Dylan Williams (1970 - 2011)
The first time I saw Dylan Williams was at a bay area comics show in the early '90s. He was peddling minicomics at the Puppy Toss co-op booth, sporting cargo pants and blond dreadlocks, and a forest-green T-shirt emblazoned with the "Puppy Toss" logo and its iconic dead puppy. As I watched him and his green-clad teammates truckin' around the Dealers Room, schmoozing folks and doing business, it occurred to me that this was a new breed of comics person. Not like the mainstream freelancers, nor the lone self-publishers, but a weird combination of counterculture spirit and business acumen. He and his pals were dressed like self-publishers, but they wore MATCHING SHIRTS. And sold OTHER PEOPLE'S MINICOMICS. Their unified approach earned them a higher profile than the rest of the small-pressers, but what did they get out of it?
Years later, a mutual friend took me to visit Dylan at his home in Portland, and I recognized him from his Puppy Toss days. But now his hair was cropped short, he dressed "business casual," and he occupied a nice apartment in a downtown high-rise. Had he sold out? No, I discovered that beneath that shell of respectability he remained a hardcore comics evangelist: the Bruce Wayne of turning-you-on-to-obscure-cartoonists. While we perused his art collection (Jesse Marsh pages?! Alex Toth?), he rhapsodized about the under-appreciated genius of Mort Meskin.
Through our mutual affinity for various artists, I got to know Dylan better over the years, and a pattern emerged. He'd load me up with with photocopies of rare art by some obscure genius, I'd offer him money in exchange, and he'd grimace and purse his lips in the patented Dylan Williams squint/frown/grin, waving me away like an uncle refusing thanks after slipping you extra cash for the prom. How much of the rare, out-of-print art sitting on my shelves came from Dylan's giftings? Off the top of my head, I recall samples by Lyonel Feininger, Emil Gershwin, Ogden Whitney, Jesse Marsh, Mort Meskin, Austin Briggs, Noel Sickles, Fred Guardineer, '50s Jack Kirby, Jorge Zaffino, Bud Blake, Gluyas Williams... works spanning a century, from diverse corners of the medium, all generously photocopied and passed around by Portland's own Johnny Comicseed. Around this time, he also founded Spark Plug Comics, in order to promote obscure new treasures by publishing them outright. Later, with Tim Goodyear, he founded Bad Apple, a book & DVD shop with the highest quality-to-crap ratio I've ever seen. (Imagine a tiny Borders with nothing but cool stuff -- the bookstore version of licking the frosting out of an Oreo.) And between everything else, he drew his own comics (which he was brave enough to send to Toth now and then for advice and pummelings), managed a couple of websites devoted to underrated cartoonists, tracked down and interviewed old pro's and their relatives, wrote criticism (including a post-mortem appreciation of Zaffino, who also passed away in his early forties), hosted art shows, and more. I wasn't kidding about the Bruce Wayne comparison.
As I mused earlier: what did he get out of these efforts? Here's Dylan's answer, from an interview he gave last year: "Things I love: Dealing with lots of people. Selling distro books to people. Publishing good comics, especially ones that other people wouldn't publish. Not having to work for a shitty big company. Sending books out to people who order them. Going to Zine shows. Working with other publishers. Working with young/new comix people. ... I'd have to say my favorite part is doing/distroing weird ass comix." Notice how often the word "people" turns up in his reasons. Unlike the many misanthropic hermits of the comics field, Dylan understood that comics are really for and about people -- that people are what give comics value. Like he said elsewhere in that interview: "Encouraging people is like the greatest feeling in the world." And he did encourage people. One blogger recalls: "He was able to say ...the things I needed to hear in a way that I actually heard them. [H]is support and encouragement changed my life."
So Dylan will be missed. But I hate that phrase, with its passive remove, so let me replace it with "I will miss Dylan." I'll miss him later, when I recall his wry complaints about the system, or his chuckled quotations of Toth, or his exuberant praise for this or that forgotten genius, and I miss him now.