Authentic and fresh, offering what mainstream books aren’t: Nathan Onias launches Indie Comic Con

Nathan Onias

Nathan Onias is a comic book artist, freelance illustrator, and organizer of the upcoming Indie Comic Con — a festival showcasing independent comic book creators. His comic, Commander Canine, is a cop buddy comedy set to be published in late 2017.

How has the term “indie” evolved compared to seven or eight years ago as it was applied to certain comic books?

Nathan: Indie comics used to mean an alternative to the mainstream genres, like the big superhero books, but I believe the term indie is now synonymous with creator-driven and produced stories that span the entire spectrum of genres.

Who decides what “flavor” constitutes as mainstream or indie since you can have creator driven work on both sides? Does it all come back to sales?

Nathan: Mainstream titles are put out by the big publishers such as Marvel and DC with teams of professionals working on a single book. Creators on these titles are often dealing with intellectual property created by someone else that is owned by the publisher and has a long history, subject to strict editorial guidelines. Whereas indie titles are creator-owned and the art and story duties are handled by a small team, if not one person. Indie creators have the freedom to present whatever story they wish, unfiltered.

Nathan Onias and Thomas Tung’s illustrated guide on how indie comics are made | Nathan Onias and Thomas Tung

You would think that with the freedom to produce unrestrained materials, indie comic book creators would be emboldened to start capturing their fair share of the market but distribution doesn’t come easily. Why is that?

Nathan: Yes, the content of indie comics is diverse and rich. But because most indie creators are taking on the production and publishing themselves, print runs tend to be small and costs for physical distribution are high, requiring a large investment in time and money. Worldwide distribution is available with sites like Comixology and Amazon if you’re willing to sacrifice a large portion of the profit. Part of the problem is getting readers to take a chance on an indie title that might be a few dollars more than their familiar Spiderman comic. Because of this there are many indie titles you can only find at local book shops or festivals.

I imagine this is where the role of the Indie Comic Con comes in. When did you come up with the idea and what was the initial intention?

Nathan: Over the last year I’d been working on my own book, Commander Canine, and was looking forward to launching it at a major convention. I had partnered with another creator, Pierre Lloga, who had an amazing new book, Excitement City, also ready to launch. I’d seen the standard of comics at this convention before so I was surprised when we were told we didn’t get a table. On the day of the event it was frustrating to see most of the artist alley taken up by fan art and merchandising with only a handful of new independent books on show. For me, it wasn’t a comic convention but a pop culture marketing extravaganza. That was where the concept of Indie Comic Con was born — a pure comic book convention showcasing indie creators, celebrating the craft of comics.

Your issue isn’t merchandising per say, but just the sheer quantity of it that takes prime real estate at these conventions. How would you balance this at the Indie Comic Con, especially if merchandising brings in a sizable percentage of revenue?

Nathan: We’re going to completely separate our event from that model and offer an experience that is all about comic books and the creators. This event is not about generating profit for the organisers but rather to create a banner under which a larger number of creators can exhibit their work and connect with an audience. We’re putting it on as a free public event and our aim is to educate and inspire others about what the medium of comics can do. Certainly there are substantial costs and we’ve partnered with several sponsors to help cover them. Even then there’s still a gap to bridge and that’s where our Kickstarter campaign comes in.

Why choose Melbourne or even stay within Australia for that matter? Sheer convenience or is the Australian indie comic market particularly susceptible?

Nathan: [Laughs] It’s my home town now even though I grew up in Iowa. We’re starting out small and I’m relying on my connections in the local Melbourne scene — creators who are donating their time, expertise and skills to help get this event off the ground. We’re building a relationship with Comic Art Tokyo, which I’m really excited about, and they will be showcasing indie books from Japan at our convention. As for the future, anything is possible. I’d love for Indie Comic Con to expand to other cities in Australia and internationally if we can build a following around it. But first things first, let’s do this one in November.

Commander Canine | Nathan Onias

Is there the fear by artists that if they are only ever known as indie, it’ll be that much harder to eventually achieve major mainstream success?

Nathan: No, I don’t think so. If a creator is dedicated to working on their craft, accepting criticism, and continuing to put out great content, they’ll enjoy success in all arenas. If you’ve developed a style or intellectual property that is unique and makes for great comics, then you’ve got something really valuable to share.

Tell me about your own experiences working on or helping launch comic books and illustrated works.

Nathan: I come from a traditional arts background, having studied painting and drawing in university. Now I work as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. Commander Canine is actually my first comic book so I’m relatively new to the comic creator scene. It started as a project for me to practice and study the various disciplines involved in making a comic from scripting, penciling, inking, lettering, colouring, and post-production. I actually stumbled upon the Melbourne Comic Creators group, which was awesome because I suddenly had this whole network of people to bounce ideas off. I think, like me, many creators are out there doing it on their own and one of the aims of Indie Comic Con is to encourage collaboration between creators.

Excerpt from ‘Queen of Action’ by indie artist Thomas Tung | Thomas Tung

Given the rise of e-books, if more and more comic books are released in a digital-only format, could that make the role of your venture unnecessary?

Nathan: Not at all. There will always be a place for printed comic books. The tactile quality of the paper stock, the sound of the pages turning, the smell of the ink on paper — these things can’t be duplicated by digital comics. A printed comic book is a piece of art.

What are some other challenges you’re hoping to tackle through Indie Comic Con that you feel are unique to or more prevalent in Australia than other places?

Nathan: We hope to provide a platform for creators to present content that is uniquely Australian. The comics market here is dominated by books from the USA and we’d like to shine a light on stories that draw upon Australian life and culture. Helping connect these books to a wider audience will only enrich the comic scene here and share the Australian experience.

Nathan Onias

Based on your interactions, have there been indie artists who are worried that an indie-oriented event might scare off persons who aren’t quite sure what that term means?

Nathan: I haven’t gotten that feeling, no. Since I launched this project I’ve had overwhelming support and enthusiasm from indie creators all over Australia who have been waiting for an event like this. Part of our mission is to educate the public about what indie comics are and encourage them to come along and see what it’s all about.

Indie artist Angie Spice’s Courier: The Adventures of Geraldine Barker | Angie Spice

Is there a particular experience or piece of advice you often communicate to artists who are just starting out to caution them against unrealistically high expectations in the beginning?

Nathan: Commit to your craft, practice daily, and learn from other creators. Seek and accept criticism. Focus on making a really good single book before you start planning for an epic twelve issue arc.

As a stand alone event done once, you won’t necessarily see such a large impact straight away. However, in due time, perhaps even after multiple iterations, how do you hope indie comics are perceived by the public as a result of your efforts?

Nathan: As a unique vehicle of storytelling that incorporates the disciplines of illustration and creative writing, serving as an escape to other worlds and as a form of self-expression. I’d like indie comics to be recognised as authentic and fresh, offering something that mainstream books aren’t.

Nathan Onias | Instagram | Indie Comic Con

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Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity