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Rally the Troops

IT IS A RARE THING for Secret Acres to be publishing someone who has a car that does not double as a residence. Such was the case with Mike Dawson, whose Troop 142 was finally going to escape the warehouse. Mike was transporting a couple of Panthers to SPX this year, which left yours trulies to deliver Sean Ford and Ken Dahl (aka Gabby Schulz) to Bethesda. At last year’s SPX, our publishing schedule was out of whack and we were missing both books we had planned to debut, namely I Will Bite You! and Gaylord Phoenix. This time around, I Will Bite You! and Gaylord Phoenix were up for four Ignatz Awards between them. We met Mike at last year’s SPX, and had just started carrying his minis. This year, we were delivering the Troop 142 graphic novel to the show, buoyed by a couple of fantastic advance reviews.

The first night at SPX, we left napping Sean and Gabby behind and dined with Mike and the Panthers: Alex Robinson (at SPX to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his Box Office Poison) and Tony Consiglio (the guy behind 110Per¢). We consumed 3,020 calories worth of shrimp pasta (single portion!) that would take longer to get out than it would to feel at home with these guys. Later, we hit the hotel bar terrace and watched the place fill up with cartoonists we love and admire. Sean, Gabby and Joe Lambert all wandered out to join us. The other seats at our table were quickly filled by the likes of Chuck Forsman, Melissa Mendes, CCS librarian Caitlin McGurk (still reeling from efforts to save the Schulz Library from flooding) and Tom Neely. Tom’s an LA guy, so we don’t see him too often and when we do, we are grateful for his company and try to trick him into sitting next to us. We held off purchasing his stunning new book, The Wolf, until we could get it directly from him. We talked to Tom about his DJ nights spinning 80’s hair metal and he told us how much he loves Curio Cabinet (it’s a very metal book) and caught us up on Sparkplug publisher Dylan Williams’ recovery, which sounded like it was going great. We’d expected as much, as Dylan had beaten cancer before. Last year, missing Dylan, we’d missed Sparkplug entirely. Tom was running the Sparkplug table this year, so it was a little less weird to be at SPX without Dylan.

Saturday morning we set up next to our neighbors, Picturebox and Fantagraphics. We picked up 1-800-MICE and the final MOME, and stood in line to get them signed. Matthew Thurber informed us that we were the first people ever to purchase 1-800-MICE, which was extra-gratifying as Matthew was probably the first person to pick up Curio Cabinet. Taking turns signing MOME was the aforementioned Chuck Forsman, whom we met years ago at CCS, Jim Rugg, who gave Joe that lovely quote on the back of I Will Bite You! and Joe himself. Meanwhile, Eamon Espey had arrived and we thought we had everything ready to go until Mike broke out his surprise HeroClix figures, which he planned to give away with Troop 142. Amazingly, people were buying Troop 142 anyway. They were buying everything else, too. Having a second table seemed to open up sales considerably.  By the end of the day, we were busy filling empty spaces on the tables like it was a shell game. We were having our best show ever, by far. Strangely, we didn’t sell a single copy of Gaylord Phoenix.

Since Gabby and super genius cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt both won Ignatz Awards after sipping Old Fashioneds in our room last year, we decided that it would work again as a good luck, pre-Ignatz ceremony, so we broke out the bitters and bourbon and invited folks to join us for some pizza. By the time we got upstairs, everyone heard that Dylan had died. It was excruciating trying to keep ourselves together, but we were together. Gabby had known Dylan the longest. He’d been zine pals with Dylan nearly twenty years ago. He credits Dylan for first making him feel like a cartoonist. When we brought this up, Gabby looked around and said, “Boy, am I glad I’m not nominated for an Ignatz tonight.” The look on Ignatz-nominee Joe Lambert’s face got someone to laugh and the spell was temporarily broken. We ate and drank like it was going to make everything okay for just as long as there was pizza, which it did. There was a knock at the door. It was Chris Pitzer and his Adhouse folks asking if anyone was hungry.  He led us back to his room, where we found Jim Rugg again, sitting silently with Mr. Dangerous, Paul Hornschemeier. We stole their pizza. They didn’t seem to mind at all. Better yet, they seemed to understand.

As usual, there was no room at the Ignatz Awards. Dustin Harbin had the impossible task of getting us all through the ceremony, of honoring the work of cartoonists who had just moments before learned that Dylan had died. To his credit, and our gratitude, Dustin did the impossible.

We watched Joe accept his award for Outstanding Collection, and for the first time, someone thanked us in their Ignatz acceptance speech. We saw a replay of the thanks when he accepted his award for Outstanding Artist.

