Can't You Hear Me Knocking v.1: Justin Hall
Want to break into comic books? Yeah, me too. I recently self published a mini series called "Less Than Hero". If you never heard of it that's because you probably don't live in my closet, where unsold copies of LTH are holding up the roof. My biggest break came when Top Shelf collected a mini series called "thrashed" and renamed it "Less Than Heroes" for the trade. Now when I'm at conventions and I try to sell the issues I get to hear "I already bought the trade". On the bright side at least they've heard of my title.
Making a small press book is time consuming because you're doing all the work yourself. On LTH Tony Talbert illustrated the book and I did everything else. I mean everything. From writing the book, cleaning his art boards, to scanning the over sized art work, to lettering the book, to pre-press set up, promoting and publishing. As I sat alone in my apartment for months hunched over a computer screen I kept thinking "Why do people do this to themselves?"
Well now that I've got some relatively free time I'm going to answer that very question. In the next few months I'll be spotlighting various small press creators. We'll discuss their work, hear some self-publishing horror stories and throw around some publishing strategies. I would also be happy to answer any questions in the column. Thanks for reading and much thanks to the Pop Image crew for their hospitality.
Justin Hall is the San Francisco writer and illustrator behind All Thumbs Press. His first book A Sacred Text was about how the Dead Sea scrolls fell briefly into the hands of a gay black slave. It's an incredible piece of historical fiction. More recently he's been producing the current anthology series True Travel Tales. Following the true stories told to him from various travelers, the stories run from cute, to emotional, to political and back again. His upcoming True Travel Tales 3: La Rubia Loca is a harrowing 48-page masterpiece of mental illness and redemption on the road. He's been featured in the SPX anthology both this year and last. He's been profiled on Time.com and in the pages of the Advocate. He's also a brilliant cat with a lot of frank advice about the reality of self-publishing. Justin was gracious enough to take some time out of his day to answer some questions for us.
Jason: Bam! Right outta the gate with your first book you won a Xeric grant. What was that experience like?
Justin: Validating. I was in a cycle of doing comic book work for myself and never trying to get it out there, because I never thought it was good enough. In fact that was true about most of it, but the problem is that you can tell yourself that forever. Getting the Xeric was this wonderful outside voice telling me that my story was worthwhile, and should be made public even if it wasn't perfect.
But even though it was good enough for a Xeric grant it wasn't good enough for Diamond who declined to carry it. Any idea why?
The Xeric foundation, bless its soul, has a very different mission than Diamond does. The Xeric's goal is to support the voices of independent cartoonists and bring into the public light projects that would have a hard time being seen otherwise. Diamond's goal is to make money. Now, Diamond cares about the creative health of the comic book industry as well, but it is a business, not a non-profit foundation.
The Xeric foundation felt that "A Sacred Text" was a good and interesting enough book to deserve some exposure. But the reality is that there's no way AST could have made money. It's a story based on the Dead Sea Scrolls with a black, gay main character for god's sake (the unusual nature of the story was, I'm sure, one of the draws for the Xeric folks)... but more importantly, the lettering is clumsy, some of the illustration is awkward, the dialogue is stilted, and there are spelling mistakes.
Don't get me wrong, I'm very proud of AST. It's a good first book, and is one of the best stories I've ever come up with... but the execution is simply not as good as Diamond would have wanted, which I understand and respect. Cold Cut carries the book, and I sell it at conventions and on my website allthumbspress.com, and that's fine.
Diamond does carry my "True Travel Tales" series, which has much better lettering.
How much does Diamonds tastes factor into what you're going to create? Would you spend months working on a book knowing the largest comic distributor probably wouldn't carry it?
My first book ("A Sacred Text") was a labor of love that I created because the story sprang into my head and demanded to be told. Marketability wasn't an issue for me, and lo and behold... it wasn't very marketable. My next project was the series "True Travel Tales," which I figured would fit nicely into the autobiographical comics mold already established by everyone from Harvey Pekar to Mary Fleener, as well as have a nice cross-over appeal in bookstores to travel writing.
Diamond rejected AST for distribution, but only after sending the book to a panel of retailers who reviewed it and gave me some feedback. I was shocked, as most Xeric books get Diamond distribution, but I understood it. I didn't, however, understand why TTT number 1 also didn't get distribution when I solicited it, since I had cleared up the lettering and other issues to make it a much more professional book.
Then I sent in TTT number 2 and still didn't get in, and I started getting paranoid. The TTT comics only got form rejection letters saying they weren't the kind of material Diamond was looking for. Was Diamond rejecting my books because they had queer content? The last thing I wanted to do was cry "victim," but there were clearly books on the comic racks distributed by Diamond that were worse than my comics.
When I solicited TTT number 3, I was prepared to believe in some insane conspiracy if I didn't get Diamond distribution. And indeed Diamond did pick it up, as well as the entire TTT series retroactively. Apparently, Diamond's basic policy is that they won't distribute a self-publisher (with some exceptions) unless there are three issues in the can. They want to, understandably, make sure that you have some staying power, or their Previews would be filled with first issues by slackers who never produce a second. The problem is that Diamond doesn't tell you that. They could save a whole lot of emotional turmoil by stating that in their literature to publishers!
