Talking Comics with Tim | Monkeybrain Comics’ Allison Baker & Chris Roberson
Since the first time I hung out with Monkeybrain Books founders Allison Baker and Chris Roberson at the Westin hotel bar during HeroesCon a few years back, I have longed to do a joint interview with them. While their publishing house Monkeybrain Books has been in existence since 2001, in July Baker and Roberson launched a creator-owned comiXology-distributed digital imprint, Monkeybrain Comics. While much is known of Roberson, not everyone knows Baker’s background. As detailed at their company website: “Allison Baker has worked in feature film and political media production for more than 13 years, while also managing the day-to-day operations of Chris Roberson and Monkeybrain Books.” Please allow me to apologize in advance for not quizzing Roberson about my new favorite Monkeybrain work of his, Edison Rex. Update: After I finished posting this article, Monkeybrain announced that tomorrow (August 14) would mark the release of a 99-cent autobiographical story by Kurt Busiek, Thoughts on A Winter Morning, drawn by Steve Lieber (a story which was originally appeared in Negative Burn: Winter 2005).
Tim O’Shea: Which came first, the decision to move to Portland or the decision to move Monkeybrain into the digital realm?
Allison Baker: The move to PDX was definitely decided first. Monkeybrain Comics started out as an idea and theory, trying to solve a lot of the problems creators run into when working within a traditional publishing model. The final piece of the puzzle came to us at the end of last year. After that we started actively putting it all together in the beginning of 2012.
Chris Roberson: Yeah, we’d been planning our move to Portland for well over a year, and talking about it for a year or two before that. The germ of the idea that would eventually become Monkeybrain Comics was planted around the same time, but didn’t take its final form as a digital comics imprint until the end of last year.
Which one of you took some convincing before embarking on this new stage to Monkeybrain, or neither of you?
Baker: Neither of us, really. Although I kept saying to Chris, “This is going to be a LOT of work.”
Roberson: Allison and I talk about the comics business a LOT, and the idea of doing a digital comics line grew out of conversations that we’d had over the course of a LONG period of time. It wasn’t so much that one of us needed to convince the other, and more than one of us would periodically point out a potential problem that we hadn’t anticipated, and then both of us would go back to the drawing board to figure out how to fix it. When we reached the point that neither of us had any remaining objections or concerns (aside from, as Allison points out, that a lot of work would be involved!) we knew we were ready to move ahead.
What makes a project or a creator Monkeybrain material — are there certain standards?
Roberson: The standards are pretty simple: “Stuff we like.” We approach creators whose work we enjoy, and who we want to see more work from. And so far, everyone has brought back staggeringly good work. Of course, we wouldn’t want to put our name on something we DIDN’T like, so the possibility exists that someone would bring us a project that we wouldn’t want to take. But the control that we have in place is that we only choose to work with people whose talents and tastes we trust implicitly, and who we know will produce something we’d be proud to be associated with.
Did your experience at DC (positive as it was at points) partially serve as an inspiration for the new Monkeybrain Comics initiative?
Roberson: Not really. Those conversations that led to Monkeybrain had been going on long before my departure from DC, so there wasn’t really a causal relationship between the two. The decision to launch a digital comics line was more motivated by observations we’d made about the current state of comics in general, rather than any specific experiences I’d had personally.
Was there always an idea in the back of your mind that if interest was strong enough when you first announced the digital books, that you might launch them same day on comiXology, or was that a spur of the moment decision?
Baker: That was a completely split second decision. We started trending on Twitter, and about an hour later Chip Mosher [comiXology's vice president of marketing, public relations and business development] called me and said, “I have a crazy idea …” which are always the best ideas. We pulled the trigger and about an hour later, the books were up.
You and Chip Mosher have been friends for a long time, but how early in the planning of this new Monkeybrain Comics era did you realize that comiXology needed to be involved?
