Making Something That Feels Good to Read: An Interview with Ari Yarwood




THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW with Ari Yarwood was conducted in January 2019, when Yarwood was senior editor at the independent comics publisher Oni Press. Following Oni’s controversial May 2019 acquisition by Lion Forge Comics — a move executed by the corporation Polarity Ltd., which describes itself on its website as “a diversified global media company founded with a mission to bring authentic content to a diverse global audience” — Yarwood parted ways with the house and returned to freelance editing. While major outlets such as Forbes and The New York Times have largely focused on the economic and market ramifications of the Oni-Lions Forge merger, comics fan and industry news channels, in particular The Beat and The Daily Beast, have highlighted contradictions between both houses’ self-declared missions of inclusivity and diversity and the post-merger layoffs of employees from minority and vulnerable communities. Although a number of fired employees have spoken out via social media, most visibly Oni editor Desiree Wilson, she and others have indicated that severance packages were only offered to those willing to sign nondisclosure, non-disparagement, and/or non-compete agreements.

My conversation with Yarwood was filled with laughter, and it’s easy to get caught up in her enthusiasm for what she does. The language she uses to describe the books she edits — accessible, fun, approachable, inclusive — is a clear reflection of her own personality. Yarwood’s departure from Oni is a major loss for the house and its commitment to diverse voices and representations. In her six years of work at Oni, Yarwood carefully curated the acquisition of titles aimed at inclusivity, including Katie O’Neill’s critically acclaimed, all-ages The Tea Dragon Society. In 2016, Yarwood founded Limerence Press, an imprint of Oni specializing in sex education, LGBTQ+ and gender studies, and erotica, with an emphasis on sincere and sweet-tempered accessibility. Launched with the publication of Erika Moen and Mathew Nolan’s sex-positive and educational Oh Joy Sex Toy, Limerence quickly expanded into erotica (Colleen Coover’s Small Favors, Sarah Mirk, Eva Cabrera, and Claudia Aguirre’s Open Earth) and an instantly successful series of LGBTQ+ informative guides (Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson’s A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, Mady G and J. R. Zuckerberg’s A Quick & Easy Guide to Queer & Trans Identities).

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COLIN BEINEKE: Can you share a bit about your professional background and how you became involved in comics publishing?

ARI YARWOOD: Sure! I have a bachelor’s in creative writing and I also went to the Denver Publishing Institute, which is a short-term graduate studies program that basically gives you a publishing certificate. During that time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into prose publishing, magazine publishing, or comics publishing. Comics publishing was always something that seemed impossible, but that I would have loved to do. While I was there I met an editor at Dark Horse, Spencer Cushing, who had gone to the program before me. He was great. He took the time to talk to me, and offered to help me network if I ended up in Portland.

Thankfully I got an internship at Bitch magazine right out of the program. So my partner and I moved to Portland, and while I was interning at Bitch I wrote a lot about comics for their blog. Spencer introduced me to a bunch of different people in the Portland comics scene, and I did informational interviews and just sort of scoped things out. One of those people was Shy Allot, who would become director of sales at Oni. We had an awesome time talking, and when a position opened up at Oni for an administrative assistant Shy put my name in for consideration, which was very nice of her! I started working as an admin assistant at Oni while at the same time working as a freelance editor for a literary magazine, The Masters Review. For my first couple of years in Portland I did both, which involved getting up very early, doing literary journal stuff in the morning and then going to work at Oni.

As soon as I showed that I was capable, part of my duties became assisting James Lucas Jones, our editor in chief at the time, with his projects. I started working on Stumptown with Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood, Another Castle with Andrew Wheeler and Paulina Ganucheau, The Life After with Joshua Hale Fialkov and Gabo. Those were really the books that made me an editor — I hadn’t edited comics before that. I’m really thankful that I started out as an assistant. I was able to figure out the ropes as I was working on a bunch of other stuff: copyright filing, proofreading, digital eBook uploads, scheduling for publication, talking with our overseas printers. I was able to get a round view of how the whole company worked in that position, which really helped when I started editing full-time.

