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Indie Spotlight: "Rust Belt Review" #1

Comic Books

Indie Spotlight: “Rust Belt Review” #1

An indie dream for a new kind of storytelling.

There are not enough anthology publications in the world today, not enough periodicals, journals, and markets for the full range of creative voices in the world.

I hold this stance as a writer who has published with anthology publications and has watched, over the course of my career, soft blow after soft blow to the mediums of short fiction and poetry (let alone the more niche forms of prose-poetry, microfiction, and hybrid work). The world of print publications appears to be dying, ever so slowly. It’s a hard world to live in when industry titan and beacon of hope Tin House shuttered its doors after twenty years. Stephen King weighed in on the health of the short story over a decade ago and things are looking even sparser still.

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Indie Spotlight: "Rust Belt Review" #1

Andrew Greenstone, Professor Livingston’s Labyrinthine Trivia Trials.

While all the examples above deal with written literature, things may be bleaker still for comics, a medium with an even harder point of entry. Sure, self-publishing is alive and well, and webcomics are their own unique ecosystem, but these are uniquely niche markets. The joy of a journal is a sense of curation, a lifting up and display of noteworthy artists. It’s a place where word-of-mouth meets the legitimacy of print.

Luckily, a new journal, Rust Belt Review, has thrown their hate into that curatorial ring, presenting six unique and noteworthy artists.  I don’t mean to supply such heavy and high-minded expectations on the journal, whose debut issue was released recently, nor do I want to burden cartoonist and publisher Sean Knickerbocker with anything but praise—it’s an impressive and lovely first issue.

Indie Spotlight: "Rust Belt Review" #1

Caleb Orecchio, Kids Playing Outside.

I reached out to Knickerbocker for a brief statement, and found that he mirrored some of my personal sentiments. He elaborated: 

“As of right now, if you’re making independent/alternative comics, you don’t really have a great way to reach your audience. I think social media is great for some creators, but if you don’t fit a very specific mold, it can be quite difficult to get eyes on your work. For a long time, indie cartoonists have relied on in-person conventions and festivals to sell their work, since we’re still a little bit away from the possibility of doing that safely, I thought it would be a great time to introduce an alternative venue.”

Featuring cartoonists Juan Jose Fernadez, Andrew Greenstone, M.S. Harkness, Caleb Orecchio, Audra Sing, and Knickerbocker himself, the first issue of Rust Belt offers a fairly diverse array of content, most of it of a serial, to-be-continued nature which makes one eager for the next issue.

Indie Spotlight: "Rust Belt Review" #1

M.S. Harkness, The Uncut Gem

Says Knickerbocker, “Rust Belt Review is inspired by serialized comics anthologies such as Raw Magazine, Rubber Blanket, Kramers Ergot, and Mome. Ideally, the magazine falls away in the background so the reader can focus solely on the comics being presented to them. I intend to release the publication quarterly. Some contributors will be in every issue, and others will pop in and out. I want to create a venue for cartoonists to create short-form or serialized fiction.”

Rust Belt Review

With such a lineage, Rust Belt has lofty ambitions, and the work presented does, indeed, let the magazine fall away. Each piece establishes its own unique space and language, and the contributors offer up a wide range of styles, from slice-of-life to digital abstraction, all while managing to click with the overall tone of the book. I was curious how the lineup was curated, and the answer was both simple and logistical. 

“The first wave of contributors that I reached out to are mostly people that I have some personal connection to,” he wrote concerning the issue’s lineup of talent, “I ask people to contribute 8-12 pages, and that’s a really big commitment. I wasn’t comfortable asking strangers to commit to something with no record of what the publication would look like, or with no hard sense of how much they would be compensated for their work. That being said, I am paying all of my contributors, that’s very important for me. It’s a modest sum, but I hope as the catalog and readership grow, Rust Belt Review will be a fruitful venue for established and budding alternative cartoonists alike.”

Indie Spotlight: "Rust Belt Review" #1

Audra Stang, Tunnel Vision.

I asked him to sum up the sorts of challenges he’s facing, starting a new publication: “Most of the challenges I’m facing are financial. Because of the nature of our printing and distribution infrastructures, profit margins are razor-thin. It’s definitely a tightrope act when it comes to figuring out printing, pricing, and shipping logistics, but I’ve been having fun with it so far. I was able to pay all of my contributors by the time the book was ready to ship, I don’t think a lot of small press publishers can make that claim.”

A pay model, for a journal in its first stages, is an incredible and high-minded goal, one perhaps rarer than one would expect — in any medium. A lot of journals live on the razor’s edge of financial stability, so the main form of payment for artists is experiential. That often horrible cop-out, “exposure” is usually the lone thing early-career publication can offer, beyond the thrill of seeing your name in print. A payday, however small, is reason to celebrate, and reason for a journal to be celebrated. That Knickerbocker is managing to walk the tightrope on the side of the patron angels is a rare and special feat.

Rust Belt is, with its first issue, an incredible success, both on the page and behind the scenes. It seems important to support such an endeavor now, while things are at their most tenuous. The more space given to the widest sampling of artists only works to strengthen the medium we all love so dearly–to step forward and attempt to shoulder the responsibility yourself is a Herculean task and one that should be commended. 

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