The gang at Forces of Geek asked me all about Conan Red Sonja, Skullkickers, and Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate, so we talk fantasy fun.
Category Archives: Skullkickers
It’s been two and half years since I posted up my ‘Reality of Mainstream Creator-Owned Comics’ article that kicked off a furious online discussion about where money goes in the retail market and what creators are paid on small print run creator-owned comics. There’s rarely a week that goes by where someone isn’t linking to that article, tweeting at me about it, or otherwise asking for clarification about ‘how things work’.
Even when some people pointed to that article as ‘proof’ that Image Comics wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, Image stuck with me, kept publishing Skullkickers, and continued to make incredible strides in expanding the market for creator-owned comics. I’ve always been thrilled to have my creator-owned books published by Image because I knew why the company was formed and how it’s always worked: Creators are in complete control of their comics and they’re compensated based on its success.
The comic industry in 2015 is a very, very different place and a big part of that is thanks to Image Comics’s tireless efforts to show retailers and readers the strength of new ideas and new stories.
SKULLKICKERS #1 (September 2010) and WAYWARD #1 (August 2014).
The Image model has always been about investing in yourself and reaping the benefits of that investment if sales are strong. I knew that going in with Skullkickers back in 2010 and, even when our sales were borderline unprofitable, I stuck with the series as a way to establish myself as a writer and show people our team could produce a high quality comic month after month. Now, four and a half years later, I’m seeing the benefits of that consistency and the growing creator-owned market with my new Image series called Wayward.
How much of a benefit? Well, let me show you…
Wayward’s first five print issues have sold more than two and a half times as many as Skullkickers did over the same period 4 years earlier. As you might imagine, that’s an impressive jump and I think there are a bunch of reasons for that climb:
• Improved Visibility for Comics: Comics sales are growing in print and online, graphic novels are the buzz-worthy darlings of the book market, and comic-related movie and TV shows are more mainstream than ever. The ripple effect of that is a greater acceptance of comics from the general public and a more diverse fanbase looking for new stories.
• Image’s Success and Subsequent Growth: The success of the Walking Dead, Saga, Sex Criminals, and a host of other incredible titles have increased visibility and market share for Image. This is especially true with launch titles as readers and retailers look to these new series with excitement, hoping they’ll be on the ground floor for something special.
• My Career Growth: In 2010 I was practically an unknown creator in the mainstream comic market. Four years later I have quite a few other comic titles under my belt – Samurai Jack, Figment, Legends of the Dark Knight, Pathfinder, and a bunch of others. I’m not an industry powerhouse by any means, but the readers from those series seemed curious about what my next creator-owned title would be and jumped on board Wayward to check it out.
• Retailer Outreach: I’ve also done a ton of retailer outreach over the past four years. Having well regarded work is wonderful but only if retailers feel confident they can sell the books. As we headed towards the launch of Wayward, the crew at Image and I did a lot of communicating with retailers about the series, showing them exclusive artwork and previews, doing everything we could to prove to them that this was a series they could confidently sell to their customers. That lead to several comic shop and convention-exclusive variant covers for Wayward #1, bolstering our launch numbers by thousands of copies while creating extra interest in the series.
• Press Outreach: In the same vein, it’s a heck of a lot easier to get press coverage when you’re more established and we (Image’s PR crew and I) did a lot of press outreach as well to make sure Wayward was visible on every comic news and review site we could muster. The last couple months before the launch of issue one was a dizzying promotional tour of interviews, podcasts, exclusive sneak peeks, and more.
• The Series: Wayward is a very different series than Skullkickers. I love them both, but I’d be foolish not to note that Wayward as a concept is more inclusive and taps into a much larger potential readership than Skullkickers does. Cute supernatural teenage girls (surrounded by cats) kicking the shit out of monsters on the street of Tokyo plays to a bigger audience than a bro-centric slapstick violent D&D tale, especially in 2014-2015.
Okay, sale numbers are spiffy but how does that translate into relative profitability? Wait ‘til you see this…
I know you’re looking at that bar chart and can’t fathom how 2.5 times the sales magically turns into 7.5 times the profit. Trust me, I’ll explain.
