Thanks to an outrageous premise and strong promotion -- perpetuated by enthusiastic word of mouth -- writer Sam Humphries and artist Steven Sanders' self-published one-shot "Our Love is Real" became one of 2011's biggest surprise sensations, selling out of multiple printings and eventually being picked up by Image Comics. This week, Humpries begins another self-published project with artist Dalton Rose, the six-issue miniseries "Sacrifice," which plucks a troubled Joy Division fan from the modern day and throws him into the midst of an Aztec civil war. Issue #1 is available now at select retailers (check the website for a list), online through TFAW.com, and in a digital edition at comiXology and Graphicly.
CBR News caught up with Humphries to talk about "Sacrifice" and his DIY strategy for publishing original comics.
CBR News: First, congrats on all your success with "Our Love is Real!" It's pretty amazing that you were able to drum up so much attention doing it all on your own. What made you take that approach in the first place?
Sam Humphries: No one else wanted to publish it, so I did it myself! "OLIR" was a crazy train powered by a thousand junked-out Prius batteries possessed by Satan. You can't stop it, you can only hope to get out of its way.
A handful of publishers really liked the book, but couldn't figure out a way to make it work for them. I mean, it was a pretty risky proposition, because of the format, the duration, and, well, the subject matter. I don't blame anyone for taking a pass.
There's also an interesting case here in that "Our Love" was available digitally and in print, before it was available in wide release from Image. Do you think your experience in this unusual situation offers any insights into the many print/digital arguments?
Well... not really. "Our Love is Real's" digital strategy was defined by practicality. It allowed me to make the book available to readers everywhere, something that would have been impossible as a self-distributor. Or impossible even if I had a traditional distributor. Digital for me wasn't a flag in the sand, it was a means to an end.
On to the new book! How would you describe the story of "Sacrifice?"
"Sacrifice" is a fantasy epic that takes place right here on Earth. Hector is a young dude from the 21st century who is forced to survive in the exotic, violent world of the Aztec Empire. His modern preoccupations are hijacked by psychedelic time travel and the grinding march of history.
What made you want to tell a story involving the Aztecs?
On a primal level, "Sacrifice" is my heart and brain screaming "the Aztecs were awesome! And awesome like in the old-school sense as in full of awe! Not like in the sense that pizza is awesome!"
I've been obsessed with the Aztecs for about eight or nine years now, reading tons of books, absorbing any information I could find about them. This mind-boggling dead civilization hit some deep chord inside me and I can't shake the fever. "Sacrifice" is a public expression of a personal obsession.
Hector finds himself not only in the midst of Aztecs, but in the midst of a very particular Aztec conflict. Historically, what did the ascension of the god Huitzilopochtli mean for the Aztec people, and how does the conflict between his followers and those of Quetzalcoatl influence the shape of your story?
This is a complex conflict that is not fully understood. Some academics can't even agree whether or not it even took place. But there is some evidence that during a near-calamitous series floods, famines, and other disasters, a group within the empire cynically re-architected the Aztec belief system. They created a narrative in which the Aztecs were the divinely-anointed caretakers of the world, a world that needed to be constant nourishment from human blood.
The downside is the entire civilization became preoccupied with war and human sacrifice. The upside is the Aztecs became united, and yanked themselves from the brink of extinction. Not only did they survive, but they thrived and flourished at incredible speeds. "Sacrifice" takes place three generations later.
Hector is epileptic, and may also have some other problems. Is there a concern about portraying his illness fairly in the series?
I am epileptic. I've had a seizure disorder since I was a child and it changed my life. The idea for "Sacrifice," and the ways in which Hector's life has been impacted by his condition, stemmed directly from my own experiences.
Interesting. In that case, I'm wondering if you could talk a bit more about writing this character from such a personal angle -- why was "Sacrifice" (rather than another story) the right avenue for this, etc.?
There's nothing cool about being a kid with epilepsy. The closest you can get is the fact that several ancient civilizations would revere you for your mystical powers and ability to travel to the spirit world. You'd be a shaman! The holy leader of an entire society! Unfortunately, those days are gone, and today, life as an epileptic is mostly about pills and doctors. In "Sacrifice" I wanted to tell a story where a seizure disorder was an advantage -- and possibly the only thing you could bring from the 21st century that would save your life.
Your artist for "Sacrifice" is Dalton Rose. How did you two come together for this? And what does his style bring to the story?
