The Strange Case Of The ‘Like A Virus’ Kickstarter And Its Evil IndieGoGo Doppelganger [Interview]
A few weeks ago, Ken Lowery and Robert Wilson IV launched a Kickstarter campaign for Like A Virus, a one-shot ghost story about a medium trying to uncover the mystery of a local haunting. Within a few days, they'd met their goal, but then something unusual happened: The entire Kickstarter campaign, from Wilson's pages to the rewards promised for backers, had been copied to a fraudulent IndieGoGo campaign, with the scam artists behind it sending out press releases to drum up business for their (nonexistent) version.
To say the least, it's a pretty weird situation. I spoke to Lowery and Wilson to find out how they dealt with having their (very real) comic cloned for a scam, and how it affected what they're doing.ComicsAlliance: Let's start by talking about Like a Virus, and the actual Kickstarter you guys set up.
Ken Lowery: It's a one-shot, 23-page comic book. It's a ghost story, and it's a little bit of a mystery. We have a main character who's a medium, and she's trying to figure out the source of a haunting in her neighborhood. She wants to resolve it, and hopefully bring peace to the ghost as well. The complete story is her investigating this haunting, confronting the ghost, and speaking with it.
CA: That sounds exciting. Talking to ghosts.
KL: [Laughs] Yeah. It's kind of, I don't know, "somber" isn't really the right word. How would you describe it, Robert?
Robert Wilson IV: It's not an action comic.
KL: It's not.
RW: I definitely see that it's a bit of a mystery and a bit suspense, but it's in a weird place that defies genre and easy description, which is one reason I was excited to just take it to Kickstarter. I don't think there's any publisher out there that would want to publish this one-shot ghost story, which... do you feel comfortable talking about the heavy themes, Ken?
CA: Don't spoil it!
KL: We say it's a ghost story, and when you say that, you get a certain idea in your mind of what that is. It's a little bit that, and a little bit not that. It's not spooks and scares and loud noises, it's trying to figure out what's keeping this ghost here, what's tying her to the world, what can she not let go of, and trying to resolve that. I guess the closest comparison I can think of is some of Benito Cereno and Nate Bellegarde's Hector Plasm. There are stories in that where sometimes, he just wants to sit and talk to a ghost. It's kind of like that, figuring out the story of the ghost and what can bring it to a resolution.
CA: Robert's doing a book for Monkeybrain, Knuckleheads, that's his first published comic. You, as a comics writer, are pretty new.
KL: The only thing I've ever done that's been published is a backup story for a series called Black Diamond, from Larry Young, back in 2006 or something. It was a little six-page backup, and I've never done any comics work since then. Me and a local artist named Benjamin Hall did it, and he was doing Dummy's Guide To Danger for Viper at the time. He was real, I was not.
This is the first full-length story I've done in comic book form, and definitely the first thing I've done that I'll consider "mine," co-owned with Robert. Not work for hire.
CA: But you have had success with Kickstarter before.
KL: Yeah, last year, for Season 3 of The Variants, which is a web series I do with Richard Neal, who owns Zeus Comics here in Dallas. We got to a point where it was no longer sustainable to continue funding a web series ourselves, so we felt confident that we had two seasons of material that we could show people and give them an idea of what they were going to get, and then raise the money for Season 3. We thought if we could get the funding all at once, we could film everything all together rather than staggering it out over six months like we had been before, and basically kind of act like a Real Boy. Figure out a production schedule, set aside two weeks to film everything, costumes, continuity, all that good stuff.
We raised just under $14,000 for that one, and our original goal was $8,000. We set out stretch goals to add new episodes, so we got to do a full order of ten episodes for Season 3.
CA: I've talked to a lot of people who have done multiple Kickstarters, like Ryan Browne, who did Blast Furnace and then used what he learned there to do God Hates Astronauts. But you guys, and this is my This American Life segue, ran into something that was really unexpected. You were telling me before we started the interview that it was Robert who made the discovery.
RW: I feel like probably every comic creator egomaniac has multiple Google Alerts set up for things surrounding their name, and I got a Google Alert telling me that something on IndieGoGo was using my name a bunch. This was maybe... last Sunday? Our campaign had only been rolling for like three days, and I think we had just met our goal. I hopped over, and it was identical. It was the exact same, all the text, all the images, except for a few things that whoever copied it had to write themselves, and it was obvious that English was a second language. This dude was stumbling through some pretty rudimentary sentence construction. I think that's when I called you, Ken.
KL: I was at a movie. It was date night, and that's inviolate. [Laughs] But I saw it, this text message saying someone had copied our campaign on IndieGoGo, and had started posting it on ComicVine and Comic Book Resources.
RW: And then we found that they were posting on one or two other places. Bleeding Cool and somewhere else.
KL: I guess they contacted Rich Johnston directly.
CA: They sent one to us, too. We got an email from Fake Ken Lowery that went to Joe Hughes.
KL: [Laughs] Awesome.
CA: It's funny, because -- full disclosure -- Ken and I are friends. We've worked together on projects before.
KL: For going on five years now.
CA: So this was the worst way he could contact people, if only because one site had Rich Johnston pointing out that you once publicly talked about not liking him, and the other site has friends of yours working there.
