Category Archives: Tutorial

Free Writing Seminar for Be Our Heroes Canada

As part of the Be Our Heroes Canada event that ran over the weekend, I did a free comic writing lecture, going through the process I used to develop the story and script for Conan the Barbarian #13. Check it out to get an extensive look at the comic writing process.

NaNoWriMo For Comics?

November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where many writers kick their creativity into gear and try to write a novel in 30 days.

If you’re a comic writer who wants to join in, since word count doesn’t apply the same way for comics, I recommend a page scripting goal:

90 pages (3 per day) is a mini-series.
120 pages (4 per day) is a graphic novel.

Comic scripting isn’t as codified as a screenplay, but if you want some tips on how comic writing is different from other mediums and a script format I find works well, you can check out these posts here on my site:

Comic Writing Part 1 – Brainstorming
Comic Writing Part 2 – Pacing
Comic Writing Part 3 – Page Planning
Comic Writing Part 4 – Scripting
Comic Writing Part 5 – Dialogue
Comic Writing Part 6 – Action

Having a schedule and clear goal can be a helpful way to get motivated and do that thing you’ve wanted to for some time. It’s a bit of pressure, but the kind you choose to take on to push yourself into a new creative space. Build your skills and grow.

Even if you don’t meet the overall page count, it could help you build momentum and put ideas down that you’ve had floating around for a while.

Personal creative projects can be tough to prioritize in our busy lives. This is a way to build in a schedule and make things happen.
Share this post with others and let’s make comics!

Credit Where Credit Is Due

It’s been a while since I put together a tutorial post – Hey, how’s it going? Life has been busy and wonderful and hectic and difficult and wonderful all over again.

A lot of times I put together these posts as a way to help people trying to figure this business out and also galvanize core concepts in my head, organizing my thoughts on things I’ve learned. This one is no exception.

Every few months, there’s a ripple of intense social media discussion, let’s be kind and call it discussion, about who deserves credit and how comics are sold-
• Is it a writer-centric industry or an artist-centric industry?
• Who does the most work on a creative team and how should that be acknowledged?
• Whose name should go first on the credits and what does that mean?
• When a property gets optioned, award nominations are announced or best seller lists are compiled, why don’t media outlets include the art team?

It’s a circular argument that involves biases from fans, journalists, sales teams, and retailers. There’s no nuance about how comics are actually made and the collaborative process involved in telling a story where words and pictures work together in such a unique way. It’s frustrating and isn’t going to go away any time soon.

All that said, here’s one thing I hope we can all agree on:
Everyone who works on a project deserves to be credited for their work wherever possible.

If you’re part of a creative team it’s incumbent on you to mention your collaborators, credit them and raise them up if you can, especially if your name is on the cover and you’re one of the “front-facing” people involved in promoting it to the public.

This should be obvious, it should be automatic, but sadly it’s not.

On one of my very first Big Two projects, I had this lesson driven home for me. I received questions from a comic news outlet announcing this spiffy new series I was writing on and I banged out huge, sprawling answers to every question. I spent some serious time on it, excited about this new stage of my career and all the accolades that were surely about to come my way. Feeling all pumped, I sent the interview over to my editor for final approval and he responded with this:

“This all reads well and I can tell you’re really excited, there’s just one problem – You didn’t mention anyone else on the creative team at all.”

Wow~I suuuuuuck.

That was a lightning bolt to my brain. I was so wrapped up in promoting my new thing that I forgot it wasn’t just my thing at all. It was ours. A team effort.

That message was just a little prod from my editor but it rewired my brain.
How have I felt when I bust my butt and no one acknowledges that effort?
How does it feel to be overlooked in the creative process?

Yes, there are “marquee” names put up front to sell a title, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the team vanishes. We’re not talking about hundreds and hundreds of names scrolling past your face at the end of a movie.


That’s the baseline for a comic. Praising those people for their efforts makes a huge difference. Tagging those people in a tweet or a post is not hard to do.

When I start a new project, I compile the names of everyone involved in a text file so I have the proper spelling of each person’s name and their Twitter and/or Instagram handles at my fingertips. I put that text file in my Google Drive folder so it’s accessible to me everywhere. From then on, tagging our crew in a tweet or other social media post is as simple as cut-and-paste. It only takes a couple minutes at the start and it means a lot to the creative team busting their butts day after day to make something cool.

Everyone deserves to celebrate the arrival of something they worked on.
Everyone wants to feel their contribution matters.

