Writer Chris Kipiniak and artist J.K. Woodward have both been around the comics industry for years, with marquee franchises like X-Men, Spider-Man, and Star Trek under their belts. But BEHEMOTH — a digital comic series about monstrous mutant teens fighting for their lives — is their first creator-owned project, published by Monkeybrain Comics. Wondering how these two talented dudes came together — and how it’s been going — Letter Better sat them down for an interview to discuss all things BEHEMOTH.
When everyone’s favorite e-book company purchased everyone’s favorite e-comic book company, comics finally took the giant step forward we’ve been threatened with for years.
While comiXology and its competitors have tried their best to build a new revenue stream for the comics industry ever since digital comics first became viable four years ago, it’s been tough. Digital comics simply haven’t taken hold the way enthusiasts keep predicting, or at least with nothing close to the wild success we’ve seen in mainstream prose publishing where digital now accounts for roughly a third of all book sales. The reasons for this are many, including the fact that comics sales are still fueled by collectors like myself who enjoy owning physical things. But the biggest obstacles to overall category growth are still discoverability and consumer awareness. When I tell someone that I work in comics the most common reply is, “I didn’t know they still make those.” When people aren’t exposed to comics they don’t know they want comics, which means they won’t look for them or purchase them. Last week’s Amazon/comiXology team-up aims to turn this story around for good. Comics, a niche segment of an already niche publishing market, is on the verge of going mainstream again.
Most of the instant online reaction to the acquisition seems to come from two places: either “oh look, something tech was bought by something else tech, isn’t that techy?” or “oh geez, they’re going to take my comics away!” I’d like to instead explore what the purchase might mean from a book publishing perspective, and by “explore” I mean, “make wild unsubstantiated predictions.” So without further ado, behold my 100% guaranteed accurate predictions for the future of comiXology and the world:
Comics, the medium to which I have more-or-less devoted my professional life, has a tough time earning recognition in fortresses of traditional publishing like the Caldecotts, Newberys, and other Youth Media honors run by the American Library Association. For all the hard-won progress by forward-thinking librarians and comics advocates over the past few decades, it’s still hard for many to understand that a graphic novel is a book, and the act of reading comics involves the same mental agility employed while reading prose (sometimes more!). Any bruising over this is worsened upon noticing that many honorees over the years actually are comics; they just don’t outwardly exclaim it. So thanks to Reading With Pictures for this amazing post on the 2014 Youth Media Award winners that are comics in disguise!
Remember the glory days of newsprint, full of morning papers from corner street urchins, waterfalls of colorful superheroes for a dime, the Saturday Evening Post and a pack of licorice for your ride home on the streetcar? Of course you don’t, none of us were alive back then! But did you know the system those old timers set up for printed information delivery (commonly called “the newsstand”) still exists? It looks a lot different, but it’s there: today’s newsstand lives on in supermarket checkout lanes, the magazine section at Barnes & Noble, the impulse buy section at drug stores, and, like Santa Claus, it lives on in all of our hearts.
But you wouldn’t know this to hear it from some of the more vocal comics publishing experts, who like to deride the newsstand as an endangered relic from the 1940s, far in the past and impossibly irrelevant in today’s world of digital instant gratification. And this isn’t just the usual bloggish hearsay; I’ve heard these exact sentiments from real people during real business conversations. Once, while talking about reviving a successful newsstand comics magazine, an executive at a well-known comics publisher asked me, “Why do you want to try and sell comics in this creaky old-fashioned system that won’t even be around next year?” The implication was clear: “Get with the times.” But the ageist take-down also didn’t make any sense given the available evidence: the publication in question had consistently sold 300,000 copies each month in that “old-fashioned” system just one year prior to our conversation. For those keeping score, that sum is three times higher than the best-selling monthly comic books today in the comics specialty market.
Seizing on the newsstand’s obvious shortcomings — its age and its accordingly complicated mechanisms — is understandable as it’s the way we always react to things we don’t quite understand: shoot it down before it can be analyzed too deeply. But it’s also completely besides the point. The Direct Market network of comics specialty stores — the primary means of selling comic books to fans — began a mere 30 years after the first superhero comic book; hardly the young, vivacious modern upstart it’s often thought to be. The network of bookstores referred to as “the trade” in the publishing industry (a sales channel that most comics publishers consider a high priority growth area) is as old as book publishing itself, and its overly complex modern returnable version is over 100 years old with almost no modern updates. Saying that the newsstand is out-of-date is a strange knee-jerk repulsion that doesn’t happen with other old distribution systems and it doesn’t match up to business realities, either.
