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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Here's to Tom Devlin, formerly the Highwater in Highwater Books

Perhaps you have seen this press release regarding Friday's opening of a Highwater Books retrospective in Boston at the Fourth Wall Project. It doesn't mention him by name, so when reading it, every time you see "Highwater Books" substitute "Tom Devlin" and "he" for "it" and "crazy lunatic" for "company" and you'll get a minibiography of ten years in the life of D+Q's Creative Director Tom Devlin after he sort-of managed the world famous Million Year Picnic comic shop and before he came to the Great White North. Since the press release for the show posted, and the oral history serialized on comicscomics, there will be many a great nerd debate on the company's legacy. Before it all dissolves into memories of crazy convention antics, superhero parodies, terrible business sense and Fort Thunder one-upsmanship and ridiculous arguments, I wanted to share a few words on why I thought Highwater was so singular before I met Tom in 2001.

In the year 2000, Highwater may have been the most sensitive comics company ever in existence. Of course, there were poignant art comics before then, but never had one company built its whole publishing platform around arty, experimental comics that emote more than they exclaim--in long form books to boot. I think the contemporary adjective would be "emo" and while that may sound like a pejorative, I mean it in the best way possible. Highwater books were different, from James Kochalka's (Tom first author) trio of books that basically read as a love letter to his wife, to Megan Kelso's short stories of straight forward honesty of dating and sex in Queen of the Black Black to the poetic teenage depression of Porcellino's Perfect Example (King-Cat had been a zine for 15 years and Tom was the first to collect it in North America). I would almost go so far as to say that Tom was publishing his comics version of the beat poets, because when you throw in Brian Ralph, Mat Brinkman, Ron Rege Jr, Marc Bell, business tactics like refusing to go through Diamond, and hedonistic tendencies like beach parties and retreats, hijacking The Comics Journal to produce one of its most beloved issues, an anti-establishment parallel does start to appear.

Tom acknowledges that he approached publishing the way twee rockers approached music (think Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian) but the existence of Highwater was probably more so an amalgamation of Tom's "delicate" sensibilities combined with support of friends--his partner-in-crime former Flyrabbit owner Brooke Corey who printed every poster with him and worked every convention, the early influence and support of Jessica Abel who urged him to start publishing, and Tony Davis of MYP who let him run wild ordering small press titles in the store. I think, however, what affected Highwater's sensibility most is that Tom was the first comics publisher to directly come out of the zine/minicomic/indie-rock generation, rather than before it, like Fantagraphics, or alongside it, like D+Q. With that DIY ethos in mind, during its existence, Highwater did more with less. Tom knew he could anything, because for Tom, he was always certain of the genius of his artists. Every single Highwater book was a paperback of normal to small size, the design tricks were kept to a minimum, every minicomic or silkscreened poster made by hand, yet so well designed that he warranted coverage in Publishers Weekly, Flaunt and Print Magazines. And while so much has been written on the business aspects of Highwater (basically an oxymoron) that it starts to overshadow the books, it's amusing to note that Highwater ironically ended business on an up note with its bestselling title ever -- 17,000 copies of Brian Ralph's Free Comic Day issue of Reggie 12 being distributed in comic shops stores across North America.

Some wrote Highwater off as cliquey, which isn't true. What Tom did was unheard of and hasn't been copied since, he assembled a small group of artists that may or may not have been friends beforehand, and they became peers, best friends and their worst, but most trusted, critics. Others wrote him off as snobby, which also couldn't be farther from the truth, as manager of MYP, Tom single-handedly supported every aspiring cartoonist with a minicomic in New England. Even today, Tom hasn't changed. He receives all the submissions, he stops by every small press table at any show, his D+Q projects that he has conceived or acquired including Moomin, Ernie Pook, Vanessa Davis, Gabrielle Bell, Keith Jones, Mimi Pond, the John Stanley Library still echo his editorial decisions of Highwater.

So what's Highwater's legacy? The obvious ones are the boutique presses like Picturebox and Secret Acres citing Tom as a direct influence and that his artists all are on to bigger and better things or that he now works for D+Q. Hopefully none of today's small publishers will end up with the same fate as Highwater, not only would conventions without Sparkplug or Bodega be a lot less fun, small publishers play a pivotal role in the shepherding of new talent. They always have, and always will.

If being a cartoonist means you're crazy, then wanting to be the one who publishes comics probably means you're crazier. Or, at the very least, a toss-up. So on Friday if you live in Boston go see the show, and if you don't, then revisit your favorite Highwater book, and give a toast to Tom!

Poster by Marc Bell!


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