Dylan Williams: Tributes

Drawing by Chris Cilla

Trevor Alixopulos:

I knew Dylan better than some and less well than others. He was a publisher, a patron, and a friend, but I first knew him as a voice. A printed voice, his precise lettering, in his own minis and occasionally in others from that era. As a teenager I first heard him in a catalog from the Puppy Toss collective that he was a part of. I remember his enthusiastic voice and his careful, Toth-inspired letterforms.

There's no nice or philosophical way I can approach his death. It is cruel in its untimeliness. I don't think anyone that knew him and knew the hope with which he approached his life's work can not feel a crushing, dizzying horror at the loss of all he was and could be.

I feel that, in a sense, cancer gave something to Dylan, and then took him away. His initial recovery from it was several years ago. As I came to know him then, I could sense how he was a changed man. He had a touch that some people have when they've been breathed on by something large and final. He was a little less carefree, but had a depth of compassion that was all the more poignant because you could tell it was something that he wrestled into being, and continued to wrestle with.

You can say "Dylan loved comics," but that doesn't say much. You could just as truthfully say "Dylan hated comics," because he certainly hated many of them. He was not a fan of comics so much as a fan of excellence as he saw it, and he cared enough about comics to seek out excellence wherever it lay, regardless of the work's provenance. He loved many comics and approached them with purpose. He could love both classic comics and crazy avant-garde comics and was so versed in comics that he was not distracted by surfaces and judged them well. There were times in our friendship where we disagreed over some aesthetic point or another, and months later I would think it silly and regret having the disagreement. But now that he's gone I just find it sweet that we had that, and wish we could have it again.

I think the sunny public disposition came from his determination that, though he had fierce opinions about what was good and bad, he felt no need to define the "good" by defaming the "bad." I think he could appreciate the blade when held in someone else's hands but he did not trust it in his own, or see that as his role. Dylan was an equally sweet man whether he admired your work or not. He approached the work and the artists he admired from the side, he sidled up to you in a way that said this is not about you and not about me, but about the art we both love.

My friend Dylan leaves a medium that by and large did not know him, but he knew it so well. He leaves wife and family and friends that love him.


Tom Devlin:

Dylan really was one of my favorite people in the industry. And when I say that it feels like an odd thing to say. We weren't close. I'd been to group dinners with him a few times. We always visited each other's tables at conventions and chatted briefly. I'm certain there was never a time where it was just me and Dylan sitting in a car or hanging outside of a convention center sipping coffee shooting the breeze. But comics is funny that way, it's a thing we're all in together. We go to conventions in places like Bethesda or Sacramento or Columbus or San Diego or Toronto. You see a lot of the same people year after year and you actually form bonds with them. So in that sense, I knew Dylan pretty well. But the way I really knew him was by what he stood for. Dylan was serious about comics and serious about his love for the art form and really serious about how much he loved and cared for his artists. It's not like he invented any of these things, but he was unwavering. If you spent any time with Dylan at all, you knew it. And, honestly, I'm not sure I know that many people who I really know what they stand for. Man, what an admirable trait.

Like many people in comics, I've been thinking about Dylan and the unfairness of a life cut short. I've been tearfully reading the tributes and wondering why it all affected me so much. I'm not sure I have a total understanding why. But I think a big part of it just might be that I think Dylan really was as kind and decent and benevolent as a business person should be. He wasn't about Dylan. He was about all those cartoonists he published. I do really feel that a publisher's most important job is to spot and nurture talent. If you can't do that, then there's no need for you to publish. Dylan did that. Completely. Sparkplug existed solely for that purpose. Am I that noble? Are any of you that noble? Do I despair because I'm not sure there's anybody to take his place?


Kevin Huizenga:

