Push Comics Forward: Talking About The Future With Boom EIC Matt Gagnon
Boom Studios has a reputation in the comics industry for publishing an increasingly diverse group of books and creators. This commitment to diversity in genre and people is reflected in an all-new initiative the publisher announced today in Previews with a letter from founder Ross Richie (also available online at pushcomicsforward.com). While 2015 is the 10th anniversary of Boom, the publisher wants to talk about what's next rather than what's come before. They call this discussion of the future Push Comics Forward and they don't want it to be only about Boom.
Push Comics Forward is Boom's way of focusing on the ongoing conversation about diversity and the future of the industry. To learn more about this initiative and what to expect from Boom for the next ten years and beyond, we spoke with Editor-in-Chief Matt Gagnon.
ComicsAlliance: First of all, 2015 marks the 10th anniversary of Boom - congratulations! It also marks your fifth year as EIC of Boom. Give us a quick walk through of how Boom has changed in these 10 years and the more specific changes you have seen as the leader of editorial.
Matt Gagnon: How has Boom changed in a decade? Well, I'm sure like any start-up that's made it 10 years we could fill up a documentary with that very subject! Outside of Ross, who founded the company, I have the privilege of being the longest serving employee at Boom Studios. That means—in addition to leaving my twenties and entering my thirties over the course of being here—I've been fortunate enough to see first hand most of the major transformations we've gone through. And it’s been an amazing ride so far.
When I started here back in 2008 we were known as the folks who published the Warhammer comics and a few interesting originals; we were only publishing a handful of titles a month back in those days. Then we became the publisher of the Disney comics and Mark Waid's Irredeemable. When the Disney titles were pulled over to Marvel—and I'll be somewhat more candid than I probably should here—it opened up a lot more of our resources. Publishing Disney was all-consuming for a company of our size back then.
From a personal standpoint, my vision was always to be publishing cutting edge original series and elevated licensed comics. That’s a vision that Ross and I have always shared, and what brought me over to Boom in the first place. Right around the time that Disney went away I clearly remember Ross and I sitting down to talk about the future—what was next? It was at that point when we looked at each other and said, "All right, now is our shot. Let's build the company that we've always dreamed of." And we knew there was probably only one chance to do that. We weren't in the position that we are today in terms of resources.
Around this time there were a lot of news outlets speculating that we were done. 'They can't survive without Disney.' 'Those books represent half of their publishing output every month', etc.
Meanwhile, we were kinda quietly smiling behind the scenes. I think we drew some motivation from that; it was that sensibility of, "Let's go out there and show them what we can do." We always knew what our team is capable of.
That of course lead to us doubling down on all-ages comics with Adventure Time, Peanuts, Garfield, et al. I’ve said before that this was one of the decisions we made that I’m the most proud of. You have to remember, back then it wasn’t en vogue (or lucrative, for that matter) to publish all-ages material. By sticking with our mission to help build the next generation of comics readers we were able to kick off a new wave of all-ages publishing that’s now become prevalent industry-wide. We’ve always believed that there should be comics for everyone to read, and KaBoom was our all-ages expression of that. At the same time we also doubled down on our original slate, which is a big passion of mine. But most important of all we built one hell of a team along the way. You don't get any of that success without a stellar group of people working toward a common goal. That's when the floodgates opened up, as it were.
All right, that's my overly-simplistic, bare-bones recap of the last 10 years. One of these days I’ll get around to the behind-the-scenes, "30 for 30" version!
CA: We’re in an industry where a lot of small publishers come and go, particularly due to the financial difficulties of publishing and the challenges of finding a foothold in a medium so dominated by two publishers. What do you think has made Boom so successful?
MG: The people. I'm a big believer in the power of team. When you look at companies, even outside of comics for that matter, there's some that have a vocal, visible figurehead at their helm and there's some that tend to focus more on the team. I think we fall firmly in that latter category.
Here's what I believe: what you can accomplish with a group of good people focusing on common goals is so much more than what you could ever accomplish alone.
