A Never-Ending Battle ? Matt Maxwell Part 2

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Blah, blah, blah, Fanboy American Dream. That’s what we called Part One. But that was yestertimes, folks. The rules changed in this simple ballgame. Boy, did they ever.

So a little while ago we published the first part of what turned into a mammoth conversation I had been having with Matt Maxwell, creator of Strangeways. The topic of our conversation was the impending publication of his first issue, something that was such a done deal when I started writing the article that I kind of made a little mistake in the first part of the article.

The mistake in question was printing that the first issue was on the stands. It wasn’t. And as of now, it still isn’t.

So our conversation continued. For an explanation, maybe it’s best to let Matt tell it in his own words.

Broken Frontier: When we first started talking, Strangeways was about to be released by Speakeasy and you were prepping issue 2. But things have changed. What went down?

Matt Maxwell: Yeah, things changed a little bit. The first issue of Strangeways had been delayed since November, even though the files had been more or less ready since September. And there I was, all set to finally have a book out there, which is something that I’d been trying to make happen for a very long time. It was close enough to touch. But a couple of things happened along the way. Most notably was the stream of books leaving Speakeasy starting in about October. Atomika had left before then, maybe June? Can’t recall specifically. But then Rocketo and a couple others left. 

Then came the announcement of the internet publication deal. For those of you who didn’t catch it, basically it stated that Speakeasy would cancel print publication of books below a certain threshold, 1800 issues sold. This came up not long after Diamond stated that they’d cancel solicits of books whose wholesale value was under a certain level, about $1700. I’m sure that tied into Speakeasy’s decision to offer internet publication. But, frankly, I’d had misgivings about their publish-on-the-web plan the moment it was introduced. Details were sketchy or nonexistent. And in the current climate of the Direct Market, I could see this plan effectively shattering any goodwill retailers had when it came to ordering Speakeasy’s monthly books. And in truth, this had been eroding for the previous couple of months, so far as I’d seen.

BF: A rather dire statement. What do you mean exactly? I had understood Speakeasy was doing pretty well, all things considered.

MM: They had been. Atomika had been well received, and I think even sold out at Diamond. Rocketo got a lot of attention as sort of a sleeper buzz book at SDCC in 2005 and the core titles seemed to be selling pretty well, when you consider that Speakeasy hadn’t yet been around for a year at that point.

But then they ran into trouble with late books, a lot of which was due to the fact that Lamppost Printing left Speakeasy in the lurch after the announcement that Lamppost would only be handling books published by Alias. This left Speakeasy and a few other publishers scrambling to find a printer who could deal with color books and were remotely affordable. In the meantime, books weren’t being printed and titles started being late. 

And even before this, there had been issues with Speakeasy’s marketing of books. Granted, I know that they can’t do all the heavy lifting when it comes to getting the word out there. I understood that, which is why I was doing retailer outreach and sending out preview copies of the first issue (as an ashcan) at my own expense, during the solicitation period for the first issue. However, as time went on, I saw that the only outreach being done for the book was outreach that I was doing myself. And beyond that, I found that there were titles coming out from Speakeasy that I’d never heard of before. Not only did I have a book coming out from Speakeasy, but I think I do a pretty good job of following what’s coming out by way of the internet and such. And here were these books that I’d not seen hide nor hair of previously. 

Which is just crazy. If you’ve got money to print books, but no resources left to support them aside from buying the Previews ad, then you’re pretty much just chucking that money away.

BF: So now we’re at, what? November? And the book’s supposed to be coming out…

MM: It was only ever going to be November at the beginning of October. Shortly after that, I figured it was going to be late. Maybe it would have been as early as the day before Thanksgiving (which is not a great date for a product with a short shelf-life), but that idea got squashed pretty quickly. I resigned myself to a December date, which wouldn’t be the end of the world. Hopefully something before Christmas, but not so close that I couldn’t figure on folks having two-fifty to spare. 

Didn’t take long to figure out that December wasn’t going to happen either. At the end of the month, the last I heard was that it was going to be sometime February, and then they were hoping to put out all the available issues rapid-fire, three weeks apart, in an effort to make up time. However, for the first issue, it was too late. #1 would have been out more than two months after the original ship date, which would make it de facto returnable (as I understand it.) Compounding that with double-shipping wasn’t a path that I wanted to go down.

I’d been considering the choice for a long time. I wanted the book to be out there as a calling card at least, something that I could use to pass off to editors. But I also wanted the book to be out there in the right way, if you know what I mean. After the first of the year, I called the production guy at Speakeasy to tell him to hold off printing while I considered where the book was. That was on a Friday night. I knew that I’d have to call Adam (Fortier) on Monday morning and end the deal with Speakeasy. 

