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BOOM! Studios & Archaia Editors-in-Chief Matt Gagnon & Stephen Christy Talk Merger, Creator Deals And Aesthetics [Interview]

Last week comic book publisher BOOM! Studios announced it had acquired Archaia Entertainment with a view to positioning the company behind award-winning books like David Petersen’s Mouse Guard and the Jim Henson’s A Tale of Sand by Ramón Pérez as a fully functioning imprint, with Archaia’s staff and corporate culture intact. It was good news for both Los Angeles-based publishers, but not necessarily for the reasons many industry insiders assumed. In their first joint interview since the news broke, both company’s Editors-in-Chief Matt Gagnon and Stephen Christy told ComicsAlliance how the merger came to be, why it made sense to them from a number of angles, and what readers and professionals can expect from the new union — not only with respect to the publishing line, but to creator deals and broader media as well.

Under the leadership of CEO Ross Richie and Editor-in-Chief Matt Gagnon, BOOM! has grown impressively over the last few years. Its carefully curated, indie comics-fueled Adventure Time line of comics selling well and earning glowing reviews from fans and critics; its 2 Guns graphic novel by Steven Grant and Mateus Santolouco was adapted into a new film starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg; and this year the company launched a new slate of intriguing original titles like Brian Stelfreeze’s Day Men, Mike Carey and Elena Casagrande’s Suicide Risk and the pulp fiction revival Six-Gun Gorilla by Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely. BOOM! is also known to have strong relationships with comic book retailers, and distribution deals within the broader book trade have been a crucial asset to the company as it confronts a market that can and has been hostile to non-franchise, non-superstar projects.

Founded by Mark Smylie and overseen by Editor-in-Chief Stephen Christy, Archaia has had a run of successes in recent times, most notably the domination of Jim Henson’s A Tale of Sand over last year’s Eisner Award nominations. An adaptation of an un-produced surrealist screenplay by Jim Henson, the book by Ramón Pérez is just one part of Archaia’s preciously managed Henson line that also includes graphic novels based on The Storyteller and The Dark Crystal and forthcoming work based on the cult classic Labyrinth. In terms of original work, Josh Tierney’s adventure graphic novel series Spera has been nominated for an Eisner for Best Publication for Teens; progress continues on David Petersen’s mighty Mouse Guard; and the company made an auspicious foray into foreign comics translation with Sergio Toppi’s gorgeous Sharaz-De: Tales From the Arabian Nights.

Unfortunately several of Archaia’s best books have fallen out of print, and the publisher suffered a heavy financial setback in 2012 when an exclusive distribution deal didn’t work out as planned. As such, it was assumed by many that BOOM!’s acquisition of the considerably smaller Archaia was something of a rescue — and Archaia will indeed benefit from BOOM!’s much stronger market penetration — but BOOM!’s Gagnon and Archaia’s Christy told us that things weren’t as dire as all that, and that the union of these two Los Angeles comics outfits was based on mutual senses of ambition and admiration.

From ‘Jim Henson’s A Tale of Sand’ by Rámon Pérez

COMICS ALLIANCE: I’d like to get a sense of what was going on at Archaia these last several months that led up to the acquisition by BOOM! We know work continued on putting out some impressive books but there was a revenue problem resulting from circumstances having to do with Archaia’s former distributor, PGW.

STEPHEN CHRISTY: 2012 was definitely a tough year for the company, starting in late April when we experienced a serious cash flow crunch due to our move to new book distributor PGW not working out the way we had hoped.

That said, since the end of last year we’ve been on a great track of growth. Revenue was up thanks to us righting our publishing program and getting books back out there, and we also managed to close four major movie deals: two at Warner Bros. for Bolivar and Lucid, one that has yet to be announced, and one that I’m incredibly excited about for a forthcoming book that was set up at Fox 2000, written by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) and to be illustrated by Tale of Sand’s Eisner Award-winning artist Ramón Pérez, all of which helped to increase revenue and get our brand out there in a bigger way in Hollywood.

