Brian John Mitchell makes mini-comics. Since early last decade, the Raleigh resident has self-released dozens of issues under the name Silber Media, which is operated as an offshoot of his Silber Records label, the home to various ambient, drone, and post-rock artists, such as Azalia Snail, Electric Bird Noise, Sarah June, and Alan Sparhawk of Low, as well as Mitchell’s own musical groups, Remora, Small Life Form, and Vlor. Compared to what’s standard in the industry, Mitchell’s comics are more flash fiction than graphic novel.
His minis aren’t just shorter versions of the types of books that line comic shop shelves, though. Nor are they similar to the many web comics found online these days, which mostly all sport a classic newspaper strip layout. No, neither “books” nor “strips” really fit as terms for Mitchell’s minis. Physically, Silber Media’s comics are the size of matchbooks, with only a single panel per page. His comics may be small but, like the industry’s larger publishers, the format’s really just a medium through which Mitchell tells stories. Although the artwork varies depending upon who is doing the drawing, almost everything in the Silber Media catalog was authored by Mitchell himself.
Skyscraper questioned Mitchell recently about his passion and the mini-comic format, following the April release of a new batch of Silber Media comics.
Skyscraper: Comics sort of came third for you. Am I getting the timeline right? You started your zine, QRD, first, in 1994, and the record label in 1996. So, with two projects like that on your plate, when and why did you start writing, drawing, and releasing mini-comics? Had you been doing it all along, and only the publishing aspect came later? Or was it something that came all at once?
Brian John Mitchell: Yeah, the timeline is correct. I was really into comics as a kid and I still have a few thousand in the basement. I’ve kinda always done some flash fiction and dream journaling stuff that I generally haven’t published or seriously pursued – see Suborrhea (1997) and 4 Hours Old (1998?). I did a comic in 1995 called “shimmer” that I have yet to bother to print up and then another one called Mobil Zombies around 1999 that is also unprinted.
There had been these two mini-zines I did around 1997-2000 that were the size of business cards, called Random Kisses (violent poetry) and Zombie Kisses (zombie stories). They were kinda the model for the comics when they came out, as they were things I could print and ship really cheaply, since they were actually a single sheet of paper folded up and disguised as a book. Then I had this zine I did for my girlfriend of the time, called Brian Hearts Katherine, that I would work on during the downtime at work and while on tour; it had comics in it that she liked.
Around 2002-2003 I got asked to contribute a new zine for an exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art. I wasn’t really doing any physical zines at the time because I decided it was more effective to have a webzine than a printed one, so I was like, “I’ll just make a comic out of one sheet of paper,” and that was the first issue of Lost Kisses. It got mentioned in some reviews of the exhibition and people liked them when I put them out at my live music shows, so I was like, “I guess I should make some more of these.” Now it’s eight years and about 40 comics later.
Skyscraper: Why mini-comics? When did you settle on the matchbook size and form? Is this the way you’ve always written your comics, or did you ever fool around with other formats?
BJM: It was the matchbook size right away. I wanted something that was cheap to make and could be kept in your pocket and read on a bus ride, which was the same thing with Random Kisses and Zombie Kisses. But I did do Shimmer and Mobil Zombies earlier, before that format. I had only seen mini-comics in half-page and quarter-page size previously. Now it seems like there are getting to be more people experimenting with weird formats, and I sometimes think about doing something with really long skinny comics that fold up instead of being stapled.
Skyscraper: Keeping on the topic of the format of your comics: What do you see as the pros and cons of the matchbook size, with each panel being its own page? Would something be lost if you made nine of the matchbook-sized pages into panels on a single piece of paper?
BJM: I think the number one pro is they are cheap to make, as long as I’m assembling them myself and not calculating my time as valuable. The number one con is they are hard to get into shops. I like having the one panel per page thing, but I do think some of the stories might suffer a bit from the structure. I do try to write the stories so that going from one page to the next flows well, and when you put nine panels up at once it does lose something. I think the comics are pretty linked to their format. I was having a talk with Nick Marino (who co-authors and draws Super Haters) a while back about what my comics would be like if they were “normal” sized and I came to the conclusion they would have the same amount of plot and maybe even the same amount of words, just more pictures or at least bigger pictures.
Skyscraper: All but one of the nearly dozen books you put out this spring were authored by you and illustrated by various artists. Is that typical of Silber Media’s past releases? Have most of the comics you’ve put out been projects of yours?
BJM: Yeah, most of the comics I write. There are a couple my nephew has written that were drawn by Jason Young (Veggie Dog Saturn), and I have a couple scripts other people have given me to find artists for, but so far those haven’t had much luck yet (hard to find artists to work for free sometimes). I’m supposed to publish a mini-comic by Melissa Spence Gardner, who draws XO sometime soon. I’d like there to be more content coming out for sure, but I also don’t want to lose too much money doing it. So, mainly it’s just me pushing my own stories that I just want to exist and make with friends.
Skyscraper: What were the first comics you wrote and released? I think I read in the QRD interview that it was the first Lost Kisses. And also, how has the Silber catalogue expanded throughout the years?
