by Alex Dueben
Kevin Czap has had a pretty amazing year.
The cartoonist behind last year’s graphic novel Fütchi Perf, has made a number of shorter comics including The Letting Go, the eighth of issue of the Ley Lines series, and short comics for Hazlitt and other publications. Czap Books, the small publisher that they have been running for a few years now, with projects like the PUPPYTEETH and Ley Lines anthologies, launched a kickstarter to support their next three projects, and was met with a tremendous outpouring of success. To cap off the year, at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus in October, Czap was given The Emerging Talent Award. When Tom Spurgeon presented the award at CXC, he said, “this goes to a cartoonist whom we feel has plenty of promise as a cartoonist and has shown themselves to be a solid and giving community member as well… We love everything we’ve ever learned about you, in terms of your comics community heart.”
Czap stopped by to talk about their own work and how they got started in comics, moving to Providence and the comics community there, and the next comics coming out from their artistic family, Czap Books–Witchlight by Jessie Zabarsky, don’t tell me not to worry (i’ll worry all i want) by Kelly Kwang, and the new series Egg Creme by Liz Suburbia.
Alex Dueben: How did you start in comics? Were you always interested in cartooning?
Kevin Czap: I’ve always been interested in comics, from newspaper strips to superheroes to alt-indie stuff, manga, etc. Then I went to art school and studied performance and conceptual art, different kinds of thinking about art. By the time I got out I mixed all that up with comics. My interest in comics has never diminished. The work that I do started out being pretty formalist and now I think of it as speculative autobio, in a way. Focusing on personal issues but trying to extrapolate something beyond just ruminating on what’s going on and envisioning some solution or dilemma. The book that I put out last year, Fütchi Perf, came out of that as a response to personal and larger socio-political concerns that I had and that I perceived around me. Specifically dealing with the city of Cleveland, Ohio which I was living in for 12 years. All of that mixed together and came out a this utopian-esque fantasy of a future society where everything is pretty happy-go-lucky.
Dueben: I think Fütchi Perf is an interesting book because you’re primarily interested in people and their relationships. You’re clearly interested in larger ideas of community but all the science fiction elements are pushed into the background and relationships are foregrounded in a really interesting way. The book feels small in some ways, but there’s so much going on.
Czap: I think that comes from different aspects of my sensibility, but part of what I think is so great about comics is the inherent quality of extrapolating a larger picture or story from select fragments. Even down to the formal qualities of the page. You have the panels that together create the larger page and the pages together create this story. I got really inspired by that and felt a connection with how you view the world. As you live your life, you take in whatever pieces of information you can from your culture, the people around you, and it’s related to things going on in the larger theater of the world but it’s really only through your experience and the information you have access to that you’re able to put it together. Again, the human level is really important. I need to remind my self that it’s about speaking with people in some way. Foregrounding smaller relationships also plays to my strengths, I think. That’s where my interest lies at least, in showing these personal moments and I don’t think that I could necessarily do some large grand intrigue storyline or plot-driven narrative. I’m not following a novelistic structure.
Dueben: You’re not necessarily interested in telling a story that explains how society functions, you’re interested in showing how people live in society.
Czap: The other thing too, making something that purports itself to be an optimistic or a thoughtful alternative to dystopia, I was really sensitive to the limitations in that approach. I didn’t want to come off as proscriptive or really outline this is what I think will solve everything. I think that’s a flawed approach. Even if I am really strong in my convictions about things, I have to be aware that there are limitations and there’s not one monolithic answer or that it inherently meets my wishes, especially considering my position as a white person from an affluent part of the country. Pulling back and focusing on these individual lives was, I felt, more truthful.
I’ve narrowed the focus on the more recent comics I’ve done, “The New Cast” for Hazlitt and “The Letting Go,” getting more personal and direct.
Dueben: How did you go from self-publishing and making your own comics to Czap Books and publishing other people?
Czap: It came directly out of being interested in self-publishing and making my own books. I grew up reading a lot about Bill Watterson’s issues with the syndicate and I knew about Jeff Smith’s Cartoon Books. My brother did punk zines in high school so I’d always been around this do-it-yourself self-publishing. From that it just naturally led towards me making my own comics. Then as I started to go to conventions I needed to fill table space so I roped my friends who were also making comics or illustrations to put stuff together. I really like the act of laying out and printing and putting together books. I kept growing from there. Eventually after it felt like the PUPPYTEETH anthology had maybe run its course–or had lost its sense of excited urgency–I went, what if I take the individual artists and support them on solo projects. Then also doing the Ley Lines series with L. Nichols, which fills some of the role of an anthology.
