SDCC: Monkeybrain Previews New Digital Comics

Monkeybrain Comics fans gathered late Thursday night during Comic-Con International in San Diego for the one-year old digital publisher's panel, moderated by co-founder Allison Baker.

Joined by "Heartbreaker's" husband and wife team of Paul Guinan and Ania Bennett, as well as "Bandette's" husband/wife team of Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover, "Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective's" Jen Vaughn, "Detectobot's" Bobby Timony and "Captain Ultimate's" Benjamin Bailey and Joey Esposito, Baker began by thanking Monkeybrain's readers, fans and friends who had loyally waited for the panel to commence at eight o'clock at night.

"The best time for a panel," Baker said as the audience cracked up.

The publisher told the crowd her husband and fellow co-founder, writer Chris Roberson, was at home with the couple's daughter before bringing an image of "Bandette" up on the room's big screen.

Coover explained the four-time Eisner nominated story of "Bandette" (which went on to win an Eisner for Best Digital Comic this year) began with an image and a sketch.

"I have this drawing I did of this French policeman who's smoking all the time, so I wanted to do something with that guy, and then of course there should be some sort of teenage girl," Coover said, adding that originally she thought the two characters would solve crimes.

"I've always wanted to write Nancy Drew," Tobin laughed in agreement. "But then I thought, she solves crimes -- let's have our teenage girl do crimes!"

Tobin then described the book as both a passion project and something he's wanted to do in reaction to his work for mainstream superhero publishers.

"I've written a lot of books for Marvel and DC, and they just want pure action -- the reason characters were fighting was because they got punched. It drove me nuts," Tobin said. "I was really happy when Allison and Chris came to us -- that's what digital and Monkeybrain has been good for. When we say we want to do this, they say, 'Ok!'"

Touching on Vaughn's book "Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective," which launched during the Comic-Con International, Baker said they asked her to write the comic after hearing Vaughn read the story at a comic book open mic/reading event called Comics Underground.

"Comics Underground happens at a bar and it's way better than any library reading because everyone drinks," Vaughn said.

A mostly black and white book, it follows the titular Avery Fatbottom as she takes over the job of King of the Fair, the person in charge of keeping everything running smoothly. However, besides her usual work-related problems, someone has taken a dislike to Avery being in charge and suddenly her job becomes a lot harder.

"It's filthy though, so please don't give it to your child," Vaughn said, admitting she had worked as various wenches for Ren Fairs so she knew the culture well. "I was never a dunk-a-wench!"

Esposito took the microphone next to speak about "Captain Ultimate," an all-ages superhero comic he and Bailey saw as an alternate to the dismal state of kids comics.

"We're trying to produce a superhero Pixar story that's lighthearted with something for everyone," Esposito said, adding that nowadays, "Comics aren't for kids at all, so that's what we're trying to bring back -- super accessible superhero stories for people eight to eighty."

The two were also working with Dutch artist Boykoesh on the series, Bailey adding that, "He's very vibrant, very lively and perfect for the kind of book we want to do."

Timony spoke next about his "Detectobot," showing an image of the free #0 issue, which leads directly into issue #1.

"It's -- get this -- a story about a detective who's also a robot," Timony said, explaining that Detectobot was invented by a paranoid mad scientist who thought the "whole world was out to get him." When the scientist is actually murdered, Detectobot gets activated and he has to solve the murder.

"Heartbreakers" was up next, and unlike other Monkeybrain comics, Guinan and Bennett's science-fiction action/adventure story was first published in "Dark Horse Presents" in 1986. Focusing on a group of female protagonists, it follows a scientist who clones herself, with half the clones becoming soldiers and the rest designated as her lab assistants.

"It's all in the context of a fun story where they're fighting the corporation that owns them," Bennett continued, adding it will be re-published through Monkeybrain before the two move onto writing new stories in the "Heartbreakers" universe. The duo also said that despite other comics work, most people still knew them best for "Heartbreakers."

"They'd find us at a convention and go, 'Oh my god -- you're the 'Heartbreakers' people! You should do more!'" Bennett laughed.

Meeting Baker and Roberson after the pair moved to Portland, Guinan and Bennett decided to bring their comic back in digital form. As to why it took so long for them to return to the universe, the duo explained that mimicry of their art style and subject matter evolved into the later exploitive "bad girl" art of the '90s, something they were not comfortable with.

