Features

Zineth 1: Small Press and Self-Published Comics in the Pandemic Era

This is the first in a series about current developments in small press and self-published comics. By no means a definitive or comprehensive survey, Zineth reflects work about which I feel I might have something interesting to say. Information about how to contact me and submit material for possible review appears at the end of this column.

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Detail from Micky by Josh "JHS" Simmons

“For the foreseeable future, I'm going to produce as many comic pages as I can, and I am in a position where I am able. For now. Until the big one hits and the west coast sinks, in flames, covered with diseased humans, into the ocean.” Oregon-based cartoonist Josh Simmons, in an email to the author

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Not so long ago, I wondered if the small press comics movement might crash during the pandemic. The isolation. Millions losing their jobs or furloughed. Everybody going crazy. Publishing upended. The shutdown of certain parts of the comic industry’s economy. These hardships and more pointed to a likely slowing of the ebullient momentum self-published and small press comics have gained over the last decade.

Ha! Not a chance!

If the pandemic had happened in 2000, it may very well have stalled out small press comics for a while. But this is 2021, baby, and we’ve got web distros! Etsy! Instagram! Patreon! Kickstarter! A new generation of emerging cartoonists working hard to be read! So, while cartoonists, publishers, and distributors continue to face some gnarly challenges, we have seen an impressive array of new short-run comics releases in the last year. This, I want to say wave but I think it is bigger, this outbreak? (no), this explosion (too cliched), this evolvement/proliferation/growth... waxing of the form is good news for comics.

In the absence of any comprehensive data on small press comics publishing, I can’t say for sure if we are seeing more or less publishing activity during the pandemic. (Future historians will have their work cut out to document the mountain of self-published and small press comics created in our age.) My guess is the amount of this material coming into existence during the pandemic is certainly no less than before and possibly greater. I think the quality of the work is as good as ever, if not better (nothing like suffering to make work more soulful).

Why would this be? I figure people have been inside more, with less social activity and less distraction so they are more productive. I’ve seen some new cartoonists make significant strides in their growth in 2020 and some established masters put out some of their best work... all in short-run editions. It’s a special time.

Speaking of masters, John Porcellino recently weighed in on this special time in the small press.

“There’s this belief somehow that this stuff isn’t commercial, or there’s not enough interest, or it’s not marketable. But I think that’s clearly shortsighted. And I understand, like, the economics of publishing, you know. It doesn’t make sense to publish some expensive book that’s gonna sell 500 copies. But for small publishers and self-publishers it makes a ton of sense, you know? I feel like we’re in a golden age of, like, underground comics, or self-published comics, or small press comics, where it’s not just the creative freedom that people find in that approach, but the economic freedom, too. I know that [Alex Graham's] Dog Biscuits was Lulu [a print-on-demand platform], so I’m sure they charge an arm and a leg to her for each copy. But still – how much did that book sell for on Lulu, was it thirty bucks? Do the math. She sold a thousand of ‘em in, like, ten days.”

– John Porcellino, March, 28 2021 on “Sunday Morning Hello Stream” (hosted by Noah Van Sciver and featuring John Porcellino and Brian Baynes from Bubbles magazine)

So, I have this theory about how COVID-19 is affecting the lives and work of cartoonists. Already a reclusive bunch, cartoonists have embraced the problem of isolation long before the majority of the world’s population was forced to quarantine. Given this, I’ve wondered: has the pandemic actually helped cartoonists in some ways?

I recently reached out to a few folks in the business to test this hypothesis and to see how they are doing during the pandemic. There are undoubtedly some commonalities to be found, but the four cartoonists and one distributor-curator in this minuscule sampling each present a different picture.

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Jeff Alford, owner of the artfully curated online distro Wig Shop, is in a unique position to consider where small press comics stand today. “I feel like there was a shift recently where people began to see themselves simultaneously as both consumer and creator and question their own direction,” Alford observed (and, as we’ll see, some well-established mainstream cartoonists have returned to their roots of self-publishing in the last year). “It feels to me like people are now -- more than ever -- creating comics they’d want to buy and treasure and are creating feeds they’d want to scroll through online. Opening (online) stores they’d themselves want to shop at, in my case.”

While Alford doesn’t see the pandemic as a primary catalyst for this shift, he does see an impact. “For many of us, the pandemic stripped away a lot of our livelihoods and left a lot of time to just look at things and reflect on where we fit into it all. I suspect a lot of artists, printers, and collectors saw this as an opportunity to recalibrate, and in that, have been producing some really exciting work.” Indeed. The last year has been a time of recalibration.

