Interview with Shannon Watters
Matt Carter: I know DC just announced a crossover between Lumberjanes and Gotham Academy…
Shannon Watters: Yeah! It’s really, really cool. It’s really crazy for us, we’re still kinda trying to wrap our heads around it. It’s been in the works for a while, but we’re really excited. Chynna Clugston is, especially for Brooke Allen and I, as two of the original Lumberjanes team members, Chynna is one of our seminal creators. We both have Blue Monday as one of our American comic roots, so that’s just really cool and a huge honor, and obviously, Rosemary has drawn issues of Lumberjanes, for us and she is in the Lumberjanes family and is incredible, so it’s very exciting.
MC: So, how does something like this come about? Because, I can’t imagine it’s easy—it’s not the sort of thing you can hash out over the course of a weekend.
SW: No, no, it’s been in the works for a very long time, and it was kind of a mutual thing between DC and Boom!. I think initial interest was expressed, I’m not sure who started putting out feelers, but when it was brought to us, it was kind of like, “oh, who knows if this is gonna be a thing.”
MC: Who gets to release that, does Boom! release it?
SW: Boom!’s going to be releasing it, yes.
MC: In a case like that, what’s it like for you to work with a big company like DC?
SW: It’s been lovely so far, we’re very lucky that we have a friend in Rebecca Taylor who is the editor of Gotham Academy, she used to be an editor here at Boom! and she was one of the senior editorial members of Archaia, especially before Boom! acquired them. She’s a good friend of ours and is obviously very protective of Gotham Academy, and also very kind and affectionate and protective of Lumberjanes as well.
MC: Right, and I think those books work really well together, too.
SW: They do, it was funny to see everybody’s reaction when the announcement went up, because you never know what the reaction is going to be like with something like this—a lot of people were saying, “Oh of course! This makes total sense.”
MC: And Lumberjanes has such a massive, loyal fanbase. It’s got to be one of the independent success stories of the last few years.
SW: It really has been incredibly surprising and satisfying to us. It was supposed to be an 8-issue jaunt, and the response was just overwhelming. It still takes us by surprise.
MC: It’s only gotten better, too. Also congratulations on two years of Lumberjanes, I just read my review copy of issue 24.
SW: Yeah! How’d you like it?
MC: I loved it, it was excellent. I really just…the way the characters have grown over the last two years is phenomenal.
SW: That’s been a really special thing, and a really special challenge for us, because we kind of, you have an idea of who the characters are for an 8-issue miniseries, but after two years, you really have to get to know the characters and it has been really satisfying to see how people respond and where they’ve gone, and what we’ve been able to do and preserve about the book.
MC: And grow it, besides just preserving it. The world building has been really natural and it’s just been a phenomenal book, so again, congratulations.
SW: Thank you! And I’m so pleased to hear that you enjoyed 24. No spoilers, but something exciting happens in 24, and I went back and forth about whether that particular something needed to be a huge…ya know…
MC: I really enjoyed how it was handled, I thought it was great. I won’t say much more about it.
So you start that book as an 8-issue miniseries, and when it was extended, did you already have ideas in the can, or was it all of a sudden like, “Holy crap, now we have to create more stories?”
SW: It was kind of the latter, Grace had structured it initially with me like a Saturday morning television show, and Noelle is amazing at writing like that, and Grace is world building in that way. When Grace creates characters, it’s really extraordinary because you read a character description from Grace, like in an initial pitch and it feels like this is something that’s been around for a million years. And Noelle writes them that way.
And so, the premise of the book was structured like it was a Saturday morning cartoon show. There’s still things…the next arc features kind of a creature that we had in the initial pitch and I think even appeared in the initial solicit text but didn’t end up making it into those 8 issues. But I think it’s mentioned in the #1 solicit text and finally get around to it!
MC: Switching gears for a second, you oversee KaBoom and BoomBox…How do you go about finding talent for both of these imprints and what differentiates what you find and put towards each one?