Writers and artists tend to get front line coverage. Promoting and signal boosting a colorist, letterer, or editor subtlety advertises their skills to others and, over the long haul, gives them a lot more opportunities. You have no idea how much this kind of stuff is appreciated until you’ve done the job and seen your efforts ignored.

Logo designers, graphic designers, assistant editors, press people, back matter – Look more closely at the credits on your favorite comic and you’ll realize there’s a small army of people busting away to make these books happen. The more you mention their contributions, the more aware the general public will be about the work involved. It demystifies the creative process in all the right ways.

Treat your creative team the way you want to be treated and you’ll build bonds and friendships that last through epic runs and crazy deadlines. The more you raise your team up and treat them right, the more they’ll be there when you need them.

That’s it.
A whole tutorial post just to remind people to credit and tag their creative team?
That sounds pretty simple.
It should be. Now go out there and do it!

If you found this post helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share the post with your friends and consider buying some of my comics or donating to my Patreon to show your support for me writing this instead of writing the next script my hard-working team is supposed to be drawing/coloring/lettering. 😛

I Made A Comic – Now What?

I haven’t posted up any tutorial material in quite some time. My work schedule has been absolutely bonkers, so it’s been hard to find time to dedicate to talking about the craft.

This post isn’t a dedicated article, it’s a slightly refined version of an email reply to one of my students who just completed a short ‘zine comic and exhibited at a comic festival. She had questions about where to take her work from there and how to approach publishers. I realized the advice I sent her would be good to post here as well. So, here it is-

Do research on publishers who are putting out work in the same aesthetic range as what you want to produce. Compare your work to it, not in terms of the exact style, but in terms of polish and presentation. Check to see who the editors are, since they’re typically the people hiring creators. You’ll probably see patterns among particular editors in terms of story/art choices and that means you can start to build a contact list of people worth approaching, either online or in person.

Don’t be afraid to send out your portfolio. Publishers expect creators to give them samples at conventions. Even better if you can drop it off for specific editors rather than into a general submission pile. Be friendly and approachable and make contacts all over the industry with creators and editors, even if they’re not at the exact spot where you want to be. You never know when a conversation at a show can turn into an unexpected opportunity or when a friend will be able to put you in direct contact with the people you want to be working with.

There are a ton of comic publishers out there and, though I know many of the larger ones, there are a lot of new/small ones I’m not as aware of. The field is changing all the time. A quick rule of thumb is that if a publisher has an equal/smaller social media following to you or doesn’t have visible work you recognize, they’re probably not going to be able to advance your career any more than you could just by working away on your own. If a publisher wants to pay you minimum wage (or less) to produce work (the hours you’ll spend per page VS the pay per page they’re offering) then you might as well work away on your own and fully control your work until such a time as a publisher with an actual budget/clout comes along worth working with.

There are more avenues for independent production than ever before. Social media and crowdfunding has completely changed the way creators create. Whether you’re creating on your own and posting online or crafting a book specifically for a publisher, building up a body of work is the key. The more you create and promote your work, the bigger your audience will get and the easier it will be to turn that into opportunities. The internet has completely changed the game – you don’t need to toil away for poor pay and give away all your rights. Build up your own following and then use crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Patreon, etc.) if that’s what it takes to get your work out to a wider audience. Exhibit at zine festivals and cons and see how they do for you.

At first your goal should be on quality, not speed. First get good, then get fast. Until you’re able to consistently create pages that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the kind of published work you want to be making, you shouldn’t fret over speed. No company is going to pay you to produce for them until you can show that you can make work worth paying for. A publisher needs to know that its investment in you makes sense when they compare your work to other established pros they could hire.

Off the top of my head, with more refinement your work could be a good fit at places like [list of publishers]. Again, I’m sure there are many others out there. Go to [local comic shop that stocks deep on indy titles] and ask them to show you comics in a similar style/aesthetic, then do research on publishers and editors. Once you have a sample you feel stands equal to that published work in terms of quality, reach out online with a polite introduction email and either send them a PDF or point them toward a site where they can easily see what you’re capable of (not just your Instagram or Twitter, a focused/organized series of samples posted online).

The first few paying gigs you get will probably be extremely difficult to track down, but with each one you’ll build up your skills and contacts. It really is a creative journey. As stressful as it can be, enjoy the process and celebrate your accomplishments.

If you found the above helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share the post with your friends and consider buying some of my comics to show your support.

Tutorial: 50 More Frequently Asked Questions

With my current work schedule it’s been difficult to put together the kind of tutorial articles. Even still, I try to keep up with questions from aspiring creators on my Tumblr page. If you’re not following me there you might have missed some interesting information or helpful advice.

