My good friend Colin at the horror movie website zombiehamster.com (warning: horror, obvs) pointed me towards a new thinking some film companies are adopting, that is to release their films on DVD, or even better, stream them, at the same time as releasing them in the cinema. As an attempt to curb piracy, it's an admirable one of course, and very long overdue. More than long overdue, blindingly obvious. Those who want to see a film legally, but can't get to a cinema (incidentally, film companies, 3D is a great way to stop people going to cinemas), have to wait nearly half a year to get the DVD, usually dodging internet spoilers like smug little pot-holes all along the road. It's no wonder so many people torrent. It's easy, and immediate. And while it perhaps takes the uniqueness out of a film when it's stacked up in a queue to watch, I do genuinely believe most people, having watched a film they enjoy, would recompense those responsible were there an effective, and sensible, way of doing it. Which there isn't.
To reiterate, I believe people like to reward the artists who entertain them.
This has been the biggest ignorance of record companies ever since they were forced to look into digital by the runaway success of the (then illegal) Napster. It was beyond absurd they were complaining that people were downloading albums for free, when for decades they had charged ridiculous amounts, sloughed the profits away from the artists, and then treated fans like hardened criminals in their punishment. Lets be sure about this, I'm not condoning acts like illegal downloading. But to be so grossly indignant about the world embracing A New Way Of Doing Things just because it didn't line the record company pockets was laughable, and worse, backwards. If something is obviously happening, far better to incorporate it and evolve.
Now we're at a place where everyone is finding their feet, and testing the boundaries. Movies are perhaps beginning to learn the lessons of musicians, some of whom release albums for free, or using a pay-what-you-want system, embracing this beautiful internet and the obvious demand for their products to create a more natural symbiosis. Kickstarters, Indiegogos and all the crowdfunders are pushing this idea further along, where the audience is actively helping create the product. When crowdfunding fatigue kicks in, which may not be far away, I hope it'll evolve into a more flowing business practice, enabling artists to directly connect and be supported by their audience on an ongoing basis.
And so, to comics. All the aforementioned is a fascinating path to watch unfold, but realistically, we all have to earn money somewhere. And it's hard doing that online. It's practically impossible. If you want to give away your comics for free to the internet, the old way of recouping it was to put a 'donate' button on your site, and every now and then blog about how your wall had fallen down and could everyone spare just two dollars. And 9 times out of 10, no one would click that 'donate' button. It became a stigma, a piece of stinky cheese you kept walking past but never dared touch. While I said before that people want to reward the artists they like, i think perhaps the Donate button has run out of steam. Now artists are trying crowdfunding, with varying levels of success, but I wonder if we need to go full rogue. I wonder if we need to go completely free.
Now, I know, if you're a comic artist or even a reader, your hair probably stood on end at that idea. So let me say, I'm throwing it out there as a notion. I'm asking a question. Since we're all treading water waiting for the internet to throw us a speedboat and answer the 'how DO we make money anymore?' question, why not entertain other ideas.
The thinking is this. When I posted up about my ideas for A New Comic a few weeks back, I was stunned by the response. The goodwill. But since then I've thought about it a lot more, worked through the idea in my head, the practicalities and pitfalls. And I keep coming back to one part of it I liked the very most making a comic, a real comic, not just on the internet, and giving it away. To schools. To hospitals. Leaving it on a train for the next person to read. Including it in a daily newspaper. Leaving it on the front desk of a toy shop (excellent suggestion by a commenter on the previous post). Encouraging people to read our comic, enjoy it, and then pass it on, or leave it around.
Just to get people reading comics again. To remember why they loved them. To make them smile.
The annual event Free Comic Book Day is a fine example of sharing the form, publishers producing free samples/anthologies of their titles. And the fact it has been going so long must imply some level of success, a recouping of costs. Perhaps though, it could go further. Free Comic Book Day appeals largely to existing comic fans, as it exists mainly in comic shops. What about the same idea, but everywhere? Make your free comic available wherever possible, ignite an interest, and bring people BACK into comic shops.
I was talking to an editor I know today who said he'd been thinking along similar lines, that comics could be best used being given to those who need them. Those for whom life dealt a crap hand and even just cracking a smile could be the most powerful thing. To me, it seems like the most beautiful idea. Every comic artists loves the thought that what they've created could affect someone's life, even in the slightest way. The idea that something you've drawn can affect a complete stranger's emotion, that's such a powerful notion. So why not take it further, and try to reach everybody?
If you're wondering how such a system is financially sustainable, it is this we make comics become a part of life. They become a resource, a comfort, a friend and a dream. They begin to seep through into the undercurrent of society, to regain the respect they deserve. In different countries you can already see this happening. Everyone will cite the Japanese or French, who consume comics at a ferocious pace, as they are part of the fabric of their lives. Other countries, like here in the UK, they've slipped out of people's sight. We all work hard towards the slow rise of comics back into the limelight, but in terms of mainstream, we're lagging way behind other countries.
Maybe we're being too insular by trying to address the existing comic scene. Instead of rearranging the furniture indoors, maybe we should be changing the landscape outside.
This way, we're doing some actual direct good. And we're reaching people who might never have otherwise picked up a comic, we're influencing society, we're slowly, very slowly, raising our beloved comics up, back into people's view. And in the long-term, that creates a demand. And a demand builds an industry. And an industry creates not only work, but brings forth new talent.
For it to work for a publisher, it would require them to invest in extra printing (or to reuse the sale-or-return copies, what DOES happen to them?), to slip sampler comic books into other comics (like they used to do when I was a kid), new distribution methods and to crank the wheels of the promotional machine into overdrive. And that's a big deal to ask, I realise that. But a passion for bringing comics to the masses, despite the cost, is excellent promotion in itself, and were at least some of the mainstream children's comics available for free, the advertising prices that publisher could command would be through the roof.
It is all a little too much to ask, of course, but small steps. As I said, it's an idea, conveniently skirting around the practicalities.
On the other side, for those of us not involved in publishing, there are perhaps more viable options. Setting up a crowdfunder to cover the costs of a comic you intend to release free, to those who perhaps comics would otherwise not reach, would be such a brilliant start. I've been entertaining the idea myself. It's a system where everyone wins the funders get exclusive content, you get to produce a comic filled with different artists and strips, without initial costs, and people get to enjoy it. Wrap that up with a supporting website and digital option, with a pay-what-you-want system to fund issue two, and you could have a whole new player in the comics scene. One which is literally funded by goodwill and passion. Imagine if some big name creators waded in and started doing the same. The fanzine ethic of 'make it yourself' returns, enabled by technology, and the comic industry as a whole can only benefit.
The creation of a comic, where artists get paid, and the finished product is free. What a phenomenally idealistic business model. But with crowdfunding, fanbases, the internet, and the sheer goodwill of people, what a realistic one.
So that's the question, would it in any way be viable? Would big business ever help fund free comics JUST to make people happy? And crucially, would free comics undermine the medium, and ultimately be more damaging? Any thoughts welcome.
Ps. One new such comic already trying this model for a slightly older audience is Off Life. Why not check out their funding page www.indiegogo.com/offlife
, and encourage this simple, but wonderful, idea?