Spike Trotman on Iron Circus’ fierce and diverse comic book characters


Iron Circus founder Spike Trotman chats with us about putting out beautiful and diverse comic books anthologies, and the necessity for representation in stories and real life.

Since 2007, Iron Circus has been publishing incredibly wondrous comics that are really not seen anywhere else including the anthology FTL, Y’all: Tales of the Age of $200 Space Travel; The Girl Who Married A Skull and Other African Stories; Tamamo the Fox Maiden and Other Asian Stories; as well as robust sex positive erotica.

Spike Trotman, founder of Chicago’s largest comics publisher, spoke with us about the comic industry and the importance of representation, both on and off the page.

Where did the name Iron Circus come from?

I really like sideshows. [The history and the culture of sideshows] was an interest of mine for a while, [reading about and studying] sideshow performers and prodigies. And iron is just tough, strong, durable and unrelenting. I always say when I talk about how it’s supposed to be interpreted, it’s kinda like when Nintendo wanted to find a name for their new video game. It starred a gorilla that stole someone’s girlfriend and the gorilla was at the top of the building throwing barrels at you.

They went: “We should call it Stubborn Gorilla.” So let’s go to this thesaurus and… [it says] stubborn like a donkey. So you call it Donkey Something and then you have Gorilla and you get Kong. Let’s just call it Donkey Kong. It’s kind of absurd, but when you break it down, it’s okay. That’s the sort of approach I encouraged people to take with Iron Circus. It’s like a circus, big, exciting, entertaining, a little weird, maybe slightly menacing sometimes, but all good fun. And iron is tough, strong and unrelenting.

Can you talk a little bit about this anthology model where there’s a theme for an issue and open submissions? Why is this important for Iron Circus?

One of my favorite things about the anthology model is that nowadays you would never realize that not being paid for a comics anthology used to be de rigueur. No one got paid for being in small press comic anthologies. There wasn’t any money. Your payment was like 10 or 15 copies of the finished project, but a page rate? Absolutely not.

Iron Circus’ Anthology page rate bonus model is when the Kickstarter launches for example, we need $10,000 to print the book. If we get that $10,000, and there’s still time left in the project,  instead of making $10,000, the creatives get a higher page rate than they would otherwise. I believe it originally started at $10,000 over the amount, $10 page rate increase but now every $5000 increase, they get a $5 increase. The increments are shorter and the potential for more page rate increases.

At the C2E2 Iron Circus panel, you discussed how anthologies bring in people you’d never heard of before. Could you talk about that?

Here’s the thing that I think a lot of people don’t realize: it’s actually much easier to edit and publish a single person’s volume than an anthology. If I wanted to simplify my life,  I would cut anthologies because it’s pretty obvious: single creator book, one person to work with, one set of emails to answer, and one check to send out. It’s very basic and straightforward.

With anthologies, I’m working with upwards of 30 people. There’s a lot of folks who are new to submitting to a professional anthology, so maybe they’re not quite on top of their paperwork or maybe they are intimidated by a W-8 and W-9. There’s so much work involved with anthologies that I don’t honestly have to do, but I want to.

It’s been really rewarding because I consider it my way of making sure I didn’t get trapped in this  space that a lot of creatives gets trapped in where you are only really aware of what creators from your own general generation are doing. But with open call anthologies, I get submissions from people who are 10 years older than me, 15 years younger than me and occasionally you’ll run into that person you are like “Where’s you’ve been hiding? You’re amazing.” And it’s great. It’s like this conveyor belt going past my desk and all these creatives that I wouldn’t have necessarily heard of otherwise.

It’s not only a fun project, it’s a fun group project that actually gets people paid and it actually gets people books that they can put on convention tables or online store or gave to grandma at Christmas. So it keeps me aware of what’s going on.

Iron Spike publishes titles that you just don’t find anywhere else such as The Girl Who Married A Skull and Other African Stories or my personal favorite, Meal, a story about insects in cuisine with a sweet queer romance. Why are these titles so important to publish?

No one else is going to do it, so if I’m not going to do it, it’s just not going to get done. I have this person in my head that obviously does not exist, but I use them  as my test case for Iron Circus. I picture a 12-year-old black girl and it’s summer and they are in the local library. They’re walking up and down the graphic novel section.

I try to get in that space and try to picture “Okay, what would make her stop walking and maybe even take a couple steps back? What is depicted on this cover? What is it that I wish had been there when I was that kid’s age?” That’s kind of the reasoning behind covers like FTL Y’all which features this incredibly cool woman with knuckle tats that say “Riff and Raff.”

One of the things that I grew up was Aunty Entity [played by Tina Turner] and she is the main antagonist of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. But she never felt like a bad guy to me. She dressed cool, she was cool, and she did cool stuff. Even though technically, you know, she lost at the end and does the whole driving into the sunset. I just kept thinking to myself, “You know what? She’s going to be fine.” That’s the one time I got to see that. It was such a rare occurrence.

It just kind of sucks that it’s so rare that any of us ever get to see stuff like that. I want more opportunities for someone to have that feeling that I had as a kid watching that movie. I think we’re all kind of aware that there’s a lot of limitations that are placed on the depictions of marginalized people in general and what marginalized people in fiction can be and do because the depictions are comparatively rare.

FTL, Ya’ll! cover. Photo Credit: Paul Davey/Iron Circus

A great example is that you don’t ever get to see a lovable “screw up” [as a person of color] whose charisma carries them through. They are clearly incompetent but they’re just fun to watch even if they did leave this trail of destruction behind them. That seems to be the role of the straight cisgender white guy because that guy is what society decided is the default human and an apolitical person.

This is a luxury straight cisgender white male characters have. I want every person to be able to be the loveable screw-up without it being interpreted as, “Oh this is what I was thinking about this group.” These depictions are so rare that it’s so easy for the characters to basically become a stand-in for this entire kind of people, not just a character.

For Iron Circus, the woman on the cover of FTL, Y’all, she’s really cool, but probably doesn’t have super great decision-making because she decided to go to space and that’s not safe. The woman on the cover of Shadoweyes, Scout Montana, she’s a 16-year-old and has a very idealistic view of what it is to be a superhero. She just really wants to try, even though she’s not necessarily good at it. She’s going to go for it because she has this power and she wants to save people. Charlie from the cover of As the Crow Flies is the only black queer kid at an all Christian center camp for girls and she’s made uncomfortable by that. But simultaneously she wants the choice in claim this space for herself, but claiming the spaces, it’s just weird and subjects her to all of these experiences.

I want that variety: people who get to be flawed, to not have to be perfect or not even nice. I want to see that on the shelves.

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Check out all the gloriously flawed people and otherwise of Iron Circus right here.