In the final issue of his self-published Glamourpuss, Dave Sim included an essay reflecting on the end of the series, and the possible end of his professional involvement with comics. The reaction online was widespread, and soon turned to a discussion of the future of Sim's earlier work, Cerebus. On a comments thread at TCJ.com, Fantagraphics co-publisher Kim Thompson expressed his potential interest in republishing some of Sim's Cerebus material. Sim, arguably the most iconic self-publisher in comics history, responded to that 'open offer' in a lengthy article at TCJ.com, and indicated his willingness to negotiate with Kim on a possible publishing deal for Cerebus, albeit in the public forum of the comments section at the TCJ.com website. Got all that? Now read on...
On 4 October TCJ.com co-editor Tim Hodler posted this comment: "...for the sake of this thread’s readability, not to mention the potential fruitfulness of these discussions, I am currently inclined to do as many others have already suggested: either shut things down entirely, ban all off-topic comments, or limit participation to just the most relevant parties, you and Kim Thompson. Public negotiation does not necessarily entail allowing a group of hecklers to throw rotten tomatoes at the speakers." Two hours later the thread was closed, with Tim Hodler graciously offering to run any final response from Dave at TCJ.com.
At the time of writing the following response to Tim Holder's post, Dave was unaware that the TCJ.com thread had been closed. Despite Tim Hodler's kind offer, it is being run on A Moment Of Cerebus to allow you the opportunity to comment upon it (but please note the site's comments policy - as stated in full on the About page - which can be summed up as "be civil and keep on-topic"). A handy guide to all 727 posts on the TCJ.com thread can be found here. Over to Dave...
Hello Tim [Hodler]. I do think that it's worth experimenting with having only people using their real names being allowed to post as suggested by Tim Webber based on his experience at AMOC. At the same time I appreciate that these sorts of environments are entirely out of my frame of reference. I'll go with whatever our hosts decide to do. I'm just a guest here.
I should also clarify that the structure of the Virtual Tour is that Tim is posting my answers to AMOC and the connecting websites -- the cliffhanger questions -- on a delayed basis. I work ahead on those, so it gave the appearance that I was ignoring Kim's counter offer and keeping strictly to the FORM & VOID option when an answer from a few days previously showed up on the Internet discussing the reality of the few days before. I think it's worth pointing out that this is a good sign for Fantagraphics that Tim makes it an ABSOLUTE FIRST priority to post to the TCJ site ahead of AMOC and the other sites. I've just found out from Tim that we have enough Q&A "in the can" to see us through to October 13, or three days past the HIGH SOCIETY AUDIO DIGITAL launch. Tim recommended that I focus on the TCJ site. It seems a little like recommending that Barack Obama spend the first five days in November barnstorming Texas or that Mitt Romney should concentrate all his time in Oregon, but with 39 days down and 6 more to go, I'm just punchy and sleep-deprived enough to see the logic in it. :)
I should also point out that the Virtual Tour is Tim's as part of his Kickstarter pledge: saving on having to ship hardcover books to England, we "traded" for an interview on AMOC which then evolved into the Virtual Tour. I didn't really think there was much point in promoting HIGH SOCIETY AUDIO DIGITAL to the comic-book field generally (which I assumed had the same fixed attitude about me that it had evinced 4 years ago on the glamourpuss launch tour -- I'm beginning to think I might have been wrong about that), but I did think I could maybe help drive up the traffic to AMOC for Tim by doing a cross-pollinating interview across many websites.
I'm trying to keep to Internet-length responses, which is difficult and -- as a result -- there have been some misunderstandings about my LONG delayed reply to Kim that I'll now try to clear up. But, I'm afraid it's complicated. Basically, I've been trying for about a week to figure out a SHORT way to explain the situation, but I'm afraid there isn't one. So, here goes:
HIGH SOCIETY AUDIO DIGITAL and HIGH SOCIETY DIGITAL got handed off to George Gatsis after I had annotated all the documents from the Cerebus Archive and my Notebooks for HIGH SOCIETY. That's the Tech side, which I know nothing about. We're -- THEORETICALLY -- six days from launch. It was George's idea that we forge ahead after the fire that swept Sandeep's place and destroyed the negatives (and my first notebook). Which I was fine with -- I had six issues left to record the audio on and three issues each to annotate on the Cerebus Archive and Notebooks side. I could be done -- and was done -- by the beginning of September. Which gave George roughly six weeks with the material to the launch point.
