Greenpoint Gazette

Smoke Signal at Desert Island: a Life Preserver for the Notion of Free Newspapers

BY Juliet Linderman

If trapped on a desert island, things can look pretty bleak. You might have some cuts and bruises, your clothes are probably all tattered and torn—you were most likely chucked from a sinking ship, or captured by pirates, or tumbled out of an airplane going down—and you might feel somewhat helpless. After all, being completely stranded—alone in the middle of nowhere, with no prospects for rescue—can really get you down. So can the slow and painful death of the independent newspaper industry. But hope is not completely lost—neither on an island nor in Brooklyn—because while castaways have smoke signals—flares to light up empty skies—artists and newspaper people in Williamsburg have Smoke Signal, the first-ever free-of-charge all comics newspaper, compliments of Desert Island Comic Book Shop’s Gabriel Fowler.
The first issue of Smoke Signal, which was released just two weeks ago, features a wide range of artists, young and old, amateur and professional, local and international, though nearly half of the artists are Brooklyn-based. While the prospect of starting a newspaper in the digital age—not to mention in the midst of a fiscal crisis—might seem like a fool’s errand, Fowler emphasized the fact that, with enough community involvement and support, anything is possible, even going so far to say that “part of the genius of it is—it really wasn’t that hard, it was actually kind of easy.” He managed to raise the funds to print approximately 2,000 copies of the first issue—32 pages including a full-color cover and centerfold and containing no advertisements (save a page of fake ones on the back)—in just one night by throwing a benefit concert at Union Pool featuring four local bands—Uninhabitable Mansions, Boogie Boarder, Darlings and Ambergris—all of whom have some involvement in the comic community, and all volunteered to play for free.
“This project has everything to do with the enthusiasm of the contributors, and of the community,” Fowler said. “This thing is literally community-supported in the most real way possible. If the community didn’t back the idea, that’s the end of it. We’d be looking at a bunch of blank pages right now.”
The idea for Smoke Signal first came about a few months ago, when Fowler decided to apply for an artist’s grant via FEAST—Founding Emerging Artists using Sustainable Tactics—to put together a pilot issue. Though he wasn’t awarded the grant, after putting together a preliminary proposal Fowler decided to run with his idea, and pursue other avenues of funding in order to make it into a reality.
“The process of presenting my proposal really helped me solidify my own ideas, and it was so strongly in my mind at the time that I just knew I had to do it anyway.”
While Smoke Signal very much stands on its own as an innovative project, the enthusiasm surrounding Desert Island Comics—which hosts readings, signings, book releases and special events on a regular basis—truly made the paper possible. Conversely, Fowler hopes the paper will raise awareness of a truly animated comic art culture in the neighborhood.
“The scene here is really alive, and I want to raise consciousness about it and the paper is a great way to do that,” Fowler said. “It’s good for everyone. It was great for the bands who played our fundraiser, it’s good for the artists published in the newspaper and it’s good for me and the store—I’m lucky because I get to be the mouthpiece, and the store acts as the lens that focuses that energy, it’s part of the zeitgeist that informed this project.”
With any luck, Fowler hopes to release Smoke Signal on a quarterly basis, throwing benefit concerts every three months or so. While he isn’t completely averse to the idea of bringing in advertising, he much prefers the idea of creating a “pure document without any ads at all.”
Whether ultimately choosing to incorporate advertisements or applying for non-profit status, it seems that Desert Island’s Smoke Signal is in no danger of being ignored, or extinguished, as Fowler is already collecting submissions for issue #2.
“It happened to fast and the newspaper really took on its own structure. I mean, the first submission I got was for the cover and it was perfect! And the first issue was literally funded by rock n’ roll. So, we’ll just see what happens!”

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