A TRANSGRESSIVE FUSION of somber oil painting and digital color-bombing slickness, of idealized portraiture and grotesque exhibitionism, Christian Rex van Minnen’s “Born Bad” cover for the second issue of Fantagraphics Books’s Now: The New Comics Anthology graphically encapsulates series editor Eric Reynolds’s subversive yet tactically balanced approach to the craft of editing. In his decades of work with Fantagraphics — he currently serves as the house’s associate publisher — Reynolds has always brought nuance, good humor, and a punk ethos to the books and anthologies he’s edited. For the Eros Comix porn anthology Dirty Stories (1997–2000), Reynolds adopted an editorial style that was simultaneously ironic and sincere — exploring, with a strong dose of the comical, the porous boundaries between art and pornography. With his most lauded anthology series, MOME (2005–2011), Reynolds created the comics world equivalent of literary magazines such as the Evergreen Review or Tin House, emulating these literary models in order to assert the on-par artistry of contemporary comics.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, it’s clear that what Reynolds does as an editor requires a great deal of creativity, good taste, and dedication, all qualities that are once again on display in his newest editorial endeavor. Launched in late 2017, Now marks a move toward a strain of egalitarianism that asserts that quality comics don’t have to be unaffordable. Each issue of Now is packed with masterful short stories by mainstay and emerging artists working both domestically and abroad. Yet it only costs 10 bucks. Many of the stories in the series are as challenging and uncomfortable as the times in which we live. Avoiding explicit political partisanship, Reynolds instead threads a subtle subtext of insurrection and critique into his selection of artists and stories. Neither merely a sampler of some of today’s most talented artists nor a purposeful attempt at canon-making, Now ultimately aims to ignore borders rather than build walls.
COLIN BEINEKE: The subtitle of Now is “The New Comics Anthology.” As you know, the phrase “The New Comics” was frequently bandied about in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s to describe a diverse mixture of emerging work that ultimately cohered into what has been called the “alternative” movement. Is your use of “new comics” meant to invoke this comparison?
ERIC REYNOLDS: You know, the actual answer is much more boring. [Laughs.] When I conceived of the title, I was really convinced, “Oh, this is a great title. It has resonance, and graphically it’s nice and short.” I like really short and punchy titles that lend themselves to a lot of design options, which a really long title often won’t do. So, I was totally satisfied with myself for coming up with this great title that remarkably has not really been used by anyone else, as far as I could tell. The one thing that I did not think about was: it’s very un-Google-able. [Laughs.] And so as soon as the first issue came out — the first issue doesn’t yet have the subtitle — I had several people point out to me that it was pretty fucking hard to search online. After some brief consultations, Norton said, “Oh, just give it a subtitle that will help on that front.”
Is there possibly a slight subconscious homage to Raw with the three-letter title?
Oh, I think that’s true. Raw and Zap. Mad, you name it. There’s a tradition there that I’m trying to tap into, for sure.
What are some other anthologies that stand out to you, or that you have taken inspiration from? I know you have been in the anthology game for a long time.
When I first started getting into what I think are good comics there was Raw and Blab. I really liked Blab when it started. In the 1990s you had Zero Zero, which was great. I’m sure I’ll forget a bunch that really kicked my ass at the time. I loved Snake Eyes, Mark Newgarden and Glenn Head’s anthology. More recently, probably the same that a lot of people would mention: I love Kramers Ergot — and not just because we publish it and Sammy Harkham is a good friend. I worked with him to get Fantagraphics to publish Kramers because I’ve been a huge fan of it from the start.
At the same time, as much as I love Kramers, Now is also sort of a reaction to it, in as much as I just want something that comes out regularly and that people can afford to buy, without feeling like they’re taking a big risk in doing so. You brought up the economics of comics, and I really believe that’s a real problem for comics as a popular medium: they’re way too expensive relative to other media.
