by Robyn Chap­man |Sep 11, 2013 | Pub­lish­ers Week­ly
Some of the graphic novels published by the Cartoon House trio.

Some of the graph­ic nov­els pub­lished by the Car­toon House trio.

Car­toon House is a liv­ing space in south Williams­burg that has been a home (and tem­po­rary crash pad) for dozens of car­toon­ists. It has also been the venue for numer­ous par­ties, exhi­bi­tions, and comics hap­pen­ings, in the process becom­ing a cen­ter of Brooklyn’s blos­som­ing alt-comix scene.

Cur­rent­ly, Car­toon House is the home to sev­er­al room­mates and to three “micro­press­es.” A micro­press is, typ­i­cal­ly, a one-per­son pub­lish­ing house that puts out a small but diverse line of comics by mul­ti­ple authors. Sev­er­al micro­press­es have launched in the last three years, and as with the zine boom of the ‘90s, the micro­press is shap­ing up to have its move­ment this decade.

The apart­ment is unique­ly suit­ed to host­ing large events; the bot­tom lev­el is one large, unin­ter­rupt­ed com­mon area, with eight bed­rooms upstairs. Act­ing as some­thing of an artist’s com­mu­ni­ty, Car­toon House is even easy to spot from the ele­vat­ed sub­way plat­form at Mar­cy Sta­tion in Brooklyn—there’s a large neon sign in the win­dow that reads “CARTOON,” sal­vaged from “Car­toon Poly­maths”, a mul­ti­me­dia comics exhib­it that Kar­talopou­los curat­ed at Par­sons back in 2011. But even before the sign went up, peo­ple had start­ed call­ing his apart­ment Car­toon House.

(l-r) Kartalopoulos, Nuss and English

(l-r) Kar­talopou­los, Nuss and Eng­lish

But this is the last chance to doc­u­ment Car­toon House—it’s anoth­er vic­tim of ris­ing rents. The apartment’s lease is not being renewed, and this fall its inhab­i­tants will be look­ing for new homes. With that in mind, PW Comics World head­ed to Car­toon House recent­ly to inter­view its three pub­lish­ers: Bill Kar­talopou­los of Rebus Books, Austin Eng­lish of Domi­no Books, and Dave Nuss of Revival House Press. All three microp­ub­lish­ers spe­cial­ize in chal­leng­ing work that push­es the bound­aries of what comics can be, an esthet­ic encour­aged by Car­toon House’s alche­my.

Of the three, Kar­talopou­los, who teach­es at Par­sons and does pro­gram­ming for MoC­CA Fest among his var­i­ous indie com­ic indus­try duties, has been at Car­toon House the longest. He found it while search­ing for apart­ment shares on Craigslist. When Kar­talopou­los arrived in 2005, the apart­ment was just an apart­ment (grant­ed, a very large one). The evo­lu­tion into Car­toon House sped up with the arrival of car­toon­ist Austin Eng­lish, who first vis­it­ed the space for a par­ty, then expressed inter­est in mov­ing in if there was a vacan­cy.

When five of the non-car­toon­ing room­mates moved out at once, Eng­lish rec­og­nized an oppor­tu­ni­ty and seized it. His plan was sim­ple: find every car­toon­ist in New York who was look­ing for a place to live, and move them in as soon as pos­si­ble. Car­toon House had arrived.

Over a peri­od of a few months, car­toon­ists Liz Hick­ey, Jesse McManus, Vic­tor Cay­ro, and Bec­ca Kacan­da moved in. Lat­er, Jon Ver­mi­lyea, Kei­th Jones, Jeff Ladouceur, and Clara Bessi­jelle would call Car­toon House home. Vis­it­ing car­toon­ists (and at times, drunk par­ty guests) were wel­come to crash on the couch (mem­o­rable overnight guests include such award-nom­i­nat­ed artists as John Por­celli­no, Michael DeForge, Marc Bell, and Jesse Reklaw).

I just thought of it as a safe house for car­toon­ists vis­it­ing New York,” Eng­lish explained.

A halfway house,” cor­rect­ed Nuss.

As car­toon­ists moved in, the par­ties became fre­quent and, at times, leg­endary. The final Brook­lyn Comics and Graph­ics Fes­ti­val after-par­ty last Novem­ber was packed shoul­der to shoul­der with car­toon­ists from Chris Ware on and fea­tured a spon­ta­neous wrestling match between Hot Dog Beach’s Lale West­vind andRAV’s Mick­ey Z.

More than being an ide­al par­ty locale, Car­toon House offered Kar­talopou­los, Eng­lish and Nuss a com­fort­able space in which to pub­lish. In a city where the one-bed­room “micro apart­ment” mea­sures just 300 square feet, it’s a lux­u­ry to have enough space to store book inven­to­ry.

But Car­toon House’s great­est asset is its rent. “Cheap rent sub­si­dizes all the projects I’ve done,” Eng­lish explained.

The neon sign that gives the unique space much of its character.

The neon sign that gives the unique space much of its char­ac­ter.

Beyond offer­ing func­tion­al ameni­ties, Car­toon House also offers sup­port and a shared knowl­edge base. There’s always some form of comics dis­cus­sion in the air. As Kar­talopou­los put it, “Doing this kind of small press pub­lish­ing, you’re gen­er­al­ly very alone and oper­at­ing with­out a whole lot of sup­port. Being able to have a few peo­ple around you to check in with is help­ful.”

