Be Weird, Be Inventive, Go For It: Talking ‘Dirty Diamonds’ With Editors Claire Folkman & Kelly Phillips [Interview]
The Dirty Diamonds booth at this year’s Small Press Expo was impossible to miss, from its eye-catching display of tote bags, its zines about Weird Al Yankovic, and, of course, bright signage advertising the titular all-woman anthology itself.
Brighter still are its co-editors, Claire Folkman and Kelly Phillips, who were among the most ardent lovers of comics in the room -- and with good reason. The Dirty Diamonds anthology series is their passion project, collecting semi-autobiographical comics by women since 2011. It's enjoyed particular success of late: their recent Kickstarter was a hit; the Library of Congress singled Dirty Diamonds out for inclusion in its permanent collection; and the contributor list for the latest volume reads like an Ignatz Award nominations list from 2020.
Eager to learn more, ComicsAlliance hunkered down behind their bustling booth to talk the future of crowdfunding, apartments full of books, and just how rad the women of comics really are.
ComicsAlliance: So, here we are at SPX 2014! Tell me a little about yourselves.
Kelly Phillips: My name’s Kelly Phillips. I’m a cartoonist based out of Philadelphia and I’m one of the editors of Dirty Diamonds. At this SPX, I’m debuting a new comic I’m putting out called Weird Me, which is about how, when I was 13-years-old, I was the webmaster of a Weird Al Yankovic fansite. So, this is exploring a lot of very strange and embarrassing territory for me. I've republished the website on my [current] website, so you can see exactly what atrocity I put on the internet that brought me a lot of strange online interactions.
Claire Folkman: My name is Claire Folkman. I’m one of the co-editors of Dirty Diamonds. I’m an artist, and I have a studio in Fishtown, Philadelphia.
CA: Where did the idea for Dirty Diamonds come from?
CF: We attended Drink & Draw Like a Lady about four years ago and loved it. We were loving the scene, we were loving the connections, we were loving the people there. The vibe was so great. At the same time, there were a lot of anthologies coming out of Philadelphia that were really good, but weren't really giving full representation of the diversity of Philadelphia. They’d be like 75% dudes, maybe one or two girls in the anthology. And personally, I was sick of it. I was over it and wanted to see girls being published. I wanted to see the comics I wanted to see. I think I was literally sitting on a couch post-MoCCA, and I was like, “Kelly, we have to do this anthology.”
KP: If the dumb boys that we know can do this, we can certainly put out a book! And we just wanted to see ourselves get published in a book with our friends. It was four of us initially, and we decided, hey, we’re going to put this book out, it’s going to be great, and after the first issue we opened it up to submissions, and now we get crazy work from all over the world.
CA: How was the process of getting the word out there?
CF: A lot of it has been through the internet. The internet’s been huge for us in its ability, where we tell someone, they tell three people, those people tell three people. Also, I really think the open call aspect gives us the ability to really spread the word because we’re not looking for specifics, outside of people who identify as female. A lot of people respond to us, and a lot of people want to get involved.
We've done original publishing now for a lot of people through Dirty Diamonds, which is just so great, because I know when I was just starting out I remembered the person who first published me and how thrilled I was to suddenly be part of this community. So I feel that Dirty Diamonds is a great place where we can do that and people want to get involved.
CA: So, you’re on your fifth issue now. Has it gotten bigger than you anticipated? Any favorites among the submissions you've received?
KP: This issue blew up. We got 32 artists in this book from six different countries. The book is now over 100 pages, and that was a completely different planning process for us, as opposed to folding and stapling books with maybe a dozen artists. This issue got really crazy, and I think part of it was the theme, which really spoke to people, where we asked people why they liked comics. It was a really good opportunity for us to do this larger-scale issue because it was just something everyone has something to say about.
We get a couple repeat submitters to each issue now, and we’re always so stoked to see their names come up. We’re like, “Yeah, we got another one!” And It’s just so many creative people, and we get to meet them at shows like SPX and it’s great. We’re now friends with a bunch of them, and they’re all just amazing creators and it’s so cool to be a part of their experience of their getting into comics and getting into published work.
CF: They come see us, and they’re like, pumped to meet us and talk to us. We met a bunch of people at TCAF this year, which was our first international show ... We just meet these amazing girls and it’s like, “Well, we’re BFFs now, so let’s just hang out all the time.”
