Monthly Archives: February 2008

Remembering the Self-Publishing Movement: Steve Weiner

Blog entry by Jeff

Today's guest blogger isn't a cartoonist, but a librarian. Stephen Weiner is director of the Maynard Public Library in Maynard, Massachusetts, as well as author of the book 101 Graphic Novels and co-author of The Will Eisner Companion.   I got to know Steve Weiner while he was writing The Rise of the Graphic Novel: Faster Than a Speeding Bullet (for which I drew the cover) in 2003. Since then, he and I have talked a lot about the appearance of graphic novels on the shelves of public libraries.

From the NBM website: Stephen Weiner has a long history of bringing Graphic Novels and Libraries together. In 1992, he initiated the "Graphically Speaking" column in Voice of Youth Advocates, which continues to this day. In 1996, he published 100 Graphic Novels for Public Libraries, the only book to address public library graphic novel collection development issues. Since 1997, he has reviewed graphic novels for "Library Journal". He is a frequent speaker at library and academic conferences about graphic novels.

I asked Steve what he thought was the legacy of the self-publishers… 

Steve Weiner:

In the early 1990s, the comics field held new possibilities.  Because the direct market provided access to the comic book readership, if a publisher read his or her cards right, they could tailor a book to an audience.  Marvel and DC dominated the field, and Dark Horse was staking a claim as a contender, but there was room for new kinds of comics, and new cartoon storytellers.   Readers weren’t dedicated to the big companies.  If the book looked good and your store guy recommended it, it was worth a try.  The book didn’t have to be flashy either, a well crafted story, produced in black and white, could do the job.  All anybody wanted was good comics.     

The mainstream comics publishing houses had suffered a setback.  Their biggest names—Frank Miller and Alan Moore—had walked out their doors.  The new long comic book, the “graphic novel”, after making some noise with Maus, Watchmen, and Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, had fizzled out as a breakout vehicle. Although young upstarts like Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane were reinventing mainstream comics, a lot of the most interesting work was being produced by small publishers such as Kitchen Sink Press, or self publishers–cartoonists who published their own books as well as writing and drawing them.  The amazing thing about self publishing was that all the company had to make was enough money to support the cartoonist and his or her family.  In some instances, this allowed for more creativity than was possible in mainstream books.  Self publishers were, in a way, ultimate American entrepreneurs; they believed in their product enough to finance it and speculate.    

Self publishing, as way to get one’s work out to readers, had existed long before the comic book specialty shop and the direct market.  Masterpieces of Western literature such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass were originally self published, but in the comics’ world, self publishing really began in the mid 1970s with Dave Sim’s Cerebus and Richard and Wendy Pini’s ElfQuest.  The self publishing movement received a further boost in the mid 1980s when Eastman and Laird produced their international sensation, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.   One could argue that Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which originally appeared in Raw, a magazine owned and edited by Spiegelman, had been self published, although the book Maus was brought out by Pantheon.    

Lots of self published books came out in black and white.  Leaving out color kept the costs down but it also accomplished another thing; it allowed the cartoonist to focus on the story more because one couldn’t lean on color pages to carry a reader if the story was weak. Some of these self published books undertook stories with a different focus than mainstream comics at the time.  Some of those books were Cerebus, A Distant Soil, Jar of Fools, ElfQuest, American Splendor, Strangers in Paradise, and Bone.   

While celebrated “graphic novels” such as Spiegelman’s Maus or Jules Feiffer’s Tantrum, were published by trade publishers, most graphic novels were published by comic book publishers and carried by comic book specialty stores.  Because of the way comic books and graphic novels were distributed it wasn’t as difficult for comic book self publishers to get his or her work noticed and promoted by store personnel as it was in other areas of publishing.     

Self publishers made new rules in terms of publishing schedules, bent the idea of what kinds of stories could be told in comic book format, and challenged the bigger companies to reconsider the kind of stories that their readers wanted.        

Not all self published books were successful.  But even the failures helped the comics’ field expand. One example is Taboo, a horror anthology published by Steve Bissette’s Spiderbaby Graphix. Taboo was the first place From Hell appeared.  When Taboo ended, Kitchen Sink picked up From Hell, which eventually became a motion picture.  Works produced by the self publishers helped broaden the work produced by mainstream publishers, but more importantly, many of the self published books infused energy into the comics field and drew new readers to the comics/graphic novel format.  Take Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore, for example. Half thriller, half romance, this love triangle was too hot for a mainstream publisher to handle in the mid ‘90s, and not only because of its mature content.  Its format was also revolutionary.  Moore was not only an accomplished cartoonist, readers were handed thick pages of prose as well as poetry and song lyrics to digest while reading Strangers in Paradise.  Strangers in Paradise was closer to what mainstream readers might expect from a “graphic novel” than the antied -up superhero fare that major comic book publishing houses were offering.     

Another book that started out as self published was Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes, lauded by novelist and film maker Sherman Alexie.  Lutes’s tale of a magician who’d lost his confidence but not his magic touch punched the reader in the nose in the way a powerful prose novel worked; it held up a mirror to the readers’ life. Other important self published books included fantasies Castle Waiting by Linda Medley and Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil.

