Part 1 of Our Virtual Convention Table
By Anna Rettberg
(illustration)
Casey Muratori
(text)
This is part 1 of a four-part series about our graphic novel, Meow the Infinite. Part 2 details of prepress work, and Part 3 covers Anna’s drawing process for the comic.
Comics are not primarily what we do at Molly Rocket. We are a game technology developer that accidentally ended up with a popular Twitch show about game engine programming. So it may sound very strange that we were sad to see this:
TL;DR for those just joining us: we made an all-ages comic that we were really excited about, and we wanted to connect with fans of the genre. With conventions being canceled everywhere, there wasn’t going to be any way for us to do that. So instead, we decided to put up a Kickstarter. It’s less than half way done, and it’s already gotten us more folks to send books to than we probably would have gotten at two-day convention.
That’s the short version of the story. The long version starts now :)
How did we get here? Let’s start with a drawing of a girl and her cat as space explorers:
As you can see from the signature, it was illustrated by our resident artist Anna Rettberg before she joined Molly Rocket. In fact, “girl and her cat in space” was a bit of a theme with Anna:
So if you followed her illustration blog at the time, you would be wholly unsurprised to learn she was always interested in depicting the adventures of a girl and her cat in space.
Despite not having drawn girl-and-cat space adventures for several years, this theme suddenly became relevant again in the summer of 2017 when we were discussing what to do about a simple problem: at least until our first game is released, we will have way more programming work than we have artwork to do. We do custom, research-oriented tech here, so there’s a lot more programming that needs to be done, at least for the first few engine iterations. By contrast, we don’t do AAA-sized games, so there’s much less artwork necessary per game.
The question was, what should Anna work on during downtime in the art schedule?
The answer could be anything, but it had to satisfy a few constraints:
• 
It couldn’t require any specific programming. There was already way too much of that on the schedule, and we couldn’t afford more. So even cookie-cutter games made on something basic like GameMaker or Unity were non-starters.
• 
It had to be Anna-directed. I had my hands full with Handmade Hero and 1935, among many other things, and I definitely couldn’t direct another project. It had to be something Anna could lead and feel comfortable guiding where she wanted it to go.
• 
It needed to be able to fill up art time in the schedule.
We eventually settled on a comic as the natural way to meet all these criteria, and the only question was, what would it be about? Of course, since the project was Anna-directed, the first choice was, “a girl and her cat in space.” Oddly enough, we called the project “Meow the Infinite” internally almost from the beginning, even before the story came together, because for some reason that phrase popped into my head when I thought about a spacefaring cat.
Over the next few months, we took breaks in our normal work routine to think about the story. I wrote a few story drafts for Anna to read over, and we discussed what we liked and didn’t like, and what sorts of things fit into Anna’s vision.
Anna’s favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t blame her, it’s a fantastic film. But it was actually her second and third favorites that I would say give a better clue to what she wanted Meow to be: E.T. and Star Wars. In fact, if I had to place Meow using movie arithmetic, it’d be “E.T. dressed up like Star Wars.”
Eventually, as the plot came together and we got the tone right, we ended up with a sweet, heartfelt story we were both really excited about telling. Honestly, perhaps a little too excited about.
Because if we’re being honest, a sweet, heartfelt, long-form story is not even remotely the kind of thing that typically catches on as a comic in the internet of today.
Sure, it’s possible that it can. But if your goal was to be popular and make money, you definitely wouldn’t do this. You’d make a comic that’s strongly for or against a widely-known political figure. You’d make a three-panel daily that comments on videogames. You’d make something for a specific community that has a lot of issue advocacy. You’d make something like The Far Side with observations about daily life.
That’s what gets tweeted and promoted: bitesize things that slot into an increasingly manic on-line culture. An all-ages, general audience, politics-free story about a girl and her cat in space? Where you have to get to the end of all twelve issues to really appreciate what the whole thing is about? That’s basically the very least likely thing to catch on that you could think of.
But of course, if we wanted to tell the story we loved, the way we wanted it to be told, that’s what we were about to do. And surely, we were far from alone. All over the world, people were (and are) doing the exact same thing  —  pouring a tremendous amount of work into making comics that have very, very little chance of becoming popular.
And that’s basically all there is to say until we get to the first few months of 2020.
Throughout 2018 and 2019, during gaps in the schedule, Anna did all the style development, concept art, and production artwork for the first six issues of Meow the Infinite. It looked great, and it was available for purchase as a “downloadable” comic from our website.
We posted a little about it to our mailing list, and I mentioned it on my Twitch stream, but of course, it didn’t attract much attention.
We do have a small audience at Molly Rocket, so it’s not as if we didn’t reach some folks who would be interested in a comic. But the problem for us is that we have a very specific audience: people interested in video games and, more narrowly, video game technology. While some of them might also be interested in an all-ages comic about a girl and her cat in space, it’s probably not a super high percentage!
