Youth in Decline's Ryan Sands talks 'Frontier' and the future

Ryan Sands is no stranger to the world of comics. Many comics fans – especially those drawn to the strange and wacky – no doubt came across the Same Hat blog and Tumblr he created with Evan Hayden. In addition, he has worked as a translator on such marvelous manga as Tokyo Zombie and The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, and more recently, as a publisher, releasing the Electric Ant Zine and (with Michael DeForge) three issues of the acclaimed sex-themed anthology Thickness.

Last year Sands fully immersed himself in publisher waters with the creation of the imprint Youth in Decline, whose flagship series Frontier is a rotating anthology similar to DC's Solo series in concept, highlighting unique and little-known cartoonists and illustrators.

Four issues of Frontier have been released thus far, showcasing Uno Moralez, Hellen JoSascha Hommer and Ping Zhu. With his publishing venture off and running, I thought this might make for a good time to talk with Sands about his company, his plans for the future and just how he ended up here in the first place.

ROBOT 6: How did you first get interested in publishing?

Ryan Sands: I was an avid comics reader for all of junior high and high school -- mostly Marvel and Image stuff and genre/SF manga, but later available indie comics like Bone and Eightball, as well as some "indie" manga by way of Mixx Zine and Pulp magazine. I left my small town in Michigan when I was 18 to attend school at Stanford in California, thinking myself a math and science guy and intending to pursue computer science. I had been studying Japanese for a few years during high school, and after a few semesters of struggling with math and economics courses, I drifted fully over to pursuing Japanese language and literature, and also started writing for the Stanford student newspaper. I wrote concert and music reviews, and co-edited the arts and entertainment section for a semester.

After graduation, I ended up working at Google on their books project, working with authors and small publishers to put their books online and with libraries to digitize their collection. Through that job I got to attend some publishing trade shows, including BookExpo America and the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. When I wasn't working our booth at these shows (on breaks and before my official shifts) I would go and talk to D&Q, Fantagraphics, manga publishers, European publishers like Reprodukt and Glenat, and also made friends with folks at Last Gasp. I was lucky enough to make friends with folks in the publishing world, like Anne Ishii of Massive, who was running publicity and marketing for Vertical, and with Colin Turner at Last Gasp. From there I started working on professional manga translation and learning more about book and zine production.

Around that same time, after college, I was really trying to find my way and "my scene" -- to find something outside of my 40 hour/week day job to identify with, and I ended up tagging along with friends Derek Yu and Hellen Jo to monthly drawing nights at Hellen and Jason Shiga's apartment in Oakland. I'd bring my manga scanlations and self-published zines to work on, and became buddies with a bunch of cartoonist and editors at Viz by way of those hangouts.

You’re no stranger to small press publishing. You released not only the Thickness anthology but also a few issues of the Electric Ant Zine. What made you decide to take it up another level and form Youth in Decline? How is this a more serious venture — or perhaps just different for you — than what you were doing before?

Honestly, I think I started Youth in Decline to try and impress my girlfriend? And because I needed a name to put on the door of the small office I rented to house my Risograph and desk? It sounds a lot cooler to call it a "company" rather than "an expensive hobby that involves me stapling on my living room floor until 1 a.m."

Actually, it was mostly that a few major projects had come to an end right around the same time, in the Fall of 2012. Evan Hayden (with whom I had started the manga news and translation blog Same Hat) and I had finished work on Suehiro Maruo's The Strange Tale of Panorama Island for Last Gasp, and Michael DeForge and I had finished work on the third and final issue of our Thickness series, and I was antsy to find another project to focus on.

After we finished our third and final issue of Thickness (and both Michael and I felt like we'd tackled most of the initial questions, genres and creators we'd been so excited about addressing and promoting with the series), I actually pitched the idea of a 250-page "Complete Thickness" anthology to a few publishers -- and while they dug the stories in the series, they weren't sure if it fit with their catalogs or how to sell a big book of indie cartoonists drawing erotic comics. So I decided around that time that we should just finance and self-publish the book ourselves. So getting rejected (very nicely, I must say!) by D&Q was part of the impulse to create my own little imprint or name to release that book, and for a few other longer things I wanted to help friends bring to life.

Frontier is interesting to me because it seems to be this unique, rotating one-artist anthology that blends comics with illustration work or a monograph. What are your goals with this series? How did you come up with this particular concept? What led you to its unique square shape and size? 

I'm happy you dig it so far -- I've been thinking about it from the start as a bunch of standalone monographs that should work on their own, but all tie together to create one really strong series. The idea is nothing new, but friends have said it's less like a comics series and more like a record label, where you might not know every band they put out but you trust the label so you're willing to try new things out and hopefully discover some new favorites. I like that analogy a lot.

