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."

Pay to Play

Austin shared some lovely sketchnotes from a talk on writing as a form of prayer yesterday, and this bit really leapt out at me:

Out of all the interesting subjects they discussed, I think I was most taken by Father Martin’s explanation of how his vow of poverty affects his writing. Martin is “editor at large” at America Magazine, and as he explained it, he basically has the freedom to write about whatever he wants. The same goes for his books: All of his royalties go to the magazine, so he’s mostly unconcerned about sales. […] Writing, for him, is never a struggle.

Absence of pressure as a prerequisite for pleasure. I love this.

I’ve still got Luke’s phrase “financial profit is not possible here” reverberating around my skull from the launch of GOES yesterday, which has me wondering:

What happens to a creative practice when you proactively divorce it from capitalism? (And what form does that divorce need to take in order to be an effective means of culture-shift for the individual and their wider community?)

I think of this as the inverse of those well-meaning friends and relatives whose first words after seeing something you’ve made is “You could sell these on Etsy!” You might as well say “You could siphon all the joy out of this practice and replace it with crippling performance anxiety!”

Who are the people in my life whose response to any nascent creative work is: “Have you considered trying to make this as un-commercially-viable as possible?”

And more importantly: what allows someone to follow that instinct?

Shing and I have talked a little lately about feeling the hustle go out of us in our 30s, and how following the course of that ebb is a privilege earned by hustling a lot in our earlier career days (alongside other factors, of course). Overfunding a Kickstarter or landing an unexpectedly lucrative illustration gig—or even, on a more sustainable scale, running a Patreon—is a means of buying your own creative freedom for a spell, but all of these still involve an initial influx of cash. You have to pay to play.

(The string layer is back on.)

Ramble #27.2

Haven’t been super exact about remembering to cross-post when I release new Rambles, but I wanted to be sure I shared my latest one because people have said some deeply thoughtful and lovely things in the comments over on Patreon, and I think this is a discussion worth having right now.

Broad Themes: similarities between grief and creativity in both their acute and ambiguous forms, what to do when there is nothing to be done, Vaccine Feelings, broadening the window of tolerance for discomfort, models for social and economic validation, the metrics that matter in understanding Patronage, object permanence and online audiences.

Guest Starring: a lot of birds.

(If you prefer reading to listening, you can download a transcript here.)

April 10th, 2021
Ramble #27.2

Service-Agnostic Environments

I know the title of this post sounds like absolute corporate hokum, but I tried tweeting these thoughts ages ago and then realized it was really more of a discussion for long-form writing and so I started a Patreon post and then forgot about it and now it’s many, many months later and I’m blogging again so here I am putting it in a blog post.

Last summer Wendell and I ended up talking about “service-agnostic environments” for online community-building, and the question of generating adjacent, overlapping communities centered around particular groups of creators.

The whole practice of being an Online Creator (i.e. A Charming, Hyper-Available, Vulnerable Internet Personality, or CHAV-IP, as I have just decided to call it) feels centered around siphoning people into these isolated social buckets where you can make demands on their time and attention and finances. But this doesn’t make for a sustainable and interconnected ecosystem. An audience member can only be a part of so many tiny silos before it becomes overwhelming.

For example: there are a lot of people who probably follow both my work and Shing’s work, but each of us also have readers uniquely drawn to our particular brand of BS (boat stuff and Bunyan statues, probably). We have both built followings on public social platforms and in more private, paid spaces like Patreon and Discord.

What would it look like to have a combined location where our overlapping readers could talk to each other?

My general obsession recently (and I know I’m not alone in this) has been more about getting audience members to connect with one another rather than singularly with me. I want people who enjoy my work to see themselves as part of an ecosystem—to cross-pollinate and experiment and build and play.

I brushed up against this when Shing invited me to begin playing in the Mercantile Gnome Universe (MGU?) they’ve built over the past handful of years. I became a representative of the Boat Gnome and started offering to trade pins with people through the mail. The game revealed a lot of crossover between our audiences, but it also encouraged more of my people to learn about Shing and vice versa. If I had been supporting a creator who did something similar, I think I would’ve found the experience exciting. It feels more like a treasure hunt and less like product placement. An invitation written in code, delivered with a wink and a tip of the hat.

