As you may have noticed, I rather enjoy digging into the business side of comics. It’s an interesting domain, and while I’m here for the comics themselves, I love to explore the inner workings and inside baseball of the comics industry. And one of my favorite people to talk to about all that with is writer James Tynion IV, someone who constantly considers that side of comics — perhaps more than anyone else I’ve come across in comics — and always has such interesting things to say in regards to it. More than that, he’s constantly experimenting in that space, as he tries to find the right answers for his projects and navigate that endlessly changing market.
They’re always fun conversations that result in me – and the site’s readers and the podcast’s listeners, hopefully – learning a little more about how one of the most notable writers of this period operates, but also how the industry feels from the inside in that moment in time. They only happen once a year or so, though, because that’s how I do things.
I have good news for those who would like that to change: you’ll be getting a lot more this year. Tynion and I are collaborating on a monthly interview series throughout the entirety of 2023, starting with a mammoth chat today about the state of the comics business from Tynion’s perspective, and how that’s affecting his overall approach. We hopped on Zoom last week and discussed everything from his view on where the direct market is and what he’d like to see more of from those in it to what that means for his approach and his projects, and it resulted in a fantastic conversation, which you can read below. It’s a SKTCHDxTiny Onion collabo, down to this mighty fine logo created by designer Dylan Todd.
Each month, we’ll tackle a different subject, sometimes more on the macro side of the industry and other times more on the micro side in regards to Tynion’s work (or maybe even both at the same time). But each will be an exploration of where things are in the market and what it all means, at least from our respective viewpoints. They’ll also run both on SKTCHD and on The Empire of the Tiny Onion, Tynion’s Substack, with this first edition open to non-subscribers here and free subscribers over there. All subsequent ones will be behind a paywall, though, so if you enjoy this chat, consider subscribing to SKTCHD or the Tiny Onion newsletter for more just like this. Already subscribed here, or Tiny Onion, or both? Gold stars all around!
That’s enough preamble, though. Please enjoy this extended conversation with Tynion, and stay tuned next month for another edition that’s sure to get into the weeds in a similarly enjoyable way.
It’s a new year. You have a trio of comic launches that we know of on the horizon with Blue Book, W0rldtr33 and The Oddly Pedestrian Life of Christopher Chaos, to say nothing of the millions of other things you have going on. You have more cooking assuredly too. Change is afoot in the industry itself too. With all that in mind, how are you feeling about the health of the comic industry and, in particular, the direct market as we enter 2023?
James: That’s a really complicated question right now. That speaks to the biggest part of the answer, which is that it’s a very complicated moment in the direct market and in comics more broadly. If we look at the fundamentals, there’s a lot of really good news. There’s the fact that more young people are reading comics today than were reading comics when I started reading comics in middle school and high school. Graphic novel sales, particularly manga —manga is kicking our asses — are through the roof. And then on top of that, during the pandemic, we had a few years of easy money with everything. And this is one of the things that I think has led to a lot of the problems in the current moment. People had a few extra dollars in their pocket, particularly here in the United States. There weren’t new movies coming out. The entire creative pipeline was shut down in so many ways and people picked up the habit of reading comics every week again.
And that is incredibly valuable. And that means that we have good standing to build on what comes next. But there are a lot of red flags that come from all that, because I think a lot of companies got very used to the easy money. And a lot of business models that a lot of us on the creator side have long been skeptical of are sort of proving that they might not work as well as the publishers claimed they would. At least not at the level they had promised. I think we’re going to see more situations where smaller and mid-tier publishers are going to be in more and more trouble as we head into the next few years. And we’re also existing in this very strange moment, especially for the American direct market on side of the comics industry, which is the fact that superheroes are not driving the industry the way they used to.
Unless it’s My Hero Academia.
James: But that’s the thing. It and Chainsaw Man still use a lot of the language of superhero comics. Which proves there’s still a lot of power in the core idea of superheroes.
But the Big Two don’t feel like they’re in the driver’s seat and I’m not sure that they will be able to take the wheel again in this new market we’re building. So that’s going to require a lot of recalibration moving forward. For me, 2023 is me trying to figure out where the industry is and what are different models that work. You’re going to see me try different things at different publishers. One example is how I consider variant covers. That is changing a lot just because the collector market boomed when we were in a moment of easy money and we’re not in that moment any longer. I don’t think the collector market is just going to vanish, but I don’t think it’s going to be the driver in the way it was before.
It’s going to be something complementary, if it’s handled correctly, but it requires being handled correctly. And I would say more than anything, I think it’s a lot of what you’re also seeing happen in the film and TV space right now, which is that everyone forgot for a while when they were focused more on the abstract value of a thing, it was like the financialization of everything.
But even on the financial investment side, they’re turning to Hollywood right now and basically saying, “No, a movie needs to make money for it to be worth money. A TV show needs to have viewers for it to be worth something.”
