From art school to zines to comics to advertising, what a long, wild ride it’s been

The shop walls of Wow Cool | Alternative Comics are lined with colorful comics of all shapes and sizes and an eclectic assortment of art, like the neon Barney poster with Japanese characters scrawled across it in electric pink. As I sat down to talk to General Manager Marc Arsenault, John Peel’s DJ set from the BBC is on and a mix of old-fashioned jazz, disco, and Rasta rap plays in the background. I asked Marc what originally got him into the comics industry, and he said, “It’s almost too weird a story to tell.”

Diagnosed at the age of nine with a heart murmur, Marc was forced to stay inside and so he read and reread comics such as Pogo and Adventure Comics (#360 was a particular favorite) until their bindings barely held the pages together. Instead of participating in the local little league, he spent his days in the adventures and misadventures of his favorite comic book characters. He was, however, allowed to bowl. “And so I became a really good bowler,” Marc says, laughing. The heart murmur was later discovered to have been a misdiagnosis, but the foundation for a future in comics had been firmly set.

Deciding to pursue illustration, Marc looked to the School of Visual Arts in New York, founded in 1947 by Burne Hogarth, the artist on the Sunday Tarzan newspaper strip. It’s one of the oldest comic illustration schools, and once was nearly one of a kind. Now, says Marc about the art school, “there are millions.” He took a cartooning class from Harvey Kurtzman, the creator and editor of Mad Magazine, and its main writer for the first 28 issues. Studying at SVA introduced him to the industry and many of its leaders.

Right around the time Marc finished school, Xeroxing Zines exploded onto the market. These small, self-published (often stapled) magazines were the inspiration for the foundation of Wow Cool as a zine and comic book mail order distributor in 1988. In those days, Marc says, the gateway to success was Sassy Magazine. Each issue featured a cute band alert—and a focus on up and coming zines. If your zine was featured in Sassy, you might find close to a thousand teenage girls scrambling the next day to read it. “Sassy completely changed my world,” Marc says.

A short time later, he began working at Tundra Publishing with Mark Martin, the artistic director for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman. While at Tundra, Marc was nominated for the Eisner Award for his work on the Michael Kaluta Sketchbook. The Eisner is “the Emmy of the publishing world,” Marc says. It was not to be his last nomination. Others followed, and so did the wins.

Leaving Tundra in 1993, Marc returned to California, to work full-time at Wow Cool. But a few years of eating Top Ramen convinced him to shift his sights again, and this time he headed northward to Seattle and Fantagraphics, publisher of The Complete Peanuts, the entire five-decade run of the black and white strip, and Peanuts Every Sunday, a complete collection of the Sunday strip. During his time at Fantagraphics, Marc frequently ate at the Chinese restaurant just down the street, graduating from Top Ramen to sizzling rice soup. Meanwhile, a friend of his kept Wow Cool going.

Eventually, the restless spirit led him to advertising, where Marc says he learned the ins and outs of marketing and publishing from the perspective of professional print production. After advertising, he says, “I floundered around for a while and didn’t really know what to do. I thought I could make it with music—but I also knew all these artists.”

He did some freelancing and started selling rare books online, and then people started asking him to put their books out too. This was the tipping point, and Marc started to do what he thought he’d never do again. Coming full circle, Marc asked Jeff Mason, publisher of Alternative Comics, if he could be General Manager. And that was the move that led him to where he is today.

When I asked him what Wow Cool aims to be, Marc said he’d like it to be “a small community bookstore.” He provides comics not normally represented, no superhero stuff. Marc is proud that Wow Cool is one of the few places where the esoteric, the cutting-edge, work is out on the shelves. The mission of both Wow Cool and Alternative Comics is to keep such work available, he says, so that artists can continue to produce and so that their work can find an audience.

It’s been a long journey and a wild ride. “It’s almost as insane as it sounds,” Marc says, reflecting back on his life. “Weird, right?”

21607B Stevens Creek Blvd
Cupertino, CA 95014
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Article originally appeared in Issue 6.4 Retro.