Here’s the real beauty of the Image model when it’s running at full steam and, as far as I know, it’s something no other creator-owned publisher can match: Image has a flat administrative fee for soliciting and releasing each issue of a series. That amount does not change no matter how much the issue sells. On a relatively low selling comic (like back in 2010 with Skullkickers #1) that base fee can eat up most of what’s left over after the printer, distributor, and retailer take their cut but, on a strong selling comic that amount stays the same and the issue becomes a lot more profitable. A lot.
This is why that pie chart from my original retail post doesn’t scale well to different print runs and doesn’t perfectly sync up with the Image model. A 5000 copy comic has a very, very different money breakdown than one that sells 10k or more. Printing large quantities of something vastly decreases the cost per copy. The “price per unit” drops and the profitability per copy increases, but Image’s base fee doesn’t change.
As you can see, it’s a seismic difference from the chart I posted in 2012 based on a much lower print run/lower sales.
Skullkickers #1 went through three printings, but each one was a small run, which made the “per unit” cost quite high on each issue. Wayward #1’s first printing was a much, much larger run done all at once and, in turn, the profitability of that first issue was geometrically larger. A lot more copies printed, a lot more sold, and each one cost a lot less to produce, making us a lot more money when it was all said and done.
Cranking up that profitability even further, Image has been able to leverage their increased market share and larger print runs to aggressively keep their printing and shipping costs low even as their sales increase, leaving even more money for creators after the fees are covered.
You might look at that chart and imagine Steve Cummings (the artist and co-creator of Wayward) and I pelting each other with giant wads of cash, but it’s not like that. What those numbers mean is that we’re thankfully in the black right from our first issue, which is obviously where we want to be. Steve gets to make drawing Wayward his full time job (I’m still teaching at a local art college and freelance writing), and the color flatter, colorist, and letterer all get paid without me having to dig into my personal savings (like I do on Skullkickers). On top of that I can finally put some money into my “war chest” for convention travel and future creator-owned projects. If sales continue strongly I’ll make extra payments on my mortgage so I can be debt free that much faster.
It’s a solid start and miles ahead of where I was in 2010, but that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. Strong launch numbers are one thing, but finding a loyal sustained readership is our long term goal and that requires a lot of work. By the time our first arc ended, Wayward seemed to be settling into a reasonable sales bracket, now we have to do everything we can to try and stay in that stable sales range over the long haul.
Image is bolstering our chances by releasing Wayward Vol. 1: String Theory on March 25th as a value-priced $9.99 trade paperback. We’ll make less money per copy on that first volume, but it’s a very smart way to increase our readership as retailers up their orders, new readers give the series a shot at a sweet price point, and current readers ideally pick up the collection for themselves or buy it as a gift for their friends (Pssst~ Have you pre-ordered your copy yet?).
Our standard TPB cover and the Emerald City Comicon exclusive hardcover.
We’re also releasing Wayward #6, the first issue of our second story arc, on the same day as our volume 1 trade paperback as a way to create extra sales synergy. Savvy retailers can bundle both together to get readers on board the new storyline, hopefully leading to additional subscriptions for their pull files.
On top of that, Steve suggested we create a series of connecting covers for our second story arc and I happily went along with the idea (leaving the logistics of that artistic monstrosity to him and Tamra, our kick ass colorist). We’re hoping fans will want to keep buying the single issues to create a sweeping 5 issue cover panorama. Here’s how the first three covers (issues #6-8) look when they’re connected together:
Quality, consistency, and outreach. With a bit of luck those three things will convince retailers and readers to stick with us.
At the same time, Skullkickers is heading into its final story arc. Financially it’s always been a bit rocky but it’s proving robust with a long tail of digital and collection sales and has a strong audience online as a serialized webcomic. It’s the project that pushed my comic writing career to the next level and I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done. Nothing else I’ve worked on since then would have happened without it.
If we maintain our current production schedule on Wayward we’ll have two trade paperbacks out and be starting our third story arc in time for Christmas 2015. Skulkickers’ final arc, final trade paperback, and final deluxe hardcover will arrive before Christmas as well.
