Two titans in the world of self-publishing sat down for a collegial chat with fans at Jeff Smith ("Bone," "RASL") and Terry Moore ("Strangers in Paradise," "Echo," "Rachel Rising") talked about the heights and pratfalls of choosing to forge their own path in comics.
Smith described self-publishing as a "badge of honor in comics and a badge of shame in books." "A step below college press," Moore added, to which Smith said, "... and they really hated college press." Smith gave a historical summary of the so-called "self-publishing movement," back to "Elfquest," "Cerebus" and Robert Crumb walking around San Francisco selling comics out of a baby carriage while citing "Cerebus" creator Dave Sim and his "militant" stance on self-publishing.
Smith noted that he'd missed a lot of the output between those days and the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle" movie because, "I discovered teenaged girls."
"Which was weird, because he was seventy at the time," Moore quipped.
Chuckling, Smith forged on. "I didn't know about comic book stores. The last time I bought a Batman comic book, I bought it at a drug store. I discovered this world of indie comics, not self-published like Dave [Sim], but the hipster indie stuff like 'Love and Rockets.' I was more interested in comic strips as a kid, I loved the Golden Age stuff like 'Terry and the Pirates,' 'Popeye.' When you clear away all the tattoo books and the porn, there were these books, there were a million others, I thought, 'Wow, there's a golden age of comics that the rest of the world doesn't know about.' All I wanted to do was get rid of my animation company and do 'Bone.' Then I had to tell my wife ..."
Smith noted the benefit of appearing at a 1993 Diamond Distributors convention for retailers alongside Dave Sim, Colleen Doran, James Owen and Martin Wagner just a few months after a company called Image debuted, shocking the industry.
"We did it at the Diamond show, we did it at the Capital show," Smith said. "We were given word we should not sign together, we were banned from the floor. We were having a great time. Dave said, 'Well, fuck 'em. Let's spread the word we'll be in the bar.' Man, it was awesome. We emptied out the exhibit hall, there was a line going out the bar. That was something." During this halcyon era, the rumors of an indie super company like Image propelled these creators, and many like them, into prominence and fortune.
"You don't remember anything after that," Moore joked. "The next five years were a blur."
"Then I woke up here," Smith agreed.
"Then I showed up in 93," Moore jumped in. "That's when I walked into a comics shop and had the same experience, and thought, 'I could do this! What is this crap?' I started chasing this train, the friendly guy I kept bumping into was Jeff. I've been chasing that train ever since."
Smith reminisced, "In the crazy years, Dave Sim would always get some ... he would rent the presidential penthouse and then give what Terry calls the rat pack and give all of us keys. We'd invite publishers and retailers, Neil Gaiman was an honorary member of us. We'd talk about comics for hours, from the time we got up to way late in the middle of the night. Then we'd get to the suite and it was always crowded. It was a real scene, everybody was sharing horror stories."
Smith also revealed how the real graphic novel industry was born. "Some of the ideas we threw around, we wanted cartoonists to not only have permission to do the work and decide how it's in print, how long it's in print and what's a better way to sell our comics. The model in the 90s was akin to going to a hardware store and they'd be out of hammers, and they can't replace them because they sold out. Imagine going into a record store and you want to buy the White Album, but they only printed it once, and then you'd have to buy it from a collector for $5,000. We thought, why would we stop printing? At first, a lot of us were doing second printings. What we were really interested in was the graphic novel. It was thought of as an expensive luxury item. They'd only print it once, they didn't keep it in print. We thought the way to go was to take that format, keep books in print and convince retailers that when it sells out, restock it. It was a surprisingly tough sell. We got a lot of resistance, but it was important to me. I knew 'Bone' was going to be over 1,000 pages long. I needed people to be able to get the early stories cheaply. If I'm on issue 15, I can't expect them to pay 1,000 dollars to get 'Bone' #1."
"For several years after, Marvel and DC weren't impressed," Moore agreed. "It was four of five years before they dipped their toes in the trade market. They watched you guys like canaries in the mine."
"To see if we were gonna die," Smith nodded.
Moore concluded, "Here's the comic book business, you make a book once, and sell it for the rest of your life. Tom Sawyer was the example for me."
"A bunch of us, like Colleen Doran and Dave Sim, we were planning a novel. We thought of it as a book, a long form comic with beginning, middle and end. I tried to hide it. When I started doing 'Bone,' 'Lord of the Rings' was not cool. I thought mixing the Marx Brothers with 'Lord of the Rings' would be cool. I thought it would be doomed. I tried to keep the humor, the adventure and the cliffhangers as what would keep people coming back."
"That really worked to your advantage," Moore said. "There was an unfulfilled tension from the beginning. Having that slow burn, that's a really good way to go fishing. Same way with 'Strangers in Paradise.' I was writing about mature relationships, I just danced around it all night. The world's longest unfulfilled kiss."
A fan asked if appearing on the cover of "Heroes Illustrated" (a Wizard-style publication from the 90s boom times) helped boost sales. "It was a two step thing," Smith responded. "I was praying I could get 1,500 other people that would dig this idea -- Bugs Bunny and "Lord of the Rings' together. Going to shows, trying to connect. Then I felt a moment when it was starting to connect, when Neil Gaiman was talking about it, or Frank Miller could come up to me at a show and slap me on the back. Then it exploded. It was called 'the anti-gimmick comic.' In the 90s, there was a huge explosion of foil covers, people were buying palettes of 'X-Men #1.' Everybody started pointing to it as the anti-gimmick thing, I don't know why. I guess the fact that here's this little comic being done out of this guy's garage, it just felt cleaner."
