Taking it Online: Colleen Doran Talks A Distant Soil

Doran Talks A Distant Soil

From its beginning, when its creator was still a teenager, A Distant Soil has gone through seeming innumerable mutations. Colleen Doran has written and illustrated the series for twenty years at this point, working with various publishers (most recently Image), self-publishing, even re-starting the entire series from scratch at least once, all while establishing herself as an in-demand and incredibly popular comics artist on projects like Legion of Super-Heroes, Orbiter, Book of Lost Souls, Tori Amos’s Comic Book Tattoo and more. But A Distant Soil has remained her most personal project.

Combining science-fiction, world-building, politics, conspiracy, romance, action and psychic powers, A Distant Soil is a most singular comic series, and it’s adapting yet again to a new form: webcomic.

Starting with the series very beginning – so that new readers can catch up, and established readers can revisit the beginnings – Doran has begun posting the earliest pages of A Distant Soil on her website at adistantsoil.com.

We talked with her about A Distant Soil, publishing online and how difficult it is to build an audience for independent comics.

Newsarama: Colleen, you've started at the beginning of the series, rather than posting new pages. Why?

Colleen Doran: The Internet has a far higher percentage of readers who haven't read my work than have. And of those, most of them would appreciate beginning at the beginning instead of in the middle.

Also, I did a poll of my readers about a year ago, and even though it was an Internet poll, the vast majority said they would prefer me to keep publishing the comic. So, the backlist is going up on the web one page at a time. And since we have hundreds of pages of backlist, doing so could take quite a long time to post.

I am hoping that by the time I am finished posting the backlist, the entire saga will be completed or nearly so. So, my loyal readers will be able to get the ending in their Image Comic, while we post the previous pages in hopes of attracting new readers who have never seen the series.

I know it has worked in some cases already. I've had a number of people start reading my book and pick up the GN's for the first time. Let's hope that continues.

NRAMA: How often will you be posting pages?

CD: Daily for the foreseeable future, but I may have to cut back eventually. Blogging is time consuming and I just have a huge amount of work to do. I am also getting over being sick for some time and I am going to be playing catch up for months at this rate.

I had planned to just upload pages three times a week, but what the heck. I have lots! So, it's daily, for now.

NRAMA: Going back to the beginning of the series, do you find yourself wanting to retouch pages or alter dialogue that you'd written?

CD: Oh lord, I struggle with that every day. Seriously, it really gets to me sometimes. I've promised I will not let the desire to revise mess with me too much, but there are some things I would love to fix.

It is extremely bizarre to look over my old work after these many years, and only now am I starting to be able to enjoy looking back and just reading it. A Distant Soil is such a funky space opera drama! It has everything I loved as a teen, and the kitchen sink. And aliens with great clothes. And angsty romance. I have so much fun with this book.

NRAMA: You've released four trade paperbacks in the series to date. I seem to recall that the next book, when you're finally able to begin work in earnest on it, is the finale of the series, correct?

CD: Yes, but I actually did a substantial portion of a prequel already too, it's just never been collected.

NRAMA: After some of your work-for-hire projects like Orbiter, Book of Lost Souls and, going back a few more years, Reign of the Zodiac on your resume, I'm surprised that A Distant Soil hasn't picked up some readers and become a more profitable venture for you. How frustrating is it to see the end of ADS, yet be so far away from achieving that?

CD: Well, you're mistaken about projects like Orbiter. That wasn't work-for-hire. And Book of Lost Souls is property of J Michael Straczynski. Regardless, if there is one thing I have learned about being in the independent press for lo, these many years is that mainstream success rarely translates into independent success. The history of self-publishing is littered with the corpses of mainstream creators who tried to go it alone with their dream projects. We live in a world where fantastic books like Love and Rockets have trouble making decent sales.

My book is a quirky romantic space opera, and it has little in common with almost anything I have done in the mainstream. Even if you did want to buy it, you'd have trouble finding it in bookstores.

I remember when I first started self publishing, I had also done work as fill-in artist for Todd MacFarlane on Amazing Spider-Man. And I recall exactly what the sales were: 308,000 copies.

Now, you'd think some of those readers might have moved on over and bought A Distant Soil, but that rarely happens. There was just no market cross over for the average Spider-Man fan and the A Distant Soil readership, at that time anyway. I don't know about now.

I have very telling photos from one of the small press expos from the early 1990s. A mainstream creator who had tried self-publishing went with a bunch of the core self publishers to the show, thinking they were going to clean up sales-wise because they were this hot mainstream name. And there I was with James Owen and hanging with Jeff Smith and the self publishing gang. And people wanted Jeff Smith and Los Bros Hernandez and the like. They had no interest in the mainstream creator, who threw a tantrum, complained about being snubbed and began refusing to pose for photos. They kept turning their back to the camera every time someone tried to take a shot.

They just could not understand how their self-published effort wasn't selling as well as their mainstream effort. And the answer is, Spider-Man's sales aren't your sales. That's not your market, that's Spider-Man's market. Only a small percentage of the fans of Spider-Man are going to carry over to your personal projects. Bottom line: know your market. Spider-Man's market is not your independent comic book's market.

Now, a book like The Book of Lost Souls, or Reign of the Zodiac: that had some crossover for me, but both were modest sellers. Book of Lost Souls was virtually ignored by the industry, and every time I show a graphic novel collection to someone, they can't believe there is a J. Michael Straczynski book they never heard of. Reign of the Zodiac was so out of its element at DC.

