Though he's primarily known as the bassist for Duluth band Low, Zak Sally has also been part of the underground comics scene for the better part of two decades. He recently decided to make the jump from small-scale 'zine publishing to the (relatively) larger world of independent book publishing. His La Mano imprint has released two books so far: John Porcellino's Diary Of A Mosquito Abatement Man, which gathers stories from the author's King-Cat 'zine about his troubled days as a pesticide worker; and the third and final issue of Sally's own macabre, surreal Recidivist, five years in the making. Porcellino and Sally's art is also on display at the northeast Minneapolis gallery Creative Electric through Oct. 8, along with work by future La Mano collaborators Kim Deitch, Ida Pearle, William Schaff, and Aaron Cometbus. Sally talked with The A.V. Club recently about the perils of publishing and the wretchedness of writing. [This is an extended cut of an interview that appeared in The A.V. Club's Twin Cities print edition.]
The A.V. Club: How did La Mano start?
Zak Sally: I was living in Oakland, California, in the early '90s, and me and Mr. Mike [Haeg] did a book together, and that was sort of the first La Mano project. You know, it's never been anything real [before], it's just what we call the publishing company when I put out a comic or Mike puts something out.
AVC: So it's always been pretty DIY.
ZS: Strictly. I don't think we've ever done anything in terms of real distribution, or anything like that.
AVC: But with Diary Of A Mosquito Abatement Man and your new Recidivist #3, you're going to start doing more extensive distribution.
ZS: Yeah. I really hope to. I think I have a specific idea of what La Mano should be. I don't want it to be the next Da Vinci Code, but I have this serious belief that John Porcellino is a really important artist, and as many people as possible should be exposed to his stuff.
AVC: Since Mosquito Abatement Man covers 10 years of stories, you can really see how his style evolves.
ZS: Yeah. His body of work is one of those things that the more you see of it, the more you start to understand what he's doing. I think it's really important stuff, and it should be in print aside from continuing to do 'zines, the way he's always done it.
AVC: The print runs on his early 'zines were very small, so some of this has probably not been seen by more than a handful of people since it was first put out.
ZS: Exactly. There's so much of that stuff that hasn't been seen by even some of the bigger King-Cat fans. The people who were buying King-Cat at the time probably wasn't more than 500 people. I have no delusion that everyone should be a fan of John Porcellino or my comics. But there's a place for everything. There are people who aren't seeing this that would like it a lot. I guess in a way, I feel bad about advertising, distribution, or whatever, like that's being pushy.
AVC: You feel like that would be selling out?
ZS: I think it has more to do with my personal [feelings]. That's the way I feel about my stuff. I'm not sure what place this has in the world. It's really personal. [On the other hand,] Aaron Cometbus's stuff has gone everywhere. The guy has told me numbers about books he has done by himself that would make most publishers green with envy. He does work the hell out of his stuff.
AVC: It's probably difficult, especially with something dark like Recidivist, to figure out how to bring that to other people.
ZS: Exactly. It's not the happiest book in the world. I think when you do something very personal, which Recidivist is and I know which Cometbus is for Aaron, and King-Cat is for John—I can say things to John about how much I love his work, but John can't say it himself, and vice versa. I can feel very strongly about John's work having its place in the world, and Aaron's and Kim Deitch's and whoever La Mano ends up working with, I can really deeply get behind it. With your own stuff, it's always different. But I'm finally at that point where I can be like, that's not my decision to make anymore. Your only job is to get it out, to get it done. After that, people love it or people hate it, or whatever. Not getting it out there is just sort of chickenshit. And the new La Mano is trying not to be chickenshit. [Laughs.]
AVC: Besides any sort of self-consciousness, it seems like there is also a practical difficulty that you face in putting out your own stuff, because you're also writing your own PR material, which can seem weird.
ZS: Yeah, I'm not that great about talking about myself. [Laughs.] Well, I am better about talking about myself as part of a group—I learned a lot of things from being in Low. And not speaking about "me, me, me." I'm speaking about me in terms of this thing that's happening, that's outside of me at the same time. And I feel the same way about La Mano, except in those trippy moments. A lot of cartoonists and artists take on this other identity—Chris Ware with Acme Novelty, or [Dave Eggers of] McSweeney's, I think that's a way of being able to…
AVC: Hide behind personas?
ZS: Right, or to step away somehow. I don't think I can do that. [Laughs.] Right now, anyway, I really like the idea of La Mano being something that's directly person-to-person. This is really hands-on, it's not some frickin' corporation.
