"Underground": From Bootleg To Breakout

It's perhaps the most pressing question facing comics publishers and creators today: how can real money be made using the internet? Aside from the ongoing back-and-forth over digital formats and sales points and promotions, one of the most heated debates surrounds online comics piracy and whether or not illegal posting of issues actually hurts a print comics sales. Last week, a lesson on that very debate cropped up in an unexpected way thanks to the engagement of online bootleggers by Portland artist Steve Lieber.

As previously reported on Robot 6, the Jeff Parker and Lieber Image Comics series "Underground" saw its entire run scanned and posted on popular (and infamous) message board 4chan earlier this month. And while comics being scanned and distributed online isn't unheard of, Lieber's response provided a surprising and telling twist on the traditional print vs. digital piracy debate. When the artist engaged the 4chan community on the book rather than demanding the pages be removed, sales on the print volume skyrocketed, as he displayed on his personal blog.

With so much buzz surrounding this drastic example of free sampling leading to big sales, CBR News contacted Lieber and Parker for the full story of how their interaction with 4chan went down, how they view the piracy vs. promotion divide, how many comics they sold based on the event and where it will all lead when it comes to their future comics work.

CBR News: Steve, let's start with you - how were you first made aware of the scans of "Underground" ending up on 4chan and what was your initial reaction?

Steve Lieber: @Mr_Trickster told me about it on Twitter and included a link to the discussion. My initial reaction was the predictable knee-jerk. It's no surprise that scans are available online, but still... It's easy to feel like you're some kind of victim and project every frustration you have onto some invisible enemy. Especially when it's 11:30 at night and you've been at the drawing board since 6:00 AM.

When did you decide to engage the audience at 4chan and why? Did you ever consider taking legal action?

Lieber: Legal action? Oh God. No way. Not for a moment. First, what would be the point? Trying to stop filesharing is like playing whack-a-mole on a field the size of the planet. Second, Parker and I had considered putting more of the pages online anyhow, as a portfolio piece for me, if nothing else. Critical darlings like "Underground" or Parker's "The Interman" don't often pay well, but they lead to other jobs that do.

As for why I engaged? As I scrolled down, I saw that the book was posted one page at a time. That means that "Internet Man" (the /co/ participant who posted it,) sat at his computer and manually hit "upload" over a 100 times. Plus, he was in there, hectoring people to read it and share their opinions of the book! That doesn't say "pirate" to me. That says "fan." When I saw that there was some discussion, I did what I've been doing since the Usenet days: I joined in. I started talking about my comics with people who read them.

Jeff, did you and Steve discuss this? How did you find out all this was going on?

Jeff Parker: I think I was outdoors and suddenly felt a disturbance - I looked up to the sky and said, "Lieber's in 4chan."

Really, I went in there sometime after his initial post ready to enjoy myself - Steve's a big boy, he knows how to handle himself on the internet-better on the internet, actually. And as has been pointed out, /co/ [the section of 4chan featuring the scans] isn't exactly the Savage Land. It's a community of big readers. For whatever reason, as a writer I'm usually expected to take point when discussing a book, so it was great to sit back with my popcorn and watch the artist do it.

Have either of you been contacted by Image Comics regarding this matter? What was their reaction?

Lieber: The only communication we've had from Image has been, "You need how many copies?"

Parker: It's really our book to manage as we see fit; you don't check with Image on every move. They don't have time to deal with things that way anyway.

I'm hoping you'll share some numbers, or at least percentages - it appears, based on the chart Steve posted on his site as well as the picture of trades going out, that the reaction was more than you could ever hope for. Did you sell out of your on hand stock? How many more orders do you have to fulfill? Is a new printing needed?

Lieber: We're sold out of all the copies we had, and we've sold out of all the books in our first reorder from Image before they even got here.

Parker: We were lucky I had another big box of the books in my basement.

Lieber: If you want real-time, exact numbers for how many autographed and sketched-in copies we've sold from our own stock, just look at the "shop info" at our Etsy store.

Erika Moen does our Etsy shipping, and she's gonna have to fill out all those shipping slips herself.

As for percentages, the orders we shipped this week came to about 15% of the entire direct market's initial orders from Diamond. That's what? 2,500 comic stores versus...Erika.