It all starts with finding the right people and empowering them to do their best work. We apply that philosophy to our internal team as well as our creators. That's where we succeed or fail.
CA: You guys have some exciting stuff up your sleeves for 2015. What projects can you tell me about right now?
MG: Oh, where to start, where to start? This year is looking like a beauty. We have a fully painted prestige limited series from JG Jones and Mark Waid that’s shaping up to be a real event. There’s a mystery project with Grant Morrison in the hopper. We’re working on an original series called Skybourne with Frank Cho.
I’m really, really excited about the next project we’re doing with Si Spurrier and Jeff Stokely. What they did with Six-Gun Gorilla was exceptional and this new project they’re working on is insanely good and truly unique. We have two new projects coming up with James Tynion IV this year. One is called Ufology and the other hasn’t been announced yet. James is quickly becoming a cornerstone of our publishing slate and I think he’s producing some of the best original works in comics right now. The guy is firing on all cylinders.
We have a new series called Giant Days coming out from our Boom Box imprint. Even though it’s very different than Lumberjanes it’s still probably the closest thing we’ve published to it in terms of the spirit and sensibility.
There’s some great stuff cooking over at Archaia, including a beautiful new original graphic novel called Long Walk to Valhalla. We’re also going to be releasing a new Cursed Pirate Girl story this year, which is always a cause for celebration.
Plus, we share our own 10 year anniversary this year with Mouse Guard. So we’ll be celebrating David’s creation with some special books. The first one we’ve announced is the third volume of Mouse Guard: Legends which debuts in March and features Skottie Young, Becky Cloonan, Dustin Nguyen, and Ramón K. Pérez (amongst others!).
And lots more to come. Dozens of projects that haven’t been announced yet, many with some of our favorite creators.
CA: So, Boom will be publishing people like Mark Waid, JG Jones, Frank Cho, and Grant Morrison in 2015. Is this Boom trying to compete with places like Marvel and DC, those creators trying to find places with a little more freedom, or maybe both? Who pursues who in these kinds of publishing relationships?
MG: It's less about competing with Marvel and DC and more about building a slate that’s curated that we believe in. Look, Boom isn't going to be going toe-to-toe with the Big Two anytime soon. And that's not our focus. We spend zero energy thinking about that.
There's some creators we'll be working with who are notable talents looking to stretch their wings with original comics and there's some creators we'll be publishing this year that have never been published before. It's all about finding that winning chemistry, the right project, and pushing the envelope.
One of the things I love about our output is how we curate the line. I love that we’re able to work with everybody from Grant Morrison to Noelle Stevenson to Asaf Hanuka to a creator that has literally never been published before. Having that type of range is so enjoyable and really showcases the people that work with Boom and their interests.
One of our biggest strengths is that our line is carefully curated, but doesn’t adhere to one genre or one demographic.
CA: The last couple years in particular have seen Boom add a bunch of imprints, whether its buying Archaia or creating lines like Boom Box. Is this something we can anticipate more of in 2015? Or is 2015 more about establishing existing lines further?
MG: Yeah, it’s the latter. No more new imprints in 2015. We have a combination of imprints that we're really happy with right now and they give us the ability to tell all the stories we want to. We'll spend the year focusing on those imprints and making them sing.
CA: Beginning today, Boom is encouraging a conversation about the industry that you are calling Push Comics Forward, which you've announced in Previews with your April-released books. What is Push Comics Forward all about?
MG: It’s primarily about joining the conversations that are happening in this comics community of ours, helping to support and amplify those messages, and encouraging others to join. I love this industry. I've been working in it, when I’ve had the good fortune to have the opportunities, since I was like 17 years old. To see the way the industry has evolved in even the last few years is amazing--we’re seeing things (slowly!) become more representative. We’re ahead of the curve in many ways in comics and we’re also behind the curve in many ways. I’ve said before that I want to build a company now that looks like what most comic book companies will look like 15 years from now. With Push Comics Forward we want to promote a discussion in the industry about being more forward-thinking, tolerant, and inclusive.
