THE KICKSTAND: Time to Do Some Soul-Searching

It's Lent, a time for contemplation and soul-searching, so it seems like a good time to stop and meditate on Kickstarter, what it is for and what sort of trends it is encouraging.

The classic model of a comics Kickstarter is the lone creator self-publishing a limited edition of their work. There's a sort of moral purity to that in a field where self-publishing, minicomics, and arty, small-press shows like MoCCA, APE and SPX are held in high regard.

Most Kickstarters aren't like that any more, though. It's not uncommon for a creator to use it to fund a project that will eventually be available through other channels. That doesn't seem too be a bad thing, as long as the backers are aware of it from the start, but there does seem to be a moral imperative to give them a little something extra: Early access, a special edition, maybe a set of refrigerator magnets.

This turned sour recently when David Brothers criticized Mark Andrew Smith for selling allegedly the Kickstarter-exclusive graphic novel "Sullivan's Sluggers" via Amazon. It's something Kickstarter users have to be very careful of. Part of the appeal of Kickstarter is that it feels personal; the creators are not selling mere comics, they are offering the warm feeling of supporting an emerging creator and the opportunity to be among the few to get the first fruits of their work. Trust is an important part of the transaction. If you find out people are getting your "exclusive" elsewhere, the warm feeling goes away and you just feel like you got screwed.

Another, more controversial use is for a publisher, rather than a creator, to pre-sell a book that will be widely available outside Kickstarter. Digital Manga Publishing used this to crowdfund several Osamu Tezuka manga. Essentially, they were using Kickstarter as a mechanism to take pre-orders, and if they got enough, they would publish the books. Christopher Butcher found it "disconcerting," saying it showed a lack of confidence in the project and adding,

The basic acts of publishing are printing and promotion. If you are a publisher but you can't print or promote, are you still a publisher? Some very smart people say yes, and I'm honestly not sure, because you're unable to fulfill your basic roles and are counting on others to do that, and that's where my conflict is.

I think Chris is making a valid point here, and while I don't have too much of a problem with what Digital is doing -- because really, they were just using Kickstarter to pre-sell the book -- I sense a slippery slope.

Gary Tyrrell called out a slightly different, but more extreme, case on Fleen the other day: the Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter. As Gary points out, Warner Brothers holds the rights to Veronica Mars and they could make the movie tomorrow if they chose to. The Kickstarter exists because they didn't want to take a chance on it, so they effectively outsourced the risk to the creator, Rob Thomas -- and to all the pledgers. So all those people who ponied up good money are basically subsidizing Warner Brothers.

Gary points to another troubling aspect of this: Not only do none of the pledges include a ticket to the movie, but you have to put up $50 to get a copy of the DVD, which is doubtless way more than it will sell for at retail. Gary calls it:

The non-backer is advantaged over the backer in this situation. The DVD will not be exclusive to backers; Warners will sell that sumbitch to everybody they can, because that's money they'd be leaving on the table otherwise.

If that seems like a bad deal, consider this: Dara Naraghi, who recently completed his own Kickstarter, points out that while the Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas is doing the Kickstarter, he's not the one making the movie -- that would be Warner Brothers -- and they are under no legal obligation to follow through.

That seems like the exact opposite of what Kickstarter should be for. Nothing this egregious has popped up in the comics realm yet, but we're starting to see some disturbing trends of creators running Kickstarters to pay production costs for books that are under contract to publishers, as was the case with Tim Lattie's "Night Stars" Kickstarter. These are costs the publishers should be paying. That's what makes them publishers.

Finally, I'd like to say a few words in favor of paying creators. There's no shame in getting paid for an honest day's work, yet creators will seldom use Kickstarter to pay themselves or their collaborators. They should, and they shouldn't be ashamed to do so. What's more, if they exceed their goals, they should just keep the extra money instead of coming up with a bunch of stretch goals that will be an extra burden to them and probably won't make the backers any happier. Really, going back to that original idea of moral purity, I think people back Kickstarters because they want to help a creator make a comic, not because they don't have enough refrigerator magnets and T-shirts in their lives. So what's the harm in giving them more than they ask for? In fact, I would argue that there is a positive benefit to this: Creators should be able to make a living at their craft. Paying them well allows more people to enter the field and gives them more time to do their work. At a time when even high-profile creators like Dean Haspiel are questioning whether they can continue to make comics for a living, that simply seems to be the right thing to do.

With all that said, let's look at some Kickstarter projects that just feel right, deep in our hearts.

Mini-Comics Included

What's the big idea? Six mini-comics, just like the ones you used to get with toys when you were a kid. These comics are based on fictitious toys that sound absolutely awesome, such as the Prime-8s, super-powered monkeys who are called to Las Vegas to solve a crime, and Literary Commandos, which is sort of the Justice League of America but with famous authors instead of superheroes. In a life-imitates-art twist, limited editions of some of these fake toys are available as premiums.

Moving Force: Creators Michael Moreci, Steve Seeley and Tim Seeley.

Selling Point: Two points, relative to what I wrote above: "Everyone working on these titles is getting PAID. We're not giving our contributors a percentage or an uncertain back end amount; everyone is being compensated for their work." And: "This is a very special project that we knew couldn't be done through traditional comics publishing -- we're so passionate about doing this, and that's why we're running this Kickstarter."

Premiums: These comics are a good deal: $5 for a PDF of all six mini-comics, $15 for hard copies. Every pledge level gets a PDF, which is a nice touch. Higher level pledges get sketches, copies of the creators' other books (including "ReincarNATE" and "Ben Day"), and at the $100 level, actual mini-figures of the characters. For $300, you can get animation cels from the nonexistent cartoons based on these nonexistent toys.

