high-functioning fuckup

LA MANO HISTORY, part 2

if we ended up last time with the how and why i started La Mano, this part would probably consist of “ok, then what?”.

and what happened then was i left california; i had a great job at a silkscreen shop, but i was quickly developing a nasty case of carpal tunnel, and my relationship had horrifically imploded: i found myself living in a warehouse in Jack London square, totally cut off from everyone and everything (except some rave kid named Froggy who soon showed up threatening the landlord with a gun). it was bad times.

so i left, and, through a pretty circuitous route, joined a band called Low, which is largely what my life revolved around for the following 12 years. recording, touring, etc. if i claimed before that…this whole world of comics and music was my WHOLE world, and the one i lived in, joining Low was doubling down on that idea (even if i didn’t know it at the time).

i’m not going to go on at too great of length about that stretch of time, because i did exactly that in all the “liner notes” for Like a Dog, a book collecting Recidivist #1, 2, and a lot of other assorted work from that time period. Fantagraphics graciously agreed to release that collection, and despite the fact that it tanked sales-wise (and elicited some real strong negative critical reactions…like the book was a personal insult to certain folks. and also, Nick Gazin from Vice, both of which entities can go fuck themselves six ways from sunday anyways…), i’m still really proud of that book.

so if you wanna read all that stuff, get it from the library or Fantagraphics (or send me $10 and i’ll send you a copy of that book).

but, i’m getting ahead of myself. the point here is, La Mano kept being a thing. Mr. Mike was always less, uh…comics-focussed than me, having healthy interests in other things too, like any sane individual (not that he IS; sane, i mean. have you seen this? or THIS? i told you he was stupid genius). i released 2 issues of Recidivist while i was in Low: completed one of them while crashing in the west coast, and another in Duluth (and Olympia, WA, and while on various tours). i was too self conscious to sell the books from stage at Low shows; and i also had a real hang-up about keeping that part of my life separate from Low; Low was a very austere…thing. at its best, the band had a real deep and specific effect on people. i didn’t take it lightly. my comics were not minimal or elegant or pretty (which is how a lot of people described Low); they were the opposite of that. my bandmates were also a devout Mormon couple– i mean, not hardliners or judgemental in a lot of ways, but…there was a worldview there, and i respected how they came at that. their lives had a code and a framework, mine was a desperate mess.

somewhere in there, and i can’t pinpoint it exactly, that little part of me left over from being a teenager needing some kind of “validation”, that slowly whittled away and became something else; something better. again, with the honesty part– i know even as late as the first Recidivist, i thought to myself, on some embarrassing level…someone will want to take this over from me; i won’t “have to” do this myself anymore.

it really turned into– “i want to do this. i love this”.

i love taking full responsibility for what this thing is, and how it made its way into the world; the good parts of it and the difficult parts, as well. i’m not passing off the pieces i don’t like to someone else: if this thing doesn’t get done, and done just the way i want it to be, then it’s on me.

but there’s also the part of it that’s– FIGURING IT OUT. everyone knows what a book looks like, or a comic, or a magazine. this is how it works, what it does, what it looks like. if you want to do that, there’s a template for you that’s ready to go– one that you’ve seen thousands of times. but, if with every new project, you’re starting from scratch with a different set of limitations and expectations, that’s when the fun starts to happen. not being able to afford to send it to the printer (or not feeling like the thing demands a “print run” that would necessitate that expense) opens up a whole different set of constraints. what about this cheap paper i scored from a warehouse sale 2 years ago? can i use that? and what size does that make the book? and can you use raw cardboard for the cover? because i know where to get that stuff. and what am i gonna do about binding? etc etc. all of a sudden the whole process gets creative, beyond creating the work that goes INSIDE, and you get invested in that element– and if you’re really thinking hard about that stuff, it starts to inform the work itself and vice versa.

this was a great part of making a ‘zine– what can i do with this? how should it look, and feel? it’s NOT a comic book, or a book, or a magazine, it’s something else, right off the bat. so what should it be? i’d become really in love with that whole thing, but i’d also started thinking– what if you applied that same thing to “regular” books?

and around that time, i heard of someone selling a printing press for $250. and my first thought was– well, you can learn this. my old pal clint had been in the printing industry since he got out of high school, working on machines just like this, and said “sure. you can figure it out”. and for $250, why not? it seemed like a real interesting and natural step from self-publishing zines: in fact, it’d be exactly like that process, but landing somewhere in between the 2. i figured: if i can teach myself to do this, i’ll save enormous amounts in printing costs, so why not try to do more “normal” books, that’ll undoubtedly feel more like zines because, essentially, it’ll still be this hands-on process, where you’re 100% involved. it’ll be a hybrid of a book and a zine and…man, that idea turned my crank to no end. still does. so i bought it– an AB Dick 360, and named her Maisie (after John P’s cat).

