Sunday, November 23, 2008
Anyway, these few pieces came from my first exposure to the great Small Press Expo and some of the great self-published books I found there. Four of them got published on IndyProp before the site took a long hiatus, and a fifth and sixth one that would have been published there eventually ended up as two of the early installments of For Your Consideration. But that's enough intro. Here's the initial entry in what I was calling "SPX Swag". I hope you enjoy.
SPX SWAG #1: THE LAST ISLAND by ALEX CAHILL
This past October I attended my first Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland and was anxious to see the variety that would be on display among the self-publishers exhibiting. I’m happy to say I was not disappointed. The stories, the art styles, the genres, the formats – the wide range that was on evidence was amazing for me as a first-timer, and I came back with quite a few gems. This is the first in a series of reviews/interviews for books I picked up at SPX – some of the best indy/small press/mini-comics being produced today, a number of which are from Xeric grant recipients. These are the books you should be buying if you are a fan of artistic expression. And once you’ve finished the review continue on to a short interview with the creator of this book, Alex Cahill. I hope you all enjoy.
THE LAST ISLAND by Alex Cahill was one of the books that got me most excited after I made my way home and began reading. A wordless story with pages that flip up rather than left to right, this story, as Cahill puts it, is about two boys stuck on an island who don’t like each other. And at its most basic, this conflict is certainly the focal point of the tale. But as you read – and re-read – THE LAST ISLAND, it is obvious that this story is about a lot more than a children’s confrontation.
Cahill’s pacing is exceptional, slowly escalating the conflict between the two boys – one from the city, the other living on the island – as one turns the pages. Each believes their own lifestyle to be the most essential and to that end the city boy lassos his skyline and drags it to the “last island’s” coastline, invading the serenity the first boy craves. Having thrown down the gauntlet, the two now work toward the destruction of each other’s home, slicing trees and crumbling buildings as they attempt to prove the rightness of their cause.
And once the climax jumps out at the reader with that final turn of the page, the symbolic nature of the boys’ conflict becomes self-evident and elevates this story to a new level. This climax also fulfills two narrative duties that also enhance the story. First, it gives the reader a better understanding of what occurred on the previous pages. Secondly, it opens up even more questions to be answered by the audience, forcing them to return to page one and go back through the book again to discover the richer, more complex story that was awaiting them all the while.
In THE LAST ISLAND, Cahill touches on many themes, including that of a “necessity to work together” and the “animosity present among strangers.” This feat is particularly impressive considering the lack of dialogue or captions present within his story, which contains a total of four word balloons found on the last two pages. One of the more important themes encompassing this comic is the conflict between man and machine. This theme is epitomized by the two boys and their subsequent dispute. One of them, a blond boy, lives on the island and wears only a pair of shorts as he lays around all day in the sun, only leaving the warm sand for a swim in the ocean surrounding him. The other, a dark-haired boy in slacks and a shirt – cellphone to his ear as readers first encounter him – comes from the city and has little use for the four palm trees that dot the tiny isle. It is obvious this child will grow up to be a successful businessman someday. These boys’ ideals are at odds with one another and they go back and forth throughout the book attempting to outdo, and win out over, the other. But in the end Cahill eschews a tidy resolution to their quarrel and instead plays on his audience’s convictions, leaving any resolution up to their own imaginations. By doing this, Cahill forces readers to participate in the climax, imbuing it with a resonance the story might not have otherwise.
This is a very dreamlike story and Cahill’s art style perfectly fits this tale. His linework is clean and stylized, utilizing no crosshatching and a minimum of lines to achieve his effects. The settings, including the formalized clouds floating over the island and the basic skyline of the city, are iconic and allow the reader to step into the story in a way that might be impossible if he were fully rendering an actual skyline such as New York’s or San Francisco’s. Cahill’s style leans more toward that of Scott Morse or Frank Espinosa of ROCKETO fame, while also deftly evoking a full range of emotions in his characters. This emotive range is at the crux of why THE LAST ISLAND works so well, and is also why it is something to which people are able to relate. Because in the end, this is a story about human emotions and the struggles we all face on a daily basis.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEX CAHILL, creator of THE LAST ISLAND
INDEPENDENT PROPAGANDA: Why comics? What does this medium offer you as a storyteller that others might not?
