de Campi & Broxton's "Ashes" Rises from Kickstarter

Writer/filmmaker Alex de Campi is best known to comics fans for her digital comic "Valentine," various titles from Tokyopop and Humanoids and her debut comic, "Smoke," which was published by IDW in 2005. James Broxton is a British artist who made a splash drawing the recent "Knight and Squire" miniseries written by Paul Cornell for DC Comics. Now, the two are collaborating on a new book, "Ashes," a standalone sequel to "Smoke."

The duo is currently running a campaign on Kickstarter looking for support for the book, but more than simply offering a hardcover limited edition volume of the story, a digital copy, original art or the usual gifts one finds in Kickstarter projects, they have a few more tricks up their sleeves. First, they're offering bundles to retailers which include multiple physical and digital copies and promotional material. Secondly, and potentially more interesting, they're offering up the publishing and film rights to the project.

The creative team spoke with CBR News about "Ashes" and the thinking behind such an interesting and unusual set of Kickstarter donation tiers, all while offering CBR readers an exclusive look at the the book in progress.

CBR News: Alex, the last time we spoke was when you started releasing "Valentine" and I'm curious how that experience was and what is it that's made you turn to Kickstarter for this new project?

Alex de Campi: I funded "Valentine" myself -- paid the artist, Christine Larsen, and colorist, Tim Durning, out of my wages every month. Which meant I was dead-flat broke. Then I lost my job and we had to suspend "Valentine" after only 10 of the 24 episodes had been completed. That taught me something -- I have too little money to self fund projects. And for big, complicated books, you need to pay the artist. "Ashes" ownership is split 50/50 between me and Jimmy, but he still needs to eat and pay rent while he draws its 250 very challenging pages. I can't afford to pay him to do that -- heck, I can barely feed my own family -- and there's nobody offering advances for a book like "Ashes" (which has both literary and genre elements) any more. So we have to go direct to the people who will eventually read the book, and in essence ask them to pre-order it via pledging on Kickstarter.

Even more than simply trying to fund a limited first edition of the book, you're also selling off the book rights and the film rights through Kickstarter. What was your thinking behind that?

de Campi: We have to raise a lot of money. The book is going to be almost a year's worth of work to draw, then there's printing it in a nice (and hopefully environmentally sustainable) deluxe hardback format. So we thought, what can get us in nice big chunks of money? Offering the film and trade rights and using the advances therein to help bump up the Kickstarter. It's also a way of advertising, especially the foreign rights. Even if we don't sell the rights, people will know they are available, and that they need to come direct to us about them (though my lovely literary agent will be helping out with actual contracts because he's good at that stuff). But we've already had a couple foreign publishers contact us and we're in serious talks with them about foreign trade editions of "Ashes." Still no North American or UK trade edition, amusingly.

Tell us a little about the retailer bundles, because this is something that I've never seen before. What are they and why did you offer such a benefit?

de Campi: Comic book shops are a powerful voice for a book. If a few good stores are behind you, it can really get the word out to buyers that may otherwise never have heard of your book, and we always felt really bad that Kickstarter doesn't traditionally have a way of reaching out to retailers. The book won't suit every store, but, well, the ones I've shopped at over the years (Meltdown, Page 45, Gosh, Isotope, FP NYC, etc) would probably love it. And I remember a lot of other retailers across the US being really supportive of "Smoke."

Lo and behold, some of those retailers contacted me a day or two into the Kickstarter and were like, "Hey, what about us?" I was like, "I know! but..." And we basically shot messages back and forth until we worked out a plan that they felt they could sell. That made me really excited, because I'd been emailing people like Chris Butcher (blogger at the widely read Comics212 blog and also the force behind Toronto's The Beguiling, a great comics shop), saying, "Please help publicize this Kickstarter which can't benefit you or your store in any way." And that's a crappy email to send.

