September 23, 2022 • By Christine Pasalo Norland

Geek Girl, Uninterrupted

The pitch that culminated in Wash Day Diaries, the vividly written and illustrated graphic novel by award-winning writer Jamila Rowser and award-winning artist Robyn Smith, came to the creators, not from them.


"Listen, I thought it was a scam," shared Rowser of the initial email she and Smith received from editor Sahara Clement. "I was just like, 'Robyn, do you see this? Like, what in the world?' I wasn't expecting it at all. It was so surreal."


Released on July 5, 2022 by Chronicle Books, Wash Day Diaries follows several days in the lives of Kim, Cookie, Davene, and Nisha—four Black women and best friends whose individual stories intersect with each other's over five comic chapters. It's a fictional slice-of-life tale about a chosen family whose relationships are as nourishing and central to each person as each of their individual hair routines. There are ups and downs, achievements and messes, and honest portrayals of sisterhood set amidst reflections of gentrification, harassment, and microaggressions.

L-R: WASH DAY DIARIES COVER. TWO-PAGE SPREAD FROM WASH DAY DIARIES FEATURING THE CHARACTERS NISHA, KIM, COOKIE, AND DAVENE. ROBYN SMITH AND JAMILA ROWSER AT THE 2022 TORONTO COMICS ARTS FESTIVAL IN FRONT OF A DISPLAY OF WASH DAY DIARIES AND NUBIA: REAL ONE. PHOTOS FROM JAMILA ROWSER.

Anchoring the graphic novel is Wash Day, the 32-page comic that launched Rowser's independent comic book publishing company Black Josei Press, Rowser's comic writing career, and Smith's and Rowser's friendship. While no longer in print as a one-shot, Wash Day is reset in color to open Wash Day Diaries, introducing readers to Kim and Cookie, who is Afro DominiRican and bisexual like Rowser, and setting the tone and overall arc of the graphic novel.


"Shout out to the girl who gave Sahara the comic," said Rowser of how a friend of Clement's originally gave Clement a copy of Wash Day. "I need to find out who she is and send her a gift basket or something."


HOW IT STARTED: GEEKY AF


"There's been a lot of transitions happening in my life and I realized how much I've held myself back from doing what I wanted to do," said Rowser, who has been writing creatively since before high school.


A community management professional with an undergraduate degree in Secondary Education-English from SUNY New Paltz and a masters in communication arts from the New York Institute of Technology, Rowser has been founding spaces that cultivate appreciation of comics and its adjacent popular arts for more than a decade. She is the creator and writer of the former blog Girl Gone Geek that ran from 2010–2016, creator of the hip hop x geek culture project Straight Outta Gotham that began in 2013, and co-founder of the international meetup group Geek Girl Brunch which launched in 2014.


"I started reading more comics and writing about comics and then josei manga literally changed everything for me. That's where it was just like, 'Okay, girl, you cannot deny this anymore," said Rowser.


A category of manga that centers stories of interest to and about women rather than tweens and teens, josei showed Rowser that there is precedent for the kinds of comics stories she's always wanted to create. In finding the genre, Rowser found a reason to stop stifling her ideas.


"I was like, 'I want to do this but with Black and Brown girls. That's what I care about," she said. "I wanted that romance, that life of adult women going through messy relationships and their friendships. That is what I have a strong desire to create. Seeing that in josei manga was like, 'Just give it a shot.'"


Not confident that established comics publishers in the U.S. would change fast enough to consider the kinds of comics she wanted, Rowser relied on herself to make it happen. She spent two years writing the Wash Day script, tapped J.A Micheline to review and edit the script, and signed Smith to illustrate the story. Meanwhile, she also filed the paperwork to start Black Josei Press, which is based in Miami, Florida, on the traditional land of the Tequesta, Seminole, and Taíno.


"I paid for the advance [for Wash Day] out of my own money. Thankfully, I had a job that was paying well at the time," said Rowser. Ultimately, she funded the project, from production to distribution, and the launch of Black Josei Press through a Kickstarter campaign.


Since 2018, Black Josei Press has produced comics Rowser co-created with illustrators buttercup (Real Realm), Sabii Borno (Wobbledy 3000), and Trinidad Escobar (Ode to Keisha), as well as comics written and illustrated by Smith (The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town) and Escobar (Arrive in My Hands). In Fall 2022, Black Josei Press will release a comic written and illustrated by Bronx-bred and based comic artist Daisy Ruiz of the women of color art collective Spicy Mango Comics.

