My 2012 on The Internet, Good and Bad
Originally published here at my blog, I thought it was worth reposting here at Chainsawsuit.
A year ended last week — a year in which I spent a full 3% of my life. That may well have been the last 2012 I will ever experience. A sobering thought.
I completely forgot I had done a postmortem for 2011, which makes a great springboard for this year’s version! And it’s gonna be a long one.
Let’s start with revisiting my goals for 2012. It was a big year and I’m grateful for all my friends and family who helped me through it. It wasn’t all successes though:
More things in my store, turned around faster and planned for debut at conventions. I would really love to be able to offer all five Starslip books — the entire series when it’s complete — at San Diego Comic Con 2012.
More regular merch: Failure. This didn’t really happen, to my sadness — at least nowhere near the degree I would consider a success. I have had a good experience with Topatoco as my purveyor of shirts and posters, but I have a little Citizen Kane thing going on with them: the first shirt I did with them did so well for me, I have never known what to do next. I launched a handful of shirts I had high hopes for, and they didn’t do nearly as well as Pressure Points.
Anyway, Topatoco is not my sadness — the five-Starslip-book thing-by-SDCC is. As you may know, I did actually have all five Starslip books at San Diego Comic Con 2012. But Book 5 was a special-edition version for SDCC, with a gold cover. That’s because it was print-on-demand. The printer I wanted to work with fell through for SDCC, and it created a miserable scenario: Starslip was ending in June. The biggest convention all year was in July — a prime opportunity to sell the entire collection to readers. The time to strike was now (by which I mean then).
Fortunately, CreateSpace worked out great… so much so that I am really at a loss as far as books are concerned. Year after year, print costs have gone up while print quality has gone down.
I had a lot of trouble with the printer of the last Starslip book. They’re Quad/Graphics in Chicago, and this was my first and final experience with them. The Book 5 run was the most expensive of any book I’ve ever done, and the quality was incredibly disappointing. They had to reprint the books for me, the first round was so shoddy. It was the first time I’ve ever had to go through that with a printer. I actually enlisted Scott’s brother Brian, an expert shouter, to shout at them on my behalf. This led to delays, headaches and disappointments.
My original idea was to have a nice slipcase available alongside Book 5 and the Companion — something to showcase your books in. But the slipcase cost was also absurd.
For years, my colleagues and I have espoused POD book solutions up until the day you have a large enough audience to buy a real print run. Because with a print run, it brings the unit cost way down, and if you can sell to 60 people, you’ve made back your money. I guess this isn’t the case anymore.
CreateSpace’s unit cost for the fifth Starslip book was a dime less than the unit cost from Quad. For the first time in my life, POD beat print run. If CreateSpace did matte covers, I’d have gone with them. Sadly they only do glossy. But with POD you don’t have to buy 1,000 at once! I did buy 1,000 from Quad and the first printing was trash compared to my other books.
So that world is changing beneath me.
Hosting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in April with Scott and Wil Wheaton, and possibly doing a con in Australia the following weekend.
Hosting the MSO: Success. It was truly one of the highlights of my life, going out in front of 5,000 people and doing comedy with Scott and Wil and presenting incredible orchestral video game music. We were treated so well, and I would do it again in a heartbeat — and I am in fact doing it again this November in Queensland with Paul Verhoeven. Andrew Pogson from the MSO was the driving force behind it and a great guy. I was very impressed with the whole thing. There is something so fulfilling about working with others who are focused on making the best possible product. Scott and Wil knocked it out of the park.
Con in Australia: Failure. Scott, Wil and I stayed on a week to do the Supanova convention in Melbourne. We were classified as media guests, not cartoonist guests like we’re used to being at cons in America. Being a media guest there meant we shared the green room with people like Edward James Olmos, Morena Baccarin, the brothers who played the Weasley Twins, and Carl from Walking Dead. (Oh, and Brandon Sanderson who was super nice and great and a fan of webcomics.)
I call it a failure for a couple reasons. As was explained to me later, a lot of media/celebrity guests set minimums and have guarantees from conventions to appear. They charge for signings, photographs, etc, and are given a per diem. If attendance is poor, the minimum guarantee says they will still get paid X amount just for being present. Scott and I were media guests, but had worked out no guarantees — why would we? We never had before. In America it was never offered because we’re not media celebrities. We are cartoonists there to sell our work, not draw a crowd.
The con, while not a bad show, was not incredibly well attended, and I couldn’t help but feel like our presence there was, for the convention, serendipitous. We were already on the continent — why not come to this show? We were obligated to do three (three!) panels while there, as well as attend a cocktail evening for ticket-holders who paid enough to meet celebrities. And this is the part I consider a personal failure:
I really don’t think the convention organizers knew who we were. I especially don’t think they knew who I was. One of the panels was moderated by someone who asked us questions which told us instantly that he had no idea who we were. And on at least one of the pages, I was listed as Chris Stroub from PvP and Blaminations.
