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Turning Readers into Patrons

Anyone who’s interested in cultural production and has an account on Twitter or Facebook has, by now, been sent an appeal for someone’s Kickstarter project.


Kickstarter is a service that enables artists, designers, musicians—“creative people”—to make pitches for funding to the online public. Projects have funding goals and deadlines. Goals must be met by the deadline in order for funds to be released.


Comics creators have become an important part of the Kickstarter ecosystem, while the service, similarly, is growing a niche in the comics world.


In Publisher’s Weekly interview, Todd Allen makes the case that Kickstarter could be regarded as, effectively, the third largest independent publisher of comics in the US. He notes that the typical output funded by Kickstarter equals or exceeds that of imprints and publishers such as Vertigo, Dark Horse, and Image (he looks specifically at May and the first five months of 2011; see Todd Allen, “Is Kickstarter the #3 Indie Graphic Novel Publisher?”, 7 June 2011).


Indeed, looking at current projects on the site shows a variety of uses by comics writers and artists. Some creators are using the site to raise capital to begin a series or book, while others, probably the most common use, is to raise funds to pay for printing costs for projects that will then be independently published or distributed by an established press. While it’s easy to imagine that the site is primarily the province of new creators, established writers and artists have also accessed the site, and Kickstarter has been used to fund high profile projects such as the forthcoming Womanthology.


One of the most interesting uses of Kickstarter by comics creators is to solicit funds not for the purpose of capitalizing or publishing a specific work but to attract patrons and patronage that will enable them to, literally, afford the time to work on their art and craft. Sometimes this patronage is about finding the time to finish work on a particular comic, but in other cases the appeal is more general.


Jessica Abel (“Artbabe”, La Perdida), for example, currently has an appeal on Kickstarter that, is entirely about allowing her time to sketch in preparation for getting back into drawing (22 days left as of 11 November). While there’s a specific book for which she needs to re-hone her skills, the appeal itself is not about directly funding that project.


A variation on the patronage goal is John A. Walsh’s appeal related to his historical graphic novel, Go Home Paddy (eight days to go as of 11 November). Unlike Abel’s, Walsh’s proposal is tied to finishing a book, one that he has been serializing online, but like Abel, he wants funds not for publication but to buy time to devote to his work.


While there are undoubtedly those working in other fields who are also seeking patrons to support their work in ways that are incidental or only indirectly tied to a specific, tangible product, the fact that comics writers and artists are turning to the site both to fund specific projects and to buy themselves time to create is an index of how hard it is to make a living from their art. Even where work is steady, the need to find jobs for hire or to have a day job is a necessity for most in the industry.


Many successful writers and artists work outside of comics, in design and illustration or in writing in other fields, to pay the rent, or have partners who make it possible for them to do what they love. Even the most successful creators often need to beg, borrow, and steal the means to make their passion projects. In that kind of economy, a platform like Kickstarter is an attractive resource, both for bringing specific works to fruition and for enabling the artist to do art.


There are others reasons why Kickstarter may appeal to comics creators and why the model, of bringing artists and writers in direct contact with readers and potential readers, works for comics.


Comics isn’t a medium that requires high levels of capitalization. At base, all one person needs to make a comic is paper and pencil. Moving beyond that, adding inks and colors, for example, will still typically be less of an investment than booking studio time to record music or pulling together a kit to make a film. These lower capital requirements mean that artists can often afford to finish a work before going to Kickstarter to deal with the costs of printing and distribution.


Even where creators need support to afford the time to finish a project, it will often be possible to attract potential backers with an all but finished book or substantial part of a series. There are ways for creators in every field to provide proof of concept to potential supporters, but comics writers and artists can, in many cases, base their appeals on fully realized visions of what they want to make available to readers.


In an earlier column, I looked at comics as a medium for idiosyncratic art and stories (“Comics, Art for the Idiosyncratic”, PopMatters, 11 August 2009). Because comics can be easily made individually, or by a tight group of collaborators, and because economic barriers to entry are low, it is a medium that lends itself to novel or highly personal stories and imagery.


Traditionally, one of the challenges for creators who want to make such comics, though, is finding the means to either self-publish or an established publisher who sees the potential value in distributing their work, despite its strangeness. When someone makes a highly singular work, it’s reasonable to wonder who else might be interested, and how to find those readers. Kickstarter is a way to do that by allowing a creator to show a traditional publisher that there is interest in what they do.


Outside the realm of the peculiar, comics creators in the United States, for all of the proclamations of relevance and seriousness that can be found in the mainstream press lately, also must struggle against perceptions of being engaged in a low cultural pursuit of a kind that rarely attracts traditional forms of financial support from wealthy patrons and foundations. Kickstarter offers an alternative, one where more pop cultural forms are likely to attract the same kind of attention as the high cultural forms—maybe even more likely.


The interesting question raised by this platform is what happens when readers become patrons. Historically, patrons would lay claim to some part of an artist’s art, if not to the artist themself. Today, granting agencies will often have conditions tied to their funds, requiring certain forms of exhibition, for example. Clearly, individuals who make small contributions to an artist or a project are a far distance from providing an artist with their entire livelihood, or the full funding needed to complete a project. Still, most comics creators clearly recognize the need to acknowledge the sense of ownership that comes from reader-patrons by offering credit and pieces of work—copies of books, original art, personal sketches—to their backers.


Diffuse patronage would seem to allow the artist more freedom than more centralized forms of support, such as being beholden to a single individual or family, but there remains some form of obligation between creators and their patrons even when dealing with, say, 50 people who gave between $10 to $200 to see a project through. The working out of this sense of obligation can be seen on John Walsh’s Go Home Paddy page, where he explains why he’s not offering physical copies of the book in exchange for support or in questions raised over the summer about the lack of compensation for artists and writers on Womanthology despite that volume’s record fundraising (for a summary, see Andy Khouri, “The Dollars and Sense of ‘Womanthology’”, ComicsAlliance, 15 August 2011).


Right now the experience of patronizing favored or interesting creators and projects remains new, and that novelty will no doubt sustain continued success on Kickstarter for many comics artists and writers. The long term viability of the platform would seem to depend on the extent to which that newness can mature into stable relationships between creators and readers that go beyond cultural consumption, and into more of a partnership.

Shaun Huston is an associate professor in Geography and Film Studies at Western Oregon University, where he primarily teaches courses in political and cultural geography. He also makes films, including Comic Book City, Portland, Oregon, USA (2012), a documentary on the community of comics creators in Portland, Oregon (view details on IMDB).


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