"'Barbed Wire' and 'Martha Washington' and some later characters took an exploitive turn into the bad girls genre," Guinan said. "When we started getting lumped in with these other characters we soured at it. But now it's been enough time."

Writer Phil Hester and artist Tyler Walpole's book "Dropout" was next, and while both were unavailable, Hester recorded a video for the panel. "[Dropout] is about a maladjusted kid in high school who finds his talent for being a jerk," Hester said.

Explaining that the protagonist soon discovers a way to travel to alternate dimensions through his school, "He becomes a psychic astronaut," Hester continued. "Every episode of the book is him plunked down into a new world where he not only has to figure out the rules of physics and sociology, but also how he fits into what's going on in each world -- everyday he'll end up in a different version of his school. It's his job to decipher the key to diffusing how the dimensions overlap.

"And he's also a jerk," Hester added.

"It's been a year in the making, and there's a lot of other projects we went to people early on that are just now coming out," Baker said of "Dropout." She then pointed out the other creators in the room, Dan Goldman and Sean E. Williams.

"It's like you guys are on your own creating your version of the '90s independents scene," Bennett told Baker as the rest of the creators nodded in agreement.

Baker told the room the idea for Monkeybrain came while Roberson was having trouble finding outlets for his work, a problem many other independent creators had also encountered. Wanting to provide a place to publish stories outside the mainstream, Baker and Roberson launched the all-digital company almost exactly a year ago to the date of Comic-Con International.

"And there's no limit to what we can do, because you guys do all the work!" Baker told the panelists.

Opening the floor to questions, the first fan to the microphone asked why Monkeybrain was putting out print versions of their comics through other publishers rather than following Thrillbent's model of specifically creating digital-only comics.

"My whole thing was how do you enable creators to monetize digital content as one monetary stream, but also sell those rights in a different venue -- and coming at it from a creative standpoint, their using the digital space to make something different and new," Baker said.

"The greatest advantage of going digital first is without that venue we wouldn't have been able to go to print at all," Coover added.

Bennett agreed, explaining that, "The odds of a comic shop actually ordering the material is so low -- even if it's from a known creator -- It's a total crapshoot whether your comic actually winds up in a shop where someone can find it. Once it's online and digital, anyone who has the device for it can download it any time."

Baker chimed in that they just got the May sales numbers and for a comic like "Amelia Cole," issues #1-6 of their first series and issue #1 of the next volume, "Sold practically the same amount of copies for every single issue in the month of May. How often do you hear that happening?"

"It's a very different business model from what happens in the direct market," Baker added to audience applause.

Tobin told the room that in print-versus-digital, he had no end goal other than creating a good story -- a passion Baker said was common with all their creators.

"My comic is formatted for digital," Timony said.

Vaughn said she is pushing comiXology to let her be able to have links and songs in her comic, something they hoped would be in a reissue.

When asked what constitutes an actual issue in digital comics, Tobin and Coover said their experience working for other publishers' tight page-counts made them glad they could set their own threshold for Monkeybrain.

"Sometimes I'd kill for twenty-three pages and sometimes I'd get to sixteen and I'm done," Tobin laughed. He and Coover explained there is no set page count for "Bandette" but they tried to hit somewhere in the 16-18 page range. "You want it to end on a beat," Tobin continued, adding, "It's beautiful to be able to make it as long as you want."

The creators also talked about enjoying the ninety-nine cent price of Monkeybrain digital comics, each one saying they felt the price encouraged more people to buy their work.

"I'd buy three $.99 things rather than one $1.99 thing," Coover laughed.

Bennett and Guinan said they would also adhere for the most part to the $.99 price, Timony adding that he is pleased more and more publishers were willing to print comics of unusual sizes and shapes, opening up room for more irregularly sized digital comics for print. The room cracked up as Tobin and Coover couldn't remember when "Bandette's" print version comes out, finally settling that it goes on sale in November from Dark Horse Comice.

"It is legally in our contract that we get ice cream," Coover added as the audience laughed.

"I think that the majority of our market is direct market readers who have either lapsed buying DC or Marvel, and are tired of the cynical nature of superhero comics," Baker said on Monkeybrain's reading audience.

"The audience we're getting for 'Bandette' is a totally different readership than we've gotten before," Tobin added, explaining that if you miss a few print issues you're out of luck finding them, but with Monkeybrain -- as the comics store is your phone or digital reader -- it's easier to be a casual reader as the issues never sell out. Vaughn also plugged the comiXology booth, which had Monkeybrain books on iPads for demonstration.

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