Robot 6 Q&A | Zak Sally on Sammy the Mouse
I was first introduced to Zak Sally’s work via Recidivist, his collection of short stories, which knocked my proverbial socks off. I remember in particular being struck by his gravitas and willingness to poke at uncomfortable and dark places, not to mention his pitch-black sense of humor.
Sally has only gotten better since then, a fact most easily verified by his work on Sammy the Mouse, an ongoing, ostensibly funny-animal story that was initially serialized as part of Fantagraphics’ Ignatz series.
Now Sally has collected those three Ignatz issues and collected them into a smaller trade paperback, published via his own imprint, La Mano 21. In the true D.I.Y. spirit, Sally didn’t just stop there, but went on to even print the comic himself, using a 2-color press he bought.
I recently talked to Sally over email about the new Sammy collection, his decision to become a printer as well as a publisher and how his experience as a musician (he was a member of the band Low and recently released a solo album) informs his work as a cartoonist. I was touched and gratified by his candor and thoughtfulness, not to mention his willingness to answer my prickly, annoyingly personal questions with honesty and aplomb.
I wanted to start by asking you about your decision to not only publish the book yourself but print it as well. How did you get ahold of a printing press?
Well, in 2004 someone told me about one that’s been sitting in a basement here in Minneapolis, and it was going for $250. at that point in my life, it seemed like an idea worth trying, and a natural extension of doing zines/ self publishing etc. and the price was certainly right. Six years later i found a newer model, with 2-color capabilities, for $500. I sold my old press and quickly found out why the new one had gone for so cheap.
Did you have an interest in printing the book before you bought the press?
I think my years of ‘zine and mini-comics making had instilled a love of the do-it-yourself idea, in whatever form it might take. When I first got the press, I had no idea what was involved in learning to be a printer. I just dove in, thinking “you can figure it out.”
This was not real smart of me, and I’ve often said that if I had to do it again knowing what I know now, how difficult and involved it is, I absolutely wouldn’t have done it. But now that I’ve gone through all that shit, it’s sort of a moot point, and I’ve learned a new skill. I’m not a great printer, but I can make stuff happen.
Aesthetically, what did the D.I.Y. process give the comic that, say, shipping it overseas to print wouldn’t?
As far as the aesthetic difference between the DIY process for Sammy and overseas, that’s a whole can of wax both aesthetically and otherwise (and one that I’m not sure I’ve properly addressed yet), so hang on:
Here’s the sad fact about printing ANYTHING in 2012: you cannot beat Asia’s prices. They can (and do) print full books for what it costs a smaller print house (and by “smaller” I still mean a 3-shift print house with million dollar presses) to buy PAPER. Ask any shop in America, and they will tell you — they cannot compete. This is, to a certain extent, just “the way things are”; like it or not, it’s the situation right now, and it can’t be ignored. It’s sort of like going to your organic co-op for all your food — it’s way more expensive, and not everyone can afford to do that no matter how much they’d like to. For a lot of publishers who don’t have deep pockets (or are putting out books that they love for its artistic value, despite knowing that said book will probably sell like shit), they simply CAN’T pay twice as much to have it printed by a smaller shop, domestically. and to be honest, American printing does not have a great overall reputation, quality-wise.
So that’s the deal with printing overseas. it cost me MORE to create the thing myself, NOT paying myself for print time, than to print it in China. we’re just talking materials. as i said, that is what it is.
But at the same time, let’s not fool ourselves about what is going on there — they can do that for those prices because they are HUGE. and they don’t have unions, their presses are actually small TOWNS, and because there is no EPA, etc etc. There’s costs here beyond the “cost”, and in one way or another we’re gonna pay for that price. It is what it is, but … this is Wal-mart shit, you know? It’s scary stuff.
I’m no Pollyanna, nor am I a hippie; the world is NOT cut and dried with stuff like this, nor do I view it that way — if, for instance, Fantagraphics (who I love dearly) decided to print all their stuff over here, they’d probably have to kill important books by artists who don’t sell as well to ameliorate that extra cost. Or, hell, i don’t know — maybe they’d go under. Do i want either of those things? Heck no. I want Noah van Sciver and Chris Wright’s new books to get out in the world, and to reach their audience. I want Fantagraphics to be around for … forever.
BUT: let’s also not fool ourselves that this “lowest cost” imperative isn’t fucking up our world significantly, all day every day, as an economic paradigm. It’s a real thing, and that can’t be ignored either.
And La Mano is sort of … well, fuck the best price. I can’t beat that price, and I don’t even want to play ball in that park, because I will lose. So let’s just play a different game entirely.
