By Pablo Arriaga
Karl Slominski is a weird dude. Karl Slominski is a guy who loves to make comics more than anything else and has dedicated his life to do so. A Kubert School graduate, he has worked on several beloved indie titles like Golgotha, a book about a man addicted to drugs and H.P. Lovecraft is on the hunt for the people who have exhumed his corpse. Karl also lent his talents for Ashes, a comic about a NY firefighter relearning how to approach his career after a traumatic experience where he loses a leg. And being part of the DC/IDW Comic Book Anthology Love Is Love, to honor the victims of the horrific Orlando attacks, he will join the superstar names like Patton Oswalt, Phil Jimenez, Olivier Coipel. Karl Slominski knows three things really well and has them on his business card. Noise. Paint. Love.
Karl loves to mess with you on the page. Characters full of ideas sometimes literally poking out of their heads, leaving no backgrounds for the reader to focus on the action happening on the panel, or overloading one’s eye with an insane amount of details regarding space, NYC brownstones, the inside of someone’s brain, or a room full of TV people. Karl transpires his weirdness into the comics he makes, and he makes a lot of his own comics, none of which have seen publication, yet.
If you follow his social media pages, they are plastered and riddled with projects of his own, an ever-changing slate of things from what seems to be a supermarket cashier turning into an intergalactic fighter, a horror tale, and one about disgraced puppeteer Mark, unable to cope with a great tragedy, sees his life hit rock bottom, moving back to his parents and comforting himself by talking to his puppets, who unfortunately for his sanity, talk back to him.
Teeter Topple is a strange dive into the warped mind of someone battling through depression and losing every fight. 83 pages of a man who cannot seem to get a grip on reality so he continues to create new ones in his head in order to escape an unbearable loss. There are the talking puppets, who all have the personalities they did in the show, barring a no-fucks-given cat who becomes a mix of Garfield and Dogbert, and tells the situation to Mark like it is. There is another layer where Mark talks to his Cosmic Adventurer hero, who protects him from the forces outside; Karl's nod to Golden Age comics and what they represented to one as kids, when the comic reader loved a comic just as it was, and sees Mark do the age-old nuance of rolling up and pocketing the comic book because the story in it is worth much more than what a bag and board could ever contain. There is also a deeper hidden side that continues to hunt his escapism-riddled mind, as Mark's trauma is continuously triggered by all the childhood memories, how much it has changed since, and will never be the same.
The whole book is a mix of those indie-darling movies like Young Adult, or This Is Where I Leave You, mixed with the bizarre aesthetics from movies like Being John Malkovich or Brazil. Karl uses every resource available to him and explores whatever he can to bring this story to its full potential through this comic medium. Pages where there is minimal inking but a lot of watercolors that remind me of Bill Sienkiewicz, or David Mack; and others heavy on the inks and flourishing with details and bizarre visuals. All the pages mixing for an incredible story, one that was all set to debut at New York Comic Con 2016 through a respected independent publisher.
Until it wasn’t.
Teeter Topple had its Diamond Previews month where stores can pre-order the book and put it on the shelves nationwide to compete with everything else coming out. The month came and went, Karl campaigned for his book like there was no tomorrow, and all the excitement, the anticipation, the curated playlist to read along, all turned into one statement:
The next day, Karl posted the whole book for free, the file ready to be had for anyone willing to read it, many would ask to donate, and offer other avenues of publishing but “FUCK IT,” he said, “since it’ll probably never see the light of day, you can have it for free!” Since then, he has deleted the post and moved on to other projects, leaving this one as once more where the medium he loves so much has broken his heart. A man who tried to carry his passion project out into the world, an original idea that could only flourish as a comic, to be out into the world and compete alongside the big two and Image’s heavy hitters, squandered away by an direct market run by a near-monopoly that hurts more original graphic novels than one can count. For every Saga, there are a thousand Teeter Topples.
I asked Karl a couple of questions to see what had happened, what’s the future of Teeter Topple and where to go for a man who keeps trying to open a door whose lock changes every time he has a key.
Teeter Topple was ready to go. Big NYCC debut and everything. What happened?
I'm sure it wasn't any one event in particular, but a handful of closely-related things that contributed to it. Basically, the root of it is PRE-ORDERS. I know it's a hot-button topic in comics media at the moment-- and rightfully so, to some degree-- but the difference in how pre-orders effect a book between a big company like the house of ideas and a smaller boutique publisher with maybe four or five books a year is ASTRONOMICAL. The way it works is, your book gets listed in a big ol' catalogue for stores to order from- each catalogue is soliciting releases that will be in stores three months from now, giving stores a chance to decide their inventory. Using that catalogue, customers can go into a store and say "Hey, that book looks cool- order one for me!" and the store does that. The way it works now, especially in smaller press, pre-order numbers directly coincide with how big their initial print run is. Which is where "Teeter Topple" starts to become a poster child for this sort of thing.
We got our pre-orders back, and they were low. Not just low, we're talking T-Pain singing about apple-bottom jeans LOW. So low, that basically even doing a small print run to fulfill the pre-orders and have a modest supply for conventions would've put the publisher or myself at a sizable loss.
There was a big reaction after you gave the news that Teeter Topple wasn't coming out.
I was actually surprised at how many people reached out with question marks in their word balloons after the news hit. I'm definitely kind of a hermit by nature, so a lot of the people I'm closer with are either in comics or film, and we all know what pots we've got on the stove. I was burned out on work-for-hire comics after Ashes and a handful of negative experiences with contract work around the same time, and I certainly wasn't quiet about my disgruntled outlook (water under the bridges I burned, hopefully)- so I was adamant about focusing my output on projects that I was solely creating from the ground up. I've worked on some amazing books with a group of immensely talented writers, but for every year I spent drawing someone else's story, that was another year I was shelving things of my own that I had been developing and putting off. So I buckled down and made a conscious effort to do just that, turning down other projects and contract work for a couple of years and finally making my pet-project "Teeter Topple."
