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One man's hopes and dreams amid comics' Substack Revolution

Comic Books

One man’s hopes and dreams amid comics’ Substack Revolution

A recent onslaught of announcements could mean big changes for comics publishing.

There’s something about a busy news day that always delights the soul.

And stirs up bad takes and endless infighting to boot.

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All these elements were in full effect this past Monday, August 9, as a veritable storm of announcements rocked the comics industry. That’s a teensy bit hyperbolic, for sure, but there’s no arguing with the real impact of the day’s news. In short:

  • James Tynion IV announced his departure from Batman, linking up with Substack to launch a series of creator-owned comics. (Tynion later clarified he wasn’t leaving DC entirely, as he’d continued writing the excellent The Nice House On The Lake.)
  • Jonathan Hickman launched his own initiative with Substack, with promises of “disrupting” the traditional publishing model.
  • In a slightly similar configuration, Saladin Ahmed announced his own Copper Bottle imprint for creator-owned comics (and possibly other projects).
  • There were other Substack creator deals also announced, including one with cartoonist Molly Ostertag.

How’s that for a Monday?

One man's hopes and dreams amid comics' Substack Revolution

(Oh, and just to be difficult, Chip Zdarsky announced his own plans on Thursday morning.)

To have both Hickman, the architect of Marvel’s Krakoa saga, and Tynion, effectively DC’s latest golden pony, rededicate their efforts at the same time is, as writer Zack Quaintance best put it, significant. Do I think this is the end of Marvel and DC as we know them? No way. Do I think things will mostly continue on as they have? Sure; there’ll always be someone else to step up to the Bat mantle and other, similarly significant titles. (One of our own staffers, for better or worse, called it the “conveyor belt.”) Do I think this is going to be a disruption to how comics are created and disseminated? Maybe, but it’s too early to tell, really. However, am I of the belief that this new model, which comes weeks after Scott Snyder launched his own deal via ComiXology, will be a shot in the arm for comics in general? For sure! If nothing else, it’ll sure as heck beat the mere pittances some creators receive nowadays.

I think what we have to remember is that this is still very much the early days of this brave new world. In fact, it’s not even all that new to begin with — comics journalist Chris Arrant pointed out that there were creator-owned projects as early as the mid-40s, which proves that this kind of model, and this push for creator rights and freedom, is almost as old as the industry itself. As such, there’s plenty of things still left to be sorted out. (Again, Arrant brings up a couple great points, namely about managing capital and the rights for these books.)

So, there are so many questions we simply can’t answer at this point — not only about rights and physical copies and all that, but what kind of content we’re paying for, if this model is sustainable given the delay-happy tendencies of the comics business, and if the whole newsletter approach is going to work (especially with some readers ever wary of digital). That’s not all of it, either, and everyone is clearly grappling with how to best integrate this news and what it means for comics-dom in the coming weeks, months, and years.

Regardless, there’s no denying that there’s real excitement abounding the industry right now, and that’s something worth holding onto given the, um, state of earthly affairs. That’s not to say we should let any excitement blind us to some real questions that exist about these campaigns, and other developments that are likely to follow. Instead, I want to take the chance to highlight my wish (and don’t wish) list for these Substack-centric models. A breakdown of the things I hope are achieved and those would be a real bummer were they to take gold. I’m no expert, beyond my years as a writer/journalist and passionate fan, and so this is in no way shape or form going to address the many nuances of this story.

Hopefully, though, it’ll provide some insights as we await another jam-packed news day.

I Do Want: Spontaneity!

One man's hopes and dreams amid comics' Substack Revolution

The cover to the Tynion-penned Blue Book.

The point of this Substack model is to remove the middle man, as it were, and let creators engage directly with readers to sell their material and/or support their ongoing efforts. For that to work, though, fans want some promise of regular releases, which makes sense if you’re paying up to $8 per month (or up to $80 annually) to sign up for a creator’s campaign. And that’s going to be a major sticking point: if creators can’t deliver, and they just may find it challenging working outside the confines of the traditional publishing model, then there’s no reason for fans to shell out this money until things work smoothly. As a result, that could mean some folks coming to this model a few months down the line when any bugs are worked out. Is that a good thing for consumers? Yeah, but it could throw a hitch in the plan of some creators.

Still, it doesn’t all have to be so precise and measured. In his letter detailing new Substack projects, Jonathan Hickman wrote, “And most of all, I want to be able to drop a story without notice on any day we want and for it to just be sitting there, waiting for you, like the gift these things are supposed to be.” That’s exactly how it should be: we’re paying to support and empower creators, and that means that publishing schedules and deadlines and all that don’t hold as much relevance (but still remain important) as we delve deeper into this fresh approach.

