Getting adrenalized about the unknown — in this case, a new comic book company — is always a little hard. But talking to Radical Comics publisher Barry Levine, who maintains unbridled enthusiasm while combining it with undeniable astuteness, it’s hard not to get excited. Levine’s new to comics as a publisher, but not as a participant as he had a multi-year first look deal at Dark Horse. Levine’s past work is wide-ranging, having worked as a rock photographer for such bands as Kiss, Aerosmith, ABBA, Elton John, Motley Crue, Queen and many more in the 1980s, and as a music supervisor and soundtrack producer on such films as “Judge Dredd,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Street Fighter” and “Die Hard With a Vengeance.”
Levine took an hour to discuss Radical’s immediate (starting in May) publishing plans, the first two titles — “Hercules” and “Caliber” — as well as some of Radical’s endeavors in other media, including a new Yoshitaka Amano book and some movie news.
Given the online comic book news sites, people now have some idea what the big comic book publishers do with their time. As the publisher of a new independent company, what do you do?
First of all, I made sure we had a great infrastructure when we started this company. That’s the most important thing because without that, you don’t have anything. You can have all the greatest ideas, hire all the greatest artists, but at the end of the day, if nobody reads your comics or sees your advertising or understands the tonality of what you’re trying to achieve — as opposed to any other publisher– it doesn’t matter.
Secondly, I made sure I brought in a really good editor-in-chief, a good marketing person, and a great publicist to work in conjunction with that.
I make sure that I oversee everything. Especially right now in the beginning, because I run two companies with my partner Jesse Berger. Every writer and every artist we hire, I have to sign off on. I’m not going to hire an artist or a writer just because they’re financially feasible for us –which a lot of people do. We’ve spent money on expensive people, but you get what you pay for — the John Boltons, Luis Royos, Bill Sienkiewiczs, Sterankos, and we can go on. Our doors are always open to unpublished as well as emerging talent in our industry. I sign off on all the artwork, all the stories, all the advertising, all the designs for the books, the Previews designs, everything.
Then I take it a step further. Once we have our property and once we’re marketing it, it’s up to me to really integrate it into the system. When I say the system, I mean if a certain comic book works as a video game or if it works as a film or if it works as an anime, that’s my job to seamlessly create an understanding of what that property is and how it translates. Everybody in this business thinks that every comic book they write is a film or is a video game — this is not true.
Do you see the digital era, the internet era, as helpful or problematic?
I see it as very helpful, and more than that, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. How you implement your digital strategy can be helpful but it can also backfire badly.
You use the internet properly to really integrate the art and the story and give people something to look for. I think that’s where the problem is. There’s a lot of content that is easily translated to multimedia such as iPods, that create accessibility to a large demographic of people, but you can also attract the wrong people or send out confusing signals. It’s a whole new horizon ahead of us and we need to navigate it properly.
Are you at all concerned about the almost limitless — thanks to the internet and webcomics– competition for story ideas? For example, Hercules is in the public domain, which makes the character fair game for anyone trying to launch a title with a recognized concept.
No. Understand me and how I work — nothing affects me like that. Let me give you an example. There’s another “Hercules” comic book out there, there’s someone else talking about doing an online “Hercules.” I didn’t care. There’s another movie studio that approached us to get involved with them and partner with them on a Hercules project. I turned it down, because I didn’t feel what they were doing was representative of what we wanted to do. I’m not saying what they were doing was wrong, but I was afraid it’d affect our brand and our title.
So, I’ve never been afraid of any of competition, even when I was a photographer. I was never apprehensive of competing ideas — you can’t be. You have to believe in what you do and what you’re going to do. All you have to think about is how you’re involved and the final product and its originality will stand on its own.
Many new publishers start out with a line of books having blatant or underlying similarities, ranging from horror to superhero to adaptations of unsold movie pitches to Indie-interest. Does Radical have a niche?
Absolutely, one hundred percent no. The next five books we’re releasing, “Hercules,” “Caliber,” “Khrome,” “Freedom Formula” and “Mateki; The Magic Flute” are all different. “Hercules” is iconic and has a different stylization. “Caliber” is an adaptation integrated into an original concept.
We’re involved with Imaginary Friends Studios out of Singapore, who I find to have some of the best artists we’ve ever worked with. We’ve formed a joint venture with them because we’re opening up a lot of opportunities in Asia, from manga to anime. This is all because of these guys.
