Much like an everyday mutant superhero, coming to terms with your skills and abilities can take time. For two Bowling Green natives, finding their passions involved storytelling through comics and putting their personal identities into the stories they would tell.
Ionic Comics is an independently published comic book company based out of south central Kentucky. Annie Erskine, the founder and lead artist, has been working with lead writer Clint Waters on a series called “Variants” since 2012. The story follows mutant superheroes and their struggles with real, and not-so-real, world problems.
“We’ve created this universe that feels so natural for us to talk about,” Erskine said.
Erskine, who uses the pronoun “they,” said they have always loved to draw, but weren’t exactly sure what they wanted to do with their art. After much persistence from their teacher, Erskine agreed to create the comics in their high school newspaper. Soon after, they came to WKU and got a job working for the Herald putting out four cartoons a week from 2007-2010.
In 2011, Erskine got an eight-month internship in Atlanta for Cartoon Network. They graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in visual studies.
While struggling with what path to take in life, Erskine decided drawing superheroes was all they really wanted to do.
“I was afraid to do it because everybody says if you do superhero comics you’re selling out,” Erskine said. “It’s not selling out if it’s something you love.”
Erskine had been working on the beginnings of the comic book project when they befriended Waters, another WKU alumnus. Erskine had written a basic storyline but needed someone to make it flow and sound beautiful.
Waters wrote a test page based on a part of the Variants story and sent it to Erskine.
“I had this great thing to work off of, but I was so terrified of misrepresenting Annie’s characters,” Waters said.
Waters said he has always loved writing and literature and was especially drawn to authors like Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe in middle school. He said he pursued his bachelor’s degree in creative writing because he knew doing what he loved was the only way he’d get a degree.
“He brought so much to the comic and made it so much better than I ever thought it could be,” Erskine said.
The first book of the series, “Variants: Stripes,” follows the main character Sam, a tiger-human mutant superhero, and her journey of being a hero. Erskine and Waters said the first step to creating the book was having it fully written before anything was drawn and organized on pages. Waters said he worked in 10-page increments for most of 2015.
Erskine and Waters said it’s important that they trust each other, remain open for criticism and have room to grow.
“We’ve both been in positions as creators where your voice isn’t heard,” Waters said. “Where you get walked on, where you spend a lot of time and energy on something that someone discards.”
Being an independently published company can be difficult and expensive, but it also gives Ionic Comics the freedom to create what they want, Erskine said.
“I will never give up being a self-publisher because I will not compromise my stories and what we’ve created together,” Erskine said.
“Variants: Stripes” features predominantly female and queer characters, although Erskine said it wasn’t necessarily planned that way.
Waters said it’s important to Ionic Comics that the comics normalize inclusion and representation rather than just checking queer identities off a list, as he sees other creators sometimes do. He said many people ask why some characters in the media have to be gay.
“People believe that the default is straight,” he said.
Erskine expressed similar sentiments, adding that there isn’t any reason not to include multiple queer characters in the media.
“There’s no reason to just assume you can do one and be done,” Erskine said.
The same goes for people marginalized by race and/or sexism being represented in the media, Erskine said. Dr. Noelle Rivers, another character in “Variants: Stripes,” is described as intelligent and poised. Along with being a woman of color, she is Sam’s romantic partner and supports her through medicine rather than superpowers.
“To defeat any evil, you have to support one another,” Erskine said.
Erskine created Sam’s character as a representation of themself in high school. As Erskine grew, Sam grew as well and took on her own personality.
“Sam doesn’t want to be a hero,” Erskine said describing the character. “Not because she made some horrible mistake. She just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Erskine and Waters said they hope people are able to relate to Sam because she isn’t just the “good” superhero. She struggles; she has a temper, and she has responsibilities that she didn’t ask for.
Erskine said it’s important to Ionic Comics that young, queer people read the comics and think “that person is just like me.” They said every queer person looks back and wishes there was more representation in media when they were learning about themselves.
Waters said feeling seen and valid are what queer people want from representational fiction.
“I didn’t get that as a kid,” he said.
Along with working on the next installment of the “Variants” series, Waters said he is thinking about self-publishing other work on Amazon.
Erskine will continue to work as a freelance illustrator/graphic designer for Cartoon Network and Boomerang, where they mainly illustrate characters from shows for advertisement and merchandise purposes. Oftentimes, Boomerang will have Erskine recreate the older artwork in modern graphics. Erskine has drawn characters from Steven’s Universe, Adventure Time, Scooby Doo and more.
Erskine and Waters aren’t the only ones contributing to the story. Erskine’s wife Joy is the lead animator, and Shelby Hildreth is the comics intern. They all hope to create full, printed copies of the series once it’s finished.
“I’m doing this comic because it’s a story that I want to tell, not because I want to be a millionaire,” Erskine said. “It’s about getting it out there.”
You can see more from Ionic Comics and the world and characters within “Variants: Stripes” on their Facebook page, and the comic book is free to read on Tumblr and Comic Fury.