Creator-Owned, Creator Risk, Creator Reward

So I have a creator-owned book coming out in June. If this is news to you, I need to do a better job pimping it on Twitter and directing your attention to the interview and preview that appeared last week here on CBR. The book is called "Shinku," and it'll be in stores on June 1 from Image Comics. The solicit paragraph pretty well sums it up:

"The sole surviving descendant of a once-proud samurai clan, Shinku wages a solo war against a powerful vampire clan that has lurked in the shadows for centuries. An epic of horror and martial arts set in modern Japan, but with roots in the feudal past, writer Ron Marz (WITCHBLADE, ARTIFACTS) and artist Lee Moder (WONDER WOMAN, LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES) will serve up sexy, bloody, ongoing action every month. If you're looking for vampires that sparkle... this ain't it."

Yes, I know, everybody's sick of vampires. Vampires are "over..." except I don't think vampires are ever really over, they're pretty evergreen. And even if they truly are over, I don't really care. I'm not telling this story because I'm trying to catch the zeitgeist, or looking to capitalize on a trend. I'm telling this story because this is the story I want to tell. And that's the beauty of creator-owned work -- you tell your story, in the way you want to tell it. There's really no one to tell you "no" about much of anything.

Let me give you some sense of how all this works; how it comes together, and what I and the rest of the creative team expect to come out of it. "Shinku" is an idea that's been rolling around in the back of my head for probably a decade, in one form or another. I'd talked to a few different artists about it over the years, but never found quite the right fit, or the time to pursue it. The seed of "Shinku" was planted years ago, when I was researching samurai for "The Path" at CrossGen, and then given some reinforcement when I was writing the first volume of another creator-owned series I did, "Samurai: Heaven and Earth" at Dark Horse.

I suspect most writers would agree that the biggest hurdle in putting together a creator-owned book is finding somebody to draw it. And not just somebody, but the right somebody. Lee Moder and I have worked together a number of times, including another creator-owned book, "Dragon Prince," that began life at Dark Horse, but wound up being published through Top Cow in 2008. The original "Dragon Prince" concept came from my friend and artist Jeff Johnson. Jeff and I worked on the story, he designed all the characters. But then Jeff ended up getting a full-time animation gig, and didn't have time to draw the series. So Lee stepped in and did a hell of a job drawing the issues.

Lee is one of those guys who can draw everything. Everything. He's just as comfortable on classic superhero stuff like "Wonder Woman" and "Legion of Super-Heroes" as he is on something sexy and violent like "Painkiller Jane." Sexy and violent would also be a pretty good description of "Shinku." Where "Dragon Prince" is an all-ages book (except for where the word "ass" snuck into the first issue, as my wife likes to remind me), "Shinku" most definitely is not. There's violence, there's nudity, there's language you won't find on network television.

I had the initial pages of "Shinku" -- opening in a club, the alley in the rain, the beheading -- in my head very specifically. One day a few years ago, instead of letting those pages just percolate in my brain, I decided to type them up. Once I'd done so (and it was easy, the pages were just there, almost like I was reading them more than I was actually writing them), I sent them to Lee and asked if he'd want to take a whack at them. He did. Those pages form the first scene in issue #1, unchanged except for some tweaks Lee made because he wasn't thoroughly happy with the drawing.

Once we had nine pages completed, I figured we had enough to actually show off what we were doing. Inker Matthew Waite -- who made his DC debut recently on an issue of "Wonder Woman," and who also took first place in a contest to design the cover for a motion comic for Christopher Nolan's "Inception" -- was recommended to me by my buddy and former Top Cow editor Rob Levin.

Lettering was handled by Troy Peteri, ex-CrossGen lettering dude and current Top Cow (and other places) lettering dude. We've worked together so often I don't even have to send Troy balloon placements. He knows what he's doing and he knows what I have in mind, sometimes before I have it in mind. Troy is actually the one who suggested "Shinku" for the title.

So with Matt and Troy aboard, and production help from Top Cow editor/designer/troubleshooter/bartender Phil Smith, we produced a few hundred copies of a black-white-and-red edition, basically an ashcan, via a local printer located a couple miles from my house. Reproduction wasn't great, but at least we had something to hold in our hands.

That was a little less than two years ago. At the Baltimore Comic Con in October, 2009, I handed a copy to Joe Keatinge, who was then Image's PR guy. That copy found its way into Image publisher Eric Stephenson's hands, and a few hours later Eric found me at the show and said Image was interested in taking on "Shinku." We spoke again at Book Expo America in New York, where Eric expressed a preference for "Shinku" to be a color ongoing, rather than the black-white-and-red format we had initially wanted to pursue. A preference, not a dictate; the decision was ours to make. Yes, that sounded a little curious coming from the publisher of a black-and-white juggernaut like "The Walking Dead," but Eric explained that even then, there were shops that ordered lightly on "The Walking Dead," or didn't even carry it, because it's a black-and-white book. Going full color would increase orders and give "Shinku" a better chance for survival.

