Friday, April 15, 2011

Word Balloons 12, April 2011


Welcome to the long overdue twelfth issue of Word Balloons. Having concentrated mainly on creators in past issues I thought it was time that the spotlight was shone on another aspect of the scene namely publishers. After all they are responsible for taking raw material and turning it into a published entity. Even though professional comic publishers in this country are fairly thin on the ground I have sought out the three most prominent.

My original idea was to ask them all essentially the same questions in an endeavour to see where their similarities and differences lay. My assumption was that this would produce a number of fairly short responses (especially as two would be conducted by email), which would hopefully take up the same amount of space as one long interview. However I reckoned without their loquaciousness. So given circumstances had prevented me from producing an issue at the end of 2010 I decided that rather than holding over the conclusion of the Fox saga I would increase the page count to present a bumper issue. It is my intention to revert to the 24 page full colour format next time.

This issue also brings to a close the recollections of ‘my life in comics’. Given it seems as many people appear to buy the magazine for these as the interviews, I do wonder how sales will hold up in the future. For the moment, though, I intend to press on and will replace my recollections with a variety of articles broadly alternating nostalgia with a more critical analysis of the form, which tend to be the two hallmarks of the journal.

It should be noted that none of the three publishers interviewed are currently in a position to accept unsolicited submissions.

"My motivation in publishing is not just to make money.”
An interview with Erica Wagner.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, December 2010.

The Australian publisher Allen & Unwin was established as an independent entity in 1990, following the sale of its British parent George Allen & Unwin.

In 2007 Erica Wagner (pronounced Germanically like the composer), the publisher of their children’s and young adult books made the significant decision to publish Nicki Greenberg’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby .This has been followed by a number of other graphic novels and illustrated books including Greenberg’s adaptation of Hamlet (2010), two works by Bruce Mutard The Sacrifice (2008) and The Silence (2009), Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia (2008), Nathan Jurevicius’ Scarygirl (2009), and Five Wounds by Jonathan Walker & Dan Hallett (2010).

This interview endeavours to discover what led a mainstream publisher to what many might consider a fringe market, what they are trying to achieve in it, as well as canvassing the vexed issue of marketing comics in the modern world.

PB: Why did you decide to start publishing graphic novels and what interest had you had in the comic medium prior to this?
EW: Well it grew out of doing children’s books – working with illustrators who were wanting to develop their own stories. I guess I have always been attracted to work with a strong visual element. As a child I loved dark German fairy-tales and stories, Disney comics and Peanuts. I would also read comics that my older brother had. But my big awakening was reading Maus in the 1990s when I was still at Penguin (it was a Penguin book). The lynchpin to start doing the graphic novels, though, was probably [cartoonist] Andrew Weldon. He had approached me when I was at Penguin looking to have his editorial cartoons published. I loved them, but they didn’t come under the heading of children’s books and the perceived wisdom was that cartoon books didn’t sell unless you had a huge name already. So I suggested Andrew do some kids’ books. Andrew knew of my interest in graphic-oriented works and he would occasionally send artists my way to look at their work. One of these was Nicki Greenberg, who came with the first 100-odd pages of The Great Gatsby. And we all thought it was fantastic and I really wanted to publish it. But it took a long time to work out how we could do so. It was a big risk
PB: What criteria do you use in choosing works? Is it different for graphic novels than with other books you publish? EW: At one level it is, but it isn’t at a fundamental level. The basic reasons that make you take on a book are whether you have a gut feeling that it is good and that there’s a market for it. Then you’ve got to analyse whether there actually is a market or you just want there to be one. [Laughs.]
PB: Do you have a specific idea of the types of stories you’re after or is that being too proscriptive?
EW: It’s more of a gut reaction that I look for – you just feel it in your bones if the work moves and excites you, has integrity, is very well thought out and executed, and has that indefinable ‘x’ factor that is of the time and will attract readers.
PB: It must be more difficult to work out what is going to sell well in the graphic story market as you have fewer sales figures.
EW: That’s true. But we’re not trying to attract just the established comic audience, we’re trying to attract a book-loving audience.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 12.

