Interview with Charles “Zan” Christensen of Northwest Press

Jess Waters ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Source: Northwest Press Twitter
Source: Northwest Press Twitter

Charles “Zan” Christensen is the founder and editor-in-chief of comic book publisher Northwest Press. He sat down with Emertainment Monthly to talk about his work, his struggles, and the future of LGBT comics.

In your own words, what does Northwest Press do?

Well, Northwest Press is a comic publisher that focuses on work that is inclusive of LGBT people. Not every character is LGBT, but it’s really important to me that all of the books reflect the diversity that is present in the real world. And I did that because there were so many books that had strong queer content that weren’t able to find a home, starting with Jon Macy’s Teleny and Camille. That book didn’t have a publisher and I just couldn’t live in a world where that book didn’t get a publisher, so I decided to publish it myself!

Alright — so that’s the origin story of how you founded Northwest Press! When was that exactly?

Spring 2010. So we’re five years old now.

So in addition to being the founder, what is your role in the organization now? What are your responsibilities to Northwest Press?

I like to describe myself as CEO and Chief Janitor. I basically do everything! My background, as far as previous day jobs go, is in marketing, design, presentation and whatnot. So I was able to use all those skills to give our books a nice quality, polished production quality from the start. I think a lot of people have the impression that we’re a lot bigger than we actually are. It’s really just me for now, working in conjunction with a bunch of talented artists to produce as many books as we can on our tight budget.

So you didn’t have any experience working in the comic books industry before that? Northwest Press was just you jumping right in?

I kind of jumped in! I actually had had a lot of experience with LGBT communities and comics because I was one of the co-founders of Prism Comics, which is a project that helps LGBT comics creators. I worked with Prism from 2003 until about 2010. So what I did is that I got exposure to the industry, to doing conventions, working with artists, and other stuff like that. So I had a little bit of experience and a little bit of familiarity with a lot of people who were in the industry, and that helped a lot. I really got a lot of experience in terms of putting together a book, picking out quotes, and doing stuff like that.

What do feel is different about the comics you publish as opposed to quote on quote “mainstream” comics—meaning themes, art styles, artists you work with, and such? In other words, what makes Northwest Press comics special?

I think part of it is that I’m trying to produce work that isn’t represented already. There’s a lot of stuff in mainstream that’s episodic, serialized—I don’t want to say “disposable,” but definitely something that just sort of comes and goes a la “the next exciting adventure of xyz”

And I really wanted to focus on work that was more self-contained, more toward the novel end of things rather magazines. I also wanted to focus on stories that felt somehow important, whether for historical value, or because they explore sexuality or gender or identity in a way that hasn’t really been explored before—telling stories that hadn’t been told before.

One of the the main differences is that we can really only do three or four projects per year, so they really have to be thing that I feel have a long shelf life and that people will really want to add to their collections.

That definitely resonates with me because my first exposure to Northwest Press was Anything That Loves [Northwest Press’s comics by and about people who experience multi-gender attraction]. For me it was a collection of stories where I had never seen anything like that before, and it was so important to me personally because it was the first time, as a young bisexual woman, I saw comics about people like me.

Yeah! I was very surprised — well, unfortunately not very surprised — because I had double checked to be sure and we really were the first collection of stories about bi folks told in comic form. That kind of just reinforces to me the importance of the work that we’re doing because there’s so few outlets for these kind of stories and it’s important that somebody be out there doing it. So I’ll happily step up.

What are some of your inspirations beyond NW Press content?

Alison Bechdel was a big influence for me. Right after she came out with Fun Home she came to Comic-Con for the very first time. She had been doing newspaper comics for years just on a small scale, not really involved with the ‘comic book’ world so to speak, but she was the special guest at the show this year.

She talked about how that book came about, her first book Fun Home, the first big huge hit, you know, and she said that what happened was that she lost her previous publisher. It was a kind of small, very devoted, community publisher called Firebrand that just went under. So when she had this new project, this autobiographical project, she had initially thought ‘oh yeah, I’ll just publish it with a small press and it will kind of appear, and be well-received, and then I’ll move on.’ But since she lost her publisher, she started to think about getting an agent, and what an agent could do, and this agent said that instead of starting with a smaller, grassroots venue, why don’t you start at the top and work your way down? See who can give you the most exposure, who can really make the book seen and heard so that people will be able to connect to it.

And that’s how she got the book deal that she got and how she got all the exposure she did. People were able to see how wonderful it was. So since then I’ve always kind of had that in my head, to think big, to think ambitiously, to get the best work I can get and when it comes time to put them out in the world, to expect good things and to go for broke in terms of trying to reach out to people and get exposure. That’s definitely been really inspiring for me. If someone who for decades had been doing underappreciated niche comics about lesbian life can suddenly break out and have the biggest book of 2007 — that definitely says that it’s possible for us to transcend our categories and reach a lot of people.

