The founders of HexComix didn’t set out to be a women-only comics production company. It just happened that way. Now, producer Lynly Forrest, artist Lisa K. Weber and writer Kelly Sue Milano find themselves in a unique position—as role models for other young women trying to break into a traditionally male-dominated industry.
Lisa and Lynly met in New York more than a decade ago. Years later, after they had both relocated to Los Angeles, they reconnected. Lisa shared with her friend the challenges she had working as a freelance illustrator, but, she said, she had a plan B. She wanted to make comics. And, she had been working on a concept for 10 years. “She lays out this whole developed world with characters and concepts, fully fleshed out,” says Lynly, “and it was really good.”
Lynly came from a technical consulting background and had no experience in publishing, let alone comics. She believed in Lisa’s work, though. “I said, ‘Let’s make a comic book!’ ” The pair met several times a week for the next month and a half, formulating their plans. They realized quickly that they needed a writer to round out the team.
When they met Kelly Sue in early 2014, it was kismet, Lynly says. “She’s into all the same nerdy stuff that Lisa is into,” she says. “She and Lisa just instantly connected.” By summer of that year, the trio had produced a comic book together: Issue 1 of the company’s namesake series, Hex11.
HexComix launched as an online store in the summer of 2014, with the first issue of Hex11 available as a free digital download. “We were paying for things out of our pockets,” says Lynly.
When they secured a table at Comicaze Expo (now called Stan Lee’s L.A. Comic Con) that fall, they did their first print run. But, their printer fell through two weeks before the show, and it was challenging for a self-funded business with small print runs to find an affordable backup. At the eleventh hour, a Houston-based printer came through, and they have since built a long-term relationship. “It set a good standard that we were not going to panic, we were simply just going to solve the problem,” says Lynly.
They printed 200 copies, forecasting that the run would be enough for three shows. The issues sold out at their first show. By Sunday. At noon.
Since that debut, HexComix has produced 13 issues and two volumes of Hex11. A graphic novel, Divorce: A Love Story, is slated to publish in 2019. They owe some of their early success, they say, to timing. Lisa’s inspiration for Hex11 was largely the world around her, including political and women’s movements, and it was the right time to tell a story like hers. “It just so happened to coincide with some shifts in our real world,” says Lisa. “It feels like a form of activism to tell this story.”
While the characters in the urban underworld of Hex11 were fighting against a corrupt system, in the real world, the three women were part of a quiet movement that was changing the face of the comics industry. “When we first came on the scene, it wasn't our world, really,” says Lisa. “It wasn’t necessarily female-friendly.” But even in 2014, the tides were already turning. Today, major comic book brands still aren’t the most diverse places to work—but creators don’t need to pitch to large publishers anymore. “With technology being what it is, anybody can tell their story outside of the system that already exists,” says Lisa.
If you really want to make things and you want ownership, the only way to do it is by yourself.
Like HexComix, more independent publishers and diverse creators are using tools like Shopify, Kickstarter, and Patreon to support projects and tell their stories their way. The women say they have friends working for Marvel and DC, but that they feel like cogs in the wheel. “When you’ve got a corporate infrastructure of that size, [the creator is] never going to have a voice there,” says Lynly. “If you really want to make things and you want ownership, the only way to do it is by yourself.”
As an independent publisher, HexComix can be nimble to shifts in the industry and respond swiftly to fan feedback. They’ve run two successful Kickstarter campaigns to produce book volumes of Hex11. Their work has even been picked up by the Los Angeles Public Library.
As their audience grows, so has their team. They hired a color assistant from a pool of 10 submissions, unintentionally hiring another woman. “The best candidates kept being women,” says Lynly.
While the women recognize their position as role models for young women entering the industry, their main driver is telling great stories, and telling them on their terms. “We are going to be a platform in which the most marginalized voices can be heard,” says Lynly, “but our real focus is on the content and creating really magical, amazing stuff.”
It’s been four years since those first kitchen conversations, and HexComix keeps the lights on by investing everything back into the business. This is the year that they get paid, Lynly says. They’ve recently upped their merch game and plan to get their forthcoming graphic novel into major booksellers.
“The power has come back into the hands of the creator,” says Lisa. “It makes more opportunities for everyone.”
Photographs by Tanya Hoshi