DIY Comics Queen Spike Trotman: The Best of What’s Next

Comics Features
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DIY Comics Queen Spike Trotman: The Best of What’s Next

Even as a child, Charlie “Spike” Trotman defied convention. An outspoken thought leader in underground comics today, the cartoonist stood her ground in her hometown of Potomac, Maryland, before cultivating a new one in the publishing industry.

“I got into a lot of fights! Verbally, physically,” Trotman explains. “I was a scrappy little kid. I’m just contrarian by nature, honestly. Always have been. I’ve just expressed it in different ways the older I get.”

Since her ornery youth, Trotman has gone from tracing The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strips to establishing a DIY comics refuge in Iron Circus, the indie publishing company she runs out of her Chicago residence. Founding the imprint in 2005, the cartoonist has devoted her pen to pushing the boundaries of comics for the entrepreneurial and unconventional, crafting charming manuals on how to launch successful Kickstarter campaigns and guides on thriving off marginal resources (the latter of which, appropriately, was her first successful Kickstarter campaign in 2009). Templar, Arizona, a buoyant webcomic with a diverse set of characters, ran from 2005 to 2014.

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In an industry where two companies—Marvel and DC—hold almost 80 percent of the comic store market, innovators like Trotman are progressively seeking to expand the sequential art pie to underserved readers through new venues, including book stores and the digital marketplace. “Aside from a big, big spike in the ‘90s that crashed right back down after Marvel filed for bankruptcy, comic book readership has been falling for decades,” Trotman says. “There are many, many factors involved in that. The primary one is that comics has been content to sell to the same gender and the same age group for that entire time. I think mainstream, when referring to Marvel and DC, is going to become more and more of a misnomer.”

Two new projects will punctuate that future-forward agenda: a new entry in Trotman’s female-friendly porn staple, Smut Peddler, and the biographical Black Pearl: The Graphic Life of Josephine Baker for publisher First Second.
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“I like dirty drawings. I think most people do,” Trotman says. “All throughout history, humanity has really liked dirty drawings. And I like comics. So it’s only natural I’d like dirty comics, but it was an event when I found a dirty comic that I could read and enjoy, and it wouldn’t end or climax (sorry) in a way that left me cold and feeling alien or grossed-out or unwelcome.”

That comic happened to be Smut Peddler, an infrequent anthology released by micro publisher Saucy Goose Press. After “harassing” their editorial staff at conventions to continue production, Trotman inherited the project, reintroducing the series in 2012 via a Kickstarter campaign with a creative lineup exclusively composed of women. And, much to her surprise, support swelled. “I wanted to say I had $300 in my bank account, because I’d been paying page rates out of pocket as stuff appeared. The goal was $20,000, and I remember thinking as I launched the project, oh, wouldn’t it be awesome if it made $40,000. And it ended up making $80,000. I knew it was good, but I didn’t expect other people to understand it was good.”

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Yes, Roya Cover Art by Kinomatica

With collaborators including Carla Speed McNeil, Erika Moen and a cover by Emily Carroll, Smut Peddler melds graphic sex between all genders and humanoid species with emotional storytelling. The primary throbbing organ behind the project has remained its heart, without a mustached TV repairman or gym trainer in sight. The following year’s edition—which was the most successful project on Kickstarter for a day, earning $180,000-plus during its run—features tales of warring fantasy clans and stranded spacemen falling in fevered passion from creators including Joanna Estep and Jess Fink.

“Part of the reason I liked the original Smut Peddler so much is that it meant I could read a porno that wasn’t incredibly distasteful—I wouldn’t be ambushed by misogyny, which was something that was unfortunately really common when I read porn by guys,” Trotman says.

Earlier this week, Trotman launched (and has already funded nearly $30,000 over) a Kickstarter campaign for Smut Peddler’s biggest entry to date: Smut Peddler: Double-Header. The iteration will consist of two separate books, Yes, Roya and Smut Peddler Presents: My Monster Boyfriend. The former offers a graphic-novel length narrative written by Trotman with pencils by ghostgreen, taking place in Mad Men-era California as a 19-year-old cartoonist becomes enamored with his hero’s dominating wife. The second is another anthology that should redefine monster mash with a series of vignettes that are, “understandably, about monster boyfriends.” Trotman confirmed contributions from Trudy Cooper, illustrator of the steamy pro-sex web series OGLAF, and former Deadpool and Batgirl scribe Gail Simone.

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Past this dual pleasure, Trotman’s currently prepping one of her most ambitious releases to date: a graphic biography of Golden Age entertainer, freedom fighter and civil rights activist Josephine Baker.

“I’ve loved her since college; I actually had a Josephine Baker poster on my wall. She was iconoclastic, and she was troubled and she was really high drama. I was talking to my editor, Calista Brill, and I told her if I do this book, I can’t guarantee this will be something you can give a 13-year-old, because her life is unsuitable for children.”

Brill responded “well, it is what it is,” and the resulting project, Black Pearl: The Graphic Life of Josephine Baker, will span an “inevitable” 200 pages plus set for release next year. That said, no amount of pages could capture the surreal highs and lows that defined Baker’s life. Approximately one century ago, Baker fleed an impoverished youth in St. Louis to the stages of Paris where she danced topless in a banana skirt. She quickly ascended as a socialite and fashionista, becoming the first black actress in a triple-A motion picture, the 1934 tentpole Zou-Zou. She later employed her social standing to spy for the French Resistance in World War II and joined the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, even speaking at the March on Washington.

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Black Pearl: The Graphic Life of Josephine Baker Art by Spike Trotman

But Trotman’s not interested in providing a hagiography. While Baker trail-blazed her own path through the City of Light, she also displayed characteristics that fall under the “hot mess” umbrella of celebrity foibles, including a series of failed marriages, a pet cheetah and serious financial woes. Even her iconic performances tread some delicate ground in hindsight.

“She was living the dream, a fun and sexy life abroad where white people respected her and fawned over her beauty and talent. But what she did was undeniably fueled by the white fascination with perceiving dark-skinned people as savage and untamed. She played a jungle princess in film, she danced naked (or wearing a banana skirt!) for a mostly-white audience. There are people today who would call that ‘cooning,’ living down to white expectations for social and monetary gain. She’s complicated. And I don’t like it when that goes unacknowledged.”

But Trotman can ultimately identify with a figure who fled her safety net to innovate and grow. “She did her own thing. I’ve never felt an urge to dance naked on a stage, except for a string of sequined bananas, but I can admire running away to another country to become famous, knowing in your heart everything you do is not appreciated back home. As a cartoonist…nobody wants their kid to be a cartoonist, except possibly another cartoonist. As a cartoonist I understand what it’s like to go after what you want.”