Arts Desk

Meet a Local Comics Publisher: A Chat with Joe Procopio

comic1Local comics fan Joe Procopio is about to launch a new publishing venture in a big way. His official line is, "Picture This Press is dedicated to broadening the appreciation and awareness of the artists who work in the fields of illustration, cartooning, graphic arts, photography, and poster design. Lost Art Books, the flagship series from Picture This Press, collects and preserves the works of illustrators and cartoonists from the first half of the 20th century. Too many of these artists have gone under appreciated for too long, with much of their work uncollected or unexamined for decades, if at all. The Lost Art series of books aims to preserve this cultural heritage by re-introducing these artists to new generations of working artists, historians, and admirers of things beautiful."

What does this mean to us? A book on E.T. Reed, a late-nineteenth century cartoonist I've never even heard of, a reprint of the great Eugene 'Zim' Zimmerman's how-to manual Cartoons and Caricatures, and a collection of the Chicago Daily News' Frederick Richardson which Procopio says is the first in a century. Procopio answered questions about his venture, and the usual ones we ask about life in D.C.

Washington City Paper: What type of comic work or cartooning do you plan to publish?

Joe Procopio: Lost Art Books (an imprint of my new publishing house, Picture This Press) will focus on a large swath of comics and illustration art from around the world, dating as far back as the 1890s but stretching into the 1950s. I’ll be drawing on multiple sources, including the Library of Congress and several friends’ voluminous collections, but for the time being I’ll pull much material from my own collection to flesh out our publishing schedule in the coming months. I’ve managed to amass decades-long runs of a variety of European and American magazines filled with gorgeous illustrations and great cartoons. Some of our books will focus on specific artists, and others will be reviews of a particular periodical (Judge, Life, etc.) or genre (horror comics, kids comics, etc).

WCP: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

JP: I was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1970. Let’s say it’s a good place to be from, I just wouldn’t want to live out the rest of my days there…

WCP: Why are you in Washington now?  What neighborhood or area do you live in?

JP: I moved here in 1997 after teaching English in South Korea for a couple of years. It was a toss-up between moving here or to Seattle. I ended up here because I had a brother already living in D.C., enough musician friends from college living here to start a band, and I was fairly confident that, as an English major, I could find gainful employment in my field in D.C. (which I had found nearly impossible to do in Dayton). I currently live in Silver Spring.

WCP: Who's your favorite cartoonist?

JP: If you forced me to choose just one, I’d probably have to go with Alex Toth, the comic book master of simplicity and design. Toth’s philosophy was that good visual storytelling was paramount, everything else was subordinate. I hated his stuff as a kid because Toth’s work didn’t have all of the fussy details and over-rendering that I looked for back then, but coming across his work again as an adult, I was bowled over by the thoughtfulness of his compositions and the power of his less-is-more designs. He was an artist’s artist, and could be very uncompromising and temperamental, which surely hurt his career and resulted in a diminished output. He left comics altogether for long stints to work as a character designer in animation (primarily the 1960s Hanna-Barbera studio). Fortunately, it looks like publishers IDW and Fantagraphic Books both have large retrospectives on the mighty Toth scheduled for release in coming months. His legacy deserves it, and if they hadn’t beat me to the punch, I surely would be doing a book on Toth.

comic2WCP: What type of comic art do you like most? What period?

JP: My tastes have always been eclectic, and they seem to just get more so the older I get. I basically like anything that is “good,” be it contemporary guys like Darwyn Cooke or Mike Mignola to oldsters like Alex Raymond and Noel Sickles. Recently my enthusiasm has been for a whole group of European cartoonists from the early 1900s. There were so many incredible draftsman at that time period in France, Germany, and England. Quite a few of these artists who are completely unknown in the United States will find their way into the Lost Art Books library in the coming couple of years. I’ve already lined up a really terrific French translator to start work on a book this fall on one of my favorites, Albert Guillaume.

WCP:What would you like to do or work on in the future?

JP: If I can keep up a pace of putting out three or four books a year, I think I currently have enough ideas to keep me busy for the next decade. I wish that were hyperbole, because there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to do all of the books I want. But I’m in this for the long haul, and I have been incredibly fortunate to have a whole cadre of talented, generous folks in my corner to help me get these ambitions off the ground. It’s something I’ve been working toward for literally years.