Here’s a second hub (here’s the first one with 50+ questions answered) where I’ll paraphrase the best questions I’ve received about work-for-hire/writing for Marvel and point you toward my answers:


Q: Once you’re a writer for Marvel/DC, how does it work? Are you just waiting to be assigned projects?

Q: How do you submit an original/creator-owned concept to Marvel/DC?

Q: How do you get started on making comics?

Q: How do I sell my story ideas to Marvel/DC?

Q: How do you pitch a mini-series instead of an ongoing series?

Q: How do people from foreign countries submit their work to Marvel/DC?

Q: What does a story pitch look like for Marvel/DC?

Q: How do you complete a draft and revise it?

Q: How do I send a message to a Marvel editor?

Q: Is it okay to pitch several publishers the same project at the same time?

Q: How do you negotiate your contract with an editor?

Q: How do you balance the amount of words with the art when scripting?


Q: Do you write full script or “Marvel Style”?

Q: How do you plan out your work on a monthly comic series and stay organized?

Q: How much of the story do you share with the artists you work with?

Q: How much visual reference do you send to the artist?

Q: How much input does the artist get on the story you’re working on?

Q: Now that you’re a regular Marvel writer, do you still have to “pitch” your future stories? Are there any restrictions?

Q: How do you do research and prepare for writing work-for-hire characters?

Q: Do you ever have story ideas rejected by your editor? If so, what do you do?

Q: When you write the comic script, do you have a clear vision of how it looks in your head?

Q: How far ahead do you plan your stories?

Q: How do writers at Marvel/DC decide when a character will age?

Q: How does it work when a character’s costume changes? Who decides on that?

Q: Do you decide the sexuality of characters you write for Marvel/DC?

Q: How do you feel about killing characters at Marvel/DC?

Q: How does it work when you create a new character for Marvel/DC?

Q: If you create a new character for Marvel/DC, can you restrict how they’re used?

Q: Can an editor demand changes be made to a script you write? What happens if you walk away from a project?

Q: Can an editor force a writer to work on something they don’t like?

Q: Do you write descriptions for covers for the monthly series you’re working on?

Q: Do you have to get permission to use characters that guest star in your series?

Q: What changes when you become a Marvel/DC exclusive writer?

Q: How do you negotiate deadlines with your editor/publisher?

Q: What’s more difficult – writing character dynamics or the plot?

Q: How has writing for commercial properties changed the way you write?


Q: How did you get your start working in comics?

Q: How much money do you make writing superheroes? Are you rich?

Q: Do your creator-owned series make money?

Q: What were your catalysts for pursuing storytelling as a career?

Q: Do you think that blocking fans on social media is bad for business?

Q: How do you get motivated to write or draw?

Q: How do you stick with a project once the initial creative burst of ideas has worn off?

Q: How long does it take to write a comic script?

Q: How do smaller publishers stay afloat with such low sales numbers?

Q: Would you be interested in personally mentoring a new young writer?

Q: What do you think of Marvel/DC’s publishing model?

Q: What’s the best way to support my favorite comics?

Q: Is working in comics worth it?

If you found the above Q&A links helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share the post with your friends and consider buying some of my comics to show your support for me answering all these questions instead of doing paying work. 😛

Comic Feedback

I’ve mentioned before that I generally don’t do one-on-one critique because I don’t have time. That’s still true, but occasionally there are exceptions. I did a presentation for Seneca’s Illustration program about comics and one of the students followed up to send me their 8-page comic story project. They wanted critique that dug into where they could improve to make it professional quality and didn’t want me to hold back, so I didn’t. Here’s the feedback I gave. Some of it is specific to their story, but it also contains overall advice I would give a lot of new comic creators, so I thought I’d post it here as well:

The panel to panel storytelling is relatively clear. The lettering doesn’t feel like it fits well in many panels (which I’ll get to later), but the general storytelling makes sense and I can tell what’s happening in sequence. For many first time comic creators, that’s a problem, so it’s a good start. I’m not personally a fan of panel gutter sizes changing drastically from page to page, but that’s an aesthetic choice.

The artwork is not professional publishing quality. The backgrounds look rushed and incomplete and the perspective is inconsistent. It’s the quickest way for me to tell that the work is not yet at a pro level.

The characters work from certain angles and look rushed in others. It’s obvious you drew some panels more detailed and scaled them down, which looks odd beside thicker lines and less detail in some of the larger panels. It’s a common problem with digital drawing/coloring when you’re not consistent with sizing and scaling. Zoom in on a professional published page from an artist whose work you respect and see how much detail they put in and when they leave elements out.

