John Kovalic's "Dork Tower," from Dork Storm Press, is a modest, quiet success, the book that you're surprised when you discover how many of your friends read it.
Except for this month, when it's one of the best-read comic books in the industry.
"Well, I guess 'Dork Tower' is a comic book about fandom (in the same way that 'Cheers' is a sitcom about the brewing industry, I hope -- you don't need to know the ins and outs of brewing to find it funny)," Kovalic told CBR News on Sunday. "The five main characters are gamers and comic book fans, plus a Perky Goth and a muskrat.
"It's (hopefully) a humor book, and it's a black and white to boot. And there's not a superhero to be seen. Despite these obvious shortcomings, it seems to be making me a living, which is a ton of fun."
"Dork Tower" strips run in gaming magazines, and it's thus well-known to gamers. But while there's an overlap between gamers and comic readers, they're not interchangeable audiences. So who is reading this book?
"I've no idea," Kovalic said. "The comic book sells in about equal numbers in comic book stores and gaming stores. Increasingly, I get a lot of mail from people that starts off 'I don't play roleplaying games, but I love Dork Tower,' which is extremely gratifying.
"In the comic book world, I keep getting referred to as a 'Gamer Comic.' This is a little like being described as a 'Christian Rocker' -- it's nice to be included in the big industry, but you can't help but feel the modifier is there to keep you in your place.
"I like to think that the comic's about far more than just gaming and fandom, however ... I'm having fun with the Matt, Kayleigh and Gilly triangle storyline at the moment, for example.
"To appease the gamers, I try and put a free game in every issue. To appease the comic book readers, I try and add as many back-up features as I can. [Eisner winner for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition] Alex Robinson and [Eisner nominee in the same category] Mark Smylie are both going to have back-up stories running, and Greg Hyland's wonderful 'Lethargic Lad' will be a regular back-up feature as of issue #15."
But the regular audience of "Dark Tower" was dwarfed this month when Kovalic made "The Best of Dork Tower" #1 – a reprint book catching new readers up to speed on the characters and storyline – was one of the highest circulation books of the month.
"75,000 copies were printed, 60,000 of which were included for free and shipped along with the August issue of Scrye magazine. I've always found that the best advertising I could get was to get copies of the comic book into people's hands, so this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Plus it let us bring the price down to $1.95 for those copies sold through normal distribution channels. Since 'Dork Tower' #1 is long sold out, I wanted an inexpensive way for folks to sample the series. So it helped us out on a number of fronts.
"Of the remaining 15,000 copies, 5,000 are going through traditional distribution channels in the US, 5,000 are going through Europe and the remaining 5,000 should last us until December, when we'll probably have to reprint. This will stay in print.
"The advertisers footed the bill. US Playing Card, to be precise, who bought EVERY ad spot literally as soon as I described the project to them.
"Since the Dork Tower comic strip runs in Scrye magazine on a regular basis, Scrye didn't charge us anything to bag the issues with them. And because of the other copies going through normal distribution venues, we'll actually end up making a little -- and I want to emphasize 'little' -- money on the project.
"I like trying to come up with nontraditional promotions. Back in March, John Miller, the editor of Scrye actually suggested trying to include a micro-comic freebie in one issue, and that got me thinking that maybe I could make a full-size book work in those numbers. The advertiser support was crucial, of course ...
"I've no idea what to expect from this in the long term. Obviously, I don't think anything BAD will come from it. But I'll be keeping my eye on the circulation in a month or two's time, certainly. It just seemed like a no-brainer once I got the numbers to work."
Dork Storm also publishes two other "gamer comics," "Nodwick" and "PVP." As the nominal head of this miniature empire, does Kovalic have any plans to do similar promotions for the other titles his company publishes?
"Dork Storm Press is more like an artists cooperative than a regular comic book company, so being 'at the head' really just means that I and Liz Fulda (our business manager) handle most of the number-crunching.
"However, similar promotions for Nodwick and PvP are a definite possibility. But I think each book has to be handled in a unique way. It would be difficult, for example, to do a 32-page 'Best of Nodwick' collection since so far most of the stories in the regular comic have been 20 pages or longer. We have other ideas up our collective sleeves (which is a really lousy place to keep ideas, by the way).
"But all three comics cross boundaries pretty nimbly, so I think there'll be many opportunities to try some different kinds of promotions.
"It's making guerilla promo ideas like 'The Best of Dork Tower' #1 project work that makes the business side of this fun. It almost becomes a game at that point."