Comic Creator Interview
with Zak Sally
Name: Zak Sally
City: Minneapolis, MN
Comics: Recidivist, Like A Dog, Sammy The Mouse
Websites: zaksally.com, LaMano21.com
QRD – How old were you when you first got into comics & did you always stick with them or did you come back to them?
Zak – I’ve been reading comics since I became aware of...anything. The first book I read on my own was a Peanuts collection & I cannot remember a time when comics weren’t a part of my life because that time does not exist.
QRD – What was the first comic book you ever bought?
Zak – Not sure exactly. I remember a certain Aquaman comic that I sort of obsessed over when I was, say, 6 years old, & then my godfather buying me my first issue of the Silver Surfer a bit later...I’m still pretty fond of the Silver Surfer stuff. (In my head I am, anyway. I haven’t re-read that stuff in quite a while.)
QRD – How old were you when you put out your first comic?
Zak – 13 or 14. Just a little photocopied comics zine.
QRD – What decade do you think produced the best comics?
Zak – The mid-80s were a pretty amazing time for comics & parts of the 90s were great as well, but I’ve got to say my answer is now. There’s never been a time when comics have been as rich & varied as they are right now. Choose your front - “art” comics, “indie” comics, zines, reprints of beautiful old newspaper stuff... it’s all there. It’s pretty fantastic, in any way you define the medium.
QRD – Why comics instead of just writing or drawing?
Zak – Because comics is a distinct amalgamation of both those disciplines - related to both but beholden to neither. It’s its own language & it’s a very versatile language, unique unto itself. Comics is not a lesser bastardized form of prose or illustration or film or whatever; people have been attempting to define the form for quite a while now & it’s slippery. But for me, it is this - using images AS language. & that idea & practice is one of the oldest forms of human expression - older than written language by a wide margin. It’s not BETTER than any one of those, but it is 100% its own thing & for me it is at least the equal of any of the aforementioned mediums.
QRD – Do you see mini-comics & indie comics as paths to mainstream comics or as their own unique media?
Zak – They are absolutely their own unique experience. I know for some that experience has LED them to more mainstream things, but to go into it with that as the “goal”.…kind of gives me chills & feels like the waste of a really awesome opportunity to work outside of any of those concerns (because those opportunities can be very few & far between).
QRD – How many copies of your comic do you print in your first run?
Zak – Well, that depends. & also I’m not sure. So maybe I’ll skip that one.
QRD – How much do you think comics should cost?
Zak – As much as they are worth. I’d love to leave it at that, but I actually have been having this conversation with zine pals lately, because it’s kind of an issue right now; zines are healthier than they’ve been...maybe EVER. But the prices have gone up. On one hand, this is totally great because what these things ARE, essentially, is a handmade object, usually assembled by the author & that kind of individual effort should carry a higher price tag than, say, a monthly superhero comic or a jumbo bag of Doritos. With that said, I can’t BUY the things any more - there used to be a day where you could spend $20 & get, hell - 12 zines. Or 20 zines. Part of its function for me is also a way to...just check out this really individual vision without a huge level of commitment, because with these sort of things its so individualized that maybe it’s your thing, maybe it’s not. $6 to find that out is...a lot of money. I’m not arguing that it’s not WORTH IT, but I just miss the days when that culture was more about just getting the work out there, rather than...hell I don’t know. I’m conflicted about it. I feel like maybe (as with the question above) the self- published minis guiding principle should NOT be the same as the principles used in “above-board” or normal publishing, i.e. that it NEEDS to make its money back, or be viable on any commercial level. Trying to make a bunch of $ with any given mini/zine seems like such a ridiculous idea to begin with. There’s exceptions, of course, but...for some things, breaking even is just perfect. (In fact, for some things LOSING $ is perfect…particularly if it’s, say...$5.34. I mean, who CARES?!? You just slapped together the stupidest idea you’ve ever had & were able to disseminate it into the world at large & it only COST YOU FIVE BUCKS? That’s a hell of a deal.)
QRD – How many books do you produce a year & how many would you like to?
