Saturday, November 08, 2008

What I hate about comics

I usually try to follow comics industry news but lately I've checked out. First, it's football season and then in case you didn't hear we had a little election. So, I've spent a lot of time reading about the NFL and the GOP. For a while I was hitting the comics shop on a regular basis but quit when I realized I wasn't buying anything I really wanted.

But really what's got me down reading about comics is that lately there's some things making me sort of angry about comics. Let me vent....

I hate the fact that some big link blogs seem to always pick up on every doodle from certain artists while completely ignoring others. I saw a link today on a well-trafficked site which featured an artists new avatar which was simply a photo turned into a vector drawing (not even by the artist!) which can now be done with one click in Illustrator.

I hate that all it takes to be a "comics industry advocate" is be a female comics reader with a LiveJournal account and sexual trauma they're willing to share in public. It's a little too easy to beat up on comics for being sexist but most of the outrages offered aren't even that outrageous compared to those in the real world and so it's hard for me to take them seriously. When given a chance to be outraged between a rape of a very minor comics character or that real rape victims are charged for the evidence collection kits police use to find their attacker, I think one just seems silly. Especially when much more popular forms of entertainment are even worse in their sexism. I see it as a cheap way to fame and way to insulate one's views from criticism.

I hate the endless cliques that seem to form where it seems that anything that falls outside of a very narrow parameter is seen as being without merit. I like a lot of different styles, genres, artists and I generally just look for what's good without paying attention to whether it's cool enough for the art comix snobs or if it has enough Star Wars reference for the super spandex fan boys.

I hate that there are more great comics now than ever but you can't find them anywhere outside of a few metro area without ordering on-line. I live within an hour of at least 6 comic shops and most don't carry more than 1 or 2 titles each from Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly or Top Shelf and never carry stuff from Alternative, Buenaventura or other boutique publishers. Yet they seem willing to buy numbers of unsold comics from the Big 2.

I hate that some news sites seem to think it's new when an artist is having a fund drive in order to buy a new XBox or pay for their colonoscopy. I'm all in favor of charity but it doesn't seem to be applied evenly. Also, I'm practically a socialist but even I understand that private health insurance is available and if you are low income there may be programs like Medicaid that are available. Let's keep the charity for the people who need it.

I hate that many popular comics figures aren't even all that good. Mediocre work is championed because someone lives in New York and has lots of important friends they go drinking with on weekends. While there will always be the gadflies and socialites in any scene, comics seems overwhelmed by networkers who are famous (in comics, anyway) for being famous and haven't really done work of any significance. As long as you have the right friends you can get your foot in the door. This opens the door to many bad artists feeling their work would be more popular were it not for a conspiracy against them. Things would be better if comics were a meritocracy. Being a fun guy to hang with after a convention at the bar should get you friends, not a contract worth 6 figures.

I hate that monthly, serialized comics don't do a good job of giving you value for your money, a self-contained story that can be read on a one-off basis or even a recap so people who can't remember every little detail from something they read a month ago or don't buy every single issue can get up to speed. If comics people can't figure out to make a distinct unit of entertainment them maybe the monthly comic should just die already.

I hate that most comic artists can't draw ears to save their lives. Even the great manga artists seem to not understand the very simple structure of the human ear. Some things are hard to draw but ears are not. I know not everyone is aces with anatomy but most artists don't even try to draw ears correctly.

These are some of the things bugging me about comics lately. I know I can't change them and bitching about them will only get me accused of being jealous I'm not more successful than I am but I still had to do it anyway. I know my attitude is bad but sometimes somebody needs to give the comics industry a kick in the pants.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

16 years ago

"These days, it seems as though believing in even the possibility of such simple things and obvious things as basic order and unconditional justice is the product of a foolishly optimistic and laughably unrealistic mind. What the hell's happened to us, anyway?"

- Lou Stathis in Reflex magazine, 1992
Found this quote in a Vertigo comic I picked up in the dollar bin at my local shop a while back. That month's Vertigo comics had an obituary for editor Lou Stathis who died in 1997 from a brain tumor. I found it particularly relevant to things I've been thinking about recently concerning politics and science fiction. Once upon a time one could imagine the world getting better, that technology could make our lives better. Now, it seems humanity is doomed to be forever distracted by "bread and circuses" and we shall go the way of the Roman Empire, perhaps taking the planet's hospital atmosphere with us while furiously texting away on our iPhones about some viral video we just watched.

Stathis seems like one of those people I'd have loved to have met. He chose to work with many of my favorite artists and helped create some great books. Not to mention that his work in Reflex really opened my eyes to cartoonists like Kyle Baker and Dan Clowes when I was probably reading lots of X-Men.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What's up, Manchester

For some reason this blog is getting a lot of hits from Manchester, England in the last few days with none of them coming from inbound links. So, just out of curiosity, what's up, Manchester? You can leave a comment or send mail to my profile name (Joe Willy) at Red Flag Publishing dot com.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Web comics are the answer

In my last post, I talked about how I believed the comics industry, especially the mainstream "Big 2" publisher, should embrace the anthology as a means to deliver the monthly, serialized "floppy" comic book. Because of changing economics and industry dynamics I think the anthology is a way for the larger publishers to go back to their roots and return to the successful formula that launched their greatest creations, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and countless others.

