Right Thing The Wrong Way Pt. 1


Monday, September 27, 2010

Greg Cook and TD Sidell were kind enough to offer us some excerpts from their catalog for “Right Thing The Wrong Way: The Story of Highwater Books“, opening October 1st at Fourth Wall Project in Boston. Greg did a great job on the oral history. So here’s one excerpt and there’ll be another on Friday. We pick up in 1997, as Highwater dude Tom Devlin published his first full book…

Coober Skeber 2: Marvel Benefit Issue debuts at San Diego Comic-Con in July 1997.

Tom Devlin: After I did that first anthology, and it was really kind of aggravating, and hard. But like anything, the sense of accomplishment once it was done was great. The harder something is, when you actually complete it and look at it and see that it worked out somewhat, there’s a bit of a rush. So I started to try to come up with what I’d do next.

I very specifically remember that I had three ideas. I remember talking to Ron and he said, “You should do superheroes.” Because my ideas were to do a children’s activity book and each cartoonist would do a page. It would be a puzzle page or a maze or all the typical stuff that would be in children’s activity books. The other one, actually the one that I kind of really wanted to do, was do an oversized Sunday newspaper and everybody would do sort of a classic strip or something they really liked in their style. Everybody would do a cover version. I remember partially the reason I picked that is that Ron was a really big Popeye fan and so I wanted Ron to do Popeye. I was a really big Pogo fan, so I was going to draw a version of Pogo. Then everybody else would just have to do whatever. And then the other one was superheroes.

I had done a bunch of signings at The Million Year Picnic. And it was a bunch of alternative people, like Tom Hart, Jason Lutes, Seth I think had been there by then. Just everybody you think of who’s still around who was doing alternative comics. There were like 15 people involved in five or six signings. We would just hang out and we’d always end up talking about superheroes. That was something I thought was funny and irritating. All these people who are trying to do something new still have these deep roots in superheroes. I wanted to do the superhero book to sort of be the end of that. Okay, you’ll all do your superheroes and that will be the end. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.

It was offset printed. I think 3,000 copies. I’m pretty sure I borrowed a little money from my folks to do that. I’m not totally sure, but I think so. It couldn’t have been very much. Like it must have been $1,000 or something. Of course, it was all Marvel superheroes. Around that time Marvel had declared bankruptcy. The joke was to do the “Marvel Benefit Issue” and it would be given away for free to help them raise money. It says “free” on it, so there’s actually no way it could benefit Marvel. There would be no money being made. It was a publicity stunt.

Jef Czekaj: I remember Coober Skeber, the Marvel one, it was me, Tom, [our friend] Scott, and I think Mat Brinkman. We had to drive up to [the printer] Quebecor to pick up the books. We had the Fort Thunder van, which was just a really sketchy old van with the words “Fort Thunder” spray painted on the side. We got up to the border and the border guard was asking us questions. We were pretty sketchy looking. Mat had a mohawk, and there was just a bunch of other dudes in this van, really sketchy looking van. She asked us, “Have any of you been arrested?” And Scott said, “Well, it depends what you mean by arrested.” Then we got pulled over, separated, and basically interrogated. I think Scott had been arrested, but not charged with anything, so that was why he was confused. But it definitely added a lot of time. We pretty much just drove up there, got the books, and drove back. We were coming back pretty late at night, we got to the border, and the border guard saw that the van was full of stuff. I assume Tom had the appropriate paperwork. But the border guard wanted to make sure that the book said “printed in Canada.” So we had to pop open a box of the books. We were all so scared that he was going to turn to a Henry Darger parody, with all these naked little girls. We were like, “Please don’t let this guard turn to that page.” Luckily he did not.

