“And there came a day, a day unlike any other…” Comics is rife with stories of team-ups and alliances formed to solve problems beyond any one member and advance the common good. Such is the story of Press Gang, one of the most intriguing small-press outlets to emerge in the year gone by. Comprising Portland retailer Jason Leivian’s Floating World Comics imprint, cartoonist and editor Zack Soto’s Study Group Comic Books and Elfworld editor François Vigneault’s publishing house Family Style, Press Gang is described on its website simply as “like-minded publishers/packagers banding together.”
Each of its individual members has taken a forward-thinking approach to the work they put out: Leivian’s excellent store has a bold art/comics “house anthology,” the cheekily titled Diamond Comics; Soto teamed with former Comics Journal editor Milo George (with an assist by Bodega Books publisher Randy Chang) to transform his long-running artcomix anthology Studygroup12 into the promising comics/criticism hybrid Study Group Magazine; and Vigneault rescued Elfworld from languishing on original editor Jeffrey Brown’s to-do list, becoming a pioneer of the seemingly ever-widening crossover between alternative comics and fantasy adventures. Any alliance between these three is worth watching very closely.
So to celebrate Robot 6’s third anniversary, I got in touch with each member of the Press Gang triumvirate to ask about the past, present and future of the Gang and their places in it. The big news here is that Soto’s Study Group Comic Books will be absorbing Chang’s Bodega Books now that Chang has officially closed up shop, and will publish Kazimir Strzepek’s highly acclaimed fantasy saga The Mourning Star from now on. And check out oodles of exclusive preview pages from Elfworld #3 and Study Group’s forthcoming sg12.com webcomics portal, launching Jan. 16. But beyond that, there’s Shonen Jump-style phonebook anthologies, the return of old favorites after long hiatuses and, quite literally, magic…
Sean T. Collins: Beyond the fact that Zack works at Jason’s comic shop, Floating World, I know very very little about the origin of Press Gang. How did the three of you hook up?
Zack Soto: I’ve been friends with both Jason and François for several years now. I know François from tabling at APE over the years, and he moved to Portland in the last year or so. Since then, we’ve become pretty good buddies and talk out our projects with each other quite a bit. Jason I’ve known since he opened Floating World, more or less. I went to check out the shop in its first, extremely tiny, space. We’ve been friends ever since, and I guess a year or more ago I started working there a day or two a week. Last year we co-published Studygroup12 #4. I probably talk with these two guys about my crazy ideas and frustrations, and listen to them talk out their ideas, more than any other people besides my wife.
Press Gang came about initially from François and I talking about our various goals as small publishers. We both basically had the same ideas about strength in numbers and what that could mean. Promotionally, it’s as simple as being able to group together some like-minded publisher/packagers at more or less the same level of the industry and bringing all of our small followings to one point. Logistically, one of the obvious strengths is being able to send one or two people to represent the group at a convention and save money. Another benefit is when we have particular skills like silkscreening or risographing or what have you, we give each other sweet deals in our areas of production expertise.
We’re basically modeling ourselves after the Wu-Tang Clan. I like to flatter myself into thinking I’m the GZA but Jason keeps telling me I’m ODB, so oh well.
François Vigneault: I moved to Portland from San Francisco almost exactly a year ago. I was lucky enough to already know some a few cartoonists and publishers in the community up here, including Zack (who’s a loud-mouth like me, so I liked him right away), and after I moved up, I found lots of other very welcoming folks like Jason, who of course runs Floating World Comics. Now, after having been here in Portland for a year, I hang out with Zack all the time, and I’ve had some really great talks with Jason, just sharing ideas for projects, events, etc… Both of those guys have a very deep understanding of the ins-and-outs of the comics industry and it’s been eye-opening for me to just talk with them. Plus they’re both just good dudes, and hillarious… Along with lots of other amazing folks, they’re really part of what makes Portland such a great place to be in the comics community.