To get specific, it's about promoting more gender diversity, racial diversity, and LGBT diversity, as a start. That extends to diversity in the workplace, our creative partnerships, and the stories themselves. And it’s not just about those that are underrepresented, either. We need to be actively taking steps to build future generations of readers. It’s about empowering bold creative voices. It’s about inviting the entire industry to work on these issues and build a better, safer home for all of us.
Not only that, it’s about embracing and applauding what other publishers and creators are doing to elevate our industry. Ross has a great editorial that came out in Previews today. He writes about how his vision for Boom starting out was to “help broaden the genres, audiences, and themes the medium could tell stories about.” We’re lucky to have other companies in this industry that are doing just that. I love seeing Marvel publish a title like Ms. Marvel, or Gotham Academy over at DC, and Image has been lighting it up with books like Bitch Planet and Saga. It’s a great time for comics.
CA: What motivated this?
MG: There's a movement that's happening right now. I think some people can see it. It's not only the types of stories that we're telling that are changing, but it's the types of stories that are being supported. We simply would not have had the retailer support for Lumberjanes in 2008 that we have today. I don't think our retail community gets enough credit for how they've helped this industry grow over the last few years, in particular.
Look, I’m biased, I got my start at Meltdown Comics as a buyer; these folks are our partners and they're stepping up. We have to remember, it's not only us taking a risk with our dollar bills, and the readers taking a risk with their dollar bills, the retailers are right there with us. And unlike us as readers, there’s no exchange or returns policy as a whole for them. They’re taking the lion’s share of the risks every week.
But to get back to the point, you can see the change. It's all around us. We're even hearing the last gasps of those that are out of touch, watching the old industry pass them by; whether they're screaming into the wind about cosplay or some other newfangled issue that's the scourge of their comfort zones. We see it. It's a natural evolution.
Beyond that, I've been sick and tired of how women are treated in this industry for as long as I can remember. That nonsense needs to end immediately. When I was younger I think I had this subconscious thought that I'd just do my part—handle my own business—and be part of the solution. Then I think you get a little older and realize that's not enough. The only way you help make any meaningful change is if you take a stand. Be an advocate. Some of us have the luxury of that being a choice. Some people don’t have a choice--they live with it every day. So it’s about all of us standing with them.
We have a lot of forward-thinking creators and readers in our industry that are already doing the heavy lifting. I think, and this is a delicate subject to tackle, but I think we’ve seen it’s much less prevalent for a company/corporation to plant a flag on issues like these. And I get it. I get it, I get it, I get it. There’s a million reasons why it’s more convenient to stay neutral as a company or an executive. But if we want to see a much healthier industry we need to see publishers step up, too. Hell, I’m sure some would say publishers stepping up is one of the most important things of all.
So...that's where I'm at. We have a responsibility as an industry to expand our readership for its overall health and longevity. If we don't, we'll be worse than unsuccessful; we'll be irrelevant. This isn't about risk-taking and making some grand gesture to feel good about ourselves. It's about doing the right thing. It's about common sense and common decency. We need to wake up and invest in our collective future if we want to have a healthy future to be part of.
For us, I think it's just about explicitly joining the debate/movement that so many others are already involved in. Letting these people know that there’s not just other people that believe the same things they do, there’s organizations as well. We want to lend our voice and support to the people already on the front lines of these conversations.
CA: Is there anything in particular about Boom’s April books and publishing plans that signal the start of this conversation?
MG: I think it’s all throughout our line-up, really. And has been for some time. This isn’t one of those linewide 90º turns in strategy. And it’s not exclusive to Boom. It’s bigger than us. It’s a movement.
We spent a lot of the last couple of years experimenting with our comics without actually shining a light on it. We were just nominated twice for the “Outstanding Comic Book” GLAAD award and could not be prouder of that recognition. If you read Lumberjanes and Memetic, the two titles nominated, you’ll get a snapshot of the types stories and creators we work with.