But again, if a comics fan picks up Book of Lost Souls, it is highly likely A Distant Soil won't be sitting on the shelf right next to it in a comic shop, even if it were something a Book of Lost Souls reader would like. So, there is no chance to snag that new reader, unless I do it by making my work available to them. Comic shops only have so much shelf space and the average shop has less interest in promoting my work than I do. There are countless popular web comics and independent works you simply can't find in your average comic shop.

And of course, there's no comparison between my work on A Distant Soil, which is often very lyrical and linear and decorative, and my gritty, dark work on books like Orbiter. Someone reading Orbiter may not want to read a space opera about aliens who emote a lot.

Believe it or not, I don't find this frustrating at all. I know how this industry works, I know how the readers think. And because I know this, I now have a website to make my work available to people who want to find it. And that website has far more readers than the comic sells. A lot more.

And as sales go, 90% of the independent press would kill for my sales on A Distant Soil. On the whole, small press sales are just terrible. I could name some major books and not a one cracks 1,000 sales on release.

The difference between me and a lot of these people is I am not being supported by a spouse, and/or I am not working a day job. I am a full-time working professional and expect my work to support me. So, I expect A Distant Soil to bring in income commensurate with the time investment, as well as with the financial investment. A Distant Soil earns profits, but it doesn't support me full time, so I work on it part time.

And there are readers and comic retailers who rail against people like me for not producing more work on projects like A Distant Soil in a more timely fashion. What that boils down to is that I am then expected to produce work for less than minimum wage on someone else's schedule, and I simply can't afford to do that. Migrant workers get paid more per hour than most cartoonists. I have to do more lucrative work not only to support myself, but to pay for A Distant Soil, which I fully intend to finish, come hell or high water.

Most small press comics don't even come close to supporting their creators. If they even make their print bills, it's a freaking miracle.

And every creator and fan assumes that if they have heard of you, or you are getting great press, you must be making some bank.

I was explaining the principles of economic order quantity to a small press publisher who had invested huge wads of dough into overprintings of their graphic novel collections. And they were so proud when they told me they made $300 a month on their backlist! Their garage was full of these volumes.

To me, this sounded like a disaster. I had assumed with all the great press they got, those graphic novels must be flying out of there. But no, at $300 a month, they were moving something like 15 copies a month. And they thought that was great. They gave me permission to write an article about them concerning economic order quantity, as long as I changed their name, so I can tell this story without betraying any confidences. But I look at $300 a month income, and that is income I can't consider a success. But this small press could, because their spouse pays the bills enabling this independent press to feel comfortable on $300 a month.

A Distant Soil's success is a matter of scale. In the small press, no violins are playing sad music for me. But by mainstream standards, my book is a cult book.

And it damn sure makes more than $300 a month. But not enough for me to work on it full time.

NRAMA: Work-for-hire wasn’t quite the phrase I intended, but your point is taken. And I bought Orbiter largely due to the ADS connection. You're also blogging at your site. How often do you manage to update your blog, and what do you blog about there?

CD: I update almost every day, and sometimes several times a day. I blog a lot about industry issues and business matters, creator rights, legislation, that sort of thing. I've worked as a creator rights advocate, reviewing legislation, giving advice to organizations. Creator rights are my primary concern.

Since I got back from NYCC, I've been posting some of my con sketches. I'm taking a couple of days off from writing so I can make up some time on my new book. I just signed on with Comic Space, and my site traffic seems to be increasing. Between the daily web comic and my articles, I hope we'll continue to see a rise in readership.

Lots of people have gotten use from some of my articles, and I've gotten thank you letters and nice hat tips from a number of creators who have gotten agents and jobs from articles, such as my list of graphic novel agents. Some have been able to get health insurance because of another article.

I feel very strongly about these professional issues and am happy to have a forum to share the information. I haven't really noticed very good resources for the comics community about this sort of thing, on the whole. I do read a lot of terrible advice out there from newbie pros and semi pros, but there's no reason to dwell on them. I just try to give better information and resources.

There are so many good organizations and insurance providers and so on – right now – for creators. And they don't avail themselves of those resources. They rail against the fact that we have no union and no insurance, and I write over and over again, HELLO! This is here! Here's a union! Here's about 200 insurers for the self employed, for artists, for small businesses. And every single day, I get mail asking for help because people just won't face the fact that being a freelance artist is small business, and you have to conduct yourself as such.

There are so many creators who simply don't know how to take care of themselves. Proactive, talented people get my attention and my support. I can't help people who are perpetual victims, who continually sign bad agreements, who simply won't face the fact that their behavior or their work is the problem, or they engage in self sabotage with constant drama. If I decide you are one of those, you're gone. If I decide you have chops, I will go to the mat for you.

I'm in no way obligated to help anyone who asks, and I can't possibly help everyone who does. If I help, it's a merit-based decision. I tend to answer any question asked on my blog, but can only mentor a few people a year.

NRAMA: In addition to your blog and serializing ADS, Colleen, what are you working on these days?

CD: I'm about 20 pages from completing the long-awaited graphic novel Stealth Tribes with Warren Ellis for Vertigo, and I just started Gone to Amerikay, written by Derek McCulloch, also for Vertigo. I am getting a late start on that one, because I got the New York Comic Con convention crud!

Add A Distant Soil, and I am working on three graphic novels at once.

Good lord, that is kind of scary when you say it out loud.

A Distant Soil is available as a serialized comic series and as four graphic novel volumes from Image Comics. ADS and Colleen Doran’s blogging can be read online at ADistantSoil.com.

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