The intersection between art and commerce has always fascinated me, and given my newish role as publisher of ComixTribe, that’s probably a good thing. As publisher, one of my jobs is to decide, in consultation with an editorial brain trust, what books to publish. As I’ve enumerated before, every creator faces an uphill battle in taking a new property to market. So, when a creative team launches a new title and does it right, it’s something anyone interested in doing this thing for a living should study closely.
Case in Point: Nick Spencer and Riley Rossmo’s Bedlam from Image Comics
As I’ve written before, I think there are five keys to the direct market success of a creator-owned comic book. The pyramid above lists those five keys, in reverse order of impact of moving the sales needle.
Let’s go down the list and see how Bedlam stacks up, shall we?
1) An Undeniable Hook
Bedlam is the epitome of a book with an undeniable hook, and one lobbed right into the sweet spot of the average direct market customer. It’s one of those premises that EVERYONE who does this for a living (or as a hobby) just shakes his head at, thinking “Why didn’t I come up with that!”
But with this hook, Spencer puts on a clinic, checking off all of the key elements a solid hook needs:
- Million dollar title
- Tasty tag-line
- Compelling, “Get it in a Tweet” logline
- Scintillating synopsis
“Is evil just something you are or something you do?”
That’s the tag-line for Bedlam. It’s not quite as awesome as “In space, no one can hear you scream,” but it’s pretty damn close. (Again, editorial nitpick, I would have eliminated the word “just” in that tag-line to make it even snappier. “Just” adds nothing.)
What that tag-line does is set up a central theme (the nature of evil), and establishes the essential question that this narrative will address (is evil in the man, or the actions?) Good themes are timeless and universal, and this one certainly is no exception.
“What if the Joker was “cured” and decided to use his knowledge of the inner workings of the criminal mastermind to help stop psychopaths instead?”
Hell, yeah, what if!
The ONLY reaction to a log-line worth a damn is an upturned smile resulting from thoughts of the possibilities of such a story, and a desire to hear more. If your log-line does that, you win. If it doesn’t, you lose.
That’s it. End of story. (Easy, right?)
And finally, here’s the solicited synopsis that appeared in Previews for BEDLAM #1:
Fillmore Press was once Madder Red, a homicidal maniac and criminal overlord who terrorized the town of Bedlam for years. Then he got better. This is what happens next. A double-sized introduction to a blood-soaked cityscape of murder, mayhem, and mystery by NICK SPENCER (MORNING GLORIES, THIEF OF THIEVES) and RILEY ROSSMO (REBEL BLOOD, GREEN WAKE)!
Now, obviously a synopsis pitch to a publisher would be longer, and discuss more about “what happens next.” But this synopsis lays out the who, the where, and the ironic twist that makes this story unique. It’s also worth noting that 1/4 of the limited space for the synopsis is devoted to the previous commercial work of the creative team…but I’ll touch more on that later.
In summary, Bedlam boasts a compelling high concept, that would connect with a large segment of the comic buying public. As my pyramid above illustrates, such a high concept alone isn’t enough to create direct market success…but it’s a critical first step.
2.) Compelling Writing
So, Bedlam has a great hook…but if it’s not executed well, the book would flop. However, Spencer is a capable scribe. I’ll let John Lees or Yannick Morin handle a more thorough review of the merits of the Bedlam #1 script, (they’re far better at that sort of thing than I am.) But I will say that Spencer delivers on the promise of the premise in the pilot issue. Now, it took him a double-sized first issue to do it (which was also the case for his other most successful creator owned property, Morning Glories), but that’s not something I’m going to hold against him. Bedlam #1 was the story I expected it to be, but was told in such a way to still allow for twists and surprises that kept it fresh on the page.
3) Very Strong Artwork
Riley Rossmo’s style may be a bit of an acquired taste, and for readers who have grown up on clean, Jim Lee-style precision line work, Rossmo’s loose and scratchy style may take some getting used to. But given the dark premise and tone of this story, there’s no question his style is appropriate. And, with the very unique palettes chosen for the flashback scenes, the art on Bedlam stands out as unique. Rossmo fans will be delighted, and this book is sure to earn him plenty of new ones.
