Wizard #16: Martin Wagner

December 1992 (on sale date: October 1992)
The cover of Wizard #16 featured the grim and gritty characters of Darker Image, one of the many Image series that had Hepcats‘ horrible publishing history beat. Only the first of the proposed four-issue series was ever published.

If Hepcats creator Martin Wagner started his funny animal comic today, he would probably be one of those deadbeat Kickstarter guys who raise a lot of money and then disappear before publishing anything. Wagner’s difficulties with self-publishing were apparent when I wrote this “Palmer’s Picks” for Wizard #16—recent issues of the series usually had a plea to the readership to help save the book through various fundraising schemes like selling full color sketches (that he later had to bow out of because he couldn’t finish them in a timely manner) and 12-issue subscriptions for a comic that struggled to publish more than two issues a year. While doing a bit of internet research preparing this retrospective, I found out that my Kickstarter comparison is actually right on the money: I stumbled on this 2013 Kickstarter project from none other than now-filmmaker Martin Wagner to raise funds for a documentary about a serial killer known as the “Servant Girl Annihilator.” As of this writing in 2019, it looks like there’s no sign of the film being finished, leaving a lot of dissatisfied Kickstarter backers in the process.

The most recognizable characters from Darker Image, Sam Kieth’s The Maxx and Dale Keown’s Pitt, made the cut for the front of Wizard #16’s fold-out.

Back when Wagner was publishing Hepcats and was able to actually get an issue out, the series was met with a lot of attention and acclaim, especially for the harrowing, silent issue 11. But all of the raves in the world couldn’t help save a book that simply never arrived. It was always unclear if Wagner’s problems were due to his slow speed as an artist (he never skimped on the art, with many pages painstakingly filled with layers of crosshatching and screentone) or if the book would have kept a regular schedule if more money came in to pay printing bills. He used both excuses interchangeably: Variations of “It takes a long time to make a book of this quality” and “I need money to pay my debts!” were used many times in the editorials and letters pages of Hepcats.

After giving up on self-publishing around 1995, Wagner inked a deal with Antarctic Press to reprint the original run of the comic over twelve months and continue with new stories. But even these reprints—which featured new covers and merely four pages of new comics—shipped late! And once the reprints wrapped up, the promised new issues never materialized. It’s a shame because there was a lot of promise in Hepcats and Wagner’s abilities as an artist.

As I mentioned in the original “Palmer’s Picks,” Wagner was part of the new wave of self-publishers who emulated the model developed by Cerebus creator/publisher Dave Sim. This was my first profile of one of them, and I would go on to feature many of the others, including Jeff Smith, Terry Moore, Colleen Doran, Steve Bissette, James Owen, and Paul Pope.

Cartoonist Kayfabe segment on “Palmer’s Picks” from Wizard #16.

“Palmer’s Picks” got a spiffy new design for this issue that I think helped give the column a more refined look, especially when compared to some of the questionable design choices of earlier issues. The color choices were subtle but effective, and the new fonts used for the logo didn’t distract from the rest of the design. This issue also marked my first column written as a college freshman, which is fitting because Hepcats began life as a comic strip for the University of Texas’ Daily Texan. Needless to say, there were still a few awkward bits in my writing at this point, but things were definitely improving from my tentative first steps less than a year earlier.

Palmer’s Picks

By Tom Palmer Jr.

With the comic-book market currently fixated on first issues and special gimmicks, it is increasingly difficult for a self-published artist to cement a firm place among the big companies. After fairly large orders on a first issue of a small-press title, sales of later issues usually drop significantly to a level at which it becomes harder to keep going. One must either drop out or hold on and do whatever it takes to keep going. Martin Wagner is one of the few who have been able to self-publish and make a place for himself and his comic book, Hepcats.

Hepcats began as a daily newspaper strip in the University of Texas campus paper, The Daily Texan. The strip ran from 1987 to about 1989 and contained the day-to-day adventures of a cast of anthropomorphic animal characters that Wagner had experimented with in previous high school and college strips. During the run of the Hepcats strip, Wagner decided to try his hand at self-publishing. His first venture was a collection of most of the strips from The Daily Texan, entitled Yo. The book was printed on a friend’s printing press and was hand-assembled. Most of the copies were sold locally, but Wagner continued to self-publish after the Hepcats strip ended by starting a comic book that would feature all new stories with the same cast of characters.

The first issue of Hepcats went over fairly well for a small-press black-and-white comic, allowing Wagner to continue publishing. But what is considered to be a high circulation for a self-published book was barely enough for Wagner to keep his company, Double Diamond Press, going. Despite the odds, Wagner was determined to keep going with some unique methods.

First, he submitted a single page to Dave Sim’s bi-weekly reprints of Cerebus, which allowed him to be exposed to the large audience that follows the aardvark. In addition, Sim later invited Wagner to assemble a special preview in the regular monthly Cerebus comic, displaying Hepcats to an even larger group of comics fans.

