Looking for a fun unique platform that will expose you to some awesome comics? Well, look no further! I had the pleasure of chatting with Steve Blatchford, creator of zco.mx, a website dedicated to self-publishing cartoonists and their readers.
Steve Blatchford: Ah no, all the thanks goes to you and Hannah [Means-Shannon] for helping to get the word out about this project.
CM: Let's start from the very beginning. Tell me a little bit about the zco.mx project. What inspired you to get it started?
SB: The fallout from the hype and excitement that Image created in the 90s had wrecked comics for me, and I stopped reading them by the late 90s. In 2009, Lemire's Essex County was getting a lot of national press. It was a finalist on a list put out by the CBC called "The Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade," and some people felt that only prose books should be considered. Lemire's work piqued my interest, and after I read it, I was back in — damn you Jeff Lemire! :)
The next bit of inspiration came when I decided to download comics by solo creators. If I really enjoyed the work, I would send them money directly via Paypal. This got me past the negative association I had with things like long boxes, bagging and boarding, and trying to decipher misleading hype. I knew that there were other people in the chain who put time into making these comics, but, to start with, I felt satisfied with the idea of donating money directly to the cartoonist.
This led me to the comics file-sharing communities where people were talking about hundreds of self-publishing cartoonists I had never heard of. I should mention, in the late 80s and 90s, I hung out at my LCS in the small town I grew up outside of. It carried, almost exclusively, DC, Image and Marvel titles. I thought I knew a fair bit about comics, but some of the people in these file-sharing communities really blew my mind. I realized these types of comics were similar, but also very different — like two keys on a piano side by side. They sound awful when played together.
I came to expect comics to require the involvement of half a dozen to a dozen people — editor, writer, penciler, inker, colourist, letterer, etc. But with these self-published books, the whole work, the entire vision of the work, was mostly done by one person. I was immediately in awe that a person would attempt all this, and then realized the amount of time that it would take. Also, I was used to comics having a certain playing field, but these small-press/self-published works were so much more dynamic in every way (i.e., the story, art, page layout, book design, etc.). I felt a level of gratitude toward these people.
From there, I met my now good friend Martin. I'm up in Canada and he's in Austria, so we could relate to things like regional blocks, DRM, crazy shipping costs and poor exchange rates with the USD. In the fall of 2012, we brainstormed some ideas about a website that we felt could benefit self-publishing cartoonists and their readers. I was busy with work at the time, and set the brainstorming aside.
About a year later, I introduced the idea to another friend, Jim, and the three of us began to work on a prototype. We showed the idea to Chuck Forsman , and he offered to post some work on the site. Then Kevin Huizenga really helped us sharpen our focus, and he also put me in touch with Jordan Crane. Jordan and I had a three-hour conversation that felt like it lasted three minutes. He really took the project to the next level. I also met with Marc Bell during this time who fed me name after name of cartoonists who he felt were under appreciated. Marc and Jordan still give us tons of direction and help. They are super great guys.
CM: The site brings cartoonists together to build and share an audience, which is a really cool concept. Who wouldn't want to support a bunch of creative people coming together? However, I'd love to hear about some of the challenges.
SB: Right now the biggest challenge is making sure people know about the site. Our hope was that word would spread via Twitter and Tumblr, but so far that hasn't happened. I also don't think that spring/summer helps, as most people are outside enjoying the weather — at least it is that way here in Ontario.
CM: I like the idea of readers contributing money directly to cartoonists that they like. It reminds me of Kickstarter, only it's more direct and less complicated. What motivated you to develop a system like this?
SB: The more middlemen there are the less money there is that gets through to the creators. The reason why sites like Kickstarter and Patreon work well is that they manage to get many consumers onto one site. We know that the number of readers of small-press/self-published works is small — we're talking a niche (comics) of a niche. We're hoping to bring these readers together, but also to attract new readers.
I personally don't feel that Kickstarter and Patreon are being as fair as they could be. If Kickstarter were selling actual products, then taking a percentage of the money would be understandable, I think, but they're mainly selling ideas. When those ideas fail, they don't refund the money or give back their share, which I think would be more fair to its users. On zco.mx, cartoonists are showing work that is completed. In Patreon's case, they're raising money for creators (which is great!), but why take a small portion of the money intended for those creators? There are other ways of approaching costs. For example, Kickstarter could hold yearly Kickstarter campaigns. Patreon's CEO, Jack Conte (who is a musician), could use Patreon itself to raise money for the site.
CM: I read about your money model, and how it counteracts the "buy before you try model," with a "try before you buy" model. I think it's a fantastic idea. Do you feel like it's a more honest and fair way to treat readers?
SB: Yeah, that's definitely part of it. People can read (i.e., "try") comics all over the Internet, on cartoonists' websites, Tumblr and file-sharing networks, but there isn't always a nice way for readers to give back. Most times readers aren't conscious ofthe fact that they could give back.
This project hopes to make readers more aware of how much time and effort is put into producing small-press and self-published comics, and to give readers a way to contribute money directly to these talented folks. At least, that is part of what we hope to accomplish with this project.
CM: Do you ever have concerns about not getting enough fresh content, or do you find yourself fighting the creators back?
SB: I don't see any end in sight for interesting self-published work. There are lots of cartoonists outside of North America who should be on the site. The dozen or so who are already on the site are there thanks to David from kuš! He has been very supportive. The only bona fide gag strip on the site is Tony Zuvela's Berserk Alert. This is another area that needs to be expanded. Also, none of us have a strong knowledge of webcomics! From a content perspective, it feels limitless.
If the site can attract a readership, I'd also like to look into excavating work that was done in the 80s and 90s. I know that David Lasky would post more of his older stuff, and I'd email cartoonists like Richard Sala and Evan Dorkin to see if they have any interest in posting their older work. There is a lot of really great work out there that has already been done that I think should see the light of day again.
As to the second part of the question, I've suggested to the cartoonists that they could post a few things and then take a wait-and-see approach. If we can get the readership numbers up and if there is a bit of money trickling in, then I know most would be more than happy to add more work to the site.
CM: Thank you so much for sharing your project with me, and allowing me to pick your brain!
SB: Just real quick, thanks to my friend Sara Rozenberg for proofreading my answers for this interview — she is the best! Thanks Christine for taking the time to ask me these questions.
Christine Marie is a Staff Writer at Bleeding Cool, and bibliomaniac with a love for all things creative. She hopes to one day be a Superhero/Disney Princess/Novelist. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @AWritersWay or on her blog writerchristinemarie.wordpress.com.