Retrofit Comics & Surviving the Apocalypse


Brian "Box" Brown has been making comics for a while now, winning a Xeric Award for "Love is a Particular Type of Thing" a couple of years back and picking up a couple of Ignatz Awards this year for his webcomic, "Everything Dies," a complex, often funny, exploration of religion and myth and belief (or non-belief).

But he's also set himself up -- with the help of Kickstarter funding -- as a bit of a publishing mogul, bringing back the alt-floppy to a comic book scene where single issues are dominated by corporate genre work and alternative cartoonists, young and old, tend to labor over lengthy graphic novels instead of delivering small slices of visual storytelling. His recently-launched Retrofit Comics line is an attempt to -- well, I'll let him talk about that himself during this interview.

Box and I emailed each other over the course of the last two weeks, discussing his origins as a comic creator, his new role as a publisher and his newest personal project, launching in December.

Tim Callahan: We'll get to talking about Retrofit Comics at some point in this conversation, but instead of starting with that project, let's backtrack to the earlier days of Box Brown. What was the genesis of "Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing?" How many comics had you done prior to that Xeric-winning effort? How much of your own autobiography is bundled up inside that book?

Box Brown: Well, I was doing this weird strip called "Bellen!" which was an amalgamation of the names "Ben" and "Ellen" the main characters. I read through the archives not long ago. I feel pretty disconnected to it at this point so I felt like I was looking at it with new eyes. I found it to be an incredibly weird journey. I was learning and testing out all these new cartooning styles, really learning how to make comics. The strip was part auto-bio, part fantasy. I wanted to try out doing longer stories. So, I submitted a 6 page story featuring the same characters to Top Shelf 2.0. I think they ran it out of pity! But that got me interested in doing longer stories and I put together like 40 pages worth of stories and shipped them off to Xeric.

After they accepted the application I thought, "Crap! Now I gotta finish this thing." So, I did a lot of stories using the same characters from "Bellen!" and making it similarly half-auto bio and half-fantasy.  Strangely though, by the time I started working on "Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing," I had met my now wife and "Bellen!" had become much more auto-bio (with my wife taking on the role of Ellen).  So, to finally answer your question: I'd say it's about 70% truth with the characters names and appearances slightly changed. 

Callahan: What about the aspect of the protagonist quitting his corporate job to make comics? Is that part of your bio as well? I guess what I'm asking, Box Brown, is what was your actual descent into the world of comic book making? Or was it an ascent?

Brown: Oh, God, my opinion on this changes daily. I hated my life as a corporate stooge. I was also a middle school English teacher in my early 20s, which I quit (for different reasons). But, corporate life sucks out the soul of a creative person until you're just a walking corpse. That's how I felt anyway. I moved to Philadelphia in 2008 to live with my then girlfriend now wife, Sarah. When I first moved down here, I fully intended to find another job, but to take my time doing so. I figured I could get a few months to just work on comics. That was September 2008, of course, so a month later the economy completely tanked and there were no jobs available! I always tell people now that I fell ass-backwards into comics because it was the only job I could get! Of course, I've held a few other jobs since I've been here: pizza guy, I helped start an online record store for my mother-in-law and for about 8 months in 2009, I did data entry for a porn company (that was kinda fun). To be honest, I don't even know how I survived (my wife helped a lot), but now I'm here. Whereever this is. When checks are coming in and I'm sitting down to draw, I feel like I'm on top of the world. It's just pure dopamine! It's what I live for. But, sometimes, I'm between projects and it's Wednesday afternoon and I've got a printer bill a mile long and 200 Retrofit envelopes to stuff and I long for the lazy paychecks of the corporate world for sure. But, I'd really, really hate to go back there.   

Callahan: Yeah, I worked on the edges of the corporate world for one year and it felt like twenty years.

So, where do you see yourself, career-wise? Maybe that's too grand of a question, as you're scraping together projects and making things happen to get by and to keep drawing comics because you just love doing it. But when you wake up in the mornings, do you see yourself as a cartoonist? A comic book maker? A publisher? An artist? What's the main focus and what's the side stuff, as far as you're concerned?