AVC: Is there anything in particular that made you decide to go past the 'zines and start doing book-length material?
ZS: I think it was John. John and I have been friends for so long and I was starting to talk about doing something together. He's got a lot of health problems, and he did an issue [of King-Cat] that he got back from the printer that he had an allergic reaction to the ink. He's always hand-assembled, and he's getting to the point where he's doing 800 or 1,000, and didn't have a folding machine, so he's folding each one and stapling it. And then he got this batch back where he'd get physically ill if he touched his own comics, and he called me. He knew I've always been a huge fan of King-Cat and always wanted to publish for real, and I think at that point we started talking.
AVC: The time was right to get his stuff up to another level.
ZS: Yeah. The two of us really help each other on that, he's deeply uncomfortable with that, deeply uncomfortable about people liking his stuff and it's really like pulling teeth for him to get comfortable with that.
AVC: It's such directly autobiographical material.
ZS: Yeah. It's such a sweet, beautiful, honest thing. Part of me wants to be like, "John, come on, it's great. Don't worry about it." There's a lot of crappy things in the world, and the longer we work at this I realize that this really isn't a crappy thing. It's kind of an important thing, in a very, very small way. In this day and age, it is a pretty big thing to put out that effort, when you know that it's not going to make any money, and you're not gonna get famous. [Laughs.] Even if it's cheap compulsion, you're doing this thing, you're putting it out there against all reason. It's a pretty big deal.
AVC: What hard lessons have you had to learn in becoming a larger publisher?
ZS: Oh, man. [Laughs.] I'm still learning every day. The way the book market works is pretty loony, and the way the comic market works is even loonier. The comic book industry is pretty much a nuthouse. I do comics, but you go to the average person on the street and say, "Have you read a comic book?" And they'll look at you like, if it's not superheroes, it's "pffft." So this is like the fringe of the fringe of the fringe. Comics stores, they make their money off of Superman and Batman. We decided that we were going to try and even the playing field, and not to try and rely on the comic book market or bookstore market, because we're just tiny publishers. We do a lot of dealing directly with stores that love King-Cat, or the stores that are friendly with small presses to begin with. It's kind of seat-of-our-pants because we are always going to keep trying to put out really beautiful work.
AVC: One of the things you've got planned for the future is a book by Aaron Cometbus.
ZS: I can't say enough about the guy and his body of work. He's like a secret in America, you know—the whole literary crowd, he's not known in that world. The punk-rock crowd that he came up with is in a sort of diaspora, I don't know how many folks are still doing that. But over the years he's become an amazing writer with an incredible backlog of work. At one point he was the punk-rock writer and all that, but he's too good for that. He should be recognized as an American writer, rather than just a punk-rock writer. I don't know if La Mano can do that, but that's the way I feel about it. More people should be seeing Aaron's work.
AVC: You started making 'zines when you were 13, correct?
ZS: Yeah, somewhere around there. [Laughs] A lot of artists that I love, they all sort of ended up doing that: "Oh, a copy machine." You know, just making little magazines or books or whatever, completely on your own, not knowing what you were going to do with it. Even now, it's where I find stuff that really excites me. Getting something in the mail that just blows you away—that's very exciting to me. I think it's why I keep doing this. Same with records, or with any other medium, where you run across a weird band or a sound you've never heard of that makes you think about things differently.
AVC: What was the first project you made for public consumption?
ZS: The very first project was when I was 14, I'm sure I chucked those around somewhere. And then when you have friends who work at Kinko's, it starts getting more elaborate and you start doing greater numbers. Once I ran out of my Kinko's connection I was completely screwed. You price your comic according to how much it costs to do it at Kinko's, and then when your Kinko's connection runs out, you're like, "Oh, that's great. I'm losing $2 per issue." I'm a total wreck with that stuff. John's book and my new book, I had them done by a printer and bound, but the rest of them are photocopied, stapled, and copied by me and my next-door neighbor.
AVC: Do you see the Recidivist stuff as a connected series, or is it just the name you give collections of your work when you've got enough to put out an issue?
ZS: This is the final issue, actually. I really have always had a tough time with comics. They make me pretty crazy. For a long time, I thought it was sort of a bad thing to do. You know, I tried to quit making comics, and I found some reason to keep doing them. And when I started doing them again, I called it Recidivist.
AVC: You're looking for some other way to express yourself?