BJM: Yeah, the “critical acclaim” of Lost Kisses came and made everything else happen. Friends who liked Lost Kisses wanted to collaborate; I wrote stories for them to draw or adapted stories from dreams or whatever. So, it started with XO and Worms and then suddenly there were a dozen titles and I don’t know if I can even write stories for all the series.
Skyscraper: There’s definitely some variety between the several ongoing titles you’re publishing now. How do you describe your collection of comics to people just discovering them for the first time?
BJM: Usually if someone comes up to me at a show looking for a recommendation, I ask them if they like cowboys because I think Just a Man #1 is pretty darn good. And if that’s not there thing I go through asking them generally about the different series to see what might appeal to them. I like to think that some series would appeal to someone and another series to someone else and it’s not all just the same thing, but conceptually I suppose they are about terse minimalist writing. I also always have to emphasize they aren’t really too kid friendly because people think they are cute and for kids. You buy your four-year-old a cute little comic about body disposal and you might get pissed at me.
Skyscraper: How have your artist collaborations come about? Do you pair the artists purposefully with certain titles because of the stories’ content and the artists’ drawing styles? Or is that not a consideration?
BJM: On Worms I’d been friend with Kim Traub for years and when I started doing Lost Kisses and she liked it, I said, “Well, I want to do a comic with you,” and took an old dream story and handed it over. XO #1, I had the story sitting around and Melissa stumbled across Lost Kisses as my MySpace avatar and I knew that her “cute” style would make that story more interesting than if it just looked like Frank Miller or whatever. It goes on and on. But I do have artists waiting for me to write stories and stories waiting for me to find artists. It’s hard to find a match sometimes. If all the books were stick figures, a lot of the stories wouldn’t work and the same thing for if they were all photo-realistic or paintings or whatever.
Skyscraper: How did you come to work with Dave Sim? This recent set of comics features your second collaboration with him? Did you see your readership grow any after first working with him and similarly after working with the other artists who have illustrated your stories?
BJM: I started writing Dave Sim as a fan a few years ago and sending him my comics. I got a few letters in a row asking where Lost Kisses #11 was, and I had a story arc for issues #11-#20 and when I wrote the script I just couldn’t make it work with the stick figures. So, I sent him the script saying, “I’m not sure this will work as a stick figure gag comic” and he sent it back to me with all the artwork drawn in. The new one, Poit, I just said, “If you ever feel like drawing some stick figures in an afternoon I’ll write a script around it.” Surprisingly, I haven’t really gotten that big of a spike from working with Dave Sim – they aren’t even my best selling books! He’s a very polarizing figure in the comic industry and I have gotten a couple people not wanting to review my comics because of my association with him (which is fine with me, I don’t need my work read by someone that small-minded). Most of the artists I send about 20 copies of the books to and that usually covers the extra sales that would come from them. Sales come really hard, in general; most of my sales have been impulse purchases when I’m touring with my music. People will buy four sets of the first 10 Lost Kisses to give to friends and stuff.
Skyscraper: This round of releases also marks your first foray into color. Is that bittersweet? I know you spoke in the QRD interview about the black-and-white art of the comics fitting the minimalism of your stories. Why the expansion into color now? What led up to it and what do you think of the result?
BJM: I’d been thinking about doing some limited color for a while. There’s this great Grendel series called Black, White & Red that is black-and-white with red spot filling some things in (most notably blood, obviously), and I think Frank Miller did that some in Sin City as well. We were talking about doing that for Marked. But the reason I finally went into color was because of finally buying a CMYK laser printer. The actual comics I used for it was this collection of paintings with narratives I did for an art exhibit last December, which was a nice way to get that available to people not living in the town where I am. Surprisingly, I haven’t gotten much feedback about that series.
Skyscraper: You mention on your site that this April 2011 batch of comics comes almost a full year since your last official release of anything. What accounted for the delay? It’s also quite a few comics you released this time around. Were your past releases fewer but more frequent, and has there ever really been a pattern to Silber’s releases?
BJM: Usually I release things in batches to save on shipping. So, the past couple of years, most of the time it’s about six comics about twice a year. But for whatever reason I’d only gotten four comics ready and then I got a whole bunch in because all the artists wanted things to be ready for SPACE (Small Press & Alternative Comics Expo in Columbus, Ohio). I really want to try to get 30 or so comics out a year, but so far I’m nowhere close to that goal.
Skyscraper: What’s in store for the future? Is the next batch of comics underway, or are you focusing now on the zine or the music projects you oversee through Silber Records? Or do you work on all those things concurrently?
BJM: I’m working on all the stuff simultaneously, and it’s driving me a bit crazy to be honest. Because it looks like there’s going to be at least ten more releases from Silber Records in 2011, I’m working on four issues of QRD simultaneously (Father’s Day Special, Guitarist Special, Label Owners Special, Mini-Comics Special), and then I have 14 comics I need to write scripts for and a half dozen scripts I’m looking for artists for and another half dozen comics out with artists I’m waiting for to come back in. So, it’s hard to figure it all out and keep things balanced. But it keeps me out of getting myself into trouble.
Photo & Artwork Courtesy: Silber Media