As founder and publisher of Nix Comics out of Ohio, Ken Eppstein may or may not be wanted by the Secret Service for running an illegal printing factory of Communist tracts and other subversive literatures around the bible belting heartland. A traveled retailer and clerk well-versed in the history of American pop culture, he now marries his musical and sequential interests writing and editing some of the most original indie press comics targeted at whatever alternative means these harrowing days on sale today at your local comic book shoppe. From edgy to the horrific to the just plain humorous, Nix Comics serves up thought-provoking comics reading materials for the music enthusiast driving the porcelain school bus after a long night of heavy drinking, and for the comix fanboys and fangirls too.
What was the very first album you bought with your own money?
First full album? That’s a brain bender. I don’t think I remember for sure. It must’ve been some classic rock thing or another on cassette. When I was 12-13 I was really into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd… Neither of which I really care for now. So I’m going to guess either Led Zep IV or The Wall or something equally as terminal to whatever little punk rock cred I carry.
Oh… Y’know… Maybe it was a Tom Petty Album. My oldest brother took me to see Tom Petty when I was 13 or so. Pack up The Plantation Tour. I really fell in love with Tom Petty afterwards and tracked down all of his albums, which wasn’t easy. I lived on Long Island and he was “southern” or whatever. Sam Goodie’s, the big mall record store chain, mostly had hair metal and Madonna at the time.
Still love those old Tom Petty records. He didn’t really lose me as an active fan until CDs hit and I couldn’t get his stuff on wax or cassette anymore.
Vinyl will always be the preference, right? You ran your own shoppe for a spell. What was the craziest day there, that you can recall?
Yeah, for me. I like so much about vinyl… The warm organic sound. The art that comes with the packaging. The synesthetic effect of watching a record spin to produce sounds. The whole deal. I am pragmatic though and own a USB turntable. About a third of my collection has been ripped so I can listen to it on the road or whatever.)
But I actually ran two different stores that sold vinyl! Rudy Goose Comics and then later that morphed into Evil Empire Records. Rudy Goose (named after a concrete goose that I stole one night in a binge of “lawn shopping”.) was a spectacular failure in a way that only an earnest attempt at business by a guy in his twenties with more spunk than money can be. I wanted to sell both records and comics at that shop. Like Newbury Comics in Boston, but… you know… cooler. Lasted about a year and a half before going belly up and killing my love for comic books for 13 years or so. Made an impression though… I still have guys coming up to me to this day asking if I’m “that Rudy Goose guy” and telling me that they were “the skinny punk rock kid who came into your store once” which of course describes every one of the twelve guys who came into the shop.
Anyways… crazy… No one day really jumps out. If my shops had had enough traffic for crazy stuff to happen, then I might’ve stayed in business!
I used to do in-store performances at Rudy Goose to raise money. I’d get bands to play shows at the shop as kind of warm-up gigs to actual shows at clubs later in the evening. Mostly local guys, but the Trash Brats did a show one night. (Does anybody remember the Trash Brats from Detroit? They were great!) Nobody who came to these shows ever bought a record or a comic or anything, so I started selling beer out of a cooler. These in-stores would get pretty rowdy once the beer started pouring in. People barfing in the public trash can in front of my shop. Guys hitting telephone poles on their way out. That kind of thing. Folks who attended loved ‘em, but they were a pain in the ass for me.
And of course there were the scary days. In the shop alone and some dude comes in from the dead of winter with no coat on and was sweating buckets. He was all glassy eyed and started talking to me about handguns.
Nowadays that’s becoming more the trend, for brick and mortars to stay afloat, to double as other things, be they music stores, arcades, coffee shoppes, whatever. I remember a tattoo shoppe in Houston that also sold comics. Big grizzly bikers getting their Tom DeFalco Thor comics. But maybe your store was just ahead of the times. For those who haven’t read the Quarterly editorials, how did the comic stuff really start up? I know you’ve freelanced some articles around the block- was it a natural progression of sorts?
Well… Yeah… Sort of. I had done some really bad interviews of semi famous people for my Evil Empire Records news group. I mean, they were embarrassingly bad in retrospect. Some of the subjects were nice and went along with it (Subsonics, Deke Dickerson, Matt Wagner, Jamie Delano) and some were kinda dicks about it (Bruce Campbell, Peter Bagge, Marv Wolfman). I ended up taking some of them and turning them into cartoons with my brother and a couple other artists. Usually the ones where people were dicks made better cartoons, of course. Roctober Magazine published them for me.
It came to a point that Evil Empire started coming to a natural conclusion. I was making money at it, but not really enjoying the non-brick and mortar biz that it had become. I wanted to do something fun and creative. I said before that when evil Empire wrapped up, I sold a bunch of the records at cost on ebay and used the cash to fund the first few issues of Nix comics Quarterly.
Still not happy with the comic book industry, I went out of my way to try and make a comic book that bucked it in terms of what it was about, where it could sell and who would read it. Carrying through with punk rock and garage rock themes was a natural!
How difficult was it finding suitable material for the early issues, while you were still defining your “company” identity?
Yes and no. There’s no shortage of artistic talent out there and a lot of people were eager to contribute since I was offering (and, more importantly, coming through with) pay. If you can’t find someone to illustrate your stories, you’re probably asking too much for too little in return. I have a lot of stories to tell and I feel confident that as long as I continue to treat artists fairly, I’ll be able to publish comics.
But I did (and still do) have some trouble with the open submission aspect of the book. It’s meant to be a venue for fans of the book to contribute there to the Nix Mythology. Like Star Trek did with their open sub policy in the 60s. And like Marvel until recent years. But most young artists don’t get that… They don’t even bother to read the back issues I provide for free to see what I’m all about! I’ve had everything from a 35 chapter sword and sorcery yarn to dutch poetry submitted to me. Epic backfire of intent.