The graphic novel, as a format, helped comics journey out of the world of comic book specialty shops and conventions.  It was also a form that favored small and self publishers who didn’t have the resources to publish a book on an ongoing basis.

The success of Bone has been documented elsewhere, but it’s important to note that while Bone entertained, educated, and prodded its readers, Cartoon Books, the publisher of Bone, was one of the first to see the potential of the graphic novel format, and began collecting the issues of Bone into a graphic novel series in 1993.     

Many of the graphic novels produced by self publishers were more palatable to non comics readers than the superhero fare offered by the big companies.  Although by the mid 90s  some public libraries had begun collecting graphic novels, these graphic novels were not associated with comic books. The most popular book in libraries were Tintin,  Maus and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.  Bone began its journey out of comic book shops by showing up in public libraries. Other self published graphic novels such as ElfQuest followed, for two reasons: the stories told in these books were a better fit with library collection development programs than the perceived superhero story, and because self and small publishers aggressively pursued the library field, in part because they needed library sales in order to stay afloat.  Prior to this most graphic novels carried in libraries were published by trade book houses as opposed to comic book publishers.  This partnership between self publishers and libraries led to the opening of the library field to the comics industry.  The big houses followed suit very late in the 1990s.    

Perhaps the most unlikely self publishing success was Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, begun in 1976.  American Splendor chronicled the daily life of Pekar, a file clerk for the Veteran’s Administration, and was an alternative comics’ hit.  American Splendor was republished by Doubleday in the 1ate 1980s.  Eventually American Splendor became a feature film, bringing Pekar’s story to thousands of viewers, many of whom didn’t know that original work was a self published comic book.   Now that comics and graphic novels have broken through to readers outside of comic book specialty shops, it is critical that the comics field remain fresh, and that the conventions held by both large comic book publishing houses and trade book publishers carrying graphic novel imprints are challenged.  Keeping the self publishing movement alive is one of the ways that the comics field can retain its freshness and ingenuity.        

Bone links, Wall Street Journal & USA Today, and cartoonists from Ohio

Blog entry by Jeff

There's a video interview up @ The Wall Street Journal. I was interviewed in the Dow Jones building while in New York last week. I was asked about Bone in general, influences, and the newest Scholastic release Bone 7: Ghost Circles. The video can be seen by clicking on the picture below.

USA TODAY listed some favorite all-ages graphic novels here.

Boston Globe announces the release of Ghost Circles, here.

A couple of weeks ago, Publishers Weekly ran a two part interview about Rasl, which ships next week! Part 1 is here, part 2, here.  

And lastly, Go Ohio! 

I just received a copy of the Ohio Literary Map of Authors from the Ohioana Library Association in the mail this morning. They had a list of 15 Ohio authors in their Cartoons/Graphic Novels (!) catagory. I would  have included James Thurber  but Ohioana considers him a regular author. It's a pretty good list by any standard, and one which I'm proud to be on. Check it out:

Tom Batuik

Milton Caniff

Robert Crumb

Cathy Guisewite

Peter Kuper

R.F. Outcault

Harvey Pekar

Art Samsom

Chip Samsom

Joe Shuster

Jerry Siegel

Jeff Smith

Bill Watterson

Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson Jr.  

Remembering the Self-Publishing Movement: Rick Veitch, part 2

Blog entry by Jeff

Part 2 of Rick's essay about self-publishing comics gets us through the collapse of the Direct Market and up to date with his current projects. The essay is followed by a sampling of Road Bits he picked out by various other friends and self-publishers. Road Bits were loose little sketches of recent dreams, usually done in a single panel. Pretty facsinating stuff. I'd never seen some of these before. Part 1 of his story is here. Rick Veitch's blog can be found here.

Rick Veitch Part 2: 

Self Publishing:  My Current Period

The collapse of distribution could have been the end for King Hell, but I still had a solid inventory of trade paperbacks and the rights to all those projects I'd done under creator ownership deals.  Some nice folks at Diamond approached me at a show in 2002 and we were able to get King Hell back on track.  The good news was that even though I'd been off the radar for a few years, the market was still there for my books.  In a quick succession of solicitations through Diamond, I sold out of my inventory of THE ONE, BRAT PACK and MAXIMORTAL.

With the sudden cash infusion I finally invested in a real graphics computer set up. Took about a year to teach myself the software so I could put together a complete book in Photoshop and InDesign.  But by 2004 I was able to release the third dream comics collection, CRYPTO ZOO doing all the scanning, design and file prep myself.  

One of my main goals was to create nice collections of those fully painted stories and graphic novels I'd done in my early period.  All this material was executed in a bright color palette that hadn't reproduced well in EPIC.  Having control of the color right through to the digital file  means I can get it to reproduce exactly as I painted it back in the day. That's a big deal for me.

As I get more familiar with the software, I really enjoy the whole process of re-mastering my old stuff and designing for new formats. Getting intimately reacquainted with a major project  you created decades earlier is a cool thing to do. Design-wise, I try to give myself one new challenge with each book.  ABRAXAS AND THE EARTHMAN had cover flaps.  SHINY BEASTS boasted a gatefold.  

