Dylan Williams is the founder, publisher, and editor for Sparkplug Comic Books, a decidedly understated business operation responsible for the Jason Shiga's Bookhunter. He's also a cartoonist himself and co-runs a comic and video shop with Tim Goodyear. He's one of those “thinking out loud on paper―all the time” and “decision transparency” and creates a corresponding ethical model for comics publishing and distribution.
[Ed. note: This interview was conducted in November 24, 2008 for an not-yet-completed book on people who grew up in punk but ended up pursuing endeavors other than music.]
Let's talk about your background in punk. Reading your comics and looking at the stuff that Sparkplug puts out, many people would never guess that you were involved in punk. How that did develop over time?
There are more parts of punk culture that I love, more than any other way of life, so after 30 years I’m learning to live with it. I’ve been obsessed with music my whole life but didn’t connect it to my own ethics till I turned 20. I traveled a lot as a kid and I missed any kind of continuity, so I found out about bands one at a time in-between being a hescher. I had no real idea about the values of punk until getting my first copy of MRR in LA in like '86. I didn’t realize that I could participate till a few years later. I thought you needed a pass. I always thought of myself as “crossover” during the '80s. That was a big deal in metal but I don’t think punk wanted that concept.
I was completely mesmerized by scene reports and band interviews. Till that point, I knew about punk as purely fashion and music. I was a hippie Black Sabbath kid, growing up with a “fuck authority” and “I’m doing it myself.” ideology. I would listen to Bad Brains vinyl more than anything, but I never felt I’d gotten the pass to openly wave the flag. I was an open metalhead, unrepentantly so. In school I’d gravitate to the people who smoked and drank, wore skulls and didn’t fit in. I always had one or two good punk friends. It took moving back to Berkeley in ‘86 for me to get a bunch of punk friends all at once but I was the metalhead.
I hated the superficial aspects of that culture. I never understood modern life, and never connected with the world at large, always out of step. When I tried to fit in, I failed miserably. I think most of that stuff came naturally from who I was and having grown up as a kid in Berkeley, with a religious parents who shopped at co-ops and put me in front of trees to keep them from being cut down. My first comics were in the '80s with skater friends in Berkeley. We self-published them. Doing unconventional comics was like what was going on at Gilman at the time. We didn’t want to do comics about safe stuff. I think we were all influenced by Vaughn Bode.
There were 2-3 years where I tried to do superhero comics but I was never able to do it the way I felt people wanted me to. It made me frustrated with myself and the world. I stopped around 1990 and focused on becoming an alternative cartoonist. Which turned out to be just as bad. During all that I was involved in one of the few experiments in collective comics publishing, Puppy Toss. It was amazing and encouraged me to always look at art from a communal point of view.
I see my comics as just comics, not punk or alternative comics or anything. I try not to put a label on them, so that may be why it doesn’t come off as one thing. With Sparkplug, I don’t believe that I should have much say besides liking people’s stories and art so if there is punk stuff in the books, it is dependent on the artists’ taste. I gravitate towards rougher and more personal comics. People like Chris Wright, Hellen Jo, Elijah Burbaker, Trevor Alixopulos, Mats!?, and more. They all have a punk aesthetic. Austin English is an arty guy but he has all those values and does comics that I would call punk at their core. I mean, punk means a lot of things to a lot of people.
How do you feel about the dichotomy of art versus music in punk? It seems like you dabble in fine art as well as the comic and zine worlds. Is this a necessary thing to do to survive or simply your interest?
Most of my friends in bands or musicians I’ve known all have an interest in art and I think most cartoonists I know feel an affinity to music. A lot of cartoonists feel like comics and music share the idea of rhythm. I don’t believe that but it makes sense that people are trying to work aspects of their lives together. That is one of the most amazing changes in comics, the idea that there is more to people than just being a cartoonist. Sort of like the idea that musicians can and should bring in more than musical influences to their work. I do pastels but mostly to augment my comics. I use almost all art in my comics. I’m a fan of a lot of fine art and highbrow stuff but I don’t get the fine art world. I can’t stand the idea of finished art having a money value, but I know it does and I participate in that world myself. I do printed art because I love how exchangeable and proletarian it is. I feel like fine art tends to be the most one way form of communication. I realize there is a lot of contradiction in all that.
Is your expression a natural extension of where you are at as a person at a given time or are you trying to communicate something in the bigger picture? Do you consciously think about whether or not people can see your roots? That seems to be a problem that develops over ten or fifteen years of publishing―something that happened to Nate Powell―people grow up in a new generation and don't realize that this guy was a punk who put out his own comics for years and wrote letters and was super accessible.
My expression is natural. Natural expression involves communicating something bigger, and I’ve been into Socialism and philosophy longer than I’ve been a cartoonist. I spent a lot of time not expressing who I was. But that was when I was trying to focus on getting somewhere and making a name for myself. I gave that up around 25. I was inept at being anything but a fuck up with too many interests. I prefer to do stuff rather than talk about it, but I love talking about the ideologies that go into doing stuff. After the fact talking becomes unneeded for me.
