An Interview With ShortBox’s Zainab Akhtar

An Interview With ShortBox’s Zainab Akhtar

ShortBox is a quarterly box of independent comics and goodies that was founded and curated by Zainab Akhtar in collaboration with Thought Bubble's Assistant Director Clark Burscough. If Zainab's name looks familiar, it's because she ran the fantastic comics site, Comics and Cola, for five years before she closed up shop this past April. WWAC's

ShortBox is a quarterly box of independent comics and goodies that was founded and curated by Zainab Akhtar in collaboration with Thought Bubble’s Assistant Director Clark Burscough. If Zainab’s name looks familiar, it’s because she ran the fantastic comics site, Comics and Cola, for five years before she closed up shop this past April. WWAC’s editor, Claire Napier, organized a touching goodbye post on the site that featured fellow critics, comics creators and other industry professionals who voiced the influence Zainab had on them and asking the overall industry to do better.

Thankfully, Zainab isn’t done with us completely. We chatted a bit about Comics and Cola, her vision for the future of ShortBox, and the last great comic she’s read.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, Zainab. I’m really excited to not just interview you about ShortBox but also get a chance to chat with YOU. You’ve been a staple in the industry but also for me personally whether it’s your critiques/reviews or when you signal boost a great book/cartoonist that I can later add to my reading list. With Comics and Cola now gone, I wanted to get a sense of how you’re feeling now after C&C. Emotionally, intellectually, physically (laughs)…what’s the transition like from that to ShortBox?

To be honest, I still haven’t really processed Comics & Cola ending properly. Probably because it was so consuming and fulfilling for a time: it felt like I had found what it was that I wanted to ‘do.’ I’d never had that before; I’d always wanted to write, but vaguely thought it would be fiction or something similar. So even though I started thinking about closing it in mid-2015, letting it go because it was simply no longer viable in a plethora of ways was immensely difficult. I bought into these philosophies of working through it, and continuing even when you’re finding it tough because that’s what you do when you want to achieve something, or something’s worthwhile. Which didn’t work… But, in a way, it also hasn’t ended, because I see ShortBox as a direct extension of it. If C&C hadn’t existed, neither would ShortBox. I’d been thinking about publishing and distribution, and then the idea of a comics box for a long while, but it only really started to coalesce when I’d finally made that decision to stop writing the blog.
I’m not sure this answers your question! It’s hard to let go of something you love so much, and more so when it’s done because you’re pushed out by crap people who refuse to acknowledge their crapness. On the one hand, I hate the notion of giving in to that, but increasingly for someone with my identity -or any poc and marginalised communities- the idea of a base ‘getting by,’ -both generally and specifically- seems like a miracle, and any decisions taken to ease that is healthy, I think. I’m not sure it looks like it from the outside, but I feel less involved in comics, or certainly I feel like less of a target because I’m not actively engaging with people’s work or the industry in that sense.

ShortBox. Zainab Akhtar and Clark Burscough.When I first heard of ShortBox and what it was, I actually had the thought, “It’s Comics and Cola in a box!”. You’re doing what you’ve been doing on the site which is getting comic creators that don’t get as much visibility in the hands of readers or in this case, consumers of ShortBox. What you said about working through the difficulties of running Comics and Cola stood out to me. It’s one part not being run out of the industry as a marginalized person but also one part “this is what you need to deal with or overcome eventually to succeed”. ShortBox still allows you to be a part of the industry! So what’s the reception been like when it was first announced and after the launch of the beta boxes in May? I assume there are difficulties in any venture but is this different?

The reception post announcement was positive, but we didn’t say much about it other than to say it was something we were working on, just because you never know if/how/when things are going to come together. Where possible, it’s generally better to reveal a thing once it’s ready for presentation. We started releasing snippets of information and details in April- like a sneak peek of Michael DeForge’s print, for example, once it was a more concrete thing, and we actually had the various components in our hands. Clark (Burscough) and I self-funded the whole thing from our savings, so doing a limited beta run to see if this was something people were interested in seemed like the sensible route. Seeing the boxes sell out in under an hour after putting them up for sale, was super encouraging- we definitely didn’t expect that! I was slightly disappointed we didn’t have more in order to meet demand, but it’s much better to make less and sell what you have, than to plough money into making large quantities and  then have them left over. That response was gratifying for us, and helpful, too: it gave us an idea of audience, and on how to take things forward.

