APE: The Importance of the Independent Press

Saturday's second panel at the 2013 Alternative Press Expo featured three influential figures in independent comics publishing: Last Gasp Books founder Ron Turner, SLG Publishing's and Fantagraphics Books associate publisher Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics. The discussion was moderated by Andrew Farrago, director of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, as the group talked about the importance of independent publishing and the future of the comic book industry.

Farrago began by asking the panelists about their first experiences with comics.

Vado said he struggled while learning to read and his first grade teacher encouraged him to read whatever he could. In turn, his mother gave him comics and Dr. Seuss books. By the time he was in 3rd grade, he was tutoring 6th graders in reading.

Turner came from a poor family and said he couldn't afford comic books growing up. He recalled riding on a train with his mother from Wisconsin to California. By the end of the train ride, he somehow had a stack of comic books. Years later, he realized that they came from WWII GIs that were also on the train and bribed him with comics so they could chat up his mother.

Reynolds was enjoying comics before he could actually read and always had comics around as a child. "Comics were a constant presence in my life for as long as I could remember," he said. "I worked at a comic book store during high school, much at the expense of my popularity."

Farrago then asked the group when they first became aware of indie books and comics that weren't mainstream.

"For me it was working in a comic book store," Turner said. "Having been mostly a Marvel and DC fan, and a fan of middlebrow stuff at the time like Alan Moore's 'Swamp Thing.' When I started working in a store and could read anything I wanted without having to buy it, I started reading things 'Love and Rockets' and some of the complete Crumb works that Fantagraphics started reprinting in the '80s. I was down the rabbit hole at that point."

Turner's indie interest began with MAD Magazine and a Zap Comix he read at a party that "knocked him on his ass." His goal in publishing has been to recreate that feeling of excitement derived from a book.

Vado was lucky enough to be in San Jose in the early '70s, a time when many cities didn't even have one comic book store, let alone the five or six local shops he knew. At one particular shop, Vado saw "Fat Freddy's Cat," which his mom forbade him to read -- which naturally led to him purchasing and hiding the comic.

How did the panelists transition from working in comic book stores to being publishers?

"I just got it into my head that I wanted to try it," Vado said. "And here I am, twenty-eight years later. Owning a comic shop was going to be something I did until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. Publishing sprang out of that. I've spent my entire adult life, and more than half of my life, doing this. I still don't really know why."

"It grows on you, man," Turner added.

"I tell people that comics are like heroin," Vado continued. "Actually -- if you had a heroin addiction, you'd get more slack from society than if you had a comic book addiction. Drug addiction is by definition a disability, so if you go to your employer and say that you need a week off for treatment, they can't do anything to you because your addiction is a disability. But if you went to your boss and said you needed a week off in July to go to Comic-Con for your comic book addiction, they'd fire your ass!"

Reynolds agreed that he has a job that indulges his comics addiction. Although he wanted to be a cartoonist, he never considered a career in the industry until he was in college. He went to Fantagraphics for a summer internship and never left.

Farrago noted that the crux of the panel, the importance of the independent press, was doing something because it was a calling, flying in the face of the commercial press. Each of the panelists agreed that they are in their jobs because they love them.

"When people ask me what I look for when I'm going to publish a book, I say sincerity," Vado explained. "I don't want to hear that a book is like 'Vampire Diaries' with werewolves, I don't give a shit about that. The people who have this unexplainable need to tell a story, that's what I look for."

Vado described the early days of publishing Jhonen Vasquez' "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac," and how Vasquez' sincerity was what sold Vado on the book. "People don't believe it was a sincere work when I tell them that, but I talked to Jhonen. He didn't have an explanation about why he wanted to do it, he just did. He would've continued to do it even if no one was going to publish it. That kind of sincerity almost doesn't exist anymore in the aspiring comic book guy.

"I don't know what kind of douche-water these people have been drinking, but everyone is doing the same thing and they're all yapping around, telling me about shit I don't care about, and they can't answer the simple question about why it's important to them," Vado continued. "I'd much rather invest my time in the person who has something to say, because at least that stands a chance of resonating with readers. It might not be good but at least it's real."

Further showcasing the meaningful differences between the independent and mainstream press, Turner said he still makes all of his local deliveries in his van. "You'd never find somebody in a corporate company who would do that. All of us know what its like to lug a box someplace, because we thrive on this independent, individual contact. That's what this whole community does, that's why we have things like APE. It's what the community does because we like to be together with like-thinking people."

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