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Creating Context: Part 2 of the Zak Sally Interview

By Raighne Hogan on 10 January 2014

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This is Part 2 of an extended chat I had with Zak Sally last October. Zak is the creator of the recent Sammy The Mouse: Book 2, from Uncivilized Books, and Head Honcho at La Mano 21. Anyways, check out Part 1 if you like. For further reading, Zak has been delving deeper into the 21 year history of La Mano 21 on his personal site. These are some truly great reads. I'd really really recommend checking them out.

Transcription thanks to Aaron King and Jen Silverman.

R: I wanted to go back to or start it—so Sammy [The Mouse]'s had three or four homes now, with each incarnation being really unique. The Coconino Fanta[graphics] upscale single issue format—which was just a beautiful format—do you have any background on that format in terms of how it started, why it ended, and how Sammy became a part of that?

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Z: Yeah. I did what I thought was gonna be the final issue of Recidivist on La Mano, and I think I’d done a couple other projects. I’d already gotten a sense of, “This is a ton of work.” After you do the work, there’s this ton of work, and the Sammy idea had been gestating for a while. When I was thinking of it, I was thinking I want to do this thing actually like the new issue of Recidivist—a really cheap newspaper, two-color comic, you know? Cheap and weird. And then after Recidivist, I was like, “Then I’m gonna have to print it, and I’m gonna have to do all that stuff,” and around that time, I heard about the Ignatz line from Coconino. I called up Eric [Reynolds, Associate Publisher at Fantagraphics], and it was exactly what I was thinking of how I would do it. At the time, there was the added plus of, well, it was such a beautiful idea; the guy who oversaw this was a cartoonist named Igort, who is Italian-and I guess he was inspired by some of the small-press surrealist magazines that they would self-publish. His idea was, you know, “Each cartoonist will have this format, but then I’ll sign a publishing house in six different countries, and they will all be committed to the whole line, so they will publish translations.” Each one of these will come out in six different languages.

R: That’s so awesome.

Z: It is, and the idea that, you know, there would be French people who would sell real well in France but would sell less well in—that it would all sort of equal out—that the American artists would sell better in America.

R: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Z: But that also corresponded with the time people stopped buying floppy comic books, and to ask people to pay eight bucks for a comic book was—

R: Totally worth it.

Z: Totally worth it, but—

R: There was less people of that mind.

Z: Yeah.

R: I just remember seeing those first couple. I mean, the first ones that I’d saw was the—who was that guy who just did that?

Z: Gipi?

R: Yeah, him and—he just did some Lou Reed book through Fantagraphics.

Z: Oh, Mattotti. That’s one of my favorite fucking books of all time. I mean, there was amazing work that was—I keep bringing this up, but there was a guy named Marco Corona who did three issues of this thing called Reflections, and he’s Italian. It was just like, “Oh, another Ignatz book,” and I got it, and I read all three of them together, and I was just—Jesus, it’s so good, and for whatever reason, it sort of didn’t even make a blip in the comics community. But, I mean, even by the time I signed on, everyone had dropped. The French publishers had dropped out. Publishers in the Netherlands dropped out. So even the first issue of Sammy had appeared in Italian, and it appeared, you know, through Fantagraphics and through Coconino, which is Igort’s thing. And, you know, just the longer it went on, the less sustainable it was.

R: That’s so sad. It was the most amazing line. It was totally, at the time, my favorite. Everything was just beautiful. The format was beautiful.

Z: Yeah, it was. The end of my story is, I had this idea. This thing came up, and I thought, “This is just the format I was thinking of and more elegant, and it’s gonna be in six languages.” I called up Eric Reynolds, and I said, “How can I pitch this?” He said, “I’ll give you Igort’s email address.” I pitched it, and he said, “Yeah, let’s go,” so, yeah, I’m really glad I was part of it. That book Anders [Nilsen] did was astounding.

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R: I missed so much of that.

Z: I mean, there was one or two things that I didn’t like, but it wasn’t, ‘cause it sucked. It just wasn’t my thing. Most of all of it was just, “Jesus, this is beautiful.” It was really well curated. It was a beautiful line.

