Launched as digital-first publisher, Lion Forge Comics is not even two years old, but the St. Louis based house is already expanding its publishing program, adding more licensed and original works, a kids' comics imprint, and now plans to offer print.
Lion Forge launched with a mix of original comics and licensed properties based on television shows from the 1980s: Knight Rider, Airwolf, Miami Vice, Punky Brewster, and Saved by the Bell, all from NBCUniversal. That got people's attention, and since then, the company has continued to expand its original and licensed comics lines, most recently with the addition of the American Greetings properties Care Bears, Madballs, and Packages from Planet X.
This summer just before the Comic-Con International in San Diego, Lion Forge announced a second twist: IDW will publish and distribute print editions of Lion Forge comics—something IDW is already doing for another digital-first publisher, Monkeybrain Comics. Lion Forge has also launched a children's line, ROAR Comics, which will encompass Punky Brewster, Saved by the Bell, Care Bears, and original comics such as Roboy, the story of a robot boy; Crystal Cadets, a magical-girl story; and MER, a YA title about teenage mermaids.
Lion Forge got its start a year and a half ago when CEO and co-founder David Steward II was selling another company he had started and rediscovered his love of comics. "I had taken my tablet on a vacation," he said, "and while my wife was reading books by the pool, I was downloading and reading comics. Seeing the beginnings of this digital transition for the industry, I wanted to be a part of it, so I contacted some friends (Isaac Reed and Carl Reed) who had been in the business off and on for the last 20 years, and we took a closer look at what was going on."
Over the next year, the three men went to all the major comics conventions, including C2E2, Comic-Con International in San Diego, and New York Comic Con to get a sense of the comics landscape and the major players. "Taking cues particularly from Mark Waid (comics writer and publisher of the digital comics site Thrillbent) and others, we saw an opportunity to take a leadership role in developing and defining what a comics company looks like in the digital age," he said.
The three started developing some ideas for original properties while also keeping an eye out for licensing opportunities. When the NBCUniversal properties became available, he said "we couldn't pass them up."
The digital-first strategy made sense for a new company, said managing editor David Gorden. "Digital is a much more affordable way to go," he said. "Of course, you have to get it out yourself or get it into Comixology or Comics Plus, but that's not as hard as getting it into Previews [Diamonds wholesale catalogue] and getting the money for a print run."
Currently, Lion Forge comics are available via Amazon, Google Books, and Comics Plus, but they are not yet on Comixology, the largest digital comics service. "We expect to be," Gorden said. "We are working out the finer points."
Lion Forge has a home office in St. Louis, but its two senior editors, Shannon Eric Denton and Adam Staffaroni, are located on opposite coasts. Staffaroni, a former assistant editor at BOOM! Studios who worked on licensed properties such as Adventure Time and Peanuts, is in charge of the ROAR imprint and is based in New York; Denton, a 20-year veteran of comics, animation, and games, edits the other comics and develops Lion Forge properties for film and TV from Los Angeles.
The team gets together every three months or so, either at conventions or in St. Louis, Denton said, and they communicate daily via phone and e-mail. "Even at Wildstorm [a now shuttered DC Comics imprint where Denton was an editor] you were communicating with everybody via e-mail," he said. "You can go to the office all week long and never chat with the people next to you. It's pretty similar to what we are doing now." Still, there is a local aspect to Lion Forge: They have brought in St. Louis natives such as Cullen Bunn (The Sixth Gun), who is writing the horror comic Night Trap.
With seven to 10 titles coming out digitally each month, and more in various stages of development, Lion Forge announced in July that it would be moving into print. That was part of the plan from the beginning, said Denton, and it made more sense to bring in IDW as a partner than to start from scratch. "I had been working with IDW, so I approached them about this partnership on the print side because they already had everything in place," he said. The plan is to produce collected book editions of their digital-first titles rather than single-issue comics.
While the licensed properties are the company's best selling comics, they also have a number of original comics spanning several different genres. Several are based on real people: Rampage is an action tale in which the real-life mixed martial arts fighter Quinton "Rampage" Jackson gets superpowers. Warrior's Creed is about professional wrestler Chavo Guerrero, and Wonderous is based on—and created by—former Playmate-of-the-Year Claire Sinclair (although in the comic she is not a Playmate but a superhero).
Lion Forge is also doing the original work Catalyst Prime: Quincredible. Written by Gordon it’s the story of a young man who has only one superpower: Invulnerability. At the moment, all Lion Forge properties are company owned. "We're not opposed to creator-owned stuff," said Denton, "but that will be in the game plan down the road, after we get a little more established.
A year and a half after its launch, Lion Forge is growing in several directions at once. "We are getting decent digital sales," Gorden said, "and as we build more and more of a brand, people start to look for you and say 'I'll download these books.’ We do anticipate much stronger print sales, because print has the iron grip on the industry; a lot of digital sales will come from non-comic book readers who say 'I like this, but I don't want to go to the comic book store so I will read it on my tablet.'"