Comics Will Break Your Heart: the rise and fall of Ashes

Late last year I enthusiastically covered a Kickstarter-funded comics project by writer Alex DiCampi and artist Jimmy Broxton–a gritty SF tale called Ashes. The art and story looked great, and I happily put $30 down to support the book and snag a signed hardback when the work was done.

I wasn’t alone. Ashes hit its funding target with a week and a bit to spare, and earned another $6K in the process. It was a win for all concerned, a triumph of the self-funded, self-published model.

Yeah. About that.

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A shock announcement last week saw DiCampi fire Broxton from the project, citing that old chestnut, creative differences. She’s hustling to find a new artist before a self-imposed Valentine’s Day deadline, whilst offering refunds to those who signed on because of Jimmy, a rising star in the comics world. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that we’re going to see Ashes at all.

Recriminations are flying as both sides have issued long (and frankly pretty self-serving) statements. The whole thing is devolving into a he said/she said spat that the comics press are lapping up and which is doing neither party any favours. The average punter that laid down their money in good faith have been left bewildered and saddened. Speaking as one of them, I don’t want my money back. I just want the book I supported as a fan of the creative team behind it.

Questions have also been raised about Kickstarter’s financial model, as worst-case scenarios are bounced around. It depends on a good faith agreement between backer and artist. You pay your money, you get your object. Standard financial transaction. But if for whatever reason the creative team behind that object cannot deliver–then what? Understandably, people are angry as they see the money they plonked down vanishing in a puff of smoke, despite Alex’s assurances of February refunds.

There’s always a risk of getting scammed in these kind of deals. But those expressing surprise at Ashes falling over a cliff clearly don’t have much of a handle on comics history, which is thick with stories of projects started and abandoned, or never seen at all. This is the kind of thing that publishers deal with all the time, but we don’t see it. If the book never gets published, we never get to buy it. And let’s not even get started on the film world, whose financial model is skewed towards nothing ever getting made at all.

Unfortunately, Kickstarter has enabled us to buy things before they’re finished. Sometimes, before they’re even properly started. We’re exposing ourselves to the risk that backers of creative endeavours have endured for centuries with no real understanding of what’s involved.

Let’s go back to the idea of creative differences, which sounds like a euphemism for ego trip. A spat over a silly minor detail. That’s not true. Any artistic endeavour (one that’s worth doing, anyway) is murderously hard work. It’s something that takes over your whole life. If you see something going wrong with that project, you will fight like crazy to put it back together. Any project, be it film, novel, comic, play, macramé kitten panorama, will have a huge crisis at some point in its gestation. If it doesn’t, then the people involved just don’t care enough.

For a project like Ashes, that was (god I’m already referring to it in the past tense) being put together by just two people, the pressure must have been immense. No support network, no crew to keep you on track. Just you and the work.

It doesn’t take much for things to spin out of control. A misinterpreted email. A sideways, unthinking comment. Acts of god; just look at the collapse of Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote film. Factor in the money at stake, and I’m not surprised Ashes started sliding. If anything, I’m impressed that it stayed together so long.

The future of Ashes seems hazy at best, but I would hate to see it evaporate. Personally, I think the February 14th deadline to sign on a new artist seems arbitrary and rushed. I’m happy to wait a little longer to see who Alex can get onto the project. My primary interest as a backer is to see this book made. I want it to be worth the heartbreak.

This is a story that anyone involved in crowd-funded and self-published creative works should be watching really closely. A salutary example of what can happen when tensions come to a head at precisely the wrong moment.

Further reading. Jimmy’s final statement is up at The Comics Beat. I recommend reading the comments too, for some clarifications.

Alex’s final statement is up on the Ashes Kickstarter page, but is currently only viewable to backers. It’ll be all over the comics press pretty quickly, so I’ll take the liberty of printing it below.

The future of Ashes is very much in doubt. I have reached out to two artists and am waiting to hear back, but both are stars and are likely too busy. I’m also leaving Saturday morning for a 10-day film shoot, so will be incommunicado until February 2nd.

At this point I am so tired of everything. I just want to give you all your money back and end it. But if I do, that’s the end for the book, and probably for Valentine and any future work by me. It will never be published. I will never be published. There is nobody to step in and fund a book like this other than you all, and though the Kickstarter was a wonderful experience it was also an incredibly gruelling, all-consuming one, and I don’t think I have it in me to do it again.

Anyway. My statement in rebuttal of James’, below. Warning: it’s quite long.

****

I am sad that James continues to seek attention for being asked to leave my book. I cannot see how this will benefit him, me, or the book.

James completed 10 pages of finished art for the book, and 10 pages of sketch inks. Even as he turned in pages in bits and pieces, he was extremely resistant to notes on them or discussion of revision… or even showing me pencils before delivering a final piece. This became worse rather than better as the Kickstarter funding rose and publicity around the book grew. James’ tone in emails became actively aggressive and abusive towards me. It was almost like dealing with a schizophrenic or a bipolar person. Any polite request to look again at something was furiously turned down.