In terms of reasons I wanted to get into comic book publishing, I think it’s all the regular answers. [Laughs.] I think, for the most part, everyone is in comics because they love it. It’s so interesting once you’re actually working in comics publishing how many different kinds of comics publishing there are: so many different genres, audiences, and ways to get comics to people. It’s just such a broad medium, and I’m excited that I’ve been able to find a niche within that.

Are there any editors, in comics or otherwise, who have influenced your own work?

Robin Herrera was the person who trained me in my first position at Oni, and I learned so much from her about storytelling, project management, and networking. She has such an incredible eye for narrative structure and I learned a ton from her.

Taneka Stotts, who edited the Beyond and Elements anthologies, also used to live in Portland, and has been a really wonderful mentor to me. Taneka always takes the time to answer my questions and give me advice, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude! I also enjoy getting to see editors at conventions, because we tend to be very solitary. [Laughs.] So things like going to editor’s days is always fun. I met Joel Enos, who works at Viz Media, and we’ve stayed friends and had great talks about representation, moving the industry forward, and things like that.

Does being located in Portland play a role in what you do as an editor?

I think for the most part it’s nice to have a large comics community. Helioscope is here, the largest comics artist work collective in the United States, and there are a ton of awesome people who work here. There are a lot of amazing comic book stores, and it’s really nice to be able to get to know the retailers personally: to be able to stop in, ask some questions, pick up books, and have a personal relationship with the people who are selling our titles. There are a lot of people doing great work in comics in traditional and self-publishing here, and it’s great to get to participate in that!

Turning to what might make Oni stand out from those other publishers: in terms of art style, there seems to be an American manga-ish tinge to what Oni publishes — it’s definitely in the “cute” mode. Does that seem fair?

I think for my books, yeah, I can totally see that. I tend to work with a lot of young artists: young being relative, of course. They all grew up with Sailor Moon and manga, so there’s a lot of that influence. A lot of webcomic artists have a similar feel. It’s fun and it’s accessible. Everybody is different, but it does feel very approachable as an art style.

Do you feel that style has something to do with the growth of young adult comics? It seems to share a lot with those type of comics as well, and a lot of your comics are geared directly toward that audience.

Yeah, I hilariously work simultaneously with kids’ books — young adult, middle reader — and then very adult books. [Laughs.] In terms of young adult and middle reader books, I think there is definitely a movement toward an art style that tends to be friendlier and more approachable. I think the artists are coming from a place of trying to relate something in a way that makes you feel welcome. Young adult comics is also where you find a lot of women and queer and trans people working. Something that I’ve found, as I’ve been working with folks, is that a lot of those people, including myself, are just trying to make the books that we wish we’d had when we were that age, now that we’re adults and we can. So we’re making the content that we wish we had seen. There’s a lot of us intent on making something that feels good to read at that age.

Switching gears a bit — can you tell us how the Limerence Press imprint began? What was your original thought process, and how did the imprint become a reality at Oni?

Sure! It was a nice happenstance. [Laughs.] I’ve always been very passionate about, and interested in, sex education, queer studies, and normalizing sexuality. It’s not something I ever thought that I would go into professionally — I got suckered into publishing instead — but it’s always been something important to me. And again, also something I wish I’d had growing up as a queer kid in a small town, when the internet was kind of useful but not the most useful. So it’s something that I’ve always had in the back of my mind. Then in my first year as a full editor at Oni, we had Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan from Helioscope approach us about publishing Oh Joy Sex Toy, and Colleen Coover approach us about publishing Small Favors.