I fight hard to bring the bigger world picture into my comics. As a publisher, my whole drive has been to communicate something bigger, based on my own tastes. To encourage cartoonists and comics people not to listen to a conventional worldview and to get involved and change things. There are probably more lefties in the world at large than there are people who think you should do shitty comics for Time Warner for money. But in comics, that sort of stuff, and getting movie deals are kind of the height of accomplishment. Or at least they were.
I think Nate Powell is fucking amazing. I am inspired by him, as a person. He and I don’t have a lot of artistic style in common but that is something I learned from punk, that there isn’t one way to do stuff. That I can be into shit that isn’t like me. I think punk comics used to mean one specific thing, like John Holstrom. But now punk comics run the gamut from Nate Powell to Julia Wertz. In the music world most of us wouldn’t call ourselves punk. I’m sure Julia would be like “Fuck you, Dylan.”
It seems harder for people who are into the music to get into the comics, but a lot of that has to do with the superficial and fashionable aspects. Like when a band seems weird cause they have an atypical instruments or dress unconventionally. I think it was Jeff Ott that got me into Yummy Fur, and that had no external trappings of punk rock―it was personal and all of my punk friends ended up reading it. It took me a long time to realize that I love the saxophone as a punk instrument, so I understand that sort of focus on what is or isn’t part of a culture.
It seems like a lot of punk artists come into the "scene" through becoming obsessed with old punk artists or needing to "raise the bar" with the quality of art out there. Is that your story? We talked about Bobby Madness doing Crimpshrine and Cometbus art. What is it about him that speaks to you? Who else rocks your world? Does punk art excite or frustrate you these days?
First off, Bobby is a fucking genius. He has managed to stay true to himself. There aren’t any cartoonists I can think of who’d go through all the shit he did. Bobby had a lot of chances to change what he was doing and make more money and [become] more well known. He does his own comics and it doesn’t matter if it is something he makes 10 copies of or 10,000. Right now, my buddy Tim Goodyear is publishing Bobby’s new work and it is some of the best I’ve seen by him, but it isn’t what it was 15 years ago, he keeps on evolving and working. I think that is an important part of doing art outside of the confines of conventional consumerist ideology.
For me it was never about bar raising. It has been about two things: fucking up the values of comics and the inspiration I get from all the other people, like Bobby, who do the comics I love. It makes me want to help out and do my own shit and pass it on.
Al Frank is another totally fucking amazing punk comic artist. Bobby took what people like Crumb or Holstrom were doing, mixed it with street art and made it his own. Al took Raymond Pettibone and combined it with a different aspect of street art and came up with another, completely unique style. He did a book called Tad Martin in the early 90s for the most punk friendly publisher at the time Iconografix and has continued to do the most down to earth, fucked up, funny shit around. They were both interested in the art around them in their communities that wasn’t being force fed to them.
I love and owe most of my life in comics to a host of amazing artists all of whom are punk in so many ways.
The grandfather of punk and d-i-y comics would be Wally Wood, no arguing. He was doing shit that only superficially fit into any conventional comic world and inspired all of the underground cartoonists. He was unpleasant and complex and while his work came from the mainstream he taught himself to do comics. He self-published Witzend in around 1965 when there was basically only one way of distributing comics. He [did] what The Sonics or The Monks [did] to music. Alex Toth was one of the biggest figures in comics but also one of the most completely anti-corporate individualist people to ever be involved.
Jules Feiffer is the guy that made me stop trying to use my art tools like a highbrow idiot. His life story reads like a textbook of how to keep it honest and real.
So much of the Underground Comix people were punk. Those guys are all amazing. Most of them weren’t conventional hippies, despite getting lumped in with that. They did for comics what the British anarcho-crusty movement did for music. They printed the books themselves, they ran the presses and sold, distributed and gave them out themselves.
Greg Irons and Tom Veitch did a book called Legion of Charlies that is one of the most important comics in history. It makes a devastatingly harsh analogy between what was happening in Vietnam and what Charles Manson did in the US. That was in 1971. Rory Hayes was doing stuff in the '60s that punk cartoonists in the '80s would be doing as transgressive comics. Both of them died way too early but spent their lives doing stuff totally their own way. Steve Lafler was telling me about going to a Ramones show in 1977. Most of those guys were open to the new music of the time and all of them were doing books that were not involved with the larger mass culture of comics. Justin Green pretty much invented what would be punk comics in the '90s―comics about normal life that wasn’t just escapist fantasy.
In the '80s there are so many amazing punk cartoonists and many of them made it big in the years later, Gary Panter, Los Bros Hernandez, Mark Beyer, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Kaz, Evan Dorkin and on and on. It was kind of the greatest period of art and punk comics in our history. If you pick up a copy of Raw there will be about 90% of stuff that influenced me and all the art comics to follow.
