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The Song Remains the Same

Starting her own small press in San Diego, Poseur Ink, Rachel Dukes has combined music and comics twice now, first in Side A, and now with a backing track, Side B. So what does it take to start a small publishing endeavor in comics today, and how hard is it to keep that venture going? We talked to Rachel to find out what went in to the making of this second single and what it takes to keep an indie press afloat today.

Explain a little about what you were trying to create with Side B—the type of book you were looking to make when you began putting it together.
Music is a medium that my partner, Mike, and I are extremely passionate about, so the idea of music-themed stories came easily. Once we realized that, the idea of doing an anthology of stories was immediate. Music (the styles, mood, or lack thereof) drives our day-to-day process—drawing, emailing, driving, dancing with our cat…whatever it is that we happen to be doing, there’s a soundtrack behind it. We knew we were not the only people who lived this way, and thought it would be interesting to see how music directly influences the lives of our peers.

I didn’t necessarily have a particular type of book in mind, but I knew I wanted to give everyone possible a chance (big artist, small artist, up-and-coming)…. I was most concerned with cultivating honest stories that rung with the artists’ connection to music; and I inadvertently let the artists themselves choose the feel for the book!
 
You have more than 50 storytellers in Side B. So…complete nightmare to organize, keep track of, and edit or what?
It sounds like it could be a total nightmare, but it wasn’t. (Not completely, anyway!) It was just very, very busy. The whole process took 14 months—most of the hard work being squished into the last three or four. In the beginning, we started out with an email list of possible artists (to keep in touch with) that was over 500 names long. Once we knew who was interested and available, that was cut down to about 100 people. After that, it was just a matter or emailing everyone monthly or bimonthly to check in, touching base with people at conventions, making sure everyone remembered to make time for the book.

I was extremely fortunate that we ended up with very dedicated, level-headed artists; so individual edits went quickly and with little rebuttal. After deciding which stories made the final cut, I think the most difficult part of the whole process was deciding what order stories were to go in and then actually laying the book out. (Mike and I working in shifts really saved me in the layout process; otherwise it could have taken me weeks instead of a few days to complete.) There was about a 50/50 split of upbeat and heartbreaking stories told, so we needed to find a way to space them evenly throughout.

Overall, we were extremely lucky to have the artists that we did on this book (every one of them was a dream to work with); and it was because of them that the book came about as smoothly as it did. (I just had to keep in touch!)
 
How did you get so many people to take part in it? Was it difficult to find people willing to participate?
You know, it’s amazing what a simple website and an email can do! While we cold-emailed a ton of people initially, I’d say only half of the book is made up of people we personally invited. The rest was word of mouth. We promoted the project a fair bit online and gave out fliers about it at conventions, but really, I think we managed to get so many amazing artists because of the universal effects that music holds on everyone. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I would have managed to compile a book full of industry artists and Xeric grant winners but, hey, music is magical that way.
 
What’s the comics scene like in San Diego?
That’s a very good question. I’d say three or four years ago it was absolutely amazing. We had Young American Comics (Tod and Corey Parkhill), Elephant Eater Comics (Ryan Claytor), Joey Mason, Sean “Cheeks” Galloway, and half a dozen other independent creators I was in love with. But opportunities arose around the country and so it seems like all that is left locally are myself and the larger companies IDW and Wildstorm. However, I’ve become a fairly reclusive workaholic, so it’s likely that a whole new scene has sprung up since then that I’m entirely unaware of. (Apparently, the zine scene is still going strong. There are a ton of homemade zines all over San Diego influenced by the punk scene.)
 
Which came first—your love of music or your love of comics?
I grew up listening to ’90s country (Brooks and Dunn, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, etc.), Frank Sinatra, and “Best of” ’50s albums while most of my peers were listening to Ace of Base, Nirvana, Green Day, and No Doubt. So while I enjoyed music growing up, it’s safe to say I felt ostracized about it until I started listening to punk and pop-punk bands in my early teens. (This is still a point of some embarrassment when I start singing along to songs like “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” during commercials or films, like the ever-popular Son in Law.)

