Toucan Blog Banner

Devourer of Words 020: When the Real World Intrudes

Marc Bernardin

If you’re anything like me, when you’re writing a book, the book itself lives in a sort of hermetically sealed environment. The real world rarely has any impact. Oh, it might impact you as the writer: illness, financial woes, political fallout, you name it. We are as susceptible as anyone—perhaps moreso—as many of us are freelance contractors who thrive on the whims of corporate masters. But the work itself remains inviolate because comics aren’t equipped to be timely. Unless you’re a one-person webcomic outfit, it just takes too much time to make a comic to try to be reflexive in a way that won’t be stale by the time a reader gets it.

That’s not to say you can’t be relevant. Of course not. I remember reading Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country and seeing names like Bin Laden and al Qaeda years before 9/11. You can take a snapshot of the real world as it is and extrapolate it for your fiction. And if you’re lucky, you’ll make something that resonates.

But sometimes, lucky is the wrong word. Or, at least, a loaded one.

In 2007, my cowriter Adam Freeman and I pitched a book to Top Cow featuring a young urban revolutionary who, provoked by a history of systemic racial injustice, declared war on the Powers That Be. We called it Genius because we are humble, but also before that urban revolutionary also happened to be the finest military strategist of her generation. Top Cow bought it and we enlisted artist Afua Richardson to complete our partnership in crime. We set out to make a one-shot, and then a miniseries.

It took six years for us to tell the entirety of that first story arc of Genius. And we did a barrage of press to promote it because we’re really proud of it.

Then Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Mo., and America caught fire.

Suddenly, imagery was flooding the airwaves and the Internet mirrored—to an unsettling degree—some of the pages in our book. There were articles floating around the comics web—and the mainstream press—calling our book the most relevant comic being published in America.

All because of a tragedy.

How do you sell your book when selling your book would be the crassest thing you could possibly do?

I don’t know if we did the right thing or the wrong thing, but we just stayed quiet. We did get a couple of interview requests, and we honored them, but I know that I wouldn’t have been able to look myself in the mirror if we’d shouted from the rafters “Look at how smart we were! If you feel bad about Ferguson, buy our book!” Or anything that felt like that.

Would we have sold more books? Maybe. Was there a way to sell Genius while tapping into a nationwide outrage and still feel like moral individuals? Possibly, but we didn’t know what it was. Did we leave some money on the table? Most likely. Did we do the right thing?

I don’t know.

Theoretically, this column is supposed to offer some advice to writers on how to navigate the business. And I realize I’m not offering any real advice—beyond “Do what feels right.” Where that lands for you might be different from where it did for me.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan.