Apparently the marriage of Substack and comics will continue onwards, as last week brought two new entrants to the Substack Pro Grant space – writers Joshua Williamson and Matthew Rosenberg – as the email newsletter platform’s stable of creators continues to grow. Will they be the last? Maybe, maybe not, but the point is, two more top names are going down the path their peers explored over the past year. Both creators had their deals in the works for a while, so they had the opportunity to study what worked and what didn’t, resulting in two interesting and quite different debuts.
Having talked to Williamson far too much lately — sorry, Josh! — I thought it’d be interesting to dig into the perspective of this new wave from the perspective of Rosenberg. He’s the writer of What’s the Furthest Place from Here? at Image as well as the upcoming The Joker and WildC.A.T.s over at DC, so it’s not like he isn’t busy. But his Ashcan Press Comics Corporation Substack appears to be a big swing, with artists like Tyler Boss, Andy MacDonald, Javier Rodriguez, and more joining him on the venture, and one that’s remarkably comics-centric compared to the rest. That made it quite interesting to me.
So, recently, Rosenberg joined me on Zoom for an extended chat about the launch of Ashcan Press, how it came together, his collaborators, what they’re trying to build, how he’s trying to do things similarly to the others but in his own way, and a whole lot more. While this conversation is about the launch of Ashcan Press, it’s really about Rosenberg’s views on comics, and how this effort is helping him and his teammates over there do something new and exciting.
You can read this interview in full below, as it’s open to non-subscribers. If you enjoy this chat, consider subscribing to SKTCHD to support the work and to get regular features, columns, interviews, and more all about the world and art form of comics.
How did the launch go? I know you already wrote about it a little bit, but I’m curious to hear your perspective.
Matthew Rosenberg: I think it was good. I’m a little bit different than some of the other people because I’ve been doing a newsletter on Substack for a year, so I already have a lot of people subscribed. Thousands of people already subscribed to my newsletter, so this was sort of about trying to convert those people and being like, “This is going to change a little bit, but not so much that if you liked what we were doing in the newsletter you’re going to be upset.” But I was really impressed with the enthusiasm from the people who are already reading the newsletter. I got a ton of new subscribers and a ton of people are really excited for what’s coming.
We have a little bit of a disadvantage in only… not a disadvantage because it is by design, but we kept things a little more vague than other people on what exactly we’re doing. So people don’t know the names of the books, people don’t know the lengths of the books or what format they are or what they are, so I was really happy with how many people were happy to jump in feet first without knowing very much and I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised, and I think with that said, we sort of built this with the expectation that as more details come out people will continue to jump on board.
I actually think there’s an advantage to being vague about it, in the sense that as soon as you say, let’s say you and Josh Hixson are for some reason doing a… I don’t know, Great British Bake Off comic.
Matthew: That’s what it is.
That’s what it is. You’re doing a Great British Bake Off comic. As soon as that becomes real, somebody’s like, “Well, I don’t like cakes and I’m not going to support it because of that.” But now anything could be an option. You just know that there’s all these creators and you’re like, If I like Javier Rodriguez or if I like Tyler Boss or if I like Jordie Bellaire or whoever, you might be hooked. I think that’s one of the things that makes this interesting and part of the reason why I think Three Worlds, Three Moons was so successful. Three Worlds, Three Moons was confusing, but in an attractive way.
It could be anything. That makes it appealing. As soon as something becomes real, you are like, “I like this or I don’t like that. And I can say that with definition.”
Matthew: I definitely studied what Three Worlds, Three Moons was doing and what James was doing over at Tiny Onion, those are two that I really paid close attention to. The other thing is I think we have a bunch of titles, there’s six titles that are in our slate right now at Ashcan Press. And if I just said the names of what they all were, some of them aren’t coming out for a long time and people would just have fatigue for… the excitement of the names, they would step on each other. If we did names and cover reveals, everyone would see it at once, be excited at once, and then when the books finally came out, they’d have fatigue about them, they’d be like, “I’ve been hearing about this for a year, I’ve been seeing, I knew about this a year ago.” I always regret that comics has the three month solicit window. I feel like kills suspense and kills anticipation. I understand why it exists, but I wish there was a way to do it faster. I wish we could announce books and be like, “This is in shops next week.”
We have an option to sort of play with that here with this. Maybe put something out and it just shows up in your inbox and we go, “Here it is, it just started, hope you like it.” That’s fun to me. That’s the Beyonce model of releasing things where it’s just like, “It’s midnight, you got it, hope you like it.” So I think there are fun ways to play with it that people aren’t thinking about. The mystery is one of those fun things for me.
