“I Want To See What Else We Can Get Away With”: An Interview with Avi Ehrlich

Avi Ehrlich, Illustration by Josh PM.

Silver Sprocket is a radical comics publisher and art crew in San Francisco that over the years has been publishing a long list of incredibly talented creators including Janelle Hessig, Benji Nate, Tom Neely, Ben Passmore, Liz Prince, Ben Snakepit, and Liz Suburbia. In recent years the company has operated a storefront on Haight Street in San Francisco, but recently moved to a new space on Valencia Street. This coincides with the announcement of the publisher’s lineup of upcoming books, an incredible and eclectic mix of graphic novels, a tarot deck, art books, and a new hardcover edition of Alex Wrekk’s Stolen Sharpie Revolution. I spoke recently with Silver Sprocket publisher Avi Ehrlich to talk about how they approaches comics, finding a toehold in a gentrifying San Francisco, books that readers can look forward to, and what he’s trying to do differently.

For people who don’t know or have forgotten, what is Silver Sprocket and what are you up to now?

It’s a radical comics publisher and art crew that is a business that I own and sign the checks for. I try to make it not as bad as a lot of the comics industry, including maximum transparency over accounting and letting the artists call their own shots. I try to let the artists be as informed as possible about what we’re trying to do and give them an active voice at the table, be direct about goals and strategies, what we think we’ll accomplish. One of our main goals is to have fun, too.

Transparency around money and being open about what you’re doing is, well, how can I phrase this delicately, not the norm?

This is indie comics. We’re not trying to be Abrams. None of my fellow indie comics publishers are giant corporations with Abrams level resources and management structures, so it makes me so angry to see them acting like it in ways that are detrimental to their goals. There’s no reason for that when the community model is so much more enriching and personally rewarding and constructive. I have a lot of rage about the comics industry and I’m very happy to hopefully be part of something different. I’m not inventing a new wheel. Plenty of people have tried to make things better before and have had various levels of success. I feel like that came off as very very bitter and I’m not that bitter. I really just want to try to have a good time and publish the things I want to see out there. Especially the things I don’t trust other people to do a good job with. [laughs]

[laughs] I wouldn’t say bitter – and I certainly don’t think some anger is unreasonable or irrational. You described Silver Sprocket as radical earlier. How has the company and the way you operate been shaped by your politics?

I can answer this about the world in general and then comics specifically. Bigger picture, it’s very shaped by anarchist world views and specifically the Bay Area punk rock scene which was a very hippieish community of mutual aid and helping each other out and not waiting for permission from some corporation to exist. Just being empowered to improve your own life and community and create not just the entertainment you want to consume but also the food you want to consume. Food Not Bombs and projects like that. We have a history of not asking permission to exist and just doing things regardless of what the established tropes are. Meanwhile I’m constantly on the phone with people who actually know how to publish comics asking them for advice about everything. I’m not going to do something the way everyone else does it just because it’s the way they do it. I want to understand what the point of it is and see if it’s in line with what our goals are. For example, I get so frustrated when I see fantastic artists work super hard all year to make something and then not have a sustainable model for what they’re going to do with it. I feel like a publisher that they work with really needs to be upfront and honest with them about how they operate, like “We print 2,000 copies of a book in China and if it sells out in the first month then it’s going to take at least three or four months too reprint and the hype will have passed.” Then you have publishers who’ve never had a book sell more than one thousand copies and it’s a passion project for the publisher, but their contract terms make it such that royalties would not start happening until after 5,000 books got sold. These can be totally acceptable ways to run a business, but I feel like artists need to be informed of what’s going on. I don’t hear these conversations happening at the indie level. I don’t hear a lot of publishers communicating this level of vital business details with their artists.

Well, the Silver Sprocket logo is a goat with “A.C.A.B.” on its butt. Your politics are up front.

Yes but that’s about all cats being beautiful. [laughs]

[laughs] So you’ve had a space on Haight Street for the past few years. Have you always had a physical space?

