King Features, owner and licensor of a library of classic comic strips, is expanding its global book publishing activities beyond reprint collections, including into original YA and middle grade titles featuring contemporary characters spun off from the originals. Among the properties King Features owns are The Phantom, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, Mandrake the Magician, and Popeye.

“We have an enormous portfolio of classic brands,” said director of licensing and publishing Christina Nix Lynch. “Our fans who are already familiar with the characters have introduced them to their kids. But we’re looking to develop new fans too.”

“Some of our properties have survived 100 years, and to do that means they’re special,” added Carla Silva, general manager, v-p, and global head of licensing at King Features. “The challenge is: how do we make sure kids and future generations know what our brands stand for? We use publishing as a key driver for that. We want to keep them evergreen for another 100 years.”

One such initiative coming up is an original YA graphic novel series from Macmillan inspired by Flash Gordon. Details are not yet forthcoming, except that the characters are reimagined as young adults. Meanwhile, Titan Publishing is releasing Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film, featuring the artwork and behind-the-scenes details of the cult classic that celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2020. “We wanted to take Flash Gordon to a bigger publishing house that had a great connection with younger readers,” Nix Lynch said. “At Macmillan, we also had a strong advocate on the inside since someone on their team was a fan.”

Another new partner is StoneBot Studios. Its deal with King Features was first announced at San Diego Comic Con 2020. It is publishing a YA comic book series, Legacy of Mandrake the Magician, distributed by Red 5 Comics. The series stars Mandrake the Magician’s 17-year-old niece and magician-in-training, Mandy, as the lead character. The stories weave in some elements familiar from the 85-plus-year-old original series, with the goal of attracting existing as well as new fans. Four titles (plus a prequel) were published monthly starting in October 2020, with a paperback collecting all four released this February.

Hermes Publishing is a recent licensee for the comic strip On the Fastrack, which it took to younger readers by way of a graphic novel starring a middle school version of Dethany, a fan-favorite character from the 36-year-old strip. The first title, Dethany and the Other Clique, came out in May and was written by Bill Holbrook, writer of the ongoing strip, and his daughter, H.H. Glynn. A second Dethany title is in the works.

Meanwhile, King Features has signed a deal with Leap Year for puzzle books based on some of its syndicated puzzles, as well as more than 50 publishing deals in international territories in the last year, including three in India. Hermes is also releasing a collectible coffee table book on the 90-plus-year history of Popeye.

Looking Ahead

Popeye and King Features’ other classic properties are further down the road when it comes to publishing beyond reprints. The company is in the process of mining its portfolio of brands for entertainment opportunities, which will make them more relatable to today’s audiences and create additional opportunities for licensing and publishing, especially for younger readers. “We want to coordinate with what the entertainment team is doing,” Silva said.

King Features also represents newer IP, on behalf of other property owners, including the Finnish literary property Moomin, the Korean media brand Pucca, the Icelandic lifestyle label Tulipop, and others. One of the most notable to date from a U.S. publishing standpoint is Studio MDHR’s 1950s-style video game property Cuphead, which is expanding to television with The Cuphead Show!, set for release this year on Netflix.

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers published two middle-grade Cuphead novels in 2020 and this year signed Exmo Publishing Group to release those titles in Russia. LBYR is also developing a third novel and a how-to-draw title based on the property, with the latter tentatively set for a 2023 release. “Each character in the game is hand-drawn, so this book will resonate with older fans of Cuphead and the younger fans as well,” Nix Lynch said. “It’s a real passion project for the creators.”

In addition, Running Press is releasing a Cuphead mini kit, while Dark Horse Comics has signed foreign rights deals in France, Italy, Spain, Russia, and Japan for The Art of Cuphead, as well as its series of Cuphead graphic novels. King Features also has plans for children’s graphic novels and early readers based on this property.

While most of King Features’ owned properties lend themselves mostly to formats for older readers, Nix Lynch is looking into younger formats for some of those as well. “Our characters and content speak strongly to that audience of middle grade and young adult readers,” she said. “But I’m speaking with our editorial director about how to take the content even younger.”