Every year, as in every sales channel, the newsstand sees new products launched and old ones cancelled, with the ups and downs that can be expected in every industry but never with the steady downward spiral of death that pundits always blog about and publishers absorb as gospel truth. They may not be major enterprises the likes of which we saw throughout the 20th century print media heyday, but new print magazines are starting up every week. Even a cursory look at magazine genius Samir Husni’s must-read “Launch Monitor” blog reveals a general newsstand fitness that would astonish even the most well-versed paper-and-staple moguls; there were over 180 new ongoing magazines launched last year alone. And Husni reports a record-breaking 85% survival rate that should make any venture capitalist raise an eyebrow and open a wallet the next time a print-repreneur knocks on their door. With juicy big media magazine closures and frequency changes getting the headlines, it makes sense that no one would notice a new biannual about performance art, a “western outdoor adventure” journal, or a seasonal glossy recap of zombie action, but these success stories demonstrate one supremely important thing for comics publishers: far from being dead, the newsstand is a thriving — even nurturing — place for publications with smaller audiences that need some growth.
The best part about working on a book is that you never know where it could take you. For Melvin Goodge, one of the top-ten cartoon art historians by anyone’s measure (especially mine), it led to an entirely unplanned academic career, the birth of a new publishing format, and a cherished friendship.
While today we all know Melvin Goodge as a professor of Speech Bubbles at the Huntley Smoot University for Comic Sciences, way back in 1978 he was just a fresh-faced associate editor hungry for a little experience and a job that paid something to do anything at all with words. After answering a couple classified ads and landing just one interview, he wound up in the offices of Ringer Publishing Paperbacks. But somehow, Goodge wasn’t assigned a pile of submissions to read or a pile of breakfasts to purchase for the senior editors; by happenstance and two fortuitously timed sick days his first task was the plum assignment of shepherding into being the first paperback to feature all-new material from the hit comic strip Frank and His Friend. Continue reading
The reader is smarter than you. The reader is always smarter than you. And the reader knows when you’ve taken a shortcut, or phoned it in, or are trying to pull a fast one. And the reader don’t like it one bit.
That’s prolific writer Greg Rucka, sounding off over on i09 about why he writes so-called “strong female characters,” and, more precisely, why he thinks he is always asked to explain why he writes strong female characters. Of course, as you’d expect, he patiently re-explains that gender isn’t anyone’s sole defining character trait.
But the beautiful part of his in-depth response, the worth-reading part, is his ensuing master class on research and imagination in pursuit of verisimilitude, thus: Continue reading
This is the second post in an ill-defined series on legal matters pertaining to intellectual property creation, development, and defense. Please read our intro post for back-story on why and, most importantly, some disclaimers.
The other day we dove into some of the basic ins and outs of copyright law and how it particularly relates to creating work for others, or hiring others to create work for you, or how it may make your head explode if you try to read legal filings about Superman. I know it was exceptionally exciting reading and that you can’t wait to get to trademark law, so far be it from me to keep you waiting. Though the copyright Bowie knife is arguably your most important protection as a creator in the IP jungle (since it’s common law and covers your actual ideas and work), trademark is kind of like your fishing rig; it’s quite useful, fairly optional, and wow, does it demand a lot of maintenance.
Trademark: Pay Attention and It’ll Help You Out In the Long Run
Trademark protects logos, nomenclature, and any other marks that you might use in the course of doing business with your copyright-protected creative work, and it only works if you actively register those marks with the government.
You also have to use them; if someone else comes along and establishes a market presence with your marks while you were letting them sit in your basement unseen, a judge could reasonably decide that the marks are more legitimately theirs by right. (This happened when the Los Angeles Dodgers tried to claim protection for the Brooklyn Dodgers trademark they obtained when they bought the team in the ’50s; judge wasn’t even having that.) This concept is called “abandonment” and it has many IP-farm trademark-holders in a constant state of panic. More on this below.
Of course, like copyright, the marks you want to protect have to be unique and not under someone else’s control or part of common usage. This is partly common sense (no, you shouldn’t try to trademark “Luke Skywalker” or “water bottle” just to see what happens) but it’s also a legitimate matter of legal dispute. The word “thermos” is generally used to describe any food container that keeps things warm or cold, so it was legally determined to be not unique enough for Thermos L.L.C. to claim trademark protection. Failure to police your trademarks (actually, that should be “failure to police” since it’s another legal concept) can sometimes result in your marks becoming generic and therefore at risk of losing their protection.
Plus, you’ve got to make sure your trademarks are registered separately in every individual industry in which you plan to use them, and then you have to go ahead and actually use them. So, even if Thermos did hold the trademark for food and beverage containers, they likely don’t have one for books and magazines, which means that you can write a series of fantasy novels set in the mystical land of Thermos (and if you do, I will pre-order all the hardcovers).
More on the rules and regs as we get into some common trademark misunderstandings:
This is the first post in an ill-defined series on legal matters pertaining to intellectual property creation, development, and defense. Please read our intro post for back-story on why and, most importantly, some disclaimers.
