Despite the economic downturn and declines in some sectors of the graphic novel market, Lerner Graphic Universe, the comics division of Lerner Publishing Group, has continued to grow and continues to expand its list of graphic novels aimed at the trade, school, and library markets.
"Our books are holding their own in the kids' book marketplace," said Carol Burrell, editorial director of Graphic Universe and a notable cartoonist in her own right. Originally launched in 2006 with about 16 titles, LGU now publishes 30 to 35 books a year, split between the educational market and general trade. Although she declined to give specific figures, Burrell said the company was happy with backlist sales, and while past series may have taken a year to hit sales goals, newer series are hitting their goals "within a year or during the initial season."
The house launched the line with two series—Myths and Legends (graphic adaptations of classic mythology) and Twisted Journeys (comics stories featuring reader-directed multiple plot lines and endings)—and the two series continue to do well. Myths and Legends, which features titles on Hercules, Odysseus, and King Arthur, is up to 27 volumes and has added works on South American, African, and Asian legends. There are more Twisted Journey titles in the pipeline, and LGU has just released Quest for Dragon Mountain by Robin Mayhall with art by Alitha E. Martinez, volume 16 in the series. Burrell noted that Martinez is a veteran comics artist who has worked on such series as Iron Man and X-Men for Marvel. While LGU's editorial office is in New York City, the books are produced at the Lerner office in Minnesota; the house uses freelance comics writers and artists like Martinez who are veterans in the mainstream comics industry.
Burrell added foreign licensing to the program's list beginning with the Elsewhere Chronicles, a French fantasy/adventure series originally published by Dupuis (and translated from the French by Burrell). Graphic Universe published the first three volumes of the Elsewhere Chronicles simultaneously in 2009 and will publish volume four in the spring of 2011. Burrell has also added two new French series, the first, Mr. Badger and Mrs. Fox (volume one was published in the spring and volume two is coming in the fall), is about the domestic merger of two animal families. The second is Nola's Worlds by Mathieu Mariolle, the story of a plucky teen girl and a mysterious new boy (and his sister), which Burrell called a cross between the children's fantasy/adventure novel "Inkheart and Indiana Jones; it's fun, goofy and exciting"—the series' three volumes will be released in November and "promoted like mad" at New York Comic-Con in October. There are more volumes to come of the Elsewhere Chronicles, Burrell said (she's translating them and teaming with Erica Jeffrey to translate Nola's Worlds), adding, "I adore French graphic novels!"
Other new series gaining readers include Graphic Universe's first black-and-white graphic novel, Chicagoland Detective Agency by well-known comics writer and historian Trina Robbins and noted indie cartoonist Tyler Page. Burrell said she's also taking Lerner prose series like On My Own History, which tells the story of kids who take part in historic events, and its Sherlock Holmes series, and turning them into respectively, History's Kid Heroes and On the Case with Holmes and Watson, graphic novel adaptations scheduled to start in fall 2011.
While Lerner’s focus remains the school and library market, Burrell also said the house hopes to “get up to speed” in the comics shop market, also known as the direct market. “Some recent titles have authors and artists who are well known to the direct market, so there’s been an uptick in interest,” she said, “as well as retailer interest in comics for younger readers such as Guinea Pig: Pet Shop Private Eye.” At the same time, some LGU titles “simply have a clear curriculum focus,” she explained, “and one would expect minimal movement on the direct market side.” She said kids typically find Graphic Universe titles in libraries rather than stores. “There’ll be much effort going forward to make the retailers more aware of what we have and to get the readers excited and into the shops looking for books. Ask me again in fall 2011."
The slowing of graphic novel sales has not soured Burrell on the category. "While some publishers have pulled back from the category, the medium is coming into its own and settling into the market," she said. "Kids and teachers want graphic novels, our list continues to grow, and it is still a promising niche for those of us who entered slowly with great books."