When I started Sonatina, in late 2011, I remember feeling totally frustrated with the lack of options for all the legitimately solid comics work I was seeing online. It just felt like a waste or something? And similarly, I also felt frustrated by some of the limitations of digital publishing, like on tumblr or the equivalent. It's a distinct thing to make a book! Books have their own rules and possibilities that are decidedly different from an online reading experience, and I wanted to provide a space for these artists in print because.. well, at the bottom of it, just because I really love and respect their work. I feel like all the artists represented by Sonatina have challenged my personal notions of what comics can be, and in a larger sense, I think most of the work gets to the heart of these larger institutional shifts happening in comics culture over the past few years.
I think of Sonatina primarily as a publishing entity. Just sort of naturally putting out stuff I feel excited about? And I guess, in some ways, it practically functions like a collective.. a sort of minor aesthetic rallying cry, but it's really not that specific or delineated at all. Definitely not a distro. I mean, I have nothing at all against distros, love em, but sometimes there's this feeling of clutter associated with a distributor that seems antithetical to the success of an anthology? I like the idea of a post-publisher tho. :) Because it's like, I'm not necessarily trying to carve out an official space to exist within comics, it's more like amplifying these pockets of life, or this space in the margins? Finding a place for these comics to exist in a way that's more reactive or something? Like, not needing to have a crazy production schedule to financially make it work, but sort of organically finding new work and recognizing the right production process to fit whatever we're doing as each thing emerges? The whole venture feels very fluid and present. Yeah, so maybe in that sense it comes to resemble the internet more or shifts to take on it's sprawling and fragmented traits, well, in comparison to a traditional comics publisher, because so much of how Sonatina exists and operates is in direct relation or entirely dependent on the internet.
The Sonatina coterie has a lot of young, boundary pushing energy -- in your words, what ties it all together? What are you looking for when you approach another artist to join the Sonatina ranks, or when you receive submissions?
I almost feel like the only honest way to answer this question is.. interest? If the work interests me on any kind of lasting level - emotional, intellectual - then I'd hope that others will feel the same. There's also the thread of working with people who I think are underrepresented in relation to the quality of the art they're making? Oftentimes, the biggest point of interest for me is some kind of formal challenge or rethinking of the basic language of comics.. and that doesn't have to be super explicit or anything? Actually, too often I feel like self-declared "boundary pushing" stuff, especially in comics, can be overly understood.. clever to the point of clarity or disinterest, but that's another thing.
Did Sonatina start first as an anthology or was the intent to put out artist focused comics?
Sonatina started as an anthology, but shortly after printing the first issue I realized that my real intention was just to get these works read and I came to the (sort of sad) understanding that people are more likely to read a single-artist book than crack open an anthology. So, that knowledge hasn't really changed my thoughts about the ideas behind Sonatina and the work I'm hoping to do with the anthology but it does alter the basic production numbers and stuff. Going forward, I'll probably print less copies of the larger books and just.. focus in on nailing the content. I liked what Domino Books did with their Tusen Hjartan Stark anthology. Longer stories, more condensed. I think the next issue of Sonatina is going to be more along those lines but we'll see.
Do you have an over-arching goal w/ the anthology?
There's no longterm goal. Ideally, to keep putting stuff out that feels relevant for basically as long as I can. And y'know, these things.. timeframes, pass so quickly. Stylistically, etc. To me, it feels like now is the time for my generation of cartoonists, artists, to be doing this kind of work: pushing stuff, reacting against stuff, making these shitty little books, giant books, grand statements, internet nothings, and in a few years that'll probably pass and we''ll transform. I guess I'm trying not to think about the overall arc much more than that. Time's precious, makes sense to do this stuff now.
What's been your take on print production for your label? Do you have a background in publishing or working with print?
I really don't know a lot about print.. at all really, well, especially before starting this whole thing. Every little step and book is a learning process to me, so that's been fun. I feel like, as a reader, I'm fairly sensitive to the basic production qualities of a lot of publications.. like, I'm not a crazy snob about it because I can barely discern the details but it really bugs me when I see work that feels inappropriately stuck in the wrong format. Like, zines that could be books or books that might have been better suited as a xerox copy or something? Feel like that happens all the time at zine fests and comics shows. Just publishers or creators making decisions that are weirdly inappropriate to the work… and I get that sometimes it's a financial decision but sometimes it really truly isn't. So I dunno, I guess my interest in printing is more of a general sense than a specific love for the process. I just want the work to come through in its most appropriate form. Like I said above, meeting each project in the moment.