I have to give Diamond credit. They seem to distribute just about any kind of material as long as there is a sufficient level of quality. They know that the comic medium needs to expand and grow in terms of story if it is going to expand and grow in terms of sales. I wish that there wasn't such a monopoly in comic book distribution, but I can't really fault Diamond on the job they're doing. And there are a couple of independent distributors like Cold Cut and Last Gasp who pick up the reorders and the more indie material, which certainly helps.
What's your background like? Were you supported in your love of comic books?
I'm an academic brat. Most of my family are teachers and so have always been very supportive of my reading, writing, and drawing habits. I've had to educate them a bit on the art form of comics, but they've responded well to my attempts at indoctrination.
Sometimes I fell a bit sorry for my parents for winding up with such a comic geek as a son. It's certainly not the standard issue doctor or lawyer fantasy that most families have. On the other hand, I'm not addicted to crack, so they should count their blessings.
Tell us about your current series.
I've been doing a series called "True Travel Tales," which is an anthology of real-life adventures that take place on the road. It's been a great project, as it enables me not only to tell my own travel stories, but also to go around asking everyone I know for their best, most outrageous travel tales.
I'm ending the series with the next issue, number four. I'd like to return to the series in the future with a second volume of stories, but first I need a hiatus in order to work on some other projects. I'll be collecting these first four issues in a trade paperback sometime next year.
Also, I just finished up a mini called "Only in San Francisco," which is an autobiographical sexcapade that I did as a submission to the excellent "True Porn" anthology, plus a bunch of the Glamazonia adventures that have only previously been available online. I have a limited number of them made, and I don't know if I'll ever make more, as making minis is a greater bitch than I ever dreamed possible. Holy stapling and folding carpal tunnel syndrome! I'll have them up and available on my website allthumbspress.com very soon.
What are you working on next?
The project I'm most excited about is a graphic novel called "The Liar," which is a character-driven story about a young, compulsive liar who is hitching across the country and hooks up with a middle-aged closet case in a jeep. This is interspersed with "flashbacks" of other people remembering the liar from when they interacted with him, so you have a sense of how he has reinvented himself in every situation he's found himself. I wrote the script a while back but have avoided illustrating it until I felt I had the cartooning chops to pull it off right. It's a piece that will depend heavily on atmosphere, pacing, and the internal tensions of the characters, all difficult and subtle stuff to pull off with comics. I feel like the book will either be excellent, or will fall horribly on its face. Of course I'm hoping for the former...
I'm also continuing with some "Glamazonia: The Uncanny Super Tranny" projects. I've already put a number of her adventures up on the web, on my site allthumbspress.com and the Gay League. I also just put together a mini for this year's SPX called "Only in San Francisco" which includes several Glamazonia adventures, along with an autobiographical sexcapade. Eventually, however, what I'm shooting for is a full Glamazonia print book, featuring my work and that of other creators as well. I've got some good people lined up to contribute on the book, so I think it'll be excellent. I can't say when it'll see print yet, however. Sometime next year...
Finally, I'm going to be working on a gay erotica book. More and more I'm realizing that there is a dearth of quality gay male erotica, and that maybe I can help, um, fill the hole. I've got one story started that's your basic "Mexican wrestler gets caught on a pirate ship" story... you know the kind.
Self publishing is a real labor of love and a learn as a go experience, different for everyone. What would you do different if you had to start all over today? Any recommendations for someone looking to self publish?
Good lord. Well, first off, all prospective creators should understand that self-publishing is basically a "pay to play" proposition. You will lose money at this, almost inevitably. The handful of creators who can actually make a living at self-publishing are incredibly dedicated and prolific, and also lost money when they started or started back in the day when the market was different and it was a more viable business option. Plan on around five years of losing money before you can start really making a profit.
That said it can be a wonderful thing. It's a way to understand the industry from the bottom up... You have to learn about everything, from the art of making comics, to the printing process, to the distribution system. I've learned a tremendous amount from self-publishing, and while I can't say that all my lessons were fun ones, I'm proud of my accomplishments and of the finished products, which I can see on the racks of comic book stores and in the hands of readers. That has to be part of the pay-off, because monetary remuneration certainly isn't.
A solid game plan is the best way to approach self-publishing. Do you want to do mini-comics or professionally printed ones? Do you want to start with single issues or graphic novels or even comic strip formats? These sorts of decisions will help determine your course of action.
And excellent resource is, of course, the Xeric Foundation. I would highly recommend applying for the grant, because even if you don't get it, the process of applying forces you to create a business plan. Another good thing to do is to go to comic book conventions and attend the self-publishing panels. Cold Cut Distributors usually sets them up at San Diego, SPX, APE, and other cons. At these cons you can also see the range of self-publishing options open for creators, and talk to people to ask advice. The advantage to comic books being such a ridiculously low-paying art form is that anyone foolish enough to do it is in it for the love of the medium. And that dynamic generally creates a nurturing and supportive environment among creators that I've found truly inspiring and helpful.
