Comic Revolt with David Gillette: A Chat with 44 Flood
In this week’s Comic Revolt, I spoke with the collective 44 Flood about the success of their Tome Kickstarter campaign. Their original funding goal was $18,400, but finished at an amazing $132,538 when the final bell was rung.
Comprised of Menton 3 (Menton J. Matthews III), Ben Templesmith, Kasra Ghanbari, and Nick Idell, the collective has shattered notions about what can be achieved with the marriage of fine art and comic books. In fact, their amazing success has gained tremendous notice outside of the fine art and comic book industries, with write-ups by The Huffington Post to name a few.
True to their profiles on 44 Flood’s website, each member of the collective embodies their pictures from the intense and passionate Menton 3 to the jokesters in Ben and Nick with the Zen, business-like cool of Kasra. This interesting mix of personalities meshes like a well-heeled jazz quartet making it feel like they’ve been life-long friends. Despite this vibe, the truth of the matter is they’ve become fast friends.
“It happened over the last couple of years pretty organically,” Kasra says. “We’ve known Nick for awhile. He runs a great shop in the north side of Chicago called AlleyCat comics. We met Ben at a convention, C2E2, a few years ago, and then ended up sharing a studio with him. Menton I met several years ago, and had shared a studio with for almost two years.”
Some of the most fundamental aspects of the group coming together and clicking comes from their various backgrounds and viewpoints. More importantly, a true desire to create art and a fresh eye for new possibilities has propelled them to strike out on their own.
“The conversation just slowly turned towards experiences in the industry from a lot of different perspectives – artist, creator, retailer, art agent, galleries, licensing…all of it,” Kasra says. “It turned more and more towards what we can do… We spent about three months intensely talking about an actual company until we came to the conclusion that we needed to do this.”
As you can imagine, there is great variety and depth to the insights and conversations that led to the creation of Tome. Menton 3’s philosophical approach comes from years of working between music, comic books, and fine art.
“Comics sales in general have kind of fallen off the map,” Menton 3 says. “Comic sales are not doing well. Ten years ago, if you sold 15,000 copies of a comic book, you would get canceled. Nowadays, selling 4,000 is considered a hit.”
While this isn’t news to most people in the comic book industry, there are numerous theories about the medium’s quiet march into irrelevance. Menton 3’s particular theory is rather astute and eye opening.
“One of the reasons that I think this is going on is because comics are very incestuous,” he says. “We’re selling to the same people over and over again, and that number is dwindling because the same people get bored or get pissed off, or move onto something else.”
While this is not the entirety of the group’s impetus to experiment, given their various backgrounds, 44 Flood has developed a vision in which to bring their ideas and art to larger audiences.
“What we wanted to do is try the best we could to move into a different area,” says Menton 3. “Not to say we’re not trying to sell books to comic people, but we’re trying to make books that apply themselves to other mediums and the other places and sub-collectives that we’re actually interested in as well.”
While outspoken on the peculiarities and sometimes backwardness of the comic book industry, Menton 3 dispels any possible misconceptions of disillusionment with the industry by maintaining that he has no negative feelings about the people or industry itself.
“I don’t think it’s disenfranchised or disillusioned,” he says. “We’re just trying something different. It’s not like we’re pissed. I love IDW, I love Dark Horse, and I love working with them. I’m not disenfranchised with that. I just want to try something different.”
Getting down to it, that something different has been the pursuit of an artistic vision that’s shaking up people’s notions about art while elevating the comic book medium into areas beyond traditional or super hero comics. The exodus of uber-talented creators looking to more fertile areas to grow their artistic vision has become a growing trend within the comic book industry.
“I think a lot of the independent publishers are focusing more and more on creator-owned books in the last at least year and a half,” says Nick. “There’s just a huge push, and now there are incredible creator-owned books.”
Writers such as Ed Brubaker and Grant Morrison are walking away from DC and Marvel to focus more on creator-owned endeavors. Being a successful creator in the comic book industry isn’t mutually exclusive with the Big 2, and 44 Flood has been working at this new angle well before the current exodus.
“I think all of the other small publishers are taking note of that and following suit,” says Nick. “I don’t think that really had anything to do with what we’re doing. We think this is something we were going to do anyways, but it doesn’t hurt. A lot of comic book people are picking up a lot of new creator-owned works.”
Part of this is driven by the desire to be able to create without limitations. Working for the Big 2 presents many challenges that stifle writer and artist creativity.
For 44 Flood, all of this discussion turned into the daring and almost exponential growth of Tome through Kickstarter. When asked about whether they expected the monetary success of their campaign, the answer was resoundingly no. “Whoever says that to that question?,” says Ben.
“One of our biggest goals was to get to 1,000 backers,” says Kasra. “That was like the magic number for us. That was probably at least as important as the total sum raised. You can’t predict it all, but having that number of people back us was tremendous.”
Not only was the feeling tremendous because of their runaway success with the campaign, but it was something that was received with deeper appreciation of what that means in terms of outside support.
“That definitely shows a lot of love and a lot of support,” says Nick. “That means a lot to us.”
