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Comics’ New Golden Age: Spike Trotman Talks Taking Down The Gatekeepers [Interview]

Spike Trotman is a visionary. She sees possibility where others throw their hands up in defeat. She sees innovation where others see stagnation. She is fundamentally optimistic about the future of comics — and why shouldn’t she be? Trotman has conducted massively successful Kickstarters — plural — organized some of the best talent in comics into anthologies like Smut Peddler and The Sleep of Reason, made money-producing Poorcraft (a comic about not having money), and, all the while, maintained Templar, Arizona, her long-running and beloved webcomic.

Comics have been good to Spike Trotman, but her success is very much the result of hard work and fresh thinking rather than chance — hard work that has left her one of the most interesting people in the industry. So, naturally, ComicsAlliance tracked down her booth at San Diego Comic-Con to talk Kickstarter foibles, “porn for chicks,” and a new golden age for comics.

 

 

 

ComicsAlliance: So you’ve been doing webcomics since 2005.

Spike Trotman: Yes, I’m extremely old.

CA: And your work has ranged widely in terms of genre. You’ve done Kickstarter advice comics, Smut Peddler, all kinds of stuff. How have comics changed since you’ve started?

ST: What I love about webcomics now is that it’s a viable career choice for someone who say, freshly graduated from Sheridan, CALArts or SCAD or something. They can become a professional cartoonist. They can support themselves on a living wage and they can never touch “mainstream comics.”

When webcomics were first given that name, first branded with that, it was considered the territory of people who could not find mainstream work. People who were amateurish or too incompetent for mainstream work. They were considered the bottom rung on the comic book ladder. People would talk about how no one wants to read a comic online; no one will buy a print edition of a comic they can read for free; there’s no way to successfully monetize web comics.

That was a big thing, “No, you can’t make money off this. There’s no way.” People wouldn’t understand it when you’d explain to them — I make the comic for free and then I sell the book. There are still things you can find, articles out there where people are stating anyone that claims to make money off a website comic is a liar.

Web comics are seen as a viable career choice. They’re something people see as something someone would want to do as a first choice, not a last choice. Not a choice out of desperation or lack of choices. The level of talent has gone through the roof. A lot of kids are coming out of really rigorous art programs and they are on point. They have Photoshop down. They have Manga Studio or Paint Tool Sai down. They’d never dream of going to Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse. They want to make a webcomic. That’s something that’s happened only in the last few years.

CA: One thing I’ve found interesting in the last two years is that we’re seeing more and more intersection with web comics and mainstream comics. Over at Boom, you’re seeing them poach all kind of webcomic creators for Steven Universe, or Adventure Time. Suddenly Homestuck is at Hot Topic, and We Love Fine is looking into webcomics. We’re seeing those two worlds that seemed so disparate start to come together as the mainstream realizes that these are really important, viable properties that can bring in an audience. How do you feel about this changing face and the new intersection of mainstream comics and webcomics?

ST: I love it. I am all for it. I am of the opinion that it’s saving comics. Because before webcomics became what they are now, comics was something that was relegated to a shrinking number of shops that were occasionally called derisive nicknames like Man Caves. People who are not the core audience of mainstream comics would go in and feel extremely unwelcome. There was nothing for them on the shelves. [Comics] were identified strictly as cape books.

Nowadays, the audience of people who call themselves comics readers… you can be an incredibly avid comics reader and never step foot in a shop. There are no more gatekeepers to that sort of fandom. What you need these days to be an avid comic reader is internet access. Without having to jump through editors who have to be concerned about bottom lines, appealing to the audience they currently have of 45-year-old men who want cape books.

You have these people who can put their stuff online on Tumblr, on Smack Jeeves, and that’s the curb they have to jump, and it’s lower than it’s ever been. And sure that means a lot of really low quality stuff gets online but that also means that some of the stuff that gets online is stuff that would normally not be seen as editorially viable at mainstream places, but has the potential to have a huge audience that’s just never been tapped before. I think about things like Homestuck when I say that, or Questionable Content. These were comics that wouldn’t even get a meeting at DC but you see the way the internet reacts to them and it just goes to show that there are people out there that want to read comics like this, they just haven’t been marketed to. I think that’s awesome, I’m all for what’s happening to comics. I think we’re in a golden age right now. Comics are more exciting now than they’ve ever been.

