Happens: Ed Piskor's drawing table.
South Central Pennsylvania
The ever-present psychedelic SPX carpeting.
Amazingly there was no traffic, and we made it into Bethesda earlier than I ever have before. Which meant I got to say a few quick 'hi's", take a shower, and go to bed early. Late in the night, Noah stumbled into the room and we shot the breeze into the wee hours.
If there was one thing old people took away from this year's SPX it's that this is no longer the show we once knew. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, it's a good thing, but for some of us it's also a weird thing. To the generation before mine, the Clowes's, the Hernandez's, the Wares, these shows didn't mean a lick. (Not a diss, it's just -- there weren't shows like SPX when they were developing, so I think they had less of a connection once they started). Cartoonists of my generation also came up before the alt-convention circuit began, but in a way we have a special connection to these shows. We helped build and develop them, helped build and develop the structure that underlies the current alt-comics community. So maybe we're the first generation of alt-cartoonists to see that infrastructure pull away from us, to change away from us. Again, not a bad thing. Comics is growing by leaps and bounds, and there are whole worlds of comics and comics artists that have sprung up now that we are not necessarily party to, close to. That's understandable. But I think for those of us who worked hard to develop this world, there are some emotional juggernaughts for us to run, as we get older and try to understand our current place in that world, as it evolves.
As weird as I felt Saturday (brought on no doubt by a few days of lack of sleep and decent food), on Sunday I entered a kind of almost hallucinatory euphoria (brought on no doubt by a few days of lack of sleep and decent food). The last hours of a con are often a whirlwind for me, as I coordinate with artists and publishers to pick up new work for the distro. As each person walked up to my table with another box of amazing comics, I regained my footing, and remembered what this is all about. For me, at least, comics is as much about art as it is about making connections with people, supporting and encouraging artists to go deep, find themselves, and stay true to what they find. I felt that connection so strongly Sunday that I almost wept.
We drove back to Pittsburgh Sunday night and on Monday morning Kirby was packed and ready to go to Beloit to meet his cousins.
In Chicago Monday evening I got lost in my own hometown and ended up confused in the Loop. This is the corner of State and Van Buren. Where are all the people? They're walking their dogs at that new mall on Roosevelt Road.
At SPX I caught the dreaded Con Crud, and by Monday night I was sick as a dog. I basically slept Tuesday and Wednesday straight through, only forcing myself out of bed to unpack the car and repack it for my next trip, to St. Louis.
Thursday night I spoke to a group of 40-50 students and faculty at Washington University (where my St. Louis host, the amazing cartoonist Tim Lane teaches), plus a few civilians. After the lecture we showed the King-Cat movie and one by one the audience slunk out. I kept director Dan Stafford updated on their departures via text, until there was only one person left in the audience. Would he make it all the way through? Hey! Not only did he make it through, but he was practically trembling with excitement afterwards. His name was Viktor, from Belarus, who had left the USSR in the 1980's. He had never read my comics or even heard of them, but he loved the movie so much he implored us to try to show it around the former Soviet Union. He said over there the view of America is diamond heists, explosions, gun shootouts, because that's all they ever see, via the movies. He said, though, that was not the "real America," but that Dan's film actually depicted his experience of America, and Americans. Wow.
It's an old cliché, that if some project just reaches one person, then it was all worth it. I believe that to be true, and this screening was just more proof of it for me. The whole thing was for Viktor. I thanked him, and gave him a copy of the Maisie issue, and walked out of the auditorium high as a kite.
My host Tim Lane working on an illustration of Ross Macdonald for The Baffler.
Friday I had the day off. Tim had illustration work to do, and it occurred to me that I had a comfy couch, a sweet dog, and a houseful of comics at my disposal. So I sat there and caught up on Terry and the Pirates, Spain Rodriguez, and re-read The Death Ray. And blew my nose.
Jo Jo, my couchmate for Friday.
Saturday was the 2nd Annual St. Louis Small Press Expo (I do think they need to change the name, it's too confusing), held at the beautifully refurbished downtown library. From the minute I walked in the door, the show was pumping. The only time I was able to get away from my table was to pee a few times and feed the parking meter, and for a well-attended panel/conversation I did in the downstairs auditorium with Tim.
The few instances I had a spare moment, I ran over to one of the tables in my vicinity to check out the wares. All kinds of cool stuff: comics, zines, magazines, prints, you name it. All super high quality and interesting. I had no idea what to expect of the show, but I can say it blew whatever kind of expectations I may have had out of the water. Sales were about as good as one day of SPX in Bethesda.
Scenes from the STL SPEx venue.
Tim Lane is one of the most talented, unique, and sadly undersung cartoonists working today, so it was heartening to see he had a line of fans at his table all day long.
Afterwards I packed up and drove home to Beloit, exhausted and sick, but stoked on comics, and zines, and people.
The bridge back into Illinois.
Ol' Man River
(Ninny, back at home, Midnight.)
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Many thanks to Jim Rugg, Natalie, Kirby, Noah Van Sciver, Dan Stafford, Stephanie, Tim Lane, Angela, Jo Jo, and Nick Kuntz for support and hospitality!