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08.19.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
HANGING TOUGH: Times are tough, especially in comic-book publishing, but Dan Vado has some innovative plans for keeping San Jose's Slave Labor Graphics flourishing.

Funny Business

San Jose's Slave Labor Graphics is striking forth once again, with a comic about one of the valley's greatest tourist attractions, movie deals and the comic-book debut of SJSU grad Jamaica Dyer

By Richard von Busack


DAN VADO, owner of Slave Labor Graphics, had just returned to his native San Jose after escaping from the million-geek march: five days at the annual San Diego Comic-Con. It is the industry's Cannes, drawing tens of thousands of fans of everything from pastel-illustrated daydreams to IMAX-size blockbusters. "It was like being trapped in a monkey cage wearing banana underwear," Vado said over the phone.  The monkey-cage metaphor comes to mind when I take a tour of Vado's cluttered front office in a small former warehouse on South First Street's art-gallery row. One wall bears a shelf brimming with toy monkeys: fezzed chimps and King Kong unchained.

The scattering of magazines, letters and detritus in the office—familiar in any writer's den—could be the work of angry monkeys. The motif continues in the building's hallway, where a life-size, plaster chimp butler statue holds up one of the walls.

The simian lineup seems to honor one of Vado's biggest ventures: his startup of APE, the Alternative Press Exhibition, in June 1994, at San Jose's Parkside Hall. The show moved to San Francisco years ago. Now APE is operated by the same management that took a small gathering of local comic-book fans and turned it into the annual July Comic Convention in San Diego.

In some respects, Slave Labor Graphics is a family business. In a wire cage at the back of the store, Vado's mother works, silently processing orders. Showing me the photo of himself that Metro ran in 1994, Vado pointed out his late father standing in the background behind him—his dad had also worked for Slave Labor Graphics.

Vado is a first-generation American. His parents were Italian immigrants who gave him comics to learn to read English. After early exposure to the medium, Vado ended up writing for the comic books. For a time, he penned the adventures of DC's Justice League member Booster Gold, a sort of crooked, self-promoting version of Buck Rogers, as interested in fame and money as he is in crime fighting.

Now in his middle years, after decades as a publisher, with two children graduating college, Vado's business stands at a crossroads that confronts many publishers in an industry facing an uncertain future.

During its 23 years of existence, Vado's Slave Labor Graphics has printed hundreds of titles—some optioned for the movies. At present, Vado is working on a big project that hopes to remind the world of one of San Jose's true monuments And as long as he has some extra space, he's also planning to exhibit art and to have a little fun with a downtown warehouse while there is fun to be had.

As he prowls his warehouse, an unruly-haired figure dressed in rumpled shorts and a Tommy Bahama shirt, Vado can't ignore the tailspin in which the comics industry currently finds itself.

Founded in 1986, Slave Labor Graphics persists as one of the oldest independent comic-book publishers in the United States. It has survived in a field known for Eastern Front–like levels of attrition. Slave Labor's ornery motto—"Too stupid to quit, too mean to die"—is even the title of a collection SLG published to salute its 20th year in business three years ago.

Unlike Vado's retail comic-book shop on Bascom Avenue, where I interviewed him in 1994, this newer warehouse boasts two rooms of exhibition space. The building's center is a small performance stage with an Astroturf floor and a chandelier made from a necklace of plastic skulls. A mosaic of cardboard sleeves from '80s albums lines the stage wall, pasted up to deaden echoes off the wall. Bands play once a month during the First Friday tours of downtown San Jose art galleries. Slave Labor Graphics is sponsoring Zombie-O-Rama '09 on Aug. 26—a pre-movie zombie crawl "with dead music" before the free sundown screening of Shaun of the Dead. Details are at zombieorama.com.

Vado looks around at the performance space and comments, "It's good that people are coming downtown. But the current thought is that getting them down here requires some kind of an event or a new Marshalls or something. San Jose needs to get in touch with its pop-culture roots every day. This city needs to embrace the crazy."


Bear Market in Funny Animals

The problem of plummeting sales has been hitting Vado as hard as it has other publishers. I noted the vinyl collector toys on sale in the front room of the shop. Recently, such collectables helped comic shops and publishers survive. Today, the market is glutted.

The scene at this year's Comic-Con in San Diego didn't give Vado much optimism. The emphasis on film adaptations of comics and science fiction is eclipsing the conventions' first purpose: promoting comic books.

"The general feeling at the convention," Vado reported, "is that it has reached its turning point. First to go were the dealers. The next guys to go are the smaller publishers. The recession has come to the comic business. Business on Saturday was the worst it has been in a long time. Traffic was good, but the average sale was much, much smaller."

The days are over when an independent creator—say Harvey Pekar, a good example of someone working completely outside the loop—would order a run of 10,000 books and then figure out a way to sell them.

"The sale of a couple of thousand copies of an independent comic book is a great success now," Vado said, shrugging. "There are fewer comic-book stores around since Amazon; indie comic-book shops are closing everywhere. The Chinese publishers, who used to turn up their noses at a small order of a couple of thousand books, are accepting them now. Comic-book publishers are having the same problem trying to find a digital business model as any other publishers, book or newspaper. Digital advertising doesn't pay like print advertising, and customers are installing ad-blocking software."


