Comics

Janelle Asselin, Rosy Press and the Reinvention of the Ordinary

Sometimes once in a rare while someone with a single idea disrupts an entire industry. Veteran Editor Janelle Asselin's Rosy Press might just be that idea for this generation.

It’s early on a Sunday morning and we’re talking almost conspiratorially at first, then relaxing into ideas as the day builds. I’m talking with Janelle Asselin, a veteran editor of DC and Disney who earlier this week launched her first foray into the creative side of comic. She’s made the move from comics editor to comics publisher, starting off her own imprint, Rosy Press, with a monthly comic anthology, Fresh Romance.

Asselin’s move is the kind we’ve all been waiting to see for the longest time. Over the past handful of years we’ve returned to a perennial comics question, but in a wholly different way. That question, Can Comics Succeed?, has been inverted somewhat to, Can comics professionals experienced in the old 20th century models of publishing succeed in the new media landscape? Asselin is a veteran of the comics publishing industry, with a decade of experience gleaned from one of the most tumultuous times in the industry’s history, and with a Masters Degree in Publishing from Pace University enhancing her insights and decisions. So the Can comics succeed? question becomes, Can old media professionals succeed in a world of crowdfunding and social network building? And if they can succeed, can we see new business models emerge?

There’s a lot riding on Asselin’s success, even if we don’t realize it, and Asselin is one of only a dozen or so people who, by virtue of their position as much as by virtue of their talent alone, can make this success happen. With her Kickstarter project already fully funded (not the add-ons though, but funding remains open pretty much until 22 April), it seems that Asselin has already done enough to answer the bigger question, Will comics succeed?

I wanted to speak to her for two reasons, but I was more than a little daunted. Her accomplishments make her, at least until we first spoke, seem impenetrable. Imagine speaking with anyone on the design team for the iPad when the device was first launched back in 2010. Intimidating. And yet, it takes about 15 seconds and we're right into talking conspiratorially, as Asselin herself is a fan who just happens to have also worked as an insider.

“In general we’re going to avoid the political unless it’s personal, if that makes any sense,” she says as we begin to discuss the kind of magazine she’s putting out with Fresh Romance. “I think it’s not going to be entirely positive stories necessarily, but there is going to be a certain Rosy outlook, if you’ll pardon the pun, that I think will give people some escapism. But I think, well, in one of our first stories we have a queer romance which I think some people might point to and say, it is political. But it’s just a romance like any other romance. So I think that’s really, well the real world will intrude only so much as it does actually intrude in real life romances."

She effortlessly guides me away from a business story back to a cultural criticism story. This is what makes culture work, this is why Game of Thrones is infinitely more rewarding than watching talking heads and pundits tear into each other from factional political ideologies.

Without intending to, Asselin takes me back to an idea I let go of a little while ago. The Rediscovery of the Ordinary, that comes by way of anti-Apartheid activist and writer Njabulo Ndebele, who himself based the concept on a similar idea by Turkish writer and political activist Yasar Kemal. Ndebele’s idea was a simple one: in the glut of Apartheid, what really got stolen from public life was a shared civil society. It seemed to Ndebele that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, being black writer in South Africa also came with an automatic obligation to be a political writer. Wouldn’t the best political writing, rather than acknowledge the horrors of Apartheid, Ndebele guessed, simply disavow them? Wouldn’t the best kind of art, the art which celebrates the ordinary lives of ordinary people, be the far better protest?

Asselin made an astute move by putting together a series of creative teams and to work through established social networks and crowdfunding strategies to engage an audience, but not by accepting the status quo of what will sell according to the most up-to-date marketing information sourced by demographic. Rather, she announced Rosy Press as a rare imprint that will actively evangelize for the higher things, the things we forget we could demand of the medium and the industry we love. It’s easy to read Asselin’s move as an Ndebele-esque political move, a celebration of the ordinary in the face of the monolithic. And yet, we’re still speaking conspiratorially, like we’ve been through it, and together. Because in a sense there is that shared history, between all of us who love the medium.

“I think it’s worth bringing up that so much of the history books are written by men,” Asselin says as we puzzle out why the market, and really the entertainment landscape looks the way it does, “and so we see things written about war and things like that, but we see fewer things about the fashion or home life or things like that. And that to me is the big value of Austen’s books. It’s that it takes us into a world that, otherwise, who would have written about that? How would we have recorded that? So I think that there’s a value in that aspect of the things that women were doing at the time were not necessarily less important than the things that men were doing."

