San Francisco indie comics publisher AiT/Planet Lar celebrated it’s 10th anniversary on March 17. Started in 1998 by Larry Young and his now-wife Mimi Rosenheim, AiT has published a hundred books in a variety of genres, most of which are still in print. March 17th is marked as the anniversary because it was the first Wednesday that their first book, Astronauts in Trouble, was available for sale at a comic book shop.
With a name taken from the abbreviation of their first book along with Young's college nickname from a B52’s song, the two started as “an accidental publisher” because they couldn’t find anyone to publish Young’s comic series, Astronauts in Trouble, a sharply written sci-fi/social satire illustrated by Matt Smith. So they decided to do it themselves. Young had worked in advertising and marketing for 15 years and Rosenheim was in print and web publishing for 10 years. At that point Young was working at a biotech firm and not happy about it. “I was coming home angry everyday and my girlfriend at the time, Mimi, asked ‘what do you want to do’,” Young recalled. He wanted to make comics. The two went on to make an Astronauts in Trouble mini and tested distribution channels. Through Capital City Distribution, AiT sold 2,500 copies of the hand-assembled, eight-page mini of Astronauts in Trouble for 50 cents each.
They went on to make the mini into a complete story. By this point Young was working at retailer Brian Hibbs’ comic store, Comix Experience, in San Francisco. Young “called in every favor” from the people he knew through the store, getting Preacher artist Matt Hollingsworth to color the cover and Warren Ellis to write a quote for the back.
“If you weren’t Marvel or DC or Image, selling comics was seen as impossible at the time, “ Young said. However, 10 years later Astronauts in Trouble is listed as one of the top 50 books you need to read in the Rough Guide to Graphic Novels. “I’m referred to as a legend in the book, it’s flattering after 10 years,” commented Young.
Over the years, AiT has published comics that cover a wide spectrum of genres, everything from slapstick humor to historical fiction. Young pointed to Matt Fraction's The Annotated Mantooth—the story of a talking kung-fu gorilla, “treated as Shakespeare,” and Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmois’s Seven Sons—"the retelling of a Chinese folk story, set in 1860s west,” —as representative of their list’s diversity.
“The things we publish are things I like to read and write,” explained Young. Young mentioned Channel Zero, Brian Wood’s first book, and Warren Ellis’s Come in Alone, a collection of Ellis’s online columns from Comic Book Resources, which Young referred to as “the Bible of comics.” Furthermore, over the years AiT introduced new talents, such as Becky Cloonan, the artist of Brian Wood’s Demo.
AiT gained recognition as one of the first publishers to release original graphic novels instead of traditional comics serials. “It was a business oriented decision,” said Young, “it’s a hassle to do monthlies. The audience base just waits for the trades, so we give them the trade [book edition] right away.” Young said publishing comics strictly in book format was “unheard of in 2000, 2001,” but over the last ten years has become a standard practice. “Graphic novels are where it’s at for smaller publishers,” stated Young, “you make a book and keep it in print, and you can make money on it for years.”
Young has written eight books for AiT, but noted, “I wanted to be Kurt Vonnegut, but I turned out to be Stan Lee, overseeing the logistics.” Young handles the talent side of the company, while Rosenheim takes care of the business side and oversees deals with other media. AiT has partnered with Kickstart Productions, who optioned Astronauts in Trouble for a TV show in 2003. In 2006 ABC made a pilot of AiT's book Nobody, spent $2.1 million on it, according to Young, but in the end decided against the show. Recently, it was announced that Scott Elder and Josh Harmon are adapting AiT’s Monster Attack Network into a screenplay for Disney, which will be directed by Andy Fickman. Jason Netter of Kickstart is producing this as well.
In the coming year, Young said the indie house is planning to release 4 or 5 new books. A typically diverse AiT list, forthcoming titles include a sequel to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist by Tony Lee called Twist and Dodger, which follows the characters 15 years later. Young described the book as "Charles Dickens meets Oceans 11." Other upcoming books include a book by Denis Hopeless about a girl with the powers of Cupid and Hypnotic, described by Young as "Tomb Raider meets Life Aquatic, with Jacque Cousteau as hot girl.” And look for Journal: A Graphic Romance, a romantic comedy also by Tony Lee.
Over 10 years, AiT has developed a strong customer base that has remained consistent over the10 years the publisher has been in business. Young also claimed that because AiT is a small and very individual press, it has managed to remain unaffected by the "crazy economic stuff." Young says the small indie publisher is not really, "part of the comics industry. The good things don't affect us, but the bad things don't either." Besides, "There's always a few customers who will try new stuff," said Young," the people who find us love us, older customers that Blue Beetle just isn't doing it for anymore."