Life eternal: Moving tributes pour in for Dylan Williams
As far as I can recall, it’s the only picture I ever took of him. Now, with Dylan taken from us, far before his time, and long before the many, many people who’s lives he’s touched ever thought they’d have to let him go, I’ve found myself thinking about that photo, about that moment, about how Dylan never got a copy of it, about what he might have been thinking when he brought me over to that wall, wanting me to take his picture. The other side of death is the deep scary mystery that we humans, even after all this time, don’t really know how to truly approach or comprehend, but I need to believe that such a vivid and thoughtful person as Dylan can’t just stop existing. I need to believe that this photo is some kind of message from Dylan from the other side of his life and not an irony. This photo needs to be a victory.
—Theo Ellsworth, author of Sleeper Car, on the photograph of the late Sparkplug Comic Books publisher Dylan Williams you see above. I gasped audibly the first time I saw this picture and read Ellsworth’s post about it — how it was taken at the request of Williams, who’d already battled the cancer that would eventually claim him and was well aware of the challenges he might again have to face. And as I’ve made my way through the tributes and anecdotes and encomiums popping up all around the comics internet, I’ve been moved almost as powerfully time and time again.
Through the tributes of his fellow cartoonists and publishers, a picture of Williams emerges. He was a kind person who provided many friends with empathy they felt they could never properly return. He was an ethical person who ran his publishing business in a way that centered on treating, and paying, his artists fairly. He had an eye for talent, able to spot not just good cartoonists but also the good things about not-so-good cartoonists, both of which he nurtured to make them better. He was a comics die-hard who made contributions to the form in nearly every conceivable way—retailer, distributor, cartoonist, publisher, historian, organizer. And he really, really loved Alex Toth.
As I said in my own tribute, I feel that I only truly wised up to how valuable a publisher Williams really was shortly before the announcement that he was gravely ill. It’s a great regret that I never got the chance to corner him at a con and give him the “Wow, great job, man” he deserved. But lots and lots of people in comics had that chance, and more besides. Below, I’ve pulled a selection of snippets from longer tributes written by such people.
Several of these tributes were culled from The Comics Journal; many more from The Comics Reporter’s comprehensive “Collective Memory” post on Williams’s life, death, and work. Please visit these pages, follow the links there and below for people’s full posts, and deepen your understanding as to whom and what we have lost. Then please help his family pay his oustanding medical bills by shopping at the Sparkplug store or at Floating World Comics’ Divine Invasion benefit site.
I think [Dylan's] sunny public disposition came from his determination that, though he had fierce opinions about what was good and bad, he felt no need to define the “good” by defaming the “bad.” I think he could appreciate the blade when held in someone else’s hands but he did not trust it in his own, or see that as his role. Dylan was an equally sweet man whether he admired your work or not. He approached the work and the artists he admired from the side, he sidled up to you in a way that said this is not about you and not about me, but about the art we both love.—Trevor Alixopulos, The Hot Breath of War
I could go on and on about what comics meant to Dylan and what Dylan meant to comics: how he was one of the few publishers who still took time to distro self-published minicomics, how he firmly believed in continuing to publish pamphlet comics while others abandoned that model. Through Sparkplug Comics, Dylan was a steady fixture in the comics community, tirelessly exhibiting at shows, and introducing an array of comics of varying styles and artists off the beaten path. Right now, while I’m maybe not thinking too rationally, it is hard to imagine the small press, alt/indie comics world (whatever we calling it these days) continuing to flourish without Dylan. The landscape will definitely change with his absence but I am hopeful that other publishers will pick up the torch and continue to publish what Dylan called “weird ass comix.”—Rina Ayuyang, Whirlwind Wonderland