BF: What motivated your decisions?

MM: Ultimately, I had to do what I thought was best for Strangeways. I wanted to ensure that at least the entirety of the first story arc got out so that I had a complete story for the readers. And the way things were going, I was in serious doubt that it was going to happen if I stayed with Speakeasy. I didn’t want to have one or even two issues come out and then have it all collapse around me, leaving readers mad because they’ve only got half the story and making it that much more difficult to get the rest of the story out there. Simple as that.

BF: Were there any difficulties getting Strangeways out of its contract?

MM: No, thankfully. Adam was very understanding in dealing with this, probably more than I would have been. The rights to the book and properties never lay with Speakeasy; they were always mine. Which made the whole separation much easier than it could have gone.

BF: This is definitely becoming a real labor of love and it's been taking a lot of your energy to keep the thing alive, I'm sure. What was your reaction to how all of that happened?

MM: Frustration. Depression. In about equal quantities. I went into Strangeways feeling that I’d self-publish, and that was always an option, but I thought that the Speakeasy deal was a good thing, and that it was a benefit to head in to the market as part of a known (even if they were a fledgling) publisher. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, even with a publishing partner, but I never expected it to turn out the way it did. And frankly, I never thought I’d be the one to pull the plug on a deal like this. But things don’t always work out the way you figure them.

BF: They say comics is a rough business to keep your head above water in and you've certainly echoed that statement to me in our conversations. What specifically makes it that way, in your experience?

MM: If you’re asking me what’s wrong with the comics market, well, that could take some time. The simple fact that comics are incredibly labor and time-intensive makes them tough to make money on. Even if you’re getting an issue of art done in a month, and that’s comparatively fast unless it’s your full-time job, you’ve got bills to pay and food to eat and all that. Tough to do it for free or for a percentage of the back end. There’s plenty of other factors that make it tough as an independent, probably the biggest of which is that the Direct Market (for the most part) is primed to receive books from DC and Marvel (and to a smaller extent Image and Dark Horse), but isn’t always receptive to books from smaller or self-publishers.

To be fair, a lot of the smaller publishers don’t make it easy on themselves. They offer books which have a limited interest, or don’t appear to be on a par with the bigger publishers, or are irregularly shipped.

Even so, there are plenty of retailers who are interested in carrying something different, and that’s to be commended. But there aren’t enough of them, or there isn’t a large enough readership to support more of them. More readers bringing more dollars into the market would be nice. Just don’t ask me how to do it overnight…

BF: If you were going to start the process all over, "I've got an idea and I want to publish a comic book" would you do anything differently?

MM: I honestly have no idea. I didn’t seek the Speakeasy contract; I just sort of came into it, figuring it was a good idea at the time. Sure, I could have saved myself some trouble by not hiring the first artist that I had to subsequently fire, but even that was an opportunity for personal growth. And, things felt different back when I first started up. But that could be as simple as the fact that I didn’t know as much about the business as I do now. Getting a look at the inner workings does a lot to snap you out of any sort of naïve daydreams you might have about things.

BF: A lot of our readers probably have pet projects they'd also like to see in print. What would be your advice to them about how to proceed? Assuming they've got it all written and drawn and it's of publishable quality, of course.

MM: Big assumption. But if you’ve gotten that far, which is an achievement in itself, then your work has only just begun. Firstly, I’d make sure you had the resources to do more than just print the books and dump them on the market. Because if you do that, you may as well just blow the money on a motorcycle and wrap it around a tree. At least you’ll get a rush that way…

Make sure you can sell your book to retailers, because they’re the ones spending their money directly. Sure, the customer and reader buy the books and that makes things like reorders possible. But if you’re not selling to retailers, they won’t pick up the book to sell it to their customers. And with this, just accept that some retailers aren’t going to be interested in your book unless it happens to star a DC or Marvel superhero. You’re probably not going to change their mind, so fight the battles that you can win.

Get the word out there yourself. Nobody else is going to do it for you. Get a preview of the book ready as either a PDF or as a mailed copy or whatever. Try to initiate contact before you hit any retailers with a gigantic file in their inbox. Get acquainted with the names of stores that go out of their way to sell independent books and focus your efforts there. Get a copy of Larry Young’s True Facts and learn what you can from it. Expect this part to be far more work than actually creating the book in the first place.

BF: So you've been looking for a new home for the book. What's that process been like?

