“We are not anywhere near the digital future yet with comics. There is so much exciting ground to be staked out!”
Alex de Campi
For someone known for pushing boundaries, Alex de Campi‘s bio is rather understated, simply noting that she has “written creator-owned graphic novels for IDW, Tokyopop, and Humanoïdes (in France), plus stories for Dark Horse and an issue of Batman that DC has yet to publish. Her music videos for acts as diverse as Amanda Palmer, Black Francis, Los Campesinos!, Art Brut and the Puppini Sisters have been shown everywhere from SXSW to onedotzero.”
What I’ve always appreciated about de Campi is that she unapologetically embodies the “Make the F***ing Comics” spirit, and her latest graphic novel, ASHES, has garnered some industry attention for her innovative use of Kickstarter, where she is not simply looking to fund the graphic novel to help “support [co-creator and artist] Jimmy while he draws it, and pay the printers to make the nice hardbound edition,” but also offering a unique deal specifically for retailers, and (until Kickstarter asked her to not do so) soliciting the trade and film rights for the project, too.
I’d been hearing a lot about Kickstarter over the past year, but it wasn’t until two months ago that I took the plunge, backing two projects by creators whose work I’d previously enjoyed — Eddie Wright’s Tyranny of the Muse and Tobias Buckell’s The Apocalypse Ocean. The former is a graphic novel adaptation of a great self-published novel, Broken Bulbs; the latter, the self-published sequel to the excellent, traditionally published Xenowealth series; both were successfully funded.
ASHES is the next Kickstarter project I plan to back, and to help promote it, I asked Alex if she’d do a short interview, and not surprisingly, her answers were insightful and provocative.
GLG: How has the comics industry changed, for better or worse, since the publication of SMOKE in 2005, and how have your feelings about it changed?
AdC: The comics industry hasn’t changed that much. The economy’s changed, so the appetite for risk from publishers has hit rock bottom and begun to dig. Otherwise, mainstream comics are a buck more expensive and have two pages less content; there are still (riddle me this, Batman!) a majority of female editors but almost no women writers or artists on mainstream books. The writing of female, LGBTQ and minority characters is still kinda cringemaking as they’re still mainly penned by straight white guys…. but… but… now there’s Kickstarter. And now there’s digital self-publishing, without having to front up a crapload of money to pay a printer. See, lots of people love comics. Lots of people make comics. Most of us aren’t included in the mainstream. Now with our own books, we can reach a far broader audience than capes comics or art/autobiographical comics can.
The economy stuff has meant there is even more of a gap in comics publishing for what I do, and for what people like Dan Goldman and, hell, Alan Moore do: intelligent hybrids of genre and literary. The genre publishers want licenced properties or proven hits, and the literary publishers get *extremely* sniffy about “genre”, like it would give them the clap or something to touch a book that is in colour and doesn’t feature a straight white hipster’s relationship troubles (or: orientalised versions of this subject). So, as they say on the tube platform, “mind the gap”. There are a lot of us who are very good at what we do in that gap, and we are all on Kickstarter raising a shit-ton of money to make our books. When you raise money on Kickstarter, it is because people believe in your book so much they are willing to buy it before it is finished. Doesn’t that suggest to you there is a market for our books? Golly, I dunno.
GLG: You have a couple of notable digital comics projects under your belt already with SMOKE and VALENTINE, the latter of which was “born digital” and made the longlist last year for the inaugural Publishing Innovation Awards. What are some of the key differences in your creative process when working print-first vs. digital-first? Do you have a preference?
AdC: You know, that’s like saying, do you prefer playing the blues, or do you like new wave. I like playing both. Both are fun. Certain books feel like they should be in certain formats. Valentine was really episodic and suspenseful, and was a no-brainer as a serialised digital-first book. But then it’s nice to go back to the page, and organise panel numbers and page turns to speed up the reader and slow her down again. Ashes has stuff that involves actual physical mediums, like paint, and collage, so it would never really be right for digital-first… but we are making it smaller, so it reads really well on digital.
I never feel like I reached my full potential on digital-first, though, because Valentine was self-funded and, of course, being one of the first to be out there, we really didn’t get stampeded with offers of support and help. We only got download numbers in the hundred thousands, which I guess wasn’t enough. [Editor's Note: That's insane!] There was so much further we wanted to take Valentine — clickthroughs to sketch art; to more information on historic background/influences/notes; maybe looped, videogame-style music; some simple looped animation (snow, smoke, fire); better sharing capabilities, etc.
But I’m a writer, not a coder. We are not anywhere near the digital future yet with comics. There is so much exciting ground to be staked out! We just need a new publisher, or a collective of coders, comic writers, and artists. I think the latter is more likely than the former.
GLG: Why Kickstarter for ASHES? Why not publish it via Image Comics or Dark Horse, or go digital-first like VALENTINE?
AdC: Ah, here you are conflating two things: PUBLISHING a book, and GETTING A BOOK MADE. Two separate worlds that, strangely, do not intersect in the Bizarroverse of indie comix. We can publish the book, sure. Four different publishers queued up for it. But none of them pay an advance, and 3 out of 4 wanted 50% of the rights (non-negotiable!) for the privilege of calling up the printer. Publishing schmublishing.
What I need (and hence the Kickstarter) is to support my wonderful artist for the 300-odd days it’s going to take him to draw, ink, colour (in some cases paint) and letter the book. No publisher does that, in comics. They used to… that’s how things like Watchmen got made. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons ALSO needed to eat and pay rent and stuff. We don’t just magic this out of thin air. (Well, Alan might.)
