by Coffee Joe
For the past several months, Critical Mess has been abuzz from the announcement of GOTHAM CITY 14 MILES, a book of essays on the 1966 BATMAN series edited and compiled by our very own Jim Beard. This tome is being published by the good folks at Sequart, who have made it their mission to pursue the scholarly study of comics and sequential art.
Surely you've heard of them? Surely, by NOW, you know who they are.
Yes? No? Either way, read on.
My very first encounter with Sequart came years ago, at a convention -- I honestly can't recall whether it was at Wizard World Philly or at New York Comic Con in 2007. Their booth intrigued me -- here were a couple of guys who were actually trying to have the medium taken seriously. I took their card, placed it in my wallet, and never gave it a second thought.
Flash forward to January of this year, when Jim asked me to join the project, and told me about it and the publisher. Sequart... the name sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it until the inevitable EUREKA! moment that comes, much to the chagrin of your loved ones, at 3 a.m. and causes you to shoot up in bed and scream "THAT'S IT!" My mind flashed back to the card and I searched my wallet for it (what? I've had the sme wallet for more than a decade. Shut up.) but it had undoubtedly disintegrated with wear. But now that I knew who they were, my mind raced with even more questions.
Who was Sequart, and who are the people behind it? How did they go from a couple of guys at a booth at a con to being the company that was publishing what was sure to be the coolest book ever written on BATMAN '66? More importantly, what else had they done, and what's in their pipeline?
Fortunately, the two masterminds behind Sequart -- Julian Darius and Mike Phillips (who, apparently, lives ten minutes away from me and attended the same university as I at the same time as I) -- were more than happy to answer my questions.
And so, without further ado...
Nine Questions with Julian Darius and Mike Phillips!
1. Sequart: in a nutshell, what is it? What made you decide to found such an organization?
MIKE: Sequart is a non-profit organization that attempts to celebrate comics as an art form. Sure, comics started out as entertainment for kids, but it’s branched out like most other art forms to become a medium with something for anyone. Our goal is to give the medium some sophisticated attention and analysis. To achieve that goal, we publish books and documentaries highlighting the important works of the medium.
JULIAN: Our full name is Sequart Research & Literacy Organization. The research part means advancing comics scholarship. The literacy part means advocating for the medium and teaching about its unique strengths and its history. In our books and documentaries, we're committed to making deep thinking about comics accessible. We don't do insular scholarship that hides its observations through jargon and theory. We also don't do overly fannish writing that isn't analytical enough. Our ideal book or documentary is something we can give to anyone, from a comics scholar to a non-comics reader, and it'll expand their understanding of the subject.
As far as our founding, Sequart started in the 1990s as a website, mostly consisting of my own comics scholarship. It grew to include more and more writers, then expanded into book publication. We realized our aims were scholarly and non-profit in nature, so we organized Sequart formally. Since then, we've expanded into documentary movies and grown considerably.
2. You both come from rather varied backgrounds. How did the two of you hook up, professionally? What are your roles within the organization?
MIKE: I was bored on my lunch break one day back in 2003 or 2004, and I had just begun getting interested in comics again. I found Julian’s old website, and I was blown away by it. It had the kind of stuff I was looking for, like informative entries on the comics (like Vertigo) that I was getting into. This was years before Wikipedia caught on, so his resource was a daily go-to for me. I contacted him and told him that I was very impressed with what he’d accomplished and that I’d love to help him out in any way I could. He was receptive and gave me some small research jobs. We talked and collaborated and talked some more. We became friends without meeting face to face. (He lived in Hawaii and I live in New Jersey.) Long story short, we’ve been building for years. Our current roles are varied, but basically, I’m the Editor-in-Chief of the books, I do most of the outside networking, and I’ve gotten both of our documentaries off the ground; Julian is the programmer, comics scholar, and book formatter / publisher.