Here's a summary of how it works. (The detailed explanation is in one of our Kickstarter updates.) We have a $105 reward for retailers only, which consists of a bundle of five books: four unsigned, one signed. They have an SRP of $30, though folks are welcome to sell the signed one for whatever they want. The nifty element is that the retailers don't need to wait until we ship the books (probably December 2012) to sell that bundle. They can sell them from January 2012 because -- just as via direct purchase on Kickstarter -- they are bundled with a serialized, digital edition. Customer walks into the store, inquires about the nifty "Ashes" poster they see. Shop sells customer the bundle for $30, giving the customer a lovely, sealed art card. Customer goes home and opens card, which contains a code to use on Comixology for access to the serialized, digital edition of "Ashes" (the first chapter of "Ashes" will be publicly available on Comixology to aid with buying decisions). When the hardback ships, the customer comes back into the shop and collects the hardback which they have already paid for as part of the $30 bundle.

If we are funded, the cool thing for participating retailers is that their stores will be the only place that latecomers/people who didn't pledge in the Kickstarter can get "Ashes." As we start serializing the book digitally to those who did participate in the Kickstarter (and we've already had pledges from a lot of leading comics journalists and creators) and folks start talking about the book, there will naturally be people who say, hey, I want to read this too! Or, oh, I was really broke/lazy/distracted when that Kickstarter happened and I meant to pledge and now I wish I had. Well, great! And we'd still love to have you as a reader. But you have to go to one of these shops to do that.

You're asking for a lot of money in your Kickstarter campaign, and I wonder if that's a concern. I mean, obviously, seeking this money means that the book will be your next project and will allow you to dedicate time and energy it, but is there a worry that you may not reach the goal and what will happen if you don't?

de Campi: It's a total concern. I live in paralyzing fear every day that we're not going to make our goal, at which point, there will be no book. But I don't see how we can ask for less. Like I said, [it's a] 250 page book. Large painted section. Very difficult pages. Almost a year of work for an artist. The money we are raising breaks down to a mere $60/page (e.g. a day's work) for fully coloured, lettered (and in some cases painted) art. Then printing it as a deluxe hardback and Jimmy is great at dealing with printers so we are going to get a good deal. He knows what he's doing. Which is good, because where printers are concerned, I don't.

I dedicate about four to six hours a day to the Kickstarter -- emailing, pestering nice folks like you to write articles about us, tweeting, et cetera. But absolutely zero of this funding is going to me. I've done my bit -- the book is totally written; finished (though I have some crappy scripting on pages 6 and 7 to sort out). This money is just to get it drawn. I'm already working on my next book, "Margaret the Damned." Well, I supposedly am, but I've had no free time to write since starting the Kickstarter. So to say the Kickstarter will "allow the book to be your next project and will allow you to dedicate time and energy it" is not entirely accurate. It is my next book; I've already spent two years of evenings and weekends devoting my time and energy to scripting it. The Kickstarter enables Jimmy to survive in a very real sense while he draws the book.

But, no fundraising goal, no book. If you want this book to happen, please pledge. It really will not happen -- there is no way an artist will ever finish such a long, complex book working in his "spare time" -- if we don't meet our fundraising goal. And let's not forget, we are asking Jimmy to survive on $60 a day. It ain't exactly luxury, kids.

We're killing ourselves to bring this book to you. We just need you to believe in us enough to pre-order it. Or indeed, get involved in some of the really awesome rewards, like the 10 books with unique hand-drawn and colored covers; the 5 pages of fully oil-painted art available (Jimmy works completely digitally so the only art that will ever be available from the book are about 10 painted pages, and the best 5 are going in the Kickstarter); or even the opportunity to become a secondary character in the book.

James Broxton: Of course there is a concern we may not reach the target, especially in the current climate. Things are tough out there. And it does look like a huge amount. Well, it is a huge amount, but it is totally stripped to the bone. It genuinely is as low as we could possibly go for a project of this size. It's a big book! 250 pages plus, hardback with very high production standards -- it will be a lovely object in itself. It costs a lot of money to print a book like that, and trust me, we are sourcing the most competitive and environmentally friendly ways of producing it. The lion's share of the target is for me to actually spend (approximately) a year to draw the book. In that time, I simply have to survive, eat and pay the rent, I'm not in a position to take a year off paying gigs to complete it. I wish I was! Alex has been brutally honest about how the maths work for our target. My share of it amounts to a page rate of just $60 for inked, colored and lettered art. I'm also doing the design work, art direction and pre-press production; to put this in perspective, that is roughly 10% of what I would be getting for similar work at one of the big two. It's just impossible to go any lower.

