Julian Darius, the founder of Sequart Organization and Martian Lit, has been running a Kickstarter for his new Sci-Fi anthology comic series, Martian Comics. I got a chance to interview him about the world and series he’s been building, running a Kickstarter campaign, and more.
If anyone wishes to contribute to Julian Darius’ campaign, they can follow this link.
HEC: So with Martian Comics you’ve created a universe designed to hold a variety of different types of stories and characters. How much of the world did you design beforehand, and how much are you organically discovering as you write? Basically are you taking a Tolkien approach or a Lovecraft one?
JD: Somewhere between the two. I had a pretty detailed outline of “Girl from Mars,” but it’s expanded as I write. The Martian stories have expanded too. Before the first issue came out, I had descriptions and work done on about 12 of them. We still haven’t gotten to all of those, including some key ones. But I keep adding to them.
For example, part of my original plan for those Martian stories was a series that depicted a couple paradigm shifts in Mars-Earth relations, and a final story that kind of summed up where we were in the present. We still haven’t published those, although I’ve written a complementary story to them and have another in mind. The first of these stories addressed the shift towards the Martian enlightenment program, using the projection tank. And that would have been fine, but as I thought about the projection tank over the years, I’ve not only figured out how it works but have a batch of stories dealing with its development. The larger story tends to grow in this way — in swaths or arcs of stories. There are several whole arcs of stories I haven’t started, though I know what they are.
Mars has an urban culture with a finite amount of cities. We saw one in “Safari” in issue #3, and we refer to another in issue #5. We’ll see more in later stories, including in “Girl from Mars.” I don’t know all the details about these cities, but I know several of them and how many there are — and how that number has altered over the years. If the series survives, we’ll explore all of these cities, each of which has its own culture, architecture, and even some genetic variations.
So I’d say, it’s part Lovecraft and part Tolkien. I think the way I write, even when I’m writing a novel, is to nail down certain things — whether it’s scenes in a story, or details of the world. I think of these as tent poles, and they help me because they suggest larger structures, which I begin to fill in. So like Tolkien, there’s a lot I haven’t revealed — enough to do a world guide. I hope I don’t have some of the continuity issues of Lovecraft, but like him, my focus is on the story at hand. And I feel like it’s not canonical until it’s in a story. The story is the prime thing for me.
HEC: So you’re sitting down to write, what’s your ritual look like?
JD: First, I call Mars.
In truth, it varies. I don’t write every day. I’m a night owl, and I don’t teach college every day, so my schedule often gets out of sync with normal people. So sometimes, I’m writing through the night, watching TV or listening to music as I do. Other times, I’m stealing time during the day. But I can’t write unless I can clear my head and focus on that. I can do an occasional email or text, but my brain goes into “this is my job now” mode… until I stop, for whatever reason.
I prewrite a lot. I make lists of stories and look at how they work together. I make lists of beats in a story. I meditate on the themes, or key choices in the telling, or how to weave everything together. Sometimes, I just write a scene, and this becomes a tent pole for that meditation, or a short story comes out very quickly. Some stories have a lot of research. But I prefer to write organically like this, to feel confident about how a story is balanced, how the themes work together. I’ll take a pen and paper to another room and just start writing dialogue or captions, which gets the brain going differently. But generally, I’m on my laptop, on a couch, with coffee, with the TV or with music on.
HEC: Comics are uniquely suited to science fiction, as there are no budgetary limitations – anything you can imagine you can depict – and yet in some ways true science fiction seems woefully underrepresented in the medium, are there many science fiction comics that inspired you going into this project?
JD: Image Comics is publishing a lot of science fiction right now. In fact, I think they’re actively avoiding doing more sci-fi, due to this fact.
But I do feel like science fiction is underrepresented. I think it’s just the dominance of the superhero. You have some great American sci-fi comics, like Transmetropolitan, but it still feels like comics would be bursting with sci-fi for the reason you describe!
I think the science fiction comics that have most inspired the series are French. I’ve written about the Obscure Cities series, and that’s a huge influence. I prefer Metabarons to The Incal, and I don’t know that it’s a huge influence on Martian Comics, mostly because of its swashbuckling, rapid pace. But to the extent that I’m writing kind of intellectual sci-fi comics, I definitely look more to the French. There’s an ambition to them, in terms of the kinds of stories you tell, that invigorates me. I like British sci-fi comics too, including stuff in 2000AD, but that might be more of an influence in terms of the power of shorter stories than in terms of the tone or content of stories.