Which issue of Kramers Ergot is it that weighs 800 pounds? In terms of affordability and access that would definitely seem to limit who can get their hands on it.
Number 7 is the really large hardcover that cost like 100 to 125 bucks. And it’s a fucking brilliant book. It’s one of my favorite comics objects of the last 20 years. But again, I know something like that isn’t an option for a lot of people. I feel like it’s really important to keep Now affordable for it to function in the way it’s intended.
In your introduction to the series you speak almost as much about economics as you do about art, especially in terms of your desire to balance affordability and quality for readers. What is it that you want readers to get for the money they spend on Now?
Their money’s worth! That’s the simplest way to put it. Of course, I want them to feel challenged, and to feel like Now is providing a sense of discovery, and for the work to engage the reader in meaningful ways beyond just pure escapism. But at the end of the day, I want someone to feel like it was 10 bucks well spent. I believe a lot of comics are bought and consumed out of some sense of collector obligation or impulse. I want you to be looking forward to the next issue.
Given Fantagraphics’s access to the market and reputation within the field, when you select what to include in issues of Now what sort of responsibility do you feel to your readership and to new artists? In a sense, editing an anthology like Now is a gatekeeping position.
I do feel a genuine responsibility on that front. You’re trying to thread a needle of quality but also trying to provide a gateway drug for comics fans into other stuff. But you have to balance that with the type of work that you’re running. There’s a lot of work that I like but I wouldn’t necessarily run in Now: a lot of more outré, avant-garde, more transgressive, more provocative stuff that I genuinely get off on as a fan of comics, but I wouldn’t necessarily think would be the best thing to put in Now. You’re constantly, whether you want to admit it or not, balancing aesthetics and common sense and market considerations. Not just because you, as a publisher, want to make money, which is invariably true, but also because you want to be a good ambassador for the work.
Some publishers use the anthology format as a testing ground for new work. Is that one of the functions of Now?
No, not really. I resist that thought process on a couple different levels. I want Now to function on its own. It’s not something that is ultimately about something else. More to the point, I have pretty good confidence in my tastes and feel like I trust my instincts. I think I’ve proven myself on that front. So while I absolutely would hope that several or many Now contributors will eventually do solo books with Fantagraphics, that’s only because my taste is my taste. If I like your work enough to put it in Now, it stands to reason that I like your work enough to consider doing a book of it as well. But by no means do I consider the series a new talent competition. It’s not America’s Got Talent or The Voice. [Laughs.]
You’ve said that one of the motivations for Now was a revival of the short-form comic, and you use the term “short story.” To me, a short story, in terms of comics, seems to signify something different than a short story with respect to prose literature. Is this something you’ve considered?
That’s a fair question, one that I don’t think I put much thought into when I wrote the phrase short story. I just meant a shorter piece of work than an entire book. I have people ask me, “What’s the page limit for stories for Now?” And my stock answer is, “The issues are 128 pages long, so theoretically it’s 128 pages.” [Laughs.] I don’t really expect to ever run anything even half that long, but I would consider it if it was justified.
I’m looking for work that allows artists to experiment and try different things, and not lock themselves into something for a long period of time. A good example of what I’m thinking about would be Dan Clowes’s Eightball. Clowes did Lloyd Llewellyn for a few years — and I totally enjoy it and think it’s good work — but it’s not until Eightball when he stops locking himself into a particular character or milieu or style, that the floodgates opened in terms of his creativity. Something similar could be said about David Mazzucchelli with Rubber Blanket, or Chris Ware with Acme Novelty Library. I don’t think I’m really stating a controversial opinion here.
Your description made me think of Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying, which plays around with different visual styles and modes of storytelling.
I just love when you get into an artist that you really like and are excited about and you don’t know what you’re going to get from them next. Look at someone like Eleanor Davis. I think Eleanor’s had one of the best careers in comics of the last few years, and in that sense I’m really happy as a fan that she didn’t decide to just hide herself away for three years and do a 150-page graphic novel.