I’ve spent some time saying “I would never equate myself with those underground comix publisher guys in the ’60s who just dove into printing cold to learn to put these things out.” but at a certain point I realized that that’s just me being an “aw shucks” Midwestern boy; it’s actually the exact same idea: different decade, different specifics, different work, but the same impetus. you look at those old undergrounds and the registration is off, the printing is wildly inconsistent … just like Sammy. Would those undergrounds be “better” if they were perfectly printed, in china? Bad printing not something I’m striving for in any way, it’s just … a part of the thing; where it comes from, how it was made. The process is part of it, not a separate thing handled by whomever, wherever. Like it or not, (and plenty of people don’t…) it’s an object with some depth and history.
Those three Ignatz issues where the 96 pages of Sammy vol 1 first appeared– they are BEAUTIFULLY printed. Singapore did a fantastic job, period. Compare that against my print job — wambly registration, sketchy color balance, etc., and there’s no question which edition is “better” … but aside from the content, it’s just as different a deal as could be. My involvement is etched into every line in the book, the fact that I touched every single page of every copy out there. It’s as much part of the story as what Sammy is talking with Feekes about on any given page.
I’m also not trying to save the world, but I’d also be lying if I said that all this stuff is a non-issue, and doesn’t play into my decision to try doing it this way. This is also just a direct result of my life and my interests — from my involvement in zines and minicomics and the music world I came up in: You want to make something, and the way it’s being done doesn’t make sense for you? Well don’t bitch about it — find a solution, even if it’s totally fucking stupid. Make one up, whatever — because nobody’s going to find it for you. right now, this is mine. I’m not even sure WHY we should want a physical object that takes up space in this day and age, and that question will go in insane directions in the coming decade — but I think there’s a good reason for MY book to exist, with all this stuff in mind.
And also, finally — I just LIKE the fact that this book is it’s own beast: it’s a “mass-produced” book, but it’s handmade as well. It’s not a zine but at the same time, the process was essentially the same as making a zine. I don’t know much about how “printmakers” are defined in the fine art world, but there’s a case to be made that this Sammy is in that tradition, as well. and, it’s a straight up old school COMIC BOOK, too. I really like the idea that it’s all of those things, and none of the above. There’s no question in my mind that this is a really unique object, and I’m real proud of that.
Did printing the book yourself affect the way you approach your work at all?
I think it does, but maybe not in the way you would think. like I said before, in some indefinable way this whole process is PART of the narrative, for me. 90% of the people who buy the book at the store and read it will not know the explicit story behind the creation of this book, but I think on some level, conscious or not, just the look and feel of the object screams something different to what they are used to. It doesn’t look like like a “normal” book that we’re used to seeing, and it’s not.
I don’t even think that aesthetic is appropriate for every project (and for certain books it’d be downright inappropriate), but for this book — at this point it’s hard for me to think of it any other way. To be honest, I’m not sure if this model will continue for the remaining three Sammy books … hypothetically, doing all this work myself should increase my income (from zeroish to slightly more than zero), which makes the idea more tenable. In reality, it’s not panning out that way, and I’m not sure this fully DIY model is sustainable. So I’m exploring some other ideas for the next book, but my hope is that the handmade books will be still be part of that equation.
The process of writing and drawing the book has not changed at all. I’m still the same slow son of a bitch i’ve always been. Maybe even slower in that printing this thing took six months out of my life that I could’ve spent at the drawing board.
Can you say what some of those other financial models are at all?
Not really, right now. Still kind of far off. It’s not e-books, though.
What made you decide to do a comic that, for better or for worse, fits in the “funny animal” genre. Do you have a particular affection for that genre? Or did Sammy simply appear, fully formed, in your head?
I can’t say for sure. I’ve always had a soft spot for funny animals I guess, but it’s as much a kind of goofball sensibility than “FUNNY ANIMALS” as a genre specifically. There’s some pretty great tradition there, as well. I’m not into furries or costumes or any of that shit. Sammy certainly did appear, fully formed, one night when I was hammered.
I think I just wanted to get away from what I’d been doing for a long time, which was work that had become so “serious” in content and tone that making the work was a real joyless experience. I desperately needed to change things up. At first I just wanted to make a series of wacky/ fucked up adventure comics, sort of like Tintin but with MY set of characters (Sammy et al), and it slowly turned into…what you see here. The funny animals thing wasn’t a conscious decision, other than maybe wanting to just get back to making COMICS, and to use the language of comics rather than run from it or “formally explore” that language. There’s an inherent layer of “difference” when you’re using non-real characters, and an inherent lack of preciousness when you’re dealing with rubber hoses for arms and those crazy 3-fingered gloves. I think when you read them you just come at it with a different perspective. I didn’t make a decision to use funny animals so much as it just felt a lot more right than trying to tell this story with “human” characters, which just feels very wrong to me in this case. It’s probably still more “serious” than it should be, but…I think it’s funny.