This caught my eye:: A couple of actual toys, including Galaxxor and Treegarr, are included with the comics.

Goal: $19,000.

Deadline: April 3.

Black Eye 2: The Anthology of Humor + Despair

What's the big idea? An indy anthology of comics and prose, focused on the theme of "the expression of humor and despair."

Moving Force: Ryan Standfest, the publisher and editor of Rotland Press.

Selling Point: The first "Black Eye" anthology was nominated for an Ignaz award; this one features a stellar list of contributors including David Lynch, Brecht Evens and Hans Rickheit. There's also a 24-page supplement "Memory of Posada," an anthology of responses to the work of Mexican artist J.G. Posada.

Premiums: A print copy of "Black Eye 2" will set you back $25. Extras at higher levels include a limited-edition print by Danny Hellman and various hard-to-find publications from Rotland Press.

This caught my eye:: The prose pieces include an essay by the late Michael O'Donoghue, the first head writer for Saturday Night Live and an early contributor to National Lampoon, which appeared in "Spin" magazine years ago.

Goal: $2,500.

Deadline: April 10.

Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk, Vol. 2

What's the big idea? This Kickstarter will fund the printing of the second volume of the webcomic Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk, the adventures of a 17th-century Chinese Buddhist monk who sets out to find his fellow monks after their monastery is destroyed.

Moving Force: Ben Costa, who has been writing and drawing Pang since 2006. He published the first volume with the help of a Xeric Award.

Selling Point: This is one of those times when all I can say is "Read the comic and you'll see." "Pang" is beautifully drawn and filled with action as well as

Premiums: A copy of the book is $25. Add another $11 and you get a sketch. For $45, you can get both volumes. At higher levels, the rewards include prints, T-shirts, etc. The best one of all, though, is at the $500 level: Ben will personally GM three sessions of the Pang RPG with the pledgers. If only one pledges, that person gets to play with Ben and his friends.

This caught my eye:: Pang gets a blurb from "Usagi Yojimbo" creator Stan Sakai: "A well researched saga, with wonderfully exciting action sequences."

Goal: $6,000.

Deadline: March 30.

Beast Mode: The Comic Book Experience

What's the big idea? A graphic novel about aliens who invade the earth by taking over the bodies of animals, starting with pets.

Moving Force: Twisted Skillz, a recording engineer and artist from Tucson, Arizona.

Selling Point: The comic is accompanied by a "read-along soundtrack" with voice acting, sound effects and musical score. I was skeptical about this until I saw that the creator is a recording engineer and presumably has experience doing this. I'm guessing that's what explains the high goal of $20,000 to produce 2,300 copies of a graphic novel.

Premiums: All pledges include the soundtrack. For $10 you get a PDF of the comic and a download of the soundtrack, and for $25 you get a hard copy of the comic plus a CD of the soundtrack. My favorite level is the Furious Chihuahua Package, in which your pet is drawn into the comic as one of the alien invaders. There's also a tattoo design, for $500.

This caught my eye:: The story sets up an interesting conflict: "Many pets have such a strong bond with their owners that they manage to fend off possession to a point where they remain loyal to their masters and act as protectors and not predators." The heroes are one such pair, a woman named Monique and her Polish Lowland Sheepdog, Rufus.

Goal: $20,000.

Deadline: April 9.

Hey, gang! We had an extra run on rad-sounding projects kicking around the web this month - that's becoming kind of a regular thing, come to think of it - so I've got a few bonus picks on top of Brigid's excellent selections. - Kiel Phegley

Bionic Bombshell

What's the big idea? Think Iron Man's "Rescue" with more sass. A tongue-in-cheek take on standard superheroines.

Moving Force: Derec Donovan, mainstream comics artist behind projects including "Adventures of Superman."

Selling Point: Donovan has been impressing with his slick style on company books for years, but "Bionic Bombshell" represents his first creator-owned project, and as a fully one-and-done book, the entry fee is low for a full comic experience.

Premiums: If the artist reaches his $6,000 stretch goal, he'll add a second comic feature to the package in addition to existing bonuses like a sketchbook and original art.

This caught my eye: Donovan's style is great on any project, even mini comics that come in General Mills cereals, but his most memorable work has been his more media-aware runs on "Superman" and "Youngblood" with writer Joe Casey. "Bionic Bombshell" seems to have some of that smart tone built into its DNA.

Goal: $3,000

Deadline: March 27

God Hates Astronauts: The Completely Complete Edition

What's the big idea? A lavish hardcover presentation for one of the self-publishing breakouts of recent years - a satirical, illustration-heavy story of superheroes, time travelers, astronauts, pulp types, bear people, zombies and some other inspired madness.

Moving Force: Ryan Browne, artist behind books like IDW's "Smoke & Mirrors," recent issues of Jonathan Hickman's "Manhattan Projects" and upcoming issues of Nick Spencer's "Bedlam."

Selling Point: As it's a reprint of a series that many fans haven't had access to, the big draw here is presentation. Browne's hardcover looks to be a top-of-the line edition for print enthusiasts, and that version comes in a variety of "bells and whistles" versions.

Premiums: The standard premiums start with some fun material including t-shirts and MP3s, but the real fun starts higher up with resin statues and new origin stories. And it appears a number of digital stretch goals are just about to be unlocked.

This caught my eye: Browne is an up-and-comer to many fans, but he's been working on "GHA" for over six years, so he's bringing a lot of artist friends to the mix including new work by the likes of Tim Seeley, Zander Cannon and Tradd Moore. Those stories will only be available here.

Goal: $15,000

Deadline: March 20 (less than 48 hours left!)

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