Thisyear, independent publisher Last Gasp will celebrate 40 years of art andcomics. The San Francicsco based publisher and distributor has produced comics and contemporary art books by R.Crumb,Todd Schorr, Robert Williams, and Japanese alternative/psychedelic mangakaJunko Mizuno.
"Whenwe started out, [underground comics]were brand new, " founder Ron Turner told PW Comics Week about the birthof Last Gasp in 1970 during the years of the Underground Comix movement in SanFrancisco. "Therewas nothing like it. Sowe had to create our own rules." Everythingfrom pricing structure to distribution had to be built or negotiated. At first,retailers balked at the floppy, stapled, comic book format of the Underground Comics that had a price point of 50 cents, andTurner found himself selling or trading his books to other publishers who hadestablished distribution networks. Turner also found himself becoming his owndistributor, selling the stock he had from trading books with other publishersto retail outlets in the Bay Area. "I sold at tattoo parlors, custom autoshops, mostly within the ‘lowbrow' art area."
Fromthere, two arms of the company, Last Gasp Publishing and Last GaspDistribution, emerged as separate but co-dependent entities. "It's hard to say which supportsthe other," Turnersaid. Last Gasp Distribution currently buys from 500vendors including Random House, Chronicle Books and Perseus, down to medium size independentpublishers and self-published books. Last Gasp also imports from publishers inEurope, Australia, and Asia.
Accordingto Colin Turner, Ron Turner's son, whohas taken over themanagement of the two companies, the model confuses some. "You talk to peoplein publishing and they think you're either a publisher or a distributor," he said.Indeed, Last Gasp is a pioneer in combining publishing and distribution andover the years, many more distributors now combine the two businesses. Being both a publisher and adistributor has driven Last Gasp's growth and development over the past 40years."It's part of what'smade Last Gasp successful and able to do unusual and interesting things."
Laterthis fall, Last Gasp will publish 12 books led by a collection of Mark Ryden'ssnow yak paintings in The Snow Yak Show,a second volume of art work from the magazine Hi-Fructose, and a third volume of the Best Erotic Comics whichincludes artwork by R.Crumb and Molly Crabapple. Suehiro Maru's oppulent mangaadaptation, Strange Tale of PanoramaIsland will also be published this fall. Last Gasp plans to publish 16-18books in 2011 and the following year.
Thepublisher's successwith artbooks stems from the growing popularity of so-called lowbrow art which has moved intothe contemporary and commercial art realms ala artists like Ed Hardy. "Young hipsters now are likelyto have three to four original [pieces of art] in their houses, and three tofour on their bodies-aswell as signature sneakers, and various things," Ron Turner explained. "Ifthey're demanding this kind of art, they're going to want to see books aboutit."
RonTurner also sees publishing art books as an extension of curating. Last Gasphas built and continues to develop ties with museums and art galleries in SanFrancisco and New York, including The Grand Central Art Center. "You make relationships withthese artists and it becomes a special thing. It's not just a business, it's avast intertwined social network where we're promoting the creativity of thesepeople." Last Gaspwill celebrate 40 years inpublishing at the Minna Gallery in San Francisco on April 1st, and the house will exhibiting at this year'sWonderCon, held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, April 2-4.