Getting published: An interview with Nat Karmichael

June 7th, 2018

For many comics creators around Brisbane, Nat Karmichael is a bit like Uatu the Watcher. His passion is as a publisher is promoting and preserving Australian comics. We chatted about what his role means for local indie comics creators and the future of the comics medium...

If we were chatting over a coffee, how would you describe your most recent project(s)?

Well, it isn’t singular. The older I get, the more I seem to be taking on more than one project at a time!

Well - let’s go through them one at a time?

The first book is a biography of a bushranger (Bold Ben Hall). It’s a compilation of the Sunday newspaper adventure strip that ran in the Brisbane Sunday Sun (and other Australian newspapers) between 1977 and 1985. It was drawn by an artist from the Golden Age of Australian comics, Monty Wedd. It’s due to arrive from the printer any day.

Can I take us on a quick tangent? I wonder if Sunday strips read a bit like webcomics, compared to 32-page books. I wonder if there is some wisdom or insight which newspaper strips could still teach the newer format?

One of the things I like about webcomics, is that they are not beholden to any shape or format. Sunday comic strips (more so the syndicated American ones) had a specific format that they had to adhere to, so they could be cut and adjusted to fit within a two or a three (and even one) tier space. Calvin and Hobbes was the first to really break that formula, with the result being a freedom of artistic expression not seen in the medium since its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s when whole pages were devoted to single titles.

I suppose the week-in week-out discipline of working at ones’ creation to a deadline – for years on end – is the thing that the Sunday strips of old could teach the creators of the newer webcomics. I suppose that is why I am so enamoured by the older conventional Sunday comic strip. I can’t imagine anyone today being able to work on a single comic strip like Monty Wedd did in Bold Ben Hall, for instance, to tell one story week-in, week-out - for seven and a half years!

The other side of the coin is that there is less censorship in the newer comics, and that can lead to pleasing results unfettered by editorial interference.

Two of my favourite webcomics are by Australians: Sneaky Goblins by Rene Pfitzner from Melbourne, and Gorilla My Dreams by Tim Stiles, who lives in Canberra.

Folks, you should know that Nat showed me his proof copy of Bold Ben Hall - it’s enormous and gorgeous. While skimming the pages, I got a feeling like this book is a giant sprawling epic, in comics form, of something roughly like Bryce Courtney’s Power of One.

So that’s the first of your current projects... what else is going on?

The second book is Truth, Justice, and the American Dream: The Men Behind Superman. This brand-new graphic novel tells the tale of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster - two young friends who had a dream, the era they lived in (that is, the 1930s), the advent of the big comic book publishers, and how they created what became the most recognisable cultural icon of last century - Superman.

The book is written by Julian Voloj and is illustrated by Thomas Campi and is very much in the tradition of the bandes dessinee (graphic novels) of European comics. Although Julian lives in New York and Thomas in Sydney, they both have European backgrounds, so it is only natural that the form of their story follows those traditions.

It is Thomas’ first book in English, which was the reason I snapped up the rights to it. I was the first English-language publisher to pick up the rights to the work.

I’m curious - can you tell me more about ‘the form of their story’ following a European style? The story of Siegel and Shuster seems like a much more American tale, which would suggest a more bombastic American style..?

To have done it in the “bombastic American style” would have detracted from the serious message that the creators were trying to convey. Besides, the creators are from a European background, so they really were working to their own strengths and in a form that was familiar to them. It works better as a result.

Folks, Nat also showed me his proof copy of Truth, Justice, and the American Dream. Campi’s art is incredible. It’s so evocative of life in another era. One of my favourite novels is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It’s a heavily-fictionalised interpretation of Siegel and Shuster - so I’m pumped to get a more factual take on Jerry and Joe.

You’ve got a third project on the go, too?

The other book right now is also non-fiction. It’s called From ‘Sunbeams’ to Sunset: The Rise and the Fall of the Australian Comic Book (1924 to 1965). It’s a history of the local (Australian) original comic book industry.

Of all the books I have published or ever will publish, this will be the one that will stand the test of time

Graeme Cliffe and I knew each other in the local comic scene in the early 1980s, when he was one of the forces behind a local publication called Spectrum. But it wasn’t until after he asked me if I was interested in helping him publish his 20 years of research, that I realised the enormity and scope of his work.

This will be the seminal work on the topic, even eclipsing Panel by Panel, the other book on the history of Australian comics and comic strips that was written by John Ryan in 1979. Graeme doesn’t see it like that - he sees it as complimenting John’s book. And to a degree that is true, Graeme’s book does not cover comic strips, but I do believe that there is nothing like this. I am really excited about this book!

