Comics: Jason Minor on the Fables for Japan Benefit Books

Anthology series hopes to ease suffering in one part of the world…one tale at a time.

By , Columnist

With all of the human tragedy, economic problems and political turmoil—not to mention failed celebrity marriages—dominating our attention these days, it’s been far too easy to forget that the Japanese people are still in the early stages of recovering from the terrible earthquake and subsequent tsunami that occurred earlier this year.

Still, when faced with that scale of destruction and those incomprehensible numbers of dead, an individual can end up feeling powerless to aid in any meaningful or significant manner.

Thankfully, Jason Temujin Minor offers one answer to this quandary with Fables for Japan, an anthology series that allows readers to donate a little bit of cash to the Japanese earthquake relief effort, and enjoy a fabulous collection of original stories and art for their pains.

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Let’s start with the basics: What is Fables for Japan, exactly?

Fables for Japan is a set of three anthology e-books, collecting original work from writers and artists around the world. Book 1 was released in September of this year, and Book 2 is nearing completion and will be available in late November or early December.

The subject matter spans a wide range, from prose to sequential [i.e. comics - Ed.] stories, children's tales to contemporary adult stories. They are all connected, in some way, by the theme of Japanese folklore, myths, fables, and urban legends.

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And how did it get started, and what led to your involvement with the project?

The project, originally titled Fairy Tales for Japan, was started by Matt Funk, a college student and aspiring writer, as a way of raising relief money for the victims of the March 11, 2011, quakes in Japan.

I became involved when I found a mention of the project on Twitter. I contacted Matt and volunteered to contribute a short comic story. For various logistical reasons, this original incarnation fell through; but I felt Matt's idea deserved a second chance so, with his permission, I took over the project. I expanded the scope a bit, reworked the plan for publishing and distribution, and got more people involved. But at its core, it is still the project Matt envisioned—good stories for a good cause.

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How much do the books cost, how much of that goes to the actual relief effort, and how much of that money goes towards administration, printing, and—please forgive me for playing the devil’s advocate so early on—editorial costs?

Book 1 is priced at $2.95—which is an excellent price for 124 pages of content, if I say so myself. Of that price, after we subtract printing, administration, and editorial cost, we donate... $2.95 to the Red Cross.

In other words, 100% of all sales go to the relief efforts in Japan.

We are able to do this, first, because we chose to publish digitally. This greatly reduced the overhead. Second, we are distributing the books ourselves through the Fables for Japan website.

As for administration and editorial cost, I am donating my time towards these efforts. I'm also lucky enough to have Joan Upton Hall, a novelist and book editor, and Mary Elizabeth Hall, no relation but also a novelist and editor, to help me with the editing. Both have volunteered their time pro bono. And, of course, all the contributors are working pro bono. Considering the work schedules most of them keep, this is no small sacrifice. So our overhead is actually very low for a project of this size.

This is not to say we haven't incurred any costs at all. The Facebook advertizing we've done has been the largest cost so far. There is also the monthly cost of e-junkie.com, the site which handles the sales of the book. So far, I have personally covered these costs instead of subtracting them from the sales.

We are planning on setting up a Kickstarter page to raise money so that we can do more advertising, as well as a possible printed collector's edition of Fables for Japan. This should be ready soon, and hopefully people will help with these costs so that we can still donate 100% of sales to the Red Cross.

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Well, who are some of the creators who contributed to the cause, and which volume will feature their various contributions?

There were 28 contributors for Book 1: Tom Peyer, Teddy Kristiansen, Stuart Moore, Ryan Kelly, Phillip Hester, Nancy A. Collins, Mark Badger, to just name a few.

Book 2 is looking to have a similar number of contributors, including David Lloyd, Mike Dubisch, Mark Wheatley, Jeff Vaughn, Christopher Golden, Keith Grachow, and Gary Shipman.

We are just starting to take submission for Book 3 but some really fantastic artists and writers have expressed an interest. Hopefully their schedules will free up and allow them to contribute.

There really are too many contributors to mention here, but I have been very luck that so many are willing to help with this project. Literally, people from all over the world have responded and I am very thankful for all their work.

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What does it take to put something like this together, in general?

That's a broad question. But to put it simply, the first, most important step is getting people involved. Without contributors, we don't have anything. To this end, I first contacted the writers and artists I knew. From there I searched through thousands of blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. I also looked for people on sites like Deviant Art.

Recruiting talent was a new experience for me and I made a few faux pas along the way. For example—don’t contact people about doing charity work in an open forum like Twitter. Many people didn't appreciate being put on the spot in front of the world. Of course, that was never my intention, and once it was pointed out to me, I stopped immediately. But those are the kinds of lessons I had to learn.

