The Whatdead - Terry Moore on RACHEL RISING #4 and The Independent Comics Economy

Before we get into our discussion of Rachel Rising #4 this week, I wanted to touch base with [...]

Before we get into our discussion of Rachel Rising #4 this week, I wanted to touch base with writer/artist Terry Moore about the challenges of being a truly independent comics creator in today's market. While anyone who doesn't work for Marvel or DC has, to a certain extent, to hand-sell their books in order to subsist, guys like Terry—who literally operates his publisher as a family business and has no other creators working with him—are the ones who hare to worry the most about the threats of decreased foot traffic, digital piracy and other such threats to their business model. When asked by a fan today whether Rachel Rising was an ongoing title, Moore responded, "Depends. Retail orders are dropping." In the days before Rachel Rising was released, Moore had talked to Panel Discussions about the challenges of the independent market, but now that the book has been on the shelves for about six months today's comments seemed to be as good a time as any to reconnect about the challenges facing his title. Today you indicated on Twitter that orders have not been great at the retail level lately--how does the performance compare to Echo, roughly speaking? Terry Moore: I'd have to say it averages out to be the same. I'm hoping Rachel Rising will surpass my previous two series in sales. Trying hard on that. With guys like Jeff Lemire at DC and Brandon Graham at Image (not to mention a dozen other similar situations around the industry right now), it seems as though mainstream publishers are embracing the indie scene in a big way--at the same time independent publishers are increasingly finding it difficult to stay afloat. What do you think can explain that kind of dynamic? TM: Because it is becoming increasingly difficult to stay afloat on your own. Being an indy comic creator is like trying to get attention in the midst of a roaring Super-Bowl stadium. It helped when there was more of a movement to bring attention to the indies as a group. As an indy, my survival has depended on the attention and life-support of Diamond and retailers, both of whom are actually in another business that has nothing to do with me. They're in the mainstream comics business. They have 3 major vendors and times are challenging and money is tight. An indy creator like me is just so off-the-map in their business. And who can blame them? When you get down to the business of comics, a book is a widget. What widget sells most, can we get more of that and how fast? Indy creators are in a different business. We make stories we love and sell them in modest numbers. We hope readers find them and pass them along to friends. We have no advertising except word of mouth. We make our little gems and try to catch somebody's attention at the Super Bowl of mainstream because we really need retailers and Diamond, but they're busy playing this vitally important game. What can fans do to help out? I mean, when Marc Andreyko's Manhunter was canceled (for example), they had DC at which to aim a campaign of protest and request. When a great indie book is having trouble finding an audience, what does one do? TM: Find another outlet? I don't know. My head hurts from banging it on that wall. I don't have an answer. I believe Diamond has been as good to me as anyone could expect. They have stood by me all these years. Same with the major retailers; they know who I am; they carry my books. The small retailers—the ones who only order the Top 100 and don't interact with the industry—I have to forget about them, they're unreachable. But in terms of, can an indy creator make a name for himself in the midst of the mainstream game, the answer is yes. Can he get the machine to carry his widgets? Yes. For indy creators, the direct market problem isn't respect, it's numbers. The ordering machine may ask for 10 copies of issue #1. Then automatically orders less and less for each subsequent issue unless an act of God stops them or something wonderful happens, such as a large fan base builds quickly and loudly, convincing the machine to stop the slide and hold at the amount they're at. Then the demand has to exceed orders consistently from then on, because to reverse the slide is a slow, cautious process. The machine doesn't want any unsold widgets. If they order 10 and could have sold 30, they may order 13 next time and wait for proof that maybe they can go just a teenie bit higher next time. They have to read the demand against the future and try to decide how much of it will come into the store for the next issue, or wait for the trade. So a respected series can die for lack of numbers, or from a trade-waiting readership—no series, no trade. All that before we even broach the digital conversation and the effect it is having on the direct market machine that is still 90% of the pie. Or my pie, at least.

You have historically offered your comics through your website at cover price; is it better for fans to be ordering your content through the direct market in order to keep orders higher, than to buy directly from you and cut out the middle man?

If the stores don't feel a demand, they won't carry the book. So, yes. Better to let the stores feel the demand. But, as I described, this is like steering a big ship, slow and cautious. In the meantime, if for some reason the book is not available to you when you want it, I will always be here as backup. You've said in the past that you were waiting for a business model to emerge for digital sales--is that something that you're still investigating? TM: Yes, I have to. The digital market is another store where I want my book. It's that simple. It's still something of a frontier though. And what we do in 2012 may not be what we do in 2014. We grew up thinking business was about unit sales, but digital badly wants to wean us off that and onto access sales. How anybody but Netflix survives off a tiny monthly flat fee is beyond me. Especially considering how much tinier that fee would be for me in my relative numbers position. It only works if you sell billions. Zillions. There are going to be a lot of dead business bodies on the side of the road to Digital. You hand-write and ship your t-shirts and original art, so there's always the option of just literally, personally e-mailing PDFs to purchasers. Is it just a question of piracy concerns that keeps you from going a low-tech road like that? TM: I have no defense against digital piracy. Nobody does. All a source like me can do is hold onto the super-high quality version and release gorgeous copies that are more desirable than pirates. Half the world is good people who will be in step with you on that and play right, the other half will rip you off and defend their right to do so. Welcome to the new world. We really do live off the kindness of others. I would have been selling digital versions long ago if there was enough money in it to pay for the time and effort involved. For me, the periodical book has been my bread and butter so it has had my full attention. But, with the never ending fight to keep that going, and digital's fast growing viability, it's just a matter of time until new methods evolve… for all of us. With a black-and-white book, you really don't know what color a character's eyes or hair is necessarily until it's on the color cover--but here, the red-green-black motif has really played with that convention a little, giving us covers that match the interior more. Is that something you plan to keep up for the life of the series? TM: Yes. I did that as a way to stand out among all the busy covers I have to sit between on the stands. You can tell it's a Rachel Rising book from across the room. That's good, right? Green, red and black is the palette for the first 6 issues, which form the opening story arc. The next 6 will have a different palette. The man who helps out our heroes at the morgue--he's a big mountain of a guy, but looks a touch less realistic and more like a comic strip character than most of the characters you draw. Does having an odd setting like Manson give you a chance to play around a little with looks and concepts that maybe wouldn't be at home in the real-world feel of Strangers in Paradise or the grounded science fiction of Echo? TM: Yes, absolutely. When you're world building, it is the unique characters who end up with they're own figures and tshirts. I learned that the hard way when I tried to make SiP figures and there was no way to tell apart from somebody at the supermarket. That's why Echo had the alloy body… Rachel has the eyes, Aunt Johnny has the short black pants… these little things make for a unique image. With the smoke and the snake, it seems like any time a character is left alone this issue, there's an odd, spooky thin entering or exiting their mouths; is that something that'll have a solid explanation or is it more just playing with the creepiness of ghosts, monsters and, well, snakes, entering your orifices? TM: In the Rachel story, I want a growing sense of the indwelling, good or bad. Sort of a metaphysical Ghost In The Shell. Is there something a little thematic to be said for the fact that Rachel is--quite literally--just barely alive? TM: You mean like my indy career? LOL. They say write what you know. Rachel is what it's like to be independent. When Zoe first pulls up and crashes the car, then gets out and says, "Will you help me?" It almost seems like a genuinely childlike moment. Was that intentional? TM: Yes. She is a child in the middle of a very real nightmare on a surreal night. I like the way she has to be resourceful to accomplish all she's doing. She really uses her environment. Clever girl. Her last name is a clue, by the way.