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cover to MICKY comic book by Josh Simmons

Josh Simmons (Flayed Corpse, The Furry Trap), who has never stopped self-publishing his work since he began 25 years ago, tells me that he has “been extremely productive during COVID times, the most I’ve been in years.” He cites unemployment benefits and more time to create as a factor, saying he is “taking advantage of this window and getting as much done as I can.” Since the pandemic lockdowns began, Simmons has self-published four comics, including Micky, which ranks among his best work. Except for placement in a few small shops and online distros, the sole outlet for this book has been Simmons himself.

At just 12 pages plus a cover, Micky is a relatively short comic book, but it delivers a dense, satisfying, superbly crafted narrative, and ends up feeling more substantial than most longer self-published comics. If you’ve ever wondered what a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling and directed by Stanley Kubrick at his most brutal would be like, Micky goes a long way towards satisfying that curiosity.

The story, a shockingly violent tale about a maniac on an airplane, starts off slowly. A troll-like, pudgy old dude in a diamond-pattern pull-over sweater sits next to a young couple.

people getting on a plane cartoon by Josh Simmons
Detail from Micky

“I’m a shower AND a grower, friend,” Micky says as he offers his hand to the young man by way of introduction. From there, the conversation just gets weirder and more unsettling as Micky speculates on the attractiveness of the rectums of the stiff, mortified, confused couple. After flicking sweat from his face onto them, he goes into the bathroom, where, in due time, he produces a massive ejaculation, covering the walls.

Would you believe me if I told you this was just the beginning of an incredible escalation that is both terrifying and hilarious at the same time? If you know the work of Josh Simmons, a modern horror master, you probably would.

Simmons started Micky in mid-2019, a half-year or so before the pandemic hit. While none of the characters in the story are wearing masks and there is no overt reference to COVID-19, the book captures the what-the-fuck, deer-in-the-headlights feel of the early days of the pandemic era before millions would fall prey to the virus. Micky is a symbol for an unstoppable, uncaring wide-spread destruction, as the final panels of the story make clear. The way the dulled, passive people on the plane keep downplaying the danger posed by an insane and hostile being (I can’t say for sure Micky is human) feels very 2020. Yet, I suspect, Micky will continue to speak to readers of future decades, since the pandemic theme is never explicitly stated and our collective ability to place the proverbial head in the proverbial sand seems to be a part of humanity. I can see, for example, Micky being interpreted as a climate change story in 2040.

Detail from Mickey

One of the most impressive aspects of Micky is the art. The typically bland, antiseptic, over-engineered plane interior is meticulously and precisely drawn. This lays down a static grid over which Micky’s chaos (and various bodily fluids) will spew.  Simmons said, “It was AGONY drawing that stuff. Industrial, sterile spaces, super tedious. I worked hard at it because it had to feel convincing.” The result is rock-solid convincing.

Micky was shaped, in part by a collaboration with Riley Gale, frontman for the LGBTQ-enlightened thrash metal band, Power Trip. Gale contacted Simmons with a request for some work to include in a comic book he was assembling. “He wanted to give back to comics by putting an anthology together featuring a bunch of his favorite cartoonists, and pay everyone a decent rate,” Simmons remembered. “So I said he could have this story Micky that I had just started drawing. He asked to see it and if he could edit it. So he was involved every step of the way. I showed him the written script and the pencils and the inked pages as I finished them. He didn't contribute much to the story in the sense of changing or adding things (he also said I'm a creator that really doesn't need much editing), but he was definitely an energizing presence.”

The COVID-19 lockdowns prevented Power Trip from touring, which led to delayed publication of Gale’s comics anthology. Unexpectedly, Gale died in August 2020. The cause of his death remains unreleased to the public. To date, the anthology remains unpublished. Simmons has self-published two signed and numbered printings of Micky, both with individualized spray-painted inside front covers, a technique Simmons has employed for much of his 25 years as a professional and self-publishing cartoonist.

Covers of Ghouls #0-2 by Josh Simmons

In addition to Micky, Simmons has recently published three issues of Ghouls (#0-2), a small 4.25 by 5.5 inches, 16- to 24-page title stuffed with wicked funny X-rated cartoons and comics, several of which are resonant with the pandemic.

Contact Josh through Instagram to acquire Micky and Ghouls #0-2. The books are also turning up in a few online distros here and there.