And I realize the priority might change daily, but where do you see yourself in the larger scheme of things?

Brown: I am a comic artist first and foremost. But, I love it all. I am just trying to immerse myself in comics as much as possible. I want to talk with artists about the medium and the things they're working on. I love publishing artists and releasing new books. I love working with retailers and getting material out into the market place. I love studying new material and reading every comic I can get my hands on. I love staying on top of comic news. I love everything about comics. Fuck, I love tweeting! But, ultimately I wouldn't be happy unless I was creating comics. When one story ends, another just begins. Sometimes people ask me what's next, or what stories are coming down the pike. But I just make comics and I never stop. Ideas for comics never stop coming out of my brain-faucet (thankfully). I wish I had a million hands and could be at 50 drawing tables at once. But, I can't do that. So, when I finish one project, I just go to the well and get started on the next one. While I love publishing comics with Retrofit I don't think I'll ever see myself as a just a comic publisher. Retrofit is more about enabling artists to work (myself included). I don't think it'll last forever, though.

Callahan: Let's talk Retrofit, then! Now's a good time to jump into the heart of that volcano. Or something metaphorical.

I had heard your name and seen pieces of your work online, but I didn't really start looking into your work until you launched the Kickstarter for Retrofit Comics. Honestly, that was the first donation I've ever made to any Kickstarter project, and what attracted me enough to throw $150 into the pot was that you seemed to have an immense enthusiasm for comics and publishing, something we can't much get anywhere else on a regular basis -- indy single issues -- and I just really wanted to see what kind of work would appear in my mailbox every month or two.

And then I checked out some of your comics, and saw how soulful they were, even when they were bleak or funny. Your heart is in these comics, for sure, whether you're writing and drawing them, or publishing the work of others. It's a palpable feeling.

So, yeah, Retrofit. How did that idea evolve from "I want to see more single issue from some cartoonists I like" to "I will raise money and start mini-publishing empire to bring these comics to the world?"

Brown: I take the bus and trolley a lot here in Philly, and one day I was downtown and I stopped in Fatjack's Comicrypt. I wanted to get something to read on the bus home, but everything I was interested in reading was at least $15 dollars. I was really envious of the people that were into the superhero comics. Then I starting thinking about [the fact that] there used to be alt. comics that came out as periodicals. I was thinking about how all the cartoonists I know still make mini-comics and only a very few are self-publishing lengthy graphic novels. The short periodical comic is still important to comics and is still viable for storytelling. Further, when you're a cartoonist who is starting out, you need to get your work out there. I think working on a graphic novel is probably the worst thing a cartoonist who is starting out could do. You're basically working in a vacuum for a really long time. Then when the work is finished, you have to sell it, either to a publisher or directly to the public. Readers might not want to invest $20 in an artist they've never read before, and neither do publishers.

So short comics are a great medium to start out with for young and emerging talent. But, it's harder to sell self-published work than work that is published with a brand. When your book has that seal of approval of Fantagraphics or Drawn and Quarterly, it has a much greater selling power. It's got the power of every amazing piece of comics work that's come before it. But, there are very few publishers out there releasing shorter works. Retrofit was born out of the idea that short comics have value and an important place in the market. They allow cartoonists to work and develop stories. But they also nurture a relationship with an audience.

I came up with Retrofit in a few hours and sent out an email to try to gauge interest in the project, looking for 12 artists (one year) and I ended up with 16. I had just sent the email to Tom Hart and James Kochalka, really for advice, not even thinking they'd participate. James wrote me back about a day later and wanted to do the first issue! So, when everyone was so excited, I figured it would be worth going for it.

Callahan: Just to recap for readers who may not be familiar with Retrofit, the Kochalka comic was the first release, but what other comics have come out so far, and what are a few of the big highlights for the rest of the months?