And in the comic market, a book needs readers to have value. That is the thing that gives a book value and longevity.
I think sometimes we can focus so much on the almost fantasy sports elements of these industries that we’re not even thinking about comics as stories anymore. We’re thinking about them as paths to revenue. Sometimes when you lean too far in one direction, the industry starts falling over and becomes problematic. That’s the place we’re at right now. I’ve been talking to retailers and some of them have been telling me things like, “The focus is no longer on the story and it’s really hard to sell stories when that’s the case.”
It also feels like there’s always a six-month lag in how people perceive the health of the industry. Right now, people are still talking about that ICv2/Comichron report about 2021 that showcased how revenues were massive and everything was doing well. But that was for 2021. Since then, there’s been all those red flags you’re talking about. It really feels like we’re in a transitional year. It’s a time where I think you and everyone else in the industry is trying to figure things out. How does the state of the industry factor into your thinking as you’re plotting out both 2023 and beyond?
James: It requires a lot more strategy. I come at all of this from a very privileged position in the industry. And to be blunt, the success of Something Is Killing the Children kind of underwrites everything I do. Even Department of Truth still does very well for us. Knowing that I have a steady income from all of that and then knowing that I’m at a point in my life where I don’t have kids, that isn’t something I need to worry about. So, I can take my income and reinvest it back in the comics, allowing me to only enter a deal where I give up any rights if I get something that I wouldn’t be able to get outside of it.
That’s what’s been driving a lot of my thinking. When I am investing money into creating books, I need to make sure that I am setting up these books up to sell and that I’m setting the books up to hit my core audiences. Some of this was subsidized by the first year of the Substack Pro Grant as well. So, right now we’re going to see Blue Book come out the gate and it’s funded already. Blue Book is a ‘non-fiction’ story where you can throw air quotes around non-fiction, where it’s UFO stories and me tapping into the kind of building blocks of UFO lore with a creator I love, Mike Oeming. And this is just a passion project that I think will be of interest to people who are interested in UFOs, which there are a lot of.
We’re in a moment where there’s more and more confirmation from the government that is like, “Oh yeah. We know about the UFOs. We don’t know what they are, but we know about them.” It feels like a good moment to tap back into those sorts of stories that I grew up reading. But I was never under the impression that Blue Book would be a giant hit. It’s a non-fiction UFO comic. It has a niche audience. I know the audience of that book and I’m trying to do everything I can to sell that book directly to that audience. But there’s this tendency in comics and everywhere where everyone falls into this trap of trying to sell everything to everyone.
To a degree, you always need to do that. You need to make some sort of impact outside of who you’re targeting your sales to. But at a certain point when you’re just selling everything to everyone, you’ve stripped back even the strategies, where you’re not even thinking about “Who’s buying these books?” and “Are you making books that those people want to read?” I think that’s leaning into what feels like a glut of comics that not a lot of people are reading. Part of it is there isn’t a clear value being communicated to a reader. “Why should I pick this book up every month?” Comics are expensive. “What am I getting out of this experience that I can’t get elsewhere and if I can get it elsewhere, do I get it better elsewhere?”
I think that’s part of the reason manga is kicking our asses. There’s a wider breadth of content. The books are sexier, they’re more violent, they run for a long time. So, if you get really into a series, you can read it for the next few years. All those things add up to something that we need to face. And we can’t just face it as like, “We’ll never beat manga.” We used to beat Manga, there’s no reason we can’t do it again. It’s not like the American video game industry just sits back and accepts their place. A lot of the AAA video games come out of Japan, but it’s not like the American video game industry was just like, “Oh, well. We’ll just let Japan have it.” So why aren’t we doing more to compete for the readers?
I think part of it is this sort of IP farm model where for a long time there were a lot of publishers whose core business model wasn’t about selling comic books, it was about creating a library that they could sell on the secondary market and in the media space. But there isn’t a successful model of that. That has never worked in a big way. And in a moment like this where we might be hitting a recession, even though the numbers aren’t as scary as they were a few months ago, this is a moment that people are going to be a little more conservative about the money they’re willing to spend. And when they’re a little more conservative, they are going to go for the more sure thing.
I’ve heard from retailers about customers coming in and just wiping out their entire pull lists. That’s indicative of what you’re talking about, the economic uncertainty. But the one thing I really glommed onto in what you’re talking about was how everyone is competing with manga. The thing that’s interesting about that is for several people I’ve talked, to including yourself, is it’s not even necessarily about competing with manga. It’s, “What can you learn from manga?” I know that was a huge driver for your Batman run. You wondered, “How can I tap into that same energy?”
I talked to two people from the same comic shop not that long ago and I asked one, “What is moving the needle in single-issue comics?” They said, basically, that there’s nothing that’s really lighting the world on fire right now. Everything is fine, which connects to the idea that most single-issue titles lack a real hook for readers. And I asked the other person, a manga expert, for manga recommendations. And they just started listing things off with clear and obvious hooks that would be easy for anyone to connect with and understand. I instantly knew what these books were.
