Tom Devlin worked at comic book stores before founding Highwater Books in 1997. The publisher made a splash at Comic-Con International in San Diego that year when they distributed — for free — “Coober Skeber” #2, which was promoted as “The Marvel Comics Benefit Issue” and featured many independent cartoonist tackling Marvel heroes, including, most famously, the “Hulk vs. Rain” short story by James Kolchalka, which the cartoonist later redrew for Marvel.
Highwater went on to publish books, comics and prints from cartoonists including Megan Kelso, Brian Ralph, John Porcellino, James Kolchalka and Matt Madden before closing up shop in 2004. Devlin later joined Drawn and Quarterly where he currently acts as their Creative Director. This month, D&Q releases two new projects Devlin is overseeing, “Pippi Longstocking” and “The Moomins,” both of which are part of D&Q’s Enfant line for children of all ages.
CBR News spoke with Devlin via e-mail to discuss the new titles, the fifteenth anniversary of Highwater Books, and look ahead to the other books he’s overseeing at D&Q in the coming months.
CBR News: Tom, let’s start by talking about the Pippi Longstocking comics D&Q is publishing. This is the first time these three books have been published in English. When were they made and who was behind them?
Tom Devlin: They were initially published in the late 1950s in a Swedish children’s magazine called “Klumpe Dumpe” (Humpty Dumpty). I’m unsure how long they might have been out of print but recently the rights holders, Raben & SjÃ¶gren, issued reprints and I spotted the Finnish version while attending a comic convention in Helsinki. That’s my favorite thing about traveling to these other conventions — you get a chance to dig through piles of comics, you meet the cartoonists that you’ve maybe just seen a few images from on the internet, you just get a chance to see things you wouldn’t normally see.
Who was Pippi, because I’ll be honest I have only the vague image of a redhead with pigtails and I know that “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” author Stieg Larsson described Lisbeth as a grown up version of Pippi.
I hadn’t heard that Stieg Larsson quote but Pippi is certainly a household name in Scandinavia, so that makes sense. She’s a headstrong — and body strong — 9 year-old who lives in a house alone and pretty much does what she wants much to the consternation of the very square neighbor children, Tommy and Annika. She’s definitely one of those great proto-feminist characters from children’s literature. Pippi has a great kind of rugged individualist approach to everything she does. She doesn’t have an ounce of fear. And yes, she has red hair which she wears in pigtails, as well as prominent freckles, and mismatched socks.
Your other project right now is publishing new editions of “The Moomins” comic strip in color. I know we’re both fans, but for people who don’t know, who are the Moomins?
We’ve joked that we’ll just keep sending me to different countries and I’ll find the comics for the most famous children’s character available and bring them back here to North America. While Pippi’s kind of the most famous character in Sweden, the Moomins are the most popular in Finland. Tove Jansson wrote a series of chapter books in her native Swedish (there’s a population of Swedish speaking Finns) which slowly gained in popularity in Finnish and English as well. Enough so that a British newspaper approached Tove about doing a comic strip. That’s the short version of the story — the full version will be in a book we’re publishing later this year called “Moomin Every Day.”
So, the Moomins themselves are a family of hippo-like trolls who live in a country home and lead a kind of free-spirited, relaxed lifestyle. Tove came form a family of artists (Mom was an illustrator and Dad was a sculptor) and there’s a real sense that they lived a kind of bohemian lifestyle. This worldview clearly influenced the creation of the Moomins. The Moominpoppa is kind of a dreamer who spins yarns about his globe-trotting adventures and Moominmomma is a loving but pragmatic woman and Moomintroll or Moomin is their son. They’re the focal point for a whole community of off-the-wall characters who live in Moomin Valley. They’re surrounded by a bunch of schemers, hangers-on, dreamers, and dedicated friends. The stories have a kind of sardonic wit, not quite out and out satire, but there’s a dark edge in this otherwise idyllic world.
You’ve been publishing “The Moomins” in oversize hardcover volumes for a few years now. Why did you want to publish them in a new format?
I would say that I wanted to expand the audience for these comics. We did really well with them here in North America and the UK and we sold our version to a number of European countries and I just started to think “how can we get more of these books in people’s (kids’) hands.” I had heard from a number of people who said that their children MUCH preferred color comics to black and white comics and it dawned on me that we should try coloring these strips and make a less expensive softcover version that kids could carry around in their backpacks. So we colored a few strips and presented them to Tove’s niece, Sophia, who runs the licensing of the Moomin Characters, and she loved it so we moved forward. Those books are just hitting stores now but I’m really excited because the strips really hold color well. I think people will be shocked how beautifully they turned out.
Are there other books aimed at kids, or at least a younger audience, in the works for the D&Q Enfant line?
Well, we are taking it slow. We have the collections of the Moomin strips, the two Moomin picture books (“The Book About Moomin, Mymble, and Little My” and “Who Will Comfort Toffle?”), the forthcoming three book Pippi series, a reprint of Brian Ralph’s “Cave-In,” and the Doug Wright “Nipper” paperbacks for now and there are plans for things we can’t talk about yet. All along we’ve thought that we’ll just take our time and build the line up and not rush. Recently, we published the first volume of Anouk Ricard’s “Anna & Froga,” “Want a Gumball?”, and we’ll continue to release that series. Finding Anouk Ricard’s work was another lucky discovery — I was at the local library and my kids were playing with some neighbors and I wandered away into the stacks and found these amazing French kids comics. The stories concern a group of friends who prank and needle each other but are still friends and the situations are just hilarious.
