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Illustrators who make comics do so as a labor of love. But, with the right approach, indie comics and graphic novels can be part of a long-term career strategy—a way to make connections, attract dream clients or a book deal, and create an art object of lasting value.

Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, defines the form as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader.” But perhaps Keith Mayerson, illustration and cartooning instructor at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), in New York City, best describes the medium’s significance: “Comics can be a little bit like punk rock. It’s not about money. … It’s about people communicating [to a peer group] through this very expressive art form where a picture says a thousand words.” 

Originally a children’s book illustrator, Jennifer Hayden broke into comics to tell stories about her adulthood struggles. The Story of My Tits follows Hayden from flat-chested teen to adult dealing with breast cancer—to the reconstruction of herself. 

Nowhere is that DIY spirit and community ethos more apparent than at Small Press Expo (SPX), the premier indie comics convention in the United States. Every autumn, in Bethesda, Maryland, more than 4,000 comics creators and fans gather to share their work and discover new artists. I spoke with a few insiders here in Bethesda to better understand the ethos of indie comics and how to break into the industry.

Comics experienced a revolution in the 1980s when Raw magazine, Maus, and Love and Rockets burst onto the scene. It was clear that comics weren’t just for kids anymore and that they could be smart, artful—even groundbreaking. The indie comics industry strengthened through the 1980s and 1990s and began to accelerate thereafter. But within the last ten years, the possibilities of the form have expanded exponentially.

Why the recent transformation? The Internet, plus various high-profile literary prizes—such as Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize for Maus and Roz Chast’s recent National Book Award nomination for Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?—helped to legitimize the form. The Love and Rockets generation had grown up and continued to consume art comics; a few of them went on to become art directors and editors—and to support cartoonists by hiring them as illustrators. 

Adrian Tomine, creator of Optic Nerve and cover illustrator for The New Yorker, told me in an interview for Guernica, “I think that [these art directors and editors] not only made comics more socially acceptable, especially in America, but they also really started to help create an atmosphere where there was at least a slight possibility that you could make it a viable career.” With free, user-friendly blogging platforms, it has never been easier to distribute your work from anywhere in the world. Tomine said, “Who or what a cartoonist is in America now can mean so many things.”

Lisa Hanawalt, best known as the designer and producer of the Netflix original show BoJack Horseman, had been making comics since she was a kid. After she finished college and began taking on commercial illustration work, she also began publishing her comics in blogs and magazines like VICE, the Believer, the Hairpin and others. She told me via e-mail that her comics have helped her land illustration gigs. Among her top clients are the New York Times, Audi and Slate. “I’ve found a lot of clients through my silliest work—sketches making fun of corporate slogans, animated GIFs of Obama eating Mitt Romney,” she said. “I think art directors like seeing evidence of ideas and a strong point of view.” 

Although creating comics can lead to new clients, it’s not just about landing a big assignment or a book deal. It’s about gaining the freedom to shift from the restraints of commercial and editorial illustration to the wide-open spaces of your own imagination. A webcomic or graphic novel enables an artist to build his or her own world. You can begin to craft characters, place them in longer-form narratives, and realize a larger and possibly more personal vision.

As a result, commercial and editorial clients gravitate toward this unique and inventive work. Brands looking to reposition themselves for younger demographics are particularly interested in the youthful, sometimes edgy and even transgressive appeal of comics.

It’s rare for publishers to take a chance on an amateur artist. Instead, they prefer to work with artists who have refined their work through substantive practice. This practice could take the form of creating comics on one’s own or taking comics workshops at places such as the SVA, the Center for Cartoon Studies (Vermont) and the California College of the Arts. 

When I spoke with him in his office at the SVA, Mayerson suggested that merely continuing to do the work bodes well for an aspiring cartoonist. “If you keep putting pen or pencil to paper and keep rendering it, that’s good,” he said. “You can start putting the work on Tumblr or any number of sites, if not your own site. Pages develop a fan base, even if it’s amongst your family and friends.” He suggested that the feedback might motivate an artist to keep going with his or her work—and perhaps finish a project, share it and gain momentum with it.

Who or what a cartoonist is in America now can mean so many things.”—Adrian Tomine

As I spoke with artists, a theme that kept coming to the surface was the significance of creating an online presence (on Tumblr or your own website), having a hard copy of your comics and attending indie comics conventions (comic cons). That is, it’s not sufficient merely to create great work. It has to be easily shareable online and offline. Artists including Kate Beaton and Noelle Stevenson gained a following online, Beaton with her webcomic of literary and historical satire and Stevenson with what would later become the YA graphic novel Nimona, which was a National Book Award finalist.

