Ten Years Later – MonkeyBrain Comics
Ten years ago today, MonkeyBrain Comics launched.
Maybe you’ve forgotten about it, never heard of it in the first place, or just didn’t realize the date. That’s all right.
Ten years ago today, the thing that quite literally changed my life, became a reality.
Given that, how could I not want to spend some time and talk about it? Right?
Before I really dig in though I am going to say something, and unpack it along the way:
The modern comic market does not exist without MonkeyBrain Comics having happened.
For now let’s just start at the start.
D.J. Kirkbride and I had worked together on a few things (editing (with others) Image’s Popgun anthology and writing some stuff within it) and wanted to try our hand at a series. Neither of us had tried one before. We talked with some artists and made plans and eventually D.J., Nick Brokenshire, and I had a full concept: Amelia Cole and the Unknown World. We just had nothing to do with it. We needed to pitch everywhere possible. So we did.
We pitched, then we pitched some more. None of us really knew many people in the industry and didn’t have great inroads so we did what everyone does – we kept trying. The world, it seemed, wasn’t ready for Amelia to take the stage.
Well, we weren’t going to be deterred. We decided to produce a first issue (a 28 page first issue because we were young and foolish) and do the book as a webcomic. Keep in mind that in 2012 there was no ComiXology Submit or Originals line. Webtoons didn’t exist yet. If you wanted a webcomic you put up a site, and used a webcomic theme for a WordPress install most times, and slapped up your comic a few pages a week, or whatever.
Before we firmed up details on how a webcomic would work for us monetarily, and structurally, I decided to share the finished issue with a fairly new friend I had made while at a con. We’d been talking about what we were both working on so it all made sense. So I sent the issue off to Chris Roberson so him and Allison Baker could see it and, I figured, if it was terrible, wave us off of pushing as hard as we were.
And then a few months later I got an email. I will not share the entire email with you as it is rather long but:
Thu, Mar 15, 2012
Subj: MonkeyBrain Comics
You may have noticed that Allison and I have been hinting about some secret project in the works for the last month or two, that we’ll be announcing in July. This is what we’ve been working on.
Or, to put it another way, I have a proposal for you.
The short version is, Allison and I have gotten tired of waiting for things to happen, so we’ve decided to make them happen ourselves.
[removing the majority of an 1100 word email that laid out in great detail how MonkeyBrain would work, and what the plans are and so on but I’ll sum that up in a minute]
If you’ve got a project that you might be interested in pursuing, we’d love to hear about it. It could be a single issue oneshot, a miniseries, an ongoing, whatever. And since page counts aren’t an issue digitally, and we can set any price we like, we have a lot of flexibility in terms of how long each installment is. Shorter installments for a lower price point, bigger chunks for a higher price, and so on.
So, are you interested?
Of course I was interested! Also, they’d seen Amelia Cole remember and thought it might be a good fit, so even better! We had a call that night (no really the email chain ends with setting a time for a call to go over more details that same night) and talked to D.J. and Nick and we all agreed we needed to take this chance.
See that’s it, just about 700 words to tell you about an email I once got. That’s the story, there you go. Thanks for stopping by and… oh right, this is when things get really interesting. And not because of, or at least not just because of, Amelia Cole.
First, the quickest possible explanation of how MonkeyBrain worked on the creator end: We make comic. We send finished comic in PDF form to Allison and Chris along with a spreadsheet of metadata for ComiXology. Allison and Chris push the issue up and schedule release dates and make sure the metadata doc (things like who wrote it, how many pages is it, what the title is and issue number all that fun stuff) is correct. Issue comes out. ComiXology takes their cut of profit. MonkeyBrain takes 10% of profit. The rest going right to the creators. MonkeyBrain takes 0% of our rights, and only has digital repro rights anyway, but will help us land print deals with publishers (of which MB will, again, take 0%).
MonkeyBrain needed to get set-up, though. They needed a front end. A website. Well, in that first talk with Allison and Chris I mentioned I sometimes did that sort of thing. And they asked if I’d be willing to help out. Sure, of course, this sounds like fun. MonkeyBrain felt special, and it felt like a concept I wanted to help grow as much as I could.
Suddenly I was working my day job, working on Amelia Cole stuff, and working with Allison and Chris to not only build a website that could be used to preview books and serve as a catalog and press hub, but also to design the workflow around how it would be updated and maintained.
They planned to launch on July 4th, 2012. That first offer came in on March 15th. The first issue of Amelia was already finished (though we tweaked and fussed) but everything else had to get finished somehow.
If you’ve ever worked on a website you will understand that they can easily take a bit longer than three months and change to design, develop, and launch. Thankfully I wasn’t doing graphic design (that was the great Dylan Todd) but even so. Inventing a workflow in that time took a lot of back and forth. I’ll say it again – at the time there was no ComiXology submit. Having non-semi-major publishers on ComiXology simply was not a thing. Publishers doing digital comics that way had offices, they had staff. MonkeyBrain had Allison and Chris and the unofficial third employee – me.
