When comics entrepreneur Marc Arsenault announced almost a year ago that he had bought defunct Alternative Comics in order to relaunch the publisher, a lot of fans (me included) were thrilled. Under founder Jeff Mason, Alternative introduced readers to creators like Graham Annable, Brandon Graham, James Kochalka, Ed Brubaker, Scott Campbell (of Great Movie Showdowns fame), Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld. So with Alternative and comiXology announcing today that the publisher's catalog is becoming available digitally on the app, I was eager to talk to Arsenault about their plans.
Michael May: For those who don't know you, what’s your background in comics?
Marc Arsenault: Wow. Where to begin? I've been a pretty behind-the-scenes guy for most of my time in comics, but this year I've hit the quarter century mark for working in them.
I figured out that I wanted to make comics somewhere around eighth grade when I discovered RAW, Warrior and Heavy Metal. When I found out about the comics program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) my path was clear. I didn't even apply to any other schools. I got to study with Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner, Joe Orlando, David Sandlin, Jerry Moriarity, Marshall Arisman and the very influential Jack Potter.
That experience was very relevant to Alternative Comics' past and present because it was there that I met Sam Henderson and Tom Hart. I shared a studio space with Tom, and he and Sam had started an off-campus comics anthology called Tuna Casserole. By the fifth issue I became co-editor and we founded the first incarnation of my company Wow Cool. I ended up becoming an illustrator instead of a cartoonist, and did that freelance on and off up until about a decade ago.
I went on to work as assistant art director for Mark Martin at Kevin Eastman's Tundra Publishing. The highlights of that for me were probably getting to design all the odd bits in the last couple of Taboos - including working with Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli on the various Sweeney Todd materials - and editing and designing the Michael Kaluta Sketchbook. That book was eventually nominated for an Eisner. We lost to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics ... so, no shame there. I shared a studio with Al Columbia for a while in Northampton and was actually the model for one of the characters in Big Numbers. People have finally chilled out on asking about that whole story, and mostly go on repeating the same incorrect information.
That's when Ed Brubaker enters the story. I don't actually remember how I met Ed. We were at Comic-Con '92 and I was talking to him about how I was getting restless at Tundra (and could see the writing on the walls ... oh, and on a secret memo I accidentally found), and he introduced me to Josh Petrin, who he had recently edited the anthology Monkeywrench with.
Josh was the 'zine and small press buyer for the San Francisco Bay Area's Comic Relief (back when there were two stores). We hatched the plan for the first incarnation of Wow Cool as a proper business. We did mail order of comics and music (which Wow Cool has done from day one to the present), expanded the publishing, and started a distribution business that was pretty successful for a couple of years -- bringing small-press comics and 'zines to cafes, alternative book stores, records stores and a few comic shops. We ended up getting a lot of attention from mainstream media (CNN, New York Times ...) as part of the 'zine explosion. One of the titles we published was the very first issue of Jon Lewis' True Swamp. We also reprinted all of Scott McCloud's minicomics, as well as new or reprint editions of ones by Dennis Worden, Wayno, Jim Woodring, Jason Lutes and Adrian Tomine, and we also published or kept in print many of the big 'zines from that time, including Cometbus, Dishwasher, Scam and Absolutely Zippo.
Around the end of 1995 we closed down the wholesale end of things and Josh left the company. Wow Cool was pretty far from supporting me so I started looking around for something else. I asked Kim Thompson if Fantagraphics needed anyone and he said yes. I spent the next year and a half as their art director during a pretty heavy-duty upgrade phase and continued as a designer and editor for them for several more years after that. My big jobs while there were designing Zero Zero (the fun part), massively revamping the mail-order catalog to fit twice the product into not too many more pages (the pain in the ass part), and co-editing and designing Robert Williams' Malicious Resplendence (the Eisner Award-nominated bit). I was also the editor of the Vaughn Bodé library for a long time.
After doing the big fancy coffee-table book thing I felt like there was not much room to move in comics without more resources, so I moved onto working in advertising, PR and marketing for plastics and martial arts companies for the next decade ... and basically advanced myself out of employability again. I just could not see starting my own agency or going back to working for someone else, and eventually stumbled back into comics.
How did you get involved with Alternative and re-launching the company?
In 2011 I became Sam Henderson's distributor on his comeback book Free Ice Cream (some three years after Magic Whistle #11) and we were starting to work on plans for what format would be best for future books. I had re-launched Wow Cool as a much larger mail-order operation than it had ever been before and was looking at my publishing and distributing options.
A couple of projects and plans had not worked out and I was really starting to wonder if this was a good direction. I think we had reached the point where I knew that I would be publishing Magic Whistle #12 and wanted to get some stock of the back issues. So, I asked Sam about that and, naturally, he said I should just talk to Jeff Mason. After some back and forth with Jeff and a serious, hard look at his back catalog, I offered to take things over.
