Roberson & Baker Discuss Year One of Monkeybrain

In 2012, comics writer Chris Roberson made headlines by leaving DC Comics, citing what he believes to be unethical treatment of its creators -- then made them again as he and his wife, film/commercial producer Allison Baker, turned their existing publishing house into an all-digital creator-owned independent publishing company, Monkeybrain Comics.

Officially kicking off last summer on "Independents Day" the two released their first spate of online books over comiXology on July 4, including the now Eisner-nominated "Bandette" by Colleen Coover and Paul Tobin. While featuring new and up-coming writers such as Sean E. Williams and established, more well-known creators such as Greg Pak, Baker and Roberson have expanded their line considerably over the past year. Monkeybrain also moved beyond offering its comics through comiXology, as many of their digital titles will be collected in print form through IDW and other publishers.

Speaking with CBR in anticipation of their one-year anniversary, Monkeybrain publishers Roberson and Baker discussed their first year in digital comics and why the future of comics rests outside of the Big Two and traditional mainstream publishing.

CBR News: Starting off I have to ask how it feels to be here a year later with not just a new digital publishing house under your belt but one with multiple Eisner nominations?

Chris Roberson: Awesome?

Allison Baker: It's fantastic! [Laughter] I really didn't think that we would have made as much of an impression a year in as we have. We totally didn't expect to break through the digital barrier with the four Eisner nominations -- not just with the Best Digital category but also Best New Series with "Bandette" and Colleen [Coover] as Best Penciler/Inker and Colorist. It's pretty amazing.

In many ways, Monkeybrain launched at exactly the right time. Not only were the big mainstream publishers finally taking the digital realm seriously, but a lot of smaller independent publishers and groups popped up online as well. How do you feel digital realm has changed in the past year since you launched? Do you think Monkeybrain has helped push that change?

Baker: I think we helped push it--

Roberson: To some extent.

Baker: We were definitely the guinea pigs. No one had gone out on a limb as a new publisher with books nobody had heard of that were --

Roberson: Exclusively digital.

Baker: Right. I think one of my goals was to change the conversation. I felt the conversation with comics had turned into all this stuff about how comic companies weren't treating creators properly and a lot of it was negative. People complaining online about things they didn't like about the books but they continued to buy them. I wanted to bring a positive spin to that conversation and say basically, "You can do it differently." Create a situation or a model that everyone can win at, not just for us as a comics distributor but for the creators and also on the print side; having those books sent out into the world with different publishers as print collections the retailers get a chance to sell those as well. I wanted us to come out as a holistic approach to comics publishing. I'm not sure anybody had come at it that way before.

Roberson: I think that over the course of the last couple of years we've been in the midst of an ongoing transition period. I can see lots of parallels between the current period and, say for example, the rise of the direct market or the changes in the distribution landscape in the early to mid-'90s when Diamond emerged as the sole distributor. In each case, both creatively and financially, comics were affected by change in the distribution set-up and in the general business landscape. The rise of digital as a supplement to the print market is parallel to the rise of the direct market in the '80s as a supplement to the newsstand. In the same way in the early '80s, there was this explosion of different creative models and different kind of publishing ventures, like Pacific Comics or Eclipse. Digital is also creating new ecological niches for people to occupy and make best use of.

Readers have some idea of how sales numbers and cancellations work on the physical publishing side, but how do you determine what your numbers are in digital or what sold better than others? Do you find you have a sustained number of readers or are there more readers coming on each issue for certain titles?

Baker: We basically just look at the sales numbers that we get a couple months out from comiXology. There was no way to predict before we started selling comics how they would perform because nobody had done this before. When I talked to comiXology they had no idea how it would work! [Laughs] What we have seen is that when new issues come out, [sales of] previous issues spike up. Basically if there's any kind of word of mouth or people on Twitter, any kind of reviews, people are finding us and starting from the beginning every single month.

