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The State of WOLF'S HEAD


Whew, boy, what a tough couple of months. While there has been some joy (receiving the City of Ottawa grant and being shortlisted for the Peter Honeywell award being the best), for the most part it has been one helluva frustrating slog. I’m going to do my best to outline what the current situation is, mainly to help solidify my own thoughts on what’s gone wrong. Or, to put it another way, what hasn’t?

To put it bluntly, sales are not good. Worse, every attempt I’ve made to mitigate that has failed. What’s discouraging for me is that I clearly have no fan-base. How do I know that? Well, sales (both in print and digital) are the biggest example. Sales are extremely poor and are not getting better. In fact, they are getting progressively worse. In different circumstances, that would be enough to shut the series down. In fact, I have done exactly that in the past (specifically with my previous graphic novel series STARGAZER, ended after two volumes, and with the digital-only series METAL GODS, ended after four issues).

What makes WOLF’S HEAD different from those two? The biggest difference is that WOLF’S HEAD has never reached the Direct Market and, as a result, has been cut off from its largest potential audience: comic book fans. Mixed in with that are the aforementioned awards and grants; these have been especially important in teaching me that WOLF’S HEAD does have merit in certain (local) art circles, but there’s a “circuit break” between that and the larger comics community world-wide.

In fact, one of the biggest examples I could point to in terms of specific my role with in the comics community is the utter lack of media coverage and interest in my work. Not just with WOLF’S HEAD and not just recently; a significant disappointment to me was when the documentary film I’m in (titled I AM STILL YOUR CHILD) received no traction whatsoever with comics media. If the film had been covered, then more people might have been introduced to both me and my work. I had partially launched WOLF’S HEAD with exactly this in mind: maybe my role in the film would help galvanize interest and awareness in the series. Since that didn’t happen, WOLF’S HEAD did not receive the momentum from the film that I hoped it would.

Diamond and the Direct Market

This has been difficult for me to place, mainly because getting a direct answer from Diamond Comic Distributors has been so difficult. For those who don’t know, Diamond is the largest distributor of comic books in North America and Great Britain and they also distribute comics and related merchandise throughout the world. Prior to 2020, they were a de facto monopoly in the world of comics; however, with DC Comics breaking from Diamond in early June 2020, the monopoly label is harder to apply. Diamond was also a de facto monopsony; though that, given DC’s departure, is harder to apply, too.

For a small press like Von Allan Studio (that’s me, folks), Diamond plays a critical role in facilitating sales of comics and graphic novels to comic book stores. Fortunately, I have an account in good standing with Diamond; in fact, STARGAZER was distributed into the Direct Market (under Item Numbers NOV101057 and AUG111259) through Diamond a decade ago. Unfortunately, my amazing sales rep departed the company and his replacement has been fairly problematic. This is key: while Diamond never outright rejected WOLF’S HEAD, they’ve never accepted the series, either. In other words, WOLF’S HEAD exists in a sort of limbo for the past few years.

That has been dismaying for a few reasons:
  1. WOLF’S HEAD is a far stronger work than STARGAZER and it remains baffling to me why the latter was accepted for distribution while the former hasn’t been.

  2. “Limbo” also means that WOLF’S HEAD could be accepted for distribution with Diamond tomorrow… or never.

  3. The specific format of the print versions of WOLF’S HEAD was a result of attempting to meet Diamond’s specifications.

    While I don’t want to stray too far into the weeds here, the basic process works like this: once Diamond has agreed to take on a title for distribution, each issue/volume has to maintain a minimum sales threshold or risk cancellation. That threshold is based on total dollars; so selling 1,000 copies of issue 1 of a $2.99 US series results in a total dollar amount of $2,990.00, but selling 600 copies of issue 1 of a $9.99 US series results in $5,994.00! But that requires a print format that justifies the higher cover price. To do just that, I went with a trade paperback trim size and approximately 60 pages of content per issue for WOLF’S HEAD. I felt that this would give the series the best chance of meeting Diamond’s benchmarks while still giving readers a terrific experience.
Now, if Diamond had formally declined distributing WOLF’S HEAD, then I would have went in a very different direction with the print version of the series. Since I was in “limbo,” however, I decided to go ahead with it, hoping that, as the series progressed, Diamond would get on board and distribute the series. Sadly, that has never happened, leaving me with a print format that I’m not particularly happy with.

