News & Politics » Our Town

After the Imp

A Disastrous Miscalculation and Its Effect on the Most Ambitious Comics Zine Ever



It's a surprisingly big pile, bigger than three refrigerators. It's 113 cubic feet and, at two tons, heavier than a Jeep Cherokee. Its contents: 5,250 unsold issues of the Imp, Dan Raeburn's zine about comics. The pile sits in Raeburn's Kenwood basement, not budging, not shrinking.

It's not like Raeburn didn't pull out all the stops to get readers' attention. The cover depicts a mustachioed man smirking as he simultaneously gets a blow job from a topless brunet and a heroin injection from a naked blond. In the lower right corner lies a bleeding corpse, presumably dispatched by the smoking shotgun in the man's hand. "I wanted something so over-the-top, so chock-full of sex, violence, and racial tension that people would be compelled, almost against their will, to pick it up," Raeburn says. It would be an understatement to say it didn't work out that way. The issue--his fourth--wiped out the Imp's tiny profits and effectively put Raeburn out of business.

In a way, every mistake Raeburn made on Imp number four was a direct result of the success of Imps one through three, each of which profiled a different comic book artist with illustrations and long personal essays written by Raeburn. Issue number one, "The Fallen World of Daniel Clowes," published in 1997, was a slim, saddle-stitched volume that interspersed Raeburn's essay on the cartoonist with excerpts of an interview with Clowes. "I worked on this evenings and weekends for about six months, followed by a two-week stretch of all day every day," he says of the issue. The initial printing of 1,000 copies moved quickly, so Raeburn printed another 2,000 and sold them too. The second issue, "The Holy War of Jack T. Chick," profiling the creator of the pocket-size fire-and-brimstone Christian cartoon pamphlets passed out on street corners, came out the next year. That issue, Raeburn says, was "a doozy"--he worked on it part-time for seven months, then full-time for two more. He optimistically made an initial print run of 2,000 and ended up having to order a second printing of 1,000 and a third of 2,000 before demand died down. Imp number three, "The Smartest Cartoonist on Earth," published in 1999, examined the work of Chris Ware. Raeburn spent so much time on this project he completely lost track: "It's just a blur of gray winter days and long nights," he says. "I threw everything out and started all over at least twice or thrice." Guessing that its audience would be substantial, Raeburn printed 4,000 copies--and once again he underestimated demand. He ordered a second run of 2,000, and they all sold out.

Each issue of the Imp is so beautiful and so obsessively detailed that it feels like you're reading the OED and getting lost in a museum at the same time. In the area of comics criticism, the Imp "just blows everything else away," says Eric Kirsammer, owner of Chicago Comics and Quimby's. "Nothing else even comes close. The Comics Journal is a far, far distant second." One of the Ware issue's many fans is public-radio host Ira Glass, who describes Imp number three as "a very special and unusual piece of journalism. There was a kind of Talmudic completeness to the whole thing." In the years since Glass read that issue, he's become friends with Ware: "We talk all the time, and probably a third of what I know about Chris still comes from that issue of the Imp." Chip Kidd, a book designer, novelist, and comics editor, had a similar reaction. "You bastard!" he wrote to Raeburn after reading the Ware issue. "Imp #3 was everything I was trying to do with my lame Print article and fell miserably short of. How dare you produce the most exhaustive, brilliantly articulated investigation into Wareiana instead of me?"

"Those were the good old days," says Raeburn.

For years Raeburn supported his publishing habit by working as a freelance production artist (or, as he puts it, "a temp"), keeping scrupulous financial records of all his creative work for tax purposes. So he knows that by 2001, after five years of Imp activity, he had amassed a total profit of $2,881--about a dollar an hour, he estimates, maybe less. He'd spent $27,647, mostly on printing and postage, "which is tough when your income is in the mid to high teens," Raeburn says. "How could I have been so stupid?"

When it came time to start on issue four, he figured it'd work out like the others had: he'd pick a subject he was obsessed with, share it with the world, and sell every copy. The issue, "Historietas Perversas: Mexico's Perverse 'Little Stories,'" analyzed what Raeburn calls "bad Mexican comics," pulpy books that plumb the depths of human behavior--murder, torture, rape, incest, drug abuse, cannibalism. According to the Imp, in Mexico "the most porny titles now move nearly one half-million copies every week." Sales figures for the U.S. are more difficult to come by, Raeburn says, but one New Jersey distributor sells about 10,000 a week--market penetration that would make Clowes and Ware (though not Chick) sick with envy.

If the first three Imps grew increasingly baroque as far as time, money, research, writing, revising, and printing were concerned, then issue number four marks the beginning of Raeburn's rococo period. He did an astonishing amount of work on it, even while continuing to freelance. Tracking down the Mexican comic books was difficult enough: "You can get them in Pilsen if you look really hard," he says. "Hipsters would never find them." He purchased some in Andersonville at a store offering productos del pais, "products of the homeland"; others were supplied by American friends living in Mexico. Finding the artists was harder still, requiring several trips to Mexico City, and then Raeburn had to teach himself enough Spanish slang to decipher the comics. After laboring evenings and weekends for three years, he published "Historietas Perversas": a 33,254-word, 112-page square-bound paperback (the format mimicking that of the zine's subject matter) with full color inside and out. Even with a cheap, flimsy cover ("the covers of Mexican comics are even flimsier," Raeburn says) the issue's printing cost was astronomical. So this time, he decided, he would be smart: he would order 6,500 copies at once and save the reprinting fees.