There was a question of where these books fit in the Oni Press line. We’d published very little that was erotic in nature, as well as very little nonfiction, in terms of doing sex education. The question was, how do we fit this in if we want to do it? So I pitched the idea of doing them under a separate imprint that would cover sex education, gender studies, erotica, and basically everything that would fall under that umbrella. There’s a prose publisher called Cleis Press that I really like that does a lot of the same things, so while I was thinking about it I was imagining that this would be a comics version of a publisher that just does sexuality, LGBTQ studies, erotica, gender studies — and can do nonfiction and fiction in a very inclusive way. So we started with those two titles, and then as soon as I got the go-ahead I starting acquiring other books for the line. We’ve been publishing around three books a year since we started, and I’ve so far been the only editor on them. It’s not closed off to other editors by any means, but so far no one else has acquired any Limerence books.

I would be very remiss not to mention that a lot of this is jumping off of what Spike [C. Spike Trotman] has done with Iron Circus Comics. I’ve read all of the books that Spike’s published, and she’s done a ton of awesome work legitimizing comics erotica. I really love the books she does. We had a good conversation before launching Limerence, and Spike had some very helpful pointers for me. So I wouldn’t say any of this is especially brand new in the comics industry, but I’m excited to be able to contribute to it.

What is the inspiration for the name Limerence?

Arriving at the name was a long process. [Laughs.] I like Limerence because it’s basically the feeling of having a crush: it’s a nice feeling, it encapsulates the erotica part of it but can also apply to general sexuality and sex education. But also, there are so many romance publishers and they have taken all of the other names. So that was also part of it. [Laughs.]

We talked earlier about how an intended audience is one of the core things you look for in creator pitches. What sort of audience did you imagine for Limerence going into it?

Actually, a lot of the books in the imprint have different audiences. So for example, A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is appropriate for teens and above. And it’s great for educators — I know a lot of colleges have adopted it, and I know some medical places have used it for their employees and to have in waiting rooms, which is awesome. It’s for people who identify as nonbinary or use they/them pronouns, but it’s also crafted specifically so that you can give it to people who are curious — people who don’t understand but would like to understand. It’s for the community as well as people who are outside the community, and so that book in particular is very broad in terms of audience.

Things like Open Earth, which is sci-fi polyamorous erotica, obviously have a more adult audience. I see pretty much all of the erotica that Limerence publishes as falling under the heading of “feel good erotica.” Basically, we want you to feel good the entire time you’re reading it. [Laughs.] Ideally, with all of the Limerence books, you should be able to open them and, even if they’re not your bag, not feel alienated by them.

Is editing comics for Limerence different from editing other Oni titles? Any particular challenges or rewards?

For the most part, the process is very similar. The main difference is trying to navigate international age ratings and things like that. We shrink-wrap all of the erotica, which definitely helps with customs. But there are specific things that move material from mature to X-rated. This makes it much harder to cross international borders, so there’s some very nuanced navigation of making something sexy, of showing sex, but also avoiding the censors.

Would that ever come to the point where you might have material you wanted to remain as is and so would consider just publishing it in the United States?

I think that’s definitely an option. Of course, we want each book to be as successful as it can be, so we don’t want to shut off potential markets, like entire countries. But I think if there was a case where it was important that something stay the way it was — say if it was archival material or historical erotica — we would just understand that it would only be sold in the United States.

How do you approach the challenge of appealing to a wide readership while also highlighting a specific segment of that readership?

I think it’s less of a challenge than people think it is. Take for example The Tea Dragon Society, which isn’t a Limerence book— it’s for kids — and has been very widely successful. Erik and Hesekiel are mentors in that book and are very clearly in a gay relationship, while Minette and Greta also have a budding romance. The way that Katie O’Neill presents it is very much, “This is the way that this is” without drawing particularly big arrows to it. I’ve found that for the most part, people pick the book up because they love the art, and then they read it and are like, “This is the sweetest story I’ve read in my whole life.” [Laughs.] And kids especially, they just love the dragons. We’ve gotten so much fan art of different tea dragons from kids. I find that generally, people are not looking to be offended by inclusive content. They’re just excited their kid is reading. The people who are offended, they’re not going to buy the books anyways. [Laughs.]

