Friday, 22 May 2015

Diana Schutz: Remembering The Self-Publishing Movement

Diana Schutz & Will Eisner, San Diego Con, 2003
(from, March 2008)
Like Rick Veitch, my introduction to Cerebus was also my introduction to the concept of self-publishing -- it was early 1979, and Ron Norton, co-owner of Vancouver's ComicShop (where I was working at the time), handed me the first seven issues of what became Dave Sim's magnum opus. I didn't stop reading until Cerebus #300, becoming Dave's proofreader for some years along the way -- just the text pieces, as the story pages were considered hallowed ground.  An offshoot of that gig, interestingly enough, was the Cerebus Guide to Self Publishing, which I helped Dave put together in 1997 -- despite being gainfully employed as a Dark Horse Comics senior editor!

In 1992 and 1993, I tagged along with Dave to several of his convention and store appearances, meeting many of the principals of what later came to be known as The Self-Publishing Movement - including Jeff Smith. I had been a little late to Bone, too; this time it was Matt Wagner who handed me the first few issues to read, but I had already written Jeff a fan letter by the time Dave introduced us, in ’93, at that year's ProCon/WonderCon. We’ve been friends ever since. The early nineties were a pretty good time for comics. We’d recovered from the black-and-white boom -- and then disastrous glut -- of the late eighties; the comics specialty (or "direct") market was well established by then; and guys like Jim Hanley, Rory Root, and Bill Liebowitz, among others, were really taking comics retail up a major notch. A lotta dollars were flowing, and a lotta comics were being bought. Frank Miller had sworn off his first love affair with Hollywood and had returned to comics full-time, with an even stronger passion than before -- surprising everyone by hooking up with a then-small, upstart company named Dark Horse to publish Give Me Liberty and, later, Sin City. In 1992, several very high-profile artists left Marvel as a group, to form first their own imprint and, pretty shortly thereafter, their own publishing company. And what’s more important: the readers went with them. It was the era of the creator. Finally!

By 1992, after fifteen years of an awful lot of hard work, Dave Sim was an "overnight" success.  Jeff Smith had been toiling away at various incarnations of Bone since the early eighties, and by 1994 -- having won four Eisner Awards and three Harveys that year alone -- he, too, had become an "overnight" success.  Talent, determination, and a receptive marketplace provided fertile ground for a self-publishing movement to take root. I remember conventions, late-night parties, spirited discussions -- many drinks.  We were all a lot younger then! 

Larry Marder was a critical part of the mix, too.  The creator of Tales of the Beanworld was then putting his background in advertising to use at Moondog's, Gary Colabuono's Chicago chain of comics stores (stores that I don't think survived his departure, but I could be wrong about that).  In the pages of Cerebus, Larry had already been dubbed Nexus of All Comic Book Realities -- or The Nexus for short! -- and his unique position between the beans and the moon, so to speak, really did mean that a lot of different industry elements (including many key people) converged around Larry.

I'm betting it was Larry who planted the seeds of an idea that Dave and Jeff popularized among the self-publishers: the strategic formula of direct communication with the retail base -- and ultimately the consumer. In other words, the business side of self-publishing. Dave and Jeff -- and Larry -- are darn good at it. Some artists just aren't, and some artists don't want to be bothered. Sadly, it would turn out that some artists didn't want to be bothered with the creative side of self-publishing either.  It's one thing to talk the talk, but you gotta walk the walk, too, and one unfortunate legacy of the self-publishing movement is the number of promising cartoonists who wound up dropping out of comics altogether when they didn't become overnight sensations. On the upside, for every person who dropped out, there were others who stuck around -- and it's thanks, in part, to the self-publishing movement that people like Paul Pope, Terry Moore, and Rick Veitch, among others, are still making great comics today.

As are Dave and Jeff. Not only have they provided shining examples of just how far talent and determination can take a person in a receptive marketplace, but they also have given unselfishly of their time and advice -- and outright help -- to any and all who are interested. What's more, Dave and Jeff set the stage for the current comics scene in (at least) two really important ways.

First, they published -- and continually reprinted -- collected book versions of their comics.  In 1986, nine years after Cerebus #1, when Dave came out with that first "phone book", very few publishers were routinely collecting serialized comics into what Will Eisner (and others) had earlier called a "graphic novel". And if they were, they seldom kept those books in print. Comics publishers were still working under a periodical, disposable, print-to-sell-out model of publication -- as opposed to the perennial model favored by prose publishers, not to mention libraries and bookstores. Jeff immediately followed Dave's lead, waiting only a couple years before collecting Bone #1-6 into book form. This was a revolutionary idea in those days; despite the introduction of the "limited series" during the eighties, the dominant paradigm was still the monthly, ongoing floppy comic -- not the perfect-bound volume with a place on your bookshelf. And both creators had good, solid, long stories to collect -- stories with a beginning, middle, and (most important) an end. Like, y'know, a novel. And like the best novels, the Cerebus and Bone books were reprinted over and over. And over again.

This, in fact, is one of the major benefits of self-publishing: as a self-publisher, you get to control the reprinting of your work. When your work is published by someone else, you basically give up that right -- and it's a pretty important one. Learned that from Dave. Had never thought about it before.

To my mind, the other important legacy of the self-publishing movement of the early nineties is the 1994 debut of the Alternative Press Expo, followed by the Small Press Expo that same year (and later the Ignatz Awards) -- both of which begat Columbus, Ohio's Small Press & Alternative Comics Expo and Portland, Oregon's Stumptown Comics Fest. By touring together -- at conventions, store signings, and distributor trade shows -- the self-publishers, spearheaded in 1993 by Dave and Jeff, established a serious DIY presence within the industry, generating tremendous enthusiasm and proving that shows dedicated to self-publishers (and alternative cartoonists generally) could be financially viable as well as creatively fruitful. I will never forget walking around SPX 2000 with Will Eisner, introducing him to several of the young cartoonists set up at that show. Not only were they blown away, but Will said he was so caught up in the infectious energy there that he felt inspired, too -- and needed to get back to his drawing board because of all the young cartoonists nipping at his heels! These shows are all about comics, and the love of comics, and while commercial publishers started bedding down with Hollywood in the early nineties, the self-publishers were there to remind us what it's really all about.

Diana Schutz is the widely respected comics editor who has spent her career working with some of the industry's most significant creators, including Will Eisner and Frank Miller. After twenty-five years at Dark Horse Comics, Schutz retired in 2015.

1 comment:

iestyn said...

I'd be really interested to know numbers on the amount of each volume of Cerebus to have been printed, and how many times they've gone to reprint.

I know Dave says there were only a couple of thousand readers at the end of Cerebus as a comic, but how many sales on the final collected volumes have there been , how many reprints - that would be really interesting.