The whole point of digital is that it exists with its own schedule, and for Hickman and other creators to deliver comics with some spontaneity, it means we’re getting what we paid for and with ample reason as to why we should support this new model and not keep going with comics’ existing, mostly effective model. It could be a whole new story/issue, some random content, or even a little one-page comic — whatever it is, it’s vital for real, earnest engagement and showing folks that comics can evolve with the times in a really meaningful way.

I Don’t Want: More of the Same

One man's hopes and dreams amid comics' Substack Revolution

Which is to say, I know what Marvel and DC do really well: beloved superhero stories with characters that make up a kind of lingua franca of pop culture. Does that mean I don’t want to see, for instance, Tynion writing something like, say, Ratman? Maybe not so much, though some kind of superhero stuff is always going to be an option given that’s how he’s best known and also a huge part of the market. (Though, as the sales charts prove, manga is taking off in the U.S., and at least some of that has to do with the novel storytelling and structures itself.) Tynion has clearly recognized that need for something new, and his projects include a “prose/illustration series,” a novella, and the “White Whale” long-form horror project.

That not only makes these creator-owned books stand out a bit more, but they keep DC and Marvel as the de facto place for their mostly specific, superhero-starring titles. That distinction has some real value: it could be the thing that keeps competition on the straight and narrow and ensures creators can have vital, successful careers that don’t have to feed into, or out of, the Big Two like some kind of publishing Triple-A baseball system. Superheroes have their place in comics, obviously, and these creators would be best to recognize that there’s a place for other stories that can be vital of their own accord. That’s ultimately how we push important creative boundaries in real, and truly lasting, ways.

In an interview with The Beat, Scott Snyder made a great point when he said he’s struggled with his ongoing relationship within DC, saying that he’s continually asked, “How do we bring more people in for Death Metal or DC this or that. I have to take a break for a little bit so that if and when I go back to that I can fully think about that ecosystem.” That not only speaks to the likelihood of a distinction between DC/Marvel and these new campaigns, but also that this distinction could be of value to some creators in the long-term in managing workloads and expectations.

I Do Want: Y’all to Chill Out


Designer Tom Muller, who has worked for Image, Marvel, and Sony, made a really excellent point in regards to devotees of physical comics. Effectively, he said that Substack, not to mention ComiXology, are “supplementing, not replacing, print,” and this is about expanding an audience who may have grown up with or around digital-only media. So, for those on the web who instantly got up in arms about these announcements, you’ll always have your beloved print. In fact, several conversations I saw or took part in that Monday morning inevitably came to questions about who’d handle publishing physical books — either Substack is lining up some deal, or each creator can negotiate that with a DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, etc. In a subsequent email, Tynion clarified at least his situation, writing there’s “no restrictions on print publishing, and Substack has no input on where we publish these books in print.” I’d normally argue that, if Substack wants to be taken seriously as a platform in the comics industry, it needs to push some of its weight around. However, it may be just another great incentivize for creators to come aboard.

You can’t defeat print, and it feels like at least in regards to comics, that aspect is built into the industry’s DNA. But so many people just don’t care at all, and if we want comics to grow in a meaningful way, it’s high time we accept that some people want only digital books. Given the buying power of most print comics lovers, there’s no way the industry would stop putting out books. If anything, this new “push” could be a way to grow the industry while emphasizing physical copies that work in alignment with digital only, and not as the industry exists right: releasing both physical and digital copies without any thought for their integration or general relationship to one another. I hate this idea that some readers have as things being either-or; there’s so much demand for great stories that the industry can sustain both, even if how that process works ends up shifting down the line.

I Don’t Want: Medium 2.0

One man's hopes and dreams amid comics' Substack Revolution

At the same time Muller made his excellent point about digital, he also made one about Substack’s larger place in the mediasphere. Which is to say, it’s basically like Medium and Patreon, or those “(subscription based) platforms for original content (fiction, journalism, comics, etc.)” And while he’s 1,000% right, I’m sort of fearful of this comparison. For one, I think there’s some confusion about what Substack is and/or does, and how it relates to other platforms. Connecting it with a Medium or Patreon, then, may not be the best route if you’re trying to build the platform into something else (especially how Patreon and other crowd-funding platforms are already huge among comics creators going it on their own). Plus, that confusion could throw off or annoy some potential new clients/fans.