It’s interesting that two people from the same shop who are equally adept at this, when discussing two sides of the comic world, one had no hooks and the other one was just loaded with hooks. That’s one of the things that could be learned from manga. You want to make a good comic. That is the number one goal. But what is your hook behind it? I think that’s something that’s missing in the market right now.
James: That’s absolutely true. I think a lot of books show up and there’s not an easy shorthand of, “This is who this book is for.” Or even just how to sell the book. You need to tell the retailer how to sell the book because there’s no way the retailers are going to be able to read everything. But if a retailer knows that one of their frequent customers likes stuff like X, then if a new book pops up that has a similar vibe to that, they can say, “Oh hey, I heard this was like that. You might try out an issue.”
I think it can be impenetrable right now and that’s a big problem. A lot of comics are being put into the market without considering who the audience might be. And it’s something that I think about with my own stuff a lot where I do want the core concepts to be something that you can grasp and something that you can relate to the rest of my work. Blue Book is something that you could pitch to someone who’s reading Department of Truth pretty easily. And my next Image book Worldtr33 with Fernando Blanco, I think you can pitch that to anyone who is reading Nice House on the Lake bit’s a darker, more grounded horror.
But people also think, “I know what a James Tynion horror comic is.” That can become a sales point in and of itself. But there are projects that are gambles, and I know I need to pace out my gambles. I have plenty of horror ideas, those I can do faster because I know that I have an audience that’s ready to read them.
But I don’t just want to do one thing forever. I would lose all my love for it. I want to try working in different genres. I want to try to push myself, I want to challenge myself creatively. And it is something that when you are in a more conservative market, you have to take more conservative steps when you don’t know you have the audience. So it’s just like, “Okay, I’m going to start the wheels turning on some of those non-horror ideas. But they aren’t going to come out for a few years.”
You are in a rare position. I always say that with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, all you have to do to sell an Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips comic is say, “It’s Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.” You know what that means. That’s the same with “James Tynion horror.” Some people hear that, they trust in it, and they know what that means. But before we go more into your stuff in specific, I am curious. Do you see any interesting opportunities in the current environment for creators?
James: Oh absolutely. One thing is we haven’t had a big breakout hit in a moment. And times like this are always the moments that they happen. One of my predictions for this year is someone’s going to level up. A writer who has been doing good work will deliver a great work at the exact moment that they partner with an artist who goes from being pretty good to really fucking good. That’s going to happen and then it’s going to catch everyone’s attention.
Those are transformative moments. I think everyone always expects that to happen in the superhero space. I think everyone’s waiting for…even if it’s not waiting for the Ultimate (Marvel) universe, it’s waiting for The Authority, which then creates the roadmap for the Ultimate universe.
What is the book that is going to recalibrate things creatively for the next few years? And I think that we’re ripe for a moment like that. Frankly, I hope that young creators are hungry for that because that is…I can be a little crass and commercial, but I hope that the rising generation realizes that they should shoot for making a hit. And that you can make a hit that is artful and you don’t have to do it in a way that gives up what’s driving you to make the work creatively fulfilling. There’s a tremendous opportunity right here. There are all of these little potentials for breakthroughs that I’m just waiting to happen. Because that’s the other thing. We’ve now had a generation of book market young adult books, and the people who grew up reading them are now in their 20s.
So, what’s going to be the breakthrough adult comic that then gets all those people back to the stores? It always just takes one thing and it takes being smart about how to build on it and create momentum. But that’s always what I have an eye on. I don’t think the path forward is going to be repeating any of the steps that we’ve made in the past. I think that that’s always an instinct in the comics industry of just thinking, “How can we recreate the conditions that existed before?” But that’s never how it happens.
It’s always something forward looking that then recalibrates everything.
Look at the, let’s say, last four giant hits in single-issue comics. One is from you. Something Is Killing the Children. Two others are The Walking Dead and Saga. The other one oddly enough is House of X and Powers of X. Each had a clear hook, did something fresh, and got readers excited for something specific in the story. It wasn’t reinventing the wheel. And I think you’re right. In a market where nothing is standing out, if you can do something that feels fresh and does its own thing in an effective way, anybody could have a giant hit right now. The market is dying for it. It just hasn’t been presented with the opportunity.
James: Yeah. Retailers want a hit. Publishers want a hit. So, I do think that that should be the target. That said, it’s not like I decided that Something Is Killing the Children was going to be a hit.
You really should have.
James: I know.
It would’ve been easier.
James: I would have felt very smart if I just made that decision. But Something Is Killing the Children taught me so many things that then I’ve been able to carry forward into launching my other titles. One of the big things is that there was a whole generation of creator-owned titles that forgot to create the central iconic character of that series. And the central image of Erica Slaughter…it’s a cool image. Part of the reason we’ve had so much success in variant covers is there are a bunch of artists who want to draw Erica Slaughter. And that was true even in the first year of the book when it wasn’t the monster hit it became.
