THIS IS FOR YOU, Lisa Hanawalt… Like everyone else on our side of the comics fence, we read Dan Nadel’s blog post on the Comics Journal, “No Good Reason.” The post itself was a harshly critical assessment of Secret Prison 7, a comics anthology and an homage to Garo. The project is being edited by Box Brown, of Retrofit fame, and Ian Harker, who is one half of Secret Prison along with Pat Aulisio. SP7 is being funded via Kickstarter, and you can learn more about it there. There are several gauntlets, and boots, being thrown at issues great and small. A lot of this is a big deal to us and got us thinking about where we would locate ourselves within these arguments. If you haven’t read the post and the SP7 Kickstarter page, go ahead. We’ll wait here.
To begin, we should tell you that we know next to nothing about Garo and that we’re not exactly huge fans of manga. We don’t want to address that part of the critique here because, in all honesty, we’re not qualified to address it. That said, we’ll take Dan’s word for it that while manga has had a tremendous impact on younger, American cartoonists, Garo, specifically, does not have the same influence and in their description of the SP7 project, the publishers blur the line between Garo and manga. Garo certainly does not have the same influence that EC comics had on the Underground artists which followed them, though Dan refutes that influence only to retract it later.
Without adequately demonstrating a historical knowledge of the comics they claim have inspired them, the SP7 publishers have left the door open to charges of trend hopping, bending the comics community’s pre-existing interests to suit their needs. We’re not ready to convict them because they failed to show us that they’ve done their homework. In fact, this would have been easier if the publishers simply stated that they are putting together a Garo themed anthology because they think Garo is awesome, so please give them money because they’re broke. The comics that Secret Prison has produced have been too good to dismiss for their lack of historical context. They are often, however, fan art (see Rub the Blood, another Secret Prison publication which was an homage of sorts to Rob Liefeld). By nature, fan art capitalizes on a pre-existing interest, which makes it difficult to get around the trendiness knock. Fan art can be fun, and even good, but the work can’t stand on its own, to use Dan’s words. He would also use the word sleazy, but that’s too strong for us, like making fun of someone who loves the band Interpol because they have never heard of Joy Division.
Publishing something with a built-in interest, or a viable something as Dan would say, makes the low-risk approach of Kickstarter funding that much more damning. So let’s talk about Kickstarter, hopefully for the last time. We are not threatened by Kickstarter. We are speaking for ourselves only, of course, but the idea that we would somehow be shaking in our boots (not for sale, by the way) because Kickstarter is coming to kill us publishers is absurd. We don’t like its focus on popularity ahead of everything else. We don’t like the way it lets the market decide, appealing to the lowest common denominator and cranking out transmedia-ready crap by the busload. We sure as hell don’t like it as a tool for publishers, and would never ever consider using it ourselves, but we’re not sitting here cursing its name.
The reverse is not true. Going all the way back to MK Reed‘s essay on Kickstarter, someone always feels compelled to make the argument that Kickstarter has created opportunities where there were none, that it has eliminated the need for publishers, who have been acting as gatekeepers for artists everywhere. This is a crock. No one who does what Secret Acres does has ever intended to stand in the way of a cartoonist’s success. We are well aware of the historical and continuing abuses perpetrated on creators by certain large comics companies and maybe that’s what’s stuck in people’s heads. This is akin to conflating superheroes with comics, which is really annoying, isn’t it? Can the argument that publishers are abusive corporations with no respect for creators be applied to Annie Koyama? Get over it. We are nobody’s enemy. We are not tastemakers. We are not gatekeepers. We have no idea what anyone means by “a very personal Batman graphic novel.”
We publish artists, not books. We’re less concerned about products and properties than we are supporting the people who make the comics that we love so much. As publishers, our job is to create opportunities and to find an audience for the artists who put their trust in us. It’s not easy to connect art so idiosyncratic and wonderful to the readers who will make something meaningful of it. It’s the fact that these voices are so idiosyncratic and wonderful that makes it worth the effort.
If Kickstarter can help them, we’re into it. If it gets one of our books into the hands of a reader, we’ll happily sell our books on Amazon, too. Amazon is an inevitability. The internet allows people to skip booksellers and skip paying a bookstore’s overhead, and if Amazon didn’t do it, someone else would. We believe there’s a cultural shift away from reading that is rarely addressed, that is a great part of the decline in a certain kind of bookstore. We suspect that a huge portion of Amazon’s book buyers are the book buying population that will switch to e-readers exclusively, and probably would have done so with or without Amazon. Those of us who prefer paper books will be more likely to get them in brick and mortar stores.
Does anyone really miss Borders? Amazon is a bigger threat to Barnes and Noble than it is to Bergen Street. We’ve seen bookstores revitalized as cultural and community centers, giving the advantage to independents. Despite the economy crashing, the advent of ebooks and the increased procurement of all goods online, Desert Island and Atomic Books are still here and the Beguiling is doing better than ever. You can’t go to Amazon to see an author read or hang out with comics glitterati at a book launch. No community will ever take ownership of Amazon, and Amazon gets books to people in remote areas that can’t support bookstores. It’s also worth noting that Amazon serves the long tail economy – you can buy every single Secret Acres book on Amazon, but not at any single retailer (other than Quimby’s, probably). The Amazon problem is far more nuanced than we’d like to admit.
So we don’t have Dylan Williams‘ backbone. But who does? We do whatever we can, because we owe it to the folks who sweat and sacrifice to work in dedication to the world’s slowest medium. They’re not doing it to sell something, they’re working to express something, and hopefully it’s something people need to hear, because that’s what art is. They have enough to handle without being judged by their ability to self-promote. We do the dirty work. That’s what being a publisher is all about for us.
As for Dan, he can speak for himself. “No Good Reason” is blazing angry and has been met with the wrath of 10,000 trolls. We grant you, you trolls, you, that it’s tough to argue that Dan is not a gatekeeper. Dan isn’t just Picturebox, he’s the Comics Journal. Dan isn’t just the Comics Journal, he’s BCGF. After reading “No Good Reason” we were left wondering if Dan wasn’t pissed off about something else. The world may never know. We hope he’s never mad at us.
If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a treat. So here’s a peek at our two SPX 2012 debuts, one above and one below. When you see them, you will plotz.
Barry and Leon