What can self-publishers do to compete with the mainstream?
Self-publishers can take advantage of other means of distribution. In all but the most progressive comic book stores the major publishing houses will always overshadow us. But in bookstores, where I believe comic book distribution is increasingly headed, self-published material can have a chance of crossover into the bookstore mainstream.
Comics (at least in the States) are a very, very strange medium. In our industry, mainstream means superheroes, an insular, little genre that virtually doesn't exist anywhere outside of American comic books (the current fad in superhero Hollywood films notwithstanding). Stories that would be considered mainstream anywhere else, everything from romance to fantasy to historical drama, are "alternative" in comics.
As comic books move into bookstores, however, that insular quality won't, I believe and hope, be able to continue its stranglehold on the medium. Bookstore customers won't assume that characters have to wear spandex to be in a comic book. We already see this in the manga boom. Readers who don't typically go into comic book stores, like teenage girls, are buying comic books by the arm full. And the mainstream comic publishers are slow to understand this, as they have such a vested interest in the status quo of superhero stories. American self-publishers can move into other genres and really push the boundaries of our medium in ways that are already happening in France, Spain, and Japan, where comic books are a standard and integrated part of bookstores.
This is not to put down the comic book stores. What we think of as independent and alternative comics would never have come about if it wasn't for the direct market. Comic book stores created another avenue for comics to be sold outside of the drug stores. But the more places that comics can be sold, the better it is for self-publishers, and the industry in general.
Self-publishers can also use the internet... which is not something I'm good at, so I'll let others talk about that strategy.
Any books you think are being overlooked right now?
Oh, tons. Off the top of my head, I think John Kerschbaum's books ("The Wiggly Reader," "Pete and Pussy") are amazing, and haven't received nearly enough press. There's also a whole mini-comic scene, a lot of it coming out of the Bay Area, which needs more attention paid to it. People like Lark Pien, Fredo, Jesse Reklaw, Gene Yang, Thien Pham... You can find a bunch of their stuff at the Globo Hobo (a Bay Area-based mini-comic distributor) website. Another good site for minis is the USS Catastrophe (another mini-comic distributor) website.
At SPX I picked up the book, "Gabagool" by Mike Dawson and Chris Radtke for the first time, and thought it was really funny stuff. Also, I'm really digging Steve Gerber and Brian Hurtt's "Hard Time," put out by DC's "Focus" imprint. Who knew Gerber could write such a compelling, gritty and realistic prison drama? It's a far cry from "Howard the Duck," and hopefully will get more press... I'm terrified it'll get canned, since I'm hooked.
And pretty much everything out of Europe is overlooked here in the States right now. There's so much great stuff that's not even translated into English...
That's some great advice Justin! Thanks for your time and good luck with The Liar.
Thanks for the attention. Now that the interview is done are you still going to be nice to me, or just ignore me now that you've gotten what you want from me? Should I even bother waiting by my phone?
Didn't hear that last part Justin, your reception is breaking up...Hello? Justin? He's must be entering a tunnel or something...
Justin made an excellent point I want to expand on. Having three issues' in the can before you solicit the first one is key. First, it gives you an idea of how quickly you can really expect to turn a book out. It gives you time to solve any creative issues before you're on a deadline. Second, it gives you the luxury of a head start. Once you begin publishing, little business items will distract you from being creative. You can also use that time to promote your book. Third, it's professional. Diamond turns down about 70% of the new small press books sent to them. They've been burned before. Justin was shot down until they saw that third issue. Having a few issues in the can shows them and everybody else you're serious about keeping your commitments.
I would go one further and not even have the books printed until you've got three. I would stick with mini books until then. Our first printing of Less Than Hero was a disaster. Had I made a mini comic of it first and lived with it for a few months and seen it's flaws, I could have saved myself 1,200 clams. Because when it came time to be distributed by Diamond we decided that first print wasn't good enough. We redrew the pages that didn't work, re-lettered the whole thing after we had it copy edited... twice and then went back to press. The remaining first print copies of Less Than Hero went straight into the trash. I've talked to other self-publishers who've made similar mistakes. Don't do it. It's an expensive learning process.
Anyone who thinks mini books can't get you anywhere should check out 1,000 Steps To World Domination from Rob Osborne being published by AIT/ Planet Lar this month. He was last years' winner of the Isotope Comic Lounge's Excellence in Mini Comics Award. This years' winner Josh Cotter is having his Sky Scrapers of the Midwest published by Ad House Books. Common Grounds started off as a mini book and is now being published by Image. Of course I can give you this advice because it was given to me two years ago and I ignored it. It's all up to you I guess.
Justin Hall's True Travel Tales 3: La Rubia Loca will be hitting shops this December. The Diamond order number is SEP042310.
Jason McNamara is the author of the Less Then Hero mini-series, for more be sure to visit Polite Strangers.com.
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