[The above image was named from my MoCCA 2008 Flickr set, with apologies to Aaron Renier.]
Though it’s existed for a half-dozen years, it was the publication of Jason Shiga’s Eisner-nominated Bookhunter last May that truly established Sparkplug Comics as an indie comics force to be reckoned with. A labor of love turned career for Dylan Williams—a cartoonist himself—the Portland-based publishing house has continued to impress, with a continued to build steam with roster of books from the likes of Renee French, Dash Shaw, Andy Hartzell, and Elijah Brubaker. Still, as a business, Sparkplug has remained decidedly understated, ostensibly a three-person operation, Williams included, a direct result he insists, of the punk rock ethos on which he was weaned, growing up in Berkeley, California.
Having re-introduced myself to Williams at this year’s MoCCA, now seemed the opportune time to sit down with Sparkplug’s owner, during these few moments of much needed downtime between HeroesCon and San Diego.
You’re an artist yourself. How much of a role did that aspect of your life play in the launching of Sparkplug?
It was pretty important. I’d published other people’s stuff in the early 90s for about four or five years, and then I just focused on my own comics for a while. Through that I learned about distribution, publishing, printing, and all that. I saw what a hard time some of my friends were having with all of that—they really didn’t like to do that. For me it was actually pretty easy to do that stuff. I mean, I like going to the post office and stuff [laughs]. So it was actually kind of fun.
You like going to the post office?
You like the bureaucratic aspects of publishing?
Yeah. I like the oldness of the system. Especially if you’re drawing all day, it’s fun to go out there and hang out in line. I think that’s definitely a plus for me. There are a few things like that that I actually enjoy doing. I’m not good with some other things, but that sort of stuff I don’t mind.
I assume that enjoyment spreads to a tactile appreciation of a physical product. Does that make you a bit weary to push work towards the Web?
Yeah, but I’m also an old school nerd, so I really do like computers, but for the most part, I’d prefer to—I don’t know if it’s just because I’m old, but I think of the Internet as a sort of information resource and not as an artform as much. But I recognize that it is, for other people. It’s sort of like really nice encyclopedia for me, or a mail order catalog. That’s how I treat it, but a lot of my friends are doing Webcomics and doing really well with them. Tom Neely and David King both have Webcomics going right now that are doing really well.
So you do follow some of the work being published on the Web.
Yeah. I think it’s been a slow process. I had to adjust to it—I was so used to reading everything in print. I still prefer print. That’s the niche I like. I also don’t download a lot of music, still. And a lot of my friends are downloading movies now. I don’t do that, either.
Sparkplug has a Website and you recently launched a blog. Did you have to be pushed into that?
I mean, I like doing that stuff, but it’s a matter of time management for me, basically. How much time do I want to spend doing that? And I don’t like shopping things out to people or having other people do stuff. I liked to be involved in it. I was using the Sparkplug Myspace for a long time as a blog. But now we’ve decided to do a blog and let a lot of the artists write for it: Renee French, Trevor Alixopolous, and people like that, who are friends of Sparkplug and who also do a lot of blogging themselves, so they’re interested in it.
You mentioned that you don’t like shopping things out—how large of an operation is Sparkplug, at this point? How many people are working for you?
It’s me, Shannon O’Leary, who is our promotions manager, and Austin English, who’s the submissions editor. Usually at conventions, there are a bunch people who I share a table with or work with, and I let them put their book out and they work the table, in exchange for that. Tim Goodyear, who runs Teenage Dinosaur helps out a lot. So does Tom Neely. At Stumptown, Jason Miles from Fantagraphics was working the table because he has a bunch of books that he’s done that are pretty amazing.
One of the nice things about this industry—I guess that’s the right word to use—is that, even in terms of “competing” publishing houses, there seems to be a strong sense of camaraderie between people. Is there any sort of competition there, between you and other houses?
Not really. I think there’s just so many artists working right now and so many people interested in comics that it’s not really there. First off, for me, there’s no point to it. And really, there’s no competition for me, because there a big enough pond right now to deal with things. I think, in general, the trend is continuing. Also, a lot of the reason I started publishing was that I didn’t really dig mainstream comics, or really even the bigger indie comics companies. I wanted to be a part of the community and have a community approach to art.
Basically I came out of punk rock, and that’s where the values came from. I grew up in Berkeley, so those things are really important to me, and I try to participate in those things in comics, too. Alvin at Buenaventura has been really helpful to me and so has Dan Nadel [of Picture Box]. And Randy [Chang] at Bodega is probably one of the most supportive people I’ve dealt with. And locally, Greg Means from Tugboat and I have been working together a lot. We just did a book called Nerd Burglar, and we’re probably going to do other things. He kind of comes from the same background. He does music and has been involved with the local independent press scene for a long time, so he already has a lot of people that he works with. He’s always trying to support other independent business people.
Was that sense of dismay that you expressed toward some of the larger indies based on their output?
Well, for me [laughs]—I’ll go on record with this. One of the bigger ones was Fantagraphics, and the problem there was that they weren’t taking any chances on smaller people when I started. They were basically just publishing their own people that they’d had experience with. Within a few years of that, they actually have started changing. They’re doing Mome now. The whole point of Mome is to give some exposure to smaller artists.
I think that, through all of us smaller publishers, we’ve actually shown the bigger publishers that there are a whole bunch of artists worth investigating who may not be well-known, but can be just as appealing to people. Drawn and Quarterly—I never really had problems with them, it was just that they never expanded because they had a really tight aesthetic. It was very much about their personal taste. I really admire Chris [Oliveros] and Tom Devlin. They’re just amazing, in my book.
It’s amazing. They’ve got a huge roster, but they’ve got—I don’t know if “house style” is quite the right phrase, but there’s certainly a common thread through a lot of the stuff they put out.
I was just flipping through Previews, this morning, and I didn’t know I was on the Drawn & Quarterly page, but I was looking through the book and thinking about how great they looked. I looked up and it was Drawn & Quarterly, and I was like, “of course.” They have a very specific style. There’s certainly a level of quality throughout their books.
[Continued in Part Two]