In the grand tradition of indie publishers, we had a physical space in my bedroom for a really long time. Then it moved around to another room to a corner of the basement and then I had this bizarre amazing opportunity to move the shop to Haight Street. There was a vacant storefront and some friends of mine ran the shop next door to it. They were irritated with garbage and the vacant storefront was an eyesore to the neighborhood. They got the landlord to rent it to me under the table for really cheap with the expectation that it would be a very short term sublease, like a few months – and it lasted for 26 months! We held concerts in it and fantastic art shows and events with local comics creators and art schools. We had a fantastic time up there, despite it being on Haight Street, which is like Disneyland for aging Summer of Love hippies to forget everything they ever cared about and just be entitled shitheads. We had a great time and our audience made the trek for us.

So why did you decide to move?

We didn’t have to move, but we knew we’d get kicked out soon if we didn’t. They were cutting a lot of holes in the floors and ceilings to retrofit and getting dust everywhere. The end was near, and I got the opportunity to take over half of a record store – directly across the street from my house and the basement that we were previously occupying. It’s cool because we’ve only been open for a week now but we’ve had people from the neighborhood coming in and going, “I think three or five years ago I was in some basement for a punk rock show and a lot of this art looks really familiar from that.” I’m like, “Yes, you’ve been to our old office.”

It sounds like you see the physical space as this extension of the community you’re building.

Very selfishly, it’s mental health. Having my place of work be my bedroom or in my house was really stressful and made it hard to have any kind of work-life separation. I’m still really shitty at that, but I’m a lot better than I was. I think indie comics are really fun and important and a very specific art and communication medium that I’m really passionate about – and I’m angry that the Hard Rock Cafe gets to exist where they take shitty dad-rock and put it on a pedestal in glass case frames and spotlights. My dream would be to do that for indie comics. But then I got to go to the Billy Ireland Museum and I saw them fucking nail it, but having a store is really fun and getting to interact with people and not just be by myself all the time doing production work and marketing. Having a physical spot and being able to host artists for readings and events that can’t really happen anywhere else because no one understands what they’re doing. I think the store is super cool and I’m really glad we have it and can interact with people. Listening in as teenagers explain our comics to their parents just completely melts my heart. It’s otherwise easy to forget that people really give a shit about this thing that we’re doing.

Silver Sprocket used to be a punk rock record label, we worked with bands who would go on tour together building community on basically a road trip together where they got to have a party every night at a concert venue in a new town and hang out and be adored by their fans and have a good time. Indie comics doesn’t have such community opportunities. There’s a convention scene where there are five weekends a year at various expensive places across the country where you have to do really intense retail capitalism all day behind a table, excited that your friends and peers are there so you push yourself to stay on hanging out all night and get totally beat, then back to isolation when its over. I’m glad that so many cities have an indie comics focused shop that is a hub for the indie comics community. I just think we need a lot more of that.

For people who haven’t been to the old store – or haven’t been to the new one yet – what do you sell? How do you curate?

We have our own catalogue, which I would say makes up maybe ten per cent of the store at this point. Less than that, probably, but I’m not going to do math right now. Everything in the store either somebody local brought it in and we thought it was cool or we curated it. We have all the Peow stuff and Shortbox stuff and I don’t think any other shop in the Bay area has all those because they’re so annoying to import. We have mostly indie stuff. A lot of cool, handmade things. At the indie comics fests I’ll walk around and on my first day buy things that look cool and then the next day I’ll ask if they do wholesale and buy ten copies of the best things. There are also fantastic indie distributors like Birdcage Bottom and Radiator that we order from. We do carry some Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly and even First Second, but for the most part it’s weird indie shit. We don’t just order something because it’s in a catalogue, but because someone who works here or one of our artists has vouched for the thing being really cool. All the books are on display with their front covers facing out. Most have a short review on a card sticking up above them. We tell people it’s “library rules, feel free to hang out and read. We’re not going to yell at you for reading the book before you buy it.” We’d love it if you came over, brought some beers and hung out, give us company and read some comics.

