It’s a bizarre time for small publishers, especially in the alt-comic scene. A duo operating under the name Devastator Press is putting out an increasing number of delightfully bizarre books each year, and I’m fascinated. The Devastator, the press’ publication, is doing something extraordinary and singular and they’re about to be the kind of company you can’t wait to throw your money at, like an IRL Futurama Fry Gif. You know the one.
I talked with co-publishers Amanda Meadows and Geoffrey Golden about touring comic conventions, flirting with disaster, and changing the way we think about both comic books and flesh eating bacteria.
Amanda and Geoffrey, what the hell is going on here? Whose idea was it to build a business model making print media for the internet generation?
GEOFFREY: Yeah, who’s responsible for this?!
AMANDA: Geoffrey kind of started it with his idea to make a zine for our friends to contribute to, but the idea to really commit to it and make really splashy print items was my idea, and I should be blamed for it when this all crumbles!
You founded the company in 2009 and made a crowdfunding push to get your first collection out in 2010. You two credit Venture Brothers actor James Urbaniak with getting this whole thing off the ground. What’s the story?
GEOFFREY: Sort of! I knew him from a project I co-produced, so when we needed to make a Kickstarter video, we asked if he’d star.
AMANDA: We filmed the Kickstarter video at his house. So fun. That dude’s a real champ!
One of the things that’s always fascinated me about The Devastator is that you refuse to be categorized; which I imagine is very difficult for a business? “What does The Devastator make?” “Good, funny stuff. Buy it, I guess?”
AMANDA: Ha, oh man, I hope it’s more clear now! Like with any creative thing, it definitely evolved over time. We thought the magazine format would be easier than publishing standalone titles, and it turned out the opposite is true. So, the answer to the question, “What does The Devastator make?” Should simply be, “Funny ass books, dawg.”
GEOFFREY: We’re basically the Adult Swim of books.
The laughfun-idea-distribution method you produced for the longest period was called The Devastator, a quarterly magazine wherein you matched big name comedians and artists alongside total unknowns for themed issues based around genres like “Horror” or “Space Epic” and really let your creatives mine some bizarre territory. After five years of making this your flagship product, you guys posted one of the most open and honest behind-the-curtain business postmortems I’ve ever seen. What happened?
GEOFFREY: If you want the full story, that Tumblr post definitely lays out all the main reasons. TL;DR is: We learned over time that the amount of resources that went into having 30 people in one book was more than making 12 books with 1 or 2 people per book; and once we started making original self-contained humor books (which were doing well), it was getting harder and harder to maintain the anthology series/magazine/mook/whatever.
AMANDA: Exactly! I’m so grateful for having done 13 installments of The Devastator, because that how we found our collective voice, editorial process, and community of amazing peeps. We took all those people and that process and that voice and have been applying it more insane and experimental books. Coincidentally, those books are also easier to get into stores and junk, too.
From these first few years of running an (I think) successful multi-faceted publishing house for alt-comics and alt-concepts, what advice do you have to offer other publishers? What hard lessons have you learned?
AMANDA: Oh god, We’re bloated with information, and mistakes! I’d say the most important thing is to do what you actually want to do. Don’t make X that you think will do well in Y, because that’s a pretty artificial place to start. We just want to make comedy books, dude.
GEOFFREY: Some more advice: Buy your ISBNs in bulk; Most distributors want you to publish at least 10 titles a year; A good way to get started is to exhibit at local pop culture cons, zine fairs, and book fairs; And it will all exhaust you permanently and irreversibly.
One of your big, long running quests was finding a major distributor, which you’ve since done. What did it take to make this happen and when can I find Devastator books in the LAX terminal bookstores?
GEOFFREY: We spent 5 years as a magazine struggling to get distribution. We didn’t fit the criteria for magazine or books at that time, so it was maddening to get all those rejection letters back!
AMANDA: Yeah, look at a copy of The Devastator and compare it to a copy of GQ or Houseboats Weekly. Even Granta is different. Literally the same month we announced being a book publisher, we managed to land an indie book distro. So it was really a classification problem.
You’re releasing material in both printed and digital forms. I always buy the hard copies of your stuff because I know some day it’ll be worth a fortune. How do the sales look for you? Are real books thriving or just alive?
AMANDA: Print books are definitely where it’s at. It’s over 80% of our total sales. Honestly, we could never survive on digital alone, which is something tons of publishers we know have discovered too. It’s also not why we started The Devastator — puzzling out how to print our ideas is a huge part of the fun for us!
GEOFFREY: Yup! Digital sales grew slowly over the years, but they seem to cap off at about 20% of our sales. Our zines are only $1 in digital form, hard to beat that. But we’d also have to sell many many thousands of $1 digital zines to pay for the making of future zines. We love print books and we know people still love print books. It may be self-selecting, but the folks who buy our stuff want it in print.
