Marjee Chmiel has been working in educational media and science storytelling for over 20 years at PBS, National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and currently at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Her directorial debut, Ourselves in Stories, breaks away from her professional area of science to focus on art and creativity. Marjee is completing a certificate in Documentary Studies from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University was selected to be a member of the 2020 Docs in Progress Fellowship, a cohort of documentarians in the Washington DC area. Marjee has a PhD in social science research and is a former Fulbright Scholar. Her small press comic, Luci’s Letdown, was nominated for best small press and promising new talent in 2011. She lives with her husband and two small dogs in the Washington DC metropolitan area.
Growing up in an immigrant family in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago, I remember how alienated I felt watching the sitcoms and films of the 80s. I was more likely to (and in fact did) see a cat-eating, wise-cracking alien on television than a family of manual workers shopping for appliances at flea markets, or multiple generations in a household.
When I was in high school in the early 90s, I picked up a comic book by a woman named Heather McAdams and it felt like a veil had been lifted. She was funny, weird, gross, horny, and awkward. All traits I could recognize in myself and my friends. All traits that were absent in the beautiful, perfect, smooth-haired girls I saw on screen with psychiatrist dads and homemaker moms.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about who “gets” to write, tell, and show their stories, and what it means for our culture when those stories come from a limited point of view. In the United States, our stories are among our greatest exports, viewed by audiences around the world. The stories we tell and share shape how humanity sees itself, its past and its future.
For me, independent comics have been a place where all the usual gatekeepers are absent. Agents, editors, distributors, and funders don’t need to sign-off on, accept, review, or otherwise bless the fantastic worlds drawn on a legal pad during the downtime of an artists’ daily hustle. Copy machines and social media are all that’s needed to transport readers into a variety of lived experiences that Hollywood and major publishers overlook as unprofitable.
In 2010, I wrote and published my own independent comic. It did well, it sold at comics conventions and was nominated for a few awards. Beyond that, the comic shared parts of myself, my values, anxieties, beliefs in a way that nothing else has. It was clarifying for me and allowed for connections I had not expected, including conversations with men who bought the comic and confessed to me this was the first story they had ever read with a female protagonist and their surprise that they could find a woman’s experiences to be relatable to their own.
This is the magic of independent comics: anyone can tell their story and they are so cheap and accessible, that you never know who is going to end up reading it, and in turn, understanding your world. Independent comics allow artists direct access to an audience that is hungry for something new, different, real, and raw.
And this is resonating beyond niche audiences.
Indie comics have become Oscar-winning films and genre-defying hit series on Netflix. I’m convinced that if you want to see the stories, we’ll all be talking about in 2025 and beyond, you can start now by meeting the independent comics creators of today
That’s why I want to take you to the Small Press Expo, a beloved annual event, where we can meet the people that are putting ourselves in stories.