But there’s a larger issue here: as someone who, until a couple of years ago, was a regular publisher on Medium, it ain’t always the best platform. Besides some rather significant operational issues — budget cuts to publications, problems with gaining readership, staff issues galore, and general mismanagement — Medium developed something that I’d call a concern of focus. Basically, it seems there’s a few key subjects or areas that took off on the platform — design and IT stuff seems to dominate the platform at times. As an extension of that, it can be hard for other topics and/or creators to take off; the only reason there’s been a push for original content is that they recruited folks like Roxane Gay, who is already a massive talent and quite well-established. I guess Medium is a good model of sorts, but I’m fearful that it means these creators and Substack may fall victim to the very same downfalls and shortcomings. If it does, and things become predictable or disconnected, this grand experiment will feel insignificant in the long term.

I Do Want: Something for Free!

One man's hopes and dreams amid comics' Substack Revolution

OK, I get that admitting to wanting free stuff isn’t best when I’m addressing creator’s rights and their ability to develop careers that serve them as opposed to faceless corporate ghouls. At the same time, though, talking about Medium got me thinking about the very idea of the paywall. Basically, not everything on Medium has to be paid for — whether because people don’t think it will make money, or it hasn’t performed well behind a paywall, or that they’re simply against the pay-for-content model in the first place. Regardless, there’s a recognition that some things are better left for the masses. Even on platforms like Patreon, there are rewards/incentives for free or reduced price, and many Substack newsletters are already free (they just want your email, y’all).

I think that’s a really great lesson for comics creators to keep in mind: if you want people to pay $9 a month for your comics-centric projects, it may be wise to sweeten the deal a bit. That could be bonus stuff, free previews, outtakes and other tidbits, or anything else — just something to get people all hyped up. In turn, that could sway more people, and any lost profits or whatnot from said “freebies” could be made up with added subscriptions. Even if that’s not the case, I think there needs to be a balance between paid and free things given the nature of this model, which does depend on some level of “gambling” that creators can be consistent enough (in quality and their weekly/monthly delivery) to make it worth your monthly bill. It’s part of that larger sense of engagement that is going to be vital for these Substack campaigns to be truly successful.

I Don’t Want: Forced Engagement

And speaking of engagement, I only want the very best when it comes to this Substack Era. Several creators, including Tynion, have mentioned that these models/campaigns could be a great way to further engage with fans/readers. And this comes as several creators, like Scott Snyder, have expressed not necessarily disdain for Twitter but are clearly in need of other, more nuanced channels. So, if Substack is the place for these kinds of interactions and fan-creator connection, then that’s truly amazing; we need more accountability and forms for discussion in general, and that’s doubly so if fans are paying each and every month.

At the same time, though, the problem with places like Twitter or even Instagram is that, after a while, they become almost mandatory; creators were nearly forced to show up or they’d risk losing out on a really vital channel for communication and promotion. In turn, that created a problem with how creators view these platforms, and they inevitably felt burned out or even resentful of the efforts required of them (on top of actually creating stuff). It doesn’t need to be that way with Substack, and it shouldn’t at all.

This could be a chance to work outside the “corporate machine,” and as an extension of that, creators should only engage how and when they feel fit. No need for daily emails, or a weekly chat or whatever; this should be about engagement aligned with the creative act, not merely in service of it. If that means creators go away for a time, or there’s less chatter in general, then it’s mostly OK. We’re supporting the creator, not just the publisher, and that comes with a certain responsibility helping safeguard their work. In the long run, it’ll pay off for everyone involved.

I think as part of that engagement, there’s going to be a reckoning of sorts with how Substack is sometimes perceived. Specifically, as author/columnist Jude Ellison S. Doyle outlines in this great essay, there’s real concerns that the platform empowers anti-trans messages/content creators, either via sheer ignorance or helping indirectly fund their efforts. Some creators, like Scott Snyder, have addressed this issue already (in the same Q&A with The Beat), and he hopes to use Substack to build something better and more inclusive. But that’s an important part of this larger conversation as creators need to make sure their work on the platform does perhaps stand out or provide a counter to some of those sentiments. Though, it’s worth noting that this problem is one suffered by platforms across the board — that doesn’t change anything but it doesn’t mean Substack is alone in having to work out some larger issues about online hate groups/messages.

So, that’s just a few of my wants and don’t wants. It’s in no way everything, or even all that exhaustive, and instead paints a picture of what’s happening right now. We’re staring down the barrel of change that can be either revolutionary or just another headache. What matters, then, is how we treat the next few months, and the kind of energy and attention we pay to these projects and campaigns. We as readers, reporters, critics, and enthusiasts in general can decide if this is another phase, the wave of the future, or something else entirely (like a great supplement to the existing comics model, perhaps?) Either way, conversation and list-making like this are super vital, and they’re ultimately how we remain accountable.

At least until the next big-time news onslaught, right?

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