Dylan was very gracious to me and supported me in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s when I was starting out. He wrote me long letters (and later, emails) even analyzing individual panels, which level of interest and attention amazed, inspired, and sustained me—tips and crits about hands and angles (all the while emphasizing that all this is just his subjective opinion), along with a lot of encouragement and kind words. I’m eternally grateful to you for those letters, Dylan. I wish I had said that in the last few weeks but I didn't realize how serious it was this time. Dylan reached out and was a friend to me when I was lonely and full of self-doubt, and over the years I think he did the same for a lot of young cartoonists. We argued a lot about comics and related things over many emails in the early ‘00s, ending in a bewildered but friendly stalemate, and then we just moved on to other things. I’m sorry I let our friendship fade with time and distance. What a terrible thing to be saying. I wish I had told him all these things I'm thinking about now. I wish I had somehow expressed my gratitude for his kindness and help to me when I was starting out in comics, and also my serious respect for the way he lived out his beliefs and gave of himself. He believed in punk and kung fu and comics. He laid aside his own work and built up Sparkplug and published great comics. Before the web he would self-publish thick zines named Eighty-Six (I have around 15) that he would send out for free, anonymously, filled with rare comics he thought people needed to see. He had great taste AND a big heart AND he worked hard to make shit happen. He helped out a lot of people and laughed and smiled easily. What a great way to have lived. There are many wonderful testimonies to his kindness and friendship around the Internet that you should read. I just got home from SPX tonight and I’ve only read a handful. There’s many more, the kind of reading that makes you want to repent your selfish ways. We were lucky to have known you, and we were lucky to get all that mail from you.


Aaron Cometbus:

My memories of Dylan are probably quite different from those of his other peers in the independent publishing world, because our history goes much further back. I began to hear about him in the late 70s, when my Mom’s best friend moved into a house behind the South Berkeley Co-op. Right away, her twin daughters had a new favorite subject to discuss: the boy next door, whose name they pronounced in a tone usually reserved for slime and slugs—a tone of utter disgust, mixed with high-pitched hints of a crush. They gleefully recounted the repulsive qualities of this “Dylan” at the dinner table. Spoken of but never seen, he became something of a legend. I was surprised when I finally met him and found not an ogre or troll, but a pleasant, polite, earnest and soft-spoken, fairly handsome kid.

Dylan was four years younger than me. Though the difference in age now seems slight, there is a great divide between nine and thirteen. That distance and difference between us never disappeared, even as Dylan grew up and his self-published comics brought us into some of the same circles and events. He moved to Portland and grew a beard, and in later years started to go bald, yet to me he was still, and would always be, the pesky little kid from next door.

Yet I never felt patronizing towards him, just overly familiar. We shared an almost familial bond that was comforting but could also be embarrassing. Seeing me at APE or MoCCA might have been for Dylan like the time I went to Barrington Hall to see Code of Honor and the bassist’s girlfriend turned out to be my old babysitter. When she launched into a story about changing my diaper, I wanted to die.

I never got to know Dylan well. I admired his drive, his ethics, and his ability to keep experimenting with new approaches and artistic styles. I respected the fact that he never quit or succumbed to bitterness, retaining the same earnest, honest, slightly shy demeanor he’d always had. I enjoyed watching him build his life from a distance, but now I’m a little jealous of those whose preconceptions and personal history didn’t keep them from getting to know Dylan as an adult and a friend.

Here’s the part the editors can cut out:

A big fuck you to life for cutting it all short. He lived ethically and creatively and still wound up with years of suffering and an early death. That sucks. My condolences to those who were close.


Frank Santoro:

I've known Dylan since 1992. We got to know each other really well in '94 and '95 though. We became good friends for a minute there. But we argued all the time. He hated everything except Noel Sickles, Mort Meskin, and Alex Toth. I'm exaggerating but it's close to the truth. He really defined himself as much by what he was not as what he was. I respected that a lot about him. He wanted to do a daily strip and set about drawing it. From the story I remember that idea of the daily strip and Dylan's example in some way inspired Keith Knight to try the format. Dylan really had this kind of energy that was motivating to those around him. And he was stubborn as hell. Take it from someone equally stubborn. He drove me nuts. We had a big fight and didn't speak for years. And then when we saw each other again finally it was fine. He actually wrote and drew a comic that referenced this fight though, so maybe it wasn't fine. See Windy Corner Magazine #2. Still we began trading comics again, and talking again. It startled me then how fast he'd grown into a publishing giant. He had so much experience with underground and independent comics so it shouldn't have startled me - he knew how to steer people to the real gold. That's hard to do. And to do it for years with the enthusiasm Dylan had, still has somewhere up there I'm sure, is truly inspiring. It startles me now how fast this has all happened. Before Dylan passed, he told his good friend Landry Walker to "promote Sparkplug" when asked what could be done. So click here now. I love you Dylan.