“It’s probably important to point out that the way Kickstarter works, and the whole way we did this,” says Ben. “I don’t think a normal publisher would look at what we wanted to do and say that they would agree to do it because the traditional thought is that there’s no money in anthologies, or just the sheer artifact we wanted to make would be too expensive, so we’re not getting rich off this book. All of that money is basically going to production costs and a music CD.”
Of course, the intensity and level of additions they made to Tome for their supporters has been unprecedented and profound in so many ways that couldn’t be accomplished through the traditional routes out of the comic book industry.
“We’ve expanded the book numerous times throughout the campaign every time we hit different milestones,” says Nick. “We made the book larger in every way, shape, and form. Kasra was working day and night to completely fill the book with amazing artists, and he did it so well, we even put more pages in the book to make it longer.”
There is also a complexity in how the collective perceives where to take this success and how to apply it. Earlier in the conversation Menton 3 said, “We’re just trying to figure out how to get our art to as many people as we possibly can., and do stuff that we really believe in at the same time.”
Considering that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Tome will be made available for wide release. When you consider the ambitious and prolific scope of Tome, it isn’t something that would be best served landing on Amazon’s site or Barnes & Nobles shelves.
“Tome is a very particular book within 44 Flood,” says Kasra. “Tome is our flagship book, and we’d like to think of it more as an artifact. It is very limited, and it will be sold directly. It won’t go through traditional distribution channels.”
Again, 44 Flood’s plans figure prominently into their larger artistic vision. Instead of sitting on their laurels, they’re using the success of their Tome campaign to plant seeds for an enduring vision.
“We’ll be dealing with a small group of retailers for a number of copies that we’ve set aside…,” says Kasra, “and the additional copies that we ended up creating for Tome were so that we could give a substantial number of the books to the artistic contributors.”
Part of that reward includes an enduring vision of community where they can grow their ideas with the various contributors to Tome while possibly changing the culture of the comic book community.
“In my opinion, if you sit in a room by yourself all day and make art, you’re never going to get any better outside of anyone else’s eyes but your own,” says Menton 3. “It’s really amazing to have other artists, that you respect their talent, make commentary on what you’re doing. Whether you agree with the commentary or not, it’s still going to affect you.”
The willingness to work with others, challenge themselves, and appreciation of why art can influence the world at large drives the collective in its vision.
“What we want to do, if possible, is create a collective of artists that all have equal respect for each other, and in the end, bust each other’s balls and help everybody become better artists because the whole thing we’re trying to create is an image that’s going to make somebody emotionally respond to it,” says Menton 3. “True art should speak to everybody. If you’re willing to look at Leonard Da Vinci art, it’s going to speak to you. You’re going to enjoy what you’re looking at.”
Back to that idea of being a finely tuned jazz quartet, the collective mentality of 44 Flood brings to mind Miles Davis’ keenness for working with up and coming musicians and helping them grow, although 44 Flood see it slightly different.
“I consider myself a little bit more Cannonball Adderley,” says Kasra. “He picks out the very best musicians at any point, and they end up creating something together that they couldn’t individually dream about doing. They find out more about themselves individually as artists in the process.”
Not content to let this conversation get too serious, Ben and Nick offer some their own comedic insights into this concept. “I consider myself the Meatloaf…and apple pie,” says Ben with Nick adding, “And me and Ben do a hell of a duet.”
Despite Tome opening up more opportunity for 44 Flood, they aren’t in any rush to convert themselves into something crass. That Zen quality I mentioned earlier has done well to curb any expectations positive or negative about the future.
“I don’t see us anywhere,” says Menton 3. “I just want to move forward. I don’t know what shape that’s going to take…I just want to move forward as an artist. That’s my only goal. To me, that means helping other people put out books, putting out my own books, and working with people that I love and doing something cool.”
While maintaining the need to focus on vision, Kasra does have a sense about where the rubber meets the road for 44 Flood’s future endeavors.
“The only thing I see in our future is that there’s no expectation about the outcome of these projects,” he says. “It’s more that every book we put together, we believe in., and each one of them is an individual opportunity to find out different places in the market…different places in the world for people to respond to this kind of content. Basically, to take that information and move forward.”
That puts the collective into an interesting place in terms of defining success. When art meets commerce, there’s a delicate balance that must be maintained to keep creating within the collective’s vision.
“I would call this a success if we were able to scratch a living, and this is only a baseline success,” says Ben. “Scratch a living from doing what we want, art wise, book wise, remain friends and making a profit on what we want to do without relying on additional comic book or other infrastructure, instead doing our own and building it ourselves, which means we’re completely independent, and nothing else matters except what we do and the people who buy it. To me, that would be the ultimate success.”
Besides many other planned books, the next major project for 44 Flood is a collaboration with the prolific writer, Steve Niles. They promise this project will be another upward move in shaking up the comic medium.
“There’s about nine books, so we have a lot of books planned, says Menton 3. “The next one we’re going to roll out…we can talk a little about it…it’s going to involve me, Ben, and Steve Niles. We’re all pretty excited about it, and it’s something that…I don’t think it’s something that has been done before…what we’re doing, and it’s certainly badass. We’re really excited about, and over the next two weeks, it will start rolling out, but we’re really excited about that book. I am. It’s going to be really fun to do.”