Lee and I agreed to go for a color book; we just needed to find a colorist. Short version: the first guy I asked, Mike Atiyeh, signed on to color the series. Mike has been a friend for more than a decade. He was one of the initial CrossGen hires, where we worked together on "The Path." Honestly, my offer to Mike was more of a courtesy, since I figured he'd be too busy with his "Star Wars" work at Dark Horse and various DC projects to take on "Shinku." But he immediately said yes, and decided to undertake a marker-inspired style that gives "Shinku" a different look than a lot of current books.

That's how it all came together, ultimately an exercise in working with friends, and friends of friends. Also, an exercise in working for free.

A lot of "creator-owned" deals around the industry are really "creator-participation" deals, in which the publisher gains an ownership percentage and often media rights in exchange for covering printing costs and perhaps some monetary advance in the form of page rates. Most of the time, those page rates don't even approach typical work-for-hire page rates, but it's better than nothing. As a creator, you're faced with a choice of a substantial income reduction if you want to pursue creator-owned projects, or sticking with "full rate" work-for-hire gigs. Maybe if you're single and in yours 20s, it's not such a dire choice. But once you add children and a mortgage to the equation, it becomes a much tougher dilemma.

Image's model allows creators to retain 100% ownership (and media rights), but it's a back-end deal. That means there's no page rate up front, but creators reap all the profits after Image takes its publishing fee. Assuming there are any profits. With monthly sales in the toilet everywhere in the industry, turning a profit from a new creator-owned book is at best a tenuous proposition.

Everyone on "Shinku" is working under the same parameters. In other words, nobody's getting paid up front, and we'll all share in whatever profits are generated, but not until a few months after the issues hit the stands. Lee and I co-own "Shinku." Yes, the initial idea was mine, but I cut Lee in for 50%, because he designed the look and brought the thing to life. Plus, it's the right thing to do. I've heard too many stories of creators... usually writers, I'm ashamed to say... screwing their collaborators out of rights.

Admittedly, the whole "working for free" aspect isn't as much of a burden for writers. We can write work-for-hire gigs the other three weeks of the month, and make up for the lack of the paycheck. For the artists, it's a bit different, since pencillers, and to a lesser extent inkers, usually can work on only one book a month. Thankfully, and without getting into the details, Lee's current situation doesn't require him to bring in much of a monthly nut. If that wasn't the case, we honestly couldn't produce the book. We've been working on "Shinku" pretty steadily since last year, trying to stockpile issues so we can ship the first story arc on a regular basis once the book debuts in June. The quickest way to shed readers, especially in the current market, is to slip off schedule. If your book isn't on stands when it's supposed to be, readers are likely to pick up something else and forget about you. With issue #1 still two months away from publication, we have the first two issues done, and the third issue underway.

I've personally tried to schedule it out so that weekends are my time for creator-owned gigs -- work-for-hire five days a week, creator-owned on Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, it almost never works out that way. Work-for-hire jobs inevitably spill over into the weekend, creator-owned demands have to be dealt with on weekdays. Inevitably, you end up trying to squeeze a few more hours out of every day.

And doing the work is honestly only half the work. This isn't like staking out a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield -- "Build it and they will come." Creator-owned comics, even at a publisher like Image, can quickly turn into "Build it and no one notices." Creator-owned books like "Shinku" are still tied to the direct market for survival, and that survival is very much tied to the order numbers for issue #1.

Very simply, if your issue #1 numbers aren't high enough, you're almost certainly doomed. Because virtually without exception, the issue #2 orders are lower than the issue #1 orders, and the issue #3 orders are lower than the issue #2 orders. If your initial orders aren't good, you can be over before arrival, before issue #1 actually hits stores. You can be faced with the realization that you've worked for months for free, and there's no payday coming. Not now, and if you want to continue, not ever. I don't mind admitting it's daunting.

There's a huge amount of Marvel and DC product slated to ship in June, which is when "Shinku" debuts. Not coincidentally, Image is also shipping a bunch of other new series in June. It's easy to get lost in the glut, both in the "Previews" catalog and on LCS shelves. There are only so many retailer dollars, reader dollars and reader eyes to go around. And I know that for a majority of readers, it's all they can do to keep up with the titles they've been following, much less try something completely new. And yet, Lee, Matt, Mike, Troy and I have been toiling away on "Shinku," hoping somebody will notice.

If you think "Shinku" looks like something you want to check out, I'd ask you to please pre-order it now from your local retailers. Let them know you want it, and spread the word about it. Don't assume there will be shelf copies, it's very possible there won't. Retailers, if you want a look at the complete issue #1, contact me through the CBR boards or via my website, and I'll hook you up.

Shinku the character faces overwhelming odds going up against an entire clan of vampires. "Shinku" the book faces some pretty overwhelming odds too. The book's survival depends on each and every copy sold. Doing a creator-owned book is a leap of faith for the creators. And I realize it's a leap of faith for readers and retailers. I'm hoping we can all make that leap together.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image, set to debut in June. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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