Year in Review: Disney Comics go BOOM!

You’d think that with their over $4 billion purchase of Marvel Entertainment a year ago this week, the Burbank-based Walt Disney Company would have brought things in-house for comics featuring Disney characters. Instead, Disney has licensed a small but highly acclaimed line of comics to Los Angeles comics publisher Boom! Studios over the last year plus. And with their Boom! Kids line, Boom! has helped resurrect the all-ages corner of the comic book industry, something that many feared was a lost cause. Not only is this good news for increasing variety, but it’s absolutely crucial in making sure that another generation doesn’t slip by without learning and internalizing the language of comics.

The groundwork was established in 2008, when Boom! established a relationship with Jim Henson Studios to publish a comic based on Farscape, a cult hit sci-fi TV series. This then led to an agreement with Disney to publish The Muppet Show: The Comic Book starting in March 2009. The comics were written and illustrated by British comics creator Roger Langridge, who up until then was perhaps best known for his award-winning comic Fred the Clown. His take on the Muppets captured the spirit of the original TV show perfectly, and his cartooning brought the Henson puppets to life in a whole new way. Embraced by both Muppet fans and comics readers, the original 4-issue mini-series quickly sold out. A second mini-series followed that summer, and from the strength of those two projects, as well as a Muppets spin on Robin Hood written by Langridge, a new ongoing series launched at the beginning of this year. A sister series was also published over the year featuring more Muppet versions of classic stories, like Peter Pan and King Arthur, although these were not done by Langridge.

Sadly, last month Roger Langridge announced he would be stepping away from the Muppets following the conclusion of the current story, “The Four Seasons”. Having established such a unique style and voice that seemed perfectly in synch with the spirit of the original Muppet Show TV series, it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing this comic with as much success. It’s possible some of the creators who had worked on the Muppet Classic comics, like Amy Mebberson or David Petersen, would step in. No word yet on whether there will be a replacement, or if the series will end.

Another arm of Disney joined the Muppets in comics form around the same time. In the first half of 2009, Pixar agreed to bring The Incredibles back to comics. (Dark Horse Comics published a mini-series in 2004 when the movie was originally released.) This new mini-series, titled The Incredibles: Family Matters, was written by popular super-hero comics writer Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, The Flash, Captain America), also Boom!’s editor-in-chief, and illustrated by Marcio Takara. Similarly, an ongoing series followed, adding Landry Walker as co-writer and Ramanda Kamarga on alternating art duties. The series has done well but Mark Waid left the series early on. However, the success was enough to merit more comics on nearly all of Pixar’s movies: Toy StoryMonsters, Inc.Finding Neemo, Cars, and Wall-E.

Establishing that they know how to make enjoyable comics for kids of all ages, Boom! moved into classic Disney territory. Beginning in late 2009, several series dating back to the 1940s returned: Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, Mickey Mouse and Friends, Donald Duck and Friends, and Uncle Scrooge. These all primarily featured work that had been published in Italy and other European countries over the last decade. Some of the stories have featured the return of fondly remembered Disney cartoons from the 1990s, such as Darkwing Duck, DuckTales, and Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers. Many continue to sell out and create great buzz. And the coming year will see some much sought after reprinting of classic material by the likes of Don Rosa and Floyd Gottfredson.

Much of the success of these comics have to do with Boom! skillfully working out a wider distribution system. Instead of strictly relying on the comic book store market, traditionally cold to all-ages or children’s comics, Boom! found its way back to the newsstand, somewhere most comics publishers haven’t consistently been for decades. Through Kable Distribution Services, Boom! Kids comics are also showing up in libraries. They also quickly collected the individual issues into affordable graphic novels for the book store market. Unfortunately their digital comics presence, on devices like the iPad, iPhone, and Andoid, aren’t quite as strong. The Disney Digicomics app, which launched on iTunes about a year ago, is making available most of the stories featuring classic Disney characters, but unfortunately none of the Muppet and Pixar comics.

This past summer Mark Waid was promoted to Chief Creative Officer and former Meltdown Comics employee Matt Gagnon became editor-in-chief. This past month, Waid announced his departure from Boom!, although he will continue to work with them as a freelance writer.

Will this shift, as well as Langridge’s departure, damage Boom! Kids? Probably not, since the architect of the line, Boom! publisher Ross Richie, is still very much involved with the company. Time will tell how this line will evolve, but credit is due for helping clear once again a long overgrown path where fun comics appropriate for children and adults can find a sustaining audience.

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