JULIAN: Yeah, and we're both on the Board of Directors. What this means in practice is that we consult on everything. He runs most of the daily operations, coordinating our various writers and film projects, reaching out to comics creators, and getting me to address the issues only I can handle. He also edits our books and coordinates other editors and proofreaders. Meanwhile, I write, program the website, layout and design the books, and act as their final editor, the last eyes before publication. We consult on approving projects and the organization's direction. It's a good relationship. We know our relative strengths. I tend to throw myself manically into things, whether it's writing or editing or programming, and I can teach myself a language in a summer. I’m an idea guy, an academic, and a crazy artist myself. But I'm simply awful at keeping in touch with people, let alone running the day-to-day operations of the organization. Mike excels at it. He pulls my artsy-fartsy, distracted, scholarly head out of my ass and keeps me focused on what I need to get done. He is a godsend. I simply can't say enough good about him. He'll be modest about it, but he's the heart of Sequart -- much more than me, in fact. I simply couldn't do what he does: he's just got massive skills at coordinating and managing, which involves a lot of multi-tasking, which I'm horrible at. So we compliment each other well.
3. You guys have been hoofing at conventions for a number of years to increase Sequart's exposure. What's the general reaction from con-goers?
JULIAN: The only reason we're at cons in the first place is because of Mike. He was the one that saw the potential, early in our relationship on Sequart, and I authorized him to represent the organization at cons. He was very good at using cons to draw in new readers and to recruit new writers and editors, and this got me to invest in them too. As far as con-goer reactions, some people aren't interested in thinking deeper about comics, which is fine. Others recognize us and are already enthusiastic, which is just tremendous. But the reactions I love the most come from people who don't know about us but whose eyes just light up, as they realize what we're doing. It's that "Man, I've been looking for something exactly like this" reaction. You can really see that glint of recognition in the eyes, and it's wonderful -- like we just made a convert.
MIKE: Most people just give us a sideways glance as they walk by. In other words, if they don’t understand what we are in that 1-second peek, they usually keep on walking. But the ones that are curious enough to actually stop and say, “What do you guys do?” end up sticking around for a few minutes, and we have a good conversation about Sequart, our mission, and comics in general. Happily, a lot of them buy a book and/or end up impressed and tell us that there SHOULD be people out there doing this sort of thing. It’s ALWAYS nice to hear that.
4. "Improving the Foundations" is now in its second printing -- congratulations on that. Tell us a bit about the book. What prompted you to write this, Julian? And what can we expect to find in the new edition?
JULIAN: IMPROVING THE FOUNDATIONS analyzes Batman Begins from start to finish, in a manner that's both deep and accessible to a general audience. It also includes a look at how comics writers have modified Batman's origins in ways that lead directly into Nolan's take. And it looks at various other attempts to resurrect the Batman movie franchise, including Frank Miller's Year One screenplay and other takes on Batman's origin. Finally, it tries to rehabilitate Burton a bit, who I thought was overly bashed for being campy or unrealistic, in the wake of Nolan's version -- which is just revisionist history, ignoring as it does that Burton went pretty far towards dark realism, compared to past movie and TV versions.
The first edition was actually Sequart's very first book. Back then, we were looking to expand into books, and I had already done a lot of thinking about the film, which had just come out at the time and which I thought was very smart. So we decided to get the book out before even the DVD release -- which we accomplished, although at the time, we were too small to get any real synergy going. But people liked it, and it was favorably reviewed. Other books followed, which evolved into our current line. But we never included IMPROVING THE FOUNDATIONS in that line, because it was our first book and we were still learning the ropes. Also, we thought it was important to establish the book line without focusing on my own work, since it and Sequart are so much bigger than me. But it made sense, now that we've got a hearty book line underway, to go back and incorporate a second edition of IMPROVING THE FOUNDATIONS.
As for what's new, the first chapter, on how Batman's comics origins were revised in ways that lead into Batman Begins, is entirely new. Moreover, the entire book has been carefully revised and edited again. We're talking many new paragraphs and literally hundreds of smaller changes. It really is a whole new edition.
5. 'Mess member Jim Beard has a book due out soon from Sequart -- Gotham City 14 Miles (with some help from other 'Mess men Joe Berenato and Matt Orsman). What attracted you to this project? Will there be a panel for it at NYCC?
