Archive for Daniel Clowes

Fantagraphics and Kickstarter Capitalism

Fantagraphics' logoThis past week, Fantagraphics launched a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund its Spring 2014 season. The sudden death, in June, of co-founder Kim Thompson had an economic impact on the independent publisher: 13 books he was to translate or edit had to be postponed or delayed, creating a drain on the company’s cash flow. The great news is that, only five days later, the Kickstarter has raised over $130,000 from 2,000 different backers.

The less great news is that, here and there, some people are wondering aloud why the greatest comics publisher out there should need to turn to Kickstarter. Hasn’t publishing the Complete Peanuts, or getting a distribution deal with Norton made Fantagraphics sufficiently flush?  How is the company being managed that it should need to launch a Kickstarter campaign?

While it’s wise to ask about management (there are better and worse ways for a publisher to manage risk), I worry that these questions reinforce the false assumption that capitalism rewards every well-managed company and punishes the poorly managed ones. Good management definitely improves a publisher’s odds for success, but all business ventures (and especially ones, like Fantagraphics, that lack a parent corporation) are susceptible to the whims of the marketplace: you have flush years, and lean ones, and you hope that the flush years will allow you to weather the lean ones.

Markets reward the popular, not the virtuous (unless it happens also to be popular). A business can carefully manage its finances and aggressively promote a book, yet still find itself with a product that doesn’t sell. Just as commercial success does not confer moral worth, nor does commercial failure denote moral shortcomings.

I must disclose here that I am a Fantagraphics editor — co-editor, really. Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds and I are co-editing the five-volume series of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby.  So, I can’t claim impartiality.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (Fantagraphics, 2013): front cover

But I can claim experience. I’m author or co-editor of eight books, and have worked with both academic and commercial publishers. I have also written nearly as many failed book proposals as I have successful ones. Hard work and careful planning sometimes yield rewards, and sometimes does not. Because I am an academic, I (fortunately!) do no have to make a living off of the books I write or edit. But publishers like Fantagraphics do have to turn a profit.

And they are a great publisher to work with. Their attention to design is phenomenal. To echo book design of the 1940s, Dan Clowes hand-drew the eight boxes on the back cover of Barnaby Volume One. Today, design software would make these boxes look perfect; in the ’40s (when Johnson was writing Barnaby), hand-ruled lines made them look just slightly imperfect. Details like this, or setting the text in Futura (the typeface Johnson used for Barnaby), give the book its Crockett-Johnson-in-the-1940s aesthetic.  And that’s just one example of the kind of attention Fantagraphics lavishes on its projects.  They make beautiful books because they care deeply about making beautiful books, and they have nearly 40 years of experience doing it.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (Fantagraphics, 2013): back cover

If any publisher deserves to be rewarded with commercial success, it’s Fantagraphics. However, since capitalism is an economic system and not a moral one, there’s Kickstarter. While it’s not the solution to all of publishing’s challenges, Kickstarter does allow a publisher’s supporters to make moral decisions with their capital. Those who have funds to donate can vote their conscience, sustaining the health of a publisher committed to the art of comics.

Unless we as a society decide (for example) that public funding for the arts should be a priority, Kickstarter is one way we can help support worthy artistic ventures. Crowdsourcing is not a necessary evil. It’s a necessary good.

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Barnaby at Comic-Con

Comic-Con 2013Attention! Fellow and future members of the Elves, Gnomes, Leprechauns, and Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society! If you’ll be at Comic-Con this week, stop by Fantagraphics, at Booth 1718 (see map below).  Eric Reynolds (who co-edited Barnaby Volume One with me) and I will be there at these times.

  • Thursday, July 18: 10-11:30 am.
  • Saturday, July 20: 9-10 am.
  • Sunday, July 21: 2-4 pm.

We’d be glad to sign your copy of the book. Or not. It’s up to you, really.  Or we could just chat.  What? Stopping by to chat about Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, and Mr. O’Malley isn’t enough for you?  Well, you could also purchase one of Chris Ware’s limited-edition posters for my Eisner-nominated book, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  The actual full, wrap-around cover is below: click to enlarge. Seriously: click it. It’s beautiful.  Mr. Ware’s specially designed poster version (measuring 20″ x 39″) removes the blurbs (replacing them with two more Johnson paintings), and removes all other text save for the title (on the front cover) and my name (on the front cover).