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Noah Van Sciver (The Hypo, The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski), who recently made available his first self-published comic book in years, says of the last few months: “In between bouts of paranoia and dread, I kept myself productive and remained a page-a-day cartoonist in my studio.” Still, Van Sciver -- an established career cartoonist primarily published by Fantagraphics -- admits he returned to self-publishing because “2020 made me think a lot more about how to publish and promote my own work and rely on myself in case the shit really hit the fan.”

Whether it is possible to consume the prolific Noah Van Sciver’s comics at the rate he produces them is not at all clear (two books were released during the time I wrote this piece, but I am pretty slow); besides that, they are consistently entertaining, funny, thoughtful, ever-evolving, and beautifully cartooned – one can almost smell the India ink.

In the last year or so, the indefatigable Van Sciver has self-published three comic books (For Art's Sake, Boring, and The Lizard Laughed) and a reprint zine of 1920s comics by Clare Briggs (Oh Man!). Additionally, he has put out two new books with established publishers, one (Please Don’t Step on my JNCO Jeans) through Fantagraphics, and the other (the forthcoming Blammo Issues 1-5) with his first publisher/patron, Kilgore Books. There’s even more, such as prints, and an expanded reprint edition of his 2015 comic, My Hot Date.

In thinking about promotion, Noah also started a YouTube channel in 2020, and has so far posted around 100 videos featuring a few fascinating behind-the-scenes tours of his work and his comics collection, and dozens of relaxed, informative conversations with folks like Peter Bagge, Marc Bell, Warren Bernard, Eddie Campbell, Emil Ferris, Alec Longstreth (on Carl Barks), Mimi Pond, and Michael Tisserand, to name a few.

In For Art’s Sake, a handsome, 52-page, digest-sized, black and white comic with a two-color cover, Van Sciver tells the story of the first time our intrepid cartoonist made money from his art. It’s also, to quote from the back cover, “A true story about art, skateboarding, and the end of a friendship.”

Noah Van Sciver For Art's Sake
From For Art's Sake

In the story, a quirky middle-aged woman named Gerri -- a regular at the Barnes & Noble café where young Noah labors in quiet desperation -- commissions him to paint a portrait of her and her husband from a photograph she hands to him. “I’ve never been paid to do any art before,” muses the young Van Sciver in front of a rack bursting with bags of coffee beans, clad in his corporate uniform of store cap and apron with promotional pinback buttons fastened to a strap. Gerri leans in a little, her face brightening as she utters a statement which she clearly feels will seal the deal: “I will pay you 30 untaxed dollars.”

The untaxed part kills me. This sort of small-but-telling detail is exactly the reason I seek out and read anything by Van Sciver I can get my heavily-taxed hands on. Good writing is specific writing. Dude knows how to tell a story.

For Art’s Sake is about much more than Van Sciver’s first small step into becoming a professional artist. It is also the story of reluctantly growing up, putting aside childish things, and leaving one’s early companions behind.

As is his wont, Van Sciver makes fun of himself, trying to become a great painter when even the local library rejects his art for a public show. He lampoons himself throughout the story, at one point inserting a full-page pen-and-ink version of Van Gogh’s famed injured ear self-portrait. It’s a pretty good copy, except that Van Sciver has replaced one Van with another: himself.

Noah Van Sciver as Van Gogh
From For Art's Sake

At other points in the story, Van Sciver drops his protective shield of self-satire and shows us something else: pain and confusion over what can only be described as a break-up with his (non-romantic) roommate and high school best friend. The tension between the two young men builds throughout the story and culminates in a conflict that serves as the emotional climax of the story.

For Art’s Sake slots in perfectly with Noah’s long stream of autobiographical, self-satirical comic stories. In some ways, it is the best of the lot so far, as Van Sciver steadily grows as a writer and visual storyteller. Offering a nuanced, rich blend of scenes at his coffee shop job, his growing estrangement from his roommate BFF, and his early pursuit of an artist’s life, For Art’s Sake is a funny, sad, beautiful book I will return to over and over.

Van Sciver self-published the entire 500-copy print run of For Art’s Sake. He sold and shipped most of the copies himself (“all stuffed and stamped on my dinner table"). The book sold out quickly and a second printing, with a different binding and cover, is available now.