Megan Kelso: Tom showed up in San Diego with that “Marvel Benefit” book, which was really amazing and everybody was just blown away by it. Most people, especially on the West Coast comics scene, didn’t know who he was or what his deal was. He was just this guy who showed up and he handed these books out for free. And the books were really funny and cool and really well produced. He was kind of the talk of the convention that year in terms of the small press alternative scene. I think he intended to make a splash and he really did make a splash. It would appear to be overreaching and yet somehow it worked and impressed people. I mean, giving it out for free. It wasn’t an expensive book, but it was square-bound and it had a color cover. I just remember he was sort of like Santa Claus walking around with this big bag of comics and giving them out. And Brian was with him. He brought Brian and his brother. They were the new boys in town. I just remember everyone was talking about them.

Devlin: Joe Chiappetta was giving them away from his table sort of secretly and people knew to go over there. Because I didn’t have a table. I went down with my brother and I stayed at a youth hostel with my brother and Brian Ralph. And we just walked around. I’m not even sure, we must have kept the boxes in my brother’s car or something. Then we’d walk over to the convention center – it was a lot smaller then, it wasn’t where you’d have to walk two miles or something. We’d carry a box or two over and just put them behind Joe’s booth. Then we’d get a handful and walk around and give them to people. People loved it. People went crazy for it. I gave a copy to some guys over at the Marvel booth and one of the guys joked, “I’ll give this to our lawyers.” I think my intro was “I did this to help Marvel out in its time of need.” There was a write up in Wired magazine. I’d actually met the journalist in Chicago, maybe the previous summer or something. He was a friend of Jessica Abel’s. She probably pressed it into his hand and said, “Here’s something you can write about.” At the time, being in Wired would be pretty much the coolest pop culture thing you could do. It would be like being in Boing Boing now or something.

Ron Regé: That was the first thing I had published, I’m pretty sure, that wasn’t Xeroxed, that Spider-Man story. I guess that would have been the first thing I did for Tom…Marvel was going out of business. And it was Tom’s joke. So much of it is Tom having wiseass joke ideas about everything. Which is great. I just chose Spider-Man. The funny thing about that story is I just copied it. It’s just verbatim a Spider-Man story. And I didn’t even really do anything. Instead of using the ‘60s language that they used in the story I put in a bunch of swear words and made it sound more contemporary. It’s funny looking back now, that’s the only time I did superheroes and it’s the only time I ever did anything funny. Maybe if I had chosen to do either one of those things, my career would have been a little bit different.

Devlin: After that I decided, well, now I’m a publisher, now I have to plan some projects. I had forged friendships with a bunch of people by then who were working on stuff. And were sort of ready for the next stuff. Ready to do things. It’s not like it was an early time for the graphic novel exactly, but in a way it was. People had been publishing graphic novels. Drawn & Quarterly had already done some. Fantagraphics of course. I had the idea that I would just be a graphic novel publisher. That’s what I was going to do. I was going to make graphic novels and I was going to champion them. Eventually one of them would be a big success. It might not happen right away, but it would be undeniable. I was going to continue to publish these great comics and eventually one of them would catch on and be like the next Maus or something. I did pretty much believe that.

I was definitely working from the classic alternative comics model, which is: this is an interesting artist and I will just trust them to do what they do. And that’s enough. And help them do what they do. And then people will eventually come around and realize that this amazing work is going on. I was pretty intentional about the people I was working with. I did really feel like — which is kind of funny to think about it at the time – that Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly were the establishment in a way. Drawn & Quarterly hadn’t been around that long at that point really. But it had sort of the big successes with Chester and Seth and Joe Matt and Julie Doucet. It was established enough, they had that sort of thing. Fantagraphics, obviously, had been around for a while and was a big deal. I did really believe that these were a bunch of great cartoonists that these publishers are not going to publish. These people do not fit into what they do. If you look at James Kochalka and Brian Ralph and Greg and Ron, and even Megan.

There was a certain cartooniness that was sort of atypical too, in Ron and Greg’s work. That’s where the whole Cute Brut thing came out of too. There was a kind of tweeness to it, which was a movement that I always really liked because it was stripped of macho posturing. Twee comes from music. It was a post punk musical movement that was largely female driven, but guys not being typically punk macho, or rock and roll macho. There was a hint of that in zines, like guys doing personal diaristic zines.