Now I want to talk about how I think the smaller companies and independent creators need to take a harder look at web comics as their model to replace what used to be the means for unknown or underground voices to enter the comic book industry, the black and white indy comic. Although, I would also like to see more indy anthologies (and there area and have been a a lot- Mome, 24/7, Flight, Comic Book Tattoo, Drawn & Quarterly, etc.) but the problem in today's market is that distribution has devolved into a nearly mainstream-only delivery system in the majority of most direct market comics shops. Retailers, forced to place their bets on what they will sell and not get stuck having to keep (or if they do what might have a shelf life) are betting on Coke and Pepsi's big names and not stocking very deep into the distributor catalog.

In fact, in an average 6 months I shop at at least four area comic shops. A fifth I used to go to but gave up on. In the aftermath of the 90s these shops all slowly cut back on their ordering of alternative comics, even as that part of the industry developed superstars like Los Bros. Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, etc. When retailers got stuck with the bill for thousands of unsold "hot" properties, they counter-intuitively dumped the stuff that appealed to aesthetic or literary interests and firmly entrenched themselves into the fanboy collector market by placing even more chips in the basket of the Big 2.

And so I have over the years found it harder and harder to find interesting alternative work. Stores that used to get an issue of The Comics Journal, Acme Novelty Library, or Optic Nerve might now just order a couple extra copies of Punisher War Journal or Catwoman. Because of the deeper discounts from the publishers who have signed exclusive deals with Diamond, retailers have gone with the products with greater profit margin and a "reliable" customer base- the every Wednesday crowd.

Now, I see where more and more indy comics creators have gone from publishing comics to making mini-comics. Higher paper costs and printing increases have helped this along. But once upon a time a tiny publisher or sole creator could expect to publish his book on a press, have Diamond carry it and see a fair amount of orders. Now these creators are forced to go to photocopier publishing or print-on-demand (POD) and hand-sell their creations, meaning if you don't live near these creators you have almost no chance of seeing their book. While some web sites have attempted mini-comic distribution on-line they were often plagued by poor site design and interface, a lack of preview art, little to no advertising, and perhaps in the early days a reluctance for consumers to engage in e-commerce (print fetishism may be an issue here- some of us still want to touch the merchandize- to "squeeze the Charmin" as it were), not to mention high shipping costs- unless you want to order a dozen mini-comics you may be paying as much for shipping as you are for the product you are ordering.

Meanwhile, we've seen a generation emerge that has been creating web comics for several years and already produced "superstars" that make a living at their work and are getting signed to book deals from major publishers. Sadly, most of the people embracing web comics seem to be humor-based strips often aimed at youth culture niches such as gamers of fantasy-based or furry-oriented. While it's nice to see these areas flourish there is a gaping hole where the traditional indy comics crowd and aspiring mainstream creators should be. While we've seen a start very recently with projects like The Chemistry Set, Transmission-X, and Act-i-vate, I still see a lot of newer creators dumping money into print without first establishing a desire for their product, something which can be created almost free by using the internet and web comics.

This lesson was one learned the hard way. Long gone is the time when creators could create the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon with a self-published black and white comic or the days where an R. Crumb could sell-sell his way from Zap #1 to a chateau in France. In fact, I'm not even sure it's still possible for a Dan Clowes to come up the way he did, starting with Llyod Llewelyn and then moving to Eightball, selling enough copies to at least keep going and progressing. I also think the fact that a lot of record stores used to carry indy comics was a boon to the industry, not only providing an alternate sales outlet by by having music fans get turned on to interesting artists that could provide cover art, helping further expand the reach of the artists and also help provide a more stable outcome. Alternative newspapers also serialized comics and bought illustration from comic artists which further made it possible to keep the young artists going and improving. A lot has changed...

Now, the best way for an artist to be seen is to put art on-line and hope it gets picked up by Boing Boing or some other outlet that bring eyeballs to a site and creates exposure for an artist. The upside is now you can be seen by millions, but the trade-off is that you are now not just competing against the artists in your city or region to get noticed but every artist in the world. While you can still make some money off print it seems harder than ye olden tyme days and I think that means artists have to be willing to make work available for free on-line- something which goes against the instincts of many people who value their creations and believe them to be of some worth. We live in a culture where people are supposed to be paid for their work, in fact that's sort of how capitalism works, yet we find ourselves in a time where there's billions of web sites with countless hours of free content available. Every artist has to compete against YouTube, MySpace, iTunes, and more.