Roberson: The reality is those questions are never truly answered because it's constantly ongoing. We can't say beyond just a snapshot of the moment X is selling better than Y. We can say what's selling at a greater rate at any given time, but the reality is everything sells all the time, and just some things sell faster than others. But none of the sales for our titles have ever stopped. They all continue month after month.

Earlier this year, Monkeybrain announced it would start publishing trades through IDW. What influenced the decision to move from an exclusively digital model to publishing physical trades?

Roberson: Actually, some of the titles are coming out through IDW but all the Monkeybrain creators retain print rights, so each creative team is free to make whatever print deal they want. IDW early on had taken an interest in what we were doing and offered a general deal to all Monkeybrain creators. A number of them took them up on that. But some of the creators had established relations elsewhere, say at Image for example, and have taken their books there. Some of the creators have been able to negotiate more favorable deals at places like Dark Horse. As time goes on, you'll see more and more Monkeybrain titles coming out from an increasing number of publishers. Our motivation is the content is what matters, not the format. If readers want the immediacy and low price of digital, we offer that to them on a regular basis. If they prefer a print edition, in the vast majority of cases there will be some option for them to get a trade edition. Honestly, I think that's going to be the model for the industry going forward. Ease of access and maximizing choice for the reader is the only model that makes sense, because it's the readers and their dollars that are in charge.

Baker: Honestly, serialization works very well in digital. I think it works better than putting up a hundred and twenty page graphic novel for sale on digital and then breaking it up into smaller pieces for time consumption.

Roberson: And it's cheaper.

Baker: On top of that, having the revenue from the digital and the print editions just adds another monetary stream for the creators. It spreads all the risk around as well.

Chris, you mentioned how this feels like when direct distribution started supplementing the newsstands, but obviously as history went on, the newsstand began to vanish. Do you think digital is poised to -- if not take the place of print publishers -- begin generating the same numbers and fan base as the mainstream companies?

Roberson: I think predicting the future of any industry is a sucker's bet and I would hesitate to make any kind of qualitative or quantitative bet on what the future of comics holds!

In the example of the newsstand and the direct market, there were pressures driving the newsstand down. In some alternate history where the direct market did not exist, the newsstand would still cease to exist. The direct market was a kind of lifeboat that helped preserve a certain segment of the newsstand audience for a period of decades.

That is not an exact one-to-one correlation to what's happening now. What you have now is a core audience from the direct market that's still there but has not grown appreciably in a long time. I would feel confident in saying any conceivable model for the future of comics would have to have space for digital distribution, but I would hesitate to say digital would ever replace print. In fact, I would go so far as to say I don't think digital will ever replace print. Digital may take some functions of print and there are things digital can do easier and with less risk, but there will always be a place for print and good comics retailers.

Let's move away from the drier talk of markets and sales. [Laughter] This first year, Monkeybrain had a ton of stuff coming out from a lot of new creators and as well as people who have been working in the industry for years. Going into year two, is there a pressure to lean towards adopting a house tone or style, or is publishing a wide variety of material still the goal?

Roberson: Really more the latter. In fact, we rarely think of it in terms of the line as a whole. We approach it on a title-by-title basis. It's really just the two of us; in terms of our acquisition philosophy I read something and say, "This is good, I want to read more of it." Then I go to Allison and say, "This thing is good, I want to read more of it, can you make them a contract?" And that's about as far as the philosophy goes!

Baker: And I go, oh, another one? [Laughter]

Roberson: Maybe it's a reflection of the fact that my tastes are fairly wide-ranging in that sometimes I'm in the mood for Carl Barks' Duck comics and sometimes I'm in the mood for "Love And Rockets" and sometimes I'm in the mood for old "Superman" reprints. I want Monkeybrain as a comics line to satisfy not only all of my various reading tastes, but ideally the tastes of as many different people as possible.

Baker: Our whole decision making process is asking, "Is this good?" If it is then we get behind it.

Roberson: There have been a few projects where it's as if the creators were making it just for me and my reaction to those was much more emotional. Other projects I've enjoyed and can tell other people would like them a lot. The only overarching tone we're trying to go for is high quality.