Now I kinda downplay the open sub policy. I remind people on my facebook and twitter accounts occasionally but I don’t go out of my way to present it as a solicitation.
I know you have been experimenting more with books focused on individual genres, but are there stories you would never allow? Other than Brazilian fart porn?
“Allow” is an interesting word choice. Of course. It is my vanity press after all. Being based in vanity there’s plenty of material which hits my inbox that doesn’t fit in with my vision and so would never see print as a Nix story. I turn stuff down all the time. More than I accept by a considerable margin and usually without remorse. I figure, I’ve pretty much started this deal from scratch and it wasn’t all that hard. If I don’t like yer stuff its not the end of the world, go on and publish it yourself!
What has been the biggest issue unconsidered or unexpected, that’s hit you as a small press publisher?
Aw geez. I hate to tempt fate this way, but I have to say that there haven’t been too many surprises so far…
You see, success at any DIY venture or start up business is really about planning, persistence and adaptability. Most of my 9 to 5 type jobs have been at small businesses and non-profit organizations. These jobs are almost always about doing big jobs within budget and time constraints and it’s taught me both how to effectively plan ahead and how to avoid letting little bumps turn into the big issues I think you’re asking about. Basically I’m pretty good at spotting pitfalls and climbing out of the hole when I do miss ‘em.
Another advantage that I have is that I’ve already tried a lot of things and failed. Like I said, Rudy Goose Comics was an epic fuckin’ failure of a business. A day in and day out losing fight. But… y’know…that fight taught me how to take a punch. I have to admit though, sometimes it feels like that scene in Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman is boxing George Kennedy. Sometimes ya just gotta keep comin’ back with nothing.
Have you thought about collecting the Vicar stories? You seem to have a few of those stockpiled now, and it is a fun character and premise.
Heh. You been peeking at my notes or something? Yeah, I’ve been writing the Vicar stories from the perspective that they’d be cool put together as a compilation at some point. Like a 64 page TPB or something like that.
Here’s a funny thing about the Vicar. Matt Wyatt, who in addition to being a cartoonist is a musician, has been on me for months to do a fake ‘The Vicar” album, presumably with his current band The Planktones as the musicians. Or maybe him and Bob Starker. Anyways… I’m a little reluctant to codify the sound of The Vicar in that way. I think it works better for the reader to decide what his band sounds like than for me to out and out show them how I envision the band sounding. He usually backs off when I point out that I’d be as picky about the music as I am about the art that goes into Nix. I suspect I’ll break down one day and do the record. Probably when I release the TPB, as another deluxe set.
I’d also like to do a compilation of Nix “Devil” stories.
Oh, but Starker did an outstanding job on the Nix Western soundtrack. Really sexy, Texas geetar kinda sounds. Whether you resolve the “question mark” sound of the Vicar or not, I’d personally love to see more audio Nix stuff. I think it’s not only something to help you further stand out from the crowd, but also another viable means to sell your message. And there is a message to Nix, isn’t there? What struck me about the Quarterlies is just how much like the true underground comix of the 60s they are. Like Crumb and Zap and all that jazz. They pushed boundaries, but the only things sold were ideas.
Yeah. There’s no doubt that Bob’s sexy. It’s been my privilege to work with him as much as I have over the past couple years. Put him on my list of “man-crushes” with Ray Davies, Tony Romo and Neil Tyson DeGrasse. And there’ll be more music and Nix crossover pieces for sure. Its’ what I know!
There are a lot of messages in Nix Comics. If there’s an umbrella to put them all under, I suppose it’d be that it’s time in our society to indulge in some serious self examination. Anyone who has access to Nix comics, whether they appreciate it or not, live in the land of plenty. Plenty of media. Plenty of resources. Plenty of history. The problem with this land of plenty is that it’s so often presented as a black and white, on and off, either or proposition. If want a coffee, you can go to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. If you want to be political, you can be a Democrat or a Republican. The only things that there is too little of are options. We are treading dangerously close to a homogeneous society. It’s time to start making our own options.
Is Nix a long-term plan for you then? Or if say, Dark Horse were to offer you a writer/editor gig, would you be on your merry way? Paying bills as a head of a small business is one thing, but how gray is the line for you between “creative” and “industry”? How important is the average Joe in making these new options you speak of?
That first part is a tough question. I’ll say this: I don’t consider the work I do with Nix as a tour through the minor leagues. I’m not waiting for the call up from the big two or anything like that. My dreams don’t revolve around writing Batman or whatever. That said, It’d be nice to make a living creating comics and working for a major pub seems to be the most obvious way to do that. If I was in a position where I could work in the mainstream comic industry and keep up Nix, it’d be a no brainer. I’d only be in a real conundrum if I was offered a job at one of the big companies at the expense of Nix Comics. Luckily, not a bridge I expect to have to cross anytime soon.
For a small biz guy, there is no line between the creative process and the industry. Getting your books into stores, paying artists, running social media, soliciting advertisers…all of that hustle stuff…is the hidden art of DIY comics. Yes they can stand on their own as pieces of art, but taken as such it ignores what comic books are all about. Communication and narrative. A box of comics in the basement isn’t communicating with anyone.
As for the average Joe… Well that guy needs to know that he’s voting with his dollars and his actions.
And to that end, who would win in a broken beer bottle fight, the immaterial ghost of Jack Kirby or Pete Best’s accountant?
Short term? I dunno. Long term? The one with the best lawyer(s). They should both know that by now.
Thanks for talking with the LP, Ken. You’re putting together some damn fine comics over there.
Hey, my pleasure! I appreciate the interest you’ve taken in what we’re doing.
Stalk Ken Eppstein online at twitter and at the official Nix Comics website.
Tags: interviews, Ken Eppstein