We definitely talked it out at length. Sandeep had scanned the first 300 of the 500 pages and uploaded them to George at the time of the fire. Of the remaining 200 pages, there were 70 original pages in the Archive which had been scanned. That left 130 pages that needed to be reconstructed from the best source materials we have: early issues, first printing of the HIGH SOCIETY trade from 1987, the scans that Lebonfon had already done when George requested they upload the files to him and he decided they weren't good enough. As compared to the negatives, that is. As compared to our other "best source" materials they're now near the top of the list. Reconstruction is one of the things George does for a living. People bring him faded documents and he tweaks them back into existence. He had -- and has -- no doubt that he can get the job done, mixing and matching the best version of this page with the best version of that page. I've authorized reconstruction methodology -- as an example, "cloning" sharp tone from pages scanned from the negatives and original artwork and patching it onto fuzzy tone from second generation reproductions, cloning letters to patch into faded lettering, etc. AND George and his daughter Anna are always searching for original pages on the Internet -- with HIGH SOCIETY pages obviously a top priority. Cerebus pages "in from the wild".
This DOES get to Kim's proposal, trust me, it's just going to take a while to get there, as I said.
George is doing each DIGITAL issue, which are just scans and annotations, and uploading them to Comixology, Diamond Digital and iVerse as he completes them. Issue 26 -- HIGH SOCIETY No.1 -- is in their hands and ready for the free download October 10th. As are issues 27, 28, 29 and 30. Comixology is doing Issue 26 and then the following week 27-30 as a four-issue $3.99 download. That was Comixology's David Steinberger's suggestion, based on their experience with BONE where there was a free download of the first issue and then, I think, three issues the following week and then two issues a week after that. Comixology are "the guys to beat" in digital comics, so I defer to their expertise. As I did with iVerse which has chosen to do a straight weekly version. It's a completely different world, digital comics. "You guys make your living at this, you do what you think is going to make me the most money." So Comixology is ready for Week 1 and Week 2 and iVerse is ready for Week 1 to Week 5. As is Diamond Digital.
Now the potential problem comes in because George has to build up lead time. However long it takes him to finish the issues and get them ready for upload, he is going to hit a major wall when he gets to the last 170-out-of-200 pages for which he doesn't have negative or original art scans. Then he has to start reconstructing and hope he has enough lead time built up over #26 to #40 to see him through to issue #50.
I have no contact with George, right now. It would be pointless. He knows what he has to do and he knows how much time he has to do it in. The last thing he needs is me phoning and going "HOW FAR ARE YOU?" He's as far as he can be, presumably.
I do get the occasional fax from George if he needs something. The last one I got, he ventured the opinion that Kim and I are going to come up with the most important contract ever signed in the history of comics. Uh. Well, okay. We'll see -- but clearly George is THE biggest enthusiast about this process right now...following all of this on a little inset window, while doing the tech stuff on HIGH SOCIETY DIGITAL gradually turns his brain to cream cheese (as it has already done for Sandeep and for me in the earlier stages of the process).
Anyway, on top of that, George is also doing HIGH SOCIETY AUDIO DIGITAL, which is the package that I/we are selling which is the same material but with the addition that it has Deni and me doing audio versions of our work. Me acting out all of the characters (you can get an idea of these at the HIGH SOCIETY KICKSTARTER site, Updates #96 on, I believe) and reading Aardvark Comment aloud and you the reader being moved in and out of the page that I'm narrating/performing. I like what George has come up with better than I liked my original version of it which I did on one of the last episodes of CEREBUS TV. Mine was too close to movie storyboards. George's version is closer to comic books. You never lose the awareness that you're looking at a comic-book page. It's not my kind of thing, but then digital isn't and never will be, I don't think. But, it's 2012. It needs to be addressed and I've addressed it.
I don't know how far he is on those. I just re-recorded page 19 of issue 27 which, you know, I HOPE he's further than that. But, at the same time, that's just Week 2 at CerebusDownloads.com. It's October 4 as I'm typing this and that has to be up by October 17. So he has 13 days. It's the same experience we had with doing the weekly CEREBUS TV. Each time you get one done you have 7 days lead time tacked on. If, as I used to do, you can do two episodes in a single day that gives you 14 days lead time. It's running ahead of the freight train, but it means you stay ahead. Of course, I'm still waiting to see CerebusDownloads.com pop into existence -- and we're under the one-week mark for launch.