In the '80s some of the barriers that kept women and minorities out of comics started coming down, though it’d take till 2000 for it to come down. Basically, the popularization of the photocopier led to a free-ish environment of publishing, so you had people like Julie Doucet and Chester Brown starting to do their own shit. There is an interview in the Comics Journal in 1990, with Chester Brown, which ended up being a touchstone for '90s punk cartoonists. He lays out the way he wanted to get into comics as a profession and discovered that it was an art form like music that could be used to express your personal voice.
Dan Clowes is more like Hüsker Dü or the Minutemen or something―most like Thee Headcoats. It was because of him that I bought my first Headcoats cassette. His comics are complex and well-drawn but they didn’t seem that way to me when I first read them. While he has evolved, there is still that undercurrent of the smarmy kid that is telling you to fuck off. I’m sure he’ll hate that.
There is the generation of '90s cartoonists that I belong to. The people that influenced me most come from that generation. I’m a fan of old comics but I see that as more of like a DJ sampling old stuff. Sadly, Ed Brubaker is the only one of them that ended up being a mainstream hack. I mean, sadly for Ed. He did some amazing auto-bio comics that always felt like exactly how punks should do comics.
There were all these people doing comics that were punk and did them with punk values in mind. For me personally, Zak Sally is my biggest inspiration. Maybe Eric Haven would be second. Zak and Eric took the stuff that had been done before and turned it inside out. They weren’t able to fall in line with what had come before or what was being done at the time. They did dark weird stuff that wasn’t a fashion based thing. They weren’t doing anything but what came out of them and their influences. That helped me kind of stop looking at the old shit or what was going on in mainstream comics as something I needed to fit into. It also helped me because I realized that being able to draw in some virtuoso way was totally unimportant to me.
In the past decade the amount of punk comics is at an all time high and the amount of anti-establishment comics has never been higher. I don’t mean in the sense that they are only railing against the larger culture but they are railing against the conventions of the artform and the industry of comics, in exactly the same way that punk sort of took apart music in the '80s. At the end of the '90s you had the most punk movement so far in the history of comics, Fort Thunder. They popularized an approach to comics that’d been going on all throughout the '90s. They made it work.
Why aren't people publishing these punk artists? Are they no longer producing enough material or is there a lack of commercial viability or something else...?
There are six or seven publishers doing punk comics now. In the '90s there were maybe two to four publishers doing punk comics at any given time. Now we have Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly both publishing much more punk comics than they used to. And there has been a big increase in the small indy publishers. Microcosm being first among them, of course. But PictureBox, Buenaventura Press, Bodega Distribution, Typocrat, La Mano, BlueQ, Teenage Dinosaur, Family Style, Tugboat, and so on are all publishing punk comics in one way or another. They may not all have punk characters, like Love and Rockets or My Brain Hurts but the stuff that PictureBox is doing is inarguably punk comics.
One of the impediments to being able to find stuff is that the comics world is fractured, but it is leading to some of the best comics in history and some of the most punk ones. It is a lot like music was in the 80s. Some people doing it now are Tim Root, Killoffer, Ken Dahl, CF, Ben Jones, Matt Brinkman, Matthew Thurber, Esther Pearl Watson, Austin English, Liz Baillie, Nate Doyle, Nate Powell, Nate Beaty, Alexander Zogreff, Hellen Jo, Matt Furie, Geoff Vasille, John Isacson, CF, Dave Kiersch, Aron Nels Steinke, Carrie McNinch, Ben Snakepit, Kaz Strezepek, Jeremi Onsmith, Chris Cilla, Josh Simmons, and on and on, as well as a lot of the artists from the 80s and 90s who are continuing with stuff. I feel like there are hundreds of people across the country coming up with new stuff and getting involved. It's a great time to be a comics reader.
Sometimes I get too upset with the way small publishing works in comics. There are all of these small publishers and we each sort of exist in an isolated, unrelated world. It's important to stay in touch with other small publishers―even ones that aren’t like-minded. I’m conscious of fucking it up a lot. Leaving Top Shelf off a list of small publishers at the San Diego Comic-Con eats away at me. I feel that’s the only way we are going to overcome the walls of the castle that mainstream comics has built up to keep us in the dark.
At the same time, not being part of the larger world is a great thing. It leads to individuality and ingenuity. Small and local is better for everyone in the long run, so I’m doing what I think is right for now―working at it from both ends. I'm trying to enlarge the community of art or punk comics while shrinking my focus and cutting out the conventions of running a business in a shitty way. It is completely up to the person drawing the comics what they want for themselves. For my own comics, staying small has been such a blessing, though part of it is I haven’t been capable of doing stuff that appeals to a lot of people, thankfully.