Jesse

The first funeral I ever attended wasn’t for a family member; it was for a cartoonist.

Three illustrated comics panels done in ink with a grey-blue watercolor wash. Panel one: a woman rides up a hill on a bike. Panel two: she takes off her helmet, looking sad and worried. Panel 3: a wide shot of mourners at a funeral, all looking back at her.

Dylan Williams passed away in 2011, shortly after I’d spent a formative semester as his student in the IPRC’s Comics Certificate Program. He’d battled leukemia for many years, but I didn’t know him as someone struggling with a disease. I knew him as a generous teacher with an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure and unsung cartoonists, a champion of small press creators, and a source of quiet humor and encouragement.

I’m almost certain that the first time I met Jesse Hamm—or maybe only saw him—was at Dylan’s funeral.

I realize, looking back, that Steve was there, too. And Greg. And probably countless other Portland comics people who would come to feel like a patchwork family in the years that followed. I was just a newcomer to that crowd at the time, still trying to find my place within the medium, but the funeral left a huge impression on me. I ended up drawing my thesis comic about that year in the IPRC program, and my first convention experience, and Dylan’s death, which led to my first Kickstarter, which led to my becoming an intern at Helioscope (then Periscope Studio), which led to the career I have now, ten years later.

A graphite portrait of Dylan Williams, a middle aged white man with short buzzed hair and a pencil behind his ear. He's smiling gently.
Dylan Williams, by Jesse Hamm

I remember using this portrait Jesse drew for his memorial post about Dylan as reference when working on True Believer. It was uncannily accurate and tender, as were his recollections of Dylan as a publisher and community member.

Toward the end of his post Jesse wrote:

Dylan understood that comics are really for and about people — that people are what give comics value. Like he said elsewhere in that interview:  “Encouraging people is like the greatest feeling in the world.” And he did encourage people. One blogger recalls: “He was able to say …the things I needed to hear in a way that I actually heard them. [H]is support and encouragement changed my life.”

It felt so true to what I knew of this man, even if I’d only known him for a short while.

Three comics panels in ink with a grey-blue watercolor wash. Panel one: the exterior of a building with the words "Individual voice is something to be treasured and respected" coming from a window. Panel two: the words "You've gotta make comics your own way. Every time." over a classroom full of students. Panel three: Dylan saying "Don't forget that" from his seat at the head of the table. Lucy enters the room panel left saying "Hey guys" and clutching a notebook. She's rushed.

I was in the middle of writing a difficult email yesterday morning when I opened the Studio’s Discord page and saw that Jesse was dead. A blood clot in his lung. Sudden and unexpected and impossible and awful and so far away from me at this laptop in California. Far away from my studiomates. Far away from the cemetery where we had buried Dylan a decade ago—the same one where another dear friend buried his mother late last year.

Seeing the outpouring of love and grief on Twitter from cartoonists who’d known Jesse through his threads of advice and educational PDFs, I found myself reaching for that old post about Dylan.

Rereading it this morning wrecked me all over again, because so much of what Jesse wrote about Dylan echoes what people have been saying about him: that he was impossibly knowledgeable, and fucking funny, and deeply opinionated in a quiet sort of way. That he wanted to encourage people. To help us see and appreciate all the thoughtfulness and knowledge that goes into practicing this craft.

An ink and watercolor comics panel showing a classroom full of students seen from outside the window. Dylan sits at the head of the classroom saying "Whatever the project, we have to think about the stakes. We have to ask ourselves: why am I doing this?"

I’ve felt distant from the idea of the Comics Community for a while now, trying to figure out my place in an industry that’s changing so rapidly, caught between different generations and genres of creators.

But this loss, like Dylan’s loss, feels like a smack in the face; a radical recalibration toward what brings us to this practice. What binds us to each other as a wider community. How lucky we are. What a wealth of information and knowledge there is out there. And of course, as with any death, the question of who we are. What we’re doing. How we’re impacting the people around us.

