It’s hard to reach an audience when you’re always one step ahead of it. Graphic novelist Dan Goldman found that out the hard way, as he struggled to market his graphic novel Red Light Properties, as a webcomic and an e-book, before he finally gave up on his dream of a career in comics. But last year, on the floor at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Calif., he saw something that changed his mind. Ironically, the digital pioneer is not only back in comics but he’s returning with a print edition of Red Light Properties that will be released by IDW in February.
Goldman rose to prominence in 2007 as the artist for Shooting War, a satirical graphic novel written by journalist Anthony Lappe that first appeared on the Smith magazine Web site and was later released in print by Grand Central. “We were not the first [to go from Web to print], but we were the first to pull it off big in public—to do a ‘literary’ or ‘topical’ webcomic and parlay that into several sexy book deals,” Goldman says. Shooting War was named a PW Best Book of 2007 and was nominated for an Eisner Award, but sales were anemic.
In 2009, Goldman signed with Tor.com, an innovative site created by the SF/fantasy publisher to aggregate all kinds of original content. Tor.com agreed to publish the initial version of the original Red Light Properties graphic novel on its Web site; it was the first long-form comic serial that the company commissioned. Set in Miami, Red Light Properties is about a couple (the husband is a psychic and the wife is a real estate broker) who specialize in ridding haunted properties of lingering ghosts, and then flip the properties for a profit. It’s part funny ghost story, part crazy business scheme, part relationship story, where eventually the supernatural aspect of the business takes a toll on the lead characters and their marriage.
Red Light Properties debuted online in January 2010 at www.redlightproperties.com, and it was one of the first webcomics to use special digital effects—such as having panels and word balloons appear one at a time with each click—in the service of storytelling. While such effects are now common in many digital comics, including those from Marvel and DC’s digital-first comics imprints, Goldman feels they cost him readers because the interface was initially buggy. When Tor’s period of exclusivity ended in 2011, Goldman set up his own Web site and moved the comic there, without the special effects. But despite adding another 100 pages of material, he says, “I could feel the audience going away.”
Meanwhile, he was struggling with another problem: isolation. After signing with Tor.com, Goldman and his wife moved from New York to Brazil. “I got this Tor contract and I thought, ‘I am going to go away and get this done,” he told himself, reasoning that with an Internet connection, he could work from anywhere in the world.
It didn’t work out that way. “The reality was isolating and confusing,” he says. “It was very difficult for me to make friends, partly because of the language, partly because of culture—just because I learned Portuguese didn’t mean I spoke the culture. The Internet was supposed to be my lifeline, but the great experiment of being this digital creator living overseas, plugged into the Internet, publishing work up to the cloud and watching Planet Earth cheer—that didn’t work.”
Furthermore, around the time he moved, the U.S. economy crashed and the Brazilian economy was booming. “So [the money from] my sweet little gig at Tor disappeared so fast, and the illustration market, my other source of income for years, also disappeared,” he says. “I made so little money in 2011, it was terrifying.”
Still searching for his audience, Goldman took down the webcomic and published the story as an e-book via Kindle, Kobo, and Nook, in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Again, distance and the novelty of the medium worked against him. “I was far away, and I didn’t do enough marketing, but I also felt the discoverability mechanisms didn’t work,” he says. “It was all new for people in New York, and I was in São Paulo trying to figure this out alone.” He went to New York Comic Con in 2011 to pitch the book to publishers in person. “Everybody was nice to my face, and no one answered my damn e-mails,” he says.
If comics were turning a cold shoulder to him, though, Hollywood extended a warm welcome. Goldman was getting calls and e-mails from producers who were intrigued by Red Light Properties. So he asked himself, “Why don’t I go where people want me, rather than standing out in the cold banging on the door?” In 2012 he stopped producing new Red Light Properties stories and focused on developing it for television, while working on video games for AMC, including the Walking Dead Facebook game. The same year he moved back to New York.
Turns out, it wasn’t quite “game over” for Goldman’s comics career. Impressed by the launch of MonkeyBrain Comics, a digital-first comics publisher, he reached out to owners Chris Roberson and Allison Baker. “I really dug what they were trying to do and how quickly they had pulled it off,” Goldman says. “I was trying to do the same thing solo, and whatever it was just didn’t click.” Goldman moved Red Light Properties to MonkeyBrain, and a print deal soon followed with IDW, which has been publishing print collections of MonkeyBrain comics.
When Goldman went to San Diego Comic-Con last July, he wasn’t really thinking about comics. “I didn’t know what I was there for, except doing some freelance work for AMC,” he says. “But while he was walking the exhibit floor, Goldman spotted graphics for the forthcoming Red Light Properties, and he had an epiphany.
“I walked past the IDW booth and I saw my art,” Goldman says. “It was a small part of a larger graphic that was about the MonkeyBrain titles, but it was on the Comic-Con floor, and I got really emotional. I had been working on getting that book ready for press for four years at that point. I have been living with these characters for a decade. From Brazil, I had watched the dream of finding them an audience slowly die. Suddenly, the tone of the con shifted for me really fast.” He’s a comics creator again. “I made a lot of friends and I met a lot of people who were really excited about my book, including my publishers, and they gave me a lot of really good energy,” he says.
Goldman returned to New York and got to work on the book, revising the art and relettering the whole thing. In addition to IDW’s print edition, Red Light Properties is available in a digital edition from Comixology via MonkeyBrain. This week, Goldman will kick off a series of appearances and book signings for Red Light Properties at Word Books in Brooklyn, before heading to Austin, Tex., where he’ll appear at Book People and Austin Books; then it’s on to Philadelphia’s Locust Moon Comics, and, in May, the Toronto Comics Art Festival.
With the first volume ready to go, Goldman says he has plenty more stories to tell about Red Light Properties. The second volume, due out this summer, will be called Underwater. “It will move forward on rockets and roller skates from there,” he says. “I know these guys, I know their whole lives, it’s been burning in my brain for a decade. I thought digital publishing was the best way, but I think print turned out to be a really important component to bringing it to people, especially comics readers. I am totally thrilled—over the moon—to have that version of it as the starting point to go forward.”■
Brigid Alverson is a freelancer who writes regularly on comics for Publishers Weekly.