SW: Well, because KaBoom has mainly been Cartoon Network for so long, it’s just starting to kind of get more of my focus for originals and other licenses, but all-ages comics has my heart. And I really do feel like there are a lot of creators out there making all-ages comics that aren’t just for kids.
MC: Right, I think of Roger Langridge as one of those.
SW: Exactly! Roger is incredible, and he’s been doing work for Boom! for a long, long time. The Muppet series he did for us is one of the first licensed comics to be nominated for an Eisner back in the day.
And so, I think that I think that KaBoom, the talent does skew slightly younger than BoomBox, which we’re starting to find BoomBox’s voice. When we put BoomBox together a few years back, it was kind of, I had an ethos in mind but I wasn’t quite sure what was going to work. The ethos was gleeful, joyful comics that felt like it was a Saturday morning and you were drawing cartoons at the kitchen table. Just, comics that felt fun and you looked forward to picking up because the characters felt like you wanted to go and spend time with them every month. So we’re kind of starting to figure out what’s been working with BoomBox, what hasn’t, and why.
That’s been leading to series like Diesel and Jonesy, and Goldie Vance. We have a really cool series coming this summer that follows similar ethos and this winter as well, and so we’re kind of figuring out, “oh, okay this is what is working and what speaks to what boomBox is,” and KaBoom’s ethos is, I think, extremely high quality all-ages content.
MC: It does a great job at that, and the truth is that there’s not enough of that out there. If I was a parent going into a comic shop today, I would have no idea what to buy my kid.
SW: Which is incredible, right? My little cousin right now is obsessed with Captain America, just obsessed.
MC: But you can’t hand him a Captain America comic!
SW: Yeah! But I can’t go buy him a Captain America comic, I mean, I don’t know what to give him! And it boggles my mind because we live in a time when comic book properties are the hot ticket. Everybody’s seen Captain America, everybody’s going to go see Civil War, every kid in America has a Black Widow or Iron Man action figure, and it’s fascinating to me that there isn’t more, that the bigger publishers aren’t really leaning hard into mass market plays for kids.
There’s so much incredible talent out there. There are so many young cartoonists who’ve come up reading web comics and reading manga and reading all ages comics like Bone, and whose styles are very reflective of that. They’re very dynamic storytellers, and that’s obviously where I look for talent.
Can you imagine creators like that tackling Captain America for kids?
MC: Yeah, there’s no shortage of talent out there. I just feel like the bigger publishers aren’t interested because they don’t have to be. And do you think that the lack of all ages books being put out by the big two, does that make your life more difficult when you’re trying to push all ages books? Is it tougher to sell an unknown all-ages book when there isn’t an all-ages Spider-Man bringing kids into stores?
SW: It’s always tough selling an unknown all-ages property. You have to really think critically about the creator and the fanbase for that creator and the strength of the story, you can’t really be lazy with all-ages original properties because if you do, you drown!
It could only help to have a bigger market to have more books in that space in the marketplace, but only if the bigger companies put that muscle behind it that would bring kids into comic book stores, because that’s the real rub, right? There’s a bunch of us who, our main business is the direct market, and there are a lot of amazing comic book stores out there who do incredible outreach to kids, but it’s kind of peanuts compared to the mass market as far as the size and the numbers that we’re dealing with sometimes.
I mean, that’s the dream, is for somebody to be publishing a direct market comic book for kids about a very popular franchise and really getting it out to libraries and schools…because retailers put it all out there, doing everything they can to reach kids, to great success.
We’ve had wonderful success with our all-ages books, but I always wish it could be bigger, I wish there could be more.
MC: That’s a good thing though, it’s good that there’s someone like you doing that. Have you been at Boom! for the entirety of your career?
