Joel Rivers and the Trials and Tribulations of Self-PublishingA comics interview article by: Daniel Elkin
In the process of randomly pulling comics out of the bargain bin for my Cheap Thrills column, I recently stumbled across Joel Rivers' Along the Canadian. After the column was posted, I got in contact with Joel via social media to let him know how much I enjoyed his book.
The more I thought about his book and how it ended up in the bargain bin, the more questions I came up with. Finally, I asked Joel if he would be willing to talk a little about the fate of Along the Canadian, his experience with the Xeric Foundation, the state of comic book publishing today and what he learned from the experience of self-publishing. Here's what he had to say.
Daniel Elkin for Comics Bulletin: First off, let me tell you again what a treat it was for me to find Along the Canadian. Writing a weekly column about comics I find in the bargain bin can be rather brutal at times, but every once in a while I find a little lost gem. Your book was one of them, and it gave me renewed faith in what I am doing with my column. Can you tell me a little bit about where you got the inspiration for the story, what your influences were and how your background may have played a role in developing Along the Canadian?
Joel Rivers: Well, thanks! Like I said to you earlier, I'm just glad somebody is reading it still. It's humbling to think people see value in something I view as so rough and flawed. I was definitely still just a babe in the woods when I did Along the Canadian.
The inspirations are several. First, my family is from the place that ATC takes place, Oklahoma, Texas. My mother grew up out there, but she's from Kentucky. I grew up in San Francisco, but heard lots of backwoodsy stories, ghost stories, etc. when I was young. Of course, I was influenced a lot by Sergio Leon's spaghetti westerns and some of Clint Eastwood's later western films -- High Plans Drifter and Outlaw Josey Wales especially.
All these characters -- real characters like Belle Starr and Judge Parker -- all feel like kin to me. Superimpose that over the bleak, haunted landscape of Oklahoma and you get Along the Canadian (the main river of the state). You see, I had never been to Oklahoma, and I went out to meet my mother's mother before she died. I was struck by meeting people, family members, that I had never met and a place I had never seen that was still a part of who I am. It's part of my heritage.
I went to stay with my grandparents in Texas as a kid. There was a big trunk full of photos. My uncle was a cowboy poet and wrote about our ancestors -- tall tales, stuff like that. So those movies always felt personal. I felt that as good as those movies are, they never show the various peoples of the Old West -- the Indian people, the settlers, Mexicans, the African-Americans -- they don't show them in the complexity that really existed, especially as it relates to the Five Civilized Tribes.
Like 10 percent or so of Oakies, I'm a little bit Native. A little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll. Maybe five eighths, one grandparent on both sides of my family had that heritage. I'm about as Indian as Keanu Reeves is Hawaiian. Mostly Scots-Irish, Welsh, English and French. And, yeah, we say "Indian" not "Native American". There are no reservations in Oklahoma; that ended with statehood in 1906. We are not on "the rolls" as far as I can find, so there are no papers to prove this. Just the way we look and the fact folks acknowledged it. People like my grandmother just melted into the pot like any other American, but everyone knew she was Indian. It wasn't as cool as it is now. Not out there. That was my dad's mom. My mother also heard a lot about this growing up in Kentucky. Oral tradition was still strong there, so I get my storytelling gene from both sides.
Growing up, it bugged me that Indians are so two-dimensional in all those films. I mean, even Chief Dan George, who is great in Josey Wales, is still just a supporting character. I wanted to show different kinds of Natives and not just "noble savages" or side-kicks. I also wanted to show the settlers in various stripes -- outlaws that might be good and lawmen that might be corrupt. My great-great-grandfather was a sheriff's deputy, and his daughter married a judge. My mother's father was a moonshiner. So I had people on both sides of the law, not just of different ethnicities.
CB: I'd really like to hear about how you went about getting a Xeric grant to publish Along the Canadian. Can you tell me about how that all went down?
