She’ll Oni Work with the Young, the Brave, the Best: An Interview with Commissioning Editor Ari Yarwood

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Comics editor Ari Yarwood was part of a wave of recent promotions at Oni Press. She caused a stir on Twitter by announcing that she was particularly looking to work with diverse queer and trans cartoonists telling their own stories. I caught up with her just as Oni was announcing an unprecedented period of open submissions. We talked about being a young editor in a changing comics industry, the craft of editing, and the future of the industry.

First off, congratulations on the promotion! Your past work experience isn’t quite what I think most comics fans imagine the life of a comics editor being, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about that for a bit. You’ve edited a student literary magazine, done freelance and contract editing work, and done a stint at Bitch magazine. What have those experiences taught you about editing as a discipline and about editing comics in particular?

Ari Yarwood, art by John Allison

Art by John Allison.

Thank you! I’m pretty dang happy to be part of the Oni Press editorial team.

Before joining the Oni Press team, I was basically doing all the editing and writing I could get my hands on. I wrote infographics while also working retail, did book reviews for Lambda Literary on the side, did an internship at Bitch (which was a lifelong dream), and for the last year and change, I’ve been freelance editing at The Masters Review. When I got hired at Oni Press, I also managed (and continue to manage) a lot of administrative work: scheduling, print buying, filing copyrights, and a metric ton of proofreading. 

Between all that, I got a good handle on a lot of different aspects of publishing, from being the writer pitching, to being the editor deciding on a pitch, to being the person responsible for taking out the office garbage each week. Editing, at its best, is a creative partnership between you and the creator you’re working with, and together you get to make (and print, and distribute, and sell) something amazing. To do that, though, you need to be organized, and have plans (and backup plans) and lots and lots of spreadsheets. You need to be able to be a cheerleader and be able to say no. You also need the ability to do a decent gut-check—is this project where it needs to be in order to be successful? And is this the right place for it?

Editing comics is different from literary publishing, to be sure—the sales channels are different, the culture is different, and except for magazine and digital publishers, the time frame to publication is much shorter. A monthly book headed to direct comic book retailers is a special kind of grind. But the bones are the same—you’re looking for good projects that say something, and looking for the best way to get those projects into the hands of readers.

Has editing comics always been one of your goals or is it one you came to later? Where does your passion for comics from and what are the kinds of comics that get you excited, personally and professionally?

Actually, I originally went to college to be a teacher! I changed my mind, though, when I realized that I was just choosing what I thought would be a sensible profession, instead of doing what I actually wanted, which was to go into the arts.

Like a lot of the people who work in the book trade, I spent a lot of time in libraries as a kid. My mom worked, so after school I would go to the library, finish my homework, and read until she picked me up. My rural library was small, but I read everything they had: Elfquest, Sandman, even all the Garfield books. I love comics as a storytelling form, and binge-reading in the library as a kid definitely solidified my passion for them.

At that time, as a closeted queer kid in a small town, I was also clandestinely borrowing any books I could find by running the word “lesbian” through the library catalog. I was restricted by what I could get for free, so the internet and webcomics were a pretty big deal for me once I finally got access. I read Megan Rose Gedris’ Yu + Me Dream just as I was coming out, and that was an important touchstone for me.

I knew that I wanted to end up publishing the books that I had searched for (and sometimes found!) as a kid—stories that were compelling, complex, and exciting, but also stories in which I could find a reflection of myself. Now that I’m actually in a position to do that, I’m incredibly excited to get to work.

Soon after your promotion was announced, you said on Twitter that you were especially looking for pitches from trans creators—which was so heartening to me, because it’s important for marginalized people to tell their own stories. Editors are their books biggest advocates within a publishing house. Do you have concrete plans on how to not just publish great books from new voices but to help them succeed? (For example, positioning, reaching out to new audiences and press outlets, retailer outreach.)

I was happy that my tweet got so much traction! (I am terrible at Twitter, so that anyone saw my tweet at all was amazing to me).