CA: We’re seeing new structures of payment and support spring up, like Kickstarter, like Patreon, and I’m really curious how you feel about these things. There’s a lot of support, but I’m starting to see more backlash. I’m starting to see people say, “Oh, Patreon and Kickstarter are rip-offs. People using them are just going to take advantage of you.” How do you feel about the future of those things?

ST: There will always be campaigns on Kickstarter that crater and there will always be Patreons that fizzle out. That’s just how things are. That’s not because the structure itself is flawed, but the people using it are unreliable. The people using it don’t fulfill their obligations. That’s not an indictment of Kickstarter as a concept, that’s an indictment of that person.

 

 

People have been announcing that Kickstarter is over since Kickstarter started. Every time there’s a giant project that makes a million dollars, someone throws up their hands, “Well! We peaked!”

Their evidence that things will only get worse from here is that things have never been better. They’re going to need better evidence than that to convince me that Kickstarter is going anywhere. This is something I’ve said: even if the FBI kicked down the door to Kickstarter and it turns out they were all laundering drug money for Colombian drug lords and everyone at Kickstarter went to jail and Kickstarter went offline tomorrow, the genie is out of the bottle. There will be a site that replaces Kickstarter even if it’s not Indie Go Go.

CA: What do you think webcomics and people who use crowdfunding can work on? What’s lacking?

ST: I know people disagree, and I understand the terms they disagree on; I think the most safe thing you can do when you do a Kickstarter for the first time on your first comic, is to have as much of it done beforehand as humanly possible.

If you are a person who is both the writer and the artist, make as much of it as you can before hand. Work nights, weekends, stick it on Tumblr. Get an audience. Maybe work two or three years and not see a dime. Then try and Kickstarter it. I know that sounds horrifying to someone that’s 21 or 22, and two-to-three years seems like a lifetime, but really, that’s the safest and smartest way to do it. When you have an audience already in place? Your Kickstarter is much more likely to succeed. Kickstarter is a place to monetize an audience, not find an audience.

If you have a book that’s already finished and you put up a campaign that just says, “I just need the money to print it,” that is a lot more feasible than putting up a campaign that says, “I want to do this comic, I know you haven’t read it, but trust me it’s great, give me $5000.”

As far as Patreon goes, I’ve never run one, so all of my advice is theoretical. From what I’ve seen and what friends have told me, I would focus on rewards for your Patreon that interrupt the production of the comic as little as possible. For example, maybe one of the award tiers can be seeing the pages a day early. That won’t make you have to ship anything out, go to the post office or do something.

I’d stay away from things like commissions. Especially if you’re a slow artist. Offering commissions as an award tier will slow you down and interrupt production of the comic. Offering things like custom this-or-that, anything that needs to go in the mail, anything that takes away time from the comic; stay away from that. Understand these are obligations that you have to fulfill.

 

Let’s Kickstart A Comic (And Not Screw It Up), Spike Trotman

 

People have referred to Kickstarter and what’s going on there as a gold rush — it’s 100% not that. It’s just a means by which you can sustain a career independently. If you’re not 100% prepared to be independent, if you’re not prepared to be your own publicist, pre-press person, your own print liaison, graphic designer, the person that has a place to store the books after they’re printed, and to then be your own customer service and fulfillment department, there’s nothing that says you have to use Kickstarter. There’s still publishers that will handle all of that for you if its not for you. It’s not an indictment of a person if you don’t want to do all of that stuff. Just understand that there’s going to be a lot of non-art in your life if you decide to be an indie and go to a Kickstarter and Patreon.

CA: I remember when I first started getting into comics, and into webcomics, self-publishing kind of seemed to be looked down upon. It was a failure, a sign you couldn’t hack it anywhere else. Now I’m seeing it as a more and more viable thing. It’s less, “Oh I couldn’t get this done anywhere else so I’m doing it myself,” and more, “No one else will take it, but I know people that will buy it. Let’s all show the world how much people really want it.”

ST: Self publishing kicks ass. Self publishing is one of those things where, if you’re a small-time creator, maybe you had a comic for two-to-three years, you have a respectable fanbase but it’s nothing that’s going to mob you at conventions, it’s a viable option.

Especially if you were to go through a publisher, they would take a third, a quarter, half — it varies from publisher to publisher — of your net revenue. That may be not be a big deal, if you are a big deal. You can give up that third. But if you’re a person where that third that they take means the difference between having to keep your day job or being able to quit, self-publishing is the choice that makes sense. Take those two hours out of your day to pack and ship books and you get to quit your job as a cashier. Sounds like a cool deal! It’s a deal a lot of people are going for.