What you just brought up about the three-month model makes a lot of sense. Let’s say day one you announced The Great British Bake Off Book with Josh Hixson, then the question becomes, “When is that coming?” Not, “I can’t wait to read that.” A lot of people are like, “When is this coming?” That becomes the question and because you know that you’re doing something with Josh but you don’t know what it is, it’s just anticipation that this is coming at some point. This also gives you multiple points where you can say, “Okay, so I announced that this presence exists” and then later you’ll have another landmark where you can announce that one of the books exists and it will continue onwards for each new comic. You get more opportunities to announce something exciting. So, you have multiple bites of the apple, all of which have that direct response experience where a person can subscribe because that sounds cool.
That actually makes a lot of sense to me.
Matthew: I think people who are gung-ho and trust me blindly, trust Tyler Boss blindly, trust Josh Hixson blindly, yeah sure, they’ll sign up. We’re going to do things that you’re going to like. I don’t expect that from anyone, I don’t ask that. I don’t expect that from the people who read my stuff. There’s no penalty for waiting to see what something is with this. You can go back and you’ll see the old emails, you’re not going to miss out on us. If you wait until you see what the book is and you’re like, “That sounds cool, I want to read it.” You can give us money and then you can go back and look at Josh’s different character designs and Tyler’s character sketches or whatever it is. You can look into the archives.
And I think that’s something that people don’t get is there’s an archive on this stuff. There’s a history, and we want you to participate at the level you want. So we’re encouraging people to take their time. We know the stuff we’re making is cool as hell. If you want to wait and see for yourself what it is, awesome, you’ll see soon enough.
And you can also never really control what hooks people. This is a funny example of what might hook someone. I love Brian K. Vaughan, and Spectators is a great comic that he and Niko Henrichon are publishing on Substack. But I didn’t subscribe until they brought back a new version of a survey that BKV and Cliff Chiang had done for Paper Girls, in which they asked subscribers to a participate in a prediction survey for what’s coming in 2025 or something.
For some reason, I saw that and was like, “Okay, now I have to subscribe.” I’m going to do this stupid survey that literally everyone’s doing. It’s just a bunch of people predicting nonsense. But for some reason that was the thing where I was like, “All right, that’s the straw that broke this camel’s back.” And you can’t really control that, the things that are going to hook people is entirely upon them.
Matthew: For sure. I mean, we have a lot of stuff planned that we think is fun. We’re going to give you fun things that we think are cool, but we’re not sitting here being like, “You have to sign up because you’re going to get this thing.” We’re just like, “Come when you want and we’ll send you fun stuff.” I mean, we’re doing a podcast, which is weird and-
You son of a bitch. (laughs)
Matthew: I know. I know. (laughs) You know what? You know what’s really hard to do?
Matthew: Hosting a fucking podcast.
I know, man. I do it all the time. (laughs)
Matthew: It sucks. (laughs) It’s really fun though, I’m having a good time doing it. We’re trying to do… my model a little bit is like your podcast, what if I did that but only asked bad questions.
Matthew: That’s sort of interesting, right?
It’s an untapped market.
Matthew: What if I just asked stupid things? Unfortunately not an untapped market. (laughs) But we’re going to do a podcast, we’re going to have a lot of chats and we’re going to have a movie club where we watch movies that are influential to the things we’re working on and have live chats during them and invite people. “We’re watching this movie at this time, come hang out with a bunch of us and we’re going to talk about it, and why this was influential and why we like it and what doesn’t work for us.”
We’re going to do a lot of giveaways, and there’s a really big… Tyler has a really crazy piece of art that he was like, “Oh, I have this sitting around.” He was like, “I just found it.” I was like, “You’re going to sell it? He was like, “No, let’s just give it to someone.” I was like, “Alright, cool.” There’s a bunch of stuff like that where we’re not trying to hard sell you on signing up, we’re trying to just be like, “This is a cool place, if you’re into it come hang out, if not, no worries.”
I want to go back to the beginning. I know both you and Josh — Josh Williamson who launched the same day — had been in the works on Substack for a long time.
Matthew: A long time. Yeah.
What were you doing during that time? Was it formulating what you wanted to do? Was it studying what the other ones were having success or not success with? Was it having conversations? Why did that process take as long as it did, and what did you do with that time?
Matthew: It’s a bunch of things. One, I can’t speak for Josh. Josh has a ton of content that’s awesome. So I know in part that’s what he was doing, but he will maybe have a different answer for why, but I think partially his answer will be the same in that some of it is the unromantic answer of, “I was writing five monthly books at DC for seven months.”
That’s very reasonable.
Matthew: I wanted to get to a point where this could be a real priority for me. Not that my DC stuff isn’t. I’m launching Joker next month, I’m launching WildC.A.T.s The month after. I’m incredibly excited and I’m going to talk about those on Substack. And I’m all in on those. But I just needed more brain space to make sure that these things that we’re doing on Substack are good. I wanted to get past the launch of What’s The Furthest Place From Here? That book has sort of found its feet, it’s at Image, it’s healthy. Now we can do other stuff and I don’t have to throw everything at trying to make that book work. We have an amazing audience who are really supportive, we have an amazing group of retailers who are incredibly supportive, and we’re just going to make that book for a while. And so all of that I needed to get off my plate a little bit.