Brown: Colleen Frakes and Betsey Swardlick's book "Drag Bandits" was October Retrofit release. It's a fun story about banditry -- in drag. The November and December books are amazing. Pat Aulisio and Josh Bayer are two artists in need of a bigger audience, and I'm glad to help get their work out there. Both of their books are like nothing else I've seen out there. 2012 is just a non-stop parade of amazing cartoonists. Corinne Mucha, Joe Decie, Noah Van Sciver, Nathan Schreiber, Chuck Forsman, L. Nichols. It's going to be amazing. I'm also working on a top secret project with "Secret Prison" editor Ian Harker. For the project, I needed to get reference material from Deb Aoki. Every artist is amazing. I feel lucky to be able to work with them.

Callahan: What is the working relationship like? Are they handing you finished books, and you're getting them printed and shipped? Or are you providing some feedback and working with the artists throughout the process? I suspect it's the former, but any details you might give about individual working relationships would be an interesting behind-the-scenes glance.

Brown: Well, it's different with every artist. James and Colleen both turned in finished books, but we discussed their covers a little bit. Pat Aulisio, whose book "Bowman" is coming out early next month, lives in Philly so I was able to see his process art and talk to him about the book a lot throughout his creative process. Josh Bayer, whose book "Raw Power" will be out in December, has been sending me pages throughout the month so I could help clean them up and get them ready for printing. I really try not to give much editorial feedback unless the artist is looking for it. I'm learning as I'm going, though. It's exciting, and at times scary as hell, but I love having all these comics in the house. 

Callahan: I'm curious about your own history with comics, and I'd like to know where you came from, comics-appreciation-wise. When did comics sink their teeth into you? What did you read, and what comics are the milestones for you, whether that means they sucked you in early, or made you rethink the medium.

For me, "Ambush Bug" #3 was a formative influence (though I've never really written about it much). What was your "Ambush Bug" #3?

Brown: I read Marvel comics as a kid, and in high school I can certainly say I was a fan of Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" books, and I drew "New Yorker" cartoons in college. But comics didn't change my life until I was pretty old. I read James Kochalka's "American Elf" in 2005. That was the first time I realized that comics could be about real life. Mind = blown. Then it was a non-stop tear into the world of indie comics: Tomine, Clowes, Seth, Joe Matt, etc. I almost immediately started making comics as well. I was so naive about what comics were it was almost like outsider art. Since then, I've been studying comics like a researcher. I think my influences over the last few years are pretty apparent in my work: Seth, Chris Ware, Charles Burns. Oh, Jeffrey Brown too, in the early years. I think I've also been influenced a lot by the cartoonists I consider my peers. I'm pretty open to influence. 

Callahan: What format did you first see "American Elf" in: the webcomic, the floppies or the collection with a spine?

Brown: It was the big collection. I was mesmerized.

Callahan: When you say you have studied comics "like a researcher," what have you learned from doing your research, exactly?

Brown: I just mean that I love studying the artform. How the lines were made, stuff like that. The influences different artists had on each other. I have a kind of weird compulsiveness about learning as much about the things I'm interested as I can. When I was a kid, I was really into WWF wrestling and I can still tell you where almost any wrestler of that era hails from, a lot of their real names. Stuff like that. I was at the Seth art show at in New York last Friday, talking about the work, and the curator was like, "I should have you sell the work." I realize this sounds like I'm bragging or something, but trust me, very little of this trivial knowledge has done me any good! I'm just obsessive. I would say, though, that one thing I've learned from reading about artists is that very few of them seemed very happy. Maybe that's a poor word choice. Lonely? Curmudgeonly? I don't know. Who's happy? 

Callahan: I know what you're saying, both about the obsessiveness of a comic book reader, and the sadness underlying so much of the comic book art scene. But isn't there a critical distrust of joy? Like, if there's an artist who genuinely seems to delight in what he or she does, that artist is less likely to be taken seriously than the lonely, tortured, maybe oddball artists like Ware or Seth or Crumb?