With each King Hell release I'm getting a nice spike in the backlist reorders. Initial orders of successive new volumes have gone up.  Needless to say,  I'm hoping the trend will continue with orders due this week for the third volume in the Epic series, HEARTBURST AND OTHER PLEASURES. Foreign licensing is picking up too.  There are already nice Brazilian and Spanish editions of my superhero comics and Comma 22 is in the process of bringing out the complete King Hell library in Italy.  

This fall I'll be soliciting a high-end hardcover of BRAT PACK with unseen art, covers, photos, back stage history and more alongside a new regular softcover edition. I'm also preparing a collection of my underground comix titled BONG! for '09.

So, yeah.  Still crazy after all these years.

End of Part 2

Rick's selected Road Bits…

Batton Lash

 

Heidi MacDonald 

David Lapham

Dave Sim

Martin Wagner

Mark Oakely

Diana Schutz 

Paul Pope

Jim Valentino

Bill Willingham

Don Simpson

Larry Marder

James Owen

Remembering the Self-Publishing Movement: Rick Veitch, part 1

Blog entry by Jeff

Remembering the Self-Publishing Movement continues with today's guest blog by Rick Veitch. Rick's career in comics covers so many aspects it's difficult to know where to begin. His run on Swamp-Thing is legendary, his Rare Bit Fiend dream comics (my personal favorites) are visionary, Brat Pack is a cult phenomenon, his new book Our Army@Love is a hit, and Rick was the main force behind Comicon.com, the website that revolutionized the comics community on line. Both part one and especially part two of his essay on the self-publishers are filled with "Road Bits", little drawings scribbled by everyone into Veitch's notebooks during shows and later in the lounge. 

A quick note: Rick brings up "bar signings." Bar cons came about because the self-publishers were often forbidden to do certain things during conventions or retailer meetings; things like causing long lines or selling our books, so we started announcing that we'd be hanging out in the bar, and anyone who wanted to hang with us – - and get a skecth or buy one of our books – - was more than welcome to join us. And join us they did…

Rick Veitch, Part 1: 

Self Publishing: My Early Days

The first time I ever heard the phrase "self-publishing" applied to a comic book was in Archie Goodwin's office at Epic circa 1979.   Jim Shooter was telling us about a funny animal/barbarian comic that was catching on in the blossoming network of comics specialty stores.   That was the first time I ever heard the name "Dave Sim" too.  

At that point in time, I had somehow caught the first wave of creator ownership deals ever offered by the New York comics industry.  I was deliberately working the EPIC Illustrated "one-time-use" deal for all I could to amass a portfolio of stories and graphic novels that I retained ownership to. So I was intrigued by this concept of "self-publishing".

I ultimately got drawn into it, not via Dave Sim's increasingly public evangelism, but by knowing Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.  They were a couple of fun New England cartoonists I'd met at regional shows who hit the collector motherload with their first self published issue of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES.  In the wake of their success a glut of other black and white self-published titles erupted into the marketplace causing what I think was the first speculator bubble in the Direct Sales Market.

Creatively content doing SWAMP THING at the time, I luckily dodged that train wreck.  But I was meeting regularly with Kevin, Peter, Steve Bissette, Steve Murphy and Michael Zulli to eat greasy diner food and talk about reforming the business.  We called ourselves the Blacklist Group, having originally formed to support Murphy and Zulli, who were caught in a shooting-war between their publisher, Dave Sim and Diamond Distribution.

Sim had just found a fresh vein in the market by reformatting CEREBUS into fat graphic novels.   He was also self distributing the books to great success.  Diamond, then one of a dozen distributors serving the Direct Sales Market, pushed back at Sim by dropping Murphy and Zulli's PUMA BLUES. Dave, who was already actively forming strategic alliances with other self-publishers, turned up the temperature by hosting creator "summits".  At one of these, in Northampton MA, a group of us debated and signed the "Creators Bill Of Rights".    

In the midst of all this, and much more, I finally jumped into self-publishing; forming KING HELL PRESS in 1989 and releasing a trade paperback collection of THE ONE, originally published as a color Epic Comics Limited Series,  the rights of which had reverted back to me. I couldn't manage a color collection, so I rebooted it as a black and white. Sim and Gerhard got me a credit line at Preney Press and the Mirage office helped me through the solicitation process. Steve Bissette corralled Neil Gaiman and Tom Veitch at San Diego for a roundtable on the "Revisionist Superhero" which we included in the back. The end result was a bit crude and weak in the binding, but orders were decent.  THE ONE is still in print today (although in a much nicer and sturdier edition).

I was in the process of preparing a new self published title, BRAT PACK,  when Kevin Eastman invited me to help brainstorm his next project: a creator-friendly publishing house he named Tundra.  One of the plans was for Tundra to act as an exoskeleton for an existing self-publisher; offering marketing muscle, higher production values, printing costs paid and a page rate up front for half the action no strings attached. BRAT PACK, published through Tundra under the King Hell imprint, became it's guinea pig title.

