Founding and maintaining an independent comics publication at the college level is a huge commitment. In order to succeed, you need to be ready to devote time and money for very little short term payback. In the long term, though, if you are persistent and have a strong group of contributors, you will be able to reap great benefits and end up with a body of work you can be proud of.
Scott Donaldson and I co-founded the Carleton Graphic (www.carletongraphic.com) at the beginning of my sophomore year at Carleton College. I took over as head editor the following year, and retained the position until I graduated in 2012, by which point we had managed to publish 34 issues of the magazine. Having been with the magazine during its transition from a hand-folded zine to a higher quality publication numbering up to 56 pages per issue, I have accrued a set of experiences that I hope can be helpful to anyone setting out to replicate our process.
-Find one or several co-editors
This is pretty essential. Look for students who already make comics or cartoons on your campus. Get in touch with any students who draw editorial cartoons or flyers for local bands – artists tend to know other artists. Even if the person you contact isn’t available or interested in your comics publication, they are likely to know other people who would be. Running a publication takes a lot of busywork, and it’s incredibly helpful to have at least two people in charge at all times. That way you will learn together, and each will be able to help the other when a time of crisis comes. Plus you get the combined experience of two people instead of having to figure things out all by yourself. It’s useful for the two of you not to be in the same class year, so that you don’t both graduate and leave a huge experience vaccuum. Don’t designate only one person as ‘the tech one’ if you can help it – share the experience between your editors so you aren’t put in a difficult situation when your tech person graduates.
-Have a backlog of personal work
You will find it useful to have a standing reservoir of unpublished work as you begin your project. Since each issue needs a pagecount in a multiple of four due to the way pages are folded into a booklet, it will frequently occur that you will be a page or two short of a “full” issue. Having a standing reservoir of work allows you to fill in those gaps without rushing a couple pages at one in the morning. You may also find that you and your co-editor(s) will have to populate the first issues yourselves, so any comics you’ve already made will be vital in helping you avoid measly 12 page issues.
-Publish a test issue
Once you have a co-editor and some work to publish (maybe a couple friends have contributed one or two pages) try laying out an issue and print some experimental copies. Play with things like font and page size. These will be useful in giving you an idea of the process of putting out an issue, and can be used in pitching a group charter if that’s something you want or need to do.
-Decide your print size
Print size has a large influence on the cost of your printing. You have three major options. You can print at a 5.5×8.5 size, which is a booklet made from standard size printer paper. The resolution will be lower, but this is likely your cheapest option. You can print at 8.5×11 by using tabloid (11×17) paper, which is a bit pricier but allows much higher resolution. Or you can print on newsprint, at a newspaper size, which requires a more specialized printing facility. The Carleton Graphic printed at 8.5×11 size, which I found to be a good size for allowing high levels of detail and relatively small text.
-Get a group chartership
It’s very likely that your school requires you to apply for a group chartership to register as a club and get access to those vital printing funds. Establish some short and long term goals for your group (for example, “The [Comics Magazine] is a fun and experimental space for [College] students to create comics and visual narratives.”) If you need a professor to sponsor you, the art department and the cinema/media studies department are good places to look.
-Decide whether it is better to print out of pocket or via a chartership
This one is tricky. You want to maintain creative control of your content, so if your school is strict about what chartered clubs can or can’t publish, you may want to consider printing out of your own pocket. If you end up doing that you will likely want to start small, printing at 5.5×8.5 and in black and white, and then working your way up to color and nicer printing as you get more recognition (and donations/ad revenue). Hopefully, though, getting a charter will not force you to give up any creative control.
If you end up in a position where you have to pay out of your own pocket for printing, you may want to consider running print ads. I personally never considered this because I hate having ads in a comics publication, but if we had not been given access to the Student Alliance funds, I likely would have tried to sell some ads for the inside back cover.