I have to throw a shout-out here to Warren Ellis, because I’m very impressed by his sci-fi comics. There are parts of Transmetropolitan that have influenced me, and its co-creator, Darick Robertson, did the cover for our first issue. Even in Planetary, a lot of what I like best are the sci-fi elements more than the super-hero ones. But Ellis has also done stuff like Orbiter and a bunch of sci-fi mini-series for WildStorm. And he’s currently doing Trees at Image, which is one of the few comics being published today that I read issue by issue, pretty much as it’s published.
HEC: One of the interesting things about this project, as I’ve previously mentioned, is the freedom to tell any story within the world. Do you have plans to ever end the series? Would there ever be a narrative conclusion, or do you plan to make use of the universe for as long as you can?
I don’t currently have an endpoint, but I know what we’re building towards. It’s like a 10-year plan. I’ve currently got six big book collections (250+ pages) in mind before we get there. “The Girl from Mars” is just the first of these. There may be another of these volumes before we get there. But eventually, we’ll get there, and it’s kind of my clearing of the decks.
But I have some stories in mind after that, too. I may have several volumes after that! But I’m trying not to think past that tentative endpoint, because it’s already such a daunting task just to get that far.
I’d really like to see other people try their hand at this universe. But I want to get a lot more of the plan executed first, because there’s a whole lot to set up — whole concepts, characters, cities… I want to get that all out. Maybe no one else will ever write anything. But I really like the idea of bringing in other artists, and later other writers. Especially once I feel like I’m done, or at least done worldbuilding. If I ever reach the point where I’m basically telling side stories, or just what’s next for a character, or I’m done altogether, I’d love for someone else to take over, if they’re interested and I could afford to make their comics. But we need to get more done first, and I need to focus on this big plan of mine first, if it’s going to get done.
HEC: You have to pick one song to act as the official Martian Comics theme, what it is?
JD: I love that question.
The first song that came to mind was “Ziggy Stardust.” I don’t think I even knew it, when I started Martian Comics years ago, but it’s catchy from the very first riffs. And Bowie keeps coming to mind lately. I’m not the biggest Bowie fan, in that I don’t think there’s a single album I could stand to hear from start to finish, but he’s an inspiration to me, in terms of doing different things and avoiding repetition.
But then I thought, I have to go with Frank Black. Maybe something off The Cult of Ray? “Men in Black?” Frank Black — or Black Francis, whatever you call him — is one of a small group of musical artists for whom I listen to everything they’ve ever done. That man is a true genius, and deserves 100 times the attention he gets, and even his tracks that I don’t like are interesting, which I think is the highest praise possible. And he was obsessed with UFOs even back in his Pixies days. But thinking about it, the dominant theme of “Men in Black” is paranoia, and the adrenaline of that song isn’t necessarily the best fit for Martian Comics. It might have been, if I’d written it a decade or two earlier!
So I’m going to go with “Motorway to Roswell,” off the Pixies’ Trompe le Monde. It’s one of the many Pixies songs that doesn’t get on the “best of” collections but is nonetheless perfect. It’s more mellow, and it’s a story song! It tells a story, about seeing this alien crash land. And it’s got wordplay, like about how the narrator is feeling “down” as the UFO is coming down and can’t clear obstacles in its way. It’s also about the Other, which so much of Martian Comics is about, in that the narrator is imagining this alien’s point of view. “He started heading for the motorway…” Also, it’s a blend of this wonderful encounter with the fantastic and of melancholy, because something “so great” turns to something “so shitty” because the alien dies in the crash. And although I don’t like UFO crash stories generally, just because I think it’s played out, or Roswell stories specifically, there’s this idea of the accident, and so much in Martian Comics deals with this idea unintended consequences. So that’s my final answer.
