Welcome to the newest edition of ‘Kickstart This’, FreakSugar’s column spotlighting comic book creators and their current Kickstarter crowd-funding campaigns for their independently published projects. In this edition, Steve Ekstrom speaks with Justin Peniston, co-creator of the webcomic, Hunter Black. Peniston, alongside co-creator Will Orr, seeks to collect the first arc of Hunter Black Volume 1: Betrayer’s Blood! for print with their current Kickstarter campaign.

(Editor’s note: As of this publication of this article, the Hunter Black Kickstarter has collected $3,580 of their goal of their $16,000 goal with 23 days left for their campaign. Be sure to check out their offering and incentives.)

FreakSugar: Before we start talking about the Kickstarter project, Justin, could you talk about Hunter Black a little bit for readers who may be unfamiliar with your project? How long have you been producing Hunter Black?

Justin Peniston: Hunter Black was never supposed to happen, not like this, anyway. Will (Orr, the artist) and I were talking about how to get more out of going to San Diego Comic-Con, and we thought that animation pitches were the way to go. We decided to put a couple of pitches together, and we wanted at least one to be for the Adult Swim crowd, but I don’t write screwball comedy. Both Will and I had recently read Darwyn Cooke’s first Parker graphic novel, The Hunter, and we wanted to do something like THAT.

Now, Will and I are both huge D&D nerds, so we thought about doing a fantasy version of a Parker-esque crime story. The more we worked on it the idea, the more we fell in love with it, and it wasn’t long before we realized several things:

  1. What we were coming up with wasn’t going to work as a cartoon…we just couldn’t see anyone buying it.
  2. We wanted to do more than a pitch.
  3. We were having a BALL.

So we kept working, and we argued over the merits of various media. Will just didn’t want to do a comic at all, for various reasons. We played with the idea of doing illustrated prose and posting THAT online, but we agreed that people just don’t read enough to make that worthwhile. We kept coming back around to doing a webcomic…and that’s ultimately what we did, obviously.

Hunter Black is heavily influenced by a lot of our favorite things. Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of the Parker novels, I already mentioned. Will tweaked his already cartoony style toward some of the same stylistic choices made in Samurai Jack, specifically in eschewing the use of line-work. A lot of what I do is already influenced by Matt Wagner, and I quickly realized that there was already a great example of “hard-boiled fantasy,” which became the phrase that dominated our thinking, in Conan the Barbarian. Firmly aware of our influences, we stuck them all into the blender of our minds and out popped this comic. That was a little over four years ago.

Lucky us, in our first year, we managed to catch the eye of Greg Rucka, who literally launched his webcomic, Lady Sabre and The Pirates of the ineffable Aether, the day before we launched Hunter Black. Greg is a personal hero of mine, and the day he opted to link to us on Lady Sabre was HUGE for us. This is a guy who embraces noir, after all, not to mention a guy whose work occupies an entire shelf of my library. His endorsement brought us our first real wave of readers, and we took off from there.

FS: A lot of independent creators are quick to express their trepidation with attempting a Kickstarter for their personal projects; did the Hunter Black crew experience this sort of hesitation? What are some of the heaviest concerns you’ve personally had to deal with?

Peniston: We were (and are) [REDACTED] TERRIFIED. We probably talked about, and rejected the idea of, doing a Kickstarter a dozen times over the course of Hunter Black’s run.

I don’t like the idea of asking people for money. I don’t like it now, even as we’re doing it. There’s something different in doing this than there is in simply selling something. A friend of mine had to sell me on the idea that if you’re offering rewards, then you ARE selling something, really. A list of Kickstarter rewards is really just a menu, and people have the option to order off of it if they like.

Also, with a Kickstarter, there are two possibilities: success or failure. Is it me, or is each of those options SCARY AS [REDACTED]? If we succeed, we have to fulfill the rewards, among which are the possibilities of me having to draw sketches, and I’m a TERRIBLE artist. We have to put together a truly outstanding book, which is something we’ve never done before. (Well, Jacob has. Jacob handles almost everything that isn’t purely creative about the comic…and a few things that are. We’ll be leaning heavily on him to get the book done.) And then we have to make having a printed edition of the book worthwhile.

