Friday, December 27, 2013

Why Don't People Read the GOOD STUFF?

It's about 6:30am and I've been up for about an hour and a half. Had a weird dream that I was castrated and my genitals had to be rebuilt so that I could conceive another child. What the hell was that about? Anyway, couldn't get back to sleep after that.

I came across part II of Zak Sally's 'History of La Mano' over at his blog. If you don't know Zak, you should. I really really love his comics. They're dark and weird, they're sloppy and perfect, they're wordy and sparse, all at the same time.

When I read Cormac McCarthy, it takes months to finish a book because I want to get everything out of every sentence. I pick it up, read a paragraph, I put it down. I come back to it a week later. It's the same with Zak's comics. I find it hard to just tear through one of his comics, the way I do with so many other creators. I want to really soak up every panel, every word, every stray ink speck, because the guy packs a wallop.

You know the expression, 'leave it all on the field'? I really don't care for football, but Jesus H., Zak leaves every ounce on the page, holding nothing back.

Here's the thing, though. Nobody reads this guy's stuff. His incredible collection, 'Like a Dog' is currently ranked at 1,952,838 in Books on Amazon. How is that even possible? He's published by Fantagraphics, he gets amazing reviews, he does stuff for TCJ, did great work at Mome, gets nominated for awards, and is a legitimate, long-term player in indie comics.

And, not unlike the first 27 years of Cormac McCarthy's career, nobody's buying it. Blood Meridian -- arguably McCarthy's greatest work and considered one of the greatest American novels of the 21st century, couldn't even sell through it's first print run of a scant 5,000 copies. A bunch of copies were remaindered and sold for $1.99, and that was perhaps the best-selling of his first five novels. He too won accolades, was praised effusively by critics, but that didn't translate into sales (until 1992's 'All the Pretty Horses' that is).

Zak's a lot like that. 'Like a Dog' is currently the highest ranking of his books on Amazon. His other books, 'Recidivist' and Vols 1 & 2 of the incredible 'Sammy the Mouse' all languish well below the two million mark for sales on Amazon.

While it's infuriating to see such a talented guy go unsupported, it's all the more so because he's not just talented, he has a really unique voice and sensibility. I'm just glad he's a tenacious mother who'll never quit. Otherwise, I could see him hanging up his brushes for good.

So, the question remains, why the hell am I one of seemingly two hundred people who love Zak's comics? At first I went to our similarities. We're roughly the same age, both love comics, both love the cold, like the same music, have similar punk rock ideologies. How could I not love this dude? Plus, he's an incredible musician, is a comics printer and publisher, and a seemingly really good dad. Oh, and he lives in Minneapolis, perhaps the greatest city around.

To test this theory, I gave my fifteen year old comics loving niece a stack of his comics as a gift. She's into the good stuff -- for her last birthday, I commissioned John P. to draw her a mouse with some cheese which she went ape over. But I thought, could this teenage girl dig Zak's stuff? She LOVED IT.  I gave her a stack with some Chris Ware, Jason, Marjane Satrapi, Gabrielle Bell, and others, and it was 'Recidivist' and 'Like a Dog' that she kept raving about.

So, then I got a new theory -- I'm a process guy. One of my favorite things in music is liner notes on a record. I love knowing how things are made. Where did this idea come from and so forth. And the same is true of comics. I love knowing what materials were used, I love seeing artists' studio spaces, I love original art, and sketchbooks.

Zak's the same. The end of 'Like a Dog' comes with ten pages of context, ephemera, stories, and context that -- for me -- really help shape the stories. Knowing the background for me always makes the stories richer and the reading better.

And, let's be honest, Zak LOVES to talk about that stuff. This is not a slam or a tease, I love artists who really get into the background.

This may also explain why so many other artists love/respect Zak's work -- generally it's the insiders who want to know how the sausage is made.

In the late '80's, Rolling Stone did a cover story on R.E.M. in which Peter Buck said, 'we're the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff', which didn't make a lot of sense to 12-year old me. I just thought they were weird and neat. Stipe wore dresses on stage, they talked shit about Reagan, what's not to love? For a kid growing up in backwater America, pre-internet, R.E.M. counted as interesting and/or experimental. It took me years, however, to really get into bands like The Minutement, Mission of Burma, or other bands that were a little more challenging than R.E.M.

What I realize now is, in every 'movement' there will be those artists who make a collective idea palatable to the masses. This is not a bad thing. In the independent comics community (very very loosely described) you have folks like Chris Ware, who most folks can read and get into. It's sad, beautiful and totally accessible work for someone willing to give it half a chance.

Zak's work is also sad and beautiful, but it's sorrow is a little deeper, a little darker. Perhaps it's as simple as geography. Zak puts to paper the grim desolation that exists in places like North Dakota and Minnesota. The oppressive dark, the long winter, the places where there's no escape, except perhaps some relief brought by booze. Contrast that to Ware's Chicago. A place that's depressing, sure, but a place where you can escape from. O'Hare can fly you away. Lake Michigan, like an ocean represents departure and travel. Movie houses, plays, concerts, all the benefits of a city exist in Ware's work, but are painfully absent from Zak's.

As a kid who grew up in a town of 900 with winters so grey and long they seemed to last forever, I really identify with Zak's reference points far more than almost any other cartoonist. My niece, by the way, is growing up just one town over from where I grew up. Maybe that's why she was so psyched to get Sammy Vol. 2 this year.

No comments:

Post a Comment