Earlier this month, Mike Dawson wrote a brutally honest tumblr post about a cartoonist and their failure to find success. The title, “Advice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience“, might have come across as condescending except that he in fact wrote the post about himself. It is a rough read, but enlightening for fans of independent comics. Anyone that has attempted to navigate the rough waters of self-publishing, his post might prompt slow, knowing nods of understanding and sympathy pains in your stomach.
Mike’s surprisingly frank discussion involved sharing the low sales figures of his latest original graphic novel, Angie Bongiolatti, released by Brooklyn based publisher Secret Acres. He also offers sales numbers for his previously published books for comparison, along with a few theories for why his latest book has failed to garner attention, including his own reluctance to self promote via social media. He doesn’t attribute blame to his publisher, or lament the fact that you are reading his blog post, why aren’t you buying this book? His tumblr post does not come across as self-pitying so much as it is a matter of fact overview of his career, an open ended question of “Where do I go from here?”
The blog post was featured on The Beat, The Comics Reporter, and inspired multiple responses from critics, other creators, fans new and old. In a follow-up interview with Heidi MacDonald on the Publisher’s Weekly podcast, Mike further discusses the issues facing mid-career cartoonists, but also talks about the negative impact of having been the subject of a brief internet kerfuffle in the comic book community. It’s worth a listen, especially since so many of the events that inspire discussion in comics are immediately swept under the rug without talking about the effect it has on the subject.
I recently met Mike at CAKE, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, and I was happy to chat with him about his previous work and his newest release. He described Angie Bongiolatti as his first attempt to write a graphic novel with a female lead and the subject matter revolved around politics and sex amongst 20 somethings in post 9/11 New York. I told him I was press and he offered to give me a free review copy. Boy, did I feel guilty about that after reading his tumblr post! I was one of those people in the comics press not talking about his book. But to be honest it is not uncommon to receive review copies and never get around to reviewing the books (sorry, kind creators). As press, you get a lot of review requests and my stack of “books to read that I paid for” is a lot bigger than “free review copies”. I was actually halfway through Angie when Mike wrote his blog post, and I have since finished it. The novel is heavy with philosophical questions about socialism, identity, and the deep chasm between beliefs and how one actually practices politics in daily life. The story occasionally flashbacks to the late 90’s when the main characters are younger, more carefree, and slightly more concerned with sex than politics. Anything described as a “literary graphic novel” is already a hard sell to comic book stores, and this is definitely one of those books. Low pre-order numbers through Diamond, the largest comic book distributor, does not surprise me in the least. Without strong buzz or knowledge of previous work, store owners are reluctant to order anything from the back pages of Previews, especially from publishers that have only a few listings in the 300+ page catalog. It is an exhausting task to comb through Previews each month to place orders for the things you know customers want, let alone ordering books you think they might possibly be interested in based on the cover alone.
That is not to say there aren’t stores that cater to this type of graphic novel. For a generation that came of age during the war on terror and saw the simultaneous rise of political activism and apathy post 9/11, this is a book with relatable themes. The claim that it is a graphic novel with a female lead is debatable; it is more about a cast of characters reacting to Angie than being her story. As many others have suggested, I believe this graphic novel had more of a marketing issue than one of quality. Would a different, more memorable title have helped it jump out of the pile of to-be-read review copies? Would a long line that gave away more than broad implications have inspired more anticipation? Key amongst those and many other questions, who is driving this bus anyway?
It’s difficult to make this statement without seeming cliche, but the rise of webcomics has created more avenues for creating comics and reaching readers than ever before. The traditional large publishers rely heavily on intellectual property to sell their titles, and the model for marketing also relies on the (true) assumption that comic shop owners know what they’re getting and that they can sell it. Smaller by comparison, but still well known by comic readers and retailers, independent publishers like Fantagraphics and First Second can bet that their books will be on enough shelves in comic shops and literary book stores, based on the recognition of their well known brands and stable of somewhat well known creators. Then there are those that are bypassing traditional publishing models all together and going straight to the readership by releasing comics online.
More and more up and coming creators are relying on crowd funding, social media, and Patreon to cultivate their “brand recognition” as cartoonists. Many of these creators are breaking even financially (or not making money at all) but can boast decently sized audiences. But then there is something between the total DIY creators of the younger generation and creators publishing through established indie press and that is where Mike Dawson currently resides. Small press companies like Secret Acres are staples at shows like MoCCA and TCAF and perhaps rely more on taste recognition than name or branding. They are not well known amongst the retail community at large but have devoted fans amongst store owners interested in selling/reading fictional comics that cover challenging topics.
I believe there is an audience for Angie Bongiolatti amongst retailers of indie-leaning tastes, but again I ask, who is driving this bus? If a publisher is not well known enough to have its books ordered by stores based on the brand recognition of their titles or creators, does that leave the promotional drum beating in the hands of the cartoonist? If that was the case, and Mike is the first to admit it, he did not get the memo. Was he supposed to be tweeting about his book non-stop, sending review PDF’s to every and any outlet he could find? Who’s job was it to get this book on the ordering list of stores in Toronto, Portland, Chicago, and countless other cities with vibrant indie comic scenes? The role of creator-as-self-promoter may be widely accepted in comics today, but it still a relatively new one and not a tactic that every creator uses to sell their books. There was an indie scene before the internet; creators somehow found audiences without Twitter.
Small press comic book publishers certainly offer a lot of benefits to creators; access to distribution, being a part of an esteemed group of curated creators, tables at all the right indie shows, but even with promoting to the right retailers and fans, do they really do much in the way of helping creators find an audience they don’t already have? If making money was never Mike Dawson’s objective (and lord knows that is a sane way to approach creating indie comics), the internet might have been the route to take all along. Dawson addresses this by stating that the work felt too personal to serialize; that he created it from the beginning with the intention of being released as a graphic novel. And why not? The book had a publisher lined up from the start. Though I doubt we’ll see any soul searching blog posts from Secret Acres any time soon, we think they might reconsider their role as content distributor. Small press is in danger of looking more and more like middle man.