We went down to SPX [Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1997], and I think this must have been the year that I guess I had a Million Year Picnic hotel room, maybe [my boss] Tony [Davis] flew down. Brian slept in the hospitality suite, under the table. So we get down there and settle in and meet everybody and Tim [Kreider] probably knows of a party going on at a nearby college. So he drags Ben [Walker] and Brian out. We’re probably all pretty well drunk by this point as they’re heading off to this. So I said, “Eh, I’m going to stay.” I wasn’t going to try to come back to the hotel too late. They head off. The next day Brian shows up and he’d lost his shoes. And he slept in his car, I’m pretty sure. And he had lost his shoes, which were these white dress shoes.

[Part 2 can be found here.]

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49 Responses to “Right Thing The Wrong Way Pt. 1”
  1. Rob Clough says:

    Oh man, this is great stuff. I look forward to the entry on Friday.

    Who would have guessed that Highwater would have become as big an influence on comics in general (especially the self-publishing minicomics makers) as Fanta or D&Q?

    Coober Skeber 2 is still pretty amazing. Ron is being a little self-deprecating in talking about his Spider-Man story. He did more than just change dialogue–he changed the rhythms of the storytelling and transformed it into a kind of teenage autobio piece. There are many weird stories in that book, like the Spider-Woman comic that gets into the truly arachnid qualities of its heroine and even a Micronauts story.

    One minor correction: SPX ’97 was held in Silver Spring, not Bethesda. It moved to the long-beloved Holiday Inn in Bethesda in 1998.

  2. Box Brown says:

    My copy of Coober Skeber 2 recently fell in my toilet. But it dried out. This comic rocks though. Ron Rege’s Spiderman stands-out.

  3. Tom Devlin says:

    I could be at this forever making corrections but it was Andy Estep and Rob Coggeshall in the van when we picked up COOBER SKEBER, not Mat Brinkman.

  4. Tom Devlin says:

    I don’t recall the mohawk. I’m pretty sure the van either had a magnetic sign or was actually painted on and it said “Fort Thunder Tactical Unit” or something else vaguely militaristic. Paul Lyons may have been in the van too. Oddly enough, the straightest looking one of us caused the border delay.

    {Tim, you don’t have to correct these things. They’re in the print version and they are part of an oral history which brings along its own set of poorly remembered incidents and outright lies.}

  5. brynocki C says:

    Not a mohawk, a pinhead haircut. Van did not say “Fort Thunder”. It had a painting of square waves on the side. Brian(Ralph) lost more than his shoes that night. Paul Lyons was under the van. Tom Devlin with his manhawk was looking out the rear window the whole drive, watching road already passed. I wasn’t there so,

  6. Tom Devlin says:

    Was it just square waves? I coulda swore there was text too.

    {Now that’s oral history!}

    • brynocki C says:

      I wonder if you guys were in the yellow square wave van with the hole in the bottom you could pee out of or Andy’s minivan, which might have a had a magnet/logo on it and was probably full of toys. Or Constance’s light blue camry canoe with wheels that doubled as a large scale boombox/tool shed/spray paint can opener. Brian Ralph’s beer fueled shoe car with giant condom air bags, chewed gum seats and….

  7. whoa man says:

    speaking of oral history, where is the audio of the fort thunder panel at spx?….

  8. Gabe Fowler says:

    This post rules, thanks!

  9. Rob Ullman says:

    1997 was my first SPX, and this book was a highlight. But whoever I got it from charged me ten bucks.

  10. j. czekaj says:

    um, i’m old and have a bad memory. i guess i trust tom, but the important facts are:
    1. SOMEBODY had a mohawk.
    2. the fort thunder van was “suspcicious” at the border.
    3. tom had a harry-darger-influenced spread in coober that would have been trouble had customs seen it.
    4. i apologize to Andy Estep and Rob Coggeshall who, somehow in my memory, were combined and that combination equaled mat brinkman.