But the method that boosted Wagner’s cash flow the most was a “Save Hepcats” fundraiser. Wagner proposed a number of items that readers could buy to keep Hepcats alive. The campaign consisted of subscriptions, t-shirts, a sweatshirt, a cloisonne pin, and color sketches for either $25 or $40 (depending on the number of characters). With the money these items raised, Wagner was able to pay off some debts and continue publishing. Although there is no regular schedule for Hepcats, Wagner is able to produce and publish about two or three issues a year, and he hopes to increase this number to five.

The comic has a wide audience, as it appeals to both funny-animal fans and to those who don’t follow the genre. The characters’ anthropomorphism has nothing to do with their lives or personalities. They are never referred to by their animal names (except in certain puns in names like Joey McLyon) and they don’t act the way their animal counterparts would. Wagner chose to make his characters animals because he finds that it is easier to convey emotions and body language through animal faces. In addition, the reader is able to identify with the characters more, and they don’t carry any stereotypes when judging what the characters do. They are able to easily place themselves in the character’s position because his characters are not designed to reflect any specific race or type of person.

Another factor that helps readers relate to the cast of Hepcats is Wagner’s realistic art style. The subtle background elements and the small details of the figures are painstakingly rendered to produce the illusion of animal-like characters in a real-life setting. An admiration for the art of Little Nemo artist Windsor McKay and Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo can be seen in Wagner’s affection for background detail. Working in black-and-white, Wagner is able to produce a wide range of tones and shading through the use of zipatone and various cross-hatching techniques.

Aside from being an accomplished artist, Wagner is an excellent (if not better) writer. His dialogue is crisp, true-to-life, and versatile, allowing him to convey both warmth and humor in the conversations between his characters. In his first real comic-book novel, Snowblind (running from #3 to #20), Wagner has been able to keep readers captivated with the mysterious details of the past life of Erica (one of the main characters). Wagner has blended several real-life stories that either he, or a friend, experienced, to form a plot full of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing.

Hepcats has the potential to gain more readers due to the increased attention it has received recently. Aside from critical praise from numerous professionals and various magazines, Wagner has broadened his horizons with his success at the Capital City and Diamond sales conferences this past summer. Double Diamond was accompanied by Dave Sim’s Aardvark-Vanaheim at both sales conferences, and by Collen Doran’s Aria Press at the Diamond seminar. All three drew large crowds, indicating that this joining of forces among self-publishers should keep getting them the attention they deserve.

Recommended Residing

Hepcats is published just about whenever Martin Wagner can afford to (which should be about five times a year) by Double Diamond Press. Copies of the first ten issues, except for #6 and #7, can be ordered from Double Diamond Press, 9300 Northgate Blvd, #116 Austin,TX 78758-6105 for $3.25 each. Subscriptions can also be bought for the following rates: 6 issues – $13.50, 9 issues – $20.25, 15 issues – $33.75.

Double Diamond also publishes Sam Hurt‘s Eyebeam, which collects comic strips from The Daily Texan. Four issues have been published, and new issues appear on a quarterly schedule. A set of the first four can be bought for $15, and a six-issue subscription can be ordered for $14.95 from Double Diamond at the above address.

There is also a whole group of new self-published artists with material out. They include the following:

Bone is published by Jeff Smith’s Cartoon Books. Seven issues have appeared so far. Bone is a light-hearted black-and-white, fantasy adventure comic that has been recommended by such big-names as Will Eisner, Dave Sim, Stan Sakai, and Peter David.

A Distant Soil is published by Colleen Doran’s Aria Press. Colleen is well-known for her work on Sandman and Anne Rice’s The Master of Rampling Gate. A Distant Soil is a black-and-white fantasy comic published bi-monthly. An eight-issue subscription is available for $12.50 from Aria Press 12638-28 Jefferson Ave, Suite 173, Newport News,VA 23602-4316.

Nestrobber is published by Jo Duffy and Maya Sakamoto from Blue Sky Blue. Sakamoto is a popular Japanese artist, and Jo Duffy is known for her work on such comics as Akira, Star Wars, Fallen Angels, Wolverine, and Creepy, as well as various back-up stories in A Distant Soil. An eight-page preview of Nestrobber has appeared in Dark Horse Presents #67, and new issues of the regular series should appear on a bi-monthly schedule.

Peter Laird, half of the team that created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, has started a fund to help self-published artists. Laird contributed one million dollars, and will act as the sole trustee of the foundation. Anyone interested in receiving aid for their self-publishing venture can contact  the Xeric Foundation at Suite 214, 315  Pleasant St., Northampton, MA  01060 for a brochure and application.

1 Comment

  • E
    Thank you so much for revisiting these old columns, Mr. Palmer. I read your columns over and over (and over!) again at the age of 12 or so and they led to great discoveries, many of which have stayed in my head/heart, including (perhaps, especially) Hepcats, the great unfinished symphony of the early 90s indie self-published renaissance. I recently picked up an original Hepcats page on Ebay, for a song. I was glad to have the artwork, to see how much effort went into just one page of the thing, but was a bit sad at the same time that the non-existent market for the work reflects how little known the comic is... and probably forever will be. Issue 11 was truly indie comics at its weirdest and grandest best: a young creator just GOING FOR IT. Looking forward to the rest of your commentaries.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.