The colors are quite saturated without any rhyme or reason and there’s no consistent sense of light and shadow. The powerful hues when magic is being used has some mood, which is better than completely generic colors, but the rest of the time every character is lit as if it’s neutral-flat-middle of the day without any light direction or local color creating mood or volume.

The lettering is not professional. There’s general flow and I can follow the balloons in order, which is good, but generic digital ovals are not how professional balloons actually look and instantly mark the pages as amateur. Same goes for big changes in font size because you’re trying to cram more words into a space where they don’t fit. Your pages should be roughed out with the lettering already in mind, not drawn fully and then lettering getting crammed in over top. Avoid having lettering cover characters, especially heads, as much as possible. It happens in pro pages, but is avoided wherever possible.

The uppercase/crossbar letter “I” should never be used in the middle of words for comic lettering. That and other comic lettering tips to look out for can be found here:

You have spelling mistakes in your text! Again, instantly comes across as unprofessional and sloppy.

The story is clearly a small part of something much bigger and that leaves this feeling really unsatisfying as an 8-pager. There’s a much larger back story and a world but we barely get any of it explained to us. Also, because this story is primarily told in flashback, there’s no immediate drama. There’s no sense of danger or stakes because it’s a tale being told about past events. We don’t get a sense of character personality or any feeling of why they do what they do. Huge elements of this fictional world are glossed over so two characters can tell us someone else’s story.

For a short story like this, you almost always want smaller scope and more focus. A simple idea clearly told. The more world-building and back story you have to impart, the harder it is to deliver that effectively with such a small page count.

Also, what is the story about? I don’t mean in terms of events that take place, I mean in terms of what you want the reader to feel when they’re done reading it – A theme, a core idea. In your story a pair of characters tell us about another character who kicks ass, dies, and then comes back more powerful than before. We just met these people and have no connection to any of them. Why should we care? What is this story trying to say other than “cool magic is neat” or “this character is kind of scary now”?

Story is more than just events that take place. Characters are more than just physical traits.

Okay – You read all that critique and you probably feel like crap. Here’s what’s most important: at this early stage of your creative development, it’s really important that you started and finished a project. That is crucial! The only way you can improve is by finishing work, learning from it, and then making more. Keep going and keep growing.

That’s a quick critique. I wouldn’t say that it’s kind, but it’s not meant to be insulting either. Thankfully, the student took it in the spirit I intended it and I hope their next comic story is stronger for it.

Creative Freelancing and Taxes: The Basics

It’s tax time so I’m seeing a lot of stressful messages on social media from freelancer friends. No one gets into freelance art-writing-animation to crunch numbers, but managing that income is part of the job. You need to make money and also understand how to properly work with it throughout the year.

Everyone’s situation is different, but here are some broad tax suggestions to help you out in the future:

Separate taxes from your income immediately.

Start a separate bank account just for tax money. When you deposit money earned or receive automatic deposits from freelance work, make it a habit to move over at least 30% of that income to the tax account and DON’T TOUCH IT. It’s not your money (yet). Leave it alone if at all possible.

You probably won’t need to pay out that full 30% amount, but having it separate will mean you’re not in a bad spot when tax time comes around, whether that’s a bulk single payment or paying via installments.

Keep track of your business expenses.

Tracking business-related expenses can be a pain, but it’s crucial to saving money: You want to record your business-related equipment purchases, software, reference material, meals, travel – all of it. If you’re not tracking business expenses you’re paying way more than you should in taxes.

Super simple math:
If you make $10,000 in freelance income, but spent $2500 in equipment, travel, and reference in order to make that money, you don’t get taxed on $10,000, you get taxed on $7500.

A 30% tax rate on $10,000 = $3000
A 30% tax rate on $7500 = $2250 (You just saved $750!)

See that? It’s worth it.

One easy way to track those expenses? Get a separate credit card and only use it for business stuff. That way each month you have a simple list of business-related expenses already tallied up and good to go.

In addition, keep paper receipts somewhere easy to access. Have a pen handy so when you put them away you can quickly write down any extra details not on the receipt (who you had dinner with, what the ref is for, etc.).

Do the same with digital receipts. Set up an email folder/tag just for expenses and file those away for later: software purchases, digital ref material, business travel bookings you’re not being reimbursed for, etc.

Reference material can also be the stuff you love.

If you work as a freelance creator, it’s your passion and hobby, but that doesn’t mean those things you buy aren’t business expenses.

