Self Publish or Perish
Self publishing comics is something I love in a way my wife isn’t ready to hear about.
There are no rules and sometimes your creativity needs that. Or as Becky Cloonan puts it so eloquently and purposefully:
I feel this down to my creaking bones. Every damn day.
I’m a nobody in the DIY game, and when dipping your toe is the usual analogy, I’d say I’ve got a soggy toenail but the digit remains unwrinkled. However, it’s already got its hooks into me and I plan to be sitting down and dangling my feet soon enough. Because I love what self publishing offers, both in your story and then your readership engagement, and because it’s just bloody exciting.
I found myself tethered to a sick kid recently and while keeping her asleep or quiet with tummy rubs, I launched ComiXology on the side and went through some of the stuff on there. This took me through some ALL NEW, ALL DIFFERENT AVENGERS [Waid looks strong], and KAMANDI [Kirby is always the strongest] and then I dipped back into two of the Becky Cloonan one-shots from her DIY imprint INK & THUNDER.
To offer clarity, the two issues specifically were:
THE MIRE – which is this supremely atmospheric short story that’s about a medieval squire sent on an errand by his master and it all turns eerie and heartbreaking by the end. The actual narrative is short and sweet but this issue is all about the visuals and the tone. Cloonan’s artwork is tonally on point for every panel as she makes you feel the air of the location as our kid wanders through this spectral swamp.
But really it just opens on this splash and it instantly had me in the palm of its hand. It’s a bold choice, for many reasons, to use this as the first page and my brain instantly went into churn mode as I was inspired hardcore:
Negative space. Silent. Beautiful. To open on a pause, when we are used to diving right in, is the sort of thing I’d probably never think of, but it’s airtight here.
The rest of the story is the narrative equivalent of ambient noise and that’s jacked right into my gut at present. With this fanning some flames, I then dove straight into:
DEMETER – and it’s interesting to see that WOLVES was cool, and THE MIRE was a good step up, but this book is the level up Cloonan was always on a trajectory to take and it nabbed her an Eisner for best single issue for very good reason. And it was with this issue that I realised why I love self pubbed comics, and why I cannot wait to do more.
The central emotion in DEMETER is love. From it we stem out into desperation, and fear, and black black hope, but it all revolves around love. And love isn’t something you see fuelling most big time stories. It’s a rarity when a book pauses the action or insanity and just tells a love story truly. Or at least tells it this well. Because this isn’t exactly fairy tale love, it’s almost toxic in its desire to be pure, it’s self-stifling, it’s the key to unlock you as you peer up and realise you’ve merely unlatched your own coffin for a peek at the sky before the dirt gets shovelled down into your eyes and your mouth and you are not getting out.
By the end of this read through, I was disgustingly energised to go make my own DIY one-shots. Because it reminded me that not only do you steer the ship, but your vehicle is so lightweight and superpowered that it can go anywhere it likes. You wanna do gonzo, run with it. You think the world needs a war story, hell yeah, assemble that team. There are no boundaries except those you erect and hold strong.
Love, drugs, depression, cancer, moon pigs, whatever. You can do whatever you want because the overheads are low [they’ll be extremely high for you, but you won’t have investors to please so you’ll be left alone to run to daylight in a creative sense]. You can do whatever you want because your audience is small but they are no doubt loyal. You are not beholden to page counts, to page formats, to genre conventions, to a rating for content.
In short, you get to create, to experiment, and to explore.
After some DIY one-shots, you will probably know yourself very well as an independent creator. That’s powerful stuff. Especially because each story is short, so you aren’t toiling half a year on one mini exploring that one avenue [haha, like a mini only takes half a year — HAHA, like you’ll get your one-shot done in half a year!]. Rocking some 16-28 page self-contained beast will help you spread across multiple genres, styles, collaborators, and that’s where some growth can truly be found.
If I analyse my own work, I find it to be true:
This was my debut on the biggest stage, from theoretical dabbler to finisher. From years writing broad and harsh genre fare, and some personal fanfic, and some cape story pitches that were false starts, this is something that deserved a home, and something that was true.
Daniel Schneider was a godsend to find and work with and it then all came together beautifully with Paulina Ganucheau on colours, Brandon DeStefano on letters, and Chris Kosek designing the whole thing for print. The book is 22 pages, it’s through a genre lens [crime] but it’s a personal tale that means something.
As far as a debut goes, I’m incredibly happy with it still to this day, it’s been a consistent seller at cons, and having it up in the early days of ComiXology Submit saw it land in that first Top 100 sale and now a few thousand people own the pixels for this tale. It’s been a true test of getting your stuff out there. And I am always happy to see it find a home even this week with random tweets dropping in when people sample and dig on ComiXology.
And when your stuff is going to have the same ‘shelf space’ as all your other stuff in your back catalogue on ComiXology, you suddenly want it all to matter because it won’t go away, ever *shudder* [LINK]
From FATHERHOOD I got the bug and while waiting for other things to line up [and by waiting I mean drafting story outlines, writing other shorts, flying my ass to Seattle a week after my daughter was born to meet editors and sell my wares] I started to set up the next one-shot.
It took a while to get this beast made but when you’re waiting for Sami Kivela art, you do not complain. I wrote it on my phone when my second was born. It kept me sane. I then waited while we made it as perfect as we could and in the meantime I had HEADSPACE land at Monkeybrain so that kept me busy.