Mayerson said that cartoonists use mini-comics as beautiful business cards. Mini-comics are self-published comics with a limited print run; “mini” refers to the quantity of copies, rather than dimensions or number of pages. In one of Mayerson’s classes at the SVA, students create their own mini-comics—often with only InDesign, a copy center and a stapler—and hand-assemble them. “They’re inexpensive to make and self-publish,” Mayerson said. At indie comic cons like SPX and others, emerging artists often connect with established artists, art directors and book publishers by giving out these modestly produced art objects. He said, “Mini-comics are the currency of the art world of comics.”

Illustrator and cartoonist Adrian Tomine started his mini-comics, Optic Nerve, as a self-published series in 1991, until it was picked up by publisher Drawn & Quarterly four years later.

Agents and publishers frequently scout for talent at indie comic cons. I spoke with Chris Staros, editor-in-chief of Top Shelf Productions, whose table at SPX displayed, among its many books, its recent graphic memoirs March, by Rep. John Lewis (illustrated by Nate Powell), and The Story of My Tits, by Jennifer Hayden. When I asked him why he searched for talent at shows such as the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Arts Festival, the Alternative Press Expo and this one, he said, “[We’re looking for] somebody who can write and tell a story, who can package it so that it’s a nice physical object, and who can also set up a table here and be industrious enough to meet the public and gain some traction in that way.” 

He gestured toward the book by Hayden, a fiction writer and children’s book illustrator whom Top Shelf noticed at SPX years ago. “We saw some of her artwork early on, and we decided to go ahead and sign her and work with her through the process and let her take her time.” Hayden adds that they spoke often at events such as this, to the point where she says that they felt like family and that Top Shelf understood the kind of personal project she wanted to create. The Story of My Tits took about ten years to create, Hayden said. It made its debut at the convention. The book received positive early press, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly and write-ups in Marie Claire and other magazines. 

Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, chose to tell his remarkable life story in the form of a graphic novel series, March (left and middle). Illustrator and cartoonist Nate Powell had the honor of drawing it for publisher Top Shelf Productions. For any illustrator hoping to break into the field of cartoons and graphic novels, Understanding Comics (right), by Scott McCloud, offers a colorful primer.

The Story of My Tits traces Hayden’s ambivalence about her breasts, from puberty to adulthood to cancer. The funny, intimate and moving memoir would not have been possible without Hayden’s passion to tell her story and her dedication to such a profoundly personal project.

She tells me that the medium of comics has offered her something that illustration could not. “It has increased my confidence,” she says. “I’m starting to rethink how I can tell other personal stories with comics.”

I’m starting to rethink how I can tell other personal stories with comics.”—Jennifer Hayden

Cartoonist and illustrator Gemma Correll, author of the recent collection of comics The Worrier’s Guide to Life (2015), created web-comics for years and ultimately connected with a publisher. A young art school grad from England turned Tumblr comics celeb, she told me at SPX that she had always created comics, but she simply called them “illustrated diaries.” She went on to study graphic design and illustration and later began to land jobs for such high-profile clients as the New York Times and JetBlue. However, she also created comics as a creative side project; she uploaded her work onto Tumblr and brought her mini-comics to indie conventions such as these. GoComics then solicited her cartoons for their platform, and her work attracted the interest of Andrews McMeel Publishing. “There are common themes in a lot of my work,” she said, such as the anxieties of modern life and the curative properties of cute pugs. So the publisher asked her, “Do you want to put a book together?”

Many other artists have also generated leads through grassroots publicity. Hanawalt said via e-mail that showing her comics at a convention helped her find a book agent. “My agent found my work at a comics convention and e-mailed to tell me she loved my ‘animals in hats’ drawings. I knew we’d be a good fit because she liked my weirder comics.” Right after signing with Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, Hanawalt heard from Tom Devlin at the art comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, who asked her if she might want to create a book. Her ensuing comics collection, My Dirty Dumb Eyes, came out in May 2013. Her next book, also from Drawn & Quarterly, is due to be published this year.

Thanks to the rich history of independent comics, classes in cartoon studies, free online platforms, indie comic cons and more, the opportunities and the possibilities have expanded for those who wish to create visual narratives. You can create mini-comics, web-comics, graphic novels or all of them. You can draw gag cartoons, illustrate moments in history or delve into personal trauma. Whichever stories you want to tell, not only can comics help you tell them, but also, comics can connect you with a community of fellow creators and fans who will be eager to take that journey with you. ca

Grace Bello (grace-bello.com) is a staff writer for Columbia University, an interview editor for Guernica magazine and a freelance writer. She lives in Queens, New York. In this issue’s Business column, Bello speaks with illustrators and graphic novelists to find out how their comics fuel both their creative lives and their careers.


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