Every year or two, I stumble upon a creator who is off the radar, but their personality and talent are overflowing to the point where I just know it’s a matter of time before they’re a household name. Enter Karl Slominski. We met Karl at Heroes Con in June and what initially started out as a few bad ass commission pre-orders turned into a fast friendship and an appreciation for the man’s storytelling. After carving out a solid career doing work for hire fresh out of the Kubert School, Karl decided it was time to take a risk on himself. That led to a book called Teeter Topple, which is one of the most impressive visual displays I’ve seen on the indie circuit in years. Teeter Topple almost never saw the light of day, but Karl persevered and I expect he’ll be rewarded handsomely for his efforts. This week we sat down to talk about his career while exploring our mutual appreciation for…pretty much everything.
Karl, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. It’s hard to believe I didn’t know you, or your work, until a few months ago. Now we’re getting matching tattoos and planning a month-long road trip together!
It’s true, we’re getting lower back tattoos of Johnny-Five fighting the Energizer Bunny while we drive along the coast until we hit bat country. It’s either that or we do the Weird New Jersey scavenger hunt until we accidentally find the tunnel that leads to Hell. But seriously, it’s a pleasure to get a chance to sit down after we’ve recovered from Heroes Con (what a tremendously wonderful show) and talk shop!
In all seriousness, as a comic art fan, now and then I come across an artist that just knocks my socks off and I know it’s only a matter of time before they’re a household name. Guys like Daniel Warren Johnson and Aaron Conley come to mind. Well, my friend, after what I saw of your work at Heroes Con, you’re the latest.
WOW! Thank you! Those are some damn fine names to be included among! I’ve kind of had this plaguing thought that I’m everybody’s favorite nobody. Do you ever listen to The Streets? He’s got a line in one of his tunes, “Cult classic, not bestseller” – maybe it’s my predisposed punk ethos talking, but I’ve always felt that could easily be my one-line biography.
Tell us about yourself. What’s your origin story?
I was totally obsessed with making comics long before I actually read a comic. I used to staple scrap paper into little booklets and draw stories in them. I think I read my first comic well after I had already made a couple dozen for myself.
There was a used bookstore in the suburb where I grew up that had comics for, like, a quarter a piece. I’d go there a couple of times a week and just blow all of my allowance on old Jack Kirby books and Carmine Infantino’s Star Wars comics. Ironically, my love affair with comics was in the midst of the Jim Lee/Chris Claremont X-Men and the Image revolution, but I was so obsessed with that old stuff and picking up weird, fringe things like Scud: The Disposable Assassin or Joe Linsner’s Dawn, I didn’t really pay attention to what was going on at the time. I also spent the better part of the summer before high school tracking down the original run of Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer, because most people don’t remember that story was originally serialized in Pacific Comics Presents and the tail-end of issues of Starslayer. It was through that anthropological buying habit that I found guys like Guy Davis, Mike Mignola and EVERYTHING Bill Sienkiewicz did from 1984-1991.
So I was never really reading age-appropriate books; I just gravitated towards things that looked different than modern comics.
You graduated from the Kubert School, was cartooning always your passion? You love music, too, right?
For a brief moment I toyed with the idea of becoming an astronaut in third grade, but I’m not that good at math, and freeze-dried meals taste like chalk, so comics were definitely a foregone conclusion. You’re right, I went to The Joe Kubert School of Cartooning and Graphic Art directly out the gate from high school, which probably illustrates just how dead-set I was on making comics. I didn’t want to waste time investing years in studies that detracted from my goal. Kubert School is unique in that it’s founded and run by WORKING professionals, so it pushed me way beyond any preconceived notions of craft and execution through drawing roughly 20 pages a week cumulatively between all the classes. I mean, your day is: wake up/make comics/go home and make MORE comics/sleep (maybe?) Rinse. Repeat. Comics boot camp!
Sometime around my graduating Kubert School and really heavily freelancing, I was in a band and did the whole skinny-boys-in-black-singing-about-death thing. There were a few shows I distinctly remember finishing pages during sound checks – I was living a real double life. Being in a band was the closest I ever got to being “cool”, while simultaneously being a complete train wreck. You usually are in your early twenties when you think you’re invincible. I’ve always kept multiple pots on the stove, creatively speaking, whether that’s been to my benefit or not remains the real question.
Let’s talk about your artistic style. I see Paul Pope. I see Jim Mahfood. I see Bill Sienkiewicz. Am I off there? Who else inspires you, from comics or elsewhere?
