Indie Comics in the Changing Economy

Nick Dedual recently posted and interesting piece on his Odd Truth Blog about making comics in "The Great Recession".One of the points that he makes is about the increasingly experiential nature of the comic convention.

Nick points out the cons are shifting to be more about what you DID THERE rather than what you GOT THERE. He is absolutely right about this, and it is only the tip of the ice berg. It is called The Experience Economy, a phenomenon affecting the global economy, accelerated by the faster-than-ever commerce of the web.

I first heard about it a few years ago in this TED Talk.

Basically it is like this... People used to trade at an agrarian level, where consumers actually consumed the products. Then came the industrial economy, where consumers were removed from the producers and were given a range of products to choose from. The consumers chose the best products, or the ones they liked the most. As manufacturing steadily leveled the production playing field, we moved into a service economy. When the product is universally available, the decision to purchase is made based on the service that comes with that product. And now that customer service is theoretically instant and around-the-clock, that decision to purchase has shifted to the total experience that comes with owning a product. I am not an economist. Watch the video if you want a real explanation.

Is all of that true of comics? Is it true of indie comics? To some degree, individual artistic endeavors like making indie comics, will always be on their own micro-trajectory within a larger economic movement. But, also, they're not.

Let's walk through where we are in each stage and how it might affect us going forward.

Agrarian Economy- Lots if the interactions in indie comics fit pretty nicely into an agrarian system. Specifically, I mean the barter economy the fuels much of the actual production. "I will write for you if you draw for me". Individual producers producing for individual producers. The one-on-one sales that we make at conventions and where ever else are also at this level. I have it, you want it. Done. Indie comics will always do fine at this level. Developments at the industrial level and higher may take a chunk out, but they will never close this door on us. Even when we go completely digital, it is still happening at the near-barter level.

Industrial Economy- Industrialization has largely been a boon to the indie comics world. It gave us Print-On-Demand. Largely as side-effects of movements in the larger economy, we have discovered all kinds of ways to make out comics faster, easier, and cheaper. Industrialization has also affected consumer expectation. A consumer can now see Rapid City right along side X-Men and Booster Gold, be it paper or digital. That is a great opportunity, but it also affects the way that the books are seen. They are a stack of items to be purchased. While the irregular production and quality of an indie may have once been part of its charm, even a selling point, they have now become areas where the indies might not measure up to their shelf-mates. There is an expectation that comics will be produced on a regular schedule... a monthly schedule. I am not saying that indies can't be produced at that rate, I am saying that the expectation is an artificial side-effect of industrialized publishing. The counter-industrial nature of indie comics gives us some small advantage as we easily side-step into the realms of service and experience. It is easier for a reader to have a personal interaction and relationship with an indie creator than with a large publishing machine. There is, however, a fine line to walk between the two worlds. Similar to the artificial expectation of a monthly publishing schedule, the indies have generated an artificial expectation of personal relationships with creators. And this is great. And it is usually accurate. But, it can cause a creator who is meeting with success to navigate awkward growing pains. It is reasonable for a fan of Rapid City to expect that I would respond personally to emails or letters that I receive. It is not reasonable for a fan of Hellboy to make the same assumption of Mike Mignola. The minefield of expected interactions between my level of success and his is uncharted and ever-changing.

Service Economy- When a major purchase factor is the mode of delivery, you are in a service economy. The old-school comic convention dealer room is some bizarre hybrid of agrarian, industrial, and hunter/gatherer. And it is the opposite of service economy. It thrives on the scarcity of service. Though there is some thrill in hunting down that certain rare treasure, those sales conditions would not exist in a world where there were other service options. Which is why I am amazed that those show-floors still exist. Ebay exists. Ebay is a kryptonite crucifix to comic con back-issue retailers. As a side thought, maybe they exist as some nostalgic experience economy... but how long can that last?. The positive effect of this trend is that more con attendees are there to look something other than rare back issues. I will talk more about what they are looking for in the service section. With digital delivery and print-on-demand, the indie creator can compete pretty well in a service based market place. It is harder for us. We simply have fewer resources to devote to every aspect of the customer relationship. But, the fact is that the tools are there. And, the more that more of us use them, the easier they get to use. The barrier of delivery, a key factor in a service economy, is rapidly vanishing for the indie creator.

