Maggie Umber and friends, photo by John Smith

Failure to Launch: A Comic Book without an Audience

Who would read an auto-bio about a baby? Anybody?

Maggie Umber
Dec 1, 2016 · 5 min read

It was March 2012 and I was painting the graphic novel Sound of Snow Falling. With no publication date in sight it would be a good idea to put out a new mini-comic. My publisher, 2dcloud, proposed that I do an auto-bio comic about myself as a baby.

I thought it was a terrible idea. Who would read an auto-bio comic about me as a baby? However, there were two positives; a smaller project with a definite deadline and the fact that my infancy was well-documented. My Mom had kept a journal and my Dad had taken a mountain of photos so there was plenty of source material for me to work with. I said yes.

We chose the title Startled Maggie. It was to be the first issue in a series of mini-comics that would later be collected in the graphic novel format.

A page from Startled Maggie by Maggie Umber

I had one month to finish the 32 page comic. During this month a series of small health calamities overcame me: the flu, a sinus infection, shingles and a pair of broken eye glasses. I couldn’t really see what I was drawing for the final two weeks and the pain in my shoulder blade from the shingles didn’t go away for four years.

With the deadline looming, I became convinced that it would be a good idea to leave the pencil drawings as is instead of inking them. My style was what I call my handwriting style, very childlike and almost from memory. I wanted the characters to look like muppets but still resemble the people they were based on in a very cartoony way.

My editor and book designer aka my publisher, Raighne, colored the front and back covers. Then he contacted a printer that could do a scratch and sniff cinnamon scent on it. It was too expensive and so La Mano 21 printed the book instead. Zak had recently printed the Kim Deitch files with a silver ink and he suggested it as a perfect duplicate of pencil lines. It was so perfect that people have asked me if I hand drew every copy, yikes! Everything was coming together…

Startled Maggie drawn by Maggie Umber, published by 2dcloud

When Startled Maggie came out in June 2012 (sans cinnamon scent) my publisher 2dcloud had a very tiny audience. I had none. I was barely active on social media (blogger, facebook, tumblr). I wasn’t sure how to present myself and I couldn’t think of a pen name.

I don’t remember which convention Startled Maggie debuted at — was it CAKE? I just remember that while my mini-comic Manny + Bigfoot went through three printings and virtually sold itself, this one did not.

Almost all of the small-press reviews were good: High Low, Optical Sloth, and The Poopsheet Foundation all liked it and looked forward to the second issue. Comics and Cola was the only negative review, but because I was having such a hard time selling the book that was the review that stuck with me.

Sometimes publishing books feels like ripping up money

Whenever I did a convention and someone picked up Startled Maggie from the table I thought about my elevator pitch for the book. The pitch I didn’t have. “It’s about me, me as a baby, do you like babies? I pee on myself near the end and I throw dishes down the stairs and break them.” What did people want to hear? What would interest them? I had no idea. My tongue would stay glued to the roof of my mouth and my heart would hammer as they placed the book back on the table.

There were small triumphs. Startled Maggie made the Salon Saloon’s Heavy 100 list for 2012. And every now again people who have read the book mention it to me at conventions. At Minnesota Center for Book Arts a 2dcloud hero (he bought Raighne a Heaven’s Gate patch) told me that when he bought Startled Maggie he read it every night for a week before he went to bed. A lot of cartoonists talk to me about it after they’ve read it. Noah Van Sciver said he read it at Kilgore Books and the drawings were beautiful. I’ve had people recognize my parents based on my drawings, which makes me proud.

Maggie Umber, 2dcloud table at Love Local / MN Center for Book Arts, photo by Raighne

I know a lot more about launching books and running marketing campaigns now. I have a pen name (Maggie Umber) and more of a brand. 2dcloud’s audience has grown. With the benefit of hindsight, I would have started Startled Maggie as a web series and built up interest before releasing the printed book. But honestly the question remains: is there an audience for an auto-bio about a baby? Maybe the answer is no.

It sells about ten copies a year, definitely not enough to warrant a second issue let alone an entire graphic novel. Despite all of this very real failure I am stuck in unsettled limbo with my unresolved feelings about this book. I feel uncomfortable marketing a book no one wants to read, yet I still think about the stories I was going to do in the second issue.

Well, c’est la vie! To failure, to failure! Cheers! May my next book be more successful!

Sometimes auto-bio is messy af.

Maggie Umber is a cartoonist and associate publisher at 2dcloud. You can make her very happy by picking up a copy of Startled Maggie. Manny + Bigfoot is sold out (of course). Her graphic novel Time Capsule has had modest success, her contribution to The Shirley Jackson Project has recently been favorably reviewed and she has a new book coming out in early 2017 (Sound of Snow Falling).

Maggie Umber

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Subscribe to Maggie’s Patreon to learn about her multi-media process and read more comics from the graphic novel.

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