Oh yeah. I woke up at 9AM EST and it was gone which was nice to see. What’s the ideal vision for ShortBox? We’re talking a year, two years, three years from now: what are you hoping it’ll look like as a service? Basically, what is on your wish list?

That would be getting ahead of things a lot! Right now, I want us to establish ourselves and become familiar to people as a service that delivers a top-notch selection of excellent comics. I like the mail order model. Comic boxes as a ‘thing’ may only be a fairly recent phenomenon, but artists selling their work over the internet is a huge and enduring market. Our aim is simply to collaborate with a fantastic range of artists (of which we have a very long list!), and to use whatever platform we have to put that work into people’s hands. To be a comics bridge, haha! One thing we have an eye on is teaming up with publishers to bring our readers books early releases: they get to shift an extra number of units, reach more/different people, and an extra promotional boost. But it’d have to be the right book. I guess the main difference in 2 or 3 years time may be that we’ll actually be publishing some of the books ourselves. What I would really love is for anybody and everybody to try ShortBox out: I don’t want it to be seen as something solely for people into a certain type of comics, or indie audiences, I want it to be synonymous with very, very good comics.

I think that’s a great goal and something I love to see flourish. I’m hoping to get into indie comics more as well which acts as a great balance to my comics diet overall. When is your next box and what can we expect to see inside?

Our next box will go on general sale in September, but we’re running pre-orders for it right now. We’re incredibly excited about it as we’ll be debuting 4 brand new comics, and a new printing of a sold out book, an exclusive A4 print, and a limited edition pin. I’m also stoked because these are all cartoonists and artists whose work I’ve been following and really appreciate. So as cliche as it is, it’s a weird thrill to have some of your favourite artists making books with you, and an honour that they’re willing to even work with you, and trust you enough to collaborate. The box will include:

Food Baby by Lucie Bryon

Food Baby is a 50-page full colour food/recipe book by French cartoonist and illustrator Lucie Bryon. Like lots of people, I’ve been following Lucie’s work since her Introspection comic went viral a few years back, and she’s just gotten better and better. Her comics are so funny and have such an easy visual appeal — both things which are hard to do. I’m a gluttonous blob, and I’ve always loved her food comics: the way she lays out ingredients and instructions, but also how she weaves a story around the comic, so it’s much more than “just” a recipe.

'T' by Bailey Sharp

‘T’ by Bailey Sharp.  An ambiguous text message ruins a high school girl’s lunch period. Bailey did a great little 2-part comic called ‘Plain,’ which was part of an Australian comics subscription, Minicomics of the Month Club, and I’m excited to bring her work to a (slightly!) bigger audience. There’s a lot of interesting things going on in Australian indie comics scene, which we’re hoping to dig into more.

Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore

Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore. Sharp, informed social commentary in the form of an open letter on race and being black in America. This comic introduced me to Ben and his work, and it’s just one of the most incisive things I’ve read: open, strong, smart, and heartfelt all at the same time. Inordinately pleased to have this new printing.

Diana's Electric Tongue by Carolyn Nowak

Diana’s Electric Tongue by Carolyn Nowak. “Set in a lush, cosy future, Diana makes a bold attempt to move on after a difficult break-up.” People are probably most familiar with Carolyn’s work on Lumberjanes, but the first thing I came across of hers was a comic called Rungs. Her comics are so smart and empathetic and good-looking; she’s crazy good and probably going to take over the world, so I’m glad we were able to nab her now. If you haven’t read anything by her before, go read Girl Town and Radishes now and you’ll see what I mean.

Heavy Air by Lizzy Stewart

Heavy Air by Lizzy Stewart: ‘Summer is drawing to a close and a storm hangs low in the air. The estate seems electric, there’s something foreboding in the alleyway and a fox lays dying in the park. Sometimes it feels like the end of the world and sometimes it doesn’t.’ Lizzy is one of the UK’s best artists. She’s got a beautiful style, whether it’s in watercolour, or pencils, or pen.

'pak choi pal' pins by Honey Parast

We have an exclusive print by Lisa Hanawalt, who’s incredible,; her paintings and colours are wonderful and weird. And finally the cutest ‘pak choi pal’ pins by Honey Parast, each of which have been individually handmade.

