Publisher Q&A | Bill Kartalopoulos
If Bill Kartalopoulos doesn’t have one of the most impressive resumes in the comics world, he certainly has one of the lengthiest. He’s one of the co-organizers of the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival and the programming co-ordinator for the Small Press Expo. He was a publishing associate for Toon Books, a contributing editor for Print magazine, he’s been an assistant to Art Spiegelman on various projects including the book MetaMaus, and has curated a number of comics exhibits in New York City. Oh, and he teaches college classes about comics in his spare time.
Now Kartalopoulos is adding the title of full-fledged publisher to the list. His new venture, Rebus Books was announced a few weeks ago and the company’s debut book, Barrel of Monkeys by Florent Ruppert and Jerome Mulot, made its debut at the recent BCGF.
Despite his incredibly busy schedule, Kartalopoulos was gracious enough to take time to talk over email about Monkeys, why he decided to take a chance on publishing it, and how publishing itself is a form of criticism. He’s an insightful, intensely smart guy, and I wish him the best of luck in this new venture.
OK, let’s start with the basics: How long have you been planning Rebus Books? What made you decide to want to become a publisher? And what made you finally decide to take the plunge?
I’ve been thinking of taking on some kind of publishing project on and off for a long time, but I’ve been planning Rebus Books in a more focused way over the past year. It’s hard to boil it down to a single motivation. In part, I think that because I’ve had the experience of working on other publishing projects, including the TOON Books and MetaMaus, I had a strong desire to turn my skills and experience towards a self-generated project that I was fully responsible for and that directly expressed my interests and point of view. I’m involved with comics in a lot of different ways, as a curator, critic, educator, festival organizer, and so forth, and this seemed like a very proactive way to extend that involvement in a way that enlarges the comics scene rather than simply reacts to it.
At the most basic level I think I decided to start publishing for the same reason anyone does: there was a book that I wanted to see in the world and I had to make it happen. More specifically I’ve been pretty fortunate to travel to France several times over the past year or two, and have had a chance to see a lot of European work that hasn’t been translated into English and meet a lot of artists at comics festivals and events in Paris, Angouleme and Amiens. There’s really a whole world of interesting work that we only see bits and pieces of in the U.S. I’ve been strongly interested in Ruppert and Mulot’s work ever since I first started hearing about it and had a chance to see it a while ago, and I was lucky enough to meet them in Paris and get to know them. I’m kind of amazed that no American publisher has gotten behind that work before now. I’ve been dying to be able to read it in English, and now I can and hopefully lots of other people will too.
There was also some fortuitous timing that got me moving. Florent Ruppert made plans to be in NYC this fall in time for the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, so it only seemed logical that I should take the leap so that he could have a book available at a festival where I think his work would find an audience. I should also add that my roommate Austin English’s publishing activity with Domino Books gave me some encouragement to go for it. It’s really helpful to have someone around to talk things through when you’re working on a project like this.
Do you see the line focusing mainly on Eurocomics or do you hope to publish American cartoonists down the line as well?
I’ve already spoken with a few people about future publishing projects, some of them European and some of them American. In both cases, I’m planning to publish pre-existing work. There are a lot of European artists who haven’t been published in North America yet, and there are a lot of American artists who have done good work that I think would benefit from being collected and presented in a new format. But it’s very early for me to talk about future plans beyond that. Right now I want to make sure Barrel of Monkeys finds its audience. If I’m successful in that, it’ll be easier to plan further in advance.
How are you distributing Barrel of Monkeys? Will you be using Diamond? Are you going to try to get into bookstores?
I’m developing a distribution network. My best bet right now is to connect directly with people who are interested in work like this, through festivals and mail order, and to build strong individual relationships with stores of any type that support interesting comics. I think every avenue of distribution that’s out there can be of help to any publisher of any size, but I also think that the dominant ways of getting books out don’t always necessarily serve the most interesting comics. I think there are a lot of people out there right now who are thinking about alternative ways of doing this, which is very exciting to me. I don’t think it’s helpful at this historical moment for new, small publishers to mimic the ways that corporate publishers have traditionally done things. That model is changing really quickly in the U.S.
Can you talk a little more about Barrel of Monkeys? What was it about this particular book — and Ruppert and Mulot’s work in general — that appealed to you and made you feel it would be a good comic to have as your debut?
Barrel of Monkeys is Ruppert and Mulot’s signature book. It won the Prix Revélation at the 2007 Angouleme comics festival, which is pretty high profile in France, and has been translated into German, Finnish and Italian.
Among Ruppert and Mulot’s many books, this one makes a very strong first impression due to the sheer variety of formal and visual techniques on display. It certainly made a strong impression on me, even before I could read the text. Flipping through the French edition of this book for the first time reminded me a bit of looking at early issues of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library. I immediately knew that these artists were really doing something different, innovative and expressive with the comics form, and I wanted to know more. The book itself is structured almost like a sketch comedy show — like Monty Python or Snuff Box – with interrelated segments and recurring characters appearing throughout the book. The book is really funny, but the humor can be very, very dark at times.