JULIAN: Basically, Jim Beard made an awesome pitch. It was an unorthodox subject, to some degree, because the show isn't in syndication anymore, and it's reputation is somewhat mixed. But we had talked in-house about a book on the 1960s Batman TV show, at some distant point if the stars aligned. Also, I personally really enjoy the show, and we readily agreed at Sequart that it was an important and understudied topic. But we resisted. We really made Jim convince us. But he sure did. He's an intensely passionate man, and his take on the subject was just so undeniably both smart and fun. I mean, right down to Jim's outline of possible chapters, he had total command of the critical issues surrounding this material. He turned us into converts. He was the man for the job, and I wanted to read this book! The book is scheduled to debut in late December, but we’re planning to have it at NYCC. [Note: The panel is scheduled for Saturday, October 9 from 4:15 to 5:15. Room TBD. More details here.]
6. Besides GC14M and the refurbished "Improving the Foundations," are there any other projects coming up you'd like to tell us about?
JULIAN: First, there’s MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, about WATCHMEN. The anthology's editor, Richard Bensam, really focused on keeping it concise, so it clocks in at under 200 pages. But in that space are 12 essays that are really terrific, including work by Peter Sanderson, Geoff Klock, Patrick Meaney, Timothy Callahan, yours truly, and several other notable comics scholars. It's smart, accessible stuff. I’m really proud of it. It’ll also be at NYCC and in comic stores in late October.
Then, of course, there’s GOTHAM CITY 14 MILES, which is in the October PREVIEWS, for publication in late December. An advance version should be at NYCC as well. And yes, there will be a GOTHAM CITY 14 MILES panel there as well, which I’m told Mark Waid will sit on.
Beyond that, we have other books and documentaries in the works. At any time, we have about a dozen books green-lit and in various forms of completion, because they take so long to write and edit. There may even be one more at NYCC, but we don’t want to announce it until we’re sure we can deliver.
Of course, there’s also our documentaries. GRANT MORRISON: TALKING WITH GODS should be available at this year's NYCC – and in retail stores on 26 October. [Note: GRANT MORRISON: TALKING WITH GODS will have its world premiere on October 9th at 11:30 p.m. at Cinema Village in NYC as an NYCC after-hours event. More information here.] And we've announced WARREN ELLIS: CAPTURED GHOSTS for completion next year.
MIKE: Yeah, the documentaries are very exciting. This film branch of Sequart is only about 16 months old, so we’re new at this, but we’ve come across a great producer/director team in Respect! Films. They’re great people, and they’ve really delivered on the Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis docs. We’re working on other topics too, so hopefully we can keep this branch going for a long time.
7. One would imagine, being a non-profit organization, that working for Sequart is largely a labor of love. Have you found it difficult to find help? We have a disproportionately large number of creative individuals -- graphically and literarily -- at CriticalMess.Net; should they wish to offer their services, are there currently positions open?
MIKE: Yeah, we’re definitely not in this for the dough! It’s a hobby that’s always allowed us to roll profits from one project into the next few. That’s not bad for a couple of dudes that have only met face to face a handful of times over the past 7 or so years. Thank goodness for the internet. And we’re always looking for book editors, so send us your resumes, people! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JULIAN: It is a labor of love, without doubt. Sequart has no salaried employees. Mike and I take small percentages of our books, which we then don't collect in order to help the organization keep growing and funding things like documentary films -- which, as you can imagine, is considerably more expensive than book publishing. Consequently, neither Mike nor I has yet netted a dime of profit personally (though we wouldn't mind doing this as a full-time job in the long run). Everything get rolled into growth.
In the meantime, we do employ some freelance editors and proofreaders, as well as issuing royalties. We try to be fair to everyone and generate sales for our authors. But our model isn't based on anyone getting rich. Not like most people expect to get rich off comics scholarship anyway. One of the great things about comics, from the fans to the professionals, is just how nice everyone is. People sometimes complain about the industry and its in-fighting, but we often lose sight of the fact that we're not Hollywood. I mean, despite all these comics movies, comics themselves are still a pretty marginalized medium. Whether we're comics creators or scholars, we do this because we all love comics as a form of art. So while we certainly understand anyone saying that they need to put more bread on the family table, I wouldn't say we've had trouble finding help.
Having said that, we're always on the lookout for people. We always need editors; the average book goes past at least a half dozen eyes, and we take editing insanely seriously. We'd love to find a trustworthy programmer, on a volunteer basis for right now, to help take the load off. And we're always brainstorming about marketing. We can create positions for people, if the passion's there. But if anyone's looking for a regular paying job, they just don't exist: we can only mostly offer job titles and being a part of something that's exciting and growing. And yes, if paid positions open up, we'll hire from within, looking to give reliable people more time to focus on Sequart. But no one should come aboard expecting that.