Kochalka, particularly after he became a dad, seems one of the happier, delighted of all the alternative comics artists, and I would say his work is almost never given any kind of serious critical appreciation.

And from what I've seen of Retrofit, it looks like you're trying to inflict more joy than sadness upon the world. Maybe later releases get a whole lot more bleak, I don't know.

Brown: Kochalka deserves way, way more critical acclaim than he gets. I would say that James' optimism in "American Elf" has genuinely improved my outlook on life over the last few years. I think, personally, I am an optimist. Well, maybe not an optimist -- more of an idealist. I feel things should be good and can be good, but maybe aren't always good? Something like that. Most people that know me would say that I'm a happy guy, but maybe I just enjoy being around like-minded people.

I don't think comics need to be made from a place of sadness or loneliness to be good though. I just think they have to be made honestly. The more honest the work is, the better it is. It is a system that has literally never failed. James' most optimistic works are also made from an honest place and that makes them great. That's the stuff I looked for in the Retrofit artists. That's the stuff I like. 

Callahan: How about your personal projects? You have a new book coming out this December, right? What's that comic about?

Brown: It's called "The Survivalist." I'm really excited about it. It's about a dude who is a conspiracy theorist. I became fascinated by these extremist types when I was doing research for "Everything Dies." It's about a guy who has an underground bunker and he lives in it and due to his hermit-like nature survives an apocalyptic event. It's a really dense story. I drew it at twice the size I normally draw comics at so I could fit in twice as many panels. It's part of Blank Slate Books Chalkmarks series which is the same format as Fantagraphics' Ignatz series. It'll debut at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest in early December.

Callahan: Besides the size of the original art, did this project push you in any other ways? It does seem like a different genre of story for you.

Brown: Yes, for sure. This my most cohesive work, I think, storywise. It's fully fictional. Rather than making myself the center of the story, I made it a guy who believes 100% the opposite of what I believe. I mean, really, in the beginning he's a dude I did not like. By the end, I think he becomes a guy I might hang out with. That's a journey I wish everyone I didn't like would take. In this story, all it takes to change this guy was a meteor hitting the earth and wiping out most of humanity.

Callahan: Besides the density of panels per page, did you have to adapt your artistic style for this kind of story? It seems like your usual style might not capture the tension or terror of bleak survival. Did you find that to be the case?

Brown: Well, I did have to do a lot of diagram drawings of these weird objects that are found in this guy's bunker. He's got a lot of weird supplies like a thing that turns his pee into drinkable water. I did have to figure out how to draw mass carnage and explosions. I actually found that drawing a car upside down is actually far easier than drawing a car right side up. But, I think the most important parts of any stories are found in the characters' emotional response to the conflict. So, I focused on that quite a bit. But, sure, I did find myself doing a lot of Google image searches for "destruction" and "destroyed building," things like that.

Callahan: With such an apocalyptic backdrop, were the emotional reactions different from they usually are in your comics? I'm just thinking about how, when an artist goes into a hyper-Romanticized genre mode, underplaying the emotional beats can sometimes be less effective, because those moments now compete with extreme external conflicts. Was that true for you in "The Survivalist?"

Or were you able to keep everything low-key?

Brown: Gosh, I hope so. It's not much like most post-apocalypse stories. No vampires, mutants, aliens, zombies, etc. But, it's not hyper-realistic either.  

Callahan: So it's "Lord of the Rings" meets "Star Wars," with a little "Citizen Kane" thrown in?

Brown: Ha! If I only could successfully combine those three into some mega-story. It's more like "American Splendor" meets an episode of the "Alex Jones Infowars" show with a little of the first 20 minutes of "28 Days Later" thrown in there.

Callahan: So no laser swords? Maybe in Book 2?

Brown: Actually, in issue #2, I am envisioning some "Citizen Kane."

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Supernatural’s Midseason Finale Is a Family Reunion a Decade in the Making

More in CBR Exclusives