MM: I’m tapdancing with joy! Can’t you see that?

Actually my search has been fairly limited. For a variety of reasons. I had to look at why I would want another publisher to handle it. It would have to make sense in terms of me even having a chance to make a return on my time and money investment. (Hint: don’t figure out how much your project earns for an hour of your time, because you’ll make more money working as a fry cook.) I’m not sure there’s much benefit for me to go with one of the smaller publishers to be found in the back of Previews, as opposed to putting the book out as a collection on my own.

BF: You got it to Image and they passed. What happened?

MM: They didn’t think Strangeways worked for their plan and passed. Not much of a story. I didn’t make a personal pitch to Erik Larsen or anything, just sent an email over to someone at Image who I’ve contacted before, telling them about the book and what happened with it at Speakeasy. They didn’t feel it was for them and said so. No big thing. You get used to it. 


BF: Yikes. Reminds me of the time that…. Naw, that was a dream I had. So, uh… Next steps for you?

MM: I’m talking to a couple other publishers and would love to tell you that I’m just a handshake away from a real deal. But I doubt it’s anything like that.

I’m getting quotes from printers together and will be prepping a package for Diamond. In all likelihood, I’ll be putting all six issues worth of material for Strangeways together into an OGN and offering it myself. We’ll see what Diamond has to say about it.

BF: Do you think there's a happy ending for Strangeways? Is it going to have to change in some form before it ever returns to stands, or are you going to fight for it as is?

MM: About the only change I’m interested in making is doing it as a color book if that would make a publisher more interested in it. And really, I’m not wild about that. Printing color is not cheap. If someone else wants to pay for it, that’s fine, but as it stands, Strangeways will go out as is.

As for happy endings? There isn’t an ending in sight, really. It’s all part of a process. A very long and sometimes painful process. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some moments of real joy there: like getting art back for the first time, or seeing one of your favorite artists do a pin-up page for a book you created. And you have to take those where you find them, because there’s a lot of not fun moments to go around.

BF: Any other ideas in the pipeline, or are you just focused on this?

MM: I have another book called The Ward, which is being worked on by a separate team. It’s an action/espionage book, but very character driven. Probably closest in tone to the original Avengers television series. It’s moving along, slowly. About an issue and a half of artwork done.

And then there’s the second Strangeways storyline to write out. It’s called “Thirsty,” and I’m sure you can guess why.

BF: What's easier, do you think? Moving to LA and "making it" or getting your independent project published?

MM: Making it in movies? I dunno, probably about equal in terms of difficulty. Although, I’ve already done that, in a manner of speaking. I worked as an animator in LA for about a year before the studio I was working for imploded. 

That happened a lot faster than getting Strangeways out to the marketplace did. But to be fair, I’ve spent a lot of time being a full-time dad in the interim. That saps a little of your energy.

BF: Has any good come of this?

MM: Sure. Even though very few people have seen the work at this point, I’ve actually gotten it done, which is an achievement on its own. I’ve gotten to work with artists whom I respect and I’ve learned a whole about how this whole thing works. And I’ve taken a kidney punch or two along the way. Learning how to deal with those is an essential life skill.

BF: Do you think your experiences are going to make this whole process easier in the future, or is it really just that harrowing and it never gets any easier?

MM: Tough to say. I imagine that even if I landed with a bigger publisher that there’s another set of problems to overcome there. I don’t think it’s really easy for anyone. 

BF: Any other parting words of wisdom? Parting shots?

MM: Wisdom? Me? I dunno, just make sure that you’re not signing away your creations in order to see them in print. It’s not worth it. The work you do is a piece of you. Don’t be so ready to give it up so that you can get yourself on a Superman or Spider-Manbook.

And it gets even crazier from here. Just when I thought I was done with this piece and sending it off to editorial, the other shoe hit the floor. As you may have seen when Fred broke the news for our site earlier in the week, Speakeasy has since closed its doors.

A serious moment of silence for some truly unfortunate times in comicbookland, everyone. There are mainstream books and there are indie books and there are far too few of the mainstream independents. With Speakeasy goes a lot of good ideas about how indies could fit into that mainstream. So take off your hats.

And that’s the whole story. Thanks, Matt, for being so open and willing to discuss the details. We’ll all be rooting for you, but it seems like you’ve got a good plan and you’re handling the speed bumps pretty darned well. So while I’m resisting the urge to wax some nerdy comic book cliché about the superhuman feats needed to get your baby on the stands, it’s good to see that –

Well, nuts. I guess I didn’t really resist that cliché, did I?

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