Ninjas seem to get all the love. You’ve got Ninja Turtles; the hordes of ninjas who are deadly assassins in Marvel and DC superhero comics; and Ninjas often prove popular at Halloween. But when samurais try to get some love, they’re slaughtered in order to save Tom Cruise- what’s an honorable Samurai to do? Easy: take solace in Actionopolis‘ new “Spirit Of The Samurai,” an adult young prose novel with illustrations, from noted comic book industry figure (and writer) Gary Reed and artist Rick Hoberg. With the upcoming summer release of the book, CBR News caught up with Reed, who was happy to spill the beans on his new project.
“‘Spirit of the Samurai’ is about young Katherine (‘Kat’) Anderson discovering that she is the last in a bloodline for a famed Samurai clan, the Toho clan,” explained Reed. “They were the last guardians against the Clan of the Black Rings, which were the samurai that could bring the dead warriors back to life. Kat and her brother were trained by their grandfather in the ways of the samurai but they never expected that they would have to bear the responsibility to wield the mystical swords of Toho and Hiro of the Black Rings. Kat must assume the role of bearing the sword of Toho, the mystical Heavensblade and she must stand against her brother who has joined with the other clan.
“The genesis of the idea actually came from Shannon Denton of Komikwerks when he asked me to write one of the Actionopolis books. He had a story he was developing in the same vein and wanted to know if I wanted to take a crack at it and bring it down to a younger audience. And like most people, I’ve always found the aura of the samurai to be fascinating so I agreed to tackle this one.”
In the comic book industry, particularly with superhero comics, it’s rare that female lead characters aren’t overtly sexualized, complete with little personality and impossible proportions. But in “Spirit Of The Samurai,” Reed has made sure to buck the trend and present a female character who isn’t meant to be the star of lad mags. “When I first started talking to Shannon about the story, I immediately said that I wanted a girl to be the lead character. It might be because I have four daughters and am a little more cognizant that so many stories, even young adult stories, feature boys. Girls are usually only present if the book has something to do with dragons or fairies, so I want to put a girl in the lead in more action and adventure role — one that is usually reserved for boys.
“So, it was a conscious decision. And of course, Kat being a young teen, I wanted to avoid the overtly sexual aspects. Too many female characters are limited by their sexuality. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. If you look at most of the stories I’ve done, I use females in prominent roles but rarely deal with the sexual aspects. I like to have strong female leads but sex is something I don’t deal with that often. I mean, I have, but it’s generally not an important topic in my writing.
“Most importantly, the main character, Kat, is a young teen. So, she wasn’t going to be handled with any kind of sexual overt style. She’s going through a period of discovery but it’s more of a journey of understanding her role and she’s surprised by some of her own actions, especially when she makes a conscious decision to embrace her legacy, knowing that it will change her forever. But she does it because she knows it’s the right thing to do. It’s the only way to save her brother, so for her, its not a matter of weighing options, she has no choice…she has to accept the responsibility.”
Earlier joking aside, samurai are a popular topic in much genre fiction and Reed was careful to not tread on previously covered ground. To make sure “Spirit Of The Samurai” stood out from the pack, he focused on the characters themselves as opposed to honing in on the “cool” factor of the samurai. “One of my main goals is to bring the warriors to individuals who were not just great fighters, but understand the code of the samurai. Kat isn’t just learning the ways of battle, but understanding what is expected of her as a samurai: the code, the honor, the belief system. I think that makes her a bit more confused when she has to deal with her brother who has adopted — I guess to put it simply — the evil side. She will have a hard time understanding that part of it. I hope that the dichotomy of a modern girl mingled with the ancient and very chauvinistic morals of a samurai will make an interesting mix.
“Another aspect I found intriguing is that Kat has a Japanese ancestry and that’s the same situation for my daughters. Their grandmother, my mother-in-law, was born and raised in Japan and so the relationship that Kat has is very similar to what my daughters have. They don’t look Japanese, in fact they’re all blue-eyed and blonde haired, but they grew up with a lot of Japanese customs.”
With artist Rick Hoberg bringing this project to life, Reed couldn’t be more pleased. He was introduced to Hoberg by Denton, with Reed finding himself impressed by the penciller’s skill and professionalism. “He knows exactly what to do with each scene and does a fantastic job with it,” said Reed of Hoberg. “It may not be a collaborative effort in that we’re going back and forth on things, but we don’t have to. I’m very excited that he’s going to stay on all four books in this series and if I do another Actionopolis series, he’d be my first choice to illustrate any that I did.”