Rina Ayuyang:

It has been hard for me to write anything coherent since I heard the news about Dylan but I will try my best. Saturday, I was with my two sisters watching tennis on TV. I had my iPhone at my hip checking Twitter messages every five seconds because Warren Sapp (@QBKilla) was tweeting about the same tennis match I was watching. The generic iPhone ding went off and I was excited to see what his next tweet would be, maybe something about how Rafael Nadal was wearing normal short pants rather than his wedgie-inducing capri pants. Instead, it was an email from Greg Means and its subject was titled "Dylan".

As I started my career in comics in 2001, Dylan's name would come up in conversation a lot among other Bay Area cartoonist even after he had moved away to Portland. I myself first knew of Dylan from reading his comic Reporter, then through lively message-board discussions, and later when he started to distro my mini-comics through Sparkplug. When Greg Means and Dylan decided to publish my first graphic novel Whirlwind Wonderland, it was a complete honor. These two got into the business of publishing mainly to promote work that they themselves enjoyed reading and that meant a whole lot to me since the only ones I thought read and liked my work were my family. Although I guess you could say Greg and Dylan felt like family to me, so maybe it wasn't all that different. My relationship with Dylan was not just that of publisher and artist. It became an unlikely friendship. At first it seemed like we really had nothing in common. We never had long discussions about old comics or about movies, but it didn't matter. That was the wonderful thing about Dylan, he would always find some common thread between him and another person. I quickly found out that we shared a penchant for being wise-asses, a borderline fanaticism with '70s Filipino cartoonists (I was supposed to get him that Francisco Coching coffee table book for him for Christmas), a knack for promoting and defending other people's work more passionately than our own, and an approach to comics-making where there were no real rules just as long as you told stories that you cared about.

I could go on and on about what comics meant to Dylan and what Dylan meant to comics: how he was one of the few publishers who still took time to distro self-published minicomics, how he firmly believed in continuing to publish pamphlet comics while others abandoned that model. Through Sparkplug Comics, Dylan was a steady fixture in the comics community, tirelessly exhibiting at shows, and introducing an array of comics of varying styles and artists off the beaten path. Right now, while I'm maybe not thinking too rationally, it is hard to imagine the small press, alt/indie comics world (whatever we calling it these days) continuing to flourish without Dylan. The landscape will definitely change with his absence but I am hopeful that other publishers will pick up the torch and continue to publish what Dylan called "weird ass comix."

On a personal level, I miss Dylan more than any words I can say here. I miss his mellow demeanor. I miss his pretend belligerent old-man voice greeting me at shows just to appease my own cranky disposition. I miss him sharing some random health food snack ("Hey, want a whey bar?) and miss strategizing with him on the best way to make vegan adobo. I know with time this all will get better, that I will move on and be able to celebrate Dylan's life in productive and creative ways. But for now I just want to thank him for letting me into his life, for being patient, for seeing the good in people first and for being a life force in the world of comics.


Steven Brower:

I feel I knew Dylan Williams well, although we had only spoken a few times by phone and never met. The Dylan I knew wasn’t the present-day publisher of Sparkplug Comics and well-published cartoonist in his own right. The Dylan I got to know was from a decade or more ago.

Some years ago I approached Jerry Robinson to see if he was interested in my doing a book on him. It turned out he already had one in the works, but suggested I do one instead on his old friend and collaborator Mort Meskin. I only had a cursory awareness of Meskin—in my mind he existed as a link between Kirby and Ditko, my two primary interests in comics at the time. It was then that I discovered Dylan’s Meskin website and became enthralled. To my knowledge there wasn’t such an in-depth site dedicated to any other comic artist. Dylan’s biographies of both Meskin and George Roussos, his essay on Meskin’s later career at DC, and the section on Meskin’s influences were at once informative, provocative, and insightful. After immersing myself in Meskin’s work I tried contacting Dylan through the address on the site but never heard back. I then contacted Peter Meskin and set up a meeting. When we got together I asked him about Dylan. He said he was a “guy like you, interested in my father’s work and in doing a book,” though some years had passed and he wasn’t quite sure what became of him. He said he was indebted to him for creating the first ever Mort Meskin website in “an elegant, respectful, and creative way,” and how much he liked him and was impressed with him as a person. He gave me a more current e-mail address for Dylan and I contacted him.