We are asking people to have faith in this book, and support us while we complete it. Actually, when I say us, I really mean me, as Alex is not taking a penny for herself, she already spent two years plus working on this. We believe in this project, hopefully we will find enough potential readers who can share in that belief. As for what happens if we don't reach our target, well, we will still continue to work on it, of course -- we want this book out there, but it will take considerably longer to complete, and maybe we will never be in a position to publish it, but it won't stop us trying. I should also say that we are pricing the book very keenly, a full-color hardback book with this many pages usually retails for considerably more than we are asking, so we hope the book itself offers great value for money, especially combined with the digital serialization. And don't forget the hug from Alex at a con -- that is priceless!   

Now, with "Smoke," you collaborated with Igor Kordey and it was released by IDW. Now, you're working with neither. Was there a falling out? Was it just business? I know that Igor has been busy with "L'Histoire Secrete" and other projects.

de Campi: "Smoke" was meant to be a longer (but still limited) series, but IDW at the time was changing its focus towards its current very successful business model of licensed properties and so asked us to end the series after only three issues. I did email Chris at IDW as a courtesy to tell him about "Ashes," and he was very supportive but confirmed that it's not really the sort of book they're focusing on right now.

Igor and I have been talking for a while about "Ashes" -- he read the full script and loved it. "L'Histoire Secrete" has finally ended, but Igor has a big family to support and we just can't raise the amount of money we'd need to have Igor draw the book.

Enough business talk. What is "Ashes?"

de Campi: "Ashes" is a big, fat, beautiful dystopian/literary/action thriller about two people who piss off the internet, basically. A journalist and a soldier brought down the British government five years previously, and their lives have been pretty crap since. A 15-year-old boy who has history with one of our pair reaches out to them -- but not for help. He wants them dead. And, via a mistake on the part of the US military, that boy has access to pretty much everything that connects to the internet: CCTV, cars, oil platforms, banks, phones, TVs. And he starts bringing it all down.

Unlike "Smoke," a substantial part of the action in "Ashes" takes place in America. Like "Smoke," there is a lot of action. A fellow creator once told me that the railway station shootout in "Smoke" was the only time he'd ever seen a spaghetti Western-style gunfight done successfully in a comic, which was a great compliment. We do good action. This time, with crocodiles. And cargo airplanes. And a cocktail umbrella. We also do a lot of more literary and formalist things, which you may not notice at the time, but will come back to you and hopefully somewhat haunt you.

Could you talk a little about the challenge of making sure this is a sequel and not "Smoke" #4, a standalone volume that can be read on its own.

de Campi: It wasn't that hard. I didn't start working on "Ashes" in earnest until four years after "Smoke" was published, which was a year after it was written. Going back to pick up right at the end of #3, well, I just had no interest in doing that. It's why it took me so long to work on a sequel. I wanted an ending for these characters; I just didn't want to carry on with# 4 as if nothing had happened. Also, I'm a different writer than when I did "Smoke," and the world is a different place.

So I had the characters be five years further on in their lives, as I was five years further on in mine. Post-heroism, there is nothing, I have realized, but boring, melancholy days and selling your medals and souvenirs on eBay. Though there is a lot to delight people familiar with "Smoke" (and "Smoke" costs $2.97 on Comixology to read), everything you need to know about these characters is explained in the first chapter of "Ashes" when Katie is drunk in a bar. Then, the action begins.

James, I know that you did the finishes for a couple issues of "The Unwritten," but most people know your work from the "Knight and Squire" miniseries that you drew last year. I was wondering if you could just talk a little about your background?

Broxton: My background is in design and commercial illustration. I always loved comics, but honestly never thought of drawing them for myself. Then I suddenly got the urge to try, so I did. The end result was a black and white existential crime story (which remains unfinished). This caught the eye of Mark Chiarello at DC, who suggested me for the "Unwritten" gig. So, before I knew it, I was working for DC. "Knight and Squire" followed soon after, which was a delight to work on -- Paul Cornell is an amazing writer. To be honest, I had my sights set on the European market, I did not expect to be working for mainstream DCU. Mind you, "Knight and Squire" is hardly typical of their output. 

