Big Planet Comics

by aussi disponible en français

In Northern America, fans of alternative comic books naturally head toward Seattle (Fantagraphic’s home), or Montreal (for Drawn + Quarterly). Probably that no one would have the idea to pass by Washington DC, a city mostly known for its federal administration and international organisations. However, DC is also home of a comic chain called Big Planet, which a few years ago started to partner with a Philadelphia-based publisher, Retrofit Comics. This publishing house started with mini-comics that would come out every month. Slowly, it increased its catalogue and is now developing projects that are more and more ambitious, thanks among other things to Kickstarter campaigns. Today, it publishes artists who are well-know and recognised (James Kochalka), younger people with already a strong track-record (Eleanor Davis), and very promising new comers (Sam Alden).

Voitachewski : I think I already introduced you quickly to du9, which is a pun between the 9ème art and “du neuf”, something new.

Jared Smith : (laughs), I never got it, it’s very funny.

Voitachewski : The website has few comments, but is followed by most alternative authors and publishers.

Jared Smith : The problem, even in America, is that there are not so many people that are interested in comics, so whenever there is this type of website or magazine that is interesting, the artist really respect that.

Voitachewski : Yes, probably. Could you tell me a little bit about the history of Big Planet/Retrofit ?

Jared Smith : Actually next Monday or Tuesday will be the 30th year since Big Planet Comics first opened. So the first store opened in the state of Maryland, which is just outside of Washington DC, in the suburbs and since then, there has been three other stores, so now there are four. I started working with them in 2001 just as an employee and then in 2004, I was able to become a partner with the owners so now there are four different owners that all split the stores between the four of us. And so there is one store inside Washington DC, and the three other ones are in the suburbs.
In 2011, Box Brown, who is a cartoonist from Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, in the USA, decided to start his own publishing company called Retrofit Comics because he did a lot of small comics, and all his friends did a lot of small comics. His view was that, if you go to a comic book store every week, at least in America, most of the comics are super hero comics or some science fiction, or fantasy or horror, but very few experimental or small press, alternative comics. For the few that there are, the big graphic novels which are very expensive — he’d wish he could go every week and buy a comic book for three or four dollars like everyone else, but that it would be something he would be interested in.
So he decided with all his friends publishing together to release one comic every month, like a bigger published company. But it would be with all these different artists. So he did that for two years and then came 2013, I was becoming interested in publishing through Big Planet Comics. I had met him maybe only one time… but I really liked his comics — his work and also the comics he published with Retrofit. So I sent him an email asking for advice, and then we talked for a little while and then he said, well, if you really want to publish then why don’t you just publish with me ? That’s how it started.

Voitachewski : Great !

Jared Smith : Yes (laughing), it was a very adventurous idea from both of us because we did not know each other very well but we both liked the same sorts of comics and so it actually worked out very well since then. But we definitely had a lot of talk about what that actually meant after that, you know.

Voitachewski : Your format reminds me of something we do not have much in Europe — a kind of fanzine that would be published by only one author, like Optic Nerve or Big Questions or the others. Is there a US tradition on that ?

Jared Smith : In the US, there is a tradition of comics that people make themselves, the self-published comics, that are not with an editor nor a publishing house. There are many different names, which is why it is very confusing, but most people call them mini-comics. It’s produced is usually using the American paper — if you take a piece paper and you fold it in a half, that is a size that people can then go to a photocopy place, photocopy it themselves and get a mini-comics that will be smaller because you use less paper. So the very first Retrofit Comics were all in this very small size with you know, a professional printer and a colored cover but it was the idea. But since then, since we have been doing better and getting more noticed, we have been able to tell more artists that they could do whatever format they want if it is not too expensive. So now it’s become more the vision of the artist then of us as a publisher. But not always ! Sometimes we say “that’s too silly” or “too crazy” (laughing) but if they insist then we will do it.

Voitachewski : You also publish anthologies like Future Shock… It is interesting as in Europe, people know very little about Northern American anthologies other than Kramers Ergot and complain about the fact that we cannot find samples of what US young artists do. What is your view on that ?