You mentioned that you took over half of a record shop. Do they have a similar philosophy about a feel and approach to stocking their store?

They’re an independent record store, but they’re more traditional. 1-2-3-4 Go! Records have a location in Oakland that’s punk-scene famous. They have a concert space connected to it and a real fantastic selection of underground music. The San Francisco location is a little more of a regular record store, probably just because of what the neighborhood is over here. We are very different stores even though we’re both independently minded and scrappy and come from similar roots.

You’re launching the new location with an art show.

That got pushed back a bit. We were very ambitious about how long it would take to move in and look good. It turns out you can’t do that overnight – which we literally tried to do. [laughs] The show is going to open March 21st. We’re going to be showing the original artwork from Liz Suburbia’s new zine Radlands that we published. Liz did a hand-made run for the Small Press Expo last year and it was just so good, we wanted to give it a bigger print run. It is fantastic. It’s a bunch of sexy punk rock pinups and extraterrestrials and monsters and a vampire and a wolfman. It’s very good.

That’s a good segue. Tell me about the Spring season. You’re publishing nine books, I think?

These are some of the most exciting comics we’ve gotten to put out and I’m excited for people to interact with these. First up is Big Punk by Janelle Hessig. Janelle has been one of my all time heroes from zine making and punk rock since I was a teenager. The book is heartwarming and funny and very directly relevant to the life we live in San Francisco in the midst of gentrification and trying to figure out how to exist with a set of values in contrast to the realities of the world around us and then moving out to the woods and hooking up with Bigfoot. 

No Romance in Hell by Hyena Hell, who’s a fantastic comics artist from New Orleans. I’ve been seeing their work forever and for this book the pages were being posted on Instagram as they were being drawn and I think we worked out the publishing details over DM. It’s about trying to date in Hell and the dating scene is shitty so she comes to Earth to see if she’ll have better luck with humans and it turns out that humans are just as bad. It’s very funny and well written and thoughtful.

Radlands by Liz Suburbia is a collection of sexy pinups. There are some Bruce Springsteen references and it’s really fun.

Stolen Sharpie Revolution by Alex Wrekk has been around for over a decade and this is the freshly updated sixth edition. It’s the definitive resource for all things zine making, ways of formatting and producing, the ethics and culture behind zine distribution, and just everything you need. No one should have to ask permission to exist. If you want to make something, go make it. You don’t need to read a book or wait for some publisher to give you permission. This is such a fantastic resource. It’s really exciting we’re reissuing it and giving it book trade distribution for the first time. We are also publishing a hardcover version specifically at the request of librarians.

I went to my first library conference last year and learned so much. So many librarians were such big fans of our comics but frustrated that they can only carry the hardcovers because paperbacks get destroyed so quickly in circulation. I’ve been friends with Alex forever and I’m super honored and excited about publishing this book. 

You Will Be Okay is by Meggie the Ramm, who’s a comics artist out of Oakland. They brought us five hand-made copies of this and we sold out that day. They came back with more and we sold out in two or three days. It’s really good. It’s something you can fit in your pocket and it ended up being our best selling item on the days we had it in stock. People really appreciated it and kept coming back to get more for friends. Meggie was having trouble keeping them in stock so we have formally reissued a book that was originally brought in on consignment. Which is the coolest way to get pitched a book!

That’s a theme for Silver Sprocket. We don’t have editors. We did not get into comic publishing to tell our favorite artists what to do. Pretty much everything we publish is self made by the artists before even really we talk about what we might want to do with it. That’s part of that honesty part of if we’re going to talk about putting out a book, how would we market it, what would we do with it. It’s really hard to have those conversations in earnest without a complete idea of what the actual project is. Everybody that we work with has experience self releasing their own books and being fiercely independent, and that enables us to have the weird working relationships that we do where all the artists are empowered and informed about all the things going on.