COMICS PUBLISHED BY BLACK JOSEI PRESS, L-R: WASH DAY BY JAMILA ROWSER AND ROBYN SMITH, THE SADDEST ANGRIEST BLACK GIRL IN TOWN BY ROBYN SMITH, AND ODE TO KEISHA BY ROWSER AND TRINIDAD ESCOBAR. PHOTO BY CHRISTINE PASALO NORLAND.

"I went into this not using everything that I saw in comics as an example of what to do," said Rowser, who is mindful to treat artists and collaborators as people, offering fair rates, royalties, and pay structures, as well as long, flexible timelines. "People get burnt out of comics and that is awful to think of. That really breaks my heart and unless there are changes, that's going to continue to happen. I was like, 'Well, if I can't do it right, then I'm not going to do it.' I'm not gonna revert to being super capitalist. I'll figure out other ways or do other things."


While technically a publisher, Rowser feels that the title doesn't fully encompass what she aims to do.


"I feel like I'm a patron of these cartoonists, creators, and of comics," said Rowser. "I want to do what I can to help because I know not only will this change this person who I'm a big fan of, whose work I think needs to be seen, but the impact that their work will have on other people could be so far reaching that it could be an inspiration for changing the community itself."


What's important to Rowser is that the work she's seeing by Black and Brown femme and nonbinary artists and writers continues to exist. "These people are dope and I want people to know that," she said.


CREATIVE AND DISABLED


It's work Rowser loves, and work she does while living with chronic pain. In particular, chronic migraines, stomach issues, anxiety, and depression.


"I would literally be gagging in front of my computer as I was writing the [Wash Day Diaries] script," she admitted. The screen would also get blurry as her body signaled it was past time to take a break. "It's just a slow realization of like, 'Okay girl, this chronic thing that you've had going on may not go away. You can't act like you have the same abilities as everybody else.' That's been another journey that I've been going through the last two years."


Recognizing that she is disabled has changed how Rowser manages Black Josei Press projects, for herself and those she works with.


"I care more about the creator’s mental and physical health more than the comic," she said. "So I really take my time and make sure they have enough time to work and don’t feel overwhelmed and it is a good experience for them. We have the control to do that and so I just want to take advantage of that."


Rowser also acknowledges she had to reframe her idea of productivity.


"I used to think it was just capitalist work-type things, like I have to complete a task, that is me being productive. But no—'productive' can also mean taking time to myself to read. That is productive for my self-care," she said. Napping because of a migraine is productive. Journaling for reflection is productive. There is no such thing as being lazy when it's productive to make time to rest.


"I needed to balance more of the self-care things that were productive for my mental and physical health because they were way out of whack for years," said Rowser.


She's also taken up punch needling to nurture her creativity beyond writing stories. "My fiancé is making sure that this will never be something I sell. I don't want to turn this into a business. It is purely a hobby," said Rowser with a laugh.


HOW IT'S GOING: AWARD-WINNING AND NOMINATED AF


Black Josei Press is a catalyst that came to be because of Rowser's agency and the agency she wants for Black and Brown women and non-binary folks. In addition to Wash Day peaking the interest of a mainstream publisher, Ode to Keisha garnered two Broken Frontier Awards in 2021, and Arrive in My Hands was nominated for three Ignatz awards in 2022.


"My desire is not just to read my own comics. I want more to exist and I want to raise up creators who are already out there," said Rowser. "I can't help it. I want the comics community to be better and I felt like I had the skills because of previous work, experience, and the passion to do it."


The venture is also another way for Rowser to continue practicing the community organizing that's always felt natural to her, and necessary.


"I really want people who don't read comics to see that there are comics about everything and there can be comics that they are interested in. I especially want that for Black and Brown women and non-binary folks and queer folks and all the marginalized community," she said. "If I'm going to exist in this space, I want to be comfortable here and I want more people to feel comfortable."


•••


Follow Rowser and Black Josei Press on Instagram and Twitter at @JamilaRowser @BlackJoseiPress. Wash Day Diaries is published by Chronicle Books and available from a variety of online sellers, or ordered through your local comics shop or bookstore. Ode to Keisha, The Saddest Angriest Black Girl In Town, Real Realm, and Wobbledy 3000 are available for purchase through the Black Josei Press website, and Arrive in My Hands is available for purchase from the Black Josei Press Gumroad page.

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