A New Small Press Aims to Publish Youth-Oriented LGBT Stories

Illustration by Melanie Gillman

In 2014, writer and artist Melanie Gillman was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Webcomic for their queer young adult comic As The Crow Flies. That same year, artist and writer Kori Michele Handwerker wrapped up their webcomic Prince of Cats, a dramedy about the earnest and awkward Lee Holtzer, a teen in love with his best friend and who can understand the peculiar conversations of cats. Two years later, the two friends have joined forces for an incredible project: launching an LGBT youth–oriented press called Other Side Press. This September, the press will publish its first collection: The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance.

Other Side Press raised launch funds in early 2016 via Kickstarter to publish the anthology. The pair modeled their business strategy after that of Iron Circus Comics, the indie comics press that published an erotic comics collection called Smut Peddler. Gillman and Handwerker intend to direct most of their energy toward creating physical books—both print editions of webcomics and new comics anthologies.

The Other Side goes on sale in September.

LUCY MERRIAM: How did you first discover queer webcomics?

MELANIE GILLMAN: I discovered it through reading early queer webcomics in college—stuff like Erika Moen’s DAR or Lucy Knisely’s journal comics on LiveJournal.

KORI HANDWERKER: I guess I discovered it like a lot of thirty-somethings: by way of people sharing, and eventually drawing, “BL” comics [BL stands for “Boys Love”—it’s a genre of Japanese comics by women and for women about male/male romance and sexuality].  It was a good way for women to find a community and explore their sexuality… Then after a while you sort out the problematic elements, and a lot of us went on to make our first comics about gay teens before meeting the wider community.

That’s interesting, so you set out to write queer YA comics before really connecting with the broader community. And both the comics Melanie cited were autobiographical. What drew you to making fiction comics?

MELANIE: I think a lot of young cartoonists cut their teeth on autobio comics—it’s easier to come up with bite-sized stories about your own life than jump right into your magnum opus graphic novel! But I’ve always loved fiction—it was always what I wanted to make as a cartoonist.  I still do some autobio work (like Nonbinary, my comic about coming out and nonbinary gender), but I have way more fun imagining stories for other people!

KORI: The BL comics I was reading weren’t reflecting the scope and complexity, in general, of the queer experience I had growing up. They didn’t feel like “queer” comics, they felt like “gay” comics. And they didn’t address the class and race issues that were an inseparable element from our queerness as teens. I used my first comic to explore those parts of my and my peers’ experiences without the stress and pressure of making it literally about my life. I feel like I’m having to “graduate” to autobio stuff because it feels so personal. Fiction gives me distance.

MELANIE: I definitely agree about the distinction between “gay” and “queer” comics being something that drove me to start telling stories. I love a lot of the canon “gay” comics, like Wendel and Dykes to Watch Out For, but they didn’t always speak to my experience as a nonbinary, ace femme. There’s still a lot of underrepresented identities in queer comics!

Alright, so you both wrote queer comics because you felt there was not enough representation of your own experiences within gay comics. So how did Other Side Press come to be?

MELANIE: This seems to be a theme among small press comics anthologies—I made an offhand tweet one day saying, “You know what would be cool? QUEER PARANORMAL ROMANCE COMICS ANTHOLOGY,” and my entire feed went, “Make it!,” and here we are! It goes back to that (kind of assholeish) thing people are always telling marginalized creators: “If you want better content and representation, you should make it yourself!” And we are.

KORI: Same way, really, right? Not enough queerness in paranormal romance, so Melanie said, “Let’s make it!” And I said, “Let me help make it exist,” and here we are.

MELANIE: More importantly, though, paranormal romance was a genre that really meant a lot to me as a kid—I think it does to a lot of young girls and femme readers. It was nearly impossible to find queer representation in those books I had growing up, though, so I wanted to make something that might help fill that gap a little.

Positive queer romance in general is an extremely important genre, and one we don’t see nearly enough of. So many of the “tragic queer” tropes in mainstream lit are tied to romance—like horrible unrequited love, falling in love with your straight best friend, being rejected by everyone you thought cared about you, etcetera, etcetera. We need more media for young readers that counters that negative representation—stories that tell kids their gender and sexuality are normal and can be a positive force in their lives, and that they can look forward to healthy, fulfilling relationships in the same way that straight cis people can.

KORI: Full disclaimer: I just love romance, paranormal or not, and I want everyone to be able to access and appreciate romance. That romance can be for queer people, and weird queer people, and that romance can be happy and fulfilling. I want people to know those things and carry them with them. So let’s make more.

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How did you make some of the more technical decisions? For instance, how did you choose among submissions what fit the anthology best?

MELANIE: Kori and I read each submission and scored them based on how much we liked the story and the art and whether or not we thought it would make a good fit for what we wanted the book to be. We got nearly 400 submissions, so we had to make a lot of really tough decisions to narrow it down to just a handful of stories! There were many, many fantastic pitches we had to reject purely for space reasons.

There seems to be a line drawn between romance and erotica; many of the stories end with the characters getting together. I’m wondering how you thought about the balance of sexiness versus making the anthology kid-friendly, since this is a YA anthology.

MELANIE: We wanted the book to be suitable for a YA audience, so we told all our contributors to keep things roughly PG-13. A few of the stories have sexier elements to them—like Fyodor Pavlov’s gorgeous comic about buff gay woodsmen—but for the most part, the focus of the anthology was more on romance, less on sex.