The second I saw Erica’s design, and saw how quickly it resonated with readers, that recalibrated how I thought about developing new series. I became a lot more focused on questions like, “Who is the character that a fan wants to get a commission of? Who is the character that the fan wants on a T-shirt? What is the central element of all of that?” You look over at manga and each book is so good at it. Every minor character in Chainsaw Man would look great on a t-shirt.
Everyone in Demon Slayer looks cool and you immediately know, “This is Demon Slayer.”
James: Yeah. I think we shy away from some of that stuff and that is the kind of id that I was trying to tap into even in Batman run, where there needs to be a visceral visual element. I was having a good conversation with Aditya Bidikar the other day about the future of the industry, and I came to a point that’s been in the back of my head for a while. I think that for a generational leap forward to happen you need a little pent-up energy, so I suspect – whether in superhero comics or creator owned – one of the next leaps forward is going to have to be artist-driven. Because on the writer’s side, there doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of pent-up energy that needs to be released.
There really isn’t anything we can’t make a comic of right now. There isn’t anything that we’re not allowed to do, even in superhero comics. There isn’t a lot that you’re being restrained from getting done on the page. But on the artist side, it still feels like it’s a little restrained. And so, whoever figures out how to rip off the restraints and just do something that’s pure and visually visceral has the potential to really break through. It’s going to require writers to be willing to take a little bit of a back seat, but that’ll be good for us in the long term too.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot while we’ve been talking is when Image launched. All the Image guys were smart about it in a similar way to what we’ve been talking about. What they did was create comics that were familiar to their fans while feeling completely new. WildC.A.T.s was the X-Men, but its own flavor of it. Spawn was like Spider-Man, except it was super dark and its own thing. Those books spoke to that moment in time. And I think that there’s a way to tap into the familiar but also feel new and art driven. That’s a real opportunity. If I knew how to manifest that, I would do it. But I don’t. It’s for somebody else to figure out, James.
James: I hope they do, but I think the biggest thing is I hope they’re trying to.
But it’s hard for creators to see the roadmap for themselves right now. This is one of the most pernicious things in the current comics market for a creator…so many of the IP farms but also the Big Two. The Big Two have been cost cutting for years. They have extremely overworked editorial staffs and the success of books is blocked from the view of the creators. Unless you have a monster hit, you don’t really know how successful your books are. And when you don’t have that information, especially in this moment when the numbers are harder to come by than ever because of the distributor split, you just don’t know how well your books are doing. And when you don’t know that, it’s hard to make decisions about what you should do next.
My rule of thumb has always been that at least in the American direct market, when you’re talking about single issues, you can normally sell about 50% of the number of copies of a creator-owned comic that you can sell of a Big Two comic. That math has always been roughly in my head, which is why I think my highest selling single issues of Batman got close to 250,000 and the Nice House on the Lake, which is my last solo written, creator-owned, ongoing launch, launched at 125,000. And so that rule of thumb still makes sense to me. But it’s a very common story that if you’re at a mid-list publisher or the Big Two, you might never find out what you’re selling, which makes it much harder to figure out how to sell more.
And beyond that, you aren’t making enough money based on that to… You can’t just do a couple of books and put your all into it. You need to write lots of books simultaneously to pay rent in a major American city and that means it waters down the material and it’s entirely to pay for the budgets of the entire staffs of these mid-tier publishers rather than cutting out the middleman and letting more of the cash flow directly to the creators.
I think all these things stack on each other to make it much tougher for creators to chart their own path through their career.
Sales charts being gone feels like it has a real cost. One thing that could be said is if you have a surprise hit, let’s say Wes Craig’s Kaya was unexpectedly the number one comic the month it debuted. It was ordered a giant amount. It could have been. We have no idea. But if it was, you could say this was the number one book, then suddenly interest goes to it because people know that. Much of it might be collector interest, but at the same time, it still points to something that’s a hit. There’s a reason why movies and TV shows and everything else still says, “This is the number one most streamed thing. This is the number one thing in the box office.” Success tends to beget success. Do you think we’re really missing sales charts right now?
James: Absolutely. I think it’s deeply and fundamentally important, and I think the industry is in a worse place for not being able to understand what is really selling and what isn’t. I saw that up close and personal in the fact that I know a lot of my numbers on my Batman run. I talk a bit more freely about it than I think DC would prefer. But those numbers aren’t public. And I think that this is the thing that you see every now and then in little Twitter backs and forth. The comics internet can decide that a book’s not doing well that’s actually doing really well, and then it seems petty when you correct them and say, “No, it is doing so well.”
