Asselin's Rosy Press Aims to Revive a Genre with "Fresh Romance"

Love is in the air this May, as Comics Alliance Senior Editor Janelle Asselin launches "Fresh Romance," a romance comics digital magazine and the premier title for her brand-new imprint, Rosy Press. Boasting an exciting line-up of creators including Sarah Vaughn, Arielle Jovellanos, Sarah Winifred Searle, Kate Leth and Sally Jane Thompson, "Fresh Romance" celebrates everything from Regency-era love stories, to queer high school flirtations, along with an advice column, a fashion report and behind-the-scenes details on anthology's stunning artwork. Each monthly issue will contain three stories, some ongoing and some standalone, with each story being collected and released in its own ebook after concluding its run in the magazine. And while "Fresh Romance" is R-rated, the stories are intended to appeal to a wide variety of readers.

This project is debuting via a Kickstarter campaign, with support tiered into three-month, six-month and ongoing subscriptions. And as Rosy Press specializes in "publishing romantic fiction and nonfiction aimed at attracting a diverse readership," backers will have plenty of steamy material to look forward to as long as Asselin is steering the love boat.

As the Kickstarter campaign picks up speed, CBR caught up with Asselin to discuss the details on her latest undertaking, including how the creative team came together, the importance of providing fair pay for creators under the Rosy Press umbrella and how she plans to assure it happens, and her plans for total comics world domination.

CBR News: In the scope of "Fresh Romance," how are you defining romance comics? What qualities are most important for you to showcase? 

Janelle Asselin: I'm not defining romance to the creators in any specific way -- they're welcome to create any kind of story, with any kind of people and gender pairing that they want, in any kind of setting. My priority is giving creators a platform for their stories, and I wanted to make sure that I wasn't limiting what those stories could be.

The most important thing for me is that we show actual romance -- not overblown soap-opera-y stories just about drama, and not outright erotica, but instead something else entirely. Pure romance, in all its forms.

How did the project come about?

So, the last few years, I've been plotting how to start my own publishing company. In December of last year I just knew I couldn't wait anymore. The industry is getting more receptive to women as comics readers, and digital makes getting comics into people's hands even easier. The time feels right. I started reaching out to some creators in January, and the response was so positive that I knew I was onto something that, if nothing else, filled a gap in what comic creators wanted to be able to publish. 

I'd spent a lot of time thinking about the best possible format to reach a wide audience, and hit upon doing an all-digital sort of magazine like they do in Japan with manga. It gives me the most bang for my buck as a publisher, because I can publish a bunch of different creators each month, but not have to do it in individual comics or graphic novels. In turn, readers get a greater range of possible stories and creators to enjoy. Plus, we'll be doing columns and showing behind-the-scenes art and stuff that we won't be collecting anywhere else. It also gives me the chance to work with creators who otherwise might be too busy to do more than 10 pages per month, so I think our caliber of creators is higher than it would otherwise be if I'd only wanted to do single issues.

You have some fantastic creators involved so far -- can you tell me about each team and what their contribution is like?

We have such a great set of teams so far. There's Kate Leth and Arielle Jovellanos with Amanda Scurti on colors, and they're telling this great queer high school romance. Kate was attached pretty early on to write a story, and we started hunting for an artist. I'd sent a couple suggestions, and neither of us were really feeling them. Then I sent Arielle's stuff to Kate, and I'm pretty sure the response I got was entirely in emoji. What I love about Arielle -- and what makes her such a great fit for this story -- is that her sense of fashion is really strong. Her characters have exactly the right kind of style and sass that Kate's writing calls for. And Amanda was her first and only request as a colorist, so I think it's safe to say the entire team is really excited to be working together.

Then there's Sarah Kuhn and Sally Jane Thompson with Savanna Ganucheau on colors. I've been trying to come up with a quick way to summarize their story and failing every time, because it is a weird little story (I say with great fondness). It's about a cynical barista who finds people in general pretty tiresome, but has to interact with them because she is secretly a Love Emissary from another world whose job is to help people fall in love. They were the last team to come together, but what they've done so far is really, really great. Sarah's a novelist and this is her first comics work, but she really gets it. And Sally's stuff has been so perfect for the story since jump -- with a lead character like this story has, having an artist that does good work with expressive faces was so important. Plus, Savanna's general color palette has such great, clean pop style that I can't wait to see her work over Sally.

Finally, there's Sarah Vaughn and Sarah Winifred Searle (yes, there are a lot of Sarahs in this launch). They're doing a classic Regency romance with a moody hero and a "ruined" heroine and lots of frustrated emotions. Vaughn was actually the very first creator I reached out to, and has been giving this project so much care and passion from jump. We talked about a lot of artists, and when Searle came up, Vaughn was like, "Oh, I love her stuff so much, and she probably doesn't remember this, but we used to interact on DeviantArt." It's hard to look at an artist like Searle and not see that she's perfect for drawing a Regency romance -- she has primarily written and drawn historic nonfiction comics or queer romance comics. They're so dedicated to it being right that we actually have brought in a consultant to verify the historical accuracy of everything we do.

I know that Sarah Vaughn in particular is fond of romance and period comics -- what kind of connections do each of your creators have to romance comics?