This coming month alone we have a series about a gang of women protecting their turf (Curb Stomp), a female-lead sci-fi series that’s like a futuristic Dirty Dozen (Cluster), a high seas horror series that stars a group of Somali pirates (Plunder), and a tiny-but-tough heroine who kicks butt, eats too many potato chips and has unwavering self-confidence (Help Us! Great Warrior).
In January, we had a series called Burning Fields debut that features a former Marine named Dana Atkinson and an Iraqi detective named Aban Fasad as the book’s leads. We launched a story about a little boy covered in feathers that’s an all-ages gem (Feathers). Then we followed that up with Munchkin, hopefully bringing some casual readers who are fans of the game back into comic shops.
And that’s before we even get to March or April!
CA: What do you hope to achieve with the conversation attached to Push Comics Forward?
MG: Well, I think you hope to make a difference. One day when I leave this industry I hope I've helped leave it in better shape than I found it. In general, we’re trying to join the folks that are already working so hard to improve this industry and invite others to do the same. It’s a call-to-action in some ways. We want creators, fans, press, retailers, distributors, publishers, to share what they want to see in the years to come and celebrate the positive changes they are seeing now.
Here's why this is important: a healthier industry means we have comics for everybody active in our economy who is interested in our medium. It means people with points-of-view that are different than the "mainstream" can actually work in our industry and put food in their refrigerator. This shouldn't be a polarizing idea. This is something we need to do.
CA: Comics folks discuss sustainability of our industry fairly frequently, whether it’s people predicting the death of the industry or people pointing to new areas of growth. What do you see as the priorities for Boom in creating a more sustainable business for Boom and for the whole industry?
MG: Accessibility. Diversity. Inclusion. I mean, we’re not talking about anything too far-fetched. I think a lot of us know what we need to do to expand the industry. It was summed up beautifully and succinctly with those shirts that read “Comics Are For Everyone.” But now it’s about all of us who strive for a better industry to band together and put in the work. Publish better comics. Treat people the right way. And when that’s not happening we all need to stand up and be vocal. Again, it’s important for publishers to be part of that chorus as well. Much of the issues we’re talking about start with us.
We’ll have to be fearless and optimistic to accomplish those goals.
CA: One of my favorite things about Boom is your investment in diversity of both kinds of books and kinds of creators. Naysayers sometimes claim pushes for diversity require things like quotas or hiring unqualified people based on their race or gender. How exactly does Boom go about hiring diverse people and publishing books for diverse interests?
MG: Thanks for saying that. It might be the single thing that I’m the most proud of here. We've never had a quota. It's never even been much of a talk to be honest. It’s just who we are. Our team was built completely organically over the years. It’s the only identity we know. So much of our success we’ve had up to this point is directly because we have so many different voices and opinions from all walks of life. You don’t want your art to be repetitive and homogenized and you don’t want to build a team like that either. You asked how we do it and I guess it comes down to the sensibilities of all the folks that are in a position to hire--and from there, actually walking the walk.
The fact that it's not commonplace for more people of color to be employed in this industry, or for the LGBT community to be treated equitably, or for women to be employed in greater numbers than they are now, is one of the reasons we want to push comics forward in the first place.
I want to be part of an industry that reflects the changing world around me. I want to read stories that reflect the hopes and challenges and dreams that we all face. If we’re not doing that...what the hell is the point? We’re an artistic medium. We ought to be leaders in this regard. And we are in some ways. But we have miles to go.
CA: If you could fast-forward 10 years, what do you hope for the comics industry? Where do you hope Boom is in all of that?
MG: I just hope we're leaders in the ways that matter. We know as an industry we can continue to innovate with our stories falling out of bed. We have that kind of talent. I hope that 10 years from now folks look at the ideas, organizations, and principles that our industry stands for and it’s aspirational.
The industry is changing—and for the better. Let's band together and put in the work. If we do that we can build the industry that we want, and need.