On a recent chilly afternoon, comic-book artist Tom Kaczynski sat in the attic studio of his south Minneapolis home, peering out the window.

"The biggest reason why cartoonists stop being cartoonists," he said, "is because they can't afford it."

Kaczynski, 39, wants to change that gloomy narrative.

In the Twin Cities comics scene, he's known as an inquisitive writer/artist who describes his own work as a "philosophy in search of a thesis." One of his best pieces is a nine-panel page depicting the history of noise, starting with the Big Bang and ending with a guy listening to an iPod.

But lately he's been more concerned with other people's stories.

He's seeking to become a player in the national comic-book publishing scene. In September his tiny company, Uncivilized Books, released "The Voyeurs," a new 160-page graphic novel by Brooklyn-based cartoonist Gabrielle Bell, an indie comics star who the New Yorker called "a master of the exquisite detail."

In the next six months, Kaczynski will publish a slew of titles sure to make fans gush, including graphic novels by the acclaimed Kevin Huizenga and the European giant David B.

Previously, these artists mostly worked with Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics, which are basically the Marvel and DC of the non-superhero market.

This makes Kaczynski one of the most ambitious comics publishers operating in Minnesota. And he's doing it all from his cluttered attic studio.

The Uncivilized lair

Kaczynski's fortress of solitude is piled high with tools of the self-publishing trade: mounds of paper, staplers, a work bench, paper cutters, laserjet printers, an iMac. He made a name for himself by printing and assembling his own high-quality mini-comics. But for his first foray into nationwide publishing he surely couldn't do that himself. "The Voyeurs," with a print run of about 7,000, was printed and bound in China.

Michael Drivas, owner of Big Brain Comics in Minneapolis, has seen many start-ups crash and burn. He says Kaczynski has made all the right moves. "There's room in the marketplace for a publisher like him," Drivas said.

Kaczynski quit his ad agency job last year to take on publishing full-time. In his studio, he showed me a comic he made when he was 8 years old, back in Poland. On the back cover was a fake logo and a price tag.

"I guess I've always had a publishing instinct," he said with an accent.

He grew up behind the Iron Curtain reading Polish sci-fi comics. There were no translations of American superhero comics. His father was a member of Poland's Solidarity trade union, which helped spark the movement that would topple communist rule in Eastern Europe. Some of his colleagues were jailed, beaten, even killed. After his father was blacklisted, the family moved to western Germany and then to the United States, two years before the Berlin Wall fell.

Print is dead?

This weekend, Kaczynski is driving up the West Coast with Bell for the first leg of a book tour for "The Voyeurs." They're traveling in a rental car and staying with friends. There aren't a lot of perks in indie publishing. Still, Kaczynski says he's able to offer a higher royalty rate than big publishers. (Ironically, his own graphic novel, "Beta Testing the Apocalypse," will be published by Fantagraphics in January.)

Bell said Kaczynski's hands-on approach attracted her to Uncivilized. "The Voyeurs" is her take on the strange minutiae of relationships -- including her own failed love affair with filmmaker Michel Gondry.

"[Cartooning] is such a specific art form that it really needs a special handling," Bell said by phone from Berkeley. "So you really have to have a special understanding of what it means to be a cartoonist."

I asked Kaczynski about the Uncivilized name and its Neanderthal logo. "Everyone says print is going to be extinct," he said. "So I guess it comes from the idea that selling books these days is uncivilized. In a way, it's barbaric."

Like the rest of the book industry, he said comics will migrate to digital. But he wants to influence that dialogue, in whatever small way he can.

"You can't be a part of the conversation if you don't have a stake in the game," he said.


  • tom.horgen@startribune.com
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