It almost seems like some of us are doomed to have missed the boat of the black and white boom of the '80s or even the alternative comics explosion of the 90s, yet maybe aren't young enough or tech-saavy enough to take advantage of the changes of the Aughts. I can see a whole generation of younger people almost intuitively understanding the world they live in, while this thirty-something is caught between the rock of a withering print industry and the hard place of a constantly-evolving world of tech which seems to move every time I think I've grabbed it. But I still see others who haven't seem to have caught on. It amazes me how many comic book message boards I go to where some unknown author is looking for an artist for their 12-part mini-series to be printed ye olde fashioned way.

Print is still viable if you an art comix creator who wants to silk screen covers and hand sell at conventions which is great if you live on the East or West Coast and your goal to is to get printed in Kramer's Ergot. Print is still viable if you're looking to break in at Marvel or DC. But if you're one of those other people who wants to work in the middle- in that grey area between precious (sometimes pretentious) art comix and the commerical (sometimes exploitative) superhero industry, I think you're only chance of making a go of it is to put your comics on the web and try to build an audience to eventually sell books, prints and other merchandise to in order to be repaid for your work. The audience for that work is poorly served by the current state of the industry. Not that I think web comics are the perfect solution, but they are the best one we have right now.

One last note about the fact that web comics aren't the perfect solution, but the best one we have right now: A big problem I see is that the audience still wants to read stuff in print, except for the people who are actually fans of web comics- usually people following humor based comic strips since a four panel strip isn't hard on the eyes the way a 300-page graphic novel would be. Current fans of web comics expect one thing while fans of print expect another. We need more web comics portals that cater to fans of print-based comics looking to find what's new and interesting, to help those creators build an audience for their off-line work and we also need to educate the audience that the distribution and retailing arms of the industry are acting as a blockage that is preventing the next Eightball, Love and Rockets or Cerebus from being a success. At a time when comics are dominating Hollywood and boosting bookstore profit margins, it seems even harder than ever to find good comics in your comic book store.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Anthologies are the answer!

I was thinking this past weekend about writing a post about some issues regarding the comics industry and then along comes Tom Spurgeon with some well-timed nuggets of wisdom that really kicked my thoughts into overdrive. While Spurgeon occasionally seems a little vague or obtuse in making his points or in his use of historical analogies (although, the fault probably lies more in my ability to understand than in his writing), I find a lot there to digest.

For one, the hard number that it takes 3500 copies to break even on a black and white comic or 4600 for a color comic is nice information to have out there in an industry where hard numbers are hard to come by and sometimes even avoided. Some comics pros even take to message board bemoaning the fact that some pesky journalists demand to see sales numbers. Thanks to Spurge for plucking that one out.

The idea of a sales threshhold “magic” number also leads one to question the “profitability” of comics that fall under that sales threshold. I guess cover price has a lot to do with it since most comics come in at $2.99 and a book priced a buck more might be able to sell less copies but make more than that minimum needed to continue publishing. The price of “talent” and overhead likely is a factor- comics that pay an inker, a letterer and a colorist (or person to do graytone- colorist doesn’t seem a good term to begin with but especially when a book lacks “color”) are probably much harder to be considered a profitable or even break even venture with so many mouths to feed from one product. An indy book created by one person for a small company could maybe continue on under the 3500 level where a book with a large creative team from a mid-level indy company might not (or, conversely, maybe the mid-level company has a lower overhead cost per-book than someone doing it on their own as a sel-publisher- an interesting thing for further future investigation). Much like a touring band (where a power trio may be able to make enough to keep going where than 9-piece orchestra has a much tougher time), a book with less people to pay can be profitable at a smaller level.

This is one reason why Vertigo takes so much heat when the monthly sales charts are discussed at Heidi MacDonald’s The Beat is that people understand that a large company like Time Warner (DC) means more overhead and higher costs, thus more copies need to be sold to keep a book going. Although a large company can also afford to swallow early losses if they think a book will pay for itself later (either in trade paperback form or through other media such as film deals and licensing). A Big 2 title selling near that 4600 mark has to be in danger of cancellation and Spurgeon makes great points that companies seem to be doing a piss poor job of finding a larger audience to sell those books to.

This gets in to the next phase of this rant and that is the catch-22 in comics where the existing audience and market often do not support new and interesting books that could represent the growth of the medium and the industry but the mythical “potential” audience isn’t interested in walking into a direct market store outside, perhaps, of a few select outlets scattered in major cities, most along the coasts.

Every comics reader with a blog seems to realize what has been labeled the “death of the floppy” but few seem to understand the larger implications of it and companies seem so beholden to the cash flow of their weekly output into the direct market that they appear unable to break free. Lots of fans have offered advice but are shot down with the usual line that they don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t understand the big picture, and if only they knew the inside super secret password then they'd see that all is fine and even if it wasn't there's nothing anyone can do about it anyway. But it’s pretty obvious to most anyone with half a brain that the big picture is the entire media landscape is shifting and things don’t look much like they did 10 years ago and in another 10 years may be even more unrecognizable. It’s apparent that the landscape has shifted and all media companies are having to evolve or die. We may be a long way off from the deaths but it’s never too soon to start the evolution.

