Under a vintage Williamsburg sign advertising Italian, French, and Sicilian breads, Gabe Fowler’s gluten-free Desert Island Comics (540 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-388-5087, desertislandbrooklyn.com) has been a heady source of colorful graphic wonderment since 2008. Alongside DC’s and Marvel’s latest high concepts, hot-selling titles from Daniel Clowes (Patience), BoJack Horseman lead illustrator Lisa Hanawalt, and Simon Hanselmann (Megahex) serve as gateway material for much more obscure and artistically challenging printed matter.
“I cast a pretty wide net for a small store,” says Fowler. “I have children’s books along with the freakiest art books you’ve ever seen. I’ve got mainstream comics and indie comics. They’re all important to me, because I like maximum diversity. It’s a comics store, but I also want to have extremely experimental work in there.” His inventory ranges from dollar Archie Comics and $30 graphic novels to rarities like Raw magazine No. 1 for a couple hundred dollars.
Fowler was working as an art handler for David Zwirner Gallery when he decided to open a comics store. The shop’s name suggests the cream of the crop, and Fowler translates aesthetic stumpers like “What makes something a comic as opposed to an artwork?” into a living by concentrating on artists who are, as he says, “riding that edge.”
It turns out that comics, like food, tend to be seasonal. Asked what’s new and great, the consignment-friendly proprietor says, “My forte is extremely elusive stuff, so it depends on what’s happening with the more obscure publishers.” Desert Island has become a rare local source for booklets from artists and publishers working with the au courant Risograph printing system, a digital duplicator that delivers warm yet inexpensive analog-quality results. Publishers like Tiny Splendor, Colour Code, and London’s Breakdown Press are working this particular cusp of comics and art books.
In Marseille, France, Pakito Bolino’s Le Dernier Cri is producing handmade, screen-printed, small-edition art books crammed with imagery that will curl your toes. “I get a mother lode of stuff from him once or twice a year,” Fowler says. “That draws a little heat whenever it happens, because I’m the only guy in New York selling that stuff,” which goes for between $15 and $150 at Desert Island.
Fowler gets a kick out of blurring the distinction between comics and art by selling them under the same roof. The same could be said for the material in Smoke Signal, a semi-quarterly, 10,000-copy newsprint anthology Fowler publishes as a labor of love. “I want to make something good enough that I would buy it — but give it away for free,” he says. The latest Signal contains work from Mad magazine pioneer Will Elder, indie star Dash Shaw, and little-known Montana underground comix master Jay Rummel, among a lot of other great art.
Fowler also champions underrepresented creators by producing the Comic Arts Brooklyn festival, which will occupy Williamsburg’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church once again this November. This smaller and weirder alternative to the big costume-party conventions is free to the public and features some 115 exhibitors winnowed down from five times as many applicants. Buzzing with the seriousness of artists at work and children at play, the annual convocation of indie comics legends, newly discovered whiz kids, and the print freaks who love them most resembles an explosively supersized version of Desert Island Comics itself.