• Comic freelancers write off comic purchases.
• Independent game designers write off game purchases.
• Freelance animators write off animated movies and art books.

Fill in the blank for a dozen other creative fields. It’s not cheating, it’s part of your job: reference and research is how you keep current and improve your work.

There is a limit, of course. You can write down a loss if you spent more than you made while getting your business up and rolling, but the tax man won’t accept that year after year without growth. You can’t claim to be a freelancer to tax shelter your actually hobby.

When Skullkickers (my first creator-owned series at Image) started, I spent more on art/promotion than I made so I wrote off expenses that added up to more than my freelance income, but it was only for two years.

Income is income.

Paypal is income.
Patreon is income.

Both sites are required to hand over records to tax offices if requested. I know it can feel like ‘free’ digital money, but don’t look at it that way as it can really bite you later.

Same goes for Ebay auctions you run, Etsy crafts you sell, and items/commissions you make money from using Square or any other digital currency transfer.

Don’t think that just because it’s digital it doesn’t count. We live in a digital world. It all counts.

Know where your money is coming from.

Keep track of your freelance income. Seeing where your money is coming from (specific clients, projects, conventions) makes it way easier to plan and budget for the future. Over longer periods you’ll see patterns as your career develops.

Also, if you’re being paid in foreign currency, keep track of the conversion amount for your records. You need to know how much the money you deposited turned into with conversion to your local currency. Write it down as soon as you get that bank receipt or digital confirmation so your records are accurate. At the time of this article, I get approximately $1.26 in Canadian dollars for every US dollar I deposit. That’s 26% more money I use to pay my taxes, but also 26% more income I have to accurately keep track of.

Oh God, the Tax Man is coming!

If you get an audit request from the IRS (US) or CRA (Canada), they won’t throw you in jail. It also doesn’t mean they assume you’re a crook. In most cases they just mail you a letter asking for receipts that match a category total you claimed. That’s it.

As long as you claimed the things you have receipts for, you are A-OK. Don’t stress it. Photocopy/scan those receipts for your records and send them to the tax office. They’ll confirm and you should be fine.

If there are severe discrepancies, they may choose to do a full audit. Oh $%&#, a full audit? Yeah, that’s a pain, but you did it to yourself if you claimed stuff you don’t have records for.

Again, no one is going to jail. They’re just going to ask for ALL your records for specific years to confirm your totals claimed. They will recalculate your taxes based on any missing information and will charge you back taxes (along with a penalty). I’ve seen people go through it. It sucks, but you will survive. Expect that you’ll get frequent audit requests moving forward for several years until they know your numbers are all properly logged.

I’ve been contacted about my taxes multiple times. It’s not a big deal. The Canadian Revenue Service was quite confused by a large amount of freelance income where I wasn’t charging my clients HST (tax) on it until I proved that was all from US-based/US dollar income (which don’t require an HST charge), then I was fine.

An accountant is worth it.

Even with good record keeping, I’d recommend getting an accountant if you make substantial freelance income. They know extra options to write off things and ways to legally balance the numbers better than you do. That’s their job. Just make sure you keep good records and you’ll save them time, hassle, and hours spent trying to figure out what all your numbers mean.

Oh yeah, and here’s the other kick, whatever you pay the accountant for doing your numbers is also a business write-off! If they save you a decent amount (and they probably will) it actually does pay for itself.

I don’t want to go into specifics because tax law and write-offs vary wildly from country to country, sometimes even state to state. A good accountant will know exactly what will work best in your region: expenses, home office write-offs, travel, retraining, all of it.

Start now.

For new freelancers, you’re trying to avoid the Tax Whirlpool, that awful situation where you use current income to pay last year’s higher-than-expected tax bill, which drains your account so you don’t put aside the tax money you should now…Rinse and repeat.

For current freelancers who may be struggling with this stuff, use the frustration of dealing with this year’s tax burden as the impetus to break those bad habits. Start tracking expenses today. Start putting aside the tax amount as best you can moving forward now. Some is always better than none.

You got into this business because you want to create, but it is a business. The more care you take setting up your tax/expense tracking, the less stress you’ll deal with and the more time you’ll have to concentrate on what matters: the work.

If you found this post helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share the post with your friends and consider buying some of my comics or donating to my Patreon to show your support for me writing this instead of doing paying work I can pay taxes on. 😛


Received a message from a gent in his 40’s asking me for some fiscal numbers to help him decide if he should cash in his 401k (US retirement fund) to become a full-time writer for 3 years so he doesn’t regret not having fully committed himself to it before he gets too old.

Part of me just wants to type “NO” and send it, but that would be crass and awkward.

