Monday, April 9, 2012

The Man Behind Austin's Domy Books

                                               (Or, in this case, yes: The man in front of it.)  

                                         PHOTO BY CASEY JAMES WILSON


If what you really want is sequential art featuring super-powered people dressed in various forms of Spandex and generally beating the super-powered shit out of one another, then you should go to Austin Books & Comics ~ because Austin Books & Comics is the best place in all of Texas, and one of the best in the whole country, to assuage your jones for the latest adventures of the Fantastic Four and Green Lantern and Iron Man and the Runaways and that whole crowd. And only because the store is so well managed, so thoughtfully designed to attract and welcome, as if in spite of the depths of its geekery, will you also find a sweet array of non-superhero and indie titles (alternative comics, right?) and thick volumes of collected illustration and so on, gladly pointed out to you by the helpful staff. It's a terrific place, Austin Books & Comics.


If you're looking for just a few of those alternative comics, and you don't give a mutated rat's ass about Captain Steroid-Man Versus The Nefarious Nematode or whatever; and maybe you also want to have your eyes expanded and your mind blown by oversized volumes featuring the wildest street styles or the rarified conceptual stuff, by handstitched zines and skater rags and faux-brow periodicals, by the sort of slick graphic-design compilations and photographic anthologies that would give the collective body of the AIGA a raging hard-on; and, hell, you'd actually enjoy a display or two of Dunnies and Labbits and miniature Gundams; and, sure, you'd totally love a gallery of original art right there in the same store?


That's where, as The Austin Chronicle put it when they awarded Domy the ‘Most Dangerous Store for Graphic Design Addicts’ award in their 2009 Best of Austin issue, "Russell Etchen is your towering ginger guide to much of what's best about having eyes and the knack for pattern recognition."

Well, yes: Etchen is the manager of the store, after all. He started it in Austin after he and some friends were successful with the first Domy Books in Houston. He started the store; he stocks it well; he hires good people; he schedules the readings and the presentations and the exhibitions in the big one-room gallery; he makes connections with artists and publishers around the world and brings his favorites and their wares into the impressive Eastside venue. And he is towering ~ well, he's 6' 4" ~ and he is gingery.

But, like, what's his story?

"I was brought up in a very Christian home,” says Etchen.

[He's sitting in Domy's back room where, months before, a life-size and disturbingly realistic model of the murder scene of Mary Kelly ~ Jack the Ripper's final victim ~ was on display, the body having been rendered in latex and placed upon painstakingly recreated furniture (with everything, even the desecrated flesh, in shades of gray: like the photo on which the scene was based) by the proprietor's friend, sculptor David N. Allen.]

"This was in the suburbs of Houston ~ in Clear Lake, near NASA," says Etchen. "Everything I was allowed to listen to also had to have roots in Christianity, except what my parents listened to ~ which was ‘50s pop music and ‘70s psychedelic records and things like that, from before they were Christian. Otherwise, I had no reference for culture ~ or current events, even. My parents and I, we had no common interests, except for talking about God. And, uh, I never really got down with that program.

"And then, around age 12, my dad got me a subscription to Mad magazine. Which was against everything he brought me up with. It was almost like my dad was secretly trying to subvert me ~ without my mom knowing or something? ~ even though he could only go so far. And from there I got into comicbooks, which were secular. But comicbooks were fine, and popular music was not. The Simpsons were not. There were a lot of very weird inconsistencies in what I was allowed to do or not do.

"Then, when I was 15, I met these kids from Chicago, twin brothers. We were in an office supply store with our moms, getting ready for the sophomore year of high school, and we both had on the same cartoon T-shirt ~ it was for a comicbook called Bone by Jeff Smith. So we were these 15-year-olds in the Office Depot, and I spotted the shirt that I was wearing, and without hesitation I went up to this kid and I was like, "You know about this?" Because this was in '93, I think, and Jeff Smith had just begun, was maybe six or eight issues into it? And me and the brothers became immediate friends.

"So I had this, like, twin crew. They'd been brought up in the suburbs, too ~ very Catholic. But the difference is that their dad would take them into Chicago to go to Quimby's Queer Store, so they got exposed to many comics very early on. So, the first day I'm hanging out with them, they're showing me Dan Clowes's Eightball, they're showing me the original Xerox copies of Optic Nerve, they're showing me John Porcellino's King-Cat. And I was hooked. I dropped all superhero comics and got completely into alternative comics.

"And with these two guys, who ended up moving away about a year later, we managed to put out a whole bunch of stuff. We did an anthology comic called Velvet that was terrible. I made zines about dancing; they made zines about the stories they wanted to tell. And, for like a year and a half, we didn't have any friends outside of our crew. We'd just go and hang out all night at the Kinko's nearby and scam the shit out of them. We'd walk around ~ we weren't doing drugs, we weren't drinking beers, we weren't even smoking cigarettes ~ we were just straight nerds. None of us had girlfriends; none of us could talk to girls. We just sat around and listened to college radio and the Velvet Underground. And we made videos, these weird documentaries that we made about ourselves, just shot them in their room, making shit up, making stories up.

