Working for a big animation studio like DreamWorks should be a dream come true.
But for Ava’s Demon creator Michelle Czajkowski, reality fell short of the dream. It paid well, but it didn’t fulfill her burning artistic desires. At the same time, supporting herself with her own art seemed “impossible.”
Fast forward six years.
Today, she’s an independent artist with roughly 100,000 readers, a monthly income that supports her, and all the artistic freedom she could want. This is the story of how she got there (and her non-intuitive advice for those considering a similar path).
Ever since she was a little girl, Michelle dreamed of writing and drawing her own comic.
But, like most children, she was told to find something realistic. Something she could earn a living from.
“I had to focus on getting a career to support myself,” she recalled.
After interning at Pixar, she landed a job as a technical rigging director at DreamWorks. It paid well, but she didn’t see a path to happiness at the renowned animation firm.
“I was micromanaging things on movies when, in reality, I just wanted to make art and draw,” she explained. “I was very grateful for the job I had at DreamWorks because it helped me draw as a career, but it wasn’t artistically fulfilling for me.”
Fed up with the way her life was headed, she started inking Ava’s Demon every night after work.
“I would work from 9 to 6 at DreamWorks, and then I would work from 6 to 12 on my comic. I had to sacrifice a lot. But I knew that if I could just make something to help me leave my day job, it would be worth it.”
Even though it was beyond exhausting, having Ava’s Demon to look forward to in the evenings kept her going.
Because of Michelle’s extensive background in animation, she chose to illustrate her comic in an unconventional format. Pages from Ava’s Demon are like storyboards for a movie. Clicking from page to page lets you see the action in chronological order.
Every Thursday, Michelle publishes new panels in groupings of ten panels or more to her site. The story itself is a whimsical blend of science fiction and fantasy. It’s centered around Ava Ire, a young girl haunted by a demon, and is filled with interstellar travel, clashing regimes, and strong character motivations.
At first, Michelle was too shy to share the first panels of Ava’s Demon with anyone but her closest friends. Encouraged by their feedback, she started posting online. But she didn’t wait for readers to happen upon her site.
Instead, she actively courted an audience on social media.
Before she posted art from her own comic, she created and posted original fan art, which became the key to her marketing success.
For the uninitiated, fan art is when an artist draws well-known characters from a TV show, anime, book, or comic in his or her own art style.
“I think fan art is the one thing that really gets you viewership,” she explained, “because then you find other people with the same interests. If your interests are the same, then perhaps they’ll also like your original stuff.”
Michelle started by drawing Sailor Moon fan art, then expanded to some of her other favorite anime and comics.
This decision was strategic: Sailor Moon has a massive following both in and outside of the anime/manga community. It even aired as a Saturday morning cartoon across America in the 90s. That made it a perfect starting point for Michelle, who wanted new readers. They came for the fan art on Michelle’s Tumblr and DeviantArt accounts, then stayed for her Ava’s Demon series.
When she wasn’t posting fan art or drawings for Ava’s Demon, she drew cats, food, fairies, or other “relatable stuff that people could identify with” to continue growing her audience.
After a year of comic updates and social media postings, she had amassed about 10,000 readers. So, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to print the first book of Ava’s Demon.
Kickstarter is a mystery to many creators. Some pieces get backed for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many other projects fail.
A key path to success? Getting featured on Kickstarter’s homepage, which is exactly what happened for Michelle’s initial campaign. Getting featured was a total surprise to Michelle, who never thought her project would gain that level of attention.
According to Kickstarter, they choose projects to feature that they find “exceptional.” Specifically, they recommend that you:
With Ava’s Demon on Kickstarter’s homepage, Michelle’s campaign became far more successful than she ever imagined it would be.
She offered rewards for backers ranging from $10 all the way to $10,000. Most backers, however, chose the $30 level, the first reward level with a 9” x 9” hardcover book of Ava’s Demon.
Her final stretch goal—$200,000—was a mix of concrete rewards with some fun intertwined. She promised to dedicate herself full-time to Ava’s Demon (along with crying an ocean of magical tears for her supporters) if the campaign hit that 200k mark.