Honorable mention, though, to Aimee Mann’s “Fifty Years after the Fair,” which captures this melancholy nostalgia for futurism and older science fiction. Obviously, the whole idea that Mars is inhabited by an intelligent civilization is now a retrofuturistic idea, and I think exploring this idea from an earlier stage of science fiction — that we’re not alone, that we could discover life in our own solar system — underpins the whole series in some way. It’s not a retrofuturistic series in the same way that some of Dean Motter’s comics are, but I do think there’s this melancholy undercurrent, each time we invoke Mars, that recalls this earlier, more wonderful time in which we would imagine we weren’t separated from these radical Others by interplanetary gulfs. And I do think that one of the key challenges facing humanity is organizing to get into space, despite this being a long-term proposition. Instead of just zipping off to Mars, we now have more of a challenge, and it may involve whether or mammalian brains can evolve to think of the species as our kin group and begin to think not just long-term, but beyond the scope of whole generations.
I probably thought about that question too much!
HEC: What are the three pieces of non-comics science fiction storytelling that have most inspired you?
JD: I grew up reading perhaps no one more than Arthur C. Clarke, but I grew out of a lot of it. I think Rendezvous with Rama sticks with me the most, but a lot of Clarke’s novels aren’t well structured, and that’s one of my own big emphases as a writer. I think everyone would expect me to cite Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and its use of short stories to depict a larger historical span is a huge structural influence on the Martian stories I’m telling. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is another obvious influence, since it also uses Mars and is centrally about this experience of another perspective. But I wouldn’t currently say these have inspired me the most, personally.
Today, I’d be more likely to cite Asimov’s Foundation. I love the idea of mapping history, and of visionaries able to see what needs to be done, from this larger point of view. Partly because I was so much with Clarke as an adolescent, I’ve sort of reevaluated Asimov upward as an adult, and I like the narrative exploration of logical paradoxes or situations in Asimov’s robot stories. But I don’t know that I’d put anything by Asimov on my “most inspired” list.
If I’m really talking about what’s most inspired me, I have to mention Haldeman’s The Forever War. It sticks with me. It’s devastating. I love the depiction of temporal dilation — that was half of what I liked about Interstellar. I also love the depiction of cultural change that results, in which one becomes alien to oneself. And I love that it depicts actual war, instead of this glorified nonsense we usually get. There’s a sense of the mistake, the accident, the misunderstood, that’s so obviously present in our own history but that’s often missing in our fictions. And I think if you read Martian Comics, this sense of history is reflected. It’s so important not to imagine that it’s all controlled, it’s all deliberate, it’s all some pattern, whether drawn by God or by the Illuminati or whatever. No, it’s just us, and the people in charge might have more information or even occasionally be visionaries, but they’re a million degrees away from omniscience, and they’re reliant on a system of people and transmission of information with a million error points.
I’m also a huge fan of Ballard. I think my favorite of his is High Rise, which they’re finally making a movie of. I’ve been following that project forever! Ballard was a genius, and (like me) not afraid to get into transgressive material.
There’s no ignoring Philip K. Dick. He’s obviously been terribly influential, not only on me but on sci-fi generally. There are others in this category, whether we’re talking about Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, or Neal Stephenson, and I love their ideas. But I haven’t enjoyed diving into them, at least to this point in my life, as much as Dick. And although it’s a cliche, I’d go with Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? as the one that’s influenced me the most. I love the idea behind The Man in the High Castle, for example, but in Electric Sheep, there’s the most beautiful blend of the two narratives, one low and one at least higher, as well as several permutations of the implications of the replicant idea. I love the Voigt-Kampff test and the idea that closeness with animals is key to spiritual growth. And obviously, Martian Comics has religious themes, like Electric Sheep does.
In terms of movies, I probably watched 2001 a hundred times before I was 20, and it was my favorite movie until I was a teenager. I love the first two RoboCop movies. They’re so quintessential American sci-fi: action-based, violent, and cruel, yet at the same time, they’re part parody, part satire of corporate culture, and explore existential themes about the body. It’s that blend of fun directness and smart ideas that represents American fiction at its best. In the same vein, I love Total Recall and Starship Troopers. Paul Verhoeven is great. I don’t think the Terminator or Alien movies, in general, quite measure up. Obviously, I’m a huge Star Trek fan (much more than Star Wars, although you can’t help but that influences you), and Wrath of Khan is one of the best science-fiction movies ever made. It’s so perfectly balanced, with its themes so delicately interwoven throughout. It has some of the most brilliant space battles ever done in film, and it combines a terrific, brutal grudge match with wonderful stuff like the Genesis device. More recently, I’d mention Primer, Moon, Inception, and Ex Machina on my list of brilliant sci-fi movies to which I return, mentally. In terms of earlier stuff, I like Westworld a lot too, and I adore Forbidden Planet. As I do classic Twilight Zone — I’m consistently blown away by it. Even the bad episodes have an interesting idea and are so well-structured, even if the payoff isn’t great. I can’t express how often I return to classic Twilight Zone episodes in my mind.
