“Elements of the Comics Community Have Really Pulled Together”: A Word With . . . C. Spike Trotman

In this week’s A Word With You, we chatted with C. Spike Trotman, artist, writer, and founder of the award-winning Iron Circus Comics, Chicago’s largest alternative comics publisher. They are the first comic books publisher to fully adopt a crowd-sourcing business model, and have raised over $1.8 million to date. Her best-known work includes the webcomic Templar, Arizona; the Smut Peddler series; and Poorcraft. Follow her @Iron_Spike.

So . . . how are you?

Busy? Put-upon? Incredibly stressed out, but simultaneously incredibly grateful things are so hectic around here. It’s been a helluva a year, but I am 100% cognizant of the good fortune I’ve enjoyed despite that. Iron Circus has some very briskly moving new titles, and an amazing crowdfunding campaign under its belt, our biggest to date. 2020 is the year from hell on a lot of fronts, but for us? Our trajectory has been upwards for years, but the incline got a lot steeper.

What’s the best (or worst) piece of publishing/writing advice you’ve received recently?

“Find an audience no one is serving.” I think there’s a lot of Follow The Leader in publishing (in LIFE, really), and the impulse, the trend is to do what looks popular, what’s selling thousands and thousands of copies. But the simple fact is, by the time you’ve HEARD about trends like that, it’s probably too late to exploit them that cynically.

Banned Book Club, our 2020 flagship title, has been in the works since 2018. We couldn’t have timed its release better with a crystal ball. It eerily suits the mood of the age, with all that’s going on; two weeks after release, and nearly half our print run, our largest single first printing ever, is already spoken for. But if someone were to really slam on the gas and try to make a copycat book right now, hoping for the same results? It wouldn’t work.

It worked for us because Banned Book Club isn’t about chasing a trend; it was about making a book we believed in, something that wasn’t already out there. And that really resonated.

What are bookstores or other cartoonists and publishers doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?

I am equal parts excited and terrified by all the large publishers getting into the graphic novel game. It’s a seismic shift. Random House, HarperCollins. Scholastic’s been around for awhile, of course, but things have really shifted into fourth. It’s sort of intimidating to think, “These are the people I’m competing with for talent.” But at the same time, these are the publishers who decided where the publishing industry goes. They decided what gets to be put on bookstore shelves. They’re bringing a lot of power (and organization!) to an industry that’s been underfunded and disorganized for decades, and that’s pretty incredible.

What does business look like right now? How are online sales and events working? You’ve always had a prominent online presence—how are you seeing the Iron Circus community (cartoonists, Kickstarter donors, customers, etc.) change and support each other?

I don’t think you’re gonna find a single soul that’ll claim the online convention replacements can hold a candle to the in-person events. The revenue, the attention, it’s just not the same as going to a show. And for my part, I like shows because they’re the best places to find new talent. I’m definitely having to work a little harder at that now that they’re not all in the same room with me for three days straight, ha ha.

And yeah, I’ve seen a lot of grassroots support attempts circling. Emergency funds, emergency grants, donations, and the online conventions. Some elements of the comics community have really pulled together, re-posting lists of artists now open for emergency commissions, or links to online stores. We all know it’s rough out there in general, but it’s especially bad now. And even if someone’s doing okay, they for SURE know someone who’s not, and they usually try to help.    

Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?

Ha ha, given what I’ve just been saying, this sounds a little odd? But . . . now that we’re not doing conventions for a full calendar year, I’m considering cutting back considerably on our 2021 convention calendar, too. So it’s not so much a new practice we hope to continue doing as . . . a new lack of practice we hope to continue . . . not doing, I suppose.

A big part of Iron Circus’ growth has been shifting my own mindset out of the small-potatoes territory that the traditional comics small press is used to, and INTO thinking of ICC as a publisher in the more mainstream sense. There was a time when going to a convention and making, say, $10,000? That was the ultimate goal, the dream. But at the end of the day, the same way the NASA Space Shuttle program had to be retired, cuz as nice as they are, those things ain’t gettin’ us to Mars? I need to pull away from the hand-selling, direct-to-consumer conventions and start focusing on ALA Annual, BEA, other trade shows that are about a more comprehensive, higher-volume approach. Banned Book Club was pushed hard at ALA Annual in 2019, and we’re really reaping the benefits of that now. I want that kind of performance for all my books.

I’ll never tap out of comic conventions altogether; I love them. But I can see a future where we do, maybe . . . three a year. And leave it at that.

What do you hope for the future of indie publishing and bookselling?

More exposure! More shelf space and industry backing for adult graphic novels! More small press publishers on the shelf beside me, publishing weird and fun graphic novels for an adult audience.

C’mon, everybody, these MILLIONS of kids reading Dog Man and Drama are gonna wanna keep reading comics! Let’s MAKE SOME for them! Let’s meet that need!

What are you reading? Do you have anything you would pair it with (a food, a movie, another book, etc.?)

You mean besides what I’m currently publishing? I just finished re-reading Eleanor Davis’ The Hard Tomorrow. It’s just so horrifying and incredible and powerful and repulsive and compelling and, like, a lot of Octavia Butler stuff . . . maybe not the best thing to read right this second, if you’re look for escapism? But ugh, I love it. I’m orbiting it.  

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