But the other thing is that I really did want to watch what other people were doing and sort of study them. The (Jonathan Hickman) and the Three Worlds, Three Moons team, Donny (Cates) and Ryan (Stegman) with Kids Loves Chains, James (Tynion IV) and Tiny Onion, Kelly Thompson’s newsletter, Chip (Zdarsky), all these people were doing things and I was talking to them all the time and watching these things develop. I was always curious to see what worked for me. This is all uncharted territory, and so the mercenary answer is, I wanted to let my friends try and wade out into the desert first and see who dies.
The slightly less mercenary answer is, I want to make sure people who subscribe – whether they’re signing up for free or paying us money – get something that doesn’t feel like a trial run. It feels like it’s thought out. We know what the pitfalls are and we know what people like. We’re not without risk here, but I wanted to study what other people did and really make sure that the people who put their trust in us knew that we’d done some research. And with that, what we did is took a back seat while other people went first. And those people get maybe a bigger share of the pie, more of the excitement, more of the looky-loos being like, “What is this?” We were okay losing those people if we lose them for giving a better experience for other people down the road. So that was our goal.
It is interesting because with email newsletters, while their success is dictated by a lot of metrics, open rate is arguably the most essential. If people don’t open your emails, it’s a killer. And so a huge part of having a successful email newsletter, no matter what platform it’s on or whatever subject it’s about, you want people to think, “When I see this email, I want to open it.” Because if they don’t, then you’re kind of dead in the water. But I do want to talk about the why of it all because you have What’s The Furthest Place From Here? That’s very successful. You’re writing The Joker, which is a character of some note I hear. You’re writing WildC.A.T.s, a.k.a. the greatest superhero team in the history of the medium.
You’re surely writing other things too. I’m sure this question has an equally obvious answer which is, it’s free money, which is perfectly satisfactory. And when I say free money, I mean you have to do stuff, but at the same time, it’s a grant. That’s the nature of it.
Your writing career is going objectively well. Why do you need the Substack Pro Grant, and why did you want it?
Matthew: So a couple of reasons. I need it because the artists I’m working with. There are ways I could have done this and funded it myself, for sure. That is true. I make a fine living writing the stuff I write/ I don’t go outside or do anything, so I save money. So it’s when your big vice is chocolate milk, you don’t rack up the big bar tabs or the big drug bills or whatever other people do.
I could have done it, I would’ve had to make artistic concessions. Which is okay. And I think in some ways I could have gone out and found young hungry artists who have lower page rates because they don’t have the resumes. And I could have found people who can do things in their spare time and not given it their all. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to put out books that were the priority for me and a bunch of my favorite people in comics. And so I went to Stefano (Landini) who I did some Punisher stuff with, I went to Juan (Ferreyra) who I did Thunderbolts with, Andy MacDonald who I did Multiple Man with, Josh Hixson who worked on What’s The Furthest Place From Here? and Joker Puzzlebox, Tyler, obviously who is my constant partner in this stuff, Javier Rodriguez who is one of my favorite artists in the history of comics, and Jordie Bellaire who I worked on House of Gotham with at DC.
These are my dream collaborators, and I could only make these projects possible if I could make sure that they were financially taken care of. I’m not taking any money from the grant. I didn’t pocket any money. That’s not altruistic of me. That’s me thinking that making the best comics I can is the most important thing, so I wanted to spare no expense. Could I get a cheaper letterer than Hassan (Otsmane-Elhaou)? Probably. But Hassan is one of my favorite letterers in the history of comics.
He’s so good.
Matthew: He’s just so smart about it. And I’ve worked with great letterers and I love all of them, but Hass and me really vibe and I was like, “I need Hass.” So we just were trying to go into this with the idea that we were sparing no expense. We wanted to make something where no corners were cut. And that means we’re not begging publishers for money, we’re not begging anyone for money, we have the opportunity here to do this exactly the way we want. And that means different page counts, that means different lengths of projects. There’s no oversight other than me being like, “We’re going to go until the money runs out, and then after that I have a savings account and we can probably still keep going.”
So it’s really freeing to have Substack believe in us and give us this opportunity. We’re really thankful. I think you are going to see that these comics maybe feel a little different. That we’re not going up against accountants, we’re not going up against time constraints or any of those things. We’re doing it exactly the way we want to do it, and that hopefully creates a better product and a noticeably better product for the reader.