From my earlier personal zines to more recent anthologies like Thickness, I'd be getting less interested in that type of book where each artist does a single page, and moving toward having creators try out longer work. The main series that I sorta ripped off and mushed together for Frontier are the Solo series that DC did. I only have the Brendan McCarthy and the Sergio Aragones issues, but I love the "personal anthology" approach to long and short comics in those. The other inspiration was this series of zines out of Korea called SSE. I started reading SSE through the folks that do Chillzine (a fantastic but now-defunct art zine) and my friend Yina Kim who would bring them to our local zine shop Needles & Pens in San Francisco. SSE has over 40 issues out, and I love that they don't just feature one medium, one issue will be a photographer's work, another collages, another more personal journal comics. I love that freedom and approach, not sticking just to "comics" or "illustration" when presenting good work.

Frontier 3 is the first volume in the series where I was completely unaware of the artist previously. How did you come across Sascha Hommer’s work?

I actually met Sascha Hommer in person for the first time when I was 25, while I was attending the Frankfurt Book Fair for work. Sascha was there signing, and I picked up his fantastic graphic novel, Insekt. I ended up tagging along with the Reprodukt and Last Gasp folks to a dinner that night (also attended by Spanish cartoonist Max) and we got to know each other.

I kept in touch with Christian over the years (my friend who works at Reprodukt) and tried to stay abreast of the indie scene in Germany through their catalog, and through the anthology ORANG and the comics magazine Strapazin. I absolutely love Sascha's comics -- his earlier work like Insekt reminded me of Charles Schulz storytelling and cartooning taking place in a Charles Burns world, while his more recent work has a more geometric and abstract quality to it, with some elements of the visual style of artists like Yuichi Yokoyama and Yoshiharu Tsuge. There was once an English-language "scanlation" of Insekt available online, but it's since gone offline ... so effectively, there has never been any of Sascha Hommer's work published for English readers until Frontier #3: Sascha Hommer.

I've kept in touch with Sascha over the years, and he was always on the short list of important international creators whose comics I hoped to have the chance to introduce to English readers. He's a perfect fit for one of Frontier's goals, connecting different folks within international comic scenes.

How were you introduced to Frontier 4’s Ping Zhu?

We had actually never met in real life until the day before Frontier #4: Ping Zhu debuted at MoCCA in New York, when we met up for lunch in Brooklyn! We were Twitter and Instagram friends before that, and then all got drunk together the first night of MoCCA and did karaoke in K-Town until like 3 a.m., and are now close friends (this is how lasting friendships are built in 2014!).

But apart from social media, I had been following Ping's work avidly for the last two years, both her illustration work as well as her sketches and doodles on Tumblr. I think I first saw Ping's work through my other friends who work both in the comics/zine world and the commercial illustration world, folks like Hannah K. Lee and Jillian Tamaki and Sophia Foster-Dimino. There's something really fascinating to me about the ways in which talented artists that make their living doing paid freelance work weave their own personal voice into that work, and it's exciting to be able to pay and encourage them to do purely person work and see what comes out!

Ping is one of the most exciting illustrators working right now, so of course I was really eager to see what Ping would do if given 32 pages for her own work. I'm really proud of her issue, which is very playful but also obliquely mysterious. Ping decided to mix some of her finished paintings with a ton of loose paintings and sketches, as well as some photographs  of cut and collaged paper drawings, and I love how cohesive it all feels.

The next two issues of Frontier will feature a brand-new comics by Sam Alden, followed by a new horror comic by Emily Carroll. Those two issues are both narrative comics, but will very different styles visually. Like a lot of folks my age (and younger) my reading habits are voracious and scattered and often flattened, thanks to Tumblr and Pixiv and img.ur -- I really wanna read and see everything exciting and new and thoughtful, whether that work is from a professional manga artist in Japan, or a queer Canadian game designer, or an SVA illustration student, or Swiss type designer, or an Indian webcartoonist, or whoever it might be.

Without getting too full of myself, I am hoping future issues of Frontier can place some of these Tumblr apparitions into an interesting context, in print where they can be appreciated and poured over. We have two of the 2015 issues tentatively planned, but I wanna leave the schedule open as I come across artists I think folks will respond to and enjoy.

Tell me a bit more about the Thickness anthology. Will there be new material? When is it scheduled to come out?

The Thickness Collection is definitely a book that was really important to Youth in Decline's catalog, and something that Michael and I have been working on here and there over the last six months. The original three issues were very labor-intensive to print and create - the two color-printing took more than 50 total hours for both the second and third issues -- so reprinting them was always a daunting task. I ended up doing four editions of Thickness #1, two editions of Thickness #2, and only the one run of Thickness #3. Because of that, there are a lot of folks that wanted to read the stuff in those books, like DeForge's College Girl By Night, Brandon Graham's Dirty Deeds, Mickey Zacchilli's Slime Worm and many other great stories but haven't had the chance.

The collection is coming together, and we're tentatively planning to debut it at Comic Arts Brooklyn 2014 in November. It will have everything from the first three issues (including the two pin-up posters, by Jillian Tamaki and HamletMachine) except for the story, Standing Ovations by Gengoroh Tagame. The pages of that story, hand-lettered by DeForge, were included in the PictureBox/Anne Ishii collection of Tagame short stories, so it made sense to not collect it again.

