Jeff Kline has had a long, successful career in animation, working as a producer and writer on shows including “Extreme Ghostbusters,” “Dragon Tales” and, most recently, “Transformers: Prime” and “Transformers: Rescue Bots.” And with about 20 years of TV experience to his credit, he’s now set to enter another entertainment field for the very first time: comic books. He’s behind IDW Publishing‘s freshly launched Darby Pop imprint, which debuted last week with “Indestructible” #1.
But while Kline is a comic book newcomer, he’s enlisted a true veteran as Darby Pop’s editor-in-chief — David Wohl, the former Top Cow president who’s also worked as an editor and writer at Marvel, Radical and Aspen Comics.
Comic book fans have seen their fair share of Hollywood carpetbaggers using the medium as an attempt to get an intellectual property optioned, but Kline is adamant that’s not why he started Darby Pop. The three launch books — “Indestructible,” written by Kline and illustrated by Javi Garron and Salvi Garcia; February’s “City: Mind in the Machine” written by Eric Garcia and illustrated by Javier Fernandez; and the not-yet solicited “7th Sword, written by John Raffo and illustrated by Nelson Blake II — all feature creators with connections to film and TV, but Kline says they’ve brought their ideas to Darby Pop due to a desire to specifically tell comic book stories.
CBR News spoke with Kline and Wohl days before the release of “Indestructible” #1 to discuss what they’re hoping to accomplish with Darby Pop, and the long-brewing story that inspired the publisher’s launch title.
CBR News: Jeff, David, the Darby Pop imprint was first announced in July at Comic-Con International in San Diego, and presumably you were working on it for several months before that. How does it feel now, being so close to the line’s debut?
David Wohl: It’s really exciting. I’m sure for Jeff it’s a little different, being from television, because it takes longer for things to develop and come out. But even for us, we started the process over a year ago. Seeing it come to fruition is very cool. This is the first time I’ve been with [a company] from the very beginning, to sow the seeds for a whole new publishing entity. It’s very exciting to be part of it.
Jeff Kline: It seemed like we had so much time, and now we’re just a few days away, and I have no idea where that time went.
How did the two of you come together for this project — Jeff being a newcomer and David with years of experience?
Kline: It actually came together just the way you described. I started asking around if friends could introduce me to experienced people in the comic book world, because it was a world I really wanted to get into. Working in television, especially in animation, a lot of the artists I work with work in comics, a lot of the writers I work with work in comics. I was often working on a show that also had a comic book running concurrently to it. It was always a world that I grew up loving and wanted to be a part of; it just never quite worked that way.
When I decided last year that it was something I really wanted to dig into, I asked some people, “Who can I meet who would let me ask a lot of really stupid questions?” because I’m so relatively naÃ¯ve about this world. I talked to a couple of different people, then I got introduced to David, and for as much in this kind of thing it can be love at first sight, it really was. His breadth of experience speaks for itself, but I just felt like we really clicked immediately on what we thought would make a book, what makes for interesting characters — setting the bar pretty high from the very beginning, and even starting bigger than maybe either of us had ever anticipated. We’re at a point now where we’re already deep in the mix on books five and six.
Wohl: Over the years, people have often come to me to get involved in projects. It could have been a video game that someone wanted to turn into a comic; film people who want to do comics. Usually, there wasn’t much affection for the comics industry — it was more seeing it as some kind of marketing tool. “If there was an existing product, we want to put out a comic to try to stir up some interest, or we want to make a comic so someone will buy it as a film or a TV show.”
Prior to meeting Jeff, my assumption was that’s what he wanted to do, too. After talking to him for a while, I realized that he really did have a love for comics, something he’s had since he was a kid. He sees this is a way to launch these properties, and he wants them to grow. The fact that we’re talking about issues #5 and #6 — most people just want to do their thing and get out. Sometimes the comics don’t even come out, because they sell the property as an option, and they are like, “Forget about the comic, we don’t care about it anyway.” Jeff really impressed me with his willingness to jump into this, and create a publishing entity that we could all be proud of, and let the fans come to us, and stick with us.
Jeff, given your career in television, how much of your time and energy right now is dedicated to the publishing entity?
Wohl: More than he thought it was going to be. [Laughs]
Kline: If the people that employ me in television are reading this, then it’s taking very little time. [Laughs] But the reality is, launching a company, especially on the scale we decided we wanted to do it, is pretty much a full-time job. So I have two full-time jobs, and that’s OK with me, actually.
David, from your perspective as a guy who’s worked at editorial positions in several different publishers over the years, what about this feels different to you — both from your experience, and in what a reader would notice?
Wohl: I really think Jeff brought a fresh eye. When I worked at Top Cow, Marc Silvestri was the head of the company. He’s an artist, an amazing artist, and we were a very artist-driven company. I found a lot of guys who have gone on to have some success, we had a bullpen with all these different artists. The art was always the thing that set us apart.