Let’s talk about how you acquire work. Are artists sending you things that they’ve specifically crafted for Now, or do you ask them if they have a short story they’ve been working on and would like to contribute?
So, for Eleanor’s “Hurt or Fuck?” story, I think she had already started working on that, if not finished it, before I even told her about Now. I think she was going to make it a mini-comic or a zine, I don’t think she’d gotten that far yet, and so I just presented her with an option that appealed to her. I think something similar was the case for a lot of the early content, but as the series keeps growing, more and more material is being specifically created for it. An exception is some of the foreign stuff, which I’m finding and translating and bringing over — it’s not stuff that was created for the magazine, for the most part.
The foreign stuff has been really fun because it wasn’t a conscious part of my mission statement, but I can see that it has become an important part of what the series does. Fantagraphics struggles with the fact that we simply can’t publish all the good international work that’s out there. Now allows me to dabble and publish things that I like without the commitment of having to translate a whole book, and pay a translator, and pay a letterer, or create a font, or have hand-lettering done. It allows me to do a lot more, to work with a lot more cartoonists, which is what excites me.
Do you provide feedback on individual stories while the artist is still crafting them? Or do they come to you pretty well finished?
Usually it’s pretty well finished, although there are plenty of exceptions. Some people ask me, “Hey, I have this idea for a story, and it’s about blah blah blah. Does that sound like something that would fit?” That’s in the very preliminary stages, even before they’ve started drawing. Every once in a while, someone will send me a rough draft, either in pencil form or thumbnails or something, and ask me for feedback, but I don’t go out of my way to provide it.
We’ve spoken about how you view the catalog of titles you’ve edited and published with Fantagraphics as something akin to your own artist’s portfolio. Do you feel the same way about editing an anthology? That it’s a creative act that you’re undertaking in putting Now together?
I don’t want to overstate it, but yeah. Yeah. I’m not going to pretend that I’m so fucking creative in my sequencing of these other people’s art and ideas. But absolutely.
I wonder if it’s useful to think about anthologizing as similar to composing a piece of music, with each story analogous to something like a movement or chorus or refrain. I guess that’s one way of getting to the question of whether there is a logic or aesthetic underlying how you organize the pieces within each issue.
Yeah, I like that analogy, because I’ve played music my whole life and I’ve written music, and my approach to writing music has been exactly that: you have these little pieces that you have to put together and sometimes you don’t even know if they’re a part of the same song until you in the moment decide to try it. That’s a pretty good analogy, for sure.
With each issue I have a few anchor pieces that I just know are going to be in there, for whatever reason. But then you have a lot of other stuff. I always have more than I can fit. I usually sit down at my dining table or on the floor with each story printed out. I put the page count of each story at the top of the first page so I know how much space I have, and don’t have to keep counting each page. Then I sit down like I was working on a jigsaw puzzle, and put the pieces together in ways that resonate with me, for whatever reason. It could be based on content, it could be based on the art, it could be based on the format of color versus black-and-white, it could be based on the last page of one story riffing on the first page of the next. It could be about a symbol or an icon that connects two pieces.
You’re trying to come up with something that you feel is greater than the sum of its parts. That really is the fun part, and in my experience it almost always happens. You find these things that you couldn’t possibly know were going to happen until you sit down to do it.
Could you give an example or two of moments when something has clicked especially well for you in the process of sequencing and organizing?
Sometimes it’s something as simple as a bit of connective tissue: I like how the birds in Anuj Shrestha’s piece in #2 lead into James Turek’s “Saved” title page, with a bird on the billboard as if it had just flown over from the last page of Anuj’s piece. But other times it’s more of a feeling. I feel a connective thread linking all the pieces in #1. They’re all speaking to the way we navigate our interpersonal relationships, even though each one approaches things in their own way.
