Museums. Collectors. Art shows. They’re all staples of the art world. And while comic books might not be the first medium that springs to mind when someone says “fine arts,” the stigma of comics as being the sole province of sci-fi fanboys and the under-12 set has been dissolving for years. The fact that comics can be mainstream (movies based on comic book superheroes like Batman are pretty much the only sure thing at the box office nowadays) or highbrow (Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992) isn’t anything new. But the times are still a-changin’. Just as evolving technology has had an impact on how art as a whole is created, shared and consumed, so too has it revolutionized the world of comics.
Part of this has to do with the nature of comics themselves. A collaboration between images and words, comic books (and their close relative, graphic novels) have a foot in each of two rapidly changing industries: Art and publishing.
While the big names in comic book publishing—just like their mass market book counterparts—are rushing to hold onto their footing as eReaders and iPads edge out the paper-and-ink book market, there’s one group of comic creators that is embracing technology and all its benefits: Indies.
From the underground comix movement of the 1960s to the Xerox-produced zines of the ’80s, indie comic books have been around for decades. But in recent years the Internet has made it exponentially easier for independent artists to share their smaller, more personal projects without having to rely on a major publisher to find an audience.
One of the most powerful tools indie comic book artists, writers and publishers have at their disposal is crowdfunding, which allows them to raise money by soliciting small contributions from individual donors, who in turn receive rewards, such as a copy of the finished product. Last year saw crowdfunding come into its own, with 27,500 backers on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter donating a total of $1.7 million to comic book projects, resulting in 267 projects that reached their funding goals in 2011.
This DIY approach to raising money lets artists create projects that fully express their creativity in a way that might not be possible with a larger publisher. For proof, look no further than Cursed Pirate Girl, one of Kickstarter’s biggest comic book success stories to date.
Due to the incredibly detailed nature of Cursed Pirate Girl’s pen-and-ink art, it can take artist Jeremy Bastian up to two weeks to create a single page—a luxury that most large publishing companies, which aim to put out a new issue in each series on a monthly basis, wouldn’t have been able to provide. Individual issues of the comic, released by boutique publisher Olympian Publishing, sold out almost immediately. But when it came time to release all three issues in a collected edition, Olympian founder Thomas Negovan had a problem: The company’s dedication to high-quality recycled materials meant he wouldn’t be able to price the end product affordably.
The solution? Negovan started a campaign on Kickstarter to raise funds for Cursed Pirate Girl’s print run, and after countless hours of reaching out to potential donors via social networking and e-mails, the campaign was a success. Though they set a goal of $2,500, 882 backers donated more than $36,000.
When asking people to donate their hard-earned money to help get your project off the ground, it’s impossible to underestimate the importance of offering a tangible benefit in exchange for your patrons’ generosity. In the case of Cursed Pirate Girl, supporters received anything from a trio of buttons to a special signing event with Bastian, depending on the size of the contribution. Also of importance, notes Negovan, is knowing who to target for donations; in the case of Cursed Pirate Girl, the key group was, surprisingly, non-comics readers.
“I would say that only half [of the donors] were ever avid comics readers, and fewer than one-third had bought a comic in the previous six months,” says Negovan. “What Kickstarter did for us was give us a platform to expose a book that had appeal to non-comic readers, to people who liked great art and classic storytelling… We lobbied hard for blogs outside of the world of comics to give us a mention… You have to find people who are interested in the heart of what you’re doing, not the medium.”
While technology has revolutionized how comics can be funded, perhaps even more profound is its impact on how they reach their audiences. On the frontlines of this changing face of distribution are Webcomics, which are comics distributed via the Internet.
Publishing on the Web is good for an artist’s creative vision, as it allows him or her to “hear instant feedback from readers, meet and collaborate with other artists, disseminate their work and see their creative visions through to the end,” says Sarra Scherb, curator of “Morning Serial: Webcomics Come to the Table,” a current exhibition at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery (www.henryart.org). “These artists are able to act as editors, publishers, marketers and retailers,” Scherb continues. “[They] no longer have to compromise on any front to see success.”
Admittedly, Webcomics success—at least financially speaking—can be difficult to come by. Though Webcomic artists typically sell merchandise, including prints and T-shirts, on their Websites, they’re still giving the comic itself away. Will people actually buy the print version of a comic—or donate a few dollars to its artist—when they’re already getting what they want for free?
As it turns out, yes. Over the last decade, more and more artists—like Aaron Diaz (www.dresdencodak.com) and John Allison (www.scarygoround.com)—have been able to make a living through their art, something Scherb attributes to “the flow of communication between artists and readers.” The generosity artists show in putting their work out for public consumption, she notes, “in turn spurs readers to be generous. Webcomics artists often put so much of themselves online—e-mailing, blogging, commenting, using social media—that readers begin to feel a personal connection to them. Therefore, when an artist confesses that they have medical bills to pay, their computer has broken down or that they just need some funds for a reprint, readers can directly impact that artist and be an integral part of the process.”
Maintaining a connection with the audience is critical for all artists. But in this tech-heavy climate, a strong Internet presence is a necessity. After all, with great power comes great responsibility.
New York-based artist Abby Denson has written for comic behemoths Marvel and DC, but the first thing visitors see on her Website, www.abbycomix.com, is information on her more personal projects, Tough Love and Dolltopia. Samples, info on upcoming appearances, links to reviews, press releases about awards won… it’s all there, along with Denson’s resume, biography and contact information, plus links to her Facebook and Twitter pages.
“It’s important to keep up a presence online, so your readers can see what you’re up to, what new projects you are working on, what movies you love, what you had for dinner (if you’re inclined to share that kind of info), etc.,” says Denson. “Cartooning is pretty solitary, so socializing with fellow artists and fans by sharing work online can be very rewarding as well as a good promotion.”
Denson emphasizes the importance of appearing with one’s work at festivals and conventions, such as Portland’s Stumptown Comics Fest (www.stumptowncomics.com) and New York City’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art’s MoCCA Fest (www.moccany.org).
Personal appearances “go a long way toward building a rapport with your audience,” says Denson. “It means a lot to fans to meet their favorite artists and have a positive experience with them.”
Though high-tech gadgets like the iPad are the most visible manifestation of technology’s impact on the comic world, it seems that less flashy tools like social networking and crowdfunding could have the more lasting effect, not only on how artists create, but on what they create. With the link between artists and fans growing stronger, “more artists on the Web will feel comfortable taking chances and moving in new directions, which can only strengthen the comics art world as a whole,” predicts Scherb. “Who wants safe and stagnant, when there’s a whole horizon of experimentation to embrace?” ABN