“The nature of storytelling is truly gestalt.”
An interview with Wolfgang Bylsma.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, December 2010-January 2011.

Since its beginning in 2007 Perth-based, but internationally focussed Gestalt Publishing has produced a number of impressive looking works in a variety of formats. There have been the anthologies Character Sketches (2007) and Flinch (2009); graphic novels Vowels by Skye Ogden (2007), Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday (2008) by Alex Cox & Chris Bones and Justin Randall’s Changing Ways (2010); and ‘traditional’ comic magazines The Example (2009) by Tom Taylor & Colin Wilson and Taylor & Ogden’s Rombies (2010). They have also stepped in to publish the originally self-published Digested by Bobby N. (2008-)

Nowhere is its international perspective better illustrated than by its two principals – Perth-based Wolfgang Bylsma and the Tokyo via Melbourne and Perth located Ogden.

In this email interview Bylsma gives an insight into Gestalt’s origins and their publishing rationale.

PB: What is the story behind the establishment of Gestalt?
WB: Gestalt came about owing to an alignment of several elements. I used to teach media production at Murdoch University in Perth, but opted to leave that position in 2000 to take my own business in branding and web development more seriously. Admittedly, that became a smidgen laborious despite being quite successful. After a couple of years I came to realise that I was essentially just doing my work because it was, well, just work. Enter Skye Ogden, now Art Director with Gestalt. We worked together on [comics] projects for about eighteen months. During this period we managed to network and discover more Australian comic talent than we’d realised existed. We were disappointed that their work wasn’t more readily available and, after one of our production meetings, decided to do something about it. Investigating arts funding options led me to the Write In Your Face grant, established by the Australia Council to assist with exactly what we were trying to set up. So I applied, and a few months later we received the letter that made it all possible. The funding was only $5000, all of which was paid out to artists for the stories that were included in our first anthology, Character Sketches, but that was the crux of our approach; we wanted people to be paid for their work.
PB: What is Gestalt’s publishing ethos or mission statement?
WB: We started out with the clear mission to enable Australian creators to receive international distribution and exposure without having to take their intellectual property overseas, or being forced into ‘work-for-hire’ to create their careers. For the most part that remains true, although we have now expanded to work with international creators as well. Our underlying ethos, however, is to enable great storytelling.
PB: What market are you aiming at?
WB: We’re aiming at a somewhat discerning market who appreciate storytelling with substance, which may sound a little odd given that we’re publishing a comic about zombies in Ancient Rome, but at the heart of every story we choose to publish there is a poignancy or perspective that we feel holds a degree of gravitas.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 12.

“I want to back artists, not hire them to do a job.”
An interview with Baden Kirgan.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, December 2010-January 2011.

Begun as an offshoot of a successful printing business, Black House has initially concentrated on horror or gothic-tinged comics in the traditional pamphlet–style format, before recently branching out into graphic novels and pulp fiction in a wider range of styles. To Chris Sequeira, John Cornell & Dave Elsey’s revisioning of Sherlock Holmes in The Dark Detective and Jan Scherpenhuizen’s apocalyptic thriller The Twilight Age has been added Jason Paulos’ horror anthology Eeek!, a collected edition of an early Bruce Mutard strip A Mind of Love, the black humour of Matt Emery in the Guzumo Show and finally a line of zombie novellas After the World by a variety of authors.

In this email interview Black House proprietor Baden Kirgan explains what led a teenage sci-fi nut to publish comics once he ‘grew up’, the pitfalls of calling for submissions in the horror genre and why ballerinas should get a day job.