One of the things I notice across issues of Now is a type of experimentation with speech balloons that draws the reader’s attention to their presence and function. I am thinking in particular of Dash Shaw’s “Crowd Chatter” (Now #3) and Conxita Herrero’s “Hot Heavy Days” (Now #2). Are you drawn to comics that explicitly play with the conventions of the form?
You know, it’s funny. I don’t think so? I don’t consider myself a super-formalist in that way. Those kind of formal techniques in and of themselves don’t necessarily excite me that much. Dash’s formal experimentation is, I think, always exciting, but it’s because he’s a really good writer. He always uses such techniques to add some sort of literary subtext to the work that a more straightforward approach wouldn’t be able to achieve. But I don’t really think of formal approaches when I am doing the sequencing or organizing. It’s more thematic, more subjective, and probably more idiosyncratic.
Let’s talk about thematic considerations. In Now #3 there are a number of stories, I’m thinking of Roberta Scomparsa’s “The Jellyfish” and Eleanor Davis’s “March of the Penguins” in particular, that address forms of sexuality we don’t really see represented in comics that often. In Scomparsa’s it’s the sexuality of children, and in Davis’s it’s a specific, idiosyncratic fetish. Was that planned?
I didn’t purposely seek it out, but when you sit down and read the stories, yes, the connection is absolutely there. I gravitated to both of those stories because they just felt urgent, and like they had to be in that issue. I think that’s where some of the weird subjective-ness and idiosyncratic-ness of this comes in. But it’s hard for me even to articulate, because a lot of it really just occurs instinctively in the moment.
I started reaching out to people for the first issue during the 2016 election, and the actual deadline for the first issue was after the inauguration. We were still just so shell-shocked from Trump being elected and living in this fugue state of “What the fuck just happened?” and wanting to do something. I don’t like really didactic art, but even if just unconsciously the election definitely fed the way I approached that first issue. I can see it more clearly now, but in some ways even then. I just felt the need to do something, and Now felt like a way for me to give a platform to some voices that otherwise weren’t being heard. That sounds a little more lofty than it was ever consciously intended to be. I just mean that I was feeling something and it influenced the way that I approached that issue in ways that I can see retrospectively.
Part of it is a certain hopefulness in that issue. Again, I never discussed this with the authors. It was more just me seeing what I had and what pushed the right buttons for me. Eleanor’s story in that first issue really resonated strongly with me and felt like a very urgent voice.
Do you think the inclusion of so many international artists might also be a political act on your part, given the current administration’s less than stellar handling of foreign affairs, and emphasis on division?
Not consciously, but yes, I think that must be absolutely true on some level. I want to show Americans what the international comics scene has to offer, but I also want to show the rest of the world that Donald Trump is not my America.
Excuse the clichéd question, but what are some things that we can expect to see in future issues of Now?
Well, this might sound kind of coy, but I think I’m as interested in finding out as you are. I really don’t plan too far ahead. I talk to cartoonists and ask them to contribute, but I don’t really push them to hit a particular deadline. I really like them to work at their own pace. I’m often running stories in an issue that I haven’t read until a week or two before we go to press. Some of them I’ve been sitting on for six months. But that’s really an inherent part of the pleasure of doing this for me. For me to be able to do this on top of everything else I already do, it’s really important for me to be able to be a little flexible and do it on the fly and be a little loosey-goosey with it. It keeps it fun and fresh, but it’s also kind of practical because there’s a reason that there’s not a lot of editorial content in the magazine. One, because I don’t think it really needs it — the stories should be able to speak on their own terms. But also because it’s just easier for me. We have a pretty solid template, so I can just focus on getting the comics together and don’t have to spend a lot of time on other stuff. Otherwise it might become a burden, it might not be sustainable for me.
It won’t be as much fun anymore.
Yeah, that’s absolutely a part of it. I’m having a lot of fun with it and I want it to stay that way.
Feature image by Whit Spurgeon.