We’d also formed some great partnerships through Black Label, our custom publishing/licensing imprint, including being tasked to re-imagine Shotaro Ishimori’s classic Cyborg 009, two major publishing deals with video game publisher Meteor Entertainment, and bringing The Thrilling Adventure Hour live-staged radio show to book form.

I went to the Angoulême comics festival for the first time in February and was thrilled to see how much progress our foreign licensing had made in the last six months, including a huge debut/push for Tale of Sand. We were working on developing our graphic novel Feeding Ground as a feature film outside of the studio system, and had just sent to print a number of terrific original graphic novels like The Reason for Dragons and our new volume of Mouse Guard called The Black Axe. It’s been probably the busiest and most productive six months in Archaia history, and this acquisition feels like the culmination of some great momentum that both companies have built in the past six months.

‘Hit’ #1 cover by Ryan Sook

CA: How did BOOM! come into the picture? Was this a case of Archaia looking for a rescuer or were the circumstances less dire than some people have assumed?

MATT GAGNON: Our interest in a potential acquisition of Archaia has always been rooted in our appreciation and respect for the beautiful books they’ve created, the accomplishments they’ve achieved, and our shared core values. As for the exact chain of events, these things tend to happen at the board level and involve a skill set that isn’t mine or Stephen’s primary focus. Our focus is helping create great comics and graphic novels, something I think both Archaia and BOOM! excel at.

SC: This definitely wasn’t a situation of us looking for a “rescuer”… I think that both [new BOOM! Studios President] Jack [Cummins] and [BOOM! Studios founder and CEO] Ross [Richie] can speak more to this, as I’m sure they will, but this for us was really more about it being the right opportunity at the right time, and both teams sharing a vision that a consolidation of resources could lead to more success for all of us.

CA: From Archaia’s point of view, what made BOOM an attractive home for the company?

SC: We have a deep respect for the staff of BOOM!, and that was an important starting point in terms of feeling comfortable moving forward with the negotiations. [BOOM! Studios VP of Marketing and Publishing] Filip [Sablik] and I have been pretty close for five or six years now, and I’ve been friends with Matt and Ross for about that long as well, and I have a great deal of respect for all three of them and the way they’ve been able to grow and advance the company. It’s obvious that they’ve been able to build an incredible publishing machine, and having that kind of production, editorial, and marketing support is something that was very attractive to us at Archaia. We’ve been able to make some of the best-looking books in the industry, but we’ve known that because of our smaller size we haven’t been able to execute on the publishing or marketing side of things the way we wish we could.

From a film/TV development standpoint, they’ve also been able to generate a lot of interest in their properties and have their first film, 2 Guns, coming out August 2. Having a film produced is an amazing moment for any publisher, and to be able to be a part of a company with that on the horizon is beyond exciting.

‘Cyborg 009′ artwork by Marcus To and Ian Herring

CA: And from BOOM’s perspective, what was the thinking behind acquiring Archaia? What are the strengths of the company and where do you think you can add to them?

MG: Archaia stands for quality, innovation, and excellence in the realm of presentation and design. They are industry leaders in that pursuit; it’s hard not to get excited about their company ethos. In Archaia, we saw a kindred spirit whose brand was complimentary to our own while still bringing something very unique to the table. But as with any company, it’s the people themselves that are the most important component. Archaia has a terrific staff that we’re all really excited to work with. In particular, I’ve know Stephen and [Archaia Marketing Manager] Mel [Caylo] for years and really respect the work they’ve been doing.

In general, I think we’ll be able to offer Archaia more resources and enhance what they’re already doing well. Archaia is a significantly smaller company who has been producing tremendously beautiful books with limited resources. I can relate. When I started at BOOM! five years ago, we were a fraction of the size we are now and faced similar challenges. We’ve worked incredibly hard, and published a lot of stories we’re very proud of, to ascend to where we are now. We’re competing in a different space, positioned where we are in the top 10. There’s been infrastructure built, a production process that keeps titles on schedule, world-class editorial and creative (even better now!), and the best team in comics (again, even better now!).

