A Dylan Williams Interview

You seem to be obsessed with constantly evaluating the ethics of your projects. Why is that so important? What's the value of independence? How can we get Dylan Williams to sell out?

Always obsessed with re-evaluating, I think the only way for anyone to get better at what we do is self-awareness and looking at what other people say with a critical eye. I am constantly thinking that I’m fucking it all up. Once you’ve got things going clearly on their course, that is when you should make changes.

I built a foundation to work from and I think that is the most important part of independence. Having grand visions is one thing, but if I want to keep on doing stuff for myself I have to start small and work on the fundamentals. Independence is the goal but financial realities don’t make that possible all the time. I don’t put the money before the art, but I have to be aware of what I can do with the resources I have. I can’t publish a lot of high-profile books because of the resources required to publish them. I’m not willing to go into serious debt so that I can sell books at a big chain.

It was hard to remain independent and do business with individuals in comics but it is becoming easier. I try to work with individuals inside of larger organizations and build personal relationships. I believe in the core hippie/Buddhist values but finding ways to act on them is fucking hard sometimes. A lot of the problems with the world are caused by following the conventions of greed and capitalism and fucking people over to get ahead. I would rather fail at something than have to do that.

I’ve gotten to a point where, if I’m fucking people over it is unconscious―which still isn’t a good excuse. The only way to undo that is through re-evaluating and listening. I worked for a long time for big corporations and they taught me a lot about the way the rest of the world works, and that even in that sort of environment you can build away from those values, knowing that you may never change it all, but you can affect the lives of people as they can affect yours.

I am a life long believer in talking things out and empathizing. I don’t do this all the time, but I make myself do it whenever I can and listen when people are pointing out that maybe those who work for big shitty businesses have to do that so that their family can eat and that people who fuck people over may be doing it because they are also unaware of it or ways not to do it.

I’m amazed at the way people who listen to and love punk music come into other media and instantly revert to the values they hate in music. Punks will read shit put out by Marvel or DC and never open their eyes to the smaller stuff―not stopping to think about who owns those companies or falling in line with the marketing strategies those companies use. They’ve been trained to, the same way I didn’t realize that you couldn’t get fresh strawberries all year round unless you were buying imports. The secret is education, and understanding. You can get good shit from individuals and while it may not be Spider-Man it may be by the dude that created Spider-Man.

Something you've mentioned to me was that sometimes artists/authors that you publish want more sales outlets than you normally provide. Things like Amazon are pretty stupid places to buy new independent books. Why do so many people go this route or want to go this route? Can you talk about this conflict?

It's stupid but I buy books from Amazon. It isn’t out of malice, it is out of a lack of knowledge. I don’t grow my own vegetables because I don’t know how, but I’m planning to. As a small business with punk values, I think it's up to me and other small businesses to share that information. Pointing fingers is tiring and defeats its own purpose.

I want the artists I publish to sell as much as they want to, but I also make it clear that I’m a stepping-stone and that I’m not able to support wider distribution to Amazon or Ingram. Maybe, if Sparkplug can keep to its core values and grow, then that will happen but I'm not comfortable [being] based on a classically hierarchical model. It’d mean a lot of changes and I don’t know if I could deal with them. I’m trying to evaluate how to grow and not be an asshole. And like most things worth doing it takes a lot of thought and work―both of which I love doing.

People go those routes, through centralized stores and such, because we are trained to think that way. The economy is this large nebulous thing and our actions can’t change anything. Consumers go to large centralized sources because they can get more for cheap. Producers go with larger companies and systems because they want to make money or more money off of their work. Bigger companies make sense when you need to pay for your child’s daycare but then, the solution of taking care of your own child or working with others in your community to set up shared daycare rarely enters our minds.

The same thing happens in selling books. It makes sense to sell through a venue like a big chain store because you will sell more comics, nevermind the fact that they are returnable, you earn a smaller percentage from them and you have to pony up more on the front end. The contribution to the death of the small business world rarely comes up.

I know small stores run by people on a shoe string who feel they have to order superhero comics through big distros so they can stay in business. Meanwhile their customers are getting those books online for 25% off.

