I first learned about Ad Astra Comix when I saw Nicole Marie Burton speak at “Drawing Resistance: Using Comics for Social Change,” hosted by Women & Children First in Chicago. Nicole is a co-founder with Hugh Goldring of the Canadian comics publisher. The talk was one of several on a tour to discuss the power of the political comic and to promote their North American release of Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back!a 14 comic anthology by women in India about gender discrimination.

The event was powerful and motivating. I’m a lifelong lover of comics, but I felt my belief in the potential of comics renewed by Nicole’s presentation. Ad Astra focuses on comics that can change the world. They founded the publisher in 2013 to function as a non-hierarchical collective focused on the voices “of the unheard: women, racialized and/or colonized people, queer and trans people and others who experience structural oppression.” They also create their own work, like Talk is Cheap about the Canadian political scene, and produced DOGSa poster about the horrific slaughter in Inuit history.
Nicole Marie Burton and Hugh Goldring

Nicole Marie Burton and Hugh Goldring

Ad Astra is very different from the big comic publishers, partially because of its sharp focus. What is your elevator pitch about the company’s mission?

Hugh: Normally we sum up our work as using comics for social change. Comics are the fastest growing section of libraries, according to a recent Publisher’s Weekly study, and can help to overcome language barriers. They also allow us to talk about “serious” subjects without getting peoples’ guard up—you can say things in comics it would be too controversial to say in print.
Nicole: We also want to encourage people to think about using comics in their activism and advocacy. Take your pick of any important issue in 2016: police brutality and impunity, environmental devastation, attacks on civil liberties, wars in Syria or Afghanistan, I could go on. Any of these subjects can get really complex really quickly, depending on how deep you want to dig. They can also be very heavy on our emotions as a lot of them deal with violations against human life and liberty. All of this is just to say that comics can communicate a great deal of information in an accessible way. The medium has so much potential for popular education, and it’s barely being tapped.

I love that you include video game reviews occasionally on the site. Is this a world you hope Ad Astra becomes more a part of in the future? What is the connection between video games and comics to you?

Ad Astra Comix Nicole Marie BurtonHugh: Video game development, as you know, is a lot more resource intensive than comics. Even relatively simple indie games can require a team of several people. But we tend to put video games and comics in the same category of “innovative” or “non-traditional” media. Video games share a lot of the value comics have in communicating social messages but have the added value of introducing an element of choice.
Video games aren’t our focus, but we’d love to be reviewing video games on the website in a regular way. If the opportunity ever came up to produce or promote an explicitly social justice oriented game, we would take it if we could. But the business is very different: we raised $9,100 CDN in our last crowd-funder and that paid for a complete print run of 3,000 books, plus shipping and a small market. $9,100 CDN might pay the salary for two programmers for a month, if I understand that market. So capital costs are our main barrier to entry, along with finding the appropriate partners. If all that fell into place, we’d be very interested.
Nicole: In the meantime, we’ll be keeping our eyes open for new and interesting games with social justice themes. Video games offer even more opportunity to immerse oneself, which is a powerful way to learn empathy. Empathy is really at the heart of a lot of social justice matters. It remains to be seen how the gaming world will develop—it is, after all, a contested space around issues of diversity, just like the mainstream comics world.

Being the Games Editor, I can’t help myself: Are you a gamer? Are you playing anything right now?

Hugh: My interest is mainly in narrative-driven RPGs where the emphasis is on story and character. So anything BioWare puts out, of course. Bethesda is just okay; I don’t feel like they treat the Fallout franchise with the respect it deserves, but the games are fun anyway.

Nicole: I’m in the middle of playing Dragon Age II, but it’s not really doing it for me. I’ve also been playing Fallout 4 since last winter. I wouldn’t really describe myself as a gamer, though. Not yet. I have yet to really feel the pull of video games as a satisfying use of my time, but that may just be that the games I want to play are just barely getting out the door. 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a game I’m really looking forward to playing, largely due to its attention to detail and historical accuracy in depicting the Iranian Revolution. I’m interested in games relating to science, history, and politics, but have yet to find much that truly hits the spot.

We have a lot of BioWare fans at WWAC. What is the first comic you remember reading?

Hugh: For me, it was Doonesbury, which I have read from 1970-present.
Nicole: My first comic was Maus, and I ordered it out of a Scholastic Books catalog from my school when I was 12 or 13. I won’t say it absolutely changed my life, but here I am publishing political comics for a living.
ad astra comix Nicole Marie Burton and Hugh Goldring

The tour I met Nicole on.

You know, I have actually never read Doonesbury, though now I feel I must. We read Maus in a college class, and for many people it was their first graphic novel. There was a lot of surprise as students realized how effective comics could be. What advice do you have for those interested in becoming involved in the publishing world?

