“Let’s Take This Chance”: Pornsak Pichetshote on the Big Swings of The Horizon Experiment

It isn’t always easy to succeed in the direct market of comics. The side of the industry defined by comic shops has always been a challenging one for original ideas that don’t have a connection to some sort of well-established property, and that may be even more true in this moment, as retailers grow increasingly risk-averse and creators have to adjust accordingly. Maybe that’s why so many moves seem like safe ones of late. This moment can be less about raising your ceiling than ensuring your floor, and there’s certainly value in doing that, because risk can be costly for all involved.

Maybe that’s why I appreciate the upcoming The Horizon Experiment so much: It’s swinging for the fences at a time many are understandably trepidatious about doing so.

It helps that this project has such an incredible idea at its heart, with this Image Comics project focusing on “original protagonists from marginalized backgrounds set in a popular genre and inspired by pop culture icons” per the Variety article that announced it. It isn’t just trying to play back the hits either. It’s trying to find a new way to approach them altogether. It certainly has an advantage on the creator side as well, as its a who’s who of talented folks, with its including Pornsak Pichetshote, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, Sabir Pirzada, Tananarive Due, Kelsey A. Ramsay, Jose Villarubia, J. Holtham, Michael Lee Harris, Vita Ayala, Skylar Patridge, Jason Wordie, Jeff Powell, Becca Carey, and Will Dennis. That’s an elite starting point.

But what I really appreciate about it is its unique approach to risk-taking. It’s a big idea, but it’s also going about its business in an atypical way. Instead of rolling out a giant-sized shared universe filled with new ongoings, The Horizon Experiment is actually a quintet of one-shots where each’s success will decide whether they continue onwards. Starting with Pichetshote, The Dodson’s, and Jeff Powell’s The Manchurian #1 in September, each successive month will roll out a new one-shot. If they pop in the market, they’ll graduate to a larger story. If they don’t, they won’t. It’s a way to mitigate risk and build investment in fans at a time both are necessary, allowing for each creative team to aim for the stars without running the risk of getting burned too badly if it doesn’t work. It even has a focused approach to marketing, as it’ll all start with an ashcan designed to build excitement in retailers and key readers in the market.

As a big nerd about these things, I was unsurprisingly super into all of this. I had to know more. So, Pichetshote — who is the architect of this project in a lot of ways — hopped on Zoom with me recently and discussed The Horizon Experiment as a whole, what it is, what it isn’t, its appeal, the project’s incredible creators, the mad science that’s going into it, managing this current moment in the direct market, the importance of experimentation in the comics space, and a whole lot more. It’s basically Pichetshote and I nerding out about The Horizon Experiment for several thousand words, and it was an absolute pleasure to dig into this with him.

You can find that discussion below. It’s been edited for length and clarity.

Terry and Rachel Dodson’s cover to The Manchurian #1

There’s this line in The Horizon Experiment’s ashcan where it says, “Everyone was given the same challenge: create a protagonist from a marginalized background set in a popular genre where if the background of your protagonist changed, so would your story.” I love how this has to be a foundational idea. If the background changes, everything changes. So, let’s start there. What made that so intriguing to you as a storyteller and as a human?

Pornsak Pichetshote: For me, a lot of where my books — like Infidel or The Good Asian —start is with the background. The characters are so vital to those entire stories. If Infidel doesn’t start with a Pakistani-American Muslim woman, that story is a completely different thing. If The Good Asian doesn’t start with a Chinese American detective, you’ve read that story already. And one of the things I thought was super interesting when both those books were coming out was, I kept hearing people say, “This is cool. I wish we saw more stuff like this.” And I wish we saw more stuff like this too. But as a writer, I can only pull from my own experiences.

What I wanted to see was everyone doing this same thing. I’m not an editor anymore. I’m definitely not a publisher. So, there’s only so much I could do as a writer. But this idea just kept going in my head. I did the math in my head and it was like, “Wait a minute. I know I’m just a writer. I know I’m not a publisher, but I actually think with the right people I can pull this off, and I happen to know the right people. I remember the pitch that I sent to Sabir Pirzada, J. Holtham, Tananarive Due, and Vita Ayala. I laid all this out and it says, “This feels like something worth doing. It feels like we can do it. I think we should just do it.” (David laughs) It’s that line I love from (Aaron) Sorkin’s The Newsroom. “How did you tell the news responsibly?” “We just decided to.” It felt like this is something we can do. And that’s what led to the whole experiment of it all.