Beyond recruiting, there were the questions of printing and distribution I mentioned above. My main struggle here was how to provide the best quality with as little overhead as possible—allowing us to donate as much as possible. The digital e-book really was the answer to that question.

But the most daunting hurdle for me was the charity aspect. How to collect the money and get it to the people who need it? This is an area where I had little experience. So I did a lot of research on many different charities, but ultimately decided to stick with the Red Cross. Mainly because they allowed me to earmark the money strictly for use in Japan and they seemed to have plans not only for providing immediate relief, but also for the long-term rebuilding of Japan.

Additionally, I was lucky to have the San Gabriel Writers' League, a non-profit organization, volunteer to collect the money and get it to the Red Cross. I work with them very closely to follow the money, but their involvement helped to cross all the legal T's and dot all the legal I's.

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How about the books? What are the various steps, skills, and demands that editing and producing this type of anthologies require?

I wanted the Fables for Japan to be a very visual experience for the reader. This is, in part, because of my comic book background but it also connects to the old Japanese myths and fables, many of which incorporate artwork as much as writing. To this end, I wanted every story, sequential or prose, to have some accompanying artwork.

With that said, I first try to get a clear of what each contributor has in mind for their contribution. Are they providing a story and artwork, or only a story, or only artwork? If it's one of the latter two, I then try to pair them up with a writer or artist that will complement their work. This is not an easy thing to do, it's not like I'm hiring these people, I'm asking for them to donate their time. So much of this is dictated by the contributors' schedules.

Once the teams are set, Joan, Mary, and I start the editing process—providing feedback on works in progress, suggesting changes, etc. We try to get the stories and artwork as tight as possible. The editing really doesn't end until the book is published. With Book 1, we were still making changes in the last few minutes before it went live.

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Once the final stories/artwork start coming in, I format and arrange them into the PDF format. I start laying out the stories, trying to find a flow to the book—what story will easily transition to the next, or using spot illustrations or short poems as story dividers, that kind of thing.

Once the book is assembled, I send it out to all the contributors to get their approval on how their work is presented. They also help me find typos and other mistakes. I try to make sure everyone is happy with the presentation but I do maintain the right to make the final editorial decisions in case of disputes. So far, that has not been an issue.

When the contributors' comments have been incorporated and the final touches are done, the book goes live. We try to keep to a tight schedule, but it has been, and must be, flexible. As I said, we are all doing this in addition to our paying work, so the schedule must bend to the needs of the contributors. This is why I say to expect Book 2 at the end of November or early December. As Book 2 is finalized I will be able to announce an exact date.

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What do you get from doing all that? After all, you could be working on something, and probably making some decent money while doing it, instead of putting so much of your time and efforts into this charity project.

Well, I am making a game—Star Wars: The Old Republic—and getting paid decent money to do it. We don't make any money off this project, so we all have to keep our day jobs.

But what I get out of it is a little hard to define. The obvious answer is that we are raising money and helping people—and that brings me more satisfaction than sitting on the sidelines doing nothing.

I think most people want to help when such tragedies happen, but we think it's too big for us to do anything. So Fables for Japan allows us to entertain people while doing our part to help out. That's one aspect.

I became aware of a second, more personal aspect after we had finished Book 1. When you are caught up in doing something you don't always take the time to step back and really see it as a whole. Seeing the book nearing completion, I realized that was very proud of it. I can be a very hard critic, especially to my own work. In my 20-year career, I can count the things I've done that I'm proud of on one hand. To be part of a project that truly serves a point, benefits people, and which displays such a high level of quality makes me very happy. Those kinds of projects are rare.

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What do you hope that the contributors get from this experience?

Well, I write about this a little in Book 1. Early in the project, I received an email from one of the contributors who was thanking me for putting this together. He said he had long been wondering what an artist could do to make things in the world a little better and this project gave him his answer. I have received other such emails from different contributors.

While these comments are nice on the ego, the real point here is this: Most of us don't have a way to help. We can't just drop a $100,000 check in the mail every time something awful happens. And these days, something awful seems to happen all the time. It can be very depressing.

What I hope this project gives to the contributors is a sense that they can make use of their talents, not only to entertain, but to help make the world just a little better. Not feeling helpless when facing the massive challenges we face today is important. Maybe more important than anyone realizes, because feeling helpless ensures that all we'll ever be is helpless.

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How about the readers?

This expands on the above. The readers play a huge part in this project as well. They are as much contributors to the project as the writers and artists. With each book they buy, they are helping people in need, and they allow us to keep going.

I hope the readers will enjoy the art and the stories. I also hope they feel a little empowered, that they have done their part, they've helped. As I've said above, that's important.