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

I’m bringing a limited supply.  Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Fantagraphics will also have a few copies of the biography (published by UP Mississippi), which I’d be glad to inscribe.  In case blurbs would be persuasive, here are some very nice things that very kind people have said about it:

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)Mr. Nel’s engrossing, beautifully-researched dual-biography of these two mid-century masters and their enviable symbiosis will restore the cynic’s faith in love and marriage and elicit gasps of shock from devotees of the genre at the sheer decency of their lives.

— Daniel Clowes

wonderful new dual biography…. This book is a great read…. Highly recommended!

— James Sturm, Center for Cartoon Studies

Nel has a gift for stitching together his exhaustive research into a brisk, highly readable narrative

— Jack Feerick, Kirkus

And Fantagraphics will have LOTS of copies of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (2013), edited by Philip Nel (me) and Eric Reynolds, designed by Daniel Clowes, with a foreword by Chris Ware, and essays by Jeet Heer, Dorothy Parker, and Philip Nel (me, again).

Barnaby, Volume 1

If you don’t know Johnson’s masterpiece, now’s the time to get acquainted.  Don’t believe me?  Then listen to these people instead:

I never thought I’d see this day, but the book you hold is, well… the last great comic strip. Yes, there are dozens of other strips worth rereading, but none are this Great; this is great like Beethoven, or Steinbeck, or Picasso. This is so great it lives in its own timeless bubble of oddness and truth.

— Chris Ware

I think, and I am trying to talk calmy, that Barnaby and his friends and oppressors are the most important additions to American arts and letters in lord knows how many years. I know that they are the most important additions to my heart. . . . I think Mr. Johnson must love people. I know darned well I must love Mr. Johnson.

— Dorothy Parker

Still not convinced?  Then come by the Fantagraphics booth (1718!).  Eric and I will convince you.  Here is a map — I’ve drawn a red box around booth 1718.

Comic-Con 2013: Where's Fantagraphics?

For more on Crockett Johnson and Barnaby, see:

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Clear Lines and Comics Luminaries: A Report from SPX

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby and the American Clear Line School. Left to right: Mark Newgarden, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel. Photo by Paul Karasik.

It’s hard to put into words what it means to spend over a dozen years on a book, and then be able to talk about it with smart, talented people whose work I admire.  Saturday’s panel at the Small Press Expo — featuring Daniel Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, and myself — was exactly that.  Titled “Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and the American Clear Line School,” the panel aimed (among other things) to spread the word about Fantagraphics’ Complete Barnaby: Eric and I are co-editing, Dan is designing, Chris wrote an intro for Volume 1.  Since that book isn’t out yet (currently expecting a February ’13 pub date), it also enabled me to draw upon my dozen years of research for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (which is just out, and features a cover by Chris).

For 50 minutes, we had an illuminating conversation about Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, and how comics work.  Few people understand comics as well as Mark, Dan, and Chris do.  If you’ve ever heard Chris Ware speak or read an interview with him, you’ll know that he is one of a very few comics creators who can articulate, clearly & with precision, how particular comics work — and do this all without notes, speaking in what sound like perfectly punctuated paragraphs.  He was just as sharp, the following day, on the Building Stories conversation between him and Dave Ball.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby and the American Clear Line School. Left to right: Mark Newgarden, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel. Photo by Paul Karasik.

It’s also fascinating to me that three quite different cartoonists are drawn to Barnaby. With the exception of Ice Haven (my favorite Clowes book, incidentally), Daniel Clowes’ works have the fewest visual similarities to Johnson’s style. Chris Ware’s precise line recalls Johnson’s, though he favors more detailed pages than Johnson does. Mark Newgarden’s line is thicker and looser than Johnson’s, though his aesthetic is closer to Johnson’s succinct minimalism.  What all four share in common is a sharpness, a precision that gives their work a vital presence on the page.  All four understand the visual grammar of cartoons; they are fluent in the language of images.

Commercially, SPX was a success, also. Fantagraphics kindly sold copies of my biography (we sold all of them), and set up signings for me at their booth — the first of which found me sitting next to Dan.  Chris very generously signed the prints of his cover, for my Johnson-Krauss bio., and I sold about a dozen of those, too.

