kick­starter comics

Kick­starter comics: com­mu­nism in ac­tion or a li­cence to print pish? Michael Molcher asks whether crowd­funded comics are the fu­ture for in­die cre­ators

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

Is crowd­fund­ing the way for­ward for in­die comic book cre­ators?

Depend­ing on who you talk to, Kick­starter is ei­ther the saviour or the bane of the comic book in­dus­try. Launched in 2009, the web­site’s pop­u­lar­ity has lead to it be­com­ing syn­ony­mous with the very idea of crowd­fund­ing – a site that al­lows users to ap­peal for fund­ing for projects as di­verse as comics, fash­ion, tech­nol­ogy and theatre, the aim be­ing to reach the pre­ferred to­tal within a month or 60-day cam­paign.

Ac­cord­ing to Pub­lisher’s Weekly, there were 1,401 Kick­starter comics projects launched in 2013, which gen­er­ated $12.5m in pledges. At the time of writ­ing – mid-June – there were more than 4,100 Kick­starter comics ap­peals run­ning. That’s a mas­sive in­crease. Kick­starter, it seems, has be­come the go-to plat­form for comic cre­ators keen to see their ideas in print; from we­b­comics to print comics, an­tholo­gies to epics, flop­pies to trades, it’s fans who are now fund­ing their read­ing choices di­rectly – cut­ting out the comic book pub­lish­ers and stores.

Scep­ti­cism

But away from the high-pro­file projects from es­tab­lished tal­ents, what does Kick­starter mean for grass roots cre­ators; those with­out ma­jor au­di­ences or who are locked out of the commercial main­stream?

We­b­comic cre­ator Char­lie “Spike” Trotman had her first ex­pe­ri­ence of Kick­starter the year it launched, when

Kick­starter is a huge boon to comics. It ab­so­lutely en­ables cre­ators to do their own projects on their own terms Greg Pak

the con­cept was un­proved and there was sig­nif­i­cant scep­ti­cism about the con­cept. Her comic book guide to fru­gal liv­ing, Poor­craft, set a $6,000 tar­get and wound up rais­ing $13,000. “That was it,” she said. “I was a be­liever. I’d never needed any con­vinc­ing to be­gin with, but that ex­pe­ri­ence turned me evan­gel­i­cal.”

She has since run sev­eral suc­cess­ful Kickstarters and re­cently dis­tilled her ad­vice into a PDF ebook (http://tinyurl. com/lk­wf9a7) called Let’s Kick­start A Comic (And Not Screw It Up).

The ap­peal of Kick­starter, she says, is that it by­passes the age-old gate­keep­ers of the comics in­dus­try – ed­i­tors: “They de­cided what got pub­lished, what got the spot­light, and what got re­jected. And some­times, what got re­jected was turned down for rea­sons that had noth­ing to do with qual­ity or merit. Be­fore the likes of Kick­starter, all you could do was keep knock­ing on doors, keep sub­mit­ting portfolios. It was van­ish­ingly rare for a cre­ator to in­de­pen­dently pub­lish at a profit. Even those who pub­lished through es­tab­lished houses weren’t guar­an­teed liv­ing wages.

“Now, an in­de­pen­dent cre­ator who’s earned an au­di­ence can skip the ed­i­to­rial process en­tirely. Any­one ca­pa­ble of run­ning and ful­fill­ing a Kick­starter project can go straight to their fan­base for not just the funds to pub­lish, but the money to sus­tain their lives. It’s so pure and gen­uine, I like it a lot.”

This is borne out by the rea­sons why cre­ators turn to Kick­starter; they feel there is no other way to get their project printed.

Gam­ble

“My in­ten­tion was al­ways to print, but at the time I be­gan the comic, Kick­starter wasn’t avail­able in the UK yet,” says Kate Ash­win, the cre­ator be­hind Vic­to­rian-era mag­i­cal ad­ven­ture comic Wid­der­shins (www.wid­der­shin­scomic.com). “I paid for the print run of my first vol­ume out of my own pocket, which was a ter­ri­fy­ing gam­ble. Luck­ily, it did sell, and by the time the sec­ond book was ready to go, Kick­starter was talk­ing about its UK launch.