I remember, driving back from a comics show with him one night, he and I were in the middle of a long rambling conversation. Dylan was talking about something pretty mundane but he said “life’s too short to be an asshole.” That sums Dylan up to me. When a guy with leukemia tells you something like that, you take it to heart.—Elijah J. Brubaker, Reich
I think the key to understanding Dylan Williams is that he always thought as a cartoonist, first and foremost. And as a cartoonist, he was an outsider. Publishers rarely touched his work. As a publisher, he was an outsider. While no alt-comics publisher is really out to make money, Dylan brought a scrupulously fair and ethical approach to publishing inspired by punk icon Ian MacKaye. That business model was a small, self-sustaining approach driven not by maximum profits but by a realistic publication schedule, reasonable prices and fair practices for artists, all in the support of work he believed in completely.—Rob Clough, critic
I admired his drive, his ethics, and his ability to keep experimenting with new approaches and artistic styles. I respected the fact that he never quit or succumbed to bitterness, retaining the same earnest, honest, slightly shy demeanor he’d always had….A big fuck you to life for cutting it all short. He lived ethically and creatively and still wound up with years of suffering and an early death. That sucks.—Aaron Cometbus, Cometbus
Dylan really was as kind and decent and benevolent as a business person should be. He wasn’t about Dylan. He was about all those cartoonists he published. I do really feel that a publisher’s most important job is to spot and nurture talent. If you can’t do that, then there’s no need for you to publish. Dylan did that. Completely. Sparkplug existed solely for that purpose. Am I that noble? Are any of you that noble? Do I despair because I’m not sure there’s anybody to take his place?—Tom Devlin, Drawn and Quarterly
It’s so fitting that the first memory of Dylan I have is him in a comic store. Dylan LOVED comics in the most beautiful way I’ve ever seen someone love something. He used to say, when I complained about working at Forbidden Planet sometimes (sorry Jeff—it happened from time to time), that ‘selling comics is God’s work.’ There was an ample bit of humor in that but also a lot of real belief in the idea.—Austin English, Windy Corner
…what did he get out of these efforts? Here’s Dylan’s answer, from an interview he gave last year: “Things I love: Dealing with lots of people. Selling distro books to people. Publishing good comics, especially ones that other people wouldn’t publish. Not having to work for a shitty big company. Sending books out to people who order them. Going to Zine shows. Working with other publishers. Working with young/new comix people. … I’d have to say my favorite part is doing/distroing weird ass comix.” Notice how often the word “people” turns up in his reasons. Unlike the many misanthropic hermits of the comics field, Dylan understood that comics are really for and about people — that people are what give comics value. Like he said elsewhere in that interview: “Encouraging people is like the greatest feeling in the world.” And he did encourage people. One blogger recalls: “He was able to say …the things I needed to hear in a way that I actually heard them. [H]is support and encouragement changed my life.”—Jesse Hamm, Good as Lily
Dylan was very gracious to me and supported me in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s when I was starting out. He wrote me long letters (and later, emails) even analyzing individual panels, which level of interest and attention amazed, inspired, and sustained me—tips and crits about hands and angles (all the while emphasizing that all this is just his subjective opinion), along with a lot of encouragement and kind words. I’m eternally grateful to you for those letters, Dylan. I wish I had said that in the last few weeks but I didn’t realize how serious it was this time.—Kevin Huizenga, Or Else
Comics folks, no matter how well adjusted they are at home around their friends, become socially awkward and dysfunctional when they are in the same room together. It happens to me, still, and it’s hard to not blame myself for not being congenial enough or saying the wrong thing. Dylan didn’t seem to have this problem, but he was really good at spotting it. He had this particular sidle he’d do, that always made me secretly smile. If you ever saw Dylan at a convention you’d know what I’m talking about. He’d spot you having an awkward moment with another comics person, or with a customer, and he’d sidle over and interrupt, and make a recommendation or compliment one of the people or jokingly insult one of the people or just say whatever needed to be said, and everyone would be at ease.—Levon Jihanian, Danger Country
