Austin English has been one of the more unique cartoonists on the indie comic scene over the past decade, someone with a definitive ideas of what comics should be and how best to achieve those goals. You can see it in the childlike grace and artfulness that's captured in his graphic novel Christina and Charles, as well as in the three issues of Windy Corner Magazine, which he edited. After being a mainstay in the Sparkplug line-up for many years, English is now trying his hand at being a publisher with his new company, Domino Books. The line's debut comic, Dark Tomato by Sakura Maku, is a surreal tale about an MTA subway driver who has a supernatural encounter of sorts down in the bowels of New York City. It's available now via the Internet and finer retail outlets.
I talked to Austin over email about his new business venture, the challenges of being a small press publisher and the wisdom he gained from the late Sparkplug owner, Dylan Williams.
So let me start by asking what made you decide to become a publisher. Was this something you were always interested in doing?
I wrote about it when I started Domino and it bears repeating down, given the circumstances: Dylan Williams is the main inspiration for Domino, and not just because he was a publisher too. Dylan advocated for art that he believed in and he thought advocating for art that you liked was important -- I think, for him, it was essential to do what you could for artists that moved you.
I share this feeling with Dylan. Art is very important to me -- I believe in the work an artist like Sakura Maku does very strongly. I feel this intense obligation to do something with her work so that its shown with the proper dignity and intensity that it deserves.
Dylan said something once that really stuck with me. 'Art isn't bullshit and love isn't bullshit.' Well...sometimes you're sitting, working on your own art, or looking at art by someone like Sakura and you feel so thrilled by all of it. But then there's always that voice, right? The voice that wants you to believe its bullshit and that starting something like DOMINO is ridiculous. Well---the voice that says 'trust that you love it' is more true, I think.
A lot of these ideas were percolating with me, and over a longtime friednship/years of collaboration with Dylan, he really strengthed those drives in me so that I was ready to do Domino. Blaise Larmee sort of solidfied things for me when he started Gaze. Dylan may have influenced me that it was the right thing to do, but seeing Blaise start Gaze and publish Aidan Koch's work so well showed me that it was possible for a younger person like myself to actually do this and do it well.
Another strong reason that I started Domino is that I finally had the money to do it -- I was lucky enough to sell 15 pages of The Disgusting Room to a collector. I combined that with the savings I had amassed from my dishwashing job in Stockholm and immediately poured it all into starting Domino and publishing Dark Tomato. I felt like if I didn't use that money for Domino right away, I might never have another chance!
Did you come across any unexpected challenges or obstacles in setting up Domino?
The obstacles are still ahead for Domino, I'm sure. Once we start publishing more books, I think that's inevitable. But, for any aspiring publishers out there, I can't emphasize enough how achievable it is to publish work. I think programs like Photoshop and InDesign make the process fairly democratic. I don't have exhaustive knowledge of either of those programs, but the little I did know was enough. As long as you have a clear aesthetic vision of what you want, I think patience and a desire to listen to what the artist wants is really all you need. Getting the money together was an obstacle, but again, if it's important to you, it's more of a patience thing than an obstacle -- I worked a bunch of overtime shifts dishwashing. And when I was lucky enough to sell a bunch of original art all at once, instead of buying a plane ticket to visit family or something like that, I put it all into Domino.
I worked with fellow artist Jason Overby on Dark Tomato's design. Just having another artist who you respect look at the work as a set of second eyes was really valuable. The book was printed in Estonia, with a great company called As Ingri. There were a few language barrier problems here and there, but basically I can't recommend them enough to anyone printing books in Europe. They are the same company that prints Kuti Kuti.
How did you come across Sakura Maku's work and what was it about her work that made you want to take a chance on publishing it?
I’ve followed Sakura’s work for years. Back in 2005, when my first book Christina and Charles was published by Sparkplug, Sakura also had a new book out: CheebCheebShkaa. That comic had a big effect on me. I'm very drawn to things that may look like a brash visual statement on first glance but reveal themselves to have an undertone of sophisticated and experimental writing. I think of Sakura as a strong writer with a prose style that can be either taken as very heartfelt or highly unreliable. It has a welcoming tone to it but also something assaulting laced in there.
