I recently read a graphic novel called Angie Bongiolatti by Mike Dawson. It's his third book. It was published in April and when he got his first quarterly report from the publisher, Secret Acres, it had sold all of 106 copies. He wrote about his anguish over this in a poignant blog post entitled "Advice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience." In the world of comics, this got a lot of attention. Here was a well-known cartoonist who has published three books. For many cartoonists, that spells success. But reading Dawson's cri de coeur shows this not to be the case. Dawson seems committed to comics. "But, sadly, as much as I’ve contemplated it recently, I just don’t feel
like I can give up. I’m stuck with cartooning. I’m a lifer." But given this commitment, he writes, "Lately, writing a book feels like I’m taking my ideas, spending years
building something elaborate with them, putting them in a nice box, and
then burying them in the yard. Then I’m asking everyone I know to find a
shovel and hunt around and see if they can dig them up."
Now as many of you readers know, I worked in the field of comics for a long time starting in 1989, when I took a job with my favorite publisher, Fantagraphics Books. And before then, I had been a devoted reader of "alternative" comics. And when I think about the 80s and 90s, I think about many of my favorite cartoonists: Michael Dougan, Carel Moisievitch, Mark Zingarelli, Dave Cooper, J.R. Williams, Doug Allen, Scott Gilbert, Carol Lay, Mark Marek, William Messner-Loebs, Mark Beyer, Krystine Kryttre, J. Bradley Johnson, Matthew Guest, etc. Maybe you don't know them. That could be because as far as I know, none of them still make comics. Each of them did a certain number of pages of comics. Some did maybe a few dozen in all, and some did hundreds. Dougan, Cooper, Allen, Lay, Marek, Messner-Loebs and Williams each had book collections published. But at some point, they each decided to stop being cartoonists--or at least to minimize the comics part of their practice. I'm sure they each had very specific, very personal reasons. In some cases, it might not have even been a conscious decision--cartooning had always been a sideline and they moved on. In other cases, it may have been an economic choice because comics--particularly alternative comics--is a spectacularly unremunerative occupation. In some cases, a better opportunity came along. Some may still do the occasional comic here and there, but their output has diminished to the point of near invisibility.
This reality breaks my heart. Obviously I'm not just talking about comics--I'm talking about art in general. So many artists start off with great promise--even great achievement--but ultimately give up in the face of economic reality, indifference from viewers, etc. It's one reason I started The Great God Pan Is Dead--to lessen the feeling of indifference that some artists feel. When I put up a post, I hope it lets an artist know that someone is paying attention. That someone who is not your mom cares about what you do. The same is true when I buy a piece of artwork or a graphic novel like Angie Bongiolatti. I mean, don't get me wrong--I'm not doing this as a charity. I get pleasure out of doing this blog (as well as collecting art and reading comics). But in addition to pleasing myself, I also hope that in some small way I contribute to some artist somewhere not giving up.
As for Angie Bongiolatti, it's not a bad book. The heroine is a young woman working in an e-learning start-up sometime after 9-11. She is involved with ultra-left wing protests and has a complicated personal history. It's not really her story--it's about people she knows, their attractions to her and their pasts with her. Dawson also rather deftly weaves in segments quoting Arthur Koestler about the psychology of revolution. It doesn't totally work, but it's the kind of sophisticated comic that I've always wanted--a multi-dimensional story with well-defined, complex characters. For what it's worth, I'm glad I was able to push its sales up--by precisely one copy.