INTERVIEW: So What? Press Mastermind Dave Kelly Reveals the Secrets to Success in Indie Publishing

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Lara Antal and Dave Kelly’s So What? Press marked it’s fifth year as an indie comics publisher this past fall. But in contrast to some of their more digitally inclined peers, So What? Press is committed to print using the old school model–and to paying their writers and artists. “More even than the publishing aspects, their consistency impresses me,” said cover artist Simon Fraser, “I admire their professionalism–their determination to run a comics publishing company correctly.”

Their tent pole horror-noir series, Tales of the Night Watchman, is celebrating the release of it’s fifth issue with a signing at Forbidden Planet in New York this Saturday, January 7 at 5pm. The event features it’s entire creative team: writer Dave Kelly, issue illustrators Lara Antal and Victoria Lau, along with cover artists Robin Ha and Simon Fraser.

Recently, Kelly spoke to The Beat about what indie means to him, how the field is evolving, and how personal tragedy can motivate transformational action.

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Edie Nugent: For those who haven’t picked up Tales of the Night Watchman yet, can you give me your best elevator pitch?

Dave Kelly: LONG PITCH: Tales of the Night Watchman is the story of Nora, a blogger stuck working a dead end job in coffee, and her roommate, Charlie, who happens to be possessed (in the nicest way possible) by a spectral detective called The Night Watchman. Baristas by day, heroes by night, they are the only ones who can save the day when supernatural forces strike in the five boroughs.

SHORT PITCH: It’s about baristas fighting monsters.

Nugent: Who are the creators/collaborators responsible for Tales of the Night Watchman, and how has their influence shaped the direction of the book?

Kelly: Lara Antal and I co-created the series, and we’ve collaborated with several artists along the way.  I look at Tales of the Night Watchman like an editor, not just the writer.  Lara is the main artist on the series, and her visual approach serves as the backbone.  

However, to be able to put out a couple issues a year, we need help! Having a diverse cast of artists has allowed us to flesh out the world that Nora, Charlie, and Serena live in.  It strengthens the overall story when others interpret the footprint that Lara has made.

We first worked with Molly Ostertag, and she did great work on The Night Collector and It Came from the Gowanus Canal one-shots.  She referred us to Amanda Scurti (The Dweller of Big Bogie) and J. Vigants (The Mad Mind of Anton Sebaum).  Now, those two are doing books at Oni and Molly is doing a book with Scholastic, which is exciting.

We also met some great folks at the Gowanus Studio in Brooklyn.   Lara and I joined in 2014 and stayed until we were evicted by developers last fall.  Both Simon Fraser and Robin Ha, who do covers for us, had space in the same studio.  Victoria Lau had previously assisted Simon.  We love her style and how it complements Lara’s.  Issue Five, in particular, represents the camaraderie and good times we experienced as part of that community.

Nugent: What led you to the often difficult and thankless work of launching a small press comic imprint?

Kelly: In 2010, I almost died of cancer.  I was working in film and not really enjoying it that much. I wanted to tell my own stories and was just working in the wrong medium.  All that changed when I met Lara.  Publishing has it challenges, but, frankly, I don’t care because I enjoy what I do and am thankful to be alive.

Nugent: You recently celebrated 5 years as an indie press. Looking back, what were some of the challenges you didn’t anticipate in launching and maintaining So What? Press. How did you overcome them?

Kelly: Getting people to spend their hard-earned and, honestly, in-disposable income in a very competitive selling environment is the biggest challenge.  Five years ago, the industry was in the fallout of the graphic novel implosion of the late ’00s.  

People were eager for comics, but this was before the creator-owned boom. I knew, as a lot of people did, that genre was going to be a thing again.  Memoir was on the outs.  What I did not see coming was how much content there would be after the Image comeback and all these other imprints started popping up.

There aren’t enough readers to sustain all this content, and it makes it harder for the smallest of the small presses to catch peoples’ attention.  We’ve overcome this by trying to be consistent with our output, by not putting too many books out, and not asking people for much beyond just buying our comics.  We don’t burn ourselves out because we know our limitations and the limitations of the business.

Nugent: Are there common misconceptions you’ve encountered about what does and doesn’t qualify as “proper” indie comics?

Kelly: The bottom line is that it shouldn’t matter who you are or what kinds of comics you make.  If you like to make superhero comics through the small press lens, that’s your business.  Comics as a culture doesn’t need to have those walls.  Copra is a great example of where you have a creator who is being true to himself in the comics he’s producing.  There’s no lie there.  It is 100% [Michael] Fiffe.  

People get snippy about indie creators making superhero comics because it represents something “wrong” to them, which is unfounded because the creators who like to make that kind of work are just being true to themselves.

Nugent: What’s in store for Tales of the Night Watchman and So What? Press in 2017?

Kelly: We have three more issues in the works!  Issue Six will conclude our ongoing storyline and feature the same lineup as Issue Five:  Lara, Victoria, Robin, Simon, and me.  Issue Seven will bring back the Gowanus Golem from It Came from the Gowanus Canal, written by me and drawn by Brett Hobson.  It’s also a Christmas special, haha.  Issue Eight will be about the vampires from The Night Collector, written by Alyssa Varner and drawn by Victoria.  

This will be the first issue I didn’t write!  We’re also delving into color, which will be a new and exciting challenge.  Clare DeZutti, who’s worked on Black Mask’s We Can Never Go Home and 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank, is going to color Issue Seven for us, which I’m excited about.


Antal, the main artist on the series and co-founder of So What? Press, also chimed in on  her work for Tales of the Night Watchman, and what she’s looking forward to in 2017:

Tales of the Night Watchman is the through line of my career as a cartoonist.  Each issue I’m able to flex my storytelling muscles more and more.  I love rendering nuanced expressions that show off big emotions.  I also love inking moody landscapes and creepy characters.  I look forward to wrapping up The Long Fall story arc because it attests to the leaps and bounds I’ve made as an artist.

It’s also important to me because the series as a whole champions the contributions of female and non-binary cartoonists.  Although the story is full of supernatural elements, we want it to represent what we see every day in New York City:  A diverse, bustling microcosm of humanity.”

If you can’t make it to the signing this Saturday, you can pre-order a copy of issue 5 of the series and check out some preview pages below. The first two feature Antal’s work, with Lau illustrating pages three and four:

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