Unbound: Talking with Phil Foglio
Phil Foglio is best known as the co-creator, with his wife Kaja, of the insanely popular webcomic Girl Genius, and for a pioneering of a business model that a lot of people thought was simply insane: Posting a comic for free online and relying on people to buy the book anyway.
The model worked for the Foglios, who have won numerous awards for Girl Genius, including the first-ever Hugo award for graphic fiction, and Phil Foglio has been posting his earlier comics work online as well, including Buck Godot and What’s New with Phil and Dixie. When Buck Godot wrapped up, a few weeks ago, he replaced it with the his first comic series, Myth Adventures, based on the humorous fantasy novels of Robert Asprin.
I thought this would be an interesting opportunity to talk to Foglio about why he is resurrecting a 20-year-old series, how he has managed to turn a profit with the free-comics model—and what’s up with his one subscription comic, the adult series XXXenophile. Read on for all the answers.
Brigid: How would you describe Myth Adventures to someone who isn’t already familiar with the series?
Phil: A bumbling apprentice magician finds himself hooked up with a magician from another dimension who has lost his powers, so the only way he can get anything done is teach the kid what needs to be done. So the kid has the ability, but the older magician has the knowledge and skills.
Phil: The Myth Adventures novels were originally written for a small company called Starblaze, which was a publishing house that was set up by science fiction illustrator Frank Kelly Freas. One of the books he picked was this light humorous fantasy [Another Fine Myth] by Bob Asprin. The two of them knew each other, so it was an easy sale, and it was head and shoulders the best seller this line had.
In 1983, Bob sold the comic rights to the Myth Adventures books to WaRP graphics [which was owned by Elfquest creators Wendy and Richard Pini]. By that time I had taken over the illustration. When Bob sold them the rights, they asked, “You wouldn’t happen to know a comic book artist who could do this, would you?” And Bob said “As a matter of fact, I do!” They called me up and said “Do you want to do this?” and I said “Sure!”
When they gave me the job they said “OK, here’s the novel. Adapt it into comic book form.” But there are certain things you just can’t transcribe from book to comic. Bob was very supportive about that. In the first scene, Skeeve, the apprentice, and his master Garkin are on this total backwards nowheresville dimension, and I said, “Garkin is really interesting. Why is he there?” And Bob said “He’s there to bring Aahz and Skeeve together.” I said “I get that, but why is this magician nowhere starving in a hut?” and Bob said “He’s there to bring Aahz and Skeeve together. After that, he dies.” I said “You don’t mind if I fill that out a bit?” and he said “Nah, he’s dead.” So there are changes in the story I had to make. The series was originally going to be six issues, but I filled it out so much it became eight. Every now and then I’d get a call from Bob saying “Well, this is a surprise,” but Bob was very cool about the whole thing and really liked the final product.
Brigid: What happened to the rights to these comics over the years?
Phil: The books first came out in black and white as 8 issues from WaRP graphics, and subsequently they were printed as two-color graphic novels from Donning Starblaze. They went out of print ages ago, and just recently we brought them back to print ourselves under the Airship Entertainment imprint.
The contract was actually decent in that the art and the stuff like that was copyrighted in my name, so that wasn’t really a problem. Even so, when I went over the contracts [to reprint the graphic novel], we sent [the Pinis] a note saying we were going to do it anyway, just to make sure, and Richard wrote back and said “Why are you telling me this?”
Of course the story and the property were Bob’s, so we had to get a contract with him, which we were able to do while he was still alive, and in fact he got to see the book reprinted. Subsequent to his death, his rights reverted to his executor, Bill Fawcett, whose wife, Jody Lynn Nye was collaborating with Bob on the last few Myth Adventures novels.
Brigid: What do you hope to accomplish by putting them on the web?
Phil: First of all, there are a lot of people who have been following my work who have never heard of Myth Adventures. We posted it online and already we are getting people who are like, “What the hell is this?” This is a good way to revitalize the sales of the printed books, so eventually I will be able to see my garage floor again.
Brigid: Will we be seeing Myth Adventures on the iPad?
Phil: I regard the web not as a medium so much as a means of distribution. So I think if the iPad helps get our comic in front of more people, hooray. We don’t have anything on the iPhone. We have had four or five people who have come to us and said “We want to make a Girl Genius iPhone app,” and we say “Great, tell us what you want to do,” and they all fall apart. I haven’t heard of anybody who has figured out a way to make serious money off a comic book iPhone app.