If the name “Gary Reed” is making your Industry-Legend-Sense tingle, there’s good reason: he’s the man who helped many of the most popular modern creators break into the market. While they all haven’t kept in contact with Reed, for various reasons, the writer is humble when asked about the creators he assembled as publisher of Caliber Comics. ” I have to admit that even I’m surprised when I look through Previews and see how many names came through Caliber. You have Guy Davis, Vince Locke, David Mack, Michael Gaydos, Ed Brubaker, Stuart Immomen, Jim Calafiore, Mike Carey, Greg Ruth, Patrick Zircher, Brian Bendis, Joe Pruett, Marc Andreyko, Michael Lark, Jim O’Barr, Dean Haspiel, Dave Cooper, Brandon Peterson, Jason Lutes, Mike Allred, Phil Hester, Mark Ricketts, Galen Showman, and many others.
“Do I feel a sense of pride? Not really because they were talented people that were likely going to make it on their own. I think Caliber gave them an opportunity but in turn, they helped Caliber so it was a mutual progression. I do think we helped some get started sooner and move up the ladder quicker, but I think they all would’ve made it. Caliber didn’t discover them — we just got them first.”
With his impressive accomplishments at Caliber, Reed is definitely an authority on launching and sustaining a new comic book company, a challenge for many new companies. “With the change in the market, in terms of distribution, demographic, and if you look at the market today, you have the distribution problem in that there is only one distributor and new publishers are instantly relegated as ‘second class’ because of the exclusive deals with the Premiere Publishers. There are a lot fewer stores and an incredible fewer number of comics being sold. But having said that, today’s market has a fantastic informational flow so that it’s much easier to get attention to what you’re doing. Face it, with the Internet, even a small publisher can have a presence at the level of a major publisher.”
A lot of recent publishers, from Crossgen to Speakeasy, have tried to make huge splashes in the market, but have had to withdraw after failing to draw in audiences. To those considering similar ventures, Reed has some cautionary words. “I see the fledgling companies out there now and each have their own particular problems. For CrossGen, their problem was overhead. They were spending too much money. They had established themselves, put out good books, and built a solid fan base. But with the money they were spending internally, it wasn’t enough. Their problem is different than most of the other publishers striving to make it.
“Generally, I see two major problems with the new publishers. Lack of promotion and lack of production. For promotion, I just don’t see many of them making a name for themselves — something that fans can consistently see. Having a press release posted on some news forums or having interviews with the creators is great, but it can’t be your only promotion. Most of them are not making any kind of identity for themselves. Many of the newer publishers, I wouldn’t be able to name many of their titles. Even when a title does well, it’s often difficult to associate it with a specific publisher.
“When Caliber was publishing, we did the Caliber Rounds on cheap newsprint but they had previews, interviews, information, whatever we had. We sold them in bundles to stores, passed them out at all the conventions, sent them to mail order companies — anywhere we could. We usually printed 60,000-100,000 each month. We did a lot of promotional posters, we often added extra pages to our comics to run previews of upcoming series — we were always looking for different ways to get the word out. We arranged with many cons to bring in as many Caliber creators as we could to make a presence at the shows.
“But we didn’t have the Internet until the very end. That would’ve helped enormously. I don’t know, maybe I would’ve fallen back and relied on that as well. Its much cheaper and you get a better sense of how effective it is. I do think, however, that the main problem is that most of the newer companies just aren’t building an awareness about themselves.
“And that leads into the other major problem — production. Most of the companies are just not producing. They may get out a lot of number 1s, maybe some #2s but usually not more than that. Far too many titles are announced. but never come out and the ones that do, never establish themselves. At Caliber, we also had a lot of sporadic publishing and that’s just the nature of dealing with so many creator owned properties. After all, if the creator is late, what are you going to do? You can’t replace them. But we did produce. We did over 40 issues of “Deadworld,” 30 issues of “The Realm/Legendlore,” 17 issues of “Kabuki,” 13 issues of “Goldfish/Jinx,” 30 issues of “Caliber Presents,” 20 issues of “Raven Chronicles,” and 50 issues of “Negative Burn.” We produced about 70 graphic novels and trades. We got a lot of material out there.
