Chicago-based Iron Circus Comics came to this year’s C2E2, its home court, for a spotlight panel intended to highlight all the delightfully weird titles recently released or soon to be. On the panel were founder C. Spike Trotman, along with a few creators including Kel McDonald (Cautionary Fables and Fairytales), Emily Riesbeck (It’s Your Funeral), Lars Brown (Penultimate Quest) and Kyle Smeallie (Softies). Before the panel began, though, Trotman roused early attendees with an exclusive tale of drama, crime and class. All you need to know is that it was very fun and you totally missed out.
Regardless, right around 3:00, McDonald, also an editor for the publisher, started the panel by asking the artists to introduce themselves briefly and explain how their comics are strange and amazing.
Riesbeck took the reins first. Their upcoming comic, It’s Your Funeral, is incredibly strange and amazing because of its bonkers premise in which aliens are social workers for ghosts in the afterlife and her protagonist is forced to intern in that office. Riesbeck added, “it’s a supernatural office comedy you’ve been dying to read,” and, as we would hear throughout the panel, “it’s about depression but it’s fun!”
That brought the conversation to Smeallie and his title, Softies, which is available to read online now as a webcomic, but to be published in book form this summer. The story follows Kay, a kid from the now-destroyed Earth, getting up to things that don’t quite level up to adventure, but could certainly be described as misadventure. Trotman jumped in and said it’s the mash-up of Calvin and Hobbes meets Hitckhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for kids, resulting in ‘oohs and aahs’ from the audience.
Next was Brown, whose comic is called Penultimate Quest. Like Smeallie’s Softies, it originated as a webcomic, although his print version brings the addition of colors by Bex Glendining. The book takes place on a remote island, with a never-ending dungeon and looping monsters, that the protagonists are obsessed with exploring over and over – and over again. He added that there are only two reactions to this: A) “sounds fun!” or B) “oh god that would be awful.” Trotman jumped in again to say that Penultimate Quest has No Exit vibes with swords.
Next was Trotman, who runs the company, and is a self-proclaimed cheese smuggler. It’s Iron Circus’ 13th year of operation, publishing titles she loves that are both strange and amazing. Right now, she said, she’s working on three scripts in production, including the Skyrim-inspired, gentrification fantasy, Delver; the tech-bro romance, Venture; and Lucas and Odessa, a comic about failure and unhealthy sexual attraction, and which bears the tagline “it’s about depression, but fun!”
With the creator introductions finished, McDonald introduced some of her own upcoming works, including the continued anthology series, Cautionary Fables and Fairytales. Each comic presets folklore from a different part of the world, assembling around 30 artists to tell their own versions of local stories. Currently, McDonald and co-creator Kate Ashwin have released Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania editions, and are working on their next entry, Nixie of the Mill-Pond. Included in this round are renditions on Jack and the Beanstalk, the Singing Bone, royal werewolves and more, all organized from the light-hearted, to the gradually more serious. It releases on April 28.
A book the entire Iron Circus crew seemed to be psyched about, The Harrowing of Hell by Evan Dahm, took the next turn. It’s described as examining the “major plot hole in Christianity;” the question of what happened to all of those good people who died before Jesus died for our sins. Trotman and McDonald said that, depending on the version of Christianty someone ascribes to, this adaptation of a true Biblical story is either blasphemy or truth. Trotman added that any fans of hippie socialist Jesus will be huge fans, especially considering that the Book of Matthew which inspires The Harrowing of Hell was initially written by a Jewish writer for non-Jewish audiences, with beloved messages about overthrowing the powerful and eating the rich. Read it when The Harrowing of Hell releases on May 12.
Smut Peddler Presents: Silver was the next entry in Iron Circus’s trademark erotic anthology, this time focusing on “maturity and experience.” Trotman’s quick pitch on this upcoming book was that it’s for people who crush on Jeff Goldblum and also for folks who notice the lack of representation when it comes to depicting anyone over the age of 45 as sexual beings. Silver will be available beginning on May 19.
With that, we circled back to the present creators for more in-depth conversations about their upcoming titles.
Riesbeck began with the end. Marnie Winters, the protagonist of It’s Your Funeral, dies just a few pages into the story following the explosion of the pressurized air canister in her desk chair (for the record, yes this can happen… but it probably won’t). That’s when she finds herself in the disorganized and messy Department of Spectral Affairs. Although her manager is a bouncy go-getter and genuinely wants to help, Marnie finds her approach less than ideal. So, the story isn’t just about learning to accept self-love and accept the mixed bag that is life, it’s also about the people who’ve never experienced depression and understanding what that experience is like.
Penultimate Quest, meanwhile, is about the monotony of being in one place. Lars explained he was inspired by the non-Narnia novels of C.S. Lewis like The Great Divorce, in which the denizens of Hell go to Heaven for a holiday and the former is described as an endless sprawl of suburbs where no one likes their neighbors. There are some modern influences, too. With grindy video games on the brain, he mentioned the title plays off of the Final Fantasy games (get it?) and he’s also influenced by his time playing Diablo 2. Much like spawning into games and hitting a ‘Game Over’ screen over and over, Lars said Penultimate Quest deals with the weariness that comes from repetition.
Back to Softies, Smeallie announced potentially the best webcomic domain of all time: readmycomic.com, where you can check his book before it goes to print. As alluded to before, Kay is a young survivor of Earth and now lives on a waste collection vessel with an orange man who’s better suited for garbage than child-rearing, but still has a heart of gold. Smeallie talked a bit about his love of low-stakes stories and how he incorporated that into the organic growth of Softies. At the end of the day, the fate of the universe will never be at stake. It’s a personal narrative about learning to be emotionally expressive and a reflection on growing up as a closeted gay man. Softies will be released under Iron Circus’ middle-grade imprint, Sprockets, on June 23.
You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife is an appropriate last stop for Iron Circus’ spotlight panel. It’s a collection of stories themed around death positivity; the idea of accepting death and talking openly about it, rather than denying or repressing it. Essentially what it boils down to, is the acceptance of mortality by talking about (or listening to others) about burial preferences, the relevant biological processes and similar topics. McDonald and Iron Circus editor Andrea Purcell edit the project, which features about 30 creators including Raina Telgemeier, Shae Beagle and Lise Sterle. You Died is available on October 13.
That wrapped the planned portion of the panel, and a Q&A followed, in which Trotman and co. had a lively discussion about Jupiter Ascending, whether or not Skyrim is a good game, and why in the world no one has cleaned up all the broken glass in the Fallout games.
Back on topic, Trotman also plugged her Dirty Old Ladies podcast, in which she, McDonald, and creator Amanda Lafrenais chat comics. Asked about working with Iron Circus Comics, Trotman said that the company only employs six people – and works pretty well that way. She also does not believe in unpaid internships. In terms of creator pitches, the publisher has an in-depth section on its website about wants and don’t wants. Submissions are perma-open and, generally, will be responded to within a month.