  11. Mike Luce says:

    How oblivious some of us were! I remember Tom asking me to do the Iron Man story, and I remember Tom saying he was going to give the copyrights to all the characters to whoever did the stories, and that we didn’t want him to in case there was going to be legal trouble. I remember Tom saying, “OK” and then going ahead and doing it anyway. That’s Tom! Though mine was one of the ‘nobody’ stories, it was not only fun to do but it was my first (and really only) thing in print. I still have the bluelines for this and Tom, they still look fine. Having worked with Tom for a few years, I would never have guessed that he would have such an impact on the indy comics scene overall. Well done, Tom.

  12. My Hulk story from Coober Skeeber… hulk Vs. the rain… ended up being one of the most influential Hulk comics ever. They copied my scene (sort of) in both of the big HULK movies.

  13. Ian Harker says:

    Went to the FT panel at SPX and found Tom Devlin’s personal story particularly inspiring. After reading some of the (delayed) reactions to SPX and the material on display there a question popped into my head. Is history repeating itself? Tom lists the notion that the established art comic publishers of the time (D&Q, Fanta) weren’t going to touch these young exciting artists so he started Highwater. Out of all the mid-level to larger art comics publishers (D&Q, Fanta, PBox, Sparkplug, Secret Acres, Adhouse) the only one who seems to be publishing young guys is Secret Acres. Everyone else seems to be publishing guys who are my age or older.

    • anne says:

      i don’t think Tom’s publishing agenda has as much to do with “age” as it does with the type of work being published. pbox has by far printed more “out there” books than these other publishers.
      secret acres may publish people who are physically younger (maybe some people who are too young and shouldn’t be published yet), but their books tend to have more mainstream appeal.
      of all these publishers pbox has most closely picked up where highwater left off, in terms of publishing things that would by no other means be published.

    • cbren says:

      “guys”? maybe there is the problem…

  14. Robert Boyd says:

    James, that Hulk story wasn’t merely one of the most influential Hulk stories ever–it was, quite simply, the most important piece of comics art ever created. And that’s saying a lot, seeing how it was in an anthology where every story was a masterpiece and every cartoonist a total GENIUS. It’s been all kind of downhill for comics ever since.

  15. Ian Harker says:

    Anne: In one sense youth/age is an arbitrary factor, but in another sense it does represent the majority of new contributors to the comics landscape. This new generation in particular is unique in that they are coming up through art school post-Highwater, post-Fort Thunder, post-Kramers, etc. In many ways there are more art comics artists than ever before. They may not measure up to the originals on the terms that first generation established, but isn’t this ultimately why the Highwater artists were overlooked by Fanta/D&Q in the late 90’s? Because they didn’t measure up to the aesthetic or format/economic standards of the established publishers? They weren’t “ready” yet?

    Dan & Tom have done a hell of a lot for that first generation of art comics artists, no doubt. Don’t take it as a criticism. Pbox is by far my favorite publisher and it’s all due to Dan’s vision. I’m certainly not young by artists standards myself, i’m part of the same generation I’m raising this question about.

    cbren: By “guys” I generally just mean’t “folks”. There are some great young female cartoonists right now. ahem ahem http://secretprisoncomics.blogspot.com/2010/09/issue-3-featured-artist-aidan-koch.html

    • cbren says:

      ian: i know that there are some great young female cartoonists right now, but i also know that there are sexist attitudes in the way people talk about comics that tend to make female artists invisible

  16. Rob Clough says:


    I think you’re way off in claiming that Sparkplug doesn’t publish young artists. How young is “young”? Thirty? Twenty-five? There are any number of cartoonists that age being published by Sparkplug.

    I might add that Fanta has stepped in recent years in publishing young cartoonists, both in the pages of Mome and folks like Dash Shaw (not yet 30), Drew Weing,Lilli Carre’, etc. I really don’t think this argument holds water anymore.

    Also, anyone who thinks that Secret Acres is publishing “mainstream” stuff has clearly never read the work of Eamon Espey or John Brodowski.