I knew as early as four that I wanted to go into animation or illustration and at seven I made my final decision on comics. (I proudly proclaimed to my first-grade teacher that I was going to do comics when I grew up.) So my passion for comics came much earlier then that for music. I grew up reading the Sunday funnies, but “comic books were for boys” so I stuck with newspaper strips and Nickelodeon Magazine until I had my own income to spend on comics and related merchandise.
 
What was the first piece of music (album or single) you ever bought?
The first full albums I bought myself were Unwritten Law’s 1997 self-titled album and Let It Burn, the The Ataris/Useless ID split. Other early purchases were Lit’s A Place in The Sun and Eve 6’s self-titled album. The first single I remember buying is Blink 182’s All the Small Things, but that was years later.
 
What was your first comic?
When I was seven, I was approached by the LA Times to do a comic strip—a “for children, by children” deal. My family turned the offer down, but I set to work anyway! As such, the first comic I created was called It’s a Dog’s Life (starring Fido and Yellow Bellied Kitty). It was a series of gag strips not unlike anything you would see in Garfield or on Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, etc. Fido, a hip dog wearing sunglasses (very similar to Poochie of Itchy and Scratchy fame, despite not having watched The Simpsons until I was in college) would terrorize a yellow cat with conveniently placed props, and the cat would vow revenge only to fall further victim to malfunctioning props of his own.

The first completed comic that anyone ever read, however, was an online comic called Fanfare that I created during my last years of high school. I was trying to pull myself out of a few years of terrible depression by creating a sort of gag-based journal comic, but every time I would relapse into depression the comic would too, and it ended up being terribly uneven. I have a collected print edition of my favorite of the humorous strips and a longer story specifically about overcoming depression and self-doubt; but the whole project went mostly unnoticed outside of my small circle of friends.
 
The indie comix and indie music scenes seem to have an innate connection, attracting a lot of the same people. Why do you think that is? What’s the connection?
Creativity breeds creativity, maybe? I was kind of hoping that by creating anthologies about music and its influence on comic artists that I would come closer to finding that answer myself. Unfortunately, it still seems to elude me. Biologically, I’m sure it has something to do with the right brain connection: the fact that music activates the right brain and artists use the right brain so much for our day-to-day work that there’s some love connection there. But emotionally and psychologically? I really haven’t figured it out yet. Biology is just a fraction of the answer. In the meantime, I’ll continue to search for the answer in the song stylings of comic artists’ bands like The Late Cretaceous, 100 Damned Guns, and James Kochalka Superstar.
 
How did Poseur Ink come about? Had you always had aspirations of starting your own comic company?
When I was really little, I had hopes of working for Disney and working on the next big The Little Mermaid or Aladdin (of course, this was long before Disney actually considered churning out half-hearted sequels to their blockbuster hits). But by the time I was halfway through high school, I knew I was going to be working for myself. I loved having editorial control over my own projects and all the aspects of self-publishing and filed for my first business license as a teen with my parents cosigning since I was a minor.

Poseur Ink was not my first incarnation of a self-publishing company. I started out at 14 under something fluffy like “Moonbunny Creations.” It was all super girlie, super manga-influenced shoujo comics with a variety of themes. When I outgrew that—quickly, as it was not the style for me—I went unnamed for a few years, just listing my email in my zines and mini comics. With the realization that I had a sincere DIY ethic, and that everyone is posing off of infinite influences in their lives, I renamed the company Poseur Ink in 2003. (“Ink” verses “Inc.” because I knew I wanted to work in a variety of ink-related mediums—comics, graphic design, and silk screening—and I have a terrible fondness of puns. Little did I realize this would open me to frequent phone calls asking if we need a printer cartridge supplier or if we were a copy company.)

