BOOM! Studios' Shannon Watters Talks #ComicsForward

Earlier this year, BOOM! Studios announced that they'd be celebrating their tenth anniversary in [...]

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Earlier this year, BOOM! Studios announced that they'd be celebrating their tenth anniversary in part by promoting the larger comics industry and hoping that a healthy and successful comics market would lift all boats, including theirs.

To that end, they revealed #ComicsForward, a hashtag under which fans and professionals could talk about how they see comics -- and how they want to see comics -- in the next ten years.

Much of that, on the BOOM! side, is being spearheaded by editor Shannon Watters, arguably best known for her work on the best-selling and award-winning Lumberjanes. Watters spoke with last month about the launch of the #ComicsForward campaign.

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This presumably affects you a lot, since much of your line does well outside of the traditional comics market. How do you balance reaching out, without making retailers feeling alienated?

Obviously in the forefront of all of our minds, all the time, is telling the best stories that we can tell. Along with that, we really want to make sure that the amazing stories that we are putting out there are not necessarily all coming from the same point of view.

My background is outside of the traditional direct market custome.When I was much younger, I was a newspaper comics fan, then a manga comics fan in middle school. I got pretty heavily into American small press and indie comics in high school and college, so my background really was there. In college, I found webcomics and I found that community, who were a lot of people who were around my age, and I was really fascinated by the comics they were making. So my taste is not necessarily that of the quote-unquote stereotypical direct market customer, you know? But the exciting thing is that even if you are making stories that are a little weird or stories that are coming from a different place than the traditional place, everybody still loves a great adventure story. Everybody still loves a great coming-of-age story.

I think that you can find a balance where you are getting people into the comic shop, like with Adventure Time, that aren't necessarily Wednesday comics buyers and you're turning them into Wednesday comics buyers. If you bring enough of them in, the Wednesday comics buyers may take notice and say, "Hm. This looks kind of different, but I've been hearing a lot of good things about it." Retailers came out in droves to support Lumberjanes. Lumberjanes was a great example of kind of a grassroots effort on the part of people who were not necessarily regular Wednesday comics buyers going into comic shops, preordering, and getting retailers excited. And retailers have been an incredible advocate for stuff like Lumberjanes, Bitch Planet, Pretty Deadly, those kinds of books. So I think it's kind of a happy marriage that comes from doing amazing work, then reverse-engineering getting people into stores who might not necessarily get into stores and providing evidence that the audience is there for retailers, who then see it's an awesome comic and help get the standard Wednesday comics buyers into a different type of book.

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It's interesting that we don't really have a generally agreed-upon phrase for what to call that segment of the audience.

It's kind of why I put it as Wednesday comics buyers. It really is a cultural thing. It's less of a group of people; you can't really say that everyWednesday comics buyer is a white male between the ages of 30 and whatever, you know? You can't pigeonhole that, but what does set those people apart is they've learned the status quo of the direct market system. They are used to the ritual of going to a comics shop every week on Wednesdays and picking up books. Or going once a month and picking up their stack. I think that has been the most interesting thing, and Kelly Sue [DeConnick] has really done an incredible job with this, educating people who are not Wednesday comics buyers on the importance of preordering within the direct market system to support a book. I think that's really where the education and honestly the separation is coming from. Not everybody knows how the direct market works and how publishing within the direct market works.

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When I think of the #ComicsAreForEveryone conversation that was happening, to me, I don't remember if you guys helped kickstart that hashtag but Lumberjanes is a book that represented that movement.

#ComicsAreForEveryone originated with Jordie [Bellaire] and R. Stevens, I'm pretty sure, who are both incredible humans and amazing creators. We were lucky with Lumberjanes that we had something that seemed to really excite people and that people had been looking for within their comics. We really did set out to make a Saturday morning cartoon with Lumberjanes and who doesn't love Saturday morning cartoons? If Lumberjanes had an agenda, that's what it was.

How did you guys come to the idea that rather than trying to find "the next" Lumberjanes that you wanted to start a conversation that would yield some great books? That seems like a circuitous route for a publisher.