Even though none of us knew what we were doing, the "twisted superheroes" concept of BRAT PACK hit a nerve, and sold well both as a series and a graphic novel.  Tundra ultimately moved away from its creator friendly roots before famously flaming out, but King Hell's projects there ended up being good for everybody.


Self Publishing: My Middle Period

When Tundra and Kitchen Sink merged, I left owning 100% of my intellectual properties and half the inventory which I was able to begin moving through existing distribution channels.  New King Hell editions of BRAT PACK and MAXIMORTAL, along with THE ONE, form the superheroic spine of my self-published backlist today.

I launched into an Image series with Alan Moore and Steve Bissette, which paid off better than any of us hoped. Steve and I suddenly found ourselves with the grubstakes we needed to really self publish.   Dave Sim had formed a traveling group with Larry, Jeff, Colleen, James and Martin and it seemed like a happening thing. Bissette and I slotted right into the mad whirl of the shows that Dave and the original group were doing just as the lava-dome of the Direct Sales Market began to blow flaming chunks.

Even living under a volcano, the carnival atmosphere on the self publisher circuit was great fun and the effort we were all putting in certainly helped promote our books.  Amazing cartoonists, like Paul Pope, began climbing out of the woodwork. We could see a sub-market of fans who focused on this kind of stuff developing.  There were distributors and want-to-be distributors shadowing us; looking at what we did as a potential profit center. Retailers were a little less supportive, having been burned by the black and white bubble in the late 80's and in the process of trying to digest the Image bubble of the 90's.

Some of the best moments had to be the bar signings.  We didn't have swag to give the retailers at staged events like the big publishers routinely did, so we'd set up in a hotel pub and offer free sketches to all comers. I can remember a couple of those scenes that were just howlers.
 
You'd think that when I returned to self-publishing, I'd have focused on my well established brands.  Instead, flush with Image bubble money, I decided to buy myself complete artistic freedom and do a dream comic called RARE BIT FIENDS. I was already writing down my dreams, so it was easy to start making comics from them.  The process of doing that kind of art is organic, intuitive and really satisfying on a lot of personal levels. I  brought an unusual focus to the dreams I had about my fellow cartoonists, many of whom were self publishers and collaborators.  

To anyone interested in this era of self publishing, the first RARE BIT FIENDS collection, RABID EYE, provides a surreal snapshot of who and what we were. On the road, I began carrying a small sketchbook to the after-show parties.  I'd open it to any cartoonist who wanted to draw their dream, then assemble the stuff into pages and publish it as ROAD BITS in the next RARE BIT FIENDS.  The whole ROAD BITS experience seemed to add a playful creative space in the middle of the nuts and bolts business of selling our books.

There have been previous dream records of art movements, such as the Beats, executed in prose by the likes of jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. But I like to think that RARE BIT FIENDS, with ROAD BITS, is the only graphic dream record of a distinct group of artists.  The fact that it occured during a very interesting time in their development, and the development of the field, is even cooler.

I'm sure I confused every BRAT PACK fan that ever lived, but that period when I was doing RARE BIT FIENDS remains the most creatively satisfying of my whole life.  During that crazy time, King Hell released 21 monthly issues of RARE BIT FIENDS and two trade collections, RABID EYE and POCKET UNIVERSE. I also managed a fresh edition of THE ONE and a new black and white collection of THE MAXIMORTAL.  

But the business of comics was eroding under our feet.  Marvel tore the already wounded Direct Market apart by attempting and failing to self distribute, sending all the other comics distributors into a spiral of collapse.  By the time Sim launched the "Spirits of Independence" tour the first distributors were dropping out or being gobbled up; the readerships they served vanishing forever.

The last year of the circus was the Spirits Tour, which was really a bunch of small shows put on in various cities by self publishers working with local retailers.  I made about half the tour, beginning in Austin.   I also helped organize ACE in Manchester Vermont with Steve Bissette and retailer John Rovnak.  We had a great show in Manchester and the other ones I attended were good too.  The market we'd seen developing was taking on a size and shape that was not unlike the first  con I attended in Berkley in 1974. Here were groups of fans, two hundred here, three hundred there, four hundred over here, who were willing to come out and focus completely on self published books.

At the last Spirits show, in Montreal, none of us had been paid by Capital City for over seven months.  DC and Image had signed exclusives with Diamond essentially creating two tiers of distribution with small and self publishers on the bottom tier.  Marvel moved back into the Direct Market by going exclusive with Diamond which finished off Capital City.  But Diamond couldn't assimilate all this and wheels started flying off their operation. King Hell books got caught in a bizarre inventory snafu that stopped all payments from what was then my only distributor.  The problem took a year to sort through and in the interim I found myself knocked right out of the batters box.

End of Part 1 

Symphony Space, New York City

Blog entry by Jeff

Last Sunday,between intermittent blasts of horizontal snow, I gave a talk at New York's Symphony Space. It was part of their kid's book series. On the Friday before, I arrived in town and went straight to the Scholastic building to start shooting web video interviews for various websites, including one for the Wall Street Journal which should run on their website next Friday. I'll post a link as soon as I get one.

