The Little Documentary That Should: Miguel Cima Dishes On ‘Dig Comics’
The modern comic book industry faces a lot of challenges as it marches into this brave new year, but there's one common thread that ties them all together: more people need to be reading comics.
Frustrated with a seemingly shrinking audience despite a wealth of diverse and accessible content, Miguel Cima has set out to do something to correct what he considers an affront on sequential art enjoyment.
That something is "Dig Comics," a documentary-style short that introduces outsiders to the medium while calling upon current readers to help spread the comics gospel, so-to-speak.
Cima and the "Dig Comics" crew have been working on the film for the better part of the last three years, presenting their work at shops and conventions - perhaps most notably San Diego Comic International, where actor Edward James Olmos introduced a special screening. The reaction was so strong, "Dig Comics" won the SDCC Film Fest.
After checking out the roughly 20-minute short, we chatted with Cima to get his take on the current state of comics and his vision to help expand readership through "Dig Comics" in its current incarnation and beyond.
ComicsAlliance: "Dig Comics" has a pretty robust team behind it (including Dirk Van Fleet, Scott Shaw!, Russel Calabrese, Corey Blake and ErtuÄŸ TüfekçioÄŸlu). Can you tell us a little about the genesis of the project and how everyone came together?
Miguel Cima: It started out a few years ago when I had a publishing deal for an original comic of mine with the now-defunct Speakeasy Comics. I was all ready to – at my own expense – do a promotional tour of comic book stores across the country, in that vain hope of garnering sales of 2000 or so issues. I was pretty gung ho about it, even though I knew I would lose money, had schedules made and plane tickets bought. A friend suggested I film the experience, which sounded smart to me, and it got my wheels rolling, Two months before being published and a few short weeks before I would begin my tour, Speakeasy went under and my dream of being a published writer died. So I tried submitting my comic all over and realized – there's very few companies to submit to. It's like four or five strikes and you're out. It kind of pissed me off. I hadn't realized how limited the audience was, at least not in real numbers. I had worked in film and in music for years, and I always knew – if the big studios and labels weren't interested, there was always dozens if not hundreds of smaller companies to try. Maybe you won't be a millionaire, but you can make some dough doing art. Well, comics isn't like that. Why should it be? Nobody reads comic books anymore, it's less than 1% of the population. I started researching and looking at the numbers and it just pissed me off. On the whole, comic books offer much better work than film or music and nobody in America even knows about it, except for the smallest fraction of us. So I thought about the movie again. It started as part me rallying on this subject, part documenting my publishing struggles, but I eventually became obsessed with what I see as a really good cause and here we are, I'm not even trying to be published anymore. The movie is the thing now. As for my team, I came to Los Angeles years ago to meet the good folks who have become my partners in crime. I'm a very lucky guy to have such good friends who believe in my work and support me not only spiritually, but with their time and effort. I sure hope this works out and I can pay them back in kind!
CA: While the goal behind "Dig Comics" seems simple, producing a work of this kind presents a number of unique challenges on your end. It's part documentary, part conversation, part training manual and it seems aimed at both comics newcomers and longtime readers. How wide a net did the team set out to cast and how do you work to balance the film's presentation with its messages?
MC: We definitely worked hard, going through several drastically different scripts and early cuts of the short, to find the right balance. I'm glad those different aspects came across to you. Longtime readers are the foundation of this movement. They can do a lot to get the word out about comics to their non-reading friends, if they're smart about their recommendations. (And, more times than not, that means looking outside of superheroes.) But our primary target is to bring in newcomers. I am not looking for the world to become obsessive collector geeks like me. I just want comic books to be one of those normal things that people do once in a while like go to the movies or bake cupcakes. I'm not sure how I balance my goals, I just think about what I want to say and get it out there. I am a big argument guy, I love spirited discussion, and I can never keep a lid on myself when I'm passionate about something. I love comics. I think the public at large is missing out on something as cool as music and movies and I want to show them what they are missing. So I just throw myself out there. It's easy because I spend all day long thinking about this crap anyway. If I can be entertaining while doing it, then maybe I can even reach a few folks, right?
CA: While you're pretty humble about your status as a reader and take a kind of everyman approach to hosting, "Dig" features a number of high-profile interviews. How did you and the team decide who to include in those segments and what kind of response did you get from those you invited to participate?
MC: Sheer luck! Jeph Loeb was a total fluke! I still can't believe he let us come to his house on a Saturday like we did. Scott Shaw I approached at a Con – like I did a lot of other guys. But Scott was very responsive and in fact we are now really good friends. Dame Darcy and I were already friends from when I had hired her to do a 5-page story for me. It's really beautiful, I hope to publish it some day. So she was actually the easiest to get. But I was lucky because I did get what I wanted: super-big mainstream guy, consummate nerd and expert guy, and an indy gal. I gotta say, I love having a cute alternative comics creator gal in there. Kills the stereotype a little, y'know? A great balance of folks to help reinforce my main message: whoever you are, there's a comic out there for you.
CA: In the film you reach out to a sample of your community to spread the word about comics, giving away many of your own collected editions, graphic novels and trade paperbacks in what seemed to be a successful campaign. Did you run into any jerks behind the scenes, or was it pretty smooth sailing?
MC: Hey, everybody wants to be on TV. Smooth sailing. Didn't sell everybody on the idea, though. But I think 80% of the people I approached were willing to give comics a try.