Yeah, Sarah Vaughn, as I mentioned, was the first person I reached out to, because I knew she loved romance comics and romance novels, and she writes "Alex + Ada" at Image which has a romance in it. Sarah Searle and Kate Leth have both done erotica in the past, including being contributors to "Smut Peddler." I think the most consistent thing amongst all the creators, though, is an appreciation of shoujo and josei manga without any of them wanting to emulate it exactly. We're looking at a generation of women comics creators who are now in the early to middling days of their careers who were manga fans at one point or another, so romance being part of comics is just part of the basic landscape of comics for them.

In your Kickstarter description, you speak passionately about bringing these comics to the 21st Century. What is your team inspired to update? 

To be blunt, we're going to be a little or a lot sexier than the old school romance comics. The magazine is R-Rated, and while not every story will have any sort of explicit content, I wanted to leave that door open for all the creators while still focusing on romance as the main point of the stories. As I put it to all the creators as they were signing on, the point is romance -- but sex is usually a part of romance, so let's not leave that out. But Fresh Romance is also not erotica, so we're not talking about a ton of sexual content. 

A couple other updates is that older romance comics were so often, especially after the Senate Hearings, about upholding what the male creators thought women should be like. We're not interested in that. We want human characters behaving in realistic ways, regardless of their gender or setting. And we want a wide variety of contributors and characters. We'll open up submissions after the Kickstarter concludes, and I encourage creators of all kinds to participate, especially members of underserved groups in comics.

The comics are R-rated and will have racy content -- what are some of the differences you see between depictions of sexuality and romance in mainstream comics versus what you and your team are doing on "Fresh Romance?"

Well, for one, no one will be objectified. Sexy, sure, but the goal is to not have any sexualized cardboard cutouts and instead have interesting, compelling characters that are also attractive. It's also not just about one basic idea of what makes people sexy. I'd say if there's any big-name comic out there who treats its sexual content in a way similar to what we're doing with "Fresh Romance," it would be "Saga." The sex in "Saga" is there and it's unapologetic, but it's also between consenting adult characters who are interesting and nuanced, and neither party is treated as an object. 

This is published by your new company, Rosy Press --

Rosy Press is the name of my company, which is focused on publishing romance stories. I feel like the logo is really evocative of the aesthetic for Rosy Press in that it is both classic and modern all at once. It's about taking a genre that is so often dismissed because it is primarily the domain of women and proving that it can survive in an industry that's been male dominated for decades. 

I've done a lot of different things during my time in comics, but since the moment I edited my first comic, I knew that was where my heart is. I love editing in a way that's probably unreasonable, given what a stressful job it can be from time to time. Anyway, when I was getting my Masters in Publishing (which I started while I was at DC and finished while I was at Disney), I had multiple class projects where I had to imagine I had my own publishing company and build a list, build a website, etc. as well as learn about the business of publishing from every angle. This really sparked something inside me. As I worked on my thesis about increasing sales of comics to women, I realized that what I was writing was in a way my business plan and manifesto. I've literally spent over 5 years studying how to diversify the comics industry from a publishing standpoint, a marketing standpoint, and a distribution standpoint. Rather than forcing myself into an existing publishing structure, I thought it would just be easier (haha!) if I started my own thing.

Having my own company is an absolute dream come true, and I have high hopes for Rosy Press.

I love that one of Rosy Press' core beliefs is paying the creators appropriately. There isn't always a ton of light shed on the actual math of how financially insubstantial some comics work can be, and it's easy to forget the amount of effort that goes into the business of creator-owned comics. How did you come to these commitments? How do you plan to help keep the artists profitable on this? 

This is incredibly important to me. The baseline rate everyone is getting is not at all where I want to be permanently, but was what I could afford to pay at launch (and is pretty comparable, from what I hear, to companies that have been around for a while and been fairly successful, but still far lower than I'd like). I realized a while ago that because my first main staff job in comics was as an assistant editor at DC, I had a very skewed perception of what everyone in comics is paid. I know even at DC some creators struggle with the rates, but for the most part, the rates there were significantly higher than a wide swath of the comics industry. The flipside of that, of course, is that creators don't own what they create for DC. It seems like a lot of times creators have to struggle with owning what they create or getting paid, if they're working with a publisher. I didn't want anyone to have to make that decision to publish with Rosy Press. 

Thus, all my financial planning is built around this idea of paying people, which is a big reason why we're all digital right now. Rather than spend money on printing and distribution and all that, it makes far more sense to put that money into creators' pockets. 

Still, I wish it could be more, so I built in a couple ways to increase everyone's rates. The first is that I'm paying page rates as well as royalties, so any success in publishing the comics will be reflected in increased royalties for the creators. The second is that we've planned a percentage increase if we go over our Kickstarter goal -- if we hit $10,000 over our goal, everyone (literally, ever single creator from writers to letterers) will get a 15% page rate increase. Then, if we hit $20,000 over our goal, everyone gets a 30% page rate increase. It'll just keep going up in increments like that, should we be that lucky to be so successful. That way, like the royalties, the successes of "Fresh Romance" will be reflected in what the actual creators are being paid. 

What are the plans for Rosy Press beyond"Fresh Romance"? 

Right now, "Fresh Romance" is our only title, but as each story in the magazine wraps up, we'll be releasing ebook versions of each one. So, say you have a 50-page story you follow in the magazine, once it's done you'll be able to buy it on its own. If things go well, we'll expand beyond that, but for now the main focus for me is on "Fresh Romance."

How close are you to world domination? Like, four years off?

Hopefully even closer. ;)

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