kuš! is a Latvian publisher of š!, an English language comics anthology series, and single author minicomics. In addition to publishing, kuš! also supports the local Baltic comics scene by organizing related events and programs, which you can read more about below.
I first came across š! when I purchased the “female secrets” issue which was guest edited by Ryan Sands (of Youth in Decline). I was instantly drawn to the anthology’s wild aesthetic and loved how it featured artists from all over the world.
Fast forward a year or so – I’ve since discovered a lot of amazing cartoonists through š! (including a fair number of Canadians), had my own story included in an issue, and was lucky enough to meet both David Schilter and Sanita Muižniece, the creative team behind kuš!, in person. Earlier this summer, both David and Sanita stayed in my hometown for TCAF where they tabled at the festival and hosted an art exhibit. We managed to grab a bite to eat with fellow š! contributor, Michael Jordan, and had ourselves a little cultural exchange. Now, I’m pleased to present the following interview:
Note: Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
K: How long have you both been editors at kuš! and how did you get involved?
D: I moved to Latvia eight years ago and was confused not to find comics in this country. I thought I could try to change that and founded kuš!.
S: I joined kuš! in 2008. At first I was helping with translations, and later on in 2009, I joined in the editing too.
K: For readers new to kuš!, could you describe kuš! in three Latvian words – and perhaps explain in English for us Anglophones why you think they apply?
D&S: Too difficult to answer 🙂
K: I’ve noticed that many of the comics kuš! publishes have elliptical, surreal or dreamlike narratives. What do you think has influenced your preference for these types of stories?
D&S: Really interesting how you define our comics! Maybe those three words describe kuš! the best – the existence of kuš! itself sometimes feels surreal and dreamlike. The Lambiek comics store in The Netherlands lists our comics under “Absurdism,” which is fitting.
We just don’t want [the stories] to be too simple. We like being challenged, both in visuals and in content. We enjoy stories with a clear beginning and end but are happy when our contributors come up with stories that have parallel narratives and our readers want to re-read them and find new details that were not visible the first time. I guess we enjoy stories which encourage thinking a bit further. The best stories are usually those you still think about a long time after reading and can come up with new interpretations.
We also want to give a lot of freedom to the authors so that they can experiment with different ways of narration. How they tell their stories is completely up to them. The outcome you describe is unintentional.
K: What are your readers’ demographics like? Has this changed over the years? Which countries have the strongest demand for your publications?
D&S: According to Facebook statistics, 55 percent of our followers are women – mostly from Latvia, followed by the USA and then Italy. In terms of the books we distribute, our biggest “market” is the USA followed by Australia, China and Canada. It has changed a lot. At first, our books were only in Latvian. When we changed to English, our top-selling bookshops were in Germany and Spain. Once John Porcellino started to distribute us, we got much more interest in the US and since then, it has spread to different continents.
K: In addition to publishing comics, kuš! has collaborated with art institutions. Can you describe one such project?
D&S: Probably due to Latvia being such a tiny country, our small organization has cooperated with many large institutions on various projects from workshops and exhibitions to artist residencies. Quite often [we’ve partnered] with the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, the Latvian Art Academy, and also with the National Library of Latvia, among other arts organizations.
One project was with The Latvian National Museum of Art. Together, we invited artists from Latvia, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium to spend a week in the museum. Every artist got to pick a classical Latvian masterpiece and create a comic inspired by it.
K: Can you tell us more about your comic jams?
D&S: About once a month we meet for drink & draw sessions to read and create comics, make collective drawings and have an exchange about each others’ projects. Often, we try out new techniques. Recently, we’ve been drawing upside down with the left hand and not looking at the paper, which leads to very interesting results. The attendance varies from about 5-15 people. We don’t openly promote it and invite kuš! contributors and friends. Often we have international guests, so we’ve jammed together with Berliac, Simon H, Gary Baseman, the Psoriasis collective and Inés Estrada among many more. It’s always fun and inspiring. Last time, we did it in a small bar with a tiny aquarium with a huge fish called Ojars. Everybody loves him and he might make appearances in Latvian comics soon.
About Comics in Latvia
K: We talked about how comics are relatively new to Latvia and how there are not many translations of foreign comics. Has this created an environment in which readers are more open to the possibilities of the medium?
D&S: People here don’t know much about comics. There are certain preconceptions and those who haven’t seen kuš! mostly think of it as a medium for children or political satire/caricature. Recently, we learned that kuš! can be found in the children’s literature centre in the new building of the Latvian National Library. On top of that, our books are on the lowest shelves – within easy reach of young readers! On one hand it’s an honour that kuš!, and thus alternative comics, is being introduced to a younger generation, but on the other hand, we’re quite astonished and worried. We should probably suggest moving the books to the arts section.
Our biggest readership here is probably located in the contemporary art scene, which seems to recognize that comics as a medium is open to very different things. As there is no real comic tradition, it is easier to experiment. But for many others, we might be too “artsy” and they would like to read “normal/traditional” comics.