Representation—both in the creative teams behind comics and in the comics themselves—is something I feel very strongly about, and something that I’ve worked to be in the position to affect. Comics can be an insulated industry, and a large reason behind opening submissions at Oni is to create an access point for new creative talent.

Fostering great books from new voices isn’t something specific to me, either; the whole Oni team is behind it. We’re a close-knit group and it’s something that we’ve discussed at length in the editorial office and in the company at large. I think that the success of projects like Lumberjanes, Fresh Romance, and the Beyond anthology—as well as, frankly, the success of the Fast and the Furious franchise—show that the market for diverse media is there, you just have to make sure people know about it and have access to it.

That’s where a solid marketing plan comes into play! Marketing plans should always change from project to project, but absolutely, reaching out to readers, retailers, and press outlets is a big part of it, as is availability. I know that even if there had been the perfect queer comic available to me when I was a teen, I still would have needed to wait until the trade came out and I could order it off Amazon, because the nearest comic book store was two hours away. Things have changed with the popularity of Comixology and digital comics, which you can buy from anywhere you have Internet. Since the sales of single issues determine a lot for the ongoing success of a book, it’s important to have the avenues for people to hop on right away.

There are so many incredible comics being published right now, so I imagine it’s an exciting time to be beginning a career at Oni. What kind of challenges do you foresee for yourself, your house, and for the industry, as it continues to grow and change? (For example, the continuing transformation that digital media is working on traditional media, and the rise of a variety of self and hybrid publishing models.)

 I am excited! This is a great time to be starting my career in comics. I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of change in the industry in the coming years, but I’m optimistic that it will be change for the better.

We’re experiencing a bit of a comics renaissance, and it has a lot to do with people creating new work that’s appealing to new readers. I think that digital media can only help the industry grow by making comics more accessible; people (including me) will always love reading in print, so I don’t think print comics are in danger.

What publishers are going to need to prove, with the rise of successful self-publishing, is why we’re worth it to creators. The benefit of a publisher and an editor, in my mind, is that you’ve got a support system in place—people who are helping you craft the best version of your project, and taking care of the logistics of printing, distribution, marketing, and payment, so that the creator can just focus on making good art. I get a lot of joy out of facilitating the creation and success of great books, and I think that as a publisher, that’s the most important thing we can do.

Will digitizing comics influence them as a storytelling form?

I think we’ve already seen digital comics change the way stories are told—webcomics read differently and are structured differently than, say, a monthly comic or a graphic novel. At Oni Press, we’ve had a lot of success with breaking up graphic novels into digital chapters that you can read on Comixology, similar to how you could read a serialized monthly comic. Digitalization has opened up a lot of opportunities to rethink the way stories can be formatted and distributed, and I’m excited to see what other new storytelling forms will be developed in the coming years. (Especially the intersection of interactive comics and video games!)

Where do you think Oni fits into the “comics renaissance” in comparison to the Big Two, and do you think indie comics are moving more rapidly or not into expressing more diverse stories?

Like I mentioned before, I think that a large driving force of the comics renaissance that’s happening is that new readers–readers that before now may have felt that there wasn’t a place for them in comics–are finding creative work that speaks to them. Some of that work is coming from the Big Two, but I’d say the majority of it is coming from passionate creators outside the superhero genre that are telling stories that are important to them. That’s where I see Oni fitting in: we’re focused on publishing fun, accessible, character-driven books that people can find themselves in and enjoy. I think indie comics has been a home for diverse stories for a long time, whether that’s a small publisher like us, or webcomics, or self-published comics. As the comics readership widens, more of those stories are going to be rediscovered, and more diverse stories are going to have an easier time getting green-lit. Personally, I think that’s fabulous.
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Editor-In-Chief. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

1 Comment

  1. Al Rosenberg on

    First of all, this title, so good.

    Ari Yarwood has had such a super cool professional trajectory! I love what all this background brings to the comic world.