On Ashes, Jimmy and I are splitting ownership 50/50, but you can’t eat ownership, or pay rent with it. It’s entirely possible to write a novel on evenings and weekends. Heck, I wrote the Ashes script in just such a way and theoretically I am writing the Margaret the Damned (my next book) script that way too (but in reality I am spending 4-6 hours a day marketing the Kickstarter campaign). But! It is NOT possible to DRAW a book like that. Well, it is, if you want to get to know the concept of “eternity”.
Comics are an extremely costly and labour intensive entertainment form to produce — and that’s why most prose genre publishers steer clear of them. OMG so spendy! Yes, we know. Tony Harris raised $60k for his Roundeye For Love graphic novel on Kickstarter so he could devote a year or two to it. We are raising $27k to pay for nearly a year of Jimmy’s time ($15k) and printer fees/kickstarter fees ($12k). Jimmy’s wage is $60 a page, about 10% of what this would cost to produce at DC or Marvel. But still, he needs that to eat. No publishers give that money. So we raise it ourselves. And then somebody comes along and wants 50% of the rights to “publish” us? Seriously, eat me.
GLG: You noted on Twitter yesterday the disparity between those funding ASHES at the digital-only level ($15) vs. the more expensive limited edition hardcover ($30). Why do you think that is, and does it surprise you?
AdC: I think there’s a variety of reasons. People want to support, of course. And it’s nice to have an object, especially a numbered, limited-edition object. Mass trades, meh. I think they can be replaced by the digital experience. But a really lovely exclusive object, that’s nice to have as well as the digital experience. I actually learned that from lots of bands, who have long ago pioneered the “exclusive numbered coloured vinyl release plus digital download” road.
There is also the fact that a lot of comics people aren’t on digital yet. They still like reading books without a screen. And $30 isn’t that much for a 250-page hardback graphic novel. I think there are about six major reasons why people are skewing towards the $30 and $60 purchases that include a printed book, rather than the $15 digital-only pledge. I also think that bundles may be a real future trend — Marvel has been offering free digital copies of one of their Spider-Man titles (apologies, I can’t remember which one, there are so many) with hard-copy purchase, and they’ve sold in the hundred thousands. [Editor's Note: I think you're referring to Avenging Spider-Man?]
What if a print publisher gave an ePub download code with purchase of the same hardback? And the EULA was nothing more than as the child sang to St Augustine — “tolle, legge” — “take, read”? You have your hardback at home, and you can pop back in and read more chapters on the bus or while at work. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Please tell me this is already happening. I bet someone is doing it. It makes sense.
GLG: You were initially offering trade rights and film rights as reward levels but Kickstarter asked you not to do that and you’ve since removed them. Have you gotten any nibbles, before or after, and why did you opt to include them in the first place rather than go through an agent?
AdC: We have gotten nibbles! And actually an agent is involved: my wonderful and incredibly patient literary agent, Ethan Ellenberg, who normally deals with far larger fry than me. If people nibble, we then pass them to The Man With the Plan, and Ethan sorts it out. We hope to have a few announcements in the coming month about rights deals.
The thing is, there are no comics agents. Creators go direct to publishers. Ethan is a SF/F agent, and is interested in me because I push the boundaries of publishing, and what I do has a big genre SF/F element. There are a TON of comics-to-film agents. I’ve been represented by several of them. You know, just because you say you’re an agent, doesn’t mean you’re good at your job. And sadly I’m not a big enough cheese to attract the attention of the three or so *great* comics-to-film agents.
We do have a really innovative retailer plan, and are one of the first (if not the first) to specifically work with comics retail shops via Kickstarter. Comic shops are not sale or return — it’s just straight sale — so they’re actually MUCH more up for this sort of thing than, say, an indie bookstore, which will just bitch about not being able to return unsold books. Don’t get in my face about indie bookstores now, a friend is actually trying this with some amazing authors, and that is what indie bookstores are saying. Whinge, whinge, discount. Whinge, whinge, returning. Fiddle, fiddle, Roman burning.
GLG: Besides hitting your funding goal, how will you define success for ASHES?
AdC: Honestly, at this point, I feel like I’m a broken record. Once we hit our funding goal and I can stop hassling everybody all the time to buy our book — and I can just go back to being a writer, which is all I ever wanted to be — then that will be success. The critical reception when the book comes out, well, it is what it is. Comic books take so long to come out after they are written, it’s like people are commenting on last year’s dress anyway.
GLG: Bonus Q! What can you tell us about the issue of Batman you wrote that DC has yet to publish?
AdC: Oh, lordy. That was so long ago… 2007? I was emailed by a junior editor at DC tasked with bringing in new talent, and asked if I would write an issue of Batman: Confidential — a series which I am not sure still exists [Ed: Nope.], meant to illuminate “firsts” in Batman’s crimefighting career. Mine was called Batman: Daylight, and was all about his first time fighting crime in, well, daylight. Also the first time he met Vicki Vale, and, the first time he met Clayface. I posted a PDF of it ages ago. It was fun. Quite pretty. Some nice formalist touches. Shame it never saw the light of day, but the alumni of the Batman flat file at DC are both exalted and legion.
BIO (via Twitter): Alex de Campi makes films; writes books; starves.
ASHES: Ashes is a bullet ride through the brain of a dystopian Britain into the dark heart of the American psyche. As soldier Rupert Cain and journalist Katie Shah are reunited five years after they brought down a government, punishment — from an unexpected source — looms for that good deed. Chased from London’s CCTV-bristling streets to the Home Counties, they are finally brought to ground by an acquaintance’s betrayal and dragged off to an army base in a high-sierra American wasteland. Their only way out is through the mind of a twisted teenager… providing they can also escape his father.