Dueben: Could you talk a little about Ley Lines?
Czap: Ley Lines is a quarterly series that I co-publish with L. Nichols who does Grindstone Comics. We jokingly describe it as fine art fan comics. They’re little monographs where we pick a different person working in comics–with really a broad definition of what that means–and we give them the charge to find inspiration chose a subject from the fine art world or literature or movies or music–anything outside of the comics tradition–and use that as your inspiration for this piece. It’s 24 pages, risograph printed. We bring a broader artistic mindset or art history influence to our comics and we want to encourage that in other people. Mostly to encourage the cross-pollination of these different disciplines that can at times be pretty segregated. We just published our eighth issue of the series. So far it’s been well-received and we’re both extremely happy with the quality that all the artists have brought to it. It’s been successful so far as an experiment.
Dueben: A few months ago you had a kickstarter campaign for the press and you had a good response to it.
Czap: That was very humbling and surprising. It definitely helped to make me feel like I was on the right path. The kickstarter was to raise money to help fund our next three books–Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky, don’t tell me not to worry (i’ll worry all i want) by Kelly Kwang, and a new series by Liz Suburbia in the winter of next year called Egg Creme, which will be an assortment of shorter pieces in the mode of Love and Rockets New Stories. That’s going to feature an ongoing section that will carry on the events of her graphic novel Sacred Heart.
I wanted to do the kickstarter because I’ve been growing Czap Books for the past few years slowly and steadily and it’s been pretty well received, but I wanted to grow at a bigger rate to be able to do more things and have a more stable footing to pay our artists even better. Having supported kickstarters of other small presses for the past few years I thought it might be worth a shot. It took a while to plan, but I wasn’t expecting the immediate response that we got. I’m extremely grateful and I think I always will be. That it went so well and enough people believed in what we were doing and wanted to help us move forward.
Dueben: Witchlight is coming out this winter. For people who don’t know, what is it?
Czap: Jessi describes Witchlight as a shoujo adventure comic which pulls aspects from shoujo girls manga and mixing it with high fantasy and Hayao Miyazaki. It’s the story of a witch named Lelek who’s a vagabond rogue. She goes from town to town getting into fights, stealing, doing whatever she can to get by. We find out that she’s on this hunt for something that she lost, a piece of her soul essentially. Along the way she runs into this peasant girl named Sanja who knows how to fight with a sword, and Lelek kidnaps Sanja and drags her along on her quest. They end up growing closer to each other and help one another in their various deficiencies.
Jessi’s been releasing Witchlight as single issues and this edition that we’re putting out is going to be a collection of everything including the final chapter which has not been released to date. Also the earlier chapters will be retouched and remastered a little bit. Jessi’s drawing is amazing. I think on first sight you can see that it’s beautiful, but her talents as a storyteller I think are really excellent. She is also quite good at portraying the quiet, personal moments between characters. There are sword fights and magic battles but it’s the moments of downtime in between and the moments of pathos or anguish that the characters go through that are really where the heart of it is.
Dueben: At Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, you were given the Emerging Talent Award, which is about talent and potential but it’s about contributing to the comics community. That feels like something you’ve been doing, consciously or not, from the beginning of your career.
Czap: When I think about being a part of comics and going to comic conventions, it’s always the people involved and the people reading. I can’t escape the fact that we’re all people involved in this. I love the work itself, but I know all too well where these things come from and how they are disseminated and there are a lot of moving pieces. If I’m going to be a part of it, I guess it just feels natural for me to want to do what I can to draw attention to the things I believe in. It’s very easy for me to be a cheerleader for other people’s work because I love it so much. I love comics so much and it just makes sense to me. It does feel especially nice to have that recognized with this award. The description that they give of what the award is for, I do feel like I fit those criteria – or, those are all qualities that I aspire to, that I’m mindfully committed to – but it’s something I didn’t expect at all. I go about doing those things I want to do, or think are important, but I don’t ever have the expectation that I will get some reward or accolade for that. The fact that I was actually given this award and a cash prize for that along with my own work is almost too much to really get my brain wrapped around. That plus the kickstarter in a single year is pretty amazing.
