Degrees of Fandom: Jon Westhoff on the ‘Low Concept’ Comic Anthology
It’s not news that the Internet has democratized the media: from e-books to news and opinion sites; from Web comix to movie making; from art galleries to podcasting, pretty much anybody with a couple of dimes to rub together can share their content with the masses. While the quality levels can certainly vary, it can be argued that what rises to the top in terms of traffic and fan base represents much of the cream.
I argued a couple years ago that podcasts were “the fanzines of the new millennium,” where fans of niche subjects could “geek out” and share their thoughts with tens or hundreds or thousands. In the years since that piece, we’ve seen the rise popular, and monetized, shows like Marc Maron’s WTF, basically an audio mecca for comedy and stand-up nerds. Despite the popularity and bevvy of guest stars, the show’s fanzine sensibility is undeniable. But the non-commercial podcasts keep on trucking, and some of the aficionados of those digest those shows with the same passion that the hosts digest their subject.
Case in point, our friend and O.O. contributor Jonathan Westhoff (Apocalypse Meh! and more) has always given credit to the 11 O’Clock Comics Podcast and the online community that popped up around it as what enabled him to exercise his creativity and achieve his goal of creating a Web comic. He found co-conspirator Bobgar Ornelas, the artist on Apocalypse Meh!, on that show’s message boards. More recently, Westhoff was inspired to create a comic book–a traditional print anthology comic–to honor the podcast that honors comics. It’s like meta-fandom.
After a lot of work by Westhoff, Ornelas, and a ton of other fans of the show, Low Concept: An 11 O’Clock Comics Anthology, was published. It weighs in at an impressive near-140 pages… and it took some doing. Just as we were super interested to hear Dan Johnson’s adventures in self-publishing his mystery novel, getting the lowdown on the process of getting Low Concept published was almost as compelling as the content. While Jon leveraged the power of the Internet in getting contributors and donations through Kickstarter, he did not take the Internet shortcut in terms of final product: this thing is a PRINT comic, not a Web comic. Not to mention that Jon did it while mixing in several other extracurricular activities (his own podcast, a job, recent fatherhood).
I found the book to be of an astonishingly high quality, and I must confess I was surprised. Some of it is a little “inside baseball,” in that in helps to be a comic fan or, more particularly, a fan of the show, to get some of the humor. But overall it’s a stunning effort, especially considering its origins.
We caught up with Mr. Westhoff and subjected him to the O.O. interrogation lamps:
Osmosis Online: You have your hand in a lot of cookie jars–Apoc Meh, the podcast, bands, a real job, and I am sure I am forgetting something. How on
earth did you decide to add “editor/producer” of an anthology comic to
the plate? Not to mention you and your wife knew about your pending
bundle of joy at the time, right?
JW: All you have said is true. well…that is a good question to lead off with and I have been asking myself that a lot (haha). I guess the short answer is impulsiveness. I was talking with some of the guys on the 11 O’Clock Comics message boards about all the talent we had and they mentioned a failed attempt at a similar project. So, the next day or so I posted the question to the board members and the response was so positive there was no way I could have backed out. Of course, I tried to pass the buck a few times, but since I opened my big mouth first, I was stuck. There was a lot more work to do then I thought, but I’m not going to bore people with the boring details or complaints. Luckily, it was a lot of fun and I’m used to being a busy person.
OO: I suspect for most anthology comics, getting content is absolutely the hardest part. But since this was organized in a online community, based on the spirit of goodwill and love of the medium, etc.–was generating the content especially difficult? Or was it more self-selecting?
JW: If you’re asking from my experience then the answer is, no it is not hard. In all seriousness, I thought that too. I thought to myself, “okay, I’ll post this get a few guys together and we will put out a 40-page comic.” Well, 42 contributors on 26 projects later, I still don’t know what happened, really. I have to feel it was an extremely unique situation, in that, like you said, the “love of the medium” really shined through. We also left the parameters very open, as far as story, content and length(with a max of 8 pages), so people had free reign to do what they wanted. People quickly started posting and collaborating about different types and lengths of stories they had or wanted to do and we accepted all stories as long as you were a forum member prior to my original post (and there was no obscenely offensive material).
OO: Can you take us through the funding process first? What about it surprised you? What did you find challenging? Was the outcome as good as you were hoping?
JW: This was something we went back and forth on a lot at the start and Kickstarter seemed like our best option from the get go. Myself and other forum members had looked into printing cost before for our own projects and we knew there was a plethora of fairly cheap options out there. We knew this, but felt kickstarter would be our only option to front the money to print. This was another unique situation where our forum has a ton of experience in self publishing so “do’s and don’ts” were shared often and extremely helpful. Kickstarter itself is very helpful and easy and I found that experience to be great. One early hurdle was that I really wanted us to offer up a portion of the Kickstarter funding to charity and we couldn’t figure out how to respectfully and appropriately make this a part of the campaign. Also, we didn’t know what the length the book would be officially as we wanted to get the Kickstarter up quickly so we could have the book out for Summit City Comic Con in June. However, we worked out these kinks and, again, the Kickstarter program is very idiot proof (I am evidence of that), which helped.
