Vado on the Importance of Art, Community and Slave Labor's Digital Moves

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following interview was conducted prior to news that SLG's Art Boutiki was being forced to relocate in 2013.

Dan Vado has been running Slave Labor Graphics for more than a quarter century. Last year the long-time publisher really made waves with the announcement that his company had shifted its approach to publishing, making the move to releasing comics digitally before print. This move came after Vado and SLG had seen success with a run of quality digital-only releases like "Sanctuary" and "Knights of the Living Dead."

But far from abandoning its roots, SLG has refocused on print projects with the launch of the SLG Art Boutiki, a combination bookstore, art gallery and performance space based in San Jose. Since opening, the Boutiki has played an ever-increasing role as a community resource, hosting art shows, participating in the city's monthly South First Friday event and becoming ground zero for the annual Zombie-O-Rama charity walk and festivel.

CBR News spoke with Vado about SLG's publishing plans for the first part of 2013, for both its print and digital comics, the constant challenge of finding and building a global online audience and the value and rewards of being an essential part of the local community.

CBR News: Dan, I know SLG has released or is about to release a number of books, like "Grubby Little Smudges of Filth" by Daniel Reed and "Monstrosis" by Chris Wisnia. What can you tell us about them at this point?

Dan Vado: "Grubby Little Smudges of Filth" is an absolute gem of a comic series by a creator I consider to be a real find. Daniel Reed is an Australian cartoonist who has been working on this series for nearly three years -- so long, I had almost forgotten we were going to publish this.

Simply put, "Grubby Little Smudges of Filth" is about an artist who draws what might possibly the most beautiful piece of art ever created while he is in prison. How he does it and the things that happen to him and the way people try to use him is a real statement on art, commerce and society. Reed is going to be a very important creator, should he decide to stick with comics.

Coming out in a limited release hardcover edition, currently only available from Amazon, "Monstrosis" was one of our first "digital first" series. If you like old Kirby monster comics, this is a clever and funny homage to those books.

There's also the series by Jef Bambas, "Model A."

Currently available in digital and as a mini-comic exclusively from our website, "Model A" is a silent comic book about a robot who jumps off an assembly line and into the real world, determined to make his own way in life.

All three of the above series are available digitally from our website and from comiXology. The first issue of each is available free, so you should go sample all of them.

"Sanctuary" by Stephen Coughlin was the first series you launched as part of the digital initiative and we're fans of the comic here at CBR. How has the digital initiative gone and has there been support from fans and other people about this shift?

Digital is growing slowly, but it is growing and that is something. It is sometimes difficult getting digital-only comics reviewed -- the lack of a print edition seems to have hindered that to a certain extent.

Reaching the potential audience has been tough, though it's getting easier, as it seems most of the existing audience for comics seems to want a physical thing. But what has been interesting is that it seems like digital has been a good way to introduce new creators to the existing audience as well as to reach a new audience.

SLG publishes mostly new creators, so getting people to sample something new has always been tough, and in our current economic shitstorm, it's almost impossible.

Digital allows people a way to sample something at a low (or in some cases no) cost and get familiar with new creators and their work. "Sanctuary," for example, the first issue has been downloaded (and presumably read) several thousand times. That number is a lot higher than we could have possibly hoped to achieve with a print edition going into stores.

Are there plans for print editions collecting "Sanctuary?"

"Sanctuary is getting a limited print release as a mini-comic.

SLG seems to be doing something that I think we're going to see more of form other publishers going forward, utilizing the internet because you have a potential global audience, while at the same time very actively being a part of the local community, becoming an essential part of that fabric as you are with the Boutiki in San Jose. It's very much, to borrow the phrase, "Think Globally, Act Locally." How important do you think this is going forward, and are those two goals ever at odds?

The two things are not mutually exclusive and really serve different goals. We promote the comics we publish world-wide through the internet because you have to find readers for books wherever they might be, and the internet is the most useful tool for doing that.