ZS: Yeah. Or just getting more comfortable with—if it's all right, if it's honest, you know? Then there's some worth to it. If it's honest, then you're not trying to go put crappy, bad things in the world.
AVC: So Recidivist is more negative than what you wanted to be doing?
ZS: Not necessarily this book. I think that was my view of comics for a long time—my view of my own comics. That despite myself, it was just a really ugly, negative thing about feeling crazy, about being unhappy. You know, so what—everybody feels crazy and screwed-up and all that. Why am I spending hundreds of hours doing this comic about it, and putting it out to show to people? I could just never get behind myself doing that. I'm not saying I can now, but there's sort of a place for everything. I'm realizing I'm not trying to make people sad. Have you ever read Louis-Ferdinand Céline? I'm not comparing myself with him, but the things [he wrote] are considered very harsh and bleak. It's really hard stuff, but there's some sort of joy in life that comes through that's not apparent at first. I feel that way about a lot of things. Just because it's not light and airy, it shouldn't be discounted. Trying to express things that are difficult to express, and trying to do that in a way that's honest, is not a bad thing. At other times in my life, I've felt that it was a bad thing, kind of a Midwestern thing, where it's like, "You know, man, keep it to yourself." I believe that. [Laughs.] Sometimes it's tough to figure out when you don't need to keep it to yourself.
AVC: But still, there's plenty of interesting things going on in the Recidivist stories. In "Feed The Wife," for instance, there's an odd dreamlike logic, and an unexpected twist midway through that pulls the rug out from underneath.
ZS: So many people come up to me and say, "What is going on?" And I immediately, knowing the way I feel about my stuff, I feel like, "Oh, I screwed up." And I go back and read it, and what I wanted to be in there is in there. I didn't mean for it to be a secret, or anything like that.
AVC: It's sort of like Mulholland Drive, where at a certain point in the movie it turns out that what you have been watching is not what you thought it was at all. It's intriguing to try to figure out what's going on.
ZS: Yeah, that's what these comics are for me too. Doing comics is sort of trying to figure things out in this way. I guess it's dark, but at the same time it's called "Feed the Wife," and it's about keeping your wife in a cellar chained up. I mean, to me that's kind of funny. [Laughs.] I mean, you don't keep your wife in the cellar. That's not nice. And [the story] is not something that could be easily explained. If I could explain it, I could just say to you, "Well, this strip is about being married." [Laughs.]
AVC: Recidivist is reminiscent of work by underground cartoonist Chester Brown, with that nightmarish quality that's also extremely funny if it's viewed in a certain way.
ZS: It scares me when you say that, because I hope my stuff isn't… He was a huge early influence, you know? Some of his comics are just amazing. When you're doing something, you just have to let yourself, like—I mean, originally, the strip "Animal Vomit" [in which three animal-headed men are subjected to a series of cruel medical experiments] was about James Brown. I don't know if it is any more, it might still be.
AVC: "Animal Vomit" was about James Brown?
ZS: Yeah, maybe. But I don't even know what it is. I kind of know in my head what this is about, what I want it to feel like. And it's like, well, they have animal heads, because that makes sense. [Laughs.]
AVC: There's multiple explanations in here, all of which might be false, but in some weird way they all might be true.
ZS: When you're trying to explain something you're not sure about, you can over-explain something and kill it. I love it when people come up to me and say, "Well, that straightens out this." That used to make me feel awful. "Oh, I miscommunicated something. I spent a year and a half on this dumb comic, and I screwed it up! Nobody gets it!" But now it's like, "Really? I hadn't even thought of that." And it's like, well maybe it is about that, and I didn't even [see that]. It's no less valid than if you look at something you wrote 10 years ago, and you read it now and it's like, "Wow, this is about something completely different than I thought it was." That's as valid, if you see it in your own stuff, as when anybody else does it. Like, with Low, I've been getting more comfortable with [the idea] that you can't, you shouldn't, control what people think of what you're doing. You could have the worst night in the world, but someone could be deeply moved. That's great. That's outside of you, and you can't control that they got something out of this thing. Maybe that's what art is, getting out of yourself a little bit, and sending it out to the rest of the world to see if it flies. All this stuff that's really moved me and had an effect on my life has done that. R. Crumb is one of the greatest artists I know of, and he's been bolder about that stuff than anyone. The guy's got some pretty ugly elements in his life, but just to say "This is there but I don't know what to do about it," you know, it really gives a picture of a whole human being. I don't know, you know. It's hard to speak about it, but it's enriched my life. You know, and I could say the same thing for John and Aaron, and so many other artists, writers, or musicians, like they're offering up a piece of their life with all the warts and the ugliness.
