Books: Tom Kaczynski on Uncivilized Books

Wild at heart...

By , Columnist

As briefly mentioned at the end our previous conversation, the indefatigable Tom Kaczynski is more than a gifted comics creator. He’s also the publisher and driving force behind Uncivilized Books, an upstart press specializing in comics collections and original graphic novels.

Now, if you happen to be a regular reader of this column and that imprint sounds familiar, that’s likely due to the fact that Gabrielle Bell and I talked about her latest book, The Voyeurs, just after it was released under the Uncivilized banner late 2012.

However, several important questions—including why he established Uncivilized Books, the reason he decided to publish the work of a rather impressive number of his peers, and what he’s trying to accomplish with the imprint—were never addressed here…until now.

As with our previous exchange, I think that you’ll find Kaczynski’s thought-provoking answers engaging and illuminating.

Tom K self portrait from.jpg

What is Uncivilized Books and how would you describe its primary mission?

Uncivilized Books is an evolving entity. It started out as a way for me to self-publish work. It grew into a boutique mini-comics publishing outfit. Now it’s mutated into a book trade/mini-comics hybrid. The mission is still evolving.

All of a sudden I have the opportunity to act upon the many ideas I’ve had about comics. I’m still in the process of figuring out where this is going to take me. I’m trying out a lot of new things: translations, books about comics, children comics. I do think there’s a thread that connects all of these but I’m still in the process of figuring it out.

Is anyone else involved on the administrative or editorial end, or is it basically a DIY operation?

Uncivilized Books is a one-man operation. I do have the occasional intern. For example, cartoonist Nic Breutzman just started helping out with some of the web work that needs to be done.

Good Minnesotan cvr by Nic Breutzman.jpg

Well, you’ve assembled a rather impressive stable of creators who will be contributing both collections of older work as well as newly minted projects to Uncivilized. So, what criteria guide your selection?

A lot of it is serendipity. Many of the artists I’m working with I’ve known and admired for some time. I already worked with Gabrielle [Bell] on mini-comics and it was natural to do The Voyeurs with her. I’ve known Jon Lewis for a long time. I loved True Swamp since almost its inception. We’ve had a lot of conversations about it over the years. The same is true of Zak Sally. I’ve long admired what he is doing with La Mano. I loved the first volume of Sammy the Mouse.

I met James Romberger at BCGF (Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival) last year and when he showed me Post York it just blew me away.

Derek Van Gieson recently moved to Minneapolis, but I met him in New York a few years earlier. He is also a MOME veteran. I like his work and we decided to work on Eel Mansions together. I always thought Leon Beyond was an under-appreciated strip by two of the best cartoonists working today.

true swamp choose your poison cvr.jpg

So far, you’ve released two solid collections, The Voyeurs from Gabrielle Bell and True Swamp: Choose Your Poison by Jon Lewis. How have those been received by fans, critics and booksellers?

The Voyeurs has been great. Gabrielle is a super-star! I couldn’t have asked for a better reception for my first book. It’s made several best-of lists for the year and has accumulated a pile of stellar reviews.

True Swamp was out of circulation for a long time, so part of my job is to re-introduce it to a new audience. I was disappointed that Diamond decided not to carry it. They’ve done this before in the '90s, so history repeats itself! Then it was a tragedy, now it’s a farce.

I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand for it. A lot of people have patchy collections, or have only heard about it. It’s selling briskly through the book trade, so that’s heartening. All the reviews so far have been really good. Jon Lewis is an amazing cartoonist and his work was important and influential on the comics scene in the '90s and a generation of cartoonists who grew up reading those comics.

Now, is this a “by invite only” club, or can creators pitch books for possible publication?

Uncivilized Books is still a tiny company. I already have a full plate of amazing projects I’d love to be able do, and many of these I have to turn away. Most of these I find out about through the grapevine. I’m part of the comics community and I’m always curious what cartoonists are working on.

