If LOVE & ROCKETS started today instead of in 1982… how would it get published?
That’s a question I asked a bunch of comics friends at the Heroes Con after party last weekend. We were all gushing about meeting Jaime Hernandez, one of the guys behind LOVE & ROCKETS, an independent comic series that’s been running for thirty years and is widely regarded as a classic of the medium. They’re good comics.
My friends and I want to buy and read good comics. I assume if you’re a comics fan you want the same. Even if you don’t read comics, you probably at least want to be entertained by good stories, in whatever medium you prefer.
But here’s the problem. There are currently more talented people making comics than the publishing industry is capable of supporting. Here’s some examples:
- I’ve met some creators who make their living off comics, but nervously watch for the writing on the wall indicating their time is up.
- I know amazing artists who scrape by on the occasional work-for-hire paycheck or commission.
- Some people I know have pitched outstanding series to publishers, only to be rejected because their hook was too much like a non-existent comic that a television celebrity wants to develop into a movie.
- I know guys who teach during the day and make comics at night and stay-at-home dads who squeeze comics in-between feeding their kids and getting them ready for school every morning.
- An artist I know quit comics after four years of sequential art school because he couldn’t make any headway toward getting paid for his work. He designs t-shirts for the Hard Rock Cafe now. He’s not the only one to get a degree in making comics and give up when graduating into an uphill struggle.
I don’t blame the publishing industry for this. There’s a surplus of brilliant, imaginative, creative comics creators out there, dying to tell their stories. In a way we’re in a golden age of ideas. But the publishers themselves don’t have the funds to pay to produce them all. Partly it’s the economy, but partly it’s also because there are far less readers of comics than there have been previously. There’s less capital to work with and less profits to be made.
I think there’s a solution to this problem. We need to think differently about how we as consumers sustain art and storytelling. We need to become 21st Century Patrons of the Arts.
I use that term in the introduction to a video I made to support the Kickstarter campaign I’m currently running to produce an original graphic novel called THE CABINET. I felt weird and a little pretentious about it and almost cut it from the final edit. But I kept it, because I believe in the sentiment. Here’s why.
Patronage of the arts throughout history was originally royalty, clergy or the aristocracy supporting artists. Samuel Johnson defined a patron of the arts as “one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help.” But largely due to 19th Century economic and social reforms, we’ve moved away from private patronage to a public support system for the arts.
Yet, in 2012 crowd funding like Kickstarter is expected to provide more funding for artists than the National Endowment for the Arts. Without 21st Century Patrons of the Arts supporting comics through crowd funding, all those creative people I previously mentioned will dwindle away out of frustration. Our golden age of ideas will be lost to monotonous day jobs and joylessness. “Struggling for life in the water,” as it were.
Shakespeare had patrons. So did Leonardo and Michelangelo. Ironically, so did the guys who named two of their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles after those iconic artists. When Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird first published that comic in the 1980s, they received a loan from an uncle paying for its production. The word “patronage” currently has a negative connotation because of its affiliation with modern politics, but when it comes to the arts there’s nothing wrong with it. Where would society be without A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel ceiling or Turtle Power?
Let me be completely sincere with you. I clearly have a horse in this race since I’m running a crowd funding campaign with 19 days to go. However, what really got me thinking about comics and modern patronage was a mass anxiety that moved through Heroes Con last weekend like an infection. Many creators I met were nervous about even attempting to raise funds to make their own comics because of an idea posted on the internet a few days before the show began.
On June 20, Johanna Draper Carlson posted “Comic Fans Need Patience: Thoughts on Lengthy Kickstarters and Incomplete Issues.” Her argument was that she would not support comics projects that aren’t already finished. She prefers Kickstarter when it’s more like pre-ordering a book that hasn’t been printed yet. She thinks this might be how others approach crowd funding comics as well. You should read her whole piece, but if I break her argument down it looks something like this:
- I won’t support artists who can’t deliver me a reward fast enough to get my money returned if I want to back out.
- 3-6 months is the period of time when I can do a credit chargeback to get my money.
- Unfinished projects often take longer than 3-6 months.
- Therefore, I don’t support unfinished projects.
I don’t think Carlson’s wrong because of her decision. It’s a practical choice: a cost/benefit analysis of how to get a reward with as little risk as possible. I just disagree with it philosophically.