“If you don’t have a pub­lisher be­hind you to cover your print­ing costs, which many of us we­b­comic folk don’t, it means more than I can say to have your stock paid for up front. It lifts the fi­nan­cial bur­den sig­nif­i­cantly and, more than that, it’s a re­as­sur­ance that people ac­tu­ally want your book and en­joy your work.”

The key ob­sta­cle to cre­at­ing your own comics is cost – most in­de­pen­dent cre­ators sim­ply do not have the re­sources to risk on even a small print run.

If you don’t have a pub­lisher to cover print­ing costs, which many of us we­b­comic folk don’t, it means more than I can say to have your stock paid for up front Kate ash­win

Le­ices­ter-based Rachael Smith’s 92-page graphic novel House Party (www. rachael­smith.org / store.great­beast­comics. com) used Kick­starter as a “pre-or­der­ing” plat­form: “I didn’t want to just ask for do­na­tions. Kick­starter was a good way of let­ting people pre-or­der the book, in or­der to fund the print­ing. I could have gone with a dif­fer­ent pub­lish­ing house who could have paid for the print­ing, but they would have also taken some of the prof­its. Or I could have got a loan I guess – or saved up for a bit (but I’m rubbish at that). I

de­cided to self-pub­lish with Great Beast and use Kick­starter so I could keep full con­trol of the project, and get it off the ground as quickly as pos­si­ble.”

Ge­orge Was­sil, whose Oh, Hell graphic novel (www.ohhell­comics.com) was suc­cess­fully funded, had been pay­ing for the project out of his own pocket. “A suc­cess­ful Kick­starter cam­paign would re­verse the cash flow a bit,” he said, “and en­able me to cover print­ing and some dis­tri­bu­tion costs. Sec­ondly, I am a no­body – a to­tal un­known in the comics world and I felt that a suc­cess­ful Kick­starter of some sub­stan­tial size, might gen­er­ate buzz around Oh, Hell. I’m hop­ing that adding the words, ‘Suc­cess­fully funded on Kick­starter’ to our sig­nage will draw some ex­tra in­ter­est at the comic cons.”

Friends from school (who prob­a­bly re­called my affin­ity for comics as a kid) do­nated – it was overwhelming Liam john McKenna

The site is not the sole pre­serve of in­de­pen­dent cre­ators though. Many well­known artists and writ­ers have turned to Kick­starter to fund ei­ther un­com­mer­cial projects or labours of love. Hav­ing an ex­ist­ing fan­base to call on, how­ever, does not guar­an­tee suc­cess.

Fables writer Bill Willing­ham and artist Frank Cho’s Bifrost graphic novel and Tony Har­ris’s Round­eye: For Love were early fail­ures, mainly due to those in­volved mis­un­der­stand­ing the quid pro quo na­ture of re­wards and, in the eyes of some, treat­ing the site as a way of mit­i­gat­ing day-to-day costs rather than to raise funds for a sin­gle spe­cial ob­ject or goal.

That sin­gle ob­ject can re­in­force one of Kick­starter’s unique as­pects – the abil­ity for projects to cross genre and in­dus­try bound­aries. Writer Greg Pak is known for his work on X-Treme X-Men and The Hulk, but he teamed up with Takeshi Miyazawa and singer-song­writer Jonathan Coul­ton, a col­lege friend of Pak’s known for his songs about geek cul­ture.