ALEX CAHILL: Haha. I like that question. I feel like it's a little upside-down for me, though. There was never a moment when I considered doing the other storytelling media. I never chose comics as the best among them to do what I wanted. Comics are what I want to do. But to properly answer the question, my continuing fascination with comics lies in how they're a non-sensory storytelling experience. They don't move. They don't make noise. To me, comics aren't a physical experience; they're a mental experience, and I think the best ones are conscious of that. Comics offer mental pleasure, mental intrigue--with pictures. Nothing is more compelling to me than that. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly I want from them, but it changes as I learn more about making them.
INDYPROP: What was the genesis of THE LAST ISLAND?
A.C.: THE LAST ISLAND started as my attempt to work out conflicting elements of my own personality. It was this goofy story that was going to be some working-class guy's daydream about being alone and free from his problems. It changed into being about two characters, the two kids. Then it was supposed to become about their eventual cooperation, but I decided against that. It kept changing. I dreamed up a lot of other characters that never made it into the book. All I was ever clear about was about setting up the conflict bewteen the characters and then seeing if it went the way I projected. It never did.
INDYPROP: I read in an interview on Newsarama that you made up THE LAST ISLAND as you went along. With that in mind, in the early stages of creating this book, what were you hoping to accomplish with THE LAST ISLAND and did you succeed?
A.C.: All I wanted to accomplish was to ask a good question and not answer it. My ambitions were simple. I feel like the story never tries to be weighty or deep. It's just a modest way of asking a question about conflicting desires. I'm extremely proud of the book. I love that it looks like something it's not. I love that it manages to ask a coherent question when I was stumbling through the making of it. The first fifteen pages look exactly the way they did when there was still gonna be pirates and jetpacks and stuff. Without changing anything I'd already drawn, I changed direction a handful of times. I do feel like the book is a success. I lucked into so many good things while letting one image lead into the next, and the experience of reading it while I was drawing it led me at the end to feel as though I'd worked something out myself in creating the story. It's nonsense, but it's also autobiography in a silly-nonsense kinda way.
INDYPROP: Having done two wordless comics what would you say are the benefits and the drawbacks of doing comics without dialogue?
A.C.: I think the main drawback is also the main benefit, and it takes a certain kind of person to embrace it: you're never in control as the author. You try to guide people and you take it for granted that some things are totally obvious, but you never know how an image will be read. I've heard readings from people about these two books that are so different that it's startling that the readers were talking about the same works. You just can't know. That accessibility is always rewarding for me. Different takes from different people on the same collection of images betray, to me, a richness in those images, and it circulates the ownership of the whole work. It's hard for me to confront ambiguity in a work and consider it a weakness, and I would say that these books particularly aren't calibrated for ambiguity to cause anxiety in the reader. The books don't appear to prize definite and clear-cut sense. I love that. It makes some people squirm that these books don't tell you everything. Some people are uncomfortable with that and want to know what they're being asked or told, and that's fine. But I'm not one of those people.
INDYPROP: What projects are you working on now and when can readers expect to see them?
A.C.: It's been funny going around the country and doing conventions recently, promoting *The Last Island* and selling it along with *Something So Familiar,* because I've been working on The New Radio's new book since November of last year. Selling those two books gives me great pleasure, and I'll always love them, but at this point I'm almost done with the 100-page first part of *Poison the Cure* and I'm so excited to unveil it that it's hard to concentrate on these other two books that have been done for a year and two years. All I want to show people is how different *Poison* looks. It has words. The New Radio's co-founder Jad Ziade has written it and this guy knows what he's doing. It has action; it has drawing in it that gives me goosebumps. This book is gonna be our masthead for the next few years and I'm ready to share it. It will completely change what people think we are and it will appeal to a much bigger audience than artsy silent books do.
