THE TIME OF CLEANSING
I have been conducting an experiment at The Warren Ellis Forum. The Forum is a big place - it gets more than half a million hits a month - and has a lot of people prepared to talk about what they buy. So, each week this year, I've been asking people to tell me what they bought from their local comics store, and to divide them into two categories of my own creation. The categories have been similar in each iteration: Proud To Be Seen With as compared to Ashamed To Be Caught With, for instance. And they've been building up to last week's split - Things I Shall Be Keeping and What I Should Not Be Buying. Because the previous weeks had revealed a widespread habit of buying books - usually company-owned superhero books - by rote. Books that had become purchases ingrained by repetition rather than inspired by delight.
And, you know, it's not right to complain about the quality of commercial comics when you're still robotically supporting the worst of them. Because "you've been buying them for years" or "you're waiting for it to get good again" or "you follow the characters despite the stories" or all the other bullshit excuses that do not explain away a willingness to hand over money for crap fiction.
The July 26 review thread on the Forum showed a lot of people listing a lot of books in the category of What I Should Not Be Buying.
And so I said unto them: Clear the shit out, my children. Let this be The Time Of Cleansing. Everything you listed as Should Not Be Buying -- stop buying it.
Make the break here and now. Whatever it is -- if you said you shouldn't be buying it, make the decision here and now to stop giving it your money.
Instead, try out something new.
Use the money you're saving by refusing to support trash that insults your intelligence and clothes to try one of the marginal, low-profile books I've been talking about here, or over on the Forum. Maybe you've never seen work by Jason Lutes, or Lea Hernandez, or Eddie Campbell, or Enki Bilal. Let the money pile up for a few weeks and then test some trade paperbacks and original graphic novels by the likes of Larry Young, Peter Kuper or Chris Ware. If you don't like them, then, you know, at least you tried. The money isn't wasted, the way it would have been by continuing to buy comics you know you didn't like. And I imagine you know somebody who you could pass the books to. Hell, if you didn't piss on them or gnaw on the edges, then you might be able to exchange them with your comics store for something else.
Move the money from the shit that no longer deserves your attention to the work that does deserve your attention, and needs your money to continue publication.
This is a very basic and vital form of activism. It's called voting with your wallet. It's using your money to craft the kind of medium you want to see, by starving out the cultural pollutants.
It is exactly YOUR THREE DOLLARS or equivalent that stands between another seven crappy and doomed superhero comics from DC and another book from Carla Speed McNeil. Or Harvey Pekar. Or David Mack. Or fill in your own.
The Time Of Cleansing. Taking the Western comics business in your hands and molding it to our image.
Go right ahead. The only thing stopping you from starting to make a better medium is you.
And send a letter to the publishers, telling them what you're dropping from them, what you're still reading from them, and why. I know from my hate mail that you all know how to write, and some of you can even spell. They need to know what you're growing out of. But it's important to let them know which books of theirs you're still reading, or moving to. It makes the message constructive and gives them solid information on the trending of their readership base. When they get two hundred polite emails explaining that GENERIC UNDERPANTS MAN is being dumped in favour of VIOLENT SEXY DRUG PEOPLE - or even that VIOLENT SEXY DRUG PEOPLE is being dumped in favour of QUIET INTELLIGENT CONSIDERATION WOMAN - then they'll know that Something Is Going On. And be able to act accordingly.
How To Make A Name For Yourself With Not Very Much Money At All
Following the short course here on writing comics, I got a lot of mail asking me for advice on how to obtain and maintain that all-important profile for your work and your book.
I'll preface this by saying that if you're going to self-publish you should really be sensibly capitalised, and that includes having money to buy advertising. Larry Young will provide you your education on this - check out his columns on http://www.savantmag.com -- and he won't leave too many bruises.
However, I am aware that your passion for the work can easily outstrip your business sense. And in that situation, you find yourself now with a comic of yours listed in PREVIEWS and a name that no-one knows. This doesn't just apply to self-publishers - people working for other people's money are in the same boat, and need to consider the same action. Guerrilla Marketing.
1) Be aware that you already possess the best available tool. Net access. I'd've killed for the Net when I was starting out. Remember; on the Net, all things are equal. Online, my organ is as big as Rupert Murdoch's. Warrenellis.com takes up exactly as much real estate as Disney.com. Intelligent use of the Net will do wonders for you.
2) Get yourself a website. There are places that will sell you a domain name cheap. There are places that'll sell you hosting cheap. Look around. Odds are you'll be able to find yourself a bargain within a day or two of beginning your search. You don't need e-commerce bells and whistles just yet. (And if you do, go for a site that's low-upkeep on your end, like http://www.ccnow.com ) The first goal is visibility, either for you or for your book. In the modern guerrilla marketing model, this may be your biggest single marketing expense.
3) Begin building your press list. That starts with discovering the addresses of every comics-related publication currently extant. Wherever possible, you want the names of news editors and review editors, too. You may well be able to achieve a lot of this on the Net. When I were a lad, you had to go to your local comics shop with pen and paper and copy them out of magazines' indicia. These days, I can do my comics-press-based press releases via email alone. This also, of course, requires that you learn how to write a professional-looking press release. Which is easy. Just find a pro press release somewhere on the Net and copy its format. You can tell the pro ones because they end with either ### or -30- .
