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The DIY eroticism of queer self publishing

Here is a test for you: right off the top of your head, tell me the names of five erotic comic authors. Bonus points if they specialize in unusual practices.

…Are you done yet? Don’t worry if you couldn’t recall five: that’s perfectly normal, just as it is normal to have thought of past, or definitely vintage masters such as Stanton, Tom of Finland, Manara (who isn’t very kinky anyway), Farrel or Casotto. This says a lot about the state of the industry, seemingly frozen in the Eighties especially when it comes to somewhat uncommon sexualities.

It’s the Web’s fault! Of mangas! Of the book market! Of the sneakily fascistoid neo-bigotry! Opinions on the matter are a dime a dozen, and totally irrelevant. Fact is, if you have a passion for a certain type of erotica, your best hopes today are vintage comics stores or those sites that, according to their curator fancies, collect the scans of rather stale works. The latter is the unquestionably most practical solution, yet printed material fetishists who love keeping their comics on their home shelves just hate it. …Or is it so?

Reality is a little more complex, but you are forgiven if you aren’t aware of it. As a matter of fact, it turns out that, besides the questionably legitimate archives mentioned above, online you can find a whole galaxy of brand-new, digital-only productions. Many of them are hit-and-miss experiments by artists who grew tired of them after drawing page four; lots are hideous “porn CGI” exercises done in Poser or similar softwares by people lacking any notion of scripting nor composition; an embarassing smorgasbord of pictures is composed of lewd remixes of family entertainment characters such as the Flintstones or Batman. And yet, if you keep racking the mud deep enough, you can hit on truly high-quality products from time to time.

Webcomics like Sunstone are so good that they were coopted by legacy publishers and for international distribution, for example, and this is hardly surprising. The style is great after all, the story interesting, and the protagonists… well, let’s just say they fit very well in the prevalent aesthetic canons – and lesbian tales are always a hit with everyone. But what happens when your tastes lean toward less statistically common tastes?
You don’t have to go for furries or other terminal weirdness. Being gay is enough to be considered “unusual”. And if you go for more refined scenarios than the classic “hunk shoves uncomfortable stuff inside other hunk” scene – maybe because you are a young woman who grew up on yaoi mangas on 4chan – things really change.   

In this case the material is abundant too, created in industrial amounts by other fans and distributed through dedicated communities. The difference is that no publisher would ever dare investing on the production of similarly “deviant” graphic novels… and that’s why for decades the above-mentioned shelves remained sadly bare for anyone harboring queer passions. Until crowdfunding happened.
It began abroad, with works like Starfighter – which collected enough funds to spawn an interactive visual novel – the Canadian Always raining here or Heart of gold, touching upon peculiar themes such as the sexuality of priests. Italy however followed suit on the trend: the fan-backed projects are uncountable, including works like the “botanical” BLossom anthology; Melagrana is a collective work «dedicated to re-discovering the backstages of sex and sensuality beyond stereotypes»; Samsara, now in its fourth volume; or Brothel Bros 2, which has been running for close to five years.

The huge success of this form of financing for queer works allowed their authors to reach more and more experimental and unusual territories, dealing with scenarios and characters that no old-time bookstore would touch. This is the case of Cyrcus, an international effort I discussed with one of its Italian coordinators Eleonora Pecchioli.

 

Hi Eleonora! Tell us about you…

Hi! I am best known online as Adaralbion; I am thirty-six, a true-blooded Florentine and an avid comics reader. I love writing and I always wanted to make it my job… excluding the times when, as a kid, I saw myself as an Oscar-winning director. The drive to tell stories got me seeking my best-suited artform, also studying at the TheSign Comics & Arts Academy in Florence, where I could work with extraordinary teachers. And now – drum roll, please – I am an actual comicbook author! Also, I got into self publishing about ten years ago, and I recently became a self published writer.

 

You also are the coordinator of an uncommon crowdfunded project. Would you tell me about that?

Yes, with Lorenzo, Alice and Simona I am one of the four founders of Granadilla Lab, an art collective born out of a lark from a bunch of friends who met online to dream of certain projects… until we realized they didn’t have to be just dreams, and we built a serious thing out of it. We just needed teamwork, collaboration and, most of all, a common goal. We had all of the above, so the project became real pretty fast thanks to the will to actively contribute to the illustration and comics market by launching new works that showcased our personal visions and the passion for somewhat niche genres.

We started right out of the bat with a homoerotic-themed project involving all the artists we loved. We called it Cyrcus, which is obviously about circus and features over fifty international artists who contributed with sensational illustrations reimagining the big top under a kinky light. We aimed for color and sensuality to obtain a book to feast your eyes upon – and your fingers, since it will feature a soft touch cover!

The artists answered with such enthusiasm to create over two hundred sketches, preparatory drawings and strips. Such amount of material suggested us to make a second sketchbook collecting all the extra stuff we couldn’t fit in the main artbook. We used the Indiegogo platform for both works, launching a crowdfunding campaign with a end of January deadline: the financial support will allow us not only to print the books, but also to compensate the artists who made Cyrcus possible. This may sound odd, but paying them is not so common either.
We are now just 21% short of our goal, and we are confident we’ll reach our expected sum: the backers’ support is essential, and seeing such a solid reaction made us really proud of our effort.

GranadillaLab

In my introduction I wrote that crowdfunding is powering many works that would just not work as mainstream products – and yet traditional publishing has always reserved a nice space for erotic works. Did you try to pitch Cyrcus to those publishers too, and to which reactions?

No, we did not because gay as a genre is still very niche here in Italy, although Japanese BL (short for ‘boys’ love’) broke through years ago now. Also, Cyrcus is a textless artbook and featuring unknown artists to boot, so it wouldn’t have a chance on the mainstream market.