So, what's left? Experience Economy- The wild west. As the industrial and service fields get more and more level, the remaining stand-outs are those that excel in creating a great user/reader/fan experience. In comics, no one knows what this means yet. At best, some folks have a piece of it. And, until the big publishers can really get a handle on their experience model, this is a chance for us indies to seize some ground. The strength and power of the major publishers comes with a bit of immobility. Because their appeal is so broad, it often fails to reach readers directly. Personally, as a fan of big-time superhero comics, I often have to shrug and willfully over-look something by saying "well, that wasn't meant for me". Indies, however, don;t have the luxury of having this problem. Our readers have sought us out because they want what we have. They are a self selected group whose expectation is expectation is for more of what we are already doing. Outside of content, which is where the experience economy lives, the indie creator can offer a much more direct experience to a reader or fan. That is the value of social media. That is why I write this blog. That is why I work in the Rapid City Open Studio. None of those are a product. None of those even help get a product in to, or cash out of, a reader's hands. They are part of what a reader thinks of when they think of Rapid City. That is the reason I try to have a personal conversation with anyone who approaches my table at a con. That is why I will draw silly stuff on the comics if a reader will let me. That is why I let folks with kids know just appropriate my books may or may not be. It isn't just to sell a book right in that moment, it is to create a pleasant experience that can be carried forward to the next interaction. Which brings me to the idea that inspired this post to begin with. From Nick Dedual: comic cons become more pop-cultural events and less about comic books, the audience at the comic con will look more for experiences they can enjoy at the moment...

More and more, the comic con is becoming an event. Attendees are there for the experience. So, what does that mean to those of us in Artists Alley? How can we take advantage of this? The bigger guys host panels and make announcements, but not everyone can do that. What can we offer in the realm of live experience at a convention (or some other venue that we have not yet thought of)? And, how can we monetize that experience? Is it enough to just generate good will and hope that it comes back in the form of a strong fan base? Can we sell "A lunch with Josh Dahl!"? I don't know. Right now, our versatility and connection to our audience seems to be offering us a lead in this new market... How do we take that lead before it slips away?

-Josh Dahl

"F**K YOU, PAY ME." "No, f**k YOU."

You remember that from that scene in Goodfellas.It is the scene where Ray Liota's mafia guy explains how he and his cronies make their money. In it, he flips the bully/victim relationship on its ear. This speech is villainously empowering. It makes it feel right to do the wrong thing. It makes claiming what's YOURS feel like claiming what's MINE. When applied to non-villain people, it can become a mantra of legitimate empowerment. "Give me what's mine." I saw this great video a while back. It is for and by graphic designers, but a lot of it applies to any creative venture which involves money.

Making comics is a creative venture that involves money. But it isn't exactly a bully/victim relationship; nor is it exactly a client/contractor relationship.

This came up in an online discussion group about collaborations among comics creators. One artist drew the line in the sand "Never work without getting paid". I get where this position comes from . Historically, in big deals and little deals, artists have been taken advantage of. An artist ho enters into any kind of agreement with his defenses down in a fool. Too many artists have been promised to get paid "on the back end" someday only to find that someday never comes. Also, too often the visual arts are taken as fun little hobby that an artist can just whip-up at the whims of other parties. This generates a defensive default in the artist. It is a matter of self-respect. the work you do is worth something. You deserve to get paid for it. All of this is absolutely true.

However, there is one huge factor that has been overlooked. In the above situations, the artist is in a client/contractor relationship. In that relationship, the goal of the artist is to get paid to apply his or her skills at the direction of the client. This is not the goal of the comics artist.

The goal of the comics artist is to make comics. Better, to make good comics. If your goal as a drawer of comics is to use your skill to make money, then you are not a comics artist. You are contracted pencil-mover who has been hired to draw a comic. And that is fine if that is what you choose to be. But if that is you, then this is where you exit this discussion.

The artist who makes good comics has more to consider than whether or not paychecks will bounce. The artist who want to make good comics must consider whether or not a given script is a good vehicle by which to advance their art. This artist must find a good story to draw. That good story... that is part of your payment. And your good pencil work? That is part of your payment to the word-and-story artist who has crafted the piece of script-art from which you are drawing. That rule that artists should always get paid... well it applies to writers as well.

That is the specific point where the comparison to the client/contractor relationship breaks down. It is more like a slightly unbalanced client/client relationship.