And of course, failure means we suck.

(Forgive my continued use of [REDACTED] to replace profanity. It’s a habit I picked up and adapted for my personal use from another webcomic, Conspiracy Friends!)

FS: Ultimately, what will a successful Hunter Black Kickstarter do for you and the rest of the gang? Is there a sense of “greater accomplishment” in the acknowledgement of your audience?

Peniston: Well, it’ll just be incredibly validating. It’ll mean that people see the value in what we’re doing. On a very real level, we’re doing this for ourselves, we’re enjoying it too much to ever stop doing it, but creators share their work because they see value in it and want others to as well. When people spend money on it, especially after they’ve already read it for free, they’re telling that they share your feeling.

Some of that sense of greater accomplishment is already there. At least one fan is taking it on himself to trumpet the Kickstarter to whomever will listen on social media, and that means a lot to us. There’s something magical about HAVING FANS, and success in the Kickstarter just brings that more sharply into focus.

FS: Let’s talk about your incentives for the Kickstarter; what sorts of cool or unique items are you offering for contributions to your project?

Peniston: We’re offering some of the “to be expected” rewards, copies of the book, posters, copies of old stuff we’ve worked on in the past, commissions of new artwork. But we had to get creative because we DON’T have warehouses of unsold merchandise to offer (except for the aforementioned posters).

I’m offering my own personal sketch work…and I’m the writer, not the artist. This is for people who have a sense of humor and/or a desire to see me embarrass myself. The word “TERRIBLE” is right there in the reward description, but that hasn’t stopped people from seeking that reward. (We’ve had more pledges at that level than at the “get an AWESOME sketch from Will” level!)

We acknowledge the comic’s gaming roots all the time, and we decided to reflect those roots in the rewards. I mean, half of the characters from my favorite D&D campaigns, including my friends’ PCs, have popped up in the comic in sort fashion or another…why can’t a reader’s? Wouldn’t it be cool to see one of your characters die in the comic? Better yet, to have him live? That felt cool and unique to us.

(One of our readers chose to create a character…she wants to co-create the character with her kids. She thinks that’ll be something cool to share with them when they get older. I can’t think of anything the more sharply puts the value of what we’re doing into focus.)

The OTHER way we’re embracing our gaming roots is through straight up offering to run some D&D. The most exclusive rewards involve Will and me traveling anywhere in the US to run a weekend of D&D for you. We’ll either run a published 5th Ed. adventure, which is easier, or we’ll CREATE one set in the Known World, which is what I call the setting of the comic. No one has chosen one of these yet, but we live in hope. (We’re good DMs, too.)

FS: What’s this thing I keep hearing about bananas? That’s…B-A-N-A-N-A-S…

Peniston: …remember how I mentioned above that there might be people who have a desire to see me embarrass myself? This is for them.

It’s difficult to overstate how much I hate bananas. I’d rather get punched in the jaw than eat a banana. Sometimes people try to get funny and wave a banana in my face…and that results in a certain irrational anger. I LITERALLY GET REALLY ANGRY…and I’m normally a pretty chill guy.

I came up with this to inspire people in my life, co-workers mostly, that DON’T read the comic to donate.

If the Kickstarter succeeds, I have to eat a banana. (Just typing these words is making me anxious, I bullshit you not.) My wife offered to feed me the banana, but I refused that…because I might not want to share a bed with her after that. We’ll capture the whole thing on video.

If you donate $100, you can be there LIVE while it happens. A few of my friends have already chosen this, and are planning some banana cosplay. Friends are awful people.

FS: From your own personal investigation into crowd-funding projects, what seem to be elements that make some Kickstarter projects more successful than others?