Sammy has a loose, surreal atmosphere which suggests the story is improvised, at least somewhat. How much of Sammy’s story do you have planned in advance and how much, if any of it, do you rely upon whatever hits you when you’re at the drawing board?
There are elements of improvisation, but I feel like when that happens it’s within a framework. I’ve found that I’ve GOT TO leave some room for things to happen — not only for the sake of the story, but just for myself as a… technician. A lot of comic’s creation isn’t the interesting “creative” part; it’s the nuts and bolts drawing stuff over and over again, which can be pretty boring.
I’d say it’s almost 50-50, stuff I know versus stuff I don’t know. There’s enough structure there to keep me on track, but enough room to explore and have things surprise me that it keeps things interesting. A good general rule is: if it’s interesting for the person making it it’s probably going to read that way as well. I’ve always known the general arc of the whole story, and large pieces of business within that arc, but how I’m getting from point D to point G is what makes the process fun, rather than just laying a couple thousand bricks into proper places in the mortar.
I knew that this story was going to take many years of my life to complete, and 10 years of a person’s life usually comes with a lot of change. When I started this story, my life was a lot different than it is at present; I wasn’t a father, hadn’t started teaching, etc. those things can’t help but affect your worldview–it’s a bit weird to NOT let your story change along with you. I think you can keep the idea while allowing for real life to intrude upon the proceedings. That’s what I’m trying for, anyway.
I am worried that that 50 percent that’s seat of the pants will bite me when I’m wrapping it all up, but I’m sure I can handle it.
I wanted to ask you about the town that Sammy and the rest of the cast lives in, which I think I can best describe as Dr. Seuss meets Kafka. I’m assuming Seuss is a conscious influence on the design of the town, which I think is great because I don’t think enough cartoonists crib from him. Am I right in my assumption?
Yeah, he’s a huge influence with the Sammy stuff … and I agree with you here, it’s strange that so FEW cartoonists show a Seuss influence. I continually have to force myself back from just outright stealing from his books, partly because he’s been so under-swiped. But he’s also one of those artists that was so idiosyncratic that “stealing” from him is just about impossible. Let me say for the record though, that I have not and would not swiped any specific drawing: mostly what I take is just a willingness to go nuts and not make stuff that looks like it could actually exist/ serve some structural purpose in the real world. Just a freedom let the pencil fly all over and then turn it into house or a bridge. But it’s him, and some others as well… pieces of this and that, people who have created a habitable world solely from their own imagination, whether it’s comics or novels or cartoons or movies or whatever.
And as far as Kafka; I’ve read some of his work, but not a lot.
What influenced the look and feel of Sammy’s environment and how much pre-planning did you put into, say, figuring out where the Baby Bar was in relation to Puppy Boy’s house?
At first, I thought I needed to plan it out that way, but then I realized I don’t, so I didn’t.
This will be the longest story you’ve done to date I believe. Is it a tougher challenge for you to work on a lengthier story or more rewarding? Do you see yourself doing longer stories like Sammy for the near future?
Previous to this, my longest story was, I think, 24 pages. I viewed the final issue of Recidivist as a series of short stories that interacted to make up a larger, 100 page thought, but yeah: Sammy is definitely the largest story I’ve ever undertaken. It’s a lot to keep track of, and my general slowness is a real bummer; at my current rate I’ve still got a lot of years before this thing is complete. But aside from that, I like the long form so far. It keeps you focused on the whole of the thing, rather than getting too bogged down in nitpicky details.
There’s a couple other projects I’d like to dig into, one is a 64 page European style album, and another is a couple hundred page biography, but I feel like unless I make the Sammy thing a priority, it’ll take even longer to get done (but then again, getting paid often MAKES a project a priority, and Sammy is– ahem– a labor of love, so…).
I’d like to say though that I don’t view “longer” as “better” or “more important”; it’s just what the story is calling for, here
You used Kickstarter to help fund the production of this book. Was that a good experience for you? Would you do it again?
Kickstarter was great; I’m very glad I did it. La Mano simply couldn’t have taken on the debt necessary for me to do the Sammy book on my own.
I do think that Kickstarter itself might be speeding towards some kind of wall, just a level of saturation that’s slightly…oh who am I kidding, it’s the same as anything in the digital age; there’s a build then a giant peak then a backlash or flameout. Sometimes it’s years, sometimes it’s a week. There have been some campaigns lately that… I don’t know what’s going on. It’s almost as if it’s becoming a popularity contest, and the stuff that really takes off is stuff that is already “popular” and doesn’t necessarily “need” the “help”.
Obviously, that’s just my take on where it’s at. My good pal Nate Denver just made his goal for a new 50 word story book, there’s been a lot of projects I’m real fond of that wouldn’t have happened without Kickstarter, including my own book. I’m not planning on doing it again, but I’m not ruling it out either. Amazon payments taking their cut out of every damn thing is annoying.