Near the start I chose to downplay that last bit. I don’t know that I’ve ever really mentioned it much in the last decade. I just didn’t want there to be an air of favoritism, which in retrospect is silly. But those long, impossible, days until launch went by in a blur of endless revisions and trying out things. They had to send me weekly updates on what books would come out. I had to build the pages for new books, make images work, keep up with archiving and building landing pages for every series, links to articles about the company, press kit stuff… all of this had to be invented and there were only so many decent examples to look at because this had never been done before. Not like this.
There were going to be five launch titles:
Aesop’s Ark by J. Torres and Jennifer L. Meyer
Amelia Cole and the Unknown World by me, D.J. Kirkbride and Nick Brokenshire
Bandette by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover
Edison Rex by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver
October Girl by Matthew Dow Smith
We crept closer and closer to July 4th. Our launch day.
On June 18th there was a news drop about a new imprint by Allison and Chris and that it would be called MonkeyBrain Comics. It featured July 4th themed teasers from each creative team. The articles mentioned a press conference on Monday, July 2nd, 2012 to reveal all, and that things would then launch on the 4th.
Well the announcement on the 2nd happened and MonkeyBrain Comics started to trend. News outlets both inside and outside of comics picked it up. People were talking, loudly. I was working from home that day, thankfully, because in the middle of it, still morning on the east coast, my phone rang.
It was Allison.
With all the news and attention going around a bright idea had occurred: These are digital comics, they can technically launch whenever we want! Why not strike while the iron is hot. I explained that the site wasn’t 100% finished, because I still had until the 4th, see, and…nope we were going live right then with the issues and the site needed to get up and, oh by the way, alongside that since Amelia Cole was launching, someone wanted to interview D.J. and I about the book.
Did I do a podcast interview while also furiously, constantly, muting my mic to type so I could finish pushing the site live and getting all the bugs worked out? I very much did. That was how MonkeyBrain worked. We put our all into it, and made it work. Somehow.
Launch went great, people liked the books, and hooray!
Of course once an idea like that is out, other people will go “Oh hey we could do that” and expand things and that’s, honestly, awesome. I mean, was ComiXology Submit based on the MB model? Uhm. Come on. I could say no and wink but I would sprain an eyelid winking that hard, ya dig? The Originals line came later, and tossed money at creators, which was also a good idea. A bunch of other people started up their own digital comics stuff as well.
Digital comics never really pushed past 10% of the market (for a lot of reasons I think that I won’t go into here because I have places to be this week) but MonkeyBrain changed what was doable, in so many ways. There are a bunch of behind-the-scenes ways MB adjusted what ComiXology was already doing that we also won’t go into. But from the front-end, reader visible end, having MonkeyBrain around and thriving worked as proof-of-concept for digital comics on a whole new level.
I said this earlier, and I’ll repeat it: The modern comic market does not exist without MonkeyBrain Comics having happened. Without MB you don’t get ComiXology Submit or Originals. You don’t get Marvel Unlimited Comics or DC Infinite. You don’t get the larger indie world of digital comics on ComiXology at all. If MonkeyBrain Comics never existed would these things have happened somehow, eventually? Probably. Would they have happened when, and as, they did into a firm ground? 100% no.
Ten years ago today, MonkeyBrain Comics launched.
Ten years ago today, the comics industry changed and didn’t even know it yet.
Are there wacky stories I’m leaving out like the time my roommate and I had to pull over to the side of the road while driving across country moving to Portland from NY so I could hook up a phone as a hot-spot and do a rush update on the website? Oh so many stories like that. It’s hard to get across how much love and energy went into MonkeyBrain.
So what happened to MB and how did it change my life?
With Submit et al, the need for MonkeyBrain lessened. The company wasn’t built to make money for Allison and Chris remember, but to enable creators. The accounting, and back-end, work only went up on a continuous curve. So as older series ended, the idea of adding new series started to max out the available time Allison and Chris had to manage things, and that I had to keep up with things.
Nothing lasts forever, but MB never failed. It didn’t stop because of lack of sales or interest.
It stopped because it worked.
It changed the industry and carved out new paths. And like many things that break new ground, it then faded away so the newer mechanisms built on the ideas that MonkeyBrain started could push things forward even more. That’s how life works.
On the personal front?
Amelia Cole lasted 30 issues, over five years. We released five print volumes through IDW, and eventually an omnibus. That series opened the door for more comics, and more opportunity.
Allison and Chris are also a lot of the reason I moved to Portland when I decided to leave NY. I’ve made life-long friends through MonkeyBrain, and professional connections I still keep up. And obviously that includes Allison and Chris. I mean I was out sitting on a patio with Allison when I realized I needed to write this.
I first got into the pro-side of comics through working on Popgun thanks to D.J. Kirkbride and Joe Keatinge. But I really started to follow the path of my current comics career thanks to Allison and Chris.
MonkeyBrain changed a lot of careers for a number of people. It changed the industry as a whole. It grew friendships, and expanded what was possible at the time to include a much bigger stage. The reverberations of this one idea, this one tiny two (and unofficial third) person venture left a sizable dent in the industry in ways that can be traced back to it from hit books, to entire careers, and to new open pathways.
MonkeyBrain did what it intended to do. Then we left that stage so others could shine.
It’s been ten years and, of course, people forget, or never hear about MonkeyBrain Comics.
So I thought, to mark the date, I’d give y’all a reminder of what was, and why you should, maybe, remember.