K: kuš! has been operating since 2007; how much do you think the local Latvian comics scene has changed over the past seven years? How would you like to see it develop in the future?
D&S: In our first issue, we only had one Latvian artist [ed: Anete Melece] who made the cover, not even a comic. Since then, it has developed a lot. Still, nobody calls themselves a comic artist here. They mostly only make comics if we invite them; otherwise they work on other art projects. It would be great if people would start drawing comics without being directly motivated by us.
The first Latvian “graphic novel” still seems far away. Even though the Art Academy started to offer illustration classes a couple of years ago, the comics and illustration scene in general still needs to constantly prove itself – not just to the general public but also to artists and art experts.
We would like to think that over the years, by regularly publishing š! anthologies, we have let a couple of artists and some readers discover comics as both an exciting medium they want to work in and as a vivid and lively community at the moment.
K: Do you find there is a growing interest from grant making organizations or at the grassroots level (like small press) to promote Northern or Eastern European comics and develop ties with other comics communities worldwide?
D&S: To us it seems that their interest goes up and down in waves and is connected to the current financial situation. In Latvia, we had to prove ourselves first. Once we put out our first seven issues, the local culture fund recognized our work and since then, has supported us, covering some of our printing costs. Still, we need to apply for each single issue and we never know if we can get support again. It would be nice to not rely on funding, but our comics are not commercial enough, and we don’t want to be more commercial.
Making ties internationally seems to happen naturally. If you like each other’s work, you somehow bond. And although the comic scenes in northern and eastern Europe vary from country to country, altogether it’s a very enthusiastic and lively scene interested in finding out what’s happening in other countries.
Our close neighbors, the Finns, are doing an amazing job in promoting their comics and the grant making organizations there are probably open and fast in responding to the activity. Also, together with the Finnish Comics Society, Swedish and Estonian comics organisations, we have established the CUNE Comics-in-Residence programme for artists from the Baltic Sea region and wider Europe. Now, we’ve closed a two-year residency cycle through which European comic artists could come to one of seven participating cities for a one-month fully paid residency to work on their projects. Currently we’re working on expanding the network and hopefully we will be able to continue it with more residency cities and places.
About Canada & TCAF
K: 2014 was kuš!‘s first year at TCAF. Do you feel like you learned a lot about the Canadian comics scene by attending? If so, what did you learn?
D&S: We knew the scene a bit thanks to Drawn & Quarterly and more recently through Koyama Press, Conundrum Press and the Internet. But it’s very different of course to actually see the scene in action.
TCAF was huge and overwhelmingly filled with talent so it feels we just got a little glimpse and still have to learn much more about this diverse and active scene. The library as a venue was special. To get library visitors with the comics crowd made for a special mix.
K: Were there any surprizes you encountered in your visit to Canada? Were TCAF and Videofag [where the kuš!‘ exhibit was held] what you expected?
D&S: It was so much more than we expected! Videofag was a perfect place for The Last Match exhibition and we were really glad that Patrick Kyle painted the mural! And we were surprised that so many people came to the opening and had a very positive response.
K: Will you come back to TCAF in the future?
D&S: We loved this show! People were super friendly, the organization was excellent, and we were excited to finally meet the people with whom we were just in e-mail contact for a long while. So we’d certainly love to come back.
About David & Sanita
K: When and how did you discover comics?
D: As I grew up in Switzerland, I was lucky enough to get them basically in my cradle. I read a lot of Asterix and Mickey Mouse in my early childhood, but then I got to discover more alternative works thanks to the Fumetto Festival in Lucerne, which I’ve attended almost every time for the last 20 years.
S: When I was a child, I read the only three comic anthologies for children there were in the late 80s in Latvia, and a couple of Donald Duck books that started to be translated in Latvian in the 90s. As there were so few comics in Latvia, I never realized it’s its own medium. The real discovery of comics for me happened many years later – by accident and love. In the winter of 2008, I was travelling with my best friend to Slovenia and Croatia. We also wanted to go to Bosnia, and while talking with our hosts about the war in the 90s, one of them suggested we should read a comic about it – it turned out to be Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde. I remember reading it the night before we went to Bosnia. I didn’t manage to read a lot, but I came back to it after the trip. And some months later in Riga, also by accident, I met David who had already started kuš!. So after that, comics have become a constant part of my life.
K: Do you make comics yourselves?
D: No, no talent really.
S: No. I’m only trying at our kuš! “Comics Thursday” comics jams.
K: When you’re not reading comics, what other artists inspire you?
D: I’m inspired by very different art forms. Just like in comics, I prefer slightly weirder stuff. But moments when I’m not reading comics are very sparse…
S: I enjoy theatre and contemporary circus, though there’s little time for anything besides comics.
Thanks to David and Sanita for answering my questions and I wish them the best of luck with all of kus!’ projects!