Diversity is the key

Marvel Comics announced details late last week of the launch of a new imprint that will focus on genres other than superheroes. Marvel’s CrossGen line will cross into genres not typically associated with the publisher of Spider-Man, Iron Man and Captain America.

Outside of their Marvel Illustrated line of comics adapting classic novels like the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Pride and Prejudice and Treasure Island, more modern adaptations of Stephen King’s Dark Tower and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, and other sporadic attempts here and there, this is the first concerted effort to reach outside of their known superhero material since the publisher was releasing westerns and monster comics in the 1960s.

The CrossGen imprint is actually a resurrection of a publisher that failed and was purchased by Marvel’s new parent company Disney in 2004. CrossGen Entertainment came onto the comics scene with some daring moves. Instead of relying on freelancers, CrossGen relocated their talent to the company’s Florida compound and provided them with a salary, health insurance, 401k and other benefits largely alien to most creative types in the comics industry. They also were among the first to aggressively reprint their comics every 6 months or so in soft cover graphic novels (or “trade paperbacks”) targeted to book stores, now an industry standard. They were the first publisher to experiment with digital comics, with an online portal similar to Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited service. They also had a school and library outreach program with some of their material available in special lesson plan editions. Unfortunately CrossGen didn’t survive long enough to see these distribution channels mature to the point they have in the last 5 years and the company’s chutzpah ended up burying it.

Considering some of the trash talk thrown out by CrossGen’s president when the company was on the rise, it’s almost too ironic that its properties are now being published by Marvel. Still, the company put out some good looking books. They had a knack for attracting strong talent and putting out quality books that filled niche holes in the industry at the time. And now Marvel is using those properties to expand their line into new areas, a long overdue move that major competitor DC Comics knew to do back in the ’90s with the creation of the Vertigo imprint (even if it has typically limited itself to more mature readers content).

But with the struggling economy, is now the time to launch new initiatives? Marvel is keeping things modest with just two 4-issue series priced at $2.99 (versus their nearly standard $3.99 cover price). And they’re putting worthy talent in place to help garner interest. Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, The Flash) remains a hot writer, and is actually getting a second go at Ruse (pictured above), a Sherlockian mystery set in Victorian England. Mike Carey (Lucifer, The Unwritten) will write the more overhauled Sigil, a sci-fi war epic.

Initial response seems positive so far. CrossGen garnered an enthusiastic cult following in its day. (Disclaimer: I loved them.) And based on online responses so far, most seem eager to see these books return. Of course as we’ve seen, online enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into sustainable sales. But then sometimes it does.

When comics’ largest publisher launches an imprint that brings more diversity in their line of books, it can’t not be a good thing. Hopefully execution will match the good news. Hopefully retailers and readers will embrace the books. Time will tell.

The two new books are scheduled for a March 2011 release.

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