As Sluggo once said to Nancy, you’re not hep if you’re behind the times. You also might end up taking a bath from a garden hose.
So it is that Josh O’Neill sadly closed up Locust Moon Comics in 2016, the lively but struggling store and occasional publisher on South 40th Street, and joined forces with business partner, artist, and designer Maëlle Doliveux. They then founded Beehive Books, the newest of the city’s cluster of small-batch publishers trying to make a go of it in the giant, wobbly world of print publishing.
And not just a plain-vanilla go of it. Beehive’s mission is to produce beautiful books to die for, books heavily larded with graphics, drawings, and even gewgaws; books cradled in sumptuous slipcases and primped up on fine paper.
Beehive is driven by an innovative business model that uses Kickstarter funding to support an entire publishing company dedicated to these luxe books — not just one-off titles. How hep is that?
“It’s going great,” the affable O’Neill, 37, said the other day as he sat in his cozy office high up in the tower of a converted historic church in West Philadelphia. “A lot of challenges, obviously. But I think we’re doing stuff that would not be possible through traditional [publishing] mechanisms. That’s part of the joy of Beehive — we can make things happen.”
For New York-based Doliveux, the motivation is very straightforward.
“I just wanted to make beautiful books,” she said. “The design goal is to provide the framework for the art to stand out and shine. … We like seeing the art and we like holding the art. Books have a real tactile quality.”
Beehive crowd-funds its projects using Kickstarter. It promotes them through social media. It works very personal email lists. It is building its customer base a click at a time. Because of crowd-funding, all projects are fully supported well before the book goes to press.
Each book has, actually, two lives. For its first year of published life, a special luxe edition goes to Kickstarter backers — a core group of a few thousand that follows Beehive from project to project. After that, the book moves to what O’Neill calls “the book trade” — traditional distribution channels and retail spaces.
So far, seven titles have been funded and two have been distributed, including The Island of Dr. Moreau, lavishly illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz and designed by Doliveux. The book is part of Beehive’s line of “Illuminated Editions.”
“We approach these brilliant artists and we ask, ‘What book would you like to draw?’” O’Neill said. “The idea is to create almost a third thing — it’s not the book, it’s not the illustrations, it’s like a collaboration across a century.”
The first completely unique Beehive project, The Temple of Silence: The Forgotten Works & Worlds of Herbert Crowley, which has just gone out to bookstores, captures all the idiosyncratic flavor of what O’Neill likes to call the “crazy, weird” things that excite and pump up Beehive’s graphic juices.
When O’Neill first encountered Crowley’s work — a couple of 1910 Sunday strips called “The Wigglemuch” in a book devoted to “forgotten cartoonists” — literally nothing was known about him. The Crowley biography at the back of that book said simply, “Aside from the existence of these comic strips, nothing is known about the life or work of Herbert Crowley.”
“Even among the unknown cartoonists, he was the most forgotten,” O’Neill said.
Enter Philadelphia artist and musician Justin Duerr, 42, who had seen the same anthology of forgotten cartoonists and become intrigued by the emptiness of Crowley’s recorded past and the strangeness of the symbolist landscapes in “The Wigglemuch.” Actually, intrigued hardly describes Duerr’s interest.
“He had become totally obsessed with Herbert Crowley,” O’Neill said, “and had done five years of primary source research.”
Duerr — a kind of multitalented neo-punk autodidact — is comfortable with that level of focus. He spent a decade tracking down the origins of the mysterious Toynbee Tiles embedded in the streets of Philadelphia and other cities. The award-winning documentary Resurrect Dead (2011) chronicles the quest.
In August of 2015, on an off chance well into his Crowley research, Duerr trekked to the ruins of an abandoned wooden house where the lost cartoonist lived for a time, deep in the woods of Rockland County north of New York City. The house was crumbling into the earth, vines and trees growing through its collapsing roof. A cemetery with about a dozen tombstones stood in silent watch out back.
“It was so strange and magical to be there with the house and the woods and these trees growing up through the tombstones,” Duerr recalled.
Inside the house, amidst an ocean of silverfish, mounds of disintegrating paper, a chewed-up mattress, a broken-down old piano, raccoon nests, mouse droppings, and endless mold, Duerr found his pot of gold, of course.
First, his wife discovered a hand-colored print by Crowley poking out of a raccoon nest. Then they discovered file cabinets full of documents, art, correspondence, ephemera of all kinds.
At this point, Duerr met O’Neill. And the ultimate result is The Temple of Silence, which features Duerr’s biography of the elusive artist-cartoonist, and contains all but one of the exceedingly rare “Wigglemuch” cartoon strips from 1910. There are more than 300 Crowley images in all.
“It’s this magical project," said O’Neill. “The work is amazing. It’s totally unknown. His comics were in one or two tiny books. But the comics are one tiny shred of who he was as an artist, and his other material has never been published anywhere.
“Every year, there are a ton of books about forgotten artists and none of them really make any money,” O’Neill continued. “But you know we raised $120,000 on Kickstarter and now we have the book in the book trade and it’s doing well.”
Beehive’s next unique project — Madness in Crowds: The Teeming Mind of Harrison Cady by Denis and Violet Kitchen — is now at the printer.
The second edition of LAAB magazine, an annual oversize broadsheet exploring art, pop culture, and identity, is in the middle of its Kickstarter campaign.
In the works? A version of Dracula featuring a box or valise of “primary source materials” cited in Bram Stoker’s novel that Beehive will package for readers to explore on their own.