One of my favorite things that Joe Kubert ever said in his class was that “style is easily just an excuse for bad drawing.” It’s something I think about a lot these days, especially as I push myself to grow as an – and I hate using this word – “artist.” Far be it for me to question one of the granddads of comics, but I think “style” – at least in this context – is the easiest way to describe an artist’s search for something bigger than what they’re putting on the page. It conveys their ability to translate what they see in their head to how the finished work turns out.
Now that I’ve gotten that unnecessary philosophical tangent out of the way, my master list of inspiration is all across the board, so here goes: Jack Kirby, Bill Sienkiewicz, Early Steven Spielberg (anything before 1989), punk rock, muscle cars, Stiv Bators, diners, Ralph McQuarrie, Bill Peet, Lando Calrissian, pulp comic heroes (Rocketeer, Shadow, Dick Tracy, etc.), Barron Storey, Dashiell Hammett, Douglas Adams, bandes dessinee, travelling, The Mighty Boosh, record stores/comic stores (both equally), 80’s schlock monster movies, GOOD Manga (take that as you will), graffiti, robots, Terry Gilliam films, Coast To Coast AM, the Fantastic Four, Lewis Carroll, HIP HOP, Moebius, David Choe, the sound of rain stopping for a second when you drive under a bridge, Old Tom Swift Adventure Books, PRINCE, skulls, Blade Runner, Mignola, Calvin and Hobbes, mix tapes, Star Wars, cityscapes, Kubert School, Alf, people that unabashedly love what they love, and impromptu pizza parties.
My man! I like the cut of your jib. Heck, I’ll even look past your inexplicable inclusion of pulp characters because of the quality of the other inspirations.
I have to imagine you work both traditionally and digitally? How do you meld the two? Is it based on the project in question?
You’d be surprised how much I try to avoid using a computer! A lot of my execution comes from necessity. When I graduated I certainly didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and I couldn’t afford high-end tablets or drawing programs. All my heroes are dinosaurs anyway, so it probably fits that my approach to comics is relatively analog. Even now that I’ve got some toys at my disposal, I tend to limit them to just amplifying the work that’s already there, like lettering or some coloring. There are definitely some projects that lend themselves more seamlessly to digital, especially if I’m leaning for a more mainstream kind of book. I think they’re great tools when they’re treated more like icing on a cake, but there’s a level of vibrancy and excitement that you can only get from ink and paper.
Teeter Topple, your 80+ page original graphic novel, is – pardon my French – fucking brilliant. I bought the book because I was so enamored with your work and getting to know you at Heroes Con; more as a show of support than anything else. But then I actually cracked the book open. My gods, man. My gods. In preparing for our chat, I found a fascinating Facebook post from September 2016 where you tell your friends and fans that Teeter Topple would not see the light of day. Take me through that journey, and how – six months later – it was printed and ready for people like me to fall in love with it?
Firstly, THANK YOU. A thousand times, THANK YOU. It’s beyond gratifying to hear that ANYONE has read it and it resonates, even a little, but I heard you talking about it on 11 O’Clock Comics, and I owe you a fruit basket or a bottle of single malt with the level of praise you heaped on me! My degree of humility typically handicaps me, so I’m not used to people liking what I do so much.
So, The Ballad Of Teeter Topple, in all its gruesome, small-press glory! Cue the sad mandolins. I had a few books come out between my time at Kubert School, and now, most of them indie or Kickstarters or self-published, and some books made it into Previews. But nothing that materially elevated my “career.” The whole time I’ve been doing work for hire comics that never quite take off, I’m working on my own stories in my free time, always putting it aside to make “real” money. But with work-for-hire gigs, you can really get treated like a hired gun –that word is “disposable” –and it became apparent in some cases that my contributions were ancillary. There were some projects where creator egos got in the way or sometimes I’d complete a project as contracted and they’d just outright neglect to pay me, which is an unprofessional – that word is “shitty” – way of conducting business. I have a high threshold for bullshit and can let a couple of instances slide, but IT HAPPENED A FEW DOZEN TIMES. So I started thinking, “If I’m not getting paid to make someone else’s vanity project, why don’t I not get paid to make my own!” The only difference being I’m making something of MY OWN; something I’m invested in and might have legs.
