For all the hype and hoopla at the yearly pop culture festival known as Comic-Con International, comics were still steering much of the ship. Whether it was meeting comics giants such as Lone Wolf and Cub creator Kazuo Koike and Sandman artist Dave McKean, frolicking under giant balloons based on the Teen Titans Go characters or getting your picture taken with zombies in the Walking Dead prison-camp display, comics creators and comics IP were everywhere.
Of course, sometimes you had to squint to see the comics connections. Metallica and Weezer both played concerts (the latter at the Image Walking Dead party Friday night); movie stars from Angelina Jolie to Harrison Ford touted new projects; and fans of TV shows Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad slept on cold concrete to be in the same room with their favorite stars.
Held July 17-21 at the San Diego Convention Center, Comic-Con drew its usual 130,000+ fans of comics, movies, video games and art while what seemed like an equal number of Hollywood scenesters, autograph hunters, memorabilia collectors and lookie-loos jamming the surrounding streets of San Diego. Comic-con has been spreading out from the convention center for years but this time it seemed bigger and more overwhelming than ever before. Warner Bros. set up the previously mentioned Teen Titans balloons and Lego hobbit hole on a lawn between Hall H and the Hilton Bayfront. A larger “interactive area” in a PetCo Park parking lot included displays from DC and Marvel as well as Smurfs and an Adult Swim castle. Legendary Pictures celebrated both its upcoming Godzilla reboot and the #1 kaijus past in film and comics with an impressive Godzilla Experience that took three weeks to set up and included a close encounter with the big guy himself. Parties for properties like True Blood and Kick-Ass 2 flooded the entire Gaslamp area with wristbands and free drinks. Even if you didn’t have a coveted badge and access to the exhibition floor, there were tons to do and see.
Comics-wise, there was plenty of news, but many publishers, including Dynamite and Image, rolled out their news ahead of time to avoid going up against headline-grabbing showbiz stunts. Image’s announcements were held at their own Image Expo (see PW coverage here) on July 2. Dynamite, a New Jersey-based publisher mostly known for licensed comics, impressed many with a series of announcements including J. Michael Straczynski on a Twilight Zone series, horror expert Steve Niles on an Army of Darkness book, and new creations by Peter Milligan, Duane Swierczynski and James Robinson.
Although traditional print comics had much interest, perhaps the biggest buzz was from digital imprint Monkeybrain which launched a year ago and just won an Eisner for Bandette, their series by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover. Distributed via Comixology, Monkeybrain offers an Image Comics like deal for creators—little money up front but a larger share of the proceeds and complete creative ownership. New Monkeybrain titles include Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective Jen Vaughn, Captain Ultimate by Benjamin Baily, Joey Esposito, and Boykoesh, Detectobot by Peter and Bobby Timony, Dropout by Phil Hester and Tyler Walpole and the return of Heartbreakers by Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan.
Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman was one of the kings of Con, and his Skybound imprint—published by Image Comics—announced several titles as well, including Dead Body Road by Justin Jordan and Matteo Scalera and Clone, written by David Shullner, Aaron Ginsberg and Wade McEntire—the latter has already been optioned as a TV series to be produced by Kirkman.
Even novelist Chuck Pahlaniuk got into the act, announcing a graphic novel sequel to his bestselling 1996 prose work, Fight Club, likely to be serialized beginning in 2015, though the author says he’s still working on the script for the comics and doesn’t yet have a publisher.
Elsewhere, every company had new projects, but seemed to be holding back on news. Marvel teased the return of the fabled Marvelman franchise as they have been doing since they acquired it four years ago. (The character originated in England but has had a troubled legal footing since U.S. publisher Eclipse went backrupt in the early 90s.) They also announced a sequel to Origins, the story of how Wolverine got to be so tough, and promised a second wave of Marvel Now titles for January. A second original graphic novel was announced—Spider-Man: Family Business by Mark Waid, James Robinson and Gabrielle Dell ‘Otto—and Marvel’s David Gabriel promised more to come in this line, stating that orders on the first Marvel OGN, starring the Avengers, have been higher than on their recent best seller Hawkeye.
IDW created a stir with news of an updated Little Nemo in Slumberland by Eric Shanower (The Wizard of Oz) and Gabriel Rodriguez (Locke and Key). The original comic strip by Winsor McKay—which ended in 1928—is among the most lauded achievements in comics, but IDW feels enough time has passed to give the story some new fans. They also announced reprints of Sam Keith’s The Maxx and many more volumes of their Artist’s Editions, a high-end series that reprints comics art at its original size.
At Dark Horse it was revealed that Straczinski would be writing a new Terminator comic for them; and Francesco Francavilla is returning to his pulp noir Black Beetle with a new limited series. And writer and Tony awardwinning music producer Vivek Tiwary was showing off color pages of The Fifth Beatle: Brian Epstein, his long-awaited new graphic bio of the visionary Beatle's manager, who died at the age of 31. The book comes out in November and Tiwary is already at work on a script for a film adaptation to come.
