Oni Press may be best known across the general population as the publisher of “Scott Pilgrim,” but for the past 15 years, the company has remained one of the most consistent voices in indie comics. From serialized adventures like the acclaimed “Sixth Gun” series to long-awaied graphic novel projects like the just released “Sharknife Double Z,” Oni has carved out a space in the comics market a bit different than the standard genre publishers. And in 2012, things will continue to be different.
After back-to-back announcements touting a 2011 slate where every comic offered shipped on time and a redesigned logo from their long-standing Dave Gibbons designed icon, CBR News reached out to Oni’s Editor-in-Chief James Lucas Jones to takes stock of what changes have impacted how the company runs and how the current crop of Oni staff and talent plan to carry the publisher’s “RevolutiONIze Comics” message forward.
Below, Jones explains the history of Oni from its roots in black and white indie comics through the graphic novel boom, tells how the tastes of its staff help shape projects like the just launhed “Secret History of D.B. Cooper” series as well as comics like “Black Metal,” promises how they’ll continue to make their ongoing monthlies not only timely but different than what’s out from big houses like DC and Marvel and explains why creator-owned remains the company’s stock-in-trade.
CBR News: James, it’s safe to say that last year ended up being a big one for Oni as a publisher, and by the looks of it, you’ve got a lot on the slate for 2012 as well. But I wanted to start a little further back because a while ago, I bookmarked this Tweet from you declaring the start of “Oni Press 4.0.” What can you tell us about the staff working for the company right now and how they’ve contributed to what this era of Oni is all about?
James Lucas Jones: Oni 1.0 was 100% [Publisher] Joe Nozemack and [first Editor-in-Chief] Bob Schreck. And Joe has really been our common guiding force since the beginning. So that much has been maintained no matter what. And it was very shortly after the beginning that Jamie S. Rich came on board, and I kind of consider that Oni 1.5. 2.0 came after Bob left and Jamie moved to Editor-in-Chief, and shortly after that came on. When Jamie left, that was our third iteration where Randy Jarrell stepped in as our Managing Editor and I moved up to Editor-in-Chief. We operated that way for a while.
I think it was November of 2009 where Randy made a decision to make a life change and left the company, and we decided to bring in some new people to fill that role with Charlie Chu coming in to Editorial and an amazing gentleman named George Rohac stepping in as our director of operations. That was a new position we created to split up the responsibilities a bit differently than we had in the past. And there was also a kind of Oni 3.5 where we added Marketing Director Cory Casoni and our Art Director Keith Wood. We were growing incrementally, and now with full-timers and part-timers we’ve got like eleven employees now. It’s a much different company than the three guys hurling insults at each other in a single room that I started at in 2000. [Laughs]
All those changes in staff over the years have also seemed to impact the material you put out. When Oni started, the comics Bob Schreck edited were very much in the vein of the classic, $2.95, black and white indie comic. Things expanded out to include more graphic novels, and then you had a big period where the manga-style “tankoubon” format was a huge part of the line. These days, you’re doing a lot more full-color floppies and some different OGN formats. What do you gravitate towards mostly as Oni’s stock-in-trade these days?
I think that the thing about us from the beginning is that our tastes have been pretty broad. Even when we were doing stuff mainly in black and white, that was for a variety of reasons, but one of the main concerns was that when we do color, we’re really picky about our color. I still feel like I’d rather a book be brilliant in black and white than have mediocre coloring that wasn’t up to our standard. And in indie comics, finding people whose work we respect and who are capable of taking on the commitment of coloring comics to our standard can be a challenge.
But we haven’t stopped doing the black and white tankoubon graphic novel stuff. That’s still a format we believe in, and we like to see books in that format. Our series will continue in that style, and it’s been weird because in the past few months a lot of series which had kind of fallen off the map all came back. “Black Metal 2” came out in the fall of last year, and Chuck BB is hard at work on “Black Metal 3.” Last Wednesday, the unicorn of Oni Press – “Sharknife Double Z” – finally came out in stores. That was so great to get out into the world. And we haven’t announced a publication date for it, but Vasilis Lolos has been done with “Last Call 2” for about a month at this point, so that’s coming soon as well. We still believe in black and white graphic novels. In the last couple of years, we’ve launched “Super Pro K.O.” as a new series, and we definitely have more stuff in that realm coming.
