CCI: Monkeybrain's Roberson is a "Poor Publisher"

Chris Roberson and Allison Baker, married co-publishers of the all-digital Monkeybrain Comics, headed up an enormous panel of creators at Comic-Con International in San Diego on Friday night, but teasing upcoming releases was only half the objective. The other half was convincing moderator Bill Willingham that they aren't entirely crazy.

The other panelists were Joshua Williamson ("XenoHolics," "Voodoo"), Chris Schweitzer ("Crogan Adventures"), Joe Keatinge ("Hell Yeah"), Ken Garing ("Planetoid"), Paul Tobin ("Gingerbread Girl," "Marvel Adventures"), Colleen Coover ("Gingerbread Girl," "X-Men: First Class"), D.J. Kirkbride ("Popgun"), and Brandon Seifert ("Witch Doctor").

Before allowing the panel to discuss their individual projects for Monkeybrain, Willingham first wanted some information about why Roberson and Baker started the enterprise.

"The simple answer," Roberson said, "is that I like reading comics and I like making comics and I wanted to find a way to do both those things. Digital was a great way of doing that without losing my shirt or my house or having to sell my child."

Baker added some brief history for those unaware about the initial Monkeybrain announcement and how it sent the company trending on Twitter right below Anderson Cooper and above Jean Grey on July 2. Roberson went on to talk about how they were able to launch five, new series on comiXology at the exact same time that Monkeybrain's existence was announced and that the comics are available for between .99 cents and $1.99. The model is simple: readers buy what they like and the creators will make more of those comics.

Coover jumped in to talk about her and Tobin's "Bandette" and how the page being shown to the audience on the slide show had just been finished last week. "This is one of the cool things about working in the digital format rather than print," she said. "Anyone who's ever produced a comic of their own knows that it can take months to get the thing onto paper and distributed and sold. In this case, 'Bandette' #1 was finished on a Tuesday and went for sale the next Monday, so less than a week. Then two days later I was listening to a podcast out of the UK and they bought the comic on comiXology as they were podcasting. It's like teleportation!"

Coover went on to explain that "Bandette" is a faux French crime caper with girl detective elements and that it'll go on for as long as she and Tobin want to do it.

"Is this part of the Monkeybrain mission plan?" Willingham asked. "That we'll do as many as we want?"

"Yep!" chirped Roberson. "When we approach creators, we don't really ask them to pitch ideas. We say, 'We like your work, do what you want and we'll publish it.'"

"Do what you want; we'll publish it," Willingham said. "Yeah, you're going to be thrown out of publishing. That's not how we do things. We put in proposals ("Nope!" said Roberson), we wait eight months ("Nope!"), and we don't get to meet the people who are ultimately making the decisions on whether or not the book is a go."

Roberson said that so many creators are like abused spouses. "I keep getting these proposals and people keep sending me scripts and I'm like, 'I don't care! I hired you because I like your work. Go do whatever you want. Send me a comic when it's done and I'll sell it.'"

As an example of that, Roberson talked about Matthew Dow Smith, creator of one of Monkeybrain's launch titles, "October Girl." Smith has worked for IDW on "Doctor Who," with James Robinson on two issues of "Starman," and drew the first appearance of Lobster Johnson for Mike Mignola. Roberson said Smith has also always wanted to write comics, but never got the chance until now. Smith came up with what he described as a contemporary fantasy about a girl who had an imaginative childhood and is now at the end of high school when odd things start happening.

Willingham was skeptical. "He's an artist and you just said, 'Write what you want.' No, no, no. What you said was, 'Submit a proposal ("Nope!"), we'll kick it upstairs ("Nope!"), we'll put it through the meat-grind, and then we'll get a sample script.' Is that right?"

"I said, 'Give me finished pages and I will sell them.'"

Next, Roberson talked about his own Monkeybrain book, "Edison Rex" about "a criminal genius who's spent his entire adult life trying to defeat the world's greatest hero on the grounds that he thinks the world's greatest hero is bad for humanity." In the first installment, he succeeds and now has to decide what to do with the rest of his life.

Roberson then talked about "Aesop's Ark" by J. Torres and Jennifer L. Meyer about animals on Noah's ark who tell fables to each other. D.J. Kirkbride finished the discussion of the initial five titles by discussing "Amelia Cole and the Unknown World," the series he co-writes with Adam P. Knave and is drawn by Nick Brokenshire. The short pitch, he explained, was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Harry Potter."

While Roberson wants the Monkeybrain model to be about announcing new series as they're actually available, this being Comic-Con, he had some sneak peeks for upcoming series.

Kevin Church and Grace Allison's "Wander: Oliver Hopkins and the Ninth Kingdom" will be available next week and is about a woman from our world who ends up in a magical, fantasy world. "There's a high concept beyond that," Roberson said, "but I don't want to tell you because it's going to spoil a big reveal."

"Now you said it comes out when?" Willingham asked.

"Next week."

"So do you have a release schedule in mind or do you just do them when they're ready or what?"

