By Dalton Sharp
Colin Upton: Well, honestly there hasn’t been that much controversy on the subject matter. I think alternative comics are just too far below most people’s cultural radar to really pick up on anything like that. I read a quote from Terry Gilliam who said how lucky we were in alternative comics not to be noticed because we could get away with anything because nobody was really paying that much attention.
Dalton Sharp: It’s true actually.
CU: Um, I’m not sure …I think some of the aspects of BOTR may be a tad esoteric some people might be put off by what they see as fantasy elements. I’m not exactly sure why one comic takes off and another doesn’t. I think we had trouble with the publisher. For example the covers…they’re very very dark, and that was because the publisher Aeon was switching over to a computer scanned system for their covers and they did a very bad job. I don’t think that helped in the beginning. Perhaps it just doesn’t suit people’s taste; it actually got a better reception in the U.K. and Canada than it did in the United States.
DS: Was their distribution well set up or…?
CU: Well, I think it had the distribution that any other alternative comic could have expected at the time so…I can’t really …I don’t think there’s really much I can blame other than myself for the fact that the comic didn’t take off.
DS: But it wasn’t the comic though?…the company just went under?
CU: Oh, uh, why it was cancelled?…was yes, the uh, the publisher of the company decided he and his wife…they were going to devote themselves to making babies.
CU: And she was having trouble with that so they decided to put their money into that instead of comic books, which personally I thought, was a terrible mistake but there’s no accounting for taste. Uh, they never actually did manage to get a baby, I believe they adopted eventually.
CU: Of course there really wasn’t much in it for him; there’s not a lot of money in alternative publishing.
DS: Mm-hmm yeah. It’s not like you’re going to get a lot of movie deals or action figures out of it…
CU: Well, you never know…I’ve often thought BOTR would make a fine movie. A lot of C.G. And there actually have been alternative comics … Road to Perdition…The Mask, and Men in Black were based on alternative comics. For example. Not that I ever seriously expected anyone to make a comic out of BOTR but uh, you have to be lucky to make money in the comics scene.
DS: Yeah, definitely. BOTR, the way it ended felt like a complete chapter. I was interested that you were planning it on.
CU: Well, it was the end of the chapter. That was the first chapter.
CU: I originally envisioned it as a story in three parts, possibly four so I’ve actually already written part of the second chapter.
CU: Like I say, alternative comics…it’s very difficult to remain self-motivated when there are so little rewards and real life gets in the way. …Without the prospect of actually publishing it’s difficult to continue on with such a labour intensive process.
DS: Mmhmm. Yeah, incredibly. What would be the volume of comics of each issue you’d have to sell to make it worthwhile?
CU: I have no idea.
DS: Is there an actual…like, breaking point, like a point where you’d break into the red (sic)?
CU: Well, I’ve never self-published so I’ve never had to face those issues. I’ve always dealt with publishers. I haven’t really been involved with industry closely for quite some time now but I do believe that Diamond now has minimum orders that you have to achieve before they will continue to distribute your comic. What that is I don’t know, but I understand it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for marginal publishers to get their work seen and into comic shops.
DS: Yeah, especially because you think it will take a while for a comic to take off.
CU: Well, that’s the problem. Who is going to be able and willing to sustain a comic until the point where it finds its audience? That’s always been the difficulty.
DS: And…now you’ve been co-hosting the radio show…every Thursday…have you met anyone who’s sorta beating the odds…that’s somehow holding out and getting their stuff out there?
CU: Well, there are people in town who are getting published… Jose Menjivar is being published by Top Shelf although I don’t see much of him. He’s kind of shy, doesn’t like crowds. I know Pia Guerra who draws Y: The Last Man for DC. I know a couple of alternative cartoonists who are now working for The Simpsons.
DS: Oh really?
CU: Yeah, Ian Boothby writes the Simpsons and James Lloyd pencils for Futurama, …but I wouldn’t say I know anyone who’s been successful with their own material. Jose is being published with his own material but I don’t know how successful he is or…I think just being published is a measure of success at this point.
DS: Have you thought about going back to photocopied zines?
CU: Oh, I’ve printed up some for annual book fair in Vancouver Word on the Street and I photocopied collections of material and new comics last year. Unfortunately I was only doing limited runs. I have to try and get some money together and print up some more.
