Setting the Highest Goal

A conversation with artist Dax Tran-Caffee


Dax Tran-Caffee is a multi-disciplinary artist; puppeteer, musician, illustrator, storyteller — bending genre and gender, time and art, into a beautiful craft.

Failing Sky — Dax’s current work — is an online graphic novel and experiment in narrative. Panels flow left and right, up and down, objects become links to backstories, or to other art. Failing Sky is more than a webcomic, it’s a world.

Recently nominated for an Eisner Award — which is like the Oscars of comics — Failing Sky is a story of depth and life, it is funny, or sad, or scary or confusing as life is funny or sad or scary or confusing. Most of all it is very beautiful. The Eisner nomination is helping the work reach a new audience in a world dominated by flashing, clever, funny, brightly colored, click-bait.

I talked to Dax about being a genre/gender bending artist, a constant experimenter, and a relatively unknown artist finding ways to fund their ongoing slow storytelling experiment.

KB: Congratulations on your Eisner nomination! It’s always a big deal for a totally independent artist to have their work recognized in this way. Did you want an Eisner? Did you do anything to apply, or put your work in front of nominating bodies? Or did it just happen?

Dax: Yes, I wanted that Eisner nomination! I wanted it so bad I shamelessly submitted myself for consideration (which is something that you have to do, by the way — no one is going to submit self-published work for you), even though I had no expectation that anyone would take said submission seriously.

When I started this project and I needed an unrealistically high goal to aim for, I wrote down “Eisner nomination.” I didn’t really think I’d ever get this far, much less so soon! I kind of don’t even know what to do now — it’s like when they ask you as a kid “what do you want to be” and you’re like “astronaut,” you’re not supposed to actually become an astronaut ‘cause that’s just crazy.

KB: Tell me about Failing Sky, how did the idea come to you?

Dax: Failing Sky is an online graphic novel, and the latest in a long line of hare-brained projects where I dreamed about making some money on my own terms, not solely for someone else’s benefit. I want to be both ‘marketable’ and ‘true-to-myself’, although it’s hard not to see it as balancing antithetical ideals. It’s especially hard because I hold on to far too many artistic ethics, even whilst starving in a cold warehouse. Writing and illustrating my own graphic novel, though, does what I think art should do, while also being an accessible enough medium to consider trying to sell it.


I drew the first page in 2010 to include in my storyboarding portfolio, kind of as a fake project to make it seem like I’ve also dabbled in sequential art. That portfolio never got me any jobs, but the short story script I’d written to help make that fake page seem real was easier to write than I’d anticipated — I’d only ever written 5-minute puppet shows before, without dialogue, so I had no idea I’d like writing in this format.

I wondered if publishing a long-form story could develop a supportive audience, I was starting to like writing dialogue, and drawing was something I’ve had sitting in my pocket for way too long, so I slowly nursed that one chapter into a full novel outline over a few years. I’d just finished a huge commission in April 2013 and was calculating how long I had to find another paycheck when I reasoned I’d be more stable if I just worked for myself.

It was actually a toss-up between launching a graphic novel or launching a new solo-puppetry song-and-dance fiasco that I’d been working on, and for some reason comics sounded like a more mature financial decision.


KB: Why did you decide to crowdfund it?

Dax: Crowdfunding comes so much easier to me than traditional arts fundraising. The most I’d ever collected at a live benefit, after expenses, was a few hundred dollars, and the only grant I ever actually won was unsolicited. There’s something about the pace, types of tools, entrepreneurial attitude, and psychology of crowdfunding that I guess just fits how I think; writing for grants, for instance, feels like shoehorning ideas into something that I don’t actually want to do. I engineered 3 crowdfunding campaigns before Failing Sky (large-scale puppet theater, studio album, national music tour), and while it has been getting more difficult as it becomes more popular, I’ve also gotten more efficient with managing my campaigns, so crowdfunding still feels like my path of least resistance for arts funding.