But the absence of data allows a lot of misconceptions to double down. And when those misconceptions double down, it allows people to say, “No, the industry would be much stronger if we did this other stuff,” when there’s evidence that there’s plenty of that other stuff in the market is also not selling.
There is something inarguable about the numbers. It would be helpful for all of us if we could look at the real numbers. That’s the nice thing about being where I am right now. Even when I don’t get issue by issue numbers, my royalty statements tell me basically how well the books are doing, and then I adjust what I am doing based on that. You need to be able to capitalize on success. That’s the biggest thing for me. I’ve talked a lot about this, but I think so much of my success between 2019 and 2021 was I had momentum and my books built on each other, with four title launches each being higher and higher up the chart.
Messaging that allowed people to see that happen because it was happening at all these different publishers. I knew I had to message it because Image wasn’t going to shout about how well BOOM! was doing, and neither of them were going to shout out about how well Batman was doing. So, I knew that that was my job, and messaging that was deeply important because you need to create that air of success.
One thing I’ve talked to a lot of retailers about is that attrition has been accelerating. Sales have been dropping off faster after the first issue. Part of me wonders if the absence of sales charts plays a part in that to some degree. I think of Immortal Hulk, a title that started out decently, dropped off, and then the collector market picked it up and then it became a top ten seller. And that triggered FOMO amongst readers where they were like, “Am I missing something by not reading this book?” Everyone knew it was good, but then it became a hit that everyone knew was good. I do wonder if that lack of information can make a book that could be a big hit struggle a little bit more than it should because it doesn’t have that push of FOMO.
James: I think that’s absolutely the case. The caveat with all of those is none of this means that every book is going to be a hit if it had the right messaging. It also shouldn’t mean that publishers can try to maneuver to make every book look like a hit, since the numbers are a bit opaque and you can claim a big sales victory when there wasn’t really one and nobody can call you out on it. But it does mean that, when there is a genuine success, you need to be able to say that it’s a genuine success because that’s what’s going to give the book more energy.
If you can’t say that or if the publisher’s not saying that, then how’s anyone going to find out? Because every shop is different. One of the things that I think is most interesting about that is I have an eclectic range of comics that come out and going around to different shops and conventions around the country, I find there’s always a different book in pole position.
Like a certain region is Something Is Killing the Children country?
James: 100%. That kind of makes sense. Like Department of Truth is really big in a lot of more rural areas. Something Is Killing the Children, I get a lot of interest in the Midwest and the Northeast. And then especially in cities, there’s a lot more Nice House. And then I go into a shop that leans into a more all ages audience and that’s where Wynd is on display.
Blue Book is just going to crush Nevada. (laughs)
James: Something Is Killing the Children does pretty well everywhere but being able to see that and lean into it…that’s incredibly valuable information.
And then beyond that, I’ve spent the last six months doing a bunch of international conventions and getting facetime with my foreign publishers for the first time in a while. And it’s really valuable information to see which of my books are doing well in Europe because the European market is not a superhero dominated one. It is like ours, it’s a manga dominated market, but the diehard manga readers will pick up a few American creator-owned comics and they will pick up a few European comics to supplement their manga reading. So, it’s valuable to see what is crossing over in that way and what readers are connecting to in all these places. That’s the fundamental thing. You have to find the audiences and then you have to make books that those audiences want to read.
One thing you’ve been talking about is reverse engineering. Sometimes publishers or creators or whomever tries to reverse engineer hits. Part of the problem with that is when you try to reverse engineer something that was a hit that was kind of a surprise, bringing the same flavor isn’t going to necessarily achieve that result again. You can see that where a lot of books that come out don’t really have that identity that they need to define themselves.
That said, I could see somebody reading this and thinking, “Well, James is really just focused on making hits.” But something that defines your work is that while you think about positioning and about where everything is going to exist related to each other, you are also trying to make good comics. How important is balancing those two sides? Because if you made Nice House on the Lake and it had this smart sales approach to it, but it was hot garbage creatively, number two wouldn’t have sold.
James: It absolutely would not have. It’s the weird part of all of this. My creative drive to make the books the best they can be has to exist separately from my drive to make the books sell as much as they can. Because, at the end of the day, I’m making all these books for myself. Every book that I make is because it’s something that I’m interested in making. It is not something that I’ve tried to triangulate to hit a nerve. It’s just I have lots of ideas and I might choose for them to come out in a certain order and try to, like you said, position them to sell the best they can. But all these books are genuinely me and are, if anything, becoming more and more personal as I move further into my career as a creator-owned writer.
And I’m doing all of them out of the sheer love of the craft and trying to challenge myself and push it forward. But I think a good illustration of this is…I think one of the underappreciated reasons Something Is Killing the Children was a big success right out the gate is the fact that Robert Kirkman ended the Walking Dead and didn’t tell anyone that he was going to do it. And so all of a sudden the last issue of The Walking Dead came out in stores and it was still a monthly top seller in the industry. And then a bunch of retailers had people who were reading monthly horror comics who didn’t have a book to fill that slot in their pull list. And we were the only horror comic that was in the next round of solicits.