DESCRIPTION

GOTH GALLERY: Some of SLG's most popular titles are by Jhonen Vasquez, who infuses his graphic novels with a gutter-punk aesthetic.

Hits and Misses

Slave Labor Graphics' career has encompassed big hits and misses. Vado notes with regret the low sales ("500 copies or so") of a recent book he liked a lot, 2008's Chumble Spuzz by Oregon's Ethan Nicolle. It's a two-part tale titled after a meaningless exclamation in the strip Calvin and Hobbes.

In Chumble Spuzz, a quartet of funny animals win a Gadarene swine at the county fair, and then have to visit hell to do something about the bedeviled pig. The inventive Nicolle—pious yet profane, like Kevin Smith—works through his comical ideas thoroughly. Nicolle has a hell of an imagination. He writes funnier than he draws, but his figures are funny enough; they're like the little bottom-heavy humanoids on hip 1960s greeting cards Milk and Cheese need little introduction. They are long-time icons of Slave Labor, the publisher's Batman and Superman. Evan Dorkin's squat, square, beetle-browed pair have a little list, as that song goes in The Mikado. These "dairy products gone bad" pursue a permanent rageaholic crime wave against social types they cannot suffer to live. Give them their due: they were far ahead of the curve in being opposed to bottled water: "'Evian' is 'naive' spelled backwards! And so are you if you buy that bottled toilet water! Drink gin instead."  

Vado recalls some of his other favorite publications: the autobiographical series Tales From the Heart, first-person memoirs by African Peace Corps volunteers; "and Dr. Radium was a great comic," Vado says sadly. "It deserved a better fate."

Among the most popular of SLG's books are the cartoons of Jhonen Vasquez's Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Squee!. Vasquez's art epitomizes 1990s gothic comics: a brute but bug-eyed style, thick-lined, as if gouged out of the paper. His work is like the graphic form of gutter-punk rock—no trace of art-school knowingness can be found in it.

"I'm not the guy who gets awards and gets mentioned in magazines," Vasquez once said to interviewer Daniel Robert Epstein at the Suicide Girls website. In turn, Epstein said favorably that Vasquez's work is "like a spewing." Despite its monumental misanthropy, Vasquez's work was influential.

Seeing the delicate, Winsor McCayish art of former San Jose resident Jamaica Dyer, a new addition to the Slave Labor roster (about which more presently), I was surprised to hear her say she got turned on to comics partially because of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. "He's going to have a great career in Hollywood," Vado predicts.

Is this the place to mention the valley's own Chuck Austen, né Beckum, who worked on Slave Labor's early book Hero Sandwich as well as Alan Moore's pioneering Miracleman? Ask in the right corners, and Austen still lives in infamy for his work on Uncanny X-Men and Superman. Retired from comics now, Austen no longer gives interviews, thanks to the flame-broiling he received from a group he referred to as "the Seven Deadly Trolls." These were a series of bloggers who harangued Austen viciously for his editorial decisions, such as the revelation that Nightcrawler was actually the son of Satan. I mention all this without passion. I personally stopped reading the X-Men forever when the Amazing Man turned himself into Tom Selleck and Garfield the damn Cat, respectively—1983, you could look it up.


Comics 'n' Comix

Besides Vado's prominence in this field, San Jose's place in the world of comics needs some retrieval. Vado believes that the Comics Collector Shop—Bob Sidebottom's long-defunct cubbyhole on East San Fernando Street—may have been the first nothing-but-comics comic-book store in the United States. (The Comics Collector shop currently run by Phil Schlaefer in Sunnyvale is named in honor of Sidebottom's cramped little store.) In Mountain View, Lee Hester's shop, Lee's Comics, serves as a national model for all-things-to-all-markets comic-book vending.

And soon, film adaptations might give San Jose publishing a little publicity. Slave Labor Graphics has sold three separate options to Hollywood. Emo Boy by Stephen Edmond is reportedly in development with Jaime King (Sin City) and with YouTube celeb Lucas Cruikshank as the superpowered yet sad title character.

James Turner's series Rex Libris has also been sold to film industry agents. Considering the successes of National Treasure and the Da Vinci Code franchises, there's serious filmic potential in Turner's comic books about Libris, last surviving Library of Alexandria librarian, disguised as a mild-mannered Midwestern book jockey.

As a licensee of Disney—"Our attempt to bring things up to the next level"—Vado is particularly proud of the Slave Labor series Wonderland, about the magic land after Alice left. It's a property bound to get even more attention after the Disney/Johnny Depp/Tim Burton film of Alice in Wonderland is released next spring.

Another of Slave Labor's Disney licensee comics is The Haunted Mansion, based on the Disneyland ride. Work on this comic book led Vado to a particularly ambitious project, Winchester, to be published this October.


Winchester's Folly

The Winchester House is a place everyone thinks they know. In collaboration with Los Angeles artist Drew Rausch (his partner on The Haunted Mansion), Vado is writing a comic book about the house's inner mysteries.