Hugh: In the case of book publishing? Don’t! The whole market is in flux. The old model is obviously dying, but there isn’t a clear new one, yet. If you’re some kind of super innovative entrepreneur, maybe you’ll be the one to find that new model. But for the rest of us it is a very precarious time.
Comics are a little different. They are seen as indie and innovative, and there’s an almost insatiable hunger for comics about something other than superheroes. It’s still a rough go to publish comics, but it’s viable. If someone wanted to get their own comic published, I’d suggest running a webcomic and building buzz that way. You can always do a print edition when you have enough material, and by then you’ll have a dedicated fanbase.
For people interested in getting into comics publishing, I’d just say, think twice! It’s a lot of work. If you really have your heart set on it, then get ready to spend all day on Twitter and writing e-mails to indifferent strangers. One useful, non-pessimistic piece of advice would be this: crowdfund! If you can’t cover printing costs in a pre-order campaign, that’s indicative of demand. That way you’re only wasting your time, instead of money you put up.
Nicole: I could go on about this for a day and a half. I wouldn’t go so far as to tell people NOT to enter the publishing world, although I agree the entire market is in flux, and that a smart person should probably do their research before starting a business.
Whether we’re talking handmade zines or a professionally printed and bound book, publishing is really an assembly line process. There are lots of steps that generally need to be done in a certain order. It takes a lot of time, patience, and attention to detail, and *could* all be done by one person, but probably shouldn’t if that person wants to have any kind of life outside their (albeit glorious) publishing role. In general, my attitude about this hasn’t changed since I was a punk kid making xeroxed booklets on the high school laser printer—if you just want to see your work out in the world and don’t have a ton of money or experience, DIY is the way to go. You can take part in all of the aspects of the publishing assembly line and see how you feel about them: creation, layout, graphic design, printing, binding, selling. Once you’ve gone through the process a couple of times, ask yourself what you would want to specialize in. Some people get into publishing and then feel like they’re in the wrong business, because what they really love is getting their hands wet with ink; that’s printing. Other people, oddballs like myself, love seeing a book that’s meticulously laid out in Adobe InDesign.
DOGS Ad Astra

I love what I’ve seen of your new Artist-in-Residence program! What do you hope to do with this program in the long term and how long are the seasonal positions?

Hugh: Nicole and I had both essentially talked ourselves out of being artists for a living when Ad Astra was founded. It’s just so hard to make a living as an artist. I spent my 20s fantasizing about how great it would be if I could have somewhere quiet in the country to work on my art without being surrounded by distractions.
So the primary goal of the residency is to give artists a chance to do what we never could—have somewhere quiet to work on their art. For us, what we get out of it is a project we can hopefully publish at some point in the future … and of course, some company in the country!
The positions are [up to] 3 months long. In the long term, we hope to have helped to create a community of radical comics artists who share an experience and a certain frame of reference. It’s also a way to build a collection of published titles that we think are worth publishing. We can’t afford to pay an advance, after all, but this lets us provide meaningful support to artists.

What projects can we look forward to from Ad Astra in the coming months?

Hugh: That’s a question with a lot of answers. We have comics coming out on the NYC squatters’ movement, the Canadian prison system, the Christie Pits Riot in Toronto, short comics on the mining industry, a translation of a collection of comics-letters to an anarchist political prisoner, and more! Plus whatever our artist-resident decides to work on.

Nicole: We also just got the green light on two other very exciting projects written by Hugh and drawn by myself. The first is a short 70-page comic that we’re making in collaboration with a Media Studies professor here in Ottawa about the role of advertising and PR around the Canadian Tar Sands. We don’t get many opportunities to look at the intersection of marketing and the environment, but here we are!

The other project is a full-length graphic novel about the impact of hydro-electric development on indigenous communities in Northern Manitoba. Like in the U.S., hydro power is advertised widely as “green energy” in Canada. But the stories of the Cree communities can tell us a lot more, and we’re looking forward to building that project in consultation with them.

Do you have a dream project you’d like to work on?

Hugh: I can’t speak for Nicole here, beyond saying I think both of us have about 50 ideal projects we’d do if we had the time. Apart from a comic about anarchist space pirates that we both conceived of separately, it’s probably more informative to give you a list of ideal qualities we look for in a comic: intersectionality, anti-authoritarian politics, gorgeous art, amplifying marginalized voices, creative use of the medium, and evocative of a range of emotional responses. Our forthcoming comic about hydro-affected communities in northern Manitoba ticks most of those boxes, in fact. Let’s hope that is coming out in the coming months, rather than years.

Nicole: This is a good question. The truth is, Ad Astra has been my dream project for so long that I feel like I’m still a bit in transition from what I most want to do versus what I’m now doing. I would love to create a graphic memoir. I would love to try my hand at erotic comics. I’m currently in the planning stages for an anarcha-feminism tarot deck, with a friend. I suppose the sky’s the limit, at this point?

It was great getting to learn more about Ad Astra and the folks behind the company. Thank you both so much for chatting with me. If you want to buy some of their work or see what they’re up to now, check out their website, or follow them on Twitter.