Comics and Heartbreak: Part 3 of the Zak Sally Interview

By Raighne Hogan on January 19, 2014

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Part of me doesn’t give a fuck, and part of me cares very deeply. Part of me is like, “You want to know something? Fuck you.”

Comics can be a heartbreaking endevor. In Part 3 of an extented chat with cartoonist and La Mano publisher, Zak Sally. We talk about scale, the rise of the micro-presses and how Sammy The Mouse Book 2 landed at Uncivilized Books. We also have a preview of Sammy The Mouse Book 2.

R: When you relaunched in 2005, what was the scale for a lot of La Mano projects?

Z: It just kept going down and down. I think I did 500 Mosquito Abatement books.

R: Wow.

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Z: You publish, so you know. I still have 1,200 or 1,300 of those kicking around.

R: That is amazing.

Z: But John can keep some forever. Recidivist, I think I did 4,200 or 4,300, and I probably sold through two thirds of those.

R: That’s great.

Z: Yeah, and things started getting weird. Well, they didn’t. The next thing I did was that awesome portfolio of William Schaff prints [Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Draw]. That was supposed to be 500. I think we ended up with closer to 400 of them, but I got about 30 of those left.

R: Wow.

Z: The Nate Denver book—the first edition—sold through in a heartbeat ‘cause the guy from Tool wrote the intro, and then we did a repressing, and those almost sold through too.

R: So how many of those?

Z: See, that’s the thing that drives me nuts. We did a printing of 800, and those I did all on my press, and that was the first time I was like, “This is awesome.” Tool posted up something, so that sold out pretty quick, and I did another run where I just printed the covers and had the guts done elsewhere. I did 1,200 of those, and then La Mano didn’t get another order for anything for seven months or something. That was one of the many times I almost quit, but we ended up selling a bunch of those.

R: What was the year that that happened?

Z: 2007? 2008?

R: Yeah, that makes sense, because I think it was around that time that the economy started heading down, which sucked.

Z: He did another book, and he did a run of 1,000 of those, and I know that they aren’t moving a quarter as well as the first book did, and it’s just as good, but something’s changed a little bit. I don’t know what it is, but something has changed a little bit.

And then I did that record—you’re not supposed to do any art stuff if you’re a publisher. You’re supposed to put out books, not, like, books and a record and a CD.

R: Well, what was the reception for the record, and how did that differ from putting out some of your books?

Z: Again, it was just weird. It was weird. It didn’t go through normal channels. It wasn’t on a label. I wasn’t going on tour or playing shit, so it sounds like somebody made it in their basement, which I did.

R: It’s a fantastic album.

Z: It didn’t do that well. And I went back and listened to it recently, and some of it is just, like, this is so fucking good.

R: I agree. I agree. I don’t understand how things work.

Z: I don’t either. I totally don’t.

R: What was the print run that you did for that?

Z: 900. So I just don’t…

This is getting really depressing.

R: Oh, I’m sorry. When you typically work on a project, do you have any kind of promotional build-up or anything where you announce the project and then reach out to people afterwards? Do you show some sort of a tease, or is it just, like, when it’s done, you ship it and announce it to retailers?

Z: I try to do that stuff, but again, with the look in the mirror, every time I try to do that, something goes haywire, and when it’s done, I’m fucking done.

[laughter]

“I did it. Done.”

R: This is maybe too late or after the fact, but have you ever thought about roping someone else in to help with that component?

Z: I have. Fanta helped a little bit with the Sammy book, just out of the goodness of their hearts, ‘cause they’re awesome, but it’s always been very not concerted and very haphazard. It would be great to have that at some point.

R: Going back to Sammy again, with book two, how is that, working with Tom [Kaczynski] at Uncivilized? How did that come about versus it being published under La Mano?

Z: Book one—I’m glad I did it, but it took me way longer and it was way more effort than I ever imagined or expected it would be, so at the end of that, I was like, “I did it. I just want to draw now.”

R: How long would you say the printing process took?

Z: Oh, my god. Fuck. Six months? That had to do with a lot of different things. It had to do with the machine, it had to do with my skill level, but, yeah, it was fucking miserable. Most things that could go wrong did go wrong. A couple of times. When that was done, Tom was starting up Uncivilized, and it was like your friend down the street.

And to be honest, Fantagraphics was—at the time, Kim Thompson was still alive, and I think they would have done it. Kim and Eric were pretty into it, and Gary was sort of like, “Why don’t you just finish it, and we’ll put it out?”

I can’t. That would kill me. I need signposts on a thing like this, and Tom was kind of raring to go. So we just decided to do it, and he had just signed up with Consortium, but there again, Sammy 2 was supposed to be out five months before it was, because something went horribly wrong with, actually, my storytelling, and I had to go back and redraw a third of the book.

R: Holy shit.

Z: But again, it had this sort of rollout that made sense, and something happened where that rollout had to be chucked out the window, so that happens enough times, and you’re like, “Well, that must sort of be my deal whether I like it or not.”

But I’m really happy working with Tom. I’m really happy with the way it looks.

R: It looks great.

Z: It sold less than issue number one.

