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(Even More) Comics In Your Mailbox

Comics, FYI
(Even More) Comics In Your Mailbox
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #9 • View online
If you were thinking that it’s been a little quiet on the Substack comics front lately, that’s about to change.

After a few months of relative silence outside of regular mailings from creators already signed up, Substack’s comics program roared back to life this morning with the announcement of no less than six new newsletters from, respectively, Grant Morrison, Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon, Jen Bartel, Tom King and Elsa Charretier, Khary Randolph, and manga explainer and discussion podcast Mangasplaining. Additionally, Jonathan Hickman’s 3 Worlds/3 Moons, and James Tynion’s Empire of the Tiny Onion both announced new comics that will be available to subscribers.
In terms of swings, it’s a pretty big one. On first glance, Morrison felt like the headline to me, but I think that might be my age and personal biases showing, especially considering the last week BKV has had with the return of Saga; as excited as I may be about seeing what Morrison could do with the newsletter format — some kind of return to the stream of consciousness writing of the Invisibles letter column back in the day? Simply sharing commentary on past projects, or excised parts from the original version of Supergods? — I suspect that the larger audience will likely be more interested in what Vaughan will get up to. As they should be, of course; as one of the founders of Panel Syndicate, Vaughan has previous as someone who thinks outside of the box digitally, at least in terms of big name creators. He’s a notable get for Substack.
As is the King/Charretier team; Elsa’s art is just amazing, and it’s been awhile since we’ve seen King outside of the DC multiverse, so I’m very curious what that pairing will be up to. Bartel and Randolph are both wild cards to me, I admit, and that’s what makes them worthwhile choices — I’m only tangentially aware of their work, which makes me all the more curious about where they’re going to go and what they’ll do with the opportunity of Substack’s substantial backing. To date, I think my favorite of the Substack Pro comics deals has been ND Stevenson’s I’m Fine I’m Fine Please Understand, in no small part because it feels like something that could only exist in that particular format; it feels intimate and incomplete and ongoing, like a conversation with a friend. Any more traditional comics format would reframe that experience and make it a very different thing. My relative unfamiliarity with Randolph and Bartel’s work, in conjunction with their experience and familiarity with existing in (and publishing in) digital spaces makes me hopeful they could create something similar, at least in intent. We’ll see.
I was fascinated to see James Tynion explain his thinking about the Substack Pro deal in one of his three mailings today: “The opportunity in Substack has always lay in being daring, in trying a few things outside the box. That’s why my Substack is filled with all of my weirdo UFO and Cryptid stuff. That’s why, moving forward, you’re going to see me experiment with different ways to make and format comic projects. This is where I come to play, build, and try things out. This is where I get to be a bit of a mad scientist and make things that I want to make simply because I want to make them.”
That’s certainly one of the opportunities made possible by the Substack Pro funding. By essentially underwriting the cost of production entirely, it frees up creators to follow their bliss and ambition and go wild to a degree they’re unlikely to find elsewhere, which is surely an unmissable opportunity for fans of any given creator. (The potential for ambitious navel gazing is, I admit, a significant draw for me when it comes to Morrison’s Substack. But then, I’m someone who bought the Fortune Hotel anthology just to read It Was The ‘90s.) Something that’s nagging at me, though, and has been since the program was first announced back in June last year, is this: what does Substack get out of all of this?
While the company is understandably not going to reveal just how much it’s investing in comics, we can surmise that it’s a substantial amount, with creators rumored to be receiving six-figure grants for one year. Multiply that by the number of creators already signed up, and that’s a chunk of money to spend for something where the company isn’t claiming any intellectual property or media rights on the work created. So, what does Substack get here? What’s a win, for them?
After talking to the company a lot — no, really, a lot — in the past six months, the best I can surmise is that all of the Substack Pro comics deals are, essentially, loss leaders. The company is spending the money to, ideally, establish Substack as a viable platform for comics creators and readers alike, so that additional comics creators sign up without the grants, allowing Substack to start making money via the cut it takes from each subscription. It is, as the company itself put it, betting on comics as a potentially lucrative revenue stream in the future.
It’s not the worst plan, even if it might be one of the more expensive on the front end. Comics have been a substantial part of Kickstarter’s success (Well, at least until that company’s crypto announcement), with comics projects enjoying year-on-year growth for the past three years, and a success rate that’s double the site average. There’s certainly an audience — and, perhaps more importantly, a paying audience — out there for an alternative to the weekly trip to the comic store, so why not see if Substack could be part of that picture?
The answer to that question centers around something that is still relatively unknown: who is the audience for these comics, and how many of them are there? What is the magic number of paying subscribers necessary to make Substack a financially attractive option to comic creators, and are they currently out there or will newcomers have to be inducted to get there? If it’s the latter, then what’s the best way of doing that?
There’s a lot wrapped up there. How do you make this attractive to the widest number of potential readers? How do people want to read their comics, and the answer has to be digital, because how else would you convince people to subscribe instead of wait for the print edition. (Has any Substack Pro creator announced a print edition of their Substack-funded work yet? I don’t think so, but I could be wrong.) I notice that today’s first installment of James Tynion’s The Closet, his new series with artist Gavin Fullerton, can be read in the newsletter but also downloaded as either CBZ or PDF files; I suspect we’ll see more of that going forward, as creators work to make the material as accessible as possible for paid subscribers.
Actually, perhaps the biggest surprise of Tynion’s announcements today wasn’t the surprise drop of The Closet, but the news that he’ll be launching another Substack-exclusive series later this year that will be available to all subscribers to the newsletter, paid and unpaid. On a moment’s reflection, though, that’s probably the fastest way to build your subscriber base and bring more people into the paid levels. The first taste is free, and all that.
I haven’t said anything about the inclusion of Mangasplaining in today’s announcements yet, but I’m selfishly eyeing this one especially hard. I know that Substack has been talking to at least two other journalists/outlets about a potential deal in the last few months — neither of them me, if you’re wondering — but it makes some sense to launch with this: co-host Chip Zdarsky has already been part of Substack Pro for some months, after all. As someone still figuring out how to move this newsletter into a paid model, I’m going to be paying attention to what happens on this particular part of the equation pretty closely over the next few months, even if it looks as if the Mangasplaining Extra newsletter will be as much a publisher of manga as much as one publishing writing about manga.
If nothing else, the combination of these particular announcements today brings new attention to Substack as a player in comics once again, and rebuts rumors that things weren’t going too well over there. With competing comics newsletter platform Zestworld due to launch later this year, it’s a suitable end to January, and a reminder if any were needed that 2022 is very probably going to be a very strange year for the industry indeed.
I’m throwing things out of synch this week, mailing this out today instead of Wednesday so I can hit freelance deadlines without losing too much sleep. We’ll be back to regular service on Friday. Given that the subject of this one is a reminder of how full your inboxes are these days, thanks for reading.
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Graeme McMillan

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