Zak – I would like to do a Sammy volume (96 pages) & assorted other comics’ stuff every year. I am nowhere near that. Also a La Mano project per year & maybe a set of songs every few years. Ditto.
QRD – Do you think stories should be serialized or delivered as complete works?
Zak – Again, it depends on too many variable for me to give a hard answer...the particular work, circumstance, etc. I know there’s quite a few cartoonists these days who want to just finish the story tip to tail, then have it appear all at once. & I know that to the general reading public, serialization is an antiquated & kind of bizarre anomaly. But for me, I really miss the alternative anthology comics of the late 80s like Hate, Eightball, Jim, Weirdo, etc...they had an inclusive, personal aspect to them that I loved. It wasn’t perfect for everything, but...it kept things feeling really vital. When the Ignatz line (the elegant comic format where the first 3 issues of Sammy appeared) folded & I was talking to Fantagraphics about how to go forward finishing the story, one of the ideas was...just finishing all 400 pages & publishing it in one volume. & I can understand the logic with that, but there is no way I could do that...I NEED those goalposts & that feedback to keep me going. Waiting 10 years to have people experience it would....I couldn’t do that right now. Even the very small amount of feedback I get is what keeps me going. Without that, I’d crumble.
QRD – How are comic strips different than comic books & which medium do you prefer?
Zak – No preference, really. I just like it if it’s good.
QRD – How long is it from when you start a comic until it’s printed?
Zak – Oh jeez. Again, not sure if I can answer that with any accuracy. I can just say in a general sense that I am a pretty slow cartoonist. Slower than most. I wish that wasn’t the case.
QRD – What do you do better with your comics now than when you first started?
Zak – Everything. Absolutely everything. The biggest problem with comics as a practice is this: if you are doing it right, it looks effortless. & there are so many varied elements that you have to become competent with that...it’s a very long, upward climb. & all of the stuff you are looking at for models make it look effortless. Cartooning is a very, very difficult thing to get good at.
QRD – At what point in the artistic process do you work digitally?
Zak – I only deal with the computer in the very last stages of a book; the assembling of analog color seps into print files, cleanup & layout, that sort of thing. In a very rare instance, something will be amended/changed in the digital realm, but it’s still pretty much all ink & paper. (Actually, I don’t draw on paper anymore, I draw on plastic, but no one wants to hear about that. I use it in the exact same way you use paper.)
QRD – What do you think of digital comics & webcomics?
Zak – I try not to. No, I’m just kidding; in all honest it’s not my first choice for how to experience comics & at first there seemed to be a kind of “house” art style to many of the online comics that was really unappealing to me. But that (as with many other digital things) is quickly fading. It’s now just a great way of getting work seen & is a tool just like any other that can & does get used in some very elegant ways.
QRD – Do you prefer working in color or black & white?
Zak – Well, what I do isn’t black & white OR color, really. My answer would have to be that...I don’t “see” my stuff in full color. Jaime Hernandez can create a whole world from black & white; it’s sort of the perfect distillation of comic art, for me.
QRD – How many different people should work on a comic & what should their jobs be?
Zak – Well. Um. There should be one. Unless he or she needs or wants help. Or can’t/don’t want to draw. Or write. Or letter or color or draw backgrounds. Or unless they want to do something else completely, which is fine by me.
QRD – How do you find collaborators?
Zak – I wake up early in the morning, when the dew is still glistening on the fronds & gently lift up paving stones until I catch one, twisting in the loam; then I put them into styrofoam cups & store them in a cool, dark place. No actually it’s just people I know & meet & then like. & then if we do something together, then that’s what happens & if we don’t, we don’t. I’ve been very very lucky in that regard.
QRD – How tight do you think a script should be as far as telling the artist what to draw?
Zak – I think it depends on everything: the personalities involved, the story being told, what works what doesn’t. I have no script whatsoever for Sammy; just the outline in my head (which is fairly concrete, but nowhere NEAR a “script” of any kind...), but that’s really just because of the tone & nature of the Sammy stuff. There’s another long project I’m slowly working on, where I’ve tried the “loose”/pure cartooning (writing & drawing simultaneously, in comics form) I use on Sammy &...it doesn’t work. It needs more structure. Each project & story has different requirements & it’s your job to find the sweet spot, or what’s appropriate.
