The Young Protectors has been running as a webcomic for a little over a year now in the hands of an experienced creative team including writer Alex Woolfson (Artifice), artist Adam DeKraker (Marvel/DC penciler), and Harvey-award nominated colorist Veronica Gandini (Marvel/Image/Boom!). It’s an impressive comic for many reasons, not least of which that it features the journey of a young gay superhero, Kyle, as he makes his first steps towards self-acceptance, and includes gay romance elements. Gay heroes are not absent from superhero comics, but they aren’t particularly well-represented either, often appearing as token characters or handled in ways that don’t speak fully to the real world struggles of the gay community. Woolfson, DeKraker, and Gandini produce a beautifully rendered comic which handles universal themes with a strong sense of humor and commentary on the superhero comic tradition, and it’s not surprising that they’ve engaged a voluble fan community in doing so. Their success as a webcomic led, less than a week ago, to the launch of their Kickstarter campaign to fund a print volume of the first arc of the series, The Young Protectors: Engaging the Enemy.
What happened next revealed all the positive forces at work in creator-owned comics right now: they met their goal in less than 24 hours, and have since blown past that goal with more than double numbers and the better part of a month still to go on the campaign. It’s clear that the fan base established through the webcomic has translated firmly into crowdfunding support, and the factors that led to their success are bound to interest readers tracking the vicissitudes of webcomics and crowdfunding right now. Woolfson and DeKraker speak to The Beat today about the origin, development, and successes of The Young Protectors and the lessons they have to share about their experiences.
Hannah Means-Shannon: What led you to create and work on The Young Protectors in the context of your careers and as comics fans?
Alex Woolfson: As a gay kid growing up, I loved science-fiction and action films and comics, but I never got to see what I really wanted to see and that’s kick-ass genre fiction with heroes, real heroes, who just happened to like other guys. And it didn’t take long before I realised that if I wanted to see those stories in the world, that I’d have to make them myself. Originally, I thought I might create films like that and so I became a filmmaker (which is still my day job)—but I soon realized speculative fiction films are so incredibly expensive that it’d be extremely unlikely I’d ever be able to fund them myself. And it was even more unlikely that Hollywood would want to fund a big-budget actioner with a gay hero.
But you can make a “feature-length” comic for the price of a short film. And in comics, you essentially have an unlimited special effects budget. So by deciding to tell visual stories in comics form, it let me tell exactly the kinds of stories I want to tell.
Originally, I released my comics as free PDF downloads to folks who signed up for my mailing list, but I’ve discovered that webcomics are a much better way to connect with and build an audience. Like a thousand times better. It turns out that so much of building an audience is about momentum, about just showing up with quality material again and again and again. The regular schedule of a weekly webcomic is perfect for that and because it gives plenty of time for reader commentary, it’s also a great incubator to form an engaged community of readers.
The Young Protectors is my second webcomic. I started my first, the science-fiction thriller Artifice in March of 2011. When that finished in April of 2012, I launched The Young Protectors: Engaging the Enemy with penciller Adam DeKraker and colorist Veronica Gandini.
Adam DeKraker: Alex initially got in touch with me a few years ago about doing a single illustration for another project. That all went pretty smoothly, so I think we were both open to doing more work together.
Around this time, I’d sort of stepped away from comics for a bit. Other than an odd job here or there, I was spending most of my time on film projects, writing, and storyboarding.
I was looking for something to get me back to the drawing table when Alex asked if I’d be up for taking a stab at a gay superhero romance story he had been kicking around.
Now, a gay superhero romance comic is the kind of thing I’d always thought I’d have to do on my own dime and on my own time, someday in the distant future, because who would ever pay me to work on that? So, I couldn’t really say no, could I?
Like Alex, I’ve always wanted to see more LGBT characters in the fiction I consume. My intention has always been to be able to get to the point that I’m creating those stories that I’d always wanted to read.
HMS: What have the benefits been, in your eyes, of working on a creator-owned project?
AW: Control and freedom are the two things that immediately leap to mind. I get to tell exactly the kind of story I want to tell without having to ask anyone’s permission. And while it’s a lot more risky financially and a lot more time consuming, it’s also potentially more lucrative. You sink or swim based on your own efforts—be that story-telling, marketing, choosing your team or distribution—and that fits my personality quite well. Frankly, even having the absolute final say about my marketing copy is important to me.