In addition to that, our distribution deals with Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins Canada will be an asset to a company that relies heavily on the book trade.

CA: Can you tell me anything about the price of the acquisition?

MG: Again, these transactions take place at the Board level at both companies and are beyond mine and Stephen’s pay grades. Even if we did have those details, it wouldn’t be responsible or appropriate to share those publicly.

‘Day Men’ cover by Brian Stelfreeze

CA: Are Archaia’s deals with creators, licensors, media rights and so forth all intact or have they been complicated by the acquisition? My understanding is that Archaia’s standard creator deal is quite different from BOOM’s with respect to page rates and ownership. Will Archaia continue to manage those dimensions of its business independently, or will BOOM be taking over creator contracts and representing the books in the broader media from now on? Will any changes be retroactive or just for new projects going forward?

MG: All of Archaia’s previous deals are still being honored. It’s important to maintain that continuity. For deals moving forward we’ll look at them from the perspective of our new combined interests, which will ultimately lead to better business all around. The other thing worth clarifying is that on a fundamental level both BOOM! and Archaia offer a creator-shared deal to the creators we partner with. The specifics of our deal may vary, but the underlying principles are the same.

SC: Like Matt said, all of the deals Archaia has in place will simply transfer over to the new entity. I think the larger resources of BOOM! are only going to benefit both companies going forward in terms of how we’ll be able to deal with creators on new projects. For me personally, I’ve been handling the Hollywood side of Archaia for the last year or two, and now I suddenly have a whole new library of titles to play with, as well as a new partner-in-crime on the Hollywood side in BOOM! founder and CEO Ross Richie. Hopefully he and I will be able to get into some trouble together on that front sooner rather than later.

CA: What about the integration of Archaia staff into BOOM? Will there be any change in roles?

MG: The Archaia staff has already been integrating really well. We’re all comics folks, so we dig the same things and speak the same shorthand for the most part. And again, a lot of us have friendships going back years. Core roles won’t be changing in any significant way. If anything, having a larger support structure will allow the members of Archaia’s team to focus more on what they are best at.

‘The Reason for Dragons’ by Chris Northrop and Jeff Stokely on sale in August

CA: Was there ever an idea of creating a new company name to encompass both brands? Why did you think keeping the branding distinct was important?

MG: No, that was never a consideration. BOOM! and Archaia each have their own brands and their own sensibilities, and that can be attributed to their respective success. If you’re a fan of Archaia’s books, you don’t want anything to change. It’s what makes them special. Likewise for BOOM!. We’re proud of both brands, and while they are complementary, they both stand on their own two feet in the industry. They’re both deserving of their own space.

SC: I’ve been throwing around BOOCHAIA! but for some reason that hasn’t caught on! The goal is to keep the brands separate and when you speak with Ross about his vision for how the two brands will work both separately and together you can tell he’s given it a lot of thought to the how’s and the why’s of the brands co-existing, but still standing on their own.

CA: Like BOOM!, Archaia has a solid reputation for stewarding licenses, such as the Jim Henson library and foreign reprints like Toppi’s Sharaz-De. Are those projects affected by the deal?

SC: Besides some of the outside partnerships/licenses that have come through Archaia’s Black Label imprint and the foreign titles we work on, the Jim Henson library is the only licensing partnership that Archaia has. Black Label will continue forward, with some new titles being announced in the next few weeks that have been in the works for a while. Archaia founder Mark Smylie will continue to be the steward of our foreign pipeline, and from everything I’ve seen in our conversations with BOOM!, this is actually something Ross is interested in expanding and building out, which is very exciting.