I heard back from Dylan shortly and we began a dialogue about Mort. After I expressed curiosity as to why he never did a book, Dylan said he didn’t think he would have done it justice, but my impression was that he had simply moved on. When I asked him whom he was into now, he replied, “Ray Bailey and Pat Boyette, maybe a little Sparky Moore.” To be honest I wasn’t yet aware of Sparkplug or of Dylan’s stature in the indie comics scene, which he modestly described as spending “most of my recent years trying to work with younger artists.” He did mention that one of the highlights of visiting Peter Meskin’s home was seeing Mort’s art supplies and I knew we were kindred spirits. We spoke by phone for the first time soon after that and he said, “I should just send you my research.” Soon thereafter two large boxes were delivered to my door, filled to the brim with Golden Age comics, and over a dozen cassette tapes of interviews Dylan conducted with those who knew Mort, plus many others. And that is how I got to know Dylan. The Dylan I knew was the young, hopeful, enthusiastic interviewer at the brink of the new century whose destiny still lay ahead. Someone who made the trek across the country on his own dime to visit the haunts of an artist he fell in love with, not with the promise of a book in the offing, but rather just an article in the important but austere black-and-white self-published fanzine Robin Snyder’s History of the Comics.

I grew to know Dylan, listening to hour after hour of his informal conversations with elders he so admired, Robinson, Creig Flessel, Jack Burnley, Fred Guardineer, Marvin Stein, Flo Steinberg, and in particular Roussos, whose work he also championed. Each new discovery set him off in a different direction and he was on the hunt, trying his best to record a vanishing history. His enthusiasm for the art form of comics and its creators was infectious. Through the interviews I traveled with him to visit the Meskin brothers, up to the advertising agency BBD&O where Mort had worked, and out to Westchester to St. Joseph’s Hospital where Meskin had volunteered alongside the now elderly Lena and Mary, who immediately adopted Dylan and quizzed him on his personal life, to which he responded with humility and candor. The Dylan I got to know worked a day job as a computer tech and had recently began publishing a comic strip. The few times we spoke by phone I felt I held him at a disadvantage, for I had spent hours in his presence while he barely knew me. Despite our age difference, I desired to hang out one day with this very cool guy, after all we had much in common: a love of and influence of music on our work, vegetarianism, and of course Meskin and comics. To say I am forever in dept to Dylan is an understatement.

The past week has been tough overall, bracketed by the loss of a high school friend, also to cancer, the news of Dylan’s passing, and the 9/11 Anniversary. Dylan’s death affected as greatly as those other losses; I feel that I have lost a friend.


Janelle Hessig:

Late last year, I had asked Dylan to contribute a short, two-page essay about comic book stores for Maximum Rock n Roll's "Punk Comics" issue. Instead of the short and fluffy primer I was expecting, Dylan forked over a thirteen-page behemoth covering the evolution of comic book stores, his personal history with comic shops, what makes a good comic store, a list of U.S. comic shops, a history of alternative comics, distribution options, and interviews with a dozen artists and shop owners that he interviewed on these subjects. Whoa. MRR wasn't able to run an article that lengthy, but this is a great example of Dylan's boundless enthusiasm when it came to comics. He just couldn't contain himself.

When I first met Dylan in the early '90s, aka his ponytail years, I did not suspect that I would one day heavily rely on him as both a friend and an advocate. Regrettably, when reviewing our email correspondence over the past few years, I realize that a hefty portion of our relationship was punctuated by my flakiness met by his unflappable support. He first offered to publish my book sometime around 2005. In spite of never having been presented with a shred of physical evidence that I was actually working on this book, he consistently plugged it in nearly every interview he did – for years! Approximately six years worth of shameful slacking on my part and he never wavered. Whatta prince. I don’t know what I ever did to earn his devotion, but he constantly made me feel valued, respected, and loved as a person and an artist – whether promoting my imaginary book or soliciting my bush league opinion about various projects and ideas.

Dylan introduced a new style of business into comics culture – one that managed to meld comics purism with punk ethics and provided a home for developing artists and seasoned weirdos alike. He really made old Berkeley proud. I have faith that people will be inspired enough by Dylan's integrity to use Sparkplug as a blueprint to start their own companies based on a love of art and artists.

It’s comforting that Dylan was so obviously surrounded by love and that his goodness was acknowledged and celebrated while he was here. My condolences to Emily, his family, Tom, Tim, Landry, and all of his many other friends. I feel lucky to have known him and will really miss him.