4) World Beating Covers
I know there are some people who might disagree with me putting cover art ahead of interior art when it comes to its impact on direct market success. I, like everyone else, hate it when I buy a book with a gorgeous cover and the interiors do not hold up. But, the thing is, I STILL BOUGHT THE BOOK! If covers weren’t so important, the entire variant trade would be irrelevant.
FACT: Covers sell books. A lot of indie creators treat their covers as an after-thought, and that’s a HUGE mistake. Spencer and Rossmo know this. It’s why they secured covers from Frazier Irving, in addition to variants by Rossmo.
Personally, I think the Phantom Variant cover is the best of the bunch, and really, I’m not surprised. To my knowledge, that cover was designed in consultation with retailers…the guys who are actually going to sell the book.
5) Creators with a Proven Track Record of Sales
Nick Spencer and Riley Rossmo have been keeping busy over the past few years.
Spencer has had a constant stream of creator owned work from Image Comics — Existence 2.0 #1-3 (2009), Existence 3.0 #1-4 (2009-2010), Forgetless #1-5 (2009-2010), Shuddertown #1-4 (2010), Morning Glories – (2010-present), Infinite Vacation (2011-present), Thief of Theives #1-7 (co-writer, 2012). He’s bolstered his résumé with work from DC starting in 2010 (Action Comics, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Supergirl) and from Marvel starting in 2011 (Iron Man 2.0, Secret Avengers, Ultimate Comics: X-Men, etc.)
Rossmo has been no slouch either. In the same time, he has worked on several volumes of PROOF, two volumes of Cowboy Ninja Viking, two volumes of Green Wake, plus Rebel Blood and Debris, all from Image Comics. Seriously, if you are an aspiring comic book artist, challenging yourself to produce just half the output of Rossmo would be a worthy goal.
The result of this productivity, is that ALL of the 4,000+ retail accounts that make up the direct market have a sales history with this creative team. Spencer and Rossmo HAVE MADE PEOPLE MONEY. Comics is a business. Art AND commerce, remember? These guys have consistently been on the shelves, and made themselves known entities to the true gatekeepers of the direct market (retailers.) This isn’t something that’s happened over night…but it’s all going to contribute to the monster numbers that Bedlam will do.
BEDLAM SALES UPDATE: 4-9-13
Bedlam #1 opened as the 110th best selling title in October 2012, with 22,736 copies ordered, making it the top new Image #1 that month and the fourth-best selling Image title in October, behind two issues of The Walking Dead and Grant Morrison’s Happy #2. Bedlam #1 added another 4,567 copies in November, and Bedlam #2 opened at orders of 18,583, which perhaps demonstrates retailer confidence in the title even more than strong #1 numbers, because #2 was order before retailers ever received copies of #1. In short, Bedlam did indeed launch as a creator-owned sales monster.
As I’ve explained, you can put check boxes next to all of the keys for Direct Market success for Bedlam. Because of that, the title is to do well. But Spencer and company have tossed in a few additional keys that will make it even more of a sales monster.
1) The Great Value Play – Bedlam #1 is a double-sized first issue, for just $3.50. It’s a meaty read, and incredible value for your comic dollar.
2) Strong Iconography – The “Madder Red” mask is a compelling image…unique enough to stand out, but familiar enough to attract the eye in the first place. I would be shocked if there aren’t a few people showing up to comic shops in home-made Madder Red masks to pick the book up Wednesday. It’s just that good.
3) Aggressive Retailer Outreach – Taking part in the new Phantom Variant promotion was a very smart move. The retailers participating are some of the biggest supporters of creator owned material, and working with them will inflate their sales numbers even higher. Smart play.
Clearly, Bedlam will come out of the gate hot. How many sales? That I can’t be sure, but I’m willing to wager it’ll be Spencer’s biggest launch to date, which will put in on par with a Fatale, in the 20K range. Perhaps even higher.
Spencer and Rossmo are two guys who have risen up the creator-owned ranks. We should all wish them well on their success…and then replicate it ourselves.
Category: Comix Counsel