“Your Own Terms At Your Own Pace”: An Interview with David Nuss

David Nuss is the founder and currently the co-publisher of Revival House Press. The company was launched with money that Nuss banked after teaching in Korea, and like many people who work in comics, wanted to help create the work that he wanted to see. The company has been on a hiatus recently but has come back with new comics form both creators he’s been working with form the company’s launch and new people. I reached out to ask about his path to becoming a comics publisher, what’s in the works, what small publishers are able to for creators, and what he’s gotten out of working in comics. - Alex Dueben

Alex Dueben: How do you describe Revival House Press to people when they ask what you do?

David Nuss: That usually depends who I’m talking to, and what their reference points are. More often than not, I'll cite Fun Home or Ghost World as parallel references. But I think that's the regular move for most comics folks when engaging with “normies.” [Revival House releases] run the gamut from memoir-based graphic novels like Mardou's Sky In Stereo to the urban satire of T. Limb's Hawd Tales. If I had to point out a defining feature or commonality that runs through our releases, it'd be a strong commitment to our artist’s sensibilities in whatever uncompromising way they manifest. I really tout the writing ability of the cartoonists we work with as and their ability to tell a satisfying story is paramount for us.

\How did you end up being a publisher? What makes one go, "I want to publish comics?"

I’d say it was almost happenstance to a certain degree. I didn’t read comics for a while, mostly in my early to mid-twenties and when I started again, a few of my friends had begun producing impressive work. I acquired a little bit of a nest egg from teaching English abroad so I used that to finance the first few projects from Revival House Press. I should mention Mike Bertino’s role in all this since he was really instrumental in helping establish Revival House Press and getting us onto the general radar. We published two issues of Trigger, his one-person anthology. Same goes with Rusty Jordan. The second issue of Shitbeams on the Loose, the anthology he edited, was our first effort.

It’s a way of producing the type of comics that I would want to read. It’s having a curatorial voice in a specific medium and maybe shifting the conversation a little bit.

Were you always a comics reader?

Always, since I was a little kid. I started out reading Marvel comics, you know the typical X-fare and Spidey books. It was around the time when Marvel re-launched the X-titles in 1991 with the artists who ultimately started Image. Amazing times! [laughs] I was fortunate enough to get flipped on to alternative comics at a fairly young age though. I followed a column in Wizard magazine called “Palmer’s Picks” that led me to Kevin Eastman’s Tundra press and their catalogue which in turn brought me to a greater body of alternative/underground comics. I picked up the original Madman mini-series by Michael Allred at age thirteen and it was game over after that. I pretty much exclusively read any and everything that was outside of the mainstream from that point on. Like I previously mentioned, there was a period during college and a couple years after when I wasn’t buying comics but all in all, I've been a lifelong reader.

You’re obviously publishing very different comics from that. What were the ones that as you got older really excited you and kept you interested in comics?

Oh god, there’s a litany of titles. Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds is a favorite. The first issue of Boy’s Club that Tim Goodyear published was an eye-opener. I loved Ben Marra’s Night Business which really seemed like a breath of fresh air when it dropped almost a decade ago. Anything by Joe Daly. Lauren Weinstein’s Goddess of War was great. Highwater Books in general definitely kept the flame alive in terms of interest and  helped shift my aesthetic tastes from alternative comics into the Kramers generation of artists and their subsequent body of work.

What were the first few years of Revival House like? How did you start and what were you trying to do then?

Honestly, it was a struggle. I think we got lucky because we managed to generate some initial hype but from a publisher’s standpoint, it was steep learning curve. We published four books in a year and then basically hit a brick wall when the money ran out. It really reinforced the need for distribution which is something I still grapple with. Doing shows then were really fun but I wasn’t able to support a viable release schedule from that alone. And we were still in the process of establishing ourselves online so the sales from that avenue were sporadic. We almost immediately ran through a fallow period. 

Also, our initial mission was to publish three artists – Mike, Rusty and Drew Beckmeyer – up front, build a name off their output and then expand the roster. I think we mostly did that at first but the time-consuming nature of making comics made an exclusive reliance on their work untenable. I think we only published two comics over our second and third years. In general, it made the need for a solid infrastructure more apparent – bringing distro considerations, a consistent release schedule and a broader slate of publications into focus. If only I knew then...