This was the set up for the interview that will go up on the Bone area of Scholastic.com

Later I gave a short powerpoint talk to the Scholastic staff that included a reading from the newest book, Bone 7: Ghost Circles. My editor David Saylor, who I didn't get a picture of all weekend, was moderating the discussion. (In the front row is a prototype of the 2 foot tall Bone plush. One my favorite merchandising things we've ever done. He's almost life-sized!)

The reading was followed by lunch and a quick stop at the Scholastic book store to sign stock. 

Saturday afternoon I jumped on the R train and rode out to Queens to meet with Charlito and Mr. Phil to record an episode of the Indie Spinner Rack podcast. 

We were joined mid-way through the recording by Basewood cartoonist (and Ignatz winning guest editor of Papercutter #6 ) Alec Longstreth. From left: Alec, Mr. Phil, and Charlito. This was really a blast, these guys are on fire! We laughed through the whole 90 minute podcast. I will definitely post a link whenever it goes live.

Me and Alec. 

For dinner that night, Paul Pope and I met up at the Russian Vodka Room in Mid-town. He and I are old friends who go back to the early days of the self-publishing movement. Paul and I toast to comics with our second glass of Jewel of Russia vodka. Paul always has something fun in mind so we headed out on the town afterward to hook up with some of his buddies.

Here's Paul with his girlfriend Harvest. Around 5 a.m. we hit an all night pizza place.Nothing like a slice of New York pie for breakfast.

Then finally on Sunday, I headed over to Symphony Space (yes, I stood outside in the blizzard taking pictures of my name going by in lights. Look, Ma!) 

  

Inside, a sell out crowd of 175 got settled while I chatted backstage with Matthew Cody, the event's moderator, before going on stage.

It went great.  Symphony Space knew exactly what they were doing; and had us move around on stage and vary up the program with pictures and questions (from kids only) so that the kids in the audience never got bored. Charlito and Alec dropped by to lend moral support.

Afterward, everyone stayed to get their Bone books signed.

I'm still amazed when young girls come up to me with the 1,300 page Bone One Volume Edition in their arms, and tell me they've read it three times.

This guy drew Fone Bone and Smiley while he waited in line. Not bad, eh?

I had a great weekend all told, and I want to thank everyone at Symphony Space, Shelia Marie Evertt of Scholastic for taking me around, David Saylor, my editor, and Paul Pope for spending so much time with me, Charlito, Mr. Phil, and Alec Longstreth for everything else. 

Remembering the Self-Publishing Movement: Larry Marder, part 2

Blog entry by Jeff

Today is the conclusion of Larry Marder's guest blog about the Self-Publishing Movement. In Part 1, Larry took us up to the early days of self-publisher gatherings… 

"It was a heady time. We knew we were onto something, but we were primarily focused on the business model of that time–creating and distributing 32 page comic books; the periodical pamphlets that were the backbone of the industry.

But we also spent a lot of time dreaming about the future of the trade paperback as a new staple of making our living. We started to envision a time when our trades would always be in print. Our books would always be available for a retailer to restock the shelves; evergreen stock that never goes out of season or fashion."

Larry Marder Part 2:

I remember pulling the first copy of my own trade paperback Larry Marder's Beanworld: Book One out of its shipping carton and being struck with the bittersweet realization that “Wow! This is the format in which my work will survive!”
I recognized that the pamphlet comics themselves would fade away and be forgotten.  The letter columns, the Do-It-Yourself Beanworld contests, the fabulous fan art, all destined to end up in the dust bin of history as the trade-book-with-spine replaced the Beanworld pamphlets. On the other hand, a trade paperback was pretty cool with its ISBN number and bar code. Novel things back then.

Around the same time, Peter Laird, co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles created the Xeric Foundation, a private, nonprofit corporation. A Xeric Grant assists a fledgling self-publisher with a financial boost allowing a worthy project to make its way into the distribution/retail marketplace.

While our group was attempting to understand and create change within the system, another idea took root, and flourished completely outside of the established comic book economy. A new generation of young comics creators turned to the freedom of mini-comics. Small and inexpensive, easy to produce at photocopy shops, anyone could make a comic and distribute it for the cost of a stamp. Legendary mini creators like Matt Feazell could literally carry his entire comics inventory to a convention in a shoe box.

Another incredible contribution to the conversations we were having during the early ‘90s was the publication of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It was often ridiculed and picked apart by Scott's contemporaries, but the up and coming kids absorbed Scott's the ideas in Scott’s book like sponges. The effect that Understanding Comics has had on a generation of young cartoonists can not be underestimated.

Phew, that ended up a lot more long winded than I thought it would be, but from my point of view, that was the ramp up to the Self Publishing Movement.

We were a group of dedicated comic book creators that own our own characters, copyrights, and trademarks.

We published what we owned in our own periodical comics. We picked our own paper, prices, and ads.

We compiled our periodicals into our own trade paperbacks.

We were clearly in charge of our publishing destiny!
Once again, it felt like the sky is the limit!
And once again we were ultimately disappointed.

Why?
We didn’t control our own distribution destiny for one thing.
Due to reasons, far beyond the influence of the hard-working Self Publisher the comic book economy went into a tailspin.