At each step we’ll be juggling solicitations 5-6 months ahead, scripting 3-4 months ahead, line art 2-3 months ahead, coloring 1-2 months ahead and letter proofing a few weeks before each issue heads to print. It’s a relentless game of “Scheduling Tetris” but, when the momentum is rolling, I actually enjoy it. There’s a constant influx of inspiration as line art and coloring samples pop into my inbox almost every morning. It reminds me that all of us on the team are working hard to create something that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for our efforts and the support of amazing retailers and readers like you. I love creating comics and want to keep this dream rolling as long as I can, learning more about the craft and business, year after year.
In the end, I think that’s what creator-owned comics are all about – charting your own destiny and growing creatively with each new project.
If you found this post interesting or helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter) and share the post with your friends. Please consider buying some of my comics online, from your local retailer or from me in person if you see me at a convention.
The gang at Dynamic Forces interview me about the final arc of SKULLKICKERS. We talk a bit about five years of fantasy fun and what comes next.
Arriving in May. Pre-order now!
story: JIM ZUB
art: EDWIN HUANG & MISTY COATS
cover: EDWIN HUANG & JEFF “CHAMBA” CRUZ
MAY 27 / 32 PAGES / FC / T / $3.50
“INFINITE ICONS OF THE ENDLESS EPIC” Part Three
Double, double, toil and trouble… heroes burn and dimensions bubble!
This issue has the second of two connecting gatefold covers by Edwin Huang and Jeff “Chamba” Cruz. Get this one and the previous month’s issue to put together the ultimate Skullkickers battle panorama!
Just posted a comment on Heidi MacDonald’s new article about Image creator-owned financials in 2012 VS 2015: http://www.comicsbeat.com/comics-pay-how-much/
Once I get the financial breakdown for Wayward #5 I’ll post a comparison of Wayward #1-5 + Skullkickers #1-5. The short version: Five years has changed a LOT.
Image is in a completely different place with a much bigger market share and footprint in comic shops, book stores, and digital sales. The audience for new creator-owned series has expanded thanks to the Walking Dead, Saga, Sex Criminals and a host of other Image hits. On top of that, my own career/visibility has grown along with my retailer and press contacts, making it easier to get the word out.
Put that all together and Wayward is much, much more financially viable/stable than Skullkickers has ever been. That’s not a knock on SK. Skullkickers is the bedrock of my comic writing career and established the path I’m now on. It’s O.Z. (Original Zub).
Wayward is not making dump trucks of money but it’s financially viable right from the get-go and hopefully grows from there with TPB/digital. Steve Cummings gets to make Wayward his day job and we build on strong reviews and retailer support hoping to find Chew-like stability.
100% control, 100% ownership + the best possible pay day if a series succeeds.
Image has the creator-owned deal to beat, especially in 2015.
When some people read my original financial article they get the misinformed idea I don’t like the Image deal. Not true at all. I say it right in there:
“Writing/Creating Skullkickers and being published by Image Comics is a thrill and an honor.”
I entered the market in 2010 as a virtual unknown with a sword & sorcery-comedy in a market that was playing grim, serious, and superhero-y. Even against those odds we garnered good buzz and have slowly built a following, especially in long tail digital and TPB sales.
Skullkickers was/is an investment in myself and the incredible opportunities that have come from doing it have been overwhelmingly positive. Those charts/figures don’t translate that. They don’t tell the story of establishing writing credibility and owning something I’m proud of. Legends of the Dark Knight, Samurai Jack, Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons, Figment, and a bunch more all because that ball started at Image.
But even if those work-for-hire opportunities didn’t come along, it was (and is) still worth it because it’s my story brought to life. When someone says Skullkickers or Wayward is great I know they wouldn’t exist at all without our team’s dedication. It’s hard for me to express how proud that makes me.
I post about the financial realities and difficulties because I don’t want creators to go in starry-eyed and expecting insta-riches.
Be informed, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Make something you’re proud of and learn from each new project, successful or not.
Okay, went a bit buck there., Thanks for listening.
Also, pre-order Wayward Vol. 1 so I can keep on keeping on.
