Brandon Graham draws late into the night, so he promised me he’d set his alarm to wake up for our interview at ten A.M. his time. He was up when I called him by Skype in Vancouver, then we dialed in Emma Ríos in Spain, where it was already evening. “Let’s pretend it’s morning across the world,” Graham suggested. Ríos and Graham are the editors of the monthly comics magazine Island, launched last summer, which they have modeled as a kind of global conversation about the form. Printed in color and bound in an oversize format, each hundred-page-plus issue is a mix of comics, essays, fashion illustrations, and other pieces that approach the medium from diverse angles. Island has attracted significant talents—among them, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Fil Barlow, and Emily Carroll—whose work is published alongside that of lesser-known creators and recent art-school graduates. The anthology is currently nominated for a Harvey Award for Best Anthology. The tenth issue will arrive later this month.
Graham and Ríos balance their work on Island with other projects. Ríos is the artist on the best-selling, Eisner-nominated Pretty Deadly, with writer DeConnick and colorist Jordie Bellaire. Graham writes and runs the popular reboot of Prophet. Together, Ríos and Graham also edit another series, 8House, in which discrete stories take place in a shared fantasy universe.
Ríos and Graham founded Island as a platform for experimentation; they wanted to create a space in which artists could feel comfortable exploring riskier work. The first issue of the magazine opens with a short comic by Graham in which God bestows the “ultimate freedom to do whatever you wish with your time on earth,” adding, “don’t screw it up.” Island is about taking comics seriously, but, as Graham says, it’s still “a very serious joke.”
What was the response when you launched the anthology?
It’s a risky thing, because anthologies are generally not thought of as a good idea in the comics market. But then, just as the first issue came out, Grant Morrison announced he’s taking over Heavy Metal. And suddenly people are talking about magazines again.
Was Heavy Metal an inspiration?
Island is a product of nostalgia. Magazines from the eighties, like Heavy Metal and Métal Hurlant in France and Zona 84 here in Spain, came immediately to mind when Brandon proposed starting a magazine. Island doesn’t look like Heavy Metal, but it shares the desire to collect different story lines, include articles, and expand the medium as well as the viewpoint of readers. Those magazines are where I discovered artists like Moebius. I’d buy an issue to follow someone in particular and by chance discover new creators. In Island, we are bringing together artists from Europe and Asia—creators whose work we aren’t used to seeing on the shelves in the U.S. every Wednesday.
We’re following the history but also working against Heavy Metal. That was a very “teenage boy” magazine, and we’ve been conscious with Island about making comic books for ourselves, as adults. We are trying to make inclusive work that isn’t just made for—no other way to put it—masturbatory fantasies. Heavy Metal was very high-minded when it launched in France as Métal Hurlant. The modern equivalent became a bit of a joke, an airbrushed Amazonian woman on every cover. If you were a woman or gay or otherwise didn’t fit into the minor slot of its readership, Heavy Metal wasn’t the ideal magazine for you. Island is for a bigger community—not just dudes who like sexy barbarian women.
From Amy Clare’s “Straylight,” in issue #3.
Why are you publishing it in print, instead of as a digital-only book?
I’m not fond of the digital format. Paper is still the medium I use to express myself and how I prefer to read. I will read literature on an e-book, but with comics, when you start reading a page, you see the images on the next open page in your peripheral vision, so the design of a book causes you to anticipate what’s next in the story. But you can’t open a two-page spread on a tablet. I don’t have a problem with web comics that are using the tools inherent in a digital platform to improve the narrative, such as the infinite scroll, but I have trouble with the translation into digital of work that was structured for the page.
The language is different between web comics and the print format, and it affects their composition, layout, and how they are read. And as an editor, I just wanted to do a print magazine.
It changes the feng shui. There’s a nice limiting effect when you know it’s the standard comic format. When you’re working digitally, there’s the “infinite page” or “infinite canvas.” But when we talk about the history of what we call comics, we talk about the page as much as the art on it. The Yellow Kid is brought up often because it was the first story published as a comics page, not the first sequential cartoon in strips. I like the history in the page’s restriction.
The ethos of Island is to allow artists to produce whatever work they want, but do you provide guidance?
We’re not telling anybody what to do.
From Emma Ríos’s “I.D.,” in issue #2.
Community is a huge part of it. For Emma and me, it’s about finding creators we really trust as people, and then letting them do absolutely whatever they want. They come to us because they know we won’t give them any restrictions. We’re making the kind of work we want to do and hoping that the market supports it, rather than trying to think of something the market wants.
There’s a weird responsibility in putting someone on this stage. Many of the underground cartoonists of the sixties were guys who were part of the drug culture, who said, Let’s just put as much sexual, racist, whatever images down on paper. They weren’t afraid, but they were also kind of gross and worked without any responsibility. It’s exciting to me to publish cartoonists who are trying to be adults, people I am proud to be published alongside. At the same time, if you do something objectionable, you’re not dead to us. Art can be about failure. Island is a place where we can try out things and fuck up and say, Let’s try better next time. Let’s fail better.
