Launched in early 2019, TKO Studios is an independent comics publisher based in Los Angeles designed around an unusual business model that offers graphic novels and serial comics via its own website, in every format including print and digital.
Cofounded by Tze Chun, a veteran TV showrunner, director/producer and writer, and Salvatore Simeone, a digital entrepreneur, TKO Studios publishes inventive non-superhero genre comics created by a roster of celebrated writers and artists. Among its list of acclaimed creators are Garth Ennis and Steve Epting (Sara), Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Walta (Sentient), Roxane Gay and Ming Doyle (The Banks), and Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli (Goodnight Paradise). The cofounders are also writers and have titles on the TKO list.
TKO initially made its titles for sale primarily via its own website. It offered every format in a bingeable form—all series are available immediately in completed stories in print as either oversized trade paperbacks or traditional comic books in six-issue series, and as digital comics. Readers can buy the format they prefer or collect the series in every format available.
The company is now moving to expand into the book trade. TKO has about 15 staffers mostly based in Los Angeles. (TKO editor-in-chief Sebastian Girner works out of New York City). The house recently hired Marc Visnick as its director of sales, and last summer signed up with PGW for distribution to the book trade. In addition, the house is adding works of illustrated prose short story collections to its publishing program.
Moving into movie and TV production, TKO announced a partnership with the production house of Macro with plans to develop and produce a film adaptation of The Banks, a TKO graphic novel published in 2019 and written by Roxane Gay, the acclaimed nonfiction author and comics writer, with art by Ming Doyle.
In a phone interview with Chun and Visnick, Chun said TKO first focused on the direct market, aka the comics shop market—a network of about 2,000 independent retailers. The house signed a distribution agreement with PGW in June and TKO trade paperbacks, Chun said, are now available at Barnes & Noble and in more than 100 independent bookstores, as well as Target and Walmart (where they are available via a pilot program).
To improve its sales through bookstores, Vicnick said TKO is “building a release strategy and preparing advance galleys.” Sales, he said, have been good although he declined to provide specific figures, “We’re happy with revenue.” TKO plans to release 15 new books in 2021 including graphic novels, short series, anthologies and prose titles in oversized trade paperback editions, boxed sets for 6-issues series, and digital comics. In addition, the house plans hardcover editions for Sentient and Sara that will be released later.
TKO released four titles on its first list (TKO calls its seasonal lists waves), including Sara, a story based on Soviet women snipers in WWII; The 7 Deadly Sins by Tze Chun with art by Artyom Trakhanov, a Western about a Black outlaw who leads a brutal quest for redemption; Goodnight Paradise, the story of homeless man searching for a killer; and The Fearsome Doctor Fang by Chun and Mike Weiss, a pulp adventure tale set in 1904 about a Chinese criminal mastermind.
TKO’s second wave of titles featured Gay’s The Banks, the story of a family of Black thieves in Chicago, and Lemire and Walta’s Sentient, in which the AI guiding a colony-bound spaceship mistakenly kills all the adults and their children must figure out how to navigate the massive ship through deep space; it was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2020.
Among its newest releases are Blood Like Garnets by Leigh Harlen, a collection of eight illustrated prose horror stories (with illustrations by Maria Nguyen); The Pull by Steve Orlando and Ricardo López Ortiz, a sci-fi graphic novel about a disgraced government agent faced with saving the world; and TKO Shorts, a series of oversized comic book/zine-format horror stories by a variety of artists. Chun also said TKO expects to announce a new title shortly from a “big name. A very notable bestselling trade book author.”
“We always wanted to do illustrated prose but whether we publish prose or comics, the stories are always new takes on established genres. Our specialty is genre storytelling with a twist,” Chun said. TKO self-distributes its comics periodicals to direct market comics shops bypassing Diamond Comics Distributors, the dominant vendor in the comics shop market. Chun said its shipments to comics shops were “unaffected by the shutdown of Diamond’s warehouse during the pandemic.”
“We’re low risk, we can restock quickly in 5-7 days and our binge model—all TKO series are complete when they go on sale—benefits comics shop because the books are done; so when they sell our books they can sell the whole series,” Chun said.