Illustration by Chris Kindred

In Conversation: Comics Creators Ngozi Ukazu and Taneka Stotts

Two indie comics creators discuss forging their own paths in a changing industry.

The comics industry is changing. Writing for Marvel or DC is no longer the definition of “making it.” Instead, indie comics creators are starting their own presses and imprints, and rolling out original characters that they can shape and nourish throughout their careers. Two people who know this well are Ngozi Ukazu and Taneka Stotts, independent comics creators who have forged their own paths through community-funded projects.

Ngozi Ukazu (left) and Taneka Stotts (right)

In 2015, Ngozi launched a Kickstarter project to fund the first print volume of Check, Please!, her popular webcomic following a hockey player named Eric “Bitty” Bittle who comes to terms with his queerness during his freshman year of college. Since then, she’s returned to Kickstarter to launch years two and three, and this year, she’ll be releasing a collected volume of Check, Please! with First Second Books.

Taneka Stotts is the co-founder of Beyond Press, home of The Beyond Anthology, a queer sci-fi and fantasy comics anthology and the Eisner award-winning Elements: Fire, a comics anthology by creators of color. In addition to her work with Beyond Press, she’s also the writer behind the Eisner-nominated webcomic Déjà Brew.

Earlier this year, Ngozi and Taneka called each other to chat about early turning points in their careers, the changing indie comics landscape, and what it means to prove oneself to an industry in flux.

—Maura M. Lynch


Taneka Stotts: I want to know: what did Kickstarter do for Check, Please!? Did you have any apprehensions about crowdfunding?

Ngozi Ukazu: I can flash back to the very first time I did my Kickstarter project for Check, Please! Year One. I was at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) at the time. I was so anxious because it wasn’t just that I was doing a project to fund a dream of producing a book — it was something [my livelihood depended on]. I’m glad it worked out, but I don’t know what would’ve happened if Year One didn’t do well.

Taneka Stotts: How did you [feel about] overfunding at that point, knowing that you were gonna produce more product than you might have originally intended to produce?

Illustration by Chris Kindred

Ngozi Ukazu: The first time my Kickstarter got overfunded, it was all about, “Time to do stretch goals.” And then when Year Two rolled around and the comic was overfunded in a way that I really didn’t expect, I was just thinking like, “How do I still engage with this Kickstarter in a meaningful way? How do I keep the readers excited?”

Fulfillment, I always warn people, is the worst part of doing a campaign, even though I have a weird love of spreadsheets. I spend a lot of time doing that, but the opportunity cost takes away time from the things I wanna do, which is make comics. So I think every time something gets overfunded now, there’s this little voice in the back of my head saying, “Be excited, but just know that this is creating more work that you will be able to handle, but it is more work nonetheless.”

Taneka Stotts: And when we say work, we do mean work. It is hours of time spent doing these spreadsheets, doing these fulfillments.

I would like to say that comics has come to a point where it’s becoming viable and sustainable. It’s not just for a golden trio of three of the same base creators. How do we continue to perceive that notion? How do we make comics sustainable for everyone else?

Ngozi Ukazu: So many people who are indie creators are marginalized in some way. Be they people of color, or queer, or disabled. So many of those communities aren’t privy to things like financial literacy, or even just organizational skills, that might be developed in other areas of life but because you have to live and deal with so many other things — you don’t get to learn and refine those skills.

I think sustainability comes from teaching people how to invest, teaching people how to make business plans, how to meaningfully engage with an audience. Those are all very fine skills that people don’t get as much access to as I would like.

I think sustainability comes from teaching people how to invest, teaching people how to make business plans, how to meaningfully engage with an audience. Those are all very fine skills that people don’t get as much access to as I would like.
—Ngozi Ukazu

Taneka Stotts: What was your ah-ha moment? When you decided, “Comics is paying my bills”?

Ngozi Ukazu: When I was in grad school, I had started doing Check, Please! and I made this fun, little zine. I was like, “Oh, people wanna buy these.” The first time I opened up those gates, I had about 500 orders that I had to ship. That was the first moment where I was just like, “If I do this every once in a while, I could maybe pay bills.”

But even before that, in high school I opened myself for commissions. I was charging $5 for a bust, $14 for a full image. I was like, “This is pretty cool. If I keep this up maybe I can get a part-time job.” I always had in my mind that there was something that I can do with my art. I’m first generation. I was a QuestBridge Scholar, basically that’s just saying I was poor growing up. My art was always going to be my food in some way, in some form.

