Meet the independent cartoonist making porn look bland.

If you read comics, you know that massive conglomerates control the big publishers?—?Disney controls Marvel and Time-Warner controls DC. These corporations focus group and market test everything down to a level of supreme blandness, trying not to offend anyone so they can squeeze out the last few sales in a dying market.

Spike Trotman is different.

She’s the sole owner and publisher of Iron Circus Comics, a Chicago-based press that’s thriving in the new media landscape by releasing intelligent, artful, and sometimes very dirty comics.

Comics like “My Monster Boyfriend,” a collection of short comics that blends eroticism with horror. Or “The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal,” a road trip about a pair of dudes who drive from Berkeley to Providence. Kickstarter funds these comics (often several times over). They sell well, both in stores and online.

How does Spike do it? By believing in everything she publishes and following her gut?—?despite what people in the industry think they know. I recently talked to Spike about the lessons she’s learned from a decade in the comics business.

First and foremost, she doesn’t have positive words for the dinosaurs of superhero publishing.

“‘The mainstream’ is irrelevant. What passes for ‘mainstream comics’ are cape books, superhero books. But they don’t dominate because reader demand for them is insatiable or something; they’ve been artificially buoyed by industry politics and self-censorship to their place of primacy,” she says. “A mid-century moral panic torpedoed romance comics, horror comics, war and crime comics, lots of popular genres. Superheroes were all it was safe to publish.”

If you say one thing about Iron Circus, it’s that it can in no way be called “safe.” Its titles are defiantly adult, complex and strange.

The turning point in Spike’s career came in 2012 when she launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new volume of “Smut Peddler,” an anthology of erotic comics by women. The original series had been a small press project with a limited print run. After not publishing for a while, the property was up in the air. Spike wanted to see another volume, knew a few interested artists, and decided to try crowdfunding it.

Her goal was $20,000. She took in $83,100.

Iron Circus Comics

This was definitely not what she expected.

“Smut Peddler wasn’t what it is now; it was an esoteric minicomic series that a micropress had stopped printing years ago. There was no mantle of notoriety to take on, or pressure to equal previous successes; nobody thought it would be anything other than a nice little Kickstarter with a middling take.”

It was a game changer. Spike had crowdfunded before, for “Poorcraft,” a comic book guide to living on a budget and making the most of her money. But this was a very different story. With the extra funds, Spike was able to pay artists an increased page rate.

The stories in “Smut Peddler” move beyond the conventional. Most porn comics for men take their cues from movies. Women with absurdly huge boobs and wasp waists who orgasm profusely from nothing but missionary thrusting courtesy of beefcake studs. “Smut Peddler”?—?and Spike’s other adult comics?—?prove that there’s an audience for people who like sex, not just porn. The diversity of creators brings with it a diversity of erotic interests. Men and women of all orientations, races and body types populate its pages?—?a far cry from the artificial mannequins of mainstream porn.

Iron Circus Comics

A second volume followed. It brought in nearly ten times its funding goal. Spike had learned a valuable lesson about the comics market.

“The thing about adult comics are, if you get them in front of customers? They sell. QUICKLY. Like CRAZY. That’s never a hurdle; all the drama happens during production.”

It’s not always easy, though. Finding printers who will handle erotic art is difficult, and retailing can be a challenge.

“When I tried to upload Smut Peddler to Kindle, Amazon literally locked my account until I deleted it and signed an agreement promising I’d never do that again,” Spike says. “Eesh.”

When one online comics distribution site shut her account down, she decided to build her own. That attitude?—?the idea that if something you want doesn’t exist in the world, you should build it?—?is the key to her success.

Iron Circus’s books have followed a formula. Spike uses a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the initial printing, letting fans pre-order books they’re interested in. That way she knows that what she’s putting on the market has an audience. She’s had nothing but successes, campaign after campaign. And now readers know that she’ll deliver on her promises every time.

Iron Circus Comics

Spike recently published her first full-length erotic graphic novel?—?“Yes, Roya,” with art by California-based artist Emilee Denich. Set in the 1960s, it tells the story of a journeyman cartoonist who becomes embroiled in a consensual submissive relationship with a male mentor and his female partner. “Yes, Roya” is a great illustration of how sexuality is treated in these books. It’s fluid, non-judgmental and expressive. But it’s not just smut?—?“Yes, Roya” has a lot to say about the creative impulse and the quest for identity.

Iron Circus Comics

Iron Circus’s next book was just funded on Kickstarter. It’s called “Letters To Lucardo,” by Noora Heikkilä. Again mixing the sexual and the supernatural, it tells the tale of an ageless vampire’s relationship with an elderly man. It aims to titillate, true, but also to do more.

Spike already has artists in sight that she wants to work with. This is a woman who knows the world of sex comics and the talent to watch.

Niki Smith

“Niki Smith has written and drawn a femdom [female domination] series called Rings On Her Fingers for the smut site Filthy Figments, and it’s SMOKIN’ FUCKIN’ HOT. And then there’s Reapersun, an artist on tumblr. I first came across their work in the form of a ‘Sherlock’ fan comic. It was about, of course, a romantic relationship between Sherlock and Watson, with the added twist that Sherlock was fairly asexual, and regarded Watson’s desire to bone him with mildly perplexed curiosity. If I can publish an original smutty GN by Reapersun one day, I’ll die a happy woman.”

At the end of the day, Spike is standing tall. She’s built a solid business, is moving into new avenues of distribution, and making a living without any help from the comics establishment. And the best thing about it is that she can wave it in the face of the haters.

“When I started crowdfunding, the internet was lousy with dudes (always dudes) falling over themselves to patiently explain to me that No One Wanted What I Was Publishing, and their evidence was that No One Was Publishing It Already.

“Nobody says that anymore, I promise you.”