For me, at the end of the day our mandate has always been that we want to publish comics that we’d want to read. And there are so many markets that I didn’t feel like were being served by the existing comic book establishment. One of the ways Oni is different than a lot of other companies is our focus on creator-owned material. While we’ve dabbled in licensing from time-to-time, we’ve tried not to do too much of that. I think as soon as you do, it’s an easy justification to grab market share and readership, but the more you do of that, the more it takes of your attention and focus. It’s like a snake eating its own tail because once you start, you have to maintain it. I think there are a lot of companies that started out with a lot of creator-owned focus that very quickly turned into primarily licensed houses that would dabble in creator-owned on the side. That’s not what we wanted to do. I didn’t want to be facilitating creators working on other people’s IP. I wanted people creating their own characters and telling their own stories. So a lot of what we’ve been doing in terms of our floppy initiatives is releasing books we’d want to read into the marketplace and trying to provide for an audience that may not be taken care of otherwise.
Your big monthlies include series like “Wasteland” and “The Sixth Gun,” which are genre adventure stories that maybe at one point would have been the kind of thing put out by a mainstream publisher but aren’t anymore. How much of what Oni does comes from trying to make a space for people who DC and Marvel won’t look at unless they’re pitching Batman and Spider-Man stories?
There’s definitely an element of that to it. It’s interesting because I don’t read a whole lot of the superhero output from DC and Marvel anymore. My reading has dropped off there pretty dramatically, though there are still a few guys whose work I follow regardless of the characters they’re working on. But a lot of that stuff has gotten very tired for me personally, and I like pushing boundaries and doing different types of books. One of the things I’m most proud that we’re releasing this year is Brian Churilla’s “Secret History of D.B. Cooper.” That is a book that I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to publish because it’s been in Brian’s head for seven or eight years at this point. It feels great to help him get that out into the world, and I’m honestly shocked that with the other publishing relationships and opportunities he’s had that nobody was ready to get behind him on this project before now. It’s just a really brilliant book.
But in terms of serving niche markets, I like doing that stuff, and the floppy periodical format is really conducive to that. It’s a great format for that kind of material, and I think with floppy accessibility changing too with the digital market and people outside of the comic Direct Market having access things in a very convenient way with iOS apps or Droid apps or whatever, there’s a way to grow that floppy format. People want serialized fiction. You look at the popularity of “The Walking Dead,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” and all these other amazing things going on in television, and they’re these tightly plotted serialized narratives. People eat that stuff up, and I feel like outside the superhero marketplace, those kinds of readers aren’t being served a whole lot of quality material. I mean, there are great books out there from every publisher, but I don’t feel like there’s any one publisher focused on crafting character-driven unique narratives.
The big news for Oni of late has included word that you shipped every release on time in 2011. I felt like there should have been a little #HumbleBrag tag at the end of that PR.
[Laughs] There probably should have been. It was something we’d talked about and set as a goal for 2011 when we were closing out our 2010 in the afterglow of “Scott Pilgrim.” But the real deal is that a lot of comic publishers have talked that talk before, and how long it lasts varies from publisher to publisher. We wanted to go out there and walk the walk first and then say, “We did this, and we’re going to keep doing it.” It’s no secret: we have a long history of shipping books not on time. But it’s a different situation when you’re 99.9% creator-owned. The authors own this work, so it’s not like Marvel or DC where if we’re really tight on a deadline, I can bring in half a dozen inkers to help finish an issue. We’re at the mercy of our creators to a large extent, and it’s hard, especially working the way comic publishers have traditionally worked where you’re always just a few months out.
After “Scott,” we looked at our operating procedures and schedule and started leaving nothing to chance. We started building in more time to the production schedules of our books -Â graphic novels, serials or what have you – so that wouldn’t be a problem for us anymore. And kudos go to our creators too. It doesn’t matter how much time you start with. “Sixth Gun” hasn’t missed a ship date yet, and that’s on the amazing work of Cullen [Bunn], Brian [Hurtt] and Bill Crabtree who have hit all their dates and kept the trains running on time. But overall, most of the credit for the significant accomplishment of shipping all on-time in 2011 goes to our Operations Manager George Rohac who really came in and set a schedule that would work and helped institute polices that helped us look at what was really happening rather than look for best case scenarios where we’re not accounting for possible complications.
And it’s worked out really well. We just shipped the first issue of “The Secret History of D.B. Cooper” a few weeks ago, and Brian is already wrapped on issue #4 and well into 5. “Bad Medicine” is our new medical horror procedural launching on Free Comic Book Day, and even though we’re in April and the book doesn’t officially launch until June, artist Chris Mitten is well into issue #5. We’re doing everything we can -Â particularly on the serials -Â to make sure we’ve got everything lined up so we don’t get into situations again where we’re shipping late or not hitting an in-store date.
And how has that shipping schedule affected sales. With “Scott Pilgrim,” knowing exactly when the later volumes were going to ship helped get them in front of a whole new audience and into bookstores and the like. Overall, how do you feel you’ve been doing in terms of expanding the reach of the line by shipping on time?
