I got to know Ryan Sands almost 10 years ago, when he was publishing the strangest manga I had ever seen on his blog Same Hat! Since then, I've watched him follow his enthusiasm for innovative comics as the publisher of the Electric Ant zine, the translator of Suehiro Maruo's The Strange Tale of Panorama Island for Last Gasp and now, as he explained to Chris Mautner in August, the creator of his own small press, Youth in Decline.
His flagship publication is Frontier, an anthology series in which each issue is a complete comic by a single creator. Frontier ended 2014 strong with comics by Emily Carroll and Sam Alden, and this year's lineup looks equally good, with Jillian Tamaki, Anna Deflorian, Becca Tobin and Michael DeForge on the roster.
Sands has signed up some of the most interesting up-and-coming creators in the indie comics scene and has presented their works in interesting and sophisticated ways, so I asked him to talk to me in depth about his work on Frontier.
Brigid Alverson: The Frontier anthology seems to be evolving into a place for side stories or experimental work by creators who are already working on other, longer projects. Do you think these comics would be published if not for Frontier?
Ryan Sands: The goal for the Frontier series is to spotlight each individual artist and a distinct story or collection of work. I tried to set out the goal pretty explicitly on our site when starting Frontier, saying we’d focus on three types of books: up-and-coming talent in the North American indie scene, introducing the work of international artists I like, and presenting “uncommon dispatches” from more-established creators. The first year of Frontier was mostly focused on the first two goals, but with Sam Alden and Emily Carroll’s books — and now with Jillian Tamaki and Michael DeForge creating issues for 2015—I’m hoping to mix in some of these interesting stories from established creators.
I don’t know that these comics wouldn’t be published if not for Frontier, but they are being created specifically for our series. A lot of my good friends are cartoonists, and most of them have more than one type of story they want to tell. And 32-36 pages (the length of a Frontier issue) seems to be a good length to play with an idea, genre, or visual style that might not fit into other projects? For Sam Alden, his Frontier issue was an opportunity to expand on his existing characters with a side story that didn’t fit quite into the main story of his longer work, “Hollow.” For Michael DeForge’s book in November 2015, he’ll be doing a straight horror story that’s also a spiritual sequel to his “College Girl By Night” story from the Thickness series. I think the “short story” format can be really helpful for a creator to test out ideas they have bumping around in their head — when I interviewed Bryan Lee O’Malley for an event last summer, he said he was hoping to do some shorter stories after completing Seconds for those exact reasons.
As a publisher, how involved are you in the creation of the comic? Do creators pitch to you or do you seek them out? Do they simply turn in a finished comic or do you collaborate as the project goes on?
Hmmm, I guess I’d say that I’m slightly more involved than some creators are used to, but try to only be involved where I am helpful? For everyone we’ve published for Frontier, I’ve pursued the artists and pitched them on doing an issue. I think of each issue as building off the previous entries in the series and the previous creators’ styles. When pitching the artists on the project I usually talk about elements of their previous work that are stuck in my brain, or weird formats and techniques I’ve seen them playing with on their Tumblr, etc. I had been fan of Becca Tobin’s comics online for a while, and remember one night getting really excited about some of her newest watercolor comics. I emailed her pretty much the next day about doing an issue together.
Once we talk about timing and format, some folks will go off and do their thing, then turn in a lot of work that we edit down to fit the issue once they are done. This is how Ping Zhu’s fantastic collection of drawings and paintings was narratively built into Frontier #4: Ping Zhu.
Others want to talk a lot about the outline and pencils before they dive in and start working. After those initial conversations though, I try to just shut up and let creators create—I’m a huge fan of everyone that I’ve published, and love being surprised by the work like any fan and reader would. That week when a cartoonist is emailing you pages is the absolute best part of the process, it’s always like Christmas morning for me.
How involved are the creators in other aspects of production, such as choosing the format, paper, etc.?
