Over the course of 30 years, the Golden, Colorado publisher Fulcrum Publishing has produced over 900 books, but it's just within the past five years that it has gone in a new direction, adding nonfiction graphic novels to its line. Most of the books are focused on history, with a strong emphasis on diversity and Fulcrum has plans to do a lot of them in the next few years.
Fulcrum has plans to publish at least three nonfiction graphic novels a year for the foreseeable future, and they are marketing not only to general readers but also to comics specialty shops, libraries, and especially, schools. It started with comics creator Matt Dembecki’s Trickster (2010), an anthology of Native American trickster tales told by Native American storytellers and illustrated by professional comics artists, and has slowly picked up momentum.
Trickster was well received by reviewers and has sold 35,000 copies so far. That success paved the way for more nonfiction graphic novels. Dembicki edited two more anthologies, District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC (2012), and Wild Ocean: Sharks, Whales, Rays, and Other Endangered Sea Creatures (2014).
Dembecki then introduced the Fulcrum editors to Jason Rodriguez, who is now editing a three-volume anthology titled Colonial Comics; the first volume, focusing on New England in the years 1620-1750 and the lives of women, slaves, free thinkers and other aspects of colonial life, is due out this fall. Rodriguez, in turn, brought Joel Christian Gill into the fold. Gill, who is the Associate Dean of Student Affairs at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, is working on two series, for which he is the sole creator. The first is Strange Fruit, a collection of short stories about African American history, and the other is Tales of the Talented Tenth, longer-form biographies of black Americans.
Fulcrum's future plans include the three volumes of Colonial Comics; three volumes of Strange Fruit; and five volumes of Tales of the Talented Tenth.
Fulcrum was started 30 years ago by Bob Baron to publish books about the environment, conservation, and Western history. Later, the publisher branched out into Colorado guidebooks and books about gardening and Native American history, religion, law, and philosophy. When Dembicki approached the publisher with the idea of telling Native American folk tales in a graphic novel format, "we thought that would be a great new model to jump into," said marketing manager Melanie Roth. "It follows our mission with Native American literature." Dembicki, who edited the anthology, allowed the storytellers to choose the artist they would work with and approve the storyboards.
In the U.S. Fulcrum titles are distributed to the trade by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution. The graphic works are also available in a variety of venues, including chain and independent bookstores, and Fulcrum has a contract with Diamond Comics Distributors for distribution to comic shops. The education market, both schools and libraries, is particularly important to them.
"We recognize that the Common Core has given schools a lot of challenges," said editor-in-chief Beck McEwen. "For language arts and reading, the goal is to focus much more on nonfiction, and they need books that basically start a dialogue. [Educators] are asking students less about background knowledge and more about tough questions. If they are studying the Gettysburg Address, they are not just reading it; they want to launch research and conversations. Thinking about the Common Core that way, our books are a natural for supplemental reading."
In addition, there is a strong focus on diversity and on telling lesser known stories, and books such as Colonial Comics do that. "The history people normally get is a lot of white guys making a lot of decisions," said McEwen. "That's a little soul-destroying if you're not a white guy making decisions. We are able to feature stories that have women in them, and Native Americans."
The books are intended for middle school students. "Kids in middle school have definitely cornered the market in not wanting to do things," said McEwen. "If a student is struggling at a lower reading level, they don't want to be handed a baby book. A comic looks sophisticated, it looks cool, and even if the vocabulary is a stretch there is enough image support that kids can get it."
Still, she says, fourth-grade teachers have told her that their students were willing to stretch a bit to read the books, and high school teachers see them as books their students will find interesting. In addition, the anthology format gives teachers a lot of flexibility; the different levels allow them to assign more difficult stories to more proficient readers and easier stories to struggling readers, all from the same book.
The books are rigorously fact-checked, said McEwen: "Having come from educational publishing, I know it's fatal if you publish a book for schools with a factual error." In addition, Fulcrum has created a website for educators that takes the place of the standard teachers' guides.
Joel Gill’s Strange Fruit started as a single mini-comic based on an unexpected Google search result: He was reading some comics by Philadelphia artist Box Brown, and when he Googled him, he came up with a different person with the same nickname: Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who escaped by shipping himself to the North in a packing crate. Gill made a comic about Henry Brown, and that first mini-comic led to more; when he was selling it at conventions, people would come up to him and tell him about other unsung black heroes.
As the mini-comics piled up, Gill made some inquiries with publishers, but they all wanted to see a finished book. Then he met Rodriguez at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) two years ago. Rodriguez introduced him to Fulcrum publisher Sam Scinta via e-mail, and Scinta was enthusiastic. "He came to me when everyone was waiting for me to finish it, and he said 'I don't want to wait. I want to buy the book now,'" Gill said.
In Strange Fruit, Gill focuses on lesser-known pioneers such as Richard Potter, the first African American stage magician, and the champion cyclist Marshall "Major" Taylor, as well as episodes such as the story of Malaga Island, which was settled by freed slaves and then taken away from them. In one chapter, he illustrates two letters from a former slave, Spottswood Rice, who returned to his hometown with 1,000 Union troops to rescue his children from his former master.
Gill wants to see the stories of African Americans burst the boundaries of Black History Month (he jokes that he wants to start a Twitter hashtag #28DaysAreNotEnough). Individuals of color, he explains, are woven tightly into the whole fabric of history. "It isn’t really black history as much as it is American history," Gill said. "These stories can't be told anywhere else. They are embedded in the fabric of society.
“If you take Spottswood Rice and change him from a [black] slave to a white indentured servant, it is still an interesting story,” Gill said. “When you add the American fiber to it, the Civil War, the fact that this man is a slave, it becomes so much richer. The stories are American stories. I wrote them for me, and I wrote them for everybody."