Whenever one thinks of the “Do-It-Yourself” aesthetic applied to art, it is usually indie rock that comes to mind. It is easy to forget that this independent-minded principle applies to other art forms as well. One of the most notable manifestations of this attitude has been with small-press comic publishing, which is alive and well in Central Ohio. Within the past year, our part of the Buckeye State has seen the rise of Nix Comics Quarterly, the brainchild of writer-publisher Ken Eppstein.
Self-described by Eppstein as, “an open submission comic book/magazine with a focus on horror, humor and garage-punk themed stories,” Nix Comics Quarterly is certainly a welcomed addition to the local arts scene. While the 40-year-old mogul takes this project very seriously, the tone of his stories do not. Mixing horrifying tales with humor, social commentary, and hip musical references, Nix harkens back to the glory days of EC Comics, coming off as an updated combination of Tales from the Crypt, Shock Suspense Stories, and even early Mad Magazine. While detractors lament that Nix is little more than a rip-off of these classic works, their claims are cynical and unfounded. If anything, Ken Eppstein is preserving the legacy of the likes of William Gaines and Albert Feldstein by bringing their edgy storytelling into modern times.
To date, Nix Comics Quarterly has published three issues, with the most recent that hit the streets at the start of September.In keeping with the whole horror and garage rock aesthetic, the feature story is “The Devil’s Record Collection,” a Faustian tale where Beelzebub bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Rolling Stone, Brian Jones. Also on board are two recurring features, The Priest and Bus Stop Ned. The former, illustrated by Jack Kirby disciple Michael Neno, tells the ongoing saga of a monster-hunting clergyman who is part Abraham Van Helsing and part Rudy “Question Mark” Martinez. Bus Stop Ned, on the other hand, provides levity in otherwise dark proceedings. With each installment, a clueless (but basically harmless) simpleton who resembles NFL great Dick Butkus channels unbelievable dialogue actually overheard at bus stops.
By now, you have probably concluded that Nix Comics Quarterly is a pretty bizarre hodgepodge, and you would not be wrong. That is actually a virtue. What, then, possesses Ken Eppstein to publish such unusual fare?
“I can’t say that there’s one thing,” replied Eppstein, “It was something that’s been kicking around in my head for years and years and years. In my previous business, selling records—collectable vinyl, that kind of thing—wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I had gotten tired of spending my weekends at garage sales and looking at records as a price tag instead of whether or not it was a cool artist. I put that business to bed and instead of viewing it as a sad thing, I viewed it as an opportunity to sell off that merchandise and start something new and creative and fresh to me. It just kind of happened, you know?”
Certainly, there had to be an artistic inspiration. Eppstein acknowledged that there was, and elaborated on his personal muses.
“At the very top, what I would like to be ultimately is a Bill Gaines or a Stan Lee type. I would like to be not only somebody doing the creative stuff, but I also see the benefit of gathering that bullpen of talent and collaborating and the greatness that can be achieved when you have a bunch of artists together who are friends and friendly rivals and the whole aesthetic that comes from it—that evolution of ideas. As far as actual writers and artists go, I’m a kid of the ‘eighties. What I was reading was Claremont and Byrne’s X Men and Byrne’s Fantastic Four. When I had access to independent stuff it was Matt Wagner, of course, from the perspective of the creator-owned and independent publisher.”
Having an open-submissions policy has allowed Ken Eppstein to gather some considerable local talent. While Eppstein handles the lion’s share of the writing, he has collaborated with a number of area illustrators, including the aforementioned Michael Neno, Darren Merinuk, Glen Ostrander, and that trash culture Renaissance man, Bob Ray Starker. All have very diverse but complimentary styles that bring the edgy nature of Ken Eppstein’s writing to life and add a certain hip charm rooted in punkish and garage-y rock music.
Eppstein takes great pride in this connection and explained, “For me, I think that a good comic book should be like a good rock album. To me, a good rock album is The Kinks’ first album or The Cramps’ Bad Music for Bad People. I want short and succinct stories that are really short and twisted fables, not unlike the songs that those bands wrote. That’s what I want to do. I’m one of those kinds of guys who would have been in a rock band if he ever learned how to keep rhythm.”
Eppstein also sees the parallels between comic publishing and indie rock, especially the “Do-It-Yourself” aesthetic. “You have to keep that level of accessibility to it,” he opined. “When you look at what the large companies are doing—Marvel and DC—I don’t know that there’s that connection where people go into the comic book store, pick it up and think, ‘Wow, I could do this.’ I think that’s an important aspect of comic books. I think that’s an important aspect of rock music. Without that, you have attrition. You’re not refilling the ranks with people who could do new stuff.”
Ken Eppstein has certainly drawn inspiration from the greats and has added himself to those new ranks. “Third time’s a charm,” bragged the publisher on the Nix Comics’ website. Let us hope that those clichéd words contain gems of truth and that Mr. Eppstein can live his dream of being the next Bill Gaines or Stan Lee. Even if he doesn’t, Nix Comics Quarterly is a proud achievement that deserves a place in any comic fan’s collection.