We Need Diverse Creators! An Interview with Elements Anthology Editor Taneka Stotts

Artwork by Kiku Hughes, Michelle Ngyuen, Sara DuVall, and Der-shing Helmer. Image courtesy Taneka Stotts.

Unless you live under a comics rock made only of select Big Two back issues, you’ve probably heard buzz about the Elements Anthology Kickstarter. Elements: Fire creates a space to showcase the incredible talent of the POC comics community, specifically those with a penchant for speculative fiction. After fully funding within a week, the book has now broken the $40K mark, and new rewards include an expanded set of gorgeous, gold foil post cards, a gold foil cover for the book, and added design elements. I spoke with the anthology editor and unstoppable force of awesome Taneka Stotts, right after the book funded. Our conversation wandered from the question of diverse comics to game recommendations—if you like Settlers of Catan, she highly recommends Citadel—and took a pause for celebration when Todrick Hall followed her on twitter, but always circled back to her love for her fellow comics creators.

Each of the Elements contributors, in their own style. Image courtesy Taneka Stotts.
Each of the Elements contributors, in their own style.

Your Kickstarter is fully funded, congratulations! What’s it been like to see such a huge response to the anthology?

It’s been overwhelming and very humbling. We’ve had a constant state of self-awareness lately due to politics and current events happening in this country. Between all of that, my own sadness, mixed feelings and trying to come to terms with things, watching this fund has been uplifting and just what I needed to keep going and keep doing the things that I do right now. It’s been amazing.

Tell me about Elements’ origin story. How did you first come up with the idea for the anthology?

I have been the only black female or sometimes the only person of color in certain anthologies that I’ve been invited to. I’ve also been an editor on an anthology that was full of fairy tales from certain countries and one of those countries happened to be Africa, and there only happened to be one person making an African fairy tale. It’s actually been a culmination of a lot of events, mostly my awareness of comics and its use of the word “diversity;” they like to say they’re diverse but not actually be diverse.

When I was doing Beyond Beyond was a magical experience. I was a contributor originally; I submitted to Beyond and out of all the submissions, I was selected. This was well before I became the publisher or the assistant editor or anything to the project, like the Kickstarter project manager. This was just me, starting at the base root anybody starts at. I submitted and my submission was chosen, and I was over the moon! However, looking upon the rest of the people who were involved, it wasn’t not diverse. Most of us were queer, a lot of us were on journeys to self discovery.

[Elements came from] the awareness that I was kind of alone in this journey. I was wondering why, and nobody could really answer me other than, “I invite my friends,” or, “you’re around and I see your work and it makes me believe in you.” I was like, there’s other people around you could believe in, too? Apparently you don’t know them or see them or hear them, but I definitely know they’re there.

I’d love to hear more about the selection process. I thought it was particularly interesting that in the guidelines you asked for comics that weren’t completed yet, is that a typical ask for anthologies?

I think everybody wants original works. Reprinting works that are already completed, that’s just re-licensing. If there were other companies involved or they were published in a previous anthology, they might have a contractual binding to that. You don’t really want to get into the legalities around that. If the person still has it available online, now they’re removing it, and that’s taking away from what they already had as a pulse on the internet, or wherever it might be available. It might be the first time [the story is being published] and they’ve always wanted it in print, but what if it was already done in color and your book is grayscale? Putting color into grayscale doesn’t always look good. There’s a lot of things that go into it logistically, where you’re just better off being like, hey, could you complete a new short story?

Cover art by Chrystin Garland, image courtesy Taneka Stotts.
Cover Art by Chrystin Garland.

I read “completed” not thinking necessarily published, but finished?

I’ve had someone submit finished work to me before looking to pitch it to get it into a book. Sometimes it also just doesn’t fit the theme, and they think maybe if I change three or four elements to it, maybe it will fit the theme. But that wasn’t the original reason why the story was written, so I’d rather them go based off the current theme at hand, and see what they can give me.

I have a lot of spreadsheets. I do a lot of things through google docs because it helps keep my spreadsheets even more organized. I like to make sure that I have one of each story type that I’m really looking for so that I can make a solid and cohesive book. Sometimes we’ll have people who submit, let’s say, three different types of cooking stories: one that’s a witchy cooking story, one that’s just a regular family having a cooking evening, and the last one is about cooking in a far away fantasy region that has never existed in this realm before. I have to pick the one that I want because, unfortunately, this isn’t the cooking anthology, regardless of how good they are. It kind of comes down to the thematics of the story, the characterization, the beats that really sink a reader into the story, and how gripping it is. I go from there, making a very difficult choice. A lot of people would disagree with me and say you could just make space for another, but that means I’m eliminating another story that was not about cooking whatsoever to make space for two cooking stories instead of just one.

