Archaia Studios Press: Back in Business

Nearly a year after Archaia Studios Press co-founder Mark Smylie announced the company would be restructuring, and several months after its subsequent acquisition by Chicago-based firm Kunoichi, the publisher is set to resume a full schedule of titles beginning in June.

Archaia, perhaps best known as publisher of David Petersen's "Mouse Guard" and other creator owned projects, had all but ceased releasing new titles while Smylie, Head of Development Stephen Christy, and Kunoichi owner PJ Bickett worked behind the scenes to shore up the business end of the company. January saw the release of the "Mouse Guard" role playing game and hardcover editions of "Gunnercrigg Court" and "The Devil's Panties" Volume 2. Taken with the recent hiring of Mel Caylo, formerly of Top Cow, as Marketing Manager, Archaia was officially back in business.

CBR News spoke with Smylie, Bickett, and Christy about Archaia's past trials, the process of rebuilding, and what fans can expect in the future.

"Kunoichi stepped in late last year and since then PJ and I have been working on our publishing schedule for 2009," Mark Smylie told CBR News. "As we move forward into 2009, we're finishing up the 'Mouse Guard: Winter 1152' series, which we'll be collecting it in July; we'll be finishing up 'The Killer,' 'Okko,' 'Secret History,' and a number of the French titles we've been doing in the last year. And we're continuing with a number of series including 'Killing Pickman' and 'Titanium Rain,' and 'Miranda Mercury.'"

Smylie said that Archaia will release hardcover collections of "Awakening," "The Engineer," "Some New Kind of Slaughter," and "Primordia," even though some of these will not have finished their runs in the single-issue format. "Some New Kind of Slaughter" creators mpMann and A. David Lewis recently released the third and fourth issues of the Diluvian mythology series for free on the internet, but the upcoming Archaia hardcover will be the first time the entire story is available in print.

Smylie indicated that decisions on whether to continue a series as single-issues or publish straight to hardcover are reached through discussions with creators and take into account new Diamond distribution order guidelines. "With 'Awakening,' we had a choice of putting out issues #4 and #5 after a fairly long layoff from when #3 came out. And so, in talking it over with Nick [Tapalansky] and Alex [Eckman-Lawn], it seemed to make more sense to simply collect it all at once," Smylie explained. "Amongst other things, they were very eager to see the collection out in time for the summer conventions rather than putting out issues #4 and #5 and having to wait for a collection in the Fall. So for 'Awakening' it made much more sense to move forward as a hardcover collection. And in some ways it might actually benefit the story-a lot of our stories tend to be read better all at once."

Some series, including "Killing Pickman," "Robotika," and "Titanium Rain," will continue as single issues but take on a new double-sized format of 40-64 pages for $4.99. Smylie said it made more sense for these series, which had only released one or two issues, to re-launch in the new format rather than going straight to a collected edition.

With the publisher already offering comics online through DriveThruComics and Wowio, Stephen Christy stepped in to add some hints about Archaia's future plans for digital content. "One of the things we've taken time with on the re-launch is working out a very strong digital strategy for getting our books out there," he said. "One of the nice things about Archaia being only a creator-owned publisher is that we're not so much working with licenses or larger companies where we're more beholden to what they have to say. At the end of the day, the only people we're beholden to are ourselves and our creators. All of our creators, thankfully, have been very excited and willing to have us take their products and find as many ways as possible to distribute it. We definitely have been seeing the changes that are occurring in the industry, and one of the lucky things about Archaia being acquired by Kunoichi is that we now have essentially a very strong internet creative firm backing the company."

Christy could not talk just yet about specific developments, but revealed that at least two digital announcements would be forthcoming. "By the end of the year, there's going to be several ways you can read Archaia comics besides just in comic stores and in bookstores, in physical form," he promised.

One of the factors that contributed to Archaia's restructuring was chronically late-shipping books, a problem Mark Smylie and PJ Bickett have addressed in the company's new publishing schedule. "Moving forward, we're not going to solicit books until the art is finished for the actual issue that's coming out," Smylie said. "We kind of got ahead of ourselves and were soliciting books before the creators had actually finished them. Part of the hiatus, on the publishing side, was that there were books we had solicited that we still haven't actually seen the completed art for, even a year later."

Smylie explained that Archaia had been too wedded to the idea the idea that an intended bi-monthly title would be solicited every other month, regardless of whether the creators could make that shipping schedule. "We were kind of just hoping the creators would catch up," Smylie confessed. "One of the things we're doing this time around is making sure we're not soliciting anything until we can know that it's going to come out when we say it's going to come out."

Bickett, owner of Archaia's new parent company Kunoichi and President of Archaia, agreed that maintaining a consistent, reliable schedule is vitally important, and added that there has already been a bit of behind-the-scenes shuffling to make sure this goal is met. "We put in a bunch of measures right now to ensure that when we do solicit, we are putting those books out on time. Fans can be assured that when we solicit for a month, you will see it in stores that month," Bickett said.