It makes me think of Robin’s Republic of Newsletters—a section of his newsletter that used to keep up with other interesting and adjacent written projects as if they were physical outposts in a shared landscape. It’s webrings and blogrolls, cross-links and quotations. Everyone loves to feel the thrill of discovery, but it’s sweeter when the core of that experience is someone you trust taking your hand and saying “Wow, look.”

What is the landscape of affinity for my work? Who are the creators I find myself sharing fans with? Which subjects do we mutually gravitate towards? Where are we different? How is a creative community like a map? 

I have very few answers and a lot of questions.

First Foray

I’ve made my first YouTube video! It’s a four-minute rundown on how to bring emotion, action, rhythm, and clarity to bear in writing for comics.

Folks who follow me on Patreon know this came about because I’m working on a graphic novel called Seacritters with my friend Kate right now and it’s her first time moving from prose to comics. I DO NOT ENVY HER. Most of what I learned while putting this together had to do with remembering just how many factors there are to consider in telling stories visually. Hopefully this makes it a bit less overwhelming.

(If you want to learn more, I originally delivered this information to Kate in a much more expansive, 54-slide visual presentation. I’ll be uploading that for Patreon subscribers at all levels later today. An excellent time to join.)

I miss going into Helioscope and getting to enjoy these kinds of conversations around the lunch table, but a nice side effect of the Pandemic is that we’re making more of them available online. (I say “we” but what I really mean is Leila, who’s been a champion about recording, editing, and uploading all kinds of content to the studio YouTube channel. Go take a look around if you like this sort of thing!)

I Don’t Know What I Know Till I Know How I Know It

I love it when my Patrons prove me wrong.

The best instance of this was when a few of them bullied me into making a $50 tier for the page—which I thought nobody would spring for—so they could give me more money. Years later, I am still flabbergasted that anyone has joined at that level—let alone the very loyal and kind group who have stuck around. They are life-changing types.

So you’d think at this point I’d know not to underestimate them.

But this morning I published a 1,300-word essay about trying to start work on the scripting process for Seacritters, my forthcoming graphic novel project with writer Kate Milford, and thought that nobody in their right mind would read it.

I liked the writing a great deal, and it definitely captured what I was going for, but it was, y’know, 1,300 words. If I’d received it in my inbox as a Patron, I would’ve taken one look and thought “mmmmmmaybe I’ll read that one later.”

Because my attention span these days is, to put it mildly, not great.

So I gave myself a bit of a talking-to about engaging my Inner Editor a little more in the future…but then people started to comment! They began to discuss! And over the course of the morning I realized that a bunch of humans I respect immensely had actually taken the time to read those 1,300 words, and had found them helpful, and were excited for more.

The best feeling.

Two Rambles

Ramble #24 (January 7th, 2021): The 7th anniversary of my arrival on Patreon! Reflections on my first solo Christmas, good quotes about solitude, writing down nice things, thinking about early internet communities, trying out anonymous audio-based support groups, picking a word for the year, stuff about birds. There’s also a bonus recording attached to the original post on Patreon from Tim Dee’s The Running Sky, which is just gorgeous.

January 7th, 2021
Ramble #24

Ramble #25 (January 21st, 2021): much shorter. Took a walk. Petted a cat. Tried to figure out how I’ve changed my relationship to being online and whether I could distill that process into replicable steps. (Also, thanks to a truly mystical service Robin turned me onto called Descript, this is the first Ramble with a proper transcript.)

January 21st, 2021
Ramble #25

(If you’re universally hot for RSS feeds—and if you’re here, let’s be real, you probably are—you can always subscribe to these directly in the podcast app of your choosing with this link.)

[Complete Ramble Archive]

Perfectionism, Process, Patterns

[I’m going to start cross-posting the weird captain’s log audio updates I’ve been doing on Patreon for the last couple years here on my blog. If you’d like to take a spin through the whole archive, I’ve made a page for every past episode here.]

Okay, so! A Ramble. Typically when I share these on Patreon I try to keep it simple and just throw up a list of links to things I talked about, in case folks want to follow up and read what I’m reading. I still don’t know how to approach the practice here. Ironically, this particular Ramble is about the relative ease of talking compared to writing for me, and how the pressure to “get it right” in text is so much stronger.

