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.
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 is series editor of the Best American Comics annual 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 and RAV’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.
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 and Difficult Loves by 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 #2 by 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.]