Innovate Or Die! How Two San Diego Comic Book Publishers Avoid Doom
By Michael Sangiacomo
When ID8 Nation decided to profile entrepreneurship in San Diego, one of the first things to come to mind was Comic-Con.
The annual pop culture fest is the event for which San Diego is best known and it attracts people from all sorts of enterprising fields: the movies, TV, video games, toys and, yes, even comic books.
Surely, we thought, Comic-Con must be a hive of entrepreneurship, a place where young dreamers could make their mark on an international stage. Unfortunately, we were a good 10 years too late. Comic-Con is still the pop culture center of the universe for four days in July, but there’s no room left for the little guy who wants to do more than ogle booth babes or show off his homemade Boba Fett costume. The roar of the Hollywood hype machine has drowned out everything else.
How superfluous has Comic-Con become to comic book publishers (at least those who aren’t producing blockbuster movies)? We found two San Diego publishers who can’t even be bothered to attend this year’s get-together.
So we adjusted our sights and decided that maybe the story isn’t Comic-Con. Maybe it’s these two companies, publishers who have carved out niches in an industry that can be hard on the little guy. These guys are the true entrepreneurs.
Comic books may seem like fun and games, but it's a tough business. The landscape is littered with publishers who enjoyed initial success but doomed themselves by growing too large too fast. Malibu Comics was highly successful, but when Marvel Comics bought it and had no idea what to do with it, the entire line crashed.
Speakeasy Comics was hugely popular in the last decade, but went belly up after stretching itself too thin. It's a common story.
That’s why San Diego-based Ape Entertainment and IDW Publishing are taking separate, but innovative approaches to success.
Ape targets an audience of 10 and younger with titles such as “Kung Fu Panda,” “The Penguins of Madagascar,” “Temple Run” and “Cut the Rope.” (The first two are based on animated Disney movies and the last two on popular game apps).
Dave Hedgecock, who founded Ape in 2003, takes his cues from his three-year-old son. “If he likes something, I know I have a winner,” he says.
Ape goes after the young crowd for two reasons: few publishers (besides Archie Comics) do it and getting readers hooked on comics at a young age is a good way to ensure they become lifelong fans.
In addition to Disney properties, Ape publishes original works based on Shrek, Sesame Street and Strawberry Shortcake.
Hedgecock realized that children no longer visited comic book stores like they used to, so Ape emphasizes digital delivery on tablets and smartphones through apps, iTunes and other platforms.
“The comic shops aim at older white men who like superheroes and resist anything else,” Hedgecock says. “How many little kids do you see in comic shops? Our young readers play the video game. They like it, they download the comic and enjoy it. They don't have to leave home and get to a comic shop. It’s the new model.”
Though virtually all large publishers offer digital versions, the industry still measures success by physical copies sold. A successful comic sells 30,000. Any comic that sells more than 100,000 is the equivalent of a lottery win.
"It's a funny thing. We sold 2 million downloads of 'Pocket God’ -- yes, I said 2 million downloads,” Hedgecock says. “But in terms of physical comics, we sold about 1,000 copies. So, what should be one of the top-selling comics of all time if you count downloads is not.”
Ape’s comics are not interactive, but feature familiar characters in new stories. The company hires writers and artists to create these adventures, always keeping the original game and story in mind.
Hedgecock says that while Ape still publishes print, the future is digital. Electronic comics also are a way for startups to get noticed, he said.
“Comic shops have a limited amount of wall space for displaying books,” says Ohio comic book shop owner Scott Rudge. “By the time we put out the new Marvel, DC and Image comics, there is not much room left. Plus, customers are often reluctant to try new books they know nothing about, which translates to lost sales for me if I carry the book. So anything the publishers can do to get the word out to readers is a huge help for both of us.”
Old characters, new stories
While Ape targets the young, IDW determined that older readers still had great affection for the touchstones of their youth, such as “Star Trek,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Ghostbusters” and “X-Files.” In an entertainment world where nothing really dies, they realized that younger readers would be just as enthralled with new adventures of tried-and-true concepts.
So they hired top-notch writers and illustrators to create new adventures featuring old friends.
Ted Adams and three friends started IDW Comics (Idea and Design Works) in 2001.
“I had been in the business for 15 years by then. I paid my dues,” said CEO Adams. “I was with Wildstorm Studios in La Jolla (part of Image Comics, a group of young artists who dared break away from Marvel to start their own company). “We did trading card game designs, designs for video games and characters. We worked for big names like Upper Deck, Microsoft and Sony."
In 2001, they published an art book by Ashley Wood called "Uno Fanta." They liked his work, but had no great expectations. To their surprise, it was a huge hit.
The next project was the acclaimed Steve Niles book, “30 Days of Night,” about vampires enjoying the long dark Alaskan winter. The book was turned into a 2007 movie and produced numerous comic book sequels.
Buoyed by that success, IDW produced "CSI," based on the television series. That set the company on a path to produce comics based on popular, licensed properties. It has the U.S. licenses for such titles as "Transformers," "X-Files," "Ghostbusters," "My Little Pony" and "G.I. Joe," among others. Its "Star Trek" comic series leads directly into the new movie, "Star Trek: Into Darkness."
But the most popular of the 60 titles IDW produces each month are "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Locke and Key" by Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King.
The readers are older fans who remember the comics as television shows, movies or comics from their youth. They make the trip to the comic shop for new releases every Wednesday, but, just in case, IDW titles are also offered as digital downloads.
Though they’ve attended in the past, neither company will be at Comic-Con this year.
Comic-Con started in 1970 as a simple gathering of comic fans and pros at the El Cortez hotel, but soon outgrew that home. Since 1991, it has been the premier convention in the city, hosting more than 130,000 people from around the world.
“We get a lot of people pitching ideas and showing off artwork,” says IDW’s Adams. “But the truth is that’s not the way to get into our comics. After looking at hundreds of pitches over the years at Comic-Con, I don’t think we took on any of them.
“It’s no longer for comic fans; they get lost in the crowd among the movies, games and television," he said.
Ape’s Hedgecock agreed.
"I love the Con, but it takes too much time and money and we can get lost in the Hollywood crowd," he said.
He said they do use the Comic-Con to look for new talent, mainly artists.
"I always look for new and interesting voices," he said. "We have a lot of people coming up to us showing us portfolios. We try to be accessible to new talent. It’s harder for a writer. With an artist, his work is right there on the page. You can’t take 10 seconds with a writer and decide he's ready."
Ape and IDW executives say there is always room for talented people, but getting noticed is a problem.
“I always tell people to produce their own comics, show us what you can do, get your work out there,” said IDW CCO and Editor in Chief Chris Ryall. “If you're good enough, we'll find you.”
While some preach that higher prices, paper costs, distraction by the Internet, movies and games spell doom for comics, Adams and Hedgecock see a bright future for their companies and the industry. While there is still a strong market for paper comics, companies release digital versions as well.
And, despite predictions, comic sales are up this year.
"There's no question this a great time to be publishing comic books,” said Adams. “All channels of distribution are up and, unlike the boom period in the '90s, it's not being driven by speculators. IDW's publishing schedule is extremely strong through 2014 and I expect our growth to continue."
Michael Sangiacomo is a comic book columnist. He is the author of the “Phantom Jack” series, the award-winning graphic novel, “Tales of the Starlight Drive-In,” and the religious horror work, “Chalk.”