I was like, holy shit, I’m enjoying this, and I think this is really fun and compelling and, oh my god, somebody else does too.
L&M: After art school you said you were applying for shows and people weren’t really liking your stuff which was disappointing. But you had the opposite experience with comics. You put together a small xeroxed edition of Big Questions 1 & 2 and The Ballad of the Two Headed Boy, which then by chance, Michael Drivas of Big Brain Comics in Minneapolis, took to SPXThe Small Press ExpoThe Small Press Expo (SPX) is a registered 501(c)(3) that was created in 1994. Every year since its inception, SPX has put on a festival, known as The Expo, that provides a forum for artists, writers and publishers of comic art in its various forms to present their creations to the public and to expose the public to comic art not normally accessible through normal commercial channels. The annual SPX festival, typically held in the fall in Bethesda, Maryland, rivals the Alternative Press Expo as the premiere convention for alternative comics creators and fans. SPX is unique amongst the various comic conventions as it does not allow retailers to have a formal presence at the convention. Only creators and publishers are allowed to set up at the festival, although retailers can and do attend the show with the general public through paid admissions. (wiki). Then you started getting letters back from relatively well known people like from Craig ThomsponCraig ThomsponCraig Matthew Thompson (born September 21, 1975) is a graphic novelist best known for his books Good-bye, Chunky Rice (1999), Blankets (2003), Carnet de Voyage (2004) and Habibi (2011). Thompson has received four Harvey Awards, three Eisner Awards, and two Ignatz Awards. In 2007, his cover design for the Menomena album Friend and Foe received a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package.(wiki) who encouraged to apply for the Xeric grantXeric grantThe Xeric Foundation is a private, nonprofit corporation based in Northampton, Massachusetts, which for twenty years awarded self-publishing grants to comic book creators, as well as qualified charitable and nonprofit organizations. The Xeric Foundation was established by Peter Laird, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (wiki), which you got. If you had not received all this positive affirmation, would you have thought your work wasn’t good enough? Would you have stayed with it?
AN: I would. That was like gravy, you know? By the time I got letters back, I was already working on Big Questions #3, so that was just confirmation for me. I was like, holy shit, I’m enjoying this, and I think this is really fun and compelling and, oh my god, somebody else does too. So yeah, that was just extra.
L&M: When did you realize you could do this for a career – when you started making money, or when you got picked up by Drawn & Quarterly?
AN: I don’t know if there was a moment of realizing that. I think I’m not a very pragmatic person when it comes to living in the world and having a career. So just the fact that making that work was feeding me as much as it was, and people out in the world seemed interested in it… To me that was like, cool, I’m gonna continue to do this as long as it goes. As long as I’m into this I’m going to keep doing it. So to me that was kind of like “career.” (makes quotes with fingers) Then little by little I was dropping days at my job as I started to get paid for stuff.
L&M: What was that job?
AN: I was a cook. The first time I got a check – for Dogs and Water, before the book was ever published. I got a little advance.
L&M: How did Dogs and Water get picked up by Drawn & Quarterly?
AN: I had sent Chris OliverosChris OliverosDrawn and Quarterly was founded in 1990 by Montrealer Chris Oliveros, age 23 at the time. Oliveros was inspired by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly"s Raw to publish an arts comics periodical. He borrowed $2000 from his father Hark! A Vagrant to fund starting the anthology magazine Drawn and Quarterly, which debuted in April, 1990. It was intended to be published four times a year, containing short arts comics. Soon, Oliveros realized there were arts comics which were too long to be contained in his magazine, and began publishing stand-alone comic books and graphic novels, beginning with Julie Doucet"s comic book Dirty Plotte. Seth, Joe Matt, and Chester Brown, Toronto-based cartoonists who soon became associated with the publisher. In the early 2000s, Brown had a surprise bestseller with Louis Riel. In 2003, A Drawn and Quarterly Manifesto was released, describing to booksellers how to stock and sell graphic novels. (wiki) a copy of Big Questions #3. I sent copies of [it] to FantagraphicsFantagraphics BooksFantagraphics Books is an American publisher of alternative comics, classic comic strip anthologies, magazines, graphic novels, and the adult-oriented Eros Comix imprint. Many notable cartoonists publish their work through Fantagraphics, including Jessica Abel, Peter Bagge, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Mary Fleener, Roberta Gregory, Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, and Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez aka the Hernandez Brothers.(wiki), Top ShelfTop Shelf ProductionsTop Shelf Productions is an American publishing company founded in 1997, originally owned and operated by Chris Staros and Brett Warnock and a small staff. Now an imprint of IDW Publishing, Top Shelf is based in Marietta, Georgia. Top Shelf publishes comics and graphic novels by authors such as Alan Moore, Craig Thompson, James Kochalka, Andy Runton, Jeffrey Brown, Nate Powell, Alex Robinson, Jeff Lemire, and Matt Kindt. (wiki), Slave LaborSlave Labor GraphicsSlave Labor Graphics (SLG) is an independent American comic book publisher, well known for publishing darkly humorous, offbeat comics. Slave Labor Graphics was started in 1986 by Dan Vado, who remains the company"s president and publisher. (wiki) and Drawn & QuarterlyDrawn & QuarterlyDrawn and Quarterly is a publishing company based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, specializing in comics. It publishes primarily comic books, graphic novels and comic strip collections. The books it publishes are noted for their artistic content, as well as the quality of printing and design. Initially it specialized in underground and alternative comics, but has since expanded into classic reprints and translations of foreign works. Drawn and Quarterly was the company"s flagship quarterly anthology during the 1990s. It is currently the most successful and prominent comics publisher in Canada, publishing well-known comic artists such as Lynda Barry, Kate Beaton, Marc Bell, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Guy Delisle, Julie Doucet, Mary Fleener, Joe Matt, Shigeru Mizuki, Rutu Modan, Joe Sacco, Seth, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Adrian Tomine, Michael DeForge and Chris Ware. In 2006, Drawn and Quarterly began publishing the Moomin comic strips of Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson, in book format, in the series Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip. Drawn & Quarterly has a strong reputation in the comics community and its anthologies have won a number of Harvey Awards. (wiki). And actually, Slave Labor Graphics was maybe gonna be interested in publishing it, and Top Shelf was sort of on the fence, and I think by the time I got those responses, I was like, I’m just gonna keep doing this myself. So I guess he had seen #3 but didn’t get back to me. (laughs) And then you know a couple of years later when I did #5 I gave him a copy at a show and then he emailed me and commissioned a story for an anthology.
