Interview and Written by: Appei Porbeni
To be honest, I don’t even know what to say about Spike, sure we all know her as the creator of Iron Circus Comics and the one and only crowned Kickstarter Champion, but she’s grown to be such a force not to be reckoned with. To some people, Spike can come off as something of an enigma – “A successful black woman in comics? Never!” Yet here she is, blazing a trail in the comics industry like none anyone’s ever seen before and what I like most about her is that she really doesn’t even care what you think, if she wants to put out that weird comic, she’s going to put out that weird The SpikeInterviwcomic!
When I spoke to her, she just exudes this assurance that you too can follow your heart and be successful. Seriously, what did we do to deserve someone as inspiring as Spike?
A: What’s the C stand for? How did you get the name Spike?
S: C for Charlie, like Charlie Chaplin. I actually got Spike from my husband – he got it from a song by a band he really likes – ‘I’m in Love With a Girl Named Spike’ by Skankin’ Pickle.
He started calling me Spike, and I needed a writing alias so I used it, and I’ve actually had my name legally changed so now it’s on my driver’s license and everything.
A: I really need to know – what makes you tick? What pushes you forward to keep doing what you do because I know it’s not easy.
S: I want to be the change I wanted to see in comics. I just want to make comics that I wish had been available to me when I was a kid.
Early on in Janelle Monae’s career, she made Many Moons, a short Afropunk film set in the future where people bid on androids in a dystopian universe. I absolutely loved it, and I wish it had come out when I was 12 or 13 years old because I know the powerful positive impact it would have had on me! That’s all I would have talked about, and nobody would have been able to shut me up about it! I keep this in mind whenever I put something out there; I really hope a 12-year-old black girl picks up Shadoweyes and reads it and gets to see herself represented in something cool.
There was no prominent black woman in comics that I could point to so I just said to myself that that person would have to be me. If I had to be the only one, I’d be the only one. Of course, there was that fear of failure, and there were people who were just waiting for me to fail or burn myself out. One guy told a friend of mine that he believed I didn’t have the education to do what I was doing when in fact I did, and I’ve been successfully doing what I’m doing.
A: What advice would you give to someone whose parents don’t approve of them following a certain career path?
One thing you need to realize and accept (if your parents don’t approve of something that you’re passionate about) is that you have to live your own life for yourself because if not, that’s where your midlife crisis is going to come from. People live their lives for their parents, and suddenly their parents die, and they look around and see that they’re stuck in a career they don’t like and married to someone they don’t love (because they got married to the person their parents approved of) and they just breakdown. It’s really hard to pursue your parents’ dream when they’re no longer around to keep reinforcing it, and then you realize that you’d just wasted all that time.
A: How do you come up with the themes for the anthologies you publish?
S: It’s all determined by my personal taste, anything that really gets me excited. I spend a lot of time going through Tumblr, and I just seek things that tickle my imagination. My latest anthology, Tim’rous Beastie, was actually suggested to me by a friend – they suggested we do something for fans of stories like Watership Down and I was like, “Let’s do it!”
A: What’s your process? How do you keep yourself organized?
S: I’m a big list-maker. When I remember something I just stick it on my list, and I know full well that the list will never end but if I get four or five things ticked off from that list then I know I’ve had a good day. I’m not preoccupied with when things get done (unless there’s an important deadline or something like that). It’s not a clean or tidy process, but it works.
A: Do you need to be famous to be successful?
Fame is a scam. A lot of fame is reliant on publicity, and that publicity comes from large companies or publishers who have access to the outlets to push your work to the mainstream. However, in comics this fame comes with a price because it often means you’ll be working on stuff that you don’t own, for example, if you write for Batman, you’ll have your name attached to a huge project, but in ten years you’ll only be known as ‘that guy that once wrote for Batman.’
I can remember being sixteen and the artists’ alleys of comic conventions that I went to would just have elderly guys drawing pictures of Batman and Robin and selling them to help pay for their nursing home bills because they’d spent thirty plus years building somebody else’s body of work and not having any intellectual property attached to their own names. I didn’t want that to be me, I wanted to own my cool and have my own body of work that I could sell.
Don’t buy into the lie that you’re successful just because you’re being pushed by some mega corporation. I go by the 1,000 true fans theory – all you need to take care of yourself as an artist is to have 1,000 fans willing to spend $100 on you a year to live comfortably. I have friends who get to do what they love, and they have 10,000 followers on Twitter, and that’s all they need. You’re a lot happier when you get to wake up each morning and say, “Time to work on my comic,” and work on something you really love.
A: That’s some mind-blowing advice. I know there’s the belief that you need millions of followers or some sort of Hollywood-level fame in order to say that you’re successful.
S: Some comic book artists do comics because they want to get into movies; I don’t like those people. They don’t see comics as an art form but as just a stepping stone into Hollywood. I read an article that basically summed up what I don’t like about San Diego Comic Con and explains why I don’t do that con anymore – SDCC has become the home for those people who use comics as a pitstop for Hollywood on the assumption that there’s a hierarchy in entertainment with movies being at the top and comics being all the way at the bottom. If you want to get into Hollywood, make a movie, don’t make a comic and call it your ‘storyboard’ or film pitch, just make the movie.
A: You publish adult work. Have you ever had someone return a comic because they failed to understand that not all comics are for children?
