After years of avoiding movie nights that involved boy-meets-girl comedies and adamantly complaining that I am anti-romance, it’s time to come clean: I don’t hate love. I’ve just never been interested in hetereo love stories. Whenever a friend raised the terrible idea of watching some movie with Hugh Grant in it, I always offered my preferred choice: horror films! What’s better than ghosts, guts, and creepy, complicated stories? The answer, of course, is paranormal romance that isn’t exclusively hetereosexual.
Comic artists Melanie Gillman and Kori Michele Handwerker have taken up the noble quest of filling this gap and are currently kickstarting The Other Side: A Queer Paranormal Romance Anthology. The Kickstarter is now entering its final week, but these two heroes graciously took time to answer a few questions about the process behind curating a sizable anthology, the beautiful art we can look forward to seeing, and they mystery behind that mysterious cat in The Other Side logo.
What initially inspired you to curate an anthology about queer, paranormal romance?
Melanie: It was a genre that needed queering! I’ve always liked reading paranormal romance books—I grew up on them, like a lot of kids—but it’s incredibly difficult to find ones that focus on queer or trans characters. Both Kori and I are also huge believers in positive queer romance in general! So much queer romance ends tragically—it’s a really unfortunate genre trope and can be a terrible thing to put into the hands of young readers. We wanted to do the opposite: fill a book with sweet, fun, and unabashedly queer romance stories, where things generally work out well for the characters and no one dies (well, unless they were already dead to begin with).
Anthologies are a huge undertaking! What was the application and selection process like? What were you looking for in terms of story and art?
Kori: The selection process was really interesting! First, narrowing down a massive number of submissions—over 300!—to a pool of stories we thought were real contenders took a lot of time. Then we had to really put our curating chops to work. We wanted absolutely excellent stories, solid art, and above all, a good balance of subject matter, moods, and styles. We were lucky to have so many submissions; we could have made three books worth of content from all the amazing submissions we received. For me, selection came down to solid stories that felt complete and present. Stories needed to feel whole, they needed to be fun and/or thoughtful, and they needed to be conscious.
Melanie: Yeah, with that volume of submissions, we had to make a lot of tough decisions, narrowing it down! We got tons of fantastic pitches we weren’t able to accept for no reason other than space considerations or because the pitch was too similar to another one already in the book. On top of what Kori mentioned, I was also looking for stories that surprised me or took me somewhere new as a reader. I’m proud of the fact that the book doesn’t simply re-tread old romance genre tropes or just apply a queer cast to stereotypical straight romance plot lines—these stories are about exploring new territory in queer love and relationships.
Tell me a bit about your artists! From the previews, it looks like there are a myriad of styles represented in the anthology. Were you intentionally seeking variety or did that occur naturally through the selection process?
Kori: The variety seemed to happen organically! I was thrilled that we landed on so many artists working in analog mediums, because it really made for a hugely visually diverse book.
Melanie: Honestly, we didn’t have to try at all to get that amount of visual variety! Self-published/indie comics today tends to encourage people to embrace their own, individual style, which is one of the great things about it. We mainly looked for people with engaging drawing styles and with a high level of craft and polish to their art; that meant we could have the adorable, unfussy pencil art of Aatmaja Pandya, the preternaturally-gorgeous inks of Fyodor Pavlov, and the deceptively-simple watercolors of Bishakh Som, all in the same book!
Did the book take on an overall tone? Should we expect lots of eerie, hide-under-covers type stories?
Kori: There’s a really nice balance of moods across the book, from serious and dark, to gentle and sweet, to completely adorable and cute. No outright horror, and nothing particularly scary at all. The book is about love, and I think that stands out in every story.
Melanie: There’s a few stories with creepy elements to them—they are mostly ghost stories, after all! Margaret Kirchner’s “Tierra Verde” for instance is an eerie, queer retelling of the La Llorona myth, with some genuinely chilling moments. I don’t think anyone will have to worry about hiding under the covers after finishing the book, though!
Did you have to set strict parameters in the beginning—i.e. certain page limits or other requirements? How much flexibility is possible when putting together an anthology of this scope?
Kori: Yes, we had a window of four to twelve pages for comics. One can tell a lot of different types of stories within that range. We found that when work went from summary to script, some stories ended up being fewer, and some stories ended up being more pages than anticipated. It evened out in the end. We didn’t mind letting the page counts change a little bit it if allowed for stronger stories.
Melanie: We had a few content guidelines we asked people to adhere to at the submissions stage, too—we didn’t want any stories about abuse or discrimination, or where queerness was handled in a stereotypical way. The point was to make a positive, fun book!
Was the plan always to fund via Kickstarter, or did you consider looking for publishers? Why Kickstarter?
Kori: We were always aiming for Kickstarter. We didn’t have a good sense of how big the project could end up being, so keeping the operation completely in-house was a good plan for us. We have the resources to run an operation of this scale so there was no need to bring a publisher in at this time. If we’re solicited in the future, of course we’d consider; we’re not opposed to the idea. But it’s tidy keeping the operation between the two of us, so that works out well. As for Kickstarter, it’s a really great platform for maximum visibility. Kickstarter is a good company with a good reputation; they do a great job of promoting, and they’re proven to work for projects like ours.
You were willing to accept creators who do not identify as queer, which can be a complicated decision. How did you come that decision?
Kori: The short answer is that a queer identity prerequisite would have been complicated to implement. We weren’t comfortable asking people to prove they were queer. It’s not our place. We’re not interested in forcing people out. We’d rather have them contribute great stories and feel safe. Gender and sexuality can be fluid and complicated and we wanted to respect that. As a result, we ended up with an overwhelmingly openly queer list of contributors anyway. t doesn’t end up being a problem.
Melanie: Yeah, we didn’t want contributors to feel like they had to out themselves if they wanted to participate in the book. If we lived in a world where it was always 100% safe for queer and trans people to be out, we might have made a different decision there, but until then, our first priority was making sure all potential contributors would feel safe to send us their pitches.
Are you both first time anthology curators? How has your past experience as contributors helped you with this experience?
Kori: I’ve previously organized “The Tribute Album,” an authorized TJ & Amal fanbook. I took a lot of what I learned about organizing over sixty artists into a printed color book and applied it to the infrastructure of The Other Side’s inner workings. But being a contributor to nine other anthologies was even more valuable to this process. I know quite an extensive catalog of how things can go wrong, why things can be delayed, and how to anger your contributors. I think I learned a lot about how to treat contributors with respect by communicating promptly and clearly, enforcing deadlines and being flexible and understanding. Basically, I remembered all the ways I’d felt like I was and was not treated like a human being and I practiced the former exclusively.
Melanie: I organized a few much, much smaller zine anthologies in college, but this was a whole different ballgame! I’ve contributed to a few other anthologies—The Sleep of Reason, Queerotica, and Peanuts: A Tribute to Charles M. Schulz, for instance—so I had a bit of insight into the process from that end. Kori and I talked a lot about our roles as editors before we went public with the project, and even drew up a little mini-contract for ourselves before anything went live—laying ground rules about how we’d divide up the work, how we’d work with our contributors, and what kind of book we wanted to end up with. I absolutely recommend that to anybody who’s tackling their first big anthology! Take your time and really talk things through with your co-editors.
Is Telltail a real cat? A ghost cat? A vampire cat?!
Kori: Telltail is a mystery! Telltail is made of magic and puns.
Melanie: We’re not tattletales!