When Chris asked me to write a post on the Pittsburgh small press scene for this exhibit I was both flattered and a little overwhelmed. I don’t know what’s happening in other cities, but Pittsburgh is exploding with DIY publishing in a wide variety of formats and fields. Try as I might, I will not be able to mention everyone currently involved. So, rather than try to make this a comprehensive listing I decided to instead offer a little historical perspective.
I’ve been involved in the comics and small press scene here for a little over thirty years. The phrase “Elder Statesman” has been uttered about me by a number of people. I don’t know about that, but I have been witness to a tremendous amount of change in self-publishing and the ‘zine community.
I first started publishing mini-comics way back in the late 80’s. These were the days when once you wrote and drew your own comic you then had to figure out the layout and then spend hours at the local copy center doing paste up, making copies, collating and stapling your own books. A lot of people still do this, I realize, but back then it was really the only option.
There was a huge, by the standards of the time at least, underground community of self-publishers selling their mini-comics and fanzines through the mail. A magazine called Factsheet Five provided a place to get your work reviewed and advertised. There were others, but F5 was the big one. A very small handful of friends and I jumped into this headfirst, following in the footsteps of Underground Comix pioneers like R. Crumb, contributing to music and comics ‘zines as well as publishing our own.
This brings me to what I see as probably the biggest change since then. There were, to my knowledge at the time, four people in Pittsburgh participating in this scene. I know better now, but then we simply had no way of discovering or communicating with them other than random encounters at comics shops or finding a local address in one of the ‘zines. The Small Press Artist’s Alley was not yet a part of conventions around here either. Other than minor feedback from the few people who ordered our books we were operating in a vacuum. Those days are gone. Last year I attended a ‘Zine Fair at a small gallery on the city’s Northside and was thrilled to see over fifty vendors with an amazing variety of product: Comics, music ‘zines, poetry chapbooks, art ‘zines, political commentary, feminist essays, autobiography and fiction. I would have killed to have found that kind of community in 1989.
A mini-comic called Grey Legacy that I produced with my friend and collaborator Fred Wheaton ended up winning one of the very first Xeric Grants from Peter Laird in 1993. This gave us the opportunity to experience self-publishing on a national scale in the pre-internet, pre-Print-On-Demand era. We were guests at the very first SPX in Bethesda. I don’t have a list of guests from that show, but there were maybe twenty of us, including established creators like Dave Sim and Steve Bissette. Nowhere near the hundreds who participate now. Nowhere near as many as at the Pittsburgh ‘Zine Fair for that matter.
I’m not the only Xeric winner in Pittsburgh. Tom Scioli, one of the contributors to this exhibit, won in 1999 for The Myth of 8-Opus. I wrote a cover feature on him for a local newsweekly at the time. Pittsburgh is also home to Rachael Masilamani, 2001 Xeric recipient for RPM Comics.
At the same time that I was publishing Grey Legacy I taught a class on Comics For Kids through a local community college. One of my students was a very young man (like 8 or 9 years old), named Eddie Piskor. You can see his work in this exhibit as well.
In 1997 I started working at Phantom of the Attic Comics (nominated for the Eisner Spirit of Retail Award in 2009). Phantom has always been supportive of the small press and while working there I have seen the scene explode. Our store has become one of the centers for this activity and, I like to think, has helped foster the community by carrying their product and facilitating connections. It was there I first met Chris Kardambikis and saw the amazing books being produced by Encyclopedia Destructica. It was there I saw Unicorn Mountain go from an idea in Curt Gettman’s head to an amazing series of art books. Jim Rugg brought us early mini-comics years before he became a well-known professional. Pulitzer-nominated editorial cartoonist Matt Bors sold us mini-comics versions of his now nationally syndicated strip Idiot Box while he was a student here.
In addition to Phantom Pittsburgh is home to Copacetic Comics. Proprietor Bill Boichel is a long-time fixture of Pittsburgh comics and runs one of the most idiosyncratic and Indy friendly stores you’ll find anywhere. We also have the Toonseum, one of only three museums in the country dedicated to comics art. Both of these serve to connect and expand the comics community here. 2009 saw the launch of PIX, the Pittsburgh Indy Expo to huge success. We’re not SPX yet, but the first two years of the show have been very strong.
I continue to see new work by local artists, self-published and digital and fully believe we have not seen the end of successful comics in Pittsburgh. It is very gratifying on a personal level to see this world I have been involved with for so long continue to grow and expand and begin to be taken seriously. An exhibit Like Do Anything would have been unthinkable not that long ago.
Wayne Wise (if you want to read more of my thoughts on the history of comics and my experiences in the small press I’ve written about it extensively at www.wayne-wise.com. Buy some of my self-published ebooks while you’re there).