Leading Questions: Kickstarter Comics’ Heart

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 15, 2016.

kickstarter-comics

Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why won’t you donate to and share my Kickstarter campaign?

It probably has something to do with not wanting any Aquaman comics in my life, much Aquaman fan fiction off of a Kickstarter.

For real though, if you decide to run a Kickstarter down the road, you’ll likely find me on the backer list before the clock strikes zero. That has a lot to do with our friendship and my interest in you as a creator, and very little with the intent of Kickstarter or my feelings towards Kickstarted comics.

As much as I hope you find success in whatever comics paths you pursue, there’s a very real possibility that pursuing a Kickstarter will lead to you asking this question to a lot of people. You’ll probably even have to ask me, for real that time. While I’m here to buy Mark Stack comics, I’m doing plenty in and outside of comics and could probably use a kick in the ass just to put some dollars. You’re going to have to spend a lot of time begging friends to get your Kickstarter close to success, much less approach a broader audience unfamiliar with your work to date.

That reality of Kickstarter for promising, unfunded talent like yourself says a lot about what this crowdfunding tool has actually become in comics. Kickstarter is designed to be a means for individuals of all stripes to find funding for their creative projects. Ranging from engineering feats to musical pursuits, individuals choose to support projects they determine are worthwhile with the promise of some return on their investment.

Notably, Kickstarter is not meant to be a pre-order system. Backers are taking a risk with their dollars based on the merits of the creators and their specific projects. Like any funding institution, they may fail to see the exact product or outcome they expected. This is what makes the word “merit” so very important. You choose to back projects that you really want to see in the world, and which may find other means of funding impossible or problematic.

That’s notable because it makes Kickstarter a big ask. When you back a project there’s no guarantee it will even be delivered. Many creators lack experience with printing, shipping, and other logistics that will create barriers between completing and delivering the project. That’s not even to mention getting the entire project created, including less-considered elements like cover and credit design.

This sort of system is especially useful in American comics where the means of production and finding an audience are very limited. We’ve heard plenty about the problems of the Direct Market in the past few weeks (including a great piece from our other Co-managing Editor Christian Hoffer at ComicBook.Com). We’ll leave it at this: it’s a less than ideal system that limits how readers obtain comics and which comics are supported. Looking at the numbers there aren’t too many publishers or readers in the comics base defined by the Direct Market. There’s a big shift in those numbers when you switch to looking at the mass market (e.g. Scholastic) or webcomics. However, the former has high barriers to entry and the latter has no means of supporting comics that wish to be shared outside of the web.

And so we arrive at Kickstarter. Direct Market won’t support your style or story? Scholastic won’t take your calls? Don’t want to hand out your hard work for free? If there’s enough promise to what you’re doing, then you may still be able to produce it through this great crowdfunding tool. It’s an excellent solution that makes sense for a lot of creators.

It’s also not really filling this gap in comics as well I’ve proposed so far.

One of the problems that comics creators face is a relatively small readership. The internet may help overcome some of those barriers, but the readership base is still an important part of selling any comic. Whether we’re talking about the one billionth take on a shared superhero universe or a new cooking comic, there’s a limited number of people keeping an eye on the comics section of Kickstarter. There’s limited resources including time, dollars, and attention to support any project. That is what makes it problematic when many of the industry’s biggest names use KickStarter as a means to fund their own project.

Few publishers have taken the plunge. Archie Comics attempted to utilize KickStarter only to back out after one week of massive backlash and limited success. Avatar on the other hand has continued to utilize the format for projects by beloved comics writers like Alan Moore and Kieron Gillen. They haven’t faced the same level of criticism and have been largely successful in using Kickstarter to fund these projects so far.

The “Most Funded” comics Kickstarters of all-time are a who’s who of webcomics featuring Order of the Stick, The Dresden Codak, Penny Arcade, and CTRL+ALT+DEL (if that’s your thing). While the creator-owned nature of these projects makes Kickstarter a viable medium for physical publication, it is disappointing that these strips with millions of readers opted to crowdfunding as their best possible solution.

That goes for much smaller comics publishers as well, respected groups like Fantagraphics and Locust Moon Press who have both scraped by (while publishing Eisner Award winning material) due to Kickstarter campaigns. Their use of Kickstarter really gets to the heart of the problem. Comics isn’t big enough currently to support many of its own best ideas, so any alternative means for production doesn’t open new doors, it merely acts as a stopgap measure.

The idealistic dream of Kickstarter as I proposed at the start of this answer is to allow individuals to circumvent the complexities of standard models and provide their great ideas directly to the public who can fund them in turn. Most of what we see with the actuality of comics Kickstarter are established webcomics, publishers, and creators using crowdfunding to circumvent a very limited number of resources available in traditional comics publishing.

These groups are capable of utilizing Kickstarter as a pre-order model not dissimilar from the Direct Market. A project is only available for sale based on pre-order, relying on customers ordering it in great enough quantity that it can be published at a later date for consumption. The biggest difference is that the traditional distribution and sales role of Diamond and small storefronts are also assumed by the creators of a project. It is even more work for creators, but does allow them to produce projects that otherwise might have floundered for years. However, it also pushes the vast majority of attention away from new and different creators who don’t have the benefit of access to the Direct Market or other outlets in the first place.

This leaves a lot of new creators, many with great promise, struggling to make just a few hundred or thousand dollars to fund the printing of a few comics. Getting shipping estimates wrong can leave these creators worse off than they were to start, leaving this a system that’s little better than typical means of small press production.

Individuals cast about for friends, fellow creators, and journalists to put it at least $1, but more commonly amounts upward of $15 to get a pamphlet printed. The end results is a short print run that may have a decent dollar amount to its name, but very few readers. Most who wind up with the product are comfortable speaking of the creators on a first name basis. It gets the job done, but it’s hardly leaving anyone better off.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this. Iron Spike has found massive success on Kickstarter with her Smut Peddler anthologies and a variety of other offerings that all cater to a massively underserved comics audience. Given the right person and project, there are still opportunities for break out projects.

But like anything in our ongoing conversation about economics and comics, there are no easy solutions and many of the best-looking ones turn out to be far less than lustrous. Kickstarter has worked for some and may work for others. It’s far from a cure-all though and primarily serves to better support those who already possess some cachet in comics.

So why am I not bandwagoning on your Kickstarter? It’s not because I dislike you or your work. It’s because there are already a lot of great ideas in comics with nobody to read or buy them. Haranguing $10 out of my pocket isn’t a longterm solution to any of that and neither is Kickstarter.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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