I do think it’s interesting because the direct market side of the comic industry is certainly one that lacks in guarantees. Your book could be canceled before the first issue even arrives. If FOC doesn’t add up in the right way, your book’s dead and all of a sudden your magnum opus is now a four-issue run, and that’s it. That’s just the nature of the direct market. And one thing that’s really nice about this is it gives you runway and a guarantee that you wouldn’t have otherwise, where you can do the thing you want and maybe it goes into print later, maybe it doesn’t, but the point is you’re going to tell the stories that you want to tell and you don’t have to rely on whether the whims of the market have favored you this day.
Matthew: Yeah. I was in a conversation with a bunch of my friends who are writers and artists the other day and we were talking about comics as commercial art. And it was funny because Charles Soule said in the conversation he was like, “I don’t want to think about what I do as commercial art. Obviously it is, but that’s not how I want to view comics.” And I just immediately was like, “Yeah, I don’t either.” I understand that I can only do this job because retailers will take a chance and support our book and because customers will come in and pay off their risk that they took in this. I understand that it is commercial art. The more I can distance that idea from what I’m doing, the better the product will be, the better the ideas will be, the better the comics will be.
And so that is what we have the opportunity to do. If not a single person had signed up for the Substack, we’d still be making this stuff. We’d still be doing it because we want to do it, and that’s an incredibly… I mean, I think anybody who makes things will tell you that, that’s the dream. If you could do things without any fear of economic reprisal or any fear of not finding an audience, if you could just do create things purely for the joy of creating them first, that is a dream. And that’s the sort of promise that we have here from Substack and that’s amazing. And we’re just over 24 hours into it and we are getting people who are excited about it and buying into that idea. That’s amazing. So we’re not at a point where we’re making these things for nobody and that’s nice to know. But we still could and that’s beautiful.
It insulates you from it, which is nice. But I had a weird thought when I was thinking about how Ashcan Press is theoretically laid out. Specifically from the prism of what you wrote about Tyler Boss. You said he is going to draw something on there, he’s also going to co-write something on there, and he is designing things on there. When it was announced, it’s coming from your newsletter and your perspective and your prism, but the interesting thing is when I read about it, it almost feels like a comic book co-op where everyone can do their own thing and their thing is not entirely dictated by what you, the Godking of Ashcan Press, dictates. Is that kind of how it is?
Matthew: Oh yeah. It’s funny because, Tyler and I always sort of balk at the classification of what we do when we work together. People are always like, “Oh you put his name first.” And I always put books in alphabetical order so I don’t really think about that.
Doesn’t it just say it’s by you two in (What’s the Furthest Place from Here?), It doesn’t actually credit specific roles?
Matthew: Yeah it doesn’t say what we do. And there’s upcoming issues where he wrote the script and I didn’t, and we don’t need to differentiate that. I read them and I give him thoughts and he reads my scripts and gives me thoughts. And it’s just not really that important to us to take credit for a specific thing. And all the time people will give him credit for my jokes and give me credit for his jokes and whatever, and we’re just like, “You guys are reading too much into this. We made this. This is our thing.”
It’s very much a “we.” And I want to carry that energy into Ashcan Press. Rachel (Pinnelas), who is our managing editor, we had a long conversation of, “Well, what do we call you?” Because she’s editing a bunch of the books and making sure they run and all this stuff. And I was like, “What do you want your title to be?” And we went back and forth and she was like, “Well, I’m not the editor in chief, that’s you.” And I was like, “I’m not the editor in chief.” And she was like, “If anyone is, it’s you.” And I was like, “Let’s just not have an editor in chief.” And she was like, “Okay.” And I was like, “Are you the executive editor?” And she was like, “No, that’s kind of it.” And she was like, “Can I say I’m the managing editor?” And I was like, “Sure.” I said, “You could say whatever you want. You can take any title you want, Rach.”
And she said, “All right, managing editor.” But honestly, Rachel’s a great writer and if she said, “I want to write a book.” I’d be like, “Cool, let’s write a book.” All the people making the books here are great storytellers and if they want to throw something up on the newsletter, if they want to be like, “I made a mini comic. I have this old thing and I want to put it out here.” Yeah, let’s do it, anything you guys want to do, anything anyone wants to put out there, let’s go for it. So yeah I mean it’s not a co-op, it’s not a collective, I don’t want to co-opt those terms and make it seem like we’re something more fancy than it is. I made a joke in my launch post that it’s not a publisher but that’s the easiest way to explain it to people.
It’s not really a publisher either, it’s just a bunch of comics from a bunch of people who want to make comics.
I had what you described it as in my notes. “A group of people making things together, inviting you along for the ride.”
