While some may see Marvel and DC as the end-all-be-all of the comics industry, it is not a universal sentiment. Small press and independent comics have been a constant for the medium for nearly as long as Superman’s existence. Self-published comics and zines ere punk rock on paper, pushing the medium beyond the limits of what readers can think possible. Unfortunately, few comics websites place a bright spotlight on these wonderful book. Your Chicken Enemy is one of those sites. Its owner and publisher, Daniel Elkin, took the time to answer our questions about small press comics and how the medium should be covered.
Daniel Gehen for Comics Bulletin (CB): What motivated you to cover small press comics?
Daniel Elkin: Love and community.
At Small Press Expo (SPX) in 2015, Eleanor Davis won an Ignatz Award for her book How To Be Happy. In her short acceptance speech (which you can watch HERE), she thanked the community and then said:
“We’re here because we want to show each other who we are. We come with stacks of shitty little stapled Xeroxed things that have our whole selves inside. We give them out in defiance and in love. We say, ‘This is me’ … and we say, ‘I see you inside here.’ And we say, ‘Thank you.’ And we say, ‘I hope you make more.’”
This is what I mean when I say love and community.
I initially started writing about small press comics around 2012 because I had discovered so many wonderful books, and I just wanted to talk about them with other people. To my dismay, I found myself having a hard time finding people with whom to have those conversations. So much around the genre is focused on superhero comics and very little bandwidth was given to these “shitty little stapled Xeroxed things” that were so intensely personal and heartfelt and beautiful. So I thought, maybe if I write about them, more people would read them, and then I could talk to people about them. I’m selfish like that.
What happened. though, was all these brave and talented cartoonists started to contact me, thanking me for taking the time to notice them, to say nice things about their work, and to point others in their direction. I was deeply touched by this. Here were these enormously gutsy and gifted artists willing to put their “whole selves” into their spectacular work and then put that work out into the whole world and almost nobody was noticing.
So I decided to become a bell ringer, trying to get people to pay attention to as much of this amazing work as I could. I wanted to support that community. I wanted other people to see and understand and, most importantly, support these incredible artists who had something profound and human and wonderful to say.
In the course of doing that, I found other amazingly talented people who were doing the same thing — writing about these kinds of books — and I wanted to support them and their work as well by adding to the community, amplifying the diversity of voices and ideas and positions and aesthetics and all the wonderful opportunities for expression that creating comics and writing about comics provides.
I connect to this community, the small press comics and the artists who create them. I love what they’re doing and I absolutely want to shine as much light on these works of art and the artists who create them. These people are making beautiful and authentic work. When I consider what I can contribute as a comics reviewer, I’m not at all inspired by the thought of doing a plot recap of a fucking Batman story that has already been done 800 different ways in the past.
I want to be a part of and support a group of artists who have helped bring beauty and connection into the world.
CB: What do you consider small press?
Elkin: Certainly those “shitty little stapled Xeroxed things” — self-published works usually by a single creator — fall into this category. Beyond that, I think the definition is fluid. I mean, I think of publishers like Peow Studios and ShortBox and 2dCloud and Retrofit and Kilgore Books and Tinto Press as small press publishers because they just don’t have the same distribution capacity as publishers with the money and power of multinational corporations behind them.
Then there are publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn + Quarterly who have a much larger reach. Are they still small press books? Image Comics likes to position itself as producing creator-owned content, but I don’t think of them as a small press publisher at all.
Like I said, I think it’s fluid.
I guess a lot of it has to do with distribution, who’s getting paid, what the intent of the work is, and if there are intellectual property lawyers involved.
CB: What qualities do you see in small press comics that differentiates them from mainstream comics?
Elkin: I feel kinda like I’ve answered this a bit already in what I said earlier, so I crowdsourced this one, reaching out to a few other amazing writers who focus a lot of their work on small press comics:
“In the small press, we can reclaim both the idea of comics as a form, as well as comics as a small economy; as communication and exchange.” — Joe McCulloch
“They lend themselves more to an auteur or single-partner approach, as opposed to the assembly line approach of mainstream comics. There is the possibility to see them as art objects in addition to reading them. They lend themselves to genres and forms not often seen in mainstream comics, like comics-as-poetry, abstract comics, or unusual mash-ups or takes on familiar genres.” — Rob Clough
“Small press stuff can range from didactic to subversive in ways that are wayyyy more internally (philosophically) engaging than the mainstream stuff, which is literally designed to forward a brand and exploit the creators” — Austin Lanari
“…the degree of control creators have over their work relative to mainstream comics means that we hear more authentic, no-compromise stories from marginalized creators.” — Sara L. Jewell
CB: What are some resources for people to seek out these books?
Elkin: I highly recommend visiting Your Chicken Enemy, of course, where you’ll always find smart writing about beautiful books. I also put together a weekly ICYMI round-up of some great small press comics criticism that I find out there on the web. That publishes on YCE every Friday.
There are a lot of other great sites that primarily focus on small press books. Right off the top of my head I can think of Sequential State, Broken Frontier, High-Low, Four Color Apocalypse, and Optical Sloth as consistently great resources that cover a diverse set of books. Then there’s always the venerable and venerated The Comics Journal who, whatever you may think of them, always highlight some amazing small press books.
