November 24, 2014

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Whit Taylor Interviews Dog City Press

I first picked up a mini-comics box from Dog City Press at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) in 2013 and was very impressed with the unique presentation, as well as the diverse array of mini-comics from a variety of up and coming artists, mostly Center for Cartoon Study (CCS) students and graduates. Since then, I have been keeping up with them and was excited to pick up their 3rd comics box at SPX. Publishers (and cartoonists) Luke Healy, Juan Fernandez, and Simon Reinhardt were kind enough to take some time to talk to me about their experiences curating these eclectic boxes.

[From left to right]: Luke, Juan, and Simon at SPX

Whit: How did each of you get into comics?

Luke: Well, I was never a big comics reader as a kid. Just a few here or there, as much as is normal, I suppose. I was always a lot more into animation. 

When I was 18 in my last year of school, a friend introduced me to web comics. I started following a handful of them, and I really enjoyed reading them, so I decided to start my own. It was so crappy. 

About a year later, during college, I was thinking of dropping out of my journalism degree, hated it. Comics were the only thing I enjoyed doing really, so one evening I googled cartoonist college degree, or something similar, and the trailer for the documentary about CCS "Cartoon College" came up. 

I wanted to attend, and I saw that they offered an MFA, so I decided to finish out my undergrad degree, and use that time to grind hard making comics so I'd have a strong application. 

Then yeah, it's been comics ever since, really.

Simon: I pretty much grew up reading comics. I was really captivated by superhero comics, even before I could read. I had a few uncles who were really generous with their childhood comics collections, so I ended up reading a lot of 70s Marvel comics, stuff like that. When I was in middle school, I definitely gravitated to the weirder ends of the mainstream and I started indie or alternative comics or whatever you want to call them around the same time.

When I was a kid, I definitely wanted to be a cartoonist, and I did make some comics, although I don't think I ever really finished anything. In middle school, I read Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics, which introduced me to the idea of mini-comics. Despite never having actually seen a mini-comic, I got kind of obsessed with them, and my friends and I would make our own on folded up sheets of notebook paper. 

I made comics, including mini-comics and strips for the school paper, throughout high school and college, but not super frequently or anything. It definitely wasn't my main focus. I would say I started to get more serious after college. I was living in New York, working at stressful, kind of unfulfilling jobs, and I started making mini-comics again for the first time in a few years. After I did a few, I felt like I was running up against my own limitations pretty quickly and that's more or less when I decided to go to CCS.

Juan: I attribute my affinity for comics reading and making to the fact that English is my second language. For most of my life I have struggled with reading and writing, both in English and in Spanish. It's really hard for me. I feel ashamed for it, but it is what it is. Discovering comics has offered me a language that I can speak with a high, natural fluency. I am so grateful for that.

I got into comics-making through Bill Boichel, the owner of Copacetic Comics. At Copacetic in 2009 he introduced me to the third issue of the Sundays Anthology. It blew my mind. It was three little booklets in a belly band. It was well crafted, honest, simple and oh so cute. It was full of comics by people I'd never heard. It was a magical little collection. 

Later, the second time I visited Copacetic in 2010 I bought Rachel Masilamani's Singing Contest. I was smitten with that little book. It was a $2 black and white story about a young woman who leaves her home to compete in a televised song contest for money. It was formally tight, yet playful and full of so much heart. I loved it and wanted to make my own. It was that book that motivated my first comic, Rinfon and Klaklou. After that I kept making booklets to share with friends or to sell at the local comics shops or local expos.



Whit: So, at what point did you decide to form Dog City Press

Luke: We formed Dog City Press during our first year at CCS. On Valentine's Day, I believe, so it would have been in February 2013. We were all in the same class.

I had the idea to make a cardboard box full of mini-comics as a sort of anthology, and I went to Juan and Simon to ask if they wanted to work together on it. Thankfully, they did, and we pretty much got straight to work on our first issue.

Over the course of a few weeks, we had worked out what we wanted the final product to look like, and had decided on the name, logo etc. of the press. Really, we all had equal input on each decision, and the whole thing came about through a lot of collaboration, late nights, and cups of coffee. We wanted the first issue to be a kind of showcase for both our work, and the work of our classmates. Pretty much all of the comics in issue #1 are re-designed versions of class assignments we'd made at CCS up to that point.

