Collected in partnership with Perth Festival and The Empathy Museum, A Mile in My Shoes is an extraordinary collection of stories that give us a glimpse into the lives of Western Australians from all walks of life.
Wolfgang Bylsma is Editor in Chief and Founding Manager of Gestalt Publishing, Australia’s largest independent graphic novel publishing house.
This story was collected by the Centre for Stories for the Empathy Museum’s A Mile in my Shoes installation as part of Perth Festival 2015. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
This story was originally published on May 20, 2017.
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‘I don’t think many people know that Gestalt have an Academy Award winner working for them. They’ve published someone that has a fucking Oscar. That’s amazing and it’s actually pronounced Gestalt. Gestalt. Gestalt. Gestalt. Gestalt. Gestalt.’
‘The meaning we take for Gestalt is it’s greater than the sum of its parts.’
‘Gestalt. Gestalt. Gestalt.’
My name is Wolfgang Bylsma and I’m the editor in chief and managing director of Gestalt Publishing Proprietary Limited.
After I left university, I started my own business called Blurred Vision Productions at that point, which entailed me doing a lot of graphic design and web development work. By the time I was turning 30, I’d been doing this particular work for about seven years. And I was starting to feel really burnt out from the long hours and the stress of the responsibility. And I felt absolutely miserable and bitter before my time.
I wanted to do something that I was passionate about that I could engage with. And I came back to the medium of comics, and it’s something that I had enjoyed reading when I was younger, and I was still reading. So, I looked into an art grant that was called Right in Your Face. I got the grant. We used that to offer a page rate to create a callout for submissions for our first book, which is an anthology.
Now while this is all happening, myself and my friend Skye Ogden, started this company Gestalt Publishing. And that’s something that we used our own money to set up, get all the infrastructure in place and from the point of setting everything up and investing the money in creating this company and crafting to be something that we truly felt passionate about, was like a … it was like breathing again. For the first time in a very long time.
From the outset, we wanted to be supporting Australian talent and getting them into the international marketplace. One of the things that we particularly wanted to do was to enable creator owned properties to be made. And by that I simply mean that it’s not work for hire. If somebody gets a job writing Spider Man, for example, now they don’t own what they do. The publisher owns everything they do with that. With Gestalt, we wanted to enable people to come to us with their ideas, and we would enable them to make them, and help them revise and refine what they were wanting to do. And at the end of the day, they own it.
The first good thing that happened, and this is beyond you know the initial thrill of publishing our first book, and getting back from the printers and going, ‘oh, this awesome.’ Actually, feeling responsible for creating something or enabling something to be created and putting it out into the world for people to touch and to read and to enjoy. I mean that, honestly, that is the real … that was the real first whoohoo moment. But I think we built from that on to a point where we received our first award.
“Thank you to Gestalt Publishing. Thank you to Wolfgang Bylsma. If you can put your hand up, Wolf. Put your hand up. That man over there, for everything he’s done for this book, for believing in this book, for believing in these people. Thank you very, very much. That’s huge.”
Skye was homeless and he was sleeping on my couch. We had a business plan for the first ten years. We’ve just finished the first ten years, by the end of that ten year cycle, we should have now been in a position where we could pay ourselves a small wage. Things didn’t quite go according to plan.
At this point in time are actually in more debt than I would care to mention. But I’m learning to accept the fact that I may never crawl out from under the debt. We’ve had some issues, some major issues, some of which have been documented in an ABC TV series called Comic Book Heroes. For example, you had a major push to break into the US market, where we went to San Diego Comic Con, this was the third time that I’d been there.
San Diego Comic Con is the largest convention of its kind, where you have a Convention Centre there’s more than a mile long, that is filled with over 140,000 people over the course of four and a half days. It’s the sort of place where you’ll find Robert Downey Jr. doing an Iron Man thing on stage just to promote the Marvel movies.
2011 is the year that we tried to make this big break. We’d organised for booth space. There’s a multi-year waiting list to actually get a booth at San Diego Comic Con. We were getting four books specifically printed to launch at San Diego. Those books did not arrive on the first day. Morning of the second day, those books had still not arrived. So many, many, many phone calls for the printers, to the couriers. Lots of stress. We had a lot of creators with us. We had created from each of those books there, in the booth with us.
‘This cost us a bunch of money to get here. Without those books we’re pretty much fucked.’
Friday morning, we finally get to the point where the books are in San Diego somewhere. They’re out with a courier for delivery. Meanwhile, I’m getting text messages from the creators of the booth. ‘Do you have the books yet? Where are the books? Are the books here we got people that want to buy the books. Are they on the way?’
Skye and I were sitting in the office and he saw a truck pull up outside with DHL on the side and the guy started off loading boxes onto the pavement.
‘Taxi!’ Trying to get a taxi none of the taxis will take us with the number of boxes they don’t want to be responsible for them on them in their in their trunks. So, I very discreetly asked the DHL driver if he wouldn’t mind putting the boxes back in his van and taking them to the convention centre.
‘Right stupid question. Is there any way at all that we can pay you to take us to the Convention Centre with the boxes?’
The guy agrees, and this is why we’ve got a documentary crew following us, documenting all of it. So eventually we managed to get all the boxes back in this van Skye and I and the cameraman are riding in the back of the van with the boxes.
‘We have boxes of books and we’re currently writing in the back of the DHL van. The things you do for a comic company.’
I can laugh about it now because in hindsight … actually, no, I can’t laugh about it. It was horrible. The next day I was actually sick. I have a condition called hereditary angioedema, which is quite rare. There aren’t that many people in the world who have it. The strain that I have is triggered by stress. And it essentially presents as, in this case, swelling of the lining of the intestine. And what that simply means is a lot of pain, being debilitated, not able to move around and intense vomiting.
I’ve actually once cracked a rib from vomiting. Apparently, I vomit like a Viking Berserker. But I’ve also had instances where I’ve had throat swelling which is life threatening. I’ve had swelling of the lining of the lungs, which is also life threatening and I’ve never I’ve never felt that panic ever in my life.
San Diego wasn’t the only convention where things went a little awry. We’ve done a lot of conventions around Australia where our distributor, a major Australian distributor, has failed to deliver stock. From time to time there have been some financial hardships that resulted me selling things like the laptop, selling off my own graphic novel collection, which actually hurt quite a lot. But it seems to go down to the wire where I needed to pay the rent, or put food on the table. And they had to go.
So, there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s tied into this that you know, it all comes down to the fact that hereditary angioedema is triggered by stress. So, what the fuck am I doing with my life?
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The first TV series based on a graphic novel series we’ve published has just begun broadcasting in Australia, and it’s starting in Canada. It’s also been sold to the to Britain, the US, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, and hopefully a few other places yet to buy in as well. And that’s our all ages graphic novel series called The Deep. And quite frankly seeing that animation for the first time, and how well it was translated from the comic page to the animated series was an immense joy. Because we had to go through an extensive negotiation process to make sure that the integrity was maintained, of making sure that the writer on this series became head writer on the TV series, and the artist on the books became the art director for the series.
So, in many ways, I think our aim is, is for integrity, over commercial success. It’ll be nice to have both, but if I have to choose, prefer integrity. I’d rather feel good about everything that we’re doing, and to make sure that we’re doing everything as right because we can, rather than taking the money and being apathetic about it.