Everyone is different.
Everyone’s risk/reward threshold is different.
Everyone’s creative needs are different too.
If I had to sum up some advice in this situation, I’d say:
“Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”

Dude, it’s exciting to imagine it all works out and you have a solid full-time writing income at the end of that 3-year journey, but plan for the exact opposite:
You just blew your retirement fund and have no career to show for it.
How does the future look?

Is fearing future financial disaster the motivation you need to create stories you claim you’ve wanted to do for the past 30 years? I don’t know you, but I’m not buying that.

The romanticised ideal of the inspired artist sacrificing everything as they cast themselves off a cliff waiting for destiny to kick in and save them is Hollywood-esque Survivor’s Fallacy Bullshit™.

Look at the corpses on the rocks below. Chances are that’s you.

On the one hand, I’m sort of thankful this guy is asking me, someone who still teaches at a college full-time while I write 3+ comics per month because I don’t want to financially hook myself when it comes to creative endeavours. When it comes to crazy comic dream sacrifice plays, I’m about as pragmatic as you can get. If I was a superhero, my name would probably be Schedule Guy. Asking me if you should expose your financial underbelly for the Arts is not going to go far.

Dude, I’m writing the Avengers and I still haven’t quit my day job.
Cash in your 401k? Fuck, no.

“If only I had time-“
Make time. Set an alarm and wake up an hour early or spend an hour each night before bed. Write.
Make it 2 hours on Saturdays. That’s 8 hours per week.

“If only I could dedicate myself-“
You can and it doesn’t have to be with the shadow of financial ruin looming over you.

“I’ve always wanted to-“
Cool. Do it. Make a thing. Finish it.
Learn from it. Do it again. Keep doing it.

You can’t control how people react to the work or where it ends up taking you, but you can control your ability to do it or not. That’s the baseline.

Fully committing” to a creative pursuit means doing it despite other distractions in your life, not futilely trying to create a fantasy where you’re insulated from real world concerns while your future stability disintegrates.

(-Built this post from a Twitter thread because it seems like the kind of thing I’ll want to point to at a later date and because Storify is going bye-bye in the near future-)

Creator-Owned Economics: The Long, Long Game

It’s been more than two and a half years since I wrote anything about Skullkickers sales numbers. I didn’t avoid talking about it on purpose, I just felt that with the series wrapped up and Wayward still underway it should be the focal point for my financial analysis. Poring over the numbers takes time and so Wayward was the natural choice for that attention. Last week’s article about trade sales seemed to cover everything I needed to say about the current market.

Boy, was I wrong. I received my Skullkickers accrual statement late last week and the data in there kind of blew my mind. I had to put together a new financial article here to go over it.

Some back story for those of you catching up: Skullkickers was my action-comedy sword & sorcery comic released by Image Comics from 2010 to 2015. Co-created with Chris Stevens and illustrated by Edwin Huang and Misty Coats with lettering by Marshall Dillon, it was my “break-out” book, but mostly on a critical level. Fantasy can be a tough sell. Humor even more so. Put those two elements together with creators who weren’t known (at the time) and it was a challenge to make our mark. We had a wonderful and loyal core readership and good word of mouth, but never lit sales charts on fire.

Skullkickers wasn’t really profitable during its run, but it did get my name out to a much wider audience and opened the door for some of my early work-for-hire comic writing projects: 19 issues of Pathfinder at Dynamite, a Shadowman fill-in issue for Valiant, and a 2-part Legends of the Dark Knight story for DC. It was a way to show people what our team was capable of and build a body of consistent work.

When sales flagged, I ran contests, put together a ridiculous reboot parody promotion, and even started serializing the comic online for FREE to expand our readership. Each of those PR stunts helped us inch along and, in the end, we eked out 34 issues (six story arcs) and finished the story the way I intended. Skullkickers is now handsomely collected in 6 trade paperbacks or 3 deluxe hardcovers.

Every six months, I’d receive an accrual statement from Image that outlined how deep the financial hole was. They could see we were slowly digging ourselves out with digital and collection sales, but the numbers didn’t seem to be in our favor. When the series wrapped up mid-2015, I’d resigned myself to the fact that Skullkickers as a whole would probably never do better than break-even, even if it did propel me forward in terms of my writing career.

Cut to 2017. Check this out:

(Update: Image’s Accountant dropped me a line to let me know I that the way digital was shown on the latest accrual was being misinterpreted so I’ve made corrections. We are selling solidly on digital, but it’s a more reasonable percentage of our overall sales, not the gonzo spike in sales I thought it was. I’ve corrected the text and chart to reflect that change.)

