Although once touted as one of the glorious success stories of comics on Kickstarter, the ASHES project has now crumbled, for the moment to…well, ashes.
It began promisingly enough as a sequel to writer Alex de Campi’s Eisner-nominated SMOKE. Although the project was clearly de Campi’s baby, after bringing on board artist Jimmy Broxton, the nom de plume of James Hodgkins (KNIGHT & SQUIRE), the project was put up on Kickstarter with some great looking art and proceeded to beat its goal by some $6000 for a total of $32,000. Its process of funding the project by allowing retailers to buy copies was hailed as a groundbreaking use of Kickstarter and a new DIY decade.
But now, it all looks like a mess. In events chronicled at length at Forbidden Planet and Comics Alliance, after creating 22 pages of art in finished and layout form for the successful campaign, Hodgkins was fired off the book, and posted about it on Facebook (posts since deleted.)
For her part, de Campi went on Kickstarter announcing that she would continue with a new artist. She promised backers that if anyone wanted to leave because of Hodgkins’ dismissal, she would refund their money; and if the new artist on the project wasn’t acceptable she would also refund the money.
If you only pledged for the book because of Jimmy, or if this announcement otherwise colours your desire for the book, please contact me to say so on [redacted] with your kickstarter backer name and I will refund your pledge immediately and in full.
Likewise, once I find a new artist, if his or her work is not a style you like, you may also contact me and be immediately refunded for your pledge.
Folks, I am so committed to making this book. I am so sorry for this drama, and I hope you will find it in your heart to bear with me for a little longer while I straighten this out. Please be aware that the money you have pledged is still YOUR money (none of it was ever going to me anyway, it was all for art and print/reward fulfilment) and I will be respectful of your wishes as to where it will go.
For there is the element of Kickstarter that really hasn’t been examined much: once you pledge, your money is gone. The creators can go off to Barbardos with your money to work on the book if they like. Followed by bad feedback, of course. Kickstarter operates on an eBay like element of trust. And the money isn’t easy to refund, as de Campi has since found out.
Since the split was announced, Broxton/Hodgkins has remained silent. However, he reached out to The Beat to offer his statement exclusively. We’ve asked some questions to clarify things. That statement is below. We’ll have our own thoughts — and a rebuttal by de Campi — in a future post. In the meantime, it’s just sad that what looked like a great comic has been tied up in an ugly wrangle.
BEAT: How did you find out you were fired off the book?
JAMES HODGKINS: On Saturday January 14th 2012, less than a month after it had been successfully funded, I was unexpectedly and unceremoniously told by email that I was to be replaced on the Ashes graphic novel project, a book I had been attached to for over 8 months, and one that had recently raised in excess of $32,000 — Kickstarter’s 7th most successful comics funding project ever as of this point, and an achievement that both Alex and myself were overjoyed with.
There is a lot of speculation and talk right now, about this mess, and it really is a mess, I’m incredibly sorry about the whole thing, and for me, it’s not just about the money, or lost earnings, or how Kickstarter works, this has come as a huge creative blow. I had committed to spend the next year drawing Ashes, the script is quite brilliant, Alex is an extremely talented writer, I very much wanted to be part of something that I thought was going to be special. I hope people can see that commitment from the work I have already produced for the series.
Ashes deserves to be made, it has the potential to be a great book, I’m gutted now that I won’t have the chance to be a part of that process.
BEAT: Alex has alluded to “irreconcilable differences.” What can you tell us about that?
JH: If this is true, then this is news to me, because as recently as January 12th 2012 (just two days prior to the sudden sacking) we enthusiastically discussed and outlined plans for the next wave of art to be produced for Ashes, a friendly and cordial conversation that in particular discussed details of how some of the $32,000 raised could be forwarded to me.
Alex has also said that she didn’t realise things were going so wrong at first, and it wasn’t until the pages started coming in that she became aware it just wasn’t working, I’m at a loss as to why she would think this, as nearly all of the pages she (or any one else) has seen were completed before the Kickstarter campaign even went live, so she must have thought they were OK, she certainly presented them to the world very enthusiastically, since then, I have produced 4 more pages of art, all were well received by Alex, and were included in the Kickstarter updates. There was a discussion about the double page spread featuring the boat and the rock, where I had chosen a different viewpoint/camera angle to the one outlined in the script, but as far as the finished art goes, that is the nearest we ever came to a “creative difference” and, it was settled weeks ago, very amicably.