It’s funny because when you reached out to me, you asked why we decided to go through with something so unorthodox. And it was the first time it really struck me that it was unorthodox. I didn’t see any other way for it to happen. I think probably because it started with that prompt as opposed to us five having books and being like, “How can we promote these books?” And I worry that people think that’s what this is. This isn’t some tricky press release. This is what it says on the tin. It’s an experiment. We don’t know if this is going to work. We don’t know if there’s enough audience for all this. But I think there should be.

And I guess part of my thing was, I don’t know why publishers aren’t trying harder. And so, it was just me and my friends coming together and saying, “Let’s give this a shot. I think we can do this.” And I know you feel the same way, but one of the things I love about comics…it’s like a laboratory of experiments. I see the comics publishing industry as that. This is where people take chances. It’s what makes this medium so great. So, I thought, “Let’s take this chance.”

And I think the other button it pushed is that I love anytime I can find a new twist on a genre or storytelling or comic tradition. And to me, this is like DC Showcase. This is like Top Cow’s Pilot Season. This is DC’s 1st Issue Special. All those anthologies that were basically first issues. I’m too young to wake up in a time where you could subscribe to DC Showcase and every month you get a new issue, and you have no idea what it’s going to be. It just shows up in the mail and you don’t know what it is. You probably weren’t aware of it at the time, but there was an editor that was very good at what they did and they curated these new series for you. And sometimes you got The Flash and sometimes you got Jason’s Quest. You had no idea what it was going to be.

The thing I really like about The Horizon Experiment as an idea is we’re in a time when comics as a whole — particularly in the direct market — is very risk averse. It’s a safe time. The interesting thing about The Horizon Experiment is that in some ways it could be perceived as high risk, but it’s not. It’s extremely low risk. If it doesn’t work, you just don’t do more. If it does work, you do more. That’s it. And so basically these first issues are a choose your own adventure story where if there’s enough support for it and readers love it and tell people about it and word spreads enough that it becomes a big hit, you’ll get more of it. And I think that that is smart.

Pichetshote: Thank you. I know this might be quixotic. This might be arrogant. I don’t know what it is, but if it works out, none of us on The Horizon Experiment pioneered the idea of getting together with your friends and putting out comics. That’s not a proprietary idea by any stretch of the imagination. So if this works, I would hope other people or other publishers can do it, because like you said, I don’t think what we’re doing is that unique when you look at Kickstarter books, indie comics, digital comics or anything like that stuff. It’s just the direct market that is incredibly risk averse right now. And the thing with Infidel or with The Good Asian…those books ended up working out well and being successful for me.

But every time I put those books out, I thought I was going to lose my shirt. I honestly did. When I did Infidel, I thought that was going to be the only comic I would make because I would not be able to afford to make more. And when it worked out, I was like, “Oh, maybe I can double down and then I did the Good Asian,” which is even more specific. And I thought I was totally going to be losing my shirt on that, and it turned out to not be the case. Every time, my own cynicism underestimated the comics reading audience’s appetite for stuff like this. That’s a big part of The Horizon Experiment as well. It feels like it’s another test of just how much do people love these genres and these stories that they want to see new perspectives.

Maybe it’s just where publishers’ heads are at, but I’ve always found that the audience is ahead of where publishers and executives tend to be. Don’t get me wrong, there are great ones out there. But a lot of times they end up catching up after a hit comes out. Would IDW or Oni or Dark Horse have greenlit Bitter Root? Which is now a three-time Eisner winner and there’s going to be a movie about it. Or did that happen because of a place like Image where they just say, “Do what you want. It’s low risk for the company. Put everything you have into it.” And then you’ve got this monstrous hit.

Image was the only place I could have done this. There’s no other place I could have pulled this off.

Michael Walsh’s cover to The Sacred Damned #1

What was their reaction when you pitched them?

Pichetshote: I think that I had worked out all the bells and whistles, so when it got to them, it was like, “Wait a minute, you’re potentially giving us five books from creators of color, four of which we have not been talking to or were not on our radar for whatever reason?” They had the best response in my opinion, which was just, “Thank you.” (laughs)

You made it very easy on them.

Pichetshote: Yeah.

For the same reason it’s a plus for you, it’s a plus for them because if it works, they’re suddenly going to have one to five books that are doing well on their hands. And if it doesn’t, then they just wash their hands and they’re done.

Pichetshote: And all the creators are hungry to do more. It’s the old comic book thing of, if there is more, then you’ve got to work out schedules. But from there, they go with God. In many ways, every book I’ve done since The Good Asian was kind of prepping me for this. I was trying to learn as much as I could about how different companies market and position their books so that everyone on the team was set up for success. And that’s what I tried to do with all this kind of stuff too.