DS: It’s always a hassle to get the funds to actually publish.
CU: Yeah, I think there was also a felling that once I actually got a publisher that I was going to leave that whole sitting-around-with-piles-of-papers-folding-and-collating-and-stapling behind for better things. But um, if nothing else, it allows me to present newer material, like I say WOTHS is this book convention — you have one in Toronto?
DS: Yeah, we have…um, I guess we do it across the country.
CU: What we have in Vancouver is we have Word on the Street at the main library, but in the basement of the library there’s Word Under the Street.
DS: Oh really?
CU: For years I’d been talking to WOTS off and on about getting alternative cartoonists involved and they finally hit upon this idea of segregating us in the basement away from the children and prying eyes of family and they post a warning on the door that there’s potentially controversial material and they stick all the zine people, alternative cartoonists and a few poets down there.
DS: Well, that’s a cool idea.
CU: Well, it’s great fun. I don’t know how they handle it in Toronto.
DS: I don’t think they have a version like that. I’m pretty sure… There’s a zine fair, but that’s separate from it. Yeah, that’s actually a great idea. How long have they had that?
CU: I believe last year was the third year.
DS: If nothing else at least you get to meet up with other people who are doing it.
CU: It’s great fun. And you do get to talk to the public and it sells pretty well. I’ve had pretty good sales there. Yes, I forgot to mention there’s also David Boswell in Vancouver, struggling but still publishing his own Reid Fleming World’s Toughest Milkman.
DS: Is he?!
CU: Yeah there’s a new issue coming out.
DS: Oh really?! Wow! When’s it coming out?
CU: I’m not exactly sure.
DS: Some time this year though?
DS: Amazing. I remember hearing a long time ago that actually, he…there was a movie in the works.
CU: It’s still being talked about.
DS: I hope not with Dave Thomas… I heard a rumour that he was supposed to be the lead ten years ago.
CU: I’ve also heard Jim Belushi, uh…
CU: David would like to see what’s that…Galafino?…the fellow from the Sopranos.
DS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, actually yeah, there’s a resemblance definitely.
CU: That could work out.
DS: He’s been working in comics for a long time too. Does he show up to The Word Under the Street?
CU: I finally talked him into it.
DS: Oh did he?
CU: It took me a longtime but I finally talked him into it.
DS: Good stuff.
CU: He has a sorta philosophy about not promoting himself… something to do with his situation as a surrealist or something.
DS: Good God! So if you were to continue on with BOTR all the same characters would still be there continuing on or would it be a different…Would Norman still be central…
CU: Oh yeah, it’s mostly about Norman, Rossier and Lilith really. Those three. Uh, Satan is an important character, but Lilith Norman, Rossier form this sort of bizarre love-hate triangle.
DS: Yeah, it’d be a great place to start up again cuz everyone’s in suspense after that ending… I guess it’s to…um, I guess all you would do is keep approaching publishers to… eventually get somebody interested…
CU: Well, I suppose I would have to get back into the swing of things. Go down for the convention in San Francisco and talk to people. It’s just not easy trying… going cap-in-hand to various publishers and begging for them to take an interest in you.
CU: It’s very difficult really. I’m not a person…I don’t sell myself well. I’m not usually interested in doing that so it’s difficult for me.
DS: Umm, let’s see, doo doo doo… uh, uh, …
CU: Meow meow…sorry just talking to the cat.
DS: Yeah, my neighbour’s cat comes over all the time. I don’t even have a cat and I have a cat! So you haven’t written the last episode of Buddha…do you know where it’s all leading to?
DS: So you kinda know what the final ending’s gonna be?
CU: Yeah, I think so. Pretty much. Although in the next installment I’m going to… well, it was going to be more of an adventure story I suppose. Um, Norman escaping from Hell and Heaven and Hell pursuing him around the World while he seeks enlightenment as a weapon to free himself. Eventually winding up in a final confrontation with the forces of Heaven and Hell in a twist ending.
DS: Sounds like a great continuation!