R: And then for the second incarnation, you ended up self-publishing and having a Kickstarter and printing it as well. What made that shift happen where you decided that, yes, you wanted to print a collection versus having Fantagraphics?

Z: When the writing was on the wall for Sammy, I was talking to Fantagrahics, and it was like, “Well, this line is gonna fold. What do you think the options are here?” It probably could have happened with Fantagraphics, but again, they had a bunch of copies of the original comics to sell, so repackaging them, and them repackaging that as a single volume would be kind of weird ‘cause they still had a bunch of copies of the individual issues. It’s kind of weird because you’d be asking people to pay for the same thing, and I thought, “How it was gonna progress from there?” And the fact that it was an $8, 32-page comic book, I just thought, “I want to get this in people’s hands.” The Ignatz thing—as great as it was, it was for people who were deeply invested in comics.

R: It wasn’t so much a casual thing.

Z: Yeah, and those are my people, but at the same time, I want it to be for normal people too, and I thought, “Well, this stuff has been out there. If I collect it, I do it cheap. I present it in a new format for people who haven’t seen it, and it was just like, if there’s ever been a time, I’ve got a printing press, I taught myself to print, I have these certain resources. If I’m ever gonna print one of my own books, this is the thing to do it on. It’s recollecting other material for cheap. All the stuff came together where it was like, “You need to do this once. You need to do everything once since that’s sort of what you’re set up for.” And I did.

R: That’s incredible.

Z: Yeah, but, you know, this is where people cut me off, ‘cause it’s like, I’m so proud of that book, you know, and so proud of what went into it, but at the same time, somebody walking up to it and not knowing all that stuff is gonna be just like, “This is kind of a weird-looking book,” you know? The printing’s kind of weird. It looks like somebody made it by hand. Books aren’t supposed to look like that, you know? And it’s too cheap, and what the fuck’s going on, you know?

R: Without the context—

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Z: Without the context, it’s just kind of a weird-looking book. With the context, I think it changes into something else.

R: It’s really powerful.

Z: You know, the new issue of Sammy’s perfectly printed, and I’m happy about that, and I’m happy that I didn’t have to do it, but it’s just, like, it’s not quantifiable. Certain people are like, “Oh, my god, what is this? This is amazing!” And other people are like, “Oh, can I—I don’t want to touch this.”

[laughter]

“This looks like somebody made it.”

[groans]

R: Yeah.

Z: I mean, I get that.

R: I don’t know. I think it’s super neat having that context and how to, I guess, communicate that to people that maybe know less of why that’s cool. I don’t know.

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How was your experience with the Kickstarter? What prompted you to go that route?

Z: I just didn’t have the money to do it, and—this could get us into a long conversation about the sad facts of—I told you to cut me off when it gets depressing. It costs more for materials for me to do it on my own press than it would cost to send the whole thing to China and have done books sent back to me, and that’s minus me paying myself to print it, and that’s me buying my paper at a remainder paper place, you know?

It’s true. It just costs me more to get my materials to do it myself than it would have cost me to send it to China and have it be printed. And there’s a whole thing around that.

R: Well, it would just feel very contrary to what La Mano seems to be about, which is a lot of beautiful, handmade books that have context versus something that doesn’t have context. And there can be beautiful things without that as well, but I think that’s a great strength, and it fits really well with your overall aesthetic and things you have both done yourself or work that you sought out to put out with La Mano. I think that’s just a great strength and something that’s really beautiful about the label.

Z: Thanks, man. You know, I’m totally with you, but on quiet nights at home, I realize that, however it came about, that how things get made and the context around these things being made, to me is—I even start to feel that way about my own stuff. It’s as much what I did to make it happen as it is—I feel like somehow that makes it onto the page, but to me, the process is the same as the result. They’re equal. But I understand that, for me and you, that seems totally normal, but I think for a lot of people in the world, that’s...

R: Yeah.