Roberson: We had known that digital distribution was going to be a big part of the future of comics for some time, and so had been watching carefully for the last few years to see who was going to emerge as the market leader. And by early last year it was apparent to us that comiXology was going to end up the standard bearer for digital distribution going forward. We were lucky enough to meet the co-founders at a conference early last year, and began a long series of conversations then that ultimately led to us formalizing a relationship with them.
Baker: I think a lot of people forget that we are very much informed our experiences running Monkeybrain Books as a traditional print publishing imprint for ten years. And I will tell you that it is a very hard time for the independent print publisher.
Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen the overall book trade transformed by digital. And in terms of the comics medium in particular, digital offers the opportunity for comics to return to the mass media it used to be, and I think that it’s clear that Comixology is going to be a big part of that. So honestly, while I was more than pleased to see my friend become a part of a team who I feel is doing a lot of things right, it really was just a happy little bonus to be able to work with him.
Would you agree that SDCC was much more about the independent creator this year (as opposed to being a great deal about the big two)?
Baker: In my opinion, Image won SDCC. Hands down. So, yes!
Roberson: No question about it. I knew about a lot of what [Publisher] Eric Stephenson was going to be announcing at the Image panel this year, and even so I found myself completely bowled over by the announcements. Just a staggering amount of talent producing loads and loads of books I want to read.
How did you get Chris Schweizer to step away from his Crogan and SCAD Atlanta work long enough to pursue his two projects?
Roberson: We asked him!
Chris, in the SDCC panel, you said J. Torres is one of your favorite writers. You know and have worked with a hell of a lot of writers, so this compliment carries some weight. Why is Torres such a great writer?
Roberson: I think that I first discovered Torres’ work in the pages of Alison Dare and Sidekicks about 10 years ago, but quickly went to the back-issue bins and found things like Copybook Tales, Siren and Monster Fighters. And Torres has written some of my absolute favorite comics of the decade since. (In a better world, he and Tim Levins are still cranking out issues of Family Dynamic each and every month.) I think that many comics readers might have overlooked some of his more recent work, since it would have been shelved in the “All-Ages” racks, but one of the things I like most about Torres’ work is that his all-ages work truly IS for ALL AGES. He doesn’t write down to younger readers, but produces clever, witty, engaging stories that a kid can read with considerable enjoyment, but that an old guy like me can pick up and enjoy with the same level of enthusiasm.
Masks and Mobsters is done in black and white (a choice that works well for the genre) even though it is a digital property. Was at the request of the creative team?
Roberson: Yeah, things like “color or B&W” or “serialized or stand-alone” or anything of that sort are entirely the purview of the creators. Whatever they think best serves the story they want to tell is fine with us!
Where the hell did you find Thomas N. Perkins IV, and why has he not done comics before Awesome Adventures?
Roberson: I found Thomas Perkins on this amazing thing called the Internet. I think it’s going to be big some day! But in all seriousness, I’m almost compulsive in seeking out art and artists on the internet, and have been for years. And it’s not for any mercenary impulse, except that I derive pleasure from looking at art I like. I think I first stumbled across Thomas’s work on deviantART and … No wait, I can give you a more precise answer than that, because I’m also compulsive about talking about things that I like on the internet. And the first time I raved about his work online was in June of 2009.
I became an ardent fan of Thomas’ work the instant I saw it, and have followed him ever since. As to why he hasn’t done comics before, I haven’t the foggiest idea, but I’m glad that he’s going to be doing them now!
With 30 projects in various stages of development, how much editorial guidance are you trying to provide for these creators?
Roberson: We see our role as something between logistical support and quality control. Creative decisions are (and should be!) made by the creators, so in terms of story content, artistic choices, things like that, those are decisions that we leave to the creative teams. When it comes to how best to format things, or what kind of challenges and opportunities the digital form presents, we’re happy to serve as a resource. And when an issue is nearing completion, we’re here to act as another set of eyes to make sure that no errors or mistakes crept in that the creators didn’t intend. But then when the pages are finished we step in and get things packaged together in the way that comiXology needs them, and shepherd them through the process that results with them appearing online.