You cited Tundra and Highwater, which are two of the great comics publishers in the history of North American comics. If you’re going to model yourself off another publisher, both are very good choices. They were also not especially profitable – to put it delicately. I’m asking somewhat in jest, but were you aware of that?

Oh yeah, I was very aware. Tundra, in particular, was just hemorrhaging dollars. The Kevin Eastman interview in The Comics Journal from 1998 is so fascinating from that standpoint, publishing any and everyone who piqued their interest. The true power of Turtle money! I respect both of them more because of their “failure”. Producing comics in this little niche is not a money-generating exercise, to state the obvious. Like I said before, what I publish represents my own tastes as a reader. I’ve only published artists who I wanted to work with, not ones I’m trying to profit off of. Obviously, it’s nice when a comic you release sells well and steadily but that’s not my immediate goal.

The perception I have after doing this for nearly a decade is that some form of immediate financial success generally requires a shift to the middle. It may mean publishing artists and work that appeals to a broader audience. Not to knock anyone doing this but it’s just not right for our press. I like challenging work that may not fit a conventional framework and that forces the audience to contend with it on a formal level. I think it’s one of the virtues of being a “micropress” publisher. You can publish on your own terms and at your own pace. I respect Austin English from that vantage point and what’s he done with Domino. He releases books when he’s able to do so, and of artists he specifically admires. Going back to the curatorial idea, I think publishing along these lines serves the purpose of bringing important or meaningful yet potentially overlooked artists to some degree of greater prominence. Another worthy example is the book Robyn Chapman released a few years ago, the Deep Girl collection. Those mini’s were so vital in the 90’s and it was wonderful to see Ariel Bourdeaux’s name on the shelves again.

You mentioned that you originally published three artists and then planned to expand from there and it didn’t quite work out the way you initially hoped. Was some of that them only being able to work so quickly. Was some of it about getting other artists onboard?

Yeah, based on the time-consuming nature of making comics, it was pretty naive to have planned it that way. The other element was deciding who to include in terms of expanding the roster. Mike and Rusty were involved with the planning aspect and we ultimately chose to bring Malachi Ward in for the Ritual series. I’m very happy to have worked with him on those books, especially now that his career has taken off. Even now, there’s still a healthy degree of conversation about who we publish or want to work with in the future. Rusty offered to come onboard as the co-publisher last year so now he’s assumed some of the various duties of running Revival House which includes the release schedule. We still give a lot of thought to who we work with and consideration on how the comic will look. August Lipp is a fine example of someone who was a no-brainer for both us. We were both enamored with his output and wanted to produce a comic with him. Roopert was the result and we're very proud to have been involved with it.

You mentioned that it became clear that you needed a solid infrastructure. What did you think that meant then? If you had to do it again would you give a different answer?

It’s just that common trope of “you don’t know what you don’t know” and learning comes through trial and error. I didn’t meet any distributors until I had already released a few publications. I really don’t know what I could have done differently. I could’ve gradually released an anthology here or there but we wanted to dive in.  Based on those initial books, Chris Pitzer, who was running his Adhouse distro back then, offered to rep us. He certainly helped us out and moved a few units. Same goes with Annie Koyama who really supported us at a crucial juncture. We did Comic Con with Koyama Press way back when. Since then I’ve been fortunate to have been distributed by Spit and a Half, Birdcage Bottom, and Domino. When I mentioned “infrastructure” it was regarding the various avenues for selling books and finding an appreciative audience beyond just relying on just festivals and shows.

So how are things working going forward with Rusty as co-publisher. How are you dividing up responsibilities?

Things have been good! If anything, his role has been formalized. When I moved to the east coast several years ago, Rusty would rep RHP at various west coast-based festivals. He’s someone who’s already intimately familiar with our output thus far and has already contributed from an editorial standpoint. Rusty has been someone who I’ve relied on for input and suggestions with regards to our roster so bringing him on was a no-brainer. I definitely trust his curatorial instincts. He’s tackling some of the tedious aspects as well which is helpful and appreciated.

We’ve really seen an explosion of comics shows over the past decade. What has that meant for you as a micropress?

