From Random House to Rehab: Julia Wertz, The Small Press, Auteurism and Alternative Comics by Paddy Johnston

16 Sep

Brooklyn-based autobiographical cartoonist Julia Wertz published her first graphic novel, Drinking at the Movies, through Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Random House, during a brief period which she depicts in her second book, The Infinite Wait, as something of a minor boom in interest in comics from mainstream book publishers. However, once this period was over and the sales of Drinking at the Movies had proved lower than expected (in the words of Wertz’s publisher, ’these numbers would be great if it was with a smaller comics press, but since it’s with a major publisher whose standards are much higher…’) (Wertz 2012: 91), Wertz found herself dropped from her publisher. The Infinite Wait was published in 2012 by Koyama Press, a Canadian small press. Wertz is more comfortable with this arrangement, as evidenced by her autobiographical stories’ portrayals of events. Drawing herself writing to Annie Koyama, publisher of Koyama Press, she says ‘I just want to be with my people,’ (Wertz 2012: 93) the implication being that mainstream book publishers, despite their ability to pay her enough money to enable full-time cartooning, are not a home for the work of an alternative cartoonist. This article will explore the relationship between small presses and alternative comics, with Wertz’s two graphic novels and their publishing background as a case study, examining Wertz’s above implication that her work is best suited to being published with a small press.

Drinking at the Movies is a typical alternative autobiographical comic. It tells the story of Wertz’s first year in New York, moving over from a mostly comfortable life in San Francisco for a change of scene, a period in which she was also breaking into the world of alternative comics and small presses with her first book, The Fart Party, published by Baltimore-based comic shop and small press Atomic Books in 2007. The majority of Drinking at the Movies is composed of short anecdotes, punctuated with acerbic and often puerile humour, even when dealing with serious subjects such as divorce, alcohol abuse, financial difficulty and health problems. In its candid portrayal of trauma and heavy subject matter, Wertz’s work draws upon existing traditions of graphic memoir as established by the works of Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel (to name but two of many cartoonists), but doesn’t take itself too seriously. The book ends with Wertz settling in New York permanently, and The Infinite Wait, in part, picks up where Drinking at the Movies ends and covers the transition to Koyama Press.

The front page of Koyama Press’ website states that its ‘mandate is to promote and support a wide range of emerging and established artists. Projects include comics, art books and zines.’ (Koyama, 2014). A search on the ‘Wayback Machine’ internet archive [1] (2014) reveals that this mandate was placed on the site in 2013; until this point, the homepage’s text read ‘Koyama Press was founded in 2007 to sponsor projects with emerging artists. The rationale behind the enterprise is to fund a project with the intention to promote the artist. Ideally there will be a product to sell to create revenue.’ (Koyama, 2010). Koyama Press’ aim, therefore, has been to support artistry ahead of profit from its initial conception, and this explains Wertz’s desire to publish with Koyama and Koyama’s acceptance of The Infinite Wait. a book which Wertz found was not easy to sell to major publishers due to its focus on telling the story of her diagnosis of systemic lupus, a narrative which she was not willing to compromise on, as evidenced by the written introduction to The Infinite Wait. ‘The book I really wanted to do,’ Wertz writes, ‘centered around my diagnosis of systemic lupus when I was 20. But when I finally decided to make it, I was told by industry types that “a book about lupus would not have mass appeal,” despite the 1.5 to 2 million lupus patients in the U.S. alone.’ (Wertz, 2012: 3). Earlier in the introduction she puts this in more polemical terms, stating that ‘large publishers don’t like to dabble in the absurd unless the author is a proven bestseller.’ (Wertz, 2012: 13).  Koyama Press’ willingness to ‘dabble in the absurd’ and to support the artist’s vision over the potential for sales, therefore, can be assumed to be a major factor in Wertz’s decision to publish with Koyama Press.

The Infinite Wait is written and drawn in the same visual style as Drinking at the Movies, and is still rife with the crass humour, profanity and painfully honest depictions of her failures that readers have come to expect from her previous works. However, there is a marked maturity and refinement to it, as she continues to explore the larger themes she began to touch upon in her first graphic novel. The central story concerns her Lupus diagnosis and the remaining two are shorter anecdotes about jobs and libraries. The book concludes with her finding Drinking at the Movies in the catalogue at her hometown’s library, despite thinking herself too “indie” to be there. The two books she published before Drinking at the Movies, volumes one and two of The Fart Party, would most likely have been too indie to be found in a local library. Quite aside from their rawness and their more obviously puerile content, which can be seen in a section called “Museum of Mistakes” on Wertz’s website, these books were initially self-published as mini-comics before being collected into books by Atomic Books. These two books are now out of print and difficult to acquire, but a retrospective collection is due to be released later this year.

In her career Wertz has gone from self-publishing mini-comics to publishing books with a small press, to publishing graphic novels with a mainstream publisher. This would seem, initially, to be a linear and unsurprising progression. However, after moving upwards to Random House with a contract enabling her to become a full-time cartoonist, Wertz broke the linearity of this progression by choosing to publish with Koyama Press. There are a number of works in comics scholarship which can contextualise Wertz’s publishing choices through their discussion of alternative comics and explain Wertz’s break from this progression.

