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Jeff Smith on Comic Books & Self Publishing

Artist Jeff Smith debuted at No. 7 on the New York Times hardcover graphic books list this week. In 1991, Smith founded Cartoon Books to self-publish his comic book work, releasing his critically acclaimed series Bone.

Cartoon Books published a hardcover graphic novel of his Rasl story last month, a book following an ex-military engineer who uses the journals of Nikola Tesla to pull of mind-bending capers. We caught up with Smith to find out how comic book self publishing has evolved over the last 20 years. Smith explained:

Self-publishing has been a badge of honor in the comics community for two decades now, since the early 1990s. The Self-publishing Movement was a loosely affiliated group of like-minded writer-artists, who believed that the cartoonist was an author who’s work should be controlled by him or her, and should be read by the widest possible audience. We were on a quest for equal shelf space, equal critical reviews, the ability to sell our work beyond the confines of the comic book retail shops, and perhaps most important, the ability to print our own work and to keep it in print.

Smith continued, providing an elegant look at the past and future of self-publishing and comic books:

This last goal resulted in a new business model for the comics industry, which required the acceptance of graphic novels by the comics retailing community. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that graphic novels were once rare or one shot novelties, and the idea of carrying or restocking them was heavily resisted. But it’s true.

Now, having accomplished most of those goals, self-publishing is less reactionary. It’s accepted, not only in the comics world, but by most of the established retail and distribution of the traditional book world. Policies that once prohibited self-published comics from distribution and reviews have nearly vanished.

In the digital age, access to the web has removed all barriers to publishing comics work to the public. You need no up front money, and the only limits are your own imagination and skills. Color is available at the press of a button.

Many talented cartoonists are popping up all over the place. Kate Beaton’s Hark a Vagrant is a brilliantly funny web comic that has bubbled over into the print world. Another example is Dash Shaw, whose Bottomless Belly Button was a supreme use of the digital medium, and was then published in print by Pantheon. Faith Erin Hicks has built web communities around her comics, then translated her success into the print world with First/Second. These and many other examples have one thing in common. There is rarely any money in the digital comics themselves. It’s only when they prove themselves good enough, and then transition into the traditional economic models of the print world, that cartoonists see any income.

This may be the path for the near future. But it requires a great deal of patience and drive from the artist. Then again, I suppose that’s always been true. The web is still a wild frontier and new economic models will appear eventually. The e-reader/book model for graphic novels would help deliver money straight to the self-publisher, but as of this writing, I haven’t seen one that is good enough visually or works organically without jarring mechanical interference. I would like these artists to be compensated for their work. I want the best cartoonists making comics, and they won’t be if they’re not getting any bread.

Whether you are working through the traditional distribution systems, or flying in the cool, clear air of the web-o-sphere, just draw your comic. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission, and do the best damn work of your life.

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