Like many independent presses, Puerto Rico’s Soda Pop Comics grew out of personal necessity. After illustrator Rosa Colón and writer Carla Rodríguez failed to find a studio that truly embodied their style and ethos, they realized they’d simply have to create it themselves. Now, a decade in, the duo’s small press includes more than 60 publications, and the Puerto Rican indie comics scene is flourishing all around them— in part due to their work. They’ve relentlessly helped usher it forward.

The duo got their start in 2006, launching their first series, Zoe’s Blues, with the help of long-running local studio Dreamgraphixs.

“They’re great guys, but their art was not representative of what we wanted to showcase,” Colón says. “They were still drawing the big top-heavy ladies and half-naked stuff.”

Still, Dreamgraphixs’ interest was piqued by Tick Tock, a single-issue comic that Colón self-published not long after earning her MA at the UK’s Brighton University. Enticed by the studio’s offer to cover printing costs, she and Rodríguez conjured up a reluctant superhero who, in lieu of a cape, wears a striped scarf. At that time, the bulk of the Puerto Rican scene was still emulating mainstream Marvel and DC, so their decision to largely omit those archetypes from the series was a breath of fresh air. The illustrative style of Zoe isn’t flashy, and neither is its eponymous heroine. She’s got powers, sure—but essentially, her story is about learning to accept and embrace what makes her different.

When two Dreamgraphixs artists included Zoe in their selection at NYC’s iconic Museum of Comic and Cartoon Arts Festival (MoCCA) that year, it sold out. Colón and Rodríguez, who attended as spectators, saw their aesthetics affirmed not only by sales, but also in the prevalence of kindred styles represented there.

Excerpt from ‘Goodbye, For Now’ published by Soda Pop Comics

“We had only seen the [conventions] here, and when we went to MoCCA, it was incredibly different. There were almost all women making comics, comics of every size, of every quality—hastily stapled stuff, or nicely planned-out things, small batches,” Colón says.

When they returned, they formed Soda Pop Comics—Puerto Rico’s first-ever female-run comics studio. The pressure to create was high; they were already regulars at various local conventions, setting up shop nearly every month, including a recurring gathering at a YMCA organized by the owner of a staple (now closed) shop. Table openings were so rare back then, Colón says, that missing an edition usually meant relinquishing your spot indefinitely. (They maintained theirs for four or five years total.)

“We started doing short stories, trying out different things. We did fairy tales, a little bit of romance, and we kind of started jumping genres a lot,” Colón says.

There were women making comics, comics of every size, of every quality—hastily stapled stuff, or nicely planned-out things, small batches.

Experimentation post-Zoe ultimately proved that Soda Pop Comics’ everyday feel and relatable characters were, in fact, their unshakeable signature. It runs throughout their catalog—now at more than 60 publications altogether—no matter the subject.

Around that time, “more women showed up, all of the sudden,” Colón says. “You had Rosaura [Rodríguez] from Días comics, you had Supakid, you had a bunch of girls who did manga, like proper manga.” There was Rangely García from the cartoon series De La Nada, too.

But at the industry conventions, the presence of women making DIY and indie comics was still disappointingly low.

“We were the only girl table there, and we tried to make it as girly as possible,” she says. “Our table cloth was hot pink with blue polka dots…everybody was, like, macho stuff, and we were like pink! And plushies! And comics! And all the comics have pink too! We really stood out because it was, like, hot pink, and it worked.”

Still, Colón and Rodríguez wanted to see more indie comics from women. “Leading by example,” Colón says, wasn’t working. In 2011, they started an online magazine and called for women to send comics. Soda Pop Comics’ own work at the time included 2012’s H-Street, a story of small business owners grappling with corporate takeover. In it, they unceremoniously debuted their first gay characters; the matter-of-fact delivery and lack of direct focus on anyone’s sexuality ultimately made the inclusion more powerful.

Excerpt from ‘Cupcake Graffiti’ published by Soda Pop Comics

The following year, they crowdfunded the printing of Cupcake Graffiti, a web comic established in 2008, in a single book. They’d created H-Street with Kickstarter too, but had only asked for $500. This time, they needed $2,000.

“People didn’t know what Kickstarter was, they didn’t have credit cards, they didn’t trust the internet,” Colón says. “People were saying, can I give you the money in cash? No…but we had to accept money in cash anyway.”

With some help from Alfredo Richner of the music blog Puerto Rico Indie, they eventually met their goal, and began touting the book around the island, from conventions to arts events and even to a fro-yo spot. The latter seemingly random move proved especially fruitful: The shop’s own copy continues to drive sales.