Douglas Wolk’s book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean sets out a somewhat radical dichotomy which is returned to throughout its essays on various creators. What he proposes is that there are “art comics” and “mainstream comics,” perhaps an oversimplified view of comics, but a useful one and one which suggests a context into which Wertz’s work fits. Wolk is quick to point out that he is not making a value judgement when he refers to “art comics,” but rather that he is using the word “art” to distance a certain type of comics from the many comics produced within the genre-driven mainstream. Art comics, he says, ‘privilege the distinctiveness of the creator’s hand, rather than the pleasures of the tools of genre and readerly expectation.’ (Wolk, 2007: 30) For Wertz, the distinctiveness of her hand is key, as she provides a rare combination of candid autobiography and puerile humour from a feminine perspective, and is single-minded in her desire to retain control over her narrative, evidenced again by the introduction to The Infinite Wait, in which she states ‘I hate it when anyone tries to be the boss of me, it will only ensure that I will do the opposite of what they say.’ (Wertz, 2012: 3). What also characterises Art Comics, according to Wolk, is auteurism – the emphasis and focus on the creator and the creator’s realisation of their artistic vision, as distinct from the “assembly line” production methods of the mainstream, with its history of “work-for-hire” contracts and deadline-based business. Although what Wolk would refer to as mainstream comics [2] do now have much more of a focus on creators, they are still made by numerous workers in a corporate setting and, as Wolk reminds us, under constant deadline pressure. This is not to say that art comics will be free of deadlines, but these are likely to be fewer and further between than those of the mainstream publishers.

The works Wolk calls “art comics” can be understood as a similar, if not the same, category of comics as those labelled “alternative comics” by Charles Hatfield in his book of the same name, although Hatfield’s definition assumes comics are a literary form, rather than engaging with them as art as Wolk does. The heart of both their definitions points toward the individual freedoms which characterise alternative comics, such as freedom from commercialism or corporate structure, which can be traced back to the underground comix revolution that began in the sixties, spearheaded by Robert Crumb’s self-published comics in homage to the satire of MAD magazine. Hatfield also uses the term “auteurism,” writing of the underground comix that they ‘introduced an “alternative” ethos that valued the productions of the lone cartoonist over collaborative or assembly-line work. In essence, comix made comic books safe for auteur theory: they established a poetic ethos of individual expression.’ (Hatfield, 2005: 16). Alternative Comics analyses Art Spiegelman, the Hernandez brothers and Justin Green, all of whom fit into both Wolk’s category of “art comics” and Hatfield’s view of alternative comics as an auteur-driven product of the underground comix movement. Hatfield also suggests that as an “emerging literature,” they are still growing and developing, a viewpoint which Douglas Wolk shares, saying they are improving in quality and number with a steep curve. Hatfield called his study a ‘progress report’ (Hatfield, 2005: xv) in its introduction and, indeed, since the book was published in 2005 alternative comics has continued to develop, with Wertz’s works and the publishing of Koyama Press being just one example of such a development.

Hillary Chute’s Graphic Women also supports the idea of alternative comics as a product of the underground comix movement, and traces the thread of freedom and auteurism through from the sixties to the recent works of Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, all of whom have contributed to the emergence described by Hatfield – Satrapi and Bechdel, in particular, have won or been nominated for various literary prizes, while Kominsky-Crumb is credited with ‘expand[ing] [comics] to include the texture of women’s lives’ (Chute, 2010: 20). ‘The underground,’ Chute writes, ‘shifted what comics could depict (its purview, its content) and, crucially, how it could depict. The underground saw its rigorous, unprecedented experiments in form as avant-garde; without the considerations of commerce, comics was liberated to explore its potential as an art form.’ (Chute, 2010: 14) This liberation provided the space for the growth of auteurism acknowledged by Wolk and Hatfield, and also, Chute reminds us, opened up alternative comics as a space for women’s narratives, evidenced by those that followed such as Wertz’s two graphic novels.

Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith’s The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture also engages directly with the idea of auteurism as one key to the development of comics as an art form, borrowing the term from film theory exactly as Wolk does and offering Harvey Kurtzman as one such example of an auteur alongside Alan Moore (Duncan and Smith, 2009: 118). Moore’s status as an auteur is useful here, as I do not wish to imply that an auteur cannot exist in the mainstream; an auteur can, of course, exist in any sphere of artistic production. Rather, I wish to show that a desire for auteurism is often a key reason a cartoonist will choose to publish with a small press, and a driver of the close relationship between alternative comics and small presses, with Wertz’s work as a case study. Although Duncan and Smith give examples of auteurism within mainstream comics, they acknowledge shortly after that mainstream comics have ‘traditionally relied on character-driven marketing based on the readers’ recognition of the property more than the creative personnel who produced it,’ (Duncan and Smith, 2009: 120) reinforcing the idea established by Wolk, Hatfield and Chute that alternative comics grew from the underground comix movement into a space for individual expression, free from commercial imperative, which celebrates individuals and thus promotes auteurs.