As you can see above I have some history with many of the artists that Jeff went on to publish after they were involved with Wow Cool and related projects like Monkeywrench. The large number of Brooklyn-based and Meathaüs/SVA people also seemed to make for some sort of continuity, even though I knew relatively few of those artists at that time. The closure of Highwater/Bodega and Beunaventura had also left a big hole in the indie comics publishing world that I was looking to help fill. The explosion of micro-publishers like Hic & Hoc, Studygroup, Revival House, Retrofit and Space Face and the various retailer/publisher operations like Floating World, Desert Island, Secret Headquarters and recently Bergen Street filled some of that gap and many of the artists landed at or bounced around with other publishers. The timing worked out perfectly for Sam Henderson and Karl Stevens in particular.
Is Jeff still involved with Alternative in any way?
Jeff's main role is to "Like" what I've been doing on our Facebook page. We are still technically in a transition phase, as all the materials that are in Gainesville have yet to be moved to California, and we haven't signed everything over. Tom Hart has been serving as the liaison on much of this -- or "chieftain," as he prefers to be referred to. Basically he answers some of the stranger questions that come up. Jeff has his own thing going on now as a defender of peoples' rights as an attorney and general stand-up good guy doing things like poll-monitoring.
Alternative officially re-opened its doors last year. What’s been happening since then?
The first couple of books Alternative relaunched with had started out as Wow Cool projects that had already been under way when the move became official. I talked Ted May into doubling the print run on Injury #4 (which was recently nominated for an Eisner Award) so that Alternative could distribute it to the direct market, and we published Magic Whistle #12.
By August or so of last year I knew what most of 2013's books would be, but getting them sufficiently developed to the point where we could safely announce a full publishing schedule took much longer than anticipated. We also had some delays in September when my wife was in a very bad car crash and I messed up my arm in a pallet jack accident moving some Alternative books. She's OK now, but honestly I'm not sure when my right arm will ever be 100 percent again. Otherwise, there have been a lot of things to work out with our distributors -- Diamond and Last Gasp -- to get things moving again and make sure that all of our 80-odd in-print titles were available again. We lost something like six distributors over the last decade, all of which never settled their accounts with Alternative. Mainly it's been all about getting the new books together and working on getting the backlist available, digitized and, where applicable, back into print.
So, speaking of digitizing, you're rolling out digital editions of Alternative’s books this week. Which ones are you making available first?
We are launching with a fairly small batch: three from Sam Henderson (Magic Whistle #7 and 12, and the Humor Can Be Funny collection) Karl Stevens' Failure and Steven Cerio's Pie. Pie was a Wow Cool comic that came out back in 1997. Steven was basically a prime motivator in Wow Cool branching out in publishing. He asked us to do his second book back in 1988 and just kept asking. Alternative Comics will publish his book Sunbeam on the Astronaut in early 2014, and a comprehensive collection of his earlier comics later in that year.
What factors went into picking those books?
The focus was obviously re-introducing readers to the batch of artists that we are still working with in 2013. To that end, several of the upcoming digital releases are by artists that we will be publishing or distributing, including several by James Kochalka, K. Thor Jensen's Red Eye, Black Eye, and the relaunched Alternative Comics anthology. Alternative Comics, the comic, had been a Free Comic Book Day book for three issues and we are continuing the numbering with this new edition and several of the regular Alternative artists. Right now I'm working on the free sampler of Sam Henderson's comics, Magic Whistle #0.
Wow Cool's focus as a studio has been on digitization and digital distribution of the various music, video and comic projects that were created over its 25 years. That's taken on it's own sort of life lately as the people involved in the main group associated with the label, Brown Cuts Neighbors, have had a fairly high-profile level of success we never anticipated. Brown Cuts Neighbors are having a SOHO screening in June as part of the New York Electronic Art Festival, and members Lady Starlight and Ben Coccio have had great success as the opening act for Lady Gaga and the screenwriter for The Place Beyond The Pines, respectively.
What’s next in terms of print?
Debuting this month is Karl Stevens’ Failure, the follow-up to his 2011 book The Lodger — a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. Failure was originally announced for a February 2013 release but was postponed and remade to accommodate for changes necessitated by the cancellation of the strip by The Boston Phoenix (and the closing of the paper mere weeks later). Stevens is promoting the book at numerous events, including the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.
Our flagship anthology returns as a twice-yearly comic with more pages in June with the release of Alternative Comics #4. The cover art is by Mike Bertino (Trigger) with comics by Theo Ellsworth (The Understanding Monster) and Craig Thompson (Blankets, Habibi), Sam Alden (Eighth Grade), James Kochalka (SuperF*ckers), Sam Henderson (Magic Whistle), Noah Van Sciver (The Hypo), Grant Snider (Incidental Comics), Alex Schubert (Blobby Boys), Andy Ristaino (Adventure Time) and Allison Cole (Never Ending Summer). The popular Inkstuds podcast also launches a regular feature in the magazine with an interview with and comics by David Lasky. It's debuting at TCAF.