At that moment, horror comics weren’t the big hit they are right now. That positioned us well to launch at around 30,000, which was great at that moment, especially before the collector boom, and then we were able to extend the series. I’m very proud of that first issue. I put a lot of work into my first issues. This is the most important selling point of the entire project is that first issue. And you can get a lot of people to check out a first issue, but the only way they will check out a second issue is if that first issue is good. And so, I will go through many rounds of edits on those. I am constantly throwing out the entire story bible to make those first issues better, leaning into what I think is going to connect in the biggest way and what excites me most creatively and what I think pushes my writing the furthest that I’ve gone before. And doing that deliberately is so important.
But those two things happen separately, the business and creative sides of things. I didn’t decide to make a really good first issue just in case we got an unexpected spotlight, I did it because I knew it was the most important issue and I wanted it to be the best it could be. Because it was, we were able to take advantage of an unexpected spotlight. And that also wasn’t something we planned for. Nobody knew that was happening.
You didn’t plan for a Robert Kirkman to stop The Walking Dead right before you started making your book? You should have. That would’ve been impressive.
James: Yeah, me as the writer of Justice League Dark convinces Robert Kirkman, the most successful creator-owned comic creator ever, to stop The Walking Dead.
So, let’s say you’re plotting out the release of Christopher Chaos or Blue Book or Worldtr33 later this year. When you’re trying to position these books in this market that we agree is in a place of uncertainty, do you primarily consider the direct market when you’re planning them out because that’s where it’s going to first hit? Or do you factor in other markets, like the book market and digital?
James: The initial hit is very important. Blue Book and Christopher Chaos are interesting in that regard because essentially the first season of each was already paid for by the Substack grant. So, I do still want to make the money back that I invested in creating those. But I’m not sitting here dangerously in the red because I put so much money in these books, so they need to make that money back as soon as possible or I can’t pay rent. So, it means I can experiment. I’m experimenting by working with a new publisher in Dark Horse on this because I think that both books feel aligned with the brand of Dark Horse and I really like the people there. And now Mike Oeming’s whole library is over at our Dark Horse, especially Powers.
It feels like a good home, and Blue Book is something I want to see advertised in the back of Hellboy comics because I think there’s a crossover audience there. Dark Horse has always been good at leaning into people fascinated with the weird, and the books I’m doing there are all about my fascination with the weird. I’m going to see how hard they connect. But this is me going out on a limb. Using my other publishers, I knew the audiences I could hit, and this is me trying to see if I can hit a few other audiences, too.
The biggest thing in building out the year is I didn’t want to stack my launches on top of each other. They’re spread out two months apart, and there’s a deeper math if you look at them against my release schedule for all my other titles that are ongoing. Some of my books are on pause in this moment. Not that we’re done working on them. I don’t think we’ve formally announced that there’s more Nice House coming. We’re figuring out what the next thing is.
But that’s not going to happen by this summer, so I knew that this is the perfect moment to launch W0rldtr33 because that’s a similar title. Nice House’s audience can come read W0rldtr33 while that book is on the back burner, and I think that Christopher Chaos will speak to a bit of my Wynd audience and a bit of my superhero audience. All these things are complementary, where it’s the perfect moment to drop Blue Book because then that’s something a retailer can say, “Hey, while you’re waiting for the next issue of Department of Truth, go pick up Blue Book.”
But that’s what I knew I could do on my own at whatever publisher I landed at. I wanted to see if I could pick up some Hellboy fans from the Dark Horse readership with all my weird UFO and monster comics. That’s the gamble, and I’m really interested to see how it pans out for us.
That’s another situation where if retailers see that Blue Book is a hit with customers, then they’re going to up their orders on the next one and then the next one and then they all just build together. It’s very smart. But again, this market is in a weird position. How much does the current state of the market affect your planning? Are you trying things a little differently with these books than you did say Nice House or Department of Truth because the environment is different?
James: It depends on each title. Christopher Chaos and Blue Book were subsidized by the Substack grant. I haven’t worked with Dark Horse before and everything’s been wonderful so far, but this is me figuring out how all that works. Launching Worldtr33, an Image book where it’s me on the line, there is a lot more urgency on the business side because I’m investing my own money into the book without any grants from tech companies subsidizing those costs. I put together all the upfront costs and I designed the full cover plan and all that. I knew this wasn’t a moment to go overkill with the covers. We’ll have plenty of covers for the first issue, but I have a strategy of how I’m doing it. I know that I can’t just assume everything’s going to be a monster hit right now, I need to be smart about it. Especially with Worldtr33. Worldtr33 is me trying to do a long form horror project. This is kind of me writing my Stephen King novel as a monthly comic series.