One goal that is important to me in producing these books is that I match up the cartoons, comics, and illustrations with contemporary artists and writers who have enthusiasm for these artists and their work. There are few things I enjoy more than reading one artist explain why they are so admiring of another artist’s work. They just bring a special insight to the discussion. It felt like quite the coup to get a 7,500 word introduction from Stephen Bissette (Alan Moore’s collaborator on Swamp Thing) for The Lost Art of E.T. Reed—Prehistoric Peeps. Bissette was born to write that introduction, and I felt honored to be able to give him the proper showcase in which to do it.

I’m also excited about a couple of quick discussion with Howard Chaykin about writing the introduction to a book on Herbert Paus, an illustrator from the early 20th century that the both of us admire tremendously. And I’m hoping eventually to approach Charles Vess on writing something about German illustrator Hermann Vogel, who very much seems like a kindred spirit to Vess.

WCP: Will you be at the Small Press Expo this weekend?

JP: Yep, currently at booth #W32A but if you don’t find me at that table it’s because I was able to secure a better one the morning of the show. Regardless, if you come to the show, please seek us out. It’s the debut of Lost Art Books, and will have The Lost Art of Zim—Cartoons and Caricatures, The Lost Art of E.T. Reed—Prehistoric Peeps, and a Pocket Cartoon Course (essentially a mini comic, which I wanted to do as a way of keeping with the original DIY spirit of SPX back when I started attending in 1999). I’ve attended and supported the scene every year for a decade, but this will be the first year I’ve actually exhibited.

WCP:What do you think will be the future of comics?

JP: That’s such an intimidating question, especially for someone who has decided to throw themselves into starting a print-based press. In the short-term I think we’re going to keep seeing the trend of comics being birthed online and eventually repackaged between physical covers. For budding talents, this is a great model that allows them to prove they have the discipline to carry a project through and gives them a very low-cost means of building an audience over time. That said, I am a bibliophile and have literally thousands of books (and comics) in my home. I think there are too many people like me for me to believe we’ll see the death of print comic books during my lifetime.

I also think comic book readers are often creatures of ritual. They like the routine of going to the comic shop on Wednesday to see what has come out this week, to see the other regulars in the shop and talk about comics, movies, politics, whatever. Some shop owners frown on this aspect of owning and running a comic shop, but what they don’t understand is that it is that sense of camaraderie, that clubhouse feel, that goes a long way toward keeping their customers coming back week after week. You don’t see that kind of loyalty at any other retail establishments, and comic shop owners take that for granted at their own peril. Instead of trying to quash it, like some owners are inclined to do, they ought to be finding structured ways to foster it. What other retail establishment has customers that come back week after week like clockwork to drop loads of cash like comic buyers do? Not Borders or Barnes and Noble, that’s for sure. This ritualistic and social dimension to the world of comic books gives me hope that we’ll continue to see print comic books around for a long time to come.

WCP: What's your favorite thing about D.C.?

JP: That it’s a cosmopolitan city with most of the amenities you’d want from such an environment without feeling overwhelming. We’ve got great museums that are mostly free, a cool music scene with some really good clubs, a solid repertory film theater in the AFI, and a lot of top-notch restaurants.

WCP: Least favorite?

JP: The traffic sucks, the tourists in summer get on your nerves, and property values are probably too high… but I guess there are always tradeoffs wherever you live. I think on net, D.C. comes out pretty great.

WCP: What monument or museum do you take most out-of-town guests to?

JP: The National Gallery of Art. From the paintings, sculpture, and photography, it’s difficult not to find something there that resonates with anybody. I also like to take folks there because I don’t get to go nearly as often as I’d like.

WCP:Do you have a website or blog?

JP: I do indeed, though it is somewhat under development. It’ll be fully launched next week after the Small Press Expo. Check it out at: www.LostArtBooks.com. I’ll have sample art and videos for each book, and I hope to add a monthly feature in which I interview contemporary artists and historians on their favorite illustrators and cartoonists.

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