KL: Right. I get the text from Robert, I go home, and I get on the phone. We figure out that he -- I say he, but it might've been a team of people for all I know -- constructed a pretty comprehensive press release system for his fake IndieGoGo campaign, which was almost identical to ours, right down to image placement. He contacted all the comics news sites, posted on forums on websites that had special forums for showing off your Kickstarter or your new project.
It's funny, I saw the text and got it immediately. We already knew from that tracking site that we were on track to go beyond our goal, so clearly people are watching these things to see what's successful and what's blowing up on a certain percentage, and I guess IndieGoGo's process is pretty quick. This thing was up when ours was only a few days old on Kickstarter, and it was a fast turnaround. I assume they went with IndieGoGo because, unlike Kickstarter, they pay out immediately, so if I donate $20 to the campaign, you get that $20 that day, versus Kickstarter, which only pays out at the end, if you hit your goal, and if everything clears.
I think by the time we got it shut down that night -- we basically just got enough people on Twitter to go and report it -- it had only gotten $10. Then there was a process of signing up for six or seven comic book message boards so I could say "No, actually, I'M the real Ken Lowery, here's the actual campaign, you can see it was copied." I was happy to see that by the next morning, most of those fake threads had been deleted, although according to my Google Alerts, they were still posting about it elsewhere even after the campaign had been shut down.
RW: They had a better broad PR strategy than we do!
KL: It was actually kind of educational.
CA: Of all the Kickstarters that I've covered on CA and War Rocket Ajax, I've never heard of this happening before.
RW: Neither have I.
CA: It seems like such a simple scam, though, that of course it would happen. But it makes me wonder how they pick what to copy. I assume there's not, like, a fake Veronica Mars movie campaign on IndieGoGo, or even a fake Order of the Stick drive. I'm wondering if, not to insult you guys, it's a matter of you guys being --
RW: Relatively unknown.
CA: Exactly, unknown enough that once they knew there was an audience there that wanted it, you weren't so famous that people wouldn't know it wasn't you.
RW: That's a pretty reasonable assumption.
KL: Like I said, when I saw the text, it all made sense immediately. Oh, we're not well-known, oh, we're tracking to do really well, why wouldn't this be happening? If not to us, then to somebody. Over a couple years, I've backed thirty campaigns, and like you, I've never seen this happen before. It's easy to do, it's easy to set up accounts on comic book message boards and all that. I'm still impressed by how thorough it was, doing all that and going to all the press outlets and drumming up business. I guess they did us a favor, almost.
CA: It certainly seems like you're getting a lot of coverage and getting the word out that you might not have otherwise. Just the sheer oddness of it.
KL: I suppose. That was the lemonade we made out of it. All things considered, it was pretty low stress, it only took a couple of hours to get the page shut down and it seemed like it was done the next morning. You walk out of a movie and find out someone's committing minor identity theft [laughs]. It was a little hairy there, but it turned out nice. Publicity's publicity.
RW: I think it'll be a good thing in the long run. Like we said, we hit our goal really fast, but I think it's because we both have really well-established, if pretty small, networks and fan bases each. I think everyone who supported the project in those first couple days were people that we knew, either through me going to cons and building a grassroots fanbase for my work, or Ken with his work on Fake AP Stylebook or the Variants, but this definitely helped us cast a wider net.
KL: We got eyes. We have multiple coverages on it now just because it's such an odd story. In the long run, it's a good thing, but it was pretty bizarre in the moment.
RW: Very bizarre.
CA: So it wasn't a fake fake Ken Lowery. This wasn't a publicity stunt on your part.
KL: [Laughs] No, this was not a "false flag" operation. I believe that's the term for it. Even though, as we were talking about it, I was thinking "this would've been really clever of us! If we'd thought to do this, damn, we should offer that service to other people!"
RW: Who's got the time?
CA: I hate to say I'm impressed, but they did have a very active PR campaign.
KL: They set up a YouTube account to upload a duplicate of our Kickstarter video. That was another thing we had to shut down.
RW: A really crappy rip.
KL: He was out there hustling, man. He was on message boards, posting images, uploading videos. I assume that, like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo has to verify your account, so there's something hooked up to that that he had to do. On that end, they shut it down, but the response form said "we passed this on to whoever," and we haven't heard back from it since then. I don't know if they're going to do anything about it, or crack down on it in any way.
CA: Part of me really wants to see that dude's version of Like A Virus, if his campaign succeeded. Getting a low-res JPG of Robert's cover printed out, with the interiors done by some Russian scam artist.
KL: [Laughs] With the five pages we have on the site...
CA: And a twist ending!
KL: In a dramatically different art style.
CA: So is there a moral to the story? That it's a good thing to Google yourself constantly?
RW: Google Alerts are useful, definitely.
KL: I fell down on that, but after this happened, I set up all kinds of Google alerts, and Robert found... Kicktraq, is that what it is? It tracks your trend and estimates what you're going to get at the end. If you seem to be on track to be successful, just set up some alerts with your name and your project name, just to see. It's good to know who's talking about it anyway, but there are apparently people who will spend a fair amount of time duplicating you in hopes of getting four or five thousand dollars.