Dueben: Between the award from CXC and the kickstarter, has it given you the chance to start thinking a little more longterm, to think about growing the press? How have you been spending the past few months?
Czap: The past few months have been shepherding the process of turning Witchlight into a book which should be wrapped up soon. Also making all the kickstarter rewards and following through with all those things. Going around to shows. I’ve done more shows this year than any before.
It has given me more confidence to start setting up the 2018 schedule and get that in order. Since I got the award at CXC I’ve had more the feeling that I could spend more time on writing new projects. That’s always something on the backburner when there are so many other things going on. It’s having this mandate. You’ve won this award and been given this money to make more comics. That came out of many people’s mouths, so I have to make that a priority. That does feel good. I’m also working on a re-release for Fütchi Perf. I put out a limited print run through Czap Books that sold out pretty quickly. I’d like to have that still be available and I’m working on that, but I can’t really say more than that I think at the moment. Aside from that I feel like there’s always a lot of balls in the air to juggle.
Dueben: Do you have a model or a feeling for what you want Czap Books to be?
Czap: Yeah, halfway between a vague and concrete sense. There’s definitely a quality in work that I seek out, but it also has a lot to do with the actual artists behind it. The three books from the kickstarter are all pretty different in tone and execution but what unifies them is they have something that goes beyond. You could pin Jessi’s book in a very specific genre, but the way she draws it and executes it takes it beyond that. There’s a certain attention paid to the comics medium and where she’s coming from and what she does that makes it particularly interesting to me. I could say the same thing with Kelly Kwang’s work and Liz Suburbia’s. That’s a quality I’ll continue to look for in people that Czap Books publishes. I don’t like making a lot of promises about what the press will represent politically, because the value is in the action rather than the intention. I always want to work toward doing a better job at supporting voices in comics that contribute to a healthier comics ecosystem, and a more varied comics history. One of my guiding thoughts is just seeing comics as a very broad and open-ended medium full of potential. I’m very attracted to comics of all different kinds and I want Czap Books to reflect that outlook.
Dueben: I would also argue, knowing your work and Liz Suburbia’s and Jessi Zabarsky’s, that what unites them is this queer sensibility in the sense of being non-normative. You’re all interested in telling a different kind of story, in finding a different approach, and even though stylistically and tonal you work differently, that attitude is something you share.
Czap: I think that’s a good way of putting it.
Dueben: Have you been thinking about your next longer comic?
Czap: I’ve got two short pieces in the works that I want to try and get turned around pretty quickly and hopefully have those out in the coming year. I’ve been picking apart this idea for a longer work for the past couple years and it finally feels like it’s got enough stuff accumulated to really get moving on it. I’m hoping I can pick that up in earnest this year. I’m a big fan of the show Project Runway. I watch it over and over again. I’m really interested in the structure of that show and in my longer story I want to see if I can translate some of that structure of a reality show to a comic. That will be a little ways off, but I’d like for it to get started sooner rather than later.
Dueben: You mentioned before that you moved to Providence, Rhode Island last year. There’s a great history of comics in the town. How have you found it?
Czap: I moved here mostly for personal reasons. I was at a point where I wanted to change things up. I had left my day job with the specific purpose of devoting more time to my own comics and Czap Books. That’s what makes this year so validating. I can see that everything that has happened has been a direct result of taking that leap and putting the time and energy into comics. I had given up those specific ties to Cleveland and I have a lot of friends and personal relationships here in Providence it seemed like it was a good time to make that move.
So far it’s been really enriching and amazing. My partner Cathy G. Johnson is an amazing talent and a constant source of inspiration. O. Horvath, Benjamin Urkowitz, Mimi Chrzanowski, my roommate Leah Wishnia, Mickey Z, Mar Julia and E. Jackson are just a few of the amazing cartoonists who live around here. A bunch of CCS grads have been migrating here as well – Laurel Lynn Leake, Penina Gal… We get together when we can although I’m not always the best for group drawing things. I love being close to the ocean and proximity to New York and Boston is very useful. There is this weirdo aesthetic that Providence has at large that I’m trying to be more receptive to. It’s definitely inspiring whether it shows up in my work or not.