That was Teeter Topple, a story I had been working on in some iteration or another since Kubert School and something ONLY I could put into the world. Sounds easy enough, right? It was! I spent the next two years cobbling it together like a madman, and I took it to my friends at 215ink, whom I did the book Golgotha with Andrew Harrison a few years earlier. We were excited because it was a book that I really cut loose and left it all out there, warts and all. And then the book was solicited in Previews by Diamond for retailer preorders.
I can already see where this is going…you got crushed by the “Back of Previews” curse, didn’t you?
Exactly. As you know, PREORDERS ARE ESSENTIAL. For a boutique publisher, with a modest book, preorder numbers can make or break you, and that’s where Teeter Topple became a cautionary tale. We got our order numbers back, and they were TRAGICALLY low. Low enough to put the publisher at a significant loss if we were even to bother printing to fulfill the few dozen pre-orders. So we agreed to cut our losses and – to spare you the details of my long, dark, soul-search and affinity for whiskey intake – out of a last-stitch effort, I threw the whole book online for free.
The funny thing is, PEOPLE DOWNLOADED IT. Like, a LOT of people downloaded it. I had to upgrade my account to handle the traffic. I don’t know if it was because people genuinely wanted it or simply because it was free, but that was enough for us to go back and try to re-solicit all over again a few months later. That pretty much gets you up to date.
The book exists (I am looking at my copy right now), but it’s still not widely available? What’s the best way to get a copy of the book? Are there plans for a larger print run and wider distribution?
IT EXISTS! Nothing short of a miracle, IT EXISTS! 215ink and I finally got it out last month, it was in Previews and we hit the pre-order numbers we needed. You can probably still order it at your local comic store; the Diamond Code is FEB172030. With our second go-around, I spent the month I was in Previews personally emailing comic shops up and down the country, trying to interest them in the book or at least order it. The DIY/punk naiveté was kicking in strong. I don’t know if it made a difference, I don’t know how many stores bothered ordering it, but it’s out there and available for consumption.
My hope of all hopes is that it slowly does get into the hands of the people that appreciate it because it’s an uphill battle getting your work recognized when it’s just you, and you don’t have the leisure of a major publisher’s PR department at your disposal. Hell, it’s an uphill battle being relevant in comics journalism for that matter, because most sites and blogs prefer to write about creator Twitter feuds or movie adaptations.
Don’t get me started on the state of comics journalism. It’s one of the reasons my co-hosts and I are thrilled to have at least a modicum of influence to expose great creators and their works to people who otherwise wouldn’t know about them.
You have some strong (and well-founded) views on the difficulties of creator-owned and small press books thriving in the current direct market. What’s the solution? Has the internet changed the game somewhat? How about crowdsourcing on Kickstarter?
HA! Yeah, I’d argue that everything I had experienced from the days that lead me to go out on my own and make Teeter Topple all the way to getting it in print probably illustrates precisely WHY I’d feel that way. But honestly, if the roles were reversed, I don’t know a lot of people that wouldn’t have strong opinions. I’m old enough not to begrudge the way the industry works, and I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, but I definitely have a protective nature towards creator’s rights.
Comics were founded on mistreating creators and shady business practices, as you know. If you haven’t read the book “Men Of Tomorrow” by Gerard Jones, it’s a must read [Editor’s Note: I’ve read it, and I agree]. It’s completely understandable why the industry continues that way; you’re only as good as the precedent. Change for the betterment of an industry takes time and concerted effort.
I think, like with all things, change comes from within. The baby steps the industry are taking is coming from dedicated people that respect the art form. As far as the internet? I think it’s changed the scope of comics. There are so many voices getting heard in the medium that wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar without the internet. The same goes for Kickstarter. Crowdfunding can be a useful way of circumventing the follies of the direct market.
I’ve always maintained that the comics industry in America could adapt to its audience and readership by taking notes from a healthy dose of Eurocomics and bandes dessinee or Manga publishing. For example, those other markets treating the story to a format that suits it. It’s not one size fits all. We both know that comics will always be a business based on trial and error. As long as we try new things and learn from our missteps, we’re not down and out, we’re just constantly evolving.
How important is building your personal brand, as a creator, to get your WORK seen? I ask because it was seeing you promote yourself on Instagram that piqued my interest, and that led me to your work. You seem to have the social media game on lock, is that a relatively new accomplishment?