  17. Ian Harker says:

    Young = Anyone who graduated art school after NINJA was released.

  18. This thread makes me feel really really old! All I remember about SPX 97 was Brian Ralph throwing up on his shoes and drinking 2 million beers in whoever had the swanky suite that year

  19. Robert Boyd says:

    A small group of us (various comics powerbrokers who were little know at the time) got together at SPX 97, noticed we were all getting old (in our mid to late 30s), and decided that as far as new comics artists went, Brian Ralph would be the cutoff. No one younger than Brian would be allowed to be published. It’s been hard enforcing this agreement, and we have had a few notable breaches. But as all of us who sat in that hotel room approach 50, we can look back with some satisfaction on our success in keeping out the youngs.

  20. dan nadel says:

    The scary thing is that I still feel like I’m publishing young artists. When did over-30 get “old”? I’m 34! We were all much younger once. Why, I remember when Chippendale didn’t even have a phone and CF couldn’t grow a beard! Tom even used to not have any gray. Help. Sigh. What can I say? I would if I could but I can’t? Too much on my plate? Etc. There’s no real answer. I think that Secret Acres, Sparkplug, and now Gaze are doing just fine, not to mention FB and D&Q both publish plenty of 20-somethings hungry to cut their teeth in the funnybook biz. Anyhow, Ian, I take your point, and thank you for the very nice boost, but I do think there are more publishers than ever taking risks on very young talent.

  21. Wait. Ian, name names. Who are the young guys who aren’t getting published? Or do you mean published by “established” publishers? You and your crew? Who are you talking about? I gotta hear this.

    • Ian Harker says:

      Well, out of the younger art comics artists I pay attention to I would say they break into two camps. The ones that have a more direct aesthetic lineage to the Fort Thunder artists (Freibert, Zachilli, De Forge, etc), and the ones that are working on semi-abstract/poetic stuff (Larmee, Koch, Massano, etc.) The first group seem like Picturebox farm-team artists waiting for their call up, but i’m not sure if the second group fit into the milieu of any established publisher. Maybe Gaze Books will cover this territory, but their first book isn’t dropping until later this month. Maybe it’s not a style of comics that will ever really catch on like Fort Thunder did. I’m not sure I know what to make of it yet.

      • inkstuds says:

        Deforge has a great publisher. You seem to ignore Canadian publishers like Koyama and Conundrum.

        • Yah and Larmee and Koch both have a publisher – so you’re talking like five people or something who are all well known on the circuit. Very different situation from late 90s.

          • Ian Harker says:

            There’s tons of young artists out there, I just named a couple of the best ones imo. The point of my question was that I really don’t know either whether or not history is repeating itself. I don’t really understand young people with their silly bands and tumblrs, I just want them off my lawn. I think we’re all a little confused about where art comics are going. Maybe they’re done, maybe they will mutate in a revolutionary way, maybe they’ll just carry on.

  22. Marc Bell says:

    For certain Highwater filled a gap. I was helping around Black Eye a little in the 90’s, you know, photocopying Tom Hart originals (making “ash cans”??) and doing a few other things and Michel asked me who I should publish and, well, of course I wanted to say “me” but in my heart I knew my work was still a little rough. So, I showed him Rege’s Dum Dum Posse Reader. A pretty well formed piece of work in my mind. But, it wasn’t for him, it didn’t fit……when Highwater popped up it made perfect sense.

  23. alixopulos says:

    I know 5 years ago is like an eternity in todays fast paced high stakes publishing game, but it bears mentioning that Tim G published Dash Shaw and Matt Furie, both young guys at the time, through Teenage Dinosaur, post-Highwater. It seems to me there’s been a relatively constant string of small press “on deck” spots since HW’s official demise.

    • zack soto says:

      Yeah Tim Goodyear/Teenage Dinosaur don’t get enough props for publishing (if I’m not mistaken) the first Dash Shaw and Matt Furie books (GODDESS HEAD and BOYS CLUB 1). He’s still got a lot of good stuff trickling out too. The fact that he’s continuously publishing new Bobby Madness comics automatically means he’s working the side of the angels.