On the face of it, though, the model itself is an amazing thing. I know for certain folks it seems like a charity case, and at first I thought that way myself– but then I realized that this CAN be pretty much exactly the same as the distributor model, only you’re cutting out a lot of middlemen. You have your fan base, which are PLANNING on buying the book when it comes out. Rather than soliciting to Diamond, who then get back to you on orders, and then you adjust your print run accordingly, you just pre-sell to the folks who want it. There’s not much simpler than that, and it’s a very cool idea. It can also be a very direct interaction with the folks who DO like your stuff, and want to support it, and that sort of interaction is pure gold, wherever you’re lucky enough to find it.
There’s a lot of drinking and drunkenness in Sammy, most notably in the character of Feekes. Forgive me if I’m completely wrong here, but I seem to recall you talking about your own past drinking habits in your comics and in interviews. Obviously it’s largely played for laughs in Sammy, but I was wondering if you were at all consciously attempting to confront or at least address any personal demons. Just how personal/autobiographical is Sammy for you compared to the work you’ve done up till now?
Welp…yeah, the drinking. I used to drink a lot, and I drank a lot for quite a few years. Sometimes it worried me a lot, and sometimes not as much. I quit on my wedding night, 7 years ago. I envy a dude like Tony Millionaire who can keep it up (I also envy the fact that he’s a super-productive, awesome cartoonist), but it was starting to…I couldn’t keep it up. I mean, I had a lot of drunk fun, but I was also using it as a crutch to just not deal with shit, for a long time. I think Sammy is probably…about that. Maybe not exorcising demons because that one doesn’t have a whole lot of pull on me these days. Some folks are alcoholics and some people drink a lot, and with some distance and 7 years under my belt, I think I’m the latter. It wasn’t the drink; it was the thirst, as they say. But Sammy is way more autobiographical than I thought it would be at the outset, and more than the drinking it’s more just about…the way you see the world when that’s a big part of your life, and the way you deal with things. Or don’t deal. It’s not necessarily miserable, but it’s a pretty fantastic way of avoiding some parts of life, like…being hopeful, or allowing yourself to just man up and quit fucking around. It’s a lot easier to live life with the constant feeling of “ah well, it doesn’t really matter because I’m just a fuck-up anyway” because your excuses are built in to that algebra. Only speaking for myself here, obviously. Sort of.
But also, like the funny animal thing, there’s a long and storied tradition of alcoholic humor that’s pretty much died since…it stopped being funny. But I still like it. I don’t think I’m trying to “ADDRESS the HORRORS of ALCOHOLISM” by any stretch, I just think it’s a bunch of characters that drink a lot. Sometimes it’s pretty funny (though I will admit that they’re never really having any fun. I didn’t do that on purpose). I was a lot funnier when I was drinking. Handsomer, too. And more charming.
I’m not TRYING to make it autobiographical, but I’m also not avoiding it if it shows up for dinner, if that makes any sense.
I also wanted to ask you about the omniscient, unseen, godlike character who guides/controls the characters. He’s a nice way to get the plot moving and also serves as a nice stand-in for you, the author. Are you consciously (there’s that word again) attempting to address issues of spirituality or religion here? I only ask because this is a theme that has cropped up in a number of your Recidivist stories.
Not so much religion specifically. I think there’s a spiritual dimension to anything you feel really deeply about, and anything that makes you evaluates…your life, and the world around you. And this story, and comics in general, is that thing for me. I don’t mean that to sound deep and high falutin’, I think that’s just the plain fucking truth of the matter. This is what I do.
And as far as the omniscient godlike character, well … maybe he’s not as smart and omniscient as we think he is, at the moment. Everyone gets theirs, one-way or the other.
Does your music feed your comics work in any way and vice versa? Or are they completely separate methods of creating and producing art for you?
Different side of the same thing, I think. Just different processes, different results. I think my comics used to be more like songs, just in that they didn’t really have a narrative. I was just trying to get at something that was really unexplainable (particularly to myself) and using whatever I could to try to express that thing– something in between the words and the pictures that wasn’t apparent in either. Works the same with a song. Not sure it worked real well in comics, but I tried. Music is supposed to be more fun, I guess. Sitting by yourself in a room for six hours is pretty fun, too.
When do you hope to have the second volume of Sammy out? How many volumes of the series do you plan to release?
The 96 page smaller size is the format that will remain till the story is done; the next volume (#2) will be out late 2012/ early 2013. There’ll be four volumes in all. The final two might clock in at more than 96 pages (particularly the final volume), but I’m keeping it to that. There needs to be a light at the end of the tunnel.