For anybody interested in a box, the best thing to do is grab a pre-order. Basically, anybody who buys a pre-order is guaranteed a box. Pre-orders allow us to determine how many quantities we need, so once we’ve fulfilled those, we’ll only be making a very limited number of boxes on top to go on general sale in September.

This box sounds delicious! Pre-orders are a great idea but as a Canadian, I must ask: will the pricing for international boxes remain the same as it was for the beta run? It makes sense that it would be so high with shipping being a factor but I wanted clarification on whether or not this was for the beta specifically. Do you foresee it becoming more affordable as the box becomes more successful whether it’s mitigated by an overseas branch of the ShortBox packing & distribution HQ? Britain has also been in the news the last few weeks because of Brexit and the fall of the pound. Has the economic fallout affected the box’s international potential?

The way the box works is that we commission artists to create things specifically for our readers: not only is this the first place where you can read these titles, but also the only place where you’ll be able to get them. The Lisa Hanawalt print is an exclusive painting that can only be found in ShortBox; it won’t be sold anywhere else or reproduced. The same goes for Honey’s pak choi pins: each one is individually handmade, and it’s a design she’s come up with specifically for the box. With Carolyn’s book, she’s done a separate, “variant” cover- again, you’ll only find it in the box, and that requires a dedicated print run. We’re not a glorified distributor; we’re working with artists and paying them to expressly create one-off works for our readers. The reason we do all this is because we want ShortBox to be a singular experience (as pontificating as that may sound): we want to give people something that’s genuinely special and different- it’s not just a bunch of comics slapped together. We produce 4 boxes a year, it’s something unique that comes around in a bit of time, and that people spend time with. Clark and I don’t make enough to pay ourselves- our main priority is to make the box the best it can be.
Even if our items weren’t specialised, if you were to buy all the contents of the box or similar individually directly from creators/distros/at cons it would cost you quite a bit more. International shipping costs aren’t something we have control over sadly, but maybe in the future if we grow enough, we can absorb some of those costs to a degree. Currently, Brexit and the weakness of the pound means the box is a LOT more affordable for people abroad. As far as having a US distributor goes, it is something we’ve considered, but it’s still far too early to judge. It would depend if we got enough orders from Canada and the US to mitigate the cost of then shipping that number of boxes over in bulk, and paying the person hired to do that job.

You said you wanted to eventually publish some of the books yourself. Did you want to produce any other types of products?

God, yes! But mainly comic and art-related books. I love books, and I love print. There’s honestly so much you can do with that combination it’s ridiculous: I feel people don’t play around with the intersection of content and form in relation to that enough. There’s a wariness around it becoming gimmicky. That if you focus on print and produce something attractive that does something clever with presentation, then the content must somehow not be as good. Or vice versa. Which is not true. It only takes something small to elevate a concept. Ryan Cecil-Smith is superb at doing this. I was at ELCAF in June and picked up a super-clever comic-zine at the Kadak (an excellent collective of South-Asian lady artists) table, called Unfolding the Saree, written and designed by Mira Malhotra. It’s printed on coloured A3 paper, and folded into roughly A5 onto a miniature wire clothes hanger. One side is printed in pattern in continuation with the saree fabric theme, and the other details a comic with the cultural history and significance of the saree, with instructions on how to wear, etc. It’s fantastic.

Unfolding the Saree by Mira Malhotra

I understand the hesitation in vocalizing your vision and dreams of the future. You’re embarking on something new and exciting and the idea of what’s next feels slippery or fragile. I have complete faith in your determination and your ability to create fascinating ventures. Comics and Cola is a great example of that.

The comic by Mira Malhotra is breathtaking by the way and I can see what you meant when you said the clever ways in which print can be played with. Final question: What’s the last great comic you’ve read? I’d love to get a Zainab recommendation (laugh).

I just read Mickey Zacchilli’s Venom #2 after buying it months ago, and it’s so good. I think she’s ending it at #3. The way her style and idiosyncrasies come together with the character and subject is great, and she imbues it with such a perfectly-pitched tone. Alexis Deacon’s Geis is probably my standout book of the year at the moment.

 

Thank you again, Zainab, for doing this interview. It was a blast. For everyone else, you can get more info on ShortBox here. You can also preorder ShortBox #2 at Big Cartel and it’ll go on general sale in September 2016.

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