It's been a long journey for Sam Humphries' "Our Love is Real." With an initial print run of the self-published book that sold out in a mere 9 hours, it's no wonder folks sat up and took notice of the Humphries-written, Steve Sanders-illustrated book. Following three sold-out print runs, Image Comics is publishing the book and come November, a much wider audience can experience Humphries' Sci-Fi one-shot in a future where sexual identity has completely exploded.
"'Our Love is Real' is a Sci-Fi love story that takes place in the future about five years after the eradication of the AIDS virus," Humphries told CBR News. "In the wake of that, humanity and society has undergone a sort of sexual identity explosion where everyone has loosened up in some ways and become more tight in other ways, but all of a sudden something like being homosexual is no longer a huge cultural deal right now because there are all these alternative lifestyles now, like people who have consensual sexual relationships with dogs."
In this theoretical future, readers get a glimpse of the life of Jok, a zoosexual riot cop who has a very distinct direction in life. "Jok is a riot cop in the future. He's a zoosexual, which means he's in love with a dog, whose name is Chyna," said Humphries. "His motivation, really, is to do a good job, which is basically when there is a situation like a riot that needs a riot cop, they point him in the right direction and he kicks ass. In the middle of a job, he meets the second main character, Brin and after some interactions with Brin, his sense of purpose and center become very disturbed and he realizes that his whole identity is not what he thought it was."
Brin is a mineralsexual, an individual who has romantic and sexual relationships with crystals, and she brings a whole lot of mystery to the straight-shooter Jok. "Where she's coming from and where she's going provide some of the momentum in the story, so I don't want to give away too much," said Humphries, "Suffice it to say that she's someone who's very sure of herself, very motivated, very driven and has found a movement to attach her life to."
"Our Love is Real" is a long time coming for Humphries, who crafted the story years ago after seeing a somewhat shocking website called "dolphinsex.org." "[It] has since been removed from the internet," said Humphries, "but it was a one page website where a guy wrote this mini-memoir of his romantic life with dolphins somewhere off the coast of Florida and it was shocking for two reasons. First, he was very, very explicit about his sexual relationship with this dolphin, which is something that once you read it you can never really forget, unfortunately. And the other part is that he really considered this a two-way street. He considered it a reciprocal romantic relationship that the dolphin wanted to be with him as much as he wanted to be with the dolphin. Conceptually, that really blew my mind.
"I guess you could say it was part of a pitch for an anthology called 'Revolver' that never went anywhere. The pitch was a series of maybe six scripts. The interesting part about it was that not only was that the start of 'Our Love is Real,' but some of the other talent in the book have also gone on to do other things in the comic book industry," Humphries continued. "Charlie Chu is managing editor at Oni Press now; Jeremy Love recently was nominated for an Eisner for 'Bayou' at Zuda and we did a 'Fraggle Rock' story together; Chris Sebela is currently co-writing 'Screamland' from Image; and Kieron Gillen is currently writing 'Uncanny X-Men' for Marvel."
While Humphries learned a lot about comics in the years between the initial "Revolver" pitch and the publication of "Our Love is Real," one of the most important lessons had to do with trusting his artist. "I think the biggest thing that improved 'Our Love is Real' over the years is that I learned to relax and trust the artist," Humphries said. "I chopped out huge portions of the script that were way too dictatorial in terms of telling the artist exactly what to draw and just left things to the artist and let them go for it. I'm so glad that I did because I ended up working with Steven Sanders, who immediately naturally took the story so well and I'm so glad I gave him a lot of room and space to experiment. It really improved the book so much."
Humphries traced back his desire to self-publish to the groundswell of indie books in the early-to-mid '90s, during the time of "Bone," "THB" and "Stray Bullets." "The idea of taking a book from beginning to end and doing it yourself was something that stuck with me, that almost pioneer spirit they carried," Humphries said. "Not that you should blame any of those creators for my pervy little Sci-Fi book!"
As for the multiple sold-out print runs, Humphries expressed some surprise over the reader reception and recalled some of his experiences initially trying to find a publisher for the one-shot. "I didn't really expect to see a whole lot of takers for a book that was not only controversial, but that was controversial in this specific way," he said. "I hoped that people would read it and be like, 'Oh, this is cool!' or 'You did a good job!' I didn't think I'd find a lot of takers who would say, 'This is a great book and we'd love to put our name on it!' or 'This is a great book and we can make money with it!' [Laughs] I didn't feel like I had a lot of options. I certainly did show it around a little bit. Some publishers were very encouraging. One publisher in particular loved it so much that they bent over backwards and worked the numbers with their entire editorial team and tried to find a way to make it work economically for them, which was really flattering and encouraging even if the answer was ultimately no."
Humphries attributed a portion of his success to the availability of the book at the time of his own marketing and media groundswell. "When I was self-publishing, I wasn't even being distributed by Diamond, which is a weakness because you don't have all the advantages of the preorders and Diamond handling shipping and the Previews catalog and having outreach to the entire market at once," Humphries explained. "But a pro is that I could make my own rules. I didn't have to solicit the book 3 months in advance. I didn't have to promote the book trying to get preorders until the book was actually available. I sat on the thing, I didn't tell anyone until the day before the book came out, so that when the buzz hit for the book, I could say, 'Go buy the book now. It's available to buy now.' Having to work with the Previews schedule, having to work with the preorder method posed an entirely new challenge where I had to reconsider promoting 'Our Love is Real' from the ground up."
