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
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.
“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.
Digital comics; what’s not to love? The colors are beautiful, the price (usually) can’t be beat, you can shove a stack of mid-’80s Justice League Internationals weightlessly into your tablet and bring them with you on the bus, and you can re-download everything later when you lose your tablet on that bus. But what’s up with guided view?
Reading a comic in guided view is like watching a flip book; each panel is essentially cut out of the page and pasted into its own page of a scrapbook. One has the option of ordering the “camera” to pull back at the end of a page so the entire thing can be viewed as it was meant to before jumping back in to the out-of-context single panel reading. Comixology’s version of the trick is particularly advanced (and apparently trademarked), occasionally allowing the panel to pan left or right so as to read multiple actions in a single panel in the proper order. I sometimes double-click into guided view because it makes a perfectly sized zoom for me when I want to inspect a Geof Darrow background for a couple hours. Otherwise, it renders pointless all the hard work that went in to designing the comic book page.
When I first started lettering I made the wise decision to avidly study what other letterers do and never stop. One of the first things I noticed is that letterers make stuff up all the time. Things that certain letterers find helpful become rules and often those rules become widely accepted in a kind of natural selection process as the art form evolves. I love this. When my early collaborators would ask me why I insisted on shoving as many balloons up to the top of the panel as I could I would simply say, “Because Richard Starkings says you have to,” and that would be good enough for both parties. One of my own unilateral decisions early on was that, since most people aren’t “trained” to read comics, I should always endeavor to make sure that consecutive balloons are geographically close to each other.
Now, this may be controversial (I admit I’ve never taken a poll) but I remember reading a post from Eddie Campbell somewhere along the way confirming my suspicion that people need more help following along with comics than we think they do (and the philosophies of Mr. Campbell, along with Mr. Starkings, should be adhered to, at least in my shop). People don’t naturally think, “Hmm, I’m at the end of the balloon. Maybe I should search for the next invisible ‘row’ of this panel, start at the left, and continue reading.” They will instead look for the next available block of text, the same way we all do when reading a magazine or looking at a wordy advertisement.
Lettering in this fashion means the page has to be designed as a single unit rather than a collection of individually designed panels. Artists already know this innately — most veteran comic book artists (especially Jim Steranko) will say that images in a panel must subtly lead the eye to the next panel. Letterers aren’t as keen to do this, mainly because we often have a massive challenge of fitting words and art together without deleting or changing anything within an almost impossible deadline, another 22-page job waiting right behind it. When facing a tough, wordy page, often the best a letterer can do is try to fit the words rather than design them. But when it works in our favor, when the art is already working for the story rather than against it, we can actually try to help the reader out a little.