It’s something that I want to run for several years. This is not a self-contained miniseries. This is something that I conservatively see as a 25-issue series, which means that unless I’m willing to throw a lot of money into a hole, it needs to launch strong and then I need to make sure that I maintain and hold that audience. Staggering all my launches in this way gives the book that I needed to hit the hardest the strongest launch point. April’s a good time to launch a comic because if you think about it, people spend a lot on Christmas presents in the winter. It takes a few months for them to open their wallets back up again. But if you launch in late spring, early summer, you get the full first arc during the year and you get the first trade in the first year, right before Christmas.
So, the book that I am the most personally on the line for is the one that I positioned in the spot that I knew would give it the most success. It’s a book where the longevity of it matters. I have another project that has a kind of seasonal aspect, so it’ll launch later in the year. It’s a miniseries. That’ll be a winter book, and a winter book isn’t necessarily the prime launch time for a series, but it’s the one that makes the most sense for it. It’s the time that it makes the most sense for that imagery to be on a shelf in a comic store. Originally, we were going to try to rush it to get it out this past year, but we decided to take our time. By the time it launches, the whole thing will be in the bag ideally. People will find out about it in September or so, or maybe earlier than that.
But I’m constantly thinking about all that stuff. I want each of these books to come out when they make sense to come out. I want retailers to be able to invest in them and succeed with them. And I also don’t want retailers to think that I’m just trying to get as much money out of them as possible. This is the downside of being a high output creator. I write a lot of books. I can’t just have all the books come out every single month. I need to stagger them, and I need to do that just creatively and to stay on top of my deadlines. But I also need to consider the pace at which I’m releasing them. And now that I’m in a place where I can control that a lot more, it’s been a valuable learning experience. I’m still figuring it out. It’s not something that I think I have a perfect math for, but it’s something that I have theories about. I’m testing each of those theories.
You think about this a lot. I know you talked to other creators about this a lot. Is this something that you advise other creators to do? Paying attention to the market and thinking about this in a more intentional sort of way? Or is it just about finding out what works for you as an individual and following that? Do you think this is important or do you think it just depends on the person?
James: The cheap answer is, it’s both. There are a lot of people who are just making the books that they most want to make that are not trying to lean into the most commercial aspects of the business. I love people who just go down a weird corridor and tell a beautifully strange story that then finds the audience it’s going to find. But it is something that if you feel that you have a voice that can connect with a mass market audience and you are looking to connect with that mass market audience, you need to pay attention to these things. If you’re coming up through the ranks of the Big Two, you need to start developing the relationship with your editors where they’ll tell you what the numbers are.
Because that’s how you figure out, “Okay, retailers really got behind this series. So that means that when I go out and sell my creator-owned book, that’s the book that I need to bring up with these retailers.” It’s not necessarily whatever the most recent thing is because the most recent thing might not have been the thing that sold the most. When I was selling Something Is Killing the Children, I talked a lot more about Detective Comics even though Justice League Dark was the thing on the shelf. That’s because Detective Comics sold like Detective Comics and Justice League Dark sold decently enough, but it was a lower mid-list book. You have to know where you are, and I do think that that 50% rule of thumb matters.
If you want to get to a point where you can launch a creator-owned title at a really good number, and for a creator-owned title a really good number is somewhere between 20 and 45,000 copies when you strip out the collector market. That’s a solid launch. More than solid. That means you’ll cover the cost of the book. Then that means that you need to start angling towards what are the books in the Big Two that are going to start being upper mid-list and top tier sellers at the Big Two. And once you prove to retailers that you can sell one of those books and even better if you can sell one of those books based on what’s clearly your ideas and what you brought to the table, then you can come back around and be like, “Okay, you bought in while I did this, now I’m asking you to buy in as I do something on my own.” I do think you need to consider that.
Even early in your career?
James: Yeah. You shouldn’t let it consume you early in your career. Once again, this is the most privileged position in the world, but everyone knows that I came up as a protégé of Scott Snyder. I was his writing assistant. And then, I started co-writing with him on the backups of Batman, which meant that I knew what real royalties looked like early on in my career. And once I started doing some of the mid-list DC titles in the middle of my career compared to me doing the Batman book, I realized, “Oh I can’t sustain my life just doing mid-list superhero comics.” You need the secondary income from royalties to live in a city like New York. So, you need to be on books that sell.
I was able to lean into what mattered most to me. Thankfully my favorite characters in the DC universe happened to be the Gotham characters. And I did it all in a way that I think is very effective to me. But there were plenty of books that I was offered that I was just like, “I don’t know that I have a genre breaking, game-changing take on this character.” And then I also know that my page rate would be the only income I would ever make on a smaller character. So that was part of my math.
You have your Substack. You’re working with Third Eye comics for fulfillment of certain products through the Onion Club. You did a Kickstarter recently. Through the prism of where the various markets are right now, it seems to me, as an outsider, the last couple years you’ve been in an experimentation phase where you’re looking outside of traditional structures. It feels like you’re trying to figure out, “What is the right answer in this environment, because it seems like the typical answers aren’t necessarily the right ones?” Is that the case?