It got to the point where, after a particularly bad disagreement in late November, about 85% of the way through the Kickstarter, I had resigned myself to not saying a single thing about pages he turned in, and I would just let my book be drawn however he wanted it to be drawn, even if it meant the book I had worked so long to bring to life became a disappointment to me. At the same time he was sending these aggressive emails (and not drawing more of the book), I was working 4-6 hours a day on the Kickstarter by myself to raise tens of thousands of dollars to support him — a condition he required in order to take the book on.

So, aside from interacting with backers, the Kickstarter generally for me was a complete misery. Did I express to Jimmy my unhappiness? Yes, but — and maybe this is part of being a female — when a man shouts at you whenever you say “um, I’d like some say in the way the script I wrote is drawn” or “hm, the way you’ve changed this from the script isn’t really going to work in the context of the scene”, you stop saying the thing that gets you shouted at.

Everything came to a head a week after the Kickstarter ended, when something delightful happened — I was contacted by a large US business magazine, who wanted to commission James and I to do a two-page comic about our Kickstarter experience. What an opportunity! First, it paid well. REALLY well. And as James had said he was very short on cash and had no other work on the horizon, this news was well received by him. (James at this point was also pressuring me to send him all the Kickstarter money in advance, rather than in tranches as he finished chapters. This made me very nervous, but I agreed and began the process of withdrawing the Kickstarter money from Amazon Payments. Luckily, he never got round to invoicing me).

So, the business magazine commission. It paid GREAT, wasn’t much work, and was going to get copied and cross posted to the moon. Great exposure for our book! And potentially leading to a lot more work for both of us. I turned around a script quickly, and it was approved by the magazine’s editor. They loved it! I sent the script to James. Unfortunately by this point his ego or whatever had gotten so out of hand he was completely unable to listen to and/or respect anything I said. James took a long time to draw the two pages, causing worried queries from the editor, and the sketch he finally turned in took a lot of liberties with the script (as he had been doing with Ashes). The editor was displeased. I was forced into an intermediary role, as furthermore the editor did not hit it off with James and basically didn’t want to speak to him. I consulted with the editor at length about what he wanted (basically, he wanted the script drawn as written) and I worked out some notes to give James so he could quickly turn around an amended sketch for approval.

James ignores the notes and several days later sends a sketch which departs even more radically from the script. The client hates it and emails me, basically going “WTF?!”… print deadline was mere days away at this point. I have long email conversations with Jimmy, basically guiding him through taking his first sketch, changing some transitional elements, and making it work. Basically, I am trying to make it fast and easy for James to get a new sketch in as I can see this gig evaporating before my eyes. James is like OK GREAT! and then sends in a third pencil sketch, on the day of print deadline, that ignores all the notes. All he had to do to make this client happy was just to draw the script they approved. A client who had already said they loved what I do and wanted to give me (and therefore James) more work. When I point this out to him, he becomes extraordinairily aggressive, telling me he is 100% in charge of all visuals for my projects and I have no say whatsoever in what he draws or how he draws it.

Folks, I cried. I’m a girl. I do that sometimes. I completely broke down in front of the laptop. Not only was James making the execution of a book I had gone to Herculean lengths to get off the ground into a living nightmare of abuse where I felt afraid to email him about pages, he had just totally destroyed an easy gig with a major, major client because he would not draw the approved script. And then he abuses me via email about it, after I say I am finding a new artist for the 2-pager so I can try to save it. I cried, poured myself a glass of wine, went and found my big girl pants, and told James I would need to find someone else for Ashes.

As for the contract, we did take an investment from an outside source. James was asked about this and approved it before the investment was finalised. I then drew up a contract addressing the division of ownership in the completed book, not the script, which remains 100% copyright me. If James does not complete the book, he does not come into his share of it. The finished graphic novel’s ownership was always meant to be shared with the artist, in recognition of the tremendous amount of work and commitment the artist would have to provide to complete the book. This is only fair. What Jimmy seems to think he has — something for no work — is not fair, nor in the spirit or letter of the contract.

James says that the $3k to Valentine was a surprise. If so, he hasn’t read our Kickstarter project’s own project page, which has said as follows since launch: “If in some crazy world we manage to raise more than our minimum, the first thing that will happen is Jimmy will get a raise, so he can go from Sainsbury’s Value Meals to Taste the Difference. Then any excess money beyond that will go towards publishing the long-awaited trade of Alex’s webcomic Valentine “.

As for the big business magazine gig, thanks to some really lovely people helping me out on Twitter, I got in touch with Pia Guerra who worked all night and nailed the sketch on the first go — she drew a wonderful sketch that the client loved. However after all the drama with James they had decided to drop the piece from the magazine as we had missed the first print deadline. We may still have it in their digital edition; I am waiting to hear.

Once again, I’d like to apologise to our backers for all this drama. I had hoped that the creative split could be handled quietly and professionally but it appears that will not be the case now. I hope you will forgive me and understand why I had to find a way out of a situation where I felt bullied.

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Rob

Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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