"It's a project that's been knocking around in my brain for a long time," Vado explains.

"It probably comes from having tried unsuccessfully to get a job at the Winchester House when I was 16. When we were doing the licensing for The Haunted Mansion, I found out that some of the Disney people had come up here to visit the Winchester House the 1960s. Some of the elements of the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland are taken from the house—the ballrooms, the organs, the long hallways, the séance room. I thought there was a story in it, so I started researching."

Vado continues, "The commercial wisdom is that Sarah Winchester was a rich crazy woman. There was a lot of tragedy in her life, deaths on both sides of her family. Very early on, she watched as her husband died of TB. That she started going to spiritualists isn't that unusual; lots of people did that at the time."

The more Vado learned about Sarah Winchester, the more impressed he became. "Because she'd been touched by tuberculosis it makes sense that she'd leave the cold wet climate of New England. Right before she left, she gave a $2 million donation for a TB hospital. Who knows how much that is in 2009 dollars? Sarah Winchester could have used a publicist. She could have been one of the most famous women in the world."

When Sarah Winchester moved West, she became a successful farmer and rancher. "She devised labor-saving devices," Vado says. "She was living off of $20 million, her 50 percent share from the Winchester Repeating Rifle fortune. And she was still making more money selling fruit that she was from her investments. Originally, her home was seven stories high, but the top got knocked off in the 1906 quake, which is why there are doors and staircases to nowhere in the Winchester House. Of course, all that history interferes with the marketing of a crazy woman's haunted mansion."   

Previewing Winchester in San Diego this year, Vado found out how many people remember it: "And people who haven't been there want to go."


Getting Small

In the meantime, Slave Labor Graphics is scaling back publishing. "We are and we aren't accepting submissions," Vado says. "And we're focusing on the people we've already got working for us."

This September, SLG has a new comic out by Dustin Higgins and Van Jensen, a project Vado calls "a natural": Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer. But one of the smartest pickups that Slave Labor has made in 20 years is hiring former San Jose cartoonist Jamaica Dyer. Dyer has an October publishing date for the comic-book version of her online comic Weird Fishes, with a subsequent gallery show of her art at SLG's headquarters in November.

Dyer is a post-gothic artist, whose water-colored art is closer to Raoul Dufy or Odilon Redon than to the raven-black inks of a Jhonen Vasquez. The 24-year-old Dyer grew up in Santa Cruz and got her BFA at San Jose State University.

A month ago, Dyer moved to San Francisco, where she freelances on the TV commercial adventures of the shocking-pink-haired Erin Esurance.

Still, the Santa Cruz locations are clear in Dyer's art. "I lived right next to the Boardwalk for two years," Dyer says. "I liked it, but it's kind of surreal, that screaming outside your window all day from the roller coaster."

The fantasy in Weird Fishes is slightly Sendak and very intimate: Bunny Boy and Devour are a pair of truant children trying shyly to get on one another's wavelength. Dyer's stories are of shape-shifting and dreamy fantasy, of being small enough to ride on a duck's bill.

Dyer describes her art: "The book is basically looking at the fantasy that children have of seeing something alive shining in a pond. You're at the point where you're getting too old to just be playing with animals, so you start imagining monsters instead." Her characters fantasize creatures seen in aboriginal art: "She sees this shadow monster on a nature show, and it infiltrates her imagination."

Dyer started her comic strip Devour the Child at SJSU's Spartan Daily in late 2005. "The main character in that story was a little girl and a goldfish, and the little girl was a little bit mean-spirited. It got really surreal after a while." She wasn't deluged with feedback: "Most people didn't comment on the strip," Dyer says. "They'd say, 'Oh, I saw your strip. It was ... funny.'"

Dyer's first published piece outside of the strip was a story in the anthology Spark Generator #2, in which artists did tributes to those who inspired them to do work. The then-17-year-old Dyer's story was about director Tim Burton—in particular, his Batman Returns (1992), the most romantic Batman movie ever made, and probably the most romantic one they'll ever make.

"This is the movie that changed my life." Dyer said. "I was too young to be watching it. It was the most violent thing I'd ever seen. I fell in love with Catwoman."

Slave Labor Graphics' editor Jennifer De Guzman got in touch with Dyer about publishing her comic; now Weird Fishes will be joining the works of a small press on the border between graphic art and funny-animal mayhem.


What Keeps Comics Alive?

I wondered if Vado agreed with cartoonist Dan Clowes that there is a special destiny for comic books—an indefinable essence that keeps them from being made obsolete by other media, even if they ought to be gone by now.

"It's an old art form," Vado says. "If you think of it, it goes back to cave paintings and hieroglyphics. Like jazz, comic books were born here, and yet it's an art that's done better and gets more respect overseas. Comics have a hold. I think if people only knew it, there's a comic out there for them, comics of every range and scope."

"My sons weren't comic-book readers, they were musicians," he adds. "They only started reading comics recently. And they said that the medium seemed like percussion to them, that there's a rhythm to it."

Maybe that's it: Comics can be synthesized online, but the reading of a comic book, of swishing the pages, of lying curled up with one, is as satisfying as the slap of a hand against a conga drum.


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