See our coverage of Long Beach Comic Expo 2011: “Long Beach Comic Expo: Five Things We Love About Small Conventions.”
Sheika Lugtu is 24 and a student at Long Beach City College. A couple of years ago, she returned to school and decided to document her life in comic form, one panel a day. “At the end of the year, I'd have something to show for it,” she says.
Lugtu published her comic, called OMG Cow, online. She acquired a following, but the audience made it clear that they wanted something tangible. So she printed copies off her computer and stapled them together. “I started charging for it because it costs a lot of money to print out 365 pages,” the Long Beach-based artist explains.
Like a lot of writers and artists, Lugtu chose to eschew the the world of book deals in favor of self-publishing. At Long Beach Comic Expo, a small, one-day event that focuses almost exclusively on comics, self-published books are the norm. Works range from raw to slick, from mini-comics to art books, and are sold largely by the creators themselves.
Self-publishing is nothing new in the comic book world, nor is it rare. For decades, artists and writers have been going the do-it-yourself route to bring their unconventional tales to life. Sometimes, the success stories are astonishing. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is best known now as a kid-friendly cartoon series, but it began life as a DIY comic. While that kind of underground-to-mainstream phenomenon isn't incredibly common, self-publishing has launched many careers. Brothers Chris and Shane Houghton created the successful all-ages comic Reed Gunther on their own before Image picked up on it. Meanwhile, Sam Humphries' self-published satire Our Love Is Real helped him become an in-demand writer.
There are a lot of reasons to go without a publisher.
“No one wanted to pick me up,” says Luis Calderon, whose credits include Deadtective and the series Space Johnny. “Looking at it now, it's just much better that I own my stuff than selling it to the big two or the smaller seven.”
Frequently, artists and writers point out that self-publishing allows them to retain the rights to their work, but there are other benefits. By working on their own, creators have more control over everything from the size of the books to the price points.
“I don't have to listen to anyone else how it's going to be printed, how it's going to be formatted,” says Doug Kline, who released his comic-related guidebook Unauthorized San Diego Comic-Con Survival Guide. Kline had a specific idea for the look of his book — it had to fit into a pocket — and he was able to do that on his own.
By day, Mike Collins and Mike Morris work in animation. Collins is a digital cleanup artist for Rollman Entertainment and freelances for Cartoon Network. Morris is an animator and layout artist for The Simpsons. By night, they're working with artists from across the globe on annual volumes of hardcover art books. Under the publishing name Tiki Machine, they've released Monster Mythos: A Folklore Bestiary and Deus Libris: An Illustrated Collection. Right now, they're working on Legends of the Old West.
“It's not a get-rich-quick scheme,” Collins says. “We want to invest our talent and our money and help us go on to the next project.”
The anthologies have a group-publishing approach in that everyone who contributes puts money in the pot and, in return, gets an allotment of books to sell. “You're getting a return on your investment through the selling of books,” Morris says. The response is impressive. Their first volume, Monster Mythos, featured 18 artists. This year's Old West installment boasts 42 collaborators.
Collins and Morris — who were influenced by people like creator-owned comic book champion Steve Niles — add that getting rid of the proverbial middleman gives them a chance to know the audience better.
“We want to take the grassroots approach to interacting on a face-to-face level with fans,” Collins says.
“We want to pay for the privilege of bringing art to other people,” Morris adds.
But there are drawbacks to creating and publishing your own work.
“Time is what holds me back,” Calderon says. “I'm doing these books after work.” He adds, “I don't sleep.”
It takes him Calderon anywhere from six months to a year to produce an issue of Space Johnny. That might change now, though, as he just brought on a colorist to help him.
The expense of self-publishing can be problematic, too. “Hiring the artist, the printer, coming to cons, that all comes out of our pocket,” says Giulie Speziani, writer of the slice-of-life comic By the Slice. But fellow self-publishers seem pretty keen on working with each other toward a common goal. Speziani and her husband brought friend and fellow comic book writer Jared Sams into their booth at Long Beach Comic Expo. “There's a sense of community,” Sams says. “It's really easy to get involved with that group of people and feel welcome.”
And then there are the issues that arise when you aren't working with an editor. Kline admits that, in the rush of putting together a book, he missed a few typos. But when you're working solo, or as part of a very small team, there's always a lot to learn. Self-publishing is a double challenge. You're not just teaching yourself how to write or draw the specific story at hand, you're learning all of the business aspects as well.
“You just have to keep getting better,” Lugta says. “I learned as I went.”