It’s still early days for Lion Forge Comics, but the digital publisher has amassed an impressive amount of potential material. In addition to original properties like “Catalyst Prime,” Lion Forge announced at Comic-Con International 2013 it would produce licensed comics on a number of NBC Universal properties, including “Knight Rider,” “Airwolf,” “Punky Brewster,” “Saved By The Bell,” “Miami Vice” and more. The publisher has already struck up individual partnerships with Playboy Playmate Claire Sinclair for its title “Wonderous,” UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Rampage Jackson for “Rampage Jackson: Street Soldier” and “Snakes on a Plane” actor Flex Alexander for “The Joshua Run.”
One of the founding members and driving forces behind Lion Forge is Managing Director David Steward II, who’s worked in graphic design, brand merchandising and film production, but recently found his way to comics. Lion Forge debuted its first run of titles in April 2013, and has continued rolling out issues at a steady pace through the Amazon Kindle store and iVerse Media’s Comics Plus service, with more on the way.
CBR News spoke with Steward about the current publishing strategy for Lion Forge, the balance they hope to strike between licensed and original work, the plan to expand from digital to print and more.
CBR News: Lion Forge launched this year with “Catalyst Prime” and has continued to add a catalogue of eclectic titles. How do you approach expanding your catalogue, whether it’s licensed work or original series?
David Steward II: When we started this whole company, we built our team from four guys who got together — myself and three friends that I’d work with in a previous business in early 2000 — were all interested in creating new content and interested in the comics medium and where comics are going now, especially with digital being that new avenue for releasing comics. We go about creating our content from things that we like, and we all have a diverse taste in different things — everything from superhero books to crime noir to action/adventure. We wanted to have a company that represented that diverse taste. You can see a little bit of everything from us.
From the licensed title perspective, we’ve gone after things that we’ve been fans of. With “Knight Rider” or “Airwolf,” we were all born in the mid- to late-’70s, grew up in the ’80s and these are all the shows that came in and captured our childhood fancy. Those are the things we’ve been going after. I think everything we’ve gone after, everything we’ve produced are things we essentially wanted to see out in the marketplace and didn’t see anybody else doing; and in a way, I think we’re entertaining ourselves, but entertaining our fans as well.
One of the biggest pieces of Lion Forge news out of San Diego this year was the announcement of licensed comics based on old NBC Universal properties. When approaching each of these books, especially favorites like “Saved By The Bell,” what’s the challenge not only in bringing these properties to a modern audience, but to a completely different medium?
Some properties are easier to develop than others. What we wanted to do in each case is definitely retain the core principle things that made those show great — retain the heart and the soul. What we updated was bringing a lot of those things to the modern age, except for “Miami Vice,” which is just staying in the ’80s. The ’80s and that time period was such a big part of that show. If we brought it into modern times, I don’t know — of course, the movies did a great job of doing that, but we felt like there was nothing like having that time period as the setting. Each one of those we’re taking on a case-by-case basis and [bringing] what captured our imagination from each one of those properties.
Another one of those challenges is really picking an art style and picking the right writers to go along with those properties. We wanted to find people that knew and loved the project. Especially if you look at the writing teams we brought on — Geoffrey Thorne on “Knight Rider,” he was screaming, “Oh my God! I totally want to do that! I had so many ideas growing up!” As well as Jonathan London, who was so steeped in “Miami Vice,” he was actually telling me all these obscure references that I had to look up. It’s all been an enjoyable process, but we wanted to make sure that in each case, we do each property right and give accolades to what the creators have done and carry them forward in an appropriate manner.
What separates you from other publishers who cash in on brand recognition and nostalgia while offering sub-par products?
I think each publisher has its own road. When you look at every company, everybody has their own point of view and their own tastes — whether it’s art, design, whatever — when they’re creating the books. We have a particular take and way we’re producing our books. If you look at our internal company makeup, we’re essentially a group of artists at the end of the day. Art for us is extremely important, and the look and feel of our books. Hopefully that comes across in the product we end up producing. We’re able to capture some things that — in our opinion — were low-hanging fruit. When it comes to licensed titles, the industry tends to go after the big dogs that are out there and things that are currently popular right now. Everybody’s always going to be fighting over the “G.I. Joes” of the world, the “My Little Pony” of the world, the “Star Wars” of the world — those are no-brainers when it comes to publishing. But the things that we’ve gone after are things that other publishers might not have thought of having a high value for whatever reason. When we found out that “Knight Rider” and some of the others were available to get, we were like, “Wow, we have to jump on this really quick.”
We’ll continue to do that. There are other things we have in the works that I think people will be quite surprised at for some of the announcements we have in the coming year.
In addition to the NBC Universal licensed books, Lion Forge has also formed partnerships with Rampage Jackson and Claire Sinclair to produce superhero books based on their likeness. As Lion Forge moves forward, how pivotal are these types of individual partnerships to the overall publishing plan?
