Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Robert Kirkman on Self-Publishing & His Early Days

Photo by Gage SkidmoreI recently got the chance to ask Robert Kirkman about his early self-publishing days during the online Comics Experience Book Club. While the meeting topic was The Walking Dead, Volume 1 (one of my all-time favorite comics), the questions I most wanted to ask centered around his start-up days. I found his answer so interesting -- inspiring even -- that I thought it was worth sharing.

Just a day or two before the book club, I had read Tyler James' article "Going All In" on Comic Related where he mentioned Robert had racked up credit card debt equal to five times his annual income at the beginning of his self-publishing career. That seemed like a pretty high level of commitment, if not insanity, to me. So my question to Robert was what exactly was his "plan" at that time -- simply an "all or nothing" approach? And if he had it all to do over again, would he do it the same way?

Robert admitted his plan was just "doing comics" -- there really was no plan. He confirmed that he racked up a $40,000 - $50,000 credit card debt in the early days, many times his annual income at the time. He told himself if it all fell apart, in the grand scheme of things, paying it off wasn't much worse than the college debt many people have, and this was the opportunity he wanted to pursue.

According to Robert, very early on he had worked at a comic shop and learned some basic things about how Diamond and comics publishing worked. He pretty quickly decided he'd like to make comics, and formed the publishing company Funk-O-Tron with several friends. Robert emphasized that the "publishing company" was pretty much just a bunch of guys in a room, some of whom, like Tony Moore, he'd known since the 7th grade.

When Robert got started with publishing, he had an office day job. So he was essentially running a publishing business around his 9-5 job -- calling Quebecor about printing or whatever, in between working. Then he would go home and write until 2am, sleep for a few hours, and go back to work the next day.

Eventually, running a publishing company and writing while holding down a day job started to catch up with him, so he took the plunge. He quit his day job to do comics full time. Now he had no money coming in, other than some minimal profit when an issue of Battle Pope would be published. He'd give artist Tony Moore his cut of the proceeds, pay the printing bill with his credit card, and attempt to live off the rest of the cash. That's what I'd call living on the edge.

It all worked out for Robert in the end -- both Invincible and The Walking Dead took off within about 6 months after they were published, and he was getting gigs at Image and Marvel as well -- but if he had it to do all over again, he admitted he might not do it this way. It was just too stressful. More than once, he described his mindset at that time as "desperate." He did anything to save money, even spot inking on the books sometimes, and he lettered The Walking Dead himself for 18 issues to save on the expense.

When Marvel came calling, he was willing to work on any character that they threw at him. In fact, when they asked him what characters he'd like to work on, he refused to name any, for fear he'd give the "wrong" answer and he'd miss the opportunity. His response was always "I love 'em all." And that freelance desperation mode led to him taking on more work than he could comfortably handle; those Marvel 2099 one-shots, for example -- five of them -- when he was already committed to Invincible, The Walking Dead, Super-Patriot, a Jubilee series, and several other things. But he got through it.

Much of the rest of the Book Club discussion centered around the craft of writing and The Walking Dead, but the biggest takeaway for me was the lengths to which Robert went at the beginning to make comics his career. He definitely was willing to take risks, whether it was casting a Pope as his main character or racking up a mountain of credit card debt.

He also gave us the same advice you hear everywhere for writers: if you're trying to break in, do your best to find an artist, make a comic, and get it published -- whether in print or online. If you can put together a comic, Robert said, "it shows you have your stuff together," and plus, you then have a comic you can sell.

Bottom line, as Robert put it, "when you're self-publishing, you gotta' do, what you gotta' do."

Anyway, I highly recommend Andy Schmidt's Comics Experience Book Club to anyone interested in creating comics. Almost all of the book club members are either creating comics or want to create them, so the discussion tends to focus around the craft of words and pictures and what works and what doesn't. Every session, I walk away with a list of things to try in my own work.

The next two club meetings will cover Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca's Invincible Iron Man, Volume 1, and David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp. Seating is limited, and, last I heard, there were only a handful of spots still available, so jump on board soon if you're interested. I hope to see you there!

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