In the following short email interview, Sean Knickerbocker (editor and founder of the Rust Belt Review anthology series) makes the the point that comics are in a weird place right now.
It’s true, isn’t it? Alternative comics (or at least a few of them) continue to gain slightly ironic mainstream credibility. The industry now has its own little academic and grant making niche. Plus cartoonists can promote and sell their work directly via social media, etc.
Yet financial precariousness in the industry persists and may even be becoming more acute as time goes on.
Does all this speak to a divide opening up in alternative comics? Between those cartoonists who play well on social media and those who don’t? Between those who are a good fit with current academic and cultural fashions and those who aren’t?
I don’t know. I’m not really qualified to say. You could also make the point that alternative comics are in a healthier state than alternative poetry, or literature, or what have you.
Whatever, it’s definitely an odd time, and it’s into this strangely-strange comics milieu that Sean Knickerbocker decided to launch (back in 2021) the Rust Belt Review. His intention being to create a supportive quarterly home for small-press cartoonists. Particularly those cartoonists telling stories from (and often about) the more regionally/culturally marginal corners of American life.
So, y’know, Sean’s definitely batting for those on the downside of the comics divide (if there is one).
Since Mr. Knickerbocker has recently opened up submissions for issue 6, I thought it would be a good time to ask what kind of work he’s looking for, find out how the anthology has evolved since its inception, and get his take on the current state of comics.
Here’s what he had to say….
Okay, you’re into publishing narrative work, right? What else are you looking for in a submission? Does the name Rust Belt imply an inclination toward working class themes?
Yes, I’m mostly interested in narrative comics. I think comics work best in 8-40 page long sequences, so that’s ideally what I’m looking to publish. Ideally, the work I’m publishing is being created by artists from a working class background, but the submissions don’t need to have a working class theme or any sort of didactic element to it.
How would you say Rust Belt Review has evolved over the course of the previous four issues?
I think I’ve become more focused on one-off stories. Initially, I wanted to have a showcase of serialized work, but I ran into some logistical issues with that. For starters, not everybody produces comics at the same pace. Additionally, not all stories can be broken down into satisfying bite-size pieces.
I wanted to keep all volumes in print at the same time, but I’m running into some financial issues with that model. I think moving forward I will be printing just a single run. Once the issue is gone, it’s gone! I think there’s something precious about that anyway. A good anthology represents a time and a place, so it doesn’t make sense to keep them in print months or even years after that moment has passed.
You’ve mentioned before that there isn’t enough infrastructure to support cartoonists. Could you expand on this and offer up some thoughts on how the situation might be remedied?
Comics are in this weird place right now. The community is becoming professionalized. As this continues to happen, it will become more difficult for working class people to participate. I think one of the beauties of comics is that anybody can make them, but as the medium becomes more wrapped into academia and traditional New York publishing, it’s becoming less and less accessible for anybody other than the children of the rich.
In the world of poetry, prose, and the fine-arts; there are benefits to working within academia and larger publishers, but I don’t see any of those benefits being given to cartoonists. Most arts grants programs don’t take cartooning seriously, and most art schools that have comics programs don’t pay their teachers very well. We’re getting all of the gatekeeping and none of the benefits. I think cartoonists should be very aware of that.
So long as we keep the DIY spirit alive in comics, I think we can continue to be an accessible community for many people. The moment we forget how to make books on our own is the moment we give up all our power to the giant publishing machines. My hope is that Rust Belt Review can be a model for larger DIY projects and I hope it can serve as an inspiration for up and coming creators.
Rust Belt Review volume 5 is due out soon. Submissions for volume 6 are now open. Anything submitted after may will probably only be considered for volume 7.
Comments always welcome. Either here on the blog or via email.