That said, I’m open to submissions. I already have a big pile of them… but because I have such limited resources, it’s unlikely many of them will get published by me.

Try this Incidents cvr.jpg

Well, what’s coming out in the near and far terms from Uncivilized?

I’m gearing up to release the spring season of books:

Incidents in the Night by David B., translated by Brian and Sarah Evenson

Amazing Facts and Beyond by Kevin Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch

Sammy the Mouse Book 2 by Zak Sally

Over the Wall by Peter Wartman

Also, I had to push my own book Trans Terra into the spring season. It was supposed to be out now, but I didn’t want it to compete with Beta Testing the Apocalypse, which was just released by Fantagraphics.

Try this Over the Wall cvr.jpg

Given that you’re also a creator of one of those forthcoming titles, I was wondering if you worked with another editor on that book, or if you were able to handle all of that yourself?

I’ve never worked with another editor on my own work. It’s something I would like to do sometime in the future. I’ve collaborated a few times with other cartoonists, like Dash Shaw, and I really liked that process. Sometimes I dream of a perfect editor you can exchange ideas with and collaborate on a book.

So how difficult is it for you to edit your own material? Is it something that’s just become second nature for you, or must you consciously step back and switch from your artistic viewpoint to your editorial eye?

It’s something I’ve had to learn to do. Whenever I can, I try to get feedback from other artists, writers and cartoonists. But, deadline pressures often don’t leave much time for outside critiques. I’m pretty used to brutal critiques—architecture school prepares you well in that respect—and I’ve sort of internalized that. I try to be my own toughest critic.

Try this Post York cvr.jpg

What’s your approach to editing, generally? Are you mainly a “hands on” type, someone intimately involved with the creative process, or do you leave that largely to each creator, only stepping in as necessary to make a suggestion, or to point out the occasional continuity oversight or misspelling?

I like being a “hands on” editor. As I said above, I’ve never gotten that for my own work, so I maybe I overcompensate by trying to do that for others. That said, it’s not appropriate for every project.

I was involved in some editing decisions early on with The Voyeurs, but Gabrielle pretty much did what she wanted in the end. I did some back and forth with James Romberger on Post York, and he did some extensive edits based on my comments.

I worked pretty closely with Peter Wartman on Over the Wall. We went through several edits together. Some projects, like Eel Mansions by Derek Van Gieson, came my way in a completed form and I didn’t have much input on it. It’s different for each project.

Try this Eel cvr.jpg

Do you have a typical working day as an editor at Uncivilized, or do you tend to work on whatever needs to be done at the moment?

I’m still reacting to whatever needs to get done more than I would like. I’m starting to get better at scheduling and staying ahead of things that need to get done.

I would like to get to the point where there’s a “typical day” at Uncivilized Books. I’m not there yet! Every day is a new brand of chaos.

What do you hope to accomplish, in the near and far terms, with your efforts at Uncivilized?

In the near term, I want to reach a level of stability and sustainability. I would like to get to the point of publishing 8-10 books annually.

In the far future…who knows!? The world of publishing is in flux. It’s hard to predict where things will go. I have some ideas, but it’s too early to say.

Try this Amazing Facts cvr.jpg

What do you get from doing that kind of work? What does editing and publishing give you that your work as a creator doesn’t provide?

I like working with other artists. I like the process of bringing a book to life. It gets me out of my head a bit. It’s really gratifying to follow a project from its vague inception to its materialization as a concrete object in a book store. There’s something magical in that.

How about the people reading books bearing the Uncivilized banner? What do you hope that they get from their reading experiences?

I hope people identify Uncivilized Books with an eclectic mix of high-quality comics.

Anything you’d like to add before I let you get back to work?

We’ll be traveling to TCAF (Toronto Comic Arts Festival), Stumptown (Stumptown Comics Fest, of Portland, OR ) and—tentatively (since the show hasn’t announced its list of attendees yet)—CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo), so please stop at our tables, meet the artists and check out the new books!

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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