Finally, if you actually can muster the stamina to leave your house, you should go to local comics conventions. There’s always some brave hero or two, sitting between the bootlegged Hentai and the toothless guy who sells swords, that has been pouring their heart out into their own shitty little stapled Xeroxed thing.
Oh, and if you see that there’s a local zine fest going on? Hop on that shit, as you’re bound to find some beautiful and bonkers stuff there.
Then, of course, there’s the larger small press conventions like SPX or TCAF or CAB or CXC or Autopic or Short Run or DiNK. These can be a bit overwhelming, but in terms of discovering new artists making incredible work, they can’t be beat.
CB: Aside from the types of comics it covers, YCE places a specific emphasis on critical analysis. How does YCE’s approach differ from other comics sites?
Elkin: One thing I ask from anyone who pitches me a review is that they try to keep the plot-recap stuff that is often prevalent on a lot of superhero-centric websites to a minimum. I ask that writers who write for YCE take on the bigger picture — ideas around theme and intent — and that everything they write be in service of that exploration. I like writers who tackle how comics, as a medium, are a unique vehicle for communicating ideas and emotions and how cartoonists use the tools inherent in the form to convey these things.
I think small press books lend themselves particularly to that sort of analysis, much more than other types of comics.
That being said, the sites that I mentioned in the previous answer publish these types of in-depth reviews as well, so I’m not sure that my editorial approach to these things differs all that much from other small press focused sites.
CB: What is the biggest problem you see with today comics journalism?
Elkin: First off, I’m not really sure what “comics journalism” actually is, but this is not the time nor the place to parse the semantics of that. I assume your intent in asking this question is to find out what I think the biggest problem is in the way other sites cover comics.
There’s a few things that stick in my craw, none of which are breaking new ground or haven’t been covered by other critics far better than I ever could, but still, I’m going to throw them out here.
To begin, I’m especially leery of the cosy relationship some sites have with the publishers they cover. I think this can limit real criticism and, as well, gives those particular publishers way too much power in that relationship.
Next, there’s some really bad writing out there. This is often a result of sites looking for content and not investing much in it. There are a lot of comics sites online that have “we can’t pay you, but can offer you exposure” in their submission guidelines — and fine, whatever, there’s no money in comics — but I do believe that if your going to just take the result of the labor of others and not give anything back in terms of editorial guidance and/or enhancing skills, then you shouldn’t be publishing at all. Just go back to blogging.
A great example of doing it right is the site Women Write About Comics. Even though they don’t pay their writers, from what I understand they provide incredible editorial oversight — really working with writers to help them not only craft a great piece of criticism, but also guide their writers in terms of navigating social media, pitching to paying sites, and building community. WWAC is a great go-to site for writers just starting out in the industry.
Personally, I’m lucky enough that I have found an additional revenue source from my day job as a teacher that allows me to pay the people who write for YCE (although it’s nowhere near what they deserve). I think it should be the goal of every site out there to figure out how to compensate the people who write for them. This “giving away the milk” shit has been going on for far too long, and it’s undermining the entire industry and reverberating in all sorts of other places.
Still, though, I guess my biggest gripe about “comics journalism” is that there is too much damn Batman.
CB: Do you have a favorite comic or graphic novel?
Elkin: Am I the only one who has grown weary of the term “graphic novel”? Probably. I can be such a damn snob sometimes.
Anyway, my first thought in answer to this question goes to Stray Toasters by Bill Sienkiewicz. It was such a seminal book for me. My buddies Keith Silva and Justin Giampaoli took a deep dive with me on that one a few years back. I’m particularly proud of the writing we did on that piece. I re-ran it on YCE not all that long ago, and it may even still be up on Comics Bulletin?
But. really, to single out one book as a “favorite” is pretty much impossible for me. I mean how do you pick a favorite in the midst of books like Eel Mansions by Derek Van Gieson, Your Mother’s Fox by Niv Sekar, After Laughter by Jonathan Djob Nkondo, Kindling by Xia Gordon, or anything by artists such as Tommi Parrish, Leslie Stein, Simon Moreton, Theo Ellsworth, Julia Gfrörer, Andrea Shockling, Roman Muradov, or Tara Booth? It’s like asking my mother to choose which of her children was her favorite and then watch her pretend to hem and haw when all along we all know the answer is me.
Oh! And have you seen those comics that Seo Kim has been putting up on Vice lately? Man, I love those.
CB: Do you enjoy any corporate comics?
Elkin: The reason I even know that comics are a thing is because of Chris Claremont/John Bryne/TerryAustin’s X-Men.
And, by god, I’ll go to the fucking mat for anything Steve Gerber wrote for Marvel Comics, especially Man-Thing. ESPECIALLY MAN-THING!
I will also always have a soft spot for the work of Don McGregor. And Chase Magnett made me like Cosmic Odyssey.
Oh, and I can’t forget World’s Finest Comics # 289 from DC.
But, and this is VERY IMPORTANT, as Grimdark Emo Robin said recently in that trailer for that show, “Fuck Batman.”
CB: Knowing that you’re an aficionado on the subject… is a hotdog a sandwich?
Elkin: Pfffffffffttttttt…… Of course a hot dog is a sandwich.
So are Chicken Nuggets.