Year in Review: Archaia arrives

Continuing my Year In Review of local LA comic book movers and shakers. Yesterday, we looked at Boom! Studios successful Boom! Kids imprint and their line of Disney comics.

Today, we look at comics publisher Archaia Comics. Originally set up as a banner for the self-publishing efforts of writer/artist Mark Smylie and his high fantasy series Artesia, it expanded into a full on publisher in the middle of this past decade, launching the anthropomorphic fantasy series Mouse Guard by David Petersen to much acclaim. More comics were announced until the young publisher seemed to become overwhelmed by its own plans, almost completely grinding production to a halt. It appeared as if Archaia was going to be another in a long line of comics publishers who have abruptly vanished. Then came news of the acquisition of Archaia by Chicago-based media company Kunoichi. For a time this didn’t seem to change anything, but then Archaia came back. In the past year, they have firmly landed on solid ground and proved themselves to be a dependable publisher of quality comics and graphic novels, with an eye to innovation in the digital comics space.

Much of this success seems to be due to the enthusiastic guidance of Editor-in-Chief Stephen Christy, who started out as Director of Development of Archaia and was then promoted to his current position this past April.

The year started with an unexpected partnership with the Jim Henson Company to produce Fraggle Rock comic books. The Muppet makers had already worked out successful licensing arrangements with Boom! Studios (Farscape, The Muppet Show Comic Book), so going with a different comics publisher speaks to Archaia’s strengths and success with Mouse Guard, which they used as a design template for Fraggle Rock, printing the comic at the same 8″ x 8″ dimensions. Archaia was clever in bringing in an eclectic collection of writers and artists, such as Jeffrey Brown (Incredible Change-bots), Katie Cook (Gronk: A Monster’s Story), and Adrianne Ambrose (What I Learned From Being a Cheerleader), that were able to recreate the unique tone of the original 1980s TV series. Each issue also featured a unique activity section by Cook in the back for kids to interact with and learn from the comics. Henson participated in the promotion of the comic, arranging in-person appearances with Karen Prell, puppeteer for Red Fraggle.

The other big release of the year, probably even bigger, was the digital-first release of Tumor by Joshua Hale Fialkov (Death Comes to Dillinger) and Noel Tuazon (The Broadcast). The team had originally worked together on Elk’s Run which got a lot of attention at the time, but this work surpasses that. The first chapter was given away for free on Amazon’s Kindle in the summer of 2009, with the remaining 7 chapters costing 99-cents. The series held the #1 position in Kindle’s Comics and Graphic Novels section for two months and by all accounts has been a certified hit as a digital comic. This year saw the release of the print edition, which was meticulously published with an eye to design and aesthetic experience that can’t be captured digitally, and also included bonus content as an added incentive. The book has won tons of praise and has been optioned for feature film development.

The third big release for the publisher was Return of the Dapper Men by Jim McCann (Widowmaker) and Janet Lee. Once again, the publisher’s graphic design skills were used to enhance the reading experience. The book is the first non-superhero script from former Marvel Comics editor McCann. This is the first published work by Lee. Despite their somewhat limited resume, the finished product is gorgeous and deserves the attention Archaia has given it and the praise it has received from critics and readers.

Archaia has also continued David Petersen’s captivating world with Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard, an anthology with work by Petersen and other comic creators like Ted Naifeh (Polly and the Pirates), Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise), and Guy Davis (The Marquis).

And they’re ending the year with a partnership with video game developer Vogster Entertainment to create a series of weekly online episodes that will feature artwork to be used for Bleedout, an original graphic novel of short stories based on the video game of the same name. Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night), Glenn Fabry (Endless Nights) and Tim Bradstreet (El Borak and Other Desert Adventures) have contributed work. The fifth of 10 episodes premieres Saturday, January 1st at 7 PM EST.

It seems like their lavish attention to print would make them averse to digital, but Tumor and Bleedout proves that’s not the case. Stephen Christy is smart enough to know that loving print doesn’t mean you can’t see the future and even embrace it. With that in mind, they have an exclusive partnership with digital comics provider Graphic.ly, which allows people to read Archaia comics on the web, on their iPad and/or iPhone, and on their desktop.

Archaia has proven they’re not only here to stay but ones to watch and learn from on how to straddle the two markets of print and digital.

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