Indie Cartoonists in Academia: Publishing Short Comics in the Digital Age

Below is a revised version of a presentation I gave in a Digital Humanities course I’m taking as part of my graduate degree at the University of South Florida. All images area my own and may not be reproduced elsewhere.

How does a cartoonist approach comics publication in the digital age? For one who works in both indie comics and academia, the answer is not so obvious. There are many considerations based on each publishing culture. I should note that I deal exclusively in Indie comics, and mainstream comics has a whole different set of considerations that I won’t get into here.

I started making comics back in 2014 in a directed study with Jarod Roselló. I didn’t expect to get into publishing comics so soon, but Jarod suggested that I submit a comic that I made to Hobart. I was already familiar with the process of submitting to literary journals because of my fiction writing and work as an editor.

Publishing in literary journals is important for creative writers in academia because it shows that we’re actively working, as we write and publish book-length projects. I’ve always considered literary journals to be the proper outlet for my creative work, because I would then get professional credit for my writing.

The general process of publishing comics in literary journals was the same, if not in some respects a little easier, than fiction. There has been an increase in number of calls for comics or graphic narrative work, especially on online platforms because there aren’t printing costs. But I started to notice some differences.

Editors view the digital publishing rights of a cartoonist differently than those of a writer. Many of you probably know that if you want your work published, you shouldn’t be posting it on a personal blog or elsewhere on the internet. But typically once published, the rights revert back to the author, who can then proceed to publish it elsewhere with credit.

At AWP in 2015, the editor-n-chief of one literary magazine noted that even though rights revert back to the creator after publication, he’d consider it a faux-pas for a cartoonist to publish her work on her blog, even with credit, because it would potentially drive traffic away from the literary magazine because of the strong online comics culture.

I avoid publishing in printed lit journals altogether because they are limited to those who subscribe to them, which is mostly writers reading other writers. In that kind of outlet, I feel my role shifts from person creating work to person advocating for comics as legitimate literature. My work on a digital platform, however, can be spread to a wider audience.

There is a disconnect between how a cartoonist creates and the knowledge-base and understanding of comics that editors have. What ends up happening is that editors often ask for you to adjust the specs of the comic for their website after accepting your piece, which is additional work for the cartoonist.

However, knowing the specs in advance doesn’t always help either. If I know the dimensions to draw and edit my comic at for a particular journal’s platform, that means I’m taking a risk by sizing my comic for a particular journal, who may end up rejecting my work. I’ve heard cartoonists describe the lack of certain publication as ‘not worth it.’

A few publications later, Jarod half-jokingly said to me: “Now that you’re a real cartoonist you have to get a tumblr.” tumblr has been a favored platform among Indie cartoonists for years, along with other social platforms. They use these to publish serialized and short comics, and to promote each other’s work.

This method of self-publication is embraced in a way that it’s not in academia. Frequently, artists with large online followings attract the attention of publishers and land a book deal that way. The Indie comics culture has a large online community, and is seen as a common avenue to success in this field. Their work is validated by large readerships, rather than editors. One example of this is the book Far Arden. Kevin Cannon published this entire graphic novel on his website, and gained a large readership and eventually got picked up by a reputable publisher, Top Shelf. However, what’s really interesting to me about this case is that even though the book is published, the entire project is still available online for free.

This example is significant because I think it represents the continually widening variety of publication paths that are now afforded to authors due to digital and online publishing platforms. This holds true beyond comics, as fan fiction writers and bloggers land book deals based on their self-published online writing.

The immediacy of my academic environment often pushes me in the direction of publication that leads to CV lines. Since I’m on the job market right now, my career feels at stake based on my CV, which, unfortunately means that I’m missing out on potential opportunities gained by publishing on social digital platforms.

You’re probably thinking, why not figure out a way to do both? Believe me, I’ve tried. However, comics is a labor-intensive art, and once I’ve finished something that is at a publishable level, I find that I want to get tangible credit for the work. Which isn’t the reason I create, of course, but necessary to building a career, especially in academia.

So now I find myself straddling the line between two different cultures that my creative work is a part of. For my work within academia, I have to publish at a journal in order to gain professional credit, necessary for building my career. On the other hand, cartoonists are more likely to gain a broad readership through self-publication methods that aren’t accepted in academia.

For me, this raises the question — why should I have to decide between the two cultures? I really do believe in literary magazines and the work they do in the literary community. Additionally, I think the editorial process is important, as it often ensures a degree of quality control, although the editorial process in publishing has its own set of problems that I can’t get into here.

However, I do believe that the increase of digital publishing methods call for a change in the way publication is treated. As Dr. Runge pointed out last week, there are metrics available to us that can point to readership and the relevancy of work. After all, a top-tier, peer-reviewed outlet doesn’t ensure readers or relevancy, which is what many writers aim for.

One literary journal that seems to be embracing more digital publishing trends is The Rumpus. They published my comic a few summers ago, and then also published it on their tumblr in order to reach a wider audience. While I did get credit the traditional way, I still got to see how some readers interacted with the comic on tumblr.

I think academia, especially in the case of creative writing, needs to consider new avenues of publication as valid. Our field is already blurring the line between academia and popular culture, as we tend to publish in both places. But more needs to be done on the departmental and university level to adjust to changing outlets.