The manga market continues to stabilize. Viz Media kicked off the show renaming its VizKids line and relaunching it as Perfect Square, a new kids publishing program focused on new nonmanga brands—including graphic novels based on Frederator’s Bravest Warrior web animation—and ramping up their digital strategy, in particular touting the importance of simultaneous Japanese/English language publication via its Weekly Shonen Jump digital anthology. Viz is also distributing its content via Comic Plus: Library Edition, iVerse Media’s pay-per-checkout digital comics lending service. “Simultaneous delivery is where we want to be,” Viz publishing director Leyla Aker told PW during a meeting with Viz executives, emphasizing the importance of “timing and delivery” of manga content and the need to make it available to global market as quickly as possible.
Viz CEO Ken Sasaki emphasized that, “digital or physical, it doesn’t matter, we want our fans to have the choice. We have to be everywhere.” Noting that “piracy is strong competition: he said they also fight “with community and subscriber-based content that pirates can’t offer; meetups and official engagement. We’re doing more of that.” Aker cited the importance of libraries, “content discovery vehicles,” for “an age range that is exactly our market.” Viz is also releasing original content via its Haikasoru sci-fi imprint, including All You Need is Kill, a graphic novel based on the prose work used to make the upcoming film, the Edge of Tomorrow starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. Saski said Viz has been “experimenting for years to show we can create original manga. Now we have enough experience so people come to us to push content to the world.”
Viz is publishing about 300 volumes a year, Aker said, down from the 400 titles a year they released doing the boom years. Marketing director Kevin Hamric said “manga sales are up, digital and library sales are up and Viz had an excellent first quarter.” Last year, Aker said, “the ship righted in the manga market. There are lots of reasons to be really optimistic.”
DC Comics put much emphasis on the resurgence of their beloved Vertigo imprint, including the return of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and “Defy” a new initiative launching with five titles in the fall. In perhaps the most notable business announcement of the show, senior v-p of marketing and sales Bob Wayne revealed that the first three issues of the new Vertigo titles would be fully returnable to direct market retailers—titles in the comics shop market are typically nonreturnable—as would issues of the all-ages Beware the Batman and Mad magazine. A similar returnability program helped 2011’s New 52 gain purchase among comics shops, and its expected to give a boost to these lines which haven’t always been supported in the direct market.
NBM was showing off the final volume of Reed Waller and the late Kate Worleys Omaha the Cat Dancer, a critically acclaimed work with erotic content, that spurred efforts to censor it when it was first published in the 1980s. Indeed attempts to censor the book spurred the founding of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Worley’s husband Jim Vance finished the writing of the book and artist Reed Waller, making his first vist to Comic-Con in 20 years, was on hand to sign copies at the NBM booth. PaperCutz announced new licenses, among them a series of graphic novels based on the RIO animated movie franchise that will release beginning next march; and a deal with the WWE to produce series of kids graphic novels written by Mick Foley, former WWE performer and now bestselling kids authors, beginning in 2014; and a new as yet unnamed imprint for graphic novels for an older audience, YA and above, said publisher Terry Nantier, that will launch as a monthly series, collected into graphic novels starting next May.
At other independent publishers: In additon to the hoopla around Rep. John Lewis’s graphic bio, March Book One, Top Shelf debuted Monster on the Hill, a new comic fantasy work by newcomer Rob Harrell; and Oni Press’s Joe Nozemack touted Chris Roberson and Scott Kowalchuk’s Mysterious Strangers, a kind of paranormal spy series. Stephen Robson, publisher of the small U.K. house Fanfare/Ponent Mon, was promoting a new volume The Summit of the Gods by Jiro Taniguchi, the award winning manga based on the prose work by Yumemakura Baku about the doomed 1924 attempt to ascend Mt. Everest by George Herbert Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine. And at the D&Q /Fantagraphics joint panel, Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth announced Peanuts Every Sunday, a newly remastered collection of color Sunday comics from Charles Schulz, a collection of cartoonist Tony Millionaire’s Sock Puppet comics; a three volume collection of the works of underground comics icon S. Clay Wilson; and Bumf 1, a series that highlights the fiction of Joe Sacco, better known for his work as a comics journalist. D&Q’s Julia Poh-Miranda presented a new issue of Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve series; Showa: a History of Japan, 1926-1939, the first volume of a new, meticulously researched 500-age historical work on 20th century Japan by master mangaka Shigeru Mizuki; and the Rage of Poseidon, a new work by acclaimed comics artist Anders Nilson, produced in an accordian format that extends outward for reading.
The State of the Industry
The overall state of the industry was addressed during Friday’s retailer focused programming at a panel featuring First Second’s Gina Gagliano, Fantagraphics’ Eric Reynolds, Valiant’s Fred Pierce, Diamond’s Chris Powell and retailer Joe Field. Held in a packed room, the overall mood was very upbeat, with increased sales almost everywhere.
Powell, who is in charge of Diamond’s new business development, noted “There has been so much good product from publishers and support from the media. This is a great time for us.” Existing stores are expanding, and he’s busy developing programs to support them. “Even curmudgeons are finding it difficult to complain,” said Pierce.
From the audience, Archie’s Jim Sokolowski, who has worked at Marvel and DC in the past, recalled earlier sales booms where “the numbers were so fleeting. As soon as you hit them you knew there were unopened boxes.” The new growth is more sustainable, and whereas publishers and retailers in the past often blamed each other for failing sales, now it’s more “we get you and you get us and we're trying to figure out how to do this together.”
Based on the enthusiastic crowds and strong sales at the larger publishers, it seems a lot of people are figuring it out.