But I haven’t answered your question! Any list of just three is kind of arbitrary, and likely to change tomorrow, depending on my mood. Maybe I’d go with The Forever War, Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep?, and The Twilight Zone today.
HEC: Do you have any plans to experiment with genres within the Martian Comics blanket? You’re already depicting some of the world’s fiction in The Canals of Earth, could you see yourself trying specify genre experiments under the series’ blanket?
JD: Oh, yeah. Although the Martian Universe — which is what I’m calling it — is explicitly a sci-fi one. So there are no supernatural things. That’s a limitation I’ve put on it.
We’re going to do a spin-off series, Kimot Ren, which is about an alien android stranded in the Old West. There’s a lot of Deadwood in there, Western genre stuff. As well as Tod Browning’s Freaks. That element, in Kimot Ren, is as important as any alien technology, really.
And of course, the Lazarus stories deal with religion.
But really, I don’t feel constrained by science fiction, as a genre. It’s definitely a sci-fi universe, but a lot of stories are looking at the implications of this, rather than focusing on sci-fi weaponry and fights. I know that’s probably what people want, but it’s not primarily what interests me. I’m far more interested in these stories that explore implications of things. There are Martian Comics stories that don’t even feature a Martian. There’s an upcoming story that’s got Lovecraftian overtones, and it’s kind of about how traditions modify themselves over long periods of time, as well as the contradiction of how we treat animals terribly yet would like some alien species to be kind and benevolent to us.
It’s kind of like how some of the best Star Trek episodes mostly took place on an alien planet. Yeah, there are tricorders, and maybe a phaser comes into play in the climax, but the heart of the story is about these people, and their own culture, and how it was affected by things they don’t understand. Yeah, it’s sci-fi because it has those elements and takes place in that universe, but it could be a Western story, or a historical story, or almost anything.
I do like the idea of fictions within stories. I think history is like that too — it’s a story, a way of fitting facts as we know them into narratives we can process. Historians don’t make stuff up, and it’s not all relative, and they take their responsibilities seriously. But they frame things in ways that let us see things differently, and this process is similar to fiction in that it’s about narratives. And I think Martian Comics is sort of fascinated by history, how it works, and how we understand it.
HEC: If you could resurrect any artist and have them illustrate a single issue of Martian Comics, who would it be?
JD: I’m supposed to say Jack Kirby, right?
Of course, I’d love to have worked with Kirby. If I had the money, I would have kept that guy busy and done my best to make sure he was happy. He deserved it.
But of course, I also think of Will Eisner. A lot of what I’m doing, in terms of focusing on “smaller” stories, comes out of his graphic novels. Something like Dropsie Avenue showed me that you could do this kind of historical sweep and sort of tell the story of a neighborhood. And I was always very influenced by his Spirit stories, especially the ability to focus on minor characters and only have the Spirit show up tangentially — I think a lot of what I’ve written in Martian Comics is similar, in that a lot of the stories approach the Martians tangentially but are really focused on other things. But I think Eisner grounds his stories in character more than I do. He uses exaggerated facial expressions that work for him, but I think I’m a bit more muted, and my brain is a bit more abstract and distant. I ground my stories in character too, but I usually prefer the reader to be a bit more removed from what he or she is watching the character do.
Jack Cole is in there too. His Plastic Man was so great. Obviously, he was working in a different era, but I think I could have used his strengths and pushed him to really produce a kind of magnum opus of a story, that used his strengths as a storyteller to get at something epic and deep.