Luxury paperbacks are all the rage and people call them "Graphic Novels" for some reason. It has gotten this way because of the demands of Borders and Barnes & Noble, not because readers asked for it or artists wanted it. Some people want them and some people don’t but those stores won’t bother with art comics without a spine. Comics became more expensive to make and buy, in the same way that books did. There is that much more of a margin for failure.

Smaller publishers don’t understand this. I’ve heard that little publishers like Sparkplug are making a mistake by publishing floppy comic books. It is clear that the people saying that aren’t seeing the relationship between the dwindling comic specialty store market and graphic novels in chain stores or Amazon. In some ways you can reach more people through bound volumes and ultimately I don’t think it makes a bit of difference how work is presented, as long as it is by the intent of the creator. One of my favorite publishers, Buenaventura, published a new anthology that cost 125 bucks and at the same time is selling floppy books for 4 bucks. Both are solely in line with thoughts the artists that created them.

Both of them are punk, in different ways. Affordable comics will always be the way I want it, and a lot of the drive to get in to chain bookstores or Amazon is the result of the hilarious self-loathing of comics. Calling a comic book a “pamphlet” or “floppy” was meant as a jibe but they sound like compliments to me, now.

I’m always looking for ways to shrink my business, to do more things locally and small and keep with the values of the artists whose work I am lucky enough to publish and distribute. I don’t try and sell everything to every store or person, I try and sell stuff to people who want it and work with people who like what I sell. I don’t sell through Amazon, because of how faceless they are. I sell books through Diamond Comics―a big comics distribution monopoly―because I feel a personal relationship with the people who work there, and it seems like they enjoy selling Sparkplug stuff. I use a smaller distro named Tony Shenton for all the orders I can, because Tony is one guy who is trying to create personal relationships with small stores.

It is a tough subject because I want everyone I publish to be able to make a living the way they want to make a living. I’m at odds with my values a lot, but it is for the overarching value of the unencumbered individual voice, which is ultimately more important than a blanket policy against dealing with big faceless companies.

Can you talk about how you implement ingenuity learned from punk to apply to your distribution/publishing model for Sparkplug now?

The first thing I learned is not to be an asshole. Trying to not to be a racist, sexist, money-grubbing dick are sort of values that I won’t change. That helped me avoid the initial traps of small comic book publishing―individuality comes first. I don’t publish or distribute people because of anything but the fact that I love their comics and want to share them. I’m not the greatest at translating my ideas into practice but I’m getting better at it. I do my own book keeping but I have an accountant that does my taxes, which is something I wish I could avoid. He is a good guy who understands me, but I feel like if I had any ingenuity I’d be doing that shit myself too.

A punk value that I love and live by is that if you love to do something then you find a way to do that your whole life―or until you don’t like it. I’m doing that through a lot of help and humility and taking money from day jobs and turning it into something that will help myself and others get away from having to do that again.

Some people I know want to draw comics for the rest of their lives and so I try and contribute to that as much as I can. I saw a documentary on Cezanne that talked about him trying to find a way to have his own voice and keep on doing that throughout his life, so I don’t know if that is uniquely punk but maybe something that promote right living as a whole.

How do you feel about the current state of print publishing and the niche that it fills?

I’m pretty excited about the future of print publishing, as a means of personal expression. It feels a lot like the state of records and record stores. Books are more popular than vinyl but they are about as popular as the “dying” CD industry. I don’t know that it is dying, but I know people say it is. People predicted that 10 years ago and they’ll keep on predicting it.

From an environmental and human contact point of view, computers are a scourge. The waste they leave behind is going to be sitting in landfills for a lot longer than paper. All the reasons to focus on print override choices about the future of comics or the written word. People talk about computers as if they were a tool of the people but the truth is that they are only that, if your city has a library or resource making them available for free. Most people have their own computers which cost a fuck lot more than a $10 paperback. A book is like a 7” for me: affordable, tactile and not learning intensive. Printed comics are an artform designed for individual expression and communication which makes them appealing to a lot of people.