Jared Smith : Well, I think this was also part of the reason why Box Brown started Retrofit Comics. In 2011, many of the anthologies had stopped being published by the biggest publishers, like Fantagraphics would do Mome — they did 15 or 16 issues [20, actually] and then they stopped. And Drawn and Quarterly used to do their Drawn and Quarterly Anthology which even had some Europeans like Dupuy and Berberian for the first time in English. They stopped doing those. I think the big problem with most anthologies is they sell very badly (laughing) unless it has big artists in it, or other connexions, which means it is often more interesting to publishers and to artists than to the usual fans. But Future Shock had actually been published by the editor, Josh Burggraf, who had done five or six issues himself and we would really like his work so we asked him if he would accept to publish the next one with us. So again in this case, as an editor, we simply told him “pick your favourite artists, and we will publish it for you”. So it was all his direction and vision.

Voitachewski : I don’t know if you have heard about that, but in France, there was a huge polemic recently, because one of the very big publisher, Casterman, which is not alternative, has just came out with an anthology which will be published twice a year, and which is called Pandora. This includes the biggest comic artists you can think of, and it is international so you even have Art Spiegelmann who participated. And the alternative publishers are complaining that Casterman is trying to get the food from their plate.

Jared Smith : I had not heard about that, but I think that it’s always the case. I think the great advantage of an anthology is that it allows short work and often you can put someone like Spiegelmann next to someone who has never been published before and who is very talented. So in a lot of ways, you can sell it through Spiegelmann’s name but expose different artists. So I think (you asked this earlier and I did not quite answered) in America, or at least in the North American comics area, there have been more anthologies recently but a lot them have been going through Kickstarter, or a kind of themed-idea of an anthology which are usually focused on areas of comics that are not well represented. For example, there was a science fiction and fantasy anthology where all the stories and a lot of the creators were focused on queer characters or gay or bisexuals or lesbians, because they said that there are no comics of this sort being published by many publishers. And then there is another book that is called Beyond Queer. And then there is another one that was a successful Kickstarter that was Dirty Diamonds where everyone who contributed to it, including the editors, were all women. Because there is such a less amount women being published by big publishers.

Voitachewski : So as a man, you would not be able to contribute.

Jared Smith : No.

Voitachewski : Speaking of which, I have the impression that there is a strong sci-fi orientation in Big Planet/Retrofit — from the fact also that you are called Big Planet, and then there is Future Shock, and all these stories I read. Is it a coincidence or is there a reason for that ?

Jared Smith : (laughs) It’s a coincidence for a lot of it. Future Shock that Josh Burggraf started always intended to be science-fiction stories but very open to different types of science-fiction. The “Big Planet” name is science-fiction derived. We actually took the name from an early novel by Jack Vance called Big Planet. Jack Vance is one of the very old science fiction writer, which I quite like. I believe some of his books were adapted in French — such as the Tschaï series. I am not sure I am pronouncing that correctly.

Voitachewski : I confess I never read any of his books, but I definitely know the name.

Jared Smith : Other than that, when we are publishing, we tell artists to publish whatever they wish. I just think a lot of people love science fiction (laughs) ! But we have definitely done some comics that are autobiographical, or strange fantasies, or you know, different styles. I just think people choose to do science fiction.

Voitachewski : It is a trend I have seen in the US. I have the feeling that science-fiction is very trendy these days, Saga being probably the most prominent work.
Apart from that, you’ve mentioned that many publishers have used Kickstarters to launch their work. I understand that Retrofit also used it, right ?

Jared Smith : Yes, we’ve used three times. The very first beginning of Retrofit was a kickstarter. So Box did that one by itself. That was when he gathered all his friends and announced them that he planned to publish 17 different comics for 17 months, so they ramped up for about one-and-a-half year. After that they had a bigger project, that was also one of the anthology we’ve done which was with another publisher from Philadelphia, Ian Harker — he had published a series called Secret Prisons which had largely started with local cartoonist and comic book creators, but for this new anthology they wanted to do a bigger project and they chose to do the theme based on the Garo comic from Japan and the 1960s underground comics. So for that, they published a few Japanese artists. But mostly they asked people : “if a new issue of Garo had to come out, what would you submit to it ?”. So that was a very strange mix of different artists. And that was also a kick starter because it was quite big, closer to a newspaper size than a book. And then most recently in March or April, I believe (I can’t remember), we did a third kick starter to raise money for the books that we are publishing this year, simply because we have started to move path from the very small comics, to publish more comics in colours which of course is much more expensive. So we needed more money !