Manara and other, newer authors’ success notwithstanding, erotic comics still face huge prejudices compared to other types of books. You have established canons in this field too: books sparing the reader any moral tale remain rare, even if the public loves them. We are getting a truly positive response, as other genre artists do.

 

Something that always strikes me when I visit a comics convention is the hordes of adoring fans lining up for an autograph or custom drawing by authors who are almost invisible offline. What is your opinion about the relationship between traditional publishing and online self publishing? And what future do you see for them?

That’s a world I only discovered as I became a self publishing fan: when at cons I see the self areas besieged by worshippers of guys who can’t find their space in legacy publishing, I am as amazed as you are. It is a recent effect caused chiefly by Facebook, that changed everyone’s life and gave authors an opportunity for a much more direct promotion than other websites could offer. Thanks to platforms like Tapas o Webtoon, allowing to publish one’s comics without having to build a personal website, it is as if countless unaware people could finally open their eyes on a world that had always existed, but went largely ignored.

Of course this is fueled by likes: lots of followers mean lots more opportunities to emerge, and yet there are countless niche artists being followed by a mostly hidden audience. I also believe that traditional publishers are becoming aware of this and that they are now following author-owned works more closely of late; the market is boundless after all, and some debuting artists are extraordinarily talented: ignoring them would be crazy. I think that with time many of those self published artists will found their own proper publishing houses: if you can do that, it is an almost inevitable evolution. If nobody gives you a chance, you just create it.

 

Speaking as a writer, I am aware of the huge difference between the common perception of the Internet as a tool for anyone to become a successful author and reality, with its thousand technical hurdles in addition to the old, boring requirement of having solid skills and a professional attitude. But what about the world of independent comics and illustration? Is fame really ‘just a few simple click away’, as the commercials say?

Today it is certainly easier to get that chance thanks to how social networks and other platforms allow to publish your work without spending a cent – and actually earning something for ti – but reaching success is far less easy. You must work a lot and be constant, passionate and driven. Strokes of luck do happen sometimes, but I believe betting on that to be too naive given there are thousands of other similarly deserving artists out there. Opportunities must be built too: by being humble first of all, and recognizing your own limits while you keep believing in yourself even through hard times: any artist reading this now knows what I am talking about.
I am sure this is hard but not impossible, as proven by those people out there who made it. Fame is maybe more than a few clicks away, but is in everyone’s reach. I think you must never think you have the perfect story everyone will love, or the ideal product every publisher will buy: the trick is to be productive and constant. The world will always have someone loving your work, just as much as there will always be someone hating it.

Self publishing offers the freedom to do what you want and how you want it, forgetting the censorship a publisher might impose and showing your true colors. It also opens you to the risk of believing that your way is the only right way, without compromises. Maybe it is, but sometimes you must be able to make your reality mesh with a publisher’s.

Cyrcus

What changes are involved when you work with adult subjects?

So much! Maybe not everything, but it unfortunately puts you under a whole different light compared to authors working outside of the genre: once you do erotica, you will be marked as “erotic author” forever – possibly not in a negative way, but surely with a different outlook. And don’t get me started about yaoi: that will come up in every single conversation!

I see a kind of prejudice about being unable to move between genres. I mean, I know I am not the right writer for a humor comic, since making people laugh asks for much more than move them… but I would gladly tackle a horror story even if I am a scaredy cat.
Erotica is not as accepted as it looks, especially because most people still think of comics as something meant for children. Graphic novels in bookstores changed this perception, but the very concept of “erotic concept” still doesn’t go down very well with a lot of people who see it as improper. Specialized artists won’t stop, however, and I believe self published erotica is changing things right now.

 

To be honest, I see innovation more in the production chain than in the actual contents. Even if they never were mainstream books, erotic comics have a long history and some of them reached legendary success – I am thinking for example of Pichard, Von Gotha, Tarsis, Willie and many more. Isn’t maybe self publishing more a Millennials thing, since they feel more at ease online and they share a strongly manga and queer-influenced set of inspirations that the traditional market still hasn’t digested in the West?

What changed is the industry itself: it once invested on newcomers too, whereas now it focuses on surefire hits, and therefore on those titles that already sold well abroad. This is why Italy was left behind and self publishing had a comeback: twenty years ago you could graduate from a comics school and find work on magazines like Blue and Selen, today sorely missed. Newsstands porn magazines were substituted for a while by hentai and doujinshi (amateur works) republished wihtout paying any royalty to their rightful Japanese authors, and queer stuff wasn’t even taken into consideration.

We lately reached a more diverse and elaborate range of products – of course also thanks to the window the Web opened on the world – but taking inspiration from Japan only is self-limiting, even though mangas contributed to spreading certain themes. Queer stuff always faced lots of resistance here: just think of how important anime like Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura got severely censored, with clearly gay characters turned into “friends”, even changing their apparent gender in some cases for the sake of normalcy. Embarassing!
Online and social networks stuff sure is part of the Millennial lifestyle. The publishing industry is slowly growing an awareness about this, moving on the web not only their catalogs but the comics themselves to make them readable on any digital device. Today the interaction between reader, publisher and self published artist is peaking: I guess this is the time for big changes, since when the market asks for something, publishers cannot just ignore it.

 

A last, inevitable question: what about your next projects?

Oh, what a rosy place future is! I have lots of projects both on a personal level and with Granadilla Lab, with plans of publishing at least one artbook a year. Our idea is to also publish comics anthologies: we’ll have to see what the authors say, even if most of the Cyrcus contributors already said they want to do full stories featuring the characters they created for us.

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