And the network gets deeper and more intimate and bigger and bigger as we meet more people and everyone is just always great. I don’t know that I've met one of them where I was like, “Uh, I don’t really want to hang out with them.” I don’t think anyone’s ever submitted to us and I haven’t been like, “Uh, you rock, your work is really good, please be my best friend forever.”
CA: Dirty Diamonds is self-published. How long have you guys been doing the con and expo circuit?
KP: I think our first one was… three years ago?
CF: Yeah, we did the local ones in Philly for about two years before we started branching out. And then SPX last year was one of our first big ones.
KP: And MICE. This past year has been our first really serious traveling con circuit. Between last year’s SPX and now, we've done seven or eight shows.
CF: Like twice the amount of stuff we've done in any previous year.
KP: It’s been nuts.
CA: What has the response been like?
KP: It’s a whole new world of exposure and marketing. We were almost always completely online, so we’d have the issue, we’d have a party in Philly, and from there we’d have our local show and then sell it online. Which works, because that’s where we get all our submissions and that’s where we've made all this buzz already.
But now that we get to go out into the world and show people this book, that drove our decision to make this book a completely different style. We got it professionally printed, we hired a cover artist, we have this whole crazy display that we do now. So it’s a completely different approach to getting work out there, now that we’re really serious about traveling to cons.
CF: There’s also something about the human connection. Because we meet people and we talk to them and we hear their stories and they hear our stories. You can make eye contact with someone. And it really helps us in terms of getting the call out further, because people come and talk to us and they’re excited to see us and we give them our paperwork and from there it kind of goes, like, “I met these really cool girls, sweet, I’m totally gonna submit to this thing.”
KP: We’re really good at being excitable and memorable! So this totally plays to our strengths.
CA: Did you guys always want to go into comics, or did this develop out of something else?
KP: Well, we both went to art school for college. I think we had a similar track where we loved comics growing up and then we went to art school and were like, “OK, we’re going to make serious art.” And then serious art gets really boring, and we’re like, “Comics were fun, why don’t I try comics again?” We naturally fell back into that group. “Why don’t I take this serious art mentality and apply it to comics and try to make something out of that?”
CF: And comics take so long to make too, and so long to organize that it really doesn't lend itself to the collegiate structure of class, where you have something due every two weeks. You don’t have time to let an idea percolate or to develop your own voice or visual style, and really, a couple of years out of college where you can work on something for longer than weeks at a time. That’s really the moment when you can really soak in the comics and realize there are all these different aspects and options and really deal with this, rather than have some professor breathing down your neck asking why something isn't done.
CA: I've noticed here and at San Diego that there are a lot more anthologies being made. Stuff like Smut Peddler.
CF: Smut Peddler was huge this year — their Kickstarter went through the roof!
CA: It seems to me almost like an evolution from Xeroxed minis to creating something bigger and capable of looking more professional, being more durable, being easier for people to take home. Where do you think anthologies, and self-publishing in general, are going?
KP: Anthologies are really about the community-building aspect of comics. It helps you when you’re not that established to put your work out there, and suddenly you’re with all of these other artists. They might be more established than you, they might not be, but it’s such a good opportunity for people to break in and see what it’s like to publish comics.
And it’s sort of strange because the traditional image of a comic artist is this person alone in their basement hovering over a desk, and they’re slaving over a book every single day. And it’s now all about collaborating and coming together on these high concept books and having fun with it.
CF: And self-publishing is one hundred percent where comics needed to go. Comics is just such an accessible, easy medium to get into, and self-publishing really lends itself to letting you share your ideas the way that you see them. And the beauty of the internet is that you can make anything. You want to send some files to some place to make some books for you, that’s totally possible. It’s great. You don’t need an ISBN number anymore, you don’t need a distributor. You just need the upfront funds and the gumption to go out there and promote your stuff, and to tell people how great it is.
KP: And when you self-publish, you also self-edit, so there’s no one saying, “This is inappropriate, this isn't for that age group.” You get to say and write and do exactly what you want. You get complete control over the story and the artwork and the finished product. You’re making an object that goes into somebody’s hands. And that’s just such a good, all-encompassing, rewarding experience.
CF: Yeah, a great part of Dirty Diamonds has been being the people to make the final decision. Nobody in any part of this process is saying, “Oh, this should be like that.” It’s the two of us hashing stuff out. It’s so nice to be successful doing something where we’re the ones making all the decisions. It’s not somebody else telling us how to be successful, we’re figuring it out on our own.
