Dylan Williams is the founder of Sparkplug Comic Books, an art film/used bookstore owner, and the guy behind the scenes in many of Portland’s comic and independent press events. A few months back, I sent Dylan some questions for an article on Diamond for PW Comics, expecting a few short answers, and when I got his responses, I wanted to print them all.
So, to start off, when did you start up Sparkplug? How did you get started publishing other people’s stuff?
I decided to start Sparkplug in 2002. I was working a good paying job with a good future there, so I figured I should screw it up and spend my dough on something I liked, rather than just buying a bunch of death metal albums and boring silent foreign films. I was so used to working low paying day jobs or trying to make it off of illustration that it was weird to actually have a stream of money coming in. I put an end to that eventually, thank God.
When did you add the distro part? And when did the store come into it?
Basically, I can never leave well enough alone. It is impossible for me to do something, do it well, and just do that. I added the distro a couple of years later, maybe 2004. I didn’t really promote it as such. I had sort of spearheaded the distro part of Puppy Toss back in the 90s and learned a ton of lessons from it, which I promptly forgot and had to re-learn. This time I’ve tried to keep it more focused. Sticking with books I’ve read, I know, and that I feel comfortable selling.
The store isn’t a comic store at all. It is called the Bad Apple, and it is something me and Tim Goodyear came up with in 2008, it opened in February 2009. Basically the same logic, we were both sort of feeling like we had some understanding of comics and wanted to do something we were both totally no-good at. We’re going to be continuing all kinds of stuff like that throughout our lives, it would seem. Both of us love movies and books and art, and we wanted a way to involve ourselves in the larger community of Portland. It has been an amazing experience and seems to be doing pretty well. Neither of us is making any money, but we aren’t losing any either. It gives me a place to do my Sparkplug work that isn’t my living room floor.
How do you decide what you’re going to publish?
It is a series of things, a process. My chief goal, even though I try to get away from it, is to publish stuff that I don’t see getting represented well in comics. But ultimately, it is my taste. I’ve been trying to publish some super arty stuff but I’ve found that working with books that are really arty is much harder than I thought it’d be. Meaning, they take a bunch more time and work. I feel like I’ve done a bad job of it because of that, so I’m reexamining how that works. I’m trying to publish books that push boundaries, that don’t just seem like safe bets. I’ve gotten a little more confidence as a publisher lately, but I still feel like a 19 year old kid in a game played by a bunch of business people or comics celebrities. I try and keep it focused on things I understand and things that I can present to other people confidently. Lately, I’m really on a “small is beautiful” kick.
How has the Diamond threshold affected Sparkplug as a publisher?
The threshold made us stop sending books in to Diamond. I don’t agree with it, so I feel weird sending books in to a system I don’t agree with. I keep on planning to send in a bunch just to see what happens, but I end up having too much other stuff to do.
Have they turned down any books that you don’t think they previously would have?
They turned down Jin and Jam #1, last time I sent books in. I figured they’d at least be interested in it but they used the “we’ll wait for the collection” logic. Maybe that means they were interested and it was just the format of comic books that they don’t like. I find that contradictory.
Prior to last year, how much did you work through Diamond? Did they carry any Sparkplug pamphlets like Reich? Or just the larger graphic novels?
We dealt with them a bunch. It was different for each book but they never liked the really arty books. Comic books like Reich were usually carried. They turned down Tales to Demolish till we did a color superhero one. They turned down some luxury paperbacks, the ones that were more fine arty.
Has the poor economy had more impact on Sparkplug than anything through Diamond?
Neither has really affected sales too much. We don’t sell as many individual books thanks to not going through Diamond, but their price structure wasn’t one where Sparkplug could make any money. The interet, indy stores and direct sales have done pretty well for us. I believe in supporting a personal connection between readers and producers of comix, as well as supporting small independent book and comix stores, so it fits.
As a distro, have you seen any change in business over the past year, in either increases, decreases, or new attitudes?
The distro side has been so great. People love finding self published art comix. The harder it becomes for stores to get things through Diamond, the more they go looking for other sources. It is a pretty awesome side effect of the minimums. Sparkplug keeps on finding more and more customers, thanks to their lack of interest in comix that are done with art and personal expression in mind, instead of commercial properties. .
Are more stores ordering from you directly for Sparkplug books/ other people’s books that you carry?
Oh yeah, lots more. It has been booming. I’m pretty overwhelmed with orders and I am always trying to stay on top of it. Dealing with stores directly is much more my speed and is what I’d love the future of Sparkplug to involve.
How would you describe the books you carry besides those you put out yourself?