And, most important of all, what do you hope that the results of your collective efforts offer the people of Japan in the near and far terms?

That's the whole point, isn't it?

I hope the money we raise helps put food on someone's table or to put a roof over their heads. I hope the money we raise also goes to long-term care of those affected by the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima power plant. That is one of the reasons I decided to work with the Red Cross—they seem to have plans for the short term and the long term. The latter seems to be something that is often overlooked.

The other thing I hope we are doing is to keep the situation in Japan alive in people's minds. People, me included, tend to forget about a tragedy once the media has moved on. But, for those affected, the rebuilding process will be long and painful, even for a country as powerful as Japan. The Japanese people will be dealing with this tragedy for generations. In reality, the money we raise will only be a drop in the bucket, but I hope this project helps people not to forget.

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Well, what’s next for Fables? And is there any possibility that there will be more than three books?

We have talked about Fables becoming an ongoing thing. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of tragedy in the world, so we could do Fables for Haiti, Fables for Katrina, Fables for Joplin, on and on. But the reality is this project has been a massive undertaking, and I will need to take a break. I would love to see someone else pick it up and do more. It's also possible that I will want to do another one of these in the future—after a long break. But for now, we've decided to focus on the Japan tragedy.

That being said, we do have more planed for Fables for Japan. Once the three e-books are complete, we are looking to collect them as an app for the iPad. We are also looking into what it would take to make a Kindle version—although the Kindle doesn't handle graphics particularly well, so that remains to be seen.

And, as I noted earlier, we are planning on setting up a Kickstarter page to raise money for a print version of Fables for Japan—a deluxe hardcover collector's edition that would collect all three books and include additional bonus material. We are working on that now, so keep an eye out for it.

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How about you? What’s next for you, professionally and/or personally? Aside from collapsing into a deep sleep for a couple weeks, that is…

That sleep might last for a couple of months, but beyond that...

The game I'm involved in, Star Wars: The Old Republic, is launching in December. I've been working on this game for five years, so that will be very nice to see.

As for my personal projects, I've been working on a modern pulp style novella, I hope to get back to that and ultimately publish it. I also have several novels in the works—maybe they'll see the light of day—and my wife and I are planning a series of children's books.

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Let’s say that there’s someone out there who’s not wholly convinced that the cause is worthy or that the money will actually benefit those affected, or perhaps are worried that they might not enjoy a book of this type. What would you say to sway them to contribute to the cause, and that they’ll find something worthwhile in the collections?

As for the cause being worthy... not sure what to say about that.

It was the largest earthquake in recorded history, the death toll has surpassed 18,000, whole villages were washed away, and the ramifications of the Fukushima meltdown are still being discovered. As powerful a country as Japan is, they will be recovering from this for generations to come. If these people are not deserving of aid, then who is?

I know there is no shortage of people in need and I know people can't afford to help everyone. The decision to support a charity is ultimately up to the individual. I don't begrudge anyone for not donating. I haven't always been the most charitable person either. But, as cliché as it sounds, helping others does make you feel better. It's just good karma. As commonplace as tragedies are these days, we all need to start looking out for each other. It's not just kindness; it's survival.

One of the reasons we published digitally is it allowed us to sell the book at an extremely reduced price. Even in this day and age, most of us can afford $2.95 to help those who are in need. And while that might not seem like much, the March of Dimes proved that small donation can add up and make a huge difference.

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And making sure the money goes to the people it is intended for was a major concern for me. I've already talked about my reasons for going with the Red Cross but another is they are well established and as reliable as any charity I looked at. I feel confident they will see that the money goes to the right people.

As for whether or not people will enjoy the book, everyone has their own taste and we tried to bring as much variety to the content as possible. I really feel that there is something there for everyone. The books are aimed at young adults to adults, but I would consider them appropriate for all ages. Of course, parents with young children will want to decide that for themselves.

There are children's stories, ghost stories, funny stories, sad stories, love stories, horror stories, action stories, poems, and a wide verity of art styles—we even found a way to work in a giant anime robot story into Book 3. If absolutely none of that appeals to you...hey, it's just $2.95, buy it and check it out. If you don't like it you can delete it, knowing you still helped out some people in need.

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Anything to add before I let you get back to it?

Only that the success of this project really depends on the readers. You all make it possible. We appreciate the support we've received so far and if you haven't picked up a copy of Book 1 yet, you can do so at www.fables4japan.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @fables4japan for the latest news.

I will be appearing at the Austin Comic-Con, November 11, 12, and 13 so come by and check out a preview of Book 2.

And lastly, we are still looking for contributors for Book 3. Check out our website for more information on how to volunteer.

Thanks.

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