CA: Since "Dig" tackles a lot of big concepts in a short amount of time, it's understandable that you couldn't hit every single issue that plagues the industry. Still, there's a few industry issues a lot of readers will be curious about in further installments. Will you be addressing issues like the cost /relative value vs. other forms of entertainment, the state of the economy and other items that've affected present day sales numbers?
MC: Totally. And a few more things too. But I don't wanna give it all away right now. The trick will be to do it in a way that isn't boring. For comics nerds, those chats are very interesting. But I want to reach the normals, too. Gotta make it compelling, easy to understand and fun. I'm almost done with my feature proposal, and I've got some pretty funny ways of hitting this stuff.
CA: While this first installment of "Dig" focuses mostly on printed comics, do you plan to discuss Web comics, digital comics and motion comics as part of a wider reading experience down the road? How important do you think these technologies will factor into the coming decade and beyond?
MC: Yeah, I will be jumping on that. I'm old school and it's hard to swallow, but there is no doubt that Web comics have a major role to play. But I think it'll be like 50 years before we really know if comics and books for that matter will really fall to digital media. In the meantime, I don't really care how people engage, I just want it to happen, and it looks like the Web will be the way, just like it is with music, at least for the foreseeable future.
CA: "Dig" is unique among a lot of comic book documentaries because of its realistic optimism. In addition to explaining the problems the medium faces, it offers some instruction on how to be a better advocate on behalf of the art form. How important do you think this kind of outlook is in building something of a more stable future for comics?
MC: It's essential. I had a screening in New York this past November, with a panel discussion that followed. It was Tom Brevoort, Chris Irving, Danny Fingeroth, Heidi McDonald and Andy Helfer. We argued a lot of points, but I had one message which everybody agreed on: current comics readers need to introduce their friends and family to the medium. Total grass roots. And here's a real easy way to do it. Make all holiday and special event gifts to your loved ones comic books. Birthdays, Christmas, graduation, whatever. But you can't buy granny Wolverine because she won't like it. And I doubt your girlfriend will really get into Spawn. Most comic fans are every narrow in their tastes, and to garner new readers, you have to be ready to recommend stuff outside your comfort zone. I've caught a lot of flack from fanboys over this. But why promote comics as if it can only mean superheroes? They are everything – history, drama, horror, surrealism, science, journalism, humor – and there really is something for everyone. So I'd like fanboys to start being the heroes they worship and work to expand their knowledge. It's the only way to save the medium. Again, a lot of these people get pissed at me, say I hate on hero comics, but that's not true at all. I just don't stick to one court. It's like, I can listen to jazz, rap, rock and opera. Who the hell wants to only listen to just one type of music? To the fanboys I say, "With great power comes great responsibility." Be the hero, boys! Comics needs ya!
CA: Do you personally see any positive trends in content that you think will contribute to a wider and more sustainable comics readership? Are there any comics that you dig that you think more folks should get the opportunity to try?
MC: Oh god, are you kidding? More than ever! Check out a few examples at Digcomics.com. When I get the movie off the ground, this will be a very active place to find new works. Right now, I got about 30 or so recommendations on there. I'm twittering @digcomics and am on Facebook as well. I'll be making a few recommendations a week.
CA: The concept of the comic book medium as an intellectual property petri dish for other avenues of entertainment is something a lot of creators and fans wrestle with. Most can deal with quality adaptations that compensate creators, but stinkers often fuel apprehension and resentment. "Dig" touches on this debate a bit, but what stance do you think is the healthiest and most productive for the medium as a whole, especially in light of the Disney/Marvel merger and DC's corporate restructuring?
MC: I think it's cool if creators can make some money out of movie properties, but the sad truth is that most creators can make money ONLY IF their property is licensed in such a way. A lot of these people can't do comics full time because it just won't pay the bills. Obviously, that's not true for top earners at Marvel and DC, but think of all the Harvey Pekars (pre American Splendor movie) of the world. How much great work are we missing out on because they gotta file VA medical records to keep going? There are great artists, as great as Picasso or Van Gogh who can only deliver one book every few years because they gotta do ads or animation. The big guns need to sink a lot of the movie money into marketing and advertising not only their products, but comics as a medium. It will pay off in a very short few years, not only in increased readership, but in even more fervent film followings. There is no question, the source material needs a much more vibrant industry than what's currently available.
CA: "Dig" has reached a lot of folks in the industry already, as well as the mainstream media and (naturally) the comics blogosphere. What kind of impact have you personally seen the project have on your target audience thus far? Have you had any surprises in terms of feedback or how far the project has reached?
MC: Well, I am very grateful as most people have been very supportive and fond of the film. Obviously, I need to reach a much wider audience than I have, and hopefully, we can get somebody to foot the bill for a piece I can sell (nobody buys 20 minute films). The fact is, until the feature is made and shown via a large release or television network, my reach falls far short of my goals. A lot of folks seem ready to sign on for the next stage, which is great. Now we need a patron. The big studio comics-based movies have already put comic books back on the public's mind, so finding an audience won't be hard. The right partner will realize what I already know: the time for "Dig Comics" is now!
CA: I know I've bugged you about some specific issues you may be addressing in the next chapter of "Dig Comics," but more generally, what can you tell us about the next installment at this point? What's in store for the series this year and beyond?
MC: I have no end of ideas, no end of topics I want to cover, no end of enthusiasm for my cause. This year will be all about grass roots and audience building, proving to a production company that "Dig Comics" will be a money-maker. We are weeks away from being ready to start production – all that's missing is the money to do it. As for now, I'm a working stiff and my credit card is all tapped out on the short version. We'll find the right guys, they'll find us ready to roll, and we will make this puppy fly high and far!