When “Small Press” is Your Laser Printer

I lost my groove pretty bad last week.

I can’t pinpoint any one thing that let the air out of my balloon. Maybe my circuits overloaded when Marvel relentlessly released twenty of the comics I read on a single day in June, with DC’s Final Crisis chatter starting up again at the exact same moment. Maybe sitting down one night to read three different stories in three consecutive books about Alien Ant-Man (so sorry; Alien Yellowjacket) finally wrung me out like a rag. Maybe it was when I found myself unexpectedly spending time, for some strange reason, thinking some more about how much I dislike Superman and why that is.

Most likely, it was the ongoing conversation about the relative merits of DC vs. Marvel comics that I started yet again on Monday. Some time during day three of the donnybrook, I had an out-of-body experience and saw myself having this conversation in my thirties. Then I remembered having had the same argument when I was 11, with almost all the same points being raised. Then I had a vision and watched myself still having the conversation in my fifties, with other fifty year olds. Then, for the briefest of moments, I wondered how long they would last if I took all of my comics out back, stacked the boxes into a pyramid, and just set them the hell on fire.

For a day or so, I shuffled around feeling greyscale in a full-color world, glancing as I walked through my office at the growing, wobbling piles of periodicals all over the desk and rolling my eyes at myself. What, inna final analysis, was the point of it all? Exactly how much room in your life are you going to give the X-Men?

Where was the joy? I knew I’d left it around here someplace, but it was nowhere to be found.

This dismal demeanor still had its hooks me when I stopped in the U City Loop the other night for some Thai food on the way home. Because the Loop is the kind of neighborhood where a block has forty-seven shops and three parking meters, I ended up planting my car a couple of blocks up the street… right in front of my favorite comic shop.

“Whatever you say, karma,” I said. I took a detour and went in.

Star Clipper is the kind of comic shop that could sweeten the sourest heart; ten minutes in there, and Eeyore would be wearing a Hawaiian shirt and whistling Bobby McFerrin to himself while he browsed the Domo Kun merchandise. My heart genuinely goes out to towns that don’t have a place like Star Clipper. When you see the comics blogsketeers theorizing about the mythical, endangered New Reader, one comment you see time and again is “Comics aren’t New Reader-friendly because they’re only sold in dingy dungeons by pasty, cheeto-fingered gland cases who hate children.” While I have certainly shopped at the Comic Book Guy’s store a time or two in my life, Star Clipper is open, bright, friendly, and full of the kind of diversity that all but guarantees any reader who goes in will walk out poor. (You can see for yourself: one of the things I love about the place is that they have a webcam to show me how busy they are at any given moment.)

That night, I made a beeline past the new releases, the trades and the manga. I headed straight for Star Clipper’s crown jewel, its “small press” section, the shelves for the books that will never crack the Diamond sales charts (if Diamond acknowledges their existence at all). I wanted to get as far away from Marvel and DC as I possibly could, and I was suddenly seized by the notion that even “small press” wasn’t enough. I wanted no press.

I wanted local books. I wanted books that had a print run of 200 at the Kinko’s on the parkway. I wanted a book that had been hand-stapled by the writer, and then I wanted to pore over it like it was by Geoff Johns. Just the thought of it filled me with an almost evangelical fire. I riffled through a handful before finally selecting three to devour. Fifteen minutes later, pad thai in hand, I sat down on my couch, turned on the Langley Schools Music Project to set the mood, and had one of the best nights of comic reading I’ve had in months.

The first one I opened was Freezer Burn ($1.50) by “Mr. Ben.” Though Freezer Burn (like all these books) is black and white, its cover logo is in color, and the reason it is in color is because Mr. Ben hand-colored it with an orange highlighter. On the back cover, the same highlighter was used to write that my copy of the book is #2 of the 100 that were printed. I pictured Mr. Ben coloring every logo on every copy, late into the night, for no deadline or publisher other than himself. The issue I bought, number eight, was apparently released in the summer of ’07, “pulled together in St. Louis and on buses from the winter of ’06 to the spring of ’07.” Admittedly, the twelve-page book looks just about exactly like something someone sketched in a notebook while they were on the bus, but the author makes no bones about it in his strips. Even so, I was immediately drawn in by the rawness of it; every square inch of each page is jam-packed with comic strips about college hipsters and hippies and the local scene, packed until it starts to looks like Where’s Waldo? as drawn by R. Crumb. Then, in the middle, there’s suddenly a clean, simple children’s book about a friendly elfin shoemaker who moves to the big city and gets mugged. Despite its seeming randomness, the author puts a lot of himself on the page, and as I read it I couldn’t help picturing him folding each page, then driving from record shop to record shop talking to the manager about putting the books on a shelf somewhere. How many of the major creators have this kind of devotion to what they do?