This month’s resolution to the web of suits and countersuits between Marvel and Ghost Rider co-creator Gary Friedrich has brought to light some deeply rooted misunderstandings of trademark and copyright law. These were given greater voice in this week’s extra-legal conflict between artist Sean Murphy and Marvel. (I won’t recap them here, but you can follow those links for nicely succinct summaries.) Both instances involved disputes over what copyright and trademark protection affords so they serve as instructive examples of these legal intricacies, not the least of which is a pervasive confusion over the differences between the two.
Shall we do some defining? Let’s. Copyright protects creative work and its author, while trademark protects the logos, brand names, and other marks used by a business in the course of selling that material (thus the “trade” part.) The character and idea of Superman is copyrighted and, depending on which judge or lawyer you are, it contains several copyright-protected elements like the name of the planet he’s from, the newspaper he works for, and the villains he fights. The symbol on his chest, however, is a trademark, as it’s used to sell merchandise. So is the logo on the covers of his comic books. These two protections have different lifespans and rules for keeping them active, and they don’t have to exist simultaneously. For instance, if DC let their Superman trademark registrations expire but the copyright protection was still active, you or I could publish a non-Superman related book using those trademarks. (Not sure what that would be — super-gardening?) If their copyright expired but the trademark did not, the converse would be true: you or I could publish stories about Superman but without those long-established symbols and logos.
So what does this mean for you, brave author? Well, for one, it’s worth knowing that the laws governing both of these protections favor you. The law makes it difficult for a challenger to wrest control of your creative work away from you and, provided that you’ve kept up your paperwork, it’s really difficult for a challenger to wrest control of the marks you’ve used to establish a presence in the marketplace. America is great that way — we don’t want business interrupted, and we especially don’t want authors to stop creating. But there’s still some stuff you have to do and just, well, know about. Since copyright is so straightforward, we’ll start there.
If this little pocket of humanity we inhabit that we like to call “the literary creative industry” were a dinner party, the main topic of conversation right now would be intellectual property. What a boring dinner conversation! you’re probably thinking, and you would be right if the talk was limited to lawyers and their legal-ish lawyer-speak and hypothetical questions like an endless loop of the last scene of The People Vs. Larry Flynt. While “intellectual property” as a legal concept sounds stale and corporate, when you reconsider it to mean “all the things I create while I hunch over my drawing table and writing desk all weekend” it takes on new urgency.
Recent flare-ups on the subject in the comics world have brought about a raft of new ideas and “huh, I should have thought of that” moments, along with an expected raft of old-guard defensiveness and misunderstandings of the facts. I don’t think the flare-ups are evidence of any kind of centralized movement or counter-movement taking place in the field of creative property development, only a coincidental closeness of unrelated court cases and controversial IP development decisions. However, I think the result of these coincidences will be old-school consciousness-raising: the events under discussion will remain static but the future of creators’ relationships with their chosen avenues of production will be better informed, if not completely revolutionized. We’ve written here before about technology’s gift to publishing: an explosion of content and audience expansion that any other industry would envy, even as the traditional structures for introducing author to audience change. The same goes for IP ownership and development: the old way of centralizing the creative works of many into a corporate IP exploitation engine was yesterday. As it changes, those properties and their engines will remain in place while the next generation develops new multi-partner models that will give us an explosion of fun new ideas. We’re already seeing it in the projects we’re hired to work on here at Letter Better, and we can’t wait to see more.
In an effort to help out where we can, we’re going to run a series of posts on the subject of IP (again, just shorthand for “stuff you spend your time making”) with no planned schedule or frequency but across a variety of topics that seem to be of interest to creators. These are all informed by our professional experience dealing with these topics, not just things we’ve overheard in bars. We’ll devote a separate series of posts to the topic of things we’ve overheard in bars.
“Know thy audience,” could be the first rule (and only one that matters) in any class on the business of publishing. It usually means, “Understand who will be reading your book,” meaning the person who likes to read your kind of book. If it’s a hard science-fiction book, think of all your hard sci-fi-reading friends, create an ideal amalgamation of them all (with or without beards), and now make sure your book reads like those that person usually enjoys. This is great advice, if a little obvious, meant for a writer who has a publisher to take care of the business details. It’s about writing a book, not selling it. For those who self-publish, the maxim has to mean something else: “Understand how your ideal reader shops.”
All smart publishers ask themselves this question periodically, and it seems to be top-of-mind for DC Comics these days as they relaunch their entire line. The internet is abuzz with analysis (some say DC is alienating its core fan base, others think they are hurting brick-and-mortar stores with their digital strategy, others think it’s brilliant, others think Superman’s t-shirt makes him look silly.). None of it (as far as I’ve seen) comes from the perspective of that fundamental question, but the move and the reaction to it has become a great illustration of how important it is to ask, especially for self-publishers, who must ask it of themselves every day.