Arriving in April… Pre-order now!
story: JIM ZUB
art: EDWIN HUANG & MISTY COATS
cover: EDWIN HUANG & JEFF “CHAMBA” CRUZ
APRIL 29 / 32 PAGES / FC / T / $3.50
“INFINITE ICONS OF THE ENDLESS EPIC,” Part Two
Monster mashers, elder evil, and now deadly demons… Everyone’s invited for the brawl at the end of it all!
This issue has the first of two connecting gatefold covers by EDWIN HUANG & JEFF “CHAMBA” CRUZ. Get this one and next month’s issue to put together the ultimate Skullkickers battle panorama!
The Skullkickers have just been announced as part of the Rum & Bones board game Kickstarter! They’re an exclusive set of 5 figures (complete with their own character-centric rules) only available as part of the Kickstarter pre-order process.
Rum & Bones is the new pirate-themed board game by Cool Mini Or Not, creators of ‘Zombicide’, one of my absolute favorite board games. I’ve been singing the praises of Zombicide for a couple years now and when I had a chance to meet the Cool Mini crew at Gen Con we talked about the possibility of teaming up in the future. Once they started work on Rum & Bones, we both felt it would be a great way to use the SK cast, especially since we had a pirate story of our own in Volume 3, ‘Six Shooter on the Seven Seas’.
As you can see, the character archetypes from Skullkickers marry themselves well to the Rum & Bones play style and the miniature sculpts look awesome!
If you’re a board game fan or Skullkickers fan I hope you’ll click through to check out Rum & Bones (which wraps up pre-orders on December 28th) and tell your friends about it too. I can’t wait to battle it out with our very own skullkicking pirate crew!
Arriving in March… Pre-order now!
story: JIM ZUB
art: EDWIN HUANG & MISTY COATS
cover: JAMES GHIO
MARCH 25 / 32 PAGES / FC / T / $3.50
“INFINITE ICONS OF THE ENDLESS EPIC,” Part One
This is it, the beginning of the end. Beer, blood, and battle. Get on board now so you can say you were there when it all blew up.
“Skullkickers is one of the smartest comics out there.” – Newsarama
Just over a year ago I put together a second pretty extensive post all about how long term sales were going on Skullkickers. I wanted to give people an understanding of the economics of what I’m doing without revealing the exact dollar figure amounts involved (that information is between Image Comics and the creative team).
Since then I’ve received two more accounting accrual statements from Image and also had a chance to dig deeper into the numbers and chart them a bit more accurately.
Here’s an updated look at where we’re at and some of my thoughts. I’m not going to repeat the same info from before, so feel free to check the earlier article for analysis of 2011 Q2-2013 Q2.
Here’s how Skullkickers has performed from our launch back in 2010 through to the first half of 2014:
2013 Q3-Q4: As I expected in my previous update, printing the deluxe Treasure Trove 2 hardback ratcheted up our expenses, but print sales are pretty much neck-and-neck, with digital keeping us slightly ahead.
2014 Q1-Q2: Reprinting our Volume 3 softcover built up some cost but we’ve been able to stay ahead with accrual sales. Digital sales are now becoming a larger factor overall as well. How much so? Well, let me show you in more detail.
Keep in mind the above is profit, not sales.
Digital sales continue to grow. Since there’s no print run or storage limit with digital they continue to build profitability over the long haul (particularly with the early issues as new readers sample the series during comiXology sales). Many issues that lost money in their initial print release have been able to make back their losses thanks to digital.
You can also see the effect our goofy reboot promotion (where we released five new #1’s in five months) had during issues 19-23. We’d never be able to do that sort of thing again, but it was a nice way to extend the life of the series a bit. I can see why Marvel and DC hit the relaunch button so often. Fans may say they’re sick of new #1’s, but the truth is that it can stir interest/sales.
Let’s look at the current state of the collections.
In my update a year ago Skullkickers Vol. 1: 1000 Opas and a Dead Body and Skullkickers Treasure Trove Vol. 1 weren’t profitable but now, thanks to longtail sales and digital, they’re making some money.