We've also got a LOT of new stuff in the anthology, including a 40-page sequel by Jonny Negron to his story in Thickness #1, and a sequel by DeForge entitled simply, By Night. We also have a a new sex comedy short by Lamar Abrams, and a few other pin-up surprises in the book. It will be an offset-printed hardcover pushing 250 pages, and hopefully a really exciting release for new readers and folks that already enjoyed the original floppies.

Apart from the Frontier series, what else do you have planned for Youth in Decline? What can readers expect to see in the near future?

Frontier was intended as the flagship series, and we'll be doing four new issues in 2015 in addition to Frontier #5: Sam Alden and Frontier #6: Emily Carroll in Fall and Winter 2014. Aside from those monograph issues, we released a science fiction chapbook, Love Songs for Monsters by Anthony Ha. It features three rad stories -- a space opera tale, a space pirates adventure, and one with zombies and  monsters. It was a fun challenge, to create a perfect-bound paperback the size of old Ballantine Lovercraft novels, but with color text, title illustrations by Hannah K. Lee and a cover by DeForge.

This fall, Youth in Decline is stepping up into the next stage of releases, by publishing our first two books (graphic novels?). Both are going to debut at Small Press Expo in September, and are titles I've had in mind since I first had the idea to start a small press at the start of 2013. The first is RAV 1ST COLLECTION by Mickey Zachiill, which is a collection of five issues of her action-adventure romance drone comic, RAV. It's a spiraling and rad story that follows Juice and Sally through a strange wave of punks, a Meat Cave, an IHOP -- it's 276 pages and extremely satisfying to dig into in one sitting all together. That will debut at Small Press Expo in 2014, and then we'll have RAV 2ND COLLECTION in late 2015 as well!

The other big debut we're super stoked about is Snackies by Nick Sumida, which is a collection of his first two minicomics, plus another issue's worth of brand-new comics. Aside from those books, I'm talking to artists and friends about collections and original graphinc novels, and on the personal work side I am also planning a new issue of Electric Ant, full of original articles and dorky zine stuff, as well as art and comics by new talents that I want to publish but couldn't fit into the Frontier format.

What did you learn from your initial work on Electric Ant, etc., that you were able to take with you into Youth in Decline? What tips would you give to aspiring small press publishers?

Working on Electric Ant #1 was a really formative and eye-opening process -- I had the idea to do my own zine after reading zines and indie comics and Giant Robot during high school and college, and put together the book with the help of my friend (and Same Hat co-founder) Evan Hayden. I'm like a lot of people, where I only really learn or force myself to finish thing when I have a project with a deadline -- I had spent some time with Quark when I was the arts and entertainment editor at my college paper, but otherwise I had no real experience with layout or publishing.

With Electric Ant and a few other zines, I learned by trial and error how to prep files for printing, about CMYK vs. RGB, and about binding, stapling, how to scam free copies from any source I could find -- you name it! Those books were just a weird stew of random ideas, like a mixtape of articles and drawings. I remember being surprised how easy it was to get friends excited about the ideas, and how eager folks are to turn internet friendships into something "real" by making a print publication together. That process of collaborating and making something together is still really magical and exciting 10 years since I made my first zines.

As far as tips for other aspiring small press publishers, my main suggestion is to start small and treat finishing projects as a skin unto itself. You don't need to raise 8K on Kickstarter to put out a 96-page color perfect-bound book -- you just need access to a Xerox and some Sharpies to get started. The other thing that I learned from starting to make anthologies, and then later to publish the work of other creators, is to really value other people's work and time. DeForge and I were talking this past weekend and he said (in a nutshell), "I don't value a concept, it's basically worthless. The execution is what matters." And the ethics and process by which you get things done and treat contributors is a big part of that execution.

Finally, tell me about your time translating Panorama Island. How did you get involved with that and what was the experience like? Do you plan on doing more manga translation work in the near future?

Working on Suehiro Maruo's The Strange Tale of Panorama Island was actually my second manga translation and editing project with Last Gasp -- I'd worked previously on an adaptation of Tokyo Zombie by Yusaku Hanakama. Both books came about through my friendship with Colin Turner of Last Gasp, who I had met at publishing events we'd both attended, after we realized we shared some mutual friends. Colin and I bonded over a love for AX magazine, and horror and indie manga.

I majored in Japanese at Stanford, and lived there for six months during my junior year. At one point I was very comfortable speaking Japanese in my daily life, and my studies went as far as classical Japanese and translation workshops. After graduating, I had wanted to work on Same Hat and fan translations with Evan as a way to keep my language skills up. it was a dream come true to "go pro" and work on Tokyo Zombie and Panorama Island. Panorama Island ended up taking quite a bit longer, partially because of my day job eating up so much of my time, and partially because of the challenges of facing a complicated translation. I'm extremely proud of the book, and the lettering and design work that Evan did really shines in the final book.

With Thickness #3, I actually got to edit manga again (in a sense) after working with a professional translator to adapt Gengoroh Tagame's Standing Ovations. I don't think I have the comfort in Japanese any longer to attempt another large translation myself, but I am hoping to work on further projects bringing indie Japanese manga to English readers -- either through Frontier and Youth in Decline, or through a project I recently got plugged into with a friend working on an anthology for a big comics publisher.

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