I’d have loved to work with Winsor McCay. I marvel at his work. It has that beauty and precision that I adore so much, and he was so brilliant at those imaginative sequences that use the medium to do new things. I’m only a writer, not an artist, and this puts me at a disadvantage in this regard. But I’m always wanting to do more of that stuff. If I had to choose only one person to resurrect and work with, it might be him. Because with my focus on long-form narrative and its structure, and his page-level innovations and detailed beauty, we could have really done something magical that expanded what either of us could have done on our own.
But, you know, there are a lot of living artists I’d love to work with. I have this fantasy that my comics actually start to break even, and I use the extra money to hire one artist after another, tailoring a story for each of them. I did get a chance to write a story for an artist like this, but the art hasn’t yet been produced, and I don’t want to announce it until it is. But I’d love to just sort of reach out to one artist after another, with a story idea that’s a good fit for them. I actually have a list. But the money’s not there.
HEC: As someone who’s written both prose and comics scripts how do you find the two skills complement each other? When do the two skills cause trouble?
JD: I think the trouble prose writers find is that they focus too much on the dialogue and the captions. And, you know, if you’re a good prose writer, you can write really good dialogue and captions. You have to be a lot more efficient in comics, almost like a screenplay, because every word means more of the art is obscured and slows down the reading process. And I do think that comics writers don’t always focus enough on the pure mechanics of the writing — on teasing out the dialogue and captions so that they have poetic resonance. But then, I come from a literary background, and I see comics as literature, and I think there’s a lot more work to be done to elevate them in this way. Not just to tell good stories, but to actually have literary writing too, the way Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman did, really elevating the game.
At the same time, I’ve been a comics writer almost as long as I’ve been a prose writer. I wrote a hundred scripts before I ever had one produced. I literally spent 20 years writing comics scripts that were never produced. And I studied how many words were in various printed panels, so as not to clog panels with words. I actually did a pretty good job of balancing text and image. I tried different scripting styles. At first, I’d describe panels in great detail, influenced by Alan Moore scripts I’d read. But over time, I evolved to just describe what was needed, giving ideas to the theoretical artist I never had without giving too much. I experimented with a more visually dominated style, giving big images enough space on the page. I could imagine how a page would look pretty well. And while this was not the usual path to becoming a comics writer, it actually served me very well.
But when I started actually getting pages back, I still had a lot to learn. For one thing, you never know what you’re going to get back. Some panels are going to be brilliant in unexpected ways, and other panels aren’t going to be exactly what you pictured. You can tell an artist about the size of a panel, but what you get back might be different proportions than you expected. This is the joy of collaboration, and I’m always in awe of artists, since I’m not one.
But one of the things I found, early on, was that things I thought were really subtle and needed to be hinted at in the dialogue or captions were a lot more obvious with the visuals as they were produced. And things I thought were really obvious were a lot more subtle. A lot of writing is based on judging what the reader knows and intuits and can guess, in order to avoid underlining something too excessively (in a way that’s insulting to the reader, or simply takes up needless space) or alternatively, making something too subtle, because you want the reader to get a hint of the underlying themes or make certain connections. This was a big adjustment for me, and I learned that every story had to be tweaked at the lettering stage. You simply shouldn’t think the script is a writer’s job. That’s the main thing, but there’s this second stage, in which you have the artwork and are ready for letters, or even have the letters, and at this point you have to tweak everything.
Sometimes, you just look at a panel, and it’s maybe got four captions, and they’re well-written, but it visually just looks too caption-heavy if someone’s glancing at the page. So the page’s first impression is going to be, “well, that’s a heavy slog.” And your captions can sing, but they’ve got to overcome this first impression. So you go about eliminating words. You tweak which words have emphasis, and you find weaknesses in what you wrote that weren’t apparent in the script.
So I think, coming from a prose basis, that you have to watch out for overwriting. A prose writer’s strength ought to be that the words on the page are really good, and prose writers ought to be good at balancing a story’s overall themes and structure. But the prose writer has to constantly figure out ways to let the visuals do more of the lifting and to eliminate their own words from the page.