One Million Tiny Fires by Ashley Robin Franklin, who is amazing. She is a comics artist in Austin, Texas and an organizer of comics and zine fests and she makes such a good, weird variety of comics. This one is a queer horror story with cosmic dread and aliens and really tender relationship stuff. I don’t want to give anything away but it is so fucking good. Everyone I have let read it has lost their minds. It’s going to be our first book with a holographic metallic cover. The book is really good and I’m really excited for people to read it. It’s very tender and queer and thoughtful and scary and really really good.

The next one is Yes I’m Flagging by Archie Bongiovanni. Archie has been on such a streak lately and this is a zine that Archie self published and a fantastic resource on how the world of queer flagging works and what that looks like in 2020. We were able to lower the cover price while also adding a few pages and making the whole thing full color. So now it’s a cool five dollar pocket guide and it is gorgeous and really cool. I know how people are responding to it in our hometown of San Francisco, because it’s a really gay space, but I have no idea what to expect of a more national and global response but I’m excited to find out. And working with Archie is just fantastic and I hope we can keep on collaborating on cool shit.

Gnartoons by James the Stanton, who is from Seattle and is such a treasure of positive indie comics energy and also just a fantastic creator. This is a collection of 272 pages of comics that he’s made over the years that are some of my favorite comics ever. I have a bunch of these which were tiny short run minis you can’t get anymore. I am so excited to put all of these shorts together into one collection. It’s a hardcover. It’s CMYK colors plus Pantone colors. James went in and colored old comics that were black and white. This is going to melt people’s brains. You’re on a tour of Willy Wonka’s factory but it’s comics that are smart and weird and funny and interesting and it’s not just stoner nonsense, it’s really good creative literature. That’s great.

In the press release you called it a Hanna-Barbara mushroom trip and that description plus those pages, you sold me. [laughs]

Absolutely. I think right now James is an artist’s artist. I feel like the general public doesn’t know his work as well as they should, but indie cartoonists are super aware of his work. People who are cartoonists, especially in Seattle, have been so excited about this.

You also have a tarot book. And a tarot deck?

Tarot has, in recent history, been really white and cis and patriarchal as far as the power dynamics and the illustrations and how it’s told. This is a very queer intersectional one made by Latinx woman of color Cristy C Road, who’s been one of my zine/literature/art heroes for decades. She’s done a lot of band art and album covers. I think she just made some t-shirts for Green Day. She originally self-published this tarot deck with a Kickstarter and when that sold out we talked about reissuing it with updated production quality and wider distribution. We already put out the tarot deck and we’re getting ready to put out an art book that’s giant, 12 x 9 inches, with fantastic production quality so all the details of the cards can be seen up close. We’re pairing that with the descriptions of the cards that Cristy wrote which are really inspirational. She’s a brilliant writer and we’ve gotten her to expand on the original booklet and translate it all into Spanish. It’s a bilingual English/Spanish book with the descriptions and full page artwork for each card. The original tarot deck is large because it was meant to be gorgeous and show off the art but it’s a $50 deck so it’s not as accessible as we would like it to be. So we donated a bunch of them to queer and DIY spaces, but now we’re reissuing it as a regular pocket size set which will be $20 so anybody who’s into tarot can afford to have it.

You mentioned attending a library conference and librarians talking to you about what they do and what they need. Clearly what you want to do and who you want to publish hasn’t changed, but has that and other encounters helped you think differently about how you approach the business?