How did you get involved with "Ashes?"

Broxton: I saw a posting on an online forum run by a friend of mine. Alex was looking for artists to work on a project, and she did specifically say "artists" as the work required a number of stylistic shifts. I was looking for a project, so contacted her, but I said I would only be interested if I was the sole artist. Which might sound arrogant, but it wasn't that. I liked the idea of having to break out of my comfort zone and try new things, with radical changes in style. We did some of that in "Knight and Squire." Mimicry is actually fairly easy to do, after all, some big names in the industry have built entire careers on doing nothing but that. But I hope the stylistic experiments in "Ashes" amount to more than just mimicry. So, Alex looked at my stuff, obviously saw something that might be a good fit, and said, "Hell, let's do this."

It's always a challenge following up another artist on a project. What was it about "Ashes" that made you realize your work would be a good fit for what Igor Kordey had visually established in "Smoke," and what made you see that you could really put your own style and imprint on it?

Broxton: You know, I don't see it in those terms at all. To me, the challenge is telling the story and trying to do justice to Alex's incredible script. I'm not following Igor, no one could except him. If at any point a reader looks at "Ashes" and thinks, "Oh, man -- this sucks. Kordy would have drawn that so much better," then I have failed. Not because I'm not living up to him, but because the reader is no longer engaged in the story. I wouldn't dream of comparing myself to Igor. He's a massive star with legions of fan. Doubtless many will be disappointed he's not on board for this book, but it is a standalone work, and it is so strong in itself, so well written and imaginative, I think/hope it will not suffer from his absence.

I did initially have concerns about stylistic similarities (or rather the lack of them), but Alex was convinced I was a good fit. Igor and I have similar influences, even if I actually draw nothing like him. I see a lot of Corben in his work on "Smoke." [Corben is] a big influence on me too, although more for the timing and cinematic approach to storytelling, rather than illustrative rendering techniques. "Smoke" was also quite design-led -- "Ashes" will be, too, and then some.

You're pencilling, inking, coloring and lettering the book. Is this how you prefer to work on a project?

Broxton: Well, it depends on the project. For a monthly DC book, it would be impossible with the deadline constraints. And of course with their editorial budgets, you can rely on top professionals to contribute to the process. We do not have that kind of budget. I would love to have someone like Matt Hollingsworth coloring this book, but, hey, we couldn't afford him, even if he was available. So I'm doing all the art, pencils, inks, colors and lettering -- lettering is part of the art too, or at least it should be. The added bonus, of course, as I know I'm handling the color, I can prepare the line work accordingly, safe in the knowledge that the color will add to and expand upon the inked art, all in service of the story. This is actually quite liberating, and feels very organic. I do not see it as a constraint or additional pressure. It does mean long working days though.

What's your favorite thing that Alex has had you draw thus far?

Broxton: That's a tough question, as there is so much cool stuff to draw in this book. It's impossible for me to pick a favorite (I intensely dislike my own work, so I don't favor any of it), I can only think in terms of what my original intention was, and how close I actually came to realizing that intent. You have a picture in your mind, you desperately try and get that image down on paper (or on screen), most times you don't even come close, occasionally it's almost what you envisioned. An example where I came pretty close would be the spread of the tiny boat in the raging sea, currently on the Kickstarter update page. I also think the cover mock-up is looking promising, but it needs a lot of work. 

Alex, while I have you here, I just have to ask, will we be seeing a print version of "Valentine" soon?

de Campi: The lovely folks at Image have been so, so patient with me. I still need to scrape together about $2,500 to commission both the painted cover and pay the artist for the 40-page exclusive backup story. I am hoping next spring to do another Kickstarter for that. Or maybe the "Ashes" fundraiser will be wildly successful and there will be enough left over to fund the "Valentine" trade. I really want to finish "Valentine," but I'm so broke right now, I can't afford to fund the art.

For more details, check out the "Ashes" Kickstarter page.

Doctor Doom Maverick feature
Doctor Doom: A Weapon X Mutant Returns to Take on the Marvel Villain

More in Comics