For most of her career, comic creator Becky Cloonan was known as an artist with a clean storytelling style, vaguely inspired by Japanese comics, who collaborated frequently with top-flight writers like Steven T. Seagle in American Virgin; Brian Wood in Demo, Pixu, and Northlanders, among others; and Gerard Way (who’s also the lead vocalist in the band My Chemical Romance) and Shaun Simon in The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. Often, Cloonan illustrated stories that blended the mundane with the fantastical.
But she wasn’t, to many in the industry, a writer. “I don’t think people wanted to take a chance with my writing,” Cloonan says. “They wanted to pair me up with a writer. Which was understandable and totally fine, but I wanted to start writing.”
That changed after she self-published three one-shots: Wolves in 2011, The Mire in 2012, and Demeter in 2013. The work garnered both acclaim (an Eisner for The Mire, a British Fantasy Award for Demeter) and gave Cloonan new opportunities. Now, she cowrites Gotham Academy for DC as well as Southern Cross for Image.
Cloonan’s recent foray into self-publishing wasn’t explicitly an application for a writing job—it just happened to work out that way. Nor was it the first time she’d self-published. Cloonan told the AV Club in July that throughout college, she produced “10 or 12 minicomics.”
Later, she’d try to create roughly a book a year, even if it wasn’t solely on her own. “I’d get together with friends and say, ‘Let’s make a little book,’” she says.
But she started taking self-publishing seriously with Wolves, mostly out of desperation when she had a three-month gap between jobs. “No one was interested in a short story I had, and I decided to do it myself,” she recalls. The result was a 24-page fable about a hunter dispatched by a king to run down a beast. A love triangle subplot, told in flashback, calls into question the motivations of Cloonan’s central characters.
“Wolves was more of a vanity thing,” Cloonan says. “I didn’t make money off of it, but it paid for itself and I could afford the next print run and could afford to go to more conventions because of these books.”
While she anticipated the work that goes into self-publishing—she had, after all, done it before—she didn’t quite anticipate enough. “Self-publishing reveals another side of the industry,” she says. “I learned a lot about the whole industry of comics doing self-publishing stuff.”
It takes Cloonan roughly two months to write and draw a 24- to 28-page book, then another month to letter it, set the graytones, illustrate the cover, and get the PDF ready to send to press or bloggers to generate publicity.
But perhaps the most tedious part of the process is figuring out logistics. How many books, for instance, does it make sense to publish? Once the books are sent to the printer, it might take a month for Cloonan to receive them, which means it could take between three to five months from creation to publication.
Another factor in deciding how many copies to print is how well the first print run sells in retail. Wolves had an initial run of 1,000, which sold out within the first month. To date, she’s printed about 7,000 copies, Cloonan told the AV Club.
The quantity of books affected her printing choices. While Cloonan’s earliest forays into self-publishing involved long trips to Kinko’s, she now needed to produce something with more polish.
“There are two ways to print,” Cloonan says. “You have offset and you have digital.” Digital, she explains, is much better for smaller runs, but the cost of offset printing, which uses plates, decreases with quantity. “But your minimum will be 800 or maybe 1,000 copies. If you’re printing 5,000 copies, your costs might go down much lower than if you’re printing everything digitally.” So 100 copies of a digitally-printed 24-page black-and-white comic with a color cover, Cloonan estimates, might cost the creator around $2.50 per book. Five thousand copies of that same book printed offset could cost a dollar or less. “But then, can you afford to have 5,000 copies of your book lying around?” she says. “I’ve used my comics to prop up my bed, and have thrown boxes of comics out because I had too many. When I was living in Brooklyn, all of my kitchen cabinets had comic books. It was a bit weird.”
The two methods differ in quality. Cloonan has noticed that digital occasionally looks like a computer printout, with lines running through the art or with lighter blotches, as if the toner ran out. “With offset, because it’s a plate, I find the quality much more consistent, and it just smells better overall,” she says, “if you’re into smelling books.”
Another issue Cloonan faced was actually getting retailers to stock her books. The major comic distributor, used by the traditional houses like Marvel and DC, sends out a catalogue called “Preview” through which comic stores order their inventory. Cloonan’s problem? “Only a small percentage of stores order outside that catalogue because it’s more difficult and it gets a little more expensive.”
Cloonan hoofed around, trying to solicit local shops to stock her books. “I’ve met so many amazing retailers,” she recalls. “And when I’m in a city, I can call them and ask if they want to set up a signing.” She schlepped through comic cons (“That’s how I met a lot of people who are my friends today.”) with copies of books in her backpack.
“Even when you know how much work it is, it’s more than you think it will be,” Cloonan says. “My other work suffers because of it. I’m constantly behind, things get lost in the mail, things get damaged in the mail, you’re constantly apologizing to people. It’s like herding cats.”
While Cloonan could have avoided many of the headaches around printing and distribution by publishing online (all three of her self-published books are available for purchase on Amazon’s ComiXology), she has a soft spot for printed work. “I always stick up for print,” she says. “I really enjoy having a limited, high-quality run and making something special.”
Cloonan has ideas for an all-digital story, one that plays with structure and time, devoid of a set, linear narrative. “With digital you can jump around, scroll in different directions, click on things that take you to different points,” Cloonan says. “It’s a lot looser. You don’t have to go from point A to point B to point C. You can go from point A to point F and back to point C.” While Cloonan has toyed with the idea, it’s unlikely she’ll execute it in the near future, not with her other jobs and her lack of programming skills. And digital distribution, despite its maturity, has its own series of hassles that Cloonan hasn’t had time to unravel.
“It’s such a great way to get your work out there, but it’s such a different industry,” she says. “For me to jump over to that digital publishing world would be like a train trying to flip on its tracks.” For instance, when Cloonan draws for Marvel or DC, she’s paid by the page, and every time she turns in a batch of pages, she gets a paycheck. She also gets quarterly royalties. The money flow is a lot less consistent with digital comics and tends to rely on online ad revenue or merchandise sales. And the online creators who are most successful have to adhere to a strict publishing schedule.
“You have to make all your updates. And you’re not getting paid for the comics that you make, you’re getting paid for selling ad space or for merchandise you sell or if you submit to ComiXology, you get paid for downloads,” Cloonan says. “The business side of things is very different. The comics side of things is relatively the same depending on your format, but going into it, I’d have to retool my entire budget and think about planning the whole thing differently.”
But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cloonan burst onto the digital scene. Her entire career has centered around mastering new ways of doing things. When she first started working with Brian Wood on Pixu, he recommended she clarify her visual storytelling by simplifying her layouts—focusing on panel-to-panel narrative instead of overall page composition.
“That stuck with me,” Cloonan says, “because I’ve had a lot of people tell me [Pixu] was the first comic book they’d read, and I think some of it was because the panel layout was very easy, if you’re not familiar with the language of comics or graphic novels.”
And for now, she’s doing a lot more writing, honing her own abilities, particularly in dialogue and narration, which are still tricky for her.
“These are things I’m working on,” she says, “trying to get it to a point where it’s exactly what I want to say in the shortest way possible.” Cloonan doesn’t like excessive word balloons or exposition. “When I’m reading a comic, I don’t like being told what’s happening, and I don’t like telling people what’s happening,” she says. “My readers are smart. I want them to be able to figure things out on their own.”