So, do you feel that since this anthology is targeted toward young adults, you’re stepping into sort of a “role model” position in the queer comics community? Do you feel like there is a certain responsibility that comes with that?

MELANIE: I think there’s an element of responsibility in all publishing! We set out to make a book we liked personally, but we always had our intended audience in the back of our minds.  The world needs more positive queer representation for young queer readers, so we tried to make sure our stories represented a wide array of queer identities and that nothing in the book would rely heavily on discrimination or violence, like so much of mainstream LGBT lit. Our main goal was to make something fun!

As a reader, how important is it to seek out works that validate your own experiences, and how important is it to find work that exposes you to other people’s experiences?

MELANIE: Crucial! Mandatory!


KORI: Nice one.

MELANIE: No one should limit themselves to reading books just about people exactly like themselves. You’re missing out on so much that way!

KORI: Yeah, it’s like, finding your experiences validated can be fulfilling, can remind you that you’re okay, you’re real. But then you need stories about people unlike you to start learning that they’re okay and they’re real too.

Have either of you been interested in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign? What are your thoughts about the intersection of art and activism?

MELANIE: I can’t remember the name of the study, but I read one somewhere a couple years back that tracked how much a person’s level of empathy for other human beings corresponded to their reading habits, and apparently it’s true, reading more books that expose you to more people’s lives outside your own experiences tend to make you more empathetic toward real-life humans too.

KORI: I think maybe we, especially the more privileged, are not taught to or are not predisposed to seeking out diverse works, so the more that exist, the more you’re exposed to and the more you consume.

MELANIE: There are a lot of people doing fascinating and important things in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and in others too! I think more mainstream publishers are starting to sloooooooowly question their own hiring and publishing practices as a result of these campaigns, and are making a greater push for more diverse content and more diverse voices in their fields. The mainstream still has a LONG way to go, but they’re more aware of the issue now, and that’s thanks in large part to the work of activists.

 It’s also an economic question, too, especially in terms of the mainstream’s relationship to small press publishers. Every time a book project focused on women, POC, LGBTQ people does well on Kickstarter, mainstream publishers do seem to sit up and take notice a little more. Not to sound mercenary, but readers voting with their dollars does make a difference.

Have you ever considered pitching to a larger comics imprint like Image or IDW? Or do you feel more confident that your work will come out the way you want when you’re in the editor seat?

MELANIE: Yes! I’ve been doing that a lot in the past year. I’m currently doing book contract negotiation with two different publishers and have more ideas for pitches in the future. Reading through a nearly 400-deep slush pile taught us a lot about what editors will look for in a good pitch! That said, I don’t think I’ll ever leave self-publishing entirely behind. There’s so much you can do with minicomics and zines and webcomics, and I love the self-publishing and small-press communities in comics.

KORI: Right now, self-publishing is working for me, but in the future, if it will be of benefit to me, I will probably pitch. Right now, I’ve got a lot of projects going that don’t leave room for a new big one, and while it’s stressful, I think what I’m doing right now is right for me and where I’m at in my development.

MELANIE: So much of comics publishing is small-press based, too—both of us work for a number of small press publishers and have pitched to other small press comics anthologies. We do a little of everything!

KORI: I don’t want to think of self-pub as a “stepping stone” until you can “really make it,” which is not really what book deals are, but I’m definitely not just doing this “until” I can do that. I’m reaping the most out of what self-pub has to offer me as a growing and learning creator.

MELANIE: Agreed! The “self-publishing as a stepping stone” idea came out of the prose fiction world, but comics is very different. We actively support and love our self publishers.

Definitely! I know as a reader I read twice as many webcomics as I do print comics.

KORI: And we’re sort of hell-bent on making an industry in its own right. As a community we long ago decided our goals weren’t to be legitimized by the system but to assert our legitimacy despite it.

Okay, last question to wrap it up: Do you have any advice for young artists who feel alienated—either because they are queer, or a person of color, or what have you?

MELANIE: If you want to make art and are able to do so, don’t let that alienation be the thing that stops you. I think our culture works very, very hard to tell people from marginalized groups, “What you have to say doesn’t matter,” but it does. So, so much. I can guarantee there are readers out there like you who have been looking for the kinds of stories only you can really tell.

KORI: Look for your peers, your friends, and your allies, I guess. Find people who will respect and love you and will criticize you when you need it out of a place of love and not power. And especially, to be nice to the folks in your community. They’ll need the community and the comfort as much as you do. Give compliments to and reach out to others that are making the things you like. They’ll probably become your friends, or you’ll find friends in others who like the same work.

MELANIE: And if you keep getting turned down by publishers for telling your own, authentic stories? Then fuck ‘em. It’s easier to self-publish and build your own audience now than it’s ever been. No one can stop you from telling your story.

KORI: If you create, and you be genuine and you be nice, the community finds you, folds in around you. If you’ve got nothing, make something despite it, and something, and someone will come.

MELANIE: Yeah, if you’re a queer or trans person, or a woman, or a person of color, or a person with disabilities, I’m almost certain you’ve got a story in you that the reading world at large hasn’t seen yet. Make those stories, find your community, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it.

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by Lucy Merriman
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Lucy Merriman is a freelance writer, editor, artist, and ESL tutor currently living in Kent, Ohio. She graduated from Kent State University in 2016 with a degree in English, though before that she tried her hand at everything from Fine Art to Media Production to Theatre. Her previous writing has been publised in Pif, Zetetic Record, [slippage] and Long Weekends. You can find more of her work at www.facebook.com/LucyIsAWriter

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