AVC: Since this is going to be the last Recidivist, do you have any plans yet for what you're going to do next?
ZS: Yeah, it's going to be funny animals. [Laughs.] I don't know if that will be the next thing, because I've got a lot of work to do on it, but it will be a long, 400-page book about a cartoon mouse.
AVC: Do you think this new direction has something to do with the child you and your wife are expecting?
ZS: Yes. I think, yeah. I like to laugh, you know. [Laughs.] And doing [Recidivist] is not fun, I think that's the one thing. I'm getting pretty sick of that. I don't think anyone should be like "Oh, poor Zak." Because I don't mean to say, "Oh, it's so hard." But really, it sucks. There's barely a moment about this that's fun in any way, shape, or form. And as I get older, I think maybe it ought to be. Not entirely, but every moment should not be ripping out your spleen and looking at it. I've done enough of it. There's play and fun that I've really forgotten about, and I need to start looking at that again. I think having a kid is going to change me in more ways than I can think of; there's just nothing I love more in the world than sitting around and reading a book to a kid. I don't know if my next book will be [for kids]—maybe I'll be able to read it to him when he's 17. But you know, you do goofy drawings for a kid, and it makes them happy. And I don't think that's any less important than Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It could be more important.
AVC: Is the furry animals book going to be a children's book?
ZS: I think it's going to be a children's book for adults, like a mixture of R. Crumb and Tintin. Same old stuff though, I've got some problems with anatomy, like anatomy obsession, you know, so I'll probably add some medical cutaways, and all that sort of stuff. But we'll have Sammy The Mouse and Puppy Boy, and they all hang out in a bar that's in a shape of a giant baby. So you know, it will be like Donald Duck, but Donald Duck doesn't hang out in a bar.
AVC: You've been taking notes on it for six years, so do you have the story pretty well worked out?
ZS: Sort of. I mean, I have developed in the story, there's a guy named—this is tangential, but did you ever read the book Atlas, by Dylan Horrocks? He's a great cartoonist. He did a book called Hicksville that was really great, and then he started this new book called Atlas. He was like, "I'm doing this, each issue is going to be 100 pages. The whole book is all mapped out and the whole thing will be over 1,000 pages." He was trying to treat it like a Japanese manga. One issue came out and it was great, and then apparently he just flipped out, and nothing ever has ever followed. It was shaping up to be major, beautiful comic work and he just flipped out. He sort of sensed the enormity and it got too big for him to start.
AVC: So when you tackle a larger work, you have to find a way to make it actually manageable.
ZS: Yeah, make it in small enough chunks that you can.
AVC: Something like the way Charles Dickens worked, perhaps, where a lot of his novels were serialized, and he'd publish a chapter at a time as he was working on it?
ZS: That's the stuff that I'm more into these days. I was reading some Dickens recently, and there are unstoppably beautiful stories. They're perfect. The same with Kim Deitch, who's a big Dickens fan. Like, instead of crawling up your asshole, how do you tell a great story about crawling up your asshole? [Laughs.] You know what I mean?
AVC: So what's the storyline?
ZS: Oh, man. [Laughs.] Well, that's the problem. I know how many books it will be, I know a lot of things that happen in the middle.
AVC: Is it that a lot of the story has to come together as you're actually creating it?
ZS: That's what I'm afraid of. I don't want to get too scared about it, even mentioning it in an interview kind of scares me. Usually it takes me a while after I finish a comic to get going again, and a project that massive might be a little much. I'm going to start working on the book, but also right now, I'm excited about doing a 'zine. I don't know [exactly] what it would be, but the more complicated the world gets, the more I just want to. There's just something about when somebody's writing about their life. I'd even read a 'zine of someone collecting receipts from Rainbow for a month—it's interesting, you know?
AVC: Like Found Magazine?
ZS: I love Found Magazine! [Laughs.] Davy Rothbart's amazing! Stuff like that, it's stuff I find important about life. Stuff I want to teach my son. "Read this thing. Look, somebody made this, I know you've seen a website now, but look, somebody made this with their hands, they took time to go to Kinko's or to a printer and you can hold it in your hands." There's something very small but very serious about that.
AVC: How much have you found your outlook changing as the baby comes closer to entering the world?