I’ve always really enjoyed colaborating with other folks; my small-press publishing house, Family Style, started out as a collective years ago, and I ran the San Francisco Zine Fest for 6 years. When Zack and I started discussing some of our aspirations for Study Group Comics and Family Style, it seemed like our goals really meshed well: Reach new audiences, publishing great work by new artists, and increasing the production quality on our books. It also seemed like some of the challenges were the same: Time and money, mostly! We hashed out some ideas: Could we exhibit at more shows if we split tables or booths between several small-press publishers? Maybe share some of our equipment and expertise to improve our books? Importantly, could collaborate without stepping on each other’s toes and driving each other crazy? Press Gang was born out of that desire to work with each other but maintain our independence.
Jason Leivian: Zack works with me at Floating World. I met him immediately after opening the shop 5 years ago. I met François shorty after he moved to Portland. He came in the shop to sell some Elfworlds. Zack and François approached me with the idea. I’ve just started doing more comic conventions this past year and I’m finding that business travel suits me pretty well. Press Gang will allow us to do more comic shows by splitting the cost of tables and at any given time at least 2 out of the 3 of us can make it to the shows.
Collins: It occurs to me that each branch of Press Gang has its own flagship anthology. In your case, Jason, that’s Diamond Comics — a name I always find funny, given its more common association in the industry. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the thinking and process behind the series. A newsprint house anthology for a retailer is such an unusual beast to me.
Leivian: [Providence’s landmark artcomix anthology] Paper Rodeo was what inspired me to do a newspaper anthology. I loved the idea that you might find this weird artifact around town with all these strange psychedelic cartoons and very little info about who made it or where it came from. I wanted to focus on experimental work from all over the world. Whenever a new issue would come out I would get a zipcar and drop off stacks around town, at coffee shops, bars, record stores. I think having a publication helped get a little bit of exposure for the store. I always enjoy it when a visitor from another state or country comes into the shop and they say “Oh you publish Diamond!” And then I ask about where they found it.
I’ve put the paper on hiatus to focus on some book projects, but I get the feeling I’ll be returning to the format in the future.
Collins: François, your primary anthology is Elfworld, the initial volume of which came out some years ago. In that time, the alternative comics landscape has changed so that science fiction and fantasy are much more common. Do you see Elfworld as a prophetic effort? How do you keep it fresh moving forward?
Vigneault: With Elfworld, I obviously have to give a lot of credit to Jeffrey Brown (who compiled the work in the first book) for originally seeing the desire for fantasy/sci-fi genre stuff in the alternative comics community; I know that when I first heard about his prospective anthology I was like “I want to be in that!” Since I published the first volume I’ve never lacked for contributors, I think lots of indie creators just want to cut loose with something fun… A lot of us grew up playing D & D, or reading Heavy Metal or whatever, but the dominant paradigm in alternative comics has been the autobio/literary fiction mold for a long while now. I think that the huge flowering of indie creators making genre pieces (folks like Sammy Harkham, Michael Deforge, Eleanor Davis, Jonas Madden-Connor, Johnny Ryan, Brandon Graham, Levon Jihanian, Malachi Ward & Matt Sheean, and Kazimir Strzepek, to name a few) might be a small sign that there’s a bit more confidence in the medium, that we don’t have to be self-conciously “literary” in our collective efforts for comics to be taken seriously? Maybe that’s over-reaching, but yeah, I see a trend, too, and I’m glad to be doing my small part with Elfworld.
As far as keeping things fresh going forward, it’s a challenge, but I love it. On the creative side, I think there’s a huge amount that can be done with fantasy comics… Even more so than sci-fi, it seems like there’s a ton of fairly unexplored territory. (Of course, I’d love to start putting out sci-fi comics by other folks, too… Maybe alternate Elfworld issues with Offworld!) In particular, I think there’s a lot of room for artists to develop stories that move away from out-and-out humor and into more subtle territory; I’m getting more submissions along those lines and I hope EW can be a spot for experiments to flourish. New creators keep surprising me with amazing work… Tom Biby has a comic in the upcoming issues that’s nuts, its an epic tale of ants fighting to save their queen from a mad cult… It’s very funny, but also just odd and exciting, just what I want out of a fantasy tale. And both Levon Jihianian and Jess Smart Smiley have offbeat, beautiful stories in EW #4 that are gonna knock people’s socks off, I think. Lots of good stuff.