Do you approach your books w/ a certain print run or budget in mind? Do you have certain financial goals in mind to allow you to continue, or do you subsidize your concern w/ outside income? And if the later, do you feel this in any way changes how you approach print projects and working with artists?
Before going into a project I have a vague idea of the amount of books I'd like to print and their basic price points. I mean, it's still a learning process for me, but one of the goals is definitely to make the whole production a completely self-sustaining thing, and lately I've made a switch in that direction, especially with these smaller, single-artist books, by print things in more manageable runs. Less books just mean a decrease in the amount of potential profits and distribution avenues but also a decrease in the financial risk up front. I mean, if the distribution options were slightly altered this would change my approach but as it stands it's almost too expensive to print small press comics in any other way while maintaining the level of quality that I desire.
Uh, I basically had a fairly typical day job for around two years to help subsidize the initial printing costs, but, so far, this new venture with all the small books has been self-sustaining, and another advantage of doing things in this micro-fashion is the independence to do whatever we want artistically. I mean, that's really the heart of the work. It's like, the real goal is to reach as many people as possible with these books without catering to any kind of specifically perceived market. Just wanna make nice, challenging books and get them to people who are interested in reading them, and, at the very least, the ears of people who aren't.
Right now I'm working on various smaller books, like 5 or 6? But I'm hoping to start work on the next Sonatina within the year. :) Maybe next summer.
More nuts and bolts -- what sort of software have you used when handling the production side of these books? How has learning as you go, uh, gone? Any major bumps w/ deadlines, trying to make it ready for a show, etc.? How have you been handling scale? I mean, what's been a standard run for your first book and how have you changed this to accommodate different works -- solo books vs anthologies?
The publishing software I'm using is really basic and I assume fairly standard? Just some internet acquired version of Photoshop and InDesign. And when considering the entire production process, I feel like everything on the technical end has gone fine. It's almost like, to me, figuring out the basics of a new application is a form of play? Another creative stage to fail at and work around and enjoy. Like, I don't technically know how to use these programs to their full capacity, but that lack of skill seems very fitting to some of the inspiration behind Sonatina. I mean, specifically the choice of Sonatina as a name is like… well, in my understanding, "sonatina" is a simplified version of a sonata, or related piece of music, that's more appropriate for a child or an amateur to play? And I feel like I always get a kick out of people who approach art in this manner, maybe they're not technically proficient or virtuosic at their craft (or sometimes they are?) but regardless, they have an eye and a passion for what they're doing that stands apart from the superficiality of current trends. It's like when you watch a child sit down to draw, they're totally in their own zone just plugging away, concerned with their own rules and how to achieve what they want, whatever that might be. I'd like to think that this definition is relevant to most of the artists I'm working with… also, just in relationship to comics in general, trying to see it anew. Have fun with it, challenge it.
All deadlines are usually just internal. I'd rather have the work be good than conform to an arbitrary deadline. It's like, at this stage, there's no point in rushing the process.
Scale has been one of the bigger concerns for me. After asking around and talking to similarly small publishers I printed the first anthology at 1,000 copies with the thought that as I continue to make books it'll be easier to highlight back issues and eventually it'll be worth the cost. And that's been true so far, with each new book comes new readers and interest in the older stuff. Just need to keep going. I guess I also thought of the first book as a test.. I knew I cared about the art being presented but was unsure how the rest of the process worked? So, printing that much volume made it easier to give away single books because the price per copy is so much less and it makes it easier to budget for crappy little expenses like items lost in transit or review copies or whatever. It was a risk. But it also forced me to truly start paying attention to what I'm doing with comics and get fully invested. If I had to do it all over again I think I would have started with smaller runs and worked my way up. It just seems more reasonable. Because with that first book I did find out that the market for these types of comics is relatively small and I've adjusted to doing smaller print runs anyway? Anywhere from 50 to 500 but each book is different and requires different things. But sometimes you have to take that big step just to get going.
Has it been difficult to get shops to understand the worth and importance of your books or do you mostly stick with shops that would have a better understanding of what you are publishing? And in either case, how have you pitched your publications to shops?