Everyone KNEW that I was working on that. Anytime I was promoting one of the books I had out; people asked about THAT book- it was exciting, and people were really supportive as I started posting art and talking about finally taking a leap with my own work. I tend to think that as much as I was invested in the book, my friends and potential readers were equally (if not more, in some cases) excited. So when I was the kid whose scoop of ice cream dropped from its cone, I was shocked by the wave of disappointment and shared grief. It was nice to know such a support system existed like that; I just wish I had the pleasure of learning about it under different circumstances.
Are you exploring other options with it? Kickstarter?
The whole debacle kinda left me a little side-lined, to be honest. I'm definitely obsessive about whatever I'm making, so to have something so close to me come to an abrupt halt like it did definitely felt like life imitating art to a degree. At the moment, I'm finally coming around to the idea of moving forward with the book in some form. When I put it up online for free for 24 hours, it got about seven hundred thirty downloads and THAT completely blindsided me and definitely proved that there's more life in the book than I was going to allow it. I mean, the day I threw it up online I gave ZERO fucks, so it was validating to see people reading it and telling me how much they loved it. It also bummed me out that if the book had been handled better or the modern comics marketplace was different, we'd have had a modest indie hit on our hands.
Whether it be through a Kickstarter or a different publisher or selling my soul to a Texas death cult, I'm still interested in getting it out there. I mean, the book IS DONE. It's all on my computer, and the pages sit next to my desk-- so who knows what the future holds.
I know you have a lot more projects you're working on. How are you moving forward with them after Teeter Topple?
Gradually. (laughs) Corny as it sounds, I was really starting to think I was cursed- cuz I've been on the brink with books before like this, only to have it blow up at the last minute. I'd be lying if I didn't go through a slight existential crisis over it- anytime I sat at the desk I'd get wobbly like a kid riding a bike without training wheels for the first time. That's legitimate fear- having confidence, but zero confidence simultaneously? I wouldn't wish that on a soul! But it definitely gave me that last push I needed to jump headfirst into the fire.
What's that line from Fight Club? "Only when you lose everything are you free to do anything." That sums it up nicely. I figured, "well, you were irrelevant when you were illustrating other people's books, and you're irrelevant making your own books- so hang the sense of it and REALLY dig into making the books you wanna make!"
The second you stop caring about the final product or output and how it's received by Tumblr or the comics "journalism" community-- you can REALLY make some damn cool comics.
What do you think needs to change in comics for the little guys?
The perception of "the little guys." It's too comparative for my tastes. The sentiment unintentionally puts indie comics against a Goliath like DC or Marvel. Don't get me wrong; I love me some cape and cowl escapism- but they're not JUST comics anymore, they're something DANGEROUS called "INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY." When everything is a brand, there's potentially massive dollars at stake for every creative decision made by the company- they're not JUST making comics anymore, they're protecting their brands and assuring it's continued revenue generated. By that measure, you're comparing independent publishing to Pepsi or McDonalds or any other billion dollar powerhouse.
That sentiment is totally reflected in the comics market through the pre-order system. I actually LIKE the method of advanced solicitations for retailers- but when EVERYTHING is in a single catalogue, and you're gauging a potential audience on a 1-inch by 2-inch thumbnail image and two sentences, NO INDEPENDENT BOOK STANDS A CHANCE. I think companies like Image have the right idea, by including preview art and giving their books a proper write-up- I tend to think the more you show to a retailer to sway their decision-making, the easier it is to make those sales. At the end of the day, the stores just have so much to choose from, and that catalogue is the equivalent of the internet- millions of voices all shouting at their top of their lungs to get your attention.
Unfortunately, the other thing that doesn't help is that your average consumer doesn't realize that stores don't get fringe comics unless there's a demand for them. A comic store is a business after all and businesses need to generate profit- so, of course, they're stocking up everything with a recognized brand or creator attached because there's a preexisting audience there! They won't buy a book that has no proven track record unless they've got a reason to like it and think it'll sell or there is a proven interest through pre-orders. But THAT'S where it gets janky- your average consumer DOESN'T realize that stores won't get EVERY book that comes out that month unless there's an interest. That's why it's paramount to interact with comics retailers and get excited about indie books, TO GET THEM IN STORES.
That's definitely something that smarter people than myself and the evolution of the industry can totally fix. Everything is trial and error, so while it's frustrating, I definitely don't think it's broken to the point of not being built upon or improved.
Onto #shutupmakestuff now, right?
ABSOLUTELY! My collaborator, mastermind and screenwriter girlfriend, Jenna Wright and I sat down a while back when I was finishing up "Teeter Topple" and we started talking about projects we wanted to work on, that we had been putting off for more high-profile contract work. It kinda became a running punchline that it's easier to talk about making stuff than actually making the thing you're babbling on about- so we adopted that as our family motto and began developing a handful of multi-platform properties out the ideas of our own that were being set aside. We've been really excited about some of the announcements we'll be unleashing in the coming months, including our books "Cult Of Ikarus" and "Evermore Falls." On the other side of that, I've still got "Star Child" and "Fixer" on the desk at the moment, as well as collaborating with my filmmaker buddy Ryan Spindell on expanding his upcoming horror anthology film, "The Mortuary Collection" into a comic book mini-series. So what is that? Five books? One of them oughta catch on, so I'm not out yet.