In 2021, publisher Jarod Barbee and author Jeremy Wagner wanted to release a photo book based on the work of Gene Ambo, a photographer who specializes in live shots of metal bands. True to the genre’s DIY ethic, the two took matters into their own hands, published Heavy Metro: Access All Eras, and launched Stygian Sky Media.
Since those early days, the team at Stygian Sky Media has been busy. They’ve expanded the range of books the company publishes to include traditional dark fiction and crime thrillers; acquired Death’s Head Press, which is known for its splatter western horror novels; and, in March 2022, launched the graphic novel imprint Dead Sky Publishing with acclaimed comics letterer and artist Steve Wands.
Publishers Weekly caught up with Barbee, Wagner, and Wands to talk about their mission, some of the titles they’re most excited about, and what’s next for Stygian Sky Media.
How would you describe the aesthetic or mission of Stygian Sky Media and its imprints?
Barbee: We are new, so I feel like our aesthetic will be fluid for a few years. We will always want to explore the darker genres, such as horror, crime, and thrillers, but we also want to be open to a lighter reading experience. Our mission will never change: bring great stories to the public. Give new talent a path to success. Give existing authors an alternative to larger, more traditional publishing houses. Treat all of our authors, artists, staff, and readers as family. We want to maintain small-press flexibility while offering big-press perks. We want to be a place where anyone can feel at home. There are underrepresented groups out there who have magnificent stories to tell. We want to help them get these stories where they belong, which is in the hands of readers.
Revelations: Horror Writers for Climate Action looks like a great title. How did that come about?
Barbee: Stygian Sky Media acquired this jewel by sheer happenstance. Our good friend and associate, Sadie Hartmann, known in the indie world as Mother Horror, introduced us to Seán O’Connor, who runs Idolum Publishing. Seán had this book nearly completed but was looking for a partner to get over that final hump to completion. We stepped in at the right time and were able to be a part of this amazing anthology. Never in my life did I dream we would be publishing stories by Stephen King or Joe Hill, but here we are. There is a multitude of highly talented authors in this book, from an original story by Gemma Amor to another by the queen of African horror, Nuzo Onoh. There is not a bad story in the book, and all proceeds go to climateoutreach.org. Not only will you be highly entertained, but you will also be helping our greatest resource, Mother Earth.
Stygian Sky Media is expanding into more traditional dark fiction and crime thrillers. Can you talk about that shift?
Barbee: We started out in the publishing world doing a very niche subgenre of horror with Death’s Head Press. Death’s Head Press is now firmly near the top of the list of indie publishers doing extreme horror and splatterpunk. Death’s Head Press will continue leading the way in extreme horror. With Stygian Sky Media, we wanted to appeal to a much larger audience who still enjoys the darkness but not the gore. We also wanted to expand our ability to help a wider group of newer authors get started. The wider your scope, the more you can see.
Speaking of Death’s Head Press, can you talk a little about your involvement there?
Barbee: We merged Death’s Head Press with Stygian in January 2022. This was an imprint that was started by myself and Patrick C. Harrison III in 2018. The press started with the idea for a book that I wanted to read but was not in print—so we made it. Four years later, we have carved out a considerable reputation for publishing some of the best extreme horror in indie publishing. We wanted to expand Death’s Head Press, and with the additional resources that Stygian Sky Media offered, it was a natural fit. Adding Jeremy Wagner as a partner was the very best thing that has happened to the press. Jeremy brings with him a brilliant mind for business and a genuine love for the genres we publish.
Jeremy, you’ve written books as an author and been on that side of the publishing equation. What’s your experience like on the other side, as a publisher?
Wagner: It’s been an interesting journey so far. Seeing books and authors you believe in getting the nurturing, development, and opportunity to be published and marketed in big ways is extremely rewarding. I never imagined myself on this side of the fence, as my focus on being a full-time writer is paramount for me, but the experience has been a learning one and, in many ways, exciting.
What are you working on now as a writer? What’s your next project?
Wagner: I have a new novel written and a memoir about a famous chef written—both are in the hands of my agent. I’m working on a brand-new novel at the moment and have a short story collection in the wings.
Jarod, can you highlight some new or forthcoming Death’s Head Press titles?
Barbee: Death’s Head Press is hard at work putting together a second series of extreme horror westerns. We call them splatter westerns, and the first series of 13, of course, changed the way readers thought about western horror. Think Bone Tomahawk meets Lonesome Dove, throw in some Lovecraft and some King, and you might be close to describing them. We are also hoping to start a resurgence of the chapbook this year. We have several authors signed up to do a three-chapbook set each. I don’t like to brag, but this is going to be huge. I think people are really going to dig the retro covers we are putting on these books.
In March 2022, you launched Dead Sky Publishing, which publishes comics and graphic novels. Can you talk about making the jump into that genre and how Steve Wands got involved with the project?
Barbee: This was a dream of mine since I was just a boy. I grew up with a love of comics, and as an adult, I enjoyed the darker graphic novels like, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. I absolutely love the über-violent Crossed series. So, what started off as a love for the medium of comics turned into publishing them at the first opportunity. The trouble was, we had no idea what it actually took to produce one.
We got lucky once again and scored one of Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard graphic novels, but upon receiving all of the files for the book, we realized quickly that we were in just a bit over our heads. I was desperate, because hey, this is Lansdale. I reached out to an author I knew well, and who had done a few graphic novels in the past, to see if he knew anyone who could save this ship before it struck an iceberg. The author was Brian Keene, and he said he had worked with a guy named Steve Wands in the past and gave me his contact details. I spoke to Steve that day, and he wasn’t that terribly excited to take on a project from such a fledgling press. The more we spoke, we realized that his goals and our needs actually intersected. Not only did he agree to doing the Lansdale project, but he also became an equal partner/owner of Dead Sky Publishing. He has already improved our brand by a factor of 10. His reputation in the industry is well earned.
Steve, can you highlight some forthcoming titles?
Wands: Outside of Joe R. Lansdale’s Mucho Mojo graphic novel we don’t have anything I can officially talk about yet. We are actively engaged in several discussions with creators on potential books and we have some one-shot comics moving over into contract talks. I feel comfortable saying those are black-and-white horror westerns that readers of Death’s Head Press’s splatter western books can have some fun with. Much like Stygian Sky Media, we’re approaching publishing with a wide scope, and while the imprint is inherently dark, we think there’s a tremendous amount of range to be explored.
Right now, under the Dead Sky umbrella, we are focusing on creator outreach and building up our readership while kicking off production on some of our original comics. Our publishing plan is coming together and by the time our initial titles hit store shelves we’ll have a multiyear plan in place, so our readers know we’ve got their next favorite comic on the way