Talking Comics with Tim: Michael Dowers
I first started covering the comics industry in the late 1990s, and at first I had a mindset of trying to cover the mainstream stuff, DC and Marvel. Fortunately I soon broadened my horizons and started to cover independent and/or mini-comics creators. More recently, when I learned that Fantagraphics had tapped Michael Dowers to edit and compile Newave! The Underground Mini Comix of the 1980s, I jumped at the chance to interview him. Here’s a rundown of the book from Fantagraphics (plus a Flickr flipthrough of the book): “Newave! is a gigantic collection of the best small press cartoonists to emerge in the 1970s after the first generation of underground cartoonists (such as R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and Art Spiegelman) paved the way. These cartoonists, inspired by the freewheeling creative energy of the underground comix movement, began drawing and printing their own comix. The most popular format was an 8 1/2” x 11” sheet, folded twice, and printed at local, pre-Kinkos print shops on letter-size paper; because of the small size, they were dubbed ‘mini comix.’ As they evolved many different artists, one by one, became interested in this do-it-yourself phenomenon. By the 1980’s they became known as Newave Comix, a term taken from England’s Newave rock ’n’ roll movement. An explosion of do-it-yourself artists emerged. Many talented artists went onto bigger and better things, others have disappeared into the fog never to be heard from again.” The collection is a staggering 892 pages–and Fantagraphics offers a 32-page preview here.
Tim O’Shea: The book is dedicated in “Memory of Michael Roden, Clay Geerdes, and R.K. Sloane”. Would you mind telling folks a little bit about each of them?
Michael Dowers: All three of these guys were very dedicated to what they were doing. It was their lives. Michael Roden was a very creative type and not only drew and made mini comix, but was a musician, a sculptor, and an entertainer. This man lived and breathed creativity almost all his life. Clay Geerdes was extremely dedicated to the world of underground comix. He saw Newave as the new underground and was responsible for encouraging, inspiring, and developing many cartoonists along he way. I do believe that Newave would have been a very different world with out him. R.K. Sloane was an amazing creative mind. He had accomplished many things in his life. In the early days he even had real underground comic published before undergrounds died in the latter 70’s. He made a movie called “Goblins” in the latter 70’s and went on to draw comics working for people like Big Daddy Roth. I met R.K. Sloane right around this time and published a full size comic of Big Daddy Roth’s RAT FINK drawn by Sloane. He went on to be one of the best of low-brow surrealistic painters that Robert Williams influenced before Sloane died. We will miss all three of these highly creative and influential people.
O’Shea: In the introduction to the book, you wrote: “I would give a lowball estimate that I alone, under my own steam, have handmade about 45,000 comics. Yes, I said 45,000. I did a series of 15 mini comix back in the early ’90s distributed through Diamond Distributors that totaled over 16,000 comix alone.” Looking back at those stats, are you more shocked or more proud at the amount you produced?
Dowers: I probably feel neither shocked or proud. It just is. I guess I was trying to make light of my obsession. And seriously find somebody else who was or is just as addicted as I was.
O’Shea: Some of the mini-comics that appear in this collection date back to the 1970s and the more recent 1990s–why did you include them in this predominantly 1980s collection?
Dowers: I felt it was important to show where Newave came from and where it was going when it headed out the door in the early 90’s. The term Newave was coined in the latter 70’s so it was important to bring that info out.
O’Shea: What was it about the 1980s mini-comix that made them unique (compared to those that came before them and those after)?
Dowers: The 80’s is when the explosion happened. A lot of these creators didn’t even start until Jay Kennedy’s price guide was released in the fall of 1982. That is when people all over the world started making there own comics.
O’Shea: How hard was it to track down some of the material included in the book?
Dowers: In some cases it was very difficult. There are creators that should have been included in this book that were not because it was too impossible to find them or anybody who knew where they might be. I had to go with the easier to find artists and even that was a major task at times. Some people made it into the book at the very last minute as I was able to find contact information for them. At times a very overwhelming task.
O’Shea: It’s a large collection, but was there material that you wished you could have included, but did not due to space?
Dowers: There were many pieces I wanted in the book that for some reason or another could not appear. Either there was some time of emotional or political reason or the creator just could not be found. I often think what the book would have been like if these pieces could have been included.
O’Shea: What’s the significance of the term “newave” as opposed to “New Wave”?
Dowers: Absolutely none. It is just a word. You have to call the movement something and it turned out to be Newave or you can even call it New Wave. As far as I’m concerned you could even call it mud cakes falling from the sky (just being silly here). But it was Newave that stuck.
O’Shea: In late January Fantagraphics had a publication party, where you produced and distributed a mini comic on site. How did that go, and how challenging was it (if at all) to produce on site?
Dowers: We had a great book release party at the Fantagraphics store in Georgetown, Seattle. Fantastic turn out and a lot of people excited about the book. Making a mini comic was no problem. The hard part was making a mini comic and carrying 5 different conversations at one time while doing it.
O’Shea: Was it your idea to do the layout and text of some of the pages as off-center/slightly tilted to give it a DIY vibe–or did someone else suggest that?
Dowers: The text was designed by Fanatgraphics art director, Adam Grano. He came up with the idea to make it look like the book is a poorly laid-out handmade zine. Turned out great and really gives the reader a zine feel as they page through the book.
O’Shea: What do you hope folks take away from this collection?
Dowers: I want people to see that if you believe in something hard enough and never give up that you can get somewhere in life. Here is a group of creative types who couldn’t take no for an answer and made their own world of comics. Just by sheer determination a lot of these creators were able to make their lives much more abundant and fulfilling just by the sheer audacity of doing it themselves. This can work for anybody in any field if the person is willing and has the desire to put in the hours.