Writing Archive

The Story of Comics as Poetry

Creative Relay, March 15, 2013 (read there)

What’s worse than a rejection letter? Two rejection letters. From the same publisher. For the same book.

Once a year, a major textbook publisher came by the art school where I used to teach to talk about their titles and solicit instructors for new ones. At the invitation of one of their representatives, I submitted a manuscript, and they rejected it. The next time they returned, she asked how my submission went. I told her. She looked annoyed. I’m surprised to hear that, she said. Send it again and let me see what I can do for it. So I did, and they rejected it again.

In both letters the publisher said that it was declining the manuscript because the potential market for readers was too small to justify its interest. After the second one, I researched the state of the publishing market, and I learned what a mess it’s in: nanometer-thin margins, miniscule royalties, whole businesses propped up on a handful of bestsellers, authors obliged to do most of their own marketing even when taken on by a prestigious house, and everyone in the industry bracing for the imminent demise of the paper book.

I started publishing my writings about art online in 2000, long before then. This necessitated that I learn how to program my own content management system. So after my disappointing two rounds with traditional publishing, I was apprised of two facts:

1) Self-publishing is only ever going to become increasingly viable and the book publishers are headed for the kind of deep trouble that the music publishers are in.

2) One can solve many problems by adopting a hacker ethos: pry off the cover, learn how things work, build a new version of your own.

When I became interested in comics again in late 2006, I decided to post them online at a site called The Moon Fell On Me. This allowed me to work with ideas about art, text, and technology that I hadn’t seen combined before. It turned out that there were a handful of people working in comics-poetry, and over time we found each other. In 2010, Warren Craghead organized an exhibition at The Bridge PAI in Charlottesville, Virginia that included my work and that of Oliver East, an English artist doing some great things in comics, as well as a few others’. Warren’s work is quite fine as well, sort of a combination of Stuart Davis, George Herriman, and Baudelaire. He draws unceasingly. The following year I got it in my head to produce an anthology of comics-poetry, and in 2012 I decided to make it happen.

By then I had a list of artists I wanted to work with, mostly people I found through Warren and his interactions on Twitter. One artist, Kimball Anderson, discovered The Moon Fell On Me through the Google Group maintained by the Boston Comics Roundtable, and we finally met at the BCR’s convention, the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, in 2011. Kimball’s sense of narrative is fascinating—he’s written a poetry sci-fi comic that’s haunting—and his painting technique is juicy and lush. The final list, in addition to Warren, Oliver, Kimball, and myself, included Derik Badman in Philly, Julie Delporte in Montreal, Jason Overby in Portland, Oregon, and Paul K. Tunis in New York City. Everyone in this milieu is so inured to self-publishing that when I invited them to participate, I just assumed I would self-publish the anthology and no one blinked when I said as much. Warren, who has been the backbone of this project, reminded me that I ought to at least talk to some other people in publishing. I did, and one of them told me that he loved the idea, but the economy is so bad right now that they couldn’t take it on. Unsurprised, I rolled up my sleeves.

I entitled it Comics as Poetry. New Modern Press was already in informal existence as the entity behind another book I edited, Walter Darby Bannard’s Aphorisms for Artists, which is published online. I have a longtime interest in fine-art modernism that began under Darby’s tutelage, and I embrace an updated form of modernism in which visual quality remains the primary concern while allowing for any other creative need, even those not associated with historical modernism. Discussion at my blog, Artblog.net, hammered out what new modernism might look like, and when it came time to name the press the notion was a natural touchstone.

By the end of Summer 2012 I had everyone’s submission. I produced a cover and Warren handled the design and production. With some trepidation, I contacted the acclaimed poet William Corbett in hopes that he would write a foreword. We’re connected by a strange coincidence—both of us have written catalogue essays for a marvelous painter in New York City, Ying Li. It turns out that he’s a comics fan from way back and he was happy to do it. Also, he directs a small publishing venture, Pressed Wafer, so nothing about the project had to be explained to him.

I printed 40 copies through RA Comics Direct, who did a beautiful job of it, and tabled it at MICE 2012, surrounded by minis from the individual contributors. It did so well that I printed another hundred and put it up at Amazon through its Advantage program. That didn’t work, and I should have done the math more carefully before I went through the trouble. Amazon takes a 55% cut through Advantage, and you pay out of pocket to ship to them so they can ship it to someone else at the recipient’s expense. I lost about $3 on each book I sold through Advantage. If my production costs were a lot lower or my price a lot higher it might have made sense, but it was wrong for this project. I could ship to a reader as easily as Amazon, so I decided to handle my own fulfillments.

I set up an account at Google Checkout, which then completely disappeared. Checkout is on its way to becoming Google Wallet, and under this weird hybrid—I call it Google Whackout—I can neither verify the existence of my account nor set up a new one. With that abandoned, I put up a site for New Modern Press, established a PayPal account, and put their basic Pay Now button for the book on the site. Success! My contributors got the word out to their social media networks and orders started to come in. When I send them out, I draw a goggle-eyed bird that became a personal icon during my residency last fall at the Atlantic Center for the Arts with Megan Kelso on the back of the envelope, thanking the customer.

That’s where we are now. Word is getting out about the book, and the work therein has been written up by Tamryn Bennett, Aaron Geiger, and Noah Berlatsky. A few bookstores and comics shops here in Boston are carrying it; I’m proud to say that the title is both at Grolier Poetry Bookshop and The Million Year Picnic, which might be unprecedented. Since online sales and tabling look like the best way to sell it, my next step is to learn more about how to table effectively and garner visibility beyond the initial Twitter push. I’d like to see the Aphorisms book in print, and there’s already talk of Comics as Poetry II.

Word count: 1232

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