“There’s No Infrastructure To Support These Artists, And I Want To Do My Best To Remedy That” : Four Color Apocalypse Talks To Sean Knickerbocker About His New Anthology Project, “Rust Belt Review”

Cartoonist Sean Knickerbocker — who, like yours truly, hails from Minneapolis — has long been concerned with narratives that focus on the socially and economically marginalized and dispossessed, telling authentic stories about the forgotten people of “flyover country.” Now, he’s both sharpening and expanding his focus simultaneously with his recently-launched anthology series, Rust Belt Review. Sean was kind enough to answer some of my questions about this new project , and our conversation is presented here along with sample pages from the first issue by, respectively, Caleb Orecchio, Audra Stang, and Knickerbocker himself.

Four Color Apocalypse : What made you decide that now was the time to attempt to launch a new anthology, and what unique editorial sensibilities do you bring to the project that you think aren’t present and accounted for in other anthologies at the moment?

Sean Knickerbocker : The pandemic definitely pushed me in this direction. Since we’re probably not going to be able to safely attend shows for the next year or so, it seemed necessary to find alternative venues for sharing my work. I tried serializing my comics on Instagram for a little bit, but it became apparent that my followers were more interested in process posts, and not so much in reading new work of mine in a piecemeal social media format. I’m not making comics that have a punchline on every page, or some sort of viral insight or something. Not to knock those comics or anything, it’s just not what I’m doing.

So, the next idea I had was to produce a new issue of Rust Belt, but I had some reservations with that. I don’t feel comfortable selling a single issue comic for more than $5, but the economic reality of printing, selling, and shipping printed materials demands a higher price point — at least $10, I would say. Keeping that in mind, I started running the numbers, and it seemed like the costs associated for a 70-100 page book weren’t significantly different than a 20 page book. That was a little disheartening for me. Producing 100 pages takes me a couple years, but I want to regularly release new comics — I like having that back and forth with my audience, plus it gives me more deadlines with smaller goals, and I really need that sort of thing in order to stay productive. So naturally, I began to think about putting together an anthology.

I started to think about what anthologies I’ve found myself revisiting over the years. Things like Rubber BlanketKramers ErgotMome, a select few of those Best American Comics collections. I found myself drawn to anthologies that featured serialized narratives, or longer one-off stories, but I noticed that I didn’t care as much for the anthology filler-type stuff. You know, like the three pages someone submits to their friend’s anthology as a favor or something. I didn’t want that. I wanted to make sure that the venue I was providing wasn’t seen so much as a burden, but as an opportunity for cartoonists to release new work. Of course, there’s other venues for this type of thing — Now comes to mind — but I wanted to focus more on narrative driven work, or visual essays, and Now seems to be more eclectic than that.

My background is in print. I work at a print shop, and I’m a real nerd for that sort of thing. I designed the book to look good with the presses I’ve worked with in the past. I know their strengths and weaknesses, and I hope my knowledge and attention to detail with these presses paid off. I like to think it did.

4CA : You mention that your first issue features work primarily made by friends of yours — what criteria will you be using going forward to determine what you publish?

SK : I’m looking for narrative-driven work. Right now, specifically, folks that can put together a satisfying 8-12 page story that stands alone. I have a solid roster of folks  putting out serialized work, but I want to balance that out with some more one-and-done comics. Because I’m financing this project entirely myself, color isn’t really an option right now, so I’m also trying to look for artists that I think look good in black and white. Maybe one day we can expand to color, who knows? If you’re a cartoonist that fits these criteria, shoot me a pitch along with some samples of your work to therustbeltreview@gmail.com.

4CA : Your own strip that’s running in Rust Belt Review appears to be a complex, long-form work in progress — do you have any idea how long it will run and whether or not you will be publishing a new segment in every issue?

SK : Yeah, so I’m using Rust Belt Review to serialize my next book Best Of ThreeIt’s a story about a burnout that stumbles into an inheritance from his absentee father who was a professional gamer. Every issue will feature a chapter from that at the very least. Ideally I’ll also be writing some articles, but Best Of Three comes first — if I have time and space for additional content, then I’ll add some in. I suspect this story will be about a hundred pages or so, hopefully it will be done sometime in 2022.

4CA : The title of this series would seem to imply a connection of sorts with your earlier solo collection, Rust Belt. Is that connection purely thematic, or is it concrete?

SK : I had a few other names I was throwing around, but nothing really stuck. Rust Belt Review had some good things going for it. I liked that it sounded like a lit journal. I swear, if The Comics Journal wasn’t already a thing, I would call this a comics journal. I also like that the name establishes an expectation for the type of work inside the book. Ultimately, I think the series will have a thematic connection, because my sensibilities for the comics I draw are very similar to my sensibilities for the comics I like to read. That being said, I hope the name doesn’t pigeonhole my contributors. I think everyone is bringing something unique to the series, and I hope over time Rust Belt will simply be seen as a prologue to Rust Belt Review.

4CA : . I detected a pretty specific bent toward the exploration or working-class themes in many of the stories in issue one. Can we expect that to continue?

SK : I think so. Again, I think that’s just my sensibilities at play. I’m drawn to that type of work. I have a real chip on my shoulder for rich people, so it’s harder for me to connect to work written by or about someone who’s probably never cried in a walk-in cooler. Rich people can publish their own work, fuck ’em, lol.

4CA : Are there any past anthology series that you look to as an example of the kind of thing you’re hoping to achieve with this one?

SK : Definitely. I love Rubber Blanket so much, even though it only lasted three issues. It’s such a beautiful little series. Same goes for Mome, I really loved that series and it left a big impression on me as a young cartoonist.

4CA : Is there a fixed “end date” for this comic, or do you plan to continue publishing for as long as it’s sustainable to do so?

SK : I’m going to do this at least until Best Of Three is finished and I’ll do a temperature check around then to decide if I can keep this going, or if I need to move on to something else. I would really like to keep this going indefinitely, I think cartoonists need other venues besides comics festivals and social media. It’s frustrating to see cartoonists disappear in their mid-30’s and then never come back. There’s no infrastructure to support these artists, and I want to do my best to remedy that.

4CA : Any names you can drop as to who we might be seeing in future issues?

SK : I’m tempted to give a long list of names, just to put a little extra pressure on everybody to make their deadlines, but I’m too much of a softy for that. I can say you can expect to see the same contributors for Volume 1 in Volume 2, along with a bunch of new names. Stay tuned!

4CA : Are you looking at selling this comic though various online distribution platforms, or are you going it entirely solo?

SK : I’m selling mostly through my website, but I’m planning on branching out to more retailers as things start  to “open up” more here in the US, heh. Right now, you can also purchase the anthology from Gutter Pop Comics, Copacetic Comics Co., Wig Shop, and The Beguiling. If you’re a retailer, reach out to me at therustbeltreview@gmail.com. Don’t ask me to do consignment though. I spent six weeks trying to collect five buckaroos from some chump in Brooklyn back in 2012 and I’m never doing that shit again, he ruined it for the rest of you!

4CA : Finally, where can readers order a copy from, and are you offering subscriptions?

SK : Hit up my site, seanknickerbocker.com. I’m not doing subscriptions yet, I’m trying to work out the logistics for that sort of thing, but I’m just one doofus doing it all myself.