For Wertz, these values are key, and are the reason she chose to return to a small press after publishing with Random House. Wertz’s return to a small press can be read as a rehabilitation that came in tandem with her own entry into a rehab facility in 2010 immediately after she published Drinking at the Movies, hence the title of this article. The written introduction to The Infinite Wait is enlightening regarding the necessity of a rehabilitation. In short, Wertz writes that the idea for writing a book about her Lupus diagnosis was seen as risky by Random House, and goes on to explain the decision to publish with Koyama Press as being one driven by their willingness to take risks and to give her control over her work. Her assertion that ‘large publishers don’t like to dabble in the absurd unless the author is a proven bestseller’ (Wertz, 2012: 3) is based on her experience with Random House, but she does not specify, allowing the statement to cover all large publishers. For Wertz, the dichotomy is between large book publishers and small presses, rather than the divide between small presses and genre-driven mainstream comics publishers established by Wolk. However, the perceived negative aspects of publishing with a book publisher such as Random House are the same as those attributed to mainstream comics publishers in the text I have discussed above: what Chute refers to as ‘considerations of commerce’ (2010, 14).

Wertz uses the term “alternative comics” herself and is clearly aware of her work being alternative, or indie – she goes to lengths to define herself as so, setting herself up as indie now that big publishers no longer perceive indie graphic novels as a ‘hot new thing’ (Wertz, 2012: 93). However, the key sentence in the introduction to The Infinite Wait is ‘I refuse to be told what to do by people I don’t know regarding how to create something that will appeal to the masses I’ve never met.’ (Wertz, 2012: 3) This is central to Wertz’s decision to publish with Koyama Press rather than to pursue a compromise with Random House, despite the greater potential for financial reward that Random House may have offered. Wertz’s bold statement of refusal echoes Hatfield’s idea of a ‘poetic ethos of individual expression,’ which is also echoed in Koyama Press’ mandate. For Wertz, whose drive to publish a narrative about her Lupus diagnosis and unwillingness to compromise her own vision led her to leave a mainstream publisher, this ethos is the heart of alternative comics, and as this ethos was not fully realized for her until she found a home at Koyama Press, it is clear that the small press was a significant factor in this decision and that there is thus a relationship between small presses and alternative comics, based on the shared idea of celebrating the auteur cartoonist which was established by the underground comix movement and has continued to run through alternative comics as they have developed.

Wertz is, of course, just one example of an alternative cartoonist whose work finds its most comfortable and logical home with the small press. This fact does not mean that a mainstream book publisher, or indeed a mainstream comics publisher, could not provide a home for an auteur cartoonist or help them realise their work and their vision in a satisfactory fashion. Maus, which Chute desrcibes as a text absolutely essential to the development of alternative comics, was published by Penguin, and the works of Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi she analyses were published by mainstream book publishers. Alan Moore is, as Duncan and Smith remind us, one of the most notable auteurs in the history of comics as an art form. But Wertz’s sense of comfort in publishing with Koyama Press, evidenced throughout The Infinite Wait, is indicative of the small press’ ability to help creators of alternative comics fully realise their vision for a comic, and that cannot be underestimated.

Works Cited

Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Duncan, Randy and Smith, Matthew. The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. New York: Continuum, 2009.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Koyama, Annie. “Koyama Press.” Accessed 21st April, 2014.

Koyama, Annie. “Koyama Press.” Accessed 9th June, 2010.

“Wayback Machine Internet Archive.” Accessed 4th May, 2014.

Wertz, Julia. Drinking at the Movies. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010.

Wertz, Julia. The Fart Party. Baltimore: Atomic Books, 2007.

Wertz, Julia. The Infinite Wait. Toronto: Koyama Press, 2012.

Wertz, Julia. “Museum of Mistakes.” Accessed 21st April, 2014.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2007.

Paddy Johnston is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, currently working towards his PhD in English. His thesis is entitled ‘Working With Comics’ and will examine what it means to create cultural work as a cartoonist, with attention to art pedagogy, materiality, colour, digital comics and the influence of literary modernism. He has recently given papers at the Transitions 4 symposium in London, Comics Forum and the Comics and the Multimodal World conference in Vancouver and has been published in The Comics Grid journal and is a contributor to the comics blog Graphixia. He is the creator of the webcomic Best Intentions and is also a singer/songwriter and writer of fiction for the One Hour Stories podcast.

[1] – A website which periodically archives all other webpages, allowing users to browse the past content of a given website.

[2] – Wolk provides a more detailed summary of his divisions on pages 47-48 of Reading Comics, with the mainstream described thus: “The first is the mainstream: the majority of comics from long-running superhero publishers DC and Marvel, both of which make a lot of their profits from characters and franchises rather than directly from particular creators’ work. A handful of smaller companies like Image and Dark Horse also publish some comics with the tone and style that mark them as mainstream; in most cases, the particular cartoonists who work on projects like Conan and Spawn are, again, less important than their characters and concepts.” (Wolk, 2007: 47)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated on the 17th of September to correct a factual error.]

1 Comment

Posted by on 2014/09/16 in Guest Writers


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One response to “From Random House to Rehab: Julia Wertz, The Small Press, Auteurism and Alternative Comics by Paddy Johnston

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