One part of that evolution is for everyone to realize that the current method of serializing comics in monthly pamphlets is becoming more economically unsustainable. Higher paper costs, higher gas prices leading to greater shipping costs and other factors are driving up the costs of what was once a disposal “sampler” package. In the early days of comic books, the basic format was a higher page count with a variety of many stories in different genres- in other words, the Golden Age blossomed under a rather similar model (with many less pages, obviously) now employed by Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat- more bang for your buck and giving new series a chance to find an audience. With production and distribution virtually free on-line more and more people are understanding that a model that includes the web in the “first run” makes more sense* (something I will hopefully tackle in my next attack on this subject matter).

Currently the US comics market makes it’s money on monthly pamphlets that later get collected in trade paperback. The problem is that the model is redundant. It might make sense if the cheap sampler package was affordable, on cheap paper and could be easily recycled or thrown away, but due to the collector’s market that boomed in the 90s (and led to a bust, I might add) we now have what was once a trash, disposable medium printed on archival paper with prices that effectively shut most people from buying as many books as they’d like or a newcomer from sampling that first taste that might get them hooked, especially children.

The answer, it seems obvious to me, is for comics companies to go back to the model that worked in the past when paper prices were high- more pages and more stories, and definitely more genres. We see this starting to take place, and I don’t expect like some commentators do, that this change can happen overnight or that companies will ditch one reliable revenue stream
(even if it is a dwindling one) to try a whole new one. But I do notice that more and more I notice Marvel repackaging recent material into different format, this is especially true with it’s kid-friendly Marvel Adventures line where stories that originally ran in the monthly comic get reprinted along with others (including some classic early stuff from the 1960s) and puzzles, games, pin-ups, etc. in a larger magazine format (which I think are even sold at newsstand outlets or big box stores). Marvel seems willing to at least test the waters.

Now, my dream is to the Big 2 US comics companies try to publish one monthly anthology, perhaps at the end of the month, collecting all their “family” titles into one themed anthology book. Imagine all the Bat-Man titles in one “Detective Comics” anthology bringing that book full circle? Imagine one complete Avengers anthology or X-Men. Imagine an all-Vertigo anthology? Marvel is already doing as much with it’s thrice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man though still publishing three separate books- how about on the fourth week they publish one fat with those three issues in one comic for those who can wait and want it all in one chunk? Why not try it?

Does anyone in comics realize Heavy Metal has been around for as long as it has operating on a similar model? No one in comics seems to notice Mad Magazine or Nickelodeon as potential models either.

What I like about the idea is that, as I said, it brings comics full circle. One reason, besides lowering overhead, that comics flourished in the days when they were published in thicker anthology style comics is that anthologies allow for experimentation. If DC had only featured one hero in Detective would they have given Batman a chance? If Marvel didn’t have an anthology of “Adult Fantasy” would Spider-Man have gained enough audience to sustain a monthly series? Without those anthologies would names like Siegel and Shuster or Kirby or Ditko be as well known? Would those creations even exist?

Anthologies allow unknown creators to get a few pages in front of an audience to develop, grow and even experiment. Anthologies allow new ideas to be tested in the same ways big companies use test markets to try new products. Marvel threw a lot of stuff at the wall in those early days and a lot of things didn't stick, but enough did that a tiny company with a handful of employees became a dominant force in the comics industry and now in Hollywood... all because of anthologies.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Spectre

I was messing around with an old sketch of The Spectre I did a couple years ago. I had picked up issue #1 of the new DC series in the dollar bin at my local comic shop and had drawn a really fast head sketch. I'd scanned it in and never did anything with it until the other day when I was surfing through my hard drive and ran across it. I spent a little time in Photoshop, extending the body and adding some cool effects and it ending up looking kind of nice- too nice considering that the initial sketch had some real weaknesses. So, I decided to start over from a new (and hopefully better) drawing. It came out looking quite a bit different than what I'd planned as I tend to follow the "happy accident" theory of picture-making where I sort of experiment and mess around and see where the picture leads me instead of following a pre-planned formula.

This is a character I always liked even though I never really read anything with him in it. I missed the 70s supernatural superhero wave by a few years but I always saw the back issues in the comic shops and have been drawn to those characters. The Spectre is a dead cop superhero and so he provides a nice mix of three genres- crime, horror and superhero- all in one character.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Comic Con Job


The first in a series of lessons for those wishing to break in to comics. Comic Con Job is a satirical look at the comics industry. I decided to start this series this weekend in honor of the San Diego Comic Con. In this first episode I make fun of Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Wood, Jhonen Vasquez, and David Mack just because I am an angry and horrible person.

Actually, since I've worked in editorial cartooning I'm just used to being able to name names and ridicule specific people to make my points, but since this is comics and everyone is so damned sensitive I figured I'd go with the oh-so not clever technique of slightly altering the names even though it's obvious who they are. I mean, I would actually like someone to hire me to draw comics some day so I can't completely burn my bridges here. And besides, I've learned that even if you don't like someone politics or public persona, chances are when you meet them they are actually a nice person so I try not to make it too personal. I'm really trying to make fun of the industry of comics, but occasionally the professionals and fans are going to take some collateral damage.

