Saturday, January 19, 2008

Self Employment: Telling the Folks

Most self employed people start out with a regular job of some sort. Even the hard core self employed are subject to real world pressures that demand most young folks entering their work lives sign on with some company or other to earn a living.

So it was with me, out of college I worked on a loading dock for minimum wage. To say it was boring and degrading, and that the pay sucked, is an understatement. I lasted all of six weeks before I started a T Shirt printing operation.

Anyone who quits a job to work for themselves is subject to the delicate task of informing those near and dear of their course of action. In my case, it was my very concerned parents. Others might have to tell a spouse or other family member that they have taken the plunge. If you find yourself in this position, don't be surprised if they react as if you have climbed onto the weakest branch of a very tall tree with a power saw.

For example, you might say this to your parents, spouse or whomever:

“I've decided to work for myself on an amazing new clean energy product which will replace the internal combustion engine within one year and save the planet. A venture capitalist has pledged $20,000,000 in seed capital for my new company.”

This is what they hear:

“Hi Mom & Dad, I quit my job today! I'm gonna sit around the house watching porno while I smoke crack and polish my Bishop. When I need money, it's OK if I call you up, right?”

Yes, it's true, those closet to you may be averse to risk. They may have a tough time understanding the vision that is crystal clear in your head. Don't let this stop you from your mission of making your dreams manifest in real time. If Henry Ford had listened to his mom, we might all be taking the horse & buggy to work (hey, that might not be a bad idea!).

Anyone who has parents knows that they live in their own strange pathological web of derangement. Parents do not hear the words you tell them, they put these words through a magic filter that alters the message that arrives in their cranium.

I offer more sample dialog to make my point. Let's say you just met the girl (or guy) of your dreams. This is what you tell your parents:

“I've met the most wonderful girl! She's beautiful, compassionate and funny. We've been dating for three weeks and I think I'm falling for her. Did I tell you her novel was just favorably reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review?”

This is what they hear:

“Hi Mom & Dad, sorry I haven't called you for a few months, but I've been boning this skanky hooker I picked up while scoring some brown tar heroin. I would've called sooner, but I didn't run out of money until now, and I wanted the open sores on her arms to heal before I introduced you to her anyway.”

The moral of the story, love and accept you parents on their own terms, and you will be all the happier for it!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Is Print Dead? Or Does it Just Smell Funny?

If you are like me, you have a lifelong love affair with print in all it's manifestations—books, magazines, newspapers, graphic novels, comics books, posters, drink coasters—in short, anything you can feed through a press and slap some ink on can be the object of this affection.

With the rise of the web and “new” media, newspapers and magazines are shrinking from reduced ad revenues and circulation. The venerable Punk Planet has folded, publishers of every stripe struggle to break even, and kids spend the majority of their reading time online, instant messaging and the like.

Sure, electronic media is stunning and fun, but a deep-seated part of me wants to bury my head in the sand and focus exclusively on print, for ever and ever.

I felt compelled to poll several of my colleagues in the ink stained world of comic books and graphic novels on the state of print today.

Jesse Reklaw, the cartoonist behind the weekly strip Slow Wave, is a keystone personality in the vibrant world of mini-comics. “I think about this all the time lately. My feeling is that things are shrinking in some ways (newspapers, magazines), but growing in others (graphic novels, printed archives). Maybe we're readjusting and getting better focus about WHAT should be in is one of the most durable forms of information storage.”

Another lover of print, a true blue avatar of art comics, Dylan Williams, cartoonist and publisher of Sparkplug Books, suggests a more active approach.

“I don't believe print is dead. I've actually had a lot of time spent thinking about what I'm trying to do with my life and the whole idea of punk rock is something I keep on coming back to. I've been a punk since I was a kid and those values are really my core values. If you feel bad about stuff the only thing we can do is fight it. I love print, love drawing, and love art comics. I hate what comics became in the 90s, things like web comics, ‘the new independents’ and all the money-speak that took over comics bugs me. I'm an underground kid and that is my idea. I think, all we can do is light our little fires and stoke them. I don't ever feel like giving up.”

Sparkplug has issued outstanding titles by the likes of Mats!? (Asiaddict), Renee French (Edison Steelhead's Lost Portfolio), the gifted young artist Austin English (Windy Corner), and Williams’ own standout series Reporter, to name a few. Both Williams and Jesse Reklaw are in the vanguard of comics kids coming to full maturity—these are people who have vision, ambition and confidence. They believe in print and are willing to bet their careers on it.