Total freedom feels impossible because you’re always limited by space and time, but because you’re not alone, you can take more risks, you are connected to other creators who can help sell. We tell everyone to do the stories they worry won’t sell anyplace else. It’s a place for creators to try something different—like the crazy, heartbreaking, beautiful prose piece “Railbirds” that Kelly Sue DeConnick wrote about her relationship with Maggie Estep.
From Michael DeForge’s “Mostly Saturn,” in issue #8.
How do you plan the sequence of stories?
We rotate stories, with some picking up again months after they first appeared. It’s unfair to the creators to demand great quality work every month. We want to give them time to work and still belong to something that feels compact and continuous.
Our goal is that even if you buy the magazine looking for a specific creator or story, when it’s published alongside other, heterogeneous art, you can discover new creators to follow in the future. In my opinion, the goal of every anthology should be trying to make world of the reader wider. You might not get to the end of the story you were looking for in those pages, but you’ll start a new one. And, of course, every story will end in future issues, alongside even more work to discover.
One thing we take from Heavy Metal is the idea of slowing down. Moebius, the artist who is tied to the mast of Heavy Metal, worked slow and steady his entire career. He was still producing really fantastic work in his seventies—and it’s better work than he was doing in his twenties.
Comics is set up to burn out young cartoonists. The industry has forced this mad dash. There’s a standard of people breaking in and getting known in their twenties, then having maybe a ten-year career before they’re exhausted. Comics consumers may want a monthly story, but that’s not necessarily the best way to create work. It’s not ideal if you want to let a story sit. And especially if you’re trying to mess with the medium, to push your own work forward.
I’m struggling to think about how to frame the place of Island in the marketplace. It’s a departure from the Marvel-DC mainstream, but it’s not a Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly type of book, one aimed at the trade readership that has become comfortable with, say, Adrian Tomine or Craig Thompson. Where does it fit in?
I tend to think of superhero comics versus eighties art comics as a two-party system. There’s fantastic work on both sides, but I don’t think I fit there, and I don’t think Emma fits there, nor do Island’s other creators. It’d be like if you were only allowed to write War and Peace or Danielle Steel novels, you know? There are more than two types of comics.
I have always felt lost in the middle of two worlds—I’ve been too mainstream and too indie. Island is blurring these categories. We are also educating readers, trying to offer a glimpse into how comics work. For better or worse, with the Internet we are in a moment in which there are no filters and no barriers between editors, creators, and readers. For my continuing sci-fi story in Island, “I.D.,” I did research with a neurologist, so I asked him to write an article about neurology, about the speculation around sci-fi and medicine, and we published that. And we are going to include articles about creators’ rights from an attorney. We want to help readers understand the medium as a whole.
We are very specific in how we talk about the form. Like, I never refer to readers as fans because I think that’s disrespectful. They’re readers. Comics is an active art form, ideally, where the page doesn’t turn itself. I often describe comics as either passive or active stories. A passive story is something that tells you everything you’re supposed to think on every page, and an active story is something that leaves holes in the story that you have to work on yourself.
From Dilraj Mann’s “Queue,” in issue #3.
Are you discovering new creators in the process of editing Island?
We’re finding new artists constantly, including younger cartoonists. There’s a big advantage to Emma and me living in different countries, being around different scenes. And the Internet opens things up, too. The largest new readership right now in comics is women, and many of them aren’t necessarily going into comics stores—a lot of those are still dude caves.
Thinking of the nationalities of creators involved in Island, it feels like we are finally getting there as a comics community. My partner is from Malaysia, and I met her in Japan. And I’ve met creators from Europe, Asia, Australia.
In the nineties, the idea of “world comics” became popular. Creators like Paul Pope were being influenced by both manga and European work. But at this point, we don’t have to have Americans who are influenced by the rest of the world—we can actually get creators from, say, Malaysia and ask them, What kind of comics are you doing? Island opens the conversation for actual world comics, a global conversation.
Why did you call it Island?
From Patrick Crotty’s “Clothe,” in issue #5.
For me, it connects to the idea of community, a zone that can be developed from the inside. It’s a place to be inspired by other creators, to be included with them, and to support each other’s work. It’s a place to feel safe to create whatever you want and also to try to create something that might be more difficult for you.
It’s also a recurring joke in my in my work. In King City there’s a scene where the main character, Joe, is looking in a in a mirror and says to himself, “No man is an island … ” And he thinks, “I’m an island. I’m Madagascar.”
An island is a rationale for selling multiple comics all wrapped up in the same binding. I tell people that it’s not an anthology as much as it is having a friend—in this case me and Emma—who goes to the store for you and returns with these weird stories from another world. It’s our version of what you’d find on an idealized comics-shop shelf. And it’s all under one cover, our Island. It’s nice in the shitbag world of comics publishing to have a little area of control. Honestly, we are trying to rethink how comics are done—and ask how we can do it better.
Meg Lemke is editor of MUTHA Magazine and chairs the comics and graphic-novel programming committee at the Brooklyn Book Festival. She is a guest editor of PEN America’s Illustrated PEN series. You can find her online @meglemke and more about her work and writing at meglemke.tumblr.com.
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