Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sparkplug Comics and the legacy of Dylan WIlliams

Recently, the comics community lost one of its greats. If you never heard of Dylan Williams, its because we live in a golden age for comics. I know that doesn't make a whole lot of sense on the face of it, but there are so many graphic novels coming out these days from so many different publishers  that it's hard to see the impact of a small, DIY publisher like Sparkplug.

Yet every book and comic from this small press is an expression of the love Dylan had for the medium. Recently I had a chance to pick up some of Sparkplug Comics books, and I'd like to recommend a few of their best. If you've never seen a minicomic, you're in for a treat...

I met Dylan only once, at the 2002 SPX show in Bethesda, MD. It was my one and only time to make it to that cornerstone of the comics small press, and I was excited and greedy, By the time I got to his table, I had to choose between the Orchid anthology or dinner. I chose the anthology. It's a collection of horror material from lots of great cartoonists, including T Edward Bak, a friend of mine. I was so glad Dylan took a chance on Bak, and in talking to him about all the cartoonists in the anthology, I could see that Bak was lucky such an enthusiastic, generous, and discerning publisher took an interest in his work.

They followed that up with the oversized Service Industry book, a gorgeous reproduction of strips that he had run in the Athens, GA alt weekly paper Flagpole. This is autobiographical, as long as your understanding of that word can include giant robots. It's great, and I'll explain why by starting with Bak's weaknesses: his writing is sometimes turgid and overly florid, but his art-- he's doing stuff on the page, suggesting whole little worlds with his almost hieroglyphic structures, roughed out symbol systems like a mad-genius, 8 year old Norse god of cartooning. When I read a Bak comic, it's like I can feel the neurons firing in my brain.

Over the years, I followed what Dylan was publishing, the cartoonists he had his eye on. He pointed me to great new talent, publishing collections of exciting work by artists like Chris Wright, people you would have only seen in bits and pieces here and there but you knew you wanted more from.

Or he published work by established mini comics greats like Dave Kiersh, a cartoonist who has spent his career working at the same themes of teenage alienation and desire in all these pocket-sized, DIY  comics that you'd find all over the place: record stores, magazines, comics shows, passed on from friends. Dylan gave cartoonists like Kiersh a platform to do larger scale work that emerges from where they are and avoids the messy struggles that come from dealing with a larger publisher.

I just recently read Passage, the comic album from Tessa Brunton. Tessa is great; go right now and read some of her webcomics on her blog Suck It, Mussolini! Passage, though, is a whole step beyond. Passage is one long sustained story about Tessa and her brother wrestling with awkward parents who make them even more self-conscious about being teenagers than you can possibly imagine.

This book is gorgeous, a well-crafted comic that you love to look at and hold in your hand, and really speaks to how print can make you want to buy writing and art, even if it's like is free online. Dylan's ability to nurture a project and bring it to fruition as a publisher really shines here.

Go check out what Sparkplug has to offer. Dylan died young-- he was only 39. His widow Emily Nilsson, cartoonist Tom Neely, and Sparkplug employee Virginia Paine are struggling to keep Sparkplug, and Dylan's vision, alive. There's lots of great stuff there that will surprise you if you've never looked at comics that are, for me, the purest expression of personal art out around.

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