Their Code Mon­key Save World ap­peal smashed through its $39,000 goal in just eight hours and ul­ti­mately raised al­most 10 times that amount. Pak says that be­cause of the way it uses the di­rect re­la­tion­ship with fans, Kick­starter seemed the ideal plat­form: “It was ab­so­lutely the right choice for our par­tic­u­lar project – the most ef­fi­cient way to get the book into the hands of the au­di­ence that most wanted it. It felt like such an in­ter­net-friendly idea that

Jonathan’s (and, to a lesser ex­tent, my) ex­ist­ing fans might go nuts for. And we al­ready had di­rect ac­cess to those fans via our mail­ing lists and so­cial me­dia.

“We felt very good about our chances of mak­ing our goal. But we didn’t ex­pect to pass it in eight hours on day one. Back­ers lit­er­ally make our dreams come true – we can’t thank them enough.”

No cash cow

As an es­tab­lished comics pro­fes­sional, Pak says Kick­starter does make things eas­ier for a cre­ator but it isn’t a li­cence to print free money: “Kick­starter is a huge boon to comics. Yes, it ab­so­lutely has en­abled cre­ators to do their own projects on their own terms. On the most ba­sic level, it pro­vides an­other op­tion and a vi­able busi­ness plan for an in­de­pen­dent comic.

“But, of course, it’s ap­prox­i­mately 100 times harder to run and ful­fil a Kick­starter cam­paign than do a work-for-hire book. When you use Kick­starter for an in­de­pen­dent comics project, you be­come not only the writer and/or artist; you be­come the edi­tor and project man­ager and dis­trib­u­tor and cus­tomer ser­vice rep and pub­lic­ity per­son and qual­ity con­trol team and ac­coun­tant and of­fice man­ager and car­rier-of-boxes and stuffer-of-en­velopes... you’re ba­si­cally run­ning a mas­sive small busi­ness un­der­tak­ing, which is hugely more time con­sum­ing than just writ­ing a work-for-hire script

“The ad­van­tage, of course, is that you’re pre­sum­ably do­ing this all for a book that you and your col­lab­o­ra­tors own the rights to as op­posed to some­thing some­one else owns. But each cre­ator needs to care­fully

There’s still a risk, of course – if your project doesn’t make tar­get then noth­ing gets made at all Rachael smith

as­sess the work in­volved and make sure it makes sense for him or her.”

The ma­jor­ity of users do not have the buf­fer of ex­ist­ing fans to call on for sup­port yet that is part of the beauty of Kick­starter.

“With only a small fol­low­ing, I knew most of my back­ers would be friends and fam­ily,” says Liam John McKenna, who re­cently com­pleted his first Kick­starter for $1,000 to take his self-pro­duced comics to East Coast Comic Expo. “It was nonethe­less sur­pris­ing to see people be

so gen­er­ous. A lot of friends I’d known from school do­nated. They were people I hadn’t seen in years, but who prob­a­bly re­called my affin­ity for comics when I was a kid and recog­nised this as a step to­wards my dream. It was truly overwhelming.”

Un­like other crowd­sourc­ing plat­forms, comics on Kick­starter re­main in­ex­tri­ca­bly tied to the end re­sult, a phys­i­cal ob­ject that back­ers can own; projects that of­fer only dig­i­tal re­wards rarely find suc­cess. This raises an in­ter­est­ing is­sue for cre­ators of we­b­comics, al­low­ing them to cre­ate a pre­mium prod­uct from some­thing nor­mally of­fered for free.

“The lines are def­i­nitely blur­ring be­tween print and web,” said Ash­win. “I’ve seen many pub­lished artists/au­thors fund­ing their own per­sonal projects out­side of the bounds of their pub­lish­ers, pre­sum­ably so they can have greater con­trol over the work.”

Strange­beard (www.strange­beard.com) cre­ator Kelly Tin­dall com­pares Kick­starter to the Xeric Foun­da­tion’s self-pub­lish­ing grants set up by Teenage Mu­tant Ninja Tur­tles co-cre­ator Peter Laird, “but with the added bonus of adding a lot of at­ten­tion to the we­b­comic it­self. It used to be that you’d have to raise money to print a book and then find a way to mar­ket it, but a lot of the ini­tial in­vest­ment in the fan­base is taken care of by the we­b­comic it­self.”