I kept thinking about how much Jesse knew, and what a staggering loss that is, but then yesterday a studiomate told me she’d just drawn a page earlier this week with a piece of his advice in mind. “I literally think of him every time I use it.”

That’s how this works, if we choose it. We share our knowledge and our enthusiasm and we welcome people to the fucking table so they can make the things they came here to make.

Dylan couldn’t have said it better. And now we have to keep saying it for both of them.

Thank you for everything, Jesse. We love you.

Q&A: Comics for Social Good

Over on Patreon:

When I shared some process images from my voting rights comic for Oregon Humanities over the weekend, Katie left a comment saying “I really want to get into comics as activism, because it’s kind of the only skill I have to offer, but I’m not sure where to start”. I’m sure this is a common concern, especially among folks who are part of Patreon because Patrons tend to be oriented toward both creative practices and social good, which is why you’re some of my favorite people.

The post I wrote in reply to Katie’s questions covers pitching, payment, research, and interviews, plus links to folks doing great work at the intersection of art and activism. Hopefully it’ll be useful to any of you thinking about this stuff.

Also relevant: fellow contributor Sarah Mirk’s comic on how Multnomah County passed universal preschool last November is now live on the Oregon Humanities website! She’s such a wonderful visual reporter. Go give it a read.

A horizontal spread of illustrated people from Sarah Mirk's comic. There's a woman wearing a mask holding a sign that says "Tax the rich, people over profit!" and a man in a yellow shirt that says "Universal Preschool Now!" holding a coffee. He's saying "This is how a democracy has to work. If we have a good idea people are passionate about, the only thing we can do is organize ourselves."

Higher Education

I’m a hindsight junky. I’m always flipping through old journals and sketchbooks, trying to find a narrative through-line that I can string up and hang insights on like so much laundry. The weird contemplative timelessness of Quarantine—not to mention the exhaustive self-reflection that tends to accompany a breakup—has only encouraged this behavior. But it’s not recriminatory! I love making sense of my life this way; seeing how the seeds of everything dear to me took root far earlier than I could’ve known.

2016 to 2020: a period bookended by two formative talks. The first wrestling with the paradox of gaining professional recognition faster than my financial situation was improving, the second realizing what I wanted to do with my time once that discrepancy had evened out.

Those four years also held a presidential term of unprecedented dreadfulness, a deeply formative relationship, profound shifts in my creative practice, and the growing realization that the systems underpinning this country are deeply broken. My undergraduate degree also took this amount of time, albeit from 2009-2012, which has had me thinking about the last four years as an education of its own. What do I hold a degree in now?

I asked people this question on Twitter, and the responses were predictably fascinating and funny in equal measure, but I wasn’t sure how to bring the conversation to this venue. And THEN the other day I saw Robin Sloan playing with inline response forms via his newsletter/blog and everything clicked into place. The invitation to contribute creates a bit of interactive magic without the bloat of a comments section—just a quick way to remind the reader that this is a collaborative experiment.1 I thought implementing something like this was out of my technical reach, but it turns out I have a plugin for contact forms already installed, so LET’S TRY:

    (If you’re reading this via RSS, the contact form doesn’t carry over. Beyond my skill to heal, I’m afraid, so just open this post in your browser if you’re dying to play.)

    Maybe I’ll update this post with some of your impressive new diploma titles? But then again, maybe not.

    1. I know I’ve said that I like how private this space feels right now, and this could break that illusion by inviting people to get in touch, but I also really like tiny emails as a form of call and response—and I’m not asking for anyone’s name or email address, so I literally can’t respond.

    New Comic: Federated Learning for Google

    Hello, blog friends!

    I know things have been pretty quiet around here lately, but that’s mostly because I’ve been tied up making this new comic for Google!

    A header image titled “Federated Learning: Building better products with on-device data and privacy by default. An online comic from Google AI” A smiling woman and an excited corgi flank a row of smart phones.

