Kickstarted: Mark Andrew Smith And James Stokoe’s ‘Sullivan’s Sluggers’
I like Kickstarter a lot. It's an efficient way to directly connect with artists while also making sure that a project that interests you gets funded. There are still a few hitches that need to be worked out, but my experience with Kickstarter has been largely positive. I've backed eleven projects across a variety of genres, and the results have been solid, for the most part. With Kickstarted I've been taking a close look at some of them, examining the positive and negative aspects of each campaign now that they've wrapped up.
Today I'm looking at Mark Andrew Smith's 'Sullivan's Sluggers', Baseball Horror Graphic Novel. It's a project that features art by James Stokoe (Orc Stain, Godzilla: Half-Century War), and that means that I'm there, no questions asked. This ended up being another rocky project, though, despite its extreme success.
Why this Project?
Say it with me now: JAMES STOKOE.
Stokoe is one of the most interesting people making comics right now. He's got a palette that's got to be seen to be believed, a ferocious sense of humor, and an appealing cartoony style. You wouldn't think it at first glance, but he's great at incorporating real world stuff into his art, as well. He's got a handle on Vietnam that is really exciting to me, and his action scenes show a fluidity and creativity that's hard to match. He's one to watch, is what I'm saying, and Orc Stain, his ongoing series about orcs, gronches, and vengeance, is a must-read.
I'm not as familiar with Mark Andrew Smith. I've seen his name here and there, but I've never really managed to check out his projects. I know that he worked on the Popgun anthologies and 24Seven, both out of Image, but that was the extent of my knowledge. But I was willing to take a chance on the book. The premise seemed funny enough. A baseball team ends up in the middle of nowhere to play a game and soon discovers that their opponents are actual monsters. Comedic horror ensues of the Army of Darkness variety. That's not bad, and sometimes all you need to get into something is just one element. In this case, my interest in Stokoe's art was strong enough to get me to commit.
Smith requested $6,000 to finish and publish Sullivan's Sluggers. He raised $97,626, which is crazy. Smith went above and beyond the call of duty in pushing the Kickstarter, and it shows. Certain stretches of pledges were dedicated to charitable causes, too. I dig that. It isn't a requirement or anything, but if you ask for a certain amount and blow past it, it's cool to give back to your community. Getting optioned for a film during the drive certainly didn't hurt the Kickstarter's visibility, either.
The rewards started at $10 for a PDF, $20 for a PDF and a shirt, and $30 for a printed book and PDF. Nearly 1,800 people ended up signing up for the $30 tier, an impressive number by any measure. Once the Kickstarter surpassed its goal, Smith began upgrading the rewards. By the end of it, the printed edition was set up to be a beast of a book. It was upgraded to omnibus size -- presumably DC's Absolute format, or maybe Marvel's omnibus size -- given a slipcase cover, and a gatefold spread. Very fancy.
While the initial campaign was very effective, the post-backing period has been less pleasant. The estimated delivery date for all the rewards was September 2012, around four months after the end of the Kickstarter. Currently, Smith is expecting to receive the printed books in January 2013 and ship them to backers shortly after.
Delays are understandable, but I have a harder time with two other aspects of the Kickstarter. First, Smith sent a long message to his backers about changes to Facebook's interface with respect to advertising, which may affect Kickstarter. It's a conversation that is probably worth having, but I'm not so sure that the Kickstarter was the best forum for it. The backers signed up to receive a product they paid for, not to be evangelized to, especially about something as inside baseball as advertising on Facebook. The fact that the majority of the backers hadn't yet received what they paid for made the message less of an important update and more of a message that you scrolled through, hoping for some info that was relevant to you.
The second aspect is harder to justify. I received my Sullivan's Sluggers PDF on September 23. That's a pretty good turnaround time, I think. One problem: Sullivan's Sluggers started going up on ComiXology in June. You could buy six 32-page issues a month before I got the PDF I'd backed the project for.
That sucks, and while the project didn't say that wouldn't happen, it still doesn't seem right. It feels like a breach of etiquette, almost. Smith is obviously free to market his comic as he sees fit, but considering that the Kickstarter was there to finance the finalization of the project and people backed the project with that in mind, it would have been nice if we'd been told that part of the plan was to put the finished book online much earlier than the completion date, or even given a chance to opt in to the early ComiXology release. Instead, we were left waiting for our rewards while everyone else read the book. In a separate update Smith mentioned that it was easier to hand out ComiXology unlock codes for trades, rather than single issues, but I don't think that's really enough. Smith sent a message on October 3, with a code for backers to get a free copy of the book on ComiXology, but it feels like too little, too late. Saying that the book "is now available" on ComiXology seems dubious when it had been serialized for months.
What went down and why isn't very clear, and clarity is important in these projects because you're asking people to fund something largely sight-unseen. It's a bummer when you back something and somehow find yourself shuffled to the back of the line, especially if you're still waiting on your printed edition.
The Final Product
I sat down and read Sullivan's Sluggers in one sitting. I was surprised that I found it just okay. Rodrigo Avilés colored Stokoe's artwork, and while his work is fine, it doesn't have that same Stokoe Swing. Stokoe works with a lot of strange textures, and Avilés tended to color them straight. The result is a Stokoe comic that looks half as wonderfully gross as you'd expect a Stokoe comic to look. A Stokoe comic without the disgustingly organic reds, blues, and purples doesn't feel right, like a Todd McFarlane Spider-Man comic without those chunky webs or Jim Starlin comic with no skull or cosmic imagery.
But the monsters are as good as I figured they would be. They're more lizard-y than insectoid, with dripping wet maws and gross, crusty fingernails. The action is fun, with a fun homage to Saturn Devouring His Son. Stokoe gives each of the characters a distinct feel and design, and those designs make the story feel like a comic book version of an '80s sports movie. He does some interesting things with the lettering, too.
The story is less successful. The book is very fast-paced, which is usually great, but the characterization suffers in this case. Characters feel like loose sketches, rather than people you want to believe in and see how they end up. Things just kind of happen. One guy finds a katana, because I guess katanas are cool, another finds a cross buried in the ground, and we get a lot of "almost" characterization. The team has a problem with acting out, but that problem is almost immediately backgrounded in favor of the monster attack. One character truly believes in the team and wants to play baseball for real, but that's reduced to a joke as soon as the monsters attack. The coach has a dark history and is a burnout with a heart of gold, but we don't get to explore that because, wait for it, monsters attack.
It's hard to care about these characters early on, and that hurts the book. I feel like there's a kernel of a good idea in the story, but the execution wasn't where it needed to be. The art is good, but pales in comparison to Stokoe's other work. There's a lot of book here, about two hundred pages of it if you include the pinups at the end, but it still feels like there's something missing. That's a funny feeling to have about such a long comic, but I can't shake it. A little more time spent on the characterization early, and a decreased focus on doing homages to horror movie clichés would have benefitted the book a great deal. Sullivan's Sluggers feels thin.