Living the small press life | An interview with RJ Casey of Yeti Press

RJ Casey is a comics writer who has plunged into small-press publishing with energy and ambition. He publishes his own comics, and those by several other creators, under the name Yeti Press, and knowing that he is a micropublisher, I was impressed to see him and his collaborators at both C2E2 and TCAF this year. He's going to CAKE in a few weeks as well. Oh, and his comics were recently reviewed on a major comics blog.

Yeti Press is about to celebrate its second anniversary, and to celebrate, Casey is taking his work digital for the first time. Starting on Monday, he will make one comic at a time available as a downloadable PDF at a discount off the print price; after two weeks, he snatches that comic away and puts up another one. That one-at-a-time approach interested me, as did Casey's life as a small-press creator, so I asked him to talk a bit about how he goes about his work, how it balances with his day job as a teacher, and why he chose this particular route for digital sales.

First of all, what is Yeti Press? Who runs it, why did you start it, and what do you do?

We like to consider ourselves a small publishing behemoth out of Chicago. We put out a variety of minicomics, graphic novels, and even distribute a few select books. On a day-to-day level, I generally run the operation with help from co-founder Eric Roesner. Eric and I created Yeti Press back in 2011 to have a unified name when we worked together on the first issue of our Pecos series. I’m fairly confident that neither of us knew all the steps in every which direction Yeti Press would take following that first comics. To make sure the comics keep rolling though, some of my responsibilities include editing, taking treks to the post office, working with printers, paying artists, and scheduling release dates, signings, and conventions. I also try to get some writing done in my free time.

How did you start writing comics? What was your first comic?

Well, I’ve always been writing in some sort or another, but didn’t really start focusing on comics until I graduated college. So that would be around 2009 or 2010 when I started becoming interested in the writing aspect of comics. Books like The Waiting Place by Sean McKeever and Mike Norton, 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, and Blankets by Craig Thompson really opened my eyes and were big influences into my eventual thinking of “I could do this. I want to do this!”

The first comic I ever read was an old issue of The Silver Surfer where he battles Rhino in a zoo. I remember at one point, someone gets hit with a gumball machine. It was totally absurd and I loved it!

Speaking of absurd, the first comic I ever wrote was a short lived webcomic called Baby Book Club that I did with Brian McGovern, who now does big comedy shows all over Chicago. It was a comic strip about babies sitting around and critiquing classic literature. I still think it’s funny and there’s been some talk of making some more and bringing it back at some point. Get ready for more diaper jokes!

How does your day job as a teacher inform your comics work, and vice versa?

That is a tough question because, honestly, I like to keep them separate. Comics are my outlet from the sometimes frustrating world of public education. With that being said, I’d be lying if I admitted they didn’t overlap at times.

I sponsor an after-school comic book club where 5th and 6th graders make their own minicomics. I also try to incorporate comics into my classroom as much as possible, but never my own or the ones I publish.

I’ve written a lot of things that students have said or bizarre things they have done in a notebook. I hope to make a semi-autobiographical story from all the notes someday.

Is it your ambition to become a full-time comics writer someday, or are you happy with this mix?

It’s definitely my goal to be in comics full-time, but as a writer, I don’t know. In the last year or so I’ve taken a liking to the business and editing side of comics and I think that’s what I’ll pursue in the future. Of course, with some writing projects on the side.

As a writer, how do you find artists to illustrate your work? In particular, how do you find artists whose style matches the tone of your writing—which varies quite a bit from story to story?

That’s the age-old question! I was lucky enough to have a mutual friend with Eric in Chris “Elio” Eliopolous. He sort of hooked us up in a roundabout way through Twitter. Through Eric then, I’ve met many of the other artists we’ve published like Kat Leyh, David Alvarado, Biz Knapp, and Kevin Budnik. They were all classmates together at Columbia College in Chicago.

To answer the second question – it depends on the project. I’ve pitched books to artists who I think would be perfect like David Alvarado on Beginner’s Luck. In some other situations I’ve written a story with a certain artist in mind and have tried to almost personalize the story to their strong suits. That was the case of Her Wings with Kat Leyh. I’m extremely fortunate to be surrounded by a huge number of talented artists and even luckier to call many of them friends.

You work in a variety of different formats—large, small, and a sort of a folded poster for Party Sub. How do you choose those formats and what challenges do they present?

It seems that the unofficial rule of every book we publish is to make it as hard and inefficient to print as possible. It’s kind of a running joke, but it has made me a better publisher and comic creator. Our focus is on printed books and I want to make sure everybody who buys any of our comics gets the most for their money. If that means cutting, gluing, folding, and stapling some books myself then so be it. We’ve printed square books, books with belly bands, oversized books, and Eric even made a hand-stamped book with a wood pulp cover called Dig for Fire. Quality and originality matter to me and I think the format is a big part of that.

I know it’s terrible to ask an artist to name their favorite work, so let me phrase it this way—which of your comics are you proudest of? Which do you feel is deserving of more attention than it has gotten so far?

Right now, I’m most proud of publishing Our Ever Improving Living Room by Kevin Budnik. It is 376 pages and our first go at a hefty graphic novel. I’m not only proud of the way the book looks as a finished product, but also being able to put Kevin’s work out in this collected format. Kevin Budnik is a brilliant artist who I feel will have a long career in comics and I hope to work with again soon.

I still feel like Beginner’s Luck should be getting more attention. A comic about a fish who goes on a bender after winning it big at the sea turtle races? Come on! Comic gold! Plus its got bonkers art from David Alvarado, another artist who is just going to blow up in comics any day now.

Have your comics been print-only up till now? If so, why?

All of our books have been print-only until now. I’m still a firm believer in the “floppy” comic and feel like it’s an art form unlike any other. Like I said earlier, format is something we focus on and I’m not sure you have that same freedom online. I’m obsessed with that rush you feel when you turn the page quickly to see what comes next and sometimes webcomics leave me feeling cold. That statement comes with several exceptions and we understand the current landscape of comics. Even though our roots are in printed material, we want our books to be available to everyone. That’s why we organized this countdown to our 2 year “Yetaversary” party with a book becoming available each week.

For your two-year anniversary, you are making your books available digitally one at a time, but for a limited time only. Why have a time limit?

We don’t want to overwhelm the general public! If we released our entire catalogue at once, I don’t want to be responsible for shutting down the internet! But in all seriousness, we want to generate buzz about this “countdown” to August and what better way to do it then only offering things for a limited time? It works for the McRib.

What are your plans for Yeti’s third year—and beyond?

First, Hail Kelly by a young up-and-comer named Sean Mac will be released in August. Eric and I are going to continue Pecos. I hope to put out more books by the artists I consider the “backbone” of Yeti Press: Kevin Budnik, Kat Leyh, and David Alvarado.

We’ve also got some books brewing that include a lonely sasquatch, a sci-fi tale on Mount Everest, and a citrus-inspired anthology. You know, only the type of books we could pull off.

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