Hellraiser

Year in Review: BOOM! takes some hits but doesn’t go out

This has been a year of challenging transition for the Los Angeles-based comic book and graphic novel publisher BOOM! Studios. As I mentioned last year around this time, popular comics writer Mark Waid had stepped away from his role as Chief Creative Officer of BOOM! (although he continues to write Irredeemable and Incorruptible, two very strong sellers) and acclaimed writer/cartoonist Roger Langridge had wrapped up his final work on the much-loved The Muppet Show: The Comic Book. Unfortunately that turned out to be just the beginning, but the publisher has shown persistence in keeping their foothold in the industry by releasing new properties with sufficient success to cover for the properties that were lost over the year.

Irredeemable Vol. 1 (one of BOOM!'s strongest selling graphic novels)

Last December, I thought the BOOM Kids! imprint still had a lot of life left in it. But the risk with licensed properties is the owner of the licensed properties may eventually choose to not renew contracts to keep new comics coming. That’s just what the Walt Disney Company did, which resulted in the all-ages line today being entirely altered from what it was a year ago. Over this year, what had been a growing line of Disney-related comics that, in addition to the Muppets, included classic characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, beloved Disney Afternoon characters like Darkwing Duck and the cast of DuckTales, and recent stars from Pixar movies like The Incredibles and Cars, trickled away as Disney shifted their comics publishing to Marvel Comics, which they had acquired in December 2009. (Concurrently, Marvel has been releasing magazine-style reprints of a number of these stories, and early next year plans to publish its first all-new Disney story since the acquisition [although that may be a story originally published in Italy that’s simply never been published in English before].) The Pixar comics mostly ceased at the beginning of the year and the classic Disney material by July. The remaining Disney Afternoon material was allowed to wrap up throughout the Fall, with Darkwing Duck, one of the best-selling titles of the Disney material, concluding last month.

Meanwhile, in the publisher’s main line of comics, three other licensed comics that helped bring in sci-fi and horror readers concluded. Their 28 Days Later comic ran its course, ending with issue #24 (there are plans to revisit the world, although the third movie of the franchise 28 Months Later may be stuck in development). Farscape, based on the Sci-Fi Network show of the same name, wrapped up a few months later, with no apparent plans to continue. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a faithful comics adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same name, which served as the basis for the movie Blade Runner, also came to a close after a strong start in 2009. All three titles ended with estimated sales of 3,000-4,000 copies per issue among North American comic book stores, although they have had or are likely to have better cumulative sales over time in their collected forms as graphic novels.

Clive Barker's Hellraiser #1 (one of BOOM!'s strongest debuts this year)

As if all that wasn’t enough, a highly publicized launch of three super-hero comics somewhat sizzled out this year. The legendary Stan Lee, co-creator of many Marvel Comics characters from the 1960s, helped conceive of a trio of new titles written and illustrated by some acclaimed modern creators, but even the possibility of a new Marvel Universe couldn’t sustain the mini-line past a year. While all three titles, Soldier Zero, The Traveler and Starborn, did well initially at comic shops, sales drifted over the last 12 months. The last issues were released over the last month or so, with the material being used for a set of decent selling graphic novels.

When big names like Disney and Stan Lee don’t work out for whatever reason, it’s time to double down. And that’s just what BOOM! Studios has done this year, replacing outgoing properties with new material both familiar and brand new. They have released well-received comic books based on the new Planet of the Apes movie, a new Hellraiser comic, and an anticipated Steed and Mrs. Peel from the ’60s Avengers spy TV series by popular comics writer Grant Morrison. You’ll note in that Planet of the Apes link that they created a mini-site that includes web-comics and other material to help reach out to potential readers. That’s a new strategy they’ve been practicing well for several of their launches this year. Similar digital initiatives were done for the launches of Michael Moorcock’s Elric: The Balance Lost. They tested this idea by releasing a free PDF sample of Hellraiser through Wired.com. This savvy awareness of the online world is also being used to help out promising original comics that haven’t quite captured the best sales, as in the case of Dracula: The Company of Monsters, a horror/thriller of a modern corporation trying to control the legendary vampire. The 12 issues released so far are being serialized as a web-comic for free, and new content will eventually be added, with graphic novel collections in print to follow. It should be interesting to see if a traditional print comics publisher can succeed with a formula that works well for many original web-comics. (Avatar Press seemed to do well enough going this route with FreakAngels, running from 2008 to this past August, although it’s something they’ve yet to repeat, which might mean it wasn’t successful enough to try again.) In addition to the successful launches and web-initiatives, BOOM! Studios continues to keep their digital comics library robust. You can read most of their comics through comiXology (or through their mobile apps for iOS and Android devices).