Simon: Luke's correct, it was on Valentine's Day that we first started talking about Dog City, although we didn't come up with the name until later. The first issue was conceived as a sort of a trial run, to see if we could get people interested in contributing, put the issue together, and sell them at shows.

So getting pre-existing work from people meant less risk and it also meant that we wouldn't be asking our classmates to make new work for us on top of what they were doing in school at the time. Also, we were really excited about the work that people in our class were doing and wanted to find a way to show it off.

Juan: I got really obsessed with Jordan Crane's anthology NON during 2012 and I was in awe of #5. As I mentioned, I loved how Sundays #3 worked as 3 separate booklets bound together as a single issue of an anthology. I got really excited when Luke came to me and Simon because I felt that I now had the opportunity to not only observe the tradition of the multi-object comics anthology, but rather could participate in it.


Whit: How do you decide on who to include for each box set? I've noticed that there are some people who have contributed regularly as well as new people. Do you stick with CCS people only?

Juan: The selection process has varied from box to box. 

We try to decide on who to invite based on what we think they would be interested in doing. Then, after putting together a suite of artists that we want to approach, we open up conversations with our desired artists to see what they want to put together for the publication. Sometimes people want to repackage old work, but most of the time people have wanted to make new work.

We don't stick solely to CCS people. In the second and third issues I reached out to cartoonists I knew in Pittsburgh: Christina Lee, Rachel Masilamani, Caitlin Boyle and Jennifer Lisa. 

Luke: We don't tell people what kind of comics to make. We always want to have people do work that they will enjoy and be invested in, so we more or less let them choose their own path. If anything, our only instruction is to think of the comic being made as a stand alone mini-comic, and not a piece from an anthology.

The whole idea behind using a cardboard box filled with comics, instead of a single bound book, was to preserve what makes a mini-comic feel special to begin with. Contributors' work can be any size and shape. We've had really big comics, like Dan Rinylo's comic from #3, and really small comics living in the same anthology without conflict. Books can read in atypical ways, like Jon Chad's piece for #2 which read calendar style, with a big fold-out page. Heck, even the poster has changed shape. The poster for #3 by Laurel Lynn Leake was a triptych, which I thought was really cool.

So, as Juan said, when we're looking for contributors, what we're really thinking is "Can this person make a really good mini-comic?" Basically we're inviting people whose mini-comics we like. This has mostly been people from CCS, since we've been asking people we know personally for now. But as Juan said, we've had some super talented Pittsburgh-based artists come on board for our second and third issue, and if we do another one, I'm sure we'd like to keep widening the circle.

I guess the only other thing we talked about when inviting people to contribute was the gender balance of each issue. We wanted to invite the same number of women as men, particularly when we were putting together issues #2 and #3. Issue #2 still ended up being quite male-heavy, due to a number of drop outs, but issue #3 is divided right down the middle, seven men and seven women. I can't speak for Juan and Simon on this, but I was really happy with that outcome. 

Simon: Like Luke said, we usually start with people we know personally. We don't offer very much money and it's a lot of work, so it's easier to gauge interest with people we already know. The first issue was deliberately mainly members of our class but after that we've tried to expand outward a little bit. It's a tough balance--speaking only for myself, I don't want the anthology to be exclusively CCS cartoonists or anything, but at the same time, there's a lot of people in the community making work that we're really excited about and that becomes a pretty natural starting place. Juan's Pittsburgh connections have been a real godsend in that regard. He's plugged into a great community there as well, and I'm really proud of the comics that have come out of that.

Repeat contributors are something we kind of figure out on a case by case basis. It's nice to have a bit of continuity from issue to issue but we also always want to have some fresh faces in there. I think that, other than Luke, Juan, and me, Iris Yan is the only person to be in all three issues. We're all big fans of Iris, and, although she has a big internet following, she doesn't have a ton of work in print that's accessible to the North American comics audience. Also, she's incredibly reliable, so we never have to worry about her blowing a deadline.

