X-POSITION: Phoenix, Upstarts & More Tear Up Bowers & Sims' "X-Men '92"
Mike Jasper and Niki Smith hit the big time when their comic In Maps and Legends won the Zuda competition in November 2009, but shortly after the comic started its run, DC took down the whole site, leaving many of the creators without a platform. Jasper and Smith took the plunge into self-publishing, relaunching the comic on multiple platforms, including Kindle, Wowio, LongBox, Drive Thru Comics, and iTunes. You can get the comic on your computer, iPhone, iPad, or Droid. With the third issue due out on December 1, I checked in with them to see how things were going.
Brigid: First of all, the most important question in an interview like this is: What is the comic about?
Mike: In Maps & Legends is about a young woman caught between this world and another, and her attempts to save them both. It starts off as a contemporary fantasy, as our hero Kaitlin Grayson and her friends get caught in the web of a mysterious man named Bartamus who shows up at Kait’s place one night. Bartamus tells Kait she’s the only one who can save his dying world. As you can guess from the title, cartography, history, and stories play a key role in the unfolding mystery of our comic.
Brigid: How long do you plan it to be?
Mike: This first story arc is ten issues. I can see a lot more stories in this series, but we’re starting with this arc to see if it sparks interest in readers who’d like to read more.
Brigid: Why did you choose to enter it in the Zuda competition?
Mike: It’s all Niki’s fault! She put out a call for writers via Twitter, and I sent her half a dozen ideas, and this is the one that stuck. I’d never heard of Zuda before, but when I found out it was an imprint of DC, I sat down and started reading all the comics available at the site. All of it great stuff, and while I felt a bit daunted by the quality of the other contest winners at the site, I thought ours added a new take, a strong female protagonist, and a great cape-and-tights-free story.
Niki: As Mike said, I’d been musing “aloud” on Twitter about entering the Zuda competition last fall—a few writers tossed out ideas, but I really liked Mike’s—it had the most potential *visually*, I thought. A map carved into the walls of a room? There was definitely potential to show something Zuda readers hadn’t seen.
Brigid: What was that experience like? Are you glad you did it?
Mike: The month of the competition, November 2009, was pretty heinous. Lots of checking and double-checking of our numbers, and the twice-weekly ranking updates were particularly nerve-wracking. And spamming everyone we knew to get them to vote! Though we led all month, I was convinced by the last day of November that we’d lost. But we didn’t, and I’m really glad we did it, in spite of all the chaos of the year since. It was a crash course in marketing, what to do to get the word out and what not to do. Plus, getting contracts and checks with the DC logo on it? Priceless!
Niki: Stress. My wife made me promise I would never submit again. It was a tight race start to finish. You can’t just sit back and hope people like you—you have to get the word out and bring in new readers. Comics are always in need of new readers!
Brigid: How did working for Zuda shape the way you made the concept—the format, the storytelling, the pacing? Is there anything you would do differently?
Mike: I think Niki would agree with me that we’d adjust the size and orientation of the page—Zuda used a horizontal format, which is great for reading online, but not so great for reading on a Kindle or Nook or iPad. And so many comic distributors are set up for vertical, not horizontal, that we’ve had to do some jury-rigging to make our comic fit at certain sites. But I’m not sure I’d change anything else, and I actually like the horizontal aspect.
Niki: I don’t know if I would go standard comic vertical, actually. Horizontal works perfectly for screens; you just have to rotate how you hold it. We may have tried to squeeze less action onto each page, though, if we had originally intended it for the smaller screens of phones and ereaders. Pacing-wise, Zuda’s deal is always for a “season” of 60 pages—and conveniently enough, that’s exactly where we are now! One year to the day from winning Zuda, we’ve released the third issue, and those who have read it will know just how much of a cliffhanger our Zuda season would have ended on—with no definite say on whether or not it would continue! Releasing In Maps & Legends independently means we can tell the full 10-issue story without our readers having to worry they’ll never get to see the end.
Brigid: How did you find out that Zuda was shutting down, and what was your immediate reaction?
Mike: I got an email from Zuda, and then sat back in shock for a while. Then I watched the twittersphere blow up as other creators reacted to the end of Zuda. I wasn’t completely blindsided, as there were rumors flying already, and I had a bad feeling about it in my trick knee, but still… it stung. I got on IM immediately to chat with Niki and commiserate.
