BOOM! and Archaia sittin' in a tree: digging into the merger

This week's Monday Surprise was the news that BOOM! Studios has acquired Archaia Entertainment, which will continue on as an imprint. The two Los Angeles-based publishers are a good fit, so while Archaia prepares to move into the BOOM! offices, let's take a look at what it all means.

As previously reported, Archaia struggled after its relationship with book market distributor Publishers Group West dissolved, leaving the publisher with a load of returned merchandise. Despite growth in other markets, the hit was apparently too much.

Archaia has long been respected for the high-quality production values of its releases, which include a variety of creator-driven graphic novels, licensed properties and imported material.

Originally called Archaia Studios Press, the the company was created in 2002 simply to publish Mark Smylie's fantasy series Artesia. Once that went well enough, Smylie and his business partner Aki Liao began to add books by others, starting with The Lone and Level Sands by A. David Lewis and mpMann, Archaia's first original graphic novel, and Robotika by Alex Sheikman at the end of 2005. They were quickly followed by David Petersen's Mouse Guard, which immediately turned heads. Its lush artwork and medieval story from the perspective of its rodent characters was published in an unconventional dimension for comic books. The first three issues sold out through multiple printings, and the success encouraged Archaia to expand further. Starting at the end of 2006, three imports from France arrived through a deal with Delcourt: The Killer by Luc Jacamon and Matz, The Secret History by Jean-Pierre Pécau and Igor Kordey, and Okko by Hub. Following the hiring of Joseph Illidge as editor, 14 other miniseries, beginning in summer 2007.

It was around this time that reach exceeded grasp. While plenty were well-liked, none hit like Mouse Guard. Liao left the company for personal reasons in early 2008, release dates were missed, and things began to get eerily quiet. During this dry period, Archaia published a hardcover collection of Thomas Siddell's popular Gunnerkrigg Court webcomic. Despite that, releases trickled to a stop until it was announced in October 2008 that the publisher had been purchased by Kunoichi Inc., a Chicago-based branding and marketing company founded by Josh Blaylock of Devil's Due Productions.

Silence remained until the announcement of the first licensed comic, Days Missing by Phil Hester and Frazer Irving, with covers by Dale Keown. The science fiction series was published by Archaia (the "Studios Press" now dropped from the name, and the "Entertainment" added later) in partnership with Roddenberry Productions and based on a concept by Roddenberry COO Trevor Roth.

It was at this time that Stephen Christy and Mel Caylo were added to the company in a newly created Los Angeles office. The two, along with new president PJ Bickett of Kunoichi (and Devil's Due before that) developed a focus on finely produced hardcover graphic novels, eventually almost completely drifting away from printed single-issue comics. They supplemented this with a then-innovative deal with Amazon to digitally serialize through the Kindle the graphic novel Tumor by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Noel Tuazon ahead of its print release. Archaia continued to embrace digital comics by re-releasing and completing many of the series that had been left incomplete during that dry spell. Hardcover collections followed along with new material, like the company's next big hit, Return of the Dapper Men by Jim McCann and Janet Lee. At the same time, Archaia cemented a licensing deal with the Henson Company, which has flourished into a wonderfully fruitful relationship. The Henson material has given Archaia an all-ages line with Fraggle Rock and other Muppet-based adaptations, as well as the critically acclaimed Tale of Sand, Ramón Pérez's beautiful adaptation of an un-produced script by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, which swept up the 2012 Eisner Awards. It was just at that point of success, after two years of building the company back up and establishing a reputation as a publisher to watch, that the relationship with PGW unraveled, and Archaia was once again hampered in keeping to its schedule.

While it's sad that Archaia couldn't make it on its own, it's reassuring that company has teamed up with a kindred spirit. BOOM! is of course known for Mark Waid's Irredeemable superhero series, but it has been standing out more recently by signing Paul Jenkins and Brian Stelfreeze, and for its handling of licensed properties like Adventure Time and Planet of the Apes. Such moves have shown BOOM!'s determination this year to recover from the loss of the Disney licenses. While BOOM! can lean closer to the Days Missing end of the Archaia spectrum, there's also the all-ages kaBOOM! imprint, its too-quiet Boom Town line, and proactive digital strategy, which synch up nicely with Archaia.

BOOM! Studios appears determined to keep Archaia intact as much as possible, even retaining executives and other personnel that could potentially be seen as redundant. My hope is that Archaia will exist similar to the way Vertigo traditionally has at DC Comics, and will be given the autonomy and freedom to release the kinds of material it does best. While I'm sure Archaia's Hawken: Genesis and Westernized Cyborg 009 books are being produced with only the best of intentions, I can't help but feel like the company was trying for something that didn't intuitively fit into its wheelhouse. Maybe that's me pigeonholing the publisher, but I think it has made much more of a mark with work like Cow Boy by Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopoulos, Rust by Royden Lepp, or Strange Attractors by Charles Soule and Greg Scott. Or imports like Old City Blues by Giannis Milonogiannis. Or any number of other graphic novels in a number of genres that seem to have that personal touch that makes Archaia special.

BOOM! might also be positioning itself for bigger things. Some of the press release language was surprisingly ambitious, boasting that this positions the publisher as "the largest independent company-controlled comic book and graphic novel library" (I'm not sure how you'd fact-check that, but Dark Horse seems to be a pretty significant contender for that title considering its longevity). It also touts pending Hollywood adaptations and note the company is "behind only industry titans DC Entertainment (Warner Bros.) and Marvel Entertainment (Disney)," stopping short of gunning for the market leaders. Good for BOOM!, I say. But is the company really trying to compete with those media giants? If so, might this be only the first acquisition?

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