Baker: Really, we need to stop acquiring books!

Roberson: We have a lot! [Laughs]

Baker: We have a closed submission policy, but we can't not publish things that are good. It becomes difficult. Also, we went to a number of people that we knew when we first came up with the idea in January 2012 and talked to them about what we were planning and seeing if they were interested in doing something with us. It wasn't that people weren't interested; they just didn't have time in their schedule to work on anything. Now they do, so the stuff that's coming that nobody even knows about yet is amazing.

Roberson: We have lots of stuff coming up.

Monkeybrain kicked off on the Fourth of July last year with your "Independents Day" announcements. Are there any "Independents Day" title announcements planned for this year?

Baker: I'll be announcing a number of things at San Diego Comic-Con at my panel, which is Thursday at eight o'clock at night. Which is the best time to talk about new stuff! [Laughs]

Looking at the books in general I know asking you guys if you have any favorites would be like asking parents, which you guys also are, if you have a favorite child--

Roberson: We do have a favorite child!

Baker: Luckily we only have one! [Laughter]

Well, hopefully she's your favorite!

Baker: She's awesome. She's Chris' and my favorite.

Roberson and Baker: Awwwwww. [Laughter]

Are there any books that surprised you with fan reaction or resonated with you personally?

Allison: I've said this before even though I shouldn't pick favorites because I am the mother of many books, but "High Crimes" is just fantastic. Every time that comes in I have to read all of it, and all the back matter and everything else. When Chris Sebela told me the concept of what he wanted to do I was like, "Yes! Do that!" But it is so much more than just the concept of a book. With Ibrahim Moustafa's art, it just sings.

Roberson: Whereas my favorite is "Edison Rex." [Laughter]

In the indie/creator-owned front, one of the biggest news items this year was Karen Berger stepping down as head of Vertigo, which for years was one of the few places mainstream readers could go for more independent, non-superhero stories. As players in the independent market, what was your reaction to her departure? Is this something you think will have wider implications for the industry?

Roberson: I don't think Allison or I were surprised in the slightest that Karen stepped down. We had the good fortune to have a number of conversations with Karen over the few years and I can say without qualification that we respect and admire her both personally and what she's done professionally over the course of the last two and a half decades. I think I said at the time of her departure she ranks up there with Stan Lee and Julius Schwartz and Bill Gaines as the most important editorial voices in the history of American comics. What her departure means for Vertigo I think remains to be seen. I worked with Shelly Bond at Vertigo for the last several of years and I think that she was the only legitimate choice as a successor for Karen. If they had chosen anybody else it would have raised a few red flags. She was the clear and obvious choice and I have every confidence she will do her best with the imprint. Whether that's possible within the corporate climate she finds herself remains to be seen.

Realistically, I think the importance for Vertigo as a place for independent voices in a larger mainstream setting has largely been supplanted by other options over the past few years. Where Vertigo was a bright shining light twenty years ago -- not the only one but one of the significant ones -- the rise of creator-owned and independent books at IDW and Dark Horse and Image in recent years has, if anything, taken some of that burden off Vertigo's shoulders. I don't think there will be seismic shifts, I think its more in the larger context; what Vertigo means is one of historical importance and not necessarily of a driving importance going forward.

Not only is digital hitting the tipping point in the industry, but there's been a lot of change at the Big Two. While the success of their movies and TV shows has undoubtedly buoyed them up, there have also been many creative people leaving. Do you think as the mainstream comics publishers look more and more towards movies and generating stories editorially, more creators will leave, a creative brain-drain will take place and more smaller publishers like Monkeybrain crop up in their wake?

Roberson: I think it's certainly possible. Even just a few years ago it would have been lunacy to predict an "Avengers" movie would make a billion dollars.