Now. How this impacts negotiating for CEREBUS and/or HIGH SOCIETY:
Both volumes are now sold out in their current printings. Diamond has the last 200 or so of each. I've solicited for the HIGH SOCIETY 30th ANNIVERSARY GOLD LOGO SIGNED AND NUMBERED EDITION which was supposed to ship this month -- and might HAVE if it hadn't been for the fire. Diamond is aware of the situation. They wanted to issue me a Purchase Order now that they have all the orders -- 700 copies -- but that was the last thing I wanted. "The next sound you hear is the fax machine spitting out a 'You are about it hit your expiry date Where are our books?' fax." Talking it over with Tim L. at Diamond, we decided that the thing to do was to put all the orders for HIGH SOCIETY that come in in the interim on the docket for the 30th ANNIVERSARY SIGNED AND NUMBERED. Obviously the thing we both want to avoid is ANY retailer getting a regular book who thought they were getting the deluxe one. So you err on the side of more deluxe copies, obviously.
When is that going to happen?
Well, obviously not until George is done reconstructing the last page of issue 50 for which he doesn't have a negative/original art scan. And even then the book will need to be formatted for printing since it will only be in DIGITAL and AUDIO DIGITAL form. However many pages George is "ahead" will postpone the date when we will possibly have to say, "We tried to hit the weekly schedule, but George hit the wall and so issue (41? 42? 47?) will skip a week." No disaster. By that time, either people are along for the ride or they aren't.
The idea for the 30th ANNIVERSARY SIGNED AND NUMBERED EDITION was to give Diamond an exclusive that they could see over-ordering -- Bill Schanes agreed to "sweeten" the orders beyond actual sales. That would allow me to print that edition and the NEXT printing of HIGH SOCIETY the regular edition at the same time. HIGH SOCIETY is the best-selling CEREBUS trade, so if I can print 2,000 or 3,000 copies, that gives me a primary revenue stream for a year or more while I see what the digital world can do for me.
Now, the CEREBUS trade is pretty much in the same category. The actual negatives turned out to not be that good, which makes sense. Deni and I were getting them done "on the cheap" and they weren't a top priority for Fairway Press who printed the local newspaper. Shoot the negs, make the plates and "run that baby" after one of the weekly papers they were doing. So George has the scans that were made from the negs -- back in 2006, the first book to be digitized -- and THEY need to be reconstructed and tweaked. How many of them? We have no idea. George is doing HIGH SOCIETY right now, he doesn't have time to look at them beyond the point of saying they are roughly the same problem. Some of it's good, some of it needs some work and some of it needs a lot of work. WHEN he gets to it, then I will be able to bring the CEREBUS trade back into print -- probably as its own 30th ANNIVERSARY GOLD LOGO SIGNED AND NUMBERED edition (there was never a signed and numbered edition of the CEREBUS trade either).
The problems with the CEREBUS trade came as a surprise to me, basically because I was so used to just approving the proofs when they came in. Yes, this is the CEREBUS trade. This is when I really didn't know how to draw. The less time I had to spend looking at it, the happier I was.
But George has forwarded some "In From the Wild" CEREBUS pages from the CEREBUS trade, particularly pages from issue 1. And, for the first time, I'm going, "Jeez, this stuff isn't AS bad as I thought it was." In many ways, it's actually pretty good. But I was so used to looking at bad reproduction of the early stuff that I thought I had no inking skills whatsoever. No, it's primitive but it's pretty strong in its own way.
Now, I know what everyone is going to say: SIGN A DEAL NOW AND FANTAGRAPHICS CAN DO THOSE BOOKS. Well, no. Those are the two best-selling trades. If I sign a deal for them, it's not going to be a "First guy to cut me a cheque for $3K gets them". Actually that wouldn't be the case with ANY of the trades. I would definitely pitch every publisher in comics on them and look at what I was being offered and what made the most sense. I'm more than willing to negotiate for CEREBUS and HIGH SOCIETY but in the opposite of "in a hurry".