In your write up, you said “over the next few years this here newsletter is going to be the birthplace for at least six brand new comic projects among other things.” You also say elsewhere that one of the rewards for paid subscribers will be at least 12 digital issues of comics in their inbox, effectively making you, and I’m using this term in a general sense, not saying this is what you are, a monthly comics publisher. Most Substackers I talked to suggested that comics were not the biggest draw for subscribers. I’m sure you heard similar things. And I’m sure the answer is pretty obvious. You are all comic creators and this is what you do. But why did you want to orient your larger presence around comics so specifically?
Matthew: I mean some of it is just at the end of the day that’s the unifying factor in what we’re all doing. It’s the one commonality that we all have. That people who care about the newsletter, the people making the stuff, whatever, we’re all comic book fans theoretically, other than my mom who reads my newsletter and doesn’t read comics. (laughs)
I would like to think that almost everyone is excited about comics. Maybe not my comics, maybe they want other things, whatever. I don’t have the big readership that’s coming from some other place, so it’s easy for that to be the unifying factor. Substack is interesting because people are doing different things. I know Scott Snyder’s teaching a class and that’s amazing. He’s a great teacher. I know he is not on Substack but Kieron (Gillen)’s newsletter goes way into process stuff.
He’s brilliant. He thinks about comics on a level that I wish I could think about. And those aren’t things that we’re going to do. We’re just going to kind of dip our toes in all these things and teach you a little bit through letting you watch what we do. And we’re going to go through our process a little bit, but that’s not stuff I can offer exclusively and say with all my chest, “This is what this is.” What I can say with all my chest is that we’re making comics and you can read them, and so that’s sort of what we wanted to lead with. It’s funny because actually in Kieron’s newsletter today he was like, “Oh they’re delivering a comic every month.” It’s five bucks, you can get a comic every month. It’s less than five bucks if you sign up for the year, it’s 50 bucks for the year. So it’s a price of a comic delivered to you plus all this other stuff.
And that’s a more elegant way of saying what we’re doing. It’s probably going to be more than 12 issues, it’s almost definitely going to be more than that. But I’d rather under promise and over deliver than the opposite. We’re making a lot more than 12 books. The nine or ten of us, we’re making a lot more than 12 comics and they’re going to be in the newsletter. But 12 is a guarantee. We know what the 12 are that will be there, bare minimum. And so yeah, I don’t know, I could try and sell something else and be like, “It’s a podcast and you could do this.” Or, “It’s access to merchandise and you can do that.” And it is all those things. But that’s just less appealing to me. I would love to lead with comics because that’s what we love.
It kind of goes back to the commercial art thing. There is a tension there because are you trying to build subscribers, or are you trying to just make the best thing you can? And ultimately, I think that the ones that have been best at this – who has had the best Substack or newsletter or whatever is very subjective – but I think the ones that are best at it or the ones where you know what they’re about. You read Chip’s newsletter and it’s Chip. You watch his CHIPCLASS, it’s Chip. People subscribe because it’s Chip but also because Public Domain and Kaptara. And I think that if you tried to do something where you’re trying to build a newsletter empire, that is extremely contradictory to how you operate, and people wouldn’t buy in for that reason. You’re very comic centric. I mean I know Tyler went to Fashion Week a while back, but at the same time it’s he’s still very comics first.
Matthew: He was at Fashion Week for comics reasons though.
I know. I know. (laughs)
Matthew: That’s true. It was a tight rope to sort of navigate it because yeah, we’re selling people comics. If I had my way, what I would sell people is all of it and just be like, “Come hang out with us.” I tell this anecdote a lot and it actually goes back to Kieron again, weirdly he is the theme of today’s interview, for some reason. But we did a panel years ago and someone asked how do comics and music relate? And Kieron gave this really beautiful, eloquent answer. I think he talked about David Bowie and the transformation of coming on stage and becoming Ziggy Stardust and that energy, and I listened to it and I was like, “Wow, what a beautiful answer, that doesn’t feel like my experience at all.” I grew up in punk and hardcore and to me the experience of music and the music I love is 30 kids in a basement watching a band play and at the end of the night everyone goes out to eat.
It’s letting your favorite band crash on your couch. And to me that’s how comics has always felt. Me and Tyler worked in the same comic book store, we worked in the same comic book store as Vita Ayala and Danny Lore and Matthew Klein and all these other creators that are now making awesome things and we could all be working in a comic book store again. And there’s not this separation between any of it, between people who talk about comics and people who sell comics and people who make comics and draw them. And there’s so much compartmentalizing and tribing up in comics of, “Well, comics press says this and retailers think this.” And to me that’s always been bullshit. We are all just people who like comics. And I have a podcast, I’m podcasting because I like comics journalism and I like talking to creators.
I’m selling comics because my background is in comics retail. It’s all these things together and it’s just we’re selling comics culture the way we like it. We think it works well of just an inclusive space where you make things that you believe in and hope that other people do too. That’s hard to put in a newsletter. That’s hard to be like, “We’re a community, come be in it, it’s nice.” That’s a gross sell.