For me, DEER EDITOR was a chance to do something wild. Where FATHERHOOD was completely from the heart, this was me dabbling in something more thin but way more broad. It’s crime, it’s political intrigue, it’s journalism [sweet, sweet journalism because THE PAPER was my teenage jam], and I think I just wanted to create something iconic in Bucky, our anthropomorphic lead. He’s definitely the closest thing to an iconic image I’ve ever been associated with. All my other characters are just straight up people *snore*.
But I also didn’t wanna be the guy writing his daddy issues into everything, I needed to branch out and this was most definitely that.
We Kickstarted, we crushed it, people dug it, I tattooed this as a success on my soul. I haven’t Submitted the book yet, but that’s with reason…
So, WHAT NEXT?
Well, like I said, I fell in love with the DIY one-shot ethic. Dropping HEADSPACE across a year and into an IDW trade was mindblowing, and the forthcoming NEGATIVE SPACE from Dark Horse is obviously not real and I’ll wake up soon, but a good part of my brain is still kicking over short stories to tell with rad peeps.
That ability to do whatever you want, however you want, is strong in me and hopefully runs strong in the plans I have forged in heat and stupidity.
So here’s a run down on what’s coming…eventually/hopefully.
An all-ages romp about monsters in the dark, an all-ages sci fi tale about acceptance and a sentient helmet, a sleepover tale about power and responsibility with teenage girls, an intergalactic sci fi action thriller about espionage and data, a lady Viking ghost story, and a lady kung fu tale [I’m being hella vague so as not to give too much away – which is why they maybe sound lame…or more awesome than they actually are].
All of these stories are pretty wild, and they definitely end, and they are short, and there’s no way I’d pitch them as anything bigger. They are going to be gorgeous slices of fiction once done – and with the artists I have lined up, yeah, gorgeous is just the start, but they are something we can control, and can do in our time, and can have a little fun with. These stories are personal and wild and something I’m certain could and should only work as DIY daggers to jam into your peepers. And you’ll also notice they cover a variety of genre styles. All-ages comes up twice, but in very different ways. Sci fi comes up a bit, but again, with very different tones. It would take me years to diversify tone and character type and personal style through minis like this but with one-shots I’m slinging all kinds of fury onto the page, every colour, all 31 flavours.
And I know the above sounds obvious [and wickedly self-aggrandising] but I put it here because I wish someone had told me some of this sooner. I wish someone had thoroughly explained why pitching minis from your inception was a bad idea [well, maybe not bad, just not good…or effective…yeah, actually, it’s bad…because you are no one, you will most likely not get picked up, ever, if no one knows you can close…and everything everywhere with everyone is ABC, peeps]. And if you do get picked up youare probably too green to make it count. But if you drop the ball on a short, well, no harm no foul.
TIMEFRAMES AND END GAMES
The DIY game is fraught with danger. Look at the weekly stack of things clogging up the ComiXology Submit lines. We are not alone doing this. So why do it?
Because it’s fun, man. It’s just jam packed with zest for life like a croissant full of dripping butter and jam. It’s proof of life – yours and the market’s. It’s this groping finger looking for a new heartbeat, the one no one else found. It’s this unwieldy beast you can just do, no one stops you, you do your way, and then you just see what happens.
There’s something very wild west about just saddling up with a partner and riding into the four colour sunset.
I also love using one-shots as my side thing. DEER EDITOR was written upon my return from Seattle and with a 2 week old who refused to sleep. I wrote two one-shots while writing NEGATIVE SPACE because it helped give me time between drafts or while trying to break a scene. It was the thing that kept my brain churning on the side. My brain is a fractured boxer’s fist with floating metacarpals and gristle grinding like rusted gears. I’m a mess of insane parts.
But once the book is made – the tone set, the genre amplified, the characters destroyed, the fun had – then we get to sell it. And I love selling my books at cons. I love pairing up a reader with just the right thing on my table. One time, this kid walks his other kid friend of his up to my table and they are poking around and I get chatting and it turns out this one kid is a comics dude and he is getting is mate to join the club, he’s just trying to find the perfect comic to be his mate’s first. I tell them, from my table, you can’t go past DEER EDITOR. It’s a great first comic, one you won’t soon forget, and the kid bought it and was stoked to have his carefully selected first comic in hand. That was a cool moment for me.
Because DIY comics is all about the readership. People get pumped about DIY books because when they hit the bullseye, they hit it hard. There’s only one book with a deer journalist solving crimes. There’s only one place to get Australian political sci fi thrillers in this town. A good DIY book isn’t middle of the road, it’s not cliche, it’s not something you can get anywhere. You get to be unique, batguano insane, beautiful, ridiculous – why waste that telling some standard story?
I always wanna do some DIY stuff. I think it’s freeing, it’s fun, and it’s going to keep you sharp. Publishers won’t really gamble on one-shots, you can’t always go crazy and experiment on publisher backed books [unless you are good enough to show you can do that and succeed a high majority of times]. There are advantages to dipping back into DIY waters for you.
I have no idea what my future in comics holds but I’d like to keep doing DIY stuff on the side, or right up front, for as long as I can. I know Warren Ellis is setting himself a timer to periodically write short fiction and I’d love to do the same with some shorts. Just brainstorm weird stuff, bash out a script on the side like you are pounding dough, and then team up with someone rad and make something beautiful. It’ll be fun to explore new places, difficult emotions, warped realities. It’ll be a growth experiment to try to break pages in different ways, write characters that would never be thought to sell, or just throw myself into a whole new direction for one issue [romance, ghoul noir, gonzo Crimean war]. But most importantly, if I dig it hardcore, then someone else probably will too, and that’s cool. That’s what DIY is, and hopefully always will be. I’ll tell you in 2042 how I went.
It’s like the lady says: self-publish or perish.