Thursday, February 18, 2016


Alvin Buenaventura, Oakland, CA, 2007.

In early 2001, I lived on eBay, bidding on anything that had Daniel Clowes art on it: comics, LPs, t-shirts, etc. Every week I’d win several auctions, always defeating a bidder who went by “totoroar.” It wasn’t long before I started to feel bad; after all, we were fellow collectors, fellow obsessives. So, in an uncharacteristic act of generosity, I contacted totoroar and offered to give them a few Clowes-related things I had. Totoroar turned out to be someone named Alvin Buenaventura, a name I assumed was fake. I sent Alvin some comics and then we exchanged numbers. He eventually told me he planned to start his own press, asking if I’d help. I said “Sure.” And I can say — without the slightest exaggeration — that meeting Alvin fundamentally changed my life.

Alvin was absurdly generous. I’m writing this in a room filled with stuff he gave me: comics, magazines, letterpress prints, original art, obscure minicomics, button collections, cartoon masks, European exhibition catalogs, foreign editions of books by cartoonists we liked, and so much more. When Alvin travelled, he must have been thinking “What would Ken want?” Then he got it. His gifts frequently arrived unannounced.

Once, when he attended a conference featuring a dizzying, never-to-be-repeated line-up of cartoonists (Crumb, Barry, Clowes, Ware, Bechdel, Brunetti, Panter, Sacco, Burns, Spiegelman, Gloeckner, Green, Tyler, Katchor, Seth), Alvin got every one of them to sign a program for me. It arrived unannounced.

I couldn’t make sense of Alvin’s generosity given his ongoing financial troubles. How could he afford to be so generous with me, and with so many others? (And how could he travel so often? I always wanted to ask him, but knew not to.) When I’d suggest a project I thought could make him some money, or propose a way he could cut a book’s printing cost and increase his profits, he listened, said no, and then talked about what he planned to do. He wouldn’t compromise. He insisted, in ways sometimes reckless but ultimately inspirational, that he represent the artists he cared about in the manner they deserved. To look at the work Alvin produced is to see his generosity.

A gift from Alvin with a note.

Alvin had the softest voice of anyone I ever knew. When we’d talk on the phone, I had to press it as hard as I could against my ear; and even then I often couldn’t hear him. It seemed a perversely perfect, Alvin-like irony that someone so soft-spoken would choose to live with two screaming birds, who frequently turned our phone conversations into farces.

This quiet, reticent voice embodied Alvin’s withholding and withdrawn nature. I knew him for 14 years yet I’m not sure I understood him. He’d often ask how I was doing, but when I asked the same of him, he’d say, “There’s a lot of shit going on that I don’t wanna talk about now,” and we’d get back to work or to discussing comics.

Seldom, and always unexpectedly, he’d tell me something revealing — and occasionally disturbing — about his life. When he was going through one particularly serious financial crisis, we’d spend hours day after day working through things, trying to find a way out, a way to move on. Then, suddenly, I didn’t hear from him for months. I’d call, but nothing. I’d wait a few weeks, call again; still nothing. I learned to accept Alvin’s Way. Suffering from life-long physical and mental health problems, his only satisfying therapy, it seemed, was escape — he often took week-long “silent retreats.” Once, just before a project was due, he emailed that he was off to Nepal and we’d hear from him when he returned in a month.

Because of his reticence, I was genuinely moved when he opened up — it felt like a profound act of trust coming from someone so deliberately unknowable.

Collaborating with Alvin was a real joy, though it wasn’t always easy (a habitually disappearing phantom can test any collaboration). I was happy to help him in any way I could. I’d talk with him about projects, write press releases, edit comic books, touch-up website copy, and write text that appeared on Buenaventura Press and Pigeon Press comics. Writing wasn’t Alvin’s strength, but collaborating was. When I’d put together some copy I thought was pretty good, he was always able to make it better, to get it to say just what it needed to say. I felt lucky to play a part in the forward-thinking art he released.

I vividly remember one conversation last year in which we worked on a few sentences for several hours, fine tuning every word, every punctuation mark, thinking about the best way to place the text on the object and its packaging. Remarkably, these kinds of conversations, of which we had dozens, weren’t the least bit tedious. They were fun.

Alvin was central to the two projects I’m most proud of. I co-edited his Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist and he designed my Daniel Clowes Reader. So many have praised the elegance and clarity of the Reader’s design. Alvin made it a beautiful book.

Me, Alvin, and Daniel Clowes at SPX 2012.
Alvin had an instinctive artistic intelligence, the kind of peculiar perception and sensitivity toward visual art that I’ve yet to encounter in another human being. His taste was uncanny; he was able to recognize great cartoonists long before others did. He introduced me to several who have since become essential: Tom Gauld, Lisa Hanawalt, Anders Nilsen, Jeffrey Brown, Vanessa Davis, Matt Furie, and on and on. He was the first to publish many of these now-celebrated cartoonists, introducing them to the art-comics world.

When I’d say I didn’t like a cartoonist that he did, he’d insist that I read them again, more carefully. He was right, every time. In the least pedantic, most unassuming way, Alvin taught me so much.

While he certainly had an aesthetic, I don’t think I could define it. He published everything from the cartoon obscenities of Johnny Ryan to the lyrical drawings of Souther Salazar. To look at a Believer issue with an Alvin-edited comics section is to begin — but only begin — to understand his visionary eclecticism. (When I had a piece rejected at The Believer, Alvin told me to give it to him and he’d take it directly to the editors; soon after, it appeared in one of their music issues.)

A champion of those he believed in, Alvin solicited and published my first essay on comics, a short piece in the catalog for the Buenaventura Gallery exhibition titled Original Comic Art. This 2003 San Diego art-comics show was timed to coincide with the pop-culture fiasco that is the San Diego Comic-Con, a great example of Alvin’s ‘counter-programming’ approach to art and life.

The catalog, his entree into publishing, shows all the hallmarks of his free-wheeling, yet deliberate style. Most exhibition catalogs, no matter how attractive, are simply pages under a cover. Alvin’s was a little masterpiece. Letterpress printed, hand-sewn, and hand-numbered, it included a fold-out title page, several funny hand-stamped images, random spot color, a separate comic-strip insert, and the real coup: a stapled-in plastic bag containing an “authentic piece of trash,” a scrap of original art from one of the exhibition’s cartoonists. It impressed even genius designer Chip Kidd: “It’s just stunning . . . . I wish I could say I designed it but I didn't. Fuck. If I would have though, I would have wanted it to look just like this.”

Alvin loved beautiful, unexpected objects; he gathered so many around him and brought so many into the world.

I keep waking up at night, thinking things like, “Fuck, Alvin’s gone. I’ll never get to proofread another comic for him.” Of all there is to miss — the friendship, the intelligence, the generosity — a proofreading opportunity seems like a really stupid thing to care about. Yet, when working with someone like Alvin, someone who had such an extraordinary imagination, it’s not. Perhaps I’m trying to avoid feeling the loss in its largest terms: our fourteen-year relationship, the sadness of his last days, all I had yet to learn from him, all the projects he had yet to imagine and give us — and that the world will be forever less artful, less beautiful without him.


Alvin once wrote about his first name:

When I was growing up, that uncommon name my parents assigned me invited endless, unwanted, hackneyed, tiresome taunts from children and adults alike. “Where’s your brothers Simon and Theodore? he heh heh....” Yeah, charming, real clever. 9 out of 10 of people that I'd meet for the first time would immediately rattle that off, or even worse, sing the ditty. Annoying as that was it proved a reliable, instant douchebag detector.

I’m so glad I passed the test.