Indie Comics’ Cutting Edge — Speaking with Comics Workbook

Independent comics undoubtedly has dozens of so-called ‘cutting edges,’ but most everyone in the community can agree: Comics Workbook is a fine curated-comics Tumblr, and the Comics Workbook magazine is a must-read. Today we’re talking rising stars, the necessity of comics courses, and more with Zach Mason and Andrew White, editors of the magazine.

For our readers less familiar with your work, can you give us a brief introduction as to your vision of Comics Workbook, where you think it succeeds, and where you’d like to take it in the future?

Zach Mason and Andrew White: Comics Workbook is “an online magazine for comic book makers” edited by Frank Santoro. It features original short comics and writing by a wide range of contributors. It also curates content from other Tumblrs, aiming to expose readers to a variety of exciting approaches to and views on comics.

Comics Workbook Magazine is a bi-monthly print magazine edited by us, Zach Mason and Andrew White, with occasional input from Frank. The magazine and the Tumblr have many goals and aesthetic values in common, and share a few contributors, but they are editorially administered as separate entities. The magazine focuses mostly on long form writing though we do publish comics sometimes as well.

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What first struck me about the Comics Workbook magazine is this thought: Christ, these guys are ridiculously well-read. Can you tell me how you got to where you are in terms of being aware of the history of comics, where it’s been, and where it’s going? What first turned you onto the medium, what were some works that made you say “I need and want to go deeper?”

Zach Mason: For me, there was a pretty long gap between being a little kid who bought comics off a spinner rack at the drugstore and when I found zines and independent comics in my teens. I felt like I turned a corner when I read James Kochalka’s first collection of his Sketchbook Diaries. This may sound weird, but reading that was like hearing Joy Division for the first time. It was completely new and exciting, in and of itself, but it was also a dot connected to other dots that I feel like I’m still connecting.

Getting into obscure music taught me how to connect dots like, “This band is great, but I have all their records, now. Who produced them? What labels were they on? Did any of the members make solo albums?” Sketchbook Diaries was put out by Top Shelf. That meant a whole list of other artists’ work to explore. Kochalka appeared in that DC anthology Bizarro, which was my first exposure to Tony Millionaire, whose work pointed me to Fantagraphics, where I got my mind blown by Jaime Hernandez… it never ends. Also, I absolutely could not have started on this path without a well-stocked, local comic book shop and its knowledgable staff.

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Andrew White: For the magazine, we actively focus on contemporary work that we feel is undercovered. We’ve had very few historical pieces, because we feel that other venues do a good job of covering comics history. However, many of our contributors and subjects are featured very minimally or not at all in any other print or online publications, despite the clear quality of their work. There’s just so much out there now and many younger contemporary cartoonists aren’t getting anywhere near the attention they deserve.

My personal feeling is that history is important but it is sometimes placed on too much of a pedestal within comics circles – or at least the established canon of comics history is. I sometimes feel handicapped by my own knowledge of comics and comics history, which isn’t even that deep. Of course there are advantages to having that knowledge, which I value, but sometimes I think it also keeps me from thinking as creatively as I otherwise might about my own approach to comics. I’m sort of jealous of those creators who might not have grow up with comics or feel less tied to comics history. This makes for a range of approaches and capacity for experimentation that is extremely valuable.

I can completely understand that viewpoint; just talking mainstream comics, I feel like EVERYTHING is hooked up to the past–every time a new Marvel movie comes out, the headlines are: ‘what past issues should you read? where can I get information so I can enjoy this new incarnation of a character that’s been around for decades?’ So I can appreciate your valuing of independent comics’ individuality of moment. Is there a particular rut you had in mind, a certain tendency or theme that you feel is an umbilical to the past that sorely needs cutting?

Andrew White: Comics maintains a forceful and recursive grip on aspects of its own history. The cartoonists who have come before us should be studied, understood, and appreciated but not necessarily venerated. Some cartoonists are actively hostile towards work that doesn’t look like how comics are ‘supposed’ to look. Maybe these are just the growing pains of a still relatively new medium.

Can you talk a little about what you guys are currently reading, or have currently read? What works are on your minds nowadays?

Zach Mason: I just read a stack of comics by Laila Milevski and would highly recommend her work, especially Drawing Antonioni. Vanessa Davis is a huge influence on my personal work, at the moment, and Make Me a Woman is like a masterclass on watercolors that I go back to all the time. Evie Cahir is amazing. A. Degen’s Junior Detective Files is one of my favorite comics of the year. Sophie McMahan’s You Were Swell #2. Jen Rickert! Jen’s someone who consistently blows me away with her artistry and insight. Cherchez la Femme and The Wild Turkey are essential. M. R. Trower is doing an excellent series called REM and serializing it on Tumblr.

At the 2014 Small Press Expo (SPX), Andrew was kind enough to walk me through the work at the Frémok table, so I’m fixated on Dominique Goblet and Yvan Alagbé, at the moment. Watching them draw was one of the highlights of SPX, for me. I also just discovered Chantal Montellier. Time to learn French, I guess.