I cannot tell you what that does to me inside. Let me tell you a story from high school.
I was a very different person in high school. I was very shy and awkward, anxious, socially backwards. I shied away from any kind of attention or praise. I still liked making cool things and drawing and writing, but for some reason I got it in my head that being humble meant distancing yourself from your work. The work should stand on its own and speak for itself, I would think — and this would manifest as me refusing credit.
I volunteered to do graphics work for the closed circuit announcements program in high school. It ran 15 minutes of second period every morning. I drew all the images that accompanied the announcements and news stories. I rewrote the backend for the graphics display to be quicker. When the video card burned out, I installed a new one over the weekend. I practiced my cues. I prided myself on being the best graphics person that program had seen in all four years.
When the yearbook came out, I was shocked to see that the others from the program had taken a team picture without me. I was also uncredited in the yearbook.
One of them came up to me afterwards and weakly apologized, saying it was just a little mistake. But I knew the real reason: I was a nerd and the rest of them were popular, cool kids who liked to ditch class for 20 minutes every morning. They just didn’t want me in there, and they had the power to make that happen. And even in that moment when I had righteous anger on my side, I said: “it’s okay, I understand.” Then I went home and cried about it.
This happened to me in other ways over my junior high and high school days. Now, as an adult, it’s not okay, and I refuse to understand. If I am invited to appear at your convention, and you don’t have the courtesy to learn who I am or spell my name right, you disrespect me! You disrespect my readers who want to know that the convention they paid to attend cares about me in turn.
But I consider this a personal failing because I’ll see a thing like that and think “well… everyone gets my name wrong.” Or that the convention has just copy/pasted the woefully inaccurate, unfocused Wikipedia entry about me as my bio, and I think “at least they tried a little bit.” Friends, it infuriates me. And for years I did it to myself. Until I have someone looking out for me, it’s my job to police this and jump down someone’s throat when it happens.
You know what I just realized? That high school story was 18 years ago and I’m still mad.
Starslip will end by the first week of April. A lot of my hesitance to end it was based on how many books I have sitting in a warehouse, and my fear that no one will want the books for a complete series once it’s not updating.
Starslip ending: Success. It was the right move to make, and it was well received by readers. I’m a little embarrassed about some of the decisions I made in Starslip, but on the whole I am very proud of it.
My fear about the books remains, however. I think I locked myself into a bad mode of thought with Starslip. You can ask Scott about this and he’ll tell you how rigid my thinking was. There wasn’t even a good reason for it. I cut my teeth on it though. I know Checkerboard Nightmare ran for five years before, but I think of Starslip as my freshman effort.
Chainsawsuit will get a ton of my attention. I still treat it like this ugly stepchild I’m embarrassed to be seen with. I have a lot of ideas for it and how to extend/expand it without wrecking the core of what it is already. Chainsawsuit is a great place to experiment with ideas and I’m only now understanding that.
Ha! Chainsawsuit getting my attention: Failure. There’s an immediacy to Chainsawsuit that makes it very approachable and shareable, but what I really wanted that to translate into was merchandise.
I mean — okay — from a creative standpoint, to a degree, I was hoping that more experimentation in Chainsawsuit would lead to my next serious thing. And that’s a nice idea, but it didn’t happen. You can see remnants of some character design ideas here and there, especially in the now-cold Chainsawsuit Labs, but it wasn’t exactly the fertile ground I hoped for.
I learned a lesson with Starslip and Chainsawsuit: with a serial story, people are book completists, and with gags, people want whatever “the best book” is. I have enough new Chainsawsuit comics to print another three books right now. But I have a lot of Chainsawsuit books left in the warehouse. Is the answer really to keep adding stacks of 1,000 books at a time to that?
Chainsawsuit tends to sell pretty well at conventions, where you can thumb through the book and laugh a couple times. It’s visceral. But online, that experience isn’t nearly as palpable. As a result, people bought the hell out of the first book, ditto second, a little less of the third, even less fourth, a lot less fifth. I don’t think that’s what people want when they buy a Chainsawsuit book, in general.
There will always been completists, but based on this trend, the next Chainsawsuit book will be either a “best of” or a themed collection, like just the video game jokes or the movie jokes, or the Two Cops jokes.
Another album. I would like to produce an internally-consistent EP I can perform in front of an audience.
New album: Failure, but still would love to do it once some of this stuff is off my plate. Broodhollow is so ripe for this, I salivate at the prospect. I would love to have Jerry collaborate on it.
A regular podcast. Something with the tone of Webcomics Weekly or The Morning After, where it is regular and topical and conversational. I don’t know who else would be on it.
