January 2012

Martyn Pedler


Self-Publish or Perish: The Great Disappointment and Wolves

Box Brown's The Great Disappointment and Becky Cloonan's Wolves are very different beasts. One is a two-hundred-plus page exploration of the world's religions that spans the universe's first moments to its last. The other is a fantasy story with only three characters -- four, if you count the werewolf -- told over only twenty-four pages. One thing they do have in common, however, is both authors decided to self-publish. I asked them why.

The Great Disappointment is the first collected volume of Box Brown's print-and-online comic Everything Dies. It's already earned him two Ignatz Awards for the story "Ben Died of a Train," included here. He knew he wanted the book to begin with Alpha and end with Omega: quick-fire explanations of how different belief systems tell us things will begin and end. "They were natural bookends," he says. "Otherwise I just put the stories in the order that I felt they should be, kind of like the way a musician would organize the songs on an album."

These "songs" include a retelling of the Book of Job, a history of the giant Jesus statue in the Ozarks, an illustrated version of a Jehovah's Witness poem accidentally sent to his email address, a moving meditation on one man's Islamic beliefs during 9/11, and explanations of the oddest parts -- "Bigfoot? Underpants? Negros?" -- of Mormon folklore. Comic art has an uncanny ability to level the playing field; here everyone and everything is drawn by the same pen and in the same style. (Chris Ware is one of Brown's heroes, and you can definitely see the influence in his characters and page designs.)

"I think the job of the artist is to put intangible things into focus," says Brown. "In my mind all of these religions are the same. I'm sure that offends almost everyone -- d'oh! -- but it's the way I feel. I think that's a position only an atheist can take. A few weeks ago Cee Lo [Green] changed the lyrics to 'Imagine' by John Lennon to '... and all religions true.' By nature, that's impossible. If you believe in one worldview, the others, by definition, must be false. I thought the best way to depict that was to put them all on an even playing field."

In the autobiographical story "Ben Died of a Train," Brown explains the death of a lifelong friend with his fond memories and reactions to the news. It reframes the book's theological musings as a sincere, maybe even desperate attempt to understand how someone can be alive one moment and gone the next. And it's the rambling expanse of subject matter around this pivotal moment that gives The Great Disappointment much of its power. That's why this collected edition is more than the sum of its parts. Brown says: "Personally, I'd rather read all of these stories in print. I think the web-side of the comics works as best as it can, but when I started working on these stories I always thought of them as comics for a book."

Brown confirmed that The Great Disappointment was self-published through the print-on-demand service Lulu, and added a little joking sad face emoticon afterward. Does self-publishing still feel like defeat? "For this project it certainly felt like a defeat because I spent so much time shopping it to different publishers, but I learned a lot about the business of publishing comics. Anyone can publish anything but that brand on the back does bring credibility to your work. The logo says that this book is as good as anything that publisher previously published, in print or digital. It's just branding I guess."

But the other downsides to self-publishing, like a lack of editorial input and oversight, or the limited production choices currently available for print-on-demand, pale next to the ability to get your work "in front of as many eyeballs as you can." Brown says he knows a lot of cartoonists doing great stuff that's going mostly unseen, and that Twitter has probably done more for him than any other platform. "For me," he says, "a comic feels unfinished until it's in the readers' hands."

Becky Cloonan also compares her tragedy Wolves to music. "What I tried to do was to make a story you'd want to go back and reread, to find more answers. It goes to the music that I like that tells a story. It makes you want to go back and find out more, like what happened to those characters afterward, or what's happening between the verses..." She adds: "I probably put too much thought into it." 

Cloonan's probably best known as the artist of the slice-of-life-with-superpowers series Demo, and has just reteamed with Demo's writer Brian Wood for an upcoming new Conan the Barbarian series. She's written her own books in the past, but still approaches her writing as an artist first. "I hate exposition. I hate reading it, I hate writing it. The ambience, the feel, the mood of it comes through with the art and the words are secondary. I feel like you should be able to read it without them and still get a sense of what's happening." 

And yet Wolves possesses an economy that makes it feel substantial rather than like shorthand. Telling a werewolf story means Cloonan doesn't have to explain the genre rules that seeped into popular culture long ago; the black, white, and gray art uses simple techniques to quickly show shifting time; it's full of fantastic close-ups of eyes -- human and otherwise -- that make narration unnecessary. The story packs more punch than many ten times the length but still: it's just twenty-four pages. Why bother printing it? Why not just put it up online? 

"I like print. I don't know why. And I felt like this book is so small, you know? If I'd put it online, there'd be so many other online comics to compete with. By making it exclusive, something that you can only order from me or get at conventions, it's kind of an art piece. I wanted people to feel like it was something special when they bought it." Part of making Wolves feel special was spending money on the physical production itself. One-hundred-pound paper, silkscreened cover, offset interior. Cloonan says it "feels good when you hold it."

But another necessary component is "hype." (She laughs, a little embarrassed, when she says the word.) Cloonan says she emailed everyone she knew and everyone she didn't when her first copies of Wolves arrived, and these other writers and artists mentioned it to their friends and followers. Does self-promotion make her feel dirty? "I think that in my punk rock youth I was a lot more uncomfortable with it. As a cartoonist, it's in everyone's nature to feel humble because no one ever gets paid and everyone feels shit about their work a lot of the time. But how are people supposed to get excited about a book if I'm not excited about it?"

The most important thing about Wolves is to follow it up with something better. Cloonan's planning another two comics in this same series (not interlinking, but sharing the same sort of feel and world) to eventually be collected together. She's about to do another print run of Wolves for convention season, and without a publisher that requires more cash up front. Inside Wolves is the inscription "Life ain't nothing but comics and money" -- but that's often what you're spending, not what you're making.

"I'm not making money printing minicomics," says Cloonan. "It's more something you do because you're really proud to do it. It feels good to have something that's completely you. No one else's name on it. Just your book. It's kind of great."

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.