Comics Disassembled: Ten Things of Note from the Past Week in Comics, Led by Keanuuuuuu

Oh boy.

There’s a lot of good coming this week, but we have to begin with one of the more complicated leadoff items in a while, as comics discovered a new villain this week, and his name was familiar: Keanu Reeves. Let’s get to that and more in Comics Disassembled, my look at ten things I liked or didn’t like from the past week of comics.

1. Keanu, Kickstarting

I woke up Tuesday morning to an email I knew was going draw a whole lot of ire amongst the comics internet. It was the reveal that not only was Keanu Reeves releasing a comic in BRZRKR, the title he’s co-writing with Matt Kindt with art from Ron Garney and Bill Crabtree, but now it was going to be Kickstarted. Not because it necessarily needed the funding – although we’ll get to that in a minute – but because BOOM! Studios, its publisher, was trying to tap into an audience outside of the standard comic one because why not? It’s a Keanu Reeves comic! If this can’t, what will, right?

It’s an interesting Kickstarter beyond that, as it’s effectively pre-selling all three volumes of the title’s eventual collections in varying shapes, sizes and materials, with the words “exclusive” and “limited” being heavily used throughout. It’s not just selling trades, but variations on them, including a “Platinum Immortal” signed box set, a slipcase collection of all three volumes of the book that is limited to 50 and comes with a print signed by Reeves, Kindt and Garney. That reward level clocked in at a cool $1,000, and it wasn’t even the most expensive tier, as each of the five slots that put your likeness into the comic itself cost $2,499. Both of those tiers sold out pretty much immediately, which isn’t altogether surprising because as I type this, it just passed $523,000 in backing. This comic is still coming out in single issues and then regular trades too, of course, but this is just getting you access to exclusive versions of the book.

Ultimately, I was right, though. People were very upset about this. I have a lot of thoughts about all of this, and instead of continuing to write like I usually would about it, I’m going to approach it systematically by answering a few questions about this situation. Let’s get to that.

Will this affect smaller Kickstarters?

I saw a lot of concern about how this Kickstarter and its immense volume of funding and backing will result in smaller Kickstarters getting eaten up, failing because the Keanu book killed it too much. My take is there will be somewhere between a zero and a very, very minor impact on the vast majority of Kickstarter comic projects. The audience of someone like C. Spike Trotman, for example, just isn’t going to have that much overlap with someone who wants a limited edition Keanu Reeves comic.

While Trotman is a big name, that works its way downwards too. Smaller genre comics are just dealing with an entirely different audience than this one, which I’d honestly wager on the high end tiers is heavily filled with speculators looking to profit. And with a universe as big as the one Kickstarter has in terms of backers for comic projects – remember, that’s a population of over 800,000 unique people, per my recent crowdfunding piece – there will be plenty of space for Keanu and beyond, I’d imagine.

The concern is if every publisher sees the money made here and tries to recreate it, but my guess is a combination of concern about frustrating retailers – who aren’t always in love with Kickstarters because they can eat up consumer interest before they get a chance to sell a comic – and surrounding optics will limit that. And even if it doesn’t, I still imagine there will be discrete audiences here to a degree. So, long story short, my answer is no, I don’t think it will affect smaller Kickstarters in any substantive way.

Was it a smart move by BOOM!?

Sort of. I mean, it’s already over $523,000 and it’s been up for two days. Clearly there was something smart about it, as long as your determinant is “making money,” which is a pretty great determinant when you’re a business. And let’s be real. They’re a publisher in a market that has been seriously wounded by the pandemic, and one that’s offering returnability and a variety of deep discounts to retailers. This is going to get them a ton of money up front when they probably need it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this BRZRKR Kickstarter saved the jobs of multiple staff members almost single-handedly.

The flipside are the optics of it, which is a double up for BOOM! Every time a notable publisher uses Kickstarter, they get shamed for it. Archie was the first, and when they announced they were going that route, they bailed entirely because the response was so negative. BOOM! isn’t doing that, and they’re getting killed for it on the internet. Pair that with the eternal drumbeat of frustration over how much BOOM! pays creators – particularly artists of varying forms – and you have a perfect storm of success creating frustration.