On the production side, I am always just trying to improve how I present the artists’ work… I’m a firm believer that a comic should be as beautiful and enjoyable of an object as possible, a tactile experience. When I relaunched the series as a series of individual issues, one of the main reasons was the opportunity to be more hands-on in my production. Hence little things like the french flaps and letterpress-printed covers, or the new fantasy-inspired endpapers and table of contents for each issue, I want it to feel substantial, like someone has put not only love, but also thought into it. I mean, EW is still just a mini-comic, its no big deal… but I want it to be a cool as I can make it for my budget.
Collins: Zack, your home base is Study Group, which has been going on in one form or another for quite some time now. You recently shook up the format quite a bit after a grand last hurrah as an artcomix anthology last year — it’s now a fully functioning magazine, with interviews and criticism alongside comics and art. What prompted that decision? Were you looking at the existing landscape, or was it something you’d wanted to do for some time?
Soto: Study Group Magazine, as opposed to Studygroup12 the straight up artcomix anthology is something that’s been gestating for several years, actually. It goes back about 6-7 years now to when Dylan Williams and I were talking about doing a comics magazine to be called Longbox. I think he’d previously batted the idea around with Ted May, and for various reasons it never really gelled. the first issue of the magazine is dedicated to Dylan for many reasons, and that’s one of them. Those email chains between him and myself definitely helped me formulate what it is I wanted in a magazine about comics.
Fast forward a couple years and I came up with the idea to resurrect Studygroup12 as a comics journalism/comics anthology hybrid. I just love magazines about comics, from Nemo to Comic Art to Amazing Heroes to Destroy All Comics to TCJ, and I liked the idea of mixing art/comics content with interviews and critical essays. I pitched Bodega Press’ Randy Chang on the idea, and he signed on to publish. I then enlisted Milo George to be my co-editor. Milo is one of the great former editors of the long running Comics Journal, and we were pals online. He’s responsible for the Ft. Thunder issue and #250, among other milestones. Anyhow, it took us a while to get our feet under us and around when we were going to ramp up for the first issue, Randy decided he needed to take a short sabbatical from publishing, with the intent of having SG Mag being the first thing he published when he returned from said sabbatical.
SG12 #4 was actually done as a stopgap publication while I was spinning my wheels waiting for SG Mag #1 to move forward. My initial idea was that it’d just be a simple little photocopied zine with some silk screened inserts and covers, but as you can see, it ended up being a bit more elaborate than that.
After #4 was done, Randy more or less decided that he didn’t want to BE a publisher anymore, but he would give me whatever assistance he could in getting the first issue out, and advice about publishing in the future.
At that point, I decided to go ahead and formally make myself into a “publisher,” and started Study Group Comic Books. Even though I’ve printed and published several books and minis over the last 10 years, it was basically as a self-publisher. Now I’m looking at taking on a few modest projects besides my own work and SG Mag. I plan on doing a mixture of mini comics and offset books, mostly minis for the first year – though I think it’s more or less for sure that I’m going to take over publishing the next Mourning Star, whatever form that takes. I’m also going to be distributing all the old Bodega backstock, so I’m essentially carrying Randy’s work forward as much as I can. He’s a great guy who’s helped me a bunch and I loved the books he put out, so I’m really happy to be able to say that.
Collins: What does each of you gain from working with the other two fellows in Press Gang? How involved are you in their books at this point? I guess what I’m asking is how deep the alliance goes.
Leivian: The first thing is all our future publications will feature the Press Gang logo. We want to establish that as a thing. When we table at shows it will be as Press Gang. So we hope people start to recognize the name and if they investigate a little they’ll see who the members are and what we do. Down the road our goal will be to share resources. Between the three of us we have access to offset printing, silkscreen, letterpress, distribution through my store, and combined marketing and energy.
Soto: We mainly just use each other as sounding boards at this point, and we have a lot of plans to table at regional shows as much as possible. Everything is still in the formative stages at this point, but I can say that it already feels like Press Gang is fulfilling our original goals and we just have to take it one step at a time.