SW: No, I’ve been at Boom! for six and half years now, I started as an assistant editor to Matt Gagnon, our editor-in-chief, I kind of came out of school and worked an odd job that I wasn’t quite suited for and I got a copyediting position at Tokyo Pop that wasn’t anything crazy, you walked in and grabbed a stack of proofs, you worked through them and you set ‘em in the done pile and grabbed a stack of proofs. But everybody I worked around was very kind to me. However after about eight months, 60% of the company got laid off, some really lovely people in editorial who all moved on to do awesome and wonderful things other places. I rode out the recession actually, working at a development department in a Catholic school, doing their website, newsletters, etc. with some really awesome nuns. It was a very, very progressive Catholic school, a very fun place to work, and about a year into that, I got a call from one of my supervising editors at Tokyo Pop, Paul Morrisey, who’s a doll and a delight. Paul was working on some all ages Disney stuff for Boom!, and he says, “I need an assistant editor, you should come in.” So I came in and I had a really good interview, but at the time I couldn’t make the switch work because Boom! was still really small—I think it was seven or eight people—and so they essentially didn’t have benefits yet, it was just a scrappy crew. About three or four months later I got a call back from Ross, the CEO and founder, and Ross said in his big Texas voice, “Shannon, this is Ross Richie, we have benefits now, we have insurance now, you want a job?” and I was like, “Yup! Sure do, Ross!” So I put in my notice, and I’ve been at Boom! ever since.
It’s been really cool to grow with them as a company, it’s a very young company, we’re all pretty young. The oldest among us is in their early 40’s, a lot of senior staff is in their early- to mid- thirties, a lot of folks in their twenties.
MC: So being in a company like Boom! vs. being somewhere as large as Marvel or DC, as an editor at Boom!, specifically for BoomBox, you’ve got a line that focuses on creator-owned work and features a pretty diverse range of stories and characters. You kind of have a platform to affect change in terms of representation and content, do you think that you would be able to do that kind of work at a larger company?
SW: I honestly don’t know. At Boom! that I have an unprecedented amount of freedom to take stories and characters and creators in directions that I may not at a company that has other interests, and that’s totally valid. They’re part of larger corporations that have their own interests and that makes total sense. I do think that there are some awesome editors that are doing some awesome work at those companies, that are doing their best and putting out some cool stuff.
So, I don’t know, but I do know that I’m very humbled by the opportunity that I’ve had throughout my career. It’s been a joy to work with young creators who have gone on to really great things and it has been a joy to be a part of their journey and have the opportunity to say, “Hey, this young creator really intrigues me and delights me, and I want to work with them,” and to have people say, “Yes! Absolutely!”
MC: In terms of inclusivity and representation of women in comics, how do you feel it’s changed in recent years? Both in the stories and characters and in the creative pool…
SW: Women in comics have always been here, there have always been women making comics. Trina Robbins is releasing The Complete Wimmen’s Comix on Fantagraphics, which collects the underground women’s comics movement from the 1960’s and 70’s, which is really, really cool, and you’ve got Karen Berger who changed the entire landscape of our industry and medium with Vertigo. So women in comics have always been there…I do think the change that’s come about is that awareness in listening to concerns of women creators and social media and the internet especially have given women a voice that they may not have had before. It is difficult when you are trying to break through in a system that has gatekeepers that may have some misogynistic tendencies.
So if you are a woman who is an artist that is trying to break into comics and an editor who is a white, cis-gendered, straight dude tells you, “You can’t draw, I’m not gonna give you a second look,” it’s a bummer, there’s a gatekeeper there.
MC: And how many doors can shut in your face before you throw your hands up…
SW: Exactly! And so, the internet has been an incredible asset in many ways, you can put your work online and if you are a marginalized person in any space, you can find a readership that responds to your story, and you don’t have to have a gatekeeper there, you don’t have to have somebody tell you what you can or cannot say. You can speak true to your experience as a creator, and there are these incredible pioneers doing this incredible work, and it’s the publishing and mainstream industry that’s trying to catch up with the work that women, and people of color, and queer people have been doing for a very long time.
MC: Granted, with the internet, it’s easier to get you work out there. I do think though, that with the signal to noise ratio, it can be difficult for new creators to still get their work seen. What do you recommend? And by seen, I mean seen by readers…not necessarily publishers…that’s something that just takes time and persistence.