I thought you had one good line in there that pitched it, which is, “We want this newsletter to serve the books not the other way around.” And I think that’s a simple way of saying it. I do want to say though, I love all the artists you’re working with. Obviously, Tyler and Josh were going to be there, that felt like a foregone conclusion, but I was into them. Stefano, Juan, Andy MacDonald, I think Andy MacDonald is extremely underrated. An amazing artist. Javier Rodriguez, though, might be the best artist, period. When I saw that I was like, “Holy shit. Javier Rodriguez?! Are you messing with me right now?” I’m interviewing him right now, and all my questions are basically, “How are you so good?”
Matthew: I think the six artists, not including Jordie who is coloring and other people who are working on it, like Hass, the six illustrators we have I think are six of the best people in comics. I don’t say that to be like, “Sign up for my newsletter.” They’re in the newsletter because I think that.
Because I did everything I could to be like, “Guys, what do we do?” And the other thing is that I’ve worked with some amazing artists who I didn’t get along with great. I’ve never had a bad relationship with someone on a book, but we just didn’t connect. These are all people that I think are genuinely lovely, kind people. They are people who I care about a great deal and so that’s fun. But yeah, I think everyone here is super underrated. If anything, I just want to bring these people into more people’s homes and be like, “Look at this fucking art.”
No one is as good as this. And Javier for me, I’d never worked with him before. He said nice things to me when 4 Kids Walk into a Bank came out and I was like a bashful little school kid blushing (laughs) and being like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re saying nice things.” And we just kept up sort of always flirting with each other about doing something. And then when this opportunity came along I was like, “What do I have to do to make this work?” And when he was like, “Yeah, I’m in.”…I felt so happy that we’re working with all these people, but Javier is… if five people discover Javier’s work through working with me, through this opportunity, I feel like that’s five people whose lives will be greatly improved.
I’m obviously a big evangelist and believer in comics, but I honestly think finding your favorite artist is one of the greatest joys you can have in your life. And so all these people I’m like, “Everyone here will be someone’s favorite artist.” But I’m hoping a lot of people discover Javier and are just like, “This is it. For the rest of my life, this is the person I want to be like.” (laughs) “He’s my artist.”
I want to talk about the things that you are doing. You’re doing a podcast where you talk to creators, you’re having your regular movie club, you’re going to review chocolate milk possibly. That’s just the free side. But you also have those 12 digital issues, behind the scenes stuff, discounts on the web store, and with your founders tier, which is incredibly named Golden Rulers of The Known & Unknown Universe, you get all of that, but also five exclusive variants, and a hand drawn sketch cover, presumably by one of the artists rather than you.
Matthew: Not by me.
You also get a comic script, a membership card, and then an even greater discount. That is a lot. It’s a lot to just say. I’m tired after saying all of that.
How much of your rewards process was studying the others that were doing Substacks? But also, just talking with your team, throwing ideas against walls and seeing what sticks? What was the process for coming up with all that?
Matthew: We’re doing a lot. So a lot of it was studying what everyone was doing and I think there were two main things that really stuck with me. One was some people just want to read the fucking comics. I remember talking to Nick Spencer, who was running the whole Substack comic show and it’s his brainchild, and I said to him at one point, “The comics, the way you’re presenting things, you are leading with the process stuff, which is cool.” And I was like, “You’re kind of selling people on director’s commentary to a movie they haven’t seen. And then later being like, ‘If you like the commentary, now you should watch the movie.’”
And we’re going to have all that process stuff. We’re going to make it very clear that if you just want to open the emails that have the book in them, we’ll make it very clear which ones those are, and you can just do that. If you have the Substack app, they’ll be separated out. If you have the Panels app, they’ll load into that for you and all that stuff. But I wanted to make sure that there was an option. So the main option is just digital stuff, it’s just it’s $5 a month, you’re going to get at least 12 comics emailed to you, it’s $50 for the year, and that’s it. There are some bells and whistles, but I wanted to cater to the people who are just like, “I just read comics, man. That’s what I want.” Done, you’re taken care of.
Then there’s the other side, there’s what I call the Tiny Onion side of things where people-
Matthew: The collectors and people who want a physical good. I mean that to me…when this Substack thing started to happen, I said, “I understand ComiXology readers, I understand digital readers.” I’m a person who likes to have the book in front of me, a physical book. And I’m a person who if I love something, likes to have something from it. I guess I’m a hoarder. But I like the physicality of what we do. I like listening to my records on vinyl, I like owning a trade paperback and having it on my shelf. And so that is something that I wanted to make sure we had a version of where we’re like, “If you want stuff there’s a way to do that.” And figuring out the pricing and the tier and where to do it, a lot of the money that comes goes back to Substack. Almost all of it goes back to Substack, as it should. They were nice enough to invest in us and we want to get them their money back.