About 500 copies of "Historietas Perversas" sold as soon as they hit stores (in August 2002), and the publication was reviewed for the first time in nongenre publications like the Onion and Time Online ("Mainstream cultural critics could take lessons from Raeburn's obsessive and sharp journal," the Time critic asserted). But the reorders never came, and by early 2003 it was clear that the issue was tanking. "Even Quimby's, my flagship store, couldn't sell 50 copies in one year," Raeburn says. "I knew then that the Imp had no future, that I wouldn't be able to afford to do another one." He had gambled $10,000 of borrowed money--his father's, withdrawn from his retirement fund--and all he had to show for it was two tons of orphaned Imps stacked neatly in his damp basement.

Raeburn has a bunch of theories about why "Historietas Perversas" didn't sell. The subject matter had a lot to do with it, he thinks. "Nobody's interested in Mexican comics," he says, sounding amazed. "I thought everybody would be. They're infinitely more interesting than most Japanese comics," which have garnered a huge American following, despite the vast differences in language and culture.

"The whole issue was in bad taste," he says. "It's about comics that are in bad taste and badly done. I just thought everybody would be interested in that. The Jack Chick issue was also about bad comics. I think it's just the language and the culture barrier that got in the way. It's not an image of Mexico that people are familiar with. They're familiar with wrestling, maybe, but they're not interested in urban Mexican life. I don't see [the issue] as having gone too far. I didn't write it for a big audience."

Then there was the price. Because of its high production values, the issue was priced at $20--more than the first three Imps put together. (The Clowes issue sold for $3, Chick for $5, Ware for $4.) Liz Mason, who manages Quimby's, thinks the price tag had a lot to do with the issue's sluggish sales. "Part of the appeal of independent publishing is the cheap price," she says. "Most of the other zines on the local rack cost between one and four dollars. So you could buy 20 zines for $20, or one zine for $20."

"A lot of people said I should have made it $19.99," says Raeburn. "Kim Thompson at [comics publisher] Fantagraphics said it's been proven. It works. But I detest that practice." Raeburn concedes, though, that the price tag was a big mistake. "The kind of people who read these comics are young and on a budget," he says. Looking back, he says he doesn't think the first three issues of the Imp would have been successful if they had cost $20. "Had I made them into books instead of pamphlets, I don't think they would have sold as well."

After the death of the Imp, Raeburn devoted himself to his freelance production work, earning the money to pay his father back (he's still working on that) and to buy a condo. Then came an e-mail, last May, from Rick Poynor, an English typographer and theorist. Poynor told Raeburn he was editing a series of books called Monographics--monographs about graphic artists. (In the UK Monographics is published by Laurence King Publishing, in the U.S. by Yale University Press.) He wondered if Raeburn would be interested in writing the book on Ware.

For many zinesters, such an offer would have fulfilled fondly (but likely secretly) held aspirations of breaking into "real" publishing. But Raeburn, as pessimistic as he is obsessive, never met a gift horse he didn't want to kick in the mouth. The July deadline was too tight, he groused. The standard $5,000 pay was too little, especially since the job included coordinating the photography of Ware's artwork. To finish the book on time, he would have to give up freelancing, but, his savings exhausted, he couldn't survive on the advance, one-third of the total pay.

Raeburn, who doesn't have an agent, was recommended to Poynor by Chip Kidd, the subject of the second installment in the Monographics series. More important, when Monographics approached Ware about the project, "I did ask, cordially, that if they did the book, it would be on the condition that Dan was hired to write it," says Ware, though he adds, with typical self-deprecation, "It's somewhat crazy of them to want to do a book about me anyway. It seems like anyone should at least be 50 years old or dead before that sort of thing happens, if at all." After some transcontinental wrangling, Raeburn managed to extract a $7,000 fee and an October deadline--which he's blown. He's currently working to get the book finished. It will appear in fall 2004.

Raeburn figures he'll make $15 an hour on the deal, a fortune compared with his Imp earnings, but he still has misgivings. Even though mainstream publishing pays better, it's still "not as fun" as making zines, he says. The Monographics book must focus on the formal elements in Ware's work, at the expense of the emotional content. The writing style has to be "less idiosyncratic," Raeburn sighs. "No six-page digressions about my ex-girlfriend" (one of the most voyeuristically page-turning sections of "Historietas Perversas"). He has no control over the visuals, beyond selecting which of Ware's artwork to include. "I would have liked to have designed it," he says, "but unless you're a big shot, you have no say on what a book looks like."

In a sense, the choice Raeburn finds himself facing now is the same one lots of great comic artists have had to make: he can either work for someone else for a lousy paycheck, or work for himself for even less. For now, there's no chance he'll resuscitate the Imp. "I would love to, but I just can't afford it," he says. "I'm not burned-out, I'm cashed out. I'm a home owner now. I'm pretty sure the next $5,000 I have to spend will get poured into a special assessment, not the Imp."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette marie Dostatni; cover art/Jose Silva and Oscar Bazaldua.

Add a comment