Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Some Thoughts On Dylan Williams
Sunday at SPX 2011 was part convention, part therapy session for many of its participants as most everyone woke up having heard that Dylan Williams, the publisher of Sparkplug Comic Books, had died. There's a pretty remarkable outpouring of grief and moving remembrances of Williams happening on the web right now; both Tom Spurgeon and Brian Heater are attempting to capture all of these links. What I hope to do here is not discuss his influence as a publisher or work out his importance as a historical figure in comics. I will be spending ample time in the future on this topic and those results will appear elsewhere, but it's important to at least note that one of the keys to his legacy is indeed the few dozen excellent, idiosyncratic and poetic works of comics published under Sparkplug's blanket. Instead, I want to work out some personal thoughts and ideas about Dylan.
I first met him at SPX 2002. That show had been long-awaited, as the 2001 iteration was canceled thanks to 9/11. As a result, that show was absolutely stacked with talent: the Hernandez Brothers, James Sturm, Ivan Brunetti, Jason (in one of his first US appearances), Charles Burns, Phoebe Gloeckner and many more. Jeff Mason's Alternative Comics was at its height, with the first collection of Gabrielle Bell's work and the Rosetta anthology. Still, I noted at the time that the fledgling Sparkplug Comic Books "may have had the most exciting books at the show", which included Jason Shiga's Fleep and Hello, World, and the excellent Orchid anthology (which I later tabbed as one of the best of the decade). T. Edward Bak and Ben Catmull were also at his table, with Catmull selling his Xeric-winning Paper Theater.
That's back when I occasionally wrote for Savant, attempting to inject some alt-comics flavor into what was mostly a Vertigo-inspired publication. Dylan quickly took notice when I started writing for sequart.com and started sending me everything he was publishing. That's when I learned that he, like me, had remarkably catholic tastes. He loved a lot of different things that can be called comics and was unambiguous and effusive in his affection for everything from golden age comics to select silver age to undergrounds to humor to autobio to burgeoning forms like comics-as-poetry and immersive comics, two styles that he championed far more than any other publisher.
We always shared a warm and cordial relationship, and I felt we understood each other well. He was one of the first publishers to take me seriously as a critic, and saw how seriously I take this endeavor. I only got to see him at shows, and I have great memories of collaborating on how to shape a publishers' panel at SPX 2008. We would write each other notes about things the other had written, which was all too rarely in Dylan's case. In some respects, Dylan was a modern-day Bill Blackbeard. He genuinely loved comics, not as an obsessive/collecting/fetishizing hobby, but as beautiful objects with meaning that are unjustly discarded by the wider culture. More to the point, Dylan subsumed both his career as a cartoonist (where he had been quite active for more than a decade) and a historian (he should have been in a position to have written several books) in order to publish, encourage and nurture the works of other cartoonists. This was not perhaps the most glamorous of choices, but it not only wound up having the greatest benefit for comics (much like Blackbeard's editing so many anthologies changed the lives of readers forever), it was the right use of his skill set.
Dylan was a good cartoonist but not yet a great one; he may well have reached that level, but it was clear that it was something that didn't come easily to him. I think the same may have been true as a writer; I got the sense that he didn't trust his own voice sometimes. Simply put, he didn't enjoy self-aggrandizement or much personal attention in general. On the other hand, he was a phenomenal publisher. His instincts were unerring. He nurtured talent like no one else. He would see things in artists, very early in their career, that they themselves could not yet perceive. This is not to say that he was disingenuously kind; he only accepted work that met his demanding standard, yet always encouraged those he rejected in very specific ways on how to get better.
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. Dylan felt uncomfortable when artists and editors talked more about book deals and money grabs than they did about the actual comics themselves. I'm not sure he felt comfortable thinking of himself in the same company as Gary Groth or Chris Oliveros, publishers who obviously put out books they believe in, but are also businessmen who have a bottom line and who can only afford to finance a few big losers. Those two are also beholden in some respects to Diamond, which wound up putting the kibosh on a number of their low-selling series. Dylan steadfastly avoided dealing with Diamond and found a way to make it work on a small scale, no doubt at the cost of possibly thousands of dollars.
Dylan may have been an outsider, but he was not an iconoclast. From the start of the career with the Puppy Toss minicomics cooperative, he was a networker. He networked not to move up in the world of comics, but to bring people together. In much the same way disparate artists found themselves part of a community in the 60s with the underground movement and in the 80s with the Newave movement, Dylan helped foster that same sense of purpose and encouragement to another generation in the 90s. Sparkplug was the reification of that ideal, one made at around the same time he was originally diagnosed with cancer. I don't think this was a coincidence.
Dylan thought himself an outsider, and the biggest tragedy of this viewpoint is that he did not understand until it was almost too late just where he stood in the eyes (and hearts) of others in the comics world. As a close friend of his told me, he didn't think of himself as a beloved or inspiring figure to twenty years' worth of cartoonists. He thought of himself as someone getting the job done, as doing the best he possibly he could by the art form & the artists that he loved so much and that had given him so much inspiration (or as he once told me, "Just do your best, always."). In the last few weeks, when there was such a bountiful outpouring of support, love and money after his plight became publicly known, he finally understood, in no uncertain terms, just how everyone felt about him. Fans and friends fell over themselves to buy books. Critics rushed to recommend books. Peers started up an art auction for him, one that is still ongoing and whose need has not passed, given that more bills will need to be paid. Dylan felt that love, which makes it all the more shattering that he died in such a sudden manner.
His death certainly leaves a void in the lives of his family and friends. Clearly, the uncertain status of Sparkplug will be something to consider at a later time, after the mourning is over. There aren't many like him in comics today. That said, the narratives springing up about him and his impact reveal him to be a huge, nurturing tree whose branches spread far and resulted in sprouting blossoms across the world. He provided a model for how to think about comics, how to act with integrity as a businessman and how to treat others as a publisher, and this is his ultimate legacy: he upheld fairness in the arts field with the history of the most inhumane, unfair practices. It's now up to those he inspired to carry forward his example.