    Federated Learning is a new field of machine learning research that just hit the big-time at Google’s developer conference this week. I landed a gig working with Scott McCloud and an internal team to translate the basics of the field into an explainer comic.

    Most importantly: it’s got a Moby-Dick joke in it.

    You can read the whole thing here.

    There’s a lot to talk about with this gig, and I’m going to be diving into what I learned from my first major corporate client experience over on Patreon. This job is the most lucrative freelance contract I’ve ever taken, and I want to talk about how that’s felt (Complicated! Emotional! Empowering!) and what other folks can do to pursue similar gigs. I’m really proud of what we produced, and I think it does a good job of explaining something I would’ve never otherwise learned about.

    I also took lessons learned from building the accessible edition of 100 Demon Dialogues and made sure we had functional alt-text throughout the comic. If you use a screen reader to browse the web, do let me know how it works for you. I’m still trying to get better at making this site and other projects I work on accessible for folks who traditionally get left out of the digital comic-reading experience.

    Tour Dates for LA and Beyond!

    Hi friends!

    Keeping you all updated with a few more confirmed tour stops on the great 100 Demon Dialogues Summer Experience.

    Catch me this Sunday (August 12th) at 6pm at Other Books in Los Angeles for an intimate chat about the creation of 100 Demon Dialogues. Other Books is a wonderful shop in Boyle Heights that specializes in underrepresented voices and exploring notions of “the Other” in literature. They’ve got loads of zines, small press books, and rare finds. I think it’ll be a lovely night. RSVP here.

    Looking ahead: I’m headed south to SAN DIEGO for not one, but TWO events later next week.

    On Thursday, August 16th, I’m fulfilling a long-time dream of appearing at the Maritime Museum of San Diego for a free signing in the gift shop at 6pm, followed by a lecture inside the museum ON A REAL BOAT! Admission is $18 for adults (various discounts available) and gives you free reign of the many amazing vessels and exhibits until 9pm. Well worth the price of admission, I promise.

    This tour stop will be more nautically-themed, since I haven’t been down to San Diego since Baggywrinkles came out. Expect discussion of scurvy, maritime history, and what I got up to when I crossed the Pacific Ocean on R/V Falkor. It’s gonna be GREAT.

    Then on Friday, August 17th, I’ll be at San Diego Writers, Ink with my “Cohabiting with your Inner Critic” workshop. Learn more about that in this blog post or just snag tickets here.

    Looking ahead, we’ve got stops in Austin, Boulder, England, and Cambridge (MA):

    It’s ALL HAPPENING! Hope to see you on the road.

    How to Kick Ass at Kickstarter (Video)

    Last month I had the good fortune to return to The Animation Workshop in Denmark to teach a week-long course in their Graphic Storytelling department. You might remember the talk I gave two years ago, The View from Aloft, where I distilled my foundational philosophy about social media, online communities, and gratitude economies. This presentation follows up on that framework by talking specifically about crowdfunding and Kickstarter. Thanks to the school’s exceptional video rental equipment there’s now a very nice recording up on YouTube:

    I get a lot of questions from folks looking to learn more about this weird practice. It can be the most soul-crushing, time-consuming, heart-tormenting process, but also an incredible jolt of energy, affirmation, and community involvement. Between the generous souls who support me monthly on Patreon and the people who launch individual projects of mine via Kickstarter there’s no doubt that my career would look very different without crowdfunding.

    Everything that’s made my campaigns work feels like it’s come from watching my friends get smarter and better every time they launch a project, so it’s great to have this recording to pay it forward to more people. I hope some of you find it useful if you ever launch your own projects (and I hope you do).

    Good luck out there!

    Ocean Sciences Meeting ’18

    Hello everybody,

    I’ve got an amazing opportunity to exhibit at the 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting here in Portland this week (AKA the most impressive gathering of marine science folks in the country) and I wanted to invite you all to come along. I’ll be displaying original pages from (and giving away copies of) Mappin’ the Floor, the comic I drew during three weeks at sea aboard R/V Falkor last spring.