Another thing I’ve noticed about Northwest Press is that there’s definitely an emphasis on digital content — why is that so important to you?

Part of it is that we’re kind of in the wild west with the book industry. As a new publisher I kept trying to find information on how do you do this, how do you do that and the more I looked the more I found that nobody had any answers any more. Everything was guesswork and ‘it used to be like this and now everything’s changing.’ So it occurred to me that from the beginning I was going to have to have a strong digital component because there are so many people out there who don’t really want to go out and buy a print book and take it home and put it on their shelf. They want to have it now, and they want to have it on their iPad. So I focused on doing a digital counterpoint to every book from the start, and then started to do a bunch of digital-only books, or releasing people’s work digitally for the first time through Northwest Press.

I brought as many people into the fold as I could, and got them sharing audiences. So you’d get someone who’d show up and want to buy one thing, and then while they’re on the site they find a bunch of other things they want to get too. That was always the phenomenon i would notice at the big conventions. When Prism Comics would do the shows they would bring together dozens of people at their large booths to share audiences, and everybody was boosted as a result. People are so unused to seeing a wide variety of LGBT comics so when they find it, they really want to go hogwild and get whatever they want! I wanted to recreate that phenomenon online, so I’ve tried to offer a really competitive rate and make it really really easy for people to sign on and publish through us digitally, if just to have another way to reach their audiences and hopefully to get some crossover with other artists.

I know exactly what you mean. It feels like sometimes when you go to your local comics store and you ask for LGBT content well– it’s pretty slim pickings. So to go online with you guys and see 70+ offerings is a pretty big deal.

I know, right? Generally when I hear from somebody who wants to pitch me a project, at the very least i’ll almost always say yes to publishing a digital edition of it and work with them to put together a really nice copy of it. That doesn’t cost me much, it just costs me some time to prepare it. I don’t take any of the rights to the work, I just give them 50% of the sales, and hopefully give them another avenue to reach people with. I try to make it as easy as possible.

What are some of your personal favorite projects and releases?

I have a real soft spot for Jon Macy’s work, because his Teleny and Camille was the first book we published. His latest book, Fearful Hunter, came out last summer and it’s really, really great. It’s our longest book to date — 310 pages or something — and it’s romantic and it’s sexy and full of angst and supernaturalness. I really, really think he did a great job with it!

Humor-wise, I really love the complexity of Rick Worley’s Waste of Time comics. They started out all about his dating and sex life and they were were snarky and bitter and cute and curmudgeonly. But he’s really expanded his scope. We just launched new Waste of Time series and it involves, you know, Bill Waterson and Jim Davis going on a road trip, and questions about artistic integrity, and it becomes a much bigger and more relatable storyline than just some gay dude who likes twink boys — I mean I love that stuff, but I also that now he’s doing work about stuff that everybody can relate to and be interested in,

Of course Bold Riley is a huge hit, and the new series is really wonderful.

I think it’s kind of the nature of the beast when you’re working with artistic people and you’re putting out art, where the new book is the favorite, because everyone just always wants to be doing something new, something exciting, covering new ground. So we have a new collection coming out next month of Ethan Green comics by Eric Warner. He did a comic strip called The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green and now we’re coming out with The Completely Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, which is a comprehensive collection of all of his strips from the very beginning, most of which haven’t ever been collected before.

That’s another perk of doing this work is that people that I’ve read and admired and whose talent I really respect now will approach me to ask about working together, and of course I swoon and fall over and then say yes. So yeah, the newest projects are always the best.

Not to keep going on about projects, but Anything That Loves, which you mentioned earlier, was an important project for me– being the editor, finding all of the work that eventually made it into the book, and tackling something that was underexplored or often derided, especially in the gay community, actually. It was important to do something that was a queer book aimed at queer people, and was talking about stuff we really need to improve on.

What’s next for northwest press?

I am getting to the point where it’s too much to do all on my own, so I might start hiring people to work with, which is exciting. I would really like to see us expand and tackle a lot more stuff. I want to do comics that tackle social justice causes and comics that are fundraisers for doing good in the world. We’ve done a lot of pieces that benefitted Prism Comics or the It Gets Better project, and we’ve got an upcoming one that’s benefitting several youth nonprofits, and really want to be able to do more stuff like that. We sponsor shows like Geek Girl Con and stuff. I want to do more of what we do, and to broaden our horizons. I want to see what constitutes queer comics in the future, because I think it’s changing. I think people are less hung up on identities now and more interested in the complexities of their human story. I think the more we do that and the more we go down that path, the more people we can reach.

Anything else you’d like to say?

If you’re interested in Northwest Press, just check and see the local shows in your area. We’re doing about two dozen shows a year so chances are high that we’re going to be at least within driving area of you!

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