20 Years Ago: Litmus Test 13

In October of 1996, I put out the first issue of my title Litmus Test. It was my early place to explore comics and try out ideas. Eventually, I wanted to create longer works and move away from photocopied minis. So in February of 2004, I put out my final issue of Litmus Test, issue 13.

Since it was the final issue and maybe the last time I’d be hand-assembling my own books, I got a unique paper for the cover. I can’t remember the actual plant, but the paper has cross sections of flowers embedded in the fibers. This is a recent picture and the paper is old and faded now, but you get the idea.

The issue contained three stories.

First, it had the third and final installment of “Kit Kaleidoscope ands the Mermaid in the Jar.” I still really like this page. Those taxidermy creations were fun to draw.

The second story was my adaption of the Langston Hughes poem “The Weary Blues.” I had never adapted a poem before and I felt really clever for mirroring Hughes’s rhyming couplets visually.

The third and final piece was a little autobiographical work about my wife and me. This was the second piece about our relationship, the first being “Cornflakes in the Bedsheets” which was published in True Porn. This story, “Choosing,” focused on the friction between being an artist and a partner.

And that was it. I took copies of this book to The Alternative Press Expo that year (you can read more of a history of the APE here with photos), which was also in February (I tended to put out an issue of Litmus Test in time for the APE). According to my records (yes, I still have them), I sold eighteen copies of Litmus Test 13 and traded/gave away six more. At the time, this was the most copies of any mini I had ever sold at once. And I had a promise to be published in a new anthology. It felt like a moment that my comics “career” might be starting to take off. But no. The editor of the anthology stopped talking with me and at the next APE in 2005 I sold much less than at the one in 2004. But I returned to the APE in 2007 and did much better.

This is my pregnant wife at my table at the APE in 2004.

And that’s basically how things went until 2013. I stopped doing conventions regularly then. One reason was that I was a new parent. Another reason was that the APE was petering out. Another was my excitement about Carnivale and the lack of response that the book received. The magical thinking that made me believe that the time and expense of doing cons was worth it had been knocked out of me. That said, I still love going to cons and finding new work. It’s just not a yearly thing for me anymore.

Lark Pien talking with the late Rory Root of Comic Relief as Jeffrey Brown looks on.

So for me, Litmus Test 13 is a emblem of a time of youthful hope, when I was still going out there and hawking my minis. I still remember that feeling of the first morning of a con, wheeling my red radio flyer full of boxes down the hall, seeing all the tables being set up, catching glimpses of artists I liked, feeling exhilarated and nervous, feeling that I was among my people and also that I had nothing in common with any of them. And then the doors would open, and I would sit or stand there, hoping to catch someone’s eye. And I would constantly agonize about leaving my table so I could walk the floor and see all the new work out there. And eventually, it would be over. I would feel the disappointment of not having sold as much as I had hoped, of not connecting to as many fellow artists as I wished, but returning with a haul of books to read and a feeling of exhilaration about the potential of the comics art form. I miss it but am also glad that it’s over. At least until I attend another con…

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