    Fun fact: I relinquished ownership of the original pages once the gig aboard Falkor was over, so they’ve been touring all over the world without me to various nautical events: a film festival in San Francisco, the America’s Cup race in Bermuda, the Bishop Museum in Hawai’i, a sailing festival in Rhode Island…pretty neat!

    Even aside from the comics stuff, the films they’re showing as part of this art evening at OSM sound really cool. One of them deals with the Blaschka collection of glass replicas, which I had the chance to see at Harvard a couple years ago. Here are some examples, all mind-blowingly accurate. If you ever get the chance to go see them in person, FOR THE LOVE OF NEPTUNE: GO.

    I’m really looking forward to doing an event that’s ocean-first rather than comics-focused. Gonna meet a lot of other aquatic nerds!

    So that’s it! Join me this Thursday, February 15th, in the Oregon Convention Center Portland Ballroom at 6pm. No ticket required.

    See you there!
    Lucy

    Inner Critic Investigation Week, Day 7

    This is it, everyone! It’s Day Seven of Inner Critic Investigation Week, the writing prompt series I’ve been collaborating on with writing coach Deb Norton.

    The rules are as follows:

    1. Get a pen and a sheet of paper.
    2. Set a timer for six minutes.
    3. WRITE. Ask your Inner Critic the question and find out what they have to say. Keep your pen moving, even if you’re writing lies or “Blah blah blah” over and over.

    Our seventh and final prompt is:

    By now you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what your Inner Critic doesn’t like. What happens if you deliberately try to push their buttons? Make a list of everything you can think of that will make your Critic hoppin’ mad. Maybe it’s doing a deliberately horrible drawing. Maybe it’s singing loudly in the shower when that voice inside is screaming at you to be quiet because the neighbors will judge you. Maybe it’s eating a whole pizza in one sitting. There are no wrong answers, just list as many things as you can think of.

     

    I’d love to do a round-up post next week with some anonymous entries from various people’s writing exercises. If you’d be willing to share, email me some excerpts at lucypcbellwood@gmail.com, or leave ’em in the comments below.

    Thank you so much for following along with this experiment! If you’d like to learn more about Deb’s work, check out her website or buy a copy of Part Wild: a Writer’s Guide to Harnessing the Creative Power of Resistance. You can also listen to the podcast we recorded about Inner Critics and the creative process. The little character you see featured in all these prompts is my Inner Critic, who I got to know over the course of drawing 100 comics in 100 days. You can read those right here.

    Distro for Dummies

    Hi readers! This blog has been relegated to acting as an occasional announcement board for the last few years as I’ve focused my attention on other platforms, but I have some educational tidbits I’d love to share somewhere more permanent. So let’s try something new!

    I’ve assembled this not-so-brief essay introduction to a couple common methods of comics distribution AKA “Getting Your Stuff Where People Can See It in the Retail World” that I’d love to share with you. I wrote it in response to an email from a comics friend I’d mentored some months ago, which contained the following conundrum:

    I tabled at DC Zinefest today (my first fest!) and a couple of people from a comic book store (Big Planet on U st) and a record store approached me about buying some copies to sell in their stores. They threw around words like “wholesale” and “consignment” and I have no idea what any of this means!  Could I ask you some questions about the business end of making/selling comics? I honestly did not expect any of this and I am a little overwhelmed by it all!

    When I sat down to answer I accidentally wrote a substantial primer on the subject, so I reproduce it here in the hopes that it will prove useful to some of you down the line!

    Eh-HEM.