ZS: I don't know. I've been really busy. Low was touring for a lot of the early pregnancy, and getting the book out and just all kinds of stuff. It's going to change everything in ways that I can't imagine. And I'm really looking forward to it. To my mom, having a kid is some sort of article of faith. Well it is; you're bringing a child into this world.
AVC: In order to do it you have to believe the world is worth bringing someone into.
ZS: Yeah, absolutely, it's hard. There are a number of things you run into in the course of the day that you think, forget it, I'm not bringing a kid into this. Certainly not when I was younger, there's no way that I would have a kid, because I felt like it's a horrible world. But there's other stuff. You're not just bringing life into the horrible parts, you're bringing it into all the good parts too. All the horrible parts, you get something out of them that you had to go through anyway. A real, live human being! It's too big for me to get my skull around and I'm not going to understand it until he shows up. I can't wait to meet him.
AVC: You've been involved in a couple of upcoming movies lately as well. In Elizabethtown, Kirsten Dunst wears a Low T-shirt with one of your designs.
ZS: [Laughs.] This is kind of why want to do a 'zine, because I find my life hilarious. The Elizabethtown thing… Cameron Crowe is a really huge music fan. And he's a big fan of Low. Actually, the woman who did costumes on Shopgirl also worked on Elizabethtown later, and she had this Low shirt that I gave her at a show. And just basically, Cameron was a fan and she was a fan, and so they said "What about this shirt on Kirsten Dunst?" So there you go. Alan and Mim got this signed picture of Kirsten Dunst wearing our shirt. That was just a funny fluke.
AVC: And then you actually have a cameo in Steve Martin's Shopgirl.
ZS: Well, it's funny—it kind of sucks because I really wanted to play it [low-key] and not tell anyone. And just have my mom go see Shopgirl and be like, "What's that?" But, you know, Mark Kozelek from the Red House Painters is a friend of ours, and actually this is why my life is so ridiculous. I'll give you the short version. I had gone to a comic convention in St. Louis to try to sell some of my stuff. Did all the preparing, went down there, got my little table and sat there, and all day maybe had two people look at my stuff. I sold, I think, two $2 posters all day, and it was just like the most debilitating, depressing thing in the world. Just had to go all the way to St. Louis to like, get rid of some comics and sell nothing and nobody was in any way interested.
AVC: Because everyone was there for superhero comics?
ZS: No, this was a not-superhero convention, this was an alt-comics convention. Chris Ware was there, Charles Burns was there. And still, nothing, absolutely nothing. So, I was just completely depressed, I came home and my wife said, "Mark Kozelek has been calling, and somebody wants you to be in this movie or something?" Mark was in Almost Famous, another Cameron Crowe movie, and he had been asked to be in this Steve Martin movie. Rather than going to central casting for the band, he just said, "Why don't you let me put it together." So he called me, and said, "Do you want to come to L.A.? You'll make pretty good money, it'll be two days, you'll be in a Steve Martin movie." And John Fedevich, who was also in Almost Famous, is also an old friend of Mark's. It was really fun. And I came up with the name of the band. [Laughs.]
AVC: What is it?
ZS: They're called the Hot Tears. I was kidding, but I get to the shoot and there's this 30-foot banner with a "Hot Tears" logo on it. [Laughs.] I was like, "Don't you get extra for coming up with the name?" And they're like, "No." So, that's my Hollywood career. And Mark Kozelek is a really nice guy and John Fedevich is a really nice guy, too.
AVC: Did you meet Steve Martin?
ZS: I didn't meet Steve Martin. All of the scenes I was in were with Jason Schwartzman. He's a really nice guy, a music obsessive. I didn't meet Claire Danes, I didn't meet Steve Martin. Everyone was really nice. I was kind of perversely excited because I wanted to see what a Hollywood movie would be like. Like I'd just meet all these fakey people and make fun of them and come back and tell stories about what jerks everyone in Hollywood is, but unfortunately it was really interesting. [Laughs.] Everybody was really nice.
AVC: It comes out later this fall, right?
ZS: October 21. I'm excited. I'm all Hollywood now, man. I don't even talk to my old friends anymore, I don't even talk to them. I have them talk to my people.
AVC: Since you do your own PR, then you are your people, so they have to talk to you anyway.
ZS: That's true. I love that. "Yeah, call and talk to my people." Then they call back, "Hello? No, this isn't Zak! I'll sue you!"