Based out of the alternative publishing capital of Portland, Oregon, Sparkplug Books is regularly issuing some of the most exciting work being released in comics today. When he first launched the company, cartoonist Dylan Williams was seeking to expose unsigned talent, while keeping check to make sure that the publishing house largely adhered to his DIY roots.
To true to its mission statement, Sparkplug has occupied a happy medium between the world of self-published, photocopied zines and the kingpin indie publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly.
In this final part of our interview with Williams we discuss the importance of being Portland, artist loyalty, and why the hell an indie comics publisher would be caught dead in the hall of the San Diego Comic Con.
How important is it that certain artists continue to put out their books with you?
For me, it’s not that important. I think that was one of the key tenets of my original five or 10 year plan. I wanted to encourage people to go to to bigger publishers. The problem is that, being such a small company, I’m not going to be able to support people to the degree that Fantagraphics or First Second can. So actually, it works out perfectly for me, because people are interested in their earlier work, so I sell a lot of those.
For example, Alvin Buenaventura has been publishing Injury Comics by Ted May. A long time ago, I published It Lives by Ted May, so that’s still selling. Alvin is also going to be publishing Eric Haven’s next book—he did Tales to Demolish, for me. Eric is someone I’ve been a fan of, since ’91, or something like that, so for me, it’s great that he’s going to get more press and more and more distribution. And it helps me out, business-wise, because I can then sell out of the books that I did publish by him.
You officially launched the company in 2002?
How important was the timing in the success of the company?
Huh. I don’t really know. I never really took that into consideration. I think it’s really awesome that there are so many people interested in comics. It’s certainly better that it was, 10 years ago or six years ago. For me, it wasn’t a big consideration. I’ve always really believed in comics, so it doesn’t really matter to me how many people are interested. It’s more that I’m eventually going to interest everyone around me in comics, because I won’t shut up about them. That’s what’s happened. So many people are like that—we don’t shut up about comics—we’ve all encouraged all of these non-comics readers to read comics, which is pretty awesome.
What about geography. You’re obviously in something of a hub, right now.
I think for me, it wasn’t a hub when we moved here. I’m trying to think of my original inspirations for publishing. They weren’t geographical. They weren’t even in my region. I think, Greg Means at Tugboat was kind of an inspiration, but he had just started around kind of the same time. I think it was mostly that I happened to be a part of the growth of comics in Portland. I think we originally moved here because my fiancée wanted to go to an interior design school here. It wasn’t comics related. We were actually living in Olympia, Washington. I just always end up knowing comics people, no matter where I go.
In Portland, more than anywhere else—perhaps with the exception of San Francisco—there seems to be a very symbiotic relationship between the zine and mini-comics worlds.
It’s a lot of the same people, and San Francisco is the same way now. There really isn’t that much of a difference, it’s just that mini-comics have more drawings, but it’s a lot of the same personal stories and a little more individual viewpoints than the bigger ones. But for me, the Portland Zine Symposium has just been endlessly inspiring. It’s always been one of my favorite shows to do.
After having done a couple of classical comics conventions, the last couple of months, I’ve really been looking forward to the Portland and then San Francisco zine shows. It’s less about celebrity and making money, and more about what’s good and what people are doing and what’s a fun read. That’s something that I really like being a part of. And actually, they limited their table sizes at the Portland Zine Symposium, this year. I could easily fill up four or five tables at a show now, but I decided that I really wanted to do the show, so I’m playing by the rules and doing one table, because they really have a valid reason for that. They want as much variety as possible and as many individuals doing stuff as possible and I think that now that I’m distributing a lot of mini-comics and zines, it can kind of be overwhelming to have too much stuff on the table.
It’s a nice metaphor for your business plan—not having too much stuff on the table at any one time. We’re in the midst of convention season. You recently did Heroes Con and San Diego is steadily approaching. Do you ever feel like doing those larger shows might not be worth the effort?
[Laughs] It just depends on the show. I think it’s really the way the show promoters and everybody treats you. San Diego is just really fun to do, and I would probably go on my own—well, I don’t know about that [laughs]. I would probably go for one or two days, like Greg Means does. It’s good to be there. What I think is interesting about San Diego is that, because there’s so many people there, and because it’s so focused on Hollwood,and the bigger comics companies, that a lot of people go there, looking for the calm in the storm.
I’ve had a really good time and have usually done pretty well there. I think that, Global Hobo, which was a partner business for Sparkplug for a while, did well there before, so there’s a lot of interest in mini-comics and zines at that show, for some reason. At Heroes Con, there wasn’t as much interest, but it’s the same idea. There were so many dealers and people walking around in costumes that there were a lot of indie kids that came over to the table and were amazed to find this stuff.
They were seeking refuge.
Yeah. It’s a completely different thing that what happens at a zine show. Tim Goodyear from Teenage Dinosaur and I are doing the San Francisco zine show and then we’re going to San Diego, so it’s going to be an interesting study in contrasts.