I’ll not pretend that everything has been plain sailing; when two strong willed and creative individuals come together it can, on occasion be pretty fiery, yes there were tantrums, hissy fits, harsh words and the occasional bit of name calling — but we took it in our stride as I’m big enough and I’m old enough to take that sort of thing, and Alex is a big girl who can look after herself — and is nobody’s idea of a shrinking violet. The biggest difference of opinion revolved around who would have the final say, as in, who would be the “editor”, naturally I wanted to keep control of how the art looked (with the proviso that I did not of course alter the narrative flow or any details of the script). Alex had other ideas and suggested we consider using some of the funds raised to hire an editor, even a name was mentioned (a former, very well respected DC editor, a lady I have, incidentally worked for), I replied in a rather ill-tempered way to this suggestion, for which I later apologised, eventually Alex agreed with me, that the best way forward was for her to let me do my own thing with the visuals (provided of course, I did not change the script, or thrust of the narrative), really we are just talking about camera angles, viewpoints and the shape of the panels, that sort of thing and then, only very occasionally, if I felt strongly enough about it, and could demonstrate that from a storytelling point of view it was a good idea, more than 90% of the art I have produced has been exactly as Alex described/directed. As far as I’m concerned, this little spat (Alex called it that too) was also amicably settled weeks ago. We moved forward, getting on with the job at hand.
Up until the moment I was fired, I honestly had no reason to suspect things were going so wrong as far as Alex was concerned.
BEAT: Did you have a contract? How had you entered into the whole Kickstarter process?
JH: Yes, we have a contract, Alex has the signed executed originals, I own 45% of Ashes, as does Alex, the other 5% is owned by a fairly well known film/TV actor from Canada (a non-publicity clause in the contract prevents me from divulging the name, or at least I think it does) I think it important to note, that the contract was not finalized until Nov 20th, 2011, so, long after the campaign went live, and after I produced all the finished art and layout pages that exist, I can only assume Alex was more than happy with all the art at that time or she would not have signed it. Which again makes me wonder why she is so unhappy with my work now, as I have not produced any new pages since then, only sketches and test panels for Kickstarter, which have been seen by all who followed the campaign.
How we ended up at Kickstarter is an interesting story in itself. When I came on board (some 8 months ago) Alex was only talking to regular book and comics publishers, a crowd funding platform was never mentioned, or if it was, I honestly don’t recall. I do seem to remember Top Shelf, First Second and Dark Horse being in the frame, for reasons I’m unaware of, those talks were fruitless. Next thing I know, we are going with UK based Unbound, a publisher I had not even heard of. I was assured by Alex they were a good fit, although a crowd funding type of operation, she considered them very high-end, and much more focussed, as they only publish books.
Talks went well, I was even included on a conference call, with the editors here in London and Alex in the US where we talked about fees and costs etc. I have emails where I’m in discussion with Unbound about the printing of the book, confidential print quotes from third parties were forwarded to me for my opinion, things were that far advanced. It was, as far as I knew, a done deal, with only the fine details of the contracts to be finalised. Then, suddenly (and very much to my surprise) Alex told me we were going with Kickstarter, so I can only assume things went wrong with Unbound. Even though I was not consulted in any way (or even asked if I agreed) Kickstarter it was going to be. I trusted her judgement on this.
BEAT: According to Alex she has offered to pay you for the work you’ve already done?
JH: Yes, she has, but I declined the offer.
Initially I did ask Alex if she might be able to offer me some money, even if I didn’t deserve it (my exact words to her), because basically I’m broke.