Every story is different. We’re going to do comic books that have original content, whether it’s iconic or brand new — like Steve Niles’s “Khrome,” that’s coming out in August — or Ian Edginton’s “Aladdin” which is a retelling closer to “Lords of the Rings” — it’s not your mother and father’s Aladdin, that’s for sure. We’ll do iconic stories, like “Hercules,” but it’ll be a reinvention. Like the “300” — that’s based on public domain — without Zack Snyder and without his stylization, that would have just been another sword and sandal movie. Even though it’s Frank Miller — give it all to Frank, he really reinvented that — but what Frank did in the book and what Zack Snyder did in the film are two different entities. Frank’s “300” gave Zack Snyder the foundation to work from.
We’ve got Joseph Kosinski’s book, “Oblivion.” Ian Edginton is going to write it based on Joseph’s story. I can’t reveal too much at this point except that its futuristic but contained, and with very grounded characters. Joseph is currently in pre-production on “Tron,” which he’ll be directing for Disney.
We have five different brands under Radical Publishing. We have Radical Comics that focuses on the most important part of our company and that’s the fans. That is direct retail stores all over North America. That’s where you build your base. Then we have our Radical Books, which will be republishing Yoshitaka Amano’s “Mateki: The Magic Flute,” coming out in June. This special Amano book has not been published anywhere outside of Japan. They’re all going to be hardcover graphic novels. That’s for the mass market stores, as well as the direct sales stores. Then we have Radical Manga, which Imaginary is fully involved with. We’re working with some Japanese publishers as well in creating manga for the Asian market — not American manga. If it translates to our market, great, but we’re not going to Americanize it like some publishers. Then we have Radical Kidz, Imaginary Friends Studios children’s concept “Animal Square” which is being developed in Radical’s teens and tweens division as well as many other fun main stream children’s concepts. And then we have our last imprint, called Radical Art. The next Yoshitaka book, called “The Winds of Silence” is a 350-page book with an original story set to be published under this imprint. This was premiered down at Comicon last year with a poster.
How do you see working with retailers?
No matter how small they are, no matter how big they are, we will treat each retailer with our utmost priority. On “Hercules” #3 we’ve got three great cover variants — John Bolton & Stjepan Sejic. We’re giving the retailers other opportunities, other promotional tools to work with. On top of that, we’re calling stores all over the country. No matter how many copies they buy, we’ve been calling everyone and we’ll be hitting the phone very hard over the next three weeks, introducing who we are, what we’re representing.
Comic book companies come and go. There’s a major publisher who confided to a friend of ours down at Comic-Con last year about our comic book company competitor’s comment, “Oh, those guys won’t be around after Comic-Con.” Well, little did he know, not only are we around, but we’ve got a major financing entity behind us and it’s allowed us — unlike most people who get financing — to take our time to do it right. Not just throw the titles out there.
Last year we had the opportunity to sell a couple of things to studios and we didn’t do it. We didn’t feel the books were properly developed yet. We didn’t want to be one of those comic companies that just made comic books to sell a film. Selling films is the easiest thing in the world, but getting films made and finding a filmmaker to properly represent the original content with stylistic approach.
In order to get a film made, you really need to have a great title and do everything you can to make that title believable and accessible to people. When we came out last year at Comic-Con, our whole purpose was to debut the quality of our artwork and the high concepts. This year we have more interaction with our fans involving signings with Steve Niles, Yoshitaka Amano, Jim Steranko and so on.
How many titles are coming out this year from Radical Comics?
We’ve got two coming out in May, which are “Caliber” and “Hercules,” then June, we’re focused only on Yoshitaka Amano’s book, “Mateki: The Magic Flute” — obviously, we’ll have number two of “Hercules” and “Caliber.” We made a promise to Yoshitaka that we wouldn’t be trying to put out X-amount of titles in the beginning and cannibalize ourselves. When I said we’re really putting money into promotion and doing it smart — we’re even thinking about taking out a major ad in two of the biggest nationwide magazines for Yoshitaka to coincide for the mass market stores. That’s going to be branding Radical Books.
In July, we’ll have “Freedom Formula,” a book conceived by Imaginary. We didn’t want to do anything until the story was complete and the artwork was all there and the production renderings were there — now it’s beautiful. Again, it came right from Imaginary — it was one of the few books I had nothing to do with. They conceived everything and that is our focus in July.