A regular podcast: Failure. Is it really a failure though? I’m not sure. I’d rather not do a podcast than just make one to make one. I would love the chance to work in other media, and I see podcasting as the easiest segue into that. There may be a chance for WW to return though. A chance, he said, cryptically.
A new regular strip to replace Starslip. I was grooming F Chords to be that, but if I go back to it, it’ll be exactly like it was in 2008 again. I have a good idea for a strip that would be episodic, three times a week. I have the same feeling about it that I did Starslip at the beginning: unsure, but excited to see how it comes together. And it would play to my strength, as opposed to some… gap I perceive in a marketplace.
A new regular strip: Success. I have been blown away by the response to Broodhollow. What’s funny is, for the longest time, I had been planning on not doing Broodhollow, but a fantasy strip. I’m glad I didn’t though, because that fantasy strip was getting dangerously close to becoming overwritten and overworked, just like F Chords. You get scared, man! You get scared and you want a thing to work out so badly that you squeeze it to death by accident. At least I do.
The neat thing about Broodhollow is discovering that a lot of this stuff runs deeper than I thought. I lamented that with the end of Starslip, I could no longer draw upon huge swathes of my college and high school thoughts of time travel and science fiction. What I hadn’t counted on was now being able to draw upon events and ideas from my childhood; bad dreams I’ve had and ritualistic beliefs that kept me safe from ghosts in closets. It runs deep in me and I hope it makes for good stories.
Revisiting old dislikes and distrusts, and unpacking them. This also goes to the humor snobbery stuff. It’s fun to come down hard on something, but it’s bad for business.
Being nicer: Success. I think it’s worked out mostly! I have made an effort to be more positive and not just dump on things I think are dumb. That said, there is a ton of humor potential in dumping on dumb things. I just avoid doing it to my own detriment.
Wow! Okay. That was a lot. Now, a list for 2013.
- More live events and presenting. In 2012, I co-hosted the MSO, hosted Molly Lewis’ graduation show, Scott and I did two huge incredible live shows at the Triple Door (thanks Liz), and I appeared up at Desert Bus. I also did the whole animation for the D&D podcast on stage at PAX, which was awesome. I want to do more of these things in 2013. My enjoyment of doing live shows does not change the fact that I have horrible anxiety before every stage appearance.
- A season of Mappy for ShiftyLook. This one is already a lock, and I’m really excited to be doing another Blamimated series with Scott. I just put it on here to remind you it’s coming.
- More varied, smaller projects. I have a tendency to pull back because in the past, I would run down every single thing that came to mind and it usually was a (very cool) complete waste of my time. Just look at the list of unfinished projects in my wake.I would, however, like to test a lot of different waters and make work in different spaces this year. I was super excited to do work on the Machine of Death card game that Malki ! announced this week. And “work” can include guesting on podcasts, so let me know if you want me.
- Less improv. It scares the absolute shit out of me, and I don’t know why. Something about the form just paralyzes me. It has a lot to do with inhabiting a character.
- More karaoke. Because.
- More regular merchandise. I can put it on two years’ lists!! The good news is, I feel so much more comfortable with Broodhollow merchandise. I have a list of really, really cool things I want to produce, and Broodhollow is a wonderful setting for them. And the fact is, Topatoco has been good to me and I have no reason not to submit a new shirt or poster once a month to them.
- At least a new EP. Come on, Kris, you can pull together five songs about the things that torment you in your sleep every night.
- Do not be destroyed by the movie industry. There’s nothing binding yet, but I have been talking to Max Landis (writer of Chronicle) and a couple other production companies about a Candle Cove movie. Max approached me about it over Twitter and the ball started rolling.
It’s a very slow process that, to my understanding, almost always dies somewhere along the way. But avoiding a syndicate/studio system — the way I’ve done my comics since 2000 — is how I make a living, and it’s made me paranoid about signing anything with anybody. Mikey has been kind of a cheerleader for me and it’s been a big help.
Candle Cove is actually a great property to test these waters with, and that brings me to my biggest problem:
- Find management and/or a literary agent I feel good about. Over the course of this last couple months, I’ve talked to six or seven different agents. They all sound the same to me. They don’t really know what I do, and I don’t really know what they do. I also briefly had and lost management that really bummed me out. My projects are starting to leave my sphere of expertise.
My advertising has been in this shape for the past two years, too. I’m growing too fast, and there are too many possible directions to go in. Some of those directions are mistakes. I can get free advice up one side and down the other, but it’s not the same as having someone on my side who will benefit directly from me doing well.
I need representation. I will have it in 2013.
2013 is poised to be an even bigger year, and I thank you for coming. Part of that thanks is opening up like this online. I have never been such a good showman that I felt like I had to be “everything of mine always works, 100%!” with my audience. Thanks, team. I’ll keep you posted.