Similar to feedback on outlines and pencils, it really varies from artist to artist. Since I have a risograph at my print shop, the initial discussion is usually: To Risograph or Not To Risograph? After that decision, things like paper and format fall into place fairly quickly. I’m a paper and printing nerd, so I like trying new things — for Frontier #7: Jillian Tamaki, we’re going to be releasing a limited print set that will have some unique printing techniques that I think people will enjoy.
With Frontier #6: Emily Carroll, Emily had a very specific way she wanted to depict the two narrative threads, and she laid out her book in these exquisite two-page spreads with alternating color schemes. Because she wanted the story to end on its final creepy coda, we got rid of the usual interview included in the back of each issue and used jet black inside covers for maximum narrative impact. The format of the issues is flexible, and I’m on board with anything that serves the story they want to tell.
Your first comic of 2015 will be by Jillian Tamaki, who usually collaborates with her cousin, Mariko Tamaki. Can you talk a bit about this comic and what makes it special?
Jillian Tamaki is one of my best friends, but I didn’t actually think I’d be lucky enough to publish a comic of hers. We’ve worked together on a few projects before, mostly with her doing nice favors for me like contributing a pin-up to Thickness #2, and then designing the logo for Frontier when I started Youth in Decline at the beginning of 2013. When we were hanging out at our annual comics retreat in Joshua Tree, I got to see Jillian working on the pages from her and Mariko’s This One Summer and doodling SuperMutant Magic Academy strips (one of the all-time best webcomics)—her pencils and inked pages are these crazy and exquisite pieces of art.
The comic she is doing for Frontier is called “SexCoven” (!!!) and is about the early sharing-network internet, weird MP3 files, and communes. I originally had received a draft of the comic that Jillian sent me for notes and feedback as a reader. I was blown away by the comic, really excited to see this rich story full of ideas that I related to as someone that was a teenager in the late '90s as Napster and Rotten and those early-internet sites were popular. In the process of giving her feedback, I’d mentioned offhand that I’d be honored to publish it if it didn’t already have a home, and we slotted in to the earliest possible spot in the Frontier lineup. With a creator as talented as Jillian—and also with Michael DeForge, who is a close friend as well—all a publisher really needs to do is create a deadline and opportunity for them to do their thing, and magic stuff happens.
As you noted, Jillian is most known as a collaborator with Mariko Tamaki, and the long-form narratives they have created together have been these potent, coming-of-age narratives. The story Jillian is doing for us is… focused on more mature themes and will be the longest individual comic she has published to date. Everything about the story and the layout of the book is a bit more unbridled and experimental than her other published work, and I think her fans are gonna really go wild for it.
The second issue of Frontier will be the North American debut of Anna Deflorian. Can you tell us a bit about her?
Anna Deflorian is a painter and cartoonist from Italy that I first encountered when serving as a guest editor for the 9th issue of š!, the Latvian comics anthology. š! is one of the most interesting ongoing books, and they do this great thing where some big chunk of each issue is fielding through an open call process. Her submission for that issue was a series of four narrative paintings called “Resist” that was utterly captivating—I liked them so much that after we published them in the issue, I emailed her and asked to buy one of them!
I kept following her work after that, and continued to be impressed with her techniques, her bold use of color, and the depictions of girlhood and teenage in her graphic novel Roghi from Canicola edition—the book has this amazing scene where it depicts girls singing karaoke in a bar with the lyrics appearing beneath the characters.
If you think of the issues building off of each other over time, I definitely see Anna’s as a spiritual successor to Hellen Jo’s girl gang paintings in Frontier #2: Hellen Jo. Anna is playing with a bunch of ideas for the story, but described the look of Frontier #8: Anna Deflorian as, “full and decorative in a '70s shojo manga vs renaissance painting way (haha).”
It's interesting to me that you offer Frontier in both print and digital formats. Let's start with print: It's an expensive medium, in terms of production and distribution. What does it offer that digital cannot?
