Just What The Heck Is Small Press?

Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2001
By: Darren Schroeder

Cover of Just What The Heck Is Small Press?

The Silver Bullet Comics mail box has received a couple of queries/complains from readers about the small press interview area. A good example of these was "Why on earth are Yvonne Mojica and Mat Tait in 'Interviews' while Eddie Campbell and Jason Lutes in 'Small Press'?

My reply to this was that it "....doesn't acknowledge that Eddie Campbell and Jason Lutes were in the interview section of small press. Eddie Campbell talked a lot about his small press background. Jason Lute's interview was less small press focussed, but he does attend and his material is sold at SPX and other 'small press' events. People who are 'important' or 'known' can be and are part of the small press scene."

However, further thought has made me wonder if this reply missed the point. Having an area for small press suggests that there is some difference between these works and other comics. The definition of small press that I posed at the start of our work at Silver Bullet goes like this:

The "small" refers to the scale of production.

"Mainstream" companies produce comics with print runs of tens or hundreds of thousands, small press runs are usually closer to a few hundred because the comics are, for the most part, produced by the creators themselves. Due to cost factors the preferred medium is black and white, though as the audience for small press titles has grown a few titles have appeared in colour. Photocopied letter sized pages folded in half and stapled together to form a comic is the default standard for most creators because of this is the simplest format to produce, all you need to do is stay late after work and "hey presto!", you are your own print line! This said, creators are always experimenting with different shapes and sizes.

Subject matter is many and varied.

Autobiographical work is a common genre but the topics can range from historical, surreal, political, comedy, gay, feminist, etc. If you can think of it, someone has produced a comic about it.

Is there a common link between all small press comics?

Well the only one we have been able to find is that the creators are putting their efforts into producing exactly what they want to make, without having to please an editor, publisher, or even an audience. For some successful mainstream creators it gives them the chance to escape the confines of the mainstream and create what they want, for others it is just their chance to have ago at creating a comic.

It made sense to me at the time I wrote it but I decided to send it to the people I'd interviewed as well as the members of the smallpressnet mailing list and asked them what they feel "small press" means and if they considered themselves a small press creator. Here are the replies that I got:

Eddie Campbell: I don't consider myself 'small press' but if someone wants to interview me, I won't use that as an obstacle to reaching a wider audience. My own definition of small press is approximate to photocopied comics, i.e., even if it is screen printed or offset litho printed, it might as well have been photocopied for all the distribution it's got. Consider that From hell has shifted 35000 so far (not counting 11000 in France and so far undetermined figures in Brazil, Finland, Spain, Italy, Germany, and a 5000 print run coming up in Australia/NZ) and that we are talking about a 35$ us book, and that it has already been available in parts, the first part of which sold upwards of 40,000 copies ( subsequent parts were less due to the publisher's inability to keep them all in print.) really, as far as From Hell is concerned, what on earth are you talking about filing it under 'small press' ????

Sal Cipriano of Altered Realities.

I think small press is any work that's self published, or published by like a real small company. It shouldn't be bound to specific ideas. To me its like if you love comics enough to do it yourself whether it be something personal or a superhero story that's small press, the love for comics is at the heart.

"Do you consider yourself to be a small press creator?"

Yes. Definitely. And my work varies a lot. I've written so many different types of stories already, and not all of them fit into any of the categories you had mentioned.

Lynette Bondarchuk from the Edmonton Small Press Association:

I think your definition is articulate and true. Well put.

"Do you consider yourself to be a small press creator?"

Yes. Definitely. Though it's important to point out it's not all about comics either. I'm not a comics creator to the extent that I'm a fan, but I produce 'small press' in its other various forms (mail art, other underground, non-traditional experimentations that are mailed and networked in order to be seen or appreciated). I do think it's important to include the fact that small press is totally *non* lucrative, and most people do it out of passion for the work they're creating, because God knows there's little other incentive.

Indigo Kelleigh of http://www.circleweave.com

"What does the term small press mean to you?"