At the upper tier, the money that we get basically just pays for the goods and shipping. We’re not really making money, per se. But we’re not losing money when you sign up. It’s an investment in us. Substack isn’t a publisher, it’s a platform. But in this regard, it is like a publisher in that when I do something at DC or Marvel or wherever, I want them to get their investment back. Investing in me and believing in me, I want that to be a good idea, not a bad idea.
So we do care about that, but figuring out what the top tier would be that, and it’s $250 a year and we went back and forth and we were like, “Well, could we make it less?” Yes, we could make it $200. And then I’m the dude who always tries to over deliver, and we hit a point where I was like, “I’m just going to do four variant covers.” And you’ll get those and it’s 200 bucks or 250 bucks for the year and you get four variant covers and a discount in the web store, so whatever. And then I was like, “That should be five, that makes sense to me.” And then I just kept adding things that I was like, “Well, this is cool that if we could only just do this.” And I asked a bunch of the artists, “Would you do sketch covers?” And they were like, “Yeah, sure.” And I was like, “That’s cool. A lot of people maybe don’t have a chance to get original art from people or an original sketch.”
And it’s such an awesome thing to do. I was like, “I want to offer that and let that be maybe someone’s first sketch or maybe they just like these artists and get them.” So we’re going to have a bunch of those and then discount on the store, and I was like, “Oh, I have scripts.” I’ll print up a script and make it nice and sign it, and that can be something that people get. That’s a little bit of process, and they can own a script. We made a 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank script book for charity, and we printed those, we made 50 of those and sold those. But I’ve never sold my scripts. I don’t publish my scripts normally, and I was like, “This is a cool incentive.”
And I just really was trying to figure out, if we’re going down the road of asking people to pay for physical goods, at the end of the day, I would rather have them get so much stuff that they go, “This is stupid, I don’t want all of this.” Rather than have them be like, “I don’t know if that was worth it.” So that was sort of our goal.
I actually like how you’ve structured it because the free stuff is…I don’t know if this is the right word, but it’s where you get a direct connection. It’s you talking about stuff in the newsletter, which people already enjoy, which is why they subscribe to it. But it’s also the movie club where you get a share of this experience, but then on top of that it’s the podcast where you get this direct connection between you and creators. But then it’s at the highest tier, I mean $250 a year is in exclusivity by itself. Not everyone can spend that money.
Matthew: Of course.
But on top of that they earn exclusivity back because they get those variant covers, they get that hand drawn sketch cover, they get all those different things. It seems like you’ve really thought it out where the least expensive tier is the one that would be perhaps the most broadly pleasing. And as it goes further down it’s it gets a little bit narrower. That makes sense to me.
Matthew: Yeah. I would feel really bad if people felt like, “I really want this thing and I’m priced out of it.” On any level, and so we kept the digital comics cheap. They’re basically if you get a year subscription, it’s the price of a comic and you’re probably going to get more than one comic for the price of that comic.
So I was like, “Good deal, if you read my Image book, if you read my Marvel or DC books, you’re probably getting more content doing this than you would doing that.” That’s the deal. And then at the top tier, we have to offer things that are worth the money for the top tier stuff, but I don’t want it to be a kind of thing where people are like, “I feel priced out on this. I feel crappy about this.” obviously $250 is a big ask and I don’t expect everyone to do it, but it is a specific thing that people are going for and a specific type of fan I think, and they understand paying that price, I would hope.
Matthew: My hope is that it feels like a good deal.
Last question I have for you is more of a big picture type thing. Again, you have a lot going on. You have those books I said earlier, most importantly, launching Wildcats, the greatest superhero team in the history of comics. You have all of that, you have the Substack, you have Ashcan Press, which is quite a bit on its own. In the prism of that, it is an interesting time in comics where things are going well. A lot of retailers are happy, the broader comics industry is doing really well. Obviously, there’s some who are not doing as well, but at the same time, by and large, if you look at the overarching industry, things are going well. How are you feeling about comics right now? And not just what you’re doing but kind of where things are. Are you feeling pretty good right now as you’re jumping into this new venture?
Matthew: I think there’s a puff piece answer that is, I feel great I’m getting to do all this stuff. And I do. I feel incredibly lucky. I’m incredibly happy with the stuff I’m working on. Obviously WildC.A.T.s, the greatest superhero team ever made, is fun, and The Joker book is one of the best things I’ve ever written. And What’s The Furthest Place From Here? is a dream book. And all the Ashcan projects are things that I’ve wanted to do, some of these things have been in my brain for 15 years..