Domi­no Books was the first micro­press to arrive at Car­toon House. The idea of Domi­no was born of sev­er­al late night con­ver­sa­tions at the apart­ment, short­ly after Eng­lish moved in. He recount­ed the basic idea: “It wouldn’t be too expen­sive to pub­lish one or two books a year, and if you did two books a year you could real­ly devote a lot of time to it… I remem­ber for three or four years I had the ker­nel of that con­ver­sa­tion in my head.”

Eng­lish got the extra push he need­ed while vis­it­ing Nuss in 2010, while Nuss was liv­ing in Port­land, Ore­gon. Nuss, who has been in the micro­press biz the longest of the three, had just launched Revival House. He was pub­lish­ing books that Austin admired, all while work­ing a nor­mal job. “It seemed like there was no excuse not to give it a shot,” said Austin.

Austin launched Domi­no in 2011. He cur­rent­ly has nine books under his belt. Domi­no Books aren’t easy to cat­e­go­rize. Titles like Dark Toma­to by Saku­ra Maku andDif­fi­cult Lovesby Mol­ly Colleen O’Connell lack the clear ink lines that are typ­i­cal of com­ic art, and instead com­bine tone, tex­ture, and detail in a way that can be hard­er to deci­pher and more akin to fine art (the same could said about English’s own comics such as The Dis­gust­ing Room). Domino’s artists often come from out­side the comics com­mu­ni­ty and its pub­lish­ing has an inter­na­tion­al scope.

While Nuss inspired Eng­lish, Eng­lish in turn inspired Kar­talopou­los “I watched Austin start Domi­no, and even though I have a lot of oth­er expe­ri­ence with pub­lish­ing and book pro­duc­tion, watch­ing him do that made it seem very plau­si­ble that I could also start pub­lish­ing imme­di­ate­ly with just the resources that I had around me.”

In 2012 Rebus Books was born. Kar­talopou­los only has one pub­lished book to date, but it’s an impres­sive one.Bar­rel of Mon­keys is a 112-page graph­ic nov­el by the acclaimed exper­i­men­tal French duo Flo­rent Rup­pert and Jérôme Mulot. With an ISBN, a bar­code, a Publisher’s Week­ly review, and a list­ing on Ama­zon it doesn’t look like a book that was pub­lished by a guy out of his Brook­lyn apartment—advances in cheap print­ing that allow even small run books to be afford­able and attrac­tive are the key dri­ver to the entire micro­press move­ment.

Nuss was the last to join Car­toon House. After spend­ing five years in Port­land, he moved to Brook­lyn when a room opened up in the apart­ment. Revival House Press now has nine books in its cat­a­log, with sto­ries that range from the goofy (“Flan­nels are Cool Again!” from Trig­ger Num­ber One by Mike Berti­no) to ones with a sci-fi bent (Rit­u­al #2by Malachi Ward), both of which con­trast stark­ly with the pen­cil draw­ings in the abstruse Every­thing Unseen. Revival House’s most recent title is Men’s Feel­ings by Ted May, a favorite of the indie comics scene with it’s comedic tale of man­boys behav­ing bad­ly

In keep­ing with the DIY spir­it of the micro­press, dis­tri­b­u­tion for the titles is also done on a ground lev­el basis, with most sales com­ing through web stores and the quick­ly expand­ing indie com­ic fes­ti­val circuit—including such shows as MoC­CA, SPX, TCAF and APE—and via indie sales rep Tony Shen­ton and ded­i­cat­ed small press dis­trib­u­tors like Spit and a Half, run by acclaimed car­toon­ist John Por­celli­no. .

By keep­ing things small, very small, the trio of pub­lish­ers have been able to give their books the atten­tion they need while build­ing a body of work over time. The finan­cial stakes are low enough that it only makes sense for micro­press­es to work this way: pro­duce the work you love, with­out any con­ces­sions, and do it at a pace that can accom­mo­date some sort of day job. “When you talk about scale, you do talk about com­pro­mise,” said Kar­talopou­los. “If you’re going to be small, do only the things a small pub­lish­er can do.”

While the era of Car­toon House will soon be over, its inhab­i­tants aren’t lament­ing its end. They seem to appre­ci­ate their time in the apart­ment for the unique expe­ri­ence it is, with­out regrets. As gen­tri­fi­ca­tion spreads in Williams­burg (even to Broad­way, below the J train) it seemed inevitable that they would be priced out. “It’s too bad that it’s not very like­ly that we’ll have a sit­u­a­tion like this again,” said Bill. “And it’s too bad more peo­ple don’t get to expe­ri­ence some­thing like this. Although, not nec­es­sar­i­ly every­one would want to live with a bunch of peo­ple in a giant, crazy apart­ment.”

[Robyn Chap­man is the pro­pri­etor of her own micro­press, Paper Rock­et Mini­comics. She is also a car­toon­ist and an edu­ca­tor for the School of Visu­al Arts, the New School, Welles­ley Col­lege, and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa. She recent­ly wrote an edu­ca­tion­al book on car­toon­ing called Draw­ing Comics Lab.]

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