maisie_web

and, i’d been slowly compiling this list of books in my head that i WISHED existed, but didn’t. i can’t find it right now, though.

and it just so happened, everything changed right around then: under some pretty difficult circumstances, i had to leave Low. and at the exact moment that had to happen, i had just bought a house, got married, and was expecting my first child. so, the way i had earned a living for the previous decade, that was done. and that– being in a band– was all i had done for my adult life up to that point; that and comics. i didn’t go to college. the only thing i knew how to do was make art and music; i’d assumed from a pretty early age that that meant i was fucked in terms of making a living, in general. Low was a strange and surprising fluke in that regard. i joined Low because they were my friends, the music was really good, and…i was 22, who WOULDN’T? it wasn’t crazy money, but by the end we were doing pretty good, and my lifestyle (didn’t live anywhere, or spend money) meant i had socked away a nice chunk by the time i left.

anyway, i was facing down some real adult-type stuff. the timing was for shit. but i thought, well– this is it, end of excuses: do this for real. you made a living with music (starting at an age where longevity was the furthest thing from my mind) against most odds; this has always been what you said you wanted to do, so here we are and here it is. put up or shut up.

i thought– i’ll do La Mano. in between that and my own comics (and whatever else here and there), i can build something sustainable. not HUGE, just sustainable. that was my goal, right from the outset– it won’t be a big thing now, when i’m starting it, but if i keep putting out good stuff (ok, GREAT stuff), if i keep working and stay honest about it…it might work. and i was never talking SUCCESS, in the ways people think of it. i used to think– hell, if i can just build an audience of 4-5000 people, worldwide, who will buy something from me once a year, ill be ok. and considering i was coming off a stint in Low where we sold about 60,000 copies of a new record worldwide (i know. remember, this was pre-interweb), that didn’t seem like crazy, pie in the sky numbers.

as i said in part 1: ho ho ho.

i really thought, though, that i was doing 2 things: 1) trying to see what it was like to be a “real” publisher and maybe try to make some kind of meager living at it and 2) to see what happened, because it sounded pretty wonderful, as an idea.

i just thought: there’s a thing not being explored, here, and it’s really, really interesting to me: so let’s go.

LM001: DIARY OF A MOSQUITO ABATEMENT MAN

i’d always known DIARY would be the first La Mano book. i swung it past John p, and he seemed game, so off we went.

at that time, there were far, FAR less “boutique” publishers than there are now– and also, there was more of a division between “Comics” and “zines”: they were related and there was crossover, but, for instance, John was  ”zine” guy: the normal comics world generally did not give a hoot about John’s work– in fact, some circles were downright antagonistic regarding his work, and what it did: it wasn’t even “indie comics”, like Hate or Eightball. it was just an anomaly, and paradoxically, was in a lot of ways more approachable for “normal” people that it was for the die-hard “comics” person. and at the time there had only been one “non-zine” collection of John’s stuff (Perfect Example, from the now defunct Highwater Books, since reprinted by Drawn and Quarterly). i thought it was high time for a collection of some King-Cat in a different light.

John is one of my closest friends, and has been for a long, long time now. sometimes with a friend that close it’s hard to pull back and be objective about the influence that person has had on your life. i’m glad i’m writing this, as it gives me an opportunity to do that: and John p and King-Cat (and his AMAZING book/ zine distro, Spit and a Half) had a HUGE part in changing the way i think about all of this. for those of you who don’t know (probably very few, if you are reading this), John’s been doing a zine called King-Cat since 1988; he’s just put out the 74th issue. it has always been a black and white zine, standard size. but in every sense, John, and his attitude toward what he does, has been an inspiration– both to me and many, many others.

i’m not real big on didactic, “confrontational” art, but john’s stuff always has been, in an almost invisible way– like he’s saying “this is what it is”. minimal, sometimes brutally “mundane”, it’s just about what life is made of: not framing or manipulating the facets of your life your in an attempt to make “a good story”, or tweaking it to make it more dramatic and palatable. it just is what it is, period. it took me a while to even understand what he was doing, with King-Cat: i’d never seen anything like it in comics, or anywhere else, really. and i’ll stand by that, after 25 years of reading john’s work. there is nothing like it. it’s about as punk as you get, in its own quiet, understated way: this is my life, warts and all — john’s not going to apologize or compromise what he wants to do. it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. you can love Fleetwood Mac and Flipper equally, and anyone who says that’s not ok, or uncool, or whatever can go elsewhere. you just are who you are, and the only thing that counts is that you own it; whether or not someone thinks your stuff is “good” or “publishable” (which, in almost all cases, is less about whether the item in question is “good” than whether it will be able to sell and turn a profit. these things are not the same.) might be interesting and nice, but what it comes down to is: if you think it’s got worth, and you can do the work, and get behind it, none of that other junk matters. not really.

