I'LL JUST MAKE A LITTLE PUBLISHING HOUSE: AN EXTENDED CHAT WITH ZAK SALLY
This is going live on the 11th hour of a La Mano sale - which you should check out (sale ends tonight I think, maybe tomorrow?), but back in October of 2013, I got to sit down with the multi and mega talented Zak Sally (cartoonist / musician / publisher / educator/ father) . We chatted mostly chatted about the history of La Mano. For an expanded take straight from the horse's mouth, check out Zak's excellent write up on his personal site.
transcribed by Aaron King (THANKS A MILLION BUDDY!! :)
R: I guess I’d kind of like to have this thing be where we’d cover—‘cause La Mano’s been around for a long time, and I guess—how long has La Mano been around, and what was the impetus for starting publishing?
Z: Well, I mean, I think—it’s in the other room, so I’m not sure right now, but I think it was ’92.
Z: I mean, the first thing that La Mano did was a split comic with me and Mr. Mike where—I lived in Oakland and he still lived here, and we did a split comic and did it on this premise that—I lived in a warehouse for a while, and at the time, I thought he was ancient, but he was 35.
Everyone else was 16 or 20 or whatever. He bought a printing press, and he was doing all kinds of zines and shit, and I was like, “Yeah, man, if you—can I be your apprentice, and you can show me how to use this printing press?” And he was like, “Yeah, I’d love to.” And I went down there one night and was just like, “Fuck, forget it. This is miserable.” But we printed that first split mini on that press.
Z: And that was just kind of like—I don’t know. I think I just decided—I didn’t decide I’d be doing it 20 years later, but this is sort of…You know, all the bands had labels, and it was just kind of like an umbrella to just put your stuff out. I was just like, “I’ll just make a little publishing house for my minis. It’ll be La Mano.”
R: That’s awesome.
Z: And with my friend, Mr. Mike. It was just sort of a “name only” thing that, whenever I put something out, it would have that name on it.
R: And was it always—was the intent at the start, then—it’s just really interesting that you guys printed that together, then, so kind of? Or, like, no?
Z: Well, Jux, the guy—he printed it. God, I don’t even know who paid him.
I’m broke so much back then, I don’t even remember exactly how, but it was just like, “This’ll be our thing,” and Mike sort of did zines and didn’t do zines, and he was never, like, a “comics, comics” guy. And then I just kind of kept going with it, you know?
Z: And, you know, I only put out something once every two years or something, so it wasn’t like there was a…I mean, the only consistent thing about it was that it never sort of went away, and then, in 2005, when I got the press…
R: Yeah! ‘Cause I was gonna ask, because La Mano feels largely like an intimate vehicle for your aesthetic, which is true of all micropresses, but back to how you were saying how you started, and it was you acting—I mean Mr. Mike acting as a mentor to you as an apprentice, and…
Z: Oh, this was a different guy. Mr. Mike still lived here [in Minneapolis]. He was just a zine buddy. He did a zine called Rump, which—you should actually probably borrow that—and he’s a guy that I met here in Minneapolis, you know, and he was a person who first got King Cat, and so when I first met John [Porcellino], it was because him and Mike had started corresponding.
R: Okay, so this is a different—
Z: Yeah, the guy in Oakland was just this punk rocker named Jux who was in a lot of issues of Cometbus, so it was just, like, moving—I didn’t really know it at the time, but there’s some of that community here, and there’s a community there that I became part of, and there was a community everywhere that you were a part of, even if you didn’t know it. I mean, John P. said this to me when he was here last time. We were talking about stuff, and he was like, “All the way through the ‘90s, I didn’t—I wasn’t aware of anything in the ‘90s that was mainstream culture.”
Z: You know? And that was part of it. It was just, like, culture sucked, so you built your own. I mean, nobody was doing it consciously, but there was this culture that—fuck all that. He was sort of like, “I don’t fucking know any movies from then. I don’t know what was hot on the radio. I don’t know anything about that because there was this other totally vibrant culture that had nothing to do with that shit,” you know? It’s easy to say that in retrospect, but when he said that, I was like, “Fuck.” That’s totally true. I’m sorry; that got—
R: No, no, I just thought that it was really neat that there’s always been—it feels like you’ve been more directly involved in the printing or had someone—I mean, when you had a book or a project or whatever printed, you knew the printer. It was more directly involved, I guess, than maybe some other labels.
Z: Yeah, but that was, again, that whole—John put out his own stuff. Me and Mike—Mike worked at a copy shop overnights, so I would go in there, and all the zine people would go in, ‘cause they knew Mr. Mike worked at the copy shop, and everyone would—I think I told this story before, but there was one night when Aaron Cometbus was in town, and he was putting out a new issue of Cometbus, and it was Mike’s last night at work, so he put out, like, an open call to zine people, and so that night was just, like, every single copier was going, and everybody—I think Aaron did a whole issue or, like, most of an issue of Cometbus that night, you know? And I did that with Aaron when I was in Oakland, and it was just, like, Aaron was moving 10,000 copies of Cometbus whenever he put out a new one.
R: Holy god! Holy god.
Z: At its peak, I think Aaron was moving—I hope he doesn’t read this and get mad, but I think he was moving, like, 20,000 copies of Cometbus in its heyday.
R: That is amazing.
Z: With no fucking distro. You know, he just hustled, and I don’t think that lasted for long, but—
R: Man, that is so sad that that is not happening today for many people.
Z: It is, and it’s weird, also, because it’s doable, but I think people just…
R: How did he move that many?
Z: I asked him that, and he was like, “I hustled.”