As I write this. a more valid relationship comparison comes to mind... and the earlier scripted exchange still fits.

It isn't the aggressive, confrontational, meaning of "F**K YOU!". Rather, it is the more cooperative meaning which is the opening volley of every successful collaboration. It is the slightly more literal meaning which says "Let's get into bed together and see if we can make something great happen."

So, in that sense... Comics artists, F**K YOU! And you if you do a real good job at it... here's some cash to cover your supplies.

Self-publishing superheroes.

I just read a pretty good article about what a bad idea it is to do what I do.Self-publishing superhero comics is a hard thing to do. A lot of what is great about superheroes, a lot of what us fans really love, is best done in the big flashy style that just comes so easily to the big-money publishing machines. This is not a shot at them or a poor-me on me. It's just the truth. Actually making the comics is hard. Selling them is hard. Finding your audience is hard. Finding wider success is hard. And reaching your goals... well, that can be pretty hard as well.

Making indie superhero comics. Your indie superhero comic can look and feel really cool, but it'll have the slick magnitude of the big guys. You can get real close, and technology closes that gap every day. Even if you get the look, you are fighting your ass off to gain ground that these guys eat, drink, and sleep on every day. As a writer, I face a similar, up-hill, battle. One thing that is so cool about the superhero story is the scope. The world, the heritage, the pre-suspended disbelief. None of these are essential to a good superhero story, but they are nice to have. They are also hard to get. For me, each of these qualities requires a confident and steady hand. Push too hard and it is schlocky. Go too easy and the tone is lost. A big, established, superhero universe has all of those things without even trying. Selling indie superhero comics. Buying and selling are very complex. That's why economics is such a varied and complex field of study. But, without even an associate's degree in that field, I can boil down the economics of selling indie superhero comics. The people who superhero comics do not tend to buy indie comics; the people who like indie comics do not tend to buy superhero comics. It is a hard fight to get credibility with either group, and that venn diagram overlapping sweet spot is way too small.

Finding an audience for indie superhero comics. I hate the myth of the "well served" fan. People who think it is dumb to make indie superhero comics will tell you that fans of the superhero genre are already well served. Fans are already getting their fill, so why bother giving them more? That is silly. Fans of a thing always want more of that thing. Provided it is good. Provided it is what they want, but also something they don't already have. As a side note, this is something people who are not fans of the genre just can't quite see. As in any genre, there are endless layers ripples to explore while sticking firmly in the realm of the genre. But I digress. My point is that there certainly are people out there who would love to read a fresh. well crafted, superhero story regardless of who publishes it. But the fact is that big publishers have a lot more muscle to fight for those limited dollars. Even non-comics readers know about The X-Men, while I count myself lucky for every single eyeball that falls on an issue of Rapid City. Finding wider success with an indie superhero. The last time some young, indie, creators came up with a character and rode that character to success and fame was in the 30s. It was Superman and they were famously screwed for decades. It just doesn't happen. There are lots of paths to lots of successes that begin with an indie superhero, but they never end with that same hero. Of course, there could be some small time hero book out there about to prove me wrong. I would love it. I would love it if I was the one to prove me wrong! But I'm not holding my breath.

So why do it? What is the point? What is your goal in all of this? That's the hard part, really. Knowing what it is you want. You can't reach your goal if you don't know what it is. If your goal is to make the next X-Men, making indie comics is not the way to do it. If your goal is to get discovered and re-invent the X-Men, well, good luck. If, however, your goal is to make great superhero comics then there is a good chance that you've already succeeded. And that's the "why". I am a life-longer lover of superheroes. So, to me, this just makes sense as the only real option. Success is almost impossible. The opposition is gigantic, unstoppable, and indestructible. No one has ever succeeded. Everyone who knows anything will tell you that failure is the only possible outcome. And, the only possible window for success is to believe that what you are doing is the right thing and do it no matter the cost.

Well, that sounds like a great superhero story to me. What else could I possibly do?

-Josh Dahl

Rapid City goes digital

Rapid City #1 is now available through I just read through it and the reader they have is super-cool. I am excited about trying it on my phone. If you haven't used their service already, this is a great way to start. The comic reading apps are free for your device or your computer, and Rapid City #1 is just 99cents.

I am really happy about this.

Get your digital Rapid City #1 here.