Nat, I should ask - how would you describe the role of a publisher in the comics industry? What do you do, in contrast to roles like an editor or a distributor?

I can only speak for me. In a sense I work all three roles.

In an editorial sense, I try not to be too critical of material I carry, and rarely ask for changes. But if I do, a lot of the time it’s in the form of making suggestions to the creators or writers and pointing out where things might work better (from a reader’s perspective). Changes must be slanted to maximising the readers’ experience, because at the end of the day it is the readers that count.

For example, The Men Behind Superman carried a lot of American spelling (such as “Mom” and “color”). Something like that would be picked up by a local reader, and all of a sudden, the reader would feel they are reading an American work. If the work contained lettering that was unclear or inconsistent, then these get changed as well – with the permission of the copyright holder, of course.

When it comes to Australian comic strip or comic book art that has previously been published - like the works of Monty Wedd, John Dixon, or any of the older Australian creators - I simply won’t touch it. These are historical reprints that should not be edited and changed.

I am ruthless in what I will publish in books now

My publishing role is simple: What works out there deserve preservation for future Australian comic readers? A secondary consideration is the commercial aspect of the work. I am ruthless in what I will publish in books now. It must be Australian or have some aspect that is Australian. And it must be something that has a historical significance of some sort. A lot of the old newspaper strips (and some comic books from the 1940s and 1950s) have rarely been seen outside of their original vehicle.

As a publisher, how early do you come on board in a typical comics project? What twists and turns do you commonly encounter as a project evolves?

How early do I come on board? Probably very early. If I see a property I like, I tend to approach the owner of the work and express my interest in working with them.

I suppose the only problem with this approach, is that the owner can be frustrated at having to wait until I feel I am ready to work with them. This can be years later. But there are varying reasons for those delays. Sometimes it is due to my other work commitments, sometimes - and this seems to have been the case in the past three years - family or life dramas seem to take centre stage. I would like to think that this does not damage my relationship with the people I like working with, but I can understand some might feel frustrated and impatient with me as a result.

I don’t think there is any commonality to all projects; which is why there is a great deal of satisfaction when they finally become a physical entity.

Let’s say you’ve just spotted a property that you like - let’s assume it’s somewhere like a Supanova convention where the creative work is self-published - what would you tend to do?

My inclination when spotting people’s work is to comment on the aspect that attracted me to the work in the first place. I’ll just tell the artist that.

I’ll talk to them about certain aspects of what their future goals are, what motivates them to work on this character. I’ll really allow them to talk to me, rather than my directing the conversation, because I want to know them and what motivates them. But you will know I like your work if I stay longer and converse with you. (Eep! My secret’s out!)

Some people’s raw artwork (that is, pencils) are more powerful than the end product. They have a grand style, but are unable to translate that into storytelling, or they are too heavy on the inking, or something. Some people have a grand vision (or many), but don’t have the tenacity to finish it. That can be disappointing. There are a couple of artists that I have given an advance to, to allow them to work on projects, that remain unfinished for various reasons.

There is no one answer to your question, because each artist is different, and I tend to approach them all in different ways, depending on their responses to my questioning. Some artists are shy, for example, and work in a private space and are unsure about sharing their work. Some have confidence in their work, after working on their craft for many years. Most improve over time, if they keep practising their craft.

What guidance would you give you for an indie creator to level-up to being ready to approach publishers with their work? What are some of the hallmarks of a publisher-ready creator?

First of all, if you approach, be prepared to be rejected and don’t be too disappointed if that happens. Don’t take it personally. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person or your work is awful. There are many reasons why a publisher may not like your work. It might be that they have too many projects and cannot fit you into their scheduling.

A good publisher will discuss with you where your strengths are and what you need to improve. Be prepared to listen, but also be prepared to reject the advice. Be confident in bringing your best work forward, and if you are rejected, move on.

The hallmarks of a publisher-ready creator is difficult to quantify. For me, it’s someone with a clear vision of their project, who shows an individual style. I am not readily enamoured, for example, of someone whose art style is similar to the latest or most popular Marvel or DC books. It’s the artwork that initially captures my eye, but then it’s the process of being able to tell a story in an entertaining manner. I’ll also have half a mind on what I feel might be commercially viable.

Among indie creators, there can be this idea of being “ready” for Marvel or DC. What advice would you have someone coming from indie comics, and heading in that direction?

I would encourage anyone who thinks they are ready for the big time to talk to a seasoned professional who can be open and candid about the pressure of the industry.

It’s clear if an artist can tell a story in five pages by his sequential work

A five-page story from a creator with an emphasis on artistic storytelling is useful, because it’s clear if an artist can tell a story in five pages by his sequential work. That is, can you ‘read’ the story without the words?

