Sell exemplifies the new career path in comics: he started out making comics on his own, then did webcomics and self-published his work. His first graphic novel, The Cardboard Kingdom (Knopf, out now), is a series of short stories by different writers, all illustrated by Sell. The writers are Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, David DeMeo, Jay Fuller, Cloud Jacobs, Barbara Perez Marquez, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, and Katie Schenkel. We asked him to talk a bit about his career so far.
When did you start thinking about creating comics?
I was really lucky to have parents who encouraged my creativity—I would eagerly create my own colorful superheroes in my childhood sketchbooks, and I did some webcomics in high school. What I love about comics is that truly anyone can make them—just draw some panels on paper and make fun stuff happen in them! But, of course, it can be exceedingly difficult to get your comics published and to actually make a living as a creator.
When you started making comics, did you make webcomics, self-publish, or send your work to a publisher?
Truly, all of the above! I did regular comic strips in both my high school and college newspapers. After college, I pitched a few projects to publishers and didn’t have any luck with those, so I spent about 10 years self-publishing my work, putting stuff online, exhibiting at conventions, and generally honing my craft. The Cardboard Kingdom, my first published book, came out shortly after I turned 35!
Why do you think diversity is important in comics?
I grew up as an awkward gay kid in central Wisconsin, and I treasured any queer representation I could find in books, movies, and comics. I know how important it was to see myself in the works that I loved, and I hope that readers of every race, ethnicity, ability level, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic status can find themselves in the books they read.
When you were creating The Cardboard Kingdom, what instructions did you give the writers? What aspects did you think were most important?
Making The Cardboard Kingdom with my team of 10 writers was an incredible, unique experience. I told each collaborator that I wanted our book to tell meaningful, complicated stories that didn’t “dumb things down” for young readers. Many of the writers developed stories that drew heavily from their own childhood experiences, which gave each character their own gravity and particular voice. I also asked each writer to allow for some flexibility, particularly with their supporting characters, so that we could work in a variety of ways that the stories throughout the book would overlap and build upon each other. Most crucially, we maintained an open, positive, collaborative atmosphere that allowed us to craft our kingdom together.