Many of the new comics publishers hitting the scene over the past few years seem to be fighting over the same audience: genre fans who have outgrown superheroes but not superhero-style comics storytelling. Z2 Comics, an independent graphic novel publisher that evolved into its current business model in 2019, is forging a different path to market while sticking closely to the aesthetics that hardcore comics fans know and love.
Z2 has published more than 50 titles over the past two and a half years, almost all based on IP licensed from the music industry. This material ranges from prestige-oriented biographies of figures like jazz legend Charlie Parker to a just-announced collaboration with RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, and includes forays into rock, country music, EDM, heavy metal, thrash/punk, hip-hop, and more. In doing so, Z2 has opened the door to a new audience, a new distribution model, and new relationships between two pop culture cousins—comics and music—that have rarely spent much time in each other’s company.
To date, some of Z2’s bestselling titles have been graphic novels featuring musical performers such as Anthrax, Gorillaz, King Diamond, and Machine Gun Kelly. In the first half of 2022, the house will bring out new graphic novels featuring Tori Amos, Melissa Etheridge, Gwar, Pantera, Spiritbox, and several others. The company hopes to have 25 new titles out by year’s end, expanding beyond music to include figures from sports, podcasts, television, and comedy. The company is also branching out into toys and collectibles, and has hired industry veteran Clint Weiller to spearhead a new line of merchandise aligned with the imprint’s focus on music.
Z2 is the brainchild of four boisterous cofounders with a shared passion for music and comics: CEO Josh Frankel, publisher Sridhar Reddy, senior v-p Josh Bernstein, and chief counsel Kevin Meek. Frankel and Reddy are comics veterans who know how to bring creators into the fold, Bernstein has music industry connections, and Meek is instrumental in nailing down the licensing agreements that are fundamental to Z2’s cross-media strategy. Z2 has around 30 employees, and while the privately held company does not disclose financials, it characterizes its growth as very strong, tripling annually since its inception.
Z2 is guided by a rigorous data-based business strategy and a relentless search for content partners beyond the usual suspects that feed the comics industry. “Doing great creative work is a big part of our strategy,” Frankel said, “but a lot of companies can package good story and art. We noticed when we started the company that there wasn’t much interest in musicians in comics; there was actually kind of a stigma about it. But people have a real emotional attachment to music, stronger than that of almost any other media.”
Reddy added, “There are common wavelengths between the worlds of comics and musicians. We’re both forms of geek tribes, outcasts—and if you bring up the idea of graphic novels to musicians, a lot of them get very excited, because it’s just another extension of the kind of storytelling they do through their music.”
Marketing and distribution are also key components of Z2’s strategy. “We’ve built a really robust digital marketing apparatus,” Frankel said. The company developed a direct-to-consumer channel as well—including deluxe limited editions only available via the Z2 online store—just in time to give homebound readers access to its titles as the pandemic set in.
Z2 brings in fan-favorite artists to create its books and give the creators wide latitude to interpret aspects of the underlying music property. For example, to riff on Ronnie James Dio’s early 80s album Holy Diver, Frankel brought in writer Steve Niles (30 Days of Night) and artist Scott Hampson, whose attractive painting style has graced many mainstream books, with a cover by the ever-popular Bill Sienkiewicz (Moon Knight, New Mutants).
Licensors do not subsidize the graphic novel projects and have only limited creative involvement. “Our restrictions are generally more about avoiding superhero tropes or things that might be sales-averse, but we let our artists have final verdict and edits on the writing, art, marketing, and more,” Frankel said. “Their fingerprints on the projects make it all the more authentic and official.”
This approach helped Z2 gain a beachhead in direct-market comic stores to supplement its other distribution strategies. “We have fairly decent sales at comic shops and bookstores,” Frankel said. “Direct-to-consumer is the core, but we have a very big retail component.”
Frankel said Z2’s sales success has come in spite of adverse conditions: convention and concert shutdowns. “We can’t implement our most valuable marketing and retail strategy, which is having artists doing signings and tours and events,” Frankel said.
The company gave a little preview of the excitement that could generate by having hip hop legend Chuck D and the band Anthrax appear at their booth for NYCC. “One of the biggest expansion points for us in 2022,” Bernstein said, “is to have a more robust retail strategy for pop-ups, conventions, retail, and presence at certain live concerts and locations.”
Z2 sees opportunities in marketing its graphic novels alongside T-shirts and other merchandise that bands sell at shows. “It’s a very exciting part of our business to get those musicians back on tour,” Meek said. “The next phase will be more of an experiential impact on our fans, the brands, and the celebrities and actors we work with.”
Once the live music scene gets going again, Z2 executives believe the company’s growth will accelerate. “We hear from a lot of music fans who don’t usually buy comics but who love our books,” Frankel said. “That’s exciting, because that’s a huge market that no one else is serving.”