Robots, Their Programming and How to Break into the Business
Felix Tannenbaum began small, with a story of robots and what their faulty programming does to them. The story turned into an allegory for how we are all of us programmed, hardwired, in some way. And just because we know, or think we know, what we’re supposed to do, that doesn’t mean we understand why—or what will happen once we do it. That can be a problem.
Tannenbaum’s story turned into a graphic novel collection that he oddly titled Chronicles of Some Made. He kept at it and earned himself a coveted grant from the Xeric Foundation, which gave him the ability to get his book published. So how did he do it? What lessons learned from the harrowing prospect of self-publishing in the comics industry can Tannenbaum share? We talked to him about the process, the writing of his book, and the story behind it all.
Tell us a little about your background and where you’re from.
I am from glorious Capital Hill in Denver, Colorado. My parents were radical beatniks and used to run underground newspapers before they had a burrito stand and eventually became depressed squares. I graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in ’98 and returned to Denver to study architecture, but I ran out of money and dropped out and began my bohemian period, which I am still pretty much in.
What other work do you do?
I make most of my money selling my paintings, so, in other words, I don’t make much money! I survive by doing odd jobs here and there.
When did you start working on Chronicles of Some Made?
Well, the first thing I did for the book I made in December of ’06. My father had just expired, so I had money to live on for a few months, and I was living in Vermont and saw that the Center for Cartoon Studies had a scholarship contest, and the second story in the book is what I made for them. I was pretty bummed I didn’t win the scholarship, but a lot of people who saw it really liked it and I got a lot of encouragement from that.
The main story I began in the winter of ’07, and I finished it in August of ’08. My mom got real sick and passed away during the time I was making it, so it took a bit longer than I had planned. I started off thinking it would be a 10-page comic, but it just sort of kept on getting bigger and requiring more elaboration.
All the death and sadness in my life really permeated the flavor of the book, I think, though I don’t think the book is ultimately about loss.
How do you explain the title?
I wanted something old-timey and odd-sounding for whatever reason, and after a day of brainstorming I came up with Chronicles of Some Made and I liked it. The “Some Made” refers to the robots, of course, and to one of the central ideas of the book: These characters were built and constructed, and like many of us, they don’t know exactly what they were built for or how to deal with some of the quirks of their programming.
How would you describe the book?
I think of it as an existentialist love story with a few funny bits thrown in. It’s sort of a tone poem about frustrations with self and with others, but it’s still definitely a comic book and has comic-book sensibilities.
Short answer: Robots work for this story.
Long answer: I think it’s a rare in sci-fi for the story to be truly concerned with the future and future technologies and such. I think the medium is ultimately concerned with a certain sort of allegorical realism. I think most sci-fi can be deconstructed and interpreted in the same way that dreams can be, and I think that’s generally when the medium gets real interesting.
Though I’ve become a little sick of sad-sack cartoonists writing about their love life, this book is ultimately my take on that form. (Though when I started on the story, it was absolutely not my intention. What was my intention? It was pretty free form—I just started pulling a story out of the air.) Robots work well for this particular story because, from my vantage point, many of the difficulties I have had in relationships come from tendencies I inherited from my family—tendencies and behaviors that, in some ways, I was “programmed” to have. I think that’s pretty common for a lot of people, and I think the frustration I feel about it is common, too.
Who do you think the audience will be for this book?
I hope its several million people scattered all across the globe, but it seems in general that it’s the folks who buy art comics in bookstores that would like it the most. And girls who knit scarves and spend a lot of time with bikes and cats. The sort of person who likes Drawn and Quarterly books. I guess I mean “indy”-style people mostly, though I really would hope that it speaks to whomever picks it up.
Let’s talk about the self-publishing process. How did you do it, and what did it entail?
I’ve been making comics and printing them on Xeroxes for a while now, so I was familiar with that. I had been submitting stuff to Top Shelf for a long time, and they liked my stuff but felt it wasn’t right for them, but they encouraged me to apply for a Xeric grant. Applying for that was pretty straightforward. I followed the directions on their website and heard back from them a few months later.
The actual printing and prepress and all that has been a brutal learning process for me. I knew nothing about commercial printing and little about how to format stuff correctly, so I wasted a lot of time making rookie mistakes.
What was the most difficult part about self-publishing? What was easier than you thought it would be?
The most difficult thing was not knowing anything about how it all works. But I had some friends who offered me some help, and the rep at the printer I chose was very accommodating and friendly.
So there’s that end of things and then there is something else entirely, which is distribution. That’s a much more frustrating thing to me, because there is little control I have as to whether or not it would be picked up, and if it was, would there be any interest at all? What kept me going with that was that I knew several folks in the industry whose work I respect and admire had started off with a Xeric (Jason Lutes, Jessica Abel, Adrian Tomine), and I really want to make successful, good comix.
Could you explain the process with the Xeric grant?
It’s pretty simple, but there is a LOT of work that Xeric hopefuls should be prepared to do if they win. You are awarded an amount of money that must be used for printing and for actual costs; it’s not like a stipend or anything—you don’t get any spending money from them—but you do get a good chunk of change and a nice boost for the ego.
How did you get the book distributed through Diamond? How can readers buy it now?
I had originally heard that Diamond wasn’t all that interested in self-published stuff, but I was approached by a rep of theirs at my booth at the Alternative Press Expo in November, and he was very positive. I got an application packet from him and sent it all away and heard back from them last month.
Now what happens with the new minimum orders and all that, I don’t know—I have heard that Diamond is going to be more lax with indy graphic novels than with floppies, but I still need to have some interest in the book for them to even ship out the first order, so here’s hoping!
Readers can either fly to Denver and buy it in any of the couple of local shops here that carry it, or they can visit my site to read the first chapter and then frantically email me asking me to rush a copy to them quick-snap, or they can just email me and buy it direct. (If there is enough interest, I might set up a Paypal thingy in my site, but for now it’s just through the email.)
What advice would you give to someone else who wants to self-publish?
Hmm. Well, I definitely had way too many printed. Start slow; you can restock later. I would recommend going to a whole bunch of different printers and finding a sales rep who is friendly and excited about the opportunity, and I would definitely recommend keeping a cool head and pleasant demeanor as much as possible.
Looking forward, do you think you will continue to self-publish or would you prefer to be with an established publisher?
If I had my druthers, I would probably prefer a publisher. The sales and distribution part of it all is really fun and interesting, but very time-consuming, and there are people who are a lot better at it than I am. I think a publisher can do a lot for an author; the most important being giving him a certain validity, especially if you are aiming for the bookstore crowd, and I am.
But, hey, Chris Ware just started publishing his own stuff, but everybody pretty much knows who he is by now. If I could get all the love, and all the money, and be able to produce really top-notch books that were worthy of all the love and money I was getting, I guess self-publishing would be fine, though!
What’s up next for you?
I am trying to get back into architecture school actually, but before I (hopefully) start in the fall, I am going to finish a big long graphic novel I’ve been working on for a while called Pedestrian and then get really rich and famous off of that.-- John Hogan