Image has been smart about including Skullkickers in a lot of their digital sales, as well as putting the first 18 issues (3 story arcs) on comiXology Unlimited, a flat fee all-you-can-read service on the leading digital comics platform. Tens of thousands of new readers have discovered the series through Unlimited, and that led to more digital collection sales. The whole series is still available for FREE on our webcomic site, and yet we keep selling Skullkickers on digital platforms, month after month.

What does this mean? Well, here’s the accumulated debt versus sales chart, the one I feared would never balance out:

Thanks to slow but steady collection and digital sales, we are truly ‘in the black’. As of mid-2017, I can no longer say that Skullkickers is my lovable-yet-financially-forlorn creator-owned comic. It has finally climbed out of the pit and is holding the bloody detached head of its captor while letting out a triumphant roar.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to be smoking hundred dollar bills or paying off my house with these profits. It’s quite slim right now, but it’s also open-ended; We still have print collections in stock (and our only expenditures on those right now are storage since they’re already printed and shipped to Diamond Distribution) and the digital platform never closes or runs out of copies. In six months we should make a bit more, and then a bit more, and then a bit more, hopefully ever onward into the future until every single person who reads the work I do over at Marvel realizes that the action-packed mirth they enjoy in Thunderbolts and Avengers was there right from the beginning with Skullkickers.

Image Comics (especially Publisher Eric Stephenson) deserves a ridiculous amount of credit for letting me make Skullkickers my own way, start to finish. 25 years ago, the company started with a desire to put creators first and they still do that every single day. I feel incredibly fortunate to have launched the series there and can’t think of another publisher that would have taken this on and let the long tail run its course this way.

Is Skullkickers a success? It really depends on how you measure it. This will sound dorkishly earnest, but for me it’s always been a success. We built a story I’m incredibly proud of, my love letter to Conan, D&D, and the fantasy genre as a whole, and got it out to a wider audience. It was a life-changing milestone in my creative development that led to a dozen other comic projects and where I am today. The dollars and cents are a crucial metric, of course, but not the sole reason for heading into a creative project.

Some words of warning: Please don’t use these charts as some kind of battle plan for your own comic-making dreams. Creative careers vary wildly and I’ve spoken to dozens of creators who have thrown inordinate amounts of good money after bad paying for art, coloring, lettering, printing, convention tables, and stomach pills for financial ulcers brought on by creator-owned comics. I was able to dig deep with Skullkickers because I had (and still have) a stable day job and solid freelance work paying the bills. I never put myself in a position where my day-to-day financial commitments were in doubt and if the series had never made a dime I still would have been okay.

The sales history of Skullkickers is very different from Wayward and Glitterbomb, my other two Image creator-owned series. Each series has its own unique sales history and, while this stuff is really interesting to analyze, it isn’t any kind of formula you could reproduce (and, with a 7-year bloody trek to financial sanity for SK, you probably wouldn’t want to anyway).

If you found this post interesting, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share the post with your friends and consider buying some of my comics, donating to my Patreon, or buying comics from me in person if you see me at a convention.

Creator-Owned Economics: Long Tail in a Moving Market

Has it really been 16 months since my previous sales update on Wayward? Wow. Time is flying, gang. I’ve been juggling a slew of different projects this year along with my day job and just didn’t have time to dig into all the numbers until things calmed down.

(Update: I also managed to find time to write up another article about continued sales of Skullkickers after finishing its run that you can read right HERE.)

There’s been a lot of talk about direct market single issue sales through comic shops (also known as the “The direct market”). Sales numbers seem to be declining as retailers jump through ordering hoops for big ticket variant covers while trying not to get stuck with more non-returnable stock than they can handle. I’ve heard from quite a few creators and retailers that juggling numbers on major releases from the Big Two doesn’t leave a lot of time/money to support other publishers, and what is there tends to go to recognizable brands with media pull.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the landscape of media is changing. Every form of entertainment has been shaken up by the digital revolution and a generation of consumers who are growing up with new paradigms that don’t involve owning physical media.

So, with that in mind, here’s how Wayward is faring in a tough market:

Once again, we’re looking at a classic case of ‘standard market attrition.’ The drops between each issue aren’t severe, but they do start to add up issue after issue, leading to an overall decline. It can be tough to maintain visibility for a creator-owned series that’s long in the tooth (and yes, in this market, Wayward has more issues than many rebooted superhero titles so it looks comparatively old). Comic news sites and reviewers want to talk about the latest and greatest, not a series that’s more than 3 years old with 20+ issues. So, what does this mean for our single issue sales profitability?