Voitachewski : I am intrigued by this Garo project…. Who initiated that ?

Jared Smith : So Box Brown co-edited it with Ian Harker, and it came out in 2012, so this was also quite early for Retrofit and I was not involved in it. There was for instance Matsumoto Masahiko, who was translated into English, I think there was other Japanese artists, and articles about Garo by a scholar, and all the rest were authors from America. That’s what was interesting : they had to treat it as if they were submitting it to Garo. There were some controversies over it… The comic journalists viewed this as a misused of the term Garo (laughs) and as an attempt to do some kind of fashionable, trend thing.

Voitachewski : I like controversies — they show that people are interested in what you are doing ! Do you think that your audience is significantly broader than the people you reach through kick starter ?

Jared Smith : I think it’s kind of difficult… I kind of view Retrofit Comics as being in between two levels — currently, we are not a big established publisher, but neither are we a very small beginning publisher… and so I think we have begun to reach past the people who are only interested in very small comics and many of the artists who want to see what the others are doing… but our great disadvantage is that we have a very small distribution, so that many of the people who would be interested in our stuff just don’t know about us. So I think it is still very hard.

Voitachewski : Who takes care of the distribution ?

Jared Smith : We have distribution with Diamond Comics but of course they deal only mainly with the American comic bookstores, and the Canadian’s. But we don’t get many orders from them, that audience is much more interested in the Image comics like Saga or the super hero comics. But we get some orders from them. We are also distributed by very small people like John Porcellino who does King Cat. We also work with a publisher in Britain, where they will distribute our comics in the UK to their friends and other comic stores and we distribute their comics in America to our friends and comic stores. But most of the distribution other than that is just… us, trying to sell our comics on our website, in conventions or in other places like that.

Voitachewski : That reminds me of a question I should have asked at the beginning… What is the exact nature of the relation between Big Planet and Retrofit ? Because I thought that you were the one taking care of the distribution…

Jared Smith : Euh… Basically ! (laughs). Often it is me and other people who work at Big Planet who will send the mailing packages and will deal with stores and such. The way I like to view it though, is that Retrofit Comics publishes and Big Planet Comics also publishes comics with them. But if we wish to, we could publish comics not together if it would make sense. So we are like two publishers that have chosen to put out single comics together.

Voitachewski : Has it ever happened that you would publish comics without Retrofit Comics ?

Jared Smith : Yes, we have done one anthology, actually, largely with local comic book artists from the Washington DC area. We have done it with maybe 2 or 3 or 4, or maybe even 5 comics with artists who are local, many of them who actually work at Big Planet Comics, as many artists work in comic bookstores.

Voitachewski : Is the scene important in DC ?

Jared Smith : It is very small. I think the greatest problem with DC is that it is a very expensive city, but there is not very many art colleges, so that students that are interested in art often go to nearby cities like Richmond in Virginia or Baltimore in Maryland, where there are very popular and very good art school and where it’s much cheaper to live. Or if they are artists, they will end up having to move to New York or some other cities which has a much different art scene. There is some, but not very big.

Voitachewski : And what about Philadelphia ? Because I understand that Box Brown live there, and that so does a crowd of artists he works with.

Jared Smith : Yes, so the Secret Prison book that he co-published, that’s because his friend Ian also lives in Philadelphia and that’s how that started. The anthology I mentioned for a Kickstarter with all the women of Diamond Comics, all the women who are editors also live in Philadelphia. So there is quite a big scene of artists who live there. It’s a very inexpensive city, and very vibrant. So I think it’s a big part of this appeal to live there.

Voitachewski : To go back to the distribution : I see that you are selling comics in PDF format. Is it really working, or is it something that still needs to be developed ?

Jared Smith : I think PDF is still a huge disadvantage because, especially for us, so much of our goal is to make a beautiful object – so that you are not really reading a comic, but it is a well-produced on a good paper with nice colours and quality, which is hard to translate into a digital format. But for us, it has been very popular for some books, largely because it is so expensive to mail heavy comics or any books or paper outside of the United States, so that many people who live in Europe, or Australia, or Japan, prefer the PDF because it is cheap.

