By: Katie Medred, Anchorage Press
The curious adventures of Rabbit Rabbit Press and founder, artist Jimmy Riordan.
On a quite summer afternoon at the Bunnell Street Gallery in Homer, Alaska, clumps of tourists move around the room gazing at art, a procession of “oohs” and “ahhs” following. One lady in a grey shawl, talks loudly to the lone staff member about Texas and printmaking. On the ground several feet away from them is a woman in her 20s rifling through a shelf of merchandise, a pile of artist books accumulating at her knees. She turns over a large baby blue edition to examine the back cover. Two bold upside down Rs jump off the page, visible even from a distance.
The double Rs are the logo of Anchorage artist Jimmy Riordan’s Rabbit Rabbit Press, named after an old English superstition Riordan inherited from his mother.
“When I was growing up my mother would claim that the first words out of your mouth the first day of every month should be ‘rabbit rabbit,’ and by doing that you’d have good luck for the rest of the month.” Dressed in jeans and a blue plaid button up, partially obstructed by a grey vest, a bespectacled Riordan. “You’re supposed to have that be the first thing you say every month, and that’s where [the press’s name] came from.”
Riordan and fellow letterpress artist Craig Updegrove developed Rabbit Rabbit back in 2009, though Riordan says he’d been using the name for a few years prior, starting in 2007. The pair created the clever Rabbit Rabbit logo early on, “It was really easy because two upside down Rs kind of look like rabbits,” Riordan noted. “We were like, ‘there, that’s perfect. We don’t even have to write the words ‘rabbit rabbit’ if we don’t want to.’ Two Rs does the trick.”
The namesake also used to be a physical space years ago when it was attached to the MTS Gallery in Mountain View. MTS closed in 2011. Rabbit Rabbit, however, lives on.
“We started printing stuff under the name, here in Anchorage, about 2009,” Riordan recalled. “Mostly artist books and comics,” some of which were for sale and others were used for projects and promotion.
Currently, the press publishes a quarterly collection of comics and graphic-style short stories under the title Sowsear. Riordan’s own personal project—a crazy, labor intensive graphic novel-in-the-works called Held Up—is also released quarterly by Rabbit Rabbit. Held Up, Riordan says, is a series of graphic stories released in six chapter increments, with three volumes total. So far, Rabbit Rabbit Press has published the first six chapters (which make up Book Volume) individually. The Bunnell Street Gallery in Homer, Anchorage’s International Gallery of Contemporary Art and Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge all sell the editions of Held Up and issues of Sowsear. Riordan anticipates the first book in the series of three will be available soon, as well.
“It’s going to the printer in about a week,” he confirmed Thursday. “After that [Held Up will] either go back to just individual issues or become more online until the second volume is completed.”
As for Sowsear, “It has existed, as a funded project [by Alaska State Council on the Arts], for about a year and four months.” Riordan said, explaining the publication’s goals. “After our first year, we’re working on getting next year funded, now. We’re expecting to get a certain amount of funding, but we’re using this year more as outreach. We’re trying to find more artists, we’re trying to set up some events around the state—like readings and workshops and stuff—to try and make people aware not only do we exist but of the style of comic work, the kind of stuff we’re looking for and are interested in.”
The publication leans more toward the abstract, autobiographical and the original than the super hero/fantasy side of the comic spectrum. They also pay; $20 a page. “So if you have five pages, you’ve made yourself $100,” Riordan noted.
“What we consider a comic, or even publishable, is pretty loose.” Riordan said as he reached for an edition of Sowsear and flipped open to a page displaying a series of 3” x 2” panels. The images, drawn by a child, appear as intriguing abstractions of human bodily functions. Peeing never looks as artistic as it does when rendered by a child. “It can kind of get a little bit bizarre,” he said, looking up from the page, “But the idea is it’s primarily visual; we’re looking for work that is in and of itself.”
Riordan seems to delight in the absurd. And, in return, this makes his work delightful—albeit sometimes nuanced and difficult to follow. He has been called “meta-meta-meta” in the past. Back in 2012, artist Keren Lowell told Press writer Mary Lochner as much when Lochner was working on a profile on Riordan and his recent work. Lowell was quick to add that she doesn’t think his work is “hermetic,” because it’s still accessible to outsiders. Even though Riordan is intensely wrapped up in his own pursuits, almost to an obsessive degree, that’s not a bad thing—especially for an artist.