What really makes those partnerships work for us is getting the creative involvement of the people that we’ve partnered with. It’s not just about, “Hey, let’s make a deal, let’s use your image and we’ll figure out everything else and bring you a product that has your name on it and you can help us promote it.” It’s not about that for us. We wanted to really get their insight. In each case, every one of those people played a role of creator in creating each of those properties. It reflects each of those people’s personalities, what they liked about comics and all three of them — believe it or not — were all comic book fans. When we first met, Claire talked to me about going to San Diego Comic-Con at an early age and some of the things she did there. Flex and Rampage both were comic collectors when they were growing up. They were all jazzed about getting into this industry and being able to participate on the creative level; not just lending their name to the product.
Going forward, we are looking at other partnerships of the like, but again, it will always be working with any sort of celebrity on that creative level, not just slapping their faces on a product.
Beyond licensed work, Lion Forge has a few original series, like “Catalyst Prime.” What kind of balance are you hoping to maintain between original properties and licensed work?
Ideally, when you have a publishing company, you’re always having to balance where you want to be creatively and what is needed from a business standpoint. Creatively, we’d love to be at a dead-even standpoint on licensed titles that we’ve been fans of and also creating our own. We love creating properties. From a business standpoint, it’s difficult to get there because frankly, being the new kid on the block, it’s hard to bring a title to someone — no matter how good it is — and get people to try it. Ideally, the licensed titles are there to get people used to our creative process, our vision, but hopefully it leads them to a lot of our creator developed content.
So far, Lion Forge offers books in an exclusively digital format through Comics Plus and Amazon Kindle. Why go exclusively digital? Are there plans to expand to print?
We actually do have plans. We call ourselves digital-focused. Everyone here likes to have physical copies of things, and there’s something about the tactile feel and having that book on the table, being able to pick it up. With our content, digital allows us to get it out there in a mass way very quickly. Our plans print-wise are to do a series run — typically 8 issues — and once that run has happened, if the fans like what we’ve done and we see there’s a potential market for it, we’re going to collect those issues and put them out in print. They’ll be available in comic book stores, book stores, regular Amazon — and we’ll make sure we still maintain that experience. But as a startup company, it’s very difficult to get into the fray and play the single issue game and fight for that shelf space. We’re going at it in a different route where we’re focused in putting out our digital content, doing enhanced digital content. We also want to satisfy those collectors out there and make some product for them, but that’ll come later in our cycle. You’ll probably be seeing print products from us late 2014.
Touching on enhanced digital content, Comics Plus and Amazon Kindle are admittedly tougher platforms to deliver that enhanced content. How will you best deliver that added value content?
Of course the Kindle platform is limiting at this point, but we are in talks with Comics Plus as well as development of our own app. We’re looking at different avenues to produce content that has enhanced aspects to it. Currently, we’re doing a little bit of that. Right now, we’re not able to wrap it all up into one [package], but if you look at “Joshua Run,” if you look at the “Wondrous” series, we have YouTube videos on our website that are video diaries that go between the issues of the comic book. What we’d ultimately like to have is that whole experience wrapped into one thing where you read the issue of the comic and the video automatically plays right afterwards. We are looking at those types of things and doing things in motion comics. Those platforms are readily available through the iTunes video store as well as the Amazon video store, so those are kind of in the works right now.
In terms of the advantage of digital, publishers are beginning to look at different way of storytelling within the medium, Thrillbent and Marvel Infinite Comics being a prime example. How does Lion Forge plan to take advantage of some the unique aspects of the digital format?
We have been playing with it a little bit. If you look at the new “Knight Rider” book, there’s some of that. When we started the company, one of the first things we took note of was what Mark Waid’s been doing with Thrillbent. I think he’s really helped to lead the industry in a certain direction and show something that you can do with digital, give a lot of new tools to use in the tool chest. Those are some of the things that we’ve been integrating into the books, but there are also things we want to use in the appropriate manner as well. Sometimes when you get new tools, it can lead to overusing some of those different techniques. We want to make sure we’re always doing it in a way that enhances the storytelling, but doesn’t deviate from a true comic book reading experience.
As a fledgling publisher working exclusively in the digital realm, what do you see as your biggest challenge to getting your products in readers’ hands?
The real challenge has been getting the word out there and getting people to think a little differently about the content. It’s been a challenge getting people on board with your content as well as getting different creators on board, especially when you don’t have anything in print. [Laughs] There’s something about having a book out in the store that makes people instantly feel like you’re more real. Some of the credibility we’ve gained from some of the licensed titles has really helped us out a lot and opened up a lot of doors for us, but that’s been the biggest challenge. Being a comic book publisher, the first thing people ask is, “Oh, is your book in the store? Can I see it on the shelf?” But when you say, “No, it’s on this app, here it is” — there’s a difference of feel. I think that’s something that will change over time as more and more content moves to digital because I think at the end of the day, what you’ll find is there’s going to be a core print market, but I think the digital’s going to have a tremendous growth for the industry. I think as more people get used to viewing content that way, it’ll add more legitimacy to publishers like us that are focused in that area.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Lion Forge Comics’ original and licensed projects.