Which is what I knew right away when Kim brought it up. Which is why I knew there was no need to hurry through this negotiation we're doing here. I have NO idea when the next printing of HIGH SOCIETY is going to be done. I know I'm doing that one, because I've solicited for it and it's a viable profitable proposition. Not even factoring in what will happen with HIGH SOCIETY's sales after HIGH SOCIETY AUDIO DIGITAL and HIGH SOCIETY DIGITAL are well into serialization, or after serialization when there's a collected version on the market. It only makes sense to wait and see what it does before making other plans. I have NO idea when the next printing of CEREBUS is going to be done. Or if I'm doing it. I'm certainly open to negotiation. But the negotiation is going to be one book at a time unless someone can give me a good reason to do more than one book at a time.
The digital contracts for HIGH SOCIETY are all JUST for HIGH SOCIETY and they're for five years. Had I negotiated for CEREBUS, HIGH SOCIETY, CHURCH & STATE I and II and JAKA'S STORY I might have gotten a much better deal. But, again, that depends on what happens with HIGH SOCIETY. A "better" deal could look pretty stupid if DIGITAL HIGH SOCIETY is even a minor hit. As would negotiating away CEREBUS, HIGH SOCIETY, CHURCH & STATE I and II and JAKA'S STORY as a package print deal before seeing what happens with HIGH SOCIETY.
If you want to make an offer for the CEREBUS trade for say two years, I am at least six months away from being able to give an answer to that. At least. Because if HIGH SOCIETY DIGITAL is a hit, then it makes sense to do CEREBUS VOLUME ONE DIGITAL before doing anything else or even thinking of doing anything else. As you can see from my long-winded explanation, even if I WANTED to sign a contract for the first two books tomorrow, I wouldn't be able to deliver them for a number of months.
And we have to factor in the "I don't plan to turn my brain to cream cheese again anytime soon" factor. 500 pages is a lot of pages to prep, a lot of pages to narrate and "perform" and a lot of Cerebus Archive documents and Notebook pages to annotate. The individual 99 cent issues of HIGH SOCIETY, George tells me, are clocking in at 80 and 90 pages each. Doing all of that in 3 weeks as I did this time is just too brutal to make it SOP. I'm also having to picture a sensible construction. I got 18 issues into CEREBUS ARCHIVE -- basically the CEREBUS pre-history from 1972 to March 1977. In the digital form, more pages are no problem. There's no shipping or storage costs. So a combined CEREBUS VOLUME -- 500 pages -- with CEREBUS ARCHIVE preamble -- 360 pages -- and then Cerebus Archive documents and annotations bridging the March 1977 to December 1977 gap -- probably 140 pages. 600 pages of annotations of Cerebus Archive documents...And you're talking 1,600 pages. That could be five volumes right there at what I gather is your ideal length of 250 pages per book...and that's just to the end of the CEREBUS volume.
I mean, if we need to start at the beginning as Brian Hibbs, The King of Retailers, has stated -- and he should know, right? -- don't we need to start at the beginning? I put in three years doing the beginning for that reason. I'm really only thinking of it in a digital frame of reference right now because that's the first thing I'm going to have results from in the next few months. If it's viable and profitable, then it makes sense to stick with that and just keep CEREBUS and HIGH SOCIETY in physical print myself (more on this momentarily).
There are a number of things we want to avoid. Everyone mentions the core concept of all 16 volumes in a row on a shelf. Well, yes, we KNOW that's what this is all about. We're fans and collectors first above all. So, PRIMARILY we need to avoid even the remote chance of getting four books in and then not being able to negotiate for the remaining 12. Lou Copeland is right -- I have one chance to get it right and there is virtually nothing in this world that you can get right the first time out. It's going to take a lot of examination and it's going to take a lot of "outside the box" thinking and anticipation of problems and original, innovative solutions. The surest recipe for disaster is "Let's sign this contract here real quick and then figure out how to do it." No, there's only one 6,000 page graphic novel. I'm the one who has to take responsibility for it in every sense of the term "responsibility".
The most responsible thing, to me, was to try a few different things and see what works. I'm here and negotiating because I got my part done on HIGH SOCIETY AUDIO DIGITAL and I've learned from hard experience that the last thing you want to do is just sit down and stare at it waiting to see what it does. No, start with the assumption that it will fail or be a marginal success and that you will need another revenue stream of some kind. Kim wants to negotiate. Great. Let's negotiate.