Peniston: Ye gods, but I’m not sure. I don’t know how some of these projects manage to catch lightning in a bottle the way they do. Have you seen “The World’s Best Travel Jacket?” They’re seeking $20,000 and have raised $6,000,000 with 10 days to go! That can’t just be because of the earphone holders!

Having rewards that connect with people, that give people what they want, that’s key, of course.

Back to the Travel Jacket, they do have a TON of cool visuals, and that makes a big difference, I think.

The thing that starts this week for us, being engaging, is also big. We’ll have our first update this week…and hopefully we’ll make an announcement or two that will spur more interest.

FS: Because of the number of crowd-funding projects out there, how difficult is it to get larger news sources to give independent creators coverage?

Peniston: I know from experience how hard it is to gain traction with larger news outlets in geek media. In four years, we’ve gotten one review from what I would call a “major outlet,” and that was just a few months ago. (Yay, io9!)

I mean, if we’re being honest about it, there are thousands and thousands of web-based comic projects out there, I know that. A lot of them are from established talent, too, people whose names will generate hits. Karl Kerschl, Mike Norton, Cameron Stewart, and Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett have all done webcomics. Jimmy Palmiotti starts a new comics-based Kickstarter every 20 minutes or so.

There’s a lot to cover, I get that. But the average webcomic only gets to 33 pages before crapping out, or at least I remember reading that somewhere. We’re posting Page 522 tomorrow. We’re in it to win it. Our book is going to have 264 pages of story.

It’s fair to say we’re worthy of mention in the context of webcomics. But not enough people know about us, so writing about us doesn’t guarantee hits. Of course, if we got more exposure, more people would know about us…it’s a vicious circle, a nature-of-the-beast vicious circle.

I should start using an icon of Kim Kardashian as my online avatar.

FS: How much time did the Hunter Black crew put into developing their Kickstarter? Were there any successful campaigns that you used as a model for success?

Peniston: We worked on the Kickstarter off and on for six months. We shot the video TWICE. We went through multiple versions of our list of rewards. We argued about it in bars. (I mean, anyone who’s spent any time at Comic-Con knows that bars are where the real work gets done.)

Not to keep bringing up Greg Rucka and Lady Sabre, but we used the Lady Sabre Kickstarter as our guide in designing our own. (Hunter Black owes Lady Sabre, so I don’t mind saying it again.) Hell, the book I got for donating to their Kickstarter is six inches away from me right now.

FS: What sorts of “bonus incentives” might show up if Hunter Black hits all of its funding marks?

Peniston: Sigh. Life will be SO GOOD if we get to that point.

The thing that Will and I have talked about for a while is a very specific Hunter Black t-shirt. There’s a monster in the comic named Babydoll. She’s kind of hideous, but she likes to feel pretty, and we think that would be perfect on a shirt.

There are also a couple of what we think are really iconic pages in the comic…we might turn some of those into prints worthy of framing.

That would a great problem for us to have to deal with.

FS: Closing up shop, give readers another healthy dose of what they’ll be doing by successfully funding the Hunter Black Kickstarter.

Peniston: If our Kickstarter is successful, you’ll have done more than give us money…you’ll have given us legitimacy. Even in the world of tablets and smartphones, geeks love trade paperbacks and still buy them by the thousand. Having a book that you can put on your shelf or your coffee table says that you’ve made it…to the next level, at least.

Those media outlets that are so hard to wrangle are run by people, people who will take the comic more seriously with a book in their hands. That means we’re more likely to get coverage, which means we’ll likely expand our readership, which means we’re a step closer to doing this as much for a living as for love.

Having a book will mean that we will do shows, which means we will travel, which means we’ll be exposed to more and more people.

On a personal level, there’s never been a time that I haven’t wanted to be a writer. I’ve never held a book in my hands that was wholly my vision. (Hunter Black is a collaborative book, of course, but Will and I are almost entirely of one mind about the project. Our disagreements are so few and far-between as to be almost non-existent.) So if you help get this book printed, you’ll be making a long-awaited dream come true…how often do you get to spend your money on something like THAT?