Over the past several years, crowdfunding site Kickstarter has become an undeniably important pillar of comics publishing. And while audience-supported system of publishing has helped major cartoonists and unknown talents put out single works, the platform is getting a new test this month from one of comics longest-running publishers: Fantagraphics Books.
Today, the alternative comics house has launched a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund its entire Spring/Summer season of books for 2014. The move comes in the wake of the loss of Fantagraphics Co-Publisher Kim Thompson, whose death earlier this year complicated the company's financial plans after several of Thompson-edited books (largely reprints of European comics) had to be postponed or removed from the schedule. As a result, the Fantagraphics Kickstarter looks to be one of the most expansive efforts in the site's comics history, featuring a list of over 100 rewards, including pre-orders for books, rare artist prints, pieces of Fantagraphics history, portfolio critiques and even some more hands-on incentives like a tour of the offices and a shooting party with staffers from the firearm-packing publisher.
The funding initiative features a powerhouse lineup of work from acclaimed cartoonists, including Dan Clowes' "The Complete Eightball," Jaime Hernandez's "The Love Bunglers" and Peter Bagge's latest Buddy Bradley book, "Buddy Buys A Dump," as well as a new slate of archival comics collections including a new volume of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's 1950s romance comics and the latest installments in Fantagraphics' award-winning "Peanuts," "Donald Duck" and E.C. Comics lines. And that list doesn't even include works from up-and-coming comics talents like Simon Hanselmann's "Megahex" book of his popular Megg & Mogg web comics and Eleanor Davis' "How To Be Happy." All told, 39 books are part of the schedule.
CBR News spoke with Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth about the campaign. "Our goal is $150K," Grotth said, "and we're not so well off that we couldn't put to good use any amount we raise above and beyond that." in our expansive interview, Groth expounds on the modern role of crowdfunding in comics publishing, the specific needs and history that led Fantagraphics to this Kickstarter experiment and the legendary artists whose work will see the light of day -- if they can round up the support.
CBR News: Gary, I think the easiest way to tackle this entire Kickstarter idea is to go back to its origins. Obviously, the loss of Kim Thompson had an unimaginable impact on Fantagraphics, your staff and comics in general in an emotional sense. But at what point did you begin to discuss its impact on the line in specific, material ways, and how did Kickstarter present itself as an option to help right the ship?
Gary Groth: I noticed as early as February, maybe January, that we were going through a cash shortfall. I remember Kim and I discussing it at the time -- which means it was before he got sick -- but cash ebbs and flows, and we anticipated it leveling out over the next few months. It didn't. It got worse. Over the last nine months, we had to postpone or cancel thirteen of Kim's titles -- all European translations. In the meantime, we were focusing on all the other books and getting them out on time (and taking over the very few English-language books Kim edited). I wasn't too worried about putting his foreign titles in abeyance, because, to be honest, all the European books, with the exception of Tardi's, were going to be low-selling books. What I hadn't realized is that even a lower-selling book contributes to overhead even if it's not technically profitable, which is, I came to understand, why we kept losing ground.
This may be more information than you want or need, but your next question would logically be, why didn't we put out his books? Kim translated his own books, and no one else could translate French or Danish, nor did we have the manpower to put the books through the production process. It's conceivable that we could've hired outside people to help, but, perhaps more importantly, we were preoccupied with helping him and his widow. We thought at the beginning that it was possible he'd be coming back, and felt as if we should wait to see if he could finish them. This may sound sentimental, in the context, but it would have been a devastating blow if I'd dropped by his home one day and told him that we were just going to jerry-rig his books together. But, I'm not sure that was even a practical option.
In practical terms, what did it take to convince you that this was a model that could really work for Fantagraphics? I know there are folks out there who have questioned Kickstarter or crowdfunding as a valid way of publishing for established professionals -- Dan Nadel had a terrifically received essay on this on TCJ.com a while back. Was there a certain set of conditions you wanted to meet in order to make this worth doing?
I haven't talked to Dan about his piece, but it looked more like an extemporaneous rant than a considered judgment, and, as amusing as it was, I disagree with the premise, about which more later. Why did I consider it a model that could work for us? Simply because we needed an injection of capital and that's why crowdfunding essentially exists -- to raise capital for individuals or companies that need it.
I'd been looking at Kickstarter for nearly a year, desultorily navigating through it, seeing what kinds of projects were being funded. Without knowing much about it, I assumed it was initially set up to help impoverished artists put out their own work, but I quickly noticed that artists were raising $50K or $100K or $150K to print a book that I know costs $10K to print, so I couldn't quite figure that out. Then I noticed that larger entities were raising huge sums for larger projects, bypassing the traditional avenues of bank loans or investors, which is what they would've used otherwise.