Hmm.. I guess I've never explicitly thought about this before. Instinctively, I avoid the shops that I know would never be interested in Sonatina's stuff. Almost everyone I approach (not a huge amount of shops) seem into it but there are a lot of comics stores that just feel.. completely unrelated to what we're doing? And I have no ill will at all towards them.. it just seems like a different genre and it doesn't make sense to approach them. It's like when, in my personal life, I tell people that I make comics, I oftentimes preface the rest of the conversation (usually about a very specific genre of comics) by saying something like.. "that's like saying I like reading books, y'know, if a stranger tells you they enjoy reading you don't immediately assume that they only enjoy one genre of literature.. like flash fiction thrillers or something?" ;) Yeah, so no.. I try to avoid conversations where I have to convince people about the worth of what we're doing. But it also seems like the general comics-reading public is starting to be more accepting of less traditional stuff, so who knows? Hopefully, with enough work and time the books will speak for themselves. But maybe that's proof or a good indicator as to why I'm fairly horrible at marketing? Ha! Trying to rethink that aspect a tiny bit going forward. Well, and I guess I don't feel like we're necessarily making these ultra-relevant books just yet, like, we're working towards it, but so far the books are just good comics? Maybe art comics? But I feel like I haven't specifically made anything quite so damning, or controversial, or complete, that it requires that kind of convincing, not yet. We're just starting. And it's like, past a certain point, those types of fully realized books just take on a life of their own, or maybe not? Well, in any case, making something like that is not always the point but I'd hope to usher a few into this world before it's all over. ;)
Were these all artists you knew prior to publishing them, or did you approach some of them out of the blue with the idea of publishing a book with them?
Actually, I hadn't met any of the artists involved before making the first book. We'd talk a little bit online or through email but it was rare. Wait, that's not true, Chris Andersen, Mark Hensley, and Argel Brown were pals from my NY days and before! But since the first book, I've pretty much met everyone or at least had a nice talk with them on the phone. With new work it's like.. most of the stuff I just see somewhere on tumblr? Friends of friends, people doing cool stuff and I send out a casual email. Every once in a while people contact me? And that's always nice.
How has your experience working with printers gone? Have you worked with different ones for different projects or have you found a pretty good one for the variety of scales your different publications require?
I've switched printers for the anthologies and used the same local printer for the recent small books. Still feel like I haven't found exactly what I want but there's still so much for me to learn about the process. Having a place close to home is useful, makes it incredibly easy to check in with proofs and see what's going on. So much information is conveyed about a person or business after two seconds of talking.. stuff that might never be apparent over the phone, and just making that human connection feels really important considering these people are doing such a huge portion of the work involved in making the art manifest.
How have you approached the editorial end of Sonatina the anthologies? Is there much back and forth between you and the artists? Is it difficult corralling artists for an anthology in terms of artist meeting deadlines, or is your policy more open, trusting the artists to turn something in that will fit?
Editing is really a fun task for me. I'm pretty sure I enjoy it as much, if not more, than making my own stuff. Sometimes there's a lot of back and forth between the artist and myself and sometimes there's virtually nothing. Each person is extremely different and everyone's process is different, so you gotta respect that, but it also makes getting everything done in a timely manner almost impossible. I'm fine with that though. I'd rather have the books be right and look right than try to squeeze it into some deadline that was imaginary in the first place. But in terms of the art, I rarely have to edit things. Sometimes a few tweaks are needed or sometimes a piece doesn't entirely work, but usually it's a pleasure to work through. And I've really loved working on the single artist books because it's a chance to get more personal and in-depth with each comic or text and completely try to bring out what the artist wants out of the book. It's more specific. When anthologies are too large it's easy to lose a sense of moving through a space. It just becomes too jumbled. I think the main obstacles one faces when editing an anthology are what vague guidelines to include in the first place (artists, themes, content) and then just finding a way of making that gel into a single space and flow. Seemingly easy but maybe not so easy. ;)
What do you enjoy more, putting together solo vision projects or larger collaborative things like the Sonatina anthology series?
Hmmm.. I mean, I enjoy both. I think it's easier to do justice to a single artist book because the ideas are usually more uniform, but I'm also looking into ways of.. going deeper into that, making those books even more specific, adding little personal touches that seem fitting for each project, but I totally enjoy the challenges and ideas behind making an anthology and collaborative stuff, too. They're just completely different approaches.
There seems to be real attempt w/ your personal output, at seeking out an honest voice, a sincerity, an earnestness. Keeping the language and the mistakes 'real', off the cuff, conversational. The work you seem to be after, seen in both your editorial choices w/ the Sonatina anthology, in addition to solo works, keeps this intact. I imagine this is a conscious choice? What draws you to making this type of work? Is there any difference that draws you to publishing it?
