What do Philip K. Dick, Stan Lee, Roger Langridge, Mark Waid and Darkwing Duck have in common? They're all publishing stars at BOOM! Studios, the LA-based comics publisher that has weathered the economic storms of the last five years to become a company that's consistently in the top seven publishers.
Founded by industry veterans Ross Richie and Andrew Cosby in 2005, BOOM! has outlasted several other companies that launched at the same period by aiming for slow, steady growth. From an initial output of 3 or 4 titles a month, BOOM! now publishes between 22 and 25 titles a month, and has licenses with major media companies including Disney and Fox. They have also fielded an impressive line-up of original material, led by several books by Chief Creative Officer Mark Waid. Among publishers charted by Diamond, the comic shop markets biggest distributor, BOOM!'s average market share thus far in 2010 is up to 1.85%, from 1.22% in 2009 and 0.34% in 2008.
"We've tried to be fearless," said Richie of BOOM!'s progress. "The name of the company isn't whimper – that's become a mantra around here."
BOOM! has bucked a lot of conventional wisdom along the way. A line of kids' comics licensed from Disney and Pixar including Darkwing Duck, Toy Story and Cars has been very successful, and Mark Waid's Irredeemable, about a vastly powerful superhero who suddenly goes bad, has been "huge," said Richie, but they weren't no-brainers. "People say you can't do kid's comics – I think you can," said Richie. "Conventional wisdom is that you can't do successful full color superhero comics, but Irredeemable and Robert Kirkman's Invincible at Image have proved you can. And Stan Lee's Soldier Zero launched with twice what Irredeemable sold."
Among BOOM!'s other diverse projects over the last few years are the zombie continuation 28 Days Later; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a word for word comics adaptation of the classic by Dick; and even more off-beat projects such as CBGB, an anthology of short comics stories set in the legendary rock club.
"Who the hell does a comic book about a closed rock club?" says Richie. "With [Editor-in-chief] Matt Gagnon, we try to intuitively find a market need and just go there."
In recent years, the comics shop market has increasingly relied on interconnected events set in shared universe books by the Big Two—a strategy that has made it hard for smaller companies to find a market share. To fight this, BOOM! has tried to give readers something different. "The secret to our success to go to the thing that other people haven't done; it isn’t to go head to head against people, or trying to take their market share away or trying to duplicate their editorial style. We've had to invent a space in the market place to exist. "
This philosophy has led to some unusual moves. "When we decided to do Androids as a word-for-word adaptation, it was crazy. But we knew, as fans, that when you see your beloved book come to comics you don’t want it adapted, you don’t’ want it cut—you want it to be accurate to the experience of the original. I think we're very bold and experimental and I think that at the same time we have a mainstream commercial sensibility that has proven to be a successful model."
Some of these risks really weren't that risky when analyzed, he says. "I didn’t make Philip K. Dick a hit—he was already a hit. 28 Days Later was a beloved geek franchise, and very commercial – obviously the direct market loves zombies. "
BOOM! has also been savvy about distribution, signing with Kable to get newsstand distribution for their kids comics. BOOM!'s kids graphic novels have been in Wal-Mart and Toy R Us for about six months, and they have done well, led, unsurprisingly, by Toy Story. "You tend to do well with movies that have multi-million dollar marketing budgets," he says. However another critical hit for BOOM! has been Roger Langridge's Muppet adaptations, which fans have lauded for their inventive channeling of the original's anarchic humor. "A key to all licensing is finding creators who are able to tap into the spirit of the franchise," says Richie.
While the Disney kids line has been very successful for BOOM! there's been much speculation that with Disney's purchase of Marvel, Disney would eventually take back the licenses. While Richie wouldn’t speculate on that, he states flatly, "We’re committed to kids comics. Period. Disney is a fantastic partner and we've loved the experience of working with them."
Asked to name the highlight of 2010, Richie points to the newly launched line of three super-hero focused comics created by Stan Lee, Soldier Zero, Starborn and The Traveler. Lee's concepts have been given to such high profile creators as Waid and Paul Cornell. "It's been a pretty huge hit for us and very exciting," says Richie. "2009 was a big year for us – we launched the kids comics and Irredeemable. In 2010 the focus has been making sure it runs smoothly and sustainably. As you grow you have to make sure you maintain quality and all the elements that got you there. People are now recognizing that we are a significant part of the market."
Of the Stan Lee line's success he says, "The cornerstone of everything is Stan, of course. He's still the guy who when you hear him talk you have to shiver a little just because he's Stan. His classic sense of storytelling really helped us concentrate on the important things. We all learned buckets from him despite how many years we had in the business. [Marketing director] Chip [Mosher] had an innovative marketing plan and we were very aggressive in getting great creative teams, with Javier Pina, Khary Randolph and Paul Cornell. I think we just worked really hard."
Part of building on the growth in 2010 has been taking the BOOM! show on the road – the company did 16 conventions in 10 months, making Mosher a true comics road warrior. By hitting so many areas, Boom has been able to showcase its diverse product line to different audiences. "At Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC and the South they love kids comics and they love Mark Waid. When we go to Emerald City in Seattle or WonderCon in San Francisco they might like Farscape and darker, funkier content, or the Muppets."
Another hot topic in the business of late has been the mix of periodicals and original graphic novels – although they've done some standalone graphic novels like Shmobots, Shannon Wheeler's I Thought You'd Be Funnier and the movie tie-in Jennifer's Body. Richie concedes that it isn't really their publishing model. "Right now the model for us is serializing into trade, if a trade is warranted. I don't know what it will be tomorrow. The content has got to match the format. I don’t feel you do it just 'because'."
Similarly, although BOOM! has had many successes in the digital market as and is seeing significant growth, "right now, it’s not going to change our business model or our commitment to the periodical and commitment to retail stores. It is growing for us but the numbers aren't huge. There’s a certain segment of the blogosphere and audience that's super tech savvy, and there’s a lot of market excitement about it but it isn’t as robust [as some people would like yet.] However I expect it’ll continue to grow."
Looking ahead to 2011, Richie remains cagey. "We have a pretty epic lineup for next year, but I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag early. It will be another big year with a lot of very commercial, cool comic books some with characters people are familiar with."
Negotiating the slowly recovering recession is a concern, as is not letting growth get out of hand. "We’re finding out growth curve during the challenging economy it's the classic situation. When you are a small sized company and then you become a mid sized company, you can't forget the values that got you there. I don’t’ mean to sound glib, but every year, year over year we’ve grown substantially and the projects we do are bigger and better. Now we're focusing our energies on making sure we do it right."