I think the basic fallacy of Dan's objection is that he didn't recognize that Kickstarter is both an alternative to the established capitalist mechanisms for raising capital, but it's firmly a part of the capitalist model. Everyone who contributes to a Kickstarter campaign gets something; it's fundamentally transactional. But it's still a novel way to reach consumers more directly. I don't see any real economic difference between a Kickstarter campaign where you're making your pitch directly to consumers and launching some huge advertising campaign to sway people to buy your product -- except that Kickstarter is conceivably more honest because they have a built-in structure that mitigates manipulating the consumer as smarmily.
There is, to criticism of crowdfunding generally, the whiff that there's something faintly unmanly about it, that if you can't hack it in the "free market," you're not cutting it, or that cartoonists in their twenties should work at Denny's for five years, saving their shekels so they can print their comic, or that crowdfunding is an example of charity, and we all know what Mr. A would think of that! I don't think most of the critics mean it this way, but there's a capitalistic macho to this position that I don't buy.
Since the rich have the world's resources pretty much locked up, those of us who aren't rich need to find the money where we can as long as our principles aren't compromised (or compromised too badly) by doing so. The "legitimate" ways to find capital is to get a loan -- as if being beholden to a bank and having a debt burden to deal with is somehow more noble -- or finding an investor, which is like asking the Mafia to join the Board of Directors in exchange for a little investment. (Does anyone remember what happened to Kitchen Sink in the '90s when investors got their claws into them?)
In any event, crowdfunding is certainly among the most benign ways to raise money for worthwhile projects. Will it be abused? Of course it will. It probably is. I was alternately dismayed and shocked at the stuff that is routinely funded -- how could a comic about some clichéd fantasy world that looked like it was written and drawn by 12 year olds get tens of thousands of dollars of funding? But, at least it's like the Wild West, unburdened by creeps in financial institutions constantly sniffing at the bottom line, where you lay out your work and let readers decide whether they want to support it, for good or ill. The only better option would be to find a rich patron who would give you money because he shares your values and believes in your work, no strings attached, and that's simply unlikely to happen in the world we live in.
Historically, Fantagraphics has done a number of different experiments, initiatives and promotions to help keep the publishing output where you'd like it creatively -- everything from the long run of Eros to the occasional blowout sale. How do you view this campaign's place in that history of fundraising efforts, and what do those continued efforts most reflect about how Fantagraphics does business?
You're absolutely right. Look, Fantagraphics has always been a fragile financial ecosystem. Publishing alternative comics almost always has to be subsidized in one way or another. We were always pragmatic enough to figure out ways to subsidize publishing the comics we truly loved, often by publishing commercial books, the profits of which we'd plow back into our art books. If you think we published "The X-Men Companion" circa 1981 because I loved the X-Men, you would be sadly mistaken.
I don't see this as markedly different from many strategies we've employed in the past to get us through rough financial times. It's the latest version (though, better) of "The X-Men Companion" (which is not to say I like it, only that it's necessary).
This certainly isn't the first comics crowdfunding campaign, and it isn't even the first one run by a publisher (not by a long shot), but it is significantly different in its scope and goals. I have the impression that you view this as a bit of a grand experiment in publishing as much as you do a basic funding of a season of books. Could you expand on that a little bit? Is crowdfunding a necessary part of comics publishing in this day and age, and if so, what are the limits of how a publisher like Fantagraphics can or should rely on it?
Every publisher has his own model for staying alive. There are commercial publishers who grind out tons of shit and who publish good books almost as an afterthought (notwithstanding that they're still good books). NBM is an art publisher, but they also publish Papercutz, which sells LEGO comics (which, believe me, have no artistic pretensions) and other junk to elementary school kids. Top Shelf had Alan Moore and now has [Congressman] John Lewis (it's a miracle when good books can also be financially successful books that in turn help subsidize the less successful but equally good books) -- good for them. D&Q has subsidies from Canadian government -- good for them.
I don't think there's any way to quantify how much a publisher "can or should rely on" crowdfunding. It's a little like asking how much publishers should rely on government grants or mercenary projects or sheer good luck. I suspect the answer is: As much as they need.
We've always been acutely aware of the need to balance commercial needs with aesthetic priorities, and we've always managed to figure out a way to do that -- crowdfunding is just another way to accomplish our goal of publishing the kinds of books we do. I've never tried to hide how difficult it is to publish the kinds of books we publish and maintain a professional organization that best suits the interests of the authors of those books. Every publisher who's placed the ideals of art above commerce has struggled with this tension, from Barney Rossett's Grove Press to Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press. Crowdfunding could be a permanent part of our model, until something equivalent takes its place.
I could be overestimating this, but I get the feeling that a more common perception these days is that art comics have "turned a corner" commercially in the past decade. People who follow the business point to things like the "Peanuts" hardcovers, bookstore and online sales and a thriving alt comics festival circuit as proof that the razor thin margins of the past shouldn't exist anymore. I can tell by the text accompanying your Kickstarter that you don't likely agree with that idea, but do you think it's any easier in this day and age to do what you do?