*Poison the Cure* is set in an indefinite future, and it's the story of a group of friends doing what they can to stop the political corruption that is going to destroy everything. There's robots, blasters, aliens, explosions--and Jad leads his reader on with the most compelling clues. It's great sci-fi; it's great storytelling--it's great comics. I'm a fan. It comes out in March of next year, but we're gonna try selling it only through our site at first to drum up a buzz before we put it in stores.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Here is the final part of the "Just Do It" article I prepared after returning home from SPX in the fall of 2006. I hope you enjoy, and for the first two parts you can go here and here or just look below on the blogroll.
Friday, the first day of the Expo, arrived and we got set up early. I was wicked nervous (as we say in Maine) with no idea what the response to our book might be. I felt it was good. I knew the art was great. But after the previous year, I couldn't dare get my hopes up.
When it was all said and done, we sold six times as many book as we had in Chicago, and moved half as many again through trades and in package deals we offered readers. We didn't quite pay for our table, but considering the Expo ran roughly a day and a half compared to Wizard World's three days, this was definitely a success for us, which I believe can be attributed to the different crowd attracted by SPX. There were a larger percentage of females and a wider age range for those attending SPX as compared to those at Wizard World. This helped us a bit, but I think the most telling aspect about the Expo crowd is that they were – at least those with which I spoke – far more interested in stories and the possibilities of the medium rather than looking for something full of gaudy splash pages.
When given a chance by attendees to speak with them about our book, many seemed interested and about half of them picked one up. This excitement about comics and about telling unique stories was also evident in the creators I spoke with over the course of the weekend. This was true of the heavyweights present – Paul Pope, Rick Veitch, and Scott Morse among them – as well as many of the self publishers like Justin J. Fox, Michael LaRiccia, G. B. Tran, and Alex Cahill. These, and others, were anxious about their books and very willing to talk comics and storytelling with fans and fellow creators alike. This was my first time attending SPX, and I wonder now why I passed it up all these years. The atmosphere was electric and although we didn't necessarily set the world on fire with our book, we definitely had a great show.
So, what have we learned thus far from our experiences self-publishing? Some are rudimentary and may appear obvious to many reading, but as somebody once said, "Sometimes you can't see the trees for the forest." I will list what I have taken away from my times exhibiting at Wizard World and at SPX.
First, the obvious:
- Put a cover price on your book. Really. Although you might think otherwise, according to Brian Hibbs who runs Comix Experience in San Francisco, this is one of the major oversights made by new self-publishers.
- Put credits on all the stories. Again, this should be obvious, but when working on an anthology rather than a single issue this is something that could get overlooked, and did in our second issue.
- Have a back up plan. If someone doesn't come through, whoever that may be, have something to fall back upon, otherwise your 48-page book could lose 20 pages before heading off to the printer.
The Not So Obvious:
- When beginning, start small. Rather than your magnum opus – which Dan and I both attempted to serialize with our first issue – write self-contained stories. As a self-publisher there's no guarantee of a second issue. Give your readers a complete experience and make them come back for more.
- Know your audience. We thought our audience was in Chicago and we were wrong. We believed our audience was at SPX and, thankfully, our assumption was proven correct this year. Now, if we gave them as good a product as we believe it to be they may be back next year.
- Know what your book is about. If you can't answer that simple question, then why should anybody be expected to buy your book?
- Big Banners or Posters Don't Work. Unless you're a "destination" publisher like Top Shelf or Fantagraphics, these aren't going to help you. People walking the aisles all have their heads down to see what books are available. Save your money and focus your display on the table surface. Spread your books out for people to leaf through and bullet point your pricing along the table next to your books. This is the best way for your work to get noticed.
- Write/Draw/Create for yourself. There is little chance for most of us to ever make money as self-publishers. So you need to create stories that you enjoy. Because if you don't find any joy in the creation there's little chance anyone else will enjoy reading it. But, if your art comes from the heart, the quality will be of a higher level and your chances of success that much better. And in the end, at least you will have a book that will bring a smile to your face years later.