I'd also second Luke's comments about having an even gender balance in each issue. We did a pretty good job with the first issue but not as much with the second one, so I was also very pleased with the third issue.

Whit: What makes a mini-comic successful to you?

Simon: Well, I think you can make a successful mini-comic just by putting a good comic into print. But my favorite mini-comics, and the ones I'm most keen on including in Dog City, make use of the hand-made, small print run format to enhance the reading experience.

Some of the comics we've put in Dog City use the mini-comics format in obvious ways; for example, the do-si-do format of "Going in Blind" by Tom O'Brien and Alison Bannister couldn't exist in a standard square-bound anthology. But other comics make use of the mini-comics format in subtler ways--Jenn Lisa's comic "Garrettsville" has an immediacy and an intimacy to it that I think are bolstered by the hand-made format. You could easily include a comic like that in another anthology, but I think having it in it's own little book, designed by the artist, heightens the sense that you're getting a transmission direct from Jenn's hands.

Luke: I agree with Simon on the points he made. 

I love to see anything that feels fresh, and does something I've never seen before, especially if it's a new use of the words/pictures dynamic in a comic. But yeah, that's a bit of a tough question for me to answer. Mostly, I just kind of feel it out. The mini-comics I like the most have that je ne sais quoi, or x-factor, whatever you want to call it. Something special. If I like reading it on a visceral level, then it's a success for me.

I think something that strengthens the boxes over all, is the fact that each of us has slightly different tastes when it comes to comics and mini-comics. I am definitely most attracted to narrative work. I love to read a satisfying story, and a mini-comic seems like such a nice fit for a short, self-contained piece. I'd say that my tastes are probably a little more conservative than Juan and Simon's. I don't usually have a lot of patience for very abstract pieces, but I like to be convinced. So when Juan and Simon are both really excited about a cartoonist, or comic, it would take a pretty strong negative reaction for me to veto it's inclusion. And I think that works both ways. Or all three ways.

Juan: Part of the success of a mini-comic is how it uses physicality to its advantage. By embracing a physical format a comic can gain a lot of levels of meaning and feeling that effect how readers experience a comic. I believe that the best format for a comic is the format that ensures a reader bring to the reading experience the necessary state of mind, as desired by the author. 

I always ask myself, "Why should this comic exist in print?". If the totality of a comics' effect on a reader arises solely from the comics content, the comic might not gain much from existing physically. Something that I love about print comics is by existing physically it demands focused attention from the reader. There's a certain quieting of the mind that happens. There's a preciousness to the reading experience that I like.

For me, a successful mini-comic feels like an artifact worth preserving. I like for comics form and their content to be in tune with each other, or deliberately out of tune with each other. There a so many different harmonies that comics makers can elicit between the form and content of their mini-comics!  If it's a disposable story, I want a cheap disposable format.  Adding french flaps on a 16 page issue 2 of a sci-fi buddy comic or expensive, luxurious paper stock for a collection of autobio comics will likely have an averse effect on how harmonious the mini-comic reading experience is.



Whit: So, how do you distribute these box sets? I imagine it must be more challenging in some respects than single minis.

Luke: Truthfully, distribution has been somewhat of a headache from the start. Most of our sales are made at conventions, which is definitely the easiest way to get them out there, though it's not problem free. For example, when we went to SPX in 2013, we had a couple of issues transporting and storing so many comics. Since each box contains 10+ comics, it's like having to bring ten times the amount of comics you'd usually bring for an event. And then, once the boxes are assembled, getting unsold copies back from a show can be even harder. But it's definitely worth the effort.

Other than bringing boxes to cons, we sell the box directly from our website. Shipping can be a bit tricky, but thankfully, our readers are patient people, and the cost of shipping is included in the online price so we're not really taking any kind of financial hit by mailing out boxes. 

It was all fairly straightforward when we were attending school together, but since we graduated, and I had to leave the USA, Juan and Simon have both been great about working out a new system for shipping and distribution in general.

We've also gotten some copies into Copacetic Comics, in Pittsburgh, and we all think that it's really cool to have the boxes available in a physical store. In fact, Juan and Simon organised a launch event there for our third issue.

