On the sliding scale of financial impracticality—just above gambling addiction, slightly below derivatives trading—sits small press publishing, adrenaline rush of choice for the benevolent comics fan sitting on a few thousand dollars. For the uninitiated, comics certainly appear to be big business; but while the DCs and Marvels of this world (of which there are just two) might boast multi-million dollar movie franchises, they run their globally distributed print publications as loss leaders to fuel film sales.
Lower down sit alt-comics power players like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics, whose struggle to stay afloat this past decade, despite putting out work by household names like Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, Tove Jansson, and Robert Crumb, is a clear indicator of what a constant battle it must be for the small press demographic, who have neither famous names to trade on nor the hard-won reputation of years in the business.
And yet this economic wasteland has seen unprecedented growth of late, with small presses popping up left, right, and center in far-flung corners of the globe; descending on book fairs and comics conventions in droves to hawk brand new titles by little-known artists, shattering the illusion that their medium is strict and stuffy with the restless experimentation of aspiring young talent.
So who are these people so desperate to hemorrhage cash in service to the comics community, why do they bother, and how do they make ends meet?
Joe Kessler is one third of Breakdown Press, a London-based imprint founded on the back of an aborted magazine venture, whose creative aspirations were the catalyst for publishing the work of other artists.
“We started by doing my first book, Windowpane, in 2012,” says Kessler. “Simon and Tom [Kessler’s business partners] said they’d publish it with me, because they were going to do a magazine called Berserker. Instead of that we just published my book, and that sold fairly easily.”
Kessler’s rationale for getting into comics was simple: “We wanted to be more interesting people than we otherwise were, by actually doing something that we enjoyed rather than just our shit jobs. There were all these people around who we’d casually ask to do comics and they’d say yes because they didn’t really have a platform. Now there are actually a few other small publishers, but when we started there was nobody, which seemed strange.”
Kessler and his teammates have taken more projects on each year, sinking more time and capital into their consuming side project. The success of each book ensures the production of the next, meaning they’re now able to produce hand-made Risographed volumes as well as more polished lithographic editions for their burgeoning fanbase.
Heading across the Atlantic, Box Brown began Retrofit Comics out of Washington D.C. in 2011. “I’d been self-publishing my own comics for a few years,” he says, “and I’d developed relationships with a bunch of different stores and distributors. I had this idea that if I could publish other people’s work and put things out more regularly then I could use my connections to distribute work for other artists. Everyone was having the same issues with getting their work out there, and I wanted to get into publishing that way.”
Most benevolent of all small press founders is Annie Koyama, whose self-titled Koyama Press was the direct result of a near fatal illness. While laid up in bed recovering from the removal of a terminal brain aneurysm, the former film producer played the stock market and, once back on her feet, quit her day job and invested her earnings in publishing. Initially she had plans to make her money in art books, but the appetite wasn’t there and comics won out.
Koyama has a nose for finding fresh comics talent, and picked up Michael DeForge early on in his career, making him into a world famous name. “Meeting Michael DeForge changed a lot for me,” she says, “and I credit him with introducing me to the work of cartoonists in the early years.”
What separates small presses from their larger counterparts is as much about format as financial heft. The big boys “…publish graphic novels,” explains Brown. “Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, and Drawn & Quarterly were only putting out books, and stopped putting out cheap, high quality short comics. I still liked those books and thought they were useful to artists. They’re especially good when you’ve just started getting your stuff out there because they allow the reader not to make an enormous investment in someone they’ve never really heard of; it allows readers more access to their work.”
Also unusual is what Kessler refers to as the “semi-pro” nature of their setup. Many of the small press publishers and artists make comics in their spare time, holding down a variety of day jobs to supplement their modest income from comics. Among the roster at Breakdown Press are a lawyer, a corporate illustrator hired to visualize executive meetings, and of course a few who work full-time in comic book stores. Not that this impedes the quality of the output. “You wouldn’t know that everyone was just doing their work in the evenings,” Kessler says.
This perhaps helps to explain the crossover appeal of the small presses; the diversity of their artists is reflected in the variety of subjects. As a medium, comics are still much maligned and dismissed as a lowbrow artistic endeavor, but Brown and Kessler are certain they offer material for even the most skeptical reader. “I really believe that a lot of the work would be enjoyed by people who don’t think they’re interested in comics. They’d be into these books because they’re not what people expect them to be.”
Kessler blames the mainstream media for the public’s misunderstanding. “Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor gets loads of coverage,” he says. “It’s terrible, that book. But The Guardian riffed on it quite a lot, and so did a lot of other papers. I spoke to a lot of people who picked it up because they wanted to get into comics and they just thought it was total shit. My grandma, who’s very literate and culturally engaged, wanted to get into comics, and instead of asking me what comics to read, picked up what The Guardian recommended, and was just so confused. She said she felt like a fool reading it. I just had to tell her that I agreed, it was shit, and I sent her some comics that I thought were good instead.”
Of course small books are not big money, and Brown, Kessler, and Koyama are all emphatic that theirs is not the simplest way to make a living. Kessler refers to his enterprise as “a shit business model;” Koyama tells me that “the returns aren’t great;” and Brown says that while he doesn’t lose money on books, he’s not exactly raking it in either. “It’s impossible for anyone to ever make a living doing small comics,” summarizes Kessler.
What motivates them then is a love of the medium, and pure dedication to providing a platform through which to nurture young talent. “I love working with all kinds of different artists,” says Koyama, “and it’s nice to be a part of a great community. The satisfaction of introducing a new artist and their work to the world will never get old for me, and to continue to work with an artist and watch and contribute to their growth is pretty rewarding.”
Community is a driving factor in the small press publishers’ world, and is bolstered by a growing calendar of global events that bring fans and publishers together. “Every time we go to a comics convention in another country we see so many new people doing interesting stuff,” says Kessler,“weird stuff that maybe isn’t commercially viable but is really good. They seem to be all over the place in Europe and North America.”
“It’s really great for meeting artists and finding new talent,” says Brown “It can get overwhelming because there’s a lot of conventions in the U.S. that you feel like they’re happening all the time, but you go to one and realize it’s just a really great thing to be a comics creator and publisher.”
Kessler concurs. “I have loads of friends around the world who I meet at comic book conventions who I only see maybe twice a year for three days in a row. I have this idea that all these people are just party monsters, because the only time I ever see them they’re all pissed, or exhausted and hung over the next day, but I’m sure they’re all just sitting at home most of the time drawing.” Sounds about right.