I remember the days where people considered self-publishing almost hokey and embarrassing. Even back when I was only doing Templar, Arizona, when I was publishing that by myself, I turned down deals because they weren’t good enough. I was doing better on my own. So, I’ve known for a long time that’s not necessarily the truth. Of course nothing is universal, there are people out there self publishing really unfortunate stuff. But it’s not an indictment of the delivery vector, it’s that there’s always going to be variation in every medium, every delivery vector and every process.

CA: Talking about the wider comics community, encompassing web comics, mainstream superhero stuff, big mainstream non-superhero stuff like Image, even the American manga industry; what do you think is most exciting, and what do you think needs the most work? I feel in particular we’re at an interesting intersection between self-publishing, the internet, and stuff from around the globe.

ST: Honest to God, I think we’re in a renaissance right now. I think there are people that ten years ago would have never considered making comics [who are] making comics now. I think things are better than they’ve been, certainly in my lifetime. This completely eclipses previous renaissances like the 80s black and white boom, in my opinion.

Printing is something that more people can figure out and do on their own. Publishing is something that people can figure out and do on their own. The variety in stories that are being told like, honest to god, the 70s comics with an “x,” 60′s comics with an “x” has got nothing on what’s going on now. I go online and some of the comics I’m reading lately are about non-binary witches. They’re about girls going camping in the woods and the intersectionality of one of the girls being trans and another one is just really uncomfortable with the Anglo-American focus of the camping trip.

CA: As The Crow Flies, by Melanie Gillman!

ST: Eisner nominated! She kicks ass.

CA: Those colored pencils, oh my god.

ST: That’s kind of what I’m talking about. There’s a million different comics I read now. There’s a vegan cooking comics, space adventure comics, stick figure gag comics. The variety is fantastic and the level of ability is amazing.

When it comes to what can be improved? I have a hard time thinking of anything. Maybe, if I’m going to be picky, I’d appreciate it more if more art colleges had classes about economics, accounting, taxes and really — I think it’s time to start adding classes about crowdfunding. I know Kickstarter would be more than happy to send representatives to certain colleges and just do a crowdfunding 101 for their sequential art program. They would love that, probably.

There’s a lot of little things that you need to find out by yourself the hard way, like, don’t Kickstart past September or you risk losing all that money to taxes. Give yourself an extra month longer than you think you’ll need — trust me, stuff happens. You’re going to take longer. Don’t promise things you can’t deliver on. Get the quote beforehand. Make sure to tack on shipping. There are people who have been ruined by not tacking on shipping.

These little basic components of something that’s becoming central to a lot of people’s careers, that they’re being thrown out there and they’re kind of figuring it out on their own. They’re sidestepping a lot of potholes, but at the same time they’re falling down otherwise. I think that’d be really beneficial to students nowadays. Especially seniors and juniors at art colleges. A self-publishing course that includes economics and accounting.

CA: Narrowing on your work, you have done so much in so many different genres. You’ve done advice comics like Poorcraft, you’ve done Templar, Arizona, you’ve done Smut Peddler. What draws you to the work that you do?

ST: I’m a know-it-all and I like the sound of my own voice. This is everything I know; Let’s Kickstart A Comic (And Not Screw It Up). I made that specifically because I saw a gap. There are Kickstarter advice columns and articles that are very long and have many paragraphs. I know from experience that I learn better when it’s an art and text combo. I decided I’ll make a quick comic about stuff I’ve run into about making Kickstarters and hopefully people will find it helpful, and people have — it’s the second best seller in my online store next to porn, frankly. Only porn sells better.

Smut Peddler is the exact same thing. It exists because it’s like there’s a pile of money in the middle of the street with a sign in it that said “porn for chicks.” I was staring at it, looked at it, and I’m like, nobody wants this? I’m gonna take this.

 

 

Sleep of Reason, same deal. I hate to sound this way, so cynical, but I really hate 90% of what passes as horror these days. It’s incredibly predictable. It’s so boring. “Oh, it’s a zombie. I know the rules. It’s a werewolf, I know the rules. Silver bullet, full moons. Chop the head off, got it.” That makes it not scary. When you start making lists of, “This is how you defeat it, this is where it comes from, these are the rules its bound by,” there’s nothing terrible about that. What’s terrifying is not knowing. So, Sleep of Reason is full of stories where there is no neat and tidy ending. There’s no way to defeat what you’re presented with because you don’t understand it.