As of issue #18 we’re releasing issues with an initial loss. Obviously, that’s not an ideal situation but I could see where the numbers were leading us and wasn’t surprised. This matches the overall softness of the comic market as a whole. Retailers are cutting purchasing budgets to the bone and many titles are losing ‘shelf copies’, extra copies ordered to see if they can be sold to customers who haven’t subscribed to a title. I’ve been to more and more comic shops where they order single issues for their pullbox customers and only have shelf copies for the biggest releases each week. It’s understandable, given the current sales environment, but it does make it harder for new readers to discover titles…

…Or, does it?

The simple truth is that the market has moved to trade reading. Affordable, durable, easy to lend to a friend or give as a gift, trade paperbacks are now the market for many titles. Wayward trade paperback sales continue to grow and that really drives us forward at this point. Direct market comic retailers support Wayward with their trade orders, but more than half of our trade sales now come from bookstores and other outlets. Initial direct market orders are pretty good, but the long tail of continued sales through other channels keeps us growing year after year. Good word of mouth from people like you keeps us going.

In addition to those single issues and trades, we had two huge visibility boosts that don’t show up properly on these sales charts:
‌• In early 2016, Image Comics had a Humble Bundle of digital comics promoting diversity and human rights. Supporters who pledged over $20 received a digital copy of Wayward Deluxe Book 1, our packed-to-the-brim issue #1-10 collection with over 80 pages of back matter. That led to thousands of new readers diving into the series and an accompanying boost afterward for digital trade sales.

‌• Wayward Vol. 1: String Theory is part of comiXology Unlimited, a monthly flat fee all-you-can-read service offered by the leading platform for digital comics. We only get paid a small amount per downloaded trade, but it’s the visibility boost that’s really helped. Tens of thousands of people have read Wayward Vol. 1 through the Unlimited platform.

How’s it looking in 6 month increments? Let’s see-

Image printed a huge run of Wayward Volume 1 and 2 and those trades keep selling, so the cost of keeping Wayward in stock stays low while profits continue year after year.

Okay, here’s profit with everything factored in:

In addition to direct market and bookstore sales, this chart also includes a few foreign deals that have been struck to bring Wayward out in other languages, most notably in French from Glénat Comics, with two volumes out so far. Foreign deals are the best because the foreign publisher handles translation, printing, and advertising. For them it’s far cheaper than creating all-new content and for us it rules because we just hand over the print files and get paid.

That small dip in early 2015 was the cost of printing Wayward Vol. 1 with a deep stock to keep us rolling over the long haul, and it’s been pretty smooth ever since. Trade and digital sales have overtaken temporary losses incurred from single issue release. We’re continuing to build our readership in comic shops, bookstores, and online.

Image’s incredible ownership and profit sharing model is unlike any other creator-owned deal in the market. Our small monthly single issue sales and growing trade sales do well enough that Wayward is still Steven’s full-time job (living in Yokohama with a wife and two wonderful kids) and pays a competitive page rate to Tamra, Marshall, Zack, Ann, and myself while giving us the flexibility to make the story exactly the way we want. We don’t get the press coverage of Walking Dead, Saga, Wicked + Divine, Rat Queens or Sex Criminals, but we are solidly plugging away. The additional visibility of an anime series and co-op board game in development could mean even stronger sales for 2018 and beyond.

If you take away anything from this post, let it be this: When fans or news sites only obsess over direct market single issue sales numbers from Comichron (which are not complete, but do provide an overall sense of market leaders and attrition), they are ignorant of a much larger overall market. Comic companies are not obligated to post their sales numbers, but that obfuscation has unfortunately led to a ridiculous amount of armchair quarterbacking by people who cannot see the forest for the trees and are woefully ill-informed about what sells and where. If you only looked at monthly print single issue sales you would assume Wayward was doomed over a year ago, but it’s just not true. The market has shifted and will continue to do so. Readers, retailers, and publishers need to adjust their perception of the market, if they haven’t already.

As always, a quick warning: The above charts only reflect the state of Wayward, my creator-owned comic series. I believe they’re indicative of some broader industry trends, but every series has a different sales cycle depending on the creators involved, publisher, marketing, and whims of the market. Skullkickers and Glitterbomb, my other creator-owned series, have been very different in terms of sales and profitability. Don’t build your own financial plans solely based on these articles.

If you found this post interesting, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share the post with your friends and consider buying some of my comics, donating to my Patreon, or buying comics from me in person if you see me at a convention.