Submissions are not widow-makers; you will make it through! You will survive. I want to be clear-cut about the things we are and aren’t looking for, because unfortunately some things just don’t fit sometimes, like very hard or emotional stories that have very adult themes, when it’s an all ages book. Having to remind people of what things do and don’t get past librarians can be harrowing as well. It’s not to deny them or deny their voice, but it’s to make sure that this book’s intention and the other creators who are a part of it are all on the same page.

Why did you choose to do an all-ages anthology?

I wanted the people who were involved to not only have a book they could be super proud of and show off to their moms and dads, but books that they could pass off to their nieces and nephews, to their cousins. I wanted a book where you could feel very comfortable with the subject matter at hand and not have to worry about any surprises popping up that might be a little bit too much for, say, your conservative Baptist family in the south that you randomly decided to bequeath five of these books to! I don’t know everybody’s story, however I am a queer comic creator and themes that are queer are in my stories. Things that are normalized to me would be like, same sex parents. A lot of people might not feel that that’s normal but it is for me, so that might mean a different baseline for them. All-ages falls into that guideline, as long as I’m not crossing certain words, or [allowing] sexual or lewd representation within the book.

It’s interesting to think about how to consider appropriateness in terms of an anthology. What’s inappropriate to some people can actually be based in oppressive mindsets.

For me, I’m like, these are the things that I am very comfortable with, so if you’re not comfortable with them, I’m going to put them out for you before I get started with you, because I am not the type of person who is going to try to make this work. If your ideals and themes do not match the course of this book, I’m not going to subject the people already in this book to your behavior or stories. I’m just going to not accept them.

Why did you want to do speculative fiction?

Sci fi and fantasy felt a little limited as far as the ideas that I would receive. I wanted people to think a little bit further outside of the box, so I felt if I said Speculative Fiction it would help people to reach a bit further, and it actually did.

One story in particular that I’m really excited for is a suspense thriller that was kind of cyberpunk. That was a lot of fun to read and communicate with the artist/creator on because they had this very unique core theme of a pyre, and then they pulled the story out from the fire and put it together. They saw something being extinguished and how that would wrap into the story. I know that sounds vague, but she’s amazing—Christina Steenz Stewart—I love her to death. It was really interesting, because you never see a lot of black characters in sci-fi. They’re side characters, they’re never lead characters.

They get murdered.

Yes, they get murdered a lot. Christina had a really unique idea where the main character didn’t get murdered, and I was really on board with that! [Ed. Note: Stotts said this in the most fantastically sarcastic tone, I’m sorry can’t share that with you.] I wanted to see that one through. I also like seeing characters of color in all sorts of settings and situations that we’re usually never allowed in.

Cover art by Chrystin Garland, image courtesy Taneka Stotts.
Cover art by Chrystin Garland.

Can you give us a bigger picture of what the interaction between you and the contributors looks like?

When they send me their pitches they give me their bio and they give me an elevator pitch, so like a one to two sentence shot line about the story. Sometimes I’ll get a summary, sometimes people will give me their full scripts before I even need them, but usually I base it off just the summary and maybe a few character sketches, if permitted. I have chosen stories solely based off the idea behind a story, because it felt intriguing enough to catch my attention. Being a writer doesn’t mean I need to see art.

Do the contributors come to you in pairs, or do you match people up?

I usually do not match people up; it’s a lot of trouble in a certain way. They may or may not have ever worked together or worked with a collaborative partner before. That can be a dangerous situation. I like it to happen a bit more organically, which is why, when we were doing Beyond 2 submissions, I made the Beyond 2 creators hashtag that a lot of people ended up using and finding one another and submitting their pitches through. A lot of other [anthologies] have been doing it too, and as long as it’s helping books match people with one another, that’s great!

Earlier this month, Marvel announced that Tony Stark would be stepping down as Iron Man in favor of Riri Williams, a fifteen-year-old black girl. I found the response so fascinating; there was this split with some people saying, “Marvel has never hired a black woman of color and this is a problem,” and some saying, “yay! Another character of color!” I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the whole situation.

