An Exceptionally Rude Interview With Brian Clevinger About The New ‘Atomic Robo’ Kickstarter
Last week, Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, the creators of Atomic Robo, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a whole bunch of new merchandise for fans of their all-ages action adventure comic. The centerpiece of the campaign:The Tesladyne Field Guide, a handbook for new recruits on how to deal with the bizarre super-scientific situations that Atomic Robo finds himself up against every day.
In less than a week, they've managed to raise over $50,000, so to talk about the success, we contacted Clevinger for an interview. He agreed... and things quickly took a turn for the hostile.
ComicsAlliance: First of all, thanks for agreeing to the interview. I know you have a busy schedule, as evidenced by the fact that you showed up 20 minutes late.
Brian Clevinger: I figured it'd give you time to wake up.
CA: So, Atomic Robo has been going on for almost six years now, and in that time you've managed to build up a pretty strong fan-following and multiple Eisner award nominations.
BC: Time to cash in, I say.
CA: I was going to ask why you thought now was a good time to hit those people up for even more money than they've given you already.
BC: We thought it was about time to give those folks a little something beyond just the comic. And then to make them pay for the privilege, obviously.
CA: So what exactly is this? As near as I can figure, you're charging people twenty bucks for something that's not even a comic.
BC: Correct! But it's even better than not a comic. It's the employee handbook for Tesladyne, so it's a collection of practical advice and procedures for all kinds of sci-fi situations you will never ever encounter. Like dinosaur rampages or alternate universes tunneling into our own.
CA: So it's fan-fiction for something you actually own.
BC: Don't judge me, Sims.
CA: Too late. So why Kickstarter? After nine volumes, I'd assume you''d be able to slip whatever you wanted past your publisher.
BC: It's also the other stuff. The T-shirts and posters and other custom items full of delicious Atomic Robo brand, uh, branding. Running that stuff through Kickstarter was the easiest way to get it made. It's stuff Scott and I have been meaning to get off the ground for years, but it takes a lot of time and money to make that stuff. We make comics, so we don't have time or money.
CA: $55,000 buys a lot of t-shirts and posters.
BC: Boy howdy, it sure does! Also sticky notes. And patches. And lab coats.
CA: That brings me to another big question. You've had a pretty strong success with the Kickstarter thus far, racking up fifty grand in, what, four days?
BC: There abouts.
CA: So why should I or anyone else give you more money at this point?
BC: That's an uncharacteristically good question, so I'll assume it was an accident. Some folks have a weird attitude about Kickstarter campaigns. They'll see the minimum funding amount and the current much larger funding amount, do some quick math, and call the gap between those figures PROFIT. That's not how it works. Every backer increases the number of items you need to make and to ship, so your costs are going up all the time. This is part of why so many campaigns, especially wildly successful ones, end up costing more than they raised. The scale gets out of hand and little costs add up fast. We're working with some folks on our side of things to make sure our campaign sticks to its guns and covers the costs of its own success. But you should give us money because we're making neat stuff. Why, we could get you a non-wrestle shirt if you backed us, Chris!
CA: What makes you think I would even want a shirt that doesn't have wrestlers on it?
BC: Of course, right. What was I thinking?
CA: Wait, you don't own Batman, do you?
BC: Or Waffle House?
CA: If you owned Waffle House, you wouldn't have to beg your readers for money to print t-shirts.
BC: We've got one in Richmond, so now you can visit!
CA: Let's just get back to the subject at hand. Assuming that it wasn't just the easiest cash grab you could do, why a Tesladyne Employee Manual as opposed to some other kind of tie-in?
BC: Because it sounded super easy to write.
CA: Wow, you're not even going to try to go with a different answer?
BC: Well. It also sounded like a really world buildy thing the fans could get into. So, super easy to make and then to market.
CA: Was it?
BC: You ever make $55k happen in four days?
CA: Would I be interviewing you if I had?
BC: Sure you would. You like talking with me!
CA: Really though, was it as easy as you thought it would be? I know you have a long plan in mind when it comes to Atomic Robo, to the point where you had the story titles for the first fourteen volumes in place two or three years ago when we first talked about it. Or, you know, do you want to continue telling people they should give you thousands of dollars for something that was "super easy" for you to slap together over a weekend?
BC: Well, keep in mind I only said it sounded super easy. We haven't made it yet. And historically every time I've bet on something being super easy it's been hell. Like, even starting the campaign? We hit every possible obstacle. In the worst way. At the worst time. And the way to fix it would always cause the longest delay. AND when it was fixed, it'd be at the worst time to have it go right.
CA: What kind of obstacles?
BC: The only way I can describe it is: start a campaign yourself and then imagine every single click and piece of information causes a problem. The best example is how our original campaign was rejected. Remember when the Rapist's Guide To Big Old Rapes was Kickstartered? We'd submitted for approval in that same week. And in the wake of Kickstarter's efforts to crack down on their own standards so crazy stuff like that didn't get through, our then current project was rejected. This happened while Scott and I were at a convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico (remember, it can only go wrong at the worst time in the worst way). Our campaign was in a gray area between a couple Kickstarter guidelines and due to the increased focus on guidelines for that week, blammo, we got shut down. Had to start all over.
CA: What was different about that original campaign?
BC: There was really no central "story" behind the campaign. It was more like, "Hey, here's our stuff, come get some of this junk, it'll be great." I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea. Kickstarter staff said there should be a central reason for the campaign. Which, at the time, I remember thinking, "who cares?!" but I was frustrated. Looking back, it's a great policy. Because it serves to communicate the incentives and the urgency of the campaign. That's when we cooked up the Official Tesladyne Field Guide idea. This guidebook in the vein of those survival handbooks where they've got tips for everything from snakebites to being stuck in a sinking car. But we thought it'd be hilarious to focus on the weird things that are common in a world like Atomic Robo's that are also the things you will never encounter in real life. And once the Field Guide idea solidified, Scott and I were like, "This thing's gonna be fantastic. How dumb are we that it took Kickstarter to tell us to make it?" Pretty dumb, Chris. Pretty, pretty dumb.
CA: I was about to say the same thing.
BC: I appreciate your candor.
CA: It's weird how it's almost like someone is working against you every step of the way.
BC: Yes. Very "weird." Minor geek out moment: I'm pretty sure it was Luke Crane who told us our first campaign wasn't good enough. He's the guy behind the Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard RPGs and those are wonderful books. Hi, Luke!
CA: This is your first Kickstarter though, right? I know you've been tangentially involved in a couple of others.
BC: Yup. I've contributed a couple rewards and stuff to other campaigns, but this is the first one I've helmed.
CA: Wow, so even with that kind of experience, you still couldn't figure out how it worked.
BC: If I wanted this kind of abuse, I'd call my parents.
CA: You mentioned that the guide itself deals with situations that show up in Robo's life, but what about the other premiums? Anything worth knowing about in there?
BC: We're offering two kinds of official Tesladyne lab coats. And these are totally real lab coats you can use in a real lab doing actual science, but he way. Turns out it's about a hundred times easier to get your hands on real lab coats than, like, crappy Halloween costume ones. At least at this time of year. Anyway, there's the Normal Lab Coat and the Completely Ruined Lab Coat that was half destroyed by Dr. Dinosaur when he probably killed the guy who used to wear it. The Tesladyne Coffee Mug has been a big mover too. Oh, and our Genuine* Hollow Earth Crystals.
CA: How big is the coffee mug? It's not one of those little eight-ounce things, is it?
BC: Our supplier confirms that they are 11 ounces.
CA: Hey look at that, you did something right.
BC: That's one!