Ron Turner, the salty, white-bearded, septuagenarian founder of San Francisco publishing house Last Gasp, is on his third or fourth shot of bourbon. Except that a shot for Turner is about a shot and a half, in standard bar metrics.
Already, the stories are pouring out of him. About how he spent the latter part of the 1960s cavorting with members of the United Farm Workers of America. About how they all went on to form the Berkeley Ecology Center, and roped Turner into publishing an earth-themed underground comic, aimed to disabuse young adults of all the "foul representations" they'd learned from school teachers. About how he hooked up with R. Crumb and other notable cartoonists to create the first issue, and guilt-tripped some Berkeley drug dealers into funding it — "by asking what they'd done for their community lately," he recalls.
Turner's eyes twinkle. He spears a roasted apple walnut hors d'oeuvre and sloshes the amber liquid in his cup. His handlers wonder if it's time to run intervention.
It's the eve of the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco, and Last Gasp is hosting an opening night party at its Mission District headquarters, a three-story stucco building that's become both a mausoleum of dusty artifacts and a shrine to San Francisco's underground arts scene. Expo organizers man registration tables and serve thick slices of cake in the upstairs vestibule, while Turner sits ensconced in his personal gallery, really a museum diorama devoted to old-school kitsch. There's a battered Steinway piano, a nonfunctioning jukebox, pinball machines, taxidermied animals, mobile airplanes dangling from the ceiling, and all variety of psychedelic posters on the wall. One of them depicts R. Crumb's "Mr. Natural and Flaky Foont in Smogville Blues," which appeared in Last Gasp's first-ever comic book, Slow Death Funnies.
Shack up in this place for a few days and you might convince yourself that the last three decades never happened.
Now Turner and his cohorts are wondering if they'll exist for very much longer. They've launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publishing house's fall run — it had two days left at the time this article went to press, and $58,322 of its $75,000 goal furnished by comic book lovers. If it doesn't meet the goal on Wednesday, then it has to rescind all the donations. Last Gasp's associate publisher Colin Turner (who is Ron's son) says there is no Plan B.
"Right now I just want to focus on Plan A," Colin says, adding that the company may incorporate Kickstarter funding as a permanent business model. In the future, though, Last Gasp might solicit donations for book projects at the time of their conception, rather than when they're already scheduled for publishing. That way, he and the elder Turner could assess the demand for each one.
"If we can get enough people to buy things ahead of time, then we know there's a market," Turner explains. That might help convince bookshops to take a chance on some of Last Gasp's more outré offerings; this fall's inventory includes The Fetish Coloring Book, a zine anthology called Punks Git Cut, and a compendium of mandala art by local painter Henry Sultan.
Last Gasp has always envisioned itself as "an honest chronicler of the visual arts through time," Colin says, explaining that the company has never shied away from making highbrow productions of lowbrow material (like a Cannabis Fantasy Cool Coloring Book with a glossy binding) and from acting as both publisher and distributor for mom-and-pop enterprises that might consist of a single book or zine. It's reveled in the unknown, the grotesque, and the obscene, but also backed authors who've garnered their own cult of fandom and adoration: R. Crumb, Camille Rose Garcia, Ron English, Robert Williams, and Justin Green are all part of the Last Gasp pantheon; all have become icons in their own right.
Their creative descendants have become a lot harder to find in brick-and-mortar stores, partly because some of those stores have shuttered, and partly because the ones that are left have to be a little more frugal. Unlike Barnes & Noble, a comic book shop has to buy its inventory outright, which means it can't return unsold books to the distributor. At a time when the industry is already suffering, fewer retailers are willing to take risks.
That's opened the door for one comic book distributor to attain a virtual monopoly. Walk into any of the book stores or head shops that traditionally sell comics, and you'll find that about 99 percent of the current stock comes from Diamond Comic Distributors Inc., says Matt Silady, chair of the comics MFA program at California College of the Arts. Diamond is known for having conservative tastes — it mostly traffics in books by Marvel or D.C. — and it won't list a book in its catalogue until the author or publisher can prove that a certain number will sell.
Last Gasp used to pick up the slack for all the work that didn't fall in Diamond's purview — meaning anything "fantastically out there or controversial," or printed by a small press, Silady says. "It's one of the last places where you can find books that Diamond wouldn't carry," he explains. "But it you're ignored by Diamond, you're not in most comics shops in America."
The irony, of course, is that people haven't stopped reading underground comics; both Silady and Colin say that there's an audience for things like cannabis coloring books and genitalia illustrations, and there are plenty of people who will weep when the last zine anthology gets supplanted by a Tumblr. But the modes of consumption and distribution have changed. Now a lot of young artists are choosing to go it alone instead of turning to the Last Gasps of the world for support. They'll create a web comic, drum up an audience online, and then parlay that into a print collection, which they might hawk via Kickstarter. And if their DIY campaigns are successful, they might ultimately turn to Diamond.
That's where Last Gasp gets stuck, Silady says. For decades, it's been the enabler for that group of first-timers; now it's having to turn to the same funding tool that's helped make its model obsolete.
But it might work, Silady says. Seattle publisher Fantagraphics Books launched a Kickstarter last fall, asking fans to pre-order 39 books for the spring season; it wound up raising $222,327 of its $150,000 goal. Clearly, there's hope for the crowdsourced model. And in the current climate, it might even make more sense than traditional retail: When you're dealing in quirky niche products, it 's best to eliminate as many middlemen as possible.
Turner is willing to take that leap of faith, even if he enjoys disparaging the internet in general (he blames the decline of print on the proliferation of electronic screens). But maybe an internet platform is the key to saving a venerable San Francisco press. Barring that, Kickstarter can at least mitigate some of the damage it's wrought.