Chicago Indie Comic Creators turn to Self-publishing

Susan Du

"PARADOX: A Time Travel Adventure" by Jack McGuigan is about two time travelers who close wormholes to prevent spillover from different eras. It involves dinosaurs and Genghis Khan.

As many Americans fell on hard times in recent years, starving artists everywhere have had to get by on even less. Since the failure of unprecedented numbers of publishing houses and newspapers, writers too are finding themselves in similar situations.

So what of comic book creators, those doubly unfortunate writer-artists whose primary venues for selling work—the comic shop—is becoming extinct faster than even the post-Netflix movie rental store?

Chicago Comic Creators Jack McGuigan, Tom Stillwell and Jeff Zwirek have decided to face the realities of the comic book industry head on by turning to self-publishing.

“I’m always keeping my eyes open for publishers in the comic industry, which has some really nice small publishers,” Zwirek said. “But once the economy hit I know a lot of small publishers stopped publishing people they had already been publishing.”

Self-publishing has always been fairly common in the comic book industry because the few leading publishing houses generally only produce superhero books. Still, self-publishing hasn’t become widely accepted until recently, when it became harder than ever for indie creators to get noticed.

To Stillwell, it’s a shame that self-published comics are “generally not taken seriously” because they’re often characterized by more diverse subject matter and original art styles.

“To be fair, small press is rife with vanity press,” he said. “There are people who should not be making comics for public consumption. Unfortunately, everyone doing small press is lumped together with very few readers bothering to sift through to find quality books.”

"Underneath" by Tom Stillwell is a story of how Chicago's homeless battle the trolls that infest the city's many bridges.

By taking publishing into their own hands, McGuigan, Stillwell and Zwirek have all turned to Kickstarter to raise funds at the grassroots level. Success at Kickstarter depends on each creator’s ability to pique public interest in his project, which according to McGuigan is a major challenge to getting noticed as a self-publisher. However, if a story idea is strong enough, there’s bound to be an audience for it, he said.

“It kind of boils down to… [having] infinite creative freedom,” McGuigan said. “It’s good because you can do whatever you want, but you really have to be confident about what you want to do. Even if your idea is super out there, you can potentially produce it and find an audience as crazy as you are.”

On the other hand, self-publishing comes with challenges besides raising funds. Indie comic creators must handle marketing and distribution on their own. Usually, it’s difficult for them to advertise or get shelf space in comic shops.

“Promotion, I can tell you, is a huge frustration,” McGuigan said. “Any time I put in promoting the work takes away from the joy of creating it.”

Besides Kickstarter, McGuigan, Stillwell and Zwirek have also used social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to varying degrees of success.

“Publishing is a huge resource sink,” Stillwell said. “If you’re thinking of self-publishing, you need to take a good long look at your resources. Do you have the time to commit to making comics and all the extra things you’ll need to do to get the books to readers? Do you have the money to get things rolling until a time when you can make a profit?”

"Burning Building Comix" is an anthology of 10 different stories set during a fire in an apartment complex, starting from the first floor and ending at the tenth. Pictograms.

Nevertheless, all three artists agree the biggest reason to self-publish is to have complete control over creative decisions and potential profit.

“If you’re a person…with strong ideas and reasonable ability to get it down on the page, it’s important to have control over how to get it on the market, how to create the art and how it’s received,” Zwirek said.

On the downside, there’s no one else to blame for failure. Luckily, online and real life communities of comic creators such as Penciljack, DigitaL Webbing and iFanBoy can provide support to anyone who is trying to break into the industry.

McGuigan’s advice for aspiring comic creators is to make comics for the love of it.

“Literally everyone doing indie comics has a day job,” he said. “That just weeds out people who would have been doing it for the money.”