S: Never had someone return for that reason because if someone comes to my table at a con and they look younger than 30, I ask them when their birthday is and if they hesitate when giving me the answer I ask for proof. I do have a story of being at a con, and someone bought Poorcraft on the Saturday of the convention then returned the next day with their mother demanding a full refund because they weren’t expecting what they got.
A: Have you ever whitewashed yourself out of your work? Like, have you ever created something and realized that there’s nobody that looks like you in your work?
S: I can’t really say I’ve ever done that. My first webcomic was Templar, Arizona and the feedback I often got was that it looked fake because it starred a Korean guy, his black best friend, an Italian-American woman, and just a very diverse cast. Some people thought there were far too many people of different races interacting with each other. I grew up in the DC suburbs, and I just made a comic that looked like my reality, but then I realized that not everybody understands that not everyone lives the same way.
A: That makes me think of how I reacted to Far Cry 3. I didn’t understand how the main character only had white friends!
S: I loved Far Cry 3! I think a lot of the overwhelming whiteness isn’t malicious; they just don’t realize what they’re doing. If you ask some people, “Why is your entire cast white,” they’ll probably answer, “It never occurred to me to cast anybody else.”
I’m casual acquaintances with Lisa Hanawalt, the production designer for Bojack Horseman, and she’ll turn in sketches for the show with a girl elephant bartender in the background and have someone tell her, “I don’t think that elephant bartender should be a girl, let’s make it a boy elephant,” and she’ll ask why and they’ll respond with, “I don’t know why. I guess I just thought it felt right.”
A complicating factor is that people are scared of writing stuff wrong because they’re scared of the bullying that often masquerades as the ‘woke’ crowd – people don’t want the backlash if they write characters poorly. However, there are remedies for that – you can hire sensitivity readers who will actually check to make sure you’re not doing something wrong. People use the ‘write what you know’ as a crutch when in fact writing what you know applies to writing abstract experiences that only you understand or have partaken in – for example, if you’ve climbed Mount Everest, then only you know what it was like for you to climb Mount Everest and you know what it took you to do it.
I really want people to feel comfortable writing people who are not like them.
A: What about the people who scream that people are ‘pandering’ when they see diversity?
S: I love when people talk about inclusion as pandering because the same people who say that are the ones who’ve been pandered to for years!
A: Then they say we should make our own stuff and when we do make our own stuff they infiltrate our circles to say that our stuff isn’t good enough!
S: They don’t want us to make our own stuff, they want us to fail. The situation is like the cognitive dissonance people experience when they see me – they believe that I have no idea what I’m doing yet they want to use me as a stepping stone for their careers. I’ve had a lot of imitators come and try to do what I do and tell me I’m doing it the wrong way; it’s like I’m the testbed black woman running the comics industry!
A: What’s one career decision you wish you could change?
S: I wouldn’t have held out hope waiting for somebody else to publish me through the traditional means. I guess I did it because I didn’t want to go into self-publishing with any doubts, maybes, or what-ifs. I wasted three or four years hoping someone would find me and publish me and it never happened; I got so many rejection letters (I’ve kept all of them, and they serve as an inspiration). The thing to hold in mind is that being in comics is about being rejected.
A: Should people just self-publish and skip seeking a publisher’s help?
S: Not really. As a publisher, I have access to tools that would be really helpful, plus, I know some indie artists who are so bad at an administration that they really should look for a publisher’s help and that’s what I’m here for.
A: Would you be interested in being the next Image Comics?
S: Yeah! I like how Image Comics started out as people seeing what was wrong with the comics industry and getting together and just saying, “You know what, we’ll do it ourselves.” My big fantasy is getting my husband to work with me full-time, and it would be really cool if we could hire someone else, but we know that that isn’t feasible right now but fast forward ten years, and that’s where I see myself.
A: We need more comic publishers who break the mold like that! It took me so long to get into comics because I just didn’t know how to get into them!
S: American superhero comics are perfectly structured to discourage new readers. My husband’s been reading these comics for years yet when he has to have a Wikipedia article open when he reads his comics just to follow the story! And this is someone who’s been reading these comics and following these stories for years! Superhero comics have no impetus to change, and honestly, the future of comics lies in the graphic novel market.
A: And webcomics? I really like webcomics after getting into EK Weaver’s work.
S: Yes. One of the things the internet has done for comics is remove gatekeepers. In the past, before anything could get published, people would ask, “Will a thirty-year-old white man like this?” If EK had gone to some publisher with TJ & Amal, they would have asked that same question and have turned her down. The beauty of webcomics is that you can find a comic about any topic imaginable and they’re all completely accessible.
A: Will you ever go into literary publishing?
S: I don’t think I’ll get into literary – I love books, but I love comics.
A: Where did you get the inspiration for Iris & Angel?
S: There was an image circulating on Tumblr of a man in full lingerie, and I thought it was so funny! I started looking for more images like that, and I couldn’t find any so I decided, if nobody would show me pictures of cute guys in lingerie I’d make my own comic of a cute guy in lingerie!
A: I really like the cover for the first issue of Iris & Angel!
S: In the short time I spent in art school, I took note of how different genders are depicted in art – men return your gaze while women are just looked at. I really wanted Angel to be shown as passive because there are men like that.
A: What advice would you give to a young creator of color struggling to find their voice amid the drone of sheer whiteness?
S: Be prolific, persistent, and patient. Most people will not find success instantly; this is especially true with the arts. Also be polite – a lot of this is about making friends, help other people and let other people help you as well.