SW: And I think that getting your work seen takes time and persistence, I mean if you make a comic and post an update to that comic once a week, and you speak to creators at Cons who have similar style or sensibility to yours, you make friends in your industry. You get to know people. Somebody like Noelle who is a young creator and a total badass, incredible talent, when Nimona launched, Noelle had just been doing work online for a very long time. She was at an internship at Boom! when Nimona launched online—it was her first “real” comics project. She’d been getting to know people, so when it launched, people started retweeting it. People in the industry retweeted, people that responded to it retweeted it, and that got her a readership. She’s what I think of as a great example of somebody just doing their thing, and that’s how I find people and that’s how I hire people. I look for people who’ve just been putting their work out there for a while and who seem reliable because they’ve been self-directed for some time.
MC: Back to all-ages books…if you are a parent who doesn’t know, but your kid wants to read comics, what would you, Shannon Watters, recommend to them?
SW: Oh boy, so many good comics out there.
MC: Give me five.
SW: So, if you’re just starting out and your kid is interested in comics, Bone is a great place to start. Bone is every great Disney movie and Lord of the Rings, and dragons and every amazing thing that kids love all wrapped in a long and glorious package. So, Bone, obviously. Any of Raina’s books, they are the gold standard, she is ruling the New York Times bestseller list with good reason, and she’s an incredible storyteller and kids respond so well to Raina and her work. I really love Delilah Dirk by Tony Cliff. It’s about a lady Indiana Jones, if you…well, it’s very much along those lines, it’s wonderful.
Hmm… two more… I really like Rollergirl, that was something that I enjoyed reading last year. Victoria Jamieson. Noelle’s Nimona. Nimona is great and fantastic. Anything by Gene Yang, who is incredible. And there are a lot of comic stores out there that have really great sections for kids and they really want to help you out. Retailers really want to help you find that perfect book for your kid.
MC: Yeah, it’s not the exclusive dark ages that it was when we were growing up, the stores are much more welcoming than they used to be.
SW: And the Valkyries is such an incredible organization, they’ll help you find anything. They’ve been such a force for good in the direct market as far as pushing for books that are a diverse reading experience.
MC: Can you talk a little about the Valkyries? Some people may not know about them.
SW: The Valkyries are an organization that was founded a few years back by Kate Leth, the writer of Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat, and she started this organization of women of comic book retail. They essentially support a variety of creators and smaller books, and they are just an incredible support system for the comics industry and diversity points in the comics industry. They help get readership for books done by women, people of color, by queer people, they push it, they put it out there, they order it, it’s a really cool organization.
MC: Regarding queer representation in comics, something I know you’re passionate about… given that you handle so many all-ages books…I would consider Lumberjanes an all-ages book, you handle the subject matter in such an elegant way, that it’s almost as if the beat happens, and it takes a second to click that it happened and…it’s…I can’t find the right word for it…
SW: I think “natural” is a good way to put it. It’s a queer creative team who put the Lumberjanes together, and before anything that was an ethos that was central to Lumberjanes—this idea that queer kids are still just kids and they should be treated narratively as kids and young adults. They get a crush, just like anybody else, and their crush doesn’t have to be this soul shattering moment. It’s exciting to have a crush, it’s exciting to “follow your arrow” and when you’re a kid that’s when you do that.
There are a lot of pressures in our society telling kids that there is a right way and wrong way to be a good human, and to be a good girl and to be a good boy—to be the ‘right’ kind of person. There are a lot of coming out stories out there, kids being yelled at, thrown out, and those are stories that are extremely necessary. The true crisis in the queer community isn’t that we couldn’t get married—I’m glad we can get married now, my wife is great—but the true shocking issue that should be preoccupying the queer community right now is that disproportion of homeless youth who are queer, and especially trans, and those are important stories. But it’s also extremely important to normalize being queer for kids because there should be a place out there where it’s safe to be queer; nobody comments on it, nobody thinks twice about it, and we wanted Lumberjanes to be that space.
MC: And that’s something it does very well. Thanks for your time, I can’t wait to see what happens next in Lumberjanes!