Parker: And the Etsy store is the most expensive option. We charge full cover price plus shipping. TFAW and Amazon are cheaper.

Lieber: As freelancers, we don't have any way of knowing what numbers the web-retailers are selling. I think we're selling a lot of copies at Amazon, because we hit #7 on their top-selling Manga list. (Don't ask me how we got listed as manga.) We were the only comic in the Image top ten that wasn't The Walking Dead. [Laughs]

Parker: As you know, the direct market is pretty hostile at the moment to almost everything. Sales are down across the board. And indie books that don't plug into one of the safer genres - superheroes, vampires, etc -enjoy a very exclusive audience you can fit in your local Denny's. So this has spared us the fate of many other deserving books that also drop off the radar. We knew the realities of the market when we started "Underground," but sometimes you have to charge ahead with a story you want to tell in the face of that.

Lieber: I think we did everything right in making the comic. I'm proud of it and the reviews were stellar. Like I said, a critical darling. But sometimes if you build it...they don't come. Most comic shops just aren't in a position to get behind a nature-based thriller. They've cultivated a different audience. The good news is that people are reading our comic now. Lots of them. Every time I open gmail, there's a bunch of donations and letters from them saying "Loved the story. Do more? Thx."

This is an unusual strategy for any creator to take with their property - the common approach would be to take legal action, but in this case engaging with the community seems like it may have paid off. Would you do this again?

Parker: It's never a bad idea to engage with the community, unless you're bad at dealing with people, I suppose. In this case, someone was trying to get the word out on the book. That's very different than a download site that accumulates all the free content it can to sell adspace, and you shouldn't treat the two the same way.

Lieber: I'd do it again. Like I said before, I think my comics read better on paper, but if filesharing gets more people to read them that way - more sales at stores, more loans at the library, whatever - then I'll go ahead and make the files available. (I should add that with a lot of my work, I don't have the right to make that decision. I won't just upload "Whiteout." Greg and the guys at Oni Press have a voice in that, too.)

But say, the comics stories my wife and I have published? That's our call, and I think they read beautifully on the screen. So... yeah. [Laughs] Go download them right now.

Are either of you concerned that by engaging with the 4chan community that you're giving permission in some way to scan and illegally distribute your past and future comics?

Lieber: All of it's already out there - every last page - and it's gonna keep being out there. Reed Richards isn't going show up with the Ultimate Nullifier and change that. I don't know enough about copyright issues to be anyone's pundit, but I know this much: giving 4chan permission to scan is like giving the sky permission to rain.

Parker: I don't think that a free digital version cuts into sales on a book like this, but I do think "Underground" is a story that has to ultimately be a physical book. We made it that way. It wouldn't have worked if you read it at two pages a week.

What most creators and publishers are really concerned with (or should be) is not the loss of sales from piracy, but the legal fact that to hold copyrights and trademarks, you're obliged to defend them. That's the way the law works. No one wants to lose ownership of their material, and that's a real danger when you lose control of where/how it's put out.

Lieber: I do hope that maybe we'll see more of an effort to meet creators halfway. There's no other storytelling medium where it's so easy to have a real conversation the people who make the work. Maybe the next time /co/ is discussing Sonic the Hedgehog, someone could try to bring Ben Bates into the conversation. Bates is a HUUUGE Sonic fan. He'd be all over that.

Parker: And going back to the free format, pretty soon I will be putting out one in webcomic form with cartoonist Erika Moen. Our strip "Bucko" will be three times a week and we will formally announce it later in the year. That will be a story that's designed specifically for a daily punch that works well online. Erika may have to hand off those Etsy duties:

Do you have any suggestions for other creator owned comics creators or publishers out there on how to tackle digital piracy of this sort?

Parker: I don't think there's a blanket way to deal with it.

Leiber: Tackling digital piracy? Those scans are on a hundred servers, in countries I've never heard of. Tackling that is like tackling the bats in Lechuguilla or something. I'm not a pundit. I can't speak for anyone else, or tell other cartoonists how they should deal with things. My plan is to focus my energy on creating the best comics I can, and try to build an audience that wants to support my work.

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