I recognize that this is probably diametrically opposed to how a lot of people feel about any kind of public (or semi-public) speaking, but I think by talking, and my best thinking-talking usually happens when I’m addressing people who get it. Sometimes this is specific friends for specific projects, but there’s a reason this practice came into being on Patreon. My Patrons have bought into the weird, non-transactional structure I’ve built for my page, which means they’re probably the people I trust the most with an imperfect, non-linear audio snapshot of whatever I’m thinking about at the time.

On a practical note: I talk so much faster than I write. My guess is that a transcription of each Ramble would feel like an insurmountable slog to read through, but as a 20-minute audio snippet it’s a relatively small ask. You can do other stuff while consuming it, which I know people do because they comment and tell me about it! How lovely to imagine a friend or stranger doing dishes or puttering in the garden while we spend twenty asynchronous minutes together. It’s the best.

Every Ramble also comes paired with a photo I took while recording it. This started because I was too lazy to draw a cover for the first one, but it’s become a really important part of the process. It creates a visual touchstone that reminds me of the season and the weather and the moment when I was thinking these thoughts. Seeing them all together feels like a form of cyclical time travel.

Anyway, here’s today’s:

A moody photograph of a skyline at sunrise. There are black buildings and telephone poles silhouetted in the foreground and a streak of orange against slate-grey clouds on the horizon.
December 8th, 2020

This Ramble felt like going to therapy on a week where I think nothing in particular’s been going on, but find myself reckoning with the unseen weight of countless stressors from the last three days alone within five minutes of opening my mouth. Except I should replace “stressors” with “stuff I’ve been thinking about while reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home” to paint a more accurate picture.

And because I do think it helps, here’s that list of links to things mentioned:

So that’s that. These come out roughly every 2-3 weeks, or as the mood strikes. Don’t set your watch by it.

The Right Number

Hello, long-neglected blog. I hope the tumbleweeds and bits of lint accumulating in the corners of this platform have been keeping you warm, even if they’re singularly unable to keep you company.

I’m back because I launched an odd new project on my birthday last month and I wanted to talk about it here to break my long silence and maybe goad myself into blogging more often on a website I actually own.

So: the new thing!

A navy square with elegant gold lettering that reads "The Right Number: a place to speak and be heard." Underneath it is a number: 503-673-6267

The Right Number is basically a secular confessional housed in a voicemail box. Dial (503) 673-6267 and you’ll hear a brief prompt, after which you can record a response for up to three minutes. All messages are confidential, prompts rotate every two weeks.

The first two prompts (“What’s something you wish someone would say to you right now?” and “What’s something you wish you could say to someone else right now?”) both elicited a wide range of thoughtful, heart-wrenching, funny replies. I’d say it was working as intended if I’d had any real sense of how this was going to go ahead of time, but I didn’t.

As it stands, I’m very happy with the project so far. The user base is still small—an intimate crowd of willing weirdos—and I’m perfectly content for it to stay that way. Recording freewheeling audio updates over on Patreon every two weeks for the last couple years has taught me that sometimes the quality of conversation and connection I’m hungry for online is best cultivated through sustained, vaguely directed projects over long periods of time.

So: that’s the thing!

If you want to play along, you can sign up for this tiny newsletter that’ll send you an email reminder every time there’s a new prompt (usually on Mondays, but I make no promises).

I’ll see you in the voicemail box,

L

Introducing the Boat Gnome Mercantile Trading Program

If you follow me elsewhere on the web, you’ve probably seen an uptick in posts about something called the Boat Gnome Mercantile Trading Program. Maybe it makes sense, maybe it doesn’t, so here’s a big ol’ post with some background about this zany undertaking and how you can play along.

If you just can’t wait to exchange goods with the Boat Gnome (even if you are, perhaps, a little unclear about what that entails), the Trade-by-Mail Program is already open to Patrons at any pledge level. You can find all the instructions for sending trades through the mail by becoming a Patron and visiting this post

The Boat Gnome’s desired items for the 2019-2020 Trading Season are as follows:

  • An interesting shell (level of interest is in the eye of the beholder)
  • A piece of seaglass (bonus points for unusual colors)
  • A transcription of your favorite nautical poem (typed or hand-written, as preferred)
  • A knot (tied in a piece of string, twine, rope, etc and labelled by name)

Okay, let’s back up and talk about Shing Yin Khor.

