Camilla Zhang Continues Leveling Up Comics Outreach at Kickstarter

Camilla Zhang

Camilla Zhang’s resume and portfolio exhibits an eclectic array of interests. From editorial and published works with several major publishing companies, to mix CD cover collages and costuming, Zhang’s passion and creativity is evident in everything she touches. On her website, she describes herself as the “go-to-gal for talking narrative structure and tone, graphic novels, feminism, Asian American identity, sexuality, globalization, capitalism, and dreams.”

In May of last year, Zhang stepped into the role of Comics Outreach Lead at Kickstarter, where she oversees the crowdfunding site’s diverse zine, graphic novel projects, and more. With over 6,000 comic-related projects funded since the site’s inception in 2009, and no stopping in sight, stepping into this role means that Zhang has a lot of work cut out for her, but she seems to be well up to the task. Here she is answering a few questions about her role.

Was the Comics Outreach Lead a new position with Kickstarter? How have you adjusted to the role, and how have you helped to shape its job description since taking the position?

Kickstarter first had a person committed to comics in 2013. Before I arrived, Margot Atwell, our Director of Publishing, was taking care of the category, but she has a lot on her plate. Kickstarter felt that having a person solely devoted to comics would help the community level up in bigger and more impactful ways.

When I came on board, there wasn’t really time to “adjust.” I had to hit the ground running and jump right into Book Expo only a few weeks after I started. Then came Women in Comics International Con in late June and San Diego Comic Con in July!

Essentially my job is to act as a liaison between Kickstarter and the comics community. I’ve had a lot of freedom to shape the role in ways I feel are most appropriate and useful. For Flame Con, I wanted to make sure our presence really connected with and supported the queer community. So, acting on a suggestion from Flame Con co-founder Joey Stern, we had our photographer take free creator headshots, which are beneficial to artists’ careers, but incredibly expensive, especially for marginalized folks. I also opened up our booth to artists who weren’t able to get a table. And I helped create a zine about how to Kickstart a comics project, which we gave away for free at the con.

Flame Con was a massive undertaking, because while I’d helped at convention booths before, I’d never been the main organizer. I could have scaled back, but that’s not really in my nature. I put my all into what I do. However, the job has taught me that that kind of M.O. isn’t sustainable for every facet of my work. I’m learning to be more efficient by letting certain things go. For example, in September, I did three conventions in three different time zones in three back-to-back weeks. I really burned myself out and now have a better understanding of my limits.

You’ve stated that your personal mission is to “raise up the comics community, especially marginalized creators.” What steps do you take to help keep your mission on track?

Diversity is now in demand, but there’s a thin line between popularity and commodification in a currently capitalist society. Co-opting our voices and faces simply furthers our oppression and erasure, regardless of good intentions. So, when I see a comics project that features marginalized characters, I make sure the creative team is also diverse before selecting it as a Project We Love or flagging it to our Editorial Team for our newsletters and social media. “Follow the money,” as they say, because it matters who’s getting it. If marginalized creators benefit financially, it gives them more opportunities to keep creating. This is just one of the many ways to break the cycle of oppression and imbalance.

I look out for events that are more focused on marginalized creators, like Women in Comics International Con and Flame Con. At other festivals, when I’m passing by artist tables, I prioritize connecting with women, creators of color, and queer artists. And when I’m putting together a list of speakers for panels, I try to make sure the group is as diverse as possible, even if the subject matter isn’t about diversity or representation. Many marginalized folks are tired of only being featured on panels about how comics aren’t diverse enough. Those panels will definitely continue to be needed as long as inequities exist. But the push for equality has to be on all fronts. We need to feature diverse creators on panels about craft, community building, and other pertinent industry topics.

Next year, I’m aiming to introduce some new curated modules to the Comics & Illustration homepage, so it’ll be easier to find projects made by creators of color and women, in addition to members of the LGBTQIA+ community, for which there is already a module. I’m also going to hit up the Schomburg Center’s Annual Black Comic Book Festival, Blerdcon, and, hopefully, Indigenous Comic Con.

Kickstarting a project requires commitment and dedication, as well as confidence when it comes to promoting one’s work in hopes of receiving backers. In what ways do you help creators realize their goals?