On my mention of Arielle Jovellanos’s art she says, “Arielle is really amazing. And actually you mentioned the fashion design stuff. One of the things, I was looking for artists and she had all this fashion sketches on her blog, she had all this sequential art, but also all these fashion sketches. And that was the thing that stood out to me. Because I hate when there’re comics with the people wearing the same outfit everyday. Or wear similar outfits everyday. Y’know people do notice this ... all the creators, we’ve had conversations typically about the fashion and each of the characters and how they look and on every single story we’ve had those email chains about how characters will look different and how their styles are different and how that fits into who they are."

The conversation quickly shifts to the physical nature of comics production and distribution in the current marketplace. “I was thinking the other day about how, if I only had to rely on the direct market of comics, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” Asselin states. “I know a lot of great comic shops but it would be so hard for me to find a foothold as a small imprint, doing a monthly magazine, which is really weird, in comics. It would have been impossible, I think. Being able to do it digitally, and we’re going to offer it on ComiXology because I know a lot of people are there and it makes sense, and they were really supportive when I’ve spoken to them."

"I also wanted to make it super-simple for people to get it. We’re going to be selling the issues on our website and subscribers will be set up with a login and every time a new issue is uploaded they would get an email and they can go an download it. The steps are very minimal for people to get to reading and enjoying the comics, which is the whole point. I think that makes outreach a lot easier too in terms of digital. Because the website that is the marketing and publicity home is also the sales home."

"I think that that’s done really good things for comics because you see a lot more people taking chances and going digital only. Then being successful enough to move into print. Or then just staying digital, and being successful digitally. I think it opens doors that didn’t exist five years earlier.”

It all comes back to Asselin’s biography. So I probe her on her personal history and her choices that have brought her thus far. She offers, “So this was about 2004, I decided I wanted to be a comicbook editor, and I went back to get my undergrad degree and I started doing comicbook reviews for Newsrama, which this year marks ten years that I’ve been in the industry as a professional. So I started doing reviews and I became the assistant editor for Fangoria Comics, which was a short-lived horror imprint related to Fangoria Magazine. In 2008 I emailed pretty much every publisher. I had a tiny connection (of comics) where I lived in Chicago, but I had no luck breaking in. A lot of them were like, ‘Yeah you sound great, but you don’t live here and we can’t really afford to move you here for an assistant editor job’. So I decided to take a chance and move to New York, with, no job."

"I had met an editor years before who was editing my favorite comics imprint and I’d asked him for advice and he was really nice and we’d stayed in touch and he had moved over from Marvel to DC. I emailed him and I was, ‘I’m doing it, I’m moving to New York.’ And he was like, ‘Well my assistant editor just left and I have an opening directly reporting to me.’ So he passed on my resumé and I interviewed a couple of days after I moved to New York and I started at DC 18 days after I arrived in town. So when people ask me for advice, I’m like ‘It does not normally happen like this, I’m the wrong person to ask.’"

"So I worked at DC in the Bat-group for three years and I moved from assistant up to associate before I left. So yeah, for the most part it was pretty positive. It’s a large corporation and there are a lot of things you have to deal with when you’re working for a large corporation. I didn’t realize that was what would sit poorly with me until I moved to Disney, which is an even bigger corporation. It’s a lot of decisions by committee, and a lot of the higher-ups’ visions are around what comics should be and I was there on the lower end of the totem pole really wanting to make comics that would appeal to women, even though they were superhero comics. I worked on books like Birds of Prey which historically has done really well with women."

“While I was at DC I started to get my Masters degree in publishing from Pace University and I decided to write my Masters thesis about increasing sales to women. And while I was still in Grad School I moved over to Disney to edit magazines. They were Marvel magazines for overseas audiences, they weren’t really released here in the US."

I ask if it’s books like those put out by Eurozone republisher Panini and Asselin confirms this.

“Right. So I would basically formulate the magazine, we would send them out to Panini and then Panini would print it. Now Disney has licensed out that whole business so that Panini makes the magazines and makes the content now. But at the time I found it really appealing as I was getting my Masters degree and I was interacting with a lot of people who worked in the publishing industry outside of comics, which I found really fascinating. I wanted more experience in what publishing looked like outside of comics. Because, while I got a great education at DC as far as how comics are made, I really lucked out in terms of having a mentor and they did a lot of great training about how things worked, but I wanted to know what comics were missing in terms of what regular publishing did."