I’m really just trying to learn. I want to be really honest that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing my best. A general principle of the company is that we’re always going to ask for advice from anybody we can find who might have something to offer. I don’t want to ever present as knowing anything. We can always learn. Indie comics is such a friendly space. I firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. We get e-mails regularly from people asking how we did things and we will always share information. If someone wants to know how something got made or what we learned while working on a project or what kinds of problems we ran into or just shoot the shit about business plans or marketing plans, we will always help as best we can. That’s just the world we want to live in, but also, that’s how everyone else has been with us. I learned a ton about how different publishers work at the library conference. Fantagraphics is distributed by Norton, whose specialty is libraries, which is why Fantagraphics is able to have so many amazing hardcover books because if you can sell a thousand copies of those in your first print run to libraries, that covers so many costs right away and makes your business so much more sustainable. It directly plays into the mission of publishing books that are accessible to people. Indie comics shops that care about indie comics are great, but they mostly exist in the gentrified parts of big cities. They’re not all that accessible to regular people, which I think is really fucked up. Libraries exist as a system for people to access books without needing a lot of money. It would be absolutely foolish and rude to not reach out to libraries and figure out how to better serve their needs. It’s a moral issue but it’s also good business. We’ll do things like print out pages of comics at 11x17 and paste them up on walls as public art, or crime. Whatever you want to call it. People can see it and interact with it. Even if they don’t know it’s a comic. Whenever we do that, we see our Instagram and other analytics spike. Billboards exist for a reason but I’m not going to pay for a billboard but I can paste up art before a comic fest. Jenn Woodall’s art took off super hard for us after we started pasting it around and giving away free stickers.

You’re interested in not just building an audience but a community around these shared ideas and passions.

We want to be empowering and enabling. Everybody can make comics – and should! I just fundamentally don’t like power dynamics. I don’t want there to be gatekeepers to anything. I would rather have a bunch of megaphones and trampolines to help people. Community is really important. With Silver Sprocket, I’m around art and literature that are directly made by my peers that people can relate to and have conversations about. It’s a way better starter medium for community and culture than anything else out there. We can try relating to the latest Marvel movie, or we can talk about a comic that was made by a member of the community about things that affect them and all of us – that’s also entertaining and well illustrated and representative of people we actually are and see everyday.

But also, to call X-Men “mainstream comics?” I don’t know anybody who reads X-Men. Whereas I have met people at dinner parties who have read Catboy who I’ve never met before who are really excited about it. I would really be curious to see what actual readership numbers are. I think it’s quite possible without knowing it that these comics, which are on Instagram and Tumblr and Vice, are mainstream in ways that Marvel and DC are not. I have no idea, though. The ways that we measure this stuff is pretty odd and arbitrary. The comics industry is such an arbitrarily small and fucked up echo chamber that doesn’t really look at how it exists in the bigger picture of the world and it’s quite silly. My Favorite Thing is Monsters has a way bigger and wider readership than anything X-Men has done in years.

It sounds like you’re making a good go of things, which I know is hard especially given the gentrification/colonization of the Bay Area.

It’s harder than ever to find a toehold where you can exist, but if you’re scrappy and you have a network of people with resources, you can make a go of it. Like the rent that we were paying on that storefront on Haight street. That came about from being social and having friends who were aware that the landlord was paying this much every month to clean graffiti telling us, “I bet you could offer more than that in rent.” Just being creative and figuring shit out. These opportunities won’t continue to exist in their current form for much longer. I’m excited that we now have a lease for a full year because it means we can plan ahead. But I have no idea what’s going to happen after this. Maybe we’ll be sick of having a store by then? Who knows.

Is this how you were running Silver Sprocket even before you were publishing comics? Where you planning and working, but at a certain point, you just accept, who knows?

We have goals, but it’s with an honest understanding that things change. There’s always going to be new information and new factors and changing variables so you’ve always got to be able to reassess what you’re doing and see if it still makes sense. Committing to things for a little while is cool. At the old shop we hosted a lot of comics artists but we were never able to promote an event more than a month ahead of time because we were never sure if we’d have the space. Now that we have the space for a year I want to bug every artist I like and their publishers to have all the release parties and art shows. I think that comic shops and art shows have potential to be really interesting weird places and I’d really like to see where we can take that. Our old shop had a literal bunkbed and we were sponsored by a beer company. I want to see what else we can get away with.