CU: Yeah, well he winds up in Tibet at a Buddhist monastery with a demon from the Christian pantheon who has become a Buddhist and is trying to achieve Nirvana — so it’s very difficult…for someone immortal to actually achieve nothingness.
DS: It must have taken a lot of research to come up with all these different plot points.
CU: Well, that’s the thing… actually my comic work tends to follow my interests rather than the other way around. I do a lot of reading. I read a lot of history. I’m fascinated by politics and history and religion and warfare. Once I do enough reading on a particular subject I try to find a way of creating a comic about it. The whole thing about BOTR came about simply because I was interested in the history of Christianity and the development of Christianity…its roots from the medieval period and so on, I was reading about and eventually I just thought I had to do something with all this stuff I’d been reading.
DS: Mmmm… The good thing about this comic is you could read it 10 years or 50 years from now and it would still apply. The basic things the characters are going through…the emotions they’re experiencing are not going to change really.
CU: The thing is when you’re dealing with religion if you read your Joseph Campbell much of it is dealing with archetypes — characters that apply all over the world. That’s probably true, although in a way, it is, I think, of its time because if I was writing BOTR now it might be a little different because of 9/11.
CU: I might have addressed things about the Islamic world that I didn’t do in BOTR. I just remembered that one of the reviewers when BOTR first came out was commenting on my obsession with the dangers of religion. I’m just wondering how the reviewer would feel about it now after 9/11.
DS: Mmhmm. Yeah, I would think he’d have a completely different take on it. That same reviewer would probably be more in your corner I guess.
CU: I think so. I think for many of us, and I certainly had this attitude, I felt that religion was a harmless, more or less harmless anachronism that was fading away with the spread of reason and rationality across the world, but then I began to realise it was still a very important principle in many parts of the world and something that should be taken very seriously. And I think current events prove that.
DS: Definitely. You’re sorta getting it on both sides these days with the Christian West versus the Islamic.
CU: Christian Fundamentalists who run the government in Washington against Islamic fundamentalists…and caught in the middle is Saddam Hussein who’s actually a secular dictator.
DS: It’s interesting. What’s the timeline in the other chapters you’ve planned? Do they come up until nowadays?
CU: It was several years ago cuz that’s when I was writing it. It was before September 11th.
DS: The whole…all of it…the whole story? Um, what’s your sense of the health of indy comics right now? Has it gotten any better or is it still in a death spiral or…?
CU: I really couldn’t tell you. Like I say I haven’t been to the conventions I really haven’t spoken to many people involved in small press and independent comics lately. I talk to people who go to San Diego or APE and uh, they tell me things seem to be looking up a bit. The situation with the comic shops has stabilised somewhat. That the mainstream publishers are doing better and if they’re doing better that improves the situation with the comic shops. I think at one point everyone was concerned the system was going to collapse entirely.
CU: I get the feeling that it’s become more stable. All I know is that people continue to publish despite the state of the market and new people do arrive and new people are publishing so either they’re simply foolish or there’s some optimism out there.
DS: Let’s hope it gets a bit better. The, um, the newspaper strips that you did, are you continuing to do them? They’re fairly recent…?
CU: I mentioned the 2 publications I put out for Word on the Street — they were collections of strips from 1992 to 2002 so I can’t remember how many there were, but I don’t have a weekly venue or anything like that… These were collected over 10 years, so it’s not a lot of strips…
DS: So it’s more occasional.
CU: More occasional. I was doing comic book reviews for a literary magazine called Vancouver Review where’d I’d actually draw a comic strip about a comic I was reviewing.
DS: Yeah, I saw some of those online.
CU: Yeah, I did that for a while and I did cartoons for Drippytown, but these things only came out occasionally. I have stories in a couple of publications that came out from Arsenal — What’s Right and What’s Wrong, which are fundraisers for Little Sisters bookstore in Vancouver, which is a gay and lesbian bookstore in Vancouver which is fighting Canada Customs again.
DS: As we speak?
CU: Yeah, they’re going to court against Canada Customs.
DS: Not again.
CU: Yeah, well Canada Customs is continuing to seize books from Little Sisters and they seize comic books. So now they have to face the wrath of the alternative cartoonists.
DS: I thought that was all settled?
CU: Well, Customs has basically been ignoring the instructions that the courts have given them and they’ve been getting away with it so they have to be taken to court again.
