While large book publishers such as Doubleday, Random House and HarperCollins have been getting into graphic novels with mixed success, smaller publishing houses are also dipping their toes into the comics pool. One of them is Brooklyn's Soft Skull Press, best known for publishing works from New York's cultural underground and for politically provocative titles, such as the controversial reprint of the George W. Bush bio Fortunate Son.
The 10-year-old publisher has had a hit with Get Your War On by David Rees, which has more than 30,000 copies in print. Using clip art featuring banal office workers, Rees has been skewering the war and right-wing politicians in a series of brutally funny conversations. The strip started as an e-mail and became a water-cooler phenomenon following 9/11.
Within 10 minutes of seeing the strip, Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash knew he wanted to publish Rees. "No one was willing to do it as a book," Nash told PW, and then "the New York Times published a big article about him, and the large publishers flocked to him." Nevertheless, Rees and his agent decided to go with Soft Skull. "They knew we'd publish the book the way Rees wanted it done," said Nash, which included donating all royalties from the book (and additional donations from Soft Skull) to Adopt-a-Minefield (landmines.org), an international charity that funds mine-clearing in Afghanistan.
Soft Skull also publishes underground artists associated with the political comics anthology World War III, such as Seth Tobocman (Portraits of Israelis and Palestinians) and Fly (Peops: Portraits and Stories). Other Soft Skull graphic novels include Nate Powell's Tiny Giants, an impressionistic account of growing up.
While Soft Skull is expanding overall from 32 books this year to 45 next, Nash hopes to publish three to six graphic novels a year. He sees comics as being squarely in the subversive mode that the house specializes in. "There is a void right now [in challenging 'official' opinion], and comics and cartoon artists seem to be filling the breach. It is very much a part of Soft Skull's agenda to assist artists who are looking to really communicate about society," he noted.
"By publishing graphic novels," Nash continued, "and pushing them into traditional stores, we're opening opportunities for readers to encounter something new." Coming in February is a perfect example: The Art of the Possible! by the American poet Kenneth Koch. Nash described the $23 hardcover as "a book of poems that are, in fact, comics." Soft Skull is also beginning to draw the attention of other noted cartoonists. Megan Kelso, an Ignatz Award--winning cartoonist, is editing Scheherazade, an all-woman comics anthology due next fall.
"There are a bunch of ways to be radical in this day and age," Nash told PW. He described Soft Skull's books as being "always acutely aware of the social conditions. Comic books are not just another genre, like romance or sci-fi, but simply as another method of expressing a vision."