Daniel Clowes and Philip Nel signing books at the Fantagraphics booth. Photo by Alvin Buenaventura.

But, for me, what made it special was getting to hang out with so many great artists, writers, editors, & scholars. I never thought I’d find myself at dinner with Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine, and Françoise Mouly. When I told Mike Deforge (an up-and-coming comics creator who was also at that dinner) that I felt like I’d been invited to the grown-ups’ table and wondered how the heck I got there, he admitted that he felt the same way.  So, a hearty thanks to Alvin Buenaventura for inviting us! (On that note, check out Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, edited by Alvin & with an essay by Chris.)

There are many other highlights — hanging out with Mark N. & Megan Montague Cash, getting to show them original Barnaby strips at the Smithsonian, meeting fellow Crockett Johnson fans, other comics scholars, seeing Warren Bernard’s astonishing personal collection of comics (at his house), discovering a group of comics artists engaged in an ongoing alphabet project, and so much more.  And the Barnaby panel was a career highlight.

Thanks again to Dan, Mark, Chris, and Eric for making it happen.  Thanks to Bill Kartalopoulos for including us in his great program.  And thanks to everyone I met for a fantastic SPX.

Photos by Paul Karasik (top two) and Alvin Buenaventura (lower one). Thanks, fellas!  Enjoyed seeing you, too!

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Cushlamochree! Barnaby, the Small Press Expo, & more

Chris Ware, poster for Small Press Expo 2012

Do you like comics? Any chance you’ll be in the vicinity of Bethesda, MD this weekend?  If so, then come to the Small Press Expo!  On Saturday the 15th, you can hear Daniel Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, & me talk about Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby.  Here’s the panel description:

Barnaby advertisement, 19 April 1942Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and the American Clear Line School

12:00 pm | White Flint Auditorium

In a canny mix of fantasy and satire, amplified by the clean minimalism of Crockett Johnson’s line, Barnaby (1942-1952) expanded our sense of what comics can do. Though it never had a mass following, this tale of a five-year-old boy and his endearing con-artist of a fairy godfather influenced many. To mark the launch of The Complete Barnaby,Dan ClowesMark NewgardenChris Ware, and the book’s two co-editors — Fantagraphics’ Eric Reynolds and Crockett Johnson biographer Philip Nel — discuss the wit, the art, and the genius of Barnaby.

Later that day, I’m chairing a panel on “Comics as Children’s Literature,” featuring Françoise Mouly, Renée French, and Brian Ralph:

Comics as Children’s Literature
5:00 pm | White Flint Auditorium

Comics’ fraught historical legacy as children’s literature and children’s comics’ status as an expanding category of contemporary publishing will be discussed by cartoonist and picture book author Renée FrenchFrançoise Mouly, founder of the TOON Books imprint and co-editor of The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s ComicsMark Newgarden, co-author of the “Bow-Wow” children’s comics and picture book series; and Brian Ralph, author of the all-ages graphic novel Cave-In. Children’s literature scholar Philip Nel will lead the conversation.

I’m honored to be in such august company.

But there’s more!  Perhaps you would like to buy a 20″ x 39″ print of Chris Ware’s beautiful cover for my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss?

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

I will be selling prints specially designed by Mr. Ware.  (He’s removed all of the text except the title and my name.)  Find me at the Fantagraphics booth (tables W40-44), where we’ll also be selling (and I’ll be signing) copies of the biography itself:

  • Saturday, September 15, 1:00 – 2:00 PM    Daniel Clowes // Philip Nel
  • Sunday, September 16, 2:00 – 3:00 PM    Philip Nel // Rich Tommaso

Both items will be available while supplies last.  You can see a full signing schedule on Fantagraphics’ website.

There’s much more.  Artists Gilbert & Jamie Hernandez, Paul Karasik, Adrian Tomine,… plus a full panel each devoted to Ware & to Clowes, footage of cartoonists screened by Mark Newgarden,… comics scholars David Ball, Sara Duke, Ken Parille,… and, oh, go read the conference schedule.

Hope to see you there!

(And… here ends my commercial announcement.)

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