Four years ago, Box Brown says he was a fan of comics without any background in art. He started drawing comics and posting them to his LiveJournal where the webcomic, Bellen!, emerged. When Top Shelf 2.0 launched last year, Brown was asked to contribute some longer comics. The first was a six page comic called “Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing.” When Brown applied for a Xeric Grant, he had completed about 30 pages of a proposed 96 page collection, Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing.
Now, he’s a Xeric Grant winner with a book to sell. He’s also set to have his comic strip, Bellen! picked up by United Feature Syndicate‘s comics.com. I had an opportunity to interview Box Brown and ask him about his good fortune and his thoughts on comics.
Just to give a little context, as all of us swimming in comics are aware, Diamond is the one big distributor of comics which handles all the big publishers as well as smaller publishers. What’s happened is that, due to the recession, Diamond needs to cut back on what books it will distribute and so has set a pretty high benchmark on pre-orders from comics retailers. If a comic doesn’t get enough pre-orders, it won’t be distributed. Not a problem for big publishers. A problem for everyone else. You can get the full story on Diamond from Heidi MacDonald over at The Beat.
A ray of hope for the small publishers is that Diamond has a history of willing to bend the rules. One glowing example is that it is willing to give special consideration to Xeric Grant winners and that’s where Box Brown comes in. His book is in the April Edition of Diamond‘s Previews, the listing that comics retailers use to determine what to order. His book is due out in stores in June. Ask for it at your local comic shop. Every little bit helps.
Blog@Newsarama: What led you to comics? You have said that you only recently started creating comics. Is that true? Or did you have this in the back of your mind?
Box Brown: I always loved comics, but never thought I had the chops. I was drawing a lot of comic characters as a kid but, as I saw some other kids far surpassing me as artists, I ended up giving it up. I wish I never did. I started making comics about 4 years ago in earnest. But, I was always doodling and creating little comics in my notebooks when I should have been taking notes. I always loved to draw, but for a long time never took it seriously.
Blog@: If you are coming “late” to comics, was there some other type of art that you were attracted to first?
BB: I was doing a lot of creative writing as a teenager and in my early early 20′s. I wrote a screenplay when I was 18 and I lost it when my computer crashed. I would love to take another look at it now. The only thing I can remember about it is that the characters were really poor and had access to free edible panties, so that was all they ate. I wrote not one, but TWO unfinished novels in 2003.
Blog@: Can you please talk about your experience with getting into the Diamond Previews catalog. We’ve all heard about the big change in Diamond‘s policy which pares down what books it will carry in a huge way. What inspired you to try anyway?
BB: You know, Xeric gave me enough cash to print 1000 books. I had to get rid of them somehow. Diamond is my best bet in moving the most. My friend Ed Brisson, who runs New Reliable Press was a big help in getting me started with Diamond. I had no idea what I was doing.
Blog@: You were saying that it looks like Diamond will work with Xeric Grant winners on a case by case basis. How is that working out for you?
BB: Well, my sales rep at Diamond really liked the book. So, that helps. She’s a big fan of indie books. She seems to think the book can find its niche. Hopefully, I can at least get close to the benchmark and then hopefully if I don’t quite make it the Xeric name will persuade them to fill the purchase order.
Blog@: You appear to be blazing a new trail as a Xeric Grant winner by soliciting Diamond. The norm for self-publishers seems to be to go with the indie distributors or just sell the book yourself, online and at conventions. Do you think more Xeric Grant winners should approach Diamond?
BB: Absolutely, absolutely. The Xeric winners are all great talents. And, I think that the thing that all Xeric winners have in common is a real drive to work hard. Hopefully, if everyone solicits Diamond, Xeric will become like it’s own publishing company. People will be know that the Xeric brand means quality, just like Drawn & Quarterly or Top Shelf.
Blog@: Could you speak about how your comic went from something on your LiveJournal to being picked up by Top Shelf 2.0 and now on its way to being picked up by United Feature Syndicate‘s comics.com. What must that feel like, you’ll be there along with The Wizard of Id and Dilbert.
BB: Well, it’s been a really short amount of time when I look back on it, but it’s felt like moving mountains. I really feel like nothing has come easily and it’s all been really hard work. That said, the work is fun and engaging. The other thing is that once I started getting involved in this whole business scene the illusions melt off pretty quickly. Sure, for me it feels great to be involved with United Feature Syndicate. The ink is not quite dry yet, though and there is still the matter of contract negotiations so I can’t really go into too much detail of how the whole thing will work. But, sure it feels good. Though, part of me is scared and nervous. Newspapers will probably not be the avenue I’ll end up in. And, man, webcomics artists generally DO NOT like the syndicates.
Blog@: Did you read comics growing up? Do you follow any comics?
BB: I subscribed to Iron Man for a year or two. I was really into X-men. I was a Marvel kid until I was about 12 or 13, when the local comic shop left town. Now, I really don’t follow any of the mainstream books. I bought a few copies of Marvel books during Civil War, but it’s not my scene anymore. I mostly read the indies, the minis, the classics. The last comic I read was this guy Andrew Lorenzi’s mini comic. It was amazing and I’m really looking forward to the new Seth book.
Blog@: Do you think that there is some common thread that holds all comics together from the earliest creations to the most cutting edge mini comics coming out today?
BB: Yeah, I do. Comics is a very specific medium and it’s really the love of the medium that binds us all. There are a million stories out there, but there is something very specific about the way comics tells that story that we all find totally exhilarating. I think also that it’s such a relatively small business that you’re really only a few steps away from your heroes at any given moment. Everyone, for the most part, is friendly, helpful and accessible. You couldn’t say that about film makers, painters or fiction writers.
Blog@: Your work is getting more and more involved, as far as I see. What do you foresee for your comics work in the future?
BB: Well, strip comics will be a big part of my life for a long time. But, I have another book brewing that I’m in the beginning stages of. I really like desconstructing the form of comics. I hope to push that further and further. Soon, the comics will barely be recognizable as comics at all!
Blog@: You appear to be having fun with the comic strip format and finding ways around the old formulas. What do you see as the future of the comic strip? Getting back to that common thread idea, do you see your work as part of the history of comics–or not?
BB: I hope, I really hope that the comic strip develops further. I hope there is a massive purge for newspaper strips. And, I really hope that there is a huge push for the younger webcomics people to put more focus on creating better comics and less focus on creating better websites, that’s the problem I see most in the webcomics world. Well, I mean, I’d like to think that I’m part of the collective comics history. I’m definitely a product of it. I wouldn’t be doing the stuff I’m doing today without guys like James Kochalka, Ron Rege Jr., David Heatley.
Blog@: How close is your comic strip to your own life? It sounds like it’s pretty close. If so, do you find any danger is writing so close to home for yourself?
BB: Yeah, there can be danger there. I’m lucky that the people in my life are pretty open and supportive. I haven’t had to censor myself in the things I write about. It is a fine line though. You want to be as honest as possible without hurting anyone. My comic is really just so self-centered, that I leave myself vulnerable, but I’m surviving.
Blog@: If you could be any character in comics, what or who would you be?
BB: Ha! Um, Wimbledon Green, the greatest comic book collector in the world. He’s just so slick.
Blog@: Lastly, what did you think of Watchmen? This is a trick question, actually. You could answer it seriously or as a joke or not at all.
BB: I had actually never read Watchmen before I saw the movie and I gotta say, I liked the movie! It wasn’t perfect but it was engaging for 3 hrs. That’s hard! The first 15 minutes were incredible. I could watch that opening montage over the Bob Dylan song over and over again. I actually just started reading the book, I’m about a quarter of the way through.