It’s like, I know you hustled, but—
Z: It was just like—I feel like an old man when I talk about this, but it was just a different time, and that was pre-internet, so it’s like, people—then, people were more starved for awesome—for stuff, and now, it’s like people are saturated. It’s like, you know, there were x amount of awesome things that were happening, and now you’re aware of all the awesome things that are happening, and you have to decide which awesome thing. At the time, it was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I knew Cometbus was out, I’m gonna go where I have to to get it, ‘cause there’s nothing like this. But I tell everybody, “That’s how everybody did it.”
Z: So it wasn’t “interesting” to do it that way. It was just how everybody did it.
R: So was 2005, you were saying—I guess I kind of noticed—I mean, it seemed like La Mano kind of launched itself more as, like, a big deal and more than just, like, you were putting out your own stuff. When did you start putting out stuff by other artists? I mean, were you always, kind of?
Z: No. I mean, that was pretty conscious. I can’t remember if I had left Low or if I was about to leave Low, but—no, I was still in Low, but I heard about the printing press—that AB Dick 360. Somebody else told me about it, and it was just…I had a short list of, like, if I ever do this for real, I want to put out these things. Like, these are things nobody’s putting out, and I feel like somebody should.
Nobody had really collected much John P. at that point. There was that. I mean, Barnaby hadn’t been put out. It was just this wish list of shit that hadn’t been done, and I was like, “Well, if I have this printing press, you know, I should try and step this up a little bit and put out—” And also, I thought it was interesting that there was still this definition of, like, real books and zines, and they were different, you know? There was less in the middle of that—you know, like something in between a book and a zine—and there wasn’t a whole lot of that, and I was interested what that would be, you know? And, I don’t know, I just thought I should give this a shot and use the printing press and try to be a “real publisher,” which now feels idiotic, but…
R: Well, and you were a real printer too. Like, you were going at two major things at the same time.
Z: Yeah. We’ve talked about that. That’s an issue. I talk disparagingly about it, but I don’t regret any of it, but I had to try being a real book publisher before I realized that I’m not really that interested in being a real book publisher—you know, to find out what you had to do to make that work, and for a long time, telling myself that I wanted to be the guy that made that work.
R: I mean, defining what works—you did make that work. You know, you put out amazing projects.
Z: Yeah, but that’s the part that worked for me. I mean, the part that didn’t work is—I don’t know, this is something you wrestle with all the time. There’s the creative part of it, and there’s the business end of all of it, but also what I was talking about at the beginning, you know? Like, that community was sort of almost disdainful of—I don’t want to say, like, success or trying to make a living, you know?
There’s something in there that I can’t easily define, but, you know, we’re doing this because we don’t want to be fucking businessmen, you know what I mean? But there’s a business element to publishing, and if you want to be sustainable and you want to keep it going, you have to conduct yourself in that way of keeping this sustainable, and what that is is, you know, running a good business, being on top of your shit—you know, all that stuff, and...you know, La Mano’s put out beautiful stuff, and I couldn’t be happier about it, but I started doing it, and I was like, “Someday, I’d like to get this to the point where this is my full-time job,” you know? Where this is what I do. I mean, not only has it not worked out that way; it’s also—if that came and kicked me in the pants, I’d love it, but it’s—I don’t think I’m good at the things you have to do to keep that sustainable, you know? And the older I get, it’s just like, I have less time, and I just want to make comics. You know, I just want to make stuff. I barely have time for that, so I just want to…
R: Yeah, I totally understand. I think part of it too, with making—at least for us, and maybe this is similar ‘cause you started self-publishing for a long time under the same label, so you weren’t coming at it from a business perspective or whatever. You were just like, “I want to put out these awesome books, “ and I guess for 2D Cloud, it’s kind of a similar thing where we started, like, no idea that we were gonna try to be a publisher, and then, yes, and then not really knowing how to go about the side where you’re trying to be sustainable.
Z: I mean, and part of that is, like, again, you don’t know until you’ve done that, and I know people who have done that, and it turns out they’re really good at that part of it, and that’s, like—they just have a natural affinity for doing those things. It’s not all, you know, “Marketing is dirty.” That’s nonsense, but there comes a time when you look in the mirror, and you’re like, “Either I’m good at this thing or I’m not good at this thing, and if I’m not good at it, I should, like, not keep trying to be good at it.” But you don’t know until you go there, and I don’t regret going there.
R: Didn’t the first year that you relaunched La Mano—didn’t that go pretty well?
Z: Aw, yeah, man, I’d kill for that. No, I mean, all the La Mano books have done—you know, they’ve all made their money back.
R: That is fucking amazing.
Z: It is. And, you know, I paid everyone except me, but, you know, I keep a studio, so—
R: Even that’s amazing.
Z: Yeah, but it’s been slower every year, and that’s also due to—again, we’ve talked about this. With the saturation of stuff in the world, you have to work pretty hard to keep your presence for people to know you’re still out there. And I put out a book—in my heyday, I was putting out a book a year, so, you know, it’s just…
So interestingly enough, I’m kind of back where I started. This is the new Recidivist. I’m gonna do 500 of them, it’s gonna be on shitty paper, and it’s gonna look like a zine. I mean, it’ll get to who it gets to, and if it gets to the right people—I’d rather it get to the right people—I’d rather it get to 500 people that are gonna be, like, super into it, whoever they are—zine people, comics people, not-comics peple—normal people. That’s part of the publishing paradigm. You’ve got to reach as many people as possible each time. If you don’t, it’s not successful, and it’s like, you have to keep that going, and I just can’t.
Check back here next week for Part 2!