In our Indie Publisher series we’ve heard from exciting UK companies who’ve started up on the back of a fag packet. But how is it for new comic publishers across the pond?
To find out we went straight to Uncivilized Books, a publisher out of Minneapolis with a growing reputation for putting out grass routes talent. Founder Tom Kaczynski talked us through what it’s taken to get Uncivilized off the ground, and why it’s crucial for them to stay independent…
Could you introduce Uncivilized Books to people?
Uncivilized Books started about six years ago as a mini-comics publisher. About two years ago we took a leap into the book world with our first Graphic Novel, The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell – followed up with books by James Romberger, David B, Sam Alden, Jon Lewis, Sophie Yanow, and more.
I see comics as more than simply a medium; it’s a way to see the world. There’s something specific about thinking with both words and pictures that can lead to interesting new insights. We’re one of the few small comics companies that actively publish translated work and also started Critical Cartoons, a series of critical books on comics.
Why did you start Uncivilized? Did you have experience as a publisher?
Comics and publishing were always intertwined in my practice as an artist. One of the first comics I drew as a child even had a cover, a price, a logo and indicia! Since comics started to be a bigger part of the broader book world over a decade ago, I wondered why there weren’t more little comic publishers with ‘book-world’ distribution.
In the end I decided to start one. I should add that working with Gabrielle Bell was a key to that decision. Without her amazing work it would’ve been a lot harder to kick something like this off.
Independence is a tricky concept. We’re still dependent when it comes to a lot of factors. We’re not owned by a large corporate entity, but we depend on giant corporations to gain wide distribution, to make the work available online, etc. So a lot of your choices are limited from the start by our financial situation, the marketplace, and culturally ingrained ideas of what comics are and how they’re supposed to work.
A lot of those limitations don’t really function on an everyday conscious level. I choose to think of them as constraints, exactly in the way constraints function in art. Your choices are limited, but they also serve to open work-arounds. In that sense, we’re independent.
Were you worried about starting out as an independent?
Sure. It’d be crazy not too worry. On top of everything else, the book world is undergoing a seismic shift. The transition to digital media is the top line story that has dominated the industry for close to a decade now. This has caused a lot of turmoil, but also a lot of opportunity. The big publishers are abandoning large segments of the market because they view them as unprofitable.
But for a smaller, more nimble, publisher, that’s an opportunity. We try to navigate the turbulent market as best we can, and our little size makes that lot easier. We can shift strategies and directions very quickly.
What did you want to achieve?
The main goal is to create a new viable publishing entity that can support interesting work with cultural significance and moves the art form forward. In that sense, we were inspired by Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly.
Both of these storied publishers have grown huge by indie comics standards, but even they can’t keep up with the quality and quantity of comics that are out there. This is especially true of translated work. There’s just so much great work that remains hidden from anglophone readers. The fact that we were able to publish amazing work by people like David B. or Joann Sfar is crazy.
Many smaller or independent publishers are characterised by the artists they publish. How did you go about picking your roster of talent?
I have to like the work of the artists I publish. We’ve been lucky to be able to work with established, top-level cartoonists like Gabrielle Bell, David B. and Joann Sfar. At the same time we we’re always looking for new talent we can nurture.
Last year we published Over the Wall by Peter Wartman. The book sold out, and we’re now preparing a re-issue and a sequel. We’re especially proud of books by Sophie Yanow and Sam Alden. Both of them have been bubbling up through the mini comics world and are on the cusp of truly great work.
There’s more good talent than ever and that’s very important to keep the industry viable and vibrant into the future. More and more, readers are seeing comics as a normal complementary part of their reading experience. Comics are a lot less likely to be dismissed as nerd fodder… though part of that is due to the overall rise of nerd culture to its current dominance.
Sometimes that leads to a kind of reverse snobbery. As someone who feels equally at home reading Jack Kirby’s pop creations and the literary comics of David B, I wish there was more overlap. That is especially true of comic stores. So many of them want to turn into pop culture emporiums, at the expense of the works that are part of the current graphic novel renaissance.
Press could always be better and the quality of writing about comics could use a boost. That’s one reason we’ve launched the Critical Cartoons series. We’re hoping it in some small way inspires more writers to up their game.
And what’s next for Uncivilized?
We’re about to release An Iranian Metamorphosis by Mana Neyestani, an important work from an Iranian cartoonist whose work became enmeshed in a Kafkaesque series of events that led to riots and imprisonment.
It’s a great story that shines a light on an important region in current world affairs. What’s even cooler is that cartooning itself is central to the story and becomes a focus of so much political, legal and ethnic scrutiny. Also on deck is Pascin by Joann Sfar, which is probably his most important and personal work, and we’re about to announce the sequel to Incidents in the Night by David B. along with more work from Jon Lewis, Derek Van Gieson, and more volumes of Critical Cartoons.