Grumpy Old Fan | Better living through crowdfunding

I can’t deny the appeal of crowdfunding. I’ve contributed to a handful of projects, including the Stripped documentary, the new Steve Rude sketchbook and a guide to Star Wars’ domestic filming locations. I’m also planning to pledge to Leaving Megalopolis, the new graphic novel by Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore.

Like many of you, I’m predisposed to like Simone and Calafiore’s work based on their issues of Secret Six. I also enjoyed the way Simone and her collaborators brought a little town of superheroes to life in Welcome to Tranquility. Heck, I just like Simone’s writing generally, and as it’s within my budget, I don’t mind spending the money.

However, while responding to Tom Spurgeon’s call for crowdfunding thoughts, I had a crazy idea: What if a license fee were part of the crowdfunding proposal? In other words, what if one item in a project’s budget were earmarked for licensing particular characters from DC or Marvel?

While there is a fine line between stupid and clever, I’m not sure upon which side this post lies. That’s probably not so good -- but it hasn’t stopped me yet. ...

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My perception of crowdfunding is naturally colored by the projects I have chosen to help fund. I gave to the documentary, the Star Wars book and the Steve Rude sketchbook because I figured the best way to get those particular items was to help their creators meet their particular goals. In this respect, the cost of the item included a certain amount of “opportunity cost” -- that is, the amount I was willing to pay for the certainty of getting the item.

It follows that I needed to be extra-sure I would like whatever I was buying, because for the most part it didn’t yet exist for me to evaluate it. That sounds rather elementary, but whether it’s a DVD of something I’ve already seen, a collection of comics I’ve already read, or a book about a familiar topic, there’s relatively less risk in many of my purchases.

I think there’s also a certain element of flattery in the crowdfunding process. The creators are saying, “Here is something we know you’ll like, but we need you to help us.” It’s the same kind of approach your local public broadcaster takes every six months or so. Whereas guilt is on the station’s side during those pledge drives -- “You listened to A Prairie Home Companion all winter, now help us pay for it” -- with crowdfunding the guilt is more anticipatory. “Help us or we can’t do this anymore” becomes “Help us or we won’t be able to start.” Thus, in some small way, you become part of a generous community, and that warm-fuzzy feeling is an intangible portion of your reward.

However, with a public-radio pledge drive, your contribution most likely goes into a general fund, for use as the station’s governing body sees fit. They know what kinds of programming the audience likes, but they’re also free to experiment. Because a crowdfunded project is designed to have a more definite goal, there is a clearer connection between contribution and result. Therefore, by picking and choosing which projects to fund, the producers of crowdfunded items may well be more constrained in the kinds of projects they attempt. If Leaving Megalopolis doesn’t live up to a contributor’s expectations (for whatever reason), it affects how that contributor views similar projects later on.

So it got me thinking: if, for example, you contribute to Leaving Megalopolis because you liked Secret Six, wouldn’t you be more likely to fund a full-on Secret Six revival? After all, Top Cow got a tremendous response to its Cyber Force Kickstarter project. The problem is, apparently there’s no room for Secret Six in the New 52 lineup, and if DC doesn’t want to publish it, it won’t be published. There’s always fanfic, but that only goes so far.

One solution -- and here is where I come to that stupid/clever nexus -- would be to ask DC for a license to publish comics based on its characters. Said license, even for the most obscure characters, would certainly not come cheap. It would probably include some sort of royalty for DC, so that (heaven forbid) the publisher didn’t give over some of its rights in exchange for being paid something woefully insufficient. Surely DC would also want to have some say over whatever was being done with the characters; although I’d hope the publisher wouldn’t reject anything unreasonably. After all, this exercise presumes that these are characters about which DC currently cares little.

Without getting too far into the legal and financial minutiae, I picture such an arrangement as somewhere between a franchise agreement (like the one your local Burger King has with the head office) and outsourcing. I’d expect lawyers and accountants to represent both sides on the front end, just to set up the behind-the-scenes ground rules. Still, assuming all those hurdles could be cleared, and all the money raised, it’d be a whole new world.

The question then becomes which characters might be eligible for their own crowdfunded comics. The ideal character would be both ignored by the New 52 books and able to attract a significant fanbase (with sufficient disposable income). That immediately brings to mind some familiar names, including Stephanie Brown, Cassandra Cain, and Wally West. However, I doubt DC would be willing to allow any crowdfunded book to compete directly with its existing titles -- so no Robins, Flashes or Blue Beetles, and no old-school Teen Titans or Justice Societies. There are always loopholes, of course: you might try to do a Titans (with no “Teen” in the title), just without a Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, Robin, Nightwing, Hawk, Dove, Beast Boy, Terra, Arsenal, Starfire or Cyborg.

So who does that leave -- Adam Strange, Metamorpho, some B- and C-list Titans and Crimson Fox? I had thought Team 13, from the great Architecture & Mortality serial, would be good candidates, because back in 2006 they had been cast off. However, Dr. 13, the Haunted Tank and Andrew “I ... Vampire!” Bennett each have New 52 counterparts. Guess they’re not as unwanted as we thought.

Again, though, there are always loopholes. Depending on their availability, DC might allow a crowdfunded Stephanie Brown/Spoiler or Cassandra Cain/Black Bat project, if it didn’t think it would compete with Batgirl or Batwoman. If I didn’t think he might be in future issues of Justice League, I’d suggest the Ryan Choi Atom (since Ray Palmer’s not using the name or costume). The ‘90s cult-favorite Young Heroes in Love would be a good option, too. Heck, assuming DC really is done with Ralph and Sue Dibny, I’d happily contribute to an Elongated Man project. If it all comes down to legal and financial issues, either those get worked out or they don’t.

That last sounds awfully blasé, I know. This whole post has been more of a theoretical exercise than a practical roadmap. On the astronomically-small chance that anything like this could actually happen, I’d still have serious concerns about whose intellectual property is protected and how, not to mention whatever royalties might be due the characters’ original creators -- assuming they’re not involved already. And that’s another thing: I haven’t even brought up the need for a well-regarded creative team, because if you’re going to revive Steph, Cass, or Ralph, you’d want ‘em in good hands. Crowdfunding new stories featuring licensed properties isn’t impossible, just very complicated -- and predicated on the licensor being reasonably accommodating.

Besides, I started this whole line of thought on the notion that if Simone and Calafiore could still do Secret Six, they would do Secret Six, and put off creating something new. That to me is one of crowdfunding’s hidden dangers: reinforcing the familiar at the expense of the original. Not surprisingly, Kurt Busiek’s question about the perceived value of an existing universe gets to the heart of the matter: Are those particular details worth the work?  I say thee nay -- Faith Erin Hicks’ utterly-fantastic Superhero Girl is hardly diminished by not being a Supergirl comic; and Astro City gets along fine without being an actual DC/Marvel mash-up.

So yeah, I don’t expect DC to start farming out its unused characters anytime soon, and I’m okay with that. However, I’d love for them to try, if only to measure the results. Would a crowdfunded Elongated Man miniseries bypass the Direct Market? Would it be digital-first and use that to raise money for other editions? Would DC try to piggyback some advertising on it, hoping to attract non-Wednesday readers to its regular superhero line?

Frankly, I’m amazed that we live in an age where these kinds of questions can be asked, regardless of whether they will be. There’s a fine line between stupid and clever, and now I want to see what clever looks like.

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