L&M: Which anthology?
AN: Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #1, but it wasn’t in that book because it got so long and it was a total mess. I mentioned to you that I threw away 25 pages – that was after it had already been cut from that anthology. So anyway, long story short, he ended up publishing that as a book, and I got a check for it and dropped a day at work – went down to 3 days instead of 4 to try to draw more comics.
L&M: (holds up an original copy of Dogs and Water.)
AN: Thats funny. I haven’t looked at that in a while but that book was kind of a mess in and of itself. The fact that it was a soft cover and staple bound was ridiculous. I guess they misjudged the thickness of the paper.
L&M: You wanted it to be a hardcover?
AN: I guess I assumed it would be square bound. So it was a surprise when it wouldn’t really close… Maybe after it’s been on a bookshelf for years it does. (laughs) Yeah, the beginning of my relationship with Drawn & Quarterly was a little bumpy and rocky and not particularly auspicious. Now it’s great.
L&M: Was that the turning point for your career, though, to become a published author?
AN: Yeah, having a published book by Drawn & Quarterly, as bumpy as our relationship was at the beginning, that’s who I wanted to publish with. So I was stoked on it no matter what. Yeah, it felt serious. It felt like a big deal to me to have a book published by them for sure. Also the truth is when Dogs and Water came out, I still thought the story was a total disaster. I was really not proud of the book at the time.
Explanation of the cover drawing for “Dogs and Water.”
(As explained to a 6 year old boy.)
Anders Nilsen, “Dogs and Water.” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2004)
Anders Nilsen, “Dogs and Water.” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2004)
…the truth is when ‘Dogs and Water’ came out, I still thought the story was a total disaster.
L&M: Why was that?
AN: (laughs) I don’t know. I don’t remember. Honestly. I think part of it was just the fact of suddenly having an audience and being aware that there are real people that are gonna read this and evaluate it. Like I’d been self-publishing up until that point and it just felt like you could sort of pretend that you’re just doing this for you and your friends, but when a real publisher is putting your book out in the world, you’re kind of on display. And it felt a little like here I am standing naked in the town square and (laughs) I don’t know how I feel about this. The book had been a real struggle, it had really been tough. I threw away 25 pages and set the book aside for 6 months or something, and then came back to it and felt like ok, this thing is a complete disaster, I can salvage it but it still felt like I was salvaging a disaster. I didn’t feel like I had made a good book.
L&M: Would you redo it differently now?
AN: No, now looking back I feel happy with it. Now I look at it and I kind of think, yeah, that wasn’t a bad piece of work. And it does certain kinds of of things that I don’t think I was aware necessarily that I was doing. So now I don’t really have a problem with it, but I did at the time. I think that made me still feel a little bit like maybe I’m gonna keep self-publishing. I didn’t pitch [Drawn & Quarterly] Big Questions for a couple of years after that.
L&M: Would you be perfectly happy working as a cook and self-publishing? Back then when you were self-publishing, were you just peddling your work off to all the book stores yourself?
AN: (laughs) No! I didn’t want to be a cook anymore. (laughs) [But] I had this kind of like punk-rock-kid, I-can-do-it-myself, sort of thing, you know? I still self-publish a little bit now and then depending on the project. Yeah, it was as huge pain in the ass. (laughs) I mean once that book came out there was a response. That was one of the surprising things, that people liked it. So yeah, it was nice. From the beginning, as soon as I committed myself to comics, it just felt like this is probably going to be my life. It just felt like it worked. It just clicked. Yeah, I don’t know. I’d like to think that I’d plug away and torture myself as a starving artist or whatever. (laughs) The truth is, I do fine. I can pay my rent more or less doing this stuff, but I’m not getting rich.
Romeo Alaeff is a visual artist from New York City, living in Berlin. He is the founder and Editor in Chief of Lines & Marks.