If anything, I’ve really appreciated the regional diversity of the festival expansion. It’s been a good excuse to travel around North America (and hopefully beyond in the near-future. I love the specificity of these regional shows, just seeing what a comics community looks like in a particular area as well as who the audience might be. Profit-wise it can be uneven. We certainly do better in certain cities and at certain shows, although this is the byproduct of a variety of factors: time of year, our placement in the festival, whether or not we have a new book, etc. Not that that experience is unique to us.

Often, I’ve found there’s a disparity between the sales performance and the visit itself. I experienced this both times I went to TCAF, for example. Wound up in one of those dreaded side rooms on both occasions and sales were just lackluster on the whole. But on the flip, I had an amazing time in Toronto, spending time with great folks on both trips. You have to take it in stride and learn to appreciate the journey. In a way, comics have been a means to an end for me, like in terms of having a particular experience or forging a connection. Some of the closest friendships I’ve made have been through these shows, like with Matt Moses of Hic + Hoc or with Pete and Maria of Coin-Op. So these festivals are amazing when they’re able to provide that result. It’s assembling in a space with other individuals who share a common bond. Not to get all sappy but I appreciate that aspect.

Break down what you do. I mean how much is production, how much distribution, how much editorial, how much is things that people like me and others don’t even know you do?

In terms of the day to day, it’s pretty mundane. Filling out online orders, updating the website, etc. It obviously picks up when we have a new book to publish or show to attend. I’ve detailed the distro part already and production is certainly handled on our end. We work with a few offset printers and are the contact point between them and the artist. Some artists ask us to format their work for publication, others don’t. We make sure the artist signs off on a proof before it goes to print. Editorially, we’re fairly loose. I would say the bulk of the editorial work is completed in the process of discussing the particulars of the comic with the artist. We’re very specific about who we work with so when we finish the discussion about a potential book, the artist is free to turn in what they’d like. That's about the extent of our editorial input. If it seems like a book was completed half-heartedly or features deeply problematic elements, we would certainly address those concerns. I’m generally not inclined to give notes unless they’re requested. A couple artists have sent along thumbnails in which case, I will give feedback. Promotions is the last part of what we offer. Sending along review copies, contacting editors, etc. I’ve begun making promotional videos for our comics and Super Magic Forest will be the first comic to have one released.

People can self publish and there are more resources now as far as that than ever. Let’s pretend I can draw – admittedly, a big stretch – and that you like it. What can RHP do? Why should I be talking to you instead of just being a one man band?

Haha, I’ll take the leap of faith that you can draw.

You’re right in the sense that it’s easier than ever to self publish. The potential benefit of working with us is that we’re able to cover the financial burden of printing and have the capacity and resources to push the book when it’s released. We’re collaborative in the sense that we want the final product to closely reflect the artist’s specifications and is released to their full approval. I’m proud of our track record and hopefully, our name speaks for itself. I’d like to think an artist would want to publish a book with us from along those lines.

So after all the headaches and the craziness, you have a sense of how this works by now. What are the plans for Revival House now as opposed to when you started? Obviously it’s more than you and three people but how do you see it going forward?

Honestly, our plans are similar. We just want to publish cool comics, albeit more than one or two a year. The hurdle is getting them out the door. I’ve made some bad decisions from along those lines but I’ve learned a ton as well. I want to put this experience to work going forward. Feels kinda like we were in limbo for a little while but we’re out of it now. Roopert is such an amazing comic by a brilliant artist, August Lipp and the same goes with Chris Cilla’s Blue Onion, the work of a man at the height of his powers. After a year and a half hiatus, I’m really happy we returned with those books. I'd like to publish more comics in the graphic novel format so that's an aspiration we're working towards.

What’s the publishing plan for 2019 and 2020?

We’re looking to drop Ansis Purin’s Super Magic Forest in the near-future. It’s a very fun comic, one that will be worth the wait. You’re gonna find a true labor of love. We’re very excited. Next year, we’re releasing the second volume of Sky In Stereo. It’ll be out in May. I feel extremely lucky to have worked with Mardou on Volume One and the follow up is as well-crafted and beautifully written as the first. People are going to be blown away when they read it. 

Finally, we’re working with Uncivilized Books now on the distribution front. They’ll be helping us with the release of Sky In Stereo Vol. II, basically getting it into the book shops nationally. We’re very elated with this development, especially since I’m a fan of their output. They’ve released some of my favorite books from over the last few years. I think it’s going to be an effective partnership.