KP: We know that we’re geniuses! [laughs] But it’s cool to get some validation. Now everybody else knows!
CA: What are the challenges to putting something like this together?
KP: This biggest challenge to this volume was having a Kickstarter. We knew we wanted to be able to pay all the artists in the book because we want to treat everyone like a professional. We know that when we submit to a book, we want to be paid because it’s hard work. So we wanted to do that for these women.
And then getting it professionally printed cost assloads of money, so we have a crazy spreadsheet that we share back and forth with all of our Kickstarter planning. It really shows the Beautiful Mind-style planning that went into this thing — making sure we had all of our costs covered, that we weren't asking for an outrageous amount, making sure we got the amount that we needed to pay everybody.
The 30 days that this campaign was running, we literally had it open every day in a tab, checking it every hour, stressing out. It was like being in labor for a month. We were just completely stressed out. Self-publishing gets stressful, especially when you’re publishing other people. We feel sort of responsible for their work, making sure it gets out there. It’s nerve-wracking.
CF: There’s also the aspect where we have real-life jobs to pay our bills. We have to go to work. We work in an office. To find the time to do your work at work, and then go home and have the mental space to pay attention to this, and to do our own work as well... Because we’re both creators in our own right, so finding that balance of taking care of all the things we’re responsible for, [taking] care of your bills, and taking care to make the work you want to be making.
CA: That’s very intense. What did the Kickstarter end up making?
CA: That’s really specific!
CF: I remember when it was over, I had the tab open for another two weeks, like, “Yeah! We did that!”
KP: Our initial goal was $6,500, and we had a stretch goal of $8,000, which was to print more books and pay all the artists a higher rate per page. So we were over the moon to hit the stretch goals. We were like, “look, we all get to treat you so much better now!” We were so excited that we got that kind of response to the book.
CF: And for this to be the first time either of us had dabbled in Kickstarter, and to have it go successfully? And to be able to actually do all the things we wanted to do? It’s mind-blowing. You don’t expect to succeed the first time. You don’t know what’s coming. But then to actually do it, and actually be able to give people money… We sent checks to people! It was amazing.
KP: My house is full of boxes of books now. I have bruises all over my legs from where I run into them all the time. [laughs] We have people come up to as at shows now, and they see the book, and they’re like, “Oh, I only bought the PDF,” and I’m like, “You buying the PDF helped me ship the book to somebody!” So it’s great to make that bridge between the internet and in person. To make that connection and see the book in person. You can see it now!
CF: And it’s how enthusiastic people are! People come up and are like, “I backed this on Kickstarter!” And we’re like, “Yay!” Everyone feels so good and celebratory in that moment. We all decided that, together, we wanted to see this be a thing, so we’re all going to work together to make sure it becomes a thing.
KP: And I think Kickstarter is a good tool to get your book out there. We've had so many people come up and say that they heard about it because they saw our Kickstarter campaign. So just in terms of sheer exposure, it’s so well worth it. And it’s nerve-wracking to do it, not all projects make it. But it’s a worthwhile effort to put out there for people who are trying to seriously self-publish. You’re not going to make money off it, though!
CA: I’m walking around this room and seeing so many people I've seen on Patreon, Kickstarter, all those places. Where do you think crowdfunding is going? How do you think it might change the industry?
KP: I think it’s kind of a natural progression. Especially for indie shows like this, we’re all knocking out books at like, five dollars a piece. Some people have smaller ashcan comics. So you’re already getting this piecemeal influx of cash, so it makes perfect sense to me that some online vehicle to similarly give little doses of money to people to want to support exists. It’s like, when I go to show and I see somebody I like, I’ll buy a book just so they have my money. I just want to support them. So I think it’s that same attitude, with Patreon, where you want to see more of this work, so you give five bucks a month.
CF: The beautiful part of crowdfunding is that… it’s where our generation wants to go when it comes to creating media of any variety. We want people to make quality stuff and we understand that the funding isn't out there. We understand that achieving a grant is really difficult.
For some reason we all had to experience 2008, so I think it’s great that people then turn around from that and go, “I have five bucks and I know there are one thousand other people with five bucks, and if we all agree to give them to this thing, then this thing we actually happen.” People are taking the initiative to find projects they’re interested in and to give it money and see it become a real thing. It’s a beautiful mindset. It’s not you waiting for someone to make something and then you purchase it; it’s you wanting to see something, and giving someone the money upfront to guarantee it’ll be there.