It’s not about doing it all—any success I’ve had is because I’ve been able to collaborate with amazingly talented and dedicated folks—but having the final say, being ultimately responsible for the overall vision… I grew up never seeing the kinds of stories I always wanted to see, having to always settle for other people’s visions. Having a creator-owned and controlled project means having the ability to create exactly what I’ve always wanted to see.
ADeK: For me the project has been a bit of an interesting hybrid. Practically, I’m essentially still working for Alex on a contract in the same manner as I would on a project at any traditional mainstream publisher.
But, it’s a smaller operation with it just being Alex as writer and publisher. There’s no mysterious chain of command. No demands from corporate. My input is asked for and I get to design the characters. I’m dealing with just one guy. A guy who’s smart, reliable, and really cares about the quality of the product. It’s refreshing, to say the least.
HMS: What have fan responses been like to the online content of The Young Protectors?
AW: I’ve been overwhelmed by how supportive the readers have been of this comic. The Young Protectors updates once a week on Saturdays for free, but I have a deal with my readers that when the “donation bar” below the comic hits $400, I’ll post up early an addition page the next week (on Wednesday). Well, with only a couple weeks off, we’ve had double-updates every week for The Young Protectors since around page 30 or so (We’re now over 100 pages). And of course hitting our goal of $14,000 in less than 18 hours with the Kickstarter… Well, I just feel very, very grateful. The amazing reader support makes it possible for a regular guy like myself to be able to afford to make these comics and make them really without any compromises.
But what I find most gratifying are the folks who reach out to me via email or Facebook or the online comments and who let me know how much they’re enjoying the comic because they themselves have been looking for the exact same thing all their lives. I get a message like that at least once a week. How The Young Protectors is something they look forward to every week because they see themselves in it or, at least, who they want to be. And that they really haven’t ever seen that before.
I believe my first duty as a writer is to tell a good yarn, to entertain and engage. But my deeper goal is to enrich people’s lives, even if it’s just to give them a laugh at the end of a long day. So to think that I’m actually filling someone’s real need to be seen, to be seen as someone who could be a hero, just like I wanted when I was growing up—and still want as an adult…. It just makes me very, very happy.
ADeK: It’s been incredible. The community of readers is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. They’re as passionate and dedicated as any other fan, but there’s a refreshing lack of snark and cynicism in the way they interact with each other and the material. The Young Protectors is my first experience with webcomics, so I don’t know if this is typical or not, but I’d like to think our readers are just especially good folks.
And they’re crazy generous! As if the Kickstarter wasn’t enough, they donate extra hard-earned money every week to get a bonus page of The Young Protectors. We’re beyond lucky to have such an audience.
HMS: Have you faced any opposition to handling gay themes and characters in superhero comics?
AW: Well, I don’t want to jinx it, but I’ve actually been really lucky in this regard. I expected a lot of backlash, but since I started putting out my comics PDFs back in 2007 through today, I’ve gotten, like, three hateful emails. Almost everything else has been overwhelmingly positive.
In fact, something funny happened to me at Emerald City Comicon this year. Something that I don’t think would have happened twenty years ago. I was selling advance copies of my Kickstarter-funded gay science-fiction graphic novel Artifice and two parents, a middle-aged man and woman, came by to buy the book for their 15-year-old son. While my comics aren’t 18+ “adult content”, I do write for other grown-ups, with scenes you might find on HBO or Showtime, so I started to explain to them that the book was intended for “Mature Audience Only”. Not to refuse to sell it to them, mind you—they’re the parents, they know their kid—but just to make sure they had the heads up that this wasn’t totally G-rated as they flipped through it.
Immediately—and with no small ferocity, I might add—they exclaimed, “This is totally appropriate content for our son! We’re going to get this for him!” I think if I had planned to refuse to sell it to them, they would have fought me on that. And for me that’s a really hopeful sign that the world is changing to become a better, healthier, saner place. Or at the very least, a much safer place for kids who aren’t straight than the world I grew up in. Those were some pretty awesome parents. So I signed and personalized my book for their kid and they went off all smiles.