First Peanuts graphic novel

BOOM! Studios also re-branded their kids line as kaboom! Studios, headlined by the first Peanuts graphic novel (based on the new animated special Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown) and a new Peanuts ongoing series. (While selling very well, new Peanuts material not from the hand of the late Charles M. Schulz hasn’t been universally accepted, as it was his wishes that no new comics be created after he died. However, he was specifically referring to the comic strip, and there is evidence of others working on Peanuts in comic books released in the 1960s. Regardless, since the Schulz Estate does not have majority ownership of Peanuts and the brand management firm Iconix does (80%/20% split), new comic books is what we get. However the comic strips appearing in newspapers today still consist entirely of rerun strips by Schulz.) kaboom! also brought Roger Langridge back to BOOM! with a new original comic called Snarked. While it lacks Muppets, it’s missing none of the humor and charm. There are also two new WordGirl graphic novels based on the PBS animated series.

It hasn’t all worked out (their Decision 2012 comics straw poll experiment fizzled out despite being a fun idea, and their promising BOOM! Town literary comics imprint with Denis Kitchen has yet to really kick in), but it’s worked out well enough for them to solidly maintain their position as the seventh largest North American comics publisher, bubbling just under 2% of the market. Considering the big changes they’ve been through and the economic tumult surrounding them, that’s no mean feat.

Comics Publishers make Mainstream Push

There's a comic for everyone. They just don't know it yet. (Art by the late great Seth Fisher.)

Public awareness of comic books (or graphic novels or whatever you want to call them) is probably at an all-time high. Certainly higher than it’s been since the ’50s. But awareness has translated to people seeing and talking about comic book movies and TV shows, not actually reading comic books and graphic novels. Not in any significant and sustainable influx of numbers, anyway. Fortunately some comics publishers have noticed this and are doing some things about it.

Marvel Comics has entered into a partnership with Starbucks where their Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited service will be included free as part of the Starbucks Digital Network available via free Wi-Fi to patrons of nearly 6,800 Starbucks coffee shops in the United States. Marvel’s MDCU currently has about 8,000 comic books available digitally, with more added every week, so it’s quite a sampling. It will be part of the Entertainment channel, along with iTunes, Nick Jr. Boost, Yahoo! entertainment offerings, and other content providers. This has huge potential to lure in the simply-curious for some fun Marvel comic books. If it goes well, maybe Starbucks will add in other publishers to offer a greater diversity of material (ie, not just superhero comics). It’s an exciting start and a great idea. (Read more about Starbucks’ announcement.)

DC Comics also had big news yesterday. Cartoon Network announced plans for a block of on-air and online programming they are calling DC Nation. “A multi-platform, branded block of original programming and exclusive content based on the DC Comics library of legendary character properties, DC Nation is developed in partnership with Cartoon Network, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment.  The all-new venture will harness the publishing, theatrical and television assets together for one powerful on-air block on Cartoon Network with exclusive online content.” The name is a reference to DC Comics’ in-house column of the same name that appears monthly in most of their comic books. Programming will include a CG-animated Green Lantern animated series and a brand new Looney Tunes show, among lots of other things (ThunderCats!). Cartoon Network is saying that it will be “populated with event programming, interstitials, exclusive behind-the-scenes of theatrical production and an insider look into the world of all things DC.” Maybe I’m getting my hopes up too high, but I’m hoping they will use this opportunity to promote DC’s line of comic books and graphic novels, and not exclusively focus on other media. (Read more about Cartoon Network’s announcement.)

And finally, LA-based Boom! Studios released a PDF of a comic book meant to be freely shared and passed on to friends. In a bold reversal of most publishers’ fears of pirating, Boom! is embracing the modern internet culture of sharing by actually encouraging people to pass it on to others. The comic, suggested for mature readers, is Hellraiser: At the Tolling Bell, a new 8-page comic by horror legend Clive Barker and artist Leonard Manco (Hellblazer). It serves as a prelude to the new ongoing Hellraiser comic book series by Barker and Manco. This is a pretty big deal because, as mentioned on his website, “Clive Barker has touched Hellraiser only twice: once to write The Hellbound Heart, and once more to write and direct the original Hellraiser film”. The preview includes a link to sign up for more free comics from Boom!, a great explanation of how the new Hellraiser series will work for the uninitiated (“Just as TV shows are serialized week to week, comic books are serialized month to month”), a list of premiere comic book shops in Canada and the United States, with links to their websites, and a link to the Comic Shop Locator and their phone number 888-COMIC-BOOK. The PDF comic is a very creative advertisement for the comic, and they take great pains to make it clear that it’s not a preview – what appears in the PDF comic is unique and not an excerpt of the first issue. (Read more about Boom!’s announcement.)

Three publishers creatively reaching out to new audiences. What a great step in the right direction. To these three publishers and every other publisher out there: more like this, please!