Free Call

I wanted to introduce or re-introduce myself and Wow Cool to you. I don’t find that an easy thing to do. Wow Cool has had a long and varied history since it was founded by myself and the cartoonists Tom Hart and Sam Henderson in a Manhattan dorm room in 1988.

It all started with School of Visual Arts off-campus publication Tuna Casserole, which was edited by the three of us, and featured many of the young artists that were around New York in the late eighties, and many others… known and unknown. Tuna Casserole published art by illustrator Jose Ortega, political cartoonists Zapiro and Seth Tobocman, Funny Garbage founders Peter Girardi and Chris Cappuozzo, Children’s book illustrator Michael Rex, Gary Panter, Mark Martin, Paul Mavrides, Michael Kupperman, and San Francisco bike courier art legend Chris Hsiang.

It turned into something more than a small-press comic publishing project when Steven Cerio came up to me at a gallery opening and asked if Wow Cool would publish a book and tape set he’d created with Alex Ross (not the superhero artist and not the New Yorker writer… as far as we know) Suddenly we were a record label. OK a tape label. Within the next year I had joined the art/video/performance/music group Brown Cuts Neighbors and had released a half dozen cassettes and my first seven inch record.

Jump to 1992. I’d moved to Northampton, Mass. to work as a designer and editor for Kevin Eastman’s Tundra Publishing and was sharing a studio with Al Columbia. I was very fortunate to work on book projects with Michael Kaluta and Neil Gaiman and so many other talented people. I was at Comic Con that year under my own steam. Ed Brubaker–then, a budding cartoonist–introduced me to Joshua Petrin, the zine buyer for Rory Root’s Comic Relief. Wow Cool suddenly grew a new head and a new business model. It’s first, really. In February 1993 Wow Cool officially moved to the Bay Area and became a distributor, publisher and mail order house for mini comix, punk zines and all other manner of DIY ephemera. It was the time of the great zine explosion; as seen on CNN, the New York Times, Sassy and elsewhere. And we were the guys to go to for Cometbus, Dishwwasher, Scam, Optic Nerve, Simon Gane’s Arnie, Doris, Too Much Coffee Man, minicomics by Jim Woodring and Scott McCloud and hundreds of other stapled pieces of xeroxed paper. In this peak period Wow Cool published it’s first ‘proper comics’, including Sam Henderson’s Oh That Monroe, Scott McCloud’s Five Little Comics and Steven Cerio’s PIE. There was also a program that we launched with a long lost major comic book distributor to distribute small press comics and zines to the direct market. These releases included a controversial minicomic by Danny Hellman and some very early work by the hyper-talented David D’Andrea.

Somewhere in there, when things got really tight, I became art director for Fantagraphics and spent 17 wet months in Seattle. I art directed Kim Thompson’s Zero Zero anthology, color separated many Dan Clowes and Chris Ware projects and finished out my stay by co-editing and designing Robert Williams’ Malicious Resplendence book and the last four volumes in the Vaughn Bodé Library. Not too bad.

And then at some point in the late ’90s, back in Oakland, after a few shakeups we managed to get through, the warehouse flooded (twice), I got beaten up a block from our warehouse, a good friend got mugged right outside the warehouse, my bike got stolen and I had had enough. I tore off back to the east coast and didn’t think seriously about Wow Cool again for a few years.

I reconnected with Steven Cerio and Brown Cuts Neighbors and spent five years concentrating on making music and video. Focus shifted from Wow Cool, the publisher, to DeptEx–The Department of Experimental Services–a multimedia collective that had grown around the people in Brown Cuts Neighbors in Schenectady, New York. We produced dozens of television shows, played scores of unique gigs and reached our most productive creative height since the early explosion of output in 1990.

Everything came to a crushing halt on August 11, 2002.

On that day, I was told that James Kopta, one of the prime movers in Wow Cool, DeptEx, Brown Cuts Neighbors and so much more, had died in a tragic drowning accident. The same week that we had received copies of our latest work, a Screamers tribute compilation on which we covered “I am A Mensch”. It was time to move on again. I could not face continuing with any of it in New York. I moved to Tennessee, became the art director for martial arts equipment manufacturer Tiger Claw, and eventually realized that Wow Cool was going to have to come back.

After years of part-time, late night and weekend preparation, and a year of full-time work, Wow Cool was ready to be reborn, here in the later part of 2010. Most of the old gang is here… the artists and musicians that have been at the heart of whatever this movement is. Most of them from upstate New York, a few, like Bath, England’s Simon Gane, from a bit farther away.

So, here we are. We have a lot to share with you.

–Marc Arsenault

A partial list of releases by Wow Cool is available on this site.

(this page is a work in progress)

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