QRD – What comic book person would you be most flattered to be compared to?
Zak – Popeye. He is my hero. For real.
QRD – What do your friends & family think of your comics?
Zak – Runs the whole gamut, I guess, from being confused to being proud to a sort of grudging acceptance. Maybe all at once. I can’t say for sure.
QRD – What do you think of superheroes?
Zak – I thought my relationship to superheroes had grown from a love (as a kid) to a simmering hatred (late teens-early 30s) to a grudging acceptance (mid-30s) into an adult-flavored “oh heck, this is just another genre; people can do good work in this genre, like a western or any other.” I thought that was where I’d landed, which would be a nice full-circle thing, but I was wrong. With this new Avengers movie, I posted a thing about Jack Kirby & that world, that mainstream/superhero comics community completely blindsided me with its myopic, entitled lack of empathy & understanding regarding the world they claim to give a shit about. Same goes for the “fan” reaction to “Beyond Watchmen” & this total excoriation of Alan Moore for his stance on what DC did to his work. Just unbelievable. Not that there weren’t SOME thoughtful folks, but as a whole I gotta say, fuck ‘em all. There’s been some talk & fear that the mainstream comics set (Marvel & DC) are pulling desperate & suicidal business moves to stay afloat & there’s some attendant fear with that because the entire american comics infrastructure is based on those two companies being solvent. & I understand that fear. But maybe it just SHOULD collapse & we’ll see what happens with all the criminally overlooked non-spandex work being created. Things might be a mess for a while, but maybe it’d be healthier in the long run.
QRD – Marvel or DC?
Zak – Either one could burn to the ground first, as long as the other followed quickly....that’s what your question was, right?
QRD – What comic characters other than your own would you like to work with?
Zak – Um, well - I’ve had a lot of cameos by other people’s characters in Sammy. Kim Dietch’s Waldo, John Porcellino’s Racky Raccoon. (Peter Bagge’s Goon On The Moon is in the next issue!) But, no, I don’t have that...drive to work with established characters, at all.
QRD – Ideally would you self-publish?
Zak – Ideally, I’d be wealthy & powerful. No, that’s not true.
QRD – What conventions do you try to attend & why?
Zak – I’d like to do a LOT of the conventions; there seem to be more & better cons all over the world every year, particularly for the sort of work I do - there’s SPX & APE (neither of which I’ve been able to attend for some years now, unfortunately...) & a bunch of others. Most recently CAKE in Chicago & MIX here in Minneapolis was really amazing, but it appears that that event is done for good. But for the last couple of years I’ve done TCAF in Toronto & BCGF in Brooklyn, both of which are fantastic. I’ve got a family & there’s only so much I can/am willing to spend away from them. Also, I’ve got to MAKE comics, & that takes time. It’s a hard thing to find a balance with all that stuff.
QRD – What do you do to promote your books?
Zak – Cry in public. I wish I could leave all my answers like that, but truth is, promotion is something I have a lot of difficulty with. It’s a huge job, & an important one that requires a lot of attention & diligence. But it’s not something I’m good at; I’m old enough that I have to admit that the CREATION/making of the books is what interest me & after that I just sort of throw my hands in the air & hope that people will find out about the thing & see the qualities in the work that got ME so charged up while making it (I should point out here that I’m less referring to my own work than I am the projects that come out on La Mano, where I’m essentially helping get a project out into the world...). Sometimes this works & sometimes not.
QRD – Do you think your comics are well suited to comic shops or would sell better elsewhere?