"And so I completely immersed myself into zine culture. Because I needed that. All my social skills, everything that I learned about being friends with people, came out of writing letters. Every day I'd come home from high school and I'd look at the mailbox and there'd be four or five zines waiting for me. And I'd send mine out in trade. There was a magazine about zines, called Factsheet Five. And Porcellino used to run a distro called Spit and a Half, selling minicomics and zines from his house. And at one point he was distributing our zine, and I discovered all sorts of people because of Spit and a Half. That's how I discovered Ron Rege, how I discovered a guy called Al Burian, who's been writing this book called Burn Collector for years. My whole world was opened up because of zines.

"And then I found punk rock and got really involved in music for a long time. Me and my friends ran a booking collective in Houston called Hands Up, and that lasted for four or five years ~ and we brought hundreds and hundreds of shows to Houston that weren't coming before. And then I got burned out on that and got a real job and finished school. I'd kind of fallen out of self-publishing for a few years, had no real desire to share what I was thinking about with anyone. And I decided that if I was ever gonna do that again, I'd only do it for my friends ~ because your friends are the only ones who care about it anyway, so you might as well just stick to what you know."

[At this point ~ and you may think that your reporter is pulling your leg; you may suspect this is some sort of orchestrated, Paul Auster-like coincidence of plot; but, no, it's true, this is exactly what happened ~ David Allen, the sculptor, walks into the back room with two cold bottles of Stella Artois: It's a surprise! Etchen introduces us, and there's much cheerful huzzah and hands being shaken and fists being bumped all around. Allen takes a nearby chair, Etchen and he crack open their crispy Stellas, and the three of us get to talking about the Mary Kelly piece and about Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell and about the genius of Alan Moore in general, and about plans for future projects. And then Allen leaves, and it's just me and Etchen again, and it's time to ask about Domy itself.]

"I worked a regular job in Houston for three years," says Etchen. "And then, my girlfriend at the time was working for Magda Sayeg, who's the wife of Dan Fergus, who owns Domy. Magda had a store called Raye, and I was hanging out there a lot ~ and at Brasil, the cafe that Dan also owns. And one day Dan was like, 'Look, how can I get you to work here? I have this extra space, and I don't really know what I want to do with it. I know how the food industry works, but I don't know retail.' And I said, 'I don't know how business works, but I know what I'd stock.'

"I could see the whole store in my head. And I knew all the places to go to get the stuff, because I'd been sitting on the information since I was 15 ~ the things I was accumulating, the knowledge I was gathering, I was like a sponge. And I couldn't really share it with anybody, either ~ because, out of context, it's just a bunch of nerdy stuff that very few people care about. But when you can actually put it in their hands and talk to them about it, it totally changes everything.

"I think about those first few moments in your adolescence, when that first thing clicks, the first time somebody does something, introduces you to something ~ whether it's a record store employee or you see something in the back of Spin magazine. Whatever that moment is, where, suddenly, your world opens up a little bit and you're just blown away. Like, 'Oh my God, I didn't know this was out there!' Those moments are so sacred to me, and I wanted to replicate that experience for other people. I wanted to get kids into the store, but also have a place that was gonna appeal to a hardened, jaded consumer or art collector, a person who's seen it all and done it all and is kind of looking for other things.

"So, along with Patrick Phipps, who also runs the Menil bookstore, and my friend Seth and the owner, Dan, the four of us opened the Houston store in four months. And we just celebrated the four-year anniversary on April Fools' Day. And this year, this shop is coming up on two years in June ~ June seventh. And we're doing great. We're not raking it in, some months are better than others ~ but we're paying all our bills, we get a lot of great artists in here, and a community is really developing around the place."

[Congratulations are offered there in the back room, where the ghost of the latex model of the last woman who was killed by a surgically skilled maniac in London in 1888 might still haunt anyone who saw last year’s grisly circa-Halloween installation. And Russell Etchen, the tall ginger proprietor in jeans and an untucked button-down, grins ~ because the store's success is no small matter to him. Because, to him, the store is … what?]

"Domy Books is a place where I can share all the things that I'm obsessed with," says Etchen. "Even if I'm no longer interested in some of them. I had my moment with them, and it's done, and I can talk about it. There are some things that I'm interested in that I don’t share here, because I'm still exploring them for myself. But, yeah, it all pretty much goes back to Mad magazine for me. Cartooning, comicbooks, and punk rock. I will forever call myself a punk; I will forever claim that ~ because that's how I feel. Because being a punk isn’t about fucking shit up; it's about, you know, being open and willing to try things out that you wouldn't normally try."

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