In 2009, Chicago webcomic cartoonist C. Spike Trotman, under her own publishing company, Iron Circus Comics, created the Kickstarter page for her first crowdfunded comic, “Poorcraft.” Since then, Iron Circus has published a wide variety of graphic novels, with anthologies such as “Smut Peddler,” and “The Sleep of Reason,” and printings of webcomics like “Shadoweyes,” and “TJ & Amal.” Still a creator herself, “Yes, Roya,” written by Spike with art by Emilee Denich reached number one on Amazon’s bestseller list.
Eight years and 14 successfully funded Kickstarter projects later, Spike and Iron Circus reached a major milestone last week by reaching over $1 million in total raised Kickstarter funds. Third Coast Review recently reached out to Spike to talk about her momentous achievement in crowdfunding, what she’s learned in the indie publishing business, her books, her work, and the future of Iron Circus.
So when did you find out about reaching the $1 million mark and what was your reaction? Were you expecting to reach one million eventually based on your previous successes?
Ha ha, I knew the million dollar mark had been coming for a while, and would probably arrive near the end of 2017. I’ve been running a lot of Kickstarters this year, and I knew Danielle’s (Danielle Corsetto, creator of “Girls with Slingshots”) was going to be big. I wound up underestimating it, but I knew. The exact moment arrived at around 10:30am on October 18. And when it showed up, I was happy, sure, but I immediately jumped into action with the promo. Ha ha, I was very mercenary about it. I knew news organization and industry blogs care A LOT about big numbers, and one million is very big. It was a chance to get some press [for Iron Circus Comics], more than anything else. This is the stuff you worry about when you run a publishing company.
You created your “Poorcraft,” Kickstarter at a time when the whole crowdfunding business was a novel idea. What was it like creating your first crowdfunding project? How was it different from self-publishing your own webcomic, “Templar, AZ.”
The thing everyone forgets is that in 2009, Kickstarter was a new idea. There were people who would declare with absolute certainty that is couldn’t POSSIBLY work, and derided anyone who used the service as hobos and beggars hell-bent on embarrassing themselves. If you wanted to be published that badly, they’d argue, just go find a publisher! And if you absolutely HAD to be self-published, put on a suit and go to the bank. Go get a loan, like a respectable person.
Yes, these are REAL things said by REAL people. Although I doubt they would own them today.
My first Kickstarter video was just me in front of a webcam! I was in the kitchen of the apartment I was renting at the time, basically explaining the book and telling everyone why I wanted to make it so badly. It was very Baby’s First Kickstarter vid, and makes me cringe a little now. But again, there were no rules back then, no roadmap. No one had figured anything out, yet. My comics Kickstarter literally predated the comics category on Kickstarter! And my prep and research was limited to taking what I knew about what a book the length of Poorcraft would cost to print, and the page rate of my artist, and just going with that. I was hopeful it would work, but it was FAR from a sure thing. But by that point in my career, I was very used to trying new things out, and willing to fail. You sort of have to be.
And honestly, my webcomic was one of the primary reasons I was so sure Kickstarter was a slam-dunk to begin with. Like, on “How can everyone else not see how great this is going to be?” levels. There were Templar books at that point, a few collections, and I’d funded them though crowdfunding without actually having a name for it! Lots of internet cartoonists did that; got the quote for their book from the printer and then asked their fans to pre-order it by sending the cover price to their personal PayPal. It could be dangerous, but it was pretty common. And it worked. I funded the first Templar book in two weeks that way. All Kickstarter was was an improvement in efficiency, automation, and transparency. How was that bad?
To what can you attribute your success in both publishing and crowdfunding?
I’m careful about which project I decide to go to Kickstarter with. There are projects I actually haven’t done because I’m not convinced they wouldn’t fund there, primarily toy and videogame stuff. Cuz c’mon, why should anyone trust me with projects like that? I have no track record, and I am CERTAIN that my first foray into those fields would probably be a nightmare. I don’t want it to be a nightmare where I’m simultaneously screwing up everything there is to screw up and being beholden to 1,000 or so people. Ha ha, let me screw up on my own time, without an audience.
As far as publishing goes, that’s a pretty simple one: I’m making books that no one else is making. I’m focusing on underserved audiences. Whenever I’m submitting a new title to my distributor, for example, one of the things they ask about is “comps,” or titles their sales staff can compare my book to in order to give retailers an idea of what it contains. That is seriously the HARDEST part of the process. A lot of my books are literally incomparable.
What is your publishing game plan with Iron Circus Comics? Do you still plan to release more anthologies and your own personal work?
The only game plan Iron Circus has ever had is “I publish what I like.” If it’s on my table at a con, or on the shelf at the bookstore with my logo on it, it’s there because I liked it. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s the truth!
And I like anthologies. I LOVE anthologies. They allow artists and writers fun departures from other, more long-term projects. They allow newer cartoonists to participate in a group project that lets them have something substantial on the con table the next year, which is a big deal for kids trying to eke out a living on the con circuit. And, most important to me, they kind of prevent my own fogeydom. I don’t ever want to be isolated in my own generational age group in comics. That’s a real danger! It seems to be sort of natural for folks to limit their social and professional circles to other artists they came up with. But I don’t feel that’s justified in comics; the market is constantly growing and there are so many talented people out there. One of the thrills I get editing these anthologies is finding some 22-year-old artist I’ve never heard of who is just AMAZING. I’m going to keep publishing anthologies until people stop buying them. And I’m going to keep publishing my own work, too. I have a lot of stories to tell.
What would you say are the most important things you’ve learned since establishing Iron Circus Comics?
Keep good records. Write everything down. Everyone signs a contract, including your friends. Don’t size up until you have no choice; don’t hire anyone until you have no choice; don’t rent office space until you have no choice. If you don’t like it, and can’t see anyone else really liking it, don’t publish it, no matter who handed it to you. And promote the work you do publish, HARD.
Where do you see Iron Circus comics going, now that you’ve signed on with Consortium Book Sales and Distribution?
My big dream for Iron Circus is about five or six people on as full-time salaried staff, 5 or 6,000 square feet somewhere in Chicago, 20 or 30 books a year. Publishing-wise, it’s a modest dream, but it’s my current one. It’s worth noting that, maybe five years ago, I would’ve never thought I would have what I do now: a million dollars on Kickstarter, a half dozen freelancers, and 2,500 feet of office space. That wouldn’t seemed impossible. Ha ha, I guess my dreams are staged, like rockets.
If I had to go full-on-pie-in-the-sky, I’d want the whole package: someone on staff that handles options and book tours of my creators, a Scott-Pilgrim-style-off-the-charts bestseller, lots of people to delegate to. All while simultaneously being an unrelenting force for change in the industry, a change for the better. A change in favor of the kind of people who wish there were more comics about and for them.
In celebration of their publishing milestone, Iron Circus Comics is currently running a special sale. 3CR congratulates Spike Trotman on her latest success and wishes her more in the future with Iron Circus.