Baker: It would have been lunacy to predict that we would start Monkeybrain two years ago! [Laughter]

Roberson: I think as a larger popular culture phenomenon, the success, particularly of the Marvel films, has far outstripped anyone's expectations. That certainly changes the landscape. On one hand you have comic sales, at best, flattening and at worst sliding down. On the other hand you have these properties generating untold millions of dollars in the larger public.

Baker: You should qualify those statements, though. If you're talking Marvel and DC, I think that DC's market share has definitely taken a hit, but it's being basically taken out by the independents.

Roberson: But that's a different thing.

Baker: That's what's happening because comic sales are actually up for retailers.

Roberson: Comic sales are up, I think Marvel has maintained a healthy market share; I think DC has had a little more difficulty maintaining that. Overall as an industry, I think those companies are more and more looking to bottom line and to line-wide corporate synergy stuff and having to integrate that into a platform. Where before it was, "Let's make good comics and make money off of them," now we've got to fit into a larger multimedia-publishing paradigm.

Increasingly, it's going to be difficult to find people to do those jobs creatively. I think Marvel's had more success in recent years because they have apparently more willingness to give creators a core universe to play in and a considerable more latitude to do interesting work. So you get things like Hawkeye" or "Young Avengers" or "Captain Marvel" or "FF" which are, while being big corporate owned IP's, at the same time expressions of those creators' individual visions. Whenever you enter one of these transition moments where the business is a little rocky but there are opportunities opening up, there's going to be a lot of flux in terms of how creators exercise their creative energies.

In the early '80s, you had lots of guys who made their name doing corporate work, like Howard Chaykin, who decided to go off and do their own work. But you also had people who never worked in the industry before who saw creator-owned work as their entrance into the industry, like Bill Willingham and Matt Wagner, Dave Stevens, Scott McCloud. What's going to be interesting is not the established work for hire creators who decide to do their own thing. While that's certainly my bread and butter, I think what is going to be more interesting are tomorrow's superstars who decide never to bother doing corporate work for hire but go directly to doing their own work. We're already starting to see that largely its outside of genre stuff, people like Scot Campbell or Kate Beaton who have not, at least from the outside, built names for themselves writing someone else's characters. They have build careers for themselves with very personal, very idiosyncratic work. They don't need our help. I think that is a very exciting thing as to what digital can do. It's an increased level of access for new creators to come out.

Baker: Just as an anecdote, we were at Fables-con earlier this year and had this time set up where we were supposed to sit at this table at a bar and anyone who wanted to come talk to us could. I had four twenty-something year old women come sit down and they had come to talk to me about the business of comics -- and none of them wanted to write other people's characters.

Roberson: I believe they were from the Minnesota College of Art and Design.

Baker: Yeah, they were studying comics at a Minnesota school, they were on a comics track and they wanted to talk about how you get started. But all of these women were all reading things I had never heard of that were all webcomics.

Roberson: I had heard of some of them!

Baker: The future is already happening and it's happening outside of the mainstream comics industry.

Roberson: The future of comics is not going to be middle-aged straight white guys who have spent the last twenty years doing work-for-hire and have now decided to do their own thing. They might have a place at the table but the future is going to be everybody else doing their own comics.

In terms of Monkeybrain's future specifically, the publisher has the various print deals, Eisner nominations and more comics than you know what to do with. What are your goals for year two?

Baker: Staying above water, basically. [Laughter] Keeping up with the schedule and trying to do right by our creators and get the word out that these books are great and we hope everybody checks them out.

Roberson: That sounds good! [Laughter]

Is there anything new you can reveal about your upcoming publishing slate?

Roberson: I would like people to watch for the Monkeybrain announcements coming out of San Diego because there's going to be a slate of really cool projects that I recommend unreservedly.

Wrapping up, is there anything you want to say to your readers and Monkeybrain fans?

Baker: Just thank you for supporting us.

Roberson: I agree with that!

[EDIT: An earlier version of this story included Joe Keatinge's "Intergalactic" as part of the Monkeybrain line-up. It is no longer part of the publisher's line of titles.]

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