While it was the release of Jason Shiga’s Eisner-nominated Bookhunter that brought Sparkplug Books to the attention of cultural critics across the country, without an equally strong roster of subsequent releases, it would have been easy to write the Portland-based publisher’s single book success off as a fluke.
Much to his credit, however, founder Dylan Williams—himself a cartoonist—has continually demonstrated a keen eye for spotting some of the most exciting artists toiling away in the small press universe, a fact reflected by a recent string of intriguing new releases by artists like Chris Wright, Trevor Alixopolous, and Elijah Brubaker.
In this second of a three part interview, we discuss Williams’s editorial role in the creation of books, the importance of staying small, and answer that question that is no doubt weighing heavy on everyone’s mind: just what the hell is Jason Shiga up to, these days?
How important was this idea of a “house style” when you were putting together the roster of artists?
It’s weird, because when I started I first strated, I had these high-minded, self-righteous ideals about how I could help out these people who weren’t getting enough exposure, but after a couple of years, I realized that it’s actually more about my taste. I can’t help out everybody, and it really does have to do with my taste, but that’s sort of the goal for me. The thing I do that’s a little bit different is that my goal in publishing isn’t trying to make as much money as quickly as possible, it’s having a bunch of books by people who may not be as well known. The books are a little more eccentric, like Renee [French]’s Edison Steelhead is a little unusual for a comic.
Unlike everything else she does…
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And that’s the thing, I just want encourage people like her to do things like that, and she happens to be pretty well known, but some people who aren’t as well known, like Trevor Alixopolous’s new book is sort of an unconventional narrative. I read a lot of literature, so for me, that actually is just like a lot of other narratives, but it just happens to be that, as a comic, it’s very unconventional. I think I want to aim for that kind of thing.
So you’re playing some kind of an editorial role, before the book’s even conceived?
Yeah—well, with Trevor, I basically want to encourage him to do anything, because I think he’s really talented. It just depends on the people. Different artists need different kinds of support. Some artists don’t need any support at all. They’re just going to do it on their own. I treat each person differently. Each book is a different process. Jason Shiga comes to me with fully-formed ideas and says, “this is what I want to do,” and I say, “that’s great!” Other people say, “I don’t quite know what to do. What do you think of this?”
Renee’s book is a bit of a spinoff from another work [The Ticking]. Did you play any role in that one, early on?
Yeah. Early on, I guess the role I played was that she had been doing these pieces a while and had them in gallery shows—we’re friends, and I said, “these pieces are great. You should put them in a book.” And she said, “well, why don’t you do the book?” [laughs]. So I guess we were both involved in that. And then she just ran from there, and it was all her idea, the way it ties into The Ticking.
Does investing this time in the business side of things take away from your more creative pursuits?
Not really. No more than anything I’ve done in my life. I think, for me, I draw the same amount, no matter what. For the past year, I was actually a co-owner of a gallery in Oregon. I think part of the reason I got out of there is that I already have my own business. But I sort of think of it altogether. My business is pretty fun, so it doesn’t feel like a day job, in the traditional sense—but it is. It’s very time consuming, but it’s fun.
At what point did it actually become a day job?
About two years ago, and it’s always in danger of going back and not being a full-time job. But about two years ago, I quit working at the engineering company I was working at, and decided to just do that. The momentum kept me going.
There’s that classic battle between wanting to keep your business afloat and not wanting things to get out of hand. Does it feel like something of a self-defeating business practice to not want your company to become too big?
It’s interesting, because I’m actually really into small business theory and hippie economics, so it actually makes more sense for me to keep it small, as far as my values. It’s pretty much a given that it’s going to stay small for as long as I can keep it that way. I think, even right now there are a lot of books that are getting attention and it’s going really well, but it feels like I’ve been able to keep it focused and small and work with people who are interested in the same things. Shannon [O’Leary] and Austin [English] both share a lot of values with me, so it’s pretty easy to do that. Neither of them want to turn it into the next Marvel [laughs].
Do you ever have a negative reaction to press? Does it feel like you need to reign it in sometimes?
I’m actually always really flattered and amazed by it. With Book Hunter—which has probably been our most successful book—that’s just a testament to Jason Shiga’s awesomeness. I think it’s kind of amazing to see that happen, because I’ve known Jason since high school, and it was always really neat to see him get more and more attention, and people becoming more and more adjusted to his unique vision. It was neat to see that go from Fleep, which was a stabled mini-comic to being nominated for the Eisner award. And for me it’s really fun to be a part of it in some way, because we’re friends. I feel really proud of it. Actually, I get sad when the books don’t get enough attention.
Is Jason putting out another book with you?
We’re in discussions. His people are talking to my people, but he is working on a science fiction epic at the moment. He’s got a romance that will probably come out before that.
[Concluded in Part Three]