That’s absolutely true. And it really changed the way that Cory Casoni, our Marketing Director, can run his department. We have finished graphic novels in house that aren’t due to be publishing until next year, but they’re done and here with us. So when he has that kind of lead time, he can spend more time on marketing and getting things out to advanced reviewers. Particularly with the bookstore market, if it’s closer than six months out, they don’t even want to see it. So having that extra lead time allows us to get projects out there, and it allows us to make a dedication to our partners in the Direct Market too. If you’re publishing a series of graphic novels or a floppy comic series and you’re hitting all your dates, they can order with confidence. It helps them manage their cash flow, and it’s just easier to get behind a project if you know it’ll be there on time and regularly. That’s why a retailer can get behind “Sixth Gun.” Those creators have shipped 20 issues on time over the last year and a half, and they know that book’s a continuing source of revenue.
So this helps boost retailer confidence and consumer confidence and gives our marketing department a whole lot more to work with in terms of getting our stuff out there in book and library markets as well as the Direct Market. It also gives our design and production more time to do stuff that’s a bit more off the beaten path or impressive in terms of their jobs. Particularly, I think our summer releases from last year -Â “One Soul” and “Petrograd” -Â were just gorgeous books. “Petrograd” was designed by our Art Director Keith Wood, and “One Soul” was done by the amazing Matt Kindt. And both of those books were nice, hardcover, classy packages, and if we’d been operating down to the wire like a lot of comic publishers do, I don’t know if we would have had the time to put in what’s needed to make those special packages.
The other big news for the year so far has been the change in the Oni logo. Why was this the time to make that change, and what does the new design do for and say about the company?
First of all, I love the original, Dave Gibbons Oni design. I love our company history and like the association with mischief. Actually, the only tattoo I have was my tenth “Oni-versary” gift to myself. [Laughs] It’s on my forearm, and it’s the Oni face holding a big pen nib and a brush. So I really like that part of our identity, but at the same time, as our printing technology has been getting more sophisticated and as we’ve been doing more books, the limitations of the logo were becoming more and more apparent. It doesn’t read very clearly at a distance. It has a tendency to plug up when it was printed too small, which on spines of books that are only 100 pages can be a real issue. And finally, one of our bigger growth markets has been in early reader or middle reader types of books, and it’s hard to break into markets for little children when you have a devil head on all your products. [Laughter] While that certainly wasn’t the main consideration, it was a consideration.
So we wanted something that was a little personal, a little bit more modern and something that shared the Oni identity in a way that was more graphic. It’s a little more versatile across platforms for print and digital. And it was also just time for a change. We’re such a different company than we were at our start that it felt like this year – particularly after our flawless shipping victory -Â felt like a good time to rebrand and reassert ourselves. That’s especially true after last year where we were doing more kids comics, more color floppies and more color graphic novels. We put out “Rascal Racoon’s Raging Revenge” towards the end of last year, and I think that that’s the first original graphic novel we’d done that was in color from the get-go and not previously serialized in any way.
Finally, let’s look forward. What do you have on tap for 2012 that you’re most excited to get out there?
We actually just made the huge announcement at Emerald City of “Scott Pilgrim” color hardcovers, which is going to take a few years. Though I’m really excited about the bulk of our line. I think the new “Courtney Crumrin” hardcover collections we’re doing in full color are just fantastic looking. Ted Naifeh, colorist Warren Wucinich, editor Jill Beaton and Keith Wood have all done an amazing job both with the collections debuting in full color and with the new floppy series debuting in April. I’m really, REALLY happy for Corey “The Rey” Lewis to finally have “Sharknife Double Z” on the stands. That’s a project that’s literally weighed on him for years, and as we were getting into this new shipping schedule, he was one of the first “victims” of our paradigm shift. A lot of guys who worked with us for a long time were used to turning in a book and then holding it in their hands three or four weeks later. Now with our release dates, things are all buttoned up nine, ten months or even a year in advance. Corey was one of the first guys to really have to display some patience in terms of when we were releasing his book.
I’m exceptionally excited about “The Secret History of D.B. Cooper.” I think it’s amazing, and I love Brian Curilla’s work. I think he’s just an astounding creator and a wonderful human being. I already mentioned it too, but “Bad Medicine” is going to be a really fun series. That’s great because we’re kind of taking the comic paradigm as it’s existed lately and turning it on its ear. In terms of story arcs and storytelling, we’re going for a more compressed approach. It’s an ongoing series where none of the arc last more than three issues. In our first year, there’s three standalone issues, and most of the arcs are only two or three issues in lengths. I think things get drawn out too much these days, and while some people can handle that pacing masterfully, overall we wanted to do something different that’s paced a little faster.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Oni Press projects throughout 2012!