Jason Horn has been writing and drawing comics for years, but he's just now making a move to garner an audience outside the normal convention circuit by using Kickstarter to publish a collection of his webcomics series, and working with a developer to create an interactive app for the iPad. This is part two of my two-part interview with the man behind "Ninjasaur."
Tim Callahan: Last week we talked about who you are, where you came from, and what kind of comics you're doing, but now I want to find out more about the delivery systems you've employed. How has the webcomics serialization of "Ninjasaur" worked? Do you get a different kind of response from posting it online than you get from selling minicomics at conventions?
Jason Horn: I write and draw "Ninjasaur" using full comic pages (not in the normal webstrip format). I print the stories in black and white and sell them at conventions. For the webcomic version, I color it and break it down into two or three panel chunks, then roll out the story a little at a time. I'll be the first to admit that posting it that way isn't ideal for reading an online comic. I write and draw the story with the intent that the reader will consume the story one page at a time. That doesn't happen online because a new story of mine wouldn't last long a page at a time. If I didn't have to work a day job and indie comics provided more of a reasonable living wage, I could roll out a page a day and...excuses, excuses.
A lot of webcomics use the three-panel strip format, but that's never interested me much. I tried it, but I'd rather produce traditional stories. Thankfully, with tablets like the iPad, I'll be able to release a color digital version that can be read as I intended. I'm hard at work on a Ninjasaur app right now!
The online response is usually pretty tame when it comes to people posting comments. And when they do, it's always been positive. Thankfully, no one has gone out of their way to tell me how horrible my comics are. But even if they did, that'd be fine. I went to art school, I can take a critique. The reaction at conventions is outstanding. I get to see people's reactions and they occasionally give me money. Getting to see a kid's face light up when they see Ninjasaur for the first time keeps me coming back. So many artists in indie comics lose money when they come to sell their comics at conventions, but luckily I've been making money at it for a while. But even if I didn't, getting to see those kid's reactions would be enough. That sounds super cheesy, but it's true.
Are you really developing an iPad app? That sounds like an intensive undertaking. What's involved with that process?
I don't joke when it comes to app development, Tim. You know that about me. And, yeah, it is a big undertaking. The first step in the process was becoming really good friends with someone that would someday become an app developer. I started that back in 2003 when I met Ben Morrison. Over time, we learned we had a lot in common. Not in a mutual love for comics, which is how most of my friendships start, but we're both creative and we love discussing ridiculous "what ifs." Our wives are not interested in discussing what if Marty McFly went back and killed Hitler, so we bonded. We talk about time travel a lot, and he's endlessly fascinated by the fact that I don't have a sense of smell. Ben's a little younger than me, so he got to learn web design in college (the internet was just becoming popular when I graduated). Once the iPhone came out, he started learning how to make apps. He created an app called "Swipe Four." It's a very addictive word game, you've been warned.
When Ben got the first iPad, I realized that reading digital comics on a handheld device might, for once, live up to my high standards. We started to seriously discuss how to develop a reader for Ninjasaur. Ben's code writing, "mathlete" mind came up with a demo in a few days. But he had to go off and create "Swipe Four." Now that his game has launched, we're back on Ninjasaur! We're busy working out the details of the reader and creating another aspect of the app that I don't want to talk about until we're further into it. I don't want to promise something until I know it'll happen, but I'd love to come back and discuss it when it's ready to launch. I'm sure working with the Apple Store and discussing their 30% cut as opposed to Diamond's cut would make for a good discussion of the medium's future. But the Ninjasaur app is on the way!
What's your take on convention culture? It seems to me there are all these levels, from the casual fans to the luggage-carrying back-issue signature obsessives to the guys willing to wait in lines to the cosplayers to the dealers to the company reps to the young artists to the guys selling merch because they don't make great comics to the self-published guys to the indie guys to the pros to the Marvel/DC icons to the legendary creators. And, sure, that differs a bit depending on the size of the con, but it always seems like those layers are there in some respect, like there are a bunch of different conventions going on that just happen to be held in the same big open space. You've been navigating that convention culture for years. What's your perspective from a con-goer to a behind-the-table guy? How do you handle con life, before, during and after the hours of operation?
I love conventions. But, more specifically, I love good conventions. Conventions like HeroesCon and BaltimoreCon are like Christmas for me and my comic-creating friends. Conventions are glass half-full or half-empty adventures. They're what you make them. But if you're not enjoying HeroesCon in Charlotte, NC, you're doing it wrong. The Indie Island section at that con is the greatest collection of new, up-and-coming, and veteran indie talent that comics has to offer. It's literally all my best friends in comics, but I promise I'm not being biased, they're amazing.
