Comic stans: new SDSU Press imprint mixes scholarly study with a graphic novel ethos

Dr. William Anthony Nericcio, SDSU professor and director of the SDSU Press and its imprint Amatl Comix, inside his office.
(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Amatl Comix’s latest release is “Black Representation in the World of Animation” by Darius S. Gainer


Like many of a certain age, Dr. William Nericcio grew up loving Speedy Gonzales. Of course, he didn’t realize until much later just how much the classic Warner Bros. cartoon character perpetuated racial stereotypes.

“All of my early knowledge of other cultures was through Warner Bros. cartoons,” says Nericcio, who now works as an English professor at San Diego State University and has published academic papers exploring the Speedy Gonzales character. “I knew the French through Pepé Le Pew. I knew Mexicans through Speedy Gonzales. That type of imprinting is there forever. They won’t go away. What’s interesting though is what kinds of imprintings are happening now?”

These kinds of representations and subsequent mental impressions are at the heart of Darius S. Gainer’s “Black Representation in the World of Animation,” the latest “issue” of Amatl Comix.

An imprint of San Diego State University Press, Amatl’s mission, or at least one of them, is to take a scholarly approach to important issues — such as BIPOC representation in the fields of comics books, comic strips and animation — and present it as a well-researched, well-sourced “graphic narrative” that is entertaining to the reader. That is, rather than releasing them as straightforward books that rely solely on text, they include photos and illustrations of what the author is discussing.

“I knew it was going to be comics and comic studies,” says Nericcio, who has been the director of SDSU Press since 2014. “And now, with this book, we’re doing animation studies.”

Named after the fibrous paper made by the Aztecs — “the first cartoonists of the Americas,” Nericcio points out — Amatl Comix was started four years ago and has been averaging about one title per year. The titles and subject matter are varied, and include everything from a hybrid text-and-graphic memoir by Claudia Dominguez to a collection of interviews with emerging and established Latinx comic artists. Nericcio sees the imprint as a means to bring attention to important topics in a more graphics-based medium.

“I’ve always been mad about comics,” says Nericcio, who says he learned to read from “Archie” comics and Mad magazines in Laredo, Texas. “I saw that Ohio State University Press had started a comics imprint and I got jealous! I wanted to do comics! But then, of course, I had that light bulb moment where I realized, ‘wait, I’m the director of the press. I can do what I want.’”

Still, because it’s a university press, Nericcio says Amatl’s titles couldn’t purely be entertainment. There had to be some kind of educational or academic value to the comics.

The cover of an academic comic book
The cover of Amatl Comix’s latest title, “Black Representation in the World of Animation,” by Darius S. Gainer
(Amatl Comix)

“The press was already strong in many areas,” Nericcio says. “What I brought in was an emphasis on visual cultural studies.

The Amatl issues also serve as something of a primer for people who may be interested in a topic and want something short and visually engaging to start out with.

For example, exploring Black representation in animation in a thick, comprehensive book with no pictures could seem daunting even to someone who enjoyed animation. But packaged in a glossy, short burst of pictures and text, as is the case with Gainer’s comic, and it has the potential to appeal to even people who are only peripherally interested in the topic.

“Academic is used to mean just that and it’s often unreadable,” says Nericcio. “I love books that have that glossy magazine feel, but focused on a particular subject. These things are an extension of that.”

SDSU Press began in the 1950s and now has the distinction of being the oldest university press in the California State University system. Nericcio started as a designer and acquisitions editor in the ’90s. When director Harry Polkinhorn decided to retire from the press in 2014, Nericcio says he saw an opportunity to expand the press’s overall mission. In addition to starting Hyperbole Books, an imprint that focuses on critical theory titles with an experimental bent, Nericcio says he’d always wanted to start a comics imprint as well.

“Harry knew I wanted to do edgier, grunge things,” Nericcio recalls. “Grungier in terms of critical theory. Things that were a little more political. A little more theoretical, a lot more visual and a lot more punchy.”

Still, it’s often a labor of love. The press is run by a small team of volunteers and staff, and it mainly runs out of Nericcio’s office in the English department. He doesn’t get paid for his work at SDSU Press, but reiterates that he likes it this way because he can do what he wants.

“The only thing we don’t do is bind the books,” says Nericcio. “We are totally sustained by sales, but the good news is that we’re booming,”

To be fair, “booming” often means that one of the titles will sell more than 100 copies, but Nericcio says that sales figures have been up “over 25 percent” over the last year.

“Black Representation in the World of Animation’’ has done very well since its release in September. Nericcio discovered Gainer’s text through a colleague at Ohio State University Press who had taught Gainer as an undergraduate. The book is remarkably comprehensive for a book its size (a little over 170 pages), exploring the varying ways Blacks have been portrayed in animation from the early 1900s to the present day.

“I thought, ‘we don’t have anything like this,’ as we’ve been admittedly weak in African-American studies,” Nericcio says. “I work in the history of animation myself. I read this and thought, ‘wow, let’s do this.’”

The next book in the Amatl series is going to be a translation of Rodrigo Elgueta’s “The Years of Allende,” a Chilean graphic novel about the rise and fall of president Salvador Allende, who, in 1970, became the first socialist elected as president of a Latin American country. And while Nericcio says he doesn’t have a “grand plan” for Amatl Comix, he does say that he still gets “giddy” when working on a new title.

“I like chaos, creativity and innovation in a university institution, and there’s so little of that left,” Nericcio says. “We find a way to survive and then we do our own thing.”

Combs is a freelance writer.