This is gonna sound really whack. Marvel’s CEO donated money to Donald Trump, I don’t care what Marvel ever does again in my entire life. I cannot support anything that supports the deportation of my best friends and the ignorance toward people of color. I can’t even begin to imagine what people of color feel working in that company. The only Marvel books I owned were [Brian Michael] Bendis’ Spider-man when it was first coming out, and then he started talking, and I didn’t buy any more books. There is too much tokenism going on in a lot of ways and I don’t see eye to eye with his understanding of the world. It’s a very tough choice. It’s one that I don’t expect a lot of people to make.

Since I’m not longer buying Marvel comics I now instead buy more indie comics. For most indie comics diversity has never been a buzzword or something they have to try hard to create or make exist. I am usually never disappointed or feel misrepresented, because for the most part these voices are far more genuine and unique. They speak from experiences, personal or just emotional that aren’t narrated to fit a mainstream view that I could care less for.

Art by Mildred Louis, image courtesy Taneka Stotts.
Art by Mildred Louis.

What kind of stretch goals can we look forward to seeing for Elements?

[For] the first unlock, Nila Magruder was added as a postcard artist. I’m really excited to work with Nila; Nila is an amazing individual who has a book coming out later this year. Please check her out ‘cause she’s amazing. We will upgrade the design pages. We have an amazing designer who’s been working with us, so we can upgrade the style of the book on the interiors. That means that there’ll be page breaks with design element pages, so it’s not just reading story after story with no break between it. The design elements will be pages specifically for breaking off stories and giving more information about the artists. It’s just how professional publishing goes about publishing anthologies, usually. I have a designer on board who does that, so I would like them to get paid so they can enhance the book more. We have stories to unlock and we have bonuses for the artists which are very important, because they definitely will get a lot of books and they will definitely be able to sell those books, but I would like them to make more money in general.

I’m pretty much renting the story for a year and then they can do whatever they want with it. I want them to get as much showcase and as much notoriety from being in the book as possible. It’s not just exposure; exposure can kill people. That’s why we wear sunscreen! They should be able to benefit from it completely. I am very grateful that they have allowed me to utilize their stories next year in this print book, and I want it to go much further for them than anyone else.

It’s the same for Spike [the founder of Iron Circus Comics]. All anthologies, we just pretty much rent your story for a year, we put it in a book, maybe it wins an award, maybe it doesn’t, and after that year has expired you get to do whatever you want with it, resell it, put it online for free, whatever. How you choose is how it goes.

Who are some of your personal writing or cartoonist inspirations?

One of my personal writing inspirations is Daniel Jose Older, the creator of Shadowshaper. Everything that he has in his writing is just amazing, and it makes me really sad that I gave up on prose when I did, but I absolutely adore his writing style. Der-Shing Helmer is one of my comics icons. I love the way she writes, I love her character interactions, I love the emotions her characters exude through each page. It’s kind of been a magical journey. Also knowing the journey that she’s personally taken through gaining back her IP and the journey that was The Meek; how long it went on hiatus and how she came back and came back stronger than ever, it’s just, how can that not be inspiring?

I admire a lot of people, I read a lot of things, I watch a lot of television. I don’t feel that that inspires me in the way that these people have, because it’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Since this is the Fire anthology, does that mean we will get other Elements anthologies?

That is correct! I wanted to start out with fire because I felt it was the most passionate and the most evocative theme that I could go with out of all the elements. I already have the next element chosen that we will unveil, and I’m very excited. It’s not water, sorry! As much as I really want to do water, I feel like the current state of this world and what we are doing to it by our carbon footprint, by our existence, by our population, by a lot of things that are going on, there’s a definite other element that fits that theme right now and that’s something I’d rather focus on more. While water is also very, very important to this big body of water planet, I will be passing on water and going with something else. Probably in the spring of next year I will release what Elements 2 will be based on.

Here’s the best part—Elements is gonna be five books! Which elements am I choosing, Earth, wind, air and fire? Am I choosing fire, metal, wood?

Is there anything about Elements that must be said that was left out?

Elements obviously wouldn’t be what it is without the contributors, but, I have to say, Chrystin Garland, who did the cover, is the most amazing illustrator I have ever worked with. I think that is not given nearly as much attention or love. She’s doing the art right now for Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems. People need to understand how amazing this woman is, and that she gave me the time of day to do the cover for this book. Paying for it out of pocket, I had no care or concern. I knew that I wanted work with her. She was so receptive and amazing, the experience was great and as you can see from the cover, fantastic.

Elements is still going strong! Support this amazing crew of creators by funding the Kickstarter.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka is a queer librarian and intense cat parent. They spends their days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts @alenkafiga.