I used to go to tiny hotel cons and big city cons as a fan. Now that I go to five or six cons a year to sell my comics, it's such a different experience. As a fan, I'd be alone, thumbing through discount bins in hopes of completing my "Orion" run. I'd try not to spend all my money as I made several trips back to the car to offload my armful of beat up reader comics. Now I'm surrounded by friends and I (usually) have a pocket full of cash from selling comics. I try not to spend all my profits, but that is still a losing battle.
As far as the different types of con attendees, there are all of the stereotypes you listed and more. The interesting thing with interacting with creators at cons is trying to figure out what kind of drunk everyone will be at the bar that night. I'm way more interested in that aspect of con culture. The interactions at the bar at two in the morning are where you'll make friends for life in this business. One person will introduce you to another, and before long, you know way too much about the guy drawing DC's newest book. I love it.
I wonder if the rise of comic apps and digital comics in general will radically change con culture over the next few years. I mean, if the primary mode of comics consumption ever became digital, what would a convention even look like then? There would still be old back issues and collections, but beyond that -- what?
It just seems like comics are this communal thing, in a way that makes a comic book convention different from most other pop culture conventions. It's about meeting the creators at a comic con (ones you know, and new ones coming up), but is that all it is? Isn't the con culture also about buying small press comics and getting to buy new stuff early?
What are your thoughts about how things might change?
I think conventions ten years from now will look exactly as they do now. There will just be way more artists with iPads set up, displaying their work. And I assume monthly comics will always come out in some form. It's just too ingrained in the medium to become completely unprofitable. But I think most of the low selling books with a targeted audience will go only digital instead of being monthly print comics. Then, months after they've been released digitally, a printed collection will still come out. The big concern, I suppose, is the survival of the direct market comic stores. If a lot of monthlies go exclusively digital and everyone can just go to Amazon for a much cheaper way to get trade paperbacks, then I think there should be a real concern for comic stores. Everyone loses it when comics go day and date, but Amazon has been a much bigger threat to stores in my mind. But here's what will happen: good stores with caring, smart, and savvy owners will survive and the others will close their doors. An obvious prediction perhaps, but those are the best kind. I'll look super smart when all this comes true.
I want to embrace digital as way to reach casual new readers as well as my established fans. If digital comics are cheap and easy to get (and the content is entertaining), I think a lot of readers would also want to get a physical copy of the book at a convention. Getting a printed book with extra content not found anywhere else, which could also be signed with a sketch inside, is an experience no one can get with an app. That's what will keep comic conventions alive. But for that to work, the digital comic needs to be cheap. I can't stress that enough. To me, a 20ish page monthly digital comic will never be worth the $3.99 cover price of a physical book. No way. Especially when most of the digital stores out there only let you rent your digital comics for that inflated price. With my Ninjasaur app, I'm striving to offer a very different (low cost) experience than the printed version of the book will offer. It will utilize content that will be designed for the iPad, otherwise why bother?
You mentioned that some of the details of your Ninjasaur app remain secret, but are you thinking of extra content in terms of games, interactivity, etc? Or is it just "bonus features" type stuff, like maybe behind-the-scenes videos or sketchbook pages and things like that?
Yeah, almost all of those things. I can't wait to talk more about it, but I'm just now in the character design phase for the "game." One of the reasons I wanted to design extra content for the app is because, when I'd talk to kids about Ninjasaur being on the iPhone or iPad, they understood that to mean you could do things with Ninjasaur. They didn't think of it as just reading the comic. That seemed like a reasonable conclusion since these tablet devices have so much potential for interactivity. We're headed down that road in baby steps, but we're hard at work on that. We will be showing off the reader at my first convention of the year. STAPLE! is a great small press show in Austin, Texas. Since that's where Ben lives, we thought we should use the convention to unveil the reader aspect of the app.
There's that "more iPads on display at conventions" prediction coming true already.
Okay -- what about Kickstarter? You're obviously leveraging that approach for your first Ninjasaur collection. What's your experience with that funding source? Have you used it before? Have you seen your friends use it? What have you learned about it already?