Screenshot of the Kickstarter campaign for ‘Failing Sky.’

KB: Was the crowdfunding campaign enough to cover your costs?

This campaign covered my production costs, no problem, but I’m abnormally obsessive with planning and budgets. I’ve advised on a handful of other crowdfunding campaigns, and I get the impression that artists aren’t champing at the bit to build in fees, postage, the cost of scaling — but as it can be 40% of the total budget, it kills me when people dismiss it. In order to stick to my promised budget for Failing Sky, though, I’ve taken on a workload that isn’t sustainable in the long run, so I’m setting up the next round of Failing Sky fundraising to be more gracious.

Failing Sky’s campaign was largely a living stipend so that I could shirk freelance work and just draw pages, but Failing Sky is an unusual project in that it’s materials cost is negligible and it’s labor costs are enormous.

Creating Failing Sky full-time by living on crowdsourced funds has made me the most productive artist I have ever been (by an order of magnitude, so to speak) and has had the added benefit of giving me a stable income that I haven’t had since I went freelance. Even still, I am hilariously below the federal poverty line, and am a long way from getting off food stamps, even doing these 60-hour weeks (I know everyone’s tired of hearing it, but the undervaluing of art in this country is criminal).

KB: Have you had solo projects before Failing Sky?

My first solo art project of any consequence was the ‘Museum Proper’ festival puppet show in 2010, which was also crowdfunded; Failing Sky is only my second attempt to do something entirely on my own. It’s always been my intention to create my own projects, rather than working in someone else’s company, but it’s taken a painfully long time to break away from established art organizations and strike out on my own — as well as being emotionally difficult and financially reckless.

KB: What websites do you use to share/fund your work?

Dax: I’ve only ever used Kickstarter as my funding platform, and still swear by it (for appropriate projects). I’m convinced I’ve benefited from the branded curation, shorter campaign periods, all-or-nothing model, and staff involvement.

I can also appreciate some of the less-talked-about ethical choices in their model, like not handling money themselves and not creating a conflict-of-interest by taking a larger cut for projects that don’t make the goal.

I’ve just started my first Patreon campaign as a way to sustain future chapters, and have my fingers crossed that the ongoing micro-sponsorship model is as viable as one-off crowdfunding. Ongoing sponsorship is such a different game than I’m used to, though, so it feels a bit like starting from scratch.

Crowdfunding, of course, not really being about platforms but about social networks, as much as I hate it I still make most of my money through connections on Facebook, backed up a bit with Twitter and email lists. I have active accounts on Google+, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, Imagekind, Flickr, even Lookbook, but I haven’t figured out how to work those sites in any appreciable way. As Facebook (and maybe all news-stream-based networks) continue to lose the public’s interest, though, I keep hoping for a new method to broadcast projects, but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

KB: Besides Kickstarter and Patreon, do people pay you for your online work in print sales, tips, or donations?

Dax: I’ve sold a few prints, but the proceeds were forgettable; I guess I make prints available as something like a loss-leader to make my internet presence seem more lively. Merchandise seems to be a thing that works in the fervor of live events, not so much in the tranquility of online shops.

I have a Flattr account, and would love to see it work, but I can’t find a proper way to build a campaign around it, and I have no illusions about waiting for patrons to toss me tips on their own initiative. I’ve toyed with Paypal / Square donations, and while they seem like good ways to keep production costs low, again I can’t figure out how to build a campaign around services that have no intrinsic momentum.

From the ‘Failing Sky’ website.

KB: What’s next for you and Failing Sky?

Dax: Well, I’ve still got another 26 chapters planned, which, if I can raise funds to keep working full-time on it, will still take me another 4 years to complete.

KB: So you need long-term, ongoing funding.

Dax: Hopefully the readership from the Eisner nomination will make funding the rest of this project easier…

www.failingsky.com

Support ‘Failing Sky’ on Patreon

Dax Tran-Caffee on Twitter

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