I hope you learned a little something from this article and anybody reading this that has thoughts of making their own comics, I would tell you to go out and do it. There's nothing that feels any better than holding something you've created in your hands. So, go out and make great comics, and have fun doing it. Good Luck!
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Dan and I assumed there would be more people with similar interests to us in Chicago. The few times we had attended we always trawled Artists Alley searching for those quirky individual mini-comics that we appreciate so much. But these people didn't materialize, at least not for WARRIOR27.
It's black and white? Yeah.
There aren't any superheroes? No.
Where are the pictures? That's a profile of Scott Morse. Who?
What's it about? It's an anthology. Huh?
On the long drive home we realized a decision had to be made – admit we weren't made for this and leave it at that, or re-commit and start looking toward the next issue. There wasn't much deliberation. We would take a couple months off and mull over the experience – because we knew there needed to be some serious changes for the second issue – and then come back in January to start all over again.
So, what was needed to improve the book? First we had to find our audience, or at least be more accessible to the audience our book would appeal to. Chicago was just too big and spandex-oriented for our needle in the haystack to be found, if the audience was even there. SPX, the Small Press Expo that just wrapped up, would be our destination for the Summer '06 issue of
WARRIOR27. If our book had an audience it would be there.
Second, we had to be able to answer the question "What is it about?" as that was the most asked question we got, and the one that caused glazed looks when we answered, "It's an anthology." A theme was needed, and as we discussed story ideas, now joined by Matthew Constantine a third aspiring writer, one began to form around our tales, that of odd or broken relationships. This was something people could relate to and it would keep us from stumbling over this again in Maryland.
Third, we wanted more comic stories and we wanted the art to be stronger. Dan and I certainly appreciated the contributions of the artists in the first issue, all done for free I should add, but if we are asking people to pay for our book we really need to give them a good product, and that includes fantastic art. So we put ads on digital webbing [www.digitalwebbing.com] offering a page rate, and had our inboxes filled with a great number of quality artists from across the globe. Making a decision on artists was not easy, but thanks to the wonder of the internet we got work from artists located in Argentina, Tanzania, the Philippines, and northern Canada in a variety of styles that were of an extremely high quality.
And finally, we scrapped the serial format adopted with the initial issue and only included self-contained comic tales. After our lackluster debut, and the financial reality that we could only produce one book a year at this point, attempting to serialize a long-form story in WARRIOR27 just isn't feasible, nor is it fair to anybody that might buy the book.
With our plan in place we set about working on the production of the book. The artists all hit their deadlines, and added so much to our various stories, and we easily managed to fill 48 pages this time out. There are four comic tales crossing a variety of genres – western, horror, science fiction, and superhero, but with a twist – as well as a short prose story in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs with spot illustrations on the facing pages, another "I Hate Brian Michael Bendis" rant and an interview with Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros. We worked on it up until the last minute and then sent it off to the printers.
The books arrived two days before we were to leave for Maryland. They looked great.
But would they sell?
To Be Concluded . . .
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Dan and I write, and we want to create comics (of which, links and ordering information will be forthcoming). A couple of years back, I wrote a piece that I submitted for possible publication at one of the comic sites (the timing did not work out, but I still had it sitting on my hard drive) about our short journey into comic creation, how our initial foray went, what we learned from it, and how it helped us to become better. It's a bit old (in terms of my facility as a writer, though that may be up for debate), but I like it, and I feel like there are important lessons to be gleaned from our experience. Therefore, I will be running it here as I did on a previous blog of mine, in three parts, over the next several days, and I hope that anyone reading this will be able to take something away from our experience. Unless I am speaking into the abyss.
Just Do It: A Report on Exhibiting at One's Second Convention
by Chris Beckett
Art, like life, is about evolution – the growth of an individual that illuminates a maturity and sophistication necessary to avoid stagnation. With art, whether painting, writing, or other disciplines, there are myriad classes to attend and any number of books for your perusal. But eventually it becomes time to move away from theory and get around to actually doing the work. This, of course, holds true with comic artists as well. Create characters. Envision scenes. Write scripts. But until you get the pictures and the words down on the page you can't tell whether your great idea works as a comic or not. Before taking any giant leaps as an artist, you need to take those small steps, ones often unavailable to those still wading through pages of philosophy. Nike, for all its faults, got this point right. Just do it.