“It was a miracle,” Michelle said. As her campaign came to a close, she took a day off from work to process what was happening.
When she returned, the atmosphere had shifted. “People at DreamWorks looked at me differently,” she laughed. “People were talking to me that had never talked to me before.”
Shortly afterward, she turned in her resignation.
The funds—$217,036 minus fulfillment costs—were enough for her to pay off all her student loans, move to the East coast, and start a frugal life as an independent artist.
“It felt like jumping off a really awesome ship and making my way to land on a raft,” she said of switching to Ava’s Demon full time.
But once she made the transition, she realized that ad revenue and Kickstarters couldn’t support her indefinitely. She needed another plan.
Michelle’s first Kickstarter campaign was exactly what she needed to get off the ground. $217,036 sounds like a huge pile of money. But she knew that—after paying off her loans—it wouldn’t support her forever.
“I was living frugally off the Kickstarter funds at first,” she said. But aside from Kickstarter, her comic was losing money. Then, she found Patreon. “It couldn’t have come at a better time for me,” she said. The potential of monthly, recurring revenue Patreon made possible sounded like exactly what she needed for Ava’s Demon.
The next hurdle? Getting her fans on board.
Michelle immediately positioned herself as offering extra value for Patreon supporters.
“I tried to make it so that they’re paying for a product,” she explained. “So, support me for how much you want and watch me make the comic. I’m basically selling my process to people.”
The benefits she offers to members include early access and an in-depth look at how she draws the comic. Fans love the extra insight into her creative world.
She avoids most live-stream methods: drawing on camera is too nerve-wracking. And other tangible benefits, like personalized drawings, are too time-consuming.
She focuses on ways to share what she does already so that she has more time for the comic. So far, it’s a strategy that’s working. She’s earning over $3,000/month from 718 patrons. That’s allowed her to bring in coloring help for her webcomic and devote full-time hours to her work.
That said, her lifestyle isn’t for the faint of heart. “Even though I work constantly, I still don’t make the same kind of money that I made working for a corporation,” she cautioned. “So, you really have to make compromises.”
She supplements her Patreon income with some freelance work for Studio Yotta.
It’s a quid pro quo relationship: she helps them out when they need it, and they help her with (sorry, super secret project details aren’t available to the public yet!).
While she’d love to work on her comic exclusively, her side gig with Studio Yotta acts as a safety blanket.
“I freelance to keep my resume updated because I have a real fear of working on this one thing for 10 years and then needing a job all of a sudden,” she admitted.
It’s a feeling many creators are no stranger to.
(If you want to take the leap anyway, read this creator launch guide first).
— Ava’s Demon (@avasdemon) February 1, 2018
A self-portrait (fairy style) of Michelle and one of her colorists, @VanillyCake.
Looking back, Michelle noticed a few processes that led to her success. The first is that she didn’t jump head-first into full-time independent work.
“I didn’t just quit my job right away,” she recalled. “It took me a year to even get a presence online.”
Instead, she said, you should start with research. Lots and lots of research.
“You have to make something that will sell,” she explained. “Don’t just jump into it.” In art school, she spent hours comparing and contrasting movies that did well and those that didn’t. She says you should think about what people are willing to consume.
“I learned about the seven types of stories that are usually written. You can find all this information online. Look at some formulaic things that are successful, like having a character that wants something or having a cast that multiple people can relate to,” she said.
“You can’t just write a story and expect it to take off if nobody else you’re sharing it with can relate to it.”
That said, she emphasized that it should be something you like as well. It’s all about finding a balance between writing the story you’ve always dreamed of writing and making sure it’s something others will want to read.
As for what to do once you’ve earned a following, “Stay relevant,” she said. It helps you gain—and keep—readership.
“Even when I go on hiatus, I try to post,” she said.
It’s a method Michelle used to gather her current fan base: 100,000 regular readers who drive 10,000 daily unique site visits (and around 30,000 views on update days).
Her goal is “to stay visible and on people’s radar while at the same time working on something that will benefit me long-term.”
It’s that long-term vision that keeps Michelle—and Ava’s Demon—afloat.