I feel like Jeff has a really cool storytelling sense. When we’re developing these properties, it’s coming at it from a different angle. A lot of stuff we did at Top Cow looked really good, but sometimes the storytelling was sacrificed for the double-page spread. There’s nothing wrong with that, and obviously fans like that, but I feel like here the story is really important. Obviously, we want the art to be great, and we’re bringing in a lot of good talent, but we’re paying a lot of attention to the story and the storytelling. The way that pages are laid out is coming from a different angle, just making sure that everything is clear, and the stories are interesting enough for people to grab them.
I also like the fact that we can start with something totally new. There’s no template we’re working from. We’re trying to create an environment that everyone will want to come to. It’s a fun place to work, and there’s not much pressure. Everyone has the same goals — make the books as good as they can be.
There is a lot of comic book material coming out right now, both in print and digital, that it’s likely a challenge to ask, “What can we do that’s different?” What niche are you looking to fill with the books that you’re launching?
Wohl: We’re not beholden to any particular genre. We’re really, intentionally, trying to put out different types of books every time we launch one.
Kline: In my TV career, I’ve always been a believer in, “You do the show that you believe in.” The audience either follows or they don’t, but that’s all you can do. At least you failed admirably. I’ve never really believed in chasing other shows’ trends. For whatever reason, that’s never been particularly interesting to me. All of these books that we’re in process on right now are driven by a creator with a really cool idea, at least an idea we think is really cool.
Our core team of David and Renae Geerlings, who’s our managing editor, and Jason Enright [marketing director], and our development guy Mark Wheeler, we actually all sit around and talk about how passionate we are about this idea, or that idea. It’s really only when everybody raises their hand and says, “That’s cool, I’d like to read that,” that we push a button on it.
Wohl: I think that’s the difference. We’re never trying to chase a trend or anything; we’re just doing what we think is cool, and we’re hoping once fans pick it up, they’ll feel the same. We know it’s really competitive, and we don’t have an intention of doing a licensed book, which comes with an audience. Our goal is always to grow an audience from the books we put out.
Kline: Quite honestly, we may stumble. David’s been pretty honest with me that this can be, at times, a brutal business. We’re sort of prepared for that, although we’re hoping we’re an exception to what’s seemed to have been the rule for a lot of smaller companies over the last number of years.
The three titles that have been announced so far all look different in terms of genre, art style, content — since they are the first three titles for the imprint, do you see some sort of common quality between the three of them that you’d like to see continue throughout the line?
Kline: From my perspective, they definitely all started with really strong characters put in unusual situations. That is not Earth-shattering, by any means, in the world of storytelling, but it is absolutely the foundation of everything we’ve got in our plans so far. The one thing they all have in common is a really strong character up against really high odds, in an unusual or slightly twisted world. In all three of the books, there’s a little bit of a commentary on society, a little bit of a commentary on where things might be going in the future. I don’t know if that’s intentional or if we’re drawn as a group to that material, but there’s definitely something in that.
Wohl: And they’re all grounded. There are high concepts in every one of them, but they’re all very grounded stories. They’re realistic in their way. Even “The 7th Sword,” which is futuristic and on a different planet — the characters, we try to make as real as we can. I feel readers relate to that, more so than things that are so crazily unbelievable.
Kline: I’m much more drawn to either a fantastical character in a realistic setting, or a realistic character in a fantastical setting. For whatever reason, I’ve never been as interested in a fantastical character in a fantastical setting.
You’re partnered with IDW. What made them the right choice?
Wohl: I’ve known [IDW founder/CEO] Ted Adams since I started at Image, probably 20 years. I’ve watched IDW grow from when it was like three guys, and now it’s grown into this big publishing entity. They have a good bookstore presence. There was a very limited number of publishers that we wanted to work with. We toyed with the idea of publishing ourselves, but it’s already a lot of work as it is to just work on all of these books and get them out. Having a publisher that’s one of the premier Diamond publishers have our backs was important to us. Out of all the publishers out there, IDW just seemed like the one our sensibilities matched with the most.
Kline: I also think we got fortunate in the timing. I’ve heard IDW mention in interviews and at cons that they were looking to create more of a presence in original material versus licensed material, and we perhaps came along at just the right moment for them.
Wohl: From an editorial standpoint, we pretty much work on our own. We finish the books and then send them to them. Sarah Gaydos, who is our editor over there, proofreads it and gives notes, trying to help us make the story even better. It’s been a great experience so far.
You’ve addressed that Jeff being a comic book fan was the starting point of this endeavor, but at the same time, when you look at the current industry — there are about 15 comic book-based TV shows in development right now — you’d be foolish not to pursue those types of opportunities if possible. Does that figure into your current outlook with Darby Pop? Pursuing projects that could potentially be developed to other mediums?
Wohl: Everyone has to think that. There’s a limited amount of success that you could hope for in comics. It seems like if you’re looking at “Walking Dead” as a template, that became a TV show, and the comic has just rolled on through it all. It brings new fans to the book.
It’s cool if you could sell it as a film or a TV show, and get that ancillary top part out there, but it’s random. You never know whether that’s going to happen or not. I feel like the hope is there, but at the same time, all we’re worried about at this moment is making sure the comics are as good as they can be. But I think we’ll all be happy if it becomes a film or a TV show.