    Section 1: Wholesale vs. Consignment

    So when a retailer (like a comic shop or record store) buys stuff to sell, they’re generally buying it in bulk from a distributor (someone who handles sales for a wide variety of titles) at wholesale prices. This can mean a variety of things, but as far as you (an independent creator) are concerned, it’s generally around 50% of the retail or “cover” price on anywhere from two to ten copies of your work. Often a professional distributor (the big one in our industry is called Diamond Comics) is dealing with such a wide variety of stock and such large numbers that the discount is much deeper, but for smaller folks like us 50% is a decent shorthand. A retailer asking to buy from you wholesale is a good thing, because money changes hands up front, your comics get to go somewhere you don’t personally have to sell them, and you don’t have to keep tabs on how many copies you’ve got hanging around the shop on consignment.

    There’s that word! What the heck is it. 

    Consignment is a slightly different process where a retailer will take some copies of your book for a set period of time (anywhere from a few weeks to six months or more) and see if they sell in the shop. At the end of that time period, they’ll cut you a check for the goods that sold (if any), generally splitting it 60/40 with the greater share going to you. Not every retailer is the same, though! Some have a 70/30 split, others 50/50. They’re basically avoiding the gamble of paying for something up front when they don’t know if it’ll sell.

    Now: as you may’ve noticed, consignment leaves a far broader range of opportunities for things to go squirrelly. Retailers can lose track of how many copies you game them. They can forget to follow up with you after the set period of time. I myself recently received a check for a whopping six dollars and eighty cents four years after leaving some copies of my Baggywrinkles minicomics at a comic shop in Chicago. (Their contract technically said that if I hadn’t been in touch after eight months I forfeited ownership of my books, so I actually thought it was pretty big of them to get back in touch and pay me.)

    Anyway. Point being: if a store has a wholesale option in place, go for it. It’s a huge pain to keep track of all the moving parts involved in consignment stuff, and I’ve found it way simpler to just know that my comics will be going somewhere new and I’ve got a little money up front.

    Section 2: DIY Distribution

    What happens if you don’t get approached by retailers at conventions? ASK THEM FIRST! You can go into any comic shop, bookstore, or other neat emporium and ask the person at the register “Hey, do you have a consignment or wholesale program for small press publications? Could I ask about the terms?” A surprising number of shops do! Some places have a specific buyer who will need to take a look at your stuff and see if it’ll be a good fit, other places will just take any old thing from folks who come in.

    Full disclosure: consigning my stuff at a comic shop for the first time was easily one of the Top Ten Most Horrifying Moments of My Entire Career Thus Far. I stood in front of this very kind cashier trembling like a leaf while they looked over my itty bitty comics and eventually, after a stretch of silence in which I’d decided I really was garbage and no one in their right mind would ever want to sell my work in any professional capacity, agreed to take six copies for the store. It was purgatory. It was dreadful. It is still dreadful. I’m a published author and I was still almost too shy to offer to sign the copies of my book they had at Powell’s because I didn’t want to make a fuss. THAT IS OKAY. FEAR IS NATURAL. DO IT ANYWAY.

    It never hurts to ask a retailer if they’d like to carry your work.And don’t limit yourself to comic shops! If you make work that has a particular audience (horticulturists) check out local shops that cater to that crowd (nurseries).

    Section 3: Professional (Indie) Distribution

    Diamond Comics aside, there are rare, excellent humans who take it upon themselves to run distro companies specifically for small press people (and take a cut, obviously). The newest is Emerald Comics Distro up in Seattle. Anne Bean, who launched the operation earlier this year, has been doing an incredible job working with a wide variety of creators to get their work into comic shops in the Pacific Northwest. She’s got plans to take her operation national down the line, but for now she’s fine-tuning it in the region and it seems to be going really well. I started selling mini comics with her a couple months ago and it’s been a total pleasure at every turn.

    She works with shops that do wholesale and consignment, but here’s the great part: she keeps track of all the fiddly details. With spreadsheets. It’s a thing of goddamn beauty. This is really the only situation in which consignment makes sense for me, because I’d forget my own head if it wasn’t screwed on and it’s just nonsensical otherwise.

    Section 4: Profit Margins

    The downside to all of this from a pricing perspective is that making minicomics is a pretty rough sell if you’re looking to turn any kind of significant profit.

