"I guess it all started when Joe Lansdale approached me in September of '93 about doing Weird Business. We started talking about doing this massive book, but it turned out to be a lot more massive than we expected."
That's Mojo Press managing editor Richard Klaw speaking about their ground-breaking second project, the 400-plus page Weird Business. Released just over a year ago, Weird Business went on to win an Eisner Award and has thus far sold very well with virtually no advance publicity.
On top of that, Klaw and Mojo Press publisher Ben Ostrander have since released a steady tide of astonishingly well-produced volumes, ranging from the slim comic anthology of the Wild West Show to their recent bells-and-whistles 30th anniversary reissue of Michael Moorcock's seminal short novel Behold the Man.
Small press publishing is nothing new, and certainly not in Austin, but Mojo Press has gone the game one better by consistently issuing releases that not only look great but also manage to be the kind of books you come back to over and over again. For the record, I've already devoured the stunning Weird Business several times over, eagerly shoving into the faces of startled friends with a hurried "Man, you've got to check this out" and loaning it out like I was some bizarrely overzealous branch of the Austin Public Library. "Due date? We don't need no stinkin' due date!"
"As Weird Business progressed," says Klaw, "we knew we needed somebody to publish the book, and finally I told Joe that I knew someone who might be interested and who had the money to do it. That was Ben. I pitched it to him and he agreed that it sounded like a really great idea. And so Mojo was formed in October of 1994. That's how it came to be: We were stupid enough to spend the money on this big book."
Before you begin scratching your head and wondering how these two -- the gangly, hyper-talkative Klaw (grandson of the late Irving Klaw, famed photographer of pin-up beauty Bettie Page) and Ostrander, who looks more or less like your good neighbor Sam and speaks with measured surety on everything from maddeningly arcane comic book trivia to the recent novels of Elmer Kelton -- came to create one of the most successful small press houses in the business, let's go back a bit.
Both men come from publishing backgrounds, albeit none so interesting as the one in which they're currently involved. Klaw toiled for years in the salt mines of corporate monolith Barnes & Noble satellite BookStop, where he was almost single-handedly responsible for picking up small press volumes that would otherwise go unnoticed by the chain. After that he moved on to local imprint Blackbird Comics, as well as a stint at Adventures in Crime and Space bookstore.
And Ostrander? "I had worked at Metagaming, which was where Steve Jackson [special friend to the United States Secret Service and founder of Steve Jackson Games] also started out. I had published games there and done a lot of work of that nature, more or less."
Unlike most publishing firms, Mojo has no central offices, at least not yet. The entire business is run out of Klaw and Ostrander's houses, with spare bedrooms set up as more or less permanent offices. "We're unusual in that there's only two of us," offers Ostrander. "People meet us and they go `You're Mojo Press?!,' you know? We do these books that are so vicious. Every book we do is a big deal -- that is, we do bigger books than most small presses, the quality's better, etcetera, so people tend to look at us and wonder where our staff is. And we don't have one."
It may not be Knopf or Simon & Schuster, but it is a full-time job: The two work every day on Mojo, slinging calls back and forth between the two houses and actively working on several different projects at any given time. "There's a lot of overlap with what we do," remarks Klaw, "but there's definite roles that are divided. Ben deals with all the printers, which I never do. Anything that deals with money -- that's Ben's problem, and I deal with the actual creators, for the most part. I'm the one that calls them on the phone, I'm the one that gets the work in, and I'm the one who of course edits all the stories."
"In some ways, we're busier than the editors at the big companies," says Ostrander, "because we don't have a staff to deal with all the little details for us. Putting out a book, we're the ones who have to worry where the copyrights are, and all that sort of stuff. We often hire art directors, though. Locally. They design the logo, get the page numbers right, and so on, but the two of us take care of pretty much everything else."
Thus far, Mojo has released seven titles, ranging from their first project (which was actually carried over from Klaw's days at Blackbird), the horror-comic anthology Creature Features, to the recent Big Bigfoot Book and their expansive Saga of Blueberry: Confederate Gold, a compilation of the famous Western comics by legends Charlier and Moebius.
It's still Weird Business that's the bloody little feather in their cap. At its inception, no one had ever attempted to combine the greatest horror authors and comic artists into one creepy package. Nay-sayers were abundant, thinking in part that people wouldn't go in for what is essentially a mammoth hardcover horror comic. Ignoring the negative comments, Klaw and co-author/Nacogdoches resident/living legend Joe R. Lansdale (who, by the way, came up with the name Mojo Press, his own self) issued invitations to artists and writers in the genre, and were almost overwhelmed by the immediate response they received. With original stories from Poppy Z. Brite, Charles de Lint, Nancy Collins, Howard Waldrop, F. Paul Wilson, and the late, great Robert Bloch, the book is a veritable chronicle of who's who in the horror genre. And with top-flight artists ranging from Miran Kim, Omaha Perez, John Bergin, and John Lucas... well, let's just say the fanboys had a field day on this one.
But I'm cheerleading aren't I? Sorry. Hard not to. Back to our small press debate already in progress:
"The problem with small press is that it's both good and bad." says Klaw. "People look at us and say, `What kind of stuff do you publish?' and the answer is `Pretty much what we want.' And they just look at you and say `Huh? What's that mean?' They don't always get it."
Ostrander agrees. "I think a lot of small press companies screw up because once they have a book or two, they immediately get a big staff and then go under. They lose sight of the fact that you have to put out good books, stuff that people read and enjoy. They get a couple of books under their belt and all of a sudden they think they're Warner, and you can't do that."
Which, of course, is the antithesis of Mojo. Already scheduled for publication this season are three new volumes including a second Blueberry volume, Broken Nose, and the long-awaited Lansdale book, Atomic Chili: The Illustrated Joe R. Lansdale, which will include all of the author's comic adaptations and other related art, plus a pair of as-yet-unseen gems, Pilots and The Job. Top that off with Dead Heat, the debut novel from horror author Del Stone ("it's a zombie-biker kinda thing" Ostrander says), and it's obvious that this fledgling Austin operation is growing faster than the Amazing Colossal Man. Which is good for us. Trust me.
As Ostrander says, "We're doing books that if we walked into a bookstore and saw them, we'd buy one, we'd need to have it. Couldn't live without it. No way."