There is extra money in the pot (as we exceeded our target by over $6,000) and Alex did promise that any additional funds would firstly go towards a ‘raise’ for me (as she freely admits on the Kickstarter home page, the $60 a page for pencils, inks, colours, letters, book design and pre press production is, well, significantly lower than industry standards) – a raise, as it happens that wasn’t likely to be forthcoming (at least not until well after the book was drawn and printed if at all) something I only realized right at the end of the campaign, when she informed me that $3k of the money raised would be used to complete the print version of Valentine, her other creator-owned project, one that had nothing to do with me whatsoever. It is scheduled to be published by Image comics later in the year — perhaps it could have had its own Kickstarter project.
Alex got back to me with an offer of a little over $1000 for all the work completed and compensation for lost future earnings. I replied quite angrily, that I considered the offer to be both unfair and insulting, I declined it.
After thinking about this in a calmer frame of mind I have decided that I do not want a penny of the $15,000 promised to me by Alex, not even as a severance payment. I’m now of the opinion that to take such a payment would be ethically wrong, as that money was originally donated by people who expected me to be working on the project, as I’m no longer involved, I do not deserve that money, despite the large amount of work I have produced, it would feel like I was betraying a trust, or taking advantage of the good will shown by all the backers, especially as many will want the book mainly for the brilliant story, and be happy to support it, whomever the artist.
However, there is more to this refusal, as to accept it means that I accept leaving the project, and here we have a slight legal snafu, specifically because of the aforementioned contract, raised between Alex, myself and the (unnamed here) actor for book and film rights, a contract that, created quietly and under Kickstarter’s radar, involved a one off payment of $6k to the ‘Seller’ for 5% of the rights, the other 95% being split equally between Alex and myself, I now seem to own a large percentage of a book I no longer work on.
Alex and I are jointly named as ‘Seller’ in the above document, and as such the contract states that 50%, $3k of this is legally mine — as well as having a percentage of after sales profits, I am no longer an employee, I am a partner, and this all becomes a whole lot more complicated, whether I want to leave, I was fired, or whatever.
I think it also worth mentioning that I was only made aware of this contract’s existence, after it was finalised and after the $6000 appeared as a secret pledge on Kickstarter (by secret I mean, a sudden $6k bump, with no corresponding rewards being taken to account for it), although named as a co-author of the work, it does not carry my signature, it was signed (quite legally) on my behalf by Alex.
BEAT: Do you have any thoughts on how this split affects Kickstarter overall?
JH: This sorry business has brought into question the efficacy of the Kickstarter model, with people saying that it is flawed in some way. I think it’s more a case of people being flawed — Kickstarter stands and falls on trust and integrity, there are no legal safeguards or protections in place to prevent fundraisers from lying, cheating, breaking promises, not delivering as advertised, or even sacking artists and replacing them once a campaign has successfully concluded.
I think we need to restore some of the faith in Kickstarter (that has inevitably been lost) as a viable creative/business model for supporting comic book projects of all persuasions.
Despite no legal requirement to do so, Alex has generously agreed to refund the money to all those who pledged but who no longer want a book that I will not be drawing, and also for any who have pledged but do not like the art of my replacement. I think she can can do much better than this, if she so desires.
I suggest the following option, so that all parties walk away from this, with their integrity intact, to repay and perhaps to rebuild the trust that those who have pledged have shown.
Declare the campaign to be null and void, and return all monies. Start again, (this includes of course, tearing up the existing and presumably worthless contract, and returning that money as well).
This will allow Alex a better chance to find her replacement artist (she currently has asked that people give her a week before submitting portfolios, this is cutting it fine if she wants to have made her choice by Valentine’s Day as she has indicated), have proper time to plan a new campaign (without this shadow of mistrust hanging over it) and raise money once more. Those that want the book, even though I will not be drawing it, can simply pledge again – those that don’t, well, they don’t have to pledge.
This seems by far, the fairest, most ethical and least complicated way to proceed, even if it does mean I walk away with nothing.
Alex has said that she will announce her plans on Valentine’s Day. Personally, I see no need to rush into this; the script for Ashes is superb, it will be a great book, and finding the right artist in less than a month for such a mammoth undertaking is not something that anyone need rush into (after all the entire project has been in gestation for 5 years, according to Alex), why set such a short and arbitrary deadline? People have waited 5 years for a sequel to Smoke, they can surely wait a little longer.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.