I have a real love/hate relationship with the necessity of social media because essentially if you’re not talking about yourself, nobody else is. That can be discouraging if you just want the work to speak for itself. There does seem to be an emphasis on “branding” for creators and their online persona (i.e. what they share, what they say, etc.) and the more you treat your online presence as a tool for a working professional, the easier it becomes to curb innocuous tendencies.
I think it’s easy to be present on the internet, but I believe that it’s incredibly challenging to be relevant AND focused. Comics is an insular line of work, so it’s easy to shout into the void without realizing it affects your audience for better or worse. Trust me; I’ve had a Twitter rant or two in my day, and I know they probably made me sound like a douchebag, so understand, this is a lesson I LEARNED. My biggest fear online is that some dumb thing said on Twitter overshadows the work I produce, because I see that happen to creators DAILY. I don’t want the art I make to be an afterthought, so I just shut up and make stuff.
What’s next for you? What other projects does the 11 O’Clock Comics community need to know about?
Aw jeez, SO MUCH. I’ve been hitting the con scene pretty hard to promote Teeter Topple. So I’ve got Baltimore Con next, possibly NYCC, then who knows? Comics-wise? That’s a whole different ball of wax. Right now I’m working on Cult of Ikarus with my lady, Jenna Lyn Wright. It’s a gothic urban fantasy about two warring immortal families and the lone mortal that gets roped into the chaos. I’m STILL knee-deep in my 300-page space fantasy adventure epic, Star Child. I don’t think a publisher will come within 10 feet of that one because of how ambitious it is, so I may Kickstart it or drop it online for free like a lunatic. I’m also working on my all-ages monster fairy tale Evermore Falls, which is kind of the love child of The Goonies and Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. It’s going be another painted book, so it looks really crisp and almost like children’s book illustrations. There are a couple of other things I’ve got in the works that I’m pitching, so fingers crossed.
Share the love, what other creators are doing amazing things but aren’t getting the love? Who should we be checking out?
First and foremost, my boys at Stock*Pile Comics. I went to school with those guys, and they make some of the best comics I’ve ever seen on the indie circuit, hands down! Check out their books Forever Winter and Man-Gull if you know what’s good for you. I’ve also been digging on what Dave Baker and Nicole Goux are doing. I’ve been watching them unleash dope stuff DAILY online and finally got a chance to pick up a fat stack of their comics at Heroes Con. I’d definitely check out everything they do — especially Fuck Off Squad, Murders, and Action Hospital. They make A LOT of boss comics. You should also get hooked on some of my pal Fabian Lelay’s stuff, too. He drew Jade Street Protection Services at Black Mask, but his creator-owned stuff is NEXT LEVEL. I think he’s going be launching a Kickstarter for his next book; I want to give it all of my dollars, it’s so good.
Top Five Albums of 2017 (So Far)
SO FAR?! Jeez, that’s tough. I used to work in a record store for basically a decade, so asking me about tunes is almost as loaded as asking me about comics. Hmmmm, okay! Here goes:
- Plastic Daggers — “The Shotgun EP”
- Brutus — “Burst”
- P.O.S. — “Chill, Dummy“
- Run The Jewels — “RTJ3”
- Prince — “Purple Rain: Remastered”
Your girlfriend, Jenna Lyn Wright, has also been your collaborator, and she held it down with you at the convention. How does working with your partner impact your creative process, if at all?
Y’know, I know most couples think they’re the shit, but we kind of are. We met through work, initially. I was doing concept art for a horror anthology movie, and she was researching horror anthology stories for a screenplay she was writing, and she stumbled on my work. We kind of struck up a year-long internet friendship before realizing we lived in the same damn town! I know, it’s an adorable story, it makes me gag a little. We joke that we’re the only person that works for the other, because we don’t shut off, ever. That’s a rare quality, fervently wanting to make stuff all day. That borders on lunacy. I’d say above all the other good qualities; it’s grounding to know that there’s someone that’s JUST as into what they do as I am into what I do. Plus, she’s slumming it. She plays it real cool, but homegirl’s film – Ambition – just played at Cannes last month, and I’m dragging her to comic cons. C’mon now.
Where can our readers follow your work?
And there you have it! Our 11 O’Clock Comics community knows I’m not one for hyperbole, so when I tell them it would be downright criminal not to be checking out your work – with the quickness – you can be sure I’m keeping it really real. I sure hope you get into NYCC because I’m looking forward to hanging out again soon. In the meantime, keep us posted on your upcoming projects, and we’ll be sure to let the world know. Thanks, Karl!