Vigneault: As Zack mentioned, for now we’re in a position to help each other out by exhibiting at more shows and lending each other our expertise and production abilities for now. We’ve come up with a fairly bare-bones structure that won’t make any of the current (or perhaps future) members feel constrained, but can also help to realize those key goals we all share: Expand our audience and improve our books. In the long term, who knows? It seems like there could be lots of room to grow, for instance, improving members’ distribution prospects, having a one-stop-shop indie comics website, or doing Press Gang micro-festivals. We’re easing into things for now. I remember that as we were discussing the ins-and-outs of Press Gang, that eye-opening two-part article on L’Association ran in The Comics Journal, and I was like “You guys have to read this!” Of course they already had. Collaborative efforts have a tendency to crash and burn, so its important to me that we create something flexible that can always be a benefit to the publishers involved, where we won’t ever be at each other’s throats. It’s fun!
Collins: What do you have in the pipeline for 2012?
Leivian: Next up is DIY Magic by Anthony Alvarado. Do you remember Arthur Magazine? They had a great column called “Practical Magic(k).” When Arthur ceased publication and went online, my friend started a new column in the same spirit, called “DIY Magic.” It’s all very real and testable procedures you can do at home to explore creativity and the potential of your imagination. It’s a series of recipes that can trick your brain into going a little crazy and benefiting from the knowledge that is found. My contribution is I found an artist to do an illustration for each chapter. It’s going to be a very handsome book.
After that will be a little digest anthology of comics. Basically a continuation of what I was doing with Diamond, except in book form. I like the Shonen Jump phonebook big brick of comics, so that was the original inspiration. I also have this naive dream that there should be these big phonebook anthologies on the newsstands or in vending machines, like that would get people back into comics like it did when I was a kid. I think I’m gonna call the series The Optimist but ironically I’m not necessarily planning on doing more than one.
I’m organizing an art festival in September or October of 2012 with my friends Dunja Jankovic, Lisa Mangum, and Justin Hocking (from the Independent Publishing Resource Center) called “The Projects.” Imagine a comic convention… with no tables. There will be a pop up shop so people can sell stuff, but tabling will not be the focus. It’s modeled after a European art fest with more of a focus on workshops, live art and music, panels and parties. We hope to bring over international artists and publishers like Le Dernier Cri, United Dead Artists, and artists from Croatia.
Vigneault: For Family Style, there should definitely be two issues of Elfworld coming out: #3, in spring, features a great cover by EW‘s founder Jeffrey Brown and comics by Ed Luce, Julia Gfrörer, Jesse Reklaw, Tom Biby, Malachi Ward, and more; #4, in fall, has comics by Levon Jihanian, Virginia Paine, Michael Deforge, and many more, all wrapped up in a Tom Neely cover. There’ll almost certainly be another great issue of Ochre Ellipse by Jonas Madden-Connor, and I’ll have some personal work come out as well, including the start of Titan, a sci-fi story which will be serialized on the Study Group website, and a collection of my Bird Brain illustrated journals. I’m juggling Family Style with my work as an editor at Scout Books and being a student, but I’ve definitely got some plans to expand the line in the coming year. And Press Gang will be exhibiting at several shows in the coming year, including new ones for us, such as the Image Comics Expo and the Vancouver Comics Art Festival.
Soto: My goal is to be able to do two issues of SG Mag a year, so definitely at least one of those will happen, hopefully two. I’m also working on the next issue of my solo comic, Ghost Attack. It’s the first chapter of an intimate horror comic called “Maps.” I’m also FINALLY launching the studygroup12.com website again, this time as a webcomics anthology. That should be live by the second week of January. It will have new, weekly comics updates from Kazimir Strzepek, Jennifer Parks, Farel Dalrymple, Levon Jihanian, François Vigneault, Michael DeForge, myself, and Jason Leivian/Ian McEwan.
I guess some people might be excited to hear that I plan on running my long-lost Secret Voice comic on the site, starting in February. So expect lots of troll killing and magic tricks as there’s going to be new unpublished Dr. Galapagos comics coming out soon. I’m very dedicated to not just becoming someone who prints other people’s comics, so I’m going to be doubling down on my own comics production.
Other than that, I have a few irons in the fire, but nothing I can really talk about right now. 2012 will be very full, and hopefully that will lead into an even more productive 2013!
ELFWORLD #3 PREVIEW PAGES:
SG12.COM PREVIEW PAGES: