Spike Trotman is a cartoonist, publisher and writer who runs Iron Circus Comics, Chicago's largest indie comics publisher. Just over 10 years young, Iron Circus is most notable for resurrecting the small press anthology, reinventing the model for small press porn in comics and dominating the comics crowdfunding space.
Trotman's written and drawn the webcomic turned award-winning series Templar, Arizona and published the Eisner-nominated The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal (written and drawn by E.K. Weaver), and she's also known for helping other indie comic book artists get their start. In fact, in 2017, Trotman crowdfunded several projects through Iron circus to the tune of a million dollars raised on Kickstarter.
I got a chance to talk with Spike at Emerald City Comic Con to get her thoughts on the indie comics biz.
Whenever I see anything about indie comics, I always look for your name, you've grown Iron Circus exponentially and have a genuine love for comics.
Spike Trotman: I absolutely love reading comics. I've read comics ever since I was a little kid and I was really into the small press and the diversity there and the different kinds of stories that could be told and I always wanted to see more of the kind of comics that I enjoyed out there. I'm a writer and I'm an artist but that's kind of the reason I started publishing. I've always been creating, but publishing has been really important to me too because I can amplify, I can broadcast the kind of stuff that I think needs a larger platform.
What's the comic the earliest comic that you remember reading?
This is very cliché, especially for people my age, but the big one was Calvin and Hobbes. I grew up during what I consider to be sort of the last hurrah of the newspaper comics and that was when Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side were in newspapers. I remember on Sunday afternoon my parents got the Washington Post and they had two big Sunday comic sections. [My favorite was] the Calvin and Hobbes comic about the Tyrannosaurus and the F14. I remember looking at that drawing of a Tyrannosaurus in a fighter jet and just sort of thinking to myself, 'How do you get so good that you can draw something like that?' That blew my mind. And I just, I've been a huge fan ever since.
Iron circus publishes a lot of anthologies. Why anthologies?
Anthologies are awesome! They're great in my opinion, for sort of keeping on top of the new talent in comics because anthologies are fantastic. Kind of like "Baby's first comics" project. A lot of folks maybe don't have the wherewithal or the budget to publish their own first graphic novel or even pamphlet-style comics, but they can submit 10 pages to an anthology and six months down the line they can have a book on their table. They can sell that at a convention and they can say, here I am in this book, next to all these other accomplished cartoonists, because if we're going to be frank, a lot of success is about association. Being associated with established talented cartoonists, which usually make up about half of my anthology projects and the other half are newbies, means a lot to them.
You know how to draw and write amazing stories. Why go through the trouble of having an anthology and searching for the talent? Why not keep all of the success to yourself?
Honestly, it sounds cheesy, but I've made so many friends doing this. I do an erotic anthology called Smut Peddler and had an artist in it named Blue Delliiquanti. She has been in so many of my anthologies since, and we've become really good friends. It's just a comics support system just as much as it is an industry. We're too small for a ton of infighting. We're too small for a ton of drama and competition and again, it sounds so cliché, but you really do get by with a little help from your friends and if you decide to approach comics as if it's a knock down, drag out every person for themselves kind of thing. You won't last long and I know that from experience. I know people who showed up to treat the industry like a fight. They're not around anymore or if they are around, they're kind of stalled out and the reason is no one wants to work with someone who's combative and over competitive all day.
Yeah. I'm gonna need you to repeat that one more time for the people in the back.
LOL! It's true, honestly, if I have like a piece of advice for like maybe someone who's 20, 21 and they're all like, OK, I'm done with school. It's time to get into the comics industry. What would you do? My advice would be get on twitter, get on Tumblr, start posting web comics and make some friends.
You are known as the Queen of Kickstarter. You've literally written a book about it. What attracted you to the platform?
Iron Circus Comics was an early adopter of Kickstarter and has used it to finance the majority of it's print run. Stepping over the gatekeepers of traditional comics who told people like me, the kind of stories we wanted to tell wouldn't sell, or there's no audience for us and we've gone on to crowdfund 14 projects. Every single one has funded and they've all produced books that people love that are critically acclaimed and award nominated. We published Eisner nominated books, Ignatz nominated books, Harvey Award Winning Books and American Library Association Prize Award winning books.
I noticed that you are also an early adopter of Drip, how has that helped your business?
I am riding hard for Drip right now but I absolutely recognize it as a work in progress, but Kickstarter was a work in progress when I got on there too. I am super into Drip primarily because the people who are making it, I know they care. They write me emails and they ask me, hey, what would you change about Kickstarter? What would you want added? I've asked them to do things like add shipping that can be added by country on backer rewards and that showed up and they're constantly improving the site. They're never satisfied their metrics, their refer links. There are all kinds of cool things that make the site easier to use. Not just for this one tiny sliver, not just for the product design category that's making $5,000,000 off a 3D printer. They're doing it for the 19 year old that's printing their first comic for their local con and needs $600 and that's awesome. I love that sort of equality, you know, it's equitable distribution
Iron Circus is a publishing company, but who handles your distribution?
This has been the rocket fuel in Iron Circus' tanks in 2017 and the beginning of 2018, we recently moved to a subdivision of Ingram, which is called Consortium. It's a distributor that works primarily in the pro market, but they started to take on a lot of small press comics publishers too. Like Annie Koyama, Uncivilized Books, NoBrow/Flying Eye, it’s folks like that and it's been an incredible boon because in case folks didn't know, the distribution model for comics is extremely antiquated. It treats literally every book as it is a 32-page floppy comics that should be available for a month and no longer. And what that means is someone who works on the graphic novel for two or three years, if they submit to previews, which is the Diamond Distribution catalog, their book will show up in there for a month and then potentially not be available ever again.
And that's an enormous waste of time. I began pursuing distro when I submitted a few books from the Iron Circus line to Diamond a couple years ago and they turned them down in the books. They turned down, included The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal, which had been Eisner nominated that year, so they were telling me they didn't want to sell my Eisner nominated book. And it was at that moment I was like, screw this. Pursuing ‘real distro’ [has] been fantastic. There are days where I sell 900 books a day and I don't even take off my pajamas. It's fantastic. I love it.
What is next? I know you have another book coming out.
We're putting out 10 books this year. The one I'm most excited about are our latest anthology project, which is called FTL Ya'll: Tales from the Age of the $200 Warp Drive. So that's an anthology project and you know, it does what it says on the tin. We have another Smut Peddler anthology coming out called Smut Peddler: Sex Machine and it's about robots and AI. Then, Blue is putting out a book for us called Meal, which is about love and bug eating at the same time. A girl who was very passionate about insects, and insect cuisine who is trying to woo her neighbor at the same time. It's so weird and so great. We're also publishing our first art book this year. There is a Japanese creator named Sachiko Kaneoya who I'm a huge, huge fan of and she is our first Japanese creator and in 2019, hopefully, fingers crossed, we will be publishing her book. And I'm really looking forward to Banned Book Club, which is about the South Korean authoritarian regime and a true story of a girl who grew up during it, reading books that were forbidden by the state and who gets beaten and imprisoned by the secret police.