The company started out small, with only Fanfare and a few zines and 1" buttons under my belt. But we managed to snag a small press table at Comic-Con that year and things took off slow but steady from there. The main halt to the growth of the company was time and startup capital. Mike and I were both in college full-time and working full-time, so we didn’t really have large chunks of free time or money to dedicate to the company. What free time we did have was going to Mod Buttons, creating custom 1" buttons for record labels and other artists. After a fluke sale of merchandise to Hot Topic in 2005 allotted us some startup capital, we expanded Mod Buttons. It rapidly grew large enough to (then just barely) cover both business and personal expenses, and we agreed to quit our day jobs and see if we could make a go of it. It took until the fall of 2007 to make that agreement come to full fruition, but online Mod Buttons sales and convention Poseur Ink sales have kept each other afloat since then.
 
Is it a difficult venture to maintain? Does the business side of it conflict with the artistic side?
Yes! The business side is the one difficult thing about self-publishing. The fact that you do everything is something most people outside of the comic industry don’t realize. We aren’t just a writer-artist hybrid; we’re also busy networking, advertising, maintaining websites, sending out press releases, dealing with printers and distributors, setting up convention schedules, mailing out the orders that do come in…. If you don’t have an agent to deal with the day-to-day and a store handling your merch sales for you—you do everything.

And, truly, that’s just the start. Most self-published artists have day jobs or second businesses to supplement their income, so you do that as well. In conjunction with Poseur Ink, Mike and I are also running Mod Buttons and Totally Awesome Screenprinting, so we’re also processing those custom orders: setting up preexisting designs, doing custom design work, ordering supplies, orchestrating the pressing, printing, and mailing of the shirts and buttons…there is a lot of things we’re juggling and it definitely—and very unfortunately—does take away from my time at my art desk. There have been about three spells since we started full-force in late 2007 that I’ve taken unintentionally 30–90 day hiatuses from my webcomics because I’m busy working on other things. In late 2008, it was the compilation of Side B, and for the last month or two it’s been an overwhelming response of Mod Buttons and Totally Awesome orders. I can’t complain though, because—while I want to be at my art desk more than anything else in the world—the rest of it is keeping a roof over our heads; and I couldn’t be more pleased with that.
 
Can you talk a little bit about the different aspects to Poseur and what you hope to accomplish with it?
Poseur Ink in its current formation is more of a store then anything. It carries all of our in-house work and designs, whether it’s comics, zines, mini comics, 1" buttons, shirts, posters, art prints, whatever. If we created it, it’s in there. We occasionally carry self-published work by our friends on consignment, and just recently acquired a few titles by friends for future publication—both on the web and in print.
Within the next few years, Poseur Ink is going to become solely the publishing front. The online store will only carry the comics and comic-related merchandise, whereas our independent work will have its own affiliated storefront. We’re waiting to branch that off until Mike has completed his degree so he doesn’t have to add yet another thing to his repertoire while he’s still in school.

So Poseur Ink will be the hub with Mod Buttons and Totally Awesome as offshoots for custom merch, and we’ll have our affiliate site for personal work—which will probably also be used to promote ourselves for freelance design work.

Years down the line, once we’re fully established, we would like to open an actual storefront that carries independent comics, music, and merchandise. Someplace that we could hold comic classes, signings, and after-hours punk shows should the mood strike. But we’ll see how that goes. That last one is still a long ways off.
 
What’s next for Poseur? And will there be another music lover’s comic anthology?
Side B arrives on shelves Wednesday, June 3rd. We’ll be selling it for the first time ever at MoCCA that weekend (though we aren’t selling it on the website until July 1st). After we get home from MoCCA, we’ll be moving into new headquarters and I’m going to try and quickly get back on track with my webcomics. There will be a new webcomic under our company by the wonderful Sandra K. Fuhr (of Boy Meets Boy and Friendly Hostility) starting this July shortly before Comic Con.

As far as print comics go, there are a few upcoming titles that I can’t talk about yet; but the future of anthologies from Poseur Ink remains uncertain. We may do another music-themed book with a more specific theme, but until we can think of something amazing, it’s going to have to remain on the back burner. I’m certain we’ll publish more anthologies, but for now the what and when are mysteries.

-- John Hogan