For over half a century, the comic book industry has been dominated by the “Big Three” publishers of Marvel, DC and Dark Horse Comics. But the sophistication of vector drawing software has created a boom in independent comics and shed some light on the less glamorous aspects of large comic labels.
THE PUBLISHER PERIL
You Don’t Own Me
Comic book characters are unique in the world of artistic ownership. When the large comic book publishers purchase a creator’s design or idea, they often own it permanently. Unlike music, books or some films where copyrights eventually expire (though almost all of them are renewed regularly), major comic labels want to purchase characters in their entirety up front. By doing this, they can use popular characters in other titles they own to boost sales without having to get the creator’s permission.
Breaking up is Hard to Do
Artists and writers have often had to go through painful lengths to keep some of their property when leaving a large publisher. Comic book legend Jack Kirby, one of the industry’s most influential artists and co-creator of the most recognized superheroes in history (including the X-Men, Spiderman and The Hulk), claimed he was mistreated by Marvel Comics and fought a notoriously difficult legal battle to regain some of his original artwork after he retired.
Once comic book property has been bought, it’s not uncommon for editors to take away writing and drawing duties from the creator and assign them to others. This can have benefits. It can free up time for you to think up new ideas, characters and storylines for your comic while talented artists handle production. However, publishers can also begin branching your work off in different directions while you aren’t looking. This means not just letting other artists change your franchise in ways you don’t agree with, but using your characters in product placements, films or other media that you never intended.
There are some large comic book publishers that are based around creator ownership like Vertigo, Legend and Image (the first two are actually owned by DC and Dark Horse, respectively), and getting a local following for your self-published work is a great start to getting their attention.
On the Rack
Contact local comic book stores, and ask the owners if they’d be willing to sell your work on consignment. You won’t make any money up front, but you’ll get your book in front of your ideal audience and make a small profit at the same time.
Frugal, Not Cheap
Printing your comic book in color is extremely expensive, especially with the richness and texture that vector drawing software can produce. When printing your first issue, it’s worth it to at least have your cover be colorized. A black and white front has a cheap, amateurish look to it that will repel potential readers. Investing in quality page layout software can give your final project a polished look and save some time on the back end.
In the Family
Do as much local advertising as you can. Nearly every large city has an independent comic book industry, and with it comes a much larger audience than you might expect. Online forums are a great place to spread samples of your work and generate interest in your community. Connect with other local artists so you can cross promote one another’s work or pool your advertising resources to better reach local publishers.
Just as each large city has its own comic community, they also have their own comic conventions. Most convention planners or promoters set aside space for local and undiscovered talent and are usually willing to give discounted rates for booth space to sell your work. Even though local conventions like these seem less glamorous than national ones, independent comic publishers often send scouts to these events to find promising local artists.
Jordan Knight is a former comic book store owner and current graphic designer living in San Jose.