The Creator-Owned Comics panel at Boston Comic-Con drew together five creators with a range of experiences to discuss the fine points of making and marketing their own comics. The panelists were Ben Templesmith (Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse), Becky Cloonan (Wolves), Joe Benitez (Lady Mechanika), Geof Darrow (Shaolin Cowboy), and Jeremy Bastian (Cursed Pirate Girl). The moderator was Brian LeTendre of the Secret Identity podcast.
The panel began with a discussion of how the comics landscape has changed over the years. "It's changed completely," said Ben Templesmith. "Every small publisher in the comics media, they have all now pretty much been swallowed up by bigger fish. Everyone in the main media is getting involved in comics and buying up small publishers."
Cloonan, on the other hand, doesn't see much difference in the way she sells her self-published comics. " When I first started doing mini-comics, it was almost exactly the way I do them now," she said. "I go to conventions and I bring my suitcase filled with comics; I just sell more. It's funny how much social media and the industry has changed, but I still handle it and approach it much the same way I did in college."
"I think people who do their own creator-owned comics feel more passionate about the product," said Benitez. "I have done work with DC, they have a good page rate and all that, but creatively I get more out of doing my own book than by working for a company. I do whatever I want. It's not like that when you are working for Marvel or DC, or any publisher who hires you—you have to stick to some parameters—but when I am doing my own book, I do whatever the fuck I want, and I am more connected to the project."
Cloonan remembered being at MoCCA a few years ago and getting some blowback for a fan for working for the Big Two. "Some kid came by and looked at my book and said 'Vertigo! You're selling out!'" she said. "I'm not making enough to sell out!"
"The big companies are not interested in making us great, making us rich," said Templesmith. "They are interested in selling their properties."
Darrow, who began his career in Europe, said doing creator-owned comics was never a stretch for him. "In Europe, you own it. If you decide you want to take Asterix and self-publish it or go to Glenower, that's what you do," he said. "I started out there, and then I went to Dark Horse. I still own everything I've done, so it's not something I fought for."
As for digital, Templesmith said he has his own app, through IDW, for his IDW work. Although he would like to have his own app and cut out the middleman, he said, "You do need the nexus" of a third-party app. Cloonan put her minicomic up with Graphicly, which takes a flat fee but recently moved away from digital comics retail.
All the panelists agreed that creator-owned comics were pulling in a new audience. Cloonan spoke of how she marketed Wolves to heavy metal fans via the tumblrs and blogs she follows. Templesmith wondered why there wasn't an industry association for comics, a sequential-art counterpart to the American Beverage Association that could promote comics, perhaps through generic ads.
"I keep hearing there's a new renaissance in comics," Bastian said. "The creator-owned guys are coming up with really amazing stories that have not been told." The success of numerous creator-owned Kickstarter projects is helping validate those comics, he said.
Benitez saw a disconnect at the retail level, with many comics shops unwilling to take a risk on a new product. "What I found out is a good portion of the shops don't buy anything that is not DC or Marvel," he said. "I understand why they don't order my book or small press books—they know Avengers vs. X-Men is going to sell a crapload, so they order a ton of it."
The solution, he said, is for fans to order the books: "Some retailers don't even know the books exist," he said. "If it's not in the front of Diamond, they won't bother. Get the word out to fans to reserve a copy, get it on their radar, and maybe they will order one or two and it will start the ball rolling."
The panelists also discussed how they deal with criticism of their work. "When I did Hard Boiled, this guy sent me a letter," said Darrow. "He said, 'You look like you drew this comic with your penis.' I wanted to send him his money back." ("That would explain the fine lines," he added in an aside.)
"You can have ten good reviews, and you have that one dickhead and your day is shit," said Benitez. "It's gotten better over the years, but when I was younger, I couldn't differentiate between my art and myself, and anyone who was attacking my art was attacking me. It's so personal that you feel very connected to it."
The creators had varying answers to the question "What advice would you give to your former self?"
"Learn what reversion rights are," said Templesmith.
"I have a few stories like that with contracts you wish you didn’t sign," Cloonan said. "My students say 'How do you know?' I say you learn the hard way sometimes. Suck it up and go on."
"Eat better and exercise" was Benitez's response.
Bastian talked about his initial ambition and how it changed. "I was interested to go with the big two companies," he said. "That's why I started Cursed Pirate Girl. " got into the story and was like, who needs those bigger guys?"
"Don't stop trying" said Darrow. "Just keep working. No matter what anyone says to you, just keep going."