Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
In an ideal world, all comic book editor-in-chiefs should experience working at a comic book store. Such is the case with current BOOM! Studios EIC Matt Gagnon, who spent a spell as buyer and purchasing manager for Hollywood’s Meltdown Comics. Gagnon recently took some time to discuss BOOM!’s transition away from the Disney properties and toward KaBOOM! books like Peanuts and Adventure Time, as well as creator-owned works such as Roger Langridge’s Snarked. The bulk of this interview took place well before Newsarama’s report that Mark Waid’s Irredeemable and Incorruptible were both drawing to a close this May, but Gagnon and I spoke of it briefly after the news broke. I will be curious to see what big news BOOM! will have in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, enjoy this interview. Me? I wish I was a young writer, so that I could get Gagnon to send me a Mark Waid script.
Tim O’Shea: What were your priorities when you took over the EIC role, and how successfully did you achieve what you set out to accomplish with the BOOM! line?
Matt Gagnon: I was—and continue to be—focused on maintaining the level of execution that the fans expect of us and we expect of ourselves. Before I became EIC I had already spent two years as Managing Editor, building a style and a system of how we make comics and fulfill the promises of what we solicit. Not to oversimplify our principals, but at its core we’re all about publishing great comics and shipping them on time. This July will be my 2 year anniversary as EIC and I feel like we’ve only been getting better and better.
Back in 2008 when I came to the company, one of my first goals was to make sure the trains were running on time. We’ve been very consistent since then and I’m extremely proud of the reputation we’ve garnered. It’s a testament to the insanely talented team we have here at BOOM! and the dedicated network of talent we have involved in our comics. We’ve been recognized by Diamond and our retail partners for two years in a row with the Best Publisher Award (under 4%).
Anybody who knows me knows that I have high expectations of myself and my team. I want to maximize every opportunity that we have. I don’t just want to do Planet of the Apes comics; I want to do the best Planet of the Apes comics, you know? The same goes for Hellraiser, 28 Days Later, Adventure Time, or anything else that we publish.
Creatively, I’ve always had a vision for our line and I’m proud of all that we’re accomplishing. We continue to achieve our goals every day, every time we send another issue to print that we’re proud of. But there’s always more to be done and bigger goals that we’re working toward. You can never rest on your laurels.
O’Shea: The KaBOOM! line made a rather pivotal transition in the past year, as the Disney licenses expired and the new licenses and creator-owned projects were gained. Are you pleased with where KaBOOM! now finds itself positioned?
Gagnon: I couldn’t be happier with the progression of the KaBOOM! imprint. The Disney licenses were obviously very important to us, and we were fortunate to publish Pixar, Muppets, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, et al, at such a formative point in the company’s development. We had a lot of success with those titles and continue to be thankful for the opportunity to be a part of that legacy.
When I look at the KaBOOM! imprint now I see a much more diverse line of comics. Whether it’s the iconic characters of Peanuts or creating brand new characters like Roger Langridge’s Snarked or a modern hit like Adventure Time, it’s a phenomenal line-up. Publishing all-ages comics is incredibly difficult in the direct market. When the Disney license was up we were hearing a lot of consternation about what our position would be in the market with all-ages material moving forward. I think we’re showing with our new line-up that we’re more committed than ever to all-ages comics.
And things should only get more exciting this year. We’ll make a big announcement in a couple weeks that will only bolster the imprint.
O’Shea: It’s safe to assume you learned a great deal about the EIC position while Mark Waid was still a full-time co-worker, but who else would you say you learned from the most in order to be best equipped for the job?
Gagnon: Oh yeah, Mark is a giant. I’ll always be thankful that I got my start working with him. I mean, c’mon, he’s one of the all-time greats. To this day I still send young writers I’m working with a Mark Waid script to study. He can get whatever he wants out of 22 pages; it’s amazing.
I learned a ton from Ross [Richie, Founder & CEO of BOOM!] and we continue to have a great working relationship. There’s an awesome team over here filled with smart people that all have something to offer.
O’Shea: There are few people in the comics editorial side of things that have a background such as yours in retail. How did your retail experience help you to understand the priorities of how to best position the BOOM! line in a struggling (and quickly changing) economy?