ADeK: Other than getting to draw an occasional gay character here or there on other projects, The Young Protectors is really my first long-term project with gay lead characters. And the nice thing about doing The Young Protectors as a creator owned webcomic and then funding through reader support on Kickstarter is that we don’t have to answer to anybody regarding content issues.
More broadly, I have a hard time taking anyone seriously if they have a problem with gay themes being explored in a genre chock-full of secret identities and muscular folks in outlandish skin-tight costumes.
HMS: Was it your plan all along to collect a print volume for Kickstarter or was online content a goal in itself?
AW: It was always my hope to bring The Young Protectors to print and so I had Vero create the coloring entirely in CMYK instead of RGB. And after the success of the Artifice Kickstarter, I always thought that if I were going to print, I’d try to fund it the same way. But only if there were real interest. It wasn’t until I heard from many readers that they wanted a print edition that I started to seriously plan my Kickstarter campaign. If there hadn’t been strong reader interest in a book, then I would have kept it online-only.
ADeK: Alex was already having great success with Artifice. And when that Kickstarter campaign did so well, we knew we’d want to follow the same model.
HMS: How do you feel about reaching your first Kickstarter goal in less than 24 hours? Did you suspect this might happen?
AW: No, it was surprising! I did try to put a lot of thought into how to set up the campaign based on what I had learned from the last one—what rewards might be appealing, ways to make it more fun—but with Artifice I had asked for $7,000 and it took 48 hours to raise that. This time, based on my experience with printing Artifice, I doubled the amount to $14,000. I certainly had very much hoped I might exceed that goal, but I expected it to take many days not mere hours.
And how did I feel? Absolutely delighted, of course! Over the moon! And for someone creating what the mainstream would consider is a “niche” product, I have to admit it feels very validating too.
HMS: What are the benefits of producing a print volume in terms of reaching wider readership?
AW: I believe that the vast majority of people who read comics don’t read webcomics. And I believe that because I was one of those people. When it comes to reading comics, I want the “satisfying chunk”—I never get the pamphlets, I always wait for the collected trade paperbacks of the comics I love. The thought of following a comic that updates only one page a week, i.e. a webcomic, sounded like torture to me.
That is, until there was this one webcomic that a friend tweeted about every single week for months until finally I’m like,“All right! I’ll look at the darn thing!” And then I was hooked. And that’s when I realized that that’s how I should be releasing my comics too. That that was the way to build a real audience for my work.
But I still think a physical book is a vastly more pleasurable way to enjoy a comic. One reason webcomics are successful I think is because it’s just a page a week, give or take. In my opinion, it’s not very comfortable to sit in front of a computer and read page after page of comics. But kicking back on my bed with a nice trade paperback, it’s a definitely step up. It’s comfortable, it’s immersive. And I think a lot of readers still feel that way.
Also, until I had a physical book, there really wasn’t much sense in me attending Cons and that’s a fantastic way to build a readership. And, right or wrong, a printed book has a lot more legitimacy. Once Artifice was in print, I got a very nice review in Publishers Weekly and that would never have happened if that comic had never left the web. And that review in PW opened doors to other reviews which of course also builds your readership.
Finally, graphic novels have the potential to be beautiful art books and I think those kinds of books will be the last to disappear off the face of the Earth because of digital. Until tablets get a lot bigger and thinner, books are just a vastly superior way to enjoy this kind of story-telling. Also, let’s face it, a book certainly makes a nicer gift than forwarding someone a URL! (laughs)
ADeK: I think webcomics readers are not necessarily the same folks that pick up comics in a book store or a comic shop, so a print edition really is a great chance to reach a different audience. Honestly, some folks don’t even understand what a webcomic is when I tell them what I’ve been working on. But, if I handed them a book, I think it’s a little easier to get.
HMS: What are your favorite aspects of working on this comic? Do you have any personal highlights in terms of characters or scenes?
AW: Connecting with our readers and working with amazingly talented folk like Adam and Vero are my favorite aspects. I’ve already talked a little bit about how gratifying it is to know that people connect with my work, especially folks who ordinarily don’t get to see themselves depicted as heroes, and hearing back from them.
