If it ain’t broke, maybe fix it anyway?
That seems to be the M.O. for another new comics studio hoping to disrupt the status quo and kick-off a new era for the industry.
PopCultivator seeks to “create a library of diverse comic content” by “working with several publishers, licensees, and manufacturers as it develops new comics.” The catch? Fans are allowed to invest and own a small piece of the company, with everything run through the crowdfunding platform WeFunder. As of publication, they’ve already raised more than $79,000 of a $100,000 goal for their early bird campaign.
Is the idea of owning a small piece of a comics publisher the kind of collectors fetishism that appeals to hardcore fans? Yes, which is why PopCultivator seems like it’s “so weird and singular it just may work.” And the same time, it could be that this very gimmick turns some fans away and stymies any momentum the team might generate.
Luckily, there are some big names already attached to the project, including former senior X-Men editor Mark Powers and Shawn DePasquale (of Image Comics and Oni Press). It’s all head up by Josh Blaylock, founder and CEO of Devil’s Due Publishing, who just may have the skills, resources, and the minor dash of insanity needed to make this huge dream a reality.
For one, Blaylock is an early pioneer of the DIY, build-it-and-maybe-they-will-come model of comics publishing. He’s been at work in indie comics since the mid- to late ’90s, and he’s been everything from the artist to the publisher.
“Until right before I started publishing, and living in smaller cities in the Midwest and in Florida, there was really nowhere to go to create a network of fellow professionals,” he said. “And you just had to teach yourself.”
And while he’s worked on quite a few impactful projects (like The Encoded and Mercy Sparx), he recognizes that over the years, he’s developed another, equally important skill.
“I’m a professional, but not fantastic, creative talent, but I think my ideas are good,” he said. “I can say the talent is identifying things, disruptive trends, that are going to make a big difference down the line.”
And disruption has long been a running focus.
“I was a teenager arguing with companies, the heads of companies, about how the hell could you not understand that there’s going to be this huge retro trend thing,” he said. “Nobody understood that.” Blaylock speaks, of course, of a return of beloved ’80s franchises to comics.
He added, “I get involved in things too early, that’s what I see happening, and I end up kind of overextending myself and I get out and then when the time that I’m out, it’s fine. Everyone takes off. This is one of those things where I feel like I were hitting it at the right time.”
So, when he says the industry has some issues or hang-ups, it comes from a person who clearly understands the much larger scope of things.
“It used to be, ‘I hope this publisher picks me up, or I hope this distributor will publish or distribute my self-published book, and I can get it out there,'” he said. “[Comics] was born into the periodical magazine industry, and its native habitat is commercial art.”
But all things must change, and Blaylock says that after some true disruptions, it’s becoming clear across the comics industry about what avenues truly existing for the enterprising creators.
“Then, all of a sudden, social media happens, and then crowdfunding happens,” he said. “And then over the last few decades, we’ve gone from a handful of big cons a year to 100 conventions. And now you’ve got web comics and all these different platforms. Yet there’s still thousands and thousands of people that want to get into comics that still have that mentality of, ‘Oh, I hope I can get picked up by a publisher.’ They don’t realize that’s gone now.”
He added, “I think with comics the way that you promote yourself is now rapidly catching up to be even more in sync with how you have to promote yourself to get into the music business. With the music business, it was always, from the get go, that you have to get out there and start touring. And you have to build your following.”
And that’s where PopCultivator enters the mix. Blaylock said the company is about “taking that further,” adding that “publishing just another one of many things they have they have at their disposal. Publishing is another part of the licensing and media growth of the thing you’re creating. Comics always opens the doors to other peripheral industries.”
So, per the company’s early press, they’ll focus on “original work-for-hire development, for comics it owns outright, as well as collaborations with talent for creator-owned content.” And from those projects, there’ll be a continual focus on licensing whenever possible, be it film, TV, or other lucrative channels.
“I want a standing pretty much boilerplate deal at every different publisher,” he said. “So we know, hey, we [found] your X, we think that’d be perfect with one of these two publishers who wants it, and everybody just knows when I work with those guys. It’s easy.”
Still, Blaylock and company are aware that this isn’t a one size fits all deal. Instead, even with the investment model in place, they want to be savvy in how they handle deals.
“This is not just some hedge fund or investor coming in that wants to capitalize on comics and hope they can make it look impressive so they can flip it into a film deal and into a portfolio of film properties,” he said. “We look at each creator on a case-by-case basis. And if one publisher doesn’t make sense, or that one pathway doesn’t make sense, we have the flexibility to go a completely different direction. It’s not one model for every project; there’s a sort of bag of tools here available. As the owner of a publishing company, I can make sure I absolutely set up a very favorable deal.”