Voitachewski : So you do have an international audience.

Jared Smith : Yes ! Not a very large one, but definitely an audience.

Voitachewski : It is good to hear that you attached to books as an object.

Jared Smith : Yes, very much !

Voitachewski : You know, we have many alternative publishers in Europe, but there are very few who would sell their books as a PDF. So it is interesting to see that you are doing so.

Jared Smith : It’s the way we move in the future, it’s not a future we are very excited about yet, but I think soon, when you have a big enough computer or a large tablet and you can read the comic that way — we will be happy to have people reading it, as opposed to thinking “oh this costs too much to mail to me, I won’t be able to read it at all”. But we always prefer that they read it the print.

Voitachewski : Yes, I also prefer the hard copies.

Jared Smith : Yes, there is this new company that I believe started maybe five years ago — have you heard of Comixology ?

Voitachewski : Yes, of course.

Jared Smith : So, we sell through them and again it’s like getting good distribution and you open up to an audience that would normally not see your comics. So, we deal quite a lot with them.

Voitachewski : They’ve opened a new offer in the US, which is a kind of Netflix for Comics, with all the Fantagraphics books and other catalogues. It’s not available in Europe yet, so I guess they are testing it in the US market. You pay a set fee each month, and you can pick up not only super-hero stuff, but also Fantagraphics and other things.

Jared Smith : Well, I know one publisher from Europe has started that. Have you heard of Europe Comics ? I don’t know if they have an agreement with Dargaud or some other publishers… but they have a lot of comics that they are trying to deal only as digital for the English translation. So I think for them, they want to get to the American — English audience. I think their comics won’t be very popular but that’s the way for them to get some. That’s a bit strange.

Voitachewski : I guess they are exploring ways to open new markets… And to talk about your store, I assume you sell mostly super-hero stuff, right ?

Jared Smith : Yes ! (laughs). It’s changing a lot I think like you said with Saga and other different genre of comics, those which became much more popular over the past five years, but super-heroes are still the majority, but I think less than they used to be.

Voitachewski : And alternative comics ? Is it something only for the happy few ?

Jared Smith : I think it is. It’s very interesting since we have the four different stores to compare them. Because one is close to a big university, two others are in the suburbs, and one is in the downtown of Washington DC, and it’s very different audiences. So the one that’s in the city has a much bigger group of people that is interested in the alternative comics. But the ones in the suburbs much less. So there’ll be a few people in each store. And the other thing about being in the city is that you get much more visitors and tourists. So those are people who might come from a place with no comic bookstores and who might be interested to see a place with many alternative comics. Or we had some who would come from Paris for instance, and who would say I cannot find these super-hero comics in France and I want to buy them in English. That’s a very strange mix.

Voitachewski : Yes, that’s actually what I did when I visited your store, except that I was not looking for super-hero comics ! Do you have an idea in terms of sales of the share of alternative comics ?

Jared Smith : I would say it’s very small… I am not sure, but I would say on the top of my head 1 % to 5 % but those are the kind of people who might pick up one comic that is an alternative comic, but they don’t see it as it. I think that the boundaries are breaking up, that there are lots of different publishers that are trying different things. Another anthology of this type is from Image Comics, which is called Island and has been publishing a lot of different artists from all over the world. For some people, this might be the first time that they have this exposure to alternative artists. So I think it is slowly getting better.

Voitachewski : Yes, I have seen a couple of issues of Island, but did not know it was from Image Comics.

Jared Smith : Yes, this would not have been possible a few years ago, so it’s changing.

Voitachewski : And do you see the big publishers moving toward things that would be closer to alternative comics ?

Jared Smith : I think for the very big ones, Marvel and DC, they will always stick to super-heroes, because they’re such big corporations and they don’t want to be too risky because they can do so much money when a character becomes popular and they can make a movie out of it. But I think like the debate you were talking about in Europe, with Casterman, was like a lot of the comic creators who make super-hero comics have come from the alternative comics as a starting point and then were hired to work and draw an alternative or a different version of a super-hero. Marvel has been doing this a lot. I think it is slowly changing the style of super-heroes, if not changing the stories.

