“I’m Not Going to Pretend That I’m So F**king Creative”: An Interview with Eric Reynolds

I’m sure I’ll forget a bunch that really kicked my ass at the time. It allows me to do a lot more, to work with a lot more cartoonists, which is what excites me. There’s a tradition there that I’m trying to tap into, for sure. You find these things that you couldn’t possibly know were going to happen until you sit down to do it. What are some other anthologies that stand out to you, or that you have taken inspiration from? Each issue of Now is packed with masterful short stories by mainstay and emerging artists working both domestically and abroad. But other times it’s more of a feeling. The one thing that I did not think about was: it’s very un-Google-able. Yeah, that’s absolutely a part of it. That really is the fun part, and in my experience it almost always happens. Mad, you name it. Part of it is a certain hopefulness in that issue. You’re constantly, whether you want to admit it or not, balancing aesthetics and common sense and market considerations. I usually sit down at my dining table or on the floor with each story printed out. You’re trying to thread a needle of quality but also trying to provide a gateway drug for comics fans into other stuff. Again, I never discussed this with the authors. 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. Yet it only costs 10 bucks. Number 7 is the really large hardcover that cost like 100 to 125 bucks. It could be about a symbol or an icon that connects two pieces. I don’t think I’m really stating a controversial opinion here. In a sense, editing an anthology like Now is a gatekeeping position. 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. More to the point, I have pretty good confidence in my tastes and feel like I trust my instincts. It was more just me seeing what I had and what pushed the right buttons for me. Usually it’s pretty well finished, although there are plenty of exceptions. In Scomparsa’s it’s the sexuality of children, and in Davis’s it’s a specific, idiosyncratic fetish. [Laughs.] When I conceived of the title, I was really convinced, “Oh, this is a great title. That’s a pretty good analogy, for sure. 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. 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. ¤
Colin Beineke is a professor of English at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he teaches courses in the liberal arts and sequential arts programs. That’s the simplest way to put 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? ¤
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. 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. In terms of affordability and access that would definitely seem to limit who can get their hands on it. 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. I didn’t purposely seek it out, but when you sit down and read the stories, yes, the connection is absolutely there. I think that’s where some of the weird subjective-ness and idiosyncratic-ness of this comes in. 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? 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. They’re all speaking to the way we navigate our interpersonal relationships, even though each one approaches things in their own way. Excuse the clichéd question, but what are some things that we can expect to see in future issues of Now? I don’t want to overstate it, but yeah. Their money’s worth! I really don’t plan too far ahead. 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. Dash’s formal experimentation is, I think, always exciting, but it’s because he’s a really good writer. I just meant a shorter piece of work than an entire book. But at the end of the day, I want someone to feel like it was 10 bucks well spent. 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. 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. I resist that thought process on a couple different levels. Does that sound like something that would fit?” That’s in the very preliminary stages, even before they’ve started drawing. I think I’ve proven myself on that front. Which issue of Kramers Ergot is it that weighs 800 pounds? It’s not something that is ultimately about something else. 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. 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. 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. Or do they come to you pretty well finished? But also because it’s just easier for me. And it’s a fucking brilliant book. No, not really. Not consciously, but yes, I think that must be absolutely true on some level. I feel a connective thread linking all the pieces in #1. 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. 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? But absolutely. Many of the stories in the series are as challenging and uncomfortable as the times in which we live. 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. 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’m not going to pretend that I’m so fucking creative in my sequencing of these other people’s art and ideas. Well, this might sound kind of coy, but I think I’m as interested in finding out as you are. I really liked Blab when it started. I don’t like really didactic art, but even if just unconsciously the election definitely fed the way I approached that first issue. 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. 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. 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. Some people ask me, “Hey, I have this idea for a story, and it’s about blah blah blah. 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. 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. But that’s really an inherent part of the pleasure of doing this for me. Fantagraphics struggles with the fact that we simply can’t publish all the good international work that’s out there. Raw and Zap. I don’t think so? One, because I don’t think it really needs it — the stories should be able to speak on their own terms. Is this something you’ve considered? 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. ERIC REYNOLDS: You know, the actual answer is much more boring. 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. Look at someone like Eleanor Davis. I believe a lot of comics are bought and consumed out of some sense of collector obligation or impulse. Yeah. 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. 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. But then you have a lot of other stuff. 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. It’s one of my favorite comics objects of the last 20 years. 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. 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. I want Now to function on its own. I know you have been in the anthology game for a long time. That’s a fair question, one that I don’t think I put much thought into when I wrote the phrase short story. 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? 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. 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. I want you to be looking forward to the next issue. I can see it more clearly now, but in some ways even then. Was that planned? It’s not America’s Got Talent or The Voice. 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. JANUARY 5, 2019

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. 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. I’m often running stories in an issue that I haven’t read until a week or two before we go to press. But you have to balance that with the type of work that you’re running. Let’s talk about how you acquire work. I’m having a lot of fun with it and I want it to stay that way. You know, it’s funny. Otherwise it might become a burden, it might not be sustainable for me. Something similar could be said about David Mazzucchelli with Rubber Blanket, or Chris Ware with Acme Novelty Library. Let’s talk about thematic considerations. I talk to cartoonists and ask them to contribute, but I don’t really push them to hit a particular deadline. Is that one of the functions of Now? Eleanor’s story in that first issue really resonated strongly with me and felt like a very urgent voice. Some of them I’ve been sitting on for six months. 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? Those kind of formal techniques in and of themselves don’t necessarily excite me that much. 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. I gravitated to both of those stories because they just felt urgent, and like they had to be in that issue. I feel like it’s really important to keep Now affordable for it to function in the way it’s intended. 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. 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. 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. But I don’t really think of formal approaches when I am doing the sequencing or organizing. That it’s a creative act that you’re undertaking in putting Now together? 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. But it’s hard for me even to articulate, because a lot of it really just occurs instinctively in the moment. You’re trying to come up with something that you feel is greater than the sum of its parts. I really like them to work at their own pace. 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. 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. I don’t consider myself a super-formalist in that way. 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. What is it that you want readers to get for the money they spend on Now? I do feel a genuine responsibility on that front. [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. [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. In the 1990s you had Zero Zero, which was great. Your description made me think of Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying, which plays around with different visual styles and modes of storytelling. With each issue I have a few anchor pieces that I just know are going to be in there, for whatever reason. When I first started getting into what I think are good comics there was Raw and Blab. Launched in late 2017, Now marks a move toward a strain of egalitarianism that asserts that quality comics don’t have to be unaffordable. Do you feel the same way about editing an anthology? I am thinking in particular of Dash Shaw’s “Crowd Chatter” (Now #3) and Conxita Herrero’s “Hot Heavy Days” (Now #2). A good example of what I’m thinking about would be Dan Clowes’s Eightball. I worked with him to get Fantagraphics to publish Kramers because I’ve been a huge fan of it from the start. It’s more thematic, more subjective, and probably more idiosyncratic. 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. Do you provide feedback on individual stories while the artist is still crafting them? 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. Is your use of “new comics” meant to invoke this comparison? Oh, I think that’s true. I always have more than I can fit. But by no means do I consider the series a new talent competition. Avoiding explicit political partisanship, Reynolds instead threads a subtle subtext of insurrection and critique into his selection of artists and stories. That sounds a little more lofty than it was ever consciously intended to be. Are you drawn to comics that explicitly play with the conventions of the form? It won’t be as much fun anymore. But again, I know something like that isn’t an option for a lot of people. I loved Snake Eyes, Mark Newgarden and Glenn Head’s anthology. 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. 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. 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. 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.