Our philosophy on our relationship with The Jim Henson Company remains the same. We went to them and pitched them on the idea of doing only one or two hardcover graphic novels for their major brands every year, making each release special and treating it almost as if we were launching a movie as opposed to launching a comic book. By doing this it meant that we could do in-continuity stories that truly mattered, while never being in danger of flooding the market or overloading what the fans could handle. For properties like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, those are so close to Lisa Henson’s heart and she is so wonderfully hands-on in the creation of those books that I don’t think we could even do more than one or two a year given that she is always in the middle of production on multiple TV shows and feature films. The fact that we can get such personal attention from Henson on these products is something I’m grateful for, and our philosophy for the whole relationship going forward is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

MG: Creating licensed comics that are authentic and exude quality has been a mission of mine since I started at BOOM!. One of the things I love about Archaia is they share the same philosophy.

‘Six-Gun Gorilla’ #1 cover by James Harren

CA: Archaia is a leader in American comic book production and design. Will that be maintained, and is it possible that BOOM! products could be affected by the Archaia approach? Generally speaking, is this an opportunity for both teams to learn and influence each other, or is the idea to keep things separate?

SC: I would be sad if we weren’t influencing each other, and just this week I’m already seeing how much both teams can benefit creatively from this. BOOM! and Archaia will both maintain their brands, but the truth — and this is very important — is that the more that everyone in the comics industry as a whole can up their game on production and design, the better off we’ll all be. We all want Archaia to continue to be the industry leader when it comes to book production and design, and hopefully we can learn more from the BOOM! crew on how to run the publishing side better, something I think they do better than any other company in the industry. Also I want to publicly call out Matt, because I don’t know any editorial team that has a better record at consistently finding amazing artists than him and the BOOM! crew. I’m really excited for the opportunity to bring some of those artists to Archaia, and hopefully expose some of our Archaia creators to BOOM!.

MG: I think both teams will make each other even better at what they do. What’s really exciting to me is the fact that we have incredibly talented people on both sides joining forces. Stephen jokingly posted a picture on Twitter of the ‘92 basketball Dream Team. While we may not stack up against Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, there is now an enormously talented team we’ve assembled over here.

CA: Along those lines — editorially, how will Archaia operate going forward in terms of developing new projects? Is it to be an autonomous imprint making its own decisions, like a Vertigo under DC Comics, or something more integrated like BoomTown or kaBoom? What should the creative community, people who haven’t worked with either of you yet, understand about this merger?

MG: There will be collaboration, and it’ll be in the best interest of making great comics that honor our brands. The primary decision makers that made Archaia’s books awesome are still here to make Archaia’s books awesome. If anything, there’s more support and more resources to take things to the next level.

David Petersen’s ‘Mouse Guard: The Black Axe’ hardcover collection on sale July 23

CA: What are BOOM! and Archaia’s immediate plans? How soon will Boom be administering the publishing and marketing and direct market strategizing, and what will be the first initiatives? Your press release mentioned returning out of print titles to market — which ones?

MG: We’ve already begun! It’s full speed ahead for both of us. We’ve already had some great meetings about how to collaborate on projects in the pipeline. As with any integration of this scope, there will be a period of transition and the first step is listening and learning from each other. Ongoing initiatives are already being discussed and we’ll be announcing new projects in the coming months.

SC: I had the experience today of seeing how Matt runs the entire BOOM! editorial team and I was blown away… I felt like I was watching Seal Team 6 discuss an operation that they were embarking on. Coming from a small company where it was pretty much just [Archaia editor] Tay [Taylor] and I on the editorial side, it was great to see that bigger group function. On the new project side, there’s already been some great ideas that have been thrown around. Tay, Mark, and I all have dream projects that for various reasons we weren’t able to do prior to this acquisition, and it’s been so great to see how open the BOOM! crew is to helping us bring those to life. Some of the best books we’ve published in the last two years are coming back into print. Iron, Cursed Pirate Girl, Sharaz-De, and my personal favorite, Tale of Sand, are just some of the few books that will be on the shelves in the coming months, with more following behind them.

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