Gagnon: I’ve said this in interviews before, but it’s one of the best pieces of experience that I have. I spent years “behind the counter.” I’ve seen the industry from all angles: fan, professional, retailer, publisher. It’s something I’m very thankful for and I think it gives me a unique perspective into what’s important to readers and retailers. It’s certainly helped me make adjustments and continue to be successful as the economy—and the industry—have changed over the years.
The only thing I haven’t done is work at Diamond. I should go shadow my Diamond rep for a few days [laughs].
O’Shea: This question is rooted in ignorance. Was the Stan Lee line always intended to be one year, or was there an option to go past the one year?
Gagnon: We launched the Stan Lee line as an ongoing series, but most of the story development was only planned out through the first year. It’s not really uncommon when launching a new series. You have to wait and see how the market responds to what you’re doing in serialized entertainment.
There was some terrific fan support for the line, and the books were generally well reviewed throughout the run. We all still love those stories. The creative teams were amazing and their work was exceptional. At the end of the day the sales just didn’t enable us to continue past the first year. That’s the long and the short of it.
O’Shea: What’s been some of the larger challenges in trying to maintain a proper foothold in the print side of comics, while bolstering your presence on the digital distribution landscape?
Gagnon: Well, it’s no secret that comic sales as a whole have been struggling. Launching anything new is a delicate and challenging task. There’re titles we launched last year that I think would have succeeded in, say,’09 but under-performed for us. Thankfully, we’ve also had a lot of success. You have to keep hammering away and putting out comics that you believe in. Some of them will find an audience, some of them won’t (despite your best efforts). It’s a magical and joyous thing when something pops and it’s a tremendous bummer when they don’t.
We’re consistently working on expanding our presence in the digital landscape, which is important long-term. But our core print business is still very much our bread and butter. I think we’ve done a good job of doing a balancing act between the direct market, the book trade, and digital. The trick is to keep hitting all those targets.
O’Shea: With bookstores such as Borders closing, I am curious how that has impacted BOOM!’s performance on your Mass Market sales. When you were interviewed by Tom Spurgeon in early 2011, you were pleased with the business BOOM! had gained with your distribution deals with Simon & Schuster in America and HarperCollins Canada. Are you still as pleased?
Gagnon: It was sad to see Borders close, but it honestly didn’t have much impact on our Mass Market sales. Simon & Schuster did a terrific job of shielding us from any fallout. We’ve actually been doing better than ever in the book trade. We’re getting to the point as a company where our backlist is robust and S&S and HarperCollins Canada are uniquely positioned to distribute our line.
O’Shea: This year saw you turn the editing responsibilities of Incorruptible fully over to Shannon Watters, while still keeping a role in editing Irredeemable? How hard was it to leave Incorruptible, which you had continued to edit after assuming the EIC role–and why did you decide to continue editing Irredeemable?
Gagnon: The answer is pretty boring: it simply came down to work flow. Shannon had been doing the heavy lifting on Incorruptible for a while as the Assistant Editor. I was there in a supervising capacity as she honed her own (considerable) skills. When I promoted her to Editor it was only natural that she take over the series. As my responsibilities increased she started helping with Irredeemable as well. I’ve been with Irredeemable since day one so it’s a tough series to completely let go of.
That said, both titles are ending in May, so we’re close to the finish line and are focused on sending Irredeemable/Incorruptible off with the ending they deserve. Thankfully, Shannon and I have a time-tested shorthand for doing these books, and she’s very patient with me [laughs].
O’Shea: How do you see the editorial line expanding this year?
Gagnon: You’ll see more in the way of new, original series from us. Creating new stories is something that’s in the DNA of the company. It’s something that’s important to us, and something that I’m a big believer in. As a matter of fact, we’ve been going full speed since the holidays developing a bunch of new originals that will debut this year.
We’ll continue to be aggressive in the realm of licensed comics as well. We have some of the best in the business and will continue to add some key franchises as the year goes on. The overall goal is to have a thoughtful line of comics that we’re passionate about.
If we believe in what we publish—if we care—then I think that translates to the page. There’s no greater ally than the comic book reader. If you put your best foot forward and deliver a great comic, the fan of that title will support the book in ways that are astounding.
That’s the great thing about the comic book reader, if they like what you’re doing, they’ll have your back.