Rivers: Well, I tried twice for the Xeric. I was in San Francisco, interning at a non-profit computer school called The Center for Electronic Art. Kinda a fly-by-night operation, wasn't accredited and it closed a year or so later. It went bankrupt. I actually worked there for eight months. Anyway, when you were an intern, they gave you credits for classes instead of paying you. I took a bunch of classes, and one was called "Ethics and Practices." It was a great class, taught by one of the founders of the Graphic Artists Guild. Anyway I learned about the Xeric Foundation that way.
I drew a comic I thought was good, a sword and sorcery thing and applied. Didn't get it that time. Around then my wife and I moved to Maine to get away from the city and all the stressers. In Maine, I wrote and drew the first issue of ATC while I did temp work in offices. I applied again and bingo!
I can say that doing your homework is key to something like that. That and not giving up. I did a budget, and if I didn't understand an instruction in the application, I emailed the Xeric Foundation folks and asked. I reached out to other folks who had won in the past. A few were helpful and gave me pointers. I talked to Diamond Comics Distributors and printers to see what I needed to know about that corner of the business. I spoke to retailers to see what they looked for in a book.
Frankly, I was stunned that I won. I didn't think the book was good enough and, in a way, still don't. I chose to look at it like graduate school and went for it 100 percent. Maybe I was crazy to do that. It's all water under the bridge now.
CB: What is your overall assessment of the Xeric grant process and its impact on you and your work?
I could not have gotten a foot in the door without the Xeric Foundation. That said, once the glow had worn off I don't know if you can expect to be a household name. That didn't happen [for me]. I think for a lot of earlier Xeric winners, it did. A lot of later folks seemed like more established artists that wanted to do a book as a pet project. Which is fine, but I just think that some of that dilutes what it was created to do, [which is to] get truly unknown artists out there. People still mention it went they talk to me, and I am grateful I got it. It's humbling to win something like that. But if you think you're going to be a famous artist after an award, you got another thing coming. You got to follow it with something. I've tried to do that but am still struggling to make a living at my art. I'm closer, and winning the Xeric was an important step in beginning to think of myself as a professional, but the world, and the comics industry, has changed a lot since then.
CB: How do you feel about the fact that the Xeric Foundation will no longer be giving out grants to comic book creators?
Rivers: I actually agree with their decision, in a way. It's a lot easier to get noticed on the web. It costs almost nothing to do a full-color webcomic, whereas you were regulated to doing black-and-white if you wanted to print, because of the cost of printing. I think that more established artists, even people like myself, need to lend a hand to the younger storytellers out there. There will always be storytellers. The media changes, but that fact doesn't.
Still, the money that the Xeric Foundation was granting was, in a sense, wasted, as comic fans don't generally buy books by unknowns and therefore stores don't carry such books, not in numbers that pay back the creators so they can make a profit. That was true eight years ago, and you bet it's true now.
CB: Do you think the comic book market would be more receptive to a book like Along the Canadian now than in 2004?
Rivers: Ha! Maybe. I'd like to think so. People tend to be kind in person, so it means more when someone I've never met gives a good review. I don't think people care about history much. It doesn't impact their daily lives -- so they think -- and so they move on to something with "Boom! Bang! Pow!" as part of the dialogue.
I'm also aware that perhaps, just perhaps, the reason that the book never took off is that it's just not that good. I think my work has always suffered from the fact that I like to eat and live in a house. I'm willing to make a lot of sacrifices for my art. All artists do that. But I've always hung on to having a steady paycheck. I need the health insurance and the security. I have a strong work ethic, and maybe a lot of the artists I meet are just so flakey, I can't see myself as one of them. Until you make that leap fully, you are always a bit on the outside looking in. I've met a lot of great, supportive folks. But, there are also jealous, insecure monsters out there, and some of them are pretty high up the ladder. It's a small industry, so you have to navigate all that. I don't like having to bow my head to idiots, so perhaps that's the problem.
