SKTCHDxTINYONION: Part Four, Planting a W0rldtr33

A lot can happen in a month.

Take writer James Tynion IV’s life and career, for example. When we initially recorded our fourth monthly conversation in our SKTCHDxTiny Onion series of interviews about his work and its place in the broader comic book industry — back in ye olden days of March 24, 2023 — his upcoming Image series W0rldtr33 (which he’s crafting with artist Fernando Blanco, colorist Jordie Bellaire, and letterer Aditya Bidikar) was set to arrive on April 12, the concept of overly dark covers causing a delay was a theoretical nightmare (and not in a cool Tynion sort of way), and no one had ever heard of the new comics publishing outfit DSTLRY. So, you know, we didn’t talk about those things in this chat.

What we did talk about was W0rldtr33 as a whole, its origins, what went into it, its roots for Tynion, how it was looking after final order cutoff hit, how he writes first issues, his approach to picking publishers, why he has to approach things how he does, and a whole lot more. So this proves to be an excellent chat about a whole lot of things in Tynion’s life and the work that went into W0rldtr33, just maybe not the most timely bits you would like to hear about (although if you read closely, he does allude to DSTLRY within). You’ll dig it anyways. So let’s get to this week’s chat, and hey, check out W0rldtr33 #1 when it hits on April 26th. It’s really quite good.

Also, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re talking on Friday, March 24th. We’re four days after W0rldtr33 #1’s final order cutoff hit. That’s FOC, or the last day comic shops can change their orders for that release. Let’s start there. Was it a good week? Was it a great week? What kind of week was it? Do you have a sense as to how orders are looking?

James: I definitely have that sense, and I am very happy. Around midday on Monday, I was having a panic attack. I like bugging people at Image to try to get them to give me where the numbers stand, even though I know that’s bad information for me to have because I’ll just start spiraling. And there was this brief moment where it was just like, “Oh, our number is going to land close to where The Closet was last summer,” which I didn’t do this big push for. But then the orders just kept coming in. And then we landed in a really good place, especially given the market right now. It’s not my highest launch ever, but my highest launch ever happened in the middle of the speculator boom from two years ago. Did I want to beat that number? Yes. But we had very strong numbers. Basically, by Tuesday morning, all of the friends that I was panic texting on Monday afternoon were yelling at me for having been anxious about it.

Fernando Blanco’s cover to W0rldtr33 #1

One of the things we’ve been talking about in this series of interviews is how the environment is just different. You want to compare to your high points. You want to aim for your high points. But the problem is that high point, I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it may not exist in the same way anymore. It’s an apples to oranges comparison as far as where the market is, right?

James: Yes. It’s honestly remarkable. And I started getting worried about this back in the fall. W0rldtr33 is another ongoing series. To do an ongoing series, especially one that I want to run for several years, I knew the range that I wanted to launch in. And it was the range of the books that launched during the period. Basically, Department of Truth, Nice House on the Lake, they had six figure launches which was incredible for a creator-owned book. And that gives us a lot of capital, both in terms of the comics market and just in terms of literal cash on hand to keep a book going and keep funding it for the long haul. I knew I needed to pull out all the stops to make this sell the most it could, but I was doing that in a market that was shifting while the entire collector market was changing rapidly in the last year.

For a while, they were picking one book every month to back. And now, we’re getting to the point where it feels like they’re picking one book every quarter to back. They’re still out there, but it’s not what it was. And that changes the math because for a little while I knew that I could rely on that group because they liked my books. But I had to consider the value that I was going to be giving them, and I needed to consider how I gamed out the covers I was doing to appeal to them. And then on top of that, the comic had to be good, and it had to be something that appealed to that group. So, all those things together led to this last moment.

This is basically what I’ve been thinking about for a year. And it’s remarkable that now we’re at another turning point in my career because this is everything that I started putting in motion from the second I got the Substack Grant. W0rldtr33 is the last of the books that I put into motion right then. And now Blue Book is in stores. Christopher Chaos has been solicited, W0rldtr33 is coming out. We are now entering the next phase. Thankfully, a lot of my hopes for how this could pan out have panned out.