Working with the preorder method gave the writer time to analyze the process and discern how to make it work for him to the same effect of his initial buzz-building for "Our Love is Real." "One thing that I knew coming into it is that the preorder system when it comes to readers and marketers sucks," Humphries said. "There's a lot of good things to say about the preorder system and the way it protects publishers and the way it protects retailers, it minimizes so much loss there could be in this industry, but when it comes to somebody trying to motivate interest in a book, you have to do the lion's share of promotion and burn up most of your oxygen when the book isn't even available. So you're out there generating attention and buzz for the book during a period of time when nobody can do anything about it. You're getting people excited for this book but the most they can do is preorder it.
"The preorder method that's out there is so counterintuitive and it's so cumbersome that a lot of the excitement we generate in this industry dies right there. No matter how much a reader cares, I don't think there's a lot of motivation for comic readers to go through the process of preordering books because it's such a pain in the ass," Humphries continued. "Even if you are a regular Wednesday reader and you have a close relationship with the store, if you don't have a pull list or a ComiXology, it's something that involves so much effort, you could forget and never come back to it. But if you are a casual reader or a new reader, it's absolutely devastating because there are so many steps you have to do and there's no one easy way to do it."
To avoid the pitfalls of the current model, Humphries created a one-stop solution to the preorder conundrum: a website that functions as a preorder app. "I wanted to find some way to streamline the process because to explain all that in a marketing message is really impossible," he said. "You can generate so much excitement for a book, but to shift gears, explain and tell people how to do that is just a huge buzzkill. You might as well just be running into a brick wall. So what we did is condense that entire process into one preorder app. It's one link, you take two minutes to order the book, you can pick it up at the store near you or you can have it delivered to you via mail order and it's done."
Working with Things From Another World, Humphries is able to ship the book anywhere in the world and has 75 retailers in the US, Canada and the UK on board for his app. For those that simply want the book shipped to their homes, the app directs them to TFAW. For those desiring in-store pickup, the app gives them a list of stores in their area and sends an email to the retailer that allows them to adjust their order accordingly.
"It's an incredibly easy system for everyone involved," Humphries said. "The publisher doesn't have to change their behavior at all. The reader just has to take 2 minutes, one link, fill out some information and they're done. The retailer just has to keep an eye on their email and when a preorder pops up, they just have to make note of it."
According to Humphries, the app has generated a very positive response from readers and stores alike. "The response to the app has been fantastic," the writer said. "I think the system is very smooth. The app is a tool for bringing orders directly to retailers, not a marketing tool in and of itself. It's something we want to get out of the gate early so that all of our marketing efforts for the Image version of the book involve this preorder app."
But Humphries isn't stopping with just the preorder app. In order to show his appreciation for retailers who take a chance on the Image one-shot, he's offering a very special incentive. "I was very surprised when the initial print run sold out in 9 hours and I was even more surprised when copies showed up the next day on eBay and sold for $45.00," Humphries said. "That's a trend that has astoundingly gone up and up. A copy sold recently the other week for almost $100, which is blowing my mind, but it's a book that collectors have really responded to and really enjoyed and really supported.
"Every time we did a new print, we switched up the cover a little bit. We've had three different versions so far and collectors and retailers and readers have really responded to that. They've really enjoyed it. I think it's a lot of fun because you get a whole new cover every time. I wanted to do something special to celebrate the Image version and also provide value to retailers who really support the book. What we're doing is a retailer incentive," Humphries continued. "We did a secret fourth edition of this book, a fourth printing that was strictly limited to 100 copies. They're signed and hand-numbered. About half we're giving to friends of the book, people who really got behind the book and supported it in the early days, and the other 50 we are going to give to retailers who order at least 25 copies of the book. This will be the rarest full version of 'Our Love is Real' probably to ever see print. We're really hoping for the retailers that are intrigued by the book and think it's something that they might want to give a shot to but they're not sure how their audience is going to respond, if they're feeling like making a big commitment to the book, we want to thank them and send them this Crystal Edition and hopefully provide some value to them."
So, what's in the future for Humphries and this incredibly popular Sci-Fi reality he's created? "Who knows? I think I vastly underestimated demand for this book," he said. "It's been a minor comic book miracle this one-shot has done as well as it has. If it ends here, I'll be thrilled. If it does well, I think it's entirely possible that we could go forward with more stories. It's really difficult to say. This book has defied expectations at every turn, so I hate to make any ironclad predictions."
As for the writer himself, he's already hard at work on his next big endeavor -- but he wasn't able to say much about it. "My next book is going to be another self-published book," Humphries said. "It's a six-issue limited series. The first issue comes out December 7 and I think, learning a lesson from 'Our Love is Real,' that's about all I'm going to say."
"Our Love is Real" arrives from Image Comics on November 2, 2011.