In the introduction to the new collector’s edition of her breakout 2013 novel, Arena Mode, novelist Blake Northcott writes that, when she sat down to compose the dystopian supergladiator saga in 2011, she “envisioned a near-future world where the sea levels were on the rise, income inequality was worsening, the rich were apathetic, protests raged and deadly viruses spread.” And here we are, in the near future, and the crowdfunded self-published author is being rewarded for her prophetic vision with a fresh printing of the saga by Heavy Metal Entertainment and Simon & Schuster, as well as a streaming series in the works. It’s literally a dream come to fruition for the Canadian author.
Northcott says the idea came to her in her sleep and woke her in a sweat. “I just jumped out of bed in the middle of the night,” Northcott says. “I had this idea... [that] really came from a ‘what if?’ scenario in my mind, where I was just like: What if you had Marvel- or DC-type characters who were fighting in a Hunger Games–type tournament? I was just thinking, if I could develop my own characters and flesh out that story, what would that be?” She sat down to find out.
“People have all kinds of ideas,” says Northcott, who’d previously published the novel Vs. Reality and its sequel via Amazon Direct Publishing. “You always talk to people who come up and say, Oh, I’ve got an idea for this, I’ve got an idea for that. And that’s great, but if you don’t take that idea and do something with it, it’ll just die on the vine.” It’s what comes after the inspiration that counts. “You have to put the hard work into developing it—worldbuilding, creating—and make sure it gets out somehow,” she says. She wrote Arena Mode over the course of a year and a half.
Arena Mode tells the story of Matthew Moxon, who’s pushing 30 in 2041 New York and hangs out at his buddy’s comics shop, flirting with the guy’s sister. He faints one day and wakes to a doctor telling him he needs a $4 million surgery for a massive malignant tumor in his head. The news comes just as the president has announced that superheroes are real and will pit their powers against one another in a fighting competition for a grand prize of $10 billion. Much as perspiration and inspiration struck Northcott simultaneously, desperation gives Moxon an idea: he can’t “fly... shoot lasers from my hands or rip lampposts from the ground”—but he is pretty smart. With no other options, Moxon enters the competition.
In 2013, Northcott released Arena Mode, the first volume in what would become a three-book saga (for now, at least). She set an initial Kickstarter goal of $6,500 to pay for editing, illustrations, printing, and design—and instead raised $35,353 from 948 backers in a single month.
“It’s much easier for a fan or a reader to go into a bookstore and buy a book off the shelf, right?” Northcott says. “So I really found that the people who were coming to the Kickstarter were craving more: they wanted to be a part of it, they wanted to feel a part of it.” Northcott tailored her marketing to that desire. “Building trust with the customers is really key when you’re running a crowdfunding campaign,” she says, “and this is something I developed early on and I really stuck to through all of my campaigns.”
It has proved a successful formula. A later novel, the “magical spy thriller” The North Valley Grimoire, raised CAD$73,742 from 1,010 backers over 29 days in 2018. Premiums she offered included an audiobook and e-book at the CAD$25 level (175 backers), characters written with the input of supporters at the CAD$1,000 level (three backers), and a custom short story bound into a book, which one supporter paid CAD$6,500 for.
“I really found the higher tiers actually sold out first—like, the more you’re willing to offer and give, the more they want to soak it up,” Northcott says. “Being innovative helped us a lot,” she adds.
In addition to crowdfunding and self-publishing her novels, Northcott wrote several comic books, including two issues of Catwoman published in 2020 by DC. But it was a short one-off called “Synapse,” published in 2020 in the monthly cult comics compendium Heavy Metal, that led to her current relationship with Heavy Metal Entertainment.
“It was just so mind-bending and unique that we jumped on it immediately, and that work experience put us in a position where we felt that that was just the beginning of the story with Blake,” Heavy Metal CEO Matthew Medney says. “And we really wanted to explore other opportunities—and one of the big things that came out of that was the possibility of publishing Arena Mode in a more significant way than it had been published previously.” In addition to reprinting the saga, Heavy Metal Entertainment has an Arena Mode streaming series in the works.
“We are really hell-bent on this IP,” says Medney, who is the author of the illustrated novel Beyond Kuiper and a comics writer. “The idea of using societal spectacle to hone in on an important topic like medical care in America is really Heavy Metal. The idea of taking a tough subject and juxtaposing it with an exciting narrative is something that Heavy Metal holds near and dear, which is being bold and out there while telling a really important story.”
And so, less than a decade after Northcott posted her Kickstarter campaign to share a story that came to her in her sleep, the Arena Mode saga is getting a second run, a very large one. First she dreamed it and then she did it.
Milan Gagnon is a freelance writer and copyeditor based in San Diego.