Finally, even if he wasn’t my Comics Workbook Magazine coworker, I’d be giving Andrew White’s My Name is Martin Shears a shout out; maybe my favorite comic he’s done, so far.

Andrew White: Zach is too kind. Just a few of the cartoonists I’m excited about lately: Dominique Goblet, Mari Okazaki, Erin Curry, Aidan Koch, Alyssa Berg, Fabrice Neaud, Katie Parrish…many others. I’m also in the process of rereading all of the comics in my collection – it’s a slow process, but like many comics obsessives I spend too much time buying new books instead of enjoying the books I already have.

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Where do you think the rawest cutting edge of the medium can be found? Would you look to the zines, the guided view digitals, the Tumblr cartoonists—where is your eye currently focused, in terms of finding exciting new concepts in sequential art?

Zach Mason: If someone wants to find exciting new work, I’d suggest these anthology series: Happiness Comix (edited by Leah Wishnia), Felony Comics and Jeans (edited by Harris Smith), and š! (edited by Sanita Muižniece and David Schilter). Full disclosure: I have a comic in Jeans 3, but I would have recommended these same series a year ago. Tumblr’s another excellent resource. Everyone should be following Pete Toms, The Ladydrawers, GW Duncanson, Claire Donner, Anthony Meloro, Inés Estrada, and Zach Hazard Vaupen. Their work is consistently exciting and they’re good at linking to other artists.

Andrew White: I’m excited by just how many people are doing unique, interesting comics right now. I most often find new work online, largely through Tumblr, following links, etc. I love the way it feels to discover a great cartoonist for the first time and scroll through months and years of their work. I think it’s important as an editor for me to pursue the impossible task of keeping tabs on what is out there, given our focus on undercovered work.

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On a related note, what are some substantial shifts you’ve seen in the medium recently, whether in terms of subject matter, recurring themes, or narrative/artistic style? If you had to put any kind of marker, or point to any salient feature, what is contemporary sequential art is most preoccupied with?

Zach Mason: I really feel like we’re seeing some substantive cracks in the dam that has kept people of color, gay people, trans people, disabled people, and other marginalized people out of comics. It’s not where it needs to be, by any measure, but it feels like things are slowly moving in the right direction.

Obviously, tools like Tumblr and Twitter make it a lot easier to find readers and artists with compatible interests. If anything, I would say that, right now, my favorite thing is how diverse–thematically–everyone’s work is. Each of the artists I’ve already named (and dozens I haven’t) are working across multiple genres and mediums, alone and in groups. It’s an inspiring time to be making comics and illustrations.

Andrew White: I strongly agree with Zach’s first point. Issues of privilege, prejudice, creating safe spaces online and offline, etc. have become a bigger part of the conversation within North American art comics over the past few years. These conversations have certainly had a positive impact on my own thinking and I really appreciate the many cartoonists who are vocal and articulate on these topics.

Another trend, which is definitely tied into my own interests as a creator, is that I’m very excited by the people who are exploring the intersection between narrative and abstract, poetic, or non-narrative approaches to comics. This isn’t necessarily something new, but it’s an approach that seems to have reached more of a critical mass lately while still being very much in its early stages compared to strictly narrative approaches. That’s exciting.

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Basically, every list of online comics courses worth a damn has some mention of Frank Santoros’ course: as graduates, can you tell us a bit about it? What kind of instruction were you given, and what can you tell aspiring creators about the necessity of taking similar courses? Are there techniques or concepts that you feel every comics creator should be aware of?

Andrew White: Frank’s course is an eight week program in which students work towards completing a 14 page comic. I learned to be more purposeful about rhythm, structure, and timing from the class. I learned to actively question my own process. Frank’s strong willingness to work with each student one-on-one is a big advantage. I would never describe any kind of formal comics education as a necessity. Paying money to learn how to do something on which you most likely will never make significant money is definitely not for everyone, though another advantage of programs like Frank’s course and the Sequential Artists Workshop in Florida is that they work to be affordable.

Would you like to tell us about the newest issue of Comics Workbook? What can we look forward to before the November debut?

Zach Mason and Andrew White: We’re very excited about the new issue. The cover feature is a conversation between Jason Murphy and Patrick Kyle – both this conversation and a similar conversation between Mia Schwartz and Ben Urkowitz in #5 were very successful. We’re looking forward to curating more pieces along these lines in the future. You can see the full lineup for the upcoming issue six here.

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For me personally, the Comics Workbook Tumblr is a reminder of just how vast and inexhaustible comics are as an art form, and I’m sure a simple browse through your site has given many an artist to pick up the Micron pen once again—is there/are there any particular criteria you’re looking for when you’re considering featuring a comic on your site?

Zach Mason and Andrew White: The content on the Tumblr is curated exclusively by Frank, but you see a lot of voices represented there. It’s a diverse group of people with the ability to post original work or reblog work they want to showcase. We hope that unique combination of voices continues to inspire folks to make comics; that’s the highest compliment.

For Comics Workbook Magazine we’re always, always looking for new contributors! We’re focused mostly on writing for the time being, but we’d love to talk to anyone with an interest in contributing, even if they’ve never written about comics before. You can read our submissions guidelines here.

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