Those two points oppose each other significantly, but I’d say ultimately it’s a smart move from BOOM!’s perspective, because odds are the people who are mad at them weren’t going to support this project to begin with. Doing this Kickstarter probably bought BOOM! both time and space to breathe, which they might have needed. They’ll wear this one for a while, but it allows them to live and fight another day. That’s all we can hope for sometimes.

That said, I do feel weird about this one. That’s for a variety of reasons – one of which we’ll get to in a second – but this BRZRKR Kickstarter just feels a bit strange and opportunistic to me. I understand it. I appreciate it. But it feels weird. That’s just the way it is.

How do I feel about BOOM! courting the collector markets?

This is the one that really gets me. Ostensibly, the stated reason for BOOM! doing the Kickstarter was to expand the potential buying universe of this comic. And again, why not? It’s a Keanu Reeves comic. We don’t get those very often. But building this crowdfunding effort off of limited editions versions is certainly a weird way to do that, as are the tiers that get backers every different version of the softcovers and the hardcovers. Those aren’t serving new readers. Those are serving collectors and speculators in a very obvious way. And I just don’t know how to reconcile the stated goal of “reaching new readers” with “selling limited to 50 editions of the book for $1,000.” Those exist in opposition to me.

You could argue that these higher end products are good carrots for curious audiences – although I feel Keanu’s name does that by itself – and the easy to point to argument against my point is that by far the highest selling tiers have been the lowest cost softcovers. The reader friendly levels are the most heavily consumed ones, which reflects the stated goal. This perhaps is a way to have their cake and eat it too. But any time someone edges too close to that collector/speculator cliff, I get a bit nervous. It’s good money today, but I’m not sure those readers are coming back tomorrow.

Is this a way to reach new readers as BOOM! said?

Maybe! I don’t really know. It certainly makes it easier for Keanu fans and those who are outside the comic world to get onboard, because they are more likely to be internet users than comic shop customers. It would be good to see some targeted digital and social advertising supporting this, especially given the backing they’ve seen so far. But the potential is there, so it’s a maybe, making it partway to a good thing.

I do think it’s a bit strange that BOOM!, the most beloved publisher from a retailer standpoint these days, has basically said the direct market was too small and limiting for this book through these actions. Now, they’re clearly still delivering for comic shops, but pairing that stated reason for using Kickstarter with this effort giving potential comic shop customers a more immediate path to getting copies of BRZRKR that doesn’t involve those shops might have led to some grumpiness from retailers this week. I don’t know that to be the case, but I’d believe it.

That said, I suppose radical times require radical approaches. You’re not going to make gains by doing the same thing every time. Maybe this works! Maybe it doesn’t! But hey, it’s worth a shot, I’d say, even if BOOM! is definitely going to hearing about this for a bit.

2. First Second, Catching Heat

First Second is my favorite publisher. I’ll be honest about that up front. That’s why it bummed me out when news arrived of how they woefully underpaid and overly sanctioned artists who provided guest art for The Adventure Zone’s series of graphic novels, with some receiving just $100 for contributions of a single page of art while also being unable to display it publicly for three years after the book’s release. That it led to a rise in frustration online culminating in the book’s patriarchs – The McElroy Family – coming out against First Second’s deal made it even worse, as the optics are pretty bad when your creators end up paying artists additional money just to make the deal semi-reasonable.

To their credit, First Second made a public statement about how this was consistent with their contracts, and that this experience was going to lead to them revisiting those deals to ensure they work for everyone. Also to their credit, from what I understand this was mostly fan art, so a small amount of money is perhaps understandable. But if you’re going to only deliver a small sum of money, you have to give the artist control of sharing it for the benefit of their career. To give them neither is deeply problematic. Hopefully First Second rethinks their approach, and this results in a win for everyone in the end. We shall see.

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