      • ned says:

        is there some teenage dinosaur website, some online catalogue for their books? i’m interested, but can only seem to find a myspace account for tim goodyear.

  24. Joe Fixit says:

    Let’s not undersell the historic impact of Kochalka’s Hulk story. It came out in July 1997. In August, the Northern Ireland peace talks began. Then Diana of Wales died. She was the People’s Princess, you know. Also, the NASA Pathfinder reached Mars, leading to discoveries about the nature of existence in our galaxy. None of this would have been possible without Kochalka’s influential and transcendent pivot in the course of human culture.

  25. Kevin Czap says:

    The young artists who know how to hustle and are good enough will get published. There are plenty of folks I know my age (25) and younger who are getting out there. For anyone who isn’t being carried by a bigger publisher, I mean, if it’s really in them to be as good as they think they are, they’ll put out their own books.

    It’s kind of weird to speculate over where things are going. Obviously we’re all curious, but it’s a tall order to try and spot all the patterns when we can’t see the whole playing field until after the fact. All you can do is keep your eyes open.

  26. Rob Clough says:

    Sparkplug publishes Andrew “Sausage Hand” Smith, who is younger than Blaise. It’s also published Austin English and Juliacks, who are about the same age as Blaise. That’s just off the top of my head. What Ian really means is “There are a few young people I like who don’t have an American publisher. Therefore, almost no American publishers release the work of young people.”

  27. Robert Boyd says:

    It’s always important to have new publishers, just like it is always important to have new art galleries. Let’s say a publisher–“X Graphics”–started publishing in 1990. It had a certain style and approach, and attracted artists who felt comfortable with that style and approach. At a certain point, X Graphics had a stable of 10 artists who each published a new book every year. Now 2000 rolls around. X Graphics is not really seen as breaking new ground, but is highly respected for publishing the work of its 10 artists. Maybe one of the 10 jumps ship to Pantheon for more money. Another couple stop doing comics or slow down their output considerably because it doesn’t pay well and they end up having to do some other, better-paying job. So X Graphics may have to add 3 new artists to keep its roster full. (Let’s further assume that for financial or operational reasons, X Graphics cannot easily expand its stable beyond 10.)

    This is where a new publisher is so important. X Graphics simply can’t absorb a lot of new talent, no matter how much they may want to. So what needs to happen is for a new publisher, Y Graphix, to enter the scene and quickly snatch up the new young talent.

    You might think this scenario is kind of far-fetched. But that’s how it was when I was at Fantagraphics in the early 90s. We had a great bunch of heavy hitting cartoonists (Woodring, Clowes, the Hernandezes, Bagge, etc.). We couldn’t easily expand–hell, we could barely survive. I was the submissions editor and I got cool promising stuff all the time, much of it in the form of minicomics. Some of it was stuff that might have been on the edge of Kim and Gary’s ever-evolving tastes, but that was irrelevant. We just weren’t in the position to publish everything we liked. It was my frustration with this situation that led me start writing “Minimalism.”

    So if an established publisher seems slow to pick up on work by young new creators, it may certainly be because that publisher has tastes frozen in time and can’t see the value of the new stuff, but I think it is more likely that taking on a new cartoonist is difficult for publishers that already have “full” stables. And I can see how frustrating this might be for a young cartoonist trying to get her foot in the door.

  28. Chris Pitzer says:

    I’ve done a search for Gaze, and must admit I’m clueless. Anyone have a link?

  29. Whoa–Rob Clough Housing Things!

  30. […] other day we linked you to the saga of Coober Skeber 2, the Marvel-spoofing, copyright-defying anthology put together by influential alternative comics […]

  31. Robert, Joe…

    Finally somebody understands the magnitude of what I was trying to do. Thank you.

  32. […] 24. And you’re invited to a closing party there from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23. They’re talking about it in New York. Out in Seattle, they’re calling it “a can’t miss […]

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