Kickstarter is such an obvious fit for indie comics. Most of us don't have two or five thousand dollars lying around to print real books, so doing an online pre-sale that we can offer to our online audience is perfect. I'm still pretty new to the Kickstarter process. "Ninjasaur: Volume One" just launched last week, but so far the process has been super-easy. The only snag I came close to having was linking my back account to Amazon. But even that wasn't a real problem. It just took a little longer than I anticipated.
Kickstarter is an "all or nothing" pledge drive. You explain your project, set your goal and people donate by paying through Amazon's checkout system. Setting up my account was really easy. The site spells it all out for you. Kickstarter applies a 5% fee to all projects, so you have to factor that into your goal. And Amazon charges 3-5% for processing the credit cards. That's a lot better than going through Diamond. Especially since they won't even distribute your indie book unless there's $2500 worth of orders. I've had friends that didn't get their book published because of that new rule.
You can raise whatever amount you want on Kickstarter. The model is genius. My friend Jeremy Bastian was the first to urge me to use it. He wound up raising $36,000 for his comic, "Cursed Pirate Girl." Obviously I don't have dreams of hitting those numbers (I don't think he did either) but I'm willing to give it a shot. Publishers are being super tight about what they invest their money in, so it's time we rally our fans to get our work published.
I've been following the Kickstarter trends a bit from the point of view of table-top gaming, from the sidelines at least. That's an industry that's been dominated by one giant company (Wizards of the Coast, who have owned D&D for years now), and a bunch of smaller companies (most prominently Paizo, who have spun Pathfinder off from the D&D 3.5 rules), and then a ton of small press kinds of games that would have an almost impossible time finding an audience (or funding) outside of hand-selling the photocopied game booklets at gaming conventions. In other words, it's a pretty strong parallel to what's been going on with comics, but from what I've seen, the RPG community around Kickstarter is a lot stronger right now than it has been for comics. At least in terms of quantity of projects supported, while comics has the "Cursed Pirate Girl" example, "Womanthology" (which blew away all expectations), the launch of Retrofit comics, "Rub the Blood" and the now-troubled "Ashes" graphic novel.
Even with those examples, I don't think Kickstarter has yet really fully taken off in the comics industry. It seems like a powerful alternative to the direct market, where creators can set up an award system that acts as souped-up pre-order program and fund their projects based on actual demand from readers, as opposed to anticipated demand from retailers.
Considering its power, why do you think even more of your comic book creating colleagues haven't turned to Kickstarter for funding opportunities? And what strategies are you using to make sure yours is as successful as it can be?
I think everyone wants to see more of a successful track record among our peers before everyone gives it a try. But I think it will get there. And I think there could potentially be a stigma of "all the publishers turned me down so this is my last option." I don't really know if that exists, but I see that kind of attitude even with putting comics on the web for free. I've only actually pitched "Ninjasaur" to one publisher, but I wanted to get it out there on my own and see what it could do.
Kickstarter is a lot of work on the back end. I'll be spending a lot of my nights stuffing envelopes with my books. Most artists already have day jobs as it is, so maybe that don't think they can spend the time doing all the mailing leg work. Any time away from the table is rough on an artist's productivity. I'll be having a baby soon, and since I won't be able to draw much, I figured I should at least be able to put a book in an envelope in between diaper changes.
And I think that if the comics community created their own Kickstarter model, it would stand a better chance with readers and creators. Hoping your project gets noticed amongst all of Kickstarter's various types of projects can be difficult. They deserve some credit for having a "Comics" button under their search keys, but comic books are not their focus. If someone like The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund offered a Kickstarter-like program, I think you'd see the comics community fully embrace the model. It would be cool if the 5% cut went to the CBLDF.
Man, I don't know. I think a CBLDF version would be a cool idea, but then it's a charity thing instead of a business thing, you know? I think the appeal of Kickstarter is getting involved in the early stages of a creative project and feeling like you're investing in something to get some kind of benefit for yourself and the world. It's not quite the same mentality as donating to charity, I don't think. People at the CBR message boards can feel free to tell me how wrong I am about this, of course.
Will the "Ninjasaur" volume be available later this year for people who didn't get a chance to donate to the Kickstarter project? Where and when can people find it?
Yes, I hope. The Kickstarter runs until mid-February, and after I've paid the fees and postage, I'll use whatever profit is left to do a small print run to sell at conventions this year. I plan on attending STAPLE!, FLUKE, HeroesCon and BaltimoreCon, so anyone should be able to get it at those conventions. And the app should be out later this year!
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.