It was strangely fitting that Craig Thompson, at the show with his enormous Habibi, announced that Edie Fake had won Outstanding Graphic Novel for Gaylord Phoenix. It was Craig who gave Theo Ellsworth a remarkable blurb for Capacity, our first SPX debut book. Distracted by our knowledge of what Dylan meant to Theo, it took a minute to remember that in Edie’s absence, we had to go to the podium to accept his award. We shook Craig’s hand and mumbled something incoherent about encouragement. When we called Edie after the ceremony, it was obvious from his voice that he had heard about Dylan. Long before we came along, Dylan was buying up Edie’s extra Gaylord minis and distributing them, and trading comics with him. He was offering any kind of support he could, because that’s what Dylan did for cartoonists.

After the Ignatz awards, on the terrace, we were talking to Eamon about Dylan and how at every single show, Dylan would threaten to poach him. Dylan was incapable of being subtle about this. As much as Dylan ever loved Edie and Theo and Gabby, clearly Wormdye was his favorite of our books. He made it known that if we ever had any trouble publishing Eamon, he’d be happy to take on that responsibility. Dylan even let us crowd Eamon and Sam Gaskin into his event at Desert Island, in 2008, which was our very first signing ever. We had to be careful about admiring Sparkplug artists in front of Dylan. The way Dylan saw it, the right thing to do would be to hand them over to us, allowing him to help out somebody else.

Around this time, we were wishing more than anything that our pal and Bodega publisher, Randy Chang was there, and the wish was immediately granted. Our first year at SPX, when we were debuting Capacity, we were on a panel with Dylan, Randy and Alvin Buenaventura (formerly of Buenaventura Press and now Pigeon Press, home of Lisa Hanawalt) on the rise of the new indie comics publishers. It was less of a panel and more of a conversation between all of us, though the audience didn’t seem to mind. We clearly had very little idea what were doing back then. Thankfully, we had Randy and Dylan to hold our hands through the panel, though we will never forget the look of disdain on Dylan’s face when we explained how to make the most of Amazon. For us, Amazon was a necessity. To Dylan, Amazon was a sales channel he couldn’t employ to sell comics with a clear conscience. We learned fast that Dylan would only do the right thing the right way. We reminded Randy about the panel later on that night, trying to guilt him back into the comics game.

Sunday at SPX was just like Saturday, but with bigger sales. We snuck downstairs to watch Mike on a panel about comics publishing. The Beat herself, Heidi MacDonald, elbowed us hard when we grumbled nervously that he’d say terrible things about us. She was correct, of course. Mike would never do that. Mike is the host with the most, and probably should have been moderating since the panel proceeded to fly off the rails.

Not long ago, Mike talked about having Dylan on his TCJ Talkies podcast, which got our gears turning, thinking about Dylan and what we’d hope Mike would discuss with him. Dylan is a fixture in our memory of Secret Acres’ beginnings. Early on in our existence, we would periodically meet up for dinner with Randy and Shannon O’Leary, a Sparkplug lady if ever there was, and have absurd conversations and bitching sessions with Dylan on speakerphone from Portland. He was the Charlie to our Angels, instructing us to choose the vegan option. We bounced publishing ideas off of Dylan and asked him for business advice at every turn. Secret Acres and Sparkplug shared a love of distinct comic voices, and most of our challenges were identical. It was an exciting time for us and we were grateful that Dylan treated us as peers even though we had no track record as publishers.

While that might sound like Dylan, we are pretty sure that the way we see Dylan in our minds is not the way the cartoonists he fostered see him. Looking at our notes for Mike, almost every question has to do with how tough Dylan was. The man was staunch, inflexible, intractable and there was no end to any argument ever. Mocking us for our use of Amazon at that panel was nothing. He once bailed on a plan to consolidate wholesale online catalogs in the wake of the Diamond minimums that were driving indie comics out of shops – but he did it to protect our mutual sales agent, Tony Shenton, from being crushed trying to manage all those different discounts. As if to make up for it, Dylan then sold our books for us. He was planning on skipping out on shows that didn’t measure up to his ideas of what comics should be, regardless of the sales it would cost him. He hated the idea of comics desperately trying to find an audience in the lowest common, mass media denominator and believed that the weirdos like the ones at SPX were growing in numbers that would keep comics vibrant. He always had to check that his calves were bigger than ours (they were not, thank you). During those dinners with Randy, we used to joke that since making comics is so hard and publishing them is so easy, the most equitable thing would be to stage indie comics publisher cage matches at conventions, purely for the amusement of the artists. It was fun for us to imagine the match-ups and to gauge the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the other publishers. Ultimately, we deemed the indie publisher cage match concept to be untenable specifically because of Dylan Williams. None of us would ever be able to best him or match his combat prowess. He was too tough.

Dylan is too much to miss. The truth is that Gabby was wrong. It was a good night to be nominated for an Ignatz. The best place for us to be the night Dylan Williams died was at SPX. We were surrounded by the best people on earth and we didn’t need to explain our loss to anyone. We are eternally grateful to all of our friends who were there, old friends and the ones we just met, and we are equally grateful to Dylan for being a big part of what we were all doing there in the first place. He was right about us weirdos. There are plenty of us and we can take care of each other.

Your Pals,

Barry & Leon

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