The path to money and creative fulfillment in comic books used to be a road that led to Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and the like. But many creators are finding there are a few forks in that road.
For example, Bill Willingham wrote 150 issues of Fables at DC, now collected in paperback in 22 volumes. They've sold tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of copies each. Now he has a Patreon site where he writes what he wants, and makes $250 a month.
Greg Pak has written Superman and Incredible Hulk, and also did a Code Monkey Save World Kickstarter that grossed $340,270.
And Dave Johnson is one of the industry's most respected cover artists and designers. He gives out cover and design critiques to you on Patreon if you're willing to shell out $1 a month.
Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Patreon started with the notion of “I'm a newbie with a dream,” but it’s not just the leg-up crowd that’s using them anymore. It’s established creators as well, doing exactly what they want to do.
From The Pulpit
Dave Johnson is the very picture of doing exactly what he wants to do. He started doing cover critiques on Twitter a couple years ago, and moved them over to his website. His only problem? Random internet jerks.
“When everyone had free access, I was getting a lot of drive-by people who just wanted to rage about it,” Johnson says. “At least now, people have to put forth a dollar and be a real person.”
Johnson said he went to Patreon simply to keep the gawkers out.
“I have a hard time caring about engaging with a totally anonymous person,” he says. “It’s harder to troll when you’ve paid money and your information is there. I know you’re John, and you must have given Patreon your credit card number. At least I know you’re real.”
Johnson actually loves the discourse (“I don’t mind someone giving me their opinion, and going at it. Let’s talk!” he says), and is steadfast that his critiques will be available for a mere $1 a month.
“One, me critiquing someone’s work isn’t worth that much, and two, you can’t bitch if I’m not providing constant content. It’s a buck!” he says. “If it was more, I would feel more pressure to perform like a paid monkey. As it is, I do about four times a month. For a buck. Cheap entertainment.”
It’s more than that. Johnson has 20+ years of experience, a highly-trained eye, and extensive credits in both comics and TV. His critiques are very pointed, and both fans and colleagues learn a lot from them.
“When I stopped the critiques earlier, people kept on me,” he says. “At cons, fans and professional artists alike would say, ‘Man, I really miss those, I got a lot out of it. You should start it again.’ But I wasn’t getting much out of it putting up with butt-hurt randos who seemed to want to get upset over something. So… Patreon came along, and seemed the way to start it again.”
Johnson is currently making $93 a month on Patreon, and guess what? Some brief critiques are still free and available for public view. He calls the money “more a symbolic thing,” and hopes that everyone can maybe learn just a little bit. Himself included.
“I do not grow in a vacuum,” he says. “I do not grow with only praise. If some artist wants to critique my work, I say ‘bring it.’ I’m always looking to improve my work, and I’m happy to get any critiques right back at me from my colleagues.”
Fables & Reality
Willingham has Patreon levels from $1 to $10, and a jokey $50 level that he doesn’t really recommend; It gets you nothing more than the $10 level, and clearly states that. Willingham has been a published writer for more than 30 years, but couldn’t resist kicking the tires at Patreon.
“There’s a sense of discovery in a new area for me,” he says. “Things like Patreon and online publishing were never available when I was in the pink of my youth, so it’s a weird, new alien future that my curiosity will not let me avoid.”
He also admits he tried it, “So as not to be a complete hypocrite.”
“On past convention appearances, I’ve been telling people you don’t need to ‘break in’ to comics anymore, or for that matter, music or publishing or anything,” Willingham says. “We now live in a world where if you want to do it, you can do it. The only one stopping you is you. The gatekeepers are still there, but the gates they’re guarding have fallen down right and left. The avenues available to you are online publication, in all its various forms.”
Willingham says he was often challenged with, “Well, then why aren’t you doing it?”
“It finally became money where my mouth is, or in this case, perhaps lack of money where my mouth is,” he says.
“Lack,” indeed. Willingham is making a whopping $257 a month on his Patreon site. For that, patrons can get 143 chapters of eight major stories, along with dozens of short stories, writing advice, and behind-the-scenes photos. There’s even a secret Fables prose story for those who know where to look.