If you follow Noah, you’ll likely have an appreciation of his work ethic. In addition to For Art’s Sake, Van Sciver recently self-published Oh Man! A Bully Collection of Those Inimitable Human Cartoons, a 28-page digest zine reprinting 1920s comic strips by Clare Briggs, with a one-page comic strip intro by Van Sciver. The 200-copy print sold out in days. His latest self-published comic book is Boring. The book continues the cover theme of For Art’s Sake (which has a Norman Rockwell parody) with an Goya-inspired self-portrait. “I promise the comic lives up to its name,” Noah assured me. It too is now sold out. The second printing of For Art’s Sake is available here.

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Sarah Romano Diehl's contribution to CORONA COMICS: A SHORT RUN COMICS COLLECTION (2020, Short Run Seattle)
Sarah Romano Diehl's contribution to Corona Comics: A Short Run Comics Collection (2020, Short Run Seattle)

Not every cartoonist can claim a higher or maintained level of productivity in pandemic times. Seattle-based Sarah Romano Diehl (Crust, From Crust Till Dawn, The Man Spreaders) shares an honest, apt, and easily identifiable statement for our dark, dizzy days: “I am pretty sure that my productivity plummeted with the lockdowns. It's hard to really know, and I think my sense of perspective might be way off. Without certain events and external regularities that I’ve been used to, it’s hard for me to feel out where I am in time and space, but pretty sure I've gotten way less done.” Indeed. Things have been so wonky it’s hard to know how we’re doing.

Diehl acknowledges her parentage of two young children (both gifted artists) with her husband as a major factor in perceiving that her creative output in 2020 slacked off. Parenting, never an easy job, is exponentially more complex during a time when schools are mostly online and kids are home a lot more.

And yet, Diehl has produced. “I have been able to do a few things. Mostly toward the end of 2020 and in the very beginning of 2021. That’s when I felt some creative life come back. I joined Zine of the Month Club in December through Paper Press Punch and made a little zine with them. Scarfff Comic (an underground anthology newspaper available here) asked me to contribute a page and I managed to get one done, and I worked intermittently throughout the year on my third volume of the Crust stories [Deihl's hilarious, autobiographical account of working in a pizza shop]. I probably have been working on it much slower but I am actually glad. So, on the bright side of all this gear grinding and slowing, I think I figured some things out about my story and ways to tell it that otherwise I would not have. I like to think I made the best of the situation.”

(Since the time Diehl gave this interview, she has produced work for Mundane Fantasy, an upcoming risograph anthology zine featuring Seattle’s BIPOC and womxn artists which is currently seeking funding through GoFundMe. She also has new work in the upcoming issue of Scarfff.) Diehl's comics are available in her Etsy shop, Fresh Towels.

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cover of comic book by Drew Lerman Detective!Down in Miami, Drew Lerman (Snake Creek, Detective!) shares a story similar to Diehl’s about his work as a cartoonist during the plague: “I guess my own productivity has been down slightly. I think I've given myself permission to take the time I need to try to avoid burnout. I have two small children and a full-time job and I always want comics to be the place to which I'm excited to return to have fun, not an obligation.”

Since early 2020 I’ve been a fan of Lerman’s whimsical, pun-filled Instagram comic strip, Snake Creek. Lerman’s strip reminds me of Krazy Kat, but more in the wordplay than the art style (I don’t get to say this often enough about newer comics). I’ve really enjoyed his self-published trade paper collection, also titled Snake Creek.

In late 2020, Lerman made a bold move -- perhaps a part of his 2020 production slowdown -- and created two longer Snake Creek stories with comic book page layouts (“Cryonic Pain” and “The Heighth of Spring”). I like these stories a lot. I think his playful wit shines in these stories, and he handles the comic book format as splendidly as he does the daily comic strip.

Lerman’s lyrical, whimsical two-page ode to Florida, “The Heighth of Spring,” is available to read for free online. It is part of the risograph Sun and Sand Comic Anthology, published in 2020 by Black Josei Press and Radiator Comics with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The uniformly solid (but short) anthology, appropriately printed on sunshine yellow card stock, showcases PG-rated pieces by ten southern Florida cartoonists, including Lerman, Carina Vo, Jessica Garcia, and P.C. de la Cruz, among several others. A free print copy (two bucks shipping) can be requested here, where you can also read the comics online and download a free PDF of the book.

Cartoon parody of Sherlock Holmes by Drew Lerman
From Double Digest #2: Detective!