I did manage to get a few Canadian stores to pick up the series. But a combination of the pandemic (see below) and bad luck have basically ended that experiment. The store that did the best with the series was Librairie Astro in Montreal. Sadly, they closed in the summer of 2018 and I lost one of my biggest advocates. Strange Adventures in Halifax was carrying the series, but has apparently stopped. I say ‘apparently’ because I’m not exactly sure what happened; I suspect the audience simply never developed for the series.

What format would I be happy with? Well, either a saddle-stitched periodical series (i.e.: ye olde 32 page comic) or, better, a beautifully produced hardcover series that collected each story arc.

As it stands, I suspect the next release of WOLF’S HEAD (issue 7) will be the last with this 60 page format.

Comics Media

Without Diamond distributing the series, gaining media attention for WOLF’S HEAD from “comics media” (for lack of a better phrase) has been problematic. Some of this is understandable; a lot of comics media supports the Direct Market and are very plugged into Diamond’s distribution cycle. WOLF’S HEAD lack of distribution with Diamond falls outside of this purview and, as a result, few media outlets have been interested in discussing the series.

What’s been frustrating to me is that WOLF’S HEAD is broadly distributed. Finding the series is not difficult for either readers or retailers, primarily because WOLF’S HEAD has world-wide distribution through Ingram. This also means that the series is easy to find at online at retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, Waterstones, and so on. However, from the point of view of “comics media,” this isn’t enough. Worse, this lack of distribution from Diamond has also disqualified WOLF’S HEAD from the Joe Shuster Canadian Comic Book Creator Awards (while I’m not positive on this score, I believe that the “Shusters” require distribution through Diamond for eligibility).

More importantly, the lack of media attention has meant that the series is pretty much unknown with the audience I need the most: comic book fans. Especially comic book fans who like independent or alternative comics (or “comix”). It is very hard to grow a series if your key demographic doesn’t know you exist.

Comics Media are also tricky to talk about because there’s a split in what and who receives coverage. More mainstream sites like Comic Book Resources or Bleeding Cool tend to focus on corporate intellectual property. This means titles from Marvel, DC, as well as licensed properties. Sites like The Comics Journal focus on more literary titles. Unfortunately, either due to the lack of distribution from Diamond or other reasons, I’m persona non grata with both. And that’s certainly not for lack of trying on my end.

The knock-on effects of all this is problematic. As a simple example, there is now a great deal of scholarship being conducted on comics with some truly fascinating insights from some remarkable scholars. Unfortunately, comics scholars aren’t, as far as I can tell, aware of my work. Or even aware of me, for that matter. A second example are librarians. Librarians have become key advocates of comics, but I’ve never managed to gain library support for WOLF’S HEAD outside of my own local Public Library. WorldCat certainly illustrates this plainly.

This is disappointing because my work has been in libraries in the past, but without awareness of the series it would be difficult for a librarian to justify the purchase of the series, especially given the times of austerity we’ve been experiencing for the past twelve years.

COVID-19

The pandemic has effected everyone. In the face of the death toll (it boggles my mind that 200,000 people have died in the United States alone and we’re not that far from 1,000,000 dead throughout the world), it’s a bit hard to think of anything else, but there have been knock-on effects for everyone, even those who haven’t directly been hit by the virus itself.

Obviously declining retail sales are a significant example. The effects are more horrifying when you think about food scarcity, layoffs, evictions, and the like. Yes, it could certainly be worse; in fact, I’d argue that one of reasons that COVID-19 has not been as horrific as, say, the 1918-19 Influenza pandemic is that there are still enough social programs by various levels of government to help prevent the situation from spiraling out control. Plus science has a far greater understanding of how pandemics spread than it did back in 1918-19. Still, the official governmental responses has been problematic (really? 200,000 dead in the US?) and we are clearly not out of the woods yet.

