Box Brown (“Belen!”, “Love is a Peculiar Kind of Thing”) is a fixture at indie comics shows, tirelessly producing his own bold and appealing short comics on a regular basis, but also, in 2011, launching an experiment in the return of the “floppy” or mini-comic via branding in the form of Retrofit Comics. Retrofit consists of a fleet of remarkable names in creator-driven independent comics banding together under an imprint to gain brand-visibility and reinforce a sense of production quality for their volumes. Retrofit’s goals were to be a presence in local comic shops, so that readers could actually visit a shop on new comic book day and look forward to floppies alongside mainstream works. The result was both beautiful, varied, and compelling for readers, particularly impressive when spread out over a table at SPX or the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival. Creators published in Retrofit’s first 18 months have included James Kolchaka, Corinne Mucha, Josh Bayer, Nathan Schreiber, Noah Van Sciver, and many more. Meanwhile, Box Brown was continuing with his own comics as part of the Retrofit line-up, and turning to a long form work for First Second on Andre the Giant. Retrofit was originally launched with 16 books in mind, but they’ve since moved past that goal, posing the question, what’s going to be the future of Retrofit? When I got in touch with Box Brown to talk about it, unusually good timing also brought with the interview some breaking news about this very question. Read on to find out what leaps and bounds Retrofit has made not only throughout 2011 and 2012, but this very week!
Hannah Means-Shannon: So, Retrofit Kickstartered in July 2011 with a goal to publish 16 books between then and January 2013. What was your experience like following that plan? Did it change at all along the way?
Box Brown: I followed that plan to a T. It was a lot of leg-work but ultimately it was a worthwhile endeavor.
HMS: Do you feel that you’ve made headway raising awareness about the value of “floppies” as an experimental tool for creators via Retrofit?
BB: I think there is a a greater focus on the format now than when I got started. I think Retrofit played some part in that. I think it’s a great, versatile format for comics and I’m glad people are still making them.
HMS: What has fan reception been like for the Retrofit books so far?
BB: I think it’s been great. I feel very supported in this endeavor. It reminds me that there are people out there that love comics.
HMS: How have retailers responded to Retrofit? Have any joined the ranks of the original group of stores interested in helping sell Retrofit books?
BB: The retailer support has been tremendous. I do a lot of the distribution myself and the regular support from comic shops is an important part of Retrofit. I love going into shops and seeing the books. Simon Moreton, a UK artist loves that his comic is in such far away places as Quimby’s in Chicago and Big Planet Comics in Maryland. All of the comic shops are awesome and have been great. I keep a list of all the shops on our site. Part of the impetus of the original idea of Retrofit was a trip to the comic shop. I couldn’t find any alternative comics for less than $20. No one was doing them anymore. I read a great one by Dash Shaw that Fantagraphics published recently. I’d love to see it become a trend for them.
But I also have big news. While this interview was going on I worked out a deal with Big Planet Comics! I’ll still be creative and editorial head but they’ll be taking on the financial end and distribution. Things will go on pretty much as they are now, but having Big Planet involved takes a lot of the pressure off of me and ensures Retrofit’s future!
BB: Well, I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that when people see the Retrofit logo, they know they’re getting a quality product. I’d like to think the label helps sell the artist and vice versa. Although I don’t know. Most of my business sense is based on professional wrestling.
HMS: Are you planning a second wave of Retrofit releases or perhaps a continuous roll-out that will just proceed on the momentum of the first launch? If so, what’s coming up?
BB: I’ve been publishing work continuously into 2013. There have been three Retrofit titles published this year: “We Will Remain” by Andrew White, “Grand Gestures” by Simon Moreton and next week “Raw Power 2” by Josh Bayer. This summer will see my first official retrofit release “Beach Girls” which will have a back-up story by James Kochalka. Then in the Fall there will be three more releases from Roman Muradov, Sophia Foster-Diminio and Ze Jian Shen. I’m not sure what’s going on in 2014. I’ll probably always have a Retrofit project up my sleeve.
HMS: Can you walk us through the steps of bringing a book to print and distribution at Retrofit? What’s daily work life like for you?
BB: Well, it’s different with every artist. Sometimes artists just have their stuff all ready to go and sometime they’re looking for design input, etc. It’s usually done via email. I send out packages pretty regularly. But when a book is first released, I spend about two or three days stuffing envelopes and boxes. It kind of makes me go crazy. There are a lot boxes all over my house.
BB: Yeah for sure. I’ve done probably 5 or 6 since I started Retrofit. I’ve also been working on this book for First Second about Andre the Giant. In the future I’d like to continue to make shorter comics and if something feels like it needs to be developed further, then maybe make a book out of it.
HMS: Has working on Retrofit changed the way you see or experience comics?
BB: Yeah, I think it’s made me understand that I’m a cartoonist first and foremost, and a publisher second. I’m just into comics and want to be a part of them any way I can. I enjoy working with other artists and helping them get their work out there. In a world seemingly overflowing with junk culture, I feel like I’m surrounded by genius artists and the world-at-large should be experiencing this as well.
HMS: So, that’s Box Brown’s big news alongside his inside-view of the process of running Retrofit so far! Not only has Retrofit been so successful in its original goals that it’s kept cranking out alluring minis, but Brown’s policy of reaching out to retailers has led to an even more established future for Retrofit in partner with the multi-store company Big Planet Comics! Big Planet was founded in 1986 by Joel Pollack and now has four co-owners and four stores in and around the DC area, as well as playing a strong role in supporting SPX.
This has big implications for fans of Retrofit, and creators who want to be part of the imprint, but it also sets up a unique model of partnership that may open doors for indie creators looking for new modes of distribution and financing. The Retrofit experiment was awe-inspiring to begin with, but this move is fairly mind-blowing in the context of indie comics, and at The Beat we couldn’t be happier that producing some of the highest quality indie comics out there and following some big ideas has led to great things for Retrofit. Congrats, and thanks for the interview, Box!
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.