Did you ever feel compelled to make money off of art?

Taneka Stotts: Yes, I did. I realized that college was very expensive and I had no other way of paying for it. I found out that there were these really cool slam poetry shows in my area and a cup gets passed around [to collect money]. If you’re good enough, you win that cup full of money.

With that determination — not just for the money but also to be up there with titans and giants that I had super-admired — I got my game on and I started making my place in that world. I loved Saul Stacey Williams from the get-go, and that was what I wanted to see myself as. And if you can make movies doing slam poetry, you can be on HBO doing slam poetry, then maybe this is something for me — as far as a poor little black kid in the middle of southwest Arizona — something that I could pull off, too.

Ngozi Ukazu: I see that as a common thread between us, not being afraid to put ourselves out there.

Taneka Stotts: I think that comes as part of being a face [of a project]. Check, Please! is just your face, pretty much; it’s a beautiful face! How do you feel about queerness and the general audience that you have found that now embrace that face and really look forward to each and every part of that saga?

A panel from Check, Please!

Ngozi Ukazu: Check, Please! is a story about queer characters who get to be queer and not be punished for it. I would say that the community around [it] is almost a way to express some type of relief, because growing up, you don’t get to see happy stories of queer characters.

In the most recent storyline, with Bitty coming out to his mom, I wanted to make it as realistic as possible. I was just like, “Bitty gets to do this. He gets to be strong, he gets to say what he needs to say on his own terms, and it’s not going to be totally happy. It’s not going to be totally sad.”

I’m happy I get to tell these stories. How do you feel about it?

Taneka Stotts: [Growing up,] every time that I thought about my queerness — before being able to finally come out and actually enjoy my queerness — was prefaced with media that saw us dead. Especially if you were black.

The Beyond Anthology [had] queer characters that didn’t have to come out and clearly define themselves. They were just queer in their stories and they were just making their place; they were setting themselves up as the main characters.

Ngozi Ukazu: Do you ever find that people confront you, like, “I need to know the identity of this character.” And how do you respond?

Taneka Stotts: I don’t find that I’ve been asked those questions for the last two or three years, actually. I get different questions like, “I wanna know what [your characters] bake on their off time.” Or, because I do anthologies, “Are you going to pick this back up and finish this? What happens to these characters?” I think this means that we’ve had a really big change in comics. Over the last ten years, comics has changed drastically.

Ngozi Ukazu: I think one of the biggest changes for me is the fact that I can name a ton of people who don’t work for Marvel, DC, Boom, or IDW, and they pay their bills and have retirement plans. [For] indie creators now, it’s not just about paying rent. It’s about mentoring; it’s about thinking about the future. It’s not hand-to-mouth, it’s taking people hand-in-hand. It’s going forward with it.

Illustration by Chris Kindred

Taneka Stotts: There is not only seeable change in comics right now, but there is the sustainability of being an indie creator versus being a corporate creator. It’s defined not only by us as creators of color or queer creators, but we’re carving out successful niches that are giving us deals at [publishers like] First Second.

Ngozi Ukazu: I think it’s remarkable. There are so many artists I can think of who have really figured out merchandising. Their Patreons are doing fantastically. They are engaging with their audiences, and their audiences are slowly growing. It’s a model that is more reliant on paying attention to your audience and having a smaller reach. As opposed to corporate comics — where you’re expecting a paycheck from someone else working with characters who you’ll never own — I think it’s a big difference: indie creators are creating their own [intellectual property] that they roll out for the rest of their careers.

Taneka Stotts: You have technically worked for a corporation by going with First Second. How was it for you as an indie creator changing your format from your strip to the contemporary graphic novel standard? How did you feel about the whole process?

Ngozi Ukazu: I learned a lot. But I do think that I’m in a unique situation where I can demand things because I’m like, “Here’s the audience that I built myself. This is what I think they want. This is what I want.” I do have the option to walk away, the option to continue to be self-published.

Taneka Stotts: You’ve gone to SCAD and business school. [Technical publishing concepts like] backing and trapping, CMYK count, K tones and K levels — were these things introduced to you or did you know about them beforehand?

Ngozi Ukazu: There’s a long period of time where I felt like I was really behind and I was always playing catch-up. I still feel that way, in a lot of ways. I think the thing that I learned in undergrad, or just from the friendships that I had, is that success is not a zero-sum game. I don’t think I have ever felt like if someone is succeeding in comics it means that I am not succeeding.

