Thrillbent: Entering the Embrace of Piracy

Alternate title:  If you can’t beat ’em, work with ’em.

Mark Waid is one of my favorite comic book writers. He’s also controversial. A few years ago, Waid was almost shouted off the stage in a room full of comic book pros because he advocated embracing the oncoming digital comics age. That didn’t mean that print comics were going the way of the dodo. He just meant that, like all good surfers, comic pros had to ride the wave instead of getting crushed because they weren’t ready for it.

Waid put his money where his mouth was and created Thrillbent, a webcomics site that hopes to experiment in the new media and find its ground, including its excellent title Insufferable. It’s a brilliant comic, really, and you should check it out.

He even has the balls to put the hero in the sidecar!

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

Comic book piracy is a big deal. Now, not every pirated copy translates 1-to-1 in lack of issues sold. Anyone who tells you that is bonkers. But let’s admit it, pirates have taken some business from everyone who used to need a physical copy for their work to be sold and enjoyed. Even in the digital age, where Thrillbent funds its website through merchandising and advertising, Waid has found his Insufferable comics repackaged and uploaded onto pirate sites when they’re just as free and accessible on his website.

But Waid’s not fighting back, and I think he’s darn smart. Instead, he’s chosen to embrace the pirates. By repackaging the files himself, making them easily available for the pirates to put online, and including a page that asks the readers to check out the site if they liked what they saw, Waid has found a way to increase his site’s traffic without making a false attempt to try to prevent the piracy. It’s a well-known fact that the issues are going to be online and pirated. He can’t stop them. So instead, he’s driving traffic to his site by helping the pirates.

And this isn’t the first time that someone has benefited from piracy, either. Take a look at what happened when Steve Lieber and Jeff Parker’s Underground found its way onto 4Chan. There’s a huge spike in sales linked directly to when that pirated copy was uploaded. Did it translate into long-form, rising sales? No. But look at that flat line leading up to that spike, would you?

Mark Andrew Smith’s Sullivan’s Sluggers raised almost $100,000 on Kickstarter (on a $6000 goal!) due in no small part to the fact that Smith advertised on the front page of The Pirate Bay.

I’m not saying that piracy is good. I’m not, no way. That’s an argument for someone else to make.

What I’m saying is that we have to understand that piracy is not going away anytime soon. It isn’t. But the smart pros are the ones who find ways to utilize this existing audience and translate it to sales or pledges. Those who don’t just might find themselves left in the dust.

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Penny Arcade + Kickstarter: Gaming the System

Have you heard of Penny Arcade? Sure you have. If you haven’t, you probably clicked the link, so now you have. Too much effort? Penny Arcade is a juggernaut webcomic site, and they’re asking folks to donate money on Kickstarter to help their site go ad-free for a full year! That’s right, when they reach $1,000,000, no more ads until they ask for that million again next year!

*sigh*

Kickstarter is a brilliant system. I love what it brings to the table for artists, writers, etc. who otherwise couldn’t work on their dream project because they don’t have the money.

But this? This strikes me as an egregious abuse of the system.

Not the least accurate Kickstarter description I’ve seen.

“Give us a million dollars so that we can keep doing what we already have a system for, but will already have your money for instead!”

See, this kind of thing would make sense if that $250,000 (for just the one initial ad) was actually for printing costs on their next book, or to produce a new webcomic (although an extremely expensive one, yikes). But no, it’s just to make their lives easier so they don’t have to deal with ads.

But that’s not all!

If you pledge $15, Gabe will think about you while he’s having sex!

If you pledge $125, you’ll get an autographed “Dickstarter” postcard!

If you pledge $300, @cwgabriel will follow you on Twitter for a year!

If you pledge $500, Gabe and Tycho will retweet a tweet of yours!

If you pledge $1000, you get on Tycho’s Xbox Live list!

If you pledge $5000, you get to have pizza with them, as long as you pay for getting there yourself!

If you pledge $7500, you can be their intern and do their work for a day.

If you pledge $9999, you get lunch with the guys! Just pay to get there yourself!

I don’t even…these are the worst rewards I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve seen the Kickstarter page for Tales of a Gay Asian. It’s like they sat in a room and said, what can we do that won’t actually involve producing anything besides something we’re already financially stable in producing now?

It feels wrong, and I think it’s because I see Kickstarter as a platform for new artists to do something they otherwise couldn’t. It feels like an abuse of the system for the big guys to elbow their way in to ask for money from a fanbase that they already have, for money that they basically already have from their advertising revenue, without using it to produce anything specific (“With that money, we can do new stuff!”–like what, more dick jokes?). They sat in a room and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if our fans gave us money for nothing?” I mean, they spin it nicely and all, but it just…there’s something that doesn’t feel good about it at all.

I guess if I’m pledging to your Kickstarter, I’m going to want to know what I’m Kickstarting. And Penny Arcade? They aren’t Kickstarting anything.

They’re gaming the system, and that’s what makes the system brilliantly flawed.

But all is not lost. An alternative project to put your pennies behind? Check out Duster, a 240-page graphic novel self-described as such: “In the closing days of World War II, a widowed housewife turned cropduster pilot struggles to rescue her teenage daughter from a band of Nazi war criminals who crash near her small Texas farm.” 

How awesome does that sound?

For $30, you’ll get the hardcover print when it’s published, and this is the only way you’ll get it in print form. It’s a project where you know what you’re getting and what you’re funding, and why they can’t do it without you.

That’s what Kickstarter is for. Pledge, because otherwise these folks can’t tell the stories they’re dying to tell. Anything that doesn’t fit that category doesn’t deserve my dollars.