R: For the first one, I know you had that Kickstarter, so there was maybe more excitement with that. Do you feel that it was pushed properly? ‘Cause with a Kickstarter, you put all this awareness at the start, but then if you don’t continue with that—I don’t mean to get off topic, but a similar thing happened with Little Heart, where we had all this interest at the start, and our collaborator dropped off. It has to continue to be pushed, but when it’s just another book that’s being put out…

Z: Me and John talked about this a lot. This year at SPX—and everybody sort of agrees on this trajectory: it’s the most glorious time for comics ever, and also it’s bizarre because, like I was saying about Cometbus, there used to be a small pool, and all of a sudden , the pool of people making comics, and to a large part, the quality of the comics—there’s not twice as much stuff. There’s seven times as much stuff, and the general quality and production values of all that stuff is crazy considering what it was like ten years ago—a few years ago. So now it’s like you used to be a voice in the pool, but now it’s like you’re a voice in the cacophony.

And also, the kind of comics I was making ten years ago are the kind of comics that would probably do well now, and the stuff that I’m doing now is the kind of stuff that did well 20 years ago.

[laughter]

It’s just all sort of weird timing, and you can’t call that shit. It goes where it goes.

R: I agree.

Z: Let’s be honest: anthropomorphic animals running around yelling at each other is not the cool thing going on in comics right now.

R: But you have to do what comes out: the stories that you’re ready to tell, the art that you’re ready to create, beyond what’s trending right now. But then it’s cyclical, and you have to also sell it, and how do you communicate that and garner interest? I think that what’s going on now is that there’s just—we’re bringing in younger blood. There’s a lot more labels coming and everything, but there’s not enough outside growth, and there’s not enough channels to foster that sort of growth. It’s like you have more mainstream nerd culture that covers some of this stuff but very faintly, and that’s what’s mainstream, and then there’s blogs and really small pockets that try to pick up the slack, but it’s…

Z: Yeah, it’s like the pool of creativity is growing, but the pool of readership is—and Peter Bagge said the same thing—the pool of readership is not growing. God forbid you use the word market share. There’s just so many more people doing it, but sort of the same amount of people are there to read it, and me and you know it’s like, “This is my community, and I’ve been in this community since I was 16.”

I feel this way about Sammy the Mouse. I feel this about King Cat and other stuff, obviously, but the basis of this whole thing is comics are a cheap and democratic form of communication. The idea that some 60-year-old woman would find one of my comics on the ground at a bus stop and pick it up is way more exciting to me than the idea of, I don’t know, somebody who’s deeply involved in the same world as I am. I don’t want to do stuff just for cartoonists.

R: No, I agree.

Z: But at the same time, cartoonists kind of have to start looking at themselves as a poet. Poetry—nobody gives a fuck about poetry. Peter Bagge talks about that. There was a time when every god damn American read poetry, and now they don’t, and so you can be the best poet in the world, and who that’s gonna go to is generally the small proportion of people who care deeply about poetry.

It’s weird, ‘cause comics are in the middle of that. There is a lot of potential for your average person to pick this thing up. That’s the glory of comics for me. That you don’t have to know shit about anything, and you can pick this thing up and enjoy it. It’s weird, ‘cause sometimes it does make it out into the larger public consciousness, and often it doesn’t, and I don’t know how to bridge that gap, you know?

Part of me doesn’t give a fuck, and part of me cares very deeply. Part of me is like, “You want to know something? Fuck you.”

[laughter]

Really, if this is the way it’s going, I’m just gonna do the most personal thing. I don’t give a fuck if you don’t understand it at all. I just don’t. Whatever. I’m just gonna do this thing, and if it’s your thing, it’s your thing, and if it’s not, fine. That’s totally cool.

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I don’t buy that thing of art as masturbatory. Like, I do this so that people can read it and interact. I want people to get this. I’m not some god damn painter who does a painting and puts it up and the wall and is all, “Screw you all.” Comics are about this wonderful means of getting things out in the world, and it’s a wonderful way to do it. I’m not done unless somebody’s reading it. That makes them done.

R: I agree.

Z: There’s great stories—I think about Joe Sacco a lot. I’m just going off, but I remember when Fantagraphics was putting out the comic book issues of Palestine, and nobody had ever done those kind of comics before. Ever. They were so good, and I remember talking to those guys, and they were like, “We can’t give these fucking books away.” Like it was just only going to this incredibly small subset of people who liked comics and were willing to go with Joe. Most people were like, “This isn’t Hate, and this isn’t Eightball. What the fuck is this?” It was just selling dog shit, and I remember distinctly having this thought of, “This is important, brilliant work.” He’s gonna do this, he’s gonna continue selling 500 copies of each issue. I made that up, but for the time, it was really little, and he’s gonna stop doing this, not because it’s not good work. The world isn’t gonna catch up with Joe Sacco. And it did, you know what I mean? It did.

That gives me hope. He did the work. He kept doing the work, and people fucking figured it out, and that makes me really happy.

R: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me Zak! Below we have a brief preview of Sammy The Mouse Book 2, available from Uncivilized Books!

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