I asked Sakura to contribute a piece to my magazine Windy Corner. That story, You Turn My Lights directly influenced my work, especially on the Disgusting Room. Sakura’s work is powerful enough, to me, that I know there will be people who read this new book and find something in it that will drive them to new ways of thinking/making art/walking down the street.
How are you distributing Dark Tomato? Are you getting it in any comic stores? Beyond buying it at the Domino site, how can people pick up a copy?
Now that I'm back living in the USA, I can focus a lot more on getting Dark Tomato out there. Dark Tomato is already in a lot of stores, especially some great bookstores, including McNally Jackson, St. Mark's Books, Desert Island, Forbidden Planet, Spoonbill and Sugartown, Jim Hanleys and Book Thug in New York. Floating World in Portland, Quimbys in Chicago, Fantastic Comics in Berkeley, Copacetic in Pittsburgh, Atomic Books in Baltimore, and Konstig Art Books and Larrys Corner in Stockholm.
But there are a lot of stores out there that would be receptive to Dark Tomato and Domino that I just haven't gotten to yet, mainly because sending large store orders in Sweden was very expensive. But there are great adventorous sotres all over the country and it's really a matter of approaching them.
I worked in a comic store for years, and this was during a time when everyone was talking about "the death of the pamphlet comic." But I remember pamphlet comics doing very well, even odd ones, if they were presented to the customer with care and hand-sold. I hand sold a lot of copies of Jin and Jam when I worked at Forbidden Planet. A lot of regular comic stores have this attitude: "We ordered 5 copies of that weird comic, and now it's sold out. Let's not order anymore because at least we didn't lose money on it." But when I did the small press buying for Forbidden Planet, we would often end up selling hundreds of copies of strange mini-comics, just by reordering them and treating them with respect. There are many stores out there that have that attitude and that's who Domino wants to work with.
Tony Shenton is great -- he's our main distributor. I ordered a lot of stuff through Tony when I worked at Forbidden Planet and I admire his operation a lot. He cares about comics and he really does the work. I wish economics were such that he had more support.
Im taping up a box today to send to John Porcellino's Spit and a Half distro. And I'm working on Last Gasp and others. I think, with just one book so far, Domino is a hard sell to more major distros. But we're trying to reach out to everyone.
What were you doing in Sweden?
I met Clara Bessijelle in New York a few years ago, She was visiting Brooklyn from her native Sweden. I decided to move over there to live with her. Now we both moved back together to Brooklyn. While I was over there, because I didn't know that many people, I was able to focus on my art and cartooning to the degree that I always wanted to. I also got to learn Stone Lithography at a really great school called Kungliga konsthögskolan (Royal Academy of Fine Arts). Now that I'm back in the USA, I really feel so much more in control and disciplined with my art, and can't wait to get to all the work I want to do.
What's next on your publishing schedule? What books are you looking to release in the near future?
Domino has a lot of books planned for the next 6 months. Hopefully, in December we will have comics by Clara Bessijelle and Jesse McManus out. Later on, we're hopefully working with two Closed Caption Comics members: Molly Colleen O'Connell and Mollie Goldstrom on two seperate books. Im starting work on an anthology that will feature Joanna Hellgren, Warren Craghead and EB Bethea. There is this artist called Jonathan Petersen that I'm really interested in -- I want to contact him to see if he's interested in publishing something when I'm sure I have the finances to do something substantial with him. I also have a book of my own, The Life Problem, that I hope to put out very soon but I need to get the money in place.
There are a lot of artists within comics that I really want to do something with and that is what Domino is focused on now. But eventually I want to branch out and find people doing books with stories and art that don't exactly belong in the comics world, or think about comics that much. The world of comics is so rich, but there's other art out there that is close to my heart that I want to work with.