Veteran underground cartoonist and painter supreme Mary Fleener offers a historical perspective on how we got to where we are. “I think the print world began to die with the television. When radio was king, books were still popular because radio didn't have the visual kick. Don't forget, we humans are a lot like magpies—we like shiny things and TV provides that fix. However, today, print and TV are dying because there's nothing of substance on either TV or within newspapers.”

Rob Clough, comics editor of Other magazine and a high profile comics critic, joins Fleener in naming TV as the real culprit in the waning primacy of print, but holds out hope for the graphic novel.

“Print as the dominant form of mass media is dying. That was precipitated by TV and is obviously being driven further home by the Internet and assorted gadgets.

“That said, reading print is such a particular and visceral experience, that print will never completely go away. Instead, it's going to become more of a boutique item, something done in smaller quantities. It's why Fantagraphics will continue to thrive, and why print-on-demand services like Lulu will become even more prominent.”

“The good news about recent technology is that it will democratize the dissemination of information
even further—everyone will have a chance to have their say. This will take the flow of information out of the hands of the corporate interests that have strangled it for nearly 150 years in this country.”

Looking to the future, I return to Jesse Reklaw, with his finger on the pulse of grassroots/DIY comics publishing. Jesse believes that the heart and soul, the true innovation in comics, rests in that grassroots/DIY world, and how can anyone deny that self-evident truth? He cites the emergence of several annual awards for mini-comics as symbolic of the durability of print based comics:

“The minicomics awards (this year we're offering a cash prize of $300 to the best mini!). I think the fact that people are rewarding mini-comics makers, and encouraging them, shows that there will always be an interest in print and the art of making books.”

For my own part, I'm inclined to agree with the sentiments expressed by Brett Warnock, co-publisher of Top Shelf Productions and one of the most charismatic figures in the art comics movement, “You know how I feel about print vs. digital media... I'll die with ink-stained fingers and a rolled-up comic book in my back pocket, baby!”

NOTE: Here is an interesting twist--I've been plunging into the world of Web Comics lately with my Tuff Toddler strip. The issue of print vs. "new media" remains foremost in my mind. Indeed, I have a couple comic book projects in the can, so I'm hardly ditching print media. Each project has a publisher interested, but I have no signed contracts for either as of this writing.

So it is that I wonder, are the existing revenue models for print media still viable? I've seen my income from print related projects shrink over the past couple years. How are these traditional models working for others?

The real question here, what are the revenue models (let alone the production models) for the "new media"? Sure, I'm pulling some modest income from AdSense ads from Google, but how is a cartoonist going to pull a living from the "new media"?

I'll be sure to post more about this. This article may or may not appear in an upcoming issue of Alarm magazine, I'll be sure to note if & when it appears.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Comic Book Entrepreneur at the Dawn of the Indie Age

As the Seventies stumbled to a close, I found myself at a Ramones concert just before Christmas with an ascendant case of the flu, which my girlfriend attempted to nurse with a few tiny tiny spoonfuls of cocaine. Never liked that awful stuff too much, the flu had it's way with me, yet somehow I survived the show and made it through the next week and a half to the Eighties with my newly minted Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (and perhaps enough money to last two weeks if I stuck to beans & rice).

This was something of a comedown from where I'd parked my psychological living space for my undergraduate years. Fact is, getting my art degree (with a focus on painting) was a bit of a dodge, a pleasant enough way to be “going to college” while I pursued my real education, which was comprised of writing & drawing a daily comic strip for the school newspaper. The Massachusetts Daily Collegian offered four or five much coveted slots to students to work out their chops on the comics page. By my second semester, I talked my way into grabbing a spot there, and held it for the next four years until graduating.

Luckily, my strip Aluminum Foil captured the zeitgeist of the moment, and the strip was widely appreciated at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a diploma factory of gargantuan proportions, that once earned the dubious distinction of being Playboy magazine's party school of the year. Aluminum Foil chronicled the adventures of Gerald (a stoner foilhead/everyman) and his sidekick Benb (a dapper, overweight, mute smiling scarecrow).

The highlight of the UMass social calendar was of course Halloween. At UMass in the late Seventies, Halloween was nothing less than a weekend long, full on psychedelic pagan bacchanal. Hordes of tripping, costumed students would converge on the concourse of the campus center building for a convivial mass celebration of All Hallows Eve. It was something to behold, especially for me, as many of the party goers would be dressed as Benb & Gerald (Gerald in particular being the easy costume—just fashion a helmet of Aluminum Foil, poke some eye holes in it, roll a fat doobie for a prop, and there you are!).