I'm always looking at how I’m fucking up by getting news from Yahoo instead of going to sources that present news I’m more interested in. If you are reading Superman comics, you are reading filler used to sell ads and work by people whose ownership of their art is taken from them. An online comic like Jesse Reklaw’s Slowwave is much more valuable as a means of art and personal interaction than a comic about Superman.

From my viewpoint comics are something everyone should be reading and so I come at it that way. I assume that there are going to be more readers because I’m going to find an artistic comic for everyone I know to read. I’m going to talk to everyone about stuff I think they’d enjoy. I’ve learned a little about local direct action from politics and I feel like those are the ways to accomplish my goals for the proliferation of art comics, and print is part of those values. And finally, they can be traded.

One of the current problems in print publishing is the trend in overseas printing. It used to be that people told you to go to Canada to print comics. Now it is China. I want to print as close to home as I can, for a number of reasons. Every time I open up a hardback comic and see printed in China, I wonder how much local research that company did. Portland has a bunch of amazing printers, so I’m spoiled and I use a great printer in Canada when I need to but I feel like somebody should write a book on using local printers and how to find ways around sending books out to China. This is something that people “inside” comics are talking about but the people buying comics don’t realize. I think of it as one more way the Walmart business model is affecting our lives. And in a shitty economy “affordable” seems to be a word that is used to ease our guilt at doing things that suck.

How do you feel about the relationship that your job is selling art? Thus you are reliant on the artistic contributions of many individuals to earn your bread. I'm sure this was not an easy decision for an ethically minded person like yourself to come to.

Oh fuck. That is a big question. I don’t think anyone working as a middle man can ever not be aware they are playing that role. I don’t want to make money off of the work of other people so I try and view Sparkplug as a labor exchange. But I want to be able to live in a way that keeps me able to do more work so I adjust both sides to meet in the middle. It keeps me from wanting to own a house but I’m convinced that enjoying the artistic work of others is something I want to be an integral part of my life.

This means spending my money with other artists and encouraging other artists and having money to do this. I try to get away from money, but I am only able to do it in small incremental steps, and often fail. I believe in bartering whenever I can, but I’m not one to presume that other people will value what I do the way I do.

The deal I offer artists is a universal one and I’m not in a rush to change it. I don’t make a lot and neither does the artist. I plan to make enough to pay for the print run off of the sales of the book and make enough for me to have my life the way it is now and share that with the artists. I’m convinced that I’m ripping people off most of the time, and I’m trying to fine-tune it at every available moment.

I believe in hard work and I feel that the money I get as a profit is the result of my hard work, so it helps me feel better and drives me to constantly work for Sparkplug―to avoid spending my time fucking off. It's part of the reason I don’t drink or do drugs. I try and offer my skills as a designer, publisher, distributor and art advocate in exchange for the artists work. I’m passionate about sharing that knowledge.

I don’t feel it is my place to have any unsolicited input on a book, but I'll offer an opinion and then try and do exactly what the artists want. Some artists want to proof every step and others want me to do it all. One time recently that I fucked up by not getting the print proof to an artist, I felt like a total idiot.

The artists almost always know the best ways to present their work. It is easy for me to get taken off that track―that's not the way the larger publishing world works. Most editors and publishers are frustrated artists or writers and that is something I never want to become. Luckily I’m do my own comics.

What's Dylan Williams up to now? What's coming next?

I’m working on the next issue of Reporter. I’m co-publishing a book by Rina Ayuyang. Next year I’m hoping to continue publishing Elijah Brubaker’s Reich, Janelle Hessig’s Blarg, and a bunch of other things. I’m trying become a better publisher with each year―to better represent the artists whom I publish and work harder.

What do you want to add?

I’m always conflicted about business. I hate what it means conventionally, so I don’t want to come off as a pro-business person but people I know and care about, get fucked over by the larger wheels of the world. They don’t know how to opt out of the system and do things their own way. I don’t know how to do that in other aspects of my life.

How do we write to you and buy your shit?

The stuff I publish is on sparkplugcomicbooks.com and you can order by mail from PO Box 10952 Portland, OR 97296-0952. I go to a lot of small shows for indy comics and zines. I don’t know if that will always happen but I’ll try. Some day I hope to do a mail order catalog with Bodega Distribution and other small publishers.