I think this [Darren's definition] is a lot of what makes a small press book, to me. It doesn't have to be photocopied, it doesn't have to be digest or mini-sized. It doesn't have to be hand-collated, or stapled by humans. It should be a one- or two-person show, though, or at most a small group all working together. The book should be produced by the creator, and not by some other company.
By this definition, many self-published titles would fall under the 'small press' umbrella, such as Strangers In Paradise, Xeno's Arrow (which did start as a photocopied small press title), Dork Tower (but not Nodwick or PvP, two other titles published by the same company, but created by different people). Bone I would kind of put on the borderline, since it is definitely self-published, but cartoon books seems like it's grown a lot since the early days. Could just be a mis-perception of mine. I also think that most of the online comics you'll find would easily be considered 'small press', even though they're being published digitally.

"Do you consider yourself to be a small press creator?"

I do consider myself to be small press, I've always been small press. I don't think I'd feel comfortable going 'mainstream', meaning to have someone else publish my work primarily. The online comics I do now, even though they're a lot more 'finished' than my previous printed stuff, I would still argue that they are small press (in fact, if you want to get technical about it, they're as small press as you can get, having a total print run of 0 copies!!), and I've tried to make my site as small-press-friendly as I can, even offering a place in my message boards for people to advertise their own small press work.


Well, I am new to "small press" but I guess my perception of it was always something NOT mainstream. For me I know it's a way to have some people get a chance to look at my art (and hopefully LIKE it) and not just do it and set it aside!

I love sequential art, I think for most of us in small press (ok, well, I can only speak for me!) it's a way to tell the stories you want to tell, and draw the art you want to draw!

Ben Steckler of Get Bent fame.

"What does the term small press mean to you?"

A work in which the creator(s) is(are) involved at some more personal level from conception thru creation thru production, distribution, and promotion.

I would include work that might be professionally reproduced, as long as the creator has assumed the financial risk involved.

I wouldn't consider a book that gets more than 50% of it's total sales thru Diamond a small press title anymore.

Nor would I consider a book published thru a company not run by the artist or a collective to which the artist belongs. So, if NBM is putting you out, you aren't small press, and sorry, you aren't small press if you're with Fantagraphics or Slave labor, either...but if Highwater Books publishes you, you can still qualify. Top Shelf is borderline, but given the attention to artistic form and innovative formats generally shown in Top Shelf and Highwater's product...I give them small press cred. (Besides get the people in the door at the 'small press' shows)

Any definition is going to have to have tweek room.

"Do you consider yourself to be a small press creator?"

Well, I've yet to actually create a small press (but that would cut my printer bill, wouldn't it?)....but I DO consider myself "Small Press"...I am certainly not in the mainstream. I still have to beg the same shops around home (where I spend tens of dollars a week) to put my books on the shelf, so I am "small".

Some interesting comments that give us the following qualities to consider:

Do it Yourself creators involved in the whole process of creation, distribution and promotion
Low print run
No profit
Any subject
Love of the medium
Not mainstream

From these and the other comments of our contributors we can see that the "do-it-yourself" aspect is a common part of peoples' definitions. This might let me get away with including Eddie Campbell, though with Jason Lutes I'm out on a limb really. No one has mentioned where they think Drawn and Quarterly lies in the scheme of things. They seem a good candidate for "attention to artistic form and innovative formats" but I think they might fail the %50 sales via diamond test.

I don't think my earlier attempt at a definition is to far off the mark but I can see that I will have to be a bit more careful about who gets put in the small press section. That said, all this means is that I'll do some interviews for the SBC general area. The thing that still concerns me is that we could be in danger of expelling creators who have gained some form of success. Once the general audience catch on do we really want to say that they don't belong with us anymore? But then maybe I'm over reacting. As long as we acknowledge that the small press doesn't have a monopoly on imaginative or worthwhile comics we can still celebrate the success of ideas over the blandness of those that play it safe.

If you have a comment or question about Small Press then feel free to contact me