What really surprised me was how quickly we got funded. With a few tweets and posts on messageboards we were funded in 24 hours!! Admittedly, I set the bar low to ensure funding (just enough to fund about 100 copies), but we passed that and almost tripled our goal. It was really amazing to watch it unfold. I feel we had great talent involved and we put together some great incentives for backers, which helped a lot. We offered t-shirts, sketches, prints and original art from the book. Not to beat a dead horse, but this was another unique situation. We had so many contributors step up and offer to do things to help boost the Kickstarter and not a single person ever asked for anything but a place in the book. There were no contracts and barely any formal discussion about the ins/outs of the book. It was a lot of trust and enthusiasm in the project that brought it all together and very quickly at that. The outcome was definitely far above what I could have expected and we are all grateful of the backers.
OO: So, onto the part I imagine was the most difficult (correct me if I am
wrong): publishing. What kind of challenges and decisions did you have to make?
JW: With help from the more experienced members, we all decided Ka-Blam would be best for publishing. We decided we would go with black and white and standard size comic formatting. That was the easy part. The hard part was with the overwhelming response we had to make sure this all got put together in a presentable package. We posted 1-1-2011 and quickly set a deadline of 4-17-2011(my birthday and the date of the last failed project, coincidentally). So, throughout all this I had to be the base of operations and make sure all pages were formatted and had page numbers etc. Again, I won’t bore people, but even just a table of contents takes a lot of time. The challenge was that a lot of people would be turning this in close to the deadline. That is not a complaint. I understood going in that people have jobs and do this for fun in their freetime for the most part. This made it a challenge because we had to do all these minor things over a short time once we got a majority of the stories in(ie page numbers/order of stories). Again, this isn’t meant as a complaint. I had a lot of people offer to help, but they just couldn’t. I had the pages, the info from all the creators (Full names, websites, story titles etc) and everything else, so there just wasn’t much they could do. One of the bigger hurdles was tryng to get everyone on the same page via messageboard posts. It became too hard to contact people separately and there was so much confusing info about file sizes, formatting etc, that it got a little frustrating. However, in the end this was also very rewarding. We set out to accomplish this goal and we did it together. Also, the trust all these guys placed in me to help complete this task and create a worthwhile product was a good feeling
OO: The feedback I’ve heard has been resoundingly positive (and I agree!). Is that “mission accomplished,” or did you and the contributors have a different end-game in mind? Can the anthology go beyond what ever your original goals were? I suspect a few of the creators wouldn’t mind having a high-quality sample to show when searching for paying work, for instance.
JW: I think the end product can stand next to any professional book. I hope the guys will be happy to show this in their portfolios and I’m sure they will be. There was a great feeling of accomplishment once we got through all this, but part of the project was to get this book into as many hands as we could. So, even after the Kickstarter, a lot of people pitched in and we were able to print even more copies. So, now it’s our mission to get this thing out there and each contributor is armed with a few copies to do so. We have even had a contributor from Finland donate a copy to a large Helsinki library. Amazing. For so many, this is their first time in print and it is so much fun to help people reach a life goal like that as well. We have plenty of copies left and the mission continues to get them out there and hearing the response has been such a rewarding experience.
OO: So how many copies of the book did you end up printing/selling?
JW: We were able to print 220 copies via Kickstarter, with about 86 going to the pledgees and then I divided the rest for contributors. We also had quite a few who wanted extra copies to sell at shows or give away. Plus I got excited and ordered way to many myself. I decided to go with a humorous number of 333, although it may only be humorous to me. Also, it will soon be available on mydigitalcomics.com and we’ll see how that helps get it out there
OO: Does this inspire you to make the anthology a yearly thing? Or
maybe in other ways (like personal projects)?
JW: It definitely makes me want to do this again. It has all been so great, I want to do this again and again until everyone quits on me. It has also got me excited to move forward on my
OO: Any advice to someone looking to fund something via kickstarter —
or even self publish?
My main advise is don’t rush it. Plan and have fun with it. The fees and time put in should be very clear before you decide to do something like this. Bottom line … just make a comic anyway you can! It feels so good.
OO: What do you think it says about the evolution of fandom that there’s this comics podcast — in my opinion, the fanzine of the Internet age — whom people enjoy enough to congregate around it . . . and then produce a tribute comic to the podcast/community? Pretty meta. Pretty nuts! Your thoughts?
JW: To be honest I think this is a great representation of fandom in the 21st century. Without the Internet age, I know personally it is doubtful I would have ever found the support to produce a comic, let alone help put this book together. I never had the confidence to do something like that. I thought for a longtime, “I haven’t read every word of Alan Moore, so I don’t belong.” Likewise, like you said, the congregation of people involved most likely would never have found each other or interacted enough to do this kind of project. If you’re talking “meta,” think about the trust that had to be built here, through this little forum. I know I keep saying that, but it blows my mind. We live in a great time for communication and comics and this is what they can make.
Thanks for the time and all you do, Mr. Westhoff. I think we can all learn a lesson from a dude that just seems to know how to get stuff done, period.