Niki: All Zuda creators got the same form email, with not a lot of information. We had no way of knowing who was cut free and who they’d decided to continue—or where and how they would survive. So far at least one other ex-Zuda series (War of the Woods) has released independently on Comixology, and I hear a few others have plans, but by now I think many have simply moved on to their next projects. It’s a shame, because I’d enjoyed following their series on Zuda.
Brigid: Why did you decide to present your story on so many platforms?
Mike: It didn’t make sense to limit ourselves to just one distributor (though it would’ve been a lot easier on us!). There still isn’t one distributor that hits ALL the various platforms and devices (some are getting closer and closer, however). Also, people are going to start choosing their favorite app for getting their comics—I know I don’t want to go through five or six different comic apps on my iPhone or computer to get to the comics I want to read. So we figured the best route was to do some research and find the big players as well as the smaller players that we felt had lots of potential and reach, and get on board with all of them.
Niki: Digital reading devices are growing so fast it’s hard to keep up. The iPad was released something like 6 months ago, and a wave of tablets are soon to come—all running on different operating systems and needing different programming. There’s no single distributor available on all of the platforms we’re on. We have a different partnership for Kindle, for Nook, for Android phones, iPhones, Windows phones… the list goes on. By limiting ourselves to one distributor exclusively, we would have cut out a huge percentage of our readers. EReader sales actually make up the majority!
Brigid: How do you handle the nuts and bolts of formatting it for all these different apps?
Mike: Niki does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work, and I’ve got notes and spreadsheets for the different issues and all the distributors. We’re still fine-tuning the process, but it’s getting better with each issue. Thank goodness for the wonders of Dropbox, which helps Niki and keep our files synced up between North Carolina and Ohio.
Niki: I do a lot of Photoshop work. Kindle and Nook take longest because their smaller screens means all the lettering needs to be made larger and more legible. For the “guided view” panel-to-panel stuff for iPhone and Android, the distributors handle that.
Brigid: Do you plan a print edition?
Mike: A print edition is definitely in the plans. We’re considering a couple different publishers, but haven’t settled on anyone just yet. I’m looking forward to it.
Niki: We plan on querying a few publishers soon, but the hard-core print thinking may come closer to the end of the 10-issue run.
Brigid: What have you learned since leaving Zuda?
Mike: I think I have a pretty good feeling of what it’s like to own your own business! I went from scripting 3 issues a year (with Zuda) and doing some minor marketing for each new page (Zuda did 1 page a week, while we’re doing 22 pages every six weeks) to running what’s essentially a small digital publisher. I’ve gotten really good at reading contracts. I think I’m getting better at writing press releases. And I’ve learned that you get exactly out of creating a comic what you put into it. It’s been a rush.
Niki: Agreed. Time management is huge. I’m drawing, inking, coloring, lettering, formatting 22 pages in 6 weeks… it’s exhausting but I’m actually getting the hang of it!
Brigid: Do you like being independent comics producers, or would you prefer to be working for a publisher?
Mike: As I said above, it’s a lot of work, and the marketing side of it can be really draining, especially when I’m trying to get an issue scripted and keep in touch with our distributors and discuss the art with Niki. Ideally, I’d love to have it both ways—work on indie comics as well as work with a publisher.
Niki: I’m still actively trying to find a publisher for a few graphic novel projects of my own, so in the end I would say I’m probably inclined to lean that way. There’s no safety net when you go independent—no advance, no page rate, just your own meager skills as an artist and marketer. I would also love to work with a good editor, particularly on the comics I write.
Brigid: What’s next once this comic is done?
Mike: With seven issues to go, it’s hard to see that far ahead at times, but I’d love to do another graphic novel or maybe a shorter one-shot kind of comic, and then do another story arc for Maps. I also have some non-graphic novels out there to publishers, and if those get picked up I’d love to get a series going there for one of my novels. My five-year-old son and I just finished the most recent Wimpy Kid novel, and I think there are a ton of stories waiting to be told for that audience, especially for boys ages 5-12—we loved the mix of stories and line art in those books, and as my wife would attest, I haven’t completely left behind my junior-high-school mentality…
Niki: I actually just won a grant to work on a graphic novel I’ve been writing for the past few years, so I’m hoping something comes out of that! It’s a story I would love to get out there, and it’s MUCH different from IM&L in both style and tone.