Voitachewski : I don’t know much about Marvel and DC but I had the feeling that when DC launched Vertigo, it was somehow away to move away from the classical super hero things…. More daring and less mainstream.

Jared Smith : Yes, less super-hero mainstream. I think the problem is that, at least in North America, the mainstream is only super heroes, while in Europe the mainstream is anything. I think that what Vertigo was trying to do was to divide that normal mainstream. But since then, I think Image has largely taken over the idea of what Vertigo was trying to do. Because, I am not sure if it compares to some European publishers but even for Vertigo‘s publishing deals, Vertigo would still own most of the rights to the comics and so to many artists, they don’t want to have a corporation controlling their story. And Image, for example, let you control everything. So, especially when many of the comics are being purchased to be turned into a movie — or at least being purchased for maybe being turned into movies — that is very risky not to control everything from your comic.

Voitachewski : I assume that for the artists that are working with Big Planet/Retrofit, they are not living from their comics.

Jared Smith : There may be a few but most of them just do it on the side. A few can, but not many.

Voitachewski : Do you see some changes in the young alternative scene, these days ?

Jared Smith : I think so. Again, I think that there are these kickstarters and the anthology that have been coming up. Many of these want to publish comics that they believe have not been published but that they want to read, with more women creators, or one with different topics, or sexualities. Many of these people are also drawing comics for fun on Tumblr, which, you know, is just for free, but I know several people who have been discovered from their work on Tumblr ; and many strong communities have developed from just this kind of posting on-line comics, so I think that a lot of the newer creator are growing up in this environment where it’s a much more diverse and welcoming group of comic cartoonists. Because even twenty years ago, it was still largely white men doing a lot of these : you would grow up reading a lot of super-heroes. I think it is changing a lot.

Voitachewski : I always had the feeling that alternative comics in North America are more gender-balanced, but I am probably wrong.

Jared Smith : Well, and also the mangas coming from Japan have helped a lot. And that was twenty years ago, as well. So I think it’s been changing a lot, and is more balanced.

Voitachewski : Could you develop a bit on the current trends ? Any authors who are doing work that should be followed ?

Jared Smith : Oh, well, that’s tough. Not on the top of my head… If you ask Box Brown, he would probably be able to tell you about a bunch of people he is looking at. He’s always been more diligent than me. And I think most of the people you know will be published in a year or two by someone big anyway. It seems like all these young people get discovered very quickly.

Voitachewski : And how do you identify new artists ?

Jared Smith : Often through Tumblr. Or sometimes we would see something that they publish with a different publisher. The good thing with the North American scene is that it is connected very well. So you can just meet someone face to face after seeing their work in an anthology or a small comic. We do take submissions, but we don’t encourage submissions. Because so much of what we want is really something that we like, and too often someone would send us a comic that is not to our interest. But we have at least found two people that we published after they sent us their comics in the email or something, and it was really, really good. Sam Alden, he just mailed us a comic and said “would you like to publish this ?” and we said “of course !”. He did a few other small comics before Wicked Chicken that I emailed you, and sent them to us. He said “this is a weird comic, would you like to publish it” and we said “of course”… And then, very recently, Paloma Dawkins, who is Canadian, sent us her comic and I believe we will publish it this month, it is called Summerland. Her background is that she creates video games. So she has never done comic before, so it is a very different style. In particular, she colours very differently so that was very appealing for us as a publisher as well.

Voitachewski : So no submission, you directly go to see people.

Jared Smith : We do get a few, but these are not things we want to publish. It may be good, but not our style. But usually, we approach someone. And luckily, Box Brown is very well-known in the comic scene because many people admire his comics. So even if it is someone he has not met personally, that person might know his work, so he can approach them on an artist level and say “I admire you work, and we would like to publish you with my publishing company”.

Voitachewski : Yes, I recently read an article about a book he published about a boxer.

Jared Smith : Oh, you mean André the Giant ?

Voitachewski : Yes, right ! The book had good reviews. But I mostly know him for his sci-fi work. Could you please quickly tell me about his background ?