-Budget Committee Tips
It’s likely that you will have to submit some sort of proposal to a budget committee at least once a term. It’s highly important to know the page rates offhand, and to prepare a document spelling out how much money you will need if you assume an average of X pages per issue, and X issues per term. The more math you can show, the more likely you are to get your money. Nobody likes it when you just guess at how much you might need, it’s vital that you show exactly what your costs will be, how much money you are allocating toward color printing, etc. It’s better to ask for less money than you have calculated needing, because that shows that you are willing to compromise and not waste school funds.
Getting a group together
-Organization fair/email list
If your school has an organization fair, try to get a booth there to advertise your club. Chances are you are promoting a sort of publication that has never existed at your school before, so you want to attract as much attention as possible. Set up an email list as soon as possible, and try and hold a few preliminary meetings to gauge the levels of interest your fellow students have.
-An issue every two or three weeks
It sounds crazy, I know, but I maintain that our frequent print schedule is the key reason to the Carleton Graphic’s success. Look at it this way: students procrastinate. If you set a deadline as “the end of the semester,” your contributors might not even start until the week before the end of the semester. If you have a much more frequent deadline, however, your contributors will always feel some pressure to create. Some might contribute every other issue, and some might contribute once a term, but the constant ability to submit something and see it in print within a couple weeks motivates people more than longer deadlines would. That being said, it may happen that you receive too few submissions by the end of two weeks to print an issue. When that happens, delay a week rather than printing a 12 page issue. The ‘we missed this deadline, and have a week to make up for it!’motivation will encourage more submissions by the new deadline and you’ll have a better issue for it.
-Set the deadline for at least two days before you go to press
If you want to print on Friday mornings, set your deadline to Wednesday at noon (that’s assuming your printer can get you your issues within a few hours of your submitting a file). This allows you to get a good feel for the number of contributions to your issue, and gives your contributors a little wiggle room if they ‘just need a few more hours’ to complete their submission. If you set your deadline for the night before you print, you might end up waiting until some terrible hour in the morning for your final contributor to send in their pages, and then you still need to lay out your issue. Trust me, that’s no fun at all.
-Invite your members to lay out with you
If you have any members who express any interest at all in the layout process, invite them to help you! You’re training future editors, and you’re helping a younger artist learn valuable skills. Also, it will definitely come in useful when you need someone to help you lay out because you have too much homework, which is certain to happen.
-Hold regular drawing salons
It’s important that members of the group get to know one another. Try to hold at least one meeting a week, and encourage new members to attend. Play drawing games, such as the title game# and exquisite corpse#, to get your members more comfortable making comics. Encourage friendly critique, and emphasize clear storytelling. Each salon should last about an hour to two hours, and should be a fun space for your members to create comics and become comfortable with one another. Community is what pushes your members to try harder and harder.
This goes hand in hand with salons. Try to hold occasional parties where your contributors can hang out and enjoy each others’ company in a non-stressed environment. It does wonders for group cohesiveness.
Theme issues and collaborative issues bring a group together in an exciting way. There is a huge difference between a normal ‘submit what you have’ issue and an issue with a defined theme that everyone is working towards. Theme issues inspire a friendly competitiveness and creativity that can be hard to get from ‘normal’ anthology-style issues. That being said, theme issues can be a double-edged sword. If an ambitious issue is scheduled for a hard deadline or before a group is ready it could run into trouble. A theme issue is more likely than a regular issue to be delayed, because people tend to get more ambitious/collaborate more.
-Editors must contribute regularly, at least at first, and follow rules
It’s vital to the morale and organization of a group that the editors submit regularly at the beginning and follow the same rules set for the other members. So, if a deadline is set for a certain time of day, the editors should have their submissions ready well before that time. Editors who treat deadlines as flexible don’t inspire their contributors to obey deadlines.
Building your brand
-Story over style! (The liberal arts benefit)
It may seem foolish or overly difficult to begin a comics publication at a college that is not an art school. Your contributor base is sure to be small, and you will be lucky to start with more than a couple of technically gifted artists who are interested in your publication. What the liberal arts environment offers, though, is invaluable: a sense of clear storytelling, and an emphasis on novel, smart, and inventive stories. College comics publications often seem to suffer from a combination of extremely high-level and ambitious art and totally incomprehensible storytelling. By attracting the opposite formula, ambitious storytelling and lower level art, you allow your publication room to grow while still being able to publish compelling and exciting material.