“We’ve always thought a little outside the box. Not only were we going to the [conventions], but we were going anywhere they’d take us…We met a shit ton of people at the punk bazaar in Rio Piedras. You could set up your table for free,” Colón says. “We would hang out and meet a lot of people…We saw the advantage of going to places where there were not comic book people. We said, they’re never going to know this world, because they’re never going to go into a con, so we took it to them.”

We saw the advantage of going to places where there weren’t [really] comic book people.

The impacts of their approach began to snowball. The scene’s following changed, too. When Puerto Rico Comic Con held a fan-driven local comics awards ceremony in 2012, the alternative underground showed its might: Pernicious PressNocivo won best cover and best continuing series. Soda Pop Comics nabbed best webcomic for Cupcake Graffiti and best limited series for Zoe; Rodríguez was named best writer.

When the ceremony was scrapped the following year, the organizer cited a lack of new content, and he wasn’t wrong. Again, Colón and Rodríguez felt compelled to push the scene forward. They’d sold at two MoCCA’s already, and in 2013 earned a spot at the Toronto Arts Festival. Puerto Rico needed their own version, they decided.

The result: Tintero, an annual indie comics and arts fest inaugurated in 2014. Colón and Rodríguez worked diligently to enlist artists and fuel their enthusiasm.

“We wanted them to feel really, really special, and I think we managed,” Colón says.

A curated fest meant some artists wouldn’t make the cut, but those who did were greeted with a staff of volunteers at their disposal, free parking and an array of completely uniform tables that ensured the focus was on the art, rather than “razzle dazzle stuff,” Colón says.

By its second year, Tintero sprawled over two floors of Casa Ruth, a government-owned cultural center in close proximity to University of Rio Piedras, and secured a little government funding that allowed them to offer small grants for artists looking to fund new projects. The third iteration of the festival was extended to two full days. They also held a successful scaled-down pop-up edition in the southern town of Ponce. The response was overwhelmingly positive – with the exception of one Facebook commenter who complained of too many people dressed in black (the color of the official fest T-shirts for all staff) and that there was “mucha libertad.”

“I said, that should be our slogan,” Colón laughs. “Tintero: Hay mucha libertad!”

Next year’s upgrades, Rodriguez adds, include a former Marvel editor as an awards judge.

“That’s one thing we’re missing—we’re missing editors. People who can go over and check not only our grammar and spelling but the pacing and the images,” Colón says.

When they enlisted that editor, she points out, he immediately asked if they were still living on the island. Considering the ongoing mass exodus of Puerto Ricans and the fact that there’s little professional creative work for artists IN Puerto Rico right now, it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. In fact, this is the subject the duo is tackling in their most recent release, a long-form called Goodbye, For Now that features a queer couple geographically split by the promise of economic opportunity. As with H-Street, it reflects a bleaker reality, rather than a happy-ending ideal.

Excerpt from ‘Goodbye, For Now’

“If everybody leaves, then nothing gets fixed,” Colón says, “….but what can I counter offer? You want to work in animation? There’s no animation here. You want to work in illustration? There’s no illustration here. We try to, como, aportar with Tintero. We try to be good examples and motivate people. We do this much because we’re working [day jobs] ourselves, but at least this much helps. It might not be enough, people need to move also to find experience, to get a different point of view…It still hurts, even when they’re strangers. You get that feeling: Am I missing out? Why am I not able to move forward with this? Is it something I should consider?”

In February, another of Colón and Rodríguez’s annual events will make its third go ’round. It’s a sex-positive, multi-artist expo called Chichaíto/Little Fucks organized jointly with Omar Banuchi of Dias.

“There’s a little bit of humor in there; it’s not just penetration,” Colón says with a booming effect. “It has to have that little sparkle, whether it’s romantic or straight or gay girl…It has to have something that makes you smile.”

Rodríguez points out that promotion has gotten them banned on Facebook each year, even though work from the 2016 edition felt relatively tame, and there’ve always been rules in place against non-consensual or otherwise offensive depictions. Next year, they’re encouraging more explicit work. And despite concern about Ponce’s conservative population, they plan to take the whole thing—which they refer to as the “bukkake de arte”— there too.

“If everyone is afraid of doing that in Ponce, that means we should do it. The freaks will come to see it,” Colón assures.

They hope increasing Soda Pop Comics’ presence there will facilitate more collaboration and integration with the San Juan scene. In this 10th year, they’re also hoping to check more Cons off their list—but with other local artists in tow. They’ll get more attention working together: From fans, other artists, publishers, even producers and filmmakers.

“It’s evolved. We’ve evolved,” Colón says. “Now, you can sit at the table [at a con] with lots of comics from here, and it’s going to look amazing.”