Z: It’s just like they are not interested in that at all, you know? They just want their thing and to have this very clear experience with it. “I got it. I’m reading it.”

R: I think or I hope that some of that has to do with people just not understanding what is so interesting or neat or valuable about having that context and having that connection with the work. And part of it too is it’s just a different time.

Z: I’ve had the horrible thought—I just sound like a mad, old buck—but I really wonder if the world is—not like I’m right and everybody’s wrong, but if the idea of branding has made its way into human consciousness in this way that totally makes sense, but, you know, like, if it’s not branded, people don’t understand the brand. They’re so used to—there’s McDonald’s, and I know what I’m getting there. I know what that is, and I can like it or not like it, but I fucking know what it is, and that across a lot of things—I mean, I see this with bands now, and it drives me nuts. It drives me fucking bonkers. “I’m an indie rocker. I make this kind of metal.” No, man. No.

It’s funny; it doesn’t bug me when it’s McDonald’s, but it bugs me when it’s bands.

[laughter]

“I’m ‘this thing.’” No, you are what you are, and then that is what makes you make the kind of music—you don’t decide what your brand is and then do that brand. You decide what you are, and that turns into your brand, you know what I mean? But that whole thing of, like…

R: Searching for context or—

Z: I need to know what this thing is, and if I can’t understand it, I don’t have time for it, ‘cause there’s so many other things. You know, I don’t have time to figure out what this is. I just need to know what this thing is, and if I don’t know what it is, there’s tons of things where I do know what they are. I know that this is grindcore. I know that this is indie comics. It’s like I know what I’m getting, so I don’t…

R: Yeah, yeah.

Z: To do that work, to figure out things that don’t have a brand—here’s where I don’t sound like an old fogey—it’s kind of a lot to ask of people, you know?

R: It could be, yeah.

Z: For a lot of people, it’s like you have to meet this thing halfway or you have to put some work into figuring out what it is, and right now in the world, it’s like you’re asking somebody to do something that the rest of the world is clamoring for them to not figure out, do you know what I mean?

R: I think so, and slightly off topic, but it makes me wonder: do you approach the work that you’ve made yourself and the work that you’ve published with that same idea of not knowing what it’s going to be? I guess kind of having some sort of totally identified—not brand but overall vision, where it just happens.

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Z: Yeah, that’s what I mean. Again, running La Mano, it’s me working with someone, and we kind of figure out what it is, and the more identifiable it is, the more excited I get. Like, the Nate Denver book [Wait, You’re Not a Centaur]—it’s a book of 50 50-word stories, there’s drawings in it, there’s a CD in it, there’s kind of some comics in it, but for a lot of people, you hand it to them, they’re like, “Is it a book?”

You’re like, “Yeah.”

“Well, what do you mean? It’s got drawings in it. It looks like there’s a comic. Is it a comic?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s got a CD in it. Is it a record?”

“No! Yes! And no! To all of those!” And I love that. I love that, “What the fuck is this thing?” I like that Jason Miles book [Dead Ringer]. I don’t know what that thing is, and that was me and Jason hammering out, “What is this thing?” I still don’t know what it is, but I’ve never seen anything like it.

R: I agree. Austin English had a great review of it that was very powerful. I think what you were saying before about what’s between zines and books, and La Mano felt like it was making that thing real, especially that Jason T. Miles book. That totally feels like that in-between thing, and it’s just fantastic.

Z: Yeah, and I think so, and you think so, and Austin thinks so, and there’s a group of people who really sort of got that, but for a lot of other people, they were just like, “I don’t—is that—is this a comic? It looks like a zine, but it’s big, and it’s got a—it looks like an art book, but it’s obviously not that,” and just like, “What is this?”

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

Z: It was supposed to be 700, but I was still learning on my press, so we tried to make it 700, but I fucked up, and one page was 250 light of everything else, do you know what I mean? Since I used to get all my paper at this remainder place, I bought everything they had and can’t find any more of that paper. More than 250, less than 500. I think we meant to make to make 500. It was maybe 300ish.

Check back here next week for Part 3!

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