Since art tends to be a discretionary purchase, in the face of the global pandemic my print sales have declined. Not that sales were robust before 2020, but the pandemic has destroyed them. While book sales in general slumped when the initial lockdowns occurred, there seems to be some evidence that book sales are now stronger, at least in some markets. Unfortunately, this has not led to any sales growth for WOLF’S HEAD or any of my other backlist, though this is not surprising given what I’ve outlined above.

Digital Comics

What about digital sales? WOLF’S HEAD is available on both ComiXology and Kindle and released in periodical format (i.e.: approximately 30 pages) for $1.99 US each. This format has not led to strong sales. In fact, sales have been very weak. Kindle is almost a non-starter; while it doesn’t take too much work to format titles for Kindle (using the Kindle Comic Creator software), I’ve only had a handful of sales in this format. My ComiXology sales have been marginally better, but ComiXology (and Kindle, for that matter) really require reader awareness and interest when seeking out titles. What do I mean?

Well, there’s a conundrum with digital discovery that I don’t think has been solved yet. In a ‘brick and mortar’ environment, people can stumble across titles that they might not have known about simply because they are on a shelf, let alone activism from a passionate sales staff. While COVID-19 has obviously effected the ability of people to enter into retail stores of all types, this is still a key element of what makes ‘brick and mortar’ stores so compelling. Wander in, stumble across something interesting, buy it, and try it. With digital comics, it would appear that you really need to know what you’re looking for. I realize that digital does allow some degree of browsing, but (at least from my point of view and experience), this doesn’t seem to work all that well in practice.

As a result, my digital sales have been very poor. What I find interesting about this is that my 2020 experiences with Kindle and ComiXology mirror my 2014 experiences with ComiXology and my series METAL GODS. Things really haven’t changed all that much at all.

Where Things Are At

As disappointing as this has been, the good news is that the comics art grant from the City of Ottawa has helped mitigate some of the damage detailed above. In fact, if it was not for the art grant and the Peter Honeywell award shortlist, I suspect I would cancel WOLF’S HEAD immediately. As it stands, WOLF’S HEAD will continue, at least through the current story arc, and then I’ll revisit in 2021.

Self-publishing is hard. Frankly, I’ve never wanted to do it, not because I’m against self-publishing per se, but because of the immense amount of work involved in doing it. Hell, I already wear all the hats (writing, art, production, etc…). Adding “publisher” to that list is a bridge too far. I badly need a publisher. I badly need an agent, too.

With WOLF’S HEAD, it’s hard to know how things will go. My efforts to find a publisher for the series will continue, though that is one helluva slog right now (my jealousy of authors with formal publishing contracts knows no bounds!). For the short term, this means that WOLF’S HEAD will probably be turned into a webcomic.

Webcomics actually terrify me. While once-upon-a-time I did do a webcomic through Girlamatic (THE ROAD TO GOD KNOWS...), that was both a long time ago and with a group of allies. Doing it alone is scary. And WOLF’S HEAD was never designed to be a webcomic; I’m leery of how transitioning the series to that format will work in practice. At the same time, I know that a WOLF’S HEAD webcomic might be the best (only?) chance that the series has to find a real audience.

To paraphrase one of my favourite movies, “art is a cruel mistress, but she is her own reward.” Easier said then done. I don’t like writing and drawing in a vacuum. While I’ve never minded the solitary nature of the craft, my stories are meant to be read. I’ve never wanted to make ‘outsider art’ that few if anyone reads. My goal was never to ‘hermetically seal’ my work from the world at large, either.

It’s not a fun feeling to be where I’m at, struggling to find an audience and struggling to make a living at it. Solutions are difficult to find. And the loss I’ve been feeling is difficult to place. Given the state of the world (not just with COVID-19 but with the wildfires in California and Oregon, the explosion in Beirut, and so on), there’s a lot to be thankful for. There really is. Art and writing bring me a great deal of joy, not to mention the fact that I’ve grown a great deal as an artist.

I’m extremely proud of WOLF’S HEAD, despite the terrible sales and lack of awareness that it even exists. I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. And it’s been a joyful experience, too.

It would just be truly awesome to be able to share that joy with readers.

Wolf's Head by Von Allan

Link to Von Allan's Wolf's Head comic book series

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