With this entry, we start a series of guest blogs about the Self-Publishing Movement. A series of essays, memories, and opinions about a movement that in my mind was less about actual self-publishing than about the freedom to experiment with genre, structure and form during a crucial period for comics in the 1990s. Today's guest blogger, Colleen Doran, has been making comics since she was in her teens. She's worked with both small publishers, as well as with Marvel and DC. Her best known big company projects are Orbitor, The Book of Lost Souls, and her stints on Sandman. She was also caught up in the whirlwind of the self-publishing movement while producing her mangum opus A Distant Soil. Colleen and I still talk a lot on the phone, especially when we're both on deadline and trapped at our drawing tables for hours on end. It was during one of these conversations that we started talking about the adventures we had at shows and in the party suites with the other self-publishers, which by the end had grown to be dozens and dozens of people at any given stop. It was a wild time, full of ideas and optimism. There was some crashing and burning, sure, but we started to wonder if enough time had gone by to give us some perspective on that era…
Thanks to Jeff Smith for inviting me to drop in and guest blog.
For a while, self publishing was the coolest of all possible cool things to do. Retailers and fans waited in long lines to get the autographs of the core self publishing movement creators. The party seemed like it would never end. We spent months out of every year on the road promoting work, signing autographs, holding “bar cons” that lasted until 5 AM, doing free sketches for retailers and fans until our hands swelled up, and we lost our voices or, in my case, passed out cold from low blood sugar.
It was exhausting and exhilarating. We were supportive and competitive. The stress was unbelievable. The extremes of our lifestyles made us cranky and sick, hilarious and energetic, Tourettes bipolar.
Contrast the solitary, long hours we spent drawing comics in our homes and studios with the swarms of attention and loud parties of the convention scene – I’m surprised we didn’t all end up in the loony bin. We lived like rock stars on the road, and then went back home and, in my case, slept in my only real piece of furniture – a chair. People assumed we were all filthy rich, and while there was money coming in, it went out just as fast, reinvested into new books, inventory, and promotion.
It all started with a small band of creators who, for the most part, either wouldn’t or couldn’t be published elsewhere. Jeff Smith, knowing nothing about the comics scene, sprang full grown from the head of Zeus. He was The Complete Cartoonist and wowed everybody. Dave Sim was the old man of the group and styled himself The Guru. James Owen was The Salesman. Martin Wagner, The Huckster. Larry Marder, The Machiavellian. Steve Bissette was Mr. Sensitive. Rick Veitch, The Dreamer. Me, I was just The Girl. This wacky crowd of self publishers broke all the rules.
Wild rumors circulated about drug use and romances: I saw none of that. There was no time for goofing around. We worked seven-day weeks, and went for months (or years) without breaks.
At some shows, Dave Sim provided the core self publishers with limo service, as well as other ruffles and flourishes that supported a successful image. All base expenses were our individual responsibility, but limousine service made us look good, and The Guru of self publishing wanted to look good. Making self publishing look good was more important than the objective reality that self publishing was unlikely to be good for almost everyone trying to do it.
When I got home after tooling around in a limo, I didn’t have enough money to buy a car. The public never saw the trips to the Goodwill to buy a decent outfit to wear, anything to save the money to get that next issue published. I reinvested more than $50,000 a year of my income back into my work. Sometimes there was a nice sum left after all that. Sometimes there wasn’t.
Most people never made a dime of profit self publishing. More lost a small fortune. Some lost big. Caught up in the excitement and promise of big money and convention fame, they heaped scorn on anyone who tried to warn them. A few of us (like me) even loaned promising creators money. And we never saw these people (or our cash) ever again.
Some of these wannabes weren’t in it to fulfill their creative urge. To them, self publishing looked like an easy way to make a buck. Jeff used to call these efforts “random acts of self publishing”. The poor quality of work being churned out by legions of wannabes began to turn retailers off, and sales plummeted. Few could get established without the original self publishing creator’s first mover advantage: when there were 7 self publishers, it was easy to get noticed. When there were 700, not so simple.
Self publishing was a major source of income for me for nearly six years. But in 1995, the direct comics market imploded and most of the comics distributors went bankrupt.
Anyone can self publish on the web now. All of the computer equipment and webspace one might need for a year is roughly the same as the cost of printing one issue of a comic book. You self publish whenever you write on a blog. It’s normal, and in some jobs, it’s expected. Creators are now actively encouraged by their publishers to promote their work on blogs. Saves the publisher the hassle of paying a marketing department.
But when we were wee tots, self publishing was radical, it was a huge financial risk, and only crackpots who couldn’t get published anywhere else did it, and only people out of their minds with ego promoted their own work. There was no internet to speak of.
I started self publishing projects when I was about 12 years old, stapling together zines, making lithographs of prints and selling them at conventions. I self published my comic book series A Distant Soil for about six years before I threw in the towel and moved to Image Comics. So, there are my creds.
When I was still a zygote, I was introduced to self published comics via the work of Jack Katz whose First Kingdom predated the better known Cerebus and Elfquest. Friends in SF fandom had brought copies to a club meeting. Even though I was impressed by what I saw, like most people, I assumed self publishing was code for “Can’t get a real publisher.”
Self published comics were around way before my time. Early efforts include works by Gil Kane dating back to 1968. Our big “self publishing movement” didn’t start until the early 1990’s. Those that came before didn’t get much press. And they usually didn’t meet with much success, with the obvious exception of the worldwide media hit The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1984).
When I was fifteen-years-old, I met Kelly and Polly Freas who had started their own company Greenswamp Press. Kelly is probably best known to comics fans as the Alfred E. Neuman artist for MAD magazine. Here was the top SF artist in the world producing beautiful work at his own company run from his home, with inventory stored in the barn. According to Kelly, Elfquest was originally supposed to be published at his Greenswamp Press label, until the creators decided to go it alone. I worked as Kelly Freas’s assistant in the 1980’s. Kelly created the Starblaze label at a small, local publisher, which went on to publish a few early graphic novels, including work of mine.
I was surrounded by people who were self publishing, but as a teen I didn’t think I would have much luck publishing my own work. Anxious to go pro, when publishers offered me contracts, I signed up. Surely, working for a real publisher would be better than whatever I could achieve self publishing!
On books that sold tens of thousands of copies, I never made more than minimum wage, and sometimes didn’t get paid at all. In the 1980’s, I was landing my first mainstream comics work, but even so, my page rates were among the worst in the business. I could not make more than $10,000 a year working 80 hour weeks. The mainstream wasn’t paying me big bucks, but at least they paid me. The small press sometimes paid nothing.
I didn’t understand why my small press clients had money to buy thousands of dollars worth of original art, ivory knickknacks, and BMW’s, when they could not pay the creators that produced the income. To add injury to injury, I ended up in several lawsuits over my work as well. So much for creator owned comics! I was the creator, so why was I forced to fight for my copyright and trademark?
Kelly Freas later confessed he had been disappointed I had gone with a small publisher he didn’t like with my work A Distant Soil. He would have published it himself, or even helped me to do it. What a missed opportunity!
It was time to give self publishing some serious thought. Most of the people I encountered in the small press had no experience, no training, no creds whatsoever, yet they hung out a business sign, and promoted themselves as “real” publishers. Why were any of these people more qualified than me or any other cartoonist? Running a company out of their basement made them publishers, qualified to make more money on my own work than I did? Why were they more legitimate than someone who published their own work? Because their basement was bigger? They had a bigger wallet? Bigger ego? Greater need for a BMW? What?
If I was going to be published by amateurs, I might as well do it myself.
End of part 1.