A Look at the Intersection of Comics and Substack, As the First Year Closes

While it may feel like it just launched yesterday, August 9th brings the one-year anniversary of the marriage of Substack and comics. That initial announcement revealed that the email newsletter giant wasn’t just dabbling in the space; they were taking a massive swing. Debuting with an A-list wave of creators that included James Tynion IV, Scott Snyder, Molly Knox Ostertag, Saladin Ahmed and Dave Acosta, and the 3 Worlds/3 Moons crew of Jonathan Hickman, Mike Del Mundo, and Mike Huddleston, Substack’s arrival felt like a significant moment in comics — even if what it meant precisely was unclear at the time.

For the creators involved, it meant they had signed up for a Substack Pro Grant. This agreement, in the simplest terms, gave them a sum of money in exchange for posting regularly on their own Substacks — or email newsletter presences on the platform — and 85% of subscriber revenue 17 during that year. As part of the deal, each retained the rights to whatever they created on it, and if they chose to leave after that initial year, they’d even walk away with their email lists. It was an unheard-of deal, and an understandably much discussed one, complete with questions and consternation surrounding it.

Many were dubious of Substack to begin with, given the platform’s funding of writers with anti-trans points-of-view. Others simply wondered how reading comics via email newsletter would work, given that it didn’t seem like the ideal method to engage with the medium. But those questions were overwhelmed by the glitzy media rollout, the curiosity about something new, and the immense gravity of the creators involved.

The latter only grew, as others like Jen Bartel, Chip Zdarsky, ND Stevenson, Brian K. Vaughan, and Grant Morrison joined later. The roster swelled throughout the year, creating a veritable who’s who of comic creators on the platform. The lure of significant monetary grants, complete editorial freedom, and full ownership of your IP proved to be quite the draw for those used to an industry in which each of those elements are rare. It was a seismic turn, one that was analyzed and debated by insiders and fans alike.

And yet, despite that buzz, it’s all sort of normalized since. While the heat was on initially — with it briefly reignited whenever a new wave of creators was revealed — it’s quickly become just another part of the comic machine, something you’re into or not. The conversation around it has even seemed muted compared to other models, as its text-driven, subscription-based, walled garden-like model reoriented almost all interest onto the platform itself and away from usual discussion centers like Twitter. That’s not good or bad; it’s just different.

It’s made for a fascinating first year, and with that opening salvo coming to an end in early August for the initial wave of creators, I wanted to check in with some of the Substack creators to get a feel for how that year has been. It’s worth noting, though, that this isn’t an examination of whether the marriage of Substack and comics has been a success, although we’ll explore that to a certain degree, or even what it’s been like as a subscriber. This is the story of what the year has been like for the creators involved, and the trials and tribulations that came with the freedom this deal offered.

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  1. Which went to Substack itself.

  2. Which went to Substack itself.

  3. In a similar way to what Scott Snyder and Tony Daniel did with their Image series Nocterra.

  4. Worth noting: The shops I talked to shared there’s been no perceived impact on the comics that debuted on Substack before hitting print. It doesn’t seem to be limiting interest.

  5. Also, it seems some still don’t understand that these comics aren’t just going to be on Substack exclusively. Most comics produced here will likely see life in print later.

  6. Who doesn’t just letter the upcoming Vanish at Image, he’s designing it while handling all the Image contracts as well.

  7. From what I understand, there’s an ongoing Slack channel for the Substack comic creators.

  8. Like “creating their own Black Cloak character, for example,” as Thompson told me in reference to her creator-owned series on Substack with artist Meredith McClaren.

  9. The most expensive tier.

  10. Stegman shared that a fair number of KLC Press’ subscribers are “aspiring artists.”

  11. His number moved up and down 20 subscribers throughout the year after that, effectively.

  12. Most who did the math quickly said, “No, this is not worthwhile,” at least from what I saw.

  13. Also, 3W3M’s results are not necessarily representative of everyone. Stegman said KLC Press saw almost the same exact ratio of paid vs. free — albeit at a lower number, as Stegman believes the first wave benefited greatly from Substack’s initial public-facing push — while Charretier has seen closer to a 10% conversion rate.

  14. Including more of the Eisner-nominated It’s Jeff!

  15. As has been the case with comparable products like streaming services.

  16. From what I understand, no one is getting a second year of the grant.

  17. Which went to Substack itself.