Comics have had a record-breaking year on Kickstarter. By October this year, backers had pledged $22m (£16.5m) to comics projects, up from $17m by the same point in 2019. Since the platform began in 2009, Kickstarter has funded 10,000 comic book projects, to the tune of $127m. With Marvel and DC putting out around 850 individual issues this year between them, that makes Kickstarter far and away the single most prolific publishing platform for comics in the world.
That even actor Keanu Reeves is dipping his toe into Kickstarter, raising $1.45m (£1m) for his comic BRZRKR, created with Matt Kindt and Ron Garney for Boom!, is indicative of a quiet revolution in the medium, one that is now posing a challenge to traditional publishing models.
While Kickstarter was originally utilised by indie creators who couldn’t – or didn’t want to – put their work out through conventional publishers, now even the latter are getting in on the act. Part of the appeal is risk. Readers pay up front for their comic before it is even finished; more than 14,000 people backed the 12-issue BRZRKR, meaning more than 14,000 guaranteed sales. The month-long fundraising window makes for a relatively quick turnaround – which allows for projects such as Tales from the Quarantine, a recent anthology featuring more than 400 artists and writers that raised money for charities involved in the pandemic. And with the coronavirus shutting down comic shops for long stretches, Kickstarter is a distributor that has stayed open all year.
One huge Kickstarter success of 2020 is Madi, the graphic novel created by film director Duncan Jones and comic writer Alex de Campi, which raised $360,000. “I was worried that a lot of people who might be interested in the book would miss it if it was primarily available in comic shops,” says de Campi. “Plus the word of mouth from a successful campaign helps raise the book’s profile, especially in this crowded market.”
Jones, who wasn’t sure that his success with film would necessarily translate to the comics world, says he was driven to Kickstarter by “fear, terror, lack of confidence, a desire to have some inkling that there would be interest in me doing a graphic novel when I had never published one before”.
“The idea of going to a publisher and telling them ‘I would like to make a book please’ seemed so absurd that when Alex suggested the Kickstarter route, I immediately felt more calm. Thankfully it went well. Really well! Well enough we were able to stride into our publisher’s office like Lord Flashheart,” he says.
Since its success, De Campi has been approached by big publishers who moaned that she didn’t approach them with Madi, but she says that is with $360,000 of hindsight. “And Duncan and I never give away our film rights, which immediately cut out 75% of publishers,” she added.
C Spike Trotman, founder of Iron Circus Comics, has been Kickstarting comics since the platform launched. “I seriously can’t tell you how beneficial that’s been for me, as a small press publisher. It’s helped us grow at maybe twice the rate we might have been capable of organically. No waiting for books to pay out before we move to the next project. And some projects have even made me completely rethink how many copies of a book I planned on printing, or how hard I was going to push the marketing. It’s so advantageous it almost feels like cheating, sometimes. Zero guesswork!”
But it’s not about just the nuts and bolts of comic production and selling. Kickstarter has also opened up publishing to voices that are marginalised in mainstream comics. Take Zainab Akhtar’s quarterly ShortBox project: each box contains five original comics from a wide range of independent and diverse creators. It has been phenomenally successful in bringing new voices to a wider market, with the most recent campaign raising £36,600 from a £17,000 target. And Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please!, originally a Tumblr webcomic about a gay man navigating college hockey culture, amassed such a fanbase that Ukazu could fund a series of physical books that were eventually picked up by a publisher.
Before Kickstarter, Trotman says, “if you wanted to make something that didn’t have anything to do with superheroes, you had already locked yourself out of the most potentially profitable part of the industry, the one that was the most likely to be able to financially sustain you. And marginalised people already have a hell of a time finding a foothold in most, if not all, creative industries, which still, and definitely used to even more so, prioritise the attention of the white, cis, male demographic.”
Does Trotman feel any annoyance at the likes of Reeves snatching up the bucks? “A rising tide raises all ships,” she says. “The people who register to back Keanu on Kickstarter will stick around and back other projects, too. That’s thousands of people who may have never had a Kickstarter account before, and now do, and might be one of your backers the next time you launch a project.”
Before anyone thinks crowdfunding comics is a fast route to making a quick buck, De Campi sounds a note of caution. “You’re not making a decent profit off a graphic novel unless you hit $100,000,” she says. “A lot of people raise about $40,000 for their books – with that, you’re just washing your face. You might even be losing money once shipping is included. And you need to talk to your fans a lot. Some creators don’t want to do that.”
But with 17,000 comics and graphic novels currently on Kickstarter, it doesn’t look like anyone’s put off. Come for Keanu, stay for the comics that might never see the light of day without your support.