No less raw but ten times more charming was F-Minus ($.75) by COCA. COCA (the Center of Creative Arts) is an institution here in town, and apparently they put on a seasonal comic book class for middle schoolers which “introduces a range of comic book genres… as well as scriptwriting, basics of inking styles, details on materials and how artist choices affect the final product.” At the end of the class, they put together a comic anthology for patrons of Star Clipper like me. From looking at the winter ’07 edition, it is clear that St. Louis’ budding comics creators have a wide variety of influences ranging from manga to manga, with a little bit of specifically-Dragonball manga thrown in for good measure. But right in the middle of the giant eyes and power blasts, just as I was about to pat the book on the head and say “isn’t that cute,” a young woman named Andrea Larson contributes a story called “Northern Lights” about polar explorers who have an encounter with the Aurora Borealis that leaves two of them dead and one of them with super powers. It was so breathtakingly simple, I was amazed no one had done it before. True, she drew like a fifth grader, but after two pages I wanted to know what happens to  her heroine next. There are guys who have been in the business twenty years who don’t have that effect on me in ten times as many pages.

Finally, I read Pregnant + Homeless ($.50) by Thom Finley. Eight pages long, Pregnant + Homeless is just a brief autobiographical story of Finley taking his grandparents to the Cardinals game and the things they saw that day. It is a lovely, simple slice-of-life story, which once again is made all the more lovely by the knowledge that Finley presumably printed out, folded, stapled, boxed up, and personally drove over every copy of the book to every store selling it. (Finley, by the way, is a high school student. How many comics had you published by the time you graduated high school? Yeah. Me neither.) More importantly, researching the book afterwards led me to Finley’s Robotic Fish Tales: A Post-Aquatic Revenge Tragedy. Almost every page of this book made me cackle like a madman. This comic was more inventive, more cleverly told, and more flat-out hilarious than anything I have read from a major publisher in a year. If I had been a’podcastin’, it would have been my Pick of the Week. It’s online for free; I implore you to go and read it immediately. You’re reading this; you’ve got the five minutes.

And so, for the princely sum of $2.75, I was introduced to a range of perspectives and experiences unlike any Wolverine or Blue Beetle could provide. Just when I was about to say, “Meh, it’s all been done,” a group of people from my home town gave me a whole new rejuventating take on the medium; there was something about the passion that drove these people to create that transferred directly to me through my eye sockets. Even though not everybody has a Star Clipper, almost every town has creative people with something to say. I strongly encourage you to take a look around in search of these local gems… and you don’t find any local creators, keep in mind: there’s nothing stopping you from being one.

 


Jim Mroczkowski is looking around the house for some sketch paper right ****ing now. He can be reached at Jimski.com or jim@ifanboy.com if there’s any other quirky little book you’d like to turn him on to.

Comments

  1. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    ‘Donnybrook’

    Is that some kind of Marvel Zombie trigger word?  

    Honestly, I think this was an awesome idea and I only wish my own lcs had this kind of local small press showcase.  Gotta love the DIY spirit.  

    Behold, B. Clay Moore! Who let the underdogs out!?  I believe it was the Jimski.  

  2. This is really cool!

    Thanks for the perspective.  Reminds me that I’m lucky to have a welcoming, indie-friendly shop in my town (Velocity in Richmond, Virginia — plugs: http://www.velocitycomics.com/)  and that I should spend more time with the local/indie racks when I’m there.

  3. Great post. I haven’t scoped the indie racks at Jim H’s in quite some time…I think it’s time to return and check em out.

    Good stuff

  4. I feel exactly the same way, and truly wish I had a similar area in my comic shop. 

    Robotic Fish Tales has just been shared on my facebook, and all of my friends get an email with the link.  Thank you for this post.