Jared Smith : Well, I am not sure of his earlier background, but I know that he started to do comics only… well, perhaps it’s been ten years that he has been doing comic at this point. And he started doing a very small comic on his website, like a daily comic strip of perhaps three or four panels and that was how he learnt to tell comic stories and how he learnt to draw. So I don’t believe he had much practice before that. I read those comics altogether and you could see that when he started off, he was very very simple, very crude — very simple art, not very complicated stories, and as he went you could see him growing more and more as an artist. And he describes this as he had always been looking for the art form that he could tell his art through and he just had never tried comics, so this is kind of his favourite way he finally found. I think he’s developed quite a bit with this and he likes science-fiction a lot. His next book will be coming out through a big publisher this fall about the video game Tetris[1]. So he is doing quite a lot of different styles and different stories.

Voitachewski : There is a movie about Tetris coming up. I read that it was going to be a trilogy, and nobody the story of the thing.

Jared Smith : Woah ! That’s very strange. This one seems very interesting because it’s about the people who created the game, and that they were creating it in the Soviet Union just as it was falling apart to becoming Russia. So that for many video game people, they had never dealt with capitalism and they did not know how to sell their work, nor what their rights were. So trying to produce this for the Western world sounds very interesting.

Voitachewski : That sounds very interesting indeed, I look forward to reading it. And what about you ? What led you to comics ?

Jared Smith : Well actually, when I was three-year old, my father worked for the American State Department with the American embassies so I travelled all over the world when I was a child. So I actually lived in Morocco, and one of my father’s friend gave me a copy of Tintin The Secret of the Unicorn, so that was before I could read so that was my very first book that I ever learnt to read with. So ever since I read comics my whole life. It’s a big thing for me !

Voitachewski : But you’re not an author yourself.

Jared Smith : I’ve tried but…. I am not a very good writer, and I am not a good artist, so… (laughs). I have done a few short stories, but they were not very good.

Voitachewski : Sorry to hear that. So how it is to deal with comics without drawing them ?

Jared Smith : I think it’s amazing ! I feel like a large problem with alternative comic is that so many people who enjoy them also create them, and it is very hard to find the audience who really enjoys the comics, it’s as if every independent daring film would be only viewed by people who make films. It is a very strange, small area but for me it’s very exciting that for something I love as much as comics, I get to help to get those comics into the world, then I get to read them too. So I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to me.

Voitachewski : I would like to go back to the artists that you are publishing… So Sam Alden, I had read something that he published with Frontier from Youth in Decline. He is a very interesting author. But I saw that you also have very famous artists that you are publishing.

Jared Smith : It’s always a strange mix. Like when Box started that kickstarter in 2011, some of them were established artists like James Kochalka, which is the first comic he published. Because he liked him and they were friends. You know, it’s a strange mix like that… Alden, we had never seen his work before. But I think also that we are now getting to the point where a lot of people like us. For instance, Eleanor Davis is one of the next people we are publishing, and she had a selling book through Fantagraphics a year or two ago. And she wanted to do a short story, and that would probably have been something that Fantagraphics would not be interested in but that we are very excited to publish[2]. So it’s a strange mix !

Voitachewski : Yes, I like her work very much.

Jared Smith : Yes, it’s all with colour pencils, it’s very beautiful !

Voitachewski : And you are getting more and more coverage — I saw The Experts from Sophie Franz in a couple of places, and read positive critics. Do you get more and more attention ?

Jared Smith : It seems like it, I think one of our great advantages as a small publisher is that we are very constantly releasing comics, because many publishers would only do one every month or two, or they would do three or four for a big convention. I think constantly having stuff come out is a good reminder that we have other things to do. But then, if we get a new reporter or magazine that is interested, we can send them 30 comic books all at once for them to look at. So it’s always helping a little bit. But it’s always a struggle, as you know, there are very few websites, or publishers or stores even that are interested in these comics. So, whenever we find on, it’s always very helpful.

Voitachewski : I imagine that in the US, you have big cities that are interested in comics and that outside you don’t get lots of things. Is that the way it is ?

Jared Smith : That’s very accurate ! We did a Google map where we listed all the stores that had ordered our comic books, and it was the West Coast of America, the East Coast of America, few big cities in the middle like Chicago, and nothing else in the middle ! It was completely empty. So I fear that there are many places, especially in America, where you can’t find these comics.