In the mid ‘90s an epidemic of irresponsibly late and canceled titles from major publishers meant that comic book retailers had an increasingly difficult time knowing when they would have the right amounts of cash on hand to pay their distributor bills. Then in an already uncertain marketplace, Marvel Comics purchased Heroes World in order to self-distribute their books. The other distributors, faced with the loss of at least 50% of their business when Marvel Comics walked away. All went into self-survival mode. After a year of chaos and uncertainty Diamond came out on top as they signed DC, Image, and Dark Horse to long term exclusive brokerage agreements .One-by-one the other distributors faltered and fell. It was a hard blow to small and self publishers. Like it or not, the game had completely changed. Permanently.

Marvel’s self-distribution experiment failed and they ultimately ended up back with Diamond. Comics retailing increasingly became concerned with the growing importance of toys and other forms of merchandise in their retail product mix. What it meant to b a comic book retailer radically changed.

As the Executive Director of Image Comics and the President of McFarlane Toys was I an insider participant in the decision making process of some of these trends? Oh yeah, mea culpa. I tried hard to keep unpleasant situations as decent and straightforward as possible. I have no regrets about anything I did back then. But at the end of the day, for me, it was all work-made-for-hire.

But in the midst of all this up-and-down nuttiness, one thing stayed relatively stable. The sale of trade paperbacks. As the periodical business went on a crazy rollercoaster ride, trade paperback sales remained very strong. As we had hoped savvy comic book retailers increasingly learned to depend on the sales of evergreen stock. Sell one and replace it. Sell that one and replace it again. A good trade paperback never goes out of style or out of date.

And trade paperbacks have expanded out of the comic book marketplace into “real” bookstores. Our books are racked next to Japanese manga trades that are of a uniform look and size. Next to that manga projection of uniformity, our smattering of sizes and formats looks a bit ragtag. But, hey, we are there. And I think we shall stay there.

Now, riding shotgun to all of these developments was the home computer.
Followed by the Internet.
Everything changed with the Internet.

On the Internet, all things can be archived and catalogued. And in fact, letter columns, contests, and fan art have been reinvented on the Internet. Its astonishing how deeply involved in one's "community" a fan can become.
And rising up from the roots on the Internet, a new model has been emerging.
Where did it come from?
It has its roots in the black and white alternative comics of the ‘80s and ‘90s. And those roots came from the underground, counterculture comics of the late '60s and early '70s.

The new model also has roots springing from the mini-comics movement where small is beautiful and handcrafted objects are so much fun to behold and possess.

And yes, there are deep roots back into the Self Publishing Movement of the 1990s.

Today’s comics creator can say anything he or she wants, in any format, and retain ownership of it. And through judicious use of the Internet they can find enough people who are interested in their comics to make enough money to produce more comics. That was the heart of the Self Publishing Movement. Make enough money with your business to stay in business. And plow whatever profits you made into expanding the scope of your business by touring and advertising. And I see that specific spirit of independence thriving today.

And there are entirely new things going on too. Creators like Craig Thompson have ploughed new territory with the publication of long form graphic novels featuring all new material never serialized in a periodical format. And there seem to be thousands of online comics that aren’t intended to be viewed on paper. I think the potential of both of these formats have barely been touched so far. Amazing things are emerging from these arenas.

On the Internet, both comics creators and fans have the ability to converse directly without going through the labyrinth of the comics distribution and retail system. This generation of cartoonists has the ability to follow a model closer to the realm of music where bands don't really make so much money off of the content itself (the recorded material) but from touring revenues and licensing royalties

So today we have comics creators making a modest living from their works-on-paper or their comics online. But in addition to that, they also have revenue from self manufacturing all sorts of stuff: posters and prints, coffee mugs, T-shirts, plush dolls, tote bags and every other sort of merchandise one can imagine. And much of it is manufactured and distributed virtually on demand. Today’s creators can sell their artwork and books on personal websites, their goods on eBay and Etsy, and communicate with their fans on their blogs. Comic book creators have always had a close personal and economic bond with his or her cadre of most loyal followers; but nothing in the past has ever been so immediate!

Most of the people who are attempting to develop this model are relatively young. Pioneering is by and large a young person's game. When you take big risks, you hope you don't have that much to lose. But you don't stay young very long and your needs get more complicated as time flies.

That said, do I think that this is the trend of the future?
Yes, I do.
The general public is getting very accustomed to tailoring the goods and services in one's life to his or her needs. We are entering an era that will transition from mass-produced, mass-distributed retailer goods into to an era of direct personal fabrication. I am keenly interested in what effect the developments taking place in the personal fabrication world will have on comics publishing in the 21st century.

After spending eight years completely out of the comic book business in the toy business, and attending SPX for the first time in a decade, I’m convinced that most of the trends I've described above are already deeply rooted in today’s small press community. And expanding at an extraordinary rate.

I don't know when or where the big economic breakthrough will occur. Probably be sparked by the kids of tomorrow being influenced by today's young pioneer creators.