Tin­dall found most of her back­ers were friends, fam­ily and fans: “Ev­ery pub­lisher I spoke with liked the book, but all of them were afraid of pub­lish­ing an all-ages book, es­pe­cially one star­ring a lit­tle girl. Most of the back­ers have fam­i­lies and a lot of my ex­ter­nal read­er­ship are girls or par­ents of girls. Some­thing I, for some silly rea­son, did not an­tic­i­pate when I started mak­ing the strip, but now I con­sider it a ma­jor re­spon­si­bil­ity to cre­ate work that has a more di­verse fe­male cast. About 30-40% of my back­ers came from out­side my so­cial me­dia cir­cle, so I couldn’t tell you any­thing about them. Ex­cept, I guess, that they have great taste in pirate comics!”

Of the 4,000 plus projects run­ning on the site at this mo­ment, a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion will not make their tar­gets and Pub­lisher’s Weekly es­ti­mated that comic book projects in 2013 saw a suc­cess rate of less than 50%.

Spike Trotman says users’ re­ac­tions to an ap­peal can be com­plex: “The fact that gross, im­pul­sive, tacky people have to

I’ve had friends who launched ks projects that went very bad. They ended up fac­ing fi­nan­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal ruin spike trotman

try to fig­ure out how much you stand to make, and how much of that they think you de­serve, has dis­cour­aged some artists I know from us­ing Kick­starter at all.

“I’ve also had friends who launched KS projects that went bad. Very bad. They didn’t cal­cu­late and in­clude ship­ping costs, they didn’t find a printer and ob­tain a quote... I even know some­one who priced out their project so they would take a slight loss on ev­ery re­ward shipped, and they knew that, but they didn’t rec­tify the prob­lem be­cause they wanted to keep their re­ward tiers as cheap as pos­si­ble. They ended up mak­ing over $70,000 on a project that asked for $6,000, and fac­ing fi­nan­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal ruin.”

Hid­den costs

Mean­while, the postal sys­tem and its costs can re­main a weak link in the Kick­starter chain, with sto­ries abound­ing of un­der­es­ti­mat­ing postage or rises in in­ter­na­tional costs crip­pling cre­ators.

“We posted hun­dreds of books around the world,” says Dar­rin O’Toole, “but ev­ery

sin­gle time we posted to Aus­tralia, the parcels van­ished... ev­ery time! So you have to pre­pare for this.”

“I found that Kick­starter wasn’t su­per clear on one thing: the time it takes to process your funds. It’s cov­ered in the FAQs, but it’s still lack­ing in clar­ity,” says Ge­orge Was­sil. “My KS closed on 17 May, and I re­ceived my funds on 6 June. I an­tic­i­pated two weeks based on the FAQ, so to end up closer to three was alarm­ing. And it takes a while for the bank to process af­ter KS is done con­firm­ing the or­der.

“To be hon­est we se­verely un­der­charged for postage too,” says O’Toole. “The other is­sue only ap­plied to .001% of our back­ers, most of whom were out­stand­ing and of­fered amaz­ing sup­port to push the book. But do­ing a Kick­starter opens the doors to your read­ers in both good and bad ways. Thank­fully, as I said, it was by and large a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, but the odd per­son took a step too far in terms of con­stantly con­tact­ing cre­ators.”

“I was lucky enough to be able to take ad­vice from friends who’d al­ready run Kickstarters,” says Kate Ash­win. “I tend to keep my ex­tra re­wards some­what grounded so it can all be com­pleted in a timely man­ner, which low­ers the stress fac­tor.”