Just to go back in time, fifteen years ago you started a small publisher, Highwater Books, and you made a splash at San Diego in 1997 with “Coober Skeber” #2 — the Marvel Comics benefit book. What were you trying to do? What made you want to be a publisher?
At that time I was working at the Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was deeply entrenched in the small press and mini-comics movement. I loved seeing all this new work that wasn’t getting a wide audience and I just wanted to find ways to get it out there. I tried creating a distribution system that never got any real traction because people made such small quantities and you had to do everything by phone or more likely through writing letters to the person’s P.O. Box. By the time I got new comics in I would have sold out of them at the Million Year Picnic so I would just sell them to the store for no profit. But meeting all these cartoonists got me thinking about other ways to promote their work and eventually the Marvel Benefit edition of “Coober Skeber” came out of that. It was a really aggravating undertaking but when I opened up those cases of the freshly printed books, I was done for. There was no turning back. I was going to be a publisher. And after the success of that book, people started approaching me to publish their comics and well I figured I better step up.
I definitely had a plan. I saw a lot of work that didn’t seem to fit in to what I viewed as the professionalism of Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly. I knew that if I didn’t publish this stuff then no one would. There were also some other new comics publishers coming out of the minicomics scene like Top Shelf and Alternative-and the very influential Black Eye who pre-dated us all by a little bit-and we were all pretty chummy.
By the time I had started Highwater, I had worked at two comic stores — Newbury Comics and the Million Year Picnic — and spent several years working at the Diamond Comics warehouse in Boston. I thought most comic book covers were an ugly muddy mess. There was so much I thought was done wrong in comics that prevented them from reaching the general public and I really wanted to change that. I focused on packaging to make more appealing objects — I knew the comics inside those books were great but I really wanted everyone else to know.
In 2010 there was an exhibition in Boston, “Right Thing The Wrong Way: The Story of Highwater Books.” Was that title a somewhat accurate summation of Highwater?
I did not like that title. I felt like it focused on the financial failure of the company over the artistic success. But when TD Sidell — who was a former intern and good friend — came to me with the idea, I told him he could do what he wanted but I wouldn’t really be able to help because I had young kids and they were the priority. Besides TD earned a chance to try something like that show. I would have extended that blessing to many of my friends and interns because their support was instrumental in making Highwater work for those years that it worked. TD and the other folks who helped him do the show — Greg Cook, Jef Czekaj, Brooke Corey, and Randy Chang — did a great job though. It perfectly embodied the kind of catch-all follow your aesthetic wherever it leads you ideal that I always wanted for Highwater.
You officially announced the end of Highwater in November 2004, though by that point it had been a little while since a book was published. Now that several years have passed, what do you think of what you were able to accomplish?
Is that for me to say? I don’t know. I hope Highwater was an influence on cartoonists and other publishers but you would have to ask them. I really did want people to see that anyone could be a distributor or a publisher or a designer or whatever. I’m glad I got to do it as long as I did. I’m glad that I got to promote so many great cartoonists like Ron Rege, Jr, Brian Ralph, Megan Kelso, Matt Madden, Mat Brinkman, Marc Bell, Greg Cook, James Kochalka, and John Porcellino (and others who I distributed like Jordan Crane) and writers like Camden Joy and Dan Buck to the world. I’m glad that Highwater helped me meet my beautiful wife Peggy and helped me land my dream job here at Drawn & Quarterly.
You’re working on a number of books besides the ones we’ve talked about. Are there any books coming out this year or early 2013 that you’d like to mention?
The ones that are really occupying my thoughts right now are “Beautiful Darkness” by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet and “Kitaro” by Shigeru Mizuki. Both are translated titles and I’m deep into editing them. I think “Beautiful Darkness” will be a bit of a surprise for D&Q fans so I don’t want to say too much about it. “Kitaro” is probably the series that Mizuki is best know for. We’re pretty excited to be getting around to publishing this work. Just so imaginative and lyrical and funny. Just really amazing adventure comics.
But there are so many. I really think that we’ve had such a strong five-year run, as good as any publisher in any medium. In just the past couple of months, we’ve published “Gloriana” by Kevin Huizenga, “Birdseye Bristoe” by Dan Zettwoch, “The Making Of” by Brecht Evens, and re-published “Cave-In” by Brian Ralph and I swear to god these are must have books — four individual idiosyncratic cartoonists working at the peak of their powers.
We’re also republishing (with new material) “Freddie Stories” by Lynda Barry and I think that book is going to blow people’s minds. It’s the darker Lynda Barry like in her novel “Cruddy” and I think a lot of people weren’t ready for her comics to be so dark in 1999. It’s just brutal,beautiful stuff.
You’re a cartoonist in your own right. Are we ever going to see a Tom Devlin comic one of these years?
I’m working intermittently on something called “Nike Country” that goes back over a decade now. We’ll see if I ever finish that. [Publisher] Chris Oliveros is also working on his comic “Envelope Manufacturer” and we kid each other about how long we’ve been working/not working on these stories.