It’s interesting too because the second volume of your Nightmare Country series is launching the same week as W0rldtr33. I don’t think you can plan for that. I don’t think you can be like, “DC, can we launch this the same week as my other big book?” But in a weird way, that actually reinforces W0rldtr33. If somebody goes and gets Nightmare Country on Tuesday, and then reads and loves it, they could be like, “Maybe I’ll get more from this James Tynion guy,” if they hadn’t read anything from you before. And then what do you have right there? W0rldtr33. Obviously, it’s a slightly different flavor. I imagine it’s a different flavor, at least.

James: Nightmare Country still stars a serial killing nightmare. It is a slightly different flavor, but it’s similar.

It’s in the ballpark.

I just had Steve Anderson from Third Eye Comics, a retail chain over on the East Coast, on Off Panel. And he described W0rldtr33 as a monster book about to happen. He was really touting the Peach Momoko 1:75 cover you had that was announced right before FOC. You described this book as one that you’re very happy with the result of FOC. How much of that success do you feel that stems from your plan for it versus the nature of the book? How much of something like W0rldtr33 do you have to carefully cultivate to become the hit it is versus it just naturally becoming the hit it is?

James: I think there’s a lot of cultivation that needs to happen. We exist in weird moment in this industry where messaging what a creator is trying to sell to retailers is really difficult. And then on top of that, because of a giant snowstorm, Image wasn’t even at ComicsPRO (a comics retail trade organization that hosted its annual meeting) last month, I’m pretty sure. This was a big launch that was about to happen, and the people who were in a room with all the retailers weren’t able to say to that group, “Hey, you should buy this book.”

I’m in a very privileged position. I have sold a lot of comics over the last few years. I have a large readership of my newsletter, so I am a fairly powerful messaging entity just as myself. But it’s still one of those things where there’s so much product out there that has my name on it that it’s just like, how do I message that this is going to be special? And you can start seeing me making moves towards it six months ago.

When I wrapped up my first year of the Substack Grant, I basically made the decision that I needed to shift the value proposition there where it’s I’m not just trying to sell a newsletter every week. I need the power of my newsletter to sell the comics that I’m putting out in the world. So I had to change the way I messaged the newsletter and how I did everything, because what really matters are the sales in stores. That was the main thing. And then it was also just like, “Okay, the collector market isn’t showing up for everything any anymore. How can I get them to show up for this book?” And thankfully, the book has a character who’s very appealing to that market. We have a sexy murder lady. That’s one of the best things you can have to sell a book.

Bill Sienkiewicz’s cover to W0rldtr33 #1

And I knew that it was just like, okay, how can we introduce the collector market to this character? And so I came up with the idea of how I released the variant covers in stages rather than having them all in the initial solicit dump, so that I could hit over the course of a month and a half leading up to FOC just an increasing awareness of these covers. And then on top of that, you can see the way that I structured the incentives is that the higher incentive books are mostly appealed to just the collector base. And the lower-incentive books appeal to a broader comic space. Those are just cool comics artists who I love like our Bill Sienkiewicz cover is 1 in 25. Everyone loves Bill Sienkiewicz. I fucking love that cover.

But it’s just like the higher cover is Zu Orzu who is very popular right now in the collector market. And then the highest tier is basically me leaving the 1 in 100s are for the people who have been collecting my books in particular. Those are the homage covers to my previous titles. So it’s like if you have bought in and you have been collecting basically my whole library, here’s a special treat for you if you buy in, and these are going to be the rarest covers that exist for this thing. I’m not iterating on them. I’m not letting retailers do a virgin variant of any of them. Those will be the only iterations of those covers. I want to preserve how rare they are and make sure they’re special.

And then the other thing is just I reached out to Peach Momoko months and months and months ago to do one of these variants. And it’s just like, okay, this is going to be the FOC drop variant. And then it’s also like… And even though there was always a weird gap because it went from 1 in 50 to 1 in 100, but it was just like I wanted her just to be the 1 in 75. And part of that is anyone who wanted that cover had to redo all the math right on the last day. Suddenly, you have to ask yourself questions of where all of your numbers are then rather than just do a simple multiplier.