Of course, we do pay royalties, and we always welcome pitches for books – though keep in mind this is competitive. Fortunately, as a non-profit, we can publish what we think is worthy, regardless of its market, which we'll be honest about. We definitely look to match subjects with people who are passionate about them. We also keep a list of people who want to be asked in case of any openings in anthologies. We even technically welcome pitches for documentary films; the financing makes that a much harder sell, but we keep people in mind.
8. Since Sequart is devoted to comic books and their characters in various media, it stands to reason that you're both comic fans. Who are your favorite characters, and why?
JULIAN: I grew up a DC kid, for the most part, which means Batman and Superman. I have a soft spot for the Flash, mostly due to the implications of his powers. At Marvel, my favorite was always Daredevil. But I can honestly say that I'm not a character loyalist. I follow writers and artists instead. In a million years, I'd rather read a good story than one about any specific character. One of my very favorite comics right now is "Supergod," by Warren Ellis at Avatar, and it has no established characters in it -- just a tremendous story.
MIKE: My favorite characters? Honestly, I don’t really have many characters that I love/follow. I usually follow writers. In other words, I don’t LOVE Superman, but Grant Morrison’s run on ALL STAR SUPERMAN was awesome. I guess if I had to pick one character that I love no matter what, it’s Concrete. Paul Chadwick has made me fall in love with that big lug. Concrete’s/Paul’s musings and demeanor really entertain me like no other comic.
9. Suppose, hypothetically, I have an idea for a book and would like to get it published through Sequart. How would I go about pitching it to you? What do you look for? Can you give any tips or guidelines for submission?
JULIAN: You e-mail me or Mike. It's really that simple.
In terms of format, we get everything from queries with a rough idea to fully-formed professional pitches. Frankly, neither's better than the other. If an idea is rough, we can help work it up into a book, if the idea is strong enough.
We're also not looking for an established name. We don't object to one, and it's certainly a thrill. And we always like seeing writing samples, particularly if we're already interested in a writer's pitch. But we're honestly about the quality of the work, not just someone's reputation or experience. My point is that everyone really has a shot.
We do, however, look for professionalism. What I mean isn't a fully-formed pitch according to some formatting standard, or anything like that. What I mean is that the writer bothers to spell check. That the writer can follow our style manual, when we reach that point. That the writer demonstrates knowledge of his subject. That the writer can complete a book-length work -- which is no small task.
But all that's just the basics. Beyond that, we really focus on three things.
First, we're looking to see that the book is a good match for the author. In other words, we don't want a book analyzing the X-Men because someone thinks it's going to sell. Forget what subjects you think we want to see pitches about; we're perfectly capable of commissioning those, if we feel a subject's missing from our line. We want to hear about the book you want to write, deep inside. Your dream project, on the subject that you're passionate about, that you think about when you're idle. We may think it's a good idea or a bad idea, or we may suggest tweaks -- but that's the book we're interested in. And presumably, you have expertise or are willing to get it.
Secondly, we want to see evidence of real analysis. We all love comics, and it's unlikely that you'll want to write a book about something you hate. But it's not enough to summarize plots or offer simple praise. You don't have to write an academic essay filled with footnotes and theory -- in fact, we discourage that, and you can really tell when people are trying too hard. But you have to have real analytical insights. How does the story under discussion work? How does it relate to comics history and the much larger body of thought, of literature, and of film? What's its agenda, intentional or not? Not all of these have to be answered, and there are other ways of doing analysis. If there's one way that proposals fail, it's not being insightful or analytical enough.
Thirdly, we're looking for writers who can walk that fine line of being analytical while still being accessible. We love clear, concise language. We love unorthodox language that pulls people in. We love writing that's catchy and easy to read. At the same time, the substance of what's being said so clearly and entertainingly should be weighty, analytical, and worth the reader's crucial time and dollars. Every writer and every subject is a special case, but our ideal book pulls people in with its effortless, easy language and holds them with real intellectual insights into what's being discussed, beneath that smooth, polished veneer.
MIKE: What he said.
And there you have it! Thanks again, Mike and Julian, for humouring us madmen!
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