Shing, a nonbinary person in a bright red hat sits underneath a pepper tree. They have a spread of crates in front of them.
Here is Shing mysteriously showing up in the driveway of my childhood home in California.

Shing is an unstoppable, mischievous force for good in the world. Aside from creating immersive installation art and fabulous comics and unconventional fundraising initiatives and co-facilitating life-changing retreats, they also run something called the Space Gnome Mercantile Trading Program

The story goes like this: there is a gnome—a Space Gnome—who runs a trading outpost in outer space. She releases a list of desirable items prior to sending one of her representatives to conventions around the country. The desirable items are often simple. A nice rock. A cutting from a succulent. A poem. A story. 

Traders may present the representative with one of these objects and receive, in exchange, a limited edition enamel pin.

A set of postcards with enamel pins depicting a space gnome.
Some of Shing’s stunning Space Gnome pins.

Once a participant has made a trade and received a pin they become a Trusted Trader, and can return to the representative at future events (wearing their pin) and receive additional, special items. Shing also runs a trade-by-mail program exclusively for their Patreon supporters (DID I MENTION YOU CAN SUPPORT SHING ON PATREON?) in case folks can’t make it out to conventions.

I love this project. It’s subversive and human and playful and kind. So when Shing and I were on a ferry coming back from the Wayward Retreat this summer, I screwed up my courage and said:

“Do you think there might be other gnomes? I mean, hypothetically, what if there was also, say…a Boat Gnome?”

I felt self-conscious even asking. Why can’t I come up with my own ideas? Isn’t this plagiarism? But the beauty of this project lies in the fact that it’s not commercial in the slightest. Nobody’s making a profit. It’s a sandbox—a container for play, and as if to prove it Shing immediately shot up off the bench and shouted “YES!!!”

One month later they showed up in the front yard of childhood home in California (long story) and officially inducted me into the Association of Gnomes—a process I can’t recount here, so you’ll just have to flip through this Instagram Story really quick to experience it.

A pointy blue felt hat with a variety of nautical items attached to it.
My extremely good Boat Gnome Hat. Yes, you may be jealous.

Armed with my gnome hat, I started drafting ideas. Since Shing had already come up with a format for the pins and cards, I decided to keep things simple and just riff on the existing material.

A drawing of a cute gnome wearing the pointy felt hat from earlier.

So here’s our Boat Gnome. (Perhaps suspiciously like a smaller version of me, but WHO’S KEEPING SCORE.) I translated this small friend onto a postcard that would mimic Shing’s space-themed offering with a load of nautical motifs.

Step-by-step sketches of the postcard design from earlier.
I snapped a photo of this rough sketch with my iPad, then used Clip Studio to refine the art, ink, and color it! Printing by the trusty folks at Moo.com

And then came the PINS, which I wanted to match to Shing’s design so that enterprising traders could line them up in a handsome row on a lapel.

Step-by-step drawings of the boat gnome pin.
Here’s the design process!
The finished boat gnome enamel pin.
Aaand here’s the finished pin!

Once I had all my elements assembled, it was time to number all the backing cards and start assembling pins. The final result looks amazing.

The completed Boat Gnome Mercantile pin set.

The great thing about doing a project that won’t make me any money is that a lot of the perfectionism that usually dogs my steps during production is just…gone. Who cares if this isn’t utterly perfect? It’s a game. People are going to play.

I’ve spent a little over $500 assembling the materials for this project, which would’ve felt impossible three years ago. But I’m finally at a place in my career where not every expense has to turn a profit. There’s so much heart-felt fun to be had exchanging gifts with strangers and friends. And because of the support I receive on Patreon, I can do these kinds of projects. It’s such a wonderful privilege. I’ve already completed over 40 trades with people from all over the country, and the offerings are universally stellar.

So thanks. I can’t wait to trade with you all.

<3

Lucy

(Boat Gnome Representative)