At the risk of sounding grandiose, Austin English is a bit of a renaissance man in the truest sense of that term — through his utterly unique cartooning, his publishing efforts with Domino Books, his eclectic comics distribution service (I number myself among its regular customers), his position as editor of the must-read ‘zine But Is It — Comic Aht?, and his new wholesale venture, he’s one of the people most responsible for pushing this medium we all love forward in no small way. I recently had the chance to converse with him about where his various and sundry projects came from, where they’re at now, and where they’re going —
Four Color Apocalypse : For readers who may not be aware of Domino, what was the impetus behind its creation, and how long has it been a going concern now?
Austin English : I started Domino in 2011. The reason for starting it is pretty much the same reason I continue to do it: there’s so much work in comics that gets written off as ‘weird,’ or ‘not really comics,’ or ‘is this even a comic?,’ or (my absolute least favorite) ‘artsy’. These terms really do a disservice to cartooning, as they are used to describe work that, in any other medium, is pretty normal or commonplace. Comics, for whatever reason, resists even basic modernism…and maybe this is what continues to allow it to be vital. It’s still very pure, in a way. I’m a huge fan of the most simplistic, by the book, basic storytelling comics, that’s a part of the medium that I’ll never let go of in my heart. It has huge, obvious merits. But there are other approaches to comics storytelling besides the most dominant one that are of value, that move people and that serve a function in people’s lives. And there is so much of this kind of work. It only seems to be ‘not really comics’ because it’s always maligned or outright ignored by most comics institutions.
I think, on a fundamental level, this is bad business. Comics people tend to think that readers only accept a certain kind of comics, and most institutions define themselves as providing either the trash of that kind of comic, or the high end of that kind of comic. I think that’s underestimating readers and alienating a huge potential audience. So…with Domino, my task at the beginning was to group a lot of uncommon comics together, to make a statement, to treat this work with dignity. To readers and artists, the value of this work has always been clear, but they’ve been left with few options to either express themselves or to simply read. I think it took close to a decade for this statement to get digested beyond people that already got it, even in some small fashion. But ten years after founding Domino, I think it’s making some sense, albeit in a very minor way.
4CA : Do you view your role along the lines of that of an “acquisitions editor,” or do you view yourself as purely a distributor? In other words, if a comic that doesn’t meet certain aesthetic criteria — however arbitrary they may be — is sent your way, would you still be willing to distribute it?
On a related note, and I’m certainly not asking you to single anything out by name here, but have you ever distributed a comic that you think has literary and/or artistic merit that you don’t personally like?
AE : Running the Domino store and the new wholesale operation are going to be very different. I’m not so invested in what I personally like. I don’t think that’s so interesting and I think people involved in any kind of curation have to get over that. With the store, I try to plug in anything that feels undeniable to me, in the sense that it’s something that is an honest expression. I may not connect with it, but as long as there isn’t a heavy dose of cynicism, it’s an undeniable component of current comics. It’s important to include work like that, because once you do, more people who you’re unaware of (or your own tastes aren’t ready for yet) will submit their work, slowly changing a store that could have been your own simplistic vision into something much larger and more interesting.
But with the wholesale venture, I’m limited at the outset in terms of storage space, because I’m amassing these books in bulk. So, I’m trying to make a distilled offering of all the different parts of the store as I start out, something that I think will work well for adventurous retailers. If everything works out and I can afford to maybe rent some space to house more comics at some point down the line, then the wholesale catalog can hopefully be as wide ranging as the store itself.
4CA : What do you see as the biggest challenges facing small press and/or self-publishing cartoonists in terms of getting their work in front of a larger audience?
AE : I really think it’s lack of readership. Even if an independent artist gets picked up by a great publisher, there just isn’t the audience to make a book worked on for years and years profitable enough so that the artist can sustain themselves from being a cartoonist alone. There are obvious exceptions, but probably enough to count on one hand. I don’t think publishers are lazy, I don’t think retailers are lazy, and I certainly don’t think the artists are. But there’s a disconnect between all three entities in connecting with the crucial other group: readers. I don’t think Diamond helps with this but I don’t think bookstore distributors are much better. The comic direct marker and the bookstore market are pretty hostile to personal work in general, let alone formally challenging personal work. Readers, in my experience with Domino, are actually hungry for this stuff. It’s just a question of getting it in front of them and giving them a chance. Without that connection to readers, even the most brilliant cartoonists are just going to keep printing ever diminishing runs of their work and the audience will contract once again.
If there is a way to expand readership, it needs to be explored. Domino has maybe expanded readership for certain artists by…20 people? That’s not going to change things much. But if there’s a way to bring bookstores in and have people encounter this work outside of the internet bubble that’s aware of these things already, that could be helpful. And if ten people besides myself, John P. and a few others work on these things, that’d be a good start.
4CA : With you broadening out into the wholesale market, will Domino continue to function as a publishing entity as well, or do time concerns necessitate your scaling back publishing operations a bit in order to make sure this new venture is successful?
AE : No, if anything, I want to publish more now. I think so much of comics (again, not counting the artists and readers) is contracting away from the kind of work Domino is most interested in. I think now’s the time to flood the market with as much challenging work as possible, since there’s anything but a glut of non-commercial comics right now.
4CA : On an unrelated note, your first book-length comic is a good few years is due out soon. What can you tell readers about MESKIN AND UMEZO without tipping your hand too much?
AE : The printer proofs just came in today and I’m excited to approve them tomorrow morning. I really can’t wait to send out copies to everyone who pre-ordered it. I worked on this for four years and I hate summarizing what it’s about, but : I drew it in such a way as to let two characters talk to each other and shift the narrative based on what they say page by page. After the first two years of working on it, I latched on to a strain of conversation that really meant something to me, and went back and redrew the first half of the book for another year and a half to re-congeal that thread of dialogue. I think, in the end, it becomes an exchange between these two characters that I couldn’t have written in any other way except as a comic with these specific drawings. I just want it to be in the mail and heading to peoples’ houses. Publishing it through Domino means a hell of a lot to me. If only I’d made the paper it’s printed on myself, all the way from pulp to printed page…then it’d really be something. But I’m not that crazy.
4CA : And finally, in an ideal word, where do you see Domino in five years’ time? What would you like to see continue and what would you like to see change, both in terms of your own publishing and distribution operations specifically, and in the broader independent or “alternative” comics market in general?
AE : I want Domino to remain a store where any kind of expression can have some connection to readers and I want the wholesale operation to work out so that there’s an option to get that kind of expression to people who aren’t already part of the choir, people who need to stumble upon that kind of thing by chance. Lots of people do need that. I think comics right now has so many artists and readers who have a lot to exchange with each other, a lot of contact to be made. I don’t think there’s anything in life that I value more than interacting with people through their art. But I’m not sure if comics as a whole right now serves that necessary function as well as it could. It feels like a crucial moment, where things could unfortunately get even more corporatized than they are already. There are so many good people working behind the scenes in comics who continue to perform one of the hardest tasks imaginable: getting work that has a real function and real worth into readers’ lives. If Domino can play any role in being an instrument for that to happen, then that’s what I want it to be doing in five years.
Thank you, Austin, for your time and thoughtful responses! Please find more from and about Austin and Domino at the following sites :