On Wednesday, the Columbia College Chicago Comics Club and the Columbia College Chicago held “Beyond the Panel: Chicago Women in Comics,” which brought together three very different creators. C. Spike Trotman is the cartoonist behind the webcomic, Templar, AZ. Jill Thompson is best known for her work on Sandman, Scary Godmother¸ and Beasts of Burden. Audrey Niffenegger is best known for the best-selling novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, but also wrote and drew a graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile, which was serialized in The London Guardian and was recently collected in book form.
The Columbia Comics Club moderator started the panel by stating that unlike other panels focusing on women in comics, there would be no questions about how the panelists had been oppressed by the industry, since all three had been successful. What did occur was a discussion of how a person gets started in comics and the nearly inevitable debate over the role of the Internet as a driver of distribution and business.
Spike, who’s well known for both bluntness and a self-effacing attitude, quipped that her webcomic was “too small to fail.” On the one hand, she felt there was no way that a print publisher would commit to a multi-volume series from an unknown with no track record, although Oni Press did express interested in doing an omnibus edition after “Templar, AZ” has finished its story. On the other hand, she stated that the real money in webcomics was in the gag-a-day strips, not story strips. While she makes money on selling books and posters, she doesn’t get the traffic levels that general lots of advertising dollars, nor does her subject matter lend itself to t-shirts as readily as the gag strips.
The entire panel found the dominance of gag strips online to be a little disappointing.
Thompson, not entirely comfortable with the concept of freely viewed comics online and echoing some of Sergio Aragones’s concerns from the Harvey Awards, talked about her initial foray into creator-owned comics. As the comics industry hit a speed bump in the mid-90s, artists stopped switching books as storylines changed (which had been popularized by Neil Gaiman’s artist rotation at Vertigo) and Thompson found herself looking for a new project as mainstream publishers started signing artists to longer term deals. While contemplating becoming the godmother to her niece, she thought to herself “I’d be a pretty scary godmother,” and a light bulb went on.
Thompson and Spike talked a bit about the Xeric Awards being a helpful program for people starting out, though Thompson thought Oprah Winfrey needed to put some of her Angel Network money into Chicago cartoonist grants.
Niffenegger had the most unusual path to comics. In her twentiess, she’d dabbled in them as limited edition pieces of art and done them for herself, as much as anything. After the wild success for her first novel, she found he could have these projects printed by a mainstream publisher, which is how her book The Three Incestuous Sisters came to bookstores. The Night Bookmobile came about when the editor of the Guardian called her up and asked if she’d like to do a comic to fill a vacated slot in the paper, so she adapted a short story she’d written. Niffeneger is bemused, and perhaps a little surprised, her old hobby is now something there’s suddenly demand for her to do. While her mainstream fame is definitely a driving factor in the public acceptance of her comics work, she assured Spike and Thompson that web and print were compatible with each other on the same projects. She knew, because she’d been very successful with both.