PB: What prompted you to found a comic company?
BK: The same reason anyone starts a company – to make money. I had been operating a successful commercial printing business for about eight years by then and I was a bit bored. I was also looking to the future and for printers a challenge we all face is that we are always waiting for the next job to come through the door. The most successful printers, however don’t wait, but generate their own work by creating content, such as magazines or newspapers. I wanted to find a way to do that myself. At the same time my interest in comics had really blossomed and one night I was at work running a press and reading a trade of The Walking Dead [Image, 2003- present]. It occurred to me that I could easily produce the physical book myself if I wanted to and so I set out to see if anyone was doing anything locally to the level I thought I could achieve.
PB: What is Black House’s publishing ethos or mission statement?
BK: When I started I remember telling Jason Paulos I wanted to be an Australian Vertigo. He was very kind in not laughing in my face, but that was the original idea – to print good quality, adult oriented darker material. Over time that changed a bit as a few realities hit. No company can really restrict itself to one genre and be commercially viable. You need to be open to a spread of genres and ideas. You also have to be careful not to dictate the art to the artist. I had several very good creators pitch stuff to me that they thought I would like or that fitted my vision of the company, but they mostly lacked passion or interest because they were trying to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear – and it showed. It was much more rewarding for me to ask them to give me an idea they liked regardless of whether they thought it would suit us
PB: What are your selection criteria when it comes to projects?
BK: From a material point of view, really, I just have to like the story. I have no one to please but myself and if the book is something that I actually want to read then I am interested. I am text focused so I tend to pay more attention to the idea and the quality of the writing at first. I don’t regard myself as a good judge of art so I do ask advice on that. But having said that, I know enough to be put off by non-professional standards and I have knocked back several projects with interesting stories because the artist hasn’t been up to it. Apart from those obvious points, who is behind the project is the main criterion. A professional attitude and proven record of getting work out the door is essential.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 12.

My Life in Comics Part X – Fox Comics, the later years 1989-92.

By Philip Bentley

This is the tenth and final of a series of articles chronicling my path as a comics aficionado in Australia over the past forty years. Primarily these are my recollections alone and make no claims to be the authoritative view.

After last chapter detailing what I felt to be the strengths of the magazine, this issue I look at the difficulties involved in its production. Starting from the move to magazine size in 1985, the saga is taken through to the last four issues co-produced with Fantagraphics Books. Reasons for the title’s cancellation are canvassed and the variety of short-lived titles, also under-taken with Fantagraphics, are detailed thereafter.

With our thirteenth issue (Oct. 1985) publisher David Vodicka decided it was time to up the ante by seeking greater overseas distribution. As I have previously explained, at this time there were fewer comics being published and more distributors carrying them than is the situation today, so achieving overseas distribution wasn’t that difficult. We simply sent a sample copy and many, but not all, agreed. Much to our surprise the issue was ordered in numbers far exceeding expectations – in the vicinity of 3,500 copies, a considerable amount for an indie publication. Whilst gratified by this turn of events, I think we greeted the news with caution given the prevailing conditions in the US comic scene at this time.

Like many collectables over the years various types of comics have come in and out of popularity, with various companies, titles, artists, characters and motifs all having their time in the sun. By the mid-80s the spotlight had turned to black and white indie books sparked by the success of the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles (TMNT), a spoof on the X-Men and other teen groups. When TMNT’s popularity took off back issues, which had been produced in modest numbers, became like gold. This frenzy spilled over into the rest of the indie market as dealers bought up any and every new work in the expectation that one of these would go stellar and sales of its back issues, at vastly inflated prices, would cover the cost of all of the other stockpiled titles.

But of course there was no guarantee that any of these books would gain massive popularity. So after a while dealers became tired of tying up money on obscure titles and in a version of ‘blame the victim’ there was a backlash against all indie comics. Fox Comics was unlucky enough to be caught in the middle of this reaction and whilst it would be churlish to lay all our woes at this door it still provided market conditions that were weighted against us. So from a high point of 3,500, orders steadily declined in direct opposition, in our minds, to the increase in quality in the book.

The situation in Australia was a bit different although very much of two speeds. Away from Melbourne there was virtually no way of reaching interested parties and the few copies that ended up in comic shops probably languished in some dark corner. In Melbourne, though, sales steadily grew. This was due partially to word of mouth, partially through being prominently displayed at Minotaur where there were a number of supportive staff. But most importantly it was due to promotion on independent radio programmes.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 12.

Plus reviews of Daren White & Eddie Campbell’s The Playwright, Gregory Mackay’s Francis Bear, It got big for no reason by Andrew Fulton, Guzumo Show by Matt Emery, & Yuck 1 & 4.