I started this series because, as someone trying to find a way in to working in the comics industry, I find most "how to break into comics" books and blog posts completely full of shit. They give you all this vague generality and talk about how nice everyone in comics is when the truth is that the industry seems to me to be made up of some of the most insecure, cliquish, vain, self-satisfied and emotionally-stunted human beings one could assemble into a large convention hall. The truth is that is that the way to break into comics is probably a combination of shameless salesmanship, endless knocking on doors and bothering people, a little bit of luck and skill, along with fellating a few of the right people. And there our story begins....

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Breaking and entering.. how it started

In my last post I started what is basically a series detailing my attempt to get work in comics. In that post I explained how James Hitchcock and I came to self-publish an anthology comic called "Red Flags" and assemble a second volume which we are attempting to find a publisher for (read it for free right now). In trying to keep that post from being an entire novel I sort of shorted some things I felt merited a little more discussion. What follows is an attempt to explain why we started self publishing in the first place...

Besides an earlier aborted effort, Red Flag Publishing only got started when I told Jim about a contest being held by Viper Comics. The company was asking for a 5-page backup story that would run in one of their crime/detective books so they were looking for something in the crime, detective or horror genres. I told Jim about it since we'd been discussing how to take a stab at comics and he agreed it sounded like something we should try.

That aborted, earlier project I referred to was a sort of Sin City graphic novel series Jim had created which he'd tried to get me to draw when we first met about 10 years ago. I've never been much into the detective genre while it's one of Jim's favorites. My interest waned (partially due to not caring much for drawing office interiors and other mundane things and also the fact that Jim was turning in page after page of script and by the time I got drawing he had probably hundreds of pages of script and I just felt a little over-whelmed when most of my life I haven't been able to draw comics of more than one page in length very often) and nothing ever came of it. Several years having passed, I now felt I was ready to actually finish some comics since I could now clearly see my life passing (hitting 30 and having a kid will do that to you) and I figured it was now or never. That 5-page story seemed like something I could actually complete.

Jim nearly instantly turned in the script for Mr. Smith. It felt right. It was a noir piece (Jim's specialty) that was also magical realism (more to my liking). He'd found a way to combine his peanut butter and my chocolate. It was a very down-beat story which probably reflected his grim thinking in the days when his marriage was crumbling. In fact, the thing that really got me set on drawing comics was realizing how good of a writer Jim was and wanting to help show other people as he was stuck editing copy for a shopping guide where the most creative he could get is in his yearly attempt to sneak in a funny headline when they hold the annual "Magic Get-Together" in Colon, Michigan ("Magicians Descend on Colon" is still my favorite).

We didn't win, but we did learn a couple quick lessons. First, the company failed to announce the winner when they said they would. It was the first of many signs that comics companies don't operate by the sale rules as most other companies (it doesn't help that people aren't exactly making millions printing and selling comic books so it's not like they have massive editorial departments). Jim and I both work in the newspaper business where you simply don't get an opportunity to blow a deadline. Being one hour late could cost the companies hundreds or thousands of dollars and we have a constant stream of jobs due that all have to fit in their alloted time on the press- being late isn't an option (even if it's "just" announcing the winner of a contest). However, in a field where books routinely ship weeks late, sometimes months and even years, this behavior seems sadly commonplace and typical. In fact, if a company is merely late then they're usually doing well by industry standards in an arena filled with shysters and sociopaths who routinely start up fly by night operations that scam consumers and creators, make quick cash and then disappear only to show up again years later to take advantage of a whole new crop of people.

When the winner was announced, one sore loser trolled the message board bad mouthing the winning entry, the editor and the company. While I obviously felt we'd created something good and the winning entry wasn't exactly my cup of tea (mostly, I felt it didn't really fit the book it was going into, while it had a very cool Dave Cooper meets Jhonen Vasquez feel, the scraggly humor-based goth art style and cuddly characters didn't exactly sit comfortably next to the main series as I saw it but it wasn't my choice to make I wouldn't dream of bad mouthing a person for simply choosing what he thought was the better choice), I could see how the artist had a lot going for him with an attractive art style solid storytelling.

If only I'd been able to match the darkness of the script maybe we'd have won. But I still have a way to go in building up my confidence in drawing comics, I can see that my lack of confidence expresses itself in the lack of boldness in the art itself- both in terms of pushing the drawing and also in the spotting of blacks. I'm so afraid to make a mistake that I'm scared to lay down the blacks, seemingly unable to commit and risk making a mistake. Still working on that though I can see how with each new page it gets better.

So, now we had 5 pages of comics that, despite losing the contest, didn't seem half bad. We'd already been discussing an idea which was starting to form into something and the annual convention in Chicago was coming up. Jim started writing script pages for what would become the fist chapter of "Snatched," a thriller about a series of child abduction and the FBI agent and reporter who slowly find out the truth.