Voitachewski : It is different from the East to the West Coast ?

Jared Smith : I think the style is different, and I feel that the East Coast is more concentrated, and there are lots of cities that are close to each other, so in many ways, it helps the artists seeing work together, or kind of grow from each other. Because it’s very easy for someone from New York to come to DC. It’s only perhaps a four-hour drive, while if you are in Los Angeles, and if you want to go San Francisco, it takes like — I don’t know — a lot of time… so it’s very easy for us to move around, if there is a cheaper city to go to. But it changes a lot.

Voitachewski : And are you interested in foreign artists ? The first comic I read from Big Planet/Retrofit is actually from Akino Kondoh.

Jared Smith : It’s been a mix. She has actually moved to New York City, which is very interesting, and she just finished a manga about what it’s like to live in different cities. But often, it’s just artists we like. So we published Antoine Cossé, who is French, Jack Tigo is from Great Britain, Benjamin Constantine is from Australia… and I believe this year we are also publishing Karine Bernadou who is French, she was published by Atrabile. Her book will be coming in English from us, hopefully this fall.

Voitachewski : Yes, I read the new book, which is very good…

Jared Smith : You mean Canopée ?

Voitachewski : No, the latest one… I forgot the name[3].

Jared Smith : Yes, I just got a copy myself. But yes, we will be publishing Canopée in English this September. We publish a lot of Canadians, and a few others, I am forgetting now.

Voitachewski : And how do you identify these authors ?

Jared Smith : Except for Karine, almost all of the other ones were artists that we approached to see if they wanted to do something. Oh, and we also did Olivier Schrauwen ! But that was another one where he approached us ! He had been looking for an English edition, even though it has no words in it, for his Mowgli’s Mirror. But except for Akino Kondoh and Karine Bernadou, all the rests have created new comics. So these were the two first two that we put into English, or new editions anyway.

Voitachewski : What I meant to ask is how do you discover them ?

Jared Smith : Oh, let’s see… So the Secret Prison issue that was based on the Garo comics, one of these scholars who gave some articles about the history of Garo, his name is Ryan Holmberg. He is a huge Japanese scholar for manga and he is friend with us and we asked him what are good artists in Japan which have not been in English very much and so he introduced us to Akino. And then I believe Box was friend with Olivier Schrauwen. And for Karine, one of our friends, Nora Goldberg, is an American — Belgian girl who lives in London, and works with publishing houses in London to translate from French to English. So she worked with Boulet on his new Notes and she translated that into English with him. So, we’re friends with her and we said “what other great francophone artists should we know about ?”. So she talked to many many publishers until we found Karine as the next person we wanted to do.

Voitachewski : So it is very much about the people you know…

Jared Smith : ….Always finding new stuffs or looking or trying to find someone new ! yes.

Voitachewski : Before we conclude, any thoughts about the future of comics ?

Jared Smith : I think the future is very good. I think more and more people are reading comics, especially in North America. Like I said, the audience is becoming much more diverse. I think the trick will be sustaining the artists long enough, because this is still such a hard business that takes so much time and gives very little money at first, so that so many great artists are only doing it — as you said — during their spare time, on the side. But I am very hopeful ! I think there are lots of very good stuff out there and that the industry is also maturing very much, people are learning quickly from what other people are doing and doing better comics. I think it’s very good !

Voitachewski : A real final question then : in France, in Europe… well everywhere, I guess, people are seeing comics as being something for kids, and I guess in the US related to super-heroes. Do you see a change in that ?

Jared Smith : I think so. I would actually say Europe is better. You know, with Asterix and Tintin being very dominant, you can have comics like Blueberry or other things like Moebius that people know of. While in America, it’s still mostly super-heroes that people think are simply for… children. But I think it is getting better with things like Saga, for example. Or especially with the Walking Dead that is a comic that is now a popular TV show. People are slowly starting to learn that comics are for everybody.

[Interview conducted through Skype in July 2016]


  1. The book later came out, published by MacMillan.
  2. The Fantagraphics book is How to be Happy. After the interview, Big Planet/Retrofit published Libby’s Dad.
  3. Azolla.
Entretien par in December 2016