-Consistent layout policy
Layout can vary from issue to issue, depending on how experimental you feel, but it’s important that your publication is consistent along a few factors. First, you need a table of contents that connects each submission with its author, in a way that makes it clear who did what. Secondly, you need to make the title of each piece clear if it’s not already clear in the piece (especially if the title is important to the story.) I’d recommend including an editors’ note with every issue, too, as long as you’re able to keep it casual and down-to-earth.
-Consistent contributor policy
It’s important to come up with a policy for contributions from the beginning. Do you print everything submitted? Do you have to ask permission to alter the contrast on submitted files? Does work have to be inked? Do you print extreme violence, or potentially offensive language? What if someone submitted pornography? What if a story is drawn well but is impossible to follow? What if someone outside your institution sends in a submission? These are all questions you should consider from the beginning. By deciding on an editorial policy and remaining consistent you will save yourself difficulty in the future, when an issue comes up and you are unprepared. I would highly recommend an editorial policy that favors original characters and storylines, clear storytelling, and inked work. If possible, discourage pure fanfic (although parody is alright) and discourage pinup pages, especially in your first few issues. You want to establish a precedent of original and interesting work at the beginning, so that when more and more people begin to submit you are able to edit work with a clear conscience. Be open with your artists and writers about what makes you uncomfortable and what you would prefer.
-Create a group email, respond promptly
Register a gmail address for your publication as soon as possible, and set it up to forward any mail to the editors. If you receive mail or submissions it is vital that you respond promptly and professionally. Long delays or impersonal responses make the group look too aloof, be friendly and open with others as much as possible. A group Twitter account can also be used to good effect.
-Making a website
Having a group website is a vital part of making your publication accessible to a broad audience. A full archive of what you’ve published saves paper in the long run, and makes it easy for friends and family members of your contributors to see what they’re doing. More importantly however, it allows people outside your college environment to find your work! See “Website Tips” below for more!
-Going to conventions
Going to conventions is a good way to get more familiar with the industry and your contemporaries. Try to attend zinefests and small press conventions, avoiding larger conventions like Comic Con. You want to start small and learn, rather than attending something so huge and unfocused as Comic Con.
-Contact your contemporaries, and read their work
Even if you don’t go to any conventions right away, it’s important that you get to know the work being done by others in similar positions to yours. Try to find other college comics publications, read whatever work they have available, and get in contact with them. Share advice back and forth, and be friendly!
One or more of your contributors might be interested in publishing a longer, self-standing work. Rather than serializing it over several issues, you can recommend publishing it as a mini-comic as a supplement to your normal issue. This allows your contributor to do what they want without space restriction and allows you not to make the difficult choice of where to chop up their story. It’s important that you are open to the idea of serialized stories, though. Some artists just want a long form to tell their story in, and don’t have a single story arc in mind. If that’s the case, serialization is a good way to go.
Fundraising for college comics can be a difficult process. The most successful fundraiser we ever held was a pay-what-you-want sale of back issues and minicomics by our members. Pay-what-you-want is a great system, because it doesn’t constrain people to a specific price range AND it guarantees that your comics will spread.
-Give your comics out for free
It will likely be a requirement that, if you are receiving school funding, you will have to give out your issues for free. Even if it’s not, though, you should. As a student group, you want your comic magazine to be a place for experimentation and fun. You should not be worrying about how many issues you’ll sell and whether or not a story can make money for you. If you want to sell comics you can occasionally designate a single issue as a ‘mega issue’ or something and sell it for a low price, but overall it’s better to give them out free. The same philosophy applies to giving out your comics for free online – you’d rather have them available for everyone to see and discover. Jealously keeping them until someone shells out $5 is not a good business move at this point in your career. In fact, if you are trying to break into the college comics scene in order to make mad cash, you should stop now, because nobody is going to pay for your comics until you are in any way established.