I sent out a handful of book to reviewers and it got some nice feedback:

"For their first steps into the world of comic books, James Hitchcock and Joe Willy show a great amount of promise; a strong grasp of story and an eye toward graphic pacing. Hopefully they will continue to hone their respective skills and continue to turn out creative stories." - Tanya Crawford, Broken Frontier

"'s pretty good for someone just starting out. The stories hang together pretty well too: the first chapter of a kidnapping story with wider implications, and a vignette about a killer-by-assignment. Not bad for the price." - Steven Grant

The main reason we ended up publishing the book was because we'd decided to hit the Chicago convention and wanted something to show other professionals, editors and publishers. Jim wouldn't be able to get anyone to read his scripts without having someone draw them and I was unlikely to get someone to take a chance on me, even if they liked my art, because I lacked proof that I could finish enough material to make a book. Artists in comics are notorious for flaking out and blowing deadline, a side effect from it being a very laborious and back-breaking endeavor which often reaps little reward, especially in a cost-benefit analysis.

So, we weren't really planning on even selling the book, simply throwing a $1 price on it just because our printer had given us a large enough break that it sounded like an easy decision to print 200 more for only about $50 extra. I've always had a hard time turning down "up selling" like when I bought my computer and an extra $100 gets you even more RAM and maybe aDVD burner it's kind of hard to turn down even when you don't really have it to spend- it seems foolish to not take advantage of such a good deal.

We even threw in a script page as a gag, since we saw it more as a business card we thought it would be cool to have an actual page of Jim's script with a fake "post it" note from him asking me to draw an extra scene despite the book being due at the printer the next day (which actually, is sort of what happened- Jim realized he needed an extra scene but by then we'd have blown the deadline and gone over our page count if I'd have actually drawn the new scene). Needless to say, most people haven't "gotten" the joke. It was yet another example of us being neither fish nor fowl- creating an ashcan/business card yet selling it to people as if it was a complete comic.

Another mistake was thinking we'd sell it for a buck and give people a deal since we knew we didn't really have a full and complete comic- one short story and a longer story which was the first chapter of a larger story which included one page of script- and anything more would leave people feeling cheated. Yet by only pricing it at a buck we disincentivized ourselves from working hard to sell it- when each sale nets you a mere .50¢, it's hard to make any money without selling lots of books. If a store only wants to take a handful on consignment are you really going to drive across town, let alone out of state, to pick up the money you made from those sales?

This leads into the many mistakes we've made along the way and lessons learned which is a good time to break this off and promise more later. Thanks for reading- more soon!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Breaking and entering... comics

Almost two years ago (has it really been that long?), Red Flag Publishing published the first issue of our anthology Red Flags. We published what was basically a 20 page business card on crappy newsprint (a misunderstanding in reading the quote from a printer not used to dealing with comics and assuming they were printed on that 1940s war-rationed toilet paper) mostly to take to conventions and send to publishers as a way to introduce ourselves without seeming like rank amateurs. Every "how to break in" article or message board thread suggested actually producing something. And since Jim and I were both in the publishing business (newspapers) we figured that was simple enough. Jim's a writer and editor and I work in layout and produce graphics so we pretty much had the bases on production covered. We got them published just in time to hand quite a few out at Wizard World Chicago, we traded many people for copies of their self-published or small press books. We didn't have a table so we were limited on how many we could sell but it was a good taste of what the world of comics was like. We vowed to come back bigger, stronger, faster.

We very quickly had ourselves a second and much better issue of Red Flags. Immediately thereafter, writer extraordinare James Hitchcock began soliciting other artists to draw the products of his fertile imagination as he was writing faster than I could draw them. We also received a submission of mind-blowing comics from Slovenian creator Matjaz Bertoncelj.

We hit the Wizard World Chicago convention again, this time with a small table and what we thought was an attractive set up. The convention wasn't a spectacular success since we got stuck in one of the side aisles of Artists Alley in a sort of no-man's land (and I can see how that display wasn't as cool as maybe we thought and that guy sitting there probably scared off people). There also wasn't any big names to draw people past our set up so we could get the valuable foot traffic retail establishments seek when hunting for a location- we were the guy at the end of town near the industrial park. Plus, we still only had our first issue for sale. Our second issue was 99% done but at the show we had only some fliers I'd made- a tabloid size sheet of paper folded over with one page devoted to hyping the three stories for our next issue. We also had another flier hyping the work of Matjaz with a couple actual sample pages. I should mention that Wizard World Chicago is also a very mainstream town, despite Chicago being home to some of the best indy comics creators and retailers, and many fans just aren't interested in anything besides the spandex and cape comics from the Big 2- I even talked with one award-winning mini comics creator who flew out from the West Coast and sold less books than we had!