All I know is that I’m really excited to be reintroducing my own work, Beanworld, into this invigorating mix of creativity and technology.
Once again, it feels like the sky is the limit.
Maybe this time it really is.

Webcomics Weekly with me… Steve!

Blog entry by Steve

Hey all! The cool cats over at Webcomics Weekly and Halfpixel asked me to sit in on their latest podcast and talk about coloring! I'm a fan of the show, so it was a bit nerve-inspiring, but I survived, and I hope they ask me back.

Click away to load up the file and listen!

Thanks to Scott Kurtz, Dave Kellett, Brad Guigar, and Kris Straub for the fun chat about comics!

Remembering the Self-Publishing Movement: Larry Marder, part 1

Blog entry by Jeff

Today's guest blogger is Larry Marder. Marder started his Beanworld experience in the early 80s with Eclipse Comics.  He was present at the summit in the late 80s that produced the Creator's Bill of Rights, and in 1993, tried his hand at self-publishing with Beanworld Press. Larry was a close friend during those years and we spent hours and hours talking about comics in hotel bars and restaurants. Larry has a way of analysing a situation and being able to see things very clearly; something that made obstacles seem less formidible – - at least to me. Larry was the go-to guy for a lot of us; me, Dave Sim, and Todd McFarlane to name a few.

We lost touch after he disappeared into the depths of the toy industry while he was President of McFarlane Toys. It had been years since we had a really good talk about comics. Last year at SPX, he showed up with a bunch of new Beanworld pages and a new vigor for the art form, hints and teases of which you can find at his Beanworld blog. In Part 1, Larry takes us up to the beginning of the movement in 1993. In Part 2, he talks about why it failed, the legacy of the self-publishers, and where we're all going from here…

Larry Marder Part 1: 

Jeff Smith has initiated a conversation with several veterans of the Self Publishing Movement of the 1990s.

The questions at hand are:
What, if any, is the lasting influence of the Self Publishing Movement of the 1990s? Did we actually accomplish anything? Do we have a legacy that influences today’s new comics creators? Did the retail model that we worked so hard to change, actually change? Good questions.
And here are some personal anecdotes before I get to any sort of answer.
Over the summer of 1975, while nurturing a backyard vegetable garden, I was hit by a thunderbolt of an idea for a fantasy world that I called the Beanworld. I knew that these stories would be told in the comics format but I didn’t believe that anyone might actually publish it. Underground comics had already collapsed from greed, rising paper costs, and drug paraphernalia laws. There was nothing on the horizon to replace it.

Big deal.
I didn’t care. I labored at my day job in the advertising business. I spent my nights and weekends working on my Beans. By 1980, I was writing and drawing finished comic book stories. And by then, a new form of publishing had emerged from the ashes of the underground comics–alternative genre comics very unlike the super hero fare of Marvel and DC.

These new comics were Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest and Dave Sim’s Cerebus. I first heard about these “ground-level” comics in the fan press. I had little trouble finding copies in the comic book shops of my Chicago neighborhood. These self-published titles were distributed through the same companies that moved Marvel and DC comics into the emerging comic book store marketplace.

Pretty soon, two new trends were unfolding. Cerebus publisher Aardvark-Vanaheim began issuing other titles such as Journey, Normalman, Neil the Horse, Flaming Carrot, and Ms Tree. ElfQuest publisher WaRP Press offered A Distant Soil, Myth and Adventures, Fantagraphics, previously only known as the publisher of The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes, tossed their hat into the ring with the Hernandez Brothers' Love & Rockets. These black and white comics vigorously explored a vast array of genres.

Simultaneously, there was a new sensibility taking root and growing within the mainstream publishers, starting with Frank Miller's run as a writer/artist on Daredevil and his revisionist take on Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. Virtually at the same time, Alan Moore's reboot of Swamp Thing followed by Watchmen, had everyone’s attention, no matter what corner of comic book industry one was working in.

Something akin to the alternative comics spirit was bursting forth from new independent publishing companies. Rocketeer and Groo at Pacific Comics, American Flagg, Mars, and Grimjack at First Comics. Grendel at Comico. Nexus and Badger at Capital City. And I entered the business when Beanworld joined Zot!, and Scout at Eclipse Comics,

"Comics have grown up," we all told ourselves. "The sky is the limit!"

Well, it didn’t happen.

The success of the alternative and independent comics led to an incredible arc of greed and lunacy that is remembered as the Great Black and White Boom and Bust. Whole histories can be written about why it happened.
Doesn't matter anymore though.
 
The effect was that everyone working in alternatives was hurt, wounded, or eliminated in the awful aftermath.

The next few years were tough for all of us working in non-traditional comics. As Max Alan Collins, during his Ms Tree run, once said to me, “We are independent because we have no alternative.”

In 1988, Dave Sim decided to compile the entire High Society story into one fat volume. The format was so thick this it quickly became known as the “phone book.”. Dave announced that his intent was to sell High Society directly to Cerebus fans through mail order and not offer it through the distribution/retail chain.

The thought that a story arc consisting of several dozen issues of a comic could be sold in one package at a hefty price was a big new concept. The idea that the book would stay in print in perpetuity was an even bolder idea. The information that this new part of the business would be completely denied to distributors and retailers was simply put, revolutionary.