Skullkickers Vol. 3: Six Shooter on the Seven Seas sold through its initial print run and needed a reprint, so it’s back in the red (but will hopefully recover over the long haul).
Skullkickers Vol. 4: Eighty Eyes on an Evil Island hasn’t been out very long so there are more copies in stock than have currently sold. Thankfully digital sales are helping.
The deluxe Skullkickers Treasure Trove Vol. 2 hardback is, like the first one, very expensive to print and will take quite a while to make its money back. Even still, with a higher cover price it’s a great archival item to have available. The deluxe volumes sell well for me at conventions and, although it looks brutal right now, I think it will climb its way out of the red just like Treasure Trove 1 did.
A year ago our print expenditures had finally popped into a tiny bit of profitability. How are things looking now?
Okay, so that tiny breath of profitable fresh air in the green was temporary, but that’s okay. Things actually aren’t as dire as it may look, given all the data.
First off, Image paid us an accrual cheque based on digital sales in 2013, so when they had to print Treasure Trove 2 and Volume 4 and reprint Volume 3 that put them back in the red. Keeping the series in print and available is crucial for our long term viability.
Secondly, notice that digital sales continue to climb and that profits from digital are actually keeping pace with losses incurred through print. Digital is keeping us skimming along the break even line. I’m still hopeful that, once the series ends in 2015, we’ll end up in the black.
Compare the current situation to the low point of the first half of 2012. I can’t state enough that Image has been a rock through all of this, making their base amount and sticking with us, paying printing/distribution bills while we looked towards longtail sales for the series.
Keep in mind this is just analysis of one creator-owned series. As interesting as it can be, I can’t speak to anyone else’s sales or their financial situation. This sales cycle does not correspond to all creator-owned books. Please don’t make your own financial decisions based on what I’ve done. Everyone’s risk threshold and situation is different. You may end up throwing good money after bad. Wayward, my new creator-owned series that launched in August, has a completely different sales/profit situation and, if I have time, I may analyse that as well once we have our first trade release.
Note that this is not the full financial picture. The above charts don’t include convention sales, which are still going strong. The money made from direct convention sales, sketch covers, commissions and selling original page art has helped keep us going and viable. I exhibited at 11 conventions this year and, even though it was exhausting, it paid off in terms of sales and visibility for the series. It also doesn’t include money made from web ad revenue generated at our webcomic site.
Also note that none of the above takes into account freelance work that’s come from working on Skullkickers. If you factor in money made from the writing jobs I’ve done for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, IDW, Valiant, Dynamite, and UDON since the series began, it has turned a substantial profit in that way even after paying the art team out of my own pocket (which is not factored into the above. The charts above represent only Image Comics’ profit/loss). Skullkickers has been the foundation where I’ve built a 2nd career as a professional comic writer over a relatively short period of time.
Most importantly, we put out a comic that stands favourably beside some of the best titles in the industry and I’m incredibly proud of that. As we head towards our sixth story arc we’re going to have over 30 issues, which is pretty rarefied air for a creator-owned series in this day and age.
My dear friends Leanne Bayley and Alex Trowers have just released SUPER GLYPH QUEST, a fun spellcasting mini-RPG for mobile platforms (iPhone/iPad right now and Android still to come). If you enjoy match-3-style games like Puzzle Quest and Bejeweled, you’re going to love Glyph Quest’s strategic combos and colorful animations.
Even better, Super Glyph Quest includes a special Skullkickers quest against Thool! Yup, Rex and Rolf make their first video game appearance in the cute Glyph Quest style and it’s awesome. If you like Skullkickers you’ll definitely want to check this out.
Also making our first video game appearance is Stacy and I! Yeah, my wife and I appear in the game as NPCs and our designers are ridiculously cute as well. Check ‘em out!
Alex and Leanne included many of the long time Animex festival speakers in the game in background roles as NPCs throughout the game. It’s a cute Easter Egg that makes the game even more memorable for our friends.
So, if you want a fun new game title to play on your iPhone/iPad, SUPER GLYPH QUEST is it!
It’s $2.99, the price of a coffee, but it’s also ad free and doesn’t drag micropayment annoyances along behind it. It’s a wonderful self-contained title worth your time and support.