On the other hand, a comics writer shifting to prose has to do the work of the artist and describe things. In a comics script, you can just reference a car, and you’d probably make some note about the type of car or what condition it’s in, presuming that’s relevant. In prose, it’s always relevant. In comics, what you get back even from a short description is a concrete work of art that’s necessarily full of specifics, but in prose, it’s all you. But I’d imagine that the comics writer would also have to shift into a certain love of the sentence, of the turn of phrase, that just isn’t as important in comics. If the point of a panel is that someone is scared and decides to run, you can let the artist convey that, and if there’s a word balloon, it’s probably a simple expression of alarm. But in prose, that’s going to be super generic, and you have to figure out through the description and the sentences themselves how to make this sing.
HEC: What three non-science-fiction works most inspired you on this project?
JD: Interesting question.
I think, in terms of “The Canals of Earth,” that Sandman and Planetary were both inspirations. There’s some literal Martian mythology in “The Canals of Earth,” concerning the goddess Earth as the early Martians worshiped her. The captions there are a bit more literary, and there’s something of Neil Gaiman there, of his fluency in inventing and examining myths. Gaiman’s Miracleman is a big influence too. With Planetary, I was influenced by the pacing, this idea that you have 22 or so pages in order to explore this idea, and you can break it down into sections, but you want to give the art and these crazy ideas enough space. And “The Canals of Earth” ends with space exploration, cast as a very positive thing, which is there in Ellis sci-fi comics too. So for that story, I’d say Sandman, Planetary, and also the history of science fiction more generally. A Trip to the Moon is referenced on the cover and in the story, for example.
But I think it’s hard to answer, because I’m very focused on every story being its own thing. Yes, stories have to work with one another in larger wholes, and I’m all about that sense of structure. But you have to do what’s best for the story at hand. Some stories want to be more literary, and others want to be more direct. So for something like “The Galilean,” the back-up in issue #1, I would have a whole different set of influences. That story features Jesus, and The Last Temptation of Christ is a bigger influence there, for its depiction of a very human and realistic Jesus, than Sandman. That story jumps around from moment to moment, in a way that recalls that first page of All Star Superman or some of Grant Morrison’s other work. You can do that in comics and have it work, whereas it’s really hard to do in prose. So for me, every story has its own list of influences, and its own style of storytelling to some extent, and these ought to reflect the story itself.
I’m the same way in prose fiction. Along with figuring out a story’s themes and structure, I think about how to make a story’s style reflect the story itself. When I write prose, I’ll think, “Oh, this is a New Yorker story — literary but very restrained, very understated.” Or I’ll think a story has to be literary but very dense, just beautiful line by line, in order to reflect the lush contents and the book’s agenda. Another story just wants to take you on a journey and break your heart, and a more direct, easily flowing style works best. So to a great degree, I think stylistics ought to be subordinated to the story at hand. And although I think people can identify a “Julian Darius story” — I know this for a fact, having workshopped my writing anonymously… everyone instantly guesses it’s me — I do try to find influences and a way to tell a story that fits the content and the themes of that story.
HEC: As an writer, self-publisher, and distributor you’re in a unique position to ruminate on crowdsourced funding. What would you say the pros and cons of using a platform like Kickstarter are?
JD: I’m a huge believer in crowdfunding. It’s because of Kickstarter that Sequart was able to make documentary movies. And it’s because of Kickstarter that I’ve been able to make these comics. It’s great, because it lets people make something they care about exist in the world. And for a lot of projects, which are too small or too niche to get funding elsewhere, or simply are produced by people without the contacts to make that funding happen. And of course, the other upside is that you control the product, you own it, and you don’t have to compromise your vision. I mean, if I had taken Martian Comics to Vertigo, just for example, I’d have probably been told to fit almost every issue into the 20-page format, and that’s just not possible with what I’m doing — nor do I think it’s a healthy practice, generally, for comics.
There’s another big upside that people don’t talk as much about. A Kickstarter campaign is also an awareness campaign. Yes, the primary function is to raise money for the project, but you can’t do that unless you’re making people aware of the project. A Kickstarter is a great way to make people aware of a project. They watch a video, and if they like the project and the rewards, they pledge some money. Because it’s timely, there’s an impetus to check the project out that there isn’t, if you just tell someone “check out my comic!” And for most of us doing Kickstarters, our projects don’t have a lot of name recognition — that’s part of why most of us are crowdfunding. So crowdfunding hopefully gets you some funding, but it also spreads the word as part of that first function. And while this is an intangible, I’ve come to realize that it’s a huge part of what a crowdfunding campaign can accomplish.