  5. thanks you!!!  robotic fish tales is AWESOME!  a gem. 

  6. "Love Conquers All" lol.  Thanks for the link to Robotic Fish Tales and also this great article about comics in their simples and purest forms.

     Reading stories like this however makes me wish I had a comic shop at all.  Living in a town without one makes me cherish the time I spend in them even more though when I do find one to visit.  Thank goodness for things like the internet and iFanboy or I would be totally lonely.

  7. I don’t know if my LCS has a section like this (if so I have never seen it even though I have been going their for about 10 years) but I will be asking about it when I go this week.  I’m thinking they don’t though, it’s more of a DC and Marvel shop but they still order a bit of everything and anything else that I want.

    I too really dug the Robotic Fish Tale. Interesting opening and creative idea. Thanks for sharing Jim. 

  8. There should be way more comments on this awesome article.

  9. As a local STL person myself, I shop at the Star Clipper every week.  It’s a little bit out of the way, but I love that place.  It’s clean and bright, and the staff is always super helpful and really nice.  It’s a really great shop, and it will be hard to replace if I ever move.  They have nearly everything there, and if they don’t, they’ll order it for you and get it for you in a week.  It’s so great to have a shop where I don’t have to wonder if they’re going to have copies of F.E.A.R. Agent or Glamourpuss. 

    I’ve perused through the section mentioned above before, and I’ll have to scope them out when I get back from vacation.

  10. Really good article, Jim.

    When I first started getting into comics, local comics were a big draw.  There was a skateboard shop near by and they had a small comics section that were mainly done by guys who hung out at the shop.  There was a lot of stuff in those books that blew 11 year old Luthor’s mind.  They are a big part of the reason I got hooked.  It’s been a while since I bought any local press books.  Perhaps it’s time to test those waters again.

  11.  

    Jimski- spreading hope (begrudgingly) one article at a time.

    Awesome stuff, Jim. Whenever young children create art, it warms my cold dead heart,  I really loved this article and like @grsickness the link to Robotic fish tales  is going to as many friends as it can. Really, really awesome.

    They (and by extension you, Jim) have restored my comics faith. I smell a theme week. I know the isotope has a generous heaping of indies from local dudes. Get on that Ron! Also, I’m pretty sure Josh, Conor and Mike and Paul can add some self published gems..

    But first we have Part 2 of the Superman According to Montgomery, which has me salivating at this point. Go team IFanboy!

     

     

  12. Nice article, Jimski.

    A couple of years ago I took a two day vacation to St. Louis to see Busch Stadium before it closed down. After a night at Schlaffly’s – where I literally had one of every beer they brewed -I was as hung over as I’d ever been. My plans to hit about 10 places, like the zoo, the Arch, etc., fell apart since I couldn’t get out of bed the next moring until, well, it wasn’t morning anymore. I made an executive decision to narrow my list to one or two. I chose the Loop and it’s shops as number one. There I found Star Clipper and IT MADE MY DAY.

    Not only was it well merchandised and stocked with all the Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse et al. and all kinds of other neat merch., it had: 1) people working there who were more than happy to help; 2) people whose help was actually worth it, since they knew the stock and knew their comics and other pop culture; and 3) local stuff you can’t find anywhere else. I picked up a few of those books and pretty much enjoyed every one of them. Unfortunately, I don’t know where they are today. I fear they’ve gotten lost in one of my 3 moves since then.

    Great place. My LCS is somewhat like SC, but a smaller scale. It’s also 2+ hours away. I continue to go there, however, because the LCSs that really ARE local to me are Comic Book Guy shops and not worth my time, while Gary’s Comics and More – Morgantown, West Virginia – is simply a good, good shop. You’re lucky to have a place like Star Clipper around,and thanks for reminding me of the great time I had there.

  13. You have instilled in me the want to self-publish something. A comic, a zine, a novel. Anything. Unfortunately, it will be three days before I sit down to do it, and two days until I decide not to at all. I guess that is what makes the people who actually do so special.

     Great article.

  14. How do you find these things?  Going out and looking at stuff doesn’t seem like a valid response.   You have superpowers, don’t you?   I *knew* it!

     

  15. This reminds me of some punk magazines I saw circulating around back in high school.  There is something to be said about that DIY patina self-published works posess.

  16. Oh, and great article Jimski!