Well, I think that always is the conversation for us. We're really lucky here at BOOM! because we've got a diverse bullpen and it's kind of hard to find the time to sit in a room and go, "Alright!" and puff our cigars and say, "What's the next big hit?" We're too busy with the business of making comic books.

I feel really, really strongly about giving people the chance — especially folks that are in marginalized groups — a voice, and a place to shine. There are lots of places in this industry where, if you're a guy and you want to tell a superhero story, you can do that. This is kind of reductive, and I apologize for that, but there are a lot of places where that opportunity is offered to you and therefore there are a lot of those stories out there.

However, I consider it a responsibility to myself and the industry to challenge myself to look outside of my own privilege and my own narrow view of what comics are and what they should be and try to find voices that surprise me and stories that surprise me. Uncynical stories and gleeful stories, those are generally my guiding principles. Keeping your eye on the ball as far as that responsibility being in the forefront of your mind even as you're looking for the very best that comics has to offer is really important — more important than simple marketability. Obviously, marketability is important. We're a publisher in the mainstream space, we want to make money, we want retailers to make money, and we want creators to make money. But there are so many talented creators out there, and I want to make sure that I'm giving everybody a fair shake.

Were you guys ever concerned about the typical accusations of trying to control the dialogue with #ComicsForward?

Oh, absolutely. It's a little like, there are some people who act like the women in comics movement is this brand-new thing, when there have been amazing women in cartooning for literally the entire history of cartooning. Karen Berger is one of the editorial greats of our industry, and yet there's a prevailing idea that women are "suddenly" getting into comics! I think we were very concerned about making sure that we did not come off as seeming like "WE are the saviors of the industry!" There have been so many people out there — creators hustling and editors hustling and people really putting in the time and the work to make this movement happen for years and years and years — for the entire life of our industry.

We wanted to be as careful as possible to note there are lots of people out there doing this kind of work. The Web offers an incredible publishing platform for marginalized voices to get eyes, to do their work, and to be paid for their work. But looking at the mainstream comic industry and looking at direct market comic books, there's still so much more that needs to be done. We wanted to make it clear that as publishers, and honestly as consumers, we need to keep that responsibility toward supporting differing viewpoints and toward promoting different points of view in the forefront of our brains.

Just because the Web exists and is a wonderful thing does not mean that we as publishers say, "Oh, the interesting stuff, the stuff outside of the typical mainstream, those points of view can be represented on the Web and we don't have a responsibility toward that." By not taking a stand within the mainstream industry, we're insuring our own demise. A healthy industry is a diverse industry and sure, it's a difficult conversation for publishers to have, because the default nature of the mainstream comics business is conservative. But taking that stance is important, having these discussions is important, especially as mainstream comic books inform larger cultural discussions more and more. It's interesting because Dafna Pleban, another Senior Editor here, and I were having a conversation about this the other day. Somebody had noted that they felt like Agent Carter on ABC was pandering to women by offering this kick-butt lady protagonist. You're seeing a lot of it right now, ridiculous people saying that the lady Ghostbusters is somehow "pandering to feminists." Which, as Faith Erin Hicks put it on Twitter a few weeks ago, pander to me! Put a woman of color and a lesbian woman in a remake of Caddyshack, or put them in Star Wars. Pander to me and my queer lady interests, please.

Because if we are not having this conversation as publishers, as people with resources, who presently are controlling what is entering the conversation as far as what's entering stores and what is entering the mainstream comic market, then there is no progress.. We want publishers to be having this conversation. We want publishers to look critically at their hiring practices. I want creators in mainstream comics to look critically at how they're depicting women and how they're depicting minority groups, whether it's people of color or LGBT people. I want people to sit at their drawing board and go, "Hey, does this doctor have to be a guy? Why am I reverting to that default?" I want publishers to have this conversation. We all, in this corner of the industry, have to be examining and getting better all the time. We are certainly not perfect and the point is that nobody is. As long as we continue to have this conversation, we can move toward the betterment of the industry and an expansion of the industry.