This kind of relates to the first question. I’ve shaped my role so it has more of an educational bent. Part of my mission is to inspire comics creators to make passion projects. In my opinion, it’s not enough to share aspirational stories and stats like you’re giving a TED talk. You have to teach skills and offer tangible strategies, because they help creators develop confidence that can be maintained, confidence that’s reliable.

When I’m putting together panels, I think about how the topics and questions can directly benefit budding creators. I try to have my speakers share their tactics and methodology. Not to say that these are easily replicated like a science experiment. Every creator is different. My aim is to help new creators understand the variety of ways they can go about sharing their work so they can see which one they feel most comfortable with. After all, it’s much easier to be confident if you’re comfortable in your own skin.

While panels and in-person presentations are great ways to help creators realize their goals, I can’t be everywhere all the time. Education must be accessible. So after I conducted a workshop at SPX on what goes into a great comics campaign, I modified it for a webinar, the recording of which is available to anyone with an internet connection. As I go along, I know I’ll learn new things about our community, their needs and wants, and I’ll evolve the resources based on my findings.

Crowdfunding has really opened the door for many diverse voices to find support to bring their dream projects to life. What are your thoughts about this evolution in comics publishing? What are your hopes for the industry as this evolution continues?

Honestly, that’s my biggest reason for being a Kickstarter fan. I’ve worked at Marvel and DC Comics, known gatekeepers, whether intentional or not. The problem with the big two is just that, there’s only two! Even among “indie artsy” publishers, there are the small “big two”: Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. Nevertheless, all comics publishing runs on extremely tight budgets and lean staff. Competition is brutal. What’s worse is that many companies treat junior staff and younger talent like they’re replaceable. To advance, you have be talented, charming, and lucky. And the cruel trick about luck is that it’s affected by socioeconomics, race, gender identity, and so on. All these layers of identity work for some and not for many.

Kickstarter helped marginalized creators and small press bypass bigger publishers and distributors, which ripped the industry wide open. It was OK to start with a small fan base and grow from there. It still is! When I started in the industry ten years ago, it felt small and savage. Now, it feels more open. Creators of color can find and connect with their audiences more easily. There are more types of comics being made. It’s not just superheroes and straight cis white dudes angsting about their sex lives. Now, I can read about Were-Spiders, black representation in sci-fi and culture, star-crossed lesbian motorcyclists, and sci-fi/fantasy comics by indigenous creators.

The landscape of comics at Kickstarter is incredibly wide, deep, and high. My hope for the industry as it continues to evolve is for creators and readers to become so diverse that we no longer look to titans (bigger names in the industry) for answers and inspiration, but rather, to our contemporaries and neighbors. Instead of gazing up, getting cricks in our necks, we need to look level, see the humans in front of us, and connect to each other through our stories. This makes us more humane, empathetic, and caring about the world we live in.

That’s my ideological hope. More concretely, I’d like for non-comics readers to have a better understanding of the medium and what it has to offer. I recently read an article saying that graphic novels are set to be the most-read genres of books. That’s cool, but misleading. Sequential art is an artform, not a genre. There are graphic novels for YA readers interested in marine biology. There are webcomics for folks interested in memoir, superheroes meets slice-of-life, and everything in between. If we segmented comics like prose in bookstores (e.g., romance, horror, etc.), that could expand the industry. We need to show the variety that already exists and create what doesn’t.

Several established companies have turned to Kickstarter to fund their projects as well. Does your outreach involve larger comics companies as well as independent creators and smaller publishers?

I worked with my colleague Margot Atwell on How to Invent Everything, a non-comics project by comic creator Ryan North and his publisher Riverhead Books. In theory, it was a pre-order, but in practice, it established a deeper connection with his backers and nurtured more ethical distribution through independent bookstores.

I’ve also given guidance to Dirk Wood at IDW PDX for his Full Bleed project, but that’s incredibly different from working with a bigger publisher. If it didn’t fund on Kickstarter, it may not have been made. Dirk may work for IDW, but the IDW PDX brand is his baby. He’s betting a lot on the project as an individual creator.

As for my current outreach strategy, it doesn’t focus on bigger publishers, though I do see a lot of potential there. My main goals are reaching out to and supporting individual creators and small press, and widening the comics backer community. If a partnership happens organically, that’s great! If there’s an opportunity to work with more established names, like Oni or Image, that will benefit the creator and backer community, I’m here for it, but it has to be the right fit.

Follow Zhang on Twitter or visit her website to learn more about her projects and thoughts.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.