I also have to be responsible to the fans and collectors who have supported my work for all these years. Just owning the 16 trades is going to -- and has -- set collectors back $400. That's always been a lot of money and is an even larger amount of money here in the post-September 2008 era. Many if not most people who used to have that much money to throw around don't have it throw around anymore and might never have it throw around again.
There are CEREBUS completists and it's a slap in the face to a completist to keep selling him or her the same thing over and over again. 16 CEREBUS trades becoming 32 CEREBUS trades, not appreciably different from each other, that's nothing the average collector is just going to cheerfully "eat" as they might with a two-volume or three-volume series. See, Kim, I don't think your experience with BLOW OUT is an exact analogy. That was different formats, different technologies. These are books that take up nearly two feet of shelf space. The people who are waiting for prestige hardcovers are not going to be terribly happy to be force-fed 16 more trade paperbacks. And if I switch from popular editions to prestige hardcovers those people who are just buying the trades now are going to end up with something like my SANDMAN collection. Paperback, paperback, hardcover, hardcover, paperback. I've consciously avoided that for 35 years and I'd have to be given some very good reasons to suddenly do a 90-degree turn.
I have to SEE what the product is.
That's really the bottom line. I have to have either a mock-up or a clear description of what it is that Fantagraphics intends to do with CEREBUS, so I can say to the CEREBUS fans from whom I've earned my livelihood for 35 years, "Here's what I'm doing, here's why I think I need to do it. Here's what I see as being of sufficient value to get you to buy these again." And their reaction can't be "Well, that sucks for me." Particularly if all that happens is that you end up selling ONLY to the people who have already bought the books. Chris Weimer -- when I was doing the phone conversation Kickstarter pledge reward with him on Saturday -- said, "At the same time there are people who don't mind. They like whatever it is so much that they really like another excuse to give money to the person doing it." Which is a good point, but how many of them are there? I think before I would even consider a 5-book or 10-book or 16-book deal, I would take a very hard look at just producing hand-made hardcovers where the difference in price between doing 5 or 20 is negligible. I had Sandeep run some sample pages from JAKA'S STORY full sized at the local quick printer. Different densities of black -- verging on gray so you see all the brush strokes and the carrier film on the border tapes -- and then solid black. I mean it looks pretty good already. Why not do JAKA'S STORY 10 pages at a time in solid folios? 50 folios and you've got the whole book, with Jaka head sketches in the front. Each one would have merit in and of itself. Buy your favourite pages from the book or buy the whole book.
At the other end of things, several people have mentioned they want hardcovers because their copies of HIGH SOCIETY and CHURCH & STATE are falling apart. They want hardcovers that will last a lifetime. Well, you know: no offence, but how long do you think you're going to live? If you bought HIGH SOCIETY for the first time in 1987 and it's falling apart and you buy one of the next printings, the odds are you aren't going to read it as many times as you did in the last 25 years and, presumably, it will last until 2037. Works out to about $1 a year. I'm not being facetious. I think for some people the "hardcover" impulse might originate in the same impulse to want the nice-looking shelf full of books. What's bothering them is that their HIGH SOCIETY and CHURCH & STATE's and JAKA'S STORY are looking worn around the edges, so it spoils the neat row of books effect. The "shelf set" in the Off-White House Library are definitely not first printings. Nor are the ones behind the desk in my office. I want them neat and clean, so I replace them every few years -- and usually CEREBUS, HIGH SOCIETY and the two CHURCH & STATES. Bob Rittinger -- Boobah in the comic -- used to own, I think, 10 sealed copies of DARK SIDE OF THE MOON back in the vinyl days so as soon as the copy he was listening to got a scratch on it he could crack open a new one. That's a serious Pink Floyd fan.
To sum up, I can't picture myself committing for a long run of books, but it won't be possible to do for months anyway, so I'm more than willing to be persuaded over the course of those months.
Okay. That's my three hours today. I'll try to put in another three hours tomorrow and then I'm tied up Saturday through Tuesday (there'll be a press release, God willing).
Yes, this is weird. But, then, I just got a cheque today from a woman I've never even heard of before for $500 because she thought I deserved it for glamourpuss coming to an end as it did. Doesn't even want a reply (obviously, she's getting one). Just thought she should send me the money she saved by not going to Comicon this year.
Whatever way this negotiation goes from here, I don't think it could be any more surprising and unexpected than that.