Which brings us back to January 1980. There I am, ego inflated beyond all reasonable proportion after four years of basking in the glow of the successful run of comics, with barely enough money for a six pack of beer. What to do? I tried a standard forty hour job for all of six weeks, working on the loading dock of a down market department store for minimum wage. This was depressing (in the dead of a freezing ass cold western Massachusetts winter, no less), and the final straw came when the boss instructed me to drown a cute little mole that had invaded the warm store during one particularly nasty freeze. Not willing to whack a mole for minimum wage, I released the little guy into the frozen tundra and resigned.

Having some experience with screen printing T Shirts, I started freelancing wholesale shirt jobs (always a popular product when it's twenty degrees outside!). This took care of keeping food in my belly and a roof overhead, but how to sweep the world of cartooning with my (obviously) unparalleled genius?!

In retrospect, it's clear to me now that I came pre-installed with the “publishing gene”. This is a genetic quirk whereby an artist or writer can (by some mysterious alchemy) justify shoveling pots and pots of money into the never ending project of publishing their precious works. To say I was burning up to get started in the field is an understatement. It was pretty much all I could think about.

I'd managed to save $150.00 from my heroic efforts on the loading dock. Armed with the idea of collecting the best of my college strips into a one hundred page volume, I dropped by a local printer to get an estimate on having books produced. Turns out they wanted nine hundred bucks to do a run of five hundred, a bit beyond my means. Just about then, an important adjunct to the publisher gene kicked in, and I became a financier as well.

Turns out one of my housemates, Betsy Hilborn, an amiable, fun loving & somewhat cynical nursing student, has been listening to me chatter about my plans and offered to pony up most of the funds for my initial publishing effort. So with $600.00 from Betsy, my paltry $150.00 is savings and another $150.00 coaxed out of my dubious parents, I threw my hat into the ring as a comics publisher.

I had penned some four hundred plus daily strips during the run of Aluminum Foil. I figured I'd publish them over two volumes, with the first one hundred page volume featuring two strips per page. I hauled my strips down to the print shop, and within a couple weeks I had five hundred copies of Benb & Gerald in hand!

Although I was a completely naive amateur, I left no stone unturned over the next several weeks in an effort to sell the books. As I'd promised Betsy that I would pay her back within a couple months, I sprung into action like a man sitting on a hot stove—I was determined to be as good as my word.

The first step was to stage a publishing party. It was my good fortune to be friends with Carl Mayfield, lead guitarist and vocalist for Martian Highway, a local party band with a strong following. Carl was an accomplished illustrator as well, and we jammed on an 11” x 17” poster for a Martian Highway gig that would double as a costume ball / publishing party.

Given the tenor of the times, Carl hit on the clever idea that we would print the poster in silver ink on black paper. Why? To make it look like a giant hit of blotter acid, of course! Sitting down with our drawing gear and a stack of late Seventies punk rock and Grateful Dead records (go figure), we created a gorgeous drawing featuring Benb & Gerald driving a late model Ford with an electric, glowing Martian in the back seat. Carl added the requisite typography, and we scribbled a manic cast of characters over every square inch of the art, including the first image of my future lead character, Dog Boy (although I did not name him in this drawing, the fully formed image was there).

One wag suggested that we were quite bold to produce a silver on black poster that was “virtually unreadable”; I had no problem reading the poster myself! We papered the UMass campus and local towns with the poster. It stood out like a beacon to those in the know, and the party was well attended by costumed, tripping revelers.

Green kid that I was, I felt disappointment with selling 33 books at the party, and another 40 or so from my prepublication advertising and marketing. In retrospect, I recognize that it was a pretty good first day as a small time publisher, making a nice dent in the money I owed Betsy. The following month saw me hawking books in front of the UMass campus center building dressed as Gerald, replete with Aluminum Foil mask (but only once—too embarrassing!), making a critical connection with the book buyer at the campus bookstore, and placing books in every local book & record shop that would take a few.

With the unrelenting verve & energy of youth, I managed to make the whole thing work and somehow sold enough copies to pay back the loan to Betsy ahead of time. Other key breaks came along, for example I received a positive review from cartoonist Jay Kinney in a column he was then writing about underground comix for Heavy Metal magazine—this one review alone sold a good thirty books via mail order.

By the time mid summer rolled around, I'd sold all but a handful of my run of five hundred books, turning a modest profit. Considering I'd had a near captive audience of 20,000 daily for four years in the Amherst – Northampton area, it wasn't unreasonable for me to assume I could pull it off. In any case, it was a remarkable initiation into the rough & tumble world of comics publishing for me, making a profit my first time out despite being almost completely ignorant of the biz. It whetted my taste for further adventures into the world of indie comics publishing at the dawn of the Eighties.