Taneka Stotts: When I was [teaching a workshop for students at SCAD in 2017], all I did was teach kids how to make comics so that they could actually print them and make them look pretty. Because a part of our work is also our appearance.

And it’s not just art — physical appearance at a convention table — it’s the appearance of your book. Do you care about this page? Do you care about the texture, the feel, the full product that we’re selling? And a lot of those kids didn’t know these things so I guided them into it because we wanna make this sustainable for everyone. “It’s not a Highlander game,” as Spike Trotman likes to say. There can be more than one black person. Ta-da!

“It’s not a Highlander game,” as Spike Trotman likes to say. There can be more than one black person. Ta-da!
—Taneka Stotts

Ngozi Ukazu: When I see someone’s Kickstarter going up, I’m like, “A, cool! B, can I promote them?…” It’s not like if someone else is doing well it means that someone else is not going to do well. The sooner people eliminate that mindset, the sooner they will experience more success.

Taneka Stotts: A lot of people assume things about Kickstarter [projects] — how they’re funded, how they play out. Did you face any assumptions doing a Kickstarter [project]?

Ngozi Ukazu: I think people assume that the number you see is what you get, and that you can use all of the money to pay off your student loans and buy a house. They don’t understand this is funding for a project, one that can go wrong. For me, I am paying to have things produced. I’m paying my manager for his expertise. I’m paying all the artists involved. I am paying myself for the fact that I have to do planning.

When you finish a Kickstarter, you have two jobs: Producing the thing that people were supporting, and fulfilling the project. The hours add up.

Taneka Stotts: There is no nine-to-five. You are working very hard so that it comes out on schedule — but projections are not tied down in stone. They’re not things that you can will to manifest if the shipment is late or if your books are stuck in a unknown warehouse for the next two weeks.

Ngozi Ukazu: I am so thankful that my readers have understood that things happen and there are so many things that you can’t control. That projected date sometimes gets a little fuzzy. Every independent creator needs to understand some basics of customer service. You should address [your backers] as honestly as you can, and just try to do your project with as much professionalism and grace as you can.

Taneka Stotts: Exactly, and that’s all anybody’s asking for. You don’t have to tell them what happened to your dog, and when your aunt passed away, or anything like that. You can simply just say, “They’re late.” Communication is key as far as making people aware and making them feel a part of the process, which is technically what we’re doing when we’re making ourselves so public and presentable.

Ngozi Ukazu: One last thing that I wanted to ask you. Remember how I said I always felt so behind in comics and in art? I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that.

Like, Marvel or DC. Those are the things that people know about. As an indie creator, do I have to get to that level? Is that even a level anymore? I feel like Kickstarter [projects] have helped me — huge quote, unquote — “prove myself” as a creator, but I don’t know. I was wondering if you ever think about what you want to accomplish. Have you already proved yourself?

Taneka Stotts: Yes, absolutely. Just to answer that. But, what does proving oneself actually mean? For me, I started out with Beyond. That was what people knew and understood me for being part of and helping to manifest. While that was really wonderful and great, I am also a queer woman of color, and my focus shifted to, “How would it turn out if I did it for creators of color only? How would that be received by this audience that craves diverse voices and talent and that really cares about the current climate of comics and the change that is starting to precipitate in the background?”

I wanted to prove that I do it on my own and that it was something that I was very dedicated to. Elements: Fire became me proving that everyone can do it on their own and that nobody needs anyone’s assistance — aside from maybe your comics community family — to put a project together that is so focused on our blackness, our queerness, the varieties of who we are at our core and making it into a book, something that is so beautiful that, when you hold it, it already wins awards in your heart. So, it doesn’t matter what accolades are slapped upon it. It’s just something where you know that you’ve invested so much of yourself into that people will recognize it just by seeing the cover.

So that’s what I did. I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to say, “Hey indie comics, I’m here. I’m queer. And I’m also gonna make some badass books for you for the next few years.”

Illustration by Chris Kindred

Ngozi Ukazu: I think whenever you have a project that succeeds because it’s backed by so many people, so many voices, it is proving yourself. It’s proving that, Hey, this works. Hey, these people, they’re eager. Hey, we have our stake in this community. Hey, pay attention!

I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worrying about whether or not I am proving myself to a community that’s already changing. I think that’s a little bit of a waste of time. I’m glad that people can put their social media support and their vocal enthusiasm and their colors behind my projects. I think, yes, I’m proving myself.