“I’d also rec­om­mend think­ing very care­fully about re­wards that re­quire ex­tra work,” adds Pak. The ob­jec­tive is to make the orig­i­nal ob­ject/thing you’re Kick­start­ing, not to spend weeks and months cre­at­ing per­son­alised an­cil­lary prod­ucts. Ex­tra re­wards are fun and of­ten es­sen­tial to achiev­ing the needed lev­els for many projects. But it’s worth re­ally think­ing through the time com­mit­ment cre­ated by each in­di­vid­ual re­ward and mak­ing sure it makes sense.”

Away from the nitty gritty of run­ning an ap­peal, what does Kick­starter mean for the fu­ture of comics? Ev­ery­one is in no doubt that the an­swer is sim­ply “free­dom”.

“For good or bad it has elim­i­nated the fil­ters that have ex­isted in the past so it’s given us a way to go di­rectly to a lot of people we would other­wise never come in con­tact with,” says Was­sil.

Smith adds: “It cer­tainly gives you a lot of free­dom to cre­ate your project the way you want to. There’s still a risk, of course – if your project doesn’t make tar­get then noth­ing gets made at all. If you’re a sin­gle cre­ator work­ing by yourself then that’s an aw­ful lot of pres­sure.”

Trotman is con­vinced that Kick­starter, and other ser­vices like it, are go­ing to make an in­de­pen­dent art ca­reer even more fea­si­ble. “When I was a teenager, go­ing it alone was so much more dif­fi­cult. Now, it’s some­thing re­cent grad­u­ates and as­pir­ing artists sim­ply ex­pect. Pro­fes­sional in­de­pen­dents are no longer the ex­cep­tions that prove the rule; they’re be­com­ing busi­ness as usual. And the whole world of comics is scram­bling to ad­just to that. I once said that we’re liv­ing in a comics re­nais­sance, and I stand by that. Comics haven’t been this in­ter­est­ing and di­verse and un­fet­tered since ever. Kick­starter is help­ing to fa­cil­i­tate that. I can’t wait to see how things are in five years.”

As more and more cre­ators take the plunge and be­gin putting their ap­peals to­gether, what ad­vice do those who’ve been through it have?

Greg Pak says that re­search is key: “Hun­dreds of comic book mak­ers have run suc­cess­ful (and un­suc­cess­ful!) Kickstarters and a huge num­ber of those people have pro­vided fan­tas­tic ad­vice and in­for­ma­tion on­line. I’d also say do not rush. Take your time to re­ally plan it out and you will save yourself a lot of trou­ble.”

“Show it to people ev­ery step of the way,” says Smith. “Get­ting some­one else to proof your stuff is so, so im­por­tant. And once your project is live, don’t ex­pect it to look af­ter it­self. Pro­mote the hell out of it.”

Al­though now seem­ingly ubiq­ui­tous, Kick­starter is un­doubt­edly the first blos­som­ing of crowd­fund­ing and its ef­fects on the comics in­dus­try are only just be­gin­ning to be felt.

“It’s a lot more set­tled,” says Trotman. “Less slap­dash, less hys­ter­i­cal. Fewer people are in a rush to get their projects up, and no­body thinks the site is go­ing away any­time soon. The cries of ‘Kick­starter is OVER!’ and ‘(ran­dom leg­is­la­tion or failed project) will be the death of Kick­starter!’ are fewer and far­ther be­tween, un­less some­one’s got an axe to grind. And no one feels the need to de­fend their use of KS any­more. That’s re­fresh­ing!”

Top: Char­lie “Spike” Trotman was a Kick­starter pioneer. Above: Kate Ash­win’s Wid­der­shins – the sec­ond vol­ume was funded by a Kick­starter cam­paign.

Bifrost – not all Kickstarters suc­ceed.

Round­eye: For Love, an­other early fail­ure.

Ge­orge Was­sil’s

Oh, Hell.

Above: Greg Pak’s Code Mon­key Save World col­lab­o­ra­tion was funded by a hugely suc­cess­ful Kick­starter.

The cast of Strange­beard cel­e­brate hit­ting their tar­get.

Left: Kelly Tin­dall’s Strange­beard.

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