"When they're ready." Roberson clarified, "I don't want to say that they're artisanal, but they're not made to a set schedule. But I think that the more that people buy them, the faster they'll come out."

"We shouldn't have done this as an interview of what's coming out panel," Willingham said. "We should have done this as an indictment and trial of all the stuff you're not doing right in publishing."

"I'm a very poor publisher, yes," Roberson admitted.

Continuing the tour of new series, Joshua Williamson talked about his and Mike Henderson's "Masks and Mobsters" (coming out on 7/24) and how it's a chance for him to finally write the crime comic he's always wanted to do. The series is about the mobsters and gangsters of the '30s and '40s and what they do when the Golden Age of super heroes shows up and the masked heroes and villains disrupt the mob's business.

Next, Joe Keatinge and Ken Garing discussed "Intergalactic," which Keatinge described with the tag line, "Astronauts are awesome!" It's about what might have happened had humanity not given up on space exploration and deals with a family dynasty of astronauts. While there are no aliens, he promises that Earth's pushing into the galaxy creates a kind of Wild West situation where law is a fragile thing. Garing said that his interest in the series was a reaction to the lack of hard science fiction in comics. Coover, hearing the pitch for the first time, nodded enthusiastically and expressed her excitement for a comic she didn't even know she wanted.

Chris Schweizer then talked about "Konqueror," the comic he's writing for Audrey Morris to draw. Inspired by '80s toy-cartoons, the series is sort of "Spartacus" on Eternia with a lot more politics (and also Princess Thunderpunch). He and Morris are going to complete the whole story and release it (probably around October) at a pace of 12 pages a week for 12 weeks. Willingham again jumped in to stress that letting creators set their own schedules isn't something that's normally done in publishing.

Schweizer's also releasing a Western anthology called "Roundup" through Monkeybrain. Each week will see a new 8 to 12-page story by creators like Schweizer, Matt Kindt, Kevin Church, Scott Chantler, and Stan Lynde (who's offering a previously un-published "Latigo" story). What Schweizer likes about the digital anthology format is that it allows readers to only buy the individual stories they want and for creators to receive direct compensation for their contributions.

Brandon Seifert is also doing an anthology, but one in which he's writing all the stories for various artists to draw. There's no set theme or genre to "Dreamsequencer," it's just whatever he wants to write. The first story is about a supernatural vigilante taking revenge on her killers, but told from the villains' point of view.

The last series to be teased was Roberson's own "Awesome Adventures." Drawn by Thomas N. Perkins IV, the series follows the Awesome Family on their exploits through the multiverse "doing science and having adventures." Roberson is a longtime fan of Perkins' work and asked the artist what he'd like to draw if they did a book together. Perkins sent him some pictures and Roberson's writing the series around them.

Willingham then opened the panel up to some questions from the floor, the first of which was about the number of creative teams in place for the company. Roberson replied that at the moment they have somewhere around 30 projects at various stages of development, but there's no upper limit.

"There is a small limit," Baker corrected, referring to how much time she and Roberson have to work with Adobe products doing pre-press on all these series.

Willingham asked about who does the collections and movies, so Roberson explained that Monkeybrain only licenses the digital rights for a period of years. Everything else remains with the creators, including 90% of the money made on digital downloads.

Another question from the audience had to do with how Monkeybrain can market its series with such short turnarounds from creator to reader. Roberson explained that they market the company like an app. He talked about the industry's solicitation schedule that has to go for months or years from announcing a book to reminding readers that it's coming out to asking them to pre-order it to actually buying it. "But with digital, you don't even need to tell anybody until they buy it. Wait until the thing's available, then say, 'Here's this great thing,' and they buy it."

Willingham asked about how much creators were allowed to talk about their series, since traditional publishers keep tight control over that.

"The only thing that we asked was that our creators not talk about it before the announcement," Roberson said, "but now that Monkeybrain is public knowledge, I don't care. So, like, Joe shooting off his mouth to CBR or whatever... Joshua was on some drunken podcast a couple of days ago..."

"Oh! You listened to that?!" Williamson gasped. "I was like, 'Chris will never listen to this..."

"I'm like Candyman," Roberson said. "If you say my name three times on the Internet, I will show up. And now if you say, 'Monkeybrain' three times on the Internet I'll show up."

The final question was from a skeptical reader who wondered what the draw was to not having a paper copy to collect and gain value. Everyone on the panel had a different (and equally passionate) answer, but Roberson stressed that what Monkeybrain's doing isn't to the exclusion of print, which is also a possibility for most of the series.

That didn't satisfy the reader's concern about the disadvantage to her as a consumer, so Seifert talked about how as soon as Monkeybrain launched, he was able to buy five comics for six dollars and how that's unheard of with print. He also talked about the accessibility; how he was carrying those comics around in his phone right then, and how he could also get to them through his iPad or laptop if he wanted to read them again or show them to someone. "Anywhere I have my devices, I have them. I really like having the hardcopy, but I also really like having an entire library in my bag."

The five Monkeybrain Comics launch titles are available now on comiXology.

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