He adds, “There may be some creators who have a sudden boom in a new online platform, or they may do fantastic on conventions, or they may be doing something innovative in the digital space. If that person gets partnered with a publisher who is still doing a lot of floppy comics or retail, it might not make the most sense.”
Ultimately, Blaylock said that a lot of PopCultivator’s work is about relying on what they have in spades: multi-specialty experience.
“This is a company that owns a stake in a whole bunch of comic properties,” he said. “But they also have partnerships with several publishers. They have people on their team who ship toy products to Walmart and Target and who also understand that the boutique collector market, They’ve got people who are involved in film and TV production. But they’re also not just a management company that’s trying to represent artists to all these places.”
So why now? Why does something like PopCultivator exist today, especially when indie comics seem to be thriving, and the industry at-large has done good business even amid a global pandemic? If you ask Blaylock, it’s about going above and beyond what comics can do business-wise and to improve things with the tools/resources available.
“There’s a weird point of diminishing returns in comics, where you only invest so much in the beginning in certain series, and then they’re either gonna work or they’re not going to work,” he said. “And if they take off, it has to be this genuine grassroots level in some capacity. After a certain amount, you can throw all the money in the world into it, and you can’t force it to take off. So, it’s really hard to explain that in a quantifiable presentation text; you just have to kind of know it. So it’s hard to go to the industries and explain that.”
At the same time, it’s also been a matter of timing. Even as he’s been crowdfunding to some extent for 20-ish years, Blaylock mentions that the rest of the world is still grappling with this platform.
“If you asked me a year ago, I would have said there’s definitely a lot of catching up to do,” he said. “But with the lockdowns, everyone has really been forced to catch up. I definitely don’t think it would have worked as well. For a bunch of reasons, and a lot of people are just not really getting it yet. A lot of this stuff has to do with the laws, like the equity crowdfunding laws, not being in place until the middle of Obama’s presidency. Then it took a couple of years for the websites to catch up. I wrote a plan for something like this about seven years ago. I wish I would have done a little bit more setups earlier on, but I’m playing now. Now’s the perfect time to jump in.”
Despite his lofty goals and aspirations, Blaylock readily understands people’s sense of hesitation. At the end of the day, he explained, all of this is coming from a place of true fandom.
“I came up from the Wednesday society of pre-internet comics buyer’s guide,” he said. “But I’ve also always been very excited about any disruption. I’m coming at this from the creative standpoint. Hey, is the creator [actually] creating comic books? And are they happy, and making a living off of that? And are we making money off of that? That’s what we care about.”
All of that is about more than just spreading the proverbial love around. Or making good on his own long-term disruptive efforts in comics. Blaylock thinks it’s about having a new understanding of what comics is, what value that holds, and who has the power (or doesn’t).
“People have these conversations without even identifying what context when they say indie comics,” he said. “They don’t even identify what [they] mean by that. What do you mean by the comics industry? Are you talking about the traditional publishing side, which is doing very well? Are you talking about the comic shop and book stores? Or are you talking about the bigger side of comics now, which is actually the millions of web comics that kids are churning out?”
And from those new insights, Blaylock believes that we can continue an important trend in comics: shifting the power ever downward into the hands of readers.
“How cool is that as a fan to own something where they’re doing something to this publisher and that publisher, and there’s this movie out and there’s this [convention] happening,” he said. “They’re people who spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, on their fandom as it is. A lot of people spend way more money on that stuff when they should be thrown a little bit aside as some sort of investment. I think what’s happening is the shift over from the individual being able to actually invest directly in the things that they like and benefit from it. It always goes back to the customers and the fans who are buying the stuff that makes that industry work. You’re getting this wealth transfer in every field right now.”
Whenever the first round of investment ends, Blaylock said they may do another round, adding, “We definitely want to keep it open to get more investment down the road. And that’s the fun part of the equity crowdfunding, and we have been approached by some really big players that are interested.” Of course, a lot of that is still up in the air, and Blaylock and company are fully aware that all of these moving parts may be their possible downfall.
“I would say it’s not a concern as it was 100% expected,” he said. “Once we’re a little farther on down the line, and we’ve proved ourselves, those other people who are a little more concerned will say, ‘Oh, I get it.'”
Because at the end of the day, Blaylock says there’s something more essential beyond all these gimmicks and talk of industry-disrupting tactics. That thing? Better comics.
“If that’s all we ever did, we’re going to get those books done,” he said. “There’s actually a nice closure to it. Like, these properties exist, and every one who invested will own parts of these properties forever. They’re getting whatever sales royalties they’re getting, and maybe one of them will be a hit. On the downside, and you always have to look at the downside, maybe nothing happens. But there’s still that chance where, hey, you own part of that and five years from now or 10 years from now that might actually suddenly see a new life all over again.”
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