In terms of making inclusive content that we want to reach a wide audience, it’s just a case of making good books that have inclusive content in them. I feel like publishing has the tendency to pigeonhole books in a way that’s detrimental. Treating people’s stories and lives as somehow more difficult to understand or niche in contrast to a supposed “universal” or “neutral,” which is always just straight white men. There is no neutral viewpoint: a story about a queer person of color in New York is just as universal as a story about a straight white man in Kansas.

There’s another Quick & Easy Guide coming out soon, this one on transgender and queer identities. Are these going to be an ongoing series within Limerence?

Yeah. The response to A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns was amazing. I was very confident that it would be successful and helpful, but it’s been a huge seller, which is awesome. I already had an educational book in the works about queer and trans identities and so we pitched the creators to fit their book into the line. This both builds out the line and boosts sales for their book. I’ve also been acquiring other books over the past year or so, so ideally we’ll publish a Quick & Easy Guide at least once, if not twice, a year.

What other kinds of comics do you have planned for the future of Limerence?

We’re publishing Wait, Why? by Heather Corinna and Isabella Rotman this fall. It’s a comic book guide to bodies, relationships, and growing up for a middle-reader audience. Heather founded Scarletteen, which is the best site ever for basically anything sexuality oriented. So I’m really excited for Wait, Why? because it’s geared toward the attitude, “You’re in middle school, this is coming up, it’s weird, it’s scary. Here’s a cool comics guide of how to get started. It’ll be fine, and here’s some help and ideas.”

I’m also excited to expand into nonfiction that’s not necessarily in the Quick & Easy line. The Quick & Easy Guides are limited to about a hundred pages, and ideally less than that. I’d like to publish some longer things. I’d also love to publish some narratives by sex workers in their own voices — I don’t think there are enough of those. I’m pretty excited about what I’ve got lined up.

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As a follow-up to our conversation, I invited Yarwood to proffer a brief coda in August 2019.

Certainly a lot has shifted, within the industry and my own career, since my initial conversation with Colin, and I appreciate the opportunity to add a bit more to this interview. Of course, Oni Press and Lion Forge merged, during which time I decided to leave the company and pursue freelance editing. This happened in the same season as quite a few other industry changes: we saw traditional book publishers entering the comics market in full force, and at the same time, smaller outfits like The Nib lost their corporate funding. These are all, obviously, business decisions, and I’m not particularly interested in offering an examination of industry trends. Rather, what I find most important is the cost that these financial decisions have on the act of making art.

Comics professionals often say things along the lines of “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love it,” and that’s very true — making art, ideally, should be a labor of love. That does not negate the very real importance of things like a living wage, health insurance, and a work/life balance. Art is a product, yes, but it is also more than a product: it is a cultural archive, a way to communicate, a way to find oneself and more than oneself. And despite what romantic ideals would have us believe, the best art is not made through suffering. Which brings us to the crux of the problem of creating art under capitalism — the drive to cut costs and increase profit will forever be at odds with fostering an artistic environment in which creators can do their best work.

I don’t presume to have the answer to this problem, although it would be beneficial, I think, to take a look at how more community-based funding such as Kickstarter has been shown to upset that dynamic. Speaking from the role of the editor, it seems most important to me to examine the choices made within the system. There is no apolitical art: every comic has a viewpoint, and by choosing to publish it, to elevate and distribute it, to pay for it, the editor and the publisher are deciding to promote that viewpoint over another. With finite resources, you have to ask: What kind of stories are we publishing? What do they promote? Who is reflected in them? Whose hands receive the money? Who is allowed the grace of failure, or even the grace of modest success, and who is not? How do we truly care for each person involved in making a comic? Editors and publishers function as gatekeepers, and as such, we have a moral imperative to always investigate our choices. I believe it is vital, particularly now, to choose the direction that cultivates marginalized voices and a truly supportive artistic community.

In my mind, these are the matters that the comics industry at large will need to consider in order to thrive. Perhaps they are not the matters that capitalism would have us consider, but they are the ones that our consciences require.

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Colin Beineke is a professor of English at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he teaches courses in the liberal arts and sequential arts programs.

 

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