There's no question that art comics or lit comics or whatever nomenclature you use to describe comics that are aesthetically ambitious, have a higher profile today than they did 20 years ago, but any generalization about their popularity in the wider culture is going to be distorted by the anomalies -- there are best-selling artists like Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel (you can count them on the fingers of two hands) -- and then, there's everyone else. There is now, thankfully, a true core readership for these comics, but on the other hand, the sheer volume of such comics have grown far greater proportionally than the audience. So, it's not my experience that it's gotten easier.
Our publishing program has gotten more ambitious, and maybe that's made it harder. You have to understand that we publish a lot of books that appeal to a rarefied readership -- that includes original graphic novels, reprint collections and art books. Many of these books are not profitable, but it's sort of built into our DNA that we have an obligation to publish young cartoonists who may not sell well immediately (or ever), just as we had earlier published unknown artists who didn't sell well right out of the gate -- like Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Pete Bagge, Dan Clowes, Jim Woodring, Joe Sacco and Chris Ware. Or reprint collections like Roy Crane's "Captain Easy" and "Buz Sawyer," or Ernie Bushmiller's "Nancy." Or huge, complex art books that require enormous time and effort (= money) that appeal to a tiny readership but which are important in order to the keep the great heritage of classical cartooning alive for a new generation.
OK, so let's talk about the books themselves. I know that you've said that this season is smaller than initially planned due to the postponement of some of Kim's titles, but for a thin season, it's still got a tremendous amount of creative muscle behind it. On the whole, how do you approach planning a season in terms of fitting the right books together for a full catalogue, and what most stands out as the overall effect of these books?
Let me correct one mistake here: Kim's titles were postponed from our Spring-Summer 2013 season; this 2014 season is, in fact, not smaller than we had planned. We're only publishing one European title -- Jacques Tardi's "Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell" -- but the list itself is as extensive as all of our recent publishing seasons.
Each season is a mix of series titles -- such as "Peanuts," "Prince Valiant," "Donald Duck," our EC books, etc. -- along with brand new projects, either original graphic novels or short story compilations. We always have a number of books in a variety of other "categories" -- such as the gigantic "Eightball" boxed set or the "witzend" boxed set, or the first of our 3-volume series collecting S. Clay Wilson's work or the collection of L.B. Cole's work from the '40s and '50s.
We are always pleased if we have a mix of projects: contemporary work, classic reprints, larger art books. There is so much good work out there, from the past and the present, that our biggest problem is paring it down.
Of course, a lot of the comics on the slate are ones I think people would assume are sure bets in any circumstance: new "Love & Rockets," new Buddy Bradley work from Peter Bagge, the continuation of "The Complete Peanuts." But what are some of the titles included in this season that you think are much more contingent on this Kickstarter being successful? What kind of work will people be "saving" by taking part?
20 years ago, I casually remarked publicly that one of our comics -- a comic I much admired -- sold "like shit." I considered this (at the time) a virtual badge of honor. The artist did not, and was pissed off (and probably hurt). So I'd rather not comment on which books sell worse than others.
One thing I'd like to emphasize is that you have to see this group of books as a whole: I truly believe that there is an aesthetic kinship among all the cartoonists here -- cartoonists as disparate as Dan Clowes or Jack Kirby, S. Clay Wilson or Eleanor Davis. These artists are all wildly different from each other, but they also share a conviction that there's meaning in art. There is great strength, and something beautiful, in that diversity and how it reflects the breadth and scope of the medium. I think that's what we strive for in every season.
In terms of the Kickstarter campaign, the big selling point for a lot of people is going to be the expansive list of rewards. What was the main goal of the staff while brainstorming the rewards? You're also putting up a lot personally in terms of these rewards: some of your "naked baby photos" in the form of an early zine, outgoing voicemail messages, reviews both regular and explicitly positive and a number of gun range "shooting parties." Do any of these make you nervous? I'd wager there are a few disturbing individuals out there who could buy their way into your offices or at least a few disturbingly awful comics you'll have to be very nice to.
Our main goal was to be enticing, fun, and functional. There are a lot of works we’re offering that is perfectly in keeping with our agenda and that you might’ve predicted, such as signed copies of the books , utterly stunning limited edition prints by the artists, and original art. Then, there are, shall we say, more imaginative offerings, wacky, and even masochistic ones, as you have noted. (I won’t be writing reviews, by the by, because I didn’t think I could guarantee positive or negative reviews, in good conscience.) I have no qualms about taking some loyal readers out to shoot guns, though — but safety will be foremost on my mind, so there’ll be a fully appointed gun warden on hand. (It’s not at a gun range, by the way, which is boring; nope, this will be in a gravel pit where we’ll take household appliances and water jugs to blow holes into.)
To be honest, I’d rather be focusing on, you know, the actual act of publishing books than a Kickstarter campaign, but raising money is simply part of the deal, and I accept that.
Overall, what's the single part of this campaign you're most curious to see the outcome on? When all is said and done, what do you hope to gain from the process beyond getting these books into the hands of readers?
I just want to see us make up for our shortfall, get over this hump, and continue publishing the best cartoonists in the world.
Fantagraphics' Kickstarter campaign is up and running now.