In 2011, writer Dave Kelly and artist Lara Antal formed their own publishing company called So What? Press. Their first book was called “Tales of the Night Watchman,” which continues to this day. This dynamic duo from Brooklyn, NY has slowly gotten their books into 50 stores across the country and has grown their publishing house to include multiple new books from many other creators, including the critically-acclaimed anthology “Breakers.”
The story behind the birth of this indy publisher is almost as interesting as the books they create. Years ago, when Dave was undergoing treatment from cancer, an idea germinated in his mind. During a Christmas party later that year, he met a wonderful young girl that happened to be an illustrator. As their friendship grew, they developed this comic story together. They also developed a love for each other. Together as partners in life and business, they went forth with a common love of comics and started So What? Press. We at Indyfest Magazine had the pleasure to talk to one half of the So What? Team, Dave Kelly. He talked about the future of his work and the hardships of indy comic publishing.
IM: Tell our readers a little about yourself. Why did you get into comic writing? What inspires your writing?
DK: I’ve been a writer since day one. My parents cultivated a positive environment that prioritized Saturday morning cartoons over schoolwork (not their intent) and, here we are. I’m inspired today by the same stuff that inspired me as a kid: Batman, Dick Tracy, Ghostbusters, among other things. The big difference now is that I’m immersed in the world of professional comics creators who inspire me to bring my A-game—which I’m still trying to reach, haha.
IM: As a publisher, you started off with one book, and now you’ve branched out to many other critically-acclaimed books from other artists. What is the next stage for So What? Press beyond your creator-owned books?
DK: Well, we’ve got some cool projects in the works. We just reprinted a great minicomic by Marnie Galloway called Mare Cognitum. We’ll also be doing something brand-new with her next year, called Particle/Wave. This is all in addition to distributing the works that she self-publishes. Expect more minicomics from other artists in the future, as well. We’re always up to something.
IM: You’ve put in a lot of work to get your books into comic shops across the states. With more and more comic shops closing, and comic sales in general going down every year, what are your thoughts on the future for indy comics in general? Do you ever see a day where digital will take over the printed form completely?
DK: Like anything, comics are constantly in flux. Some awesome stores closed this year, but some brand new, potentially awesome stores opened in their wake. There’s always going to be turnover in that area, so I’m not too worried. A lot of the newer stores are more open to carrying small press. A lot of older stores are, too, but you’ve got to push a little harder, sell yourself more.
I’m a firm believer that it’s not print versus digital; it’s print and digital. People love to buy and collect tangible things, which drives the print market. Twenty years ago, people laughed at the state of the vinyl record—now look at it. There will be dips here and there, but print will always bounce back. You have a generation that’s overly screen-focused coming into adulthood right now, but the generation behind them will look at things differently. And who knows where technology will be at that point? A book will always be a book. It’s a perfect form.
Another big proponent of print, insofar as comics are concerned, is small press. Comics are a commercial art. As an independent creator, you’re not going to survive by giving your work away for free or selling it for $0.99 digitally. You’ve got to package your art and sell it to those who want it, at a premium.
IM: Tell our readers a little about Tales of the Night Watchman. What do you have planned for the series and the characters in the future?
DK: Tales of the Night Watchman is about a young woman named Nora who works in a coffee shop and her roommate /coworker, Charlie, who happens to be possessed by a detective from the 1940s who calls himself The Night Watchman. They’re baristas by day, heroes by night. Charlie also keeps an eye on Serena, an androgynous teenager who lives in a tent on a Brooklyn rooftop. He gets her a job at the café as well. It’s a little bit supernatural, a little bit horror, and a little bit indy dramedy.
We’ve got Issue Four coming out at Small Press Expo this month. This is actually our seventh issue, since a few of them aren’t numbered. It’s got two stories. The next installment of our story arc, “The Long Fall,” about an unhinged politician trying to redevelop the Williamsburg waterfront, all the while coming into possession of a fragment he believes will grant him indefinite political power. Of course, things are coming to a head, and Nora and Charlie will have to stop him. This one was written by me, and illustrated by Lara Antal, my co-creator /co-publisher.
The second story is the conclusion of a two-parter, “The Dwellers of Big Bogie”. Again, written by me, but illustrated by Amanda Scurti. This one is all about Nora. She just can’t catch a break on her day off! If it isn’t the espresso machine breaking down at the café, it’s a hideously-fanged, multi-eyed creature abducting children from public playgrounds. She finds herself a hostage in the lair of Big Bogie, the husband of this aforementioned abductor of children—and has to fight her way out to save them.
Like Issue Three, it’s a flipbook. Two stories. Two sides. Two covers. Amanda did the cover to her side. Simon Fraser (Titan’s Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor) did the cover to Lara’s. We’re really excited to get it out there; it’s a good one.
IM: Is it hard to work with an artist with whom you are romantically involved? Do you always see eye-to-eye on the story, and does Lara contribute to the storylines as well?
DK: Haha, Lara has to sign off on everything. We see eye-to-eye on most things, and we’ve worked with so many artists at this point that, unless she’s drawing it, I pretty much say, “Is it cool if we do this?”, and she gives me the almighty yay or nay. I write all the stories, but she’s the first person to read them.
IM: What are some of the biggest frustrations of being an indy comic publisher? Some creators have talked about harsh treatment by fans and comic-con head honchos. Many small press publishers complain they sometimes get the worse end of the stick at comic-cons. What have your experiences been? Also, do you think going to the large comic-cons or smaller-focused cons are better for indy comics?
DK: The biggest frustration is promotion and distribution. It takes a lot of time and energy to put you and your work out there, and the results are always mixed. The best thing readers can do is tell their friends and their local comic shops that they love a book. Shout about it on the internet. Don’t be quiet. If you love Tales of the Night Watchman, let us know. Let the world know.
There are two kinds of shows out there: comic-cons and small press festivals. They’re very different and serve very different audiences. People who go to comic-cons want to buy collectibles, score free exclusives, and spot celebrities. People who go to small press festivals want to buy comics by independent creators. I love attending comic-cons, but they are not the best market for small press. We table at small press festivals, primarily because it’s the best way to get our stuff into the hands of fans and new readers. I think you can avoid a lot of stress by knowing where your work fits in.
They are so many shows these days. Comics are really thriving in that respect. A lot of creators are making product. Small Press Expo alone is totally nuts. So many people on both sides of the table.
Oh, and if I can say one last thing: We’ll be at table B5a at SPX. Lara will also be on a panel called “It’s a Small, Small, Small Press World,” about small press publishing, Sunday at 2:30 pm, so you’ll get a chance to hear her side of the story, haha.
There you have it. Like Dave says, shout about your love of small press comics you like on social media. These are the folks putting the love, sweat and tears into comics. You can find out more about So What? Press at www.sowhatpress.com and find them the Small Press Expo.