Moore talked about how damaging consolidation of the industry's distribution was for self-publishing. "What happened was that there were a lot of distributors. I had 18, but there were like 25. They all started shutting down, all the Canadian ones first, it got down to two big guys. One was indie-friendly and one wasn't. Indie-friendly was gonna die, it was Capital. Every distributor we lost, our numbers got smaller and smaller. We were walking around like, 'We're gonna die.' Everyone owed us money when they died. They were crashing a lot of small businesses. "Wandering Star," Terry Wood, they would fold, she was counting on that for three months of living money. That was the background. At that point, Image signed with Diamond. They were walking around like the mob, picking you up, like the madam picking up stray girls on the street. Jeff decided he would go under their shelter, I figured whatever Jeff does is pretty well thought out."
Soon, Jim Lee gave Moore a call, offering an "in" at Homage, a Wildstorm imprint. "I hung up the phone, went to change my underwear. I told [his wife] Robin, and she wasn't into it. You could not find a smarter guy than Jim Lee, the brightest funniest guy I ever met, and super honest and ethical. I had a great time with [Homage], but at the end of the year, I like self-publishing. There were very few people between me and you. When I was with this company, we had to go through the coloring department, distributors. We left, a year later, and at least we had Diamond, but we did lose all those Capital orders. My orders cut in half, and that's why we went from 2 million copies a month to, well, now."
"There were a couple of months I was selling the same numbers as Batman," Smith noted. "This is armageddon, this is not good."
Moore noted, "If you were at 40,000, I was at 10. If that happens, I'm gonna be bagging your groceries."
"By the time the dust cleared, I was down to 20," Smith confirmed.
Smith noted the importance of his research and planning. "I told [my wife] what I wanted to do. I didn't know if she was going to go for it. She said, 'You can sell your company to your partners if you can write a business plan good enough to show to a bank.' I went to this building where they had a lot of books, what was it called? I got books on how to write a business plan, forced myself to think of a five year plan, investigate the comic book industry and find out, how does it work? A non-returnable market meant your customer was the retailer and not the reader. All that stuff I had to figure it out, roll forward a few months because money won't come for like 90 days after I send the book out. I wrote the thing down." When he presented his business plan, the banker offered him twice as much as he requested, and he took it.
Moore had a slightly different approach. "I never wrote a plan because I never went to the bank. What I learned was the sequencing, which is where they money comes from. Orders tell you how much to print, print to order, when you send the books to the distributor, they send you a check, then I paid the printer. I was never out a dime. When I got started, I had a young family and a great paying job, and I wanted to quit and do comics, which is like telling your mom you wanna join the circus. I needed to immediately start replacing my annual salary. It took me a year and a half of both."
Both noted the importance of having their wives on board as not just being supportive, but full business partners. Smith said of his wife, "She's got an office, she's got two full time employees, she deals with lawyers, she goes to Frankfurt this year, she did that in 2005 with 'Bone.' We were coloring it with Scholastic, but we kept the digital rights. Scholastic only publishes it in Canada and the US."
Moore added, "One of the biggest fallacies for young people is that they grew up with parental help, they're looking for some business parent to help them along. You've got to do it yourself -- or get a Jeff to kick the door down and follow him."
"The idea that you should take the business side is really important," Smith added. "I don't think that people do. You do have to have moderate expectations, you have to make some of your own luck. From an artistic viewpoint, I've got to make sure I can afford it. Yes, models are changing. It's different now. I was able to go to a Diamond retailer conference. Once Diamond was the only game in town, they stopped doing that. It's more difficult to hang out with retailers now."
"If you target something in your life, and start moving towards it, it's amazing how many obstacles just lay down and get out of your way." Moore said. "One thing we're not really verbalizing here is that we were absolutely unstoppable. I was going to make this work or die. I can't tell you how serious I was about not being stopped. It was because of desperation. If I don't make this work, I'll never have art as a career."
"Many obstacles pop up," Smith admitted. "There are people that don't want you to do this. The phenomenon of haters has popped up on the internet."
Moore noted the wonders of flexibility that he had in his business. "In one day, you can completely change your business plan and adapt to anything."
Smith agreed. "'RASL' had a hard time getting any traction. People didn't like it, I made it really big because I thought it would be neato. I tried a pocket book version that sold a little better, and people actually read it. I was able to make decisions about how to change and maneuver."
Smith's next series is titled "Tüki Save the Humans." "I had a picture of it on my computer. It's gonna be online. I'm gonna try a new model where I serialize it online, a page a week. In a nutshell, it takes place two million years in the past. Homo erectus, he's going to be the first human to leave Africa. The first Ice Age sucked all the moisture out of Africa. The human population starts dying, this guy starts walking north and the entire population tries to stop him. One of his traveling companions will be a small tribe of australopithecus, this female named Lucy. This will be more like 'Bone' than 'RASL.' I miss fantasy elements."
"He's a homo eroticus?" Moore joked.
"He's the root homo," Smith confirmed. "Homo number one."
A fan asked what it was like learning to sell one's work. "It's not so much like being a used car salesman," Smith said. "It's more like being friendly and visible. We would go to shows, MOCA and APE. It's important to go to shows, see each other, be a face on the scene. Terry is a really talented cartoonist. There's more emotion on any given page of 'Strangers in Paradise' than anything that's happening in the Big 52 or whatever. You've got to have the chops, that's the most important thing. Be friendly, get known, your book will rise to the top."
He then remembered another story about one creator he saw doing it in a way he wouldn't have done, "If you like zombies, and you like Jesus, you're gonna love 'Zombie Jesus!'"
Moore laughed, "You can't top that on Easter!"