I feel like it might be more appropriate to say that what I'm attracted to is a kind of honesty in the approach to making art, a directness in that regard, but I wouldn't extend it too far beyond that. Actually, I feel like a lot of stuff that I've been making in the past few years has been decidedly dishonest in terms of content. Dishonesty is something that really attracts me to autobiographical work, it's inherently this filtered account of yourself that you can use to get at a personal or literary truthfulness without necessarily being honest. It's an idea I didn't fully grasp when I first started making journal comics but I'm hoping to explore it more intensely with this longer book-length comic I'm just starting to sketch out. As for the stuff I publish, yeah, I'd say my attraction to the work comes from more of the directness and novelty of ideas and style than anything to do with sincerity of content.
In Sonatina 2, I really liked that it was 2 books. Was there an order to reading them? And if there was, were they designed intentionally to suggest that order through the cover / back cover choices? I mean, the little book has 1 empty "panel" on the front and the larger book has panels on the front. Maybe I'm reading into surface things that aren't there. What is your take on leaving works open ended when it comes to your personal output?
There's no specific order but my original intention was to include the smaller book as an insert inside the larger book, but then, as the issue began to unfold, it seemed obvious that they needed to be their own standalone objects that could exist in relation.
I usually prefer open ended work, not always, but oftentimes with comics. I think, as a medium, one of comics' great assets is its ability to compartmentalize a reading experience, making it easy and rewarding to renavigate a strip for more meaning. Too often, I'll read a comic and feel like I never have to look at it again in order to remember what it means to me, even if I like it, and I've come to regret that fact. I feel like that sense of mystery and discovery is what attracts me to most narratives; unlocking some sort of tightly held secret, but then again, I'm also starting to prefer stuff that I can burn through in one go and enjoy immensely. It's like, let me invest some quality time or make a super shortcut. The work in the middle should pick a side.
What is your attraction to using appropriation and reoccurring characters like Scott McCloud?
Haha. I guess I don't think about it too much. Scott McCloud's a comics nerd who wears glasses and shares my first name. I laugh when I see his face. ;) And I guess I just feel like, appropriation, in some interpretation or another, is one of my generation's major forms of expression. There's such an intense flow of information, and images, and stories swirling around us everyday that is seems almost impossible to disconnect from that reality, and in many ways, that endless flow comes to live at the heart of our content instead of just being the basic fodder for ideas. At least that's the way I feel, like, instead of drawing from nature, I feel like I'm directly drawing from the webspace that reorganizes images of nature. It's a huge part of my reality. It's like, the webspace, before all, is my content. Just take a second to look at the screen you're inevitably reading this on, there's so many windows and panels and borders; the tendency for these digital spaces to neatly arrange information, word and pictures, feels so deeply related to comics. It makes sense that both forms, so closely knit, would merge or draw from one another in some way.
Maybe what's more instantly relatable is the thought of making hyper-related work, like the Kiss List comic I drew after BCGF, or even thinking of Sonatina as a network of artists and how they relate. The idea being that, increasingly, the content of most current comics and posts, instead of creating this isolated thought, is more about assembling a social character that exists alongside the drawings; and with our current forms of distribution (almost exclusively social media) it makes sense that a character's relation to, and within a group would generate more narrative interest than single comic ever could. And I guess I haven't fully explored this thought, but, well, I see it in stuff like Simon Hanselmann's Truth Zone, or, more interestingly, and more obliquely, with what Blaise Larmee is doing on the internet in general, like, how the contrast between a web of artists and the isolation of most cartoonists everyday workspace provides this perfect chance to highlight the disparity between a private inner-life and how that life is seen and performed publicly. I don't know. It just seems like the public lives of so many, at least online, have come to resemble a ritualistic identity performance - whose only real novelty is that it can be so quickly located and positioned in this gigantic stream of possibilities. It's like, when everyone can just as easily make up or alter any little thing about themselves, without a hope of verification, and with instant acceptance, how is appropriating an image any different from assuming an entire persona? With comics, and in comics, it just seems to make sense, at least to me, to talk about and work with the arbitrary connections between these characters and the cultural structures holding them together. And it seems more fun as well. ;)
How is the importance of the internet different in your work vs in the work that you publish?
Hmm.. is this a question specifically about drawing? Because I'm pretty sure the internet is equally important to all the work that I publish, but, like you're saying, just in different ways. I think I tend to see images more as a series of fragments, or landscapes to be altered, instead of sanctified compositions in and of themselves. So, I take a lot of images straight from the web, and this might have something to do with my film background, but yeah, that perspective lends itself to more digital processing and reconfigurations. Though, I'm not sure if this viewpoint makes the internet inherently more important to my comics? Like most people, I still draw the majority of stuff on paper first. I dunno, but it is true that I do see a tumblr post as being entirely different than an image sitting in my scanner, or on my phone, or on my desk, and maybe that's the difference.