Simon: I would say our sales have been split pretty evenly between conventions and online, We sell copies at Copacetic for a few reasons. It's a great store, several of our contributors are based in Pittsburgh, and store owner Bill Boichel has been a big supporter. Furthermore, we've always been able to send copies of each issue with someone who was travelling to Pittsburgh, thus avoiding paying for shipping.

Otherwise, though, we don't really sell copies to stores. For one thing, the aforementioned shipping costs would be prohibited. For another, our profit margin on each box we sell is very small relative to the labor to produce each box. Most stores either operate on consignment or want wholesale prices, which renders our profit on each unit even smaller. 

We also have a very small print run--for this current issue we produced 150 boxes (which includes contributor copies, review copies, and copies that are unusable due to printing or other errors) and that was realistically about the upper limit of how many physical copies we could produce without either extra help or a lot more money on the table (or, more likely, both). What's fortunate about that is that we have so far been able to sell out our print runs pretty quickly. The first two issues sold out quick, it's a little early to say on the third, but sales have been good so far. So we don't really have to rely on stores to sell our boxes, which is nice.




Whit: I know that you all just put out #3 but what can we expect from Dog City Press in the next year? Also, are you all working on personal projects right now?

Luke: Well, we don't have any plans for the next year as of yet, but we've thrown ideas around in the past for post-issue #3 projects. 

Things have become a lot more difficult to co-ordinate and produce since the three of us are now separated by state and country borders. I can say that it won't be another box. We knew a while ago that #3 would be the last box. We loved doing them, but they're impractical to produce, especially without the resources at our school. We've done a trilogy, we're still proud of the final pieces, and I feel we've made our point. Mini-comics are great because they're mini-comics.

So while we don't have anything planned quite yet, I feel comfortable saying that working together was a positive experience for us, and has provided a lot of enjoyment and good opportunities. I'm definitely looking forward to working with Juan and Simon on something again in the (hopefully) near future.

As for personal projects; right now a story of mine is being serialized in Maple Key Comics. I'm writing the third and final installment. It's called The Exquisite Corpse, and it's kind of a genre-y sci-fi mystery about personal trainers.

I'm also working on a book-length comic, which is a non-fiction thing about Arctic castaways that should be done in 2016. I don't want to say too much about it right now, since it's a bit far off, but I love telling longer stories, so I'm really excited to be working on something a bit meatier.

Simon: I can cosign what Luke said--we aren't making any more of those boxes but we would like to work on some more projects together. We haven't figured out exactly what that will look like yet, but I know I would like to do more interesting print books of some sort.

The last thing I have to say about Dog City is just that it has been a real pleasure to work on. Both the editorial and production work with Juan and Luke, and getting to work with so many cartoonists work I admire, have been a great experience, an education, and a real source of pride for me. We have the best contributors, and it's been great to put all of their books together in these boxes.

As for my own work, I am focused on short form pieces for right now. Nothing that's really in a stage where I can talk about it yet, but I should have some new work online soon. And I'll be doing at least one or two conventions this spring, so I'm sure I'll put together some new mini-comics by then if not sooner.

Juan: Simon and Luke are on the money about Dog City future endeavors. There is a labor intensive project in the pipeline, but were remaining quiet about it until it makes its way into the world. The assets for this upcoming book are done and are beautiful. All that remains is the grunt work of producing this book. It's a very hand crafted book that requires a lot of care. Perhaps too much. I'm working full time in Pittsburgh so multi-day screen printing and binding sessions aren't possible.


 As for my own work, I'm a little lost right now. I'm trying to embrace this lack of direction and laying low publicly with my comics. I've been teaching small comics and zine workshops in Pittsburgh on my own. I'm also joining forces with Frank Santoro to organize monthly gatherings of cartoonists and comics makers to talk shop and work on drawing and writing exercises (often in the OuBaPo tradition, often in the Santoro School tradition). We're calling these nights the Pittsburgh Comics Salon, to hearken back to the salons of old. 

Thanks guys for taking the time to chat! For more on Dog City Press, check out their site!