In terms of what we are doing with The Art Boutiki, it's more about the fact that we are here in San Jose, in an art and music scene that is growing and that we want to help as much as possible. The space is not really exclusively about our comics or comics in general; we give away a lot of free comics at all of our events, and we sort of become evangelists for the art-form, [but] it's about building an additional revenue stream for us while providing something the area needs.

I know you're part of Radioactive SJ, so I was wondering if you could talk a little about that and the Boutiki's success as a musical venue.

RadioActiveSJ is a group of people dedicated to doing something positive in the community. I'll take more about that in a minute, but the Art Boutiki as a music venue is something that has been a very pleasant surprise and something I want to build on.

I started hosting live music in our space once I got out of the toy manufacturing business. At first, we just hosted a few local bands every so often, and now we have touring acts from all over the world -- literally -- come and play our space. We participate in a monthly art walk called South First Friday and have become known for programming live jazz in an area that lacks a decent jazz venue.

It's been interesting meeting musicians, in particular the younger ones, as I see a lot of the same qualities in them that I used to see in cartoonists when I first started publishing. It's been a tremendous joy giving some of the guys a platform to perform from and helping them find a small audience.

Our place is a neat all-ages venue for music and all sorts of things -- we have done small conventions, swap meets and classes in the space as well as music -- and people really seem to dig the combination of nice art gallery combined with an industrial warehouse vibe we have going on.

RadioActiveSJ is not really an official thing; it's just a name I gave to a group of people who occasionally come together to do things that support the local arts scene and community in general. The most notable project we did was an album called The Sound of Her Voice, which was a compilation of tunes by female or women lead musicians that benefitted a local shelter/service agency called InnVision.

I will digress for a moment here. SLG is located in San Jose, CA, which was recently named the Richest City in America by the US Census Bureau. Now, this is based on things like median income and general employment levels and does not take into account the high cost of living here, which I am certain is probably larger than anywhere else in the US. While some people do very very well in our city, the gap between the haves and have-nots keeps growing. Some people, unable to afford the high cost of living here, just pick up and leave. Some who stay are under-employed and cannot get by without help from someone.

InnVision is Silicon Valley's largest non-profit provider of housing, shelter and services to the homeless. They provide both emergency and longer-term housing, nutritious meals and a vast array of services to men, women, children, veterans and the mentally ill. If there is a greater organization in our area, I don't know it.

Some people I know got together and decided we wanted to make a difference, even if only in a small way, in our community and the greatest thing about RadioActiveSJ is that the people involved are just average people, students and the like, who get that the only real way to improve the quality of life is to get up and become active in any way you can. So we put together this album, all of the music being donated by local musicians, which can be downloaded for a mere $10 on Bandcamp.

Photo by Jon "Bean" Hastings

A few weeks back, you had the annual Zombie-O-Rama, which you've been doing for a few years now. I was just wondering if you could talk about what it is and how it came about.

Zombie-O-Rama is an annual zombie walk/festival that is something that we do with the local downtown association. In part, it's an event that we do to bring people downtown to support local businesses, but the primary goal is that it's a food drive for a local food bank.

In the four years we have done Zombie-O-Rama, we have collected enough food that it measures in tons. We keep a food donation bin in The Art Boutiki and collect food throughout the year, this all goes to what I was talking about above. Communities need to take the initiative and take care of themselves, our governments, from the federal level all the way down to the local level have failed us and continue to fail us.

Back to books, let's wrap with a little about the titles coming out from SLG next and what people should be keeping an eye out for.

We just did a limited release of two hardcover books, "Monstrosis" by Chris Wisnia and "Eldritch!" By Aaron Alexovich and Drew Rausch. These books are currently only available from SLG and Amazon.com. If they gain some traction, we will be soliciting soft-cover versions of these to the direct market.

And you should be looking for more in the way of digital from us. Some old-school fans should be happy to know I am finally going to finish up a series I wrote some time ago called "Scarlet Thunder!"

Tags: dan vado, slg publishing, zombie-o-rama, the art boutiki

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