After the show we began posting our stories at Web Comics Nation as a way to stir up some publicity for the next book. But our press releases got ignored by the news sites we sent them to, despite Jim being a professional editor who knows how to craft a press release and despite those same sites featuring press releases of much more questionable news content or for work which is far less professional in its level of quality. We got a decent number of hits from our own efforts (the web comics aggregator sites worked very well for us) but no reviews, comments or feedback to show for it. Our plan all along had been to self-publish the second book at some point and hit the convention circuit again. Those plans fell through when our publicity efforts fell on deaf ears and then my partner Jim got busy with starting his own retail frog business, and any funds we'd have used to publish a second book dried up gas prices shot through the roof.

Finally, after much deliberation I asked Jim if it would be OK to start seeking publishers who might be interested in the stories we've produced. One of our problems has been that neither Jim or I has a published credit in the industry yet. In an industry filled with thousands of amateurs all trying to break in, it's hard to be noticed when you are just one of a faceless herd of rookies looking for a try out, especially if you aren't part of a circle of friends based in an urban center as this industry is extremely cliqueish and creators tend to bring their friends up the ladder with them, leaving less spots in the life raft for everyone else. So, we've decided that instead of peeing into the wind and continuing our self-publishing venture, that for now we'll try to entice someone else to focus on publishing so we can focus on creating (especially while Jim gets his store up and running to become the engine that funds our future publishing empire- insert maniacal laugh here).

So, long story made not quite short, last night I sent off the first submission to a publisher who produces an anthology featuring comics that kind of straddle the line between indy and mainstream. Something we've noticed in our past efforts has been that what we're doing is neither fish nor fowl in a industry where people like their niches. We're too mainstream for the indy crowd since we tend to play in genres and feature realistic art (except for Matjaz) while we're too indy for the mainstream crowd that follows name creators and tends to favor their genres untainted by things such as deeper meaning and politics. Besides, their anthology is also known for giving a break to people who go on to become something in the industry.

The only other time I've submitted any comics for publication was to Top Shelf (when they still pretty much just published their Top Shelf anthology, long before Blankets or Lost Girls) around 1999 or 2000 for which I got back a nice postcard saying that my story wasn't quite what they wanted but they'd be interested in seeing more of my work. I never got back to them and actually kind of gave up on comics for a few years. It's only now that I'm realizing how much I really want to do comics and that I'm sort of wasting my life waiting for the industry to beat down my door to beg me to come work for them.

So, hopefully this is just the first in a series of posts about my efforts to hustle my way in which ends with me getting paid to create comics. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Beating up on The Beat

In a post called "Things We're Sick Of," The Beat's Heidi MacDonald tries to clamp down on recent comments on her blog regarding comics industry rumor-mongering (regarding DC Comics Executive Editor Dan DiDio). Apparently, Ms. MacDonald is sick of:

Uninformed speculation. Granted it is an interesting time in the comics industry, and a lot is happening. However, wild guesses and baseless speculation is a waste of time and prevents accurate information from getting out there. And trust me, none of us know what is going on behind closed doors at any comics company.

General shittiness. Behind every rumor is a real person. Let’s all try to remember that.

The problem here is that just days ago MacDonald was trucking in "baseless speculation" herself:

"While rumors on the floor of the con were running to Didio..."

So, from now on if the Beat posts Internet chatter or behind the scenes rumors then does that mean Heidi MacDonald is breaking her own rules? Or does it just mean the readers can't respond to it? Will the Beat no longer trade in Internet chatter and behind the scenes rumors? Or is this another example of people in the comics industry acting as they are the gatekeepers, the guardians of All That Is Good, and the rest of us are just unwashed idiots who don't know whereof we speak, unless of course we are allowed in "the club" by either getting a job in the industry or hanging out with the right people at convention after parties?

Frankly, I think comics people have extremely thin skins compared to every other single industry in the known universe. Sports writers regularly write the worst about athletes and then have to interview them in the locker room. Even small town politicians may not like the local paper but they still usually have to tolerate its presence while the rabble get to voice their opinions at public meetings and in the paper's letter columns about the job they're doing. I work at a small town newspaper and the kind of stuff that gets said about comics pros, editors and publishers is nothing compared to what gets said about your local Drain Commissioner or City Councilman. When you assume a public position you also take on the nasty fact that the public gets to comment on your job performance, even when you think they don't have a clue what they're talking about. A lot of news about the goings on in the government or corporate America are "wild guesses and baseless speculation." The way to combat rampant rumors and idle speculation is with little things often known as facts. For some reason the comics industry treats facts and the truth as if they are things to be avoided at all costs.

For some reason in comics we get this "who cares about the fans" attitude as if everyone criticizing the industry (or someone in it) was some unwashed fat tween hyped up on Monster energy drinks, bitching on Newsarama between playing Guitar Hero and checking his MySpace page. There's never an acknowledgement that a few comics readers might be thoughtful and intelligent people who may have a wealth of life experience and knowledge both about comics and the 99.99999% remaining portion of the world. I don't doubt that many comics fans are complete idiots, I've met enough of them to understand that. I guess what I want to see is something in the middle, is that too much to ask? Can't we separate the people who want to bitch and moan about the comics they buy every week from the careful observers of the industry who just want what is best?