James: Yeah. And a lot of it is, I want to understand how all these systems work. That is the fundamental thing. I’ve been testing each of the systems that support my career for the last few years. For instance, I changed my convention rep a few years ago, because I felt like I couldn’t properly gauge how successful any individual convention was for me, and that made it harder to figure out which conventions I should go to. Now I’m with someone who gives me the information and control I need to make good decisions and make a decent income from those shows.
And this goes all the way back to during the pandemic. Part of the reason I wanted to do Razorblades: The Horror Magazine was because I wanted to understand the full process of printing and shipping a comic. And I did it in a lunatic way. It was fly by the seat of our pants. I learned so fucking much from it. Each step was me trying to figure out how these systems work. It’s also about building and furthering relationships. I think Third Eye Comics is the smartest comics retail business in the US. I love Steve Anderson (the owner of Third Eye) and obviously I’m in business with him now, so I’m biased.
But I think that working closely with people who are doing smart things means that you get to talk to those people often about all those smart things. So every time I get interested in how someone is doing something, I want to break down and figure out how and why that works. So, Kickstarter was me trying to figure out how Kickstarter works. It was also a little bit of a gamble toward the film and TV market and trying to bypass the system, basically trying to build a movie the way I would build a creator-owned comic. This is all about, “How do I figure out each system to understand how best to operate within it so that I can make smart decisions moving forward?” Each of these little test balloons is me trying to figure out what my next steps are and basically, “How can I keep doing this?”
Right now, I’m in this amazing position where the only reason I would go do a superhero book right now is if I wanted to. I don’t have to do that. And I don’t plan to in the near future. I don’t want to get to a position where I have to start making the decisions based on, “Oh, I need to go back and dive into corporate comics just to continue living in my apartment.” I am hoping that I don’t have to do that. So right now, I’m testing all of these different systems to figure out where can I find longevity and stability? What publisher? 15, 20 years from now, where do I want my library of creator-owned titles? Who are the people doing the smartest things in the business, and how can I learn the most from them?
Because everyone hops around all these different companies. I just want to absorb all that knowledge so I can make the smartest decisions, and then I want to challenge myself. That is the fun thing on the business front. I think of Tiny Onion Studios kind of as a film/TV production company, but for comics. I am essentially an independent system in of itself that then I build the books that I want to make, and then I go take them out to the publishers I work with. And it’s testing out which system is going to work best. That’s what I’m building and it’s just like, “How can I build it best?”
I love that you’re also working with Elsa Charretier, who I think is one of the smartest people in comics in that regard. But the last question I have for you is, this started with a discussion about where things are in terms of larger comic industry, but in particular the direct market. As a person who is a part of that, what would you like to see more shops do and more publishers do in 2023? What do you think those would be, beyond ordering more James Tynion comics?
James: That is right at the top of the list. (laughs)
What do you think would be good things to do to start pushing things in a healthier direction?
James: I think we all need to accept that we’re living through a chaotic moment. I think that retailers do need to use the bully pulpit a little bit and push back against the publishers about the glut of material, which is going to make things tough for a moment. If I had to guess about what’s coming in the next six months, we are going to see retailers making a lot more practical decisions about what they stock in their stores. And it’s going to be based on what people are reading in their stores, not based on the potential of what people might be reading in their stores. But the biggest thing that we all need to do, if we have any hope of standing up against the dominance of manga in our sphere is, we need to actually stand up and try to push back…That sounds so antagonistic…I think these things can work in unison.
They can work collaboratively.
James: Right. Collaboratively. I think that we can learn from and build on that, but that means that we have to learn from and build on that. I think there are retailers out there who resent the rise of manga because they don’t understand the appeal of it. Those aren’t the sorts of books that are the reason that they created a comic shop. But those are the books people are reading right now, so we have to understand them, and we have to look for and support the books that capture their spirit and try to create the bridge between their audience and the audience for the sorts of comics we got in this business to make and sell. And if that door opens, that is such a huge door. If we could tap into just the smallest fraction of the manga audience, it would be the best time for direct market comics ever. That feels very possible to me.
I think that this is the big thing. I think the big players on the publisher side, but also everyone, needs to consider, “Who are the people that you can sell these comics to, and how do we sell the most comics to them?” That should be the core question at every business meeting at every publisher and every strategy session inside a comic shop. We need to not get distracted by speculation, by film and television, by any of it and remember that’s the core question of a bunch of companies that are supposed to be built on making and selling books to people who read them. I do think we get distracted from that.
Thanks for reading this conversation with writer James Tynion IV. If you enjoyed this chat, consider subscribing to SKTCHD or the Tiny Onion newsletter for new conversations like this each month throughout the year.