    Here are some numbers to demonstrate:

    The little 24-page color travelogue minis I make here in Portland cost about $3 a copy to produce. (Note: this is because I am a big ol’ stuffypants about things like paper quality and color fidelity, so I could likely get them for cheaper, but I like making things that really look and feel good.) My rule of thumb for pricing is to triple to production cost. I used to sell them for $10 each, but dropped the price to $8 after they weren’t so new and shiny anymore. If a retailer buys those for $4 (50% of the cover price), I profit $1 per issue. If I make that sale through a distributor who takes a percentage of every sale, I’m looking at more like eighty cents. Sobering, huh?

    Contrast that with Baggywrinkles, which (being printed overseas on an offset press where thousands of copies can be made swiftly) cost about $1.12 PER BOOK. It’s mind-boggling. Those copies retail for $20! Of course: when the distributor and the store and everyone else have taken their cut, every copy sold through Amazon or Barnes & Noble only nets me about $5.50, so let’s not get carried away, but still. Copies I sell myself have a much better profit margin.

    Basically: it’s always worth crunching the numbers to make sure you know what kind of money you stand to make.

    Section 5: Conclusion

    So where does that leave us? Personally, I think making and distributing minicomics is a great way to get your work out there and connect with fans, but not a massive money-maker in the long run. And that’s okay! Tabling at conventions for my first few years in comics wasn’t a consistent exercise in turning a profit either, but it demonstrated to my fellow creators (and to the fans I picked up along the way) that I was in it for the long haul, and that I’d keep making new work and sharing it with people. There is a lot to be said for showing up consistently and sharing your work.

    Plus: once people are into your minicomics, you can build a fanbase that will support you making a book! And after that, a plush toy! And after that A ROCKET SHIP THAT IS ALSO AN 18TH-CENTURY NAVAL VESSEL.

    …if I’m lucky.

    Now go make some minis!

    New Comic: Mappin’ the Floor

    Hi friends!

    It’s been a busy week here on the island of O‘ahu. After completing our three-week ocean crossing aboard R/V Falkor last Monday at 8:30am, the ship immediately went into prep mode for a host of different events to help promote the results of our cruise. Chief among these was getting the gallery show at The ARTS at Marks Garage open, which meant getting my land legs back as quick as I could in order to hang all my completed pages from the comic I’d just drawn at sea.

    img_7666

    The opening party on Friday night was a truly fantastic time, and I’m so grateful to everyone who came out. It was also Chinese New Year, so we had a visit from some dragons!

    galleryopening
    Photo: SOI

    If you happen to be in Honolulu, the show is up through February 3rd, and features all the original artwork from my comic and work from all the other Artist-at-Sea participants from the last three years. There’s painting, animation, fiber arts, music, and (my personal favorite) A KNOT BOARD MADE OF ETHERNET CABLE.

    Ethernet Knotboard by Colleen Peters
    Ethernet Knotboard by Lead Technician Colleen Peters (who supported Baggywrinkles on Kickstarter and led to my joining Falkor in the first place!)

    My inner fancywork nerd is screaming with glee.

    SO: now that all that’s over, and I’ve taught a variety of classes to high schoolers and kindergarteners at local schools, it’s time to release the finished comic online. CUE TRUMPETS:

    mappinthefloor

    You can read the entire comic and learn all about multibeam mapping right here, and the PDF is free to download on Gumroad (just enter $0 at checkout and you’ll be able to download it without paying a dime). In keeping with Schmidt Ocean Institute’s open sharing of information policy, the comic is licensed under Creative Commons Non-Commercial/Attribution, so you can print it, color it, share it—whatever you want, as long as you aren’t turning a profit and you provide credit to the original source.

    Physical copies of the comic will be available in the next few months. If you’d like to be first in line to know when that happens, you can sign up for my email list here (I send out updates once a month).

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    Thanks, as always, to my stalwart supporters on Patreon, who directly enable me to take these trips and bring back educational comics for you all to read and enjoy.