So, it started with reaching out to the different creators, correct?

Pichetshote: Yes.

When you went to them, did you have the mad science experiment side of it yet? Or was it just the concept at that point?

Pichetshote: I did have the mad science idea of this. I had the concept, but I knew enough about the ins and outs with my own books where I knew some of the people would be able to finance their own books the way I did for my Image books, and some couldn’t. And because of the crazy things that are happening in film and TV right now, some of that switched in terms of who can afford what. But I knew that if I could get some of them on board, I could get Image to sort of advance me the other piece of it.

That’s the other thing. I don’t know if everyone could finance a four or five issue mini if we did this traditionally, but they could finance a one-shot to give them enough confidence. Everyone’s got their own different levels of where this needs to come in at for them to move forward. I cannot emphasize enough how bespoke all this is. Everyone’s got their own personal bar they need to clear because they’re going to be investing their own money and time out of their schedules. But this gives them a way to gauge all that because these are stories they wanted to tell. Hopefully it sets it up so they can move forward.

The great thing too was that they got to own it because we are at Image. There were people who could afford this stuff that wouldn’t work for a company that owns 50% of this because it doesn’t make sense for them to give away half the rights to something where they could do it in another medium. I was at Vertigo for a while, so I get it. It almost feels like you’re holding their baby hostage. It’s like, “Yeah, you really want your baby to see life, right? Well then, give me half.” And I didn’t want to do that to them.

I wanted it to come as no strings attached as possible. I just want to prove this is possible. And I get nothing from their success. I don’t have any percentage on any of these one-shots. The creators’ control everything, just like on my books. All the artists get a percentage, and it’s co-ownership between the artists and the writer. It really is done with the spirit of, “Let’s just see what’s possible.”

I wanted to ask about the experiment side of it. It’s effectively a pilot program for each of these books. I think the Variety article announcing it described as an incubation program.

Pichetshote: Oh, that’s interesting.

Kelsey A. Ramsay’s cover to Moon Dogs #1

All the creators involved are well established. We’ve talked about this already, but I’m curious as to why you think the experiment part of it is necessary. Because you’re right, there is an alternate world where each of these books is just rolled out as is its own thing. Is that part more about the market? Is it more about the unique nature of these books? What fueled that side of the decision?

Pichetshote: I feel if we lived in a world where that was possible, it would already be happening. And by the way, I’m not disregarding…you’ve got Rodney Barnes and Jason Shawn Alexander in Killadelphia. I talked about Bitter Root earlier. You’ve got Steven Graham Jones and Davide Gianfelice on Earthdivers. You have books that are like this. But in any given month, one of those books are on the stands at a time where there are a hundred books on the stands. That is not proportional to the population of America. Or the readership of comics. So that to me is the experiment of it. It’s, if this was possible in the way we would logically expect, it would already be happening. And the fact that it didn’t happen makes me think, okay, is it because everyone thinks it’s a risk? And if everyone thinks it’s a risk, let’s give it a shot in this way.

It’s funny. The Horizon Experiment is on multiple levels proof of concept. It’s proof of concept that it’s valid to publish books like this. It’s proof of concept that these books themselves can support a larger run. It’s proof of concept of all these different things. I think the thing that’s interesting about it though is the fact that you have this one-shot that you can push everyone to. A lot of times when you’re asking people to pre-order a comic, you’re asking them to pre-order an ongoing series. It’s an ongoing commitment. And we’re in this weird time in comics where it’s all about sampling, where people buy the first issue just to see if they like it and then switch to trades.

Here, you are asking them to sample, and their sampling will dictate the success of these books. It’s not crowdfunding. It’s different than that. But it also feels a little different than the average direct market book because of that. It becomes a different species in a way.

Pichetshote: It does. That’s also the experimental nature of this. We’re selling them singles at the end of the day. I mean, I’m not a music person, but it feels like it’s analogous to you buying a single and if you like the single then maybe the album will be forthcoming.

Oh, I had CD singles when I was a kid, so I love that analogy.

Pichetshote: Yeah, I love that we’re the same age. (laughs) We both get it.

It is an experiment because then after that stage, you get the excitement. If there is the audience, then the next challenge becomes, alright, let’s put these books together. The teams will get the books together. The team has to find time in their schedules. Everything from here is kind of wet cement, and that’s part of the fun. And honestly, I feel very lucky that I am in a position to have this seat to test the direct market out in this way. And it was one of those things where I wish I knew the answers to this stuff. And then it just became, what’s stopping you from finding out? Nothing. I guess it’s just my friends saying yes, and then my friends said yes.

So, there’s no excuse not to.

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