The distro books are all over the place, they include well known books like Capacity, Mourning Star, and Wuvable Oaf, as well as a ton of wonderful art comix like Matt Thurber’s stuff or Carrie McNinch’s You Don’t Get There From Here. I think (and hope) my punk roots show, but most of it is just things that I’m going to feel comfortable selling and books I’ve read and like. It isn’t a free-for-all because I can’t afford that and wouldn’t be able to read them all. I feel like reading stuff is a key part of being able to sell it to other people.
Has working with Tony Shenton helped Sparkplug?
I’ve been working with him for almost a decade now I think. He is pretty awesome. He has made what I do possible and I feel like he never gets the credit he deserves for all the work he does. I’m so glad that he’s help to expand the world of comix distribution. He gets our books out to way more stores than I ever could. He should be knighted or sainted or something.
Are you going to put out more short, pamphlet sized comics like Jin & Jam and Reich? If so, then why?
I’m sort of focusing on comic books at the moment. We have couple of bigger books in the works, but I’m in love with the staple. We just published the second issue of Robert Sergel’s Eschew and Reich #7. Jin & Jam #2 is in the works as are new comic books by Julia Gfrorer, Tessa Brunto, Cameron Forsley, Damien Jay and David King. But we are also working on books by Chris Cilla and Janelle Hessig. Lots of stuff in the works.
The reasons for more comic books are that I’m a big fan, they are more affordable, they sell better, and they are what artists want to do. Ultimately, it is up to the artists what kind of work they want to do, but I’ve proposed a few to artists. Printing and publishing are part of the art form of comix. I do find it really really unwise that in the middle of really crappy economic times, there was a push for large expensive books. It may be what big distros and stores like Borders or Barnes & Noble want from comix, but they never knew how to sell them in first place. The big business of book distribution ruined it for book publishing, almost for comix a few years ago and I’m not going to participate in doing it again. I don’t really believe in listening to selling imperatives from people who don’t buy or read comix themselves. That sort of behavior has lead to a couple of smaller publishers going out of business. And I don’t want to hand over the keys of an art form that means so much to me. I do love sharing comix with more and more people but I don’t think that the way to do that is to make them more expensive and less accessible. It is that old idea of people loving something for what it is and trying to do what artists want, since they’re the ones doing all the work.
Why do you still want to publish floppies in the digital age? What do you think is superior about them?
Good question. I don’t think anything is inherently better about any way of getting art out there. I’m actually not even innately against things like Kindles or iPhones. I prefer tangible real world objects, but they aren’t better. I like pamphlets a lot, but really it is just that I like comic books. I honestly believe that people like to buy affordable, accessible art. So, Sparkplug has published a bunch of books with spines. I try and work with like-minded artists though, so a bunch of the artists who’ve done books with Sparkplug like pamphlets and that is what we’ve done. Originally, the words pamphlet or floppies really bugged me because they are comic books. I actually had to explain to Diamond Comics that we were publishing Reich and Jin & Jam as comic books because we are a comic book company. It is in the name.
So, it isn’t part of some big master plan to bring back the floppy, but I’m not going to turn away from them because I really love them. The financial issue is really important to me though, I want to make comic books that people can afford to buy, that are made locally, that say exactly what the creator wants to say, and that are accessible.
Who are your favorite artists making comics right now?
Oh wow, that is a big question. I’m going to make a long list for you, and I’m sure it won’t have everyone I love now:
Eric Haven, Trevor Alixopulos, Annie Murphy, Al Frank, Bobby Maddness, Tessa Brunton, Emon Espey, Zak Sally, John Porcellino, Paul Grist, Carrie McNinch, Jessica Johnson, Mack White, Ben Catmull, Nate Doyle, Tom Kaczynski, Damien Jay, Frank Santoro, Ian Sundhal, Katie Skelly, Eroyn Franklin, David King, Ed Luce, Edie Fake, Dewayne Slightweight, Juliacks, Olga Volozova, John Hankeiwicz, Dan Zettwoch, Marko Turunen, Janelle Hessig, Tom Neely, Lisa Eisenberg, Amy Kutab, Rina Ayuyang, Hellen Jo, T. Edward Bak, Austin English, Jesse Moynihan, Julia Wertz, Mathew Thurber, Jason Overby, Jason T. Miles, Noah Van Sciver, Pam Cameron-Snyder, Ayo, Dan Clowes and there are honestly about 50 other people I could list. I feel like we are living in a new golden age of comics. Maybe not with the financial rewards of the olden days but there are so many really honest to goodness artists making comics these days that it is an both overwhelming and inspiring.