This article is about my second time exhibiting my self-published anthology, with my publishing partner Dan Fleming, at SPX 2006 and how things worked out for us compared to our initial experience at Wizard World Chicago in 2005. What did we do differently? What did we keep the same? Did we have a more successful show at this year's SPX? And what lessons did we take away from our experiences? Hopefully, many of you reading this who want to make comics will be able to take the lessons I've learned and apply them to your own work.
Five years ago my buddies and I, five of us all together, began talking about publishing our own comic. We had grand plans – an anthology with original comic stories in genres other than superheroes, short prose, interviews with professionals, and anything else we wanted to include. It would be edgy and diverse, and appeal to the reader in all of us.
But, two false starts later and our plan was shelved as we began to drift our separate ways.
Fast forward to January 2005.
My pal Dan Fleming and I decide we're going to stop discussing and start doing. Since our artistic abilities are minimal at best we need to find like-minded artists to realize our scripts, which is far more difficult than anticipated. We call the book WARRIOR27, an homage to the British anthology of the early 1980s, WARRIOR magazine, and we plan it to be a 48-page anthology that includes the initial chapters of multiple comic serials, a short prose story, a story presented in script format, a retrospective of cartoonist Scott Morse, and a 1-page rant entitled "I Hate Brian Michael Bendis" with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Setting our plan in motion we commission Andy Lee to paint the cover, apply for a table at Wizard World Chicago, and set to work getting the book together.
However, when August arrives and the book ships from ComixPress we only have 28 pages with less than half of that being comic material. But, with books in hand, we drive the 19 hours to Chicago from Maine, set up in Artists' Alley just down from Phil Hester and Ande Parks and across from Geof Darrow, and spend three days getting blank stares. Moving hardly a handful of books, the trip is a bust.
But we did it, and we learned from it.
To Be Continued . . .
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Dan (Fleming) and I are aspiring writers. Long story short, we discussed creating our own anthology comic - along with a number of friends of ours - for quite a few years (roughly from 2001-2005). But nothing ever got done. We talked a lot about format, content, what we hoped to achieve with it, but it all just came to naught. And I freely admit that part of that was my unwillingness to get involved with the actual production of the book. I figured all that was needed of me was to provide some content and that was that. (And I would like to note that Joe Quesada - then a relatively new editor-in-chief for Marvel comics - was gracious enough to answer a bunch of my questions from nothing more than an anonymous (in the who the hell is this Chris Beckett guy? vein) email I sent to him cold back in early '01.)
And so, our plans floundered.
Fast forward to 2005: Dan and I finally decide to stop "talking" about doing this and actually set out to accomplish this goal of ours. We started meeting on a fairly regular basis at the local Borders - with one other who was unable to continue with the project for a variety of reasons - mapped out what we wanted to do with this first issue, and got down to finding artists (because neither of us has the requisite talent or, more impotantly, patience to try and draw our own books - though this may one day become a reality as well), creating other content for the book, soliciting ads from comic shops, learning about design and formatting (mostly Dan's purview), and finding a printer to print the books. We also booked a table in Artist's Alley at Wizard World Chicago for that August.
And we managed to get the book done and printed (though a bit lighter than in page count that we had anticipated) for the show. We called it Warrior27, and in subsequent posts you will hear about our time exhibiting at WizWorld '05.
Since then, Dan and I have created two more issues of W27 as well as working on other writing projects - most visibly our columns for the Pulse. It's been a good three, almost four, years, and we plan on continuing to forge ahead in our aspirations toward publication.
In upcoming posts, we will be offering up previews of the three issues of Warrior27 that have thus far been published, as well as talking about writing, comics, movies, and whatever else might interest us at the time. I apologize for what seems to me to be the brevity of this post, but it could really go on for far too long, and the topics that I have not gone into depth about will be better served in their own posts. So, sit back, relax, and hopefully you'll find something of interest here in the coming weeks, months, and years.