Though the individual series delays might have been compounded by Archaia's restructuring process, during which time publication all but ceased, Smylie and Bickett both expressed appreciation for Archaia's fan base, who they say have remained enthusiastic about the titles. "One of things that's been gratifying has been the number of people who have been willing to be patient with us as we go through the restructuring," Smylie said. "Hopefully that's a reflection of the quality of the stories we put out, that people are willing to wait a little while as long as they know they're coming. Thankfully, most of the responses from fans have been, 'Hey, we're willing to be patient, just make sure you get it right.' That's what we've been trying to do, make sure we get it right."

During the downtime, it was perhaps inevitable that rumors would circulate about the fate of the small publisher and its titles, particularly highly popular series like David Petersen's "Mouse Guard." Bickett said that though Archaia's situation at the time made it difficult to combat internet speculation, there was never any doubt about whether the company's most popular titles would continue with the publisher. "It just goes back to why I was so interested in Archaia in the first place: Mark Smylie has the best relationships that I've ever seen in the industry with the creators," he said. "While it's tough to have to deal with the fact that there's so much nonsense being said in the public forum, with all these rumors circulating, at the end of the day, I knew that Mark had such strong relationships not only with Dave [Petersen] but with everyone. Any time I talked with creators, the first thing they told me personally, was that the reason they were with Archaia is because of Mark. Unfortunately, rumors will happen, and with 'Mouse Guard' being one of our premiere titles, of course that's the one that's going to be picked out of the crowd as the risk of flight. At the end of the day, actually very shortly after the acquisition, Dave I believe was one of the very first to sign on."

This is not to say, however, that there were not casualties of the restructuring process. "We lost a few books. Jennie Breeden is going to be self-publishing 'The Devil's Panties' from now on. I think between our troubles and the troubles that [previous publisher] Silent Devil went through, she decided that self-publishing might be the best route for 'The Devil's Panties.'" Smylie said. "Sean Wang also went back to self-publishing 'Runners.' We never got a chance to put out Sean's book, which is a great disappointment to me, but Sean's going to be moving forward I think doing web stuff online and then collecting 'Runners.' We lost 'The Long Count' oddly enough not because of contractual issues but because the creative team had some differences and decided to stop the book."

Smylie said that Archaia ultimately retained 80-90% of its titles. "I actually expected us to lose more, just because of how long it ended up taking. But I think most of our creators, thankfully, most were patient enough to see the process through and then work with the new ownership."

Bickett added,"Overall, it was a natural break for almost anyone who moved on, either because of the completion of the book or they wanted to make sure they're having it under their own control. I don't think we lost any titles to another publisher."

Though the Archaia team said that it was too early to discuss any new series that may be coming soon, they did mention that a second volume of "The Killer" and a third "Mouse Guard" series will be starting up. In addition, each month following the re-launch and until the end of 2009 will feature a major hardcover release, with "Awakening" in June, "Mouse Guard: Winter 1152" in July, "The Killer" in August, "Gunnerkrigg Court" in September, and others to follow.

Other plans for the reinvigorated company involve exploring the potential of Archaia titles in other media. Christy, who operates out of a new satellite office Los Angeles, talked about his role as Archaia's "Hollywood guy." "One of the biggest things about Archaia that we offer to our creators that you don't often find at other primarily creator-owned companies, is that we have a really strong long-term strategy to make sure that our properties are exposed beyond comics," he said. "Our biggest priority, first and foremost, is to make sure we're publishing high quality kick-ass comics that you couldn't read at any other company. But we also take into account, as every small press publisher has to, what needs to be done in terms of titles being developed outside of comics. So we have an office here and I manage the relationships we have with studios, networks, production companies, agencies, and work to make sure that our titles get not only the most amount of exposure they can in Hollywood, but make sure that when we're developing this content in other mediums that we are respecting and embracing what made the comic so successful.

"Archaia has been lucky so far that we've had a great deal of success. 'The Killer' is set up right now as a feature film at Paramount with David Fincher attached to direct and Brad Pitt attached to star. And we have a number of other projects either sold or in development, which we can't talk about right now."

Bickett added that despite the close Hollywood relationships, Archaia will remain focused on publishing creator-owned comics. "We're not going to become a Hollywood vet for any idea that anyone has," he said. "We're really focused on creator-owned properties, and if people from the entertainment space have good ideas, we are more than willing to work with them and exploit that idea for the masses."

With all the factors leading to the restructuring and the new stratagems aimed at moving Archaia forward, Smylie, Bickett, and Christy emphasized the company's greatest strength remains the content it produces and the enthusiasm those books create among readers. "The big takeaway for me is that we really do appreciate the patience that people have shown to us and the excitement they've shown through the conventions we've been at, the emails and fan letters saying how thrilled they are to see our titles coming back out again," Bickett said. "And it's not just for 'Robotika' or 'The Killer,' but also for 'Awakening,' 'Some New Kind of Slaughter,' the full gamut of our slate. It's just really good to hear that."

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