In August, it’ll be Steve Nile’s “Khrome,” then in September it’ll be Ian Edginton’s “Aladdin.”
We have a diversified slate of books and a release schedule currently of only one book per month. In doing this we want to show the creators undivided attention and focus for their materials. In April 2009, Radical will be releasing multiple books under our different imprints.
If you look at it, by September, we’ll have six titles out in the marketplace. We’ll also have “Hercules” and “Caliber” trades coming out in November or December. This allows us to spend our money wisely and properly and really support our creators — for instance, with Steve Niles. I was involved with “30 Days of Night” before anyone else. That was my project, that was how I met Steve. I introduced Steve to CAA, my former agent, Jon Levin, I did the same thing for IDW. I was partnered with Mark Gordon and after about thirty days of negotiations with the studios I lost it the last day to Mike Richardson and Sam Raimi. But that’s how I met Steve and I think “Khrome” is the best project he’s done since “30 Days of Night.” So what did we do? We made a promise to him. He was trying to fit his story all into a single first issue and he had so much to tell — we made the decision to make it a forty-eight page first issue to allow him the freedom to bring a world that is dark, gripping and real. We’re also keeping the price affordable on our double issues at $3.99. All of our monthly comics are going to be $2.99, except the first “Hercules” and the first “Caliber,” they’re going to be one dollar in prestige bound format. We really want people to see the value of what we’re doing. That’s another way we’re working with the retailers too.
$2.99 sticks out in the current marketplace. Most independent companies start a dollar higher.
We’re looking at it this way — a lot of companies that do sell books at $3.99, you know why they’re doing it. The math of the market is Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse. Everything else is interchangeable. We believe we can crack the top twenty sooner than later. I know a company that has been out there three years and can’t even crack the top twenty. There’s something wrong there. We want to give people their value as well. When you see what our “Hercules” book looks like, when you see the quality of our “Caliber” books, the covers and interiors, and getting it for a dollar. When you see what we’re doing with “Khrome.”
That book would usually go for $5.99 or $6.99 for those 48 pages, but is only going to be $3.99 and that’s only for the first issue. The second issue will be $2.99.
Are all the books fully painted?
A majority of them are. It depends on the story we’re trying to tell, but some of them are, some of them are a combination. When you look at our Free Comic Book Day book “Imaginary” #1, it will show some of the production renderings that influenced everything. We start out with character renderings and production renderings which gives us a really good idea of the universe. Sometimes we use it as a splash page, sometimes we don’t. They may not fit, but they may be used as inspiration to our artists and writers.
I want people to be able to look at these books and have an interactive experience. There are certain books you see, artists that are brought in not for the quality of their work, but the cost of their work. And it shows. People will pay more attention to the high concept and the story opposed to what the artist brings. I’m a true believer, fifty percent is just your story and the other fifty percent is the art — you could have the most incredible original story in the world — but if the artwork looks terrible, it’s not going to help it, it’s not going to embellish it. I think one of the best collaborations I’ve ever seen was Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith. Steve knew exactly what he wanted and he was very instrumental in that, but Ben added an element to it that made people want to read it, want to buy it again, want to enjoy it.
I want people to read from one page to the other and if they like a page, they go back and find new intricacies in the art that may have been missed. There’s a lot of detail, there’s a lot of residual characters, there’s a lot of things happening in our pages so it takes a lot longer to create but is more than worth it in the end.
Getting back to “Hercules” and “Caliber,” since they’re the first two books. It’s been at more than ten years since the Disney movie and nearly ten years since the Kevin Sorbo television show ended. Does the character’s resurgent popularity have anything to do with Conan’s from a few years ago?
Our “Hercules” — first of all, you see what he looks like, it’s truer to the mythology. And writer Steve Moore, you can’t find anybody better than Steve Moore. He’s a historian. Steve is Alan Moore’s researcher (no relation). Most comic books come in at 15-18 pages. His came in at 55 pages. That’s how detailed everything was. Our’s is more “Braveheart” meets “300.” It’s not the typical, three-headed hydras or one-eyed cyclops or whatever. It’s a reinvention, a retelling of a tortured soul, of a conflicted character. It’s not Conan. You can tell by his dialogue. He’s got a group of the “Wild Bunch” with him, he doesn’t use his super strength, he uses weaponry because he doesn’t want to appease the gods. This was after the labors. It’ll be an ongoing series. But it’s not going to be some guy walking around in leather pants, that’s for sure.