“It’s really complicated, it goes way back,” he laughed.
Complicated, indeed. In fact, the whole idea behind Held Up started so long ago, and the timeline is so tangled in itself it’s best to keep it as simple as possible. The many chapters of the graphic novel are about Riordan’s various journeys (both physical and other) in relationship to one book, Francis Jammes’s Le Roman du Lievre, the obscure French novel whose English title translates to “The Romance of the Rabbit.” Although the creature in the tale is actually a hare (not a rabbit) both mammals have managed to burrow into almost every aspect of Riordan’s creative life following the discovery of the book over 10 years ago.
There is a strange and unknowable coincidence here, too. Namely, Riordan’s mother’s “rabbit rabbit” superstition, coupled with the book centered around a hare’s love of a patron saint (St. Francis Assisi, whose birthday was October 3) have become bedrocks for one artist’s larger project—a printing press called Rabbit Rabbit—and his academic work—a translation of Le Roman du Lievre from the French into English. It may not mean anything, really, but it iseems just a little bit cosmic.
In 2008, Riordan undertook the task of translating Le Roman du Lievre from French into English while chipping away at a Masters degree at Cambrell College in London, but the story goes even further back. According to Riordan, he’d first come across an attractive volume of the book, whilst pursuing his undergrad library sometime in 2003.
He carried the volume with him for a time before loosing it. Once lost, he started looking for it again at used bookstores, flea markets and the like, only to discover the copyright on both the English translation he knew, as well as its French original, had expired. When thesis time came around, Riordan decided to retranslate Le Roman du Lievre.
After his graduate work he didn’t leave the book behind, he took it with him, incorporating the project into various different artistic endeavors that followed, including shows in Anchorage and an epic trek that took him from Alaska to Europe and back. Around this time he started to write Held Up, which in a way has become the story of his story with this story (you can see why it’s “meta-meta-meta” now, can’t you?) Held Up, Riordan, admits is structured exactly the same as Le Roman du Lievre though it has very little to do with either a saint or a hare, but the graphic novel “has the same number of volumes, it has the same number of chapters and it draws on those five years I spent with the story.” Held Up is not yet completed–and may not be for some time–because Riordan is still living it.
By 2013 he was again in the states and took the rabbit romance to Zygote Press in Cleveland, Ohio. Previously, he’d never properly published or printed his translation, but in Cleveland he went all out and letterpressed 250 copies.
“I finally got the opportunity to print my translation in Cleveland this summer, a hand-bound printed letterpress edition,” Riordan said. “It’s monotype—every single letter is a separate piece of lead type—the paper was made by a guy named Mason on a hand-cranked press. Basically, the most laborious way to ever make a book.”
Now, in the fall of 2014, Riordan is attempting to take those 250 translations on a book tour of the United States, and he’s turned to Kickstarter to fund it.
“It seems funny now,” Riordan says in his crowdsourcing video, “but at the time, while printing, I didn’t really consider the fact that this whole project—this whole process— was going to result in … 250 copies of my translation that it’s now my responsibility to sell or disseminate in some fashion.”
Riordan, naturally, has set off to find his books loving homes, which is what the Kickstarter contributions will aid him in doing. He’s already reached his initial goal of $3,400, but has decided to up the ante and try to personally hand-deliver one book to the Francis Jammes Society, which happens to be housed in the original French home where Jammes wrote the story in 1902. To accomplish this, Riordan has tacked on an extra $2,000 for travel expenses. The new grand total: $5,400. As of Tuesday, September 30—exactly a week until the Kickstarter closes— Riordan had pulled in $4,768 from 60 different backers, just $632 shy of the goal.
If he can make that last $632, Riordan can finally take Rabbit Rabbit Press, himself and his translation back to where it all began. Coming—in sorts— full circle: A rabbit romance resolution, if you will. Maybe it’ll be the perfect ending for his forthcoming graphic-novel? We shall see.