Next in the lineup is a pair of books by beloved funny man Sam Henderson. In August, Sam celebrates the 20th anniversary of his Magic Whistle series with the release of Vol. 2, No. 13. The long-running comic has returned to bi-annual status and will regularly feature guest contributors. This issue’s guests are Lizz Hickey and David Goldin.
Appearing in September is the release of the complete collection of Sam’s popular Nickelodeon Magazine comic strip "Scene But Not Heard," which ran from the debut issue in 1993 until its final days in 2009. "Scene But Not Heard" is co-published with Top Shelf.
For many years Alternative Comics, Top Shelf, and Highwater Books supported the recipients of the Xeric Foundation grants by distributing the awarded books to the comic book direct market. The final Xeric grants were handed out in May 2012 and one of the very last books to be released from that batch is Look Straight Ahead by Elaine M. Will, which will be distributed through Alternative. This is an astounding debut graphic novel from a young, Canadian artist and will be in shops in October. Elaine's debuting the book at TCAF as well.
In November, James Kockalka releases the complete Fancy Froglin strips — previously available only to online subscribers and partially issued by Alternative in 2003. This is the entire dirty work: Fancy Froglin Uncensored. Fancy Froglin is an ineffably cute happy little frog that loves getting boners. He’s highly sexual yet purely innocent. And he loves bunnies. Most important, he’s really funny. Sure to please fans of Kochalka’s SuperF*ckers.
Coming in winter will be Alternative Comics #5, the Complete Sugar Booger by Kevin Scalzo, and Sunbeam on the Astronaut by Steven Cerio.
You're obviously in touch with some of the creators who published under Alternative before. Is there any chance for new material from Alternative by people like Ed Brubaker, James Kolchaka, or Graham Annable?
I haven't been in touch with everyone yet, but nearly all of them. The focus has had to be on moving forward, and since there are many things we are not finished sorting out, I have yet to issue some sort of state-of-the-company to all the many artists that have been published or distributed by Alternative. That day is coming soon. (Anyone out there that has questions, please contact me!)
I have asked Ed a couple of times about when we can expect Detour #2 and he has yet to give me a straight response. Maybe I'll be surprised one day. Like I said, a few artists have moved on, for better or worse. Graham Annable did his collected Grickle comics with Dark Horse a few years ago and recently there was a new edition of Hickee from Topatoco. That release was something that seems to have completely flown under the radar of most of the comics world, which is a shame as all of those guys do brilliant work, and I'm a huge fan.
After the distributor crashes in the middle of the last decade the schedule got cut way down and it's great that books that had started out at Alternative landed elsewhere, like Lauren Weinstein's Goddess of Mars (at Picture Box) and Gabrielle Bell's Lucky (at D&Q). In addition to the complete Fancy Froglin at Alternative this fall from James Kochalka, we'll see several digital editions of his other books. I'm sad to say that Brandon Graham had decided not to reprint Escalator, but is working on re-issuing some of the material in different packages with our friends at Image.
Are you looking to continue that legacy of discovering new talent? Or is the immediate focus more on making available Alternative's existing library?
I don't want to crush anyone's Wookiee, but the discovering-new-talent job is sadly some very thankless and discouraging work for the most part. I think it's a great shame that the Xeric Grants for first-time comic artists has ended, but we're distributing one of the very last recipients of the Xeric Grant for 2012: Elaine M. Will's Look Straight Ahead. It's one of the strongest from that batch.
I look at everything. There is more great comic work being done now than ever before. We have been seriously looking at what is making its way through Kickstarter and will be announcing very soon one of the books that made it's way through there as a distributed title.
Is “What Would Jeff Mason Do?” a part of your decision-making process at all, or would you like the new Alternative to be its own thing reflecting your particular tastes?
I can't swear that I've ever thought, "What would Jeff do?" More like, what is appropriate for Alternative Comics, given the fairly significant history of the company in the short decade that it actively published comics? That is a large chunk of major comics and artists in a fairly short time. Also, an impressive list of award nominated and winning artists... and many who went on to much greater success.
Alternative now is much more a 'boutique' publisher, as I edit and design many of the books myself. I have stated many times that it really comes down to my tastes as to what we publish, but other considerations do play into it. Commercial or potentially commercial ones, first of all. There's no escaping that. There seems to exist a concept that we were largely a publisher of autobiographical comics, and while there were some of those -- some very strong examples of those -- I think that made up a fairly small part of the line. I do actually want to distance the label from that, but am not exactly jumping straight into the genre/fusion/fantasy/video game what-have-you realm that -- although I love them greatly -- makes up a big chunk of alt comics now.
I think that Alternative Comics has been historically weak in all ages and YA titles, which are obviously big markets in comics publishing, and I'd like to see those grow. Bottom line, I think comics should be fun. I want to put out books people can be excited about. I certainly think there is not enough humor in comics. There are days when I think, looking at some of the indie comics out there, "Pretty can be so boring; let's do some comics that are awesome!"