Willingham has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his books previous, but on Patreon, plays to an audience of 56. Does the diminished return ever make him feel, well…stupid?
“Yes. For God’s sake, yes! Yeah!” he says. “Every time I post something, I wonder if it’s stupid to play to a small room. I feel like I’ve built up an audience over time, and now they’re not here. There’s a very small worry that perhaps it devalues my work.”
But he also loves the fact that he can do what he wants, and you get unfiltered Willingham.
“I love the don’t-change-a-word-of-this freedom,” he says. “One of the fights I have even with publishers I respect is the notion that stories are fragile, and they can’t often survive the mistakes of more than one person. I often fully agree when someone says, ‘You’re in error,’ but I usually say, ‘Yes! But they’re my errors.’ The argument does not necessitate that you should substitute in your mistakes as well. At least this all has one direction.”
Willingham points to Gene Ha’s Mae graphic novel (originally Kickstarted and now published by Dark Horse) as an example of single voice winning the day.
“Mae is wonderful!” Willingham says. “It’s bright, it’s whimsical, and it definitely bears the character of one guy. If Gene had offered this to a traditional publisher in the formative stages, who knows the kind of changes that might have been posed on it before it got out? But now he’s got the power. And that’s absolutely a good thing.”
Speaking of power…Greg Pak.
Pak has made multiple stops as a writer at Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and more, but he really shines on Kickstarter. That Code Monkey Save World book grossed $340,270, and it’s just the start. Pak’s The Princess Who Saved Herself grossed more than $110,000, and an ABC Disgusting kids’ book pulled in $35,000. Pak has been so successful on Kickstarter that his latest project is…a Kickstarter Secrets book.
“I feel like we’re in a bit of a golden age when it comes to creating comics, partially because Kickstarter can allow creators at any level to reach and monetize an audience they’ve built,” Pak says. “It gets projects off the ground that would have been very hard to do otherwise.”
The advice in Pak’s current book doesn’t just come from Greg. He interviewed creators such as Amy Chu, Jimmy Palmiotti, and C. Spike Trotman to get their stories as well. Trotman is another Kickstarter juggernaut, with 10 successful comic projects under her belt. She gave the most operative advice:
“Spike said something really smart,” Pak relays. “She said you do a Kickstarter to make the most of an audience you already have. I think that’s the smart way to think about it. I think you can build an audience on Kickstarter, but if you haven’t produced anything, you’ve got a much harder row to hoe.”
So yes, those Marvel and DC credits help a lot. So does finding the right partner. Pak teamed up with singer/songwriter Jonathan Coulton for both Code Monkey and Princess. The books are adaptations of Coulton songs.
“Jonathan is an indy guy who built his audience largely through the internet, kind of like me,” Pak says. “We could have pitched Code Monkey Save World to different companies, and we might have got someone to bite. But since we already had an audience in our hand, it just made sense to go for it on Kickstarter. And it got more backers than we ever dreamed. It was an unusual and fun experience that we’re extremely grateful for.”
Pak cautions that a $340,000 gross is just that - a gross, with a net that’s much smaller.
“I think we spent something like $60,000 on postage on that one,” he muses.
He also warns that being chief-cook-and-bottle-washer on your own project means that you wash a lot of bottles.
“It’s a lot of work,” he chuckles. “You’re not just signing up to make your project. You’re signing up to do publicity, accounting, packing, shipping, customer service. If you’re not interested in doing those jobs, it can be tough. Research it, figure out if it makes sense for you. And if it does, it can be a huge part of building and continuing your career.”
More creators are thinking about crowdfunding in ways great and small. Ron Marz is thinking out loud. Pak thinks it’s an important part of the mix.
“I think Kickstarter has become a valuable and actually critical tool for artistic production in America,” Pak says. “It’s enabled a lot of independent artists and creators to do great work. Bottom line, there are countless projects that just wouldn’t have gotten made without this.”
—You can, should you so desire, “follow Jim McLauchlin on Twitter,” as the kids say. It’s @McLauchlin
—Copy-editing provided by Kit Kiefer, who can be found @PotatoPhantom.