"My Masters sort of fueled that, and then working at Disney, the goal was that I would learn more. But I knew from the time I started at Disney that I wanted to start my own publishing company. It was just a matter of when and how, given that it costs money. So over the last few years it’s just been a constant thing that I’ve thought about."

"I got laid off from Disney after moving to LA, and more and more I started thinking, I have to do it soon, I have to pull the trigger and make this happen. I’d gone back and forth about what I wanted to publish, romance was always on the top of my list, but it seems so risky because there weren’t any other romance comics out there. I started planning last year. Then I got a job at Sideshow Collectibles doing comics editing and then unfortunately got laid off after only six months and I hit a point where I was I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to run through this race of trying to find one of the very limited jobs in comics, when I know in my heart I just want to be making my own comics from my own company."

"So I decided to go full time freelance and working part-time as a senior editor for ComicAlliance where I write some pieces everyday and I edit stuff and I do social media and it’s a good way to stay on top of what’s happening in comics. And then I do some freelance editing and stuff, and it felt like a really good time to take this one. Once I really started thinking about it, I knew romance was what I wanted to do. I felt like that worked particularly well in the digital environment, which makes it easier to produce because you don’t have to deal with printing and distribution and all of that. You do have to deal with distribution, but not the same way that you do with print."

“For most of my career I worked on superhero stuff and I’ve always had an interest in looking beyond that," she begins saying, moving us into the next phase of the conversation, “Which seemed to be the entirety of our industry for so long,” she quickly adds, to emphasize how structured the genre differentiation in comics can be. “And I grew into a superhero fan,” she continues, “I do love those books, but it started to seem like, really the last five years, people started to embrace the genres that were not superhero and started to look beyond that and do a lot more experimental things in terms of what kinds of stories could be told in comics and that really appealed to me and that really was something that was important to me."

“So a big part of the appeal of comics to me as an editor of comics, and my heart has always sat with editing despite all the other things I do, is I love putting together a team and working together with a bunch of collaborators and finding a lot of different voices, telling a lot of different kinds of stories. When I started thinking about doing my own publishing company, I knew I wanted to do something monthly, I wanted to do something regularly reoccurring, not just a one off anthology or anything. It seemed a lot more appealing to me, in terms of reader outreach, to offer good stories by a bunch of people than to offer just one good story that would appeal to a specific audience each month. Because each of our stories brings something different to the table and that will continue to be true throughout the future."

"It was important to me that you show not just that comics has depth and that you can do anything with comics, but that the genre of romance has depth and that you can tell all sorts of different stories with that. To have a community of people of are really passionate about that and passionate about telling all sorts of romance stories and are really passionate about telling it in their own way and bringing that together and having fun with the group is amazing. And I think it’s going to offer readers a lot more value in terms of having a lot more things to absorb each issue than just telling one story each."

Why the genre of romance? We spoke about the idea before when we spoke about her biography, but it’s something I want to return to. Asselin has bolder ambitions than just answering personal creative impulse, I suspect. So I ask the question again and try to work out if there’s any merit to my suspicion.

“Well I think it opens up the industry a little more to readers maybe who’ve never read comics, to enjoy romance,” she answers frankly, “But that’s a big part of my focus, is taking a medium that is dismissed by a lot of woman, unfortunately, outside of the industry, and saying, ‘Look we can tell, not just superhero stories, but we can tell the kind of stories you might be interested in.’ It’s also about, visually, you know, comics are awesome. And to be able to take some of the…” Asselin pauses, taking a sip of water and recomposing her plan of attack. She begins again, “In romance novels they spend a lot of the time describing clothing and how people look and how people physically interact. Every time I read one I think, ‘This will be so cool visually,’ because it’s just like calling out to be illustrated, to be able to have creators draw these things. So people won’t necessarily have to use their imaginations, they can see these beautiful things as they’re reading the story. It would add depth to the whole thing, and that was a big appeal for me with Sarah Vaughan and Sara Winifred’s story."

"Regency Romance fans are very in tune with the historical aspects of the story. A lot of them are really aware about what kind of clothing would be period appropriate and what style people wore in each different decade and things like that. It’s all really beautiful and Regency Romance novels, many of them have great stories, but you don’t get to see the beautiful houses and the beautiful dresses and the clothes and everything. I think there’s a big appeal in that and I’m sort of surprised nobody’s done it before."

This naturally begs the question, How is Fresh Romance different from, but also the same as the romance comics that have come before? In other words, what connects the project to the prehistory of its genre, and what identifies it as a 21st century update of that genre. There’s pure joy in Asselin’s voice when she answers.