I also had an instinct very early on that the collector market would change on my own books. There are higher incentive variants on some of my Boom! stuff because I don’t have direct control over that. But I’ve never been comfortable going above 1 in 100. The thing that I like the 1 in 100 because basically if you order a retailer variant, which normally has a minimum order of 500, if you order a retailer variant of this book, that means you get five of the really rare cover. That’s the special treat you get, and that feels like the fair ask. Once you get up to the 1 in 500 covers, it’s like, “Am I really creating something that’s going to have that much inherent value?” Is the value going to go up?

Because essentially, the internal math you can do in your head as an incentive… like 1 in 100, you should be able to sell for $100. Like 1 in 75, you should be able to sell for $75. That’s a useful metric to keep in your head. W0rldtr33 is something that we already have media interest. We already have… And a lot of my stuff is moving in media and all of that. The idea that one of my books is going to increase in value is not crazy. But I wanted to contain it, and I wanted to appeal to that group. And basically, our whole cover plan for the first five issues is built on appealing to that group.

Well, I want to talk about the other part of the comic which is the inside of the comic for a little bit. W0rldtr33 is your new Image comic series with artist Fernando Blanco, colorist Jordie Bellaire, letter Aditya Bidikar. And I have a lot of thoughts about it, and I want to talk about it. But before we go into that, here’s the solicit for the first issue so everyone knows what we’re talking about.

“In 1999, Gabriel and his friends discovered the Undernet, a secret architecture to the Internet. They charted their exploration on a message board called W0rldtr33. Then they lost control. Someone broke into W0rldtr33, someone who welcomed the violent hold that Undernet had on them. At great personal cost, Gabriel and the others thought they had sealed the Undernet away for good. They were wrong. And now they will know the meaning of PH34R.”

Let’s talk about the story behind the book. As I told you immediately after I read it, it might be the worst thing you’ve ever written, and it might also be the best thing you’ve ever written in the sense that it’s absolutely incredible. It’s just very upsetting. It’s probably the best first issue I’ve read in two years. I think that it is one of the rare books that does a good job of specifically cultivating the collector market, but also has the potential to be a word-of-mouth hit, which is a very tough line to walk. But let’s talk about its origin. What’s the origin of W0rldtr33, and why was it a story you wanted to tell?

James: The origin is as brutal as the comic itself. When I was making the move from California back out to New York about four years ago, my partner at the time, they were having me listen to a few episodes of the podcast Sword and Scale. I have a lot of negative feelings towards that podcast in general. I’m not endorsing it. There was a two-part episode about the serial killer Luka Magnotta who basically killed someone on camera and posted it online. And this is the thing that really messed me up. In the second part, they started showing that it briefly became a shock video that was being spread around, and people were doing reaction videos to the murder.

Oh my god.

James: And not even necessarily knowing that it was a real murder. They were playing the voices of the people reacting to it. And one of the voices was so young that I had to hit stop on the podcast just right there. It was one of the most viscerally upsetting things that I’ve ever listened to. I don’t recommend people going out and listening to this thing. This is something I listened to once, and it just festered in my brain for years. I’ve always been fascinated with what the Internet is doing to us and what it is doing to our brains. One of my earliest creator on comics is a book called Memetic, which is about an image posted online that ends the world in three days. And it’s basically a larger meta comment that things are spreading so much more rapidly online, (faster) than we can process whether they are good or bad for us.

(W0rldtr33) is the ideological evolution of that story. It’s where I’m taking it to the next level. It’s that, and then you can also see the strong Stephen King influence. There’s a part of the setup that’s me doing a riff on It. 20th Century Boys is big in its DNA, which uses a similar format. Ultimately, it won’t be shaped too closely like either of those stories, but I wanted it to be paced like a Stephen King novel, which means I want it to be long.