“Cryonic Pain” appears as a 12-page story in Double Digest #2: Detective!. It begins, as most Sherlock Holmes stories do, with Dav (Holmes) and Roy (Watson) lounging in their lodgings. We know Dav is Sherlock because he has donned a deerstalker hat and is puffing on a meerschaum pipe. He is also wearing shorts and a t-shirt. It is the pipe that causes Dav to ponder how a source of pleasure can also be a source of suffering and death. This reverie is comically interrupted by the entrance of a woman smoking like a chimney.

Roy: “Here t'see the steamed detalktive?”

Lady Visitor: "Quite."

Roy: "Well yer timing’s unpeckable!"

From Double Digest #2: Detective!

In the poetic-burlesque tradition of Krazy Kat and Milt Gross’s Mama Feitelbaum (who once said “pomgeranium dug” instead of “Pomeranian dog”), Dav’s speech distorts the English language and inventively presents heretofore unseen words, but so not much it becomes unintelligible. In fact, some of the distortions allow for clever gags, such as “steamed detalktive” for “esteemed detective.”

In the above-quoted exchange, there is something else I appreciate: the perfectly common word “quite.” It would have been so natural to simply have the character say, “yes,” or some other standard, bland affirmation. With this single word, Lerman adds interest and a Victorian England touch.

Lerman appears to be the reincarnation of an early 20th Century screwball comic strip creator, so spot on and unaffected is the way he works in the classic humor style. But make no mistake: the work is highly original, and not in the least derivative. Instead, Lerman builds on what has gone before, creating a new sub-branch of screwball comic art — a kind of relaxed, laid-back version, befitting his South Florida home environment.

A somewhat prophetic Snake Creek strip by Drew Lerman. In a few months, the world would cease its toil and have a kind of year-long sleepover.

In his art, we see a visual complement to his singular, highly entertaining writing style. In “Cryonic Pain,” although the backgrounds are rendered in a minimal-impressionist style (backgrounds in the comic strip version are the same), the positions of his characters, panel-to-panel, are exactly what they should be if he did draw, for example, the interior of a cluttered apartment shared by two bachelors – so the mind fills in the rest of the details. This keeps the visuals flowing, and adds to the lightness of the humor, sparing the reader’s eye from processing a lot of needless details.

Mention must be made of the Oleta flatworm in “Cryonic Pain.” A wordless character, it resembles Snake Creek’s enigmatic, beautifully strange character, Head on a Stone (represented in Detective! with an existential wanted poster on the inside cover). One presumes this is the flatworm’s one and only appearance in Lerman’s comics. To say more would be a spoiler, not that it would matter since the ending is just a final beat to go out on, and not any big reveal (it is actually sort of a conceal).

If one flips over Double Digest #2: Detective!, a second book is revealed, with a 12-page story by Pete Faecke — a hard-boiled private dick noir send-up entitled, “The Big Love Triangle.” I quite like this story as well, although it makes about as much sense as the Bogart film version of The Big Sleep. It is funny, weird, and suitably rendered in a documentary style reminiscent of 1940s Crime Does Not Pay-type comics. The Minneapolis-based Faecke makes inspired use of the pink riso coloring with a splendid Pepto Bismol gag. (I also love Faecke’s Kurtzmanesque Double Digest #1: Wacky Westerns — I hope he continues the series with more genre-based twofer comedy!)

Double Digest #2: Detective! and Lerman’s other books can be found here.

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But the question remains: is the pandemic helping or hurting the evolution of the short-run comic book? Perhaps the answer is some of both. Being a cartoonist is a dicey proposition in the most stable and prosperous of times. One might surmise that in times of crisis, a difficult, low-paying, time-consuming practice has become temporarily next to impossible for some cartoonists. For others, the outlet of self-publishing and working with micro presses has perhaps become more viable than ever, as there seems to be a continuous appetite for this material and channels to market it, like Etsy, Kickstarter and Patreon.

It’s clear the small press comics scene has been impacted by the pandemic crisis when we have all been confined to our homes, more isolated than ever, while the government hands out relief money and kids are underfoot. The shrill anxiety, the fever rage at so many things going so wrong, and the screaming need to connect, have brought underground comics and zines to a place where they are more vital than ever. We support the artists by seeking out their comics and buying them online, and they support us by giving meaning to the waist-deep sludge around us, perhaps showing us a flickering candle flame in the inky black.

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“Riley once said that it’s something as simple as a comic book that could potentially change the world, you know?” Hood (Ryan Williams) about Riley Gale

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Contact me at [email protected] if you would like to submit material for consideration of inclusion in my Zineth series. 

Paul C. Tumey is the author of Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny

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