so, the earlier mention of “slowly changing my mind about wanting/ needing to get published ‘for real’ “. well, a lot of that solidifying for me came from my friendship with John Porcellino.

it took me a long time to do that. longer than most. but i think a lot of that was john, and King-Cat.

again– i could write a novel, just about my pal Johnny. hopefully someone will, soon. i love him dearly.

but he did that book with me, bless his heart. and it’s a great book (it won the “best comic collection” [or something that sounds like that] Ignatz that year, for what it’s worth).

ironically, this book would’ve been a shoe-in for printing on Maisie, but i’d started to discover that my learning curve of being a printer was steeper than i’d hoped. i just didn’t feel confident enough to print it myself, so this is the ONLY La Mano book that was done entirely out-of-shop (it was even [very nicely] designed by an outside source, Tom Devlin).

IMG_1120

like i said: ironic.

LM002: RECIDIVIST (volume 3)

i’m a lot better at writing about other people’s stuff than i am my own. i think reading this book is still a pretty harrowing experience; making it certainly was. in a nutshell, i realized that…the kind of comics i was making were making me really unhappy. i didn’t know what to do about it. but i knew i had to figure out a way to change my relationship to this thing i claimed i loved, because it was a BAD relationship. so as the work developed, i realized that this…this was my kiss-off: i didn’t know what came next, but i wasn’t doing THIS anymore. and that’s really what the book is about.

originally, i wanted to package it with a cd– a “soundtrack” for the book of some kind. probably some sort of noise/drone thing that lasted for roughly the time it’d take someone to read the book, and relate to the stories. mood music. hence the square format of the book. but pretty early into “Animal Vomit” i realized that, shrunk down to cd size, it’d be totally unreadable. smaller type than chris ware tiny. and, considering i was 1/2 way through the book when it dawned on me, there was no changing that part of it– hence the square book.

this was the second book i’d planned to print on my own press, but as the art developed, it became clear that there was no way in hell the 360 could handle what the book needed, printing-wise: there was too much heavy black coverage, with too much detail. it would’ve been a nightmare, and still looked shitty. so, i farmed out the guts, but still did the covers on Maisie. and they looked pretty good: it was (and is) a snappy looking book.

IMG_1121

it’s funny, because i sent the first 2 releases to R. Crumb, and got a pretty amazing (hand lettered!) note back from him: said he liked the John P book (but preferred John’s earlier, less refined art style), and even though mine had “obviously” much more in the way of design and drawing technique, it just turned him off. it was actually a great postcard: real honest, but not mean or anything.

but i remember thinking– “design chops? what?!? it looks like that ’cause all i could afford was black and white for the cover, and all i could think of was that one image, so i figured i’d throw in the textured paper thing so it wasn’t the most boring cover of all time!! i’ve never had any design training in my life!!!”.

but… i look at that book like– a girlfriend  you’d had a bad relationship with, for a long time. you loved them, but it just was no good, and it ripped your heart out. but when you finally ended it, you knew it was the right thing to do, because you looked it all the way in the eye and didn’t blink. and when it was all over, it was done, and nothing you want to go back to. i view it as something i needed to do, and am proud of what i did, but am not going to look at any time soon.

recently i HAD to go back into it, a bit, and thought– well my goodness gracious: some of this is really fucking good.

the strange thing about it was, i was far from sure that it’d work– that i could really put some of that stuff behind me, and move on. both personally and as a cartoonist. but lo and behold, when i finished it, it was literally like a weight had been lifted. like i’d done my due diligence, and put to bed a certain…thing that i no longer had the tolerance for. and for the first time, it worked. pretty strange.

got nominated for a couple of “Eisner” awards, which is odd.

even stranger though, is that after saying “that is DONE. you don’t ever have to do those kind of comics again” here we are, 8 years after it came out (meaning 12 years after i started making it…), i’m doing a new Recidivist. because i WANT to, and for no other reason than that. as of this writing, i sort of stalled out at the halfway point, but the next big push is imminent, so i’ll be putting it out in 2014. it’ll look like a zine. i’ll print most of it. and it’s coming with a soundtrack.

thinking about the first 2 books on La Mano is strange to me now– they are the 2 books that feel the LEAST like “La Mano” books; i love em both, but they feel like books that, really, anyone could have put out. they look like normal books.

next installment is when things start to go off the rails.

in a good way.

please note: i am not editing.

–z

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