When Diamond announced late in March that they were shutting down shipment of new weekly single issues for the foreseeable future, it sent shockwaves through the direct market comics industry. The shutdown, however brief (new comics are due back in shops next Wednesday), led to a lot of innovation on the part of publishers and creators. Some publishers expanded digital offerings, or sought out alternative distribution venues. Creators, on the other hand, were left to look for entirely new publishing models. Crowdfunding via Kickstarter and other platforms has continued to be a driving force for indie comics publishing during the pandemic, and online venues like Gumroad have allowed others to put out digital versions of their books at a time when many comic fans are hungrier than ever for new content.
Matthew Dow Smith took his work directly to the people, in the most direct way possible: via social media (in this case, Twitter). Reacting quickly to the news of the Diamond shutdown, Smith debuted a new autobiographical My Life as Riley short comic just two days after the announcement was made, and every Wednesday since he’s released another new two-to-four-page comic for his followers to enjoy completely for free. After four installments of My Life as Riley, Smith changed gears, and on April 22nd he debuted the first chapter of Johnny Chaos, a superhero sci-fi series about an aged hero who is brought out of retirement.
Chapter One: pic.twitter.com/bweDvoEZT1
— Matthew Dow Smith (@matthewdowsmith) April 22, 2020
This week saw the fourth chapter of the series released, with each subsequent issue teasing out more details about former superhero Johnny Chaos, how he ended up in that giant test tube in the first issue, and just why he’s been brought back to save the day again.
Smith, best known for work on IDW’s Doctor Who series, was already pretty busy before launching Johnny Chaos. The first volume of his creator-owned The October Girl graphic novel series is due out from Insight Comics this year (though, due to the pandemic, the release date for that is now up in the air). The format and release strategy for Johnny Chaos is fascinating, though, and I knew I wanted to talk with Smith about it. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the series, and what led him to bring it to Twitter.
Joe Grunenwald: How long has Johnny Chaos been a story you’ve wanted to tell?
Matthew Dow Smith: It’s an idea that’s been bouncing in my head for a long time now. 20 years? 25 years? It was something I’d originally come up with for my friend Michael Gaydos to draw back when we were both doing books at Caliber Comics, but our schedules never quite lined up. Every few years or so, I dust the idea off and play around with it a little, decide I still like it, but I never really had the time to work on it until the lockdown turned everything upside down.
Grunenwald: I love the limited color scheme you’re using with this comic. How did you settle on shades of blue as the dominant colors, with occasional yellow and bright red for Johnny’s powers and Bombshell, respectively?
Smith: It’s a style choice dictated by my incredibly limited coloring skills, but I’ve always been a fan of artists like Mike Mignola and Mark Chiarello who can do amazing things with just a handful of colors and the stark colors of old posters. I just removed a few more colors to reduce the chances of screwing it up too badly. For this project I literally just picked a blue I really liked and found a few other blues that didn’t look too bad next. That’s about the level of my coloring skill. Adding in the yellow and the red for effects on top of that is me being about as risky as I dare.
Grunenwald: This is the second series you’ve serialized on Twitter since the COVID-19 pandemic began, after My Life as Riley. How did you ultimately settle on using Twitter to release these? Was that always your plan, or did you ever consider any other online comics platforms for these?
Smith: Honestly, it was the simplest and most direct thing I could think of in the moment. Diamond had just announced that there weren’t going to be new comics on the shelves for a while and all the creators I knew were scrambling to figure out what was going to happen in the industry and I just sort of decided to do my own thing, the My Life as Riley short stories first, but when people seemed to enjoy those, I thought it would be interesting to use the nature of Twitter to serialize a longer story, and the first thing I thought of for that was the Johnny Chaos idea.
I thought about other publishing options, but I really wanted there to be something for people to read every Wednesday without much buy-in or hassle. They don’t even need to follow me. They can just look at my timeline and there’s a comic for them to read.
Grunenwald: What, if anything, about releasing comics via Twitter has surprised you?
Smith: I went in with no expectations, so anyone reading the chapters and liking the stories has been a fantastic surprise. And there have been a few other creators who saw me using this opportunity to do something all on my own and went and did their own short stories all on their own. Jeremy Haun did a fantastic one he sent me. Absolutely love the idea that these stories inspired anyone to make something of their own.
Grunenwald: Do you have any plans for how long Johnny Chaos will run?
Smith: It’s currently planned to be thirteen 4-page chapters (because Twitter only allows 4 images in a single post, which is a fun limitation to play with), but I’m kind of making this up as I go along, so we’ll see if it runs past 13. I mean, I know what the ending is, but the middle bits have a tendency to expand when you’re having fun telling a story.
Grunenwald: What’re you hoping people take away from reading this series?
Smith: First and foremost I hope it encourages people to tell their own stories using all of the new platforms available to creators now, but I also hope people come away from it feeling entertained and maybe thinking about what having superpowers would do to a person and what makes someone a hero. But I also hope they don’t hate the color blue by the time it’s all over.
New chapters of Johnny Chaos are available every Wednesday on Smith’s Twitter feed.