KP: And like self-publishing, it’s an unfiltered way to support artists. You’re being given this money by someone saying, “You do you. I don’t want someone to put limitations on that.”
CF: Yeah, no one’s telling you what you can and can’t do, which is just amazing. Up until now, there’s been nothing but editors saying, “No not this, and that’s offensive, and that’s too weird.” No; be weird, be inventive, go for it. These are real thoughts and real feelings and real things that are happening in the world, and we don’t want to whitewash that out.
KP: It’s super punk rock. And I love that in the self-publishing world, you have everything from 8 ½-by-11 sheets of paper stapled together in the hotel room the night before the event, and then perfect bound volumes. It’s this whole gamut of stuff you can do on your own. It’s really inspiring to be like, "We made this book, we made it by ourselves, f--- anyone else. We made this happen." You just need a lot of initiative, to plan it out, and then to just do it.
CA: What advice do you have for people who want to use crowdfunding to create something like Dirty Diamonds?
CF: Plan ahead and just do it. The more pre-planning you can do upfront, the less you have to do on the back end. And trust me, there’s so much planning that still has to happen on the back end. So set up as much as you can possibly think of before you go asking people for money. And then just do it. You can’t be scared or hesitant, you just have to be the most confident you can be in your skills and abilities. Then ask for what you need.
KP: You don’t want to plan yourself into a corner where you think you have to plan for every possible avenue it could go down. You have to be reasonable. Self-imposed deadlines are important, otherwise there’s no accountability. Have a show like SPX, where you know you definitely want to have the book. Work backwards from there. You gotta think, here’s my end goal, how do you make that happen?
CA: So, you guys are really on the pulse of women in comics in right now. Where do you think we’re going? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
CF: I don’t think you can be anything but optimistic, otherwise you’ll crawl into a hole of despair and never come out. I feel like it becomes more and more of a rallying cry, like everything that happened with the woman critiquing the Teen Titans cover? I saw that and I saw that we’re making strides. We’re bringing things up, people are aware of this stuff. And the more angry and vicious and venomous they get at us means we’re getting further, trying harder, and succeeding. You have to be willing to take anything anyone’s going to throw at you, but know in your heart of hearts that you’re doing the right thing.
KP: And there are just so many women making so much good art right now.
CF: So true.
KP: They’re telling really ballsy stories that come out beautifully. They’re pushing a lot of limits. More power to them.
CF: And I love the idea that women are taking over comics. They’re finding out that women are reading comics now, and it’s so great for the medium. Until very recently, 95% of the content was being made by men. And now it’s women-led content. I love the idea of women handling the content of comics differently than a man would because, hey, we’re different.
CA: Are there any huge influences upon your work and worldviews you could name? Any formative media?
CF: I read Blankets when I was 17 and it was a revelation. I’d always been into comics, but that was the moment where I realized comics didn't have to be superheroes. Superheroes never did a lot for me. My mom had copies of Tank Girl rolling around and The Dark Knight Returns, and I read Blankets, and I realized memoir was out there. That’s the stuff that compels me — real stories and real experiences. Using the medium to be emotive with your line and your work.
KP: I totally grew up reading superhero comic books. I spent an entire summer reading my dad’s backlog of X-Men, which ran from 1986 to 1995. I play the line where I’m totally into both worlds.
But I was the same way — when I discovered memoir comics, I was like, I like to tell stories about myself and I like to make comics. So it’s a perfect marriage of storytelling for me. And I’m now trying to branch out more in terms of fiction — I’m one of those people who tries to do something else once I do something well, otherwise you’re just doing the same thing over and over again.
In the 1990s, it was like, comics were Marvel and DC. But now it’s obvious to people that comics are more than that. Marvel and DC are almost negligible now; the characters are properties. Whereas indie comics and other publishers are taking over now.
CA: Before we wrap this up, is there anything else you want ComicsAlliance readers to know?
CF: We just put out our open call for our sixth issue, and we’re always looking for new girls to join the family. Get your comics in!
KP: Our new theme is “beauty.” We like to encourage people to stretch our themes to whatever dimension. I love when people push the rules, or even break them.
To find out more about Dirty Diamonds, or to order a copy, visit the website DirtyDiamonds.net.