But to be fair, this is exactly what we expected. We assumed most of the people who follow our projects would not be particularly interested in Meow. So our plan the entire time was actually completely separate: once we’d gotten half way through the story, we would do a print run of the first six issues, and we’d take them to local comic conventions. Comic conventions are specifically for helping comic authors find the audiences that want their type of story. So that’s how we planned to start getting Meow the Infinite into the hands of people who wanted it.
Which brings us back to VanCAF 2020.
VanCAF 2020 was the first convention we got accepted to, and we had told them we were going to debut the print edition of Meow the Infinite there. We spent a lot of time looking at printers, learning about print processes, figuring out exactly how to do the right CMYK prepress, and working out what the cost structure would be for getting a “Meow the Infinite: Book One” printed.
I was literally in the middle of an email thread with the printer, working out final details, when news was starting to break that the novel coronavirus might require canceling substantively all public gatherings for many months. It didn’t take much imagination to foresee that, more than likely, there probably wasn’t going to be a VanCAF 2020. There probably wasn’t going to be an anything 2020. I mean, lots of people get sick from conventions when there isn’t a pandemic. It’d be an epic disaster to hold one during a pandemic!
I put the printer on hold, and we waited for the inevitable announcement, which you may remember from the opening paragraph:
With confirmation that there’d be no VanCAF  —  and likely no comic conventions for many months  —  we knew our print edition probably wouldn’t happen. We really didn’t want to throw away all the work we’d done to prepare it, but we didn’t see any real options.
High-quality print runs are high-volume affairs. You don’t just print 100 of something. You print 1000 of something, probably more. And 180 page books are actually pretty darn big.
So with a physical good like Meow the Infinite: Book One, you have two business problems to solve, not one.
Business-wise, problem one is always, “where do you get the money?” And you certainly do need money to pay for the print run in the first place. But even if you have the money, you end up with problem two: you need somewhere to store the books until you sell them.
In our case, we didn’t even know how we would reach people who might like a print edition of Meow the Infinite. We had absolutely no idea. The whole goal of the convention circuit was for us to find an audience for the comic. So if we didn’t have that, and we still did a print run for Meow the Infinite, not only might we lose all that money, but we might also be left with giant piles of books stacked around our desks.
And that’s assuming the floor didn’t cave in first!
Now if you’re an internet-savvy sort of person, you are probably thinking to yourself, “What about Amazon? Can’t you just send the books to Amazon and have them do the storage and fulfillment for you?”
Those were my thoughts exactly. But to my surprise, when I actually looked at the economics of this based on Amazon’s latest pricing, it turned out that Amazon pretty much doesn’t want to store your books any more than you do! Once you add up their monthly storage charges, their per-item charges, and their percentages, you are looking at a situation where Fulfillment by Amazon takes the lion’s share of the revenue from any reasonably-priced book.
Eventually, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d have to wait until at least 2021 for a print edition of Meow the Infinte.
That seemed like the end of it. But the two business problems  —  money and storage  —  combined with the problem of reaching our audience continued to kick around in my head as we continued to work on our other projects.
Suddenly, one day, I had what you would call an epiphany if it wasn’t for the fact that it was actually incredibly obvious and most people would have thought of it way before I did. So it’s more like a “oh duh” moment  —  a duhpiphany, if you will.
The duhpiphany was, there already is an obvious place to go if you want to raise money, know how many of something to print, and connect with an audience for comic books. It’s called Kickstarter and literally dozens of comics use it every week.
I pitched the idea to Anna, and she was somewhat aprehensive about it. She was very nervous that if the Kickstarter didn’t succeed, this would be a public embarassment for her.
I completely sympathize with this. Meow is her project. She set the tone, she drew every single panel, she even designed the dialogue font herself. Every last brush stroke is hers. So if people weren’t interested in Meow, it would be really hard for her not to take that personally, even if the real reason for failure was completely unrelated.
But for some reason, I really thought it was the right thing to do. I pointed out, in one sense, it might actually be impossible to be publicly embarassed about a failed Meow Kickstarter, because after all, if it Kickstarter for $5000 fails, that probably means almost nobody heard about it anyway!
In philosophy terms, if a Kickstarter fails on the internet, but nobody is there to see it, does it make an embarassment?
This circular approach must somehow have worked, because Anna eventually got really into the idea. And with coronavirus-related lockdowns now coming into full force, it wasn’t like we didn’t have a lot of extra nights and weekends lying around that could be conscripted.
So that’s how the Meow the Infinite: Book One Kickstarter got started.
But there was a lot more work to do to get it off the ground. Everything was an open question: what’s the trailer, what’s the writeup, how do we publicize it, what should the tiers be… and of course, the elephant in the room: would it actually succeed?
Learning the answers to these questions was the next step in our Kickstarter adventure, and I’ll start digging into that in part four. Coming up next in part two, we’re going to rewind three months and talk about everything we had to learn to get a print edition of Meow the Infinite ready for the presses. Until then, thanks for reading, and if you’re one of our Kickstarter backers, thank you once again for helping answer that last question with a “yes”!
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