But one of the great things about working with pros like Adam and Vero is that I get to be one of those readers too. You know, I write full scripts and I try to include a lot of detail so that Adam and Vero can realize what’s in my head. And they do that; they totally, absolutely nail what I was looking to create. But because they are so incredibly skilled it turns out to be all I had ever imagined and then a whole lot more. Their work transcends all of my original intentions and so what they send back feels surprising and new and alive to me, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen!
My favorite moment is the first time I get a completed pass of pencils or a first pass of the colors. I follow along with my script and it all comes to life! In that moment, I’m not a creator, but a fan, reading this comic I’ve always wanted to read for the very first time. And that’s magic.
I do have favorite characters, but that’s a bit like asking who my favorite children are, so I think I’ll keep that to myself for now. But I definitely have a favorite scene in The Young Protectors, and that’s the one we just finished, actually: Interlude One. Joni Mitchell called Blue her “purest album” and this Interlude feels to me like the “purest scene” in my writing so far. It all came out exactly as I hoped which almost never happens. That my “purest scene” is also a comedy scene I’m sure says something about me too… (laughs).
ADeK: The just-concluded Interlude story was a lot of fun. The Giffen-era Justice League books were always a huge influence on me, and this little story really had a bit of that vibe. Seeing these characters and how they behave when they’re just hanging out – I love that stuff.
But the coolest aspect has to be the readers. Reading their comments on the pages, seeing their support through Kickstarter, and getting a chance to meet a few of them. That’s been pretty amazing.
HMS: What’s on the horizon for The Young Protectors? Are there future volumes in the works?
AW: Absolutely. This Kickstarter is funding Volume One, which collects the Prologue, Chapter One, and Interlude One from the on-going comic. But I’ve completely plotted out the Engaging the Enemy arc of The Young Protectors and it’s actually a five-chapter story (with a Prologue and some additional Interludes as well.) So, there will be two additional books to finish up this arc. After that, I do have some ideas for other arcs I’d like to tell with different Young Protectors‘ characters. If the readers, Adam and Vero will still have me, I’d love to be able to tell those stories too once this arc is complete.
HMS: Do you have any advice for people working on creator-owned projects who hope to engage with themes neglected by mainstream comics and raise social awareness?
AW: Well, I have some very specific advice for other beginning comics writers in the form of articles on my Tumblr page, but the general advice would be:
1) To tell the kind of story you always wanted to see—use your own heart as your compass, trying to guess what other folks might like is almost always a losing game.
2) Start small with some short comics before brooking no compromise on a larger one—the only way you get good at creating art is by creating art and it’s best to make your early mistakes on work that won’t set you back financially for months or years. And…
3) I’d say you should very, very strongly consider releasing your work as a webcomic—it’s the least expensive and most effective way to connect with a world-wide audience of like-minded folk and it’s a great way to build the kind of momentum you need to raise money for the print edition through crowdfunding.
My personal message is: just to do it. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission. Don’t wait until you’re “good enough”, whatever that means. Make sure that you’re creating work that you really have a passion for, that you’ve always wanted to see and then just make it happen. The world gets better when people tell and hear stories from voices that are usually silenced. Hearing your voice will make the world a better place. Don’t wait; this is an awesome time to be an independent creator: get on the web and tell your stories now.
The Young Protectors has completely changed the way I see making comics, from executing the art to delivering the material to interacting with the readers. Webcomics are an amazing opportunity for folks to put their stuff out there, reach an audience and maintain control over your property.
HMS: Woolfson and DeKraker’s story is inspiring in very specific ways. Not only have they produced a committed webcomic featuring themes they felt were missing, and would be in demand from a reading community, but they’ve managed to translate that into a broader fan-base in print format, something of a glittering goal for those launching creator-owned projects via the web. The response of readers clearly supports the team’s own vision for potential in the superhero comic genre to include greater diversity and also demonstrates just how rewarding working on a comic close to your heart can be when handled with a knowledge of the options open for creator owned comics right now. Congratulations to The Young Protectors team from The Beat and thanks for taking the time to give such detailed insights into your work!
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.