Carlson’s position is actually quite similar to the current publishing industry model. Unless it’s work-for-hire, publishers prefer that all the work on a comic be done first so there’s less risk on their investment. Unfortunately, this is why our surplus of talented creators are dwindling away.
I’ve seen the wonderful, creative people unable to get their stories out there because of the limitations of this model. So I’m more inclined to invest my money into the future of comics, regardless of the immediate benefits. I hope that my contributions lead to more diversity and better storytelling in comics, so we have the opportunity to read some amazing stories in the future.
My own argument looks something like this:
- I want to read good comics.
- Comic creators can’t always finish their projects without financial support.
- The publishing industry can’t support all of the talented comics creators out there.
- The public support system for the arts can’t support these creators either.
- Crowd funding patronage can support projects that would otherwise go unmade.
- Therefore, I support crowd funding of projects regardless of their state of completion, so I can read good comics.
Crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have already made great comic stories possible that might not have found a place in the current market. And there’s something for everybody. We’re talking about monster slaying baseball players, lesbian werewolf romance, protest stories from the Occupy movement, fairy tales of pirate children and sequential textbooks for schools and libraries.
One of the biggest successes of comics crowd funding has to be the all female produced Womanthology, a massive book showcasing over 140 women making comics. After it received $109,000 in funding, publisher IDW distributed it. But would IDW have worked with Womantholgy if it hadn’t raised this money? Would any publisher have taken the risk that an anthology (a format that traditionally sells poorly) made entirely by women (unfortunately, not seen as comics’ target audience) would see a return on their investment?
Despite trying to finance my own comics projects, I help crowd fund comics projects when I can, not just to get something in return but to also broaden the playing field for creators like myself. Here’s a few of the books I’ve supported, both financially and publicly. I haven’t received rewards yet for my donations to these particular books, but I’m confident these creators will produce something special that will change the comics landscape:
- THE ONLY LIVING BOY: A young adult, pulp, science fiction comic that reminds me of Jack Kirby’s classic KAMANDI. Creators David Gallaher and Steve Ellis have proved their chops as a team on original comics like HIGH MOON and BOX 13. Why should I expect any less from them here?
- ANATHEMA: I supported the first issue of this haunting werewolf romance and was pleasantly surprised at how competent Rachel Deering and Chris Mooneyham were at storytelling, despite never having heard of them. Now they’re trying to finish the series and I’m looking forward to more viscerally spooky, gothic horror.
- THE GRAPHIC TEXTBOOK: My day job is in an educational library and I’m proud to have supported this elementary school level textbook that seeks to teach through the medium of comics. I researched which library in my city was the most in need of this kind of product and donated a copy to their collection. Having interviewed founder Josh Elder, I’m confident he’ll produce an outstanding resource for the education of our youth.
- SULLIVAN’S SLUGGERS: I’m a huge fan of James Stokoe’s previous comics so the minute I heard about this I jumped at the chance to support him drawing baseball players fighting gnarly monsters. Writer Mark Andrew Smith runs a tight ship and executed a strategic campaign that upped the ante everyday until they were 1,627% past their original goal.
- HALLOWEEN EVE: I actually just backed this project today while writing this. And they still need support. Amy Reeder’s an incredible talent who seems to have received a raw deal working for a major publisher. Her art is stunning and the book is themed around one of my favorite holidays. In her video, Reeder herself says that Kickstarter “makes comics more democratic.” I agree.
A few years ago, before Kickstarter even existed, I was talking to a professional artist who worked for Marvel and DC. He was a proponent of my work, but recognized how hard it would be to get published. “What you need,” he said, “Is to find some rich lawyer who really likes comics and will invest thousands of dollars in your stories.” At the time I thought it was fanciful that such people even existed. But last weekend I saw individuals bid around $9,000 each on art pieces by Mark Brooks, Phil Noto and Adam Hughes at the Heroes Con art auction. If they can invest thousands in a single piece of art, can’t we invest tens or twenties in the artists of tomorrow?
In the long game to have comics worth reading, we need to invest in the future, incrementally as a crowd. If we think differently about how we sustain good stories, we can become 21st Century Patrons of the Arts. Imagine the wonderful possibilities ahead.