Substack is trying to break into comic books, with a ton of great creators

In early June 2021, Business Insider reported that Substack had recruited comic scribe Nick Spencer (known for Morning Glories, the most recent volume of Amazing Spider-Man, and turning Captain America into a Nazi¹) to oversee a new comic book vertical — or at least, figure out a way to make comics viable on the popular email subscription platform. The comic book industry has historically not been great about Intellectual Property Rights, which positions it in stark contrast to Substack, which stresses the fact that it doesn't take any IP cut from content creators who use its platform.

The initial Insider report was scant on details. But on Monday, August 9, several high-profile comic creators announced their new Substack-based projects:

James Tynion IV, author of Department of Truth (which I previously raved about on BB) and Something Is Killing The Children, revealed that he was leaving Batman behind after several years to focus on creator-owned books via Substack. One of these books will be a series of "non-fiction" graphic novels based on true stories of alleged UFO abductions created with Powers artist Michael Avon Oeming.

Jonathan Hickman, who's been the "architect" for Marvel's massive X-Men soft reboot in recent years, and also written some gorgeously graphic designed stories like the apocalyptic Western East of West and the demonic Wall Street story The Black Monday Murders, will launch a new sci-fi comic called Three Worlds / Three Moons with artists Mike Del Mundo and Mike Huddleston and a ton of other collaborators. Details on the story are sparse beyond this (and the fact that there will be three worlds and three moons, which sounds very Hickman anyway):

THREE WORLDS THREE MOONS is a concept universe. And we mean this in exactly the same vein as a concept album, where all of the individual characters/stories/things we create together add up to be part a much larger whole. 

Saladin Ahmed, who's written Miles Morales and Ms. Marvel as well as the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novel Throne of the Crescent Moon, is doing a new book with a rotating series of artists called The Copper Bottle, which sounds like it's going to riff on Djinn folklore.

Strong Female Protagonist co-creator Molly Knox Ostertag is also doing a new serialized graphic novel called In the Telling, with some of the subscription income money going to the The Trans Lifeline's Microgrant program. (There aren't many details on the story so far.)

Substack is reportedly providing no-strings-attached grants to some of these creators, and it's definitely an interesting experiment. It's a creative risk, for sure, but a potentially alternative to the current economic model for creator-owned comics, which tends to involve a lot of financial and temporal investment up-front, which sometimes won't be recouped for years. Each of these creators is charging around $75/80 for an annual subscription to receive their comics (or about $7-10 monthly) — the idea being that getting the money upfront means less risk, and more investment in the projects.

It's definitely a neat idea; as Substack has demonstrated, a small, loyal readership can be better for some creators than a large but largely ambivalent audience. Marvel, DC, and even Comixology offer digital subscriptions for similar annual costs, boasting tens of thousands of comics … but again, those companies haven't always been great to creators. By contrast, these Substack Comics programs are a chance to directly support creators.

It's not clear how many (if any) of these projects will later be available in print or through other online comics stores (though Tynion has said he plans to print all of his Substack books, eventually). If these newsletters aren't your only chance to read these comics, they'll at least give you some exclusive early access, which is still pretty cool. As for how you'll actually read the comics via email, here's Tynion:

The answer is really "We're figuring it out." There may be more options available to us as we move forward, and I've been chatting with other Substack creators about how they are planning on delivering their stories to you, but right now the plan is to release my comic projects in shorter chapters, about 10 pages long, releasing biweekly. We'll run those as ten images you scroll down through in the body of the newsletter itself. We'll also have an option for subscribers to download a PDF copy, with a download link in the newsletter. But this is all evolving! If another creator comes up with a better way to put comic books in your inbox and it changes my thinking, I'll go with what reads the cleanest and the best. You'll see it all start to play out next month with the release of the first chapter of Blue Book.

So this could mark a huge change in the comic book industry. And that's pretty cool.

Comic Book Writers and Artists Follow Other Creators to Substack [George Gene Gustines / The New York Times]

Image: Emily Byers / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

  1. Regardless of my personal opinion of some of Spencer's other work, the whole Nazi Cap controversy was unfairly overblown. It's comics; of course it was going to be a permanent change.