On the other hand, not having bosses means it’s all up to you. This routinely crushes people. It’s not talked about that much, because everyone — including me — is so immensely appreciative of people giving their hard-earned money to make a project actually happen. There’s a responsibility there, and we’re understandably a lot more upset with creators who fink out, or take too long to deliver, or simply abscond with funding. I’m super concerned about that too, and I’m especially fascinated and horrified when a project raises six figures and then gets sued so that it probably can’t deliver, or when creators just fink out. But the flipside is that, as amazing and as powerful as Kickstarter is, it’s a recipe for a personal breakdown. I’ve had multiple ones, running Kickstarter campaigns!
By the time the campaign starts, you’ve spent months or years working on a project. You’ve maybe invested thousands of dollars too, just getting things to the point where you have enough to show someone enough that you feel comfortable asking for money. If it’s your first comic, you’ve had to contact and figure out how to work with artists, colorists, letterers, and how to format the files themselves. Then you spend all this time and possibly money putting together the campaign itself, figuring out how much to ask, tweaking the rewards and your story. At every step along the way, you solicit feedback and advice. And then you pull the trigger, and you’re on a clock, and you hope people like it and give some money, in exchange for those rewards. And then, if you’re like most campaigns, you worry every single day about how you’re doing. You wake up and check the numbers, and a lot of days, there’s no new money there, and you’re no closer to the goal, and time has passed, so that being at the same number means you’re marginally that much closer to the campaign failing. You tweet, you email, you use your Facebook pages and networks, and you do whatever you know how. And then, if you’re not in the 1% or so of campaigns that just take off, the depression starts. Inevitably, you look at other campaigns, and you see someone with literal stick figures who’s asking for $20,000 and has raised it after a few days, and you can’t help but think, “God, does my comic suck that bad? Does no one care?” And the truth is, this is totally unfair to yourself — and to your pledges. Maybe that other campaign was by someone with a built-in fanbase, or maybe it just took off for whatever reason. Someone on Reddit thought it was funny and ironic! I mean, Kickstarter is not a meritocracy. But it’s hard not to think this way, if you’re worrying about the campaign making its goal and you go days without a new pledge.
A little less than a year ago, I was running the campaign for Martian Comics #3, and right when it launched, Archie Comics launched its own Kickstarter. It had some big names attached, but it was for six figures for just a few comics. And it was taking in a lot of money, too — multiple times what I was. Ultimately, Archie cancelled the Kickstarter, amid complaints that it wasn’t providing value for its supporters, was cutting out comics stores, and was really just to get these comics and others out quicker, rather than getting them made at all. But for me, the most frustrating thing was the enormous amount it was asking. I was struggling to raise a hundredth as much, and I was working through depression every day to have a shot at that — which was only going to subsidize like a fifth of the cost of the issue, rather than being this tremendous game-changing amount of money like the Archie thing was. And you know, it’s not fair to make those kinds of comparisons to your project. There’s always going to be some project that’s asking for $50,000 just to print collections of material they’ve already got and paid for, and they might not need all that money, but they raise it in a few days because they have a fanbase, whether you think their project merits that fanbase or not. But again, this is just the world. I’m a bit of a name, especially in comics scholarship, and the first time I met Grant Morrison, he was like, “Your’e Julian Darius! I was just reading you last night!” But I’m not Geoff Johns. And we’re talking about independent comics, without super-heroes, and without a cool little viral image like a leprechaun with a machine gun riding a giant cockroach. One thing you have to remember is that there are lots of campaigns struggling more than yours — people who believe in their projects but stuck at just a few donors. But if you’re prone to “glass half empty” thinking, it’s still really hard not to think, “No one cares! This is all going to fail! This was all for nothing! I’m a failure!” And you’d think, having run six Kickstarter campaigns before, I’d be immune from this. But I wasn’t, and a lot of my time during that campaign was honestly spent just trying to cope with or to distract myself from my negative emotions and thoughts.