Your creative process seems to border on a cult. Did I say cult? I meant family. The Family. Not the mob. Just that you keep people involved. Forget I said anything. Please don’t kill me. But also you all get together and punch up all your books collectively. For a company that’s always dreamt of becoming the next National Lampoon, what do you think the collective voice of Devastator sounds like?
GEOFFREY: We’d describe our voice as an ironic, geeky, smart outsider with a nostalgic streak. It’s really cool to feel that voice from book to book, especially when you’re going from a silly parody of Goosebumps to a sharper book about racism.
AMANDA: Yeah, The Devastator is a person who accurately see what’s wrong with society and culture but stays affable and zany in the face of those problems. It’s like us — we tend to attract nerdy people who have the same weirdo outsider point of view but are ultimately optimistic and fun.
A big point of pride, and I’m sure an amazing marketing advantage, is that you attend every single weirdo fan convention you can, and stage amazing events. Back at Comikaze last year, I read from your selection of divorced father Scary Stories while dressed as Vincent Adultman from Bojack Horseman, and last week at WonderCon you hosted a public trial involving the Fantastic Four and sexual deviance. What’s the secret to connecting with people at a con when you are one of thousands of exhibitors?
GEOFFREY: The biggest challenge of connecting with folks isn’t the sheer number of exhibitors, but the amount of exhibitors with waaaaay more money than you. There are folks like Hasbro or DC who have unlimited resources and swallow a lot of floor space and attention into their corporate black hole.
AMANDA: For sure. It’s definitely a great way to market our stuff, and it’s a big hunk of our revenue. When I plan conventions, I try to talk with the organizers as much as I can to get the right placement on the floor and get funny stuff on the programming guide to showcase our authors and collective vibe.
You’ve got Asterios Kokkinos on your team, who is probably the single funniest person I’ve ever known. Does it ever feel like cheating to have him in the room for punch-up?
GEOFFREY: AND FOREVER.
Amanda, Publishers Weekly hailed you as a rising star in 2015. There’s an amazing quote about you that I’d love to hear your response to:
“Not optional might also be a way to describe Meadows’s commitment to staying in motion. She is a member of multiple communities, including Women in Comics, and was part of a black creators spotlight panel at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego. She sees the Devastator growing from “a cultish small press into the Adult Swim of books—an experimental comedy brand in the print space.”
AMANDA: I was pretty flabbergasted when I finally got a copy of the magazine and read the full piece. There was an honoree ceremony in NYC that we went to. I drowned any anxiety I had with a lot of free wine! After working in publishing for 6 years it was really cool to be noticed like that.
GEOFFREY: I was outraged that it took them so long to acknowledge you! That why I spent so much of the night rage-drinking!
AMANDA: “Rage-drinking” is a lot like regular drinking, but rage-ier.
GEOFFREY: The ol’ scotch ‘n’ scowl!
Last year, you published one-off books spoofing Dr. Seuss with flesh eating bacteria, a Doctor Who version of Tiger Beat, and an elaborately researched, extensive imaginary oral history of Windows 95. What do you have planned for this year?
GEOFFREY: We already released three amazing zines that you can get on the site now. Two big release for this spring are We Don’t Think You’re Racist!, which is a book of soothing affirmations for white people who are super anxious about being racist; and Stay at Home Scarface, a parody of coloring and activity books that tells the story of Tony Montana second act as a family man with a newborn baby.
AMANDA: We release a new comedy book or zine every single month, so there are just so much good stuff coming through this year. The best way to stay on top of it is to join the Skull & Books Society, our monthly book club that gives you every book, unlimited access to digital archive, and gifts!
Finally, you’re a terrific creative partnership that extends farther than some might know, since you’re married. To each other. With legally binding paperwork and jewelry and promise-words. What’s the secret to maintaining a great relationship and a great creative-business relationship? You know, for those of us who are less good at that.
GEOFFREY: The Secret… is in the book The Secret.
AMANDA: It will change your life! But seriously, we started working together early in our relationship, so it was always a natural part of our dynamic. We figured out what our complementary strengths were within the first year of dating, which was super important. I don’t wanna resent my betrothed one for not being great at planning events, when he’s the one who’s better at InDesign — we own that shit and delineate tasks accordingly.
GEOFFREY: Also, you need to know when to stop working. Independently, we might work all night, if nobody told us to stop. But as a couple, we make a concerted effort to stop after dinner and just chill the “F” out.
AMANDA: What does the “F” stand for?
GEOFFREY: The “F” stands for friendship.
AMANDA: So “chill the friendship out?”