DS: That’s brutal cuz didn’t that go all the way to the Supreme Court?
CU: Yes, but that was literature and this is comics.
DS: So they’re…so they’re letting the literature in, but not the comics to Little Sisters?
CU: Yes. Specifically a couple of S&M issues of Meat Man comics, which is a gay sex comic. So they put out two volumes of these fundraising books and I contributed to those. I just sent an eight-page story off to a Dave Lasky project on minimalist comics.
DS: Oh cool.
CU: I do the occasional thing here and there.
DS: When’s the Lasky project gonna come out?
CU: Oh, I don’t know. I mean… it’s Seattle… They’re all just sitting around drinking coffee.
CU: Very laid back.
DS: Yeah. Is there a Vancouver Comic Jam?
CU: Well, there’s shows but I don’t go. There used to be a cartoonist society in Vancouver but it’s been moribund for a while… There’s talk about doing something.
DS: Mmhmm. Yeah, I mean, there are so many Vancouver cartoonists…
DS: I mean, one of things about being a cartoonist is you don’t have to actually meet.
CU: We do get together occasionally and have dinner together when people visit from out of town. There’s just a lot of politics involved.
DS: The smaller autobiographical comic strips… would it be possible to put those out on a weekly or monthly basis if you could get a newspaper on side?
CU: I don’t know. A couple of my autobiographical strips were published in the Seattle Weekly. But our local weeklies just aren’t interested.
DS: Yeah, same thing in Toronto. It can be really difficult to get local cartoonists in.
CU: Yeah, Georgia Straight, which is our big weekly here, has, well, I dunno… appalling strips… I guess they’re considered sorta artsy.
DS: Yeah, there’s such a shortage of venues too. It’s too bad when local papers don’t support their own cartoonists.
DS: So uh, I think that’s …thank-you very much. Is there anything else you wanted to say?
CU: …well, um, I want to encourage people to visit the website and if anyone knows of any publishers…who might be interested…I would like to bring out BOTR as a paperback…as a graphic novel…and have been working on an idea for a web cartoon…
DS: Oh really?
CU: Yeah, it would be a weekly web cartoon called The Teetotalers and it’s basically about 3 friends who sit around in coffee shops drinking tea and debating politics and current events. The fact that web comics can be up to date…
DS: Would it be animated or …
CU: Basically what I’d be doing is putting up comic book pages on the web weekly and collecting them later as a graphic novel.
CU: Personally I can’t stand reading comics off the Internet… I don’t even like reading articles off the Internet… I generally print them out so I can read them.
CU: I do believe that the Internet is a useful promotional tool, even though I find Scott Mcleod’s vision of comics being strictly on the Internet kind of revolting to be honest.
DS: Well, it’s no longer a comic…it becomes something else…
CU: I don’t know…I was at a convention and he was on a panel doing his “won’t the world be perfect when everything’s on computers” spiel and he was talking about the advantages of having comics that move and talk and a guy in the audience stuck up his hand and said, “isn’t that called animation?”
DS: Hahaha. Exactly.
CU: Yeah. I’m just trying to find an outlet to reach an audience which at the moment I can’t see any other presenting itself, and if the Internet is one and it’s affordable and gives me chance to get my work out, I just might take it.
DS: Uh-huh, have you seen Jason Turner’s website?
CU: Uh, not lately.
DS: It’s kinda nice.
CU: Another Vancouverite. Do you know him?
DS: I’ve seen him at comic jams.
CU: Do you have comic jams in Toronto?
DS: Yeah, there’s a really good one at …yeah I go to it.
CU: Do you meet at coffee shops?
DS: It’s a bar…the back of the bar [the Cameron House]…you go…they play music…you um draw and then you uh…
CU: Oh, I’ve been to jams before.
DS: Oh, um, yeah…
CU: Yeah, I think we should try it here.
DS: Yeah. It seems to work pretty well. Actually one problem is that some nights too many show up and there’s no place to draw…
DS: The smoke kinda drives me crazy but…
—- Tape cuts out —- oh well…
Colin’s site: www.stinz.com/cupton For the illustrated version of this interview, see the printed version of Broken Pencil #22