The particulars of how this all shook out is a story in and of itself, but, it triggered a chain of events that led to the Creators’ Rights Summit Conference. I was one of the creators who attended the two day event in Northampton, MA.

Scott McCloud brought a document he’d drafted that became the Creator's Bill of Rights. It was edited and ratified by the comics creators there. We had our eyes on the future. We knew that in order for the business of the comic book art form to prosper, it had to reform its Depression-era way of conducting business. Two decades later, it is hard to remember how radical a document this was for its time. Most of the rights claimed in the document are now standard business practices. But the idea that a creator should show a contract to a lawyer before signing it was considered a dangerous notion at the time by publishers of all stripes.
 
Another incredibly important event that occurred in the late ‘80s was distribution growth and consolidation spasms. Many distributors either went out of business or were gobbled up by aggressive competitors. By 1988, instead of a patchwork of interlinking and overlapping small regional distributors, there were now two powerful national distributors. Sure there were still reliable regional distributors, but they were playing minor league ball now.

In the early ‘90s I went into the retail end of the business when I became Marketing Director of a chain of popular culture stores in Chicagoland called Moondog's. I was shocked to recognize how little knowledge the individual links of the business chain had of each other needs.

They way I perceived it was:
Creators understood publishers.
Publishers understood creators and distributors.
Distributors understood publishers and retailers.
Retailers understood distributors and consumers aka fans.

Creators and fans always understood each other—they were, in fact, two sides of the same coin. But in between the people-who-created-comics and the fans-that-read-comics were all these business people with an incredibly limited understanding of the other people they were thoroughly dependant upon.
Am I simplifying here?
Not really.

It was during this phase of my life that I met Jeff Smith in the early '90s. He had a handful of issues of Bone under his belt and a “gosh-wow” attitude that was quite refreshing to us, the survivors of the '80s cataclysms.

Jeff joined us in the loose confederation of self-published creators that began hanging out together at conventions. Instead of spending convention nights lying to each other about how much money we had made that day; we compared notes about how we believed the money flowed through the comic industry.

It was a heady time. We knew we were onto something, but we were primarily focused on the business model of that time–creating and distributing 32 page comic books; the periodical pamphlets that were the backbone of the industry.

But we also spent a lot of time dreaming about the future of the trade paperback as a new staple of making our living. We started to envision a time when our trades would always be in print. Our books would always be available for a retailer to restock the shelves; evergreen stock that never goes out of season or fashion.

End of Part 1

More color from Bone 8, Treasure Hunters

Blog entry by Jeff

Steve just finished up the color work for Treasure Hunters, the penultimate book in the new color series from Scholastic/Graphix, and I wanted to share a couple of the panels. Nice job, Steve. You nailed these!

Bone 8: Treasure Hunters will go on sale in August. 

And if you're in New York tomorrow, don't forget to come to Symphony Space, Feb 10 @1pm. I'll be taking part in their childrens book program with moderator Matthew Cody.  

Remembering the Self-Publishing Movement (and Groo): Joshua Smeaton

Blog entry by Jeff

Today's guest blog is by web comics artist Joshua Smeaton. He has two books available for downloading at his website. It's a new model of do-it-yourselfing. We'll be hearing more from this group of artists in the weeks ahead. I also want to thank Joshua for highlighting Sergio's pivotal role in creator owned comics; the appearance of Groo was a watershed moment in comics…

Joshua Smeaton:

Growing up my idol was Sergio Aragones. I was a huge Groo fan. Groo & Sergio are what got me into comics. Part of the appeal (though I don't think I registered it at the time) was that Groo was different than everything else. And I don't just mean that it wasn't a super hero book. Groo was creator owned. You can't think of Groo with out thinking of Sergio Aragones. They're inseparable.

You hear the words "creator owned" and it's not a big deal today.
Everyone has some creator owned project going. But back when Sergio came up with Groo it was a big deal. Sergio Aragones, though not a self-publisher is a true independent.

To me independence is what self-publishing is all about. Free from the influence, guidance, or control of others. I doubt most people get into self-publishing because they think it would be fun to put out a book on their own.

There are a lot of reasons to self-publish but I think most of them can come down to not wanting to be just another cog in the machine. Self expression. The thought that "These are my ideas, this represents me and no one else and I want to share that."

It's also fairly masochistic. Slaving away for ages on something that you pray you'll receive validation for. And when you don't you continue at it anyway. I'm a little embarrassed to admit I've yet to cover the cost of a show I've exhibited at. But each show I do a little better and I always enjoy being there and making connections.

I do a web comic called "Haunted." It's about a group of kids that get trapped in a mansion haunted by a magical ghost and his pet baboon. I bring print copies to sell at conventions. But I put it online for free because I want to share it with as many people as possible.

I work ridiculous hours on it. I spend a lot more time working on that than I do my "real" job. And I'm certainly not making money off of it. Not yet anyway. So why bother? I guess because I believe in it. And that's a round about way of believing in myself. Kind of hippy-dippy I guess but at least I
like my publisher.