So I just feel incredibly lucky, and I never want to be the person who’s complaining about things, so my blanket answer is, from my perspective personally, things are amazing. I’m so happy. From a thousand feet up, things are going well, books are doing good. The thing that nags at me a lot is more… I can’t quite put my finger on it, whether it’s a broad cultural problem, a social media problem, or a comics problem. And I think it’s a little of all three, and that is that there is a real enthusiasm gap. There is a real, people only talk about things when they’re mad at them, people are not going out to celebrate the things they like, people are not maybe connecting with things on the way that they want to be and liking enough stuff.
I can’t speak everyone’s relationship to it is different, but I do feel like it’s been a long time since, in comics and in pop culture and in the world and in America, where there’s things that are regularly getting people excited and making them happy. And that sucks because I don’t feel that, I read comics every single night and there are comics I’m excited about and love. And Kate Beaton has a new book out this week, Brian Bendis has a new book out this week. So many people are doing such amazing things and I am excited every single week by what’s in comics. And I feel like there are a lot of people going into comic shops who are doing it and not feeling the level of excitement I feel.
And maybe I’m just manic and hyper, but I do feel like it’s been a long time since we’ve had a Saga #1, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a Walking Dead, that was a cultural event, or a New 52, things where everybody is just unified behind talking about it and being excited. And I think that’s a real problem and it will continue to be a real problem going forward. And I think there’s not a simple answer other than someone making a really truly special, amazing thing that gets everyone excited, which I think is an answer, but I think more than that, some of it is being two and a half years into a pandemic and being on the edge of a recession and all these things.
I think people need to be more proactive about celebrating the things they like and sharing the things they like. I feel like Twitter and social media has trained a lot of people that positive takes are just leaving yourself open for attack in endorsing things and being enthusiastic about things gives you a chance to be vulnerable. And I just really urge people to ignore that instinct and be vulnerable and love things and share things because it is really important to the life of all these things we make, but also us as people to be expressing joy more. It’s just a real fucking depressing time in the world, and art is the thing that throughout the history of humanity helps us escape. And I’m not talking about fiscally supporting it, I’m not saying go spend more than you have on comics or movies or video games or TV or donate to podcasts or whatever. I’m saying use your voice to celebrate these things because it’s good for you, it’s good for the people around you and it’s good for the things more than anything.
And I think that feels in comics especially true that we’re just watching people say stupid shit online, get in trouble for it, put stupid shit in books, get in trouble for it. And we’re not propping things up to the same level. And that is eventually turns this beautiful medium into nothing but controversy and hot takes. It’s exhausting and it’s not good. And I don’t mean, don’t call people out for bad shit. By all means call people out for bad shit. But don’t make that everything you interact with. Celebrate the things that are great.
Like Ducks (Kate Beaton’s new book).
Matthew: Like Ducks. I mean, well I haven’t read it yet. I’m positive it’s great. But I haven’t read it but I’m still celebrating it because I’m so excited.
It’s Kate Beaton. Kate Beaton remains undefeated. Not that I disagree with you, but I will say that this is a much broader issue than just comics in the sense that…here’s a good example. Rings of Power, The Lord of the Rings show.
I have literally no idea if that show is supposed to be good. But I know a lot of people are mad about it, and it’s weird that this seems to be the entire conversation.
It seems like it would be something people would talk about. I wonder if it’s just kind of a valuation system thing because it can be very just absent from the conversation as to whether or not people even have basic feelings about them. At the same time though, I’m also talking about the online experience. It’s like with Yelp, if you go to a restaurant and it was a perfectly fine meal, a three star meal, you’re not going to write a review because you don’t feel strongly about it. It is kind of the nature of the internet to a certain degree.
Matthew: Yeah. I mean in regards to social media, no one ever got a lot of likes and retweets for being like, “I saw the new Top Gun movie, it was okay.” That is not going to set the world on fire. And I actually saw the new Top Gun movie and loved it.
It was great.
Matthew: It was great. I mean they really fly those planes, it’s awesome. But yeah, I mean I think The Lord of the Rings thing is a perfect example, I feel like between that, She-Hulk and House of Dragons, the way cultures are reacting to these things, they’re all separate and each reaction is problematic for me in a certain way that everyone I know talking about She-Hulk, everyone I see – and obviously feeds are curated and cultivated and you’re sort of in an echo chamber – but everyone is reacting being like, “But I like She-Hulk.” “But I enjoy it.” And I was like, “You don’t have to say the but.” You are rebutting things and giving power to people who don’t like a thing you like. Just like it.
Even if you are doing it to be like, “I want to counteract the negativity.” The first thing you’re doing is empowering the negativity and engaging it on a thing you like. That doesn’t help anybody. And the funniest one for me is the new Game of Thrones though, because everyone I saw was like, “Why are they making this? Nobody wants this. No one cares, that was over, we did that, it’s done.” And then it comes out and it’s what? The best rated HBO launch by a factor of five or something. And I saw 500 people tell me that nobody on earth wants this and more people want it than anything else.
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