“So in the olden days of romance comics they all followed a pretty specific formula which was way more about the drama and not necessarily about the romance or sexuality or anything like that. And today’s romance novels, which I can read a lot of, are pretty explicit. It’s much harder to pull off explicit content, of the type that happens in today’s romance novels, in a comic. Just because the moment you put something on the page visually, it feels like it’s much more explicit than just reading the words. So it was important find a middle ground where its sexier than old romance comics, and we are going to push the envelope a little, it definitely is going to be an R-rated magazine, I’m not going to recommend this for any kids or anything. But it’s not erotica either. It’s romance."

"Romance is its own specific genre. In that it doesn’t always have to be either erotica or completely clean. So my guidelines to all my creators are simply, ‘It’s about the romance, not about sex, but sex is a part of romance, so feel free to bring it in.’ I just had some rules in terms of how explicit we could make the art. Everybody was absolutely behind it. I think everybody liked the opportunity. Some of the creators have done books like Smut Peddler and things like that before. While they enjoy doing erotic comics, they also found it appealing to do a romance comic that isn’t necessarily erotica."

We get to the elephant in the room, DRM or Digital Rights Management, or the idea that since around the Millennium, we no longer purchase products the way we once did throughout the entirety of human history up until that point, we no longer purchase a product in its own right. Instead, we purchase a product that can only be used in conjunction with a specific device. Want to buy a movie? No problem, but you’re only going to be able to watch you movie on US soil. Holiday in the UK or worse yet, move there permanently and your movie collection will no longer be available to you. DRM takes on a more insidious form in the Cloud-driven era. We can no longer consume media independent of our devices. Buy and Android, and your collection of fiction will most likely sit in .MOBI format. But make the move to iPad and to iBooks, and your collection, that you bought and paid for, isn’t coming with you.

Asselin’s made a courageous decision to go 100 percent digital and 100 percent DRM-free. So all Rosy Press publications will be made available in .EPUB, .PDF and .CBR formats. But there’s potentially a huge a down side to this, so I ask about the strategy and Asselin respond like the kind of person you genuinely wish you could vote for: she embraces the challenge.

“Part of me getting my Masters in publishing is I learned a lot about, like you said, the ‘hot-button’ issues in publishing. I’m a big music fan, as well. For years I watched the record industry struggle with the issue of DRM. Was it worthwhile, was it not worthwhile? I always found it very alienating for music listeners, the very existence of DRM. I understand that people want to protect their property and they want to make sure they sell as many as possible. But my priority is to get my comics in the hands of as many people as possible and while obviously I prefer that people buy the comics, and if that means someone sends a PDF to a friend and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh you have to check this out,’ and then that friend goes and buys a subscription. I would rather that happen than people feel really restricted by DRM."

"I like being able to have my music and being able to do whatever I want with it and I expect people want the same thing out of their books. I’m also interested in a lot of digital devices and things. I own a Kobo and an iPad and I think it’s a really neat thing for people to be able to put Fresh Romance on either of these devices. You can read it as a comic, you can put it on to a Kobo, you can put it on to your iPad. That was important to me as well, I want people to be able to enjoy it in the way that works for them.”

I don’t want it to be over, but we need to wrap. I ask Asselin my standard last question, is there anything I’m leaving out? She replies like she’s only just getting started, her enthusiasm hasn’t abated a bit.

“So we’ve just had our first issue cover completed, I don’t know if you saw that,” she asks, “It’s absolutely beautiful it features the characters from Kate Leth and Arielle Jovellanos’s story. One of the reasons I went after a couple of guys to do covers is that I was trying to make the point that this isn’t only a women’s magazine or we’re not going to feature only women creators. That’s certainly a priority for me, and when I thought of doing a romance magazine, the creators I hired, a lot of them immediately came to mind as people that I knew would understand what I was talking about and what I wanted. All of them reacted so enthusiastically about the ability to tell romance stories."

"It was never my intention to do a company that was only for comics created by and for women. I think romance can appeal to everyone, and I think that there’s something in there for everyone. It’s hard because you don’t want to say, ‘Oh we’re publishing for everyone’ because that makes it so hard in terms of marketing or whatever. It’s important to me that everyone feels welcome in reading Fresh Romance.”

I really don't want to, but I take my last sip of coffee.

All images courtesy of Rosy Press. The first issue of Fresh Romance releases in May, but the project is only funded for its first three issues. Visit Rosy Press’s Kickstarter for more information.

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