One of the thing that Ruppert and Mulot like to do is to play with perception, and push the boundary between image-making and representation. Their figure drawing is very careful, with extremely naturalistic body language, but their characters are drawn in a kind of sketchy way, topped off with schematic faces that look like masks. The images almost dare you to believe in them, while constantly reminding you that they’re artificial. And that’s a jumping off point for narratives that use these puppet-like characters to perform and endure some pretty bad behavior. But it’s all done with a light touch, a wry sense of humor, a dash of surrealism, and a kind of austere elegance that gives the work a tone unlike anything else out there.
I should also note that Ruppert and Mulot are famous in French comics culture for collaborating fully as writers and artists. Together they’ve developed and mastered a shared visual style, so you never know who drew what on a page by page basis. They believe very strongly in the idea of collaboration, and their process is as fascinating as the work itself.
For all of these reasons and more Barrel of Monkeys is a great book for me to debut Rebus Books with. First and foremost, I was sufficiently obsessed with the book that I wanted to work on it. Beyond that, I think it represents a lot of values that I believe in. It’s a sophisticated, intelligent, uncompromising work that’s not afraid to be eccentric, inventive or provocative.
In some ways, I do think of this book as a rebuke. The mainstream publishing industry embraced artistic, expressive comics by people like Ware and Dan Clowes a dozen years ago, but since then most major publishing houses seem to have worked as hard as possible to turn the graphic novel into a mediocre product, assembled by committees and targeted towards pre-existing age groups and genre interests. I’m very proud to be publishing a challenging book of comics that does not fit easily into any category. It’s exactly the kind of work that started the current phase in comics, and it’s very badly needed now. Of course, specialty comics publishers do publish more challenging work, but I think Barrel of Monkeys is also a statement that there’s room for more publishers with different points of view and different priorities. The pre-existing comics presses have their own tastes and priorities, and they can’t cover everything. Barrel of Monkeys, as I mentioned, has already been translated into several other languages but until now hasn’t been available in English. To me, this book is an obvious high priority translation project, but apparently the other publishers didn’t see it that way. And that’s fine. That just indicates very strongly that there’s a place for my vision here.
How did things go at BCGF? Was the book well received?
Barrel of Monkeys enjoyed very strong initial sales at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival. This was especially gratifying for a book that nobody had heard of a week beforehand, by two French artists who’ve only had two pages of comics previously published in this country. Florent Ruppert was at the table for several hours and he was signing the whole time. I was very happy with sales of the book, and I was also able to start getting it into the hands of distros and retailers at the Festival as well.
I had a bit of a schizoid experience, because I was running programming and didn’t get to spend a lot of continuous time at the Rebus Books table myself, but I had artists signing there and I had help running the table so things moved along smoothly. Richard McGuire spent time at Rebus Books signing copies of his book P+O, published by Cornelius in France (and related to the exhibit Uncanny Valleys, still up at Soloway Gallery). This was one of several import titles that I had on hand to supplement Barrel of Monkeys, and those other books also did very well. I had a small number of copies of the complete Mitchum by Blutch, and I sold out of those entirely. I also had a rare Olivier Schrawen comic book in stock, and I sold out of those as well.
I like distributing accessible international material. Distributing work lets me show a range of work to demonstrate my own aesthetic beyond the work I’ve published so far, and it also allows me to further my mission of expanding the aesthetic parameters of comics in the U.S. I have a lot more work like that on hand and will be posting that material for order at rebusbooks.net soon.
When do you hope to have Barrel available to the wider public?
Advance copies are available online at rebusbooks.net, and will slowly roll out to selected stores after that, with a bigger distribution push coming in the first quarter of 2013.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you so far in making the segue from organizer and curator to publisher? Has it been a relatively smooth process?
It doesn’t really feel like a transition — I’m not leaving any of those roles behind; it feels more like a salutary expansion of my pre-existing engagement with comics.
In some ways, I think of publishing is an extension of criticism: it’s another way for me to express my aesthetic values and interests. It’s also a very productive kind of way to express those ideas. The world of independent comics in the U.S. is a pretty small one. Anyone who’s really engaged with this stuff is often reacting over and over again to the choices made by a very small number of publishers, and it can all start to feel a little limiting. By publishing work myself that I believe in, I’m adding to the field rather than just responding to it. I think that’s necessary to keep things moving forward, both for me and for the comics ecosystem. Similarly, thinking about other projects I’d like to publish under the REBUS imprint feels like a curatorial project to me. I’ve always admired publishing imprints that had a coherent aesthetic identity (I think that’s something we all admired about Highwater), and it’s fun and interesting to think about things in those terms. It’s always logistically and technically challenging to take on a new type of project, but I don’t really feel like I’m crossing any major thresholds here. The main challenge, as always, is time.