I really hope no one gets me wrong: I’m tremendously thankful for everyone who’s contributed to every Kickstarter campaign I’ve run. Every one of them has hit its goal. I want to make sure that every single person who pledges is happy. And I know that I’m only still able to do this because of them! There probably hasn’t been a day since that same campaign in which I didn’t feel an immense sense of gratitude and debt to everyone who contributed, and I hope I’ve shown that to them.
But it’s one of the downsides of using Kickstarter that isn’t much talked about. The person who’s raising the money is promising to do things for supporters, so the primary obligation goes in that direction. Any pity for the person raising the money ought to be minor compared to the obligation that person has to everyone who donated. I believe that firmly. At the same time, I understand why some people have emotional breakdowns running a campaign. A lot of people wonder, “Why isn’t so-and-so donating?” And you can’t think that way. I don’t think that way. Everyone’s in their own situation, and there are plenty of people who love you and support you who, for their own reasons, whether financial or not, aren’t inclined to contribute. And that’s cool. You can’t let it be personal. But I’ve known people who did that, and putting this on top of the feelings of impending failure or doom or obscurity can crush a person.
The other downside is that you have to be your own marketer, and on the backside, you have to print the books, you have to ship them, you have to collate everything and handle complaints and questions. A lot of artistic people aren’t good at these things, or they don’t have people to help them. I think most people wind up fulfilling their obligations, but campaigns often run late. Sometimes, that’s because a contributor doesn’t follow through as promised — and it drives you crazy, because you owe people books. Once your campaign is successful, you’ve agreed to be a distributor and to get people stuff, and you have to take that seriously and do that well, even if you see yourself primarily as a creative person. I’ve certainly seen a lot of smart people fail to do this well, and it infuriates me, because I take these obligations very seriously.
Of course, the biggest upside is that you get money, and you get to make your project a reality. But unless you’re in that 1% of campaigns that really takes off, you probably don’t have a windfall. People generally set their campaign goal at the least amount possible — and I think that’s good, because you can always go over, but if you go under, you get nothing. So you want to set the goal as low as possible. And if it’s worth it to you to lose money on the project, because you love it and want to do it, you should set your goal at the least amount that lets you fulfill the campaign’s rewards and just subsidizes the project enough that you can be sure you can produce it. That’s what I’ve done. And I think that’s wise, because it gives you the greatest chance of success. If the goal is really to produce the project you care very much about, not to make it pay for itself, you’re right to set the project’s goal low. But what this means is that, as soon as this money comes in, it’s spent. And you’re fulfilling rewards on your credit cards. That’s fine — it’s what you signed up for. But we should be honest about the fact that, while we trumpet the outliers, most successful Kickstarter campaigns aren’t paying for all the costs of the project, let alone paying for the time of the person or the people in charge. It’s really only the 1% of campaigns that let people quit their day jobs to do a project. Everyone else is doing the work on their own time, and usually have lots of expenses along the way, and the crowdfunded money lets them get over the financial hump to print the book, or pay people the big final payment, or something like that. So it’s important to understand that, while the money is the most obvious plus of a Kickstarter, it subsidizes but doesn’t remotely fully pay for the costs of the project, except for the most successful 1% that get all the headlines.
Speaking personally, the Martian Comics #3 Kickstarter ultimately got funded on 22 June 2015. Supporters really rallied at the end, and we exceeded our goal by several hundred dollars. I had been really depressed during the campaign, but I was ecstatic at how it ended! We ended up getting that issue out by the end of the year, and we got the print trade paperback out in February of this year. Everyone has seemed really happy with the results and the rewards they’ve gotten. That’s the most important thing. And if we can get the completion of issue #5 funded, I’m more than happy to keep going into debt to keep making these little things I love so much.
HEC: What’s the single thing about working on this project that has most surprised you?
JD: How happy it’s made me. Every time I see pages come in, from an artist or a colorist or a letterer, I just love seeing them. There have been times when I’ve been depressed and I just look at incomplete pages from upcoming issues, and I’m just amazed to be doing this. I’ve wanted to my whole life. And I’m very happy with the results. Making comics has been such a profound joy. And it’s an amazing thing to know that you’re doing what you should be doing with your life.
Once again if anyone wishes to contribute to Julian Darius’ campaign, they can follow this link.