Did Steve Moore bring it to you or did you find him after you had the idea for the reinvention?
That was an idea my partner, Jesse Berger, and I drummed up. We thought we had a great idea. We went to our editor-in-chief, David Elliot, to discuss various writers. We came up with all the marquee writers, all the emerging names, then we came up with Steve Moore. David was an old friend of Steve’s, gave me a few things of Steve’s to read, and then Steve wrote a treatment for us and I went, “Whoa.” It was exactly what we wanted to do. We own “Hercules” a hundred percent we own our take on “Aladdin,” but even when we do work for hire with people we generously share with the writers and the artist on the upside of the ancillary revenues, we also do a lot of fifty-fifty co-creator deals.
We’re probably the most generous comic book company out there. If we’re making money, I want the writer and artist to be making money. I’ve been an artist my whole life — I’ve been one of the top rock photographers in the world, I’ve music supervised some of the best soundtracks from “Driving Miss Daisy” to “Judge Dredd” — I don’t appreciate people exploiting other people. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to do a lot of different things over the next six months that’ll be seen and shown in the press — we’re making announcements at Cannes and Comic-Con. But we want to make sure that we give to our creators — even if we own the project a hundred percent — they get things that are of value to them, even if in a film or merchandising portions.
It’s only the right thing to do. I’ve been around enough and I’ve seen a lot of comic books that have been adapted for films. Some of them have been bad films, but the majority of them are adapted by the screenwriter for what works for the film. Johnny Depp’s producing the “Rex Mundi” film with Dark Horse, Alan Riche and myself with Jim Uhls (“Fight Club”) writing. That adaptation is going to stay true to the essence of the characters and it’s going to stay true to the high concept, but it’s written for a film.
Whereas with “Hercules,” this is the first time I’ve ever seen a producer and a director — Sarah Aubrey and Peter Berg, respectively– see the comic story as the film. Sarah majored in Greek mythology in college — they looked at “Hercules” and said, “This is the film.” The closest I’ve seen happen to that is with Frank Miller and “Sin City.” Steve Moore really came through for us big time — he rounded the characters and the dialogue was very real. When the book comes out, you’ll see.
Are the King Arthur analogs in “Caliber” intentional?
Oh, yeah. Writer/creator Sam Sarkar added some new characters — obviously you don’t have Merlin, you have a half-French, half-Native American shaman, who’s an alchemist, there’s no abracadabra. He sees visions, he understands the Native Americans are destined to suffering for the next five generations. He is the man who finds the gun and gives it to Arthur. It’s “The Magnificent Seven,” “Seven Samurai,” meets the Arthurian legend of old with Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur and many more deep and intriguing characters. The artwork is exquisite, the covers are great. It’s a really great story. John Woo was immediately enticed to participate on “Caliber” on a directorial level. Even without the script, just based on the comic book he saw. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me.
What do you have planned for Comic-Con this year?
Our plan for Comic-Con is to showcase — the only difference this year is we’ll have “Caliber,” “Hercules,” Yoshitaka Amano’s book “Mateki: The Magic Flute,” “Freedom Formula,” a formidable ashcan for “Khrome,” “Aladdin” and our other projects in the works for 2009. The “Oblivion” poster will also prominently displayed and we’ll have signings, which we didn’t have last year. In fact, we didn’t have much of anything last year, we just let everyone know what we’d have in a year — we started that early, we started to slowly market ourselves. We stayed under the radar, not making a whole bunch of announcements, but making enough to substantiate us — and now we’re going to come out from behind that wall and start making great announcements. We’ll have Yoshitaka signing, Steranko’s going to come in, some of the great Imaginary artists are coming in.
Let me tell you, you’ve never seen talent like these guys from Imaginary. There are four partners that own the company, three of them are artists and the company is run by President/CEO Edmund Shern who is also the writer of “Freedom Formula.” We’re really excited to be doing an art book with them for the 2009 Comic-Con, titled “Imaginary.” Take a peek at their website www.imaginaryfs.com or ours at www.radicalcomics.com, you’ll definitely be amazed by the imagination that these great new friends of ours consistently bring to reality in our books as well as in their studio work.
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