“On some titles, we produced to build an audience. Some titles didn’t make much money if any, but we were building an awareness. Of course, it was proven that many creators would move on once they got established so that became a problem. I’ve had many publishers tell me that they won’t do straight creator owned comics because of what happened with some of our creators as well as some other publishers such as Tundra. If I were to ever get involved in publishing again, I would not rely on creator owned comics because a publisher just can’t get ahead in doing that. You build careers for the talent, but you’re not building the company. I’m sure if you had the finances to implement safeguards for that, it could work but it isn’t going to work for most smaller companies.”
It’s accepted thinking that new publishers need to really appeal to the mainstream audience, specifically in bookstores, to establish brand recognition and profitability, as the direct comic shop market is often impenetrable for non-superhero work. Komikwerks’ Actionopolis line has been hailed by many as a step in the right direction and Reed is happy to join that chorus of supporters. “I think Actionopolis is gearing up in the right direction. We’re targeting bookstores and libraries in addition to the comics market. For the market outside of comics, we’d fit into the role of a traditional publisher. For the comics market, we’re sort of a hybrid. We have prose novels with illustrations instead of sequential art. But the format has been accepted before with comic shops.
“I consider the Actionopolis books to be a bridge for the younger readers. With the idea of using images to represent characters, it’s a lot easier to make that transition to sequential comics as that wall of bringing a vision to their imagination has already been broken. And with the acceptance of manga, I think that the whole concept of comic style art — the sequential storytelling — is not such a radical idea to young readers.”
While “Spirit Of The Samurai” and his other Actionopolis work will keep Reed busy, he’s trying to redefine ambitious with a full slate of upcoming projects. “I’m managing to keep myself quite busy in the last year or two since I came back to comics. After the ‘Baker Street’ graphic novel was released from iBooks and Simon & Shuster, I started writing a series of graphic novel adaptations for Penguin Books. I completed ‘Frankenstein’ with Frazer Irving and then ‘Dracula’ with Becky Cloonan. Both of them have been released, Dracula about a month ago, but with the death of Byron, the company has collapsed. I had written a book on the Beatles with R. G. Taylor doing the art but not sure what’s going to happen with that now.
“For Image, I’m doing a regular series on ‘Deadworld.’ If anyone has read my other stuff, it might seem a bit surprising but you know, sometimes its fun just to get into a series and play around as opposed to thinking too much. I tend to do that with material like ‘Saint Germaine’ which was collected by Image and ‘Red Diaries’ that is coming out this summer, also by Image. There are also plans to release ‘Renfield’ as a graphic novel. Caliber did one, but it’s been out of print for a long time. It struck a chord with a lot of people on Amazon and other online stores and so I think it will do well outside the comics market. Hopefully, it will hold its own at comic stores as well.
“I have a number of projects in the works. One is with Tom Mandrake that will likely go to Image. Image is sort of home now as I’m working with Desperado Publishing who have all their titles go through Image. I like the system at Image and they’re doing some great books. I’ve seen some of Tom’s pages and it just looks fantastic. I have a Raven Chronicles series called ‘The Savants’ that deals with the young girl in Raven and that’s being packaged by Atlantis Studios. I think that it will be shopped to different publishers or Atlantis will publish it themselves. That’s their call. ‘The Realm’ is being discussed with a publisher and that looks promising, but I won’t be writing it. Even though I own it, Joe Martin is such a natural for it and he did such a great job with ‘Legendlore,’ that he’ll be doing it. But in turn, I will likely be reviving ‘Seeker’ which was created by him originally. So, a swap of our titles. I’m also working on some anthology titles that I’m writing and bringing in some different artist. ‘True Spy Stories’ is self-explanatory and there’s ‘Conspiracy!’ which will cover many of the different conspiracy theories from Area 51 to the assassination of JFK to the current situation in Iraq.
“I started up a company with Rafael Nieves called Transfuzion and what we’re doing there is to offer up some of our properties for interested artists to embark on a path with us to bring them to completion. They’ll share in everything so it’s much more of a collaborative effort. We haven’t officially announced it yet, but already some of the projects have interest from artists so that may be a good method of getting some things moving along.
“I’m also putting together a book which features many of my short stories that have appeared along with some scenes from the different series I’ve done. It’ll be called ‘Of Scenes and Stories’ and is sort of an overview of what I’ve written so far. I don’t know if any publisher will take that on, but I’m content to do it as a Print on Demand project. I was surprised at how much I wrote in the past. I guess it’s a case of not realizing it until you look back. So, that may be more of a vanity piece for me, but I figure it’s like an artists’ sketchbook in that these are sketches of my writing. If they can do it, so can I. I don’t know how well it’ll sell but it will give me something to hand out as gifts for quite awhile.”