The last time PW spoke with comics impresario and former Marvel publisher Bill Jemas, he was overseeing Double Take Comics, an interesting, wildly unconventional, and ultimately short-lived comics publishing startup funded by video game developer Take Two Interactive Software. Now Jemas is back, this time as CEO and publisher of Artists Writers & Artisans, a new comics venture, and he’s brought James Murdoch (yes, that Murdoch), Lightspeed Venture Partners, and a combined $10 million in investments along with him.
In the wake of the continuing mass popularity of superhero movies, AWA is looking to license its comics series and characters for movies, games, TV series, and other media ventures that are far more lucrative than publishing print comics. It has recruited many of the best-known creators in comics (as well as some prominent newcomers) to create a line of blockbusterlike comics series predominately focused on action and adventure.
AWA is offering authors a hybrid business model. Like conventional comics publishers such as DC and Marvel, AWA’s stories and characters are company owned, and the creators are independent contractors who work for hire. But to attract creators, the company will offer its writers and artists a financial stake in rights sales: 20% of the revenue from media licensing deals for a series goes to the creative team behind it. This kind of hybrid work-for-hire deal isn’t totally unusual for superstar comics creators (a category that includes many but not all of AWA’s creators), but it isn’t in most comics publishers’ basic contracts.
Joining Jemas in this new venture are AWA chief creative officer Axel Alonso, a former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, and AWA chairman Jonathan Miller, former chief digital officer at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.—which brings us to AWA’s investors.
AWA, Jemas confirmed, has been funded by $5 million from Lupa Systems—a holding company established by James Murdoch, Rupert’s son—and another $5 million from venture capital firm Lightspeed. Jemas said AWA also has “$2.5 million in additional commitments.” The investments, coupled with AWA’s forthcoming comics, which include both standalone series and an interconnected superhero universe, makes the house look a bit like a farm team for Hollywood studios.
AWA has about 50 artists working on a list of roughly 30 comics, with the first likely to be released in 2020. The forthcoming list offers action/adventure, horror, paranormal thrillers, and eccentric superheroes. AWA also has an editorial advisory board that boasts creators such as Garth Ennis, Reginald Hudlin, and J. Michael Straczynski.
Forthcoming titles include Savior by writer Ales Kot and artist Robert Sammelin, a series about a homeschooled superhero with godlike powers; Devil’s Highway by writer Benjamin Percy, with art by Brent Schoonover, the story of a female veteran and trucker who discovers that her father has been murdered; and Year Zero by Percy, with artist Ramon Rosanas, in which a Japanese hit man, a Mexican street kid, an Afghan military aide, a scientist, and a Midwestern incel survivalist learn to cope with each other in a world devastated by the latest zombie apocalypse.
Jemas and Alonso acknowledge an interest in working with Hollywood but are adamant that AWA is focused on good storytelling that will be entertaining whether it takes the form of comics series, feature films, or TV series. “As a publisher I see all those things,” Jemas said. “You look for things that will spread because the storytelling DNA is so good. We want to be the best comic book publisher we can be and a studio that can create content for everybody.”
The launch of AWA is aimed at the direct market (comics shops), though Jemas said all its series will be collected for the book market. Book trade distribution is still to be determined.
AWA looks a bit like an old-school comics publisher—a focus on periodical comic books, (modified) work-for-hire contracts, and licensing—though updated for a new comics market that demands a variety of genres and diverse characters (and creators), as well as an eye on Hollywood. It’s among a host of new and restructured comics houses—among them Ahoy Comics, Street Noise Books, TKO Studios, and the post-merger incarnation of Lion Forge and Oni Press—looking to create different kinds of comics for a rapidly changing North American comics market.
Jemas and Alonso also invoked the importance of diversity—racial and gender—and cultural trends. Alonso, who is Mexican-American, cited works focused on hip-hop developed during his years at Marvel and earlier when he was with DC. He described Preacher—a violent, indie-style comics series (now a TV series) by Ennis and Steve Dillon, which he published at Vertigo—as a spaghetti western and cited the acclaimed Muslim-American heroine of Ms. Marvel, a comics series developed when he oversaw Marvel.
“Yes we pilfer from movies,” Alonso said. “We’re part of a continuum and a dialogue about comics culture. Comics should say something about the world we live in. If we hit the right notes, we’ll find readers.”