Mad Cowboy Disease | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Mad Cowboy Disease

Salt rides ahead of the pack with its new issue

Ellen James and Berry Steiner are robots, not pirates. They'd rather be pirates, of course -- I mean, who wouldn't, right? -- but have resigned themselves to a robot's life peppered with the odd "Aaargh, me matey," a frilly shirt or two, and Salt, the quarterly journal that the pair edits and publishes. But even that is somewhat of a sigh: Salt's pages may be populated with "Pirates," "Monsters," and "Cowboys," but its creation -- a lots-of-work, little-reward effort in the best zine tradition -- is very, very "Robots."


If this black-and-white view of the world is hard to grasp, it's only because you're thinking of pirates, robots and cowboys as nouns rather than the conceptual archetypes that Salt sees them as, as literal rather than literary. It's a distinction that took James and Steiner a few issues to fully flesh out, too: While the debut one year ago of the "Pirates" issue of Salt took a few liberties -- Stevie Nicks isn't exactly Black Beard -- they were easily outweighed by the Jolly Roger-oriented articles. With a more rounded vision of their work, and a grant from the Sprout Fund making some financial pipe dreams reality, Salt's creators have made the new "Cowboys" issue into what could be seen as the first of the new wave of Salt.


"We were obsessed with pirates when we started out," explains James. "We originally toyed with the idea of starting an all-pirate journal. But we'd be talking in pirate voices all the time, wearing eye patches, the whole thing. And we realized one night that the opposite of a pirate is a robot -- so then it became a matter of, '[A]re you a pirate or a robot?'"


"I'm not really sure how we even got to the word 'archetypes,'" says Steiner. "I guess it was because when we were talking about pirates, we didn't really mean pirates -- we meant heavy metal bands, and men who wear fringe on their jackets, and people who wear snakes as jewelry."


In focusing on a specific archetypal theme for each issue, Salt has a unique ability to focus its content while maintaining a refreshingly loose leash on the writers themselves, an arrangement that has finally come to fruition with "Cowboys." Perhaps that's out of necessity. As Steiner points out, many potential readers and writers weren't particularly attracted to the "cowboy" image -- partially out of disdain for a certain "elected" Texan -- and wondered why she would choose that image. But Salt's cowboys aren't all damn-the-Injuns and "on a steel horse I ride."


"When people think of cowboys," says Steiner, "they think of people like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, and of the wars that we're fighting. It's not always a positive impression."


"But, in addition to stories about the history of the West and Indians being slaughtered and manifest destiny, we did a story about a honky-tonk waitress," says James, "about working amongst the cowboys who are constantly hitting on you. And outsiders' reactions to the cowboy -- Berry's grandmother wrote a story about moving to America from England as a war bride. Her in-laws were this wild family who wore cowboy hats and settled fights with guns."


"Cowboys" marks a move forward for Salt in several different ways. With a new printer (Pittsburgh's Third Termite Press) doing the covers, and layout and design by locals the CROWW Group, the journal looks and feels new and more professional. And beginning with the previous issue, "Robots," James and Steiner have been successfully soliciting work from some of the bigger names on the underground zine and comic scene. Daniel Clowes, of Ghost World fame, and underground comic star Megan Whitmarsh contributed to "Robots"; David Greenberger of Duplex Planet contributes a cowboy story to the new issue.


"The Sprout grant has allowed us to get Salt printed by a professional printer, instead of just running it off on a copier or something," says Steiner, "but I also think it's given us a little more legitimacy. So we feel that we can go and ask Daniel Clowes and David Greenberger [to contribute]. And Megan Whitmarsh, who's a great comic artist, is now giving us a comic for every issue."


Just as interesting as the underground elite Salt is drawing in are the new non-pros: Besides Steiner's grandmother and West Virginia beer-joint waitress Holly Van Lynn (whose bio claims "she could totally kick your ass"), the new issue also features a piece by an employee of the National Cowgirl Museum.


On the horizon lie more archetypes -- "anything they make music or movies about" seems to fit the bill -- such as "Lovers," and next issue's "Spies." Steiner and James hope to continue to find a balance between the initial wackiness of "Pirates" and the slightly more serious approach on "Cowboys."


"I guess it's only natural [to become more serious]," says Steiner. "It would just feel silly if we were constantly smirking, and it wouldn't be fun for us. Maybe we feel like we have a little bit more responsibility now, to be a bit more thoughtful. I hate it when people get into that hipster ironic humor, 'Oh, it's so funny because it's not at all what I do.'


"I don't want to be making fun of my subjects. I want to talk about them."

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