The iPad, is bigger, and for us bigger is better. We do sell PDF copies of our books through DriveThruComics, where we are consistently one of the best sellers. That’s nice: We send them the PDFs and that’s it, we’re done, and every month we get a nice little check from them—little, but they come month after month. And in this age, I really think nobody who is in it for the long haul is going to get rich in one fell swoop. What has worked best for us is just trying to come up with as many different things as possible. None of them makes a million dollars, but we get a thousand dollars here and a hundred dollars there and it all adds up. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.
Brigid: You were one of the first creators to make money by putting a comic online for free. How did that work?
Phil: Girl Genius was an established book. We put out 14 issues as a comic book periodical. It came out on a regular basis, and as an independent comic book goes, it was doing pretty darn well: We were selling, like 9,000 copies. About a third of them we were selling retail, off of our website or at conventions, the other two-thirds we were selling through distributors like Diamond. In 2005 we just stopped printing the comics, and we took this already established property that we had been selling for money and put it online for free and said no firewall, no subscriptions, no nothing—we are giving it away.
Phil: First of all, printing comic books is expensive. I figured that by not having to do the comic book we were saving close to $20,000 a year. When you lay out a comic book and then lay out a graphic novel, it’s two entirely different jobs. You have to do it all over again. All we do now is sell the collections. Also, printing the comic was really expensive, and we were in a cash crunch at a particular time and we were like, “Is this really worth it?”
And thirdly, for years people had been coming up to me and saying “I would like to get into comics” and I had been saying “Screw comics. Do a webcomic. It’s the wave of the future and your production costs are super low,” and eventually I realized that instead of just giving this advice I should take it.
A lot of the success of Girl Genius I think could only have been done by a person like myself who had a long career building up an established name and being in independent publishing, because that meant I was publishing my own books. So when Girl Genius went online, we were able to sell people Girl Genius books from day one, whereas almost everybody, who starts a webcomic has to collect material before they get a book. It takes them sometimes up to two years before they can begin to monetize our core product. We went in with a functioning store, and all we had to do was say “Like it? Buy it now.”
Brigid: What part does your wife Kaja play in all this?
Phil: She’s a co-writer, a co-plotter. We talk out the story. We were talking the story out for six years before we put out issue 1, so she’s pretty much the co-writer. She does all the lettering, she does all the computer production, she does all the book layout. She runs the website. That’s the way to do it. if you’re going to marry someone in the same business as you, the best thing to do is work with them.
Phil: XXXenophile was a bachelor’s toy. I was sitting around arguing with some friends about adult comics, and I said, you know, everybody really likes to read adult comics but they are all so horrible. I’ll bet people would really like to see a happy, fun, well made story that happens to have lots of sex in it. They were like, “Well, maybe, but nobody has actually done that.” It was something I wanted to do, so I did it kind of as an experiment, to see if I could and would there be a response, and holy cow was there a response! It did very well. I did 11 issues, and then I decided I had proved my point and I stopped. XXXenophile is out of print; we ran out of issues and I’m not doing any more of them.
There’s this pay site called Slipshine, run by another cartoonist called Josh Lesnick, and he said “XXXenophile is getting pirated let right and center. I would be willing to pay you to run it, and if you have an authorized site charging money for it, if nothing else it would be easier to police these sites.” So I basically licensed it to him, and every month I get a check and he puts up some more pages. It’s money for stuff I did ten years ago. Holy cow, what a deal! And it’s in a regulated site. They make an effort to keep it behind a firewall, and the rest of the stuff on the site is reasonably good. The ethos behind XXXenophile was no rape, no violence, no coercion, no guilt, just everybody having a good time, and pretty much everything else on that site follows the same ethos, as it were.
XXXenophile did very well indeed. We had much higher production values, we had stories people weren’t afraid to be caught reading, we had an incredibly high female readership, which for comics is strange and for porno is unheard of. I had a pediatrician tell me if she had a choice between a young teenage boy finding XXXenophile and Batman, she’d throw him XXXenophile because it teaches much healthier interactions. Of course, this particular pediatrician would not go on the record, and I would not ask her to, but it still gave me good feelings for the day.