It was at the APE show last year that I started to learn that there’s a ton of creeps out there in the comics business and that Dylan was the one I would always stick with. He was completely behind all the artists he published and he was the most incredible friend….Dylan was the only audience I ever wanted to please with my comics. I hope I never forget him.—David King, Danny Dutch
For all the difficult people I’ve dealt with, my assorted rejections and failures, and all the terrible, unfair things that happen in the world, it helps just a little bit to think that I’m supposed to be learning something here. I would put Dylan’s passing in the category of a terrible, unfair thing happening, but he has taught us all so much about how to live. I can’t count the number of people he has influenced directly and indirectly to follow their dreams and fly their freak flag proudly. His kindness and generosity are unmatched, and anyone lucky enough to know him while he was here has been transformed by that privilege.—Minty Lewis, P.S. Comics
he was better than all of us. and he only wanted us to be ourselves. that’s all i can say right now.—Tom Neely, The Wolf
Perhaps the foremost quality about him that so many of us are noting now, what made Dylan so fucking unique, was his compassion. He cared so deeply about others. So many times I would veer into opening up to him about my personal troubles, getting into deep dark emotional territory, and he would nod and listen and commiserate. He knew how to respond without getting dark himself. He understood pain, but he rarely shared his own – he just offered himself to me as a sympathetic ear, a concerned friend. I never heard him speak ill of anyone. He had an astounding capability to see into peoples’ work – stuff I had long written off in some cases – and pull out what made it good, point out its strengths as if explaining an unknown language.—Sarah Oleksyk, Ivy
He was what we needed. Someone with a history and knowledge of comics to help make the comics our industry needed.—Chris Pitzer, AdHouse
Dylan became one of my go-to guys when I needed to talk serious about comics, not just the art of it, but the business of it. Dylan was an entrepreneur, he was straight up about it, but he came from a place where that didn’t mean you had a license to fuck people over. Dylan always tried to do the right thing, and he wasn’t shy about saying out loud what he thought the right thing was. Still, he never put someone else down for having different beliefs or approaches. He knew what was right for him, and he stuck with it.—John Porcellino, King-Cat Comics and Stories
I suspect he had a lot of friends like me. But I didn’t have any friends like Dylan. He changed the way I see the world. Comics will not be the same for me without him. His impact as an artist, publisher, teacher, historian, and distributor is undeniable.—Jim Rugg, Afrodisiac
What I wanted to write in my book was something from one of our last conversations — this was right before the new cancer prognosis had come in. We were talking about life and (since he’d so narrowly just avoided it) death and, of course, comics. And he just said, in an offhand way while we were talking about some comics “business” thing — someone who’d (probably innocuously) inferred that Sparkplug being a “small” publisher somehow translates to being a “hobby” publisher (where actually, Dylan very much believed in keeping things small as a business model), and Dylan was kind of in an uproar: “You know, you say what you want, but comics are what I am — man, you cut me and I bleed comics.” It’s something he’d only say in confidence but anyone who ever met Dylan and would disagree with that statement is either lying or blind.—Zak Sally, Sammy the Mouse
It startled me then how fast he’d grown into a publishing giant. He had so much experience with underground and independent comics so it shouldn’t have startled me – he knew how to steer people to the real gold. That’s hard to do. And to do it for years with the enthusiasm Dylan had, still has somewhere up there I’m sure, is truly inspiring. It startles me now how fast this has all happened.—Frank Santoro, Cold Heat
I just participated on a comics panel with Dylan at the IPRC not long ago, and he was just as vital a comics intellect and crazy fanboy as ever. Part of the comics cognoscenti. I’d known Dylan since i began publishing; his activity in San Francisco with Puppy Toss was a huge influence on me, and was one of the catalysts that gave me the publishing bug. I featured some of his own comics in the Top Shelf anthology way back when. Wither Sparkplug, damnit? Shit crap damn. Dylan was a friend and a peer and he was one the good guys… —Brett Warnock, Top Shelf