And Poorcraft, same deal. It just needed to exist. Templar is the story I have wanted to tell my entire life, and I know there are people that are rolling their eyes because I’ve abandoned it months on end, but I am coming back to it. End of September, I promise.

That’s kind of… when I was 12-years-old, that’s the story I entertained myself mentally with. That’s Templar. Obviously it’s aged up since I was 12, but that story will be told and will have an ending, and it’s probably five or six years away, but that’s my magnum opus for lack of a better term. Its the story I feel I’ve got to get out of me. I have a lot of other stories I’d love to tell, this is the one that kind of owns my heart.

CA: Smut Peddler, but also Sleep of Reason, brings together a whole bunch of people in the comics community, especially the webcomics community, who do all kinds of different work. I see more and more projects like that happening. I was over at the Benign Kingdom booth, and I’m like, wow — this is publishing so many people I love that don’t have a print presence. What was it like bringing all those people together, and do you have any particular favorites?

ST: It’s hard to pick a favorite. There are so many different people in Smut Peddler, and I love so many different stories in Smut Peddler.

The first one was just me getting together with my husband and we just made a wishlist of — if we could see X draw porn, who would we want to see draw porn more than anyone? We made a big list and we emailed them and asked them about how, we were going to put together an anthology, adult comics by women; would you be interested?

And almost everyone responded, “Would I!?” Like they’ve been waiting their whole lives, that they were wishing someone would ask them to draw some smut. Then they leapt at it.

Book two, I got a lot of people who asked to be in it. Here’s a good example; a person handed me a postcard at a con that had their Tumblr address on it, and I went to their Tumblr and looked through their stuff and asked them to be in Smut Peddler. So hey, always hand out postcards and stuff at cons, do self-promo at cons.

 

 

Smut Peddler 2014, the one that just got got Kickstarted, worked in the same way. I’ve got more people I’d love to see porn from. But I also always want to keep that aspect where people can submit to it. I know there are people out there who are great that I’ve never heard of, other people have never heard of, and they deserve a spot too. I try and maintain that balance between really well known creators and creators that are maybe emerging or not quite as established.

I want people to pick up the book for the superstars, and they read the story and enjoy it, but maybe they enjoy this story over here by this person they’ve never heard of, and they flip to the back and find that person’s URL and go and read their comic and now that person has a new fan. That, to me, is the ideal anthology. It has tent pole names, really big people that are going to be the draw, so as many people get the book as possible; but also people who are new to the game and just not as well known so they can get some fans too.

CA: In that sense, I think you represent the best, most altruistic hope for webcomics and self-publishing. People can act like the community will become very mercenary, like it’ll be the worst thing, and it’s not. I think there will be people who are empathetic and achieve a certain measure of success and want to pass it on. I think that’s very impressive and very cool on your part. Where are you going in the future? Plans? Anything you’d love to tackle?

ST: I have a bunch of stuff I can’t talk about, and I have bunch of stuff I can talk about. The “can talk about” stuff will be in 2015, two anthologies are currently planned. A sci-fi fantasy anthology, which we keep coming up with names for but the names keep being taken. It does not have a name yet but it’ll be done very much in the pattern of Sleep of Reason and Smut Peddler, where we’ll invite a few people and then we’ll put up submission guidelines and if you follow me on Twitter @iron_spike, you will be kept abreast for news on that. If you’re interested in submitting to a sci-fi/fantasy anthology you can do that.

There will be a Smut Peddler Anthology in 2015. It will be a specialist anthology called Smut Peddler Presents: My Monster Boyfriend and it’ll have a single kind of story in it. I’m hoping that’ll be something with longer stories and fewer creators, maybe 150-page books. That’ll have the same deal as the sci-fi anthology where submission guidelines will go up in the fall of this year and you can find out more about that.

I’m also hoping in 2015 to Kickstart my very first erotic graphic novel, which I am writing and Ghostgreeen, who is in Smut Peddler 2014, is illustrating. I promised her the script at the beginning of this month, and I’m such a flake. I’ve been so busy. I’m 40 pages in and it’s going great. Hopefully guys will be able to read that in 2015 and, just as a hint, the story line, it takes place in the 1960s so it has a very Mad Men aesthetic and it’s about a male/female/male fem-dom triumverate.

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