I went on a peyote-fueled vision quest in which the god of Coatlicue appeared to me as the editorial crew of Archaia. They sang to me an ancient riddle to which the answer was the URL of Dalton's Deviant Art account. Having answered their puzzle, they allowed me to pass to the underworld where a new Umami Burger had just opened. I had the Hatch Burger, with four types of green chiles.
Dalton's got mad styles and a lot of influence from European and South American art, which makes him a comic nerd after my own heart. His blend of action and intensity with beauty and emotion is a mirror of the Aztec mentality. Flowers, feathers, and blood were the three most valuable resources in their society. Their fiercest warriors were also accomplished poets. They perpetuated brutal, bloody traditions to preserve the splendor of the natural world. This is the line they walked in every way. Dalton's artwork is flowers, feathers, and blood.
The covers to issue one are quite striking. What was the thought behind this duotone, design-centric approach? Was that Dalton's call or something you sorted out together?
Much of the credit goes to our art director, Dylan Todd. We knew we wanted a consistent design that would unify all the issues and all the covers. We knew we wanted a look and feel that blended ancient imagery with a modern vibe. We knew we wanted it to be "bad ass" -- just the kind of focused, specific requirement that art directors love to hear from partners.
It was a pretty tall order and Dylan kicked ass. I am in love with the look of "Sacrifice." It blends the crazed urgency of the best album art with the fetishistic you-must-hold-this-in-your-hands allure of the best book design.
On the subject of covers, you're doing a lot of variants, several of which are exclusive to particular stores. What is the advantage of this approach for a comic you're producing and distributing yourself?
We've got the Jade Edition, our cover "B" variant, which is a retailer incentive limited to 100 copies.
We've also got the Obsidian Edition, a variant cover for all six issues that is available exclusively at TFAW.com, our official online mail-order partner. We are proud and lucky to have a partner like TFAW. Their strong support and faith in the book since before day one has made all the difference in this little self-publishing enterprise.
We've also got the Emperor and Warrior Editions, limited to 30 and 50 copies respectively, reserved for retailers who made a significant commitment to supporting SACRIFICE from the beginning.
And Collector's Paradise, a great retailer down here in Southern California, doubled down on the book in a big way, so we created The Shadow Edition of issue 1 in their honor -- limited to 200 copies, available exclusively in their two retail locations. They are hosting the official "Sacrifice" launch party tonight in Pasadena.
Self-publishing and self-distribution is not easy, and doesn't come with a lot of advantages. Cover variants are a proven, dependable way to get readers and retailers excited about a new comic book with little or no pedigree. It's a tough market and I'd be remiss to leave any opportunity on the table.
We've got some exciting announcements coming in the next five months -- guest artists who generously contributed some amazing covers for the book. I can guarantee these covers will catch people by surprise.
In addition to having very different content from "Our Love is Real," "Sacrifice" also runs for six issues rather than being a one-shot. Do you see any challenges keeping a self-published book going for six issues, without Diamond distribution or the support of a publisher?
Yeah, it's almost all challenges! Cost, effort, time, fatigue -- I could go on. Not to mention the fact that some readers and retailers just won't take a chance on a new property, much less a self-published property, no matter how many covers you throw out there.
But, I'm not bitching, I don't have time for it. I wouldn't have published issue #1 if I didn't have a plan to publish all six issues. From the very beginning I looked at "Sacrifice" as whole project. The mission is to see it all the way through, and we've prepared accordingly. There's no turning back now. This is a fight I chose, and I'm feeling good. Gotta keep moving, gotta stay in the picture.
Continuing on the topic of distro, as an independent publisher was Diamond was even an option for you and did you look into distributing "Sacrifice" through them? If so, did the success of "Our Love is Real" give you grounds to say, "Hey, we can make the quotas?" Or was Diamond not interested -- or not worthwhile, from your perspective?
Diamond has a whole measure of success that isn't relevant to me as a self-publisher. That's not a criticism, that's just how it works -- everyone has their own end zone, and I'm focused on mine. I didn't feel like the Diamond system offered sufficient enough benefits for me to compromise my focus on "Sacrifice."
Aside from the endless and exhausting challenges of self-distribution, the freedom you get in return is incredible. The same laws of physics no longer apply. Suddenly, you have room to experiment and innovate. You can target a smaller number of stores that are more relevant to your comic. You can develop stronger relationships directly with them. Your marketing can be more relevant to a modern audience. You can take full advantage of social media. Things like that. It's a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun, too.
Your website has a list of shops carrying "Sacrifice," plus TFAW online and comiXology. Are you adding shops if they request to carry it?
Absolutely! We're adding new stores all the time.
"Sacrifice" #1 is on sale now.