David Aja’s cover to W0rldtr33 #1

I’m very happy you said that. I feel like the Stephen King part is obvious just because Gabriel and his friends having to deal with it as young people and then having to deal with it as adults also. But my unnecessarily ridiculous elevator pitch slash comparison concept for it was, it’s like it meets The Net, the 1990s Sandra Bullock movie, but if clicking a pi symbol in the corner of the Internet opened the gateway to hell from Event Horizon.

James: I love that. I’m going to steal that. That’s really good.

Stephen King has always been a pretty big influence on you, right?

James: Yeah.

This is the one where you can see all the elements. It’s like Gabriel and his friend’s part is the it part. And then there’s the part that builds off the podcast you’re talking about and then… we’ve talked about this in the past, but lot of your ideas are you taking…this was an idea, and this was an idea, and this was an idea. But at the root, there was this pure thing, and then it all gets smashed together into W0rldtr33.

James: Yes. That’s exactly how it happened. The other thing that I really wanted to play with are Y2K aesthetics, the turn into the millennium. That’s where when I came of age. Just by remembering the pre-social media Internet and what I hoped the Internet would do to the world and then what the Internet has actually done to the world, I wanted to tell a story about that tension. And that’s why there are multiple generations in this book. You have the older generation that had that initial optimism, but then saw something rotten at the dark heart of it. And then you see the people who have only grown up with the dark heart of it.

One of the interesting things that I felt as I was reading it was, as I told you, there’s this one scene in it that when I read it, I was like, “I don’t know if I can keep reading this comic.” That’s not a judgment. That’s just like how intense it was. And when I was reading around that point, I was like, “This feels like it’s going to be a very specialized book. It’s going to have a narrow audience of the people who can handle that stuff.”

But by the end, I came to realize that this type of horror…we talked before about the universality of fear before and why horror works so well. This type of horror where it’s about the fear of the Internet and how it’s breaking everything and ruining people…it feels very universal. And it’s interesting to hear your perspective on it because it’s the type of thing that when you look at the details, it feels very specialized. But that when you look at the entire idea, you realize that anybody can read this and see today in it in a very real way.

James: I do want to hit a nerve. That is absolutely the goal. It also doesn’t scare me. And this might just be confirmation bias, but my most successful series by far is Something is Killing the Children in which a literal child is ripped in half in the first issue on panel. And that is my most successful book. W0RLDTR33 is totally different. I don’t want to pretend they’re the same thing, but it is one of those things where (I don’t want to) flinch away from the ugly parts because I think that the contrast between the ugliness and the humanity actually allows for the more human moments to be more human. And frankly, it’s just my taste, and it’s how I like to write.

Even the people who need to peek through their fingers for a few pages, I still think that the core cast of characters…if you like Nice House on the Lake, the way that these characters interact and build then I think the cast of W0RLDTR33 is going to be familiar to you…I think you’re going to really enjoy it. I also think that there will be moments that are going to be brutal and frightening, but we live in a brutal and frightening world. I don’t want to flinch away from that.

One thing that distinguishes it from Something is Killing the Children in terms of the violence side though…and this isn’t me trying to talk people out of it. It’s great and everyone should read it. But the violence it feels very personal. I think it’s because the way that Fernando draws it and the way it’s set up with the livestream.

But I do want to say my favorite character so far, I’m very invested in Gabriel and his gang getting stuff sorted. I like how you have this pocket of just theoretical heroes and the main guy…for some reason in my head, Gabriel just seems like a Wildstorm character. I’m looking at Gabriel, and I think, “This guy is going to get stuff sorted out. I trust this guy.”

James: When I talk about Y2K aesthetic, what comics are the ones that capture that more than anything?

He seems like he could be the second Winter from Stormwatch or something like that. It’s like, “We need a new Winter. Let’s get this Gabriel guy.”

James: The second issue introduces a badass like FBI agent with an eye patch.

Oh my god.

James: We are having fun here. The character PH34R, just in of herself, this terrifying, naked, tattooed lady who’s just murdering folks…this is a comic book. We are making a comic book here. There are going to be visually dynamic and interesting characters throughout, and then there’s going to be very grounded human characters throughout. There’s the core premise which is basically there’s an evil Internet that lives beneath the Internet, and it’s trying to end the world. It’s all stuff I love.

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