Locally, Paul Mason is the master in this regard. I went to a comic book meet-up in Brisbane a couple of months ago, and he showed us his Kid Phantom work prior to the lettering being added. You could tell he was relating a story. Kirby could do it. Ditko, too.

It’s a little more difficult to assess a writer within the same page constraints. A writer has to bring characterisation to those in the story, or motivation as to why they may do something; and these are a little more difficult to assess within five pages. Stan Lee gets a lot of bad press, but I do feel he was able to do that well; and one of the reasons why the Marvel Age of comics took off. His written collaboration with his artistic staff (even if they were plotting the stories) was first-rate.

There are many creatives who start out thinking they’re so talented that they can make the “big time”. However, it’s not the glory of the Supernova comic festivals (or the like) that will sustain you. It’s a lot of hard work, leaning over one’s art for hours on end, day-in day-out, and maintaining a high output for a long period that will ensure you reach the “big time”.

You’ve seen two major platforms for comics retail evaporate over the years - namely, newsagents and now speciality comics retailers. As a publisher, how do you approach the changing retail landscape?

I learnt first-hand through Oi Oi OI! that, although people still want to read comics, the days of people discovering comics through the newsagents are dwindling. Speciality comic retailers are also going to be problematic in the future.

Events like Free Comic Book Day are a good idea - they enable people to go to the physical stores and see what is on offer. But these people must also come back during the year for the comic book stores to survive.

My approach has been to begin to focus on books, and having my comic-related products being placed in bookstores... But I don’t want to focus on retail book environments either. Where do people go these days? Libraries are an increasing source of traffic, for example. These are areas that I plan to explore with these books of mine that are soon to be released onto the market.

A couple of years back, Bob Layton was at Supanova. He thought the best thought a new creator could do was make five-page stories - yet he also thought the future of comics lay in bookstores selling book-sized comics. How would you respond to his ideas?

I wonder if the appeal of the floppy monthly comic – while still a staple in the American medium – is waning?

With bookstores and libraries being more willing to carry graphic novels, I tend to agree with Bob Layton that this could be one way forward for the medium; and it’s certainly one I am more willing to explore at this time as a publisher.

There will be newer avenues that will open up. Expressing entertaining stories in an affordable manner will always be at the heart of comics, just as punk rock’s DIY ethic propelled the music industry in the late 1970s. Whether this is going to be in zines, or in floppies, there will always those who want to push the medium’s boundaries. Even though I do not explore or seek out webcomics in any great way, I am excited about the prospects of the digital and interactive mediums.

How do you approach marketing in your decision-making processes? How early in a comics project would you be looking for marketing angles and opportunities?

I think my marketing is rather too ad hoc. I am so intent on getting the books produced, that I don’t really start marketing until the books are ready to be distributed or placed into the marketplace.

Comics are changing, there is no doubt. We need to find a way to engage the people who have lost contact or who have never been exposed to the medium. I believe that there is a growing subsection of our community who are discovering graphic novels or who are reading comics in book form, rather than the floppies of years gone by. I want to explore this format more. So my days of publishing comics are going to be limited, even though I want to see the medium continue.

I am not really keen on digital comics, although I can see their appeal. I like to feel, to smell a comic. (Is that weird?)

It’s an exciting time to be wanting to produce good comics and to be in control of your own destiny, if you are a creative talent

There are likely to be more interactive comics in the future, and if I had more time, I would like to explore this further. That is where I see comics going. People like Stu Campbell are doing some amazing things. Somehow, I feel comics will follow music’s trends, and the artist will connect directly with the audience, and there may be no need for intermediaries like publishers or comic book stores. This is for someone else to explore, as my time in the medium is going to be short (given my age).

Already there are other avenues opening up. Crowdfunding is a new platform that allows people to self-fund their own projects; and these are becoming more popular. Patreon sites, where an artist connects with a fan base is another means of raising capital to fund projects. It’s an exciting time to be wanting to produce good comics and to be in control of your own destiny, if you are a creative talent.

I really don’t think the medium will die: people will always want to read well-written and well-illustrated stories...

Grab your preferred music service and set it on random - what are the first five songs it plays? No cheating!

Music is, for me, an interactive experience. I have to sit and listen to it. The last five albums I listened to were:

Sweet Old World - Lucinda WIlliams (Today it’s the 25th Anniversary version... although I prefer the earlier version)
Forty Licks - Rolling Stones
Henry’s Dream - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars - David Bowie
Raising Sand - Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

Thanks so much for your time and energy, Nat. I can't wait to see your books - especially Truth, Justice, and the American Dream - hit the shelves in the coming months. Folks, you can keep in touch with Nat's projects over at Comicoz.

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