Kline: Honestly, for better or for worse, I have and continue to have that experience in movie and television. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career in those worlds. So for me, I wanted to get into this because it was comic books, not because it was comic books that were going to lead to movies or TV. I could jump over the comic book stuff and get to movies and TV, I wanted to work in comics.
What was the experience like, putting together the three initial launch titles, deciding which creators to talk to and what book to come out of the gate with at the start?
Kline: Quite honestly, when David and I first started talking, we really were talking about maybe just one book. Maybe just “Indestructible,” and we see what happens with that, and then maybe we grow it into something more.
As I started talking to some of my writer friends from various disciplines — whether they’re novelists or feature writers or TV writers — and started telling them what I was doing, they started paying a lot more attention to me than they usually do when I speak. One of those guys was Eric Garcia, who’s an old friend of mine, a fantastic novelist and movie and TV writer. When I told him what I was doing, he was like, “I want to do that. I’ve been sitting on this idea for a while, and I would love to do it as a comic book. Actually, I always thought it would make sense as a comic book, but I didn’t know how to enter that world.” And quite honestly, if you’re not in comics, it can seem a little bit like a closed club.
That’s how we found our first five or six titles — it was basically conversations with friends or acquaintances or people we got introduced to. John Raffo happens to have the same manager I do, he’s the creator of “7Th Sword.” It really grew organically that way — the more friends we told what we had planned, the more people who were coming to us and saying, “I’ve go this idea, do you think it would work?”
Wohl: And, unfortunately, I have to turn a lot of them down. [Laughs] But the ones we kept were the ones we all liked and thought would make good comics.
Kline: I think that’s really important. We didn’t look at them [as], “Oh, this will make a good comic that can become a TV series,” or, “This will a good comic that can become a movie.” We’re mostly dealing with people who’ve been in that world. They want to make good comics, and that’s our primary goal.
So, do you see the launch titles representing both of your areas of expertise coming together — people Jeff knew from his world, and David’s years of comic book experience — blending together?
Wohl: I try to always think about what has worked in the past, and bringing that forward. I really want this to be successful. We’re already proud of it, but it’ll be great to build a line that fans will come to more and more as they start to have faith in us.
At this moment, we’re still an unknown quality. It’s weird for us; we’ve been working on it for so long.
Let’s talk more about “Indestructible” — the launch book and the book Jeff is writing — Jeff, as a lifelong comic book fan, is this an idea that you’ve had kicking around for a while that you’ve been waiting for the right way to tell?
Kline: That’s absolutely what it is. What usually happens is nine out of ten ideas you have go away and you don’t really miss them. One of them won’t go away. And for me, that’s what “Indestructible” has always been. It’s an idea that just will not go away, and I had to get it out of my head — and the best way I could do that was by sharing it with others through comic books. Maybe now it will quiet the voices in my head. [Laughs]
I could put this out there, and everyone else could go, “Yeah, it’s not a very good idea.” It would make me very sad, but at least I tried.
It appears to be a superhero comic that doesn’t take itself too seriously, at least based on the initial covers and solicitations.
Kline: For me, it’s really important that it’s not a spoof. At least the way I define a spoof is, you’re making fun of something. And the truth is, I love superhero comics, I don’t want to make fun of them. But I feel like there’s a lot of humor to be had within the conventions and expectations of a superhero comic book. I tend to read a superhero book and I wonder what goes on between the panels that isn’t spoken of. That’s kind of what “Indestructible” grew out of. Nobody talks about the fact that if you were a superhero in a world where superheroes existed, and you had the kind of celebrity that a lot of superheroes have, then you probably have an agent. And a manager. Maybe a publicist. And you’d have to do mall openings, and you’d probably have a clothing deal with some manufacturer. Maybe you’d do some advertising. How much of your life would you spend doing that versus helping people and saving lives? If you really don’t want to put yourself into too much danger, how can you balance being a superhero and keeping all those perks with not really wanting to get out of bed in the morning?
Wohl: I feel like this will be the closest we’ll ever get to a superhero book.
Are the launch titles all ongoings? Miniseries?
Kline: Everything we’re launching at the moment is an ongoing. We’re obviously breaking it into arcs, but at the moment we are already in script on issue #6 of “Indestructible,” we’re in script on issue #5 of “City,” we have an outline that takes us through issue #7 of “7th Sword.” We’re in this for the long haul. The marketplace may speak to us and we may need to change our plans, but for the moment, we’re going to move forward as if we’re going to have enough success to continue doing what we want to try to do.
Based on this conversation, it seems you’re already working on expansions beyond these first three titles.
Kline: We actually have our fourth, fifth and sixth titles already in process.
Do you have an idea at this point how big you’d like the line to be, or is it still to be determined?
Wohl: I don’t think we’ll expand much more beyond that. We’ll obviously have new titles, and get a sense of what the fans are liking and what they might not be, and then we’ll be able to adjust our line based on that.
Kline: I think both David and I feel like we’d like to grow this as big as we are allowed to, and that’ll really depend on how many issues of each of our books people buy. David’s been at big companies — the biggest company — and smaller companies. I don’t know if David’s been at something quite this small yet, but I’d love to get it to a place where it’s Top Cow level, or beyond. That’d be fantastic.