All that said, I completely understand why Heidi said what she did. I have some experience moderating a blog that sees heated discussions and it does get tiring how some people can't seem to moderate themselves and have to say things they wouldn't say in person. But it seems that just days after trucking in gossip, The Beat is trying to act as if it had nothing to do with the exaggerated rumors of Mr. Didio's "demise" at DC and fanning the flames of the industry gossip that ended up catching the ear of a mainstream news reporter. That finally lead to a public statement that said Didio was safe in his job and now we have all the gatekeepers who passed along the gossip decrying said gossip. Heidi likes to say she's "hearing things" but then not report what those things might be, which usually means idle speculation will fill the void in The Beat's comment section and elsewhere. I think someone needs to call her on that, but since Heidi's "in the club" it probably won't happen, unless it's by someone like me who's firmly not in "the club." Team Comics rides again...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Dave's back!

A while ago, my local comics shop, Apparitions, was robbed and the owner David Pirkola was shot in the attempt. The comics community stepped up to the plate when they heard what happened and that Dave, being a small business owner, did not have health insurance. Yes, America- best health care in the world if you can afford it and if you ignore all the other civilized countries (which have better outcomes while spending less and covering everyone), but I digress...

I just stopped there for the first time since the incident and happened to be there when Dave visited his shop for the first time since he got out of the hospital! He looked good considering all he'd been through. The other guys at the shop have even helped clean the place up and make it more open and hopefully safer! I don't much more than that but I wanted to let anyone know who was wondering.

By the way, don't forget to send a small donation to help Dave. In looking for the link to the iFanboy donation page, I also ran across a blog set up by the guys running Apparitions in Dave's absence which would be a good place to look for more info as well.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Look at my Man Thing!

My business partner, Jim, suggested a while back I post more sketches and art. Since most of my news and opinion blogging is taking place at the official Red Flag Publishing web site, I figure this makes even more sense.

The Marvel comics character Man-Thing has a special place in my heart. Not only do I like the innuendo inherent in the name (in fact it sounds like something you'd read in one of those spam emails) but also the only comic that has ever made me terrified was an early issue of the Man-Thing series from the 1970s. A girl in my 5th grade class gave me an old beat up issue of Man-Thing where the spirit of an old woman takes the shape of a red cloud and chases after her husband and his hunting dog. For some reason it scared me shitless and I've always wished more comics were able to have that effect on me. So, here it is: Whosoever Knows Fear, Burns at the Touch of the Man-Thing!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

This just in!

About every month or so I take a couple minutes to search the internet for new mention of our comics to see if any of the hundreds of hours I've spent trying to get someone to notice what I'm doing has paid off. Usually it results in the same old hits but this morning I found a new review of Red Flags #1. I don't see a date for when this was posted so I don't know how long it's been up. It sorts of echoes what most people have said so far, that Jim Hitchcock's stories are compelling little yarns exploring dark terrain with twist(ed) endings in the vein of "a sort of modern Tales From the Crypt" but the art is lacking in backgrounds/depth/polish. I wish I could muster more disagreement but I agree with all my bad reviews- in fact, I would probably judge the results more harshly (if you doubt this, ask my wife or Jim). Unlike some artists, I can take a hit and hopefully people can see an improvement with my newest story, The Copy Editors.

Red Flags #1

Sunday, January 06, 2008

And so it Moves

At our WebComicsNation page I've just added a story by Slovenian artist Matjaz Bertoncelj. Bertoncelj is a former editor of the Stripburger comic anthology and has published numerous comics in Europe. Not too many people in North America have been lucky to read his work... until now. We proudly present to you- Malleus Maleficarum ("The Witch Hammer").

EMS logo

In the story, the inquisitor Lupus is schooling his rabbit apprentice on the finer points of torturing young women to extract their confessions of witchcraft. Lupus is a sadistic pervert convinced of his righteousness. I think Matjaz does an amazing job of walking the tightrope of being absurd yet brutally real, wry yet over the top, alternatively touching and wince-inducing.

I had hoped for a long time to publish a book of Bertoncelj's work through the Red Flag label and still hope to, but the market for small indy publishers is dead without first having created a reliable online audience or by having the dedication to attend every convention for a couple of years (perhaps both, actually). Deciding to first attempt the former strategy, we hope you check out this free story (maybe not even the best one to start with for various other reasons but it seemed the best introduction to the characters and the world) and hopefully somebody at Fantagraphics stumbles upon it and puts him in Mome or commissions an Ignatz book from him because I want to see more work from this guy!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

We're back with MORE FREE COMICS!

After an unfortunate delay, I've finally returned to posting stories that will appear in the comics anthology Red Flags at our page on Web Comics Nation. This time up it's a gruesome little tale called POV. With a twisted and troubling script from James Hitchcock and some graphic and gruesome art by James Tingley, we think our fans will enjoy this next offering.

Sometimes the difference between life and death depends on your point of view...

POV thumbnail

And stay tuned for more cool comics coming soon!