Before too long, you will get a color submission or two. Maybe you will want to have a color cover. Something you’ll find, though, is that color printing costs approximately ten times more than black and white printing. You will likely need to apply for a color-specific budget in addition to your normal costs if you plan on regularly printing color. It may behoove you to print a single color issue per term, since printing a black and white issue with a single color page will cost the same as a full color issue if the printer is unable to differentiate between b/w and color pages on their color printer. Don’t waste your color – be sure that if a story has color it’s being used well.
-Cardstock and tinted covers
A great alternative to color covers is printing covers on tinted cardstock. It serves to accent the illustration, and doesn’t cost much more than printing on white. I would highly recommend always having a cardstock cover, because it makes the book feel more professional and holds together better over time.
-Boutique printing options
It’s possible that you may eventually want to print a fancier issue, perhaps in all color and hardcover. When that happens you will want to assemble quotes from various printers and figure out a cost-effective solution, but you’d better be ready to deal with a (costly) 1000 issue minimum print job.
-Wordpress with ComicPress
Wordpress is an excellent platform for simple websites, and the ComicPress theme is specifically designed for displaying comics. Modify the theme to fit your style, and keep it clean and uncluttered in the reading spaces. Knowledge of simple css really helps.
-Update as soon as an issue comes out
It’s important that you update the site as soon as you can after your release an issue. This allows fans to read your work at a reliable interval, and shows that you’re a tight and well-run organization.
-Keep up a blog
If you are able to, keep a blog on your site. It helps alleviate the lag between two or three week updates, and keeps outside readers interested. Post sketches or updates on how the issue is coming together, or even reviews of what you’re reading. This keeps readers interested and makes you a more interesting and relatable group.
-Offer web, .cbz, and .pdf versions of your issues
It definitely seems like a lot more work to offer your archives in three different formats (the webcomic page-at-a-time format, cbz, and pdf) but it’s totally worth it. People access your work in different ways, on different devices, and at different speeds. Providing different formats allows the maximum number of people to read your comics.
-Carefully tag authors and storylines
You want to make it really easy for a visitor to your site to see all the work by a certain author, all the episodes in a running story, and all the front covers you’ve published. You’ve got to keep it simple and well connected, so that a visitor can efficiently accomplish what they’ve come to see.
-Avoid superfluous tags
A lot of websites will tag each post with specific, silly tags, like “Just thought I’d post this on a rainy day” or “Hunger Games trivia from space!” Tags like this, while fun, serve no purpose and undermine the point of a well-organized system of tags. Save your jokes for the comments on each page, let your tags be functional.
-Link to your contemporaries
It’s a good idea to have a ‘links’ section that has as many links to your competitors and contemporaries as possible. Connecting yourself to the larger network of college comics publications will help you, and invites comparison and competition, which in turn hopefully encourages better work.
-Even page numbers on left
It’s a pretty standard rule that page numbers are even on the left. You can disobey this rule if you want to be a rebel, but at least be aware of it first.
-Print to Booklet
This is something you probably already know, but it took us way too long to figure out. Print to booklet! It lets you lay out in a normal way!
-Double check pdf
Be sure to skim through your PDF before sending it to the printer. It’s a shame when you don’t catch some stupid mistake and end up having to present it to the world.
-”To be continued”
It will definitely happen that you will print a comic which promises “to be continued…” but never ever is. That’s not a huge deal, I’d just make a note of it on your website on the last page of that story.
Misattributing the author or artist of a comic is a bad mistake, but an addressable one. Just be sure to fix it right away online, and apologize to your artist/writer. Fix it in future printings.
Pretty much the same as misattribution. Something printed wrong or upside down or whatever? Apologize a lot and fix it online. Fix it in reprints too.
I’ve most likely left a few things out, so feel free to ask clarifying questions. I’m hopeful, though, that this brief guide can give you a basic idea of the challenges and joys that come from running a college comics publication. And remember, as cliche as it sounds, have fun! You want your magazine to be bursting with the effort and creativity you’ve been pouring into it, because, remember, you’re doing what you love!