This job continues by looking through a decently stocked news vendor's racks, as well as those of a comics store that also carries sf or horror magazines. Odds are that the content of your work might appeal to specialty interests. So you want to write down the titles and addresses of those mags, too, and identify the relevant editors. And, you know, dig deep. If it's on a shelf, then some fucker reads it, and that very same fucker might also fancy trying a comic that reflects their personal interest, even if that is chicken-strangling.
Be aware of how easy it is to get ink in some places. Here's something you never see comics people taking advantage of, something I begged DC to do (because I didn't have time to do it myself at the time, damnit) and failed in. LOCUS is the major publishing-news magazine for the sf community. It gets far and wide, does LOCUS. And all they do is summarise press releases. They even have a section listing which writers have turned in which book manuscripts to which publishers. If you're writing a sf miniseries for a publisher, then fuck it - fax or email LOCUS with a press release stating that Joe Bloggs has turned in all three parts of the serialised graphic novel GUTBUSTER to DC Vertigo, a division of AOL Time-Warner, for publication this winter.
Get ink. Get your name printed.
4) Build the website. The website is your floating press kit and the webbing in which you entrap readers with fat little wallets. Get an image of yourself on it - if it's a caricature, make certain it's not some retarded little doodle by your brain-damaged cousin (or a cartoon of you by Steve Pugh involving rabbits), and if it's a photo, make damn sure you look attractive in it. If you're lucky, people will take it off the website to use in articles and the like. It's your badge. Make sure you can live with it. (In this regard - never let WIZARD run your photo session. Trust me. And please, for Christ's sake, keep your fingers crossed in re: the photoshoot I just did for ROLLING STONE.)
Get your work on the site. Get stuff on there that people can read, and, if at all possible, stuff that people can look at. Get stuff on there that makes people stay a while. Clean simple design - because no-one knows who you are. If you were Neil Gaiman, people might hang around for endless graphics to load and Flash files to unreel. But you're not, and people won't have tolerance for a five-minute wait to find out who you are and why the hell they should bother with your site. My website has usually been text-driven through its many incarnations - and now you know why.
5) First release. You've got your book done, and it's on the schedule. You need to let people know you're out there. You've followed the magazines and you've got a sense of their schedules - when you need to send them stuff to get that stuff mentioned in the necessary timeframe. Now, here's a secret - comics magazines love you. No, really. They have to fill column inches. To do that, they need news and material. You have that. They don't. Therefore, they love you. Magazines like COMICS INTERNATIONAL will especially love you if you've got clean black-and-white art from your book to go with your press release. Because nobody loves pages and pages of unbroken text. They need art to break up pages. Give them good art, you've just doubled your chances of getting some ink out of them. And what does that cost you? Photocopy money, some stamps and an envelope with a card back. Guerrilla marketing costs pennies. Brian Bendis got noticed by Hollywood after performing a mailout of stuff that cost him no more than forty bloody dollars. You just have to think of it.
The online news magazines like Newsarama and CBR's own Comic Wire should be fed, but remember that everyone online feeds these guys. Outlets like COMIC SHOP NEWS get starved for content in comparison. Be complete.
By now, you've gotten access to a scanner, to get art on your website. Same website you've sluglined your press release with, on the off chance that magazines give the URL with the article. So when you also send your press releases by email, you mention that you've got emailable art files available, also downloadable from the website. Keep pointing people back at the website.
Go to Usenet and announce your work, using the prefix [HYPE] in your post's title heading. Look for ways to direct attention to your site on the various web message boards (where basic HYPE messages tend to be less welcome). Watch your website's hitrate and referrals history, and discover what works. And as awareness slowly rises…
6) Time to start playing harder. What professional comics people do you think would like your work? Find them. Most of them will be online. Ask them if they'd be prepared to look at your finished lettered photocopied work - because it's on the schedule but not yet printed - with an eye to providing a quote. Then get it sent to them. And once you get the quotes, get them on the website, put them in email and posts, and put them in your PREVIEWS solicits text and on the book. Note; the more famous people from outside comics you get to give you quotes, the better you're doing. And you can find them, too. Actors have production companies, and prodcos are ways to track actors down, because they keep offices there. Here's a free couple; Nicolas Cage owns Saturn Films, and Patrick Stewart co-directs Flying Freehold Productions. Patrick likes FROM HELL and TRANSMET. Nicolas Cage is reportedly a big comics fan, and his assistants went down to a signing in LA to get Darick to autograph some TRANSMETs for him.
In the first instance, it's a letter or and email, being nice, explaining the situation, asking for help, asking what the correct protocol is if you've inadvertantly breached it, whatever.
In the death; get the quotes. Get the words from credible people that suggest, to the great unwashed, that you are worth risking a couple of bucks on.
Because that's the trick, in getting noticed both by publishers and buyers. You create the sense that if someone else has dared to risk a few dollars on you, then they can safely risk a few dollars on you.