Zak – Despite what I said earlier, comics are MY PEOPLE. I don’t have a lot in common with the folks who go in every week to pick up their monthly superhero fix, but then again I have a LOT in common with them. I might not go every week, but I damn well go once a month (or more, if there’s something coming out that I want. & I should mention that I’m blessed with one of the nation’s finest comic stores here in Minneapolis, Big Brain Comics), & have since I was 12 years old. Which is creepy, but what I’m saying is that I’m not a literary/arty comics’ snob; my love for this thing encompasses the whole thing, the whole spectrum of its history. I love Jack Kirby & Jack Cole & Charles Schulz &...Chris Ware & Eleanor Davis & hundreds of others. Some of those names can & should “crossover” into the bookstore world, but again...the “normal” world of stores that sell books has a LOT less cultural baggage than some grimy joint run by a 50 year old fat dude with a pony tail, but...ugh I don’t know. I like comics. I like books, too. I’m not fond of shitty books OR comics & I sure do like GOOD comics or books. There are great comic stores that I would HATE to see go away & some comic stores that I think SHOULD go away. Same with bookstores. I’ve just decided that this answer is now in over its head & it seems best to let it drown now without more struggle.
QRD – What other medium would you like to see some of your comics made into (television, film, games, action figures, etc.)?
Zak – I’m not sure I’d want my stuff adapted to any of those mediums. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t like to apply some of the skills I’ve developed as a cartoonist into some of those mediums. I used to joke that HBO should turn me loose on a one year/8-12 half-hour Sammy The Mouse shows that’d all add up to one complete story of...whatever; a 4-8 hour sustained narrative. Old Fliescher studios mixed with Brothers Quay & Rankin Bass stop motion. Totally fucked. But then I realized that it wouldn’t be Sammy, it would have to be something created FOR that medium & that what I am accustomed to is 100% creative control so, you know, probably won’t happen & I don’t need it to because comics isn’t slumming to me, it’s THE THING. (Note to studio execs: if you want to offer me good $ & complete creative control, by all means call my non-existent manager so we can “do lunch.”) Or, you know, a Sammy the Mouse video game where you just wander around & look at stuff & drink; no saving the princess or adventures or anything. That’d be fun. Maybe interesting. But like I said: comics are #1, for me. I don’t “get” the action figure thing, at all.
QRD – Do you consider yourself a comic collector or a comic reader or both?
Zak – Both. Although I’m not a “collector” in the sense that I bag the comics in mylar & give a shit about how much they are or aren’t worth. I feel more like I’ve got this...archivist tendency that grows more important to my every year. With the world getting more & more digital, things have less & less...physical evidence of having ever existed. Blog posts never occupied a physical space on the planet, you know? I feel a real pull to...save those documents.
QRD – What do you see as the most viable mediums for comics distribution 10 years from now?
Zak – I suppose digital is the gimme answer & I certainly do see that as something that’ll be a big factor. But, as with music (painfully), this mode that was supposed to “level the playing field” & “put things more directly into the hands of the artist” & seems to be having the opposite effect. It’s rough. But in the short run, the sole comic distributor is a company called Diamond & this has been the case for many years now. Having ONE BIG distro isn’t the most healthy business model in the world & I’ve long thought that there really should be a smaller who deals SOLELY with the non-superhero stuff, all the way from zines to...the bigger indies like D&Q & what have you. I wish someone would really step into that space, because I think not only would it serve a real needed purpose, but it would be a solid business. Then again 10 years from now the world very well could be such a mess that this shit won’t matter in the least.
QRD – What would you like to see more people doing with comics?
Zak – Buying them. No, really - it’s like the pool of interesting/fantastic WORK I mentioned earlier is just EXPLODING, but I’m not seeing a commensurate rise in...interest or readership. There’s certainly more interest in “normal” (& my “normal” means “not strictly superhero”) work than ever before (Bechtel’s Fun Home being a prime example), but...there’s so many things competing for people’s interest/brain space these days, comics seems like it might be growing ever closer to the “niche.” Although I suppose you could say the same for the novel. I think people don’t really read that much any more, do they? Pictures or not, you’ve got to have patience for these mediums & society is becoming less patient every, uh...second. But in terms of MAKING them? Good god, I seriously could not ask for more than what’s going on right now. It’s just bonkers, in the best way imaginable. I’m proud to be part of it.