CB: How did you try to market Along the Canadian, and what lessons did you learn from that experience? Is there any advice you would give creators going down the self-publishing route?
Rivers: Market? Well, this was before Facebook or Twitter, kiddies. I paid for a quarter-page ad in Previews ($600). I had five ads in The Comics Journal, a lot less but still expensive. I sent postcards and free comics and free prints to retailers. I promoted the book on forums, went to conventions. I made a website. I spent a small fortune (for me, anyway). My wife supported me through all of it, even though I was a sleep-deprived a-hole for two years.
Nowadays, I would make a Facebook page and promote my work in a more guerrilla fashion. You don't need to do what I did. You need to be smarter than I was. People need to get the word out about their books by any means necessary. Tattoo it to your forehead.
CB: As a creator, what are your thoughts about digital distribution of comics?
Rivers: I'm all for it. Along the Canadian has been on Wowio and Panelfly. Not that it did much in terms of sales, but I think e-books are great. I would never do what I did again -- a bimonthly issue-based comic series. There's no reason. And the work. That'll kill you. Do a webcomic, and when you get enough of it, collect it and make a graphic novel.
My buddy Tom Brown just did exactly that and he's been at it as long as I have. I love books, physical books. I'm 42 and old-fashioned. But after some false starts, digital books are here to stay. The comics industry needs to take its head out of the sand -- or other places -- and start making that a viable revenue stream for the publishers and the artists. Maybe then self-publishing will be profitable. I wrote a whole manifesto about my views on self-publishing, the state of the industry and e-comics about two years ago for an online magazine called the Conductive Chronicle.
CB: You mentioned you are working on some other projects. Would you like to give our readers any hints about what those may be?
I have actually done about six webcomics, at various stages of completion over the years. They are all on my website, joelrivers.com. I've worked with some great writers. Nelson Hall comes to mind. We did Brokenhearted in Bakersfield together. It's kind of like Trailer Park Boys meets On the Road. That was a color comic we pitched at conventions. He's a talented writer, and I wanted to get his story out there. Not much has come of it. I just keep going, though.
I just illustrated a 10-page story for New York comic writer Frank Reynoso called The Hunter, starring a detective character of mine. Frank's going to have that on his table at MOCCA, I believe. I have done some science fiction, Lester Severe and Geeples -- one for adults and one for kids. Just half-completed ideas, really. You can see all this on my site. All of my fiction takes place in the same universe, so I jump around on the time-line. I won't live long enough to flush all of this out, but I hope to do a sequel to Along The Canadian before I check out.
The only way my art has ever made me money is designing websites, logos and, lately, illustrating food labels, of all things. Although, I have been working as a storyboard artist for the last year for an animation start-up in California that a friend helped to start. We are hoping to do some shorts for television. Everyone involved has been super nice and supportive as I learn the ropes. It's a once in a lifetime-type deal. They are all industry pros. I'm really lucky they think I have what it takes to work with them.
Here in Maine, I have also started an LLC with some friends called Out For Justice. I feel pretty hopeful. My business partners out here are all exceptionally talented local guys, Ben Asselin, Ben Bishop and Jason Gorcoff. We hope to design video games and animated shows and toys. I'm the resident storyboarder and hope to try my hand at concept art and sculpture. Looks like we have a client already, and we have a new space to work together in downtown Portland, so things are moving fast and in the right direction. The project we are working on will be at this year's New York Comic Con.
I have always loved animation and film, and that world has been pretty welcoming to me thus far in a way that the comics Industry has never been. It's sad, as comics are my first love. In the back of my head I want to make movies so that I can have the chance to go back and make comics, as backwards as that sounds. I've pitched and submitted to other publishers but nothing has come of it for whatever reason. That's why I like the idea of self-publishing. Originally, I thought it would be a road to being picked up by a "real" publisher. Now I view it differently, and not all is positive with the way the industry picks up new stories and creators. I feel for folks who have their dreams crushed. You have to be strong as hell. As we all know, that first love can break your heart and good.