With the Frontier series in particular, the physical experience of the printed issue is really the key thing. All of the artists I’ve worked with have geeked out about the production and attention to details—whether it was translating Uno Moralez’s GIF animations to the smudgy risograph color palette, or Sascha Hommer relettering his own stories by hand with the English translation. Ideally with the risograph that I share with my studiomate Sophia Foster-Dimino, and the local printers and bindery that I work with, nothing we’ve wanted to do has been too expensive or untenable with a little elbow grease.
Looking at the other side of the coin, why bother offering digital editions? What does that add?
Digital editions is something that I was actually slow to adopt, and decided to pursue based on emails I was receiving from readers and previous subscribers. The cost of overseas shipping keeps going up every few months, and it now often costs more than $5 to ship a minicomic to South Korea or Norway or wherever. It’s a pretty high price for someone that wants to enjoy our books but lives outside of North America. The digital edition seems like a good alternative, and is mostly being purchased mostly by international readers.
For the longer, more narrative works, there definitely seems to be a growing market for digital editions—ebook versions of the longer “graphic novels” are planned for folks that want to read Youth in Decline books on their devices.
Are the Frontier comics available only by subscription, or can they be purchased singly? Do you sell them at shows?
They are going to all be available individually, both through our webstore and via the great retailers who carry our stuff. A new issue comes out quarterly, and they are timed to debut at one of the big shows we attend and exhibit at each year; Jillian’s issue will debut at MoCCA, Anna’s at TCAF, Becca’s at SPX, and Michael’s will round out the year at CAB. We’ll also likely attend one or two other local shows on the West Coast as me and my wife’s schedules allow.
I am really into the subscription model as a reader, and I subscribe when publishers whose books I enjoy make them available. In addition to saving me from having to remember to hit up their webstore each time a new book comes out, I get a huge value out of being exposed to new books that I might not have purchased individually on my own. So much of my own reading and consumption unconsciously comes through the self-selection filter of Twitter followers or Netflix Recommendations or whatever and ends up sorta insular and familiar; it’s weirdly nice to relieve yourself of a “personalized” experience and just let someone with a specific taste show you what they think is important.
Do you have any idea how you are finding your audience? Are the creators bringing their own audience to Frontier or are you bringing in new readers?
I’m super grateful for the audience we have. The key thing is always the individual creators, and all six of the Frontier creators have their own fans to check out their books—that is the main driver of new readership, folks that love Hellen Jo and give Sam Alden or Ping Zhu’s work a try. That always makes me the most happy, when someone at a show comes to pick up a specific issue but then sees another artist’s work and takes a chance on them.
The subscription model is a key part of growing the readership—right now it’s a few hundred folks that like what we are doing and trust us enough to let us introduce new work to them. It’s a real honor and pleasure to try to surprise and delight those subscribers, many of whom are folks I’ve known for years since the days of Same Hat, the indie manga blog I used to run.
I think the best metaphor for what Youth in Decline is trying to do with Frontier, or what other micropublishers like Oily and Space Face and Retrofit are doing with their subscriptions, is the way I used to think about loyalty to specific record labels. The Beastie Boys used to run an label called Grand Royal and they put out records by some of my favorite bands. Pretty soon I started buying any album they put out, because I knew it’d probably be something I’d like—I have the same relationship now with our local record label Dark Entries, where pretty much anything they put out will be challenging or fun for me. I hope Frontier can be like that for folks, and they can find new favorite artists in addition to cool comics from cartoonists they already follow.
By the end of 2015, you will have published ten issues of Frontier. Would you think of doing a collected edition of any or all of these?
I actually don’t think we’ll do a collection of the issues. The simplest reason is that it would require renegotiating contracts with each artist, as the compensation for each book was tied to the specific initial run